Roxa Pittman

Causality And Casualty 5-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The death of Kwur’s special tree had an immediate effect. Or rather, a lot of immediate effects. First, the branches and roots that had been pinning me to the wall dissolved into ash, letting me stumble a bit before catching myself. Turning quickly to look back the way I had come, I saw all the plants throughout the subway tunnel falling apart into more clumps of ash that faded into nothing after a few seconds. I wasn’t sure… why exactly, but it clearly had something to do with Kwur’s connection to the plants. We’d killed the largest concentration of his consciousness here in Vegas, and what was left wasn’t able to maintain the jungle he’d created. I hoped the fact that all of this was dissolving meant that the plant back in Gehenna was his only body now. 

Okay, I didn’t really believe the universe was that lucky. But I could at least hope that any other bodies he had were well away from Earth and too weak to pose much of a threat for awhile. 

But I still had to check on the others. We assumed that killing this part of Kwur would free those he had put under his control (that’s what Prelate had told us anyway), but I had to be sure. With a grunt, I pushed myself that way, starting to run toward the opening when I felt Tabbris’s presence as the girl did a partial recall to me, just enough to communicate. Which she did, by blurting an excited, We did it! We broke the evil Plant Man! Did you see the way he exploded?!  

Her excitement was contagious. Or maybe I was just really giddy after that whole thing. My head bobbed with an easy smile, as I passed through the subway platform and looked around at all the plants disintegrating into ash. I definitely saw, I replied. That was a really good shot, Ace. 

December did it too! She informed me. We pushed the button together! After Larees made sure the targeting was right. And then the stupid evil plant guy went fwooom! I could hear the grin in her voice. He was so surprised! 

By that point, I could see Columbus and Bobbi greeting Miranda, Sands, Sarah, Shiori, and Asenath as they emerged from the other tunnel. At first, my heart sank a little bit, a heavy stone of worry sinking into my stomach briefly. But then I saw Jiao. She was behind them, helping that Julius Harn guy walk. He looked a little roughed up, but not too bad considering the situation I’d left all of them in. Scattered around the platform were a bunch of injured and unconscious figures, or people just sitting there looking confused about the whole situation.

Bobbi raced quickly to Asenath, hugging the vampire. I heard her say something about how great it was that they’d found Jiao. Columbus, meanwhile, took his turn to embrace Shiori, the two adopted siblings holding each other for a moment. 

“Flick!” Shiori blurted, racing toward me after being released by her brother. I caught her, and we embraced tightly while the other girl murmured against my ear, “You did it. You did it, you killed him, you freed my mom.” There were tears in her voice as she clung tightly to me. I could feel the incredible stress and tension she’d been holding in throughout the time that her mother had been missing (and especially once we’d found her here under Kwur’s control) melting away as she shuddered emotionally. 

Holding the other girl close, I murmured reassuring words while silently telling Tabbris that I would see her soon and that she should get back to December, Larees, and the others on the ship. We would all be meeting up together to go over what had happened, and to see that the Gehenna people knew exactly what the situation with the bit of Kwur that had been out here was. And to make sure the whole thing was really over. Which… come to think of it… 

“Hey, what about that Azlee Ren guy?” I suddenly blurted, frowning as Shiori and I released each other to look to the rest of the group down here. “He’s the one who basically started this whole thing. So where is he?” My gaze found Julius Harn, who was already looking at me. He seemed really tired, barely able to stand. His heavy, beachball-like body was slumped over, using the wall to keep himself up rather than leaning against Jiao any more. “What’s going on?” 

The man breathed hard a couple times, inhaling and exhaling in slightly shuddering gasps before he managed to speak. “Never… saw a man called… Azlee. He wasn’t… down here.” 

Okay, that definitely didn’t make any sense. We knew for a fact that Azlee Ren was the guy who was behind this. Or rather, the Gehenna prison guard who had been Azlee Ren and was probably being controlled by Kwur. Why wouldn’t this Harn guy know anything about him? Something was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what it could possibly be. There was just… something off. If Azlee wasn’t down here, if Harn had never seen him, what… what? 

“Maybe his memory was changed,” Sarah offered with a helpless shrug. “Like Vanessa’s.” She was leaning on her rifle, breathing almost as hard as Harn was. Now that I looked around a bit, I could see that everyone looked pretty worn out. They were barely able to keep standing, for the most part. Whatever had happened while I was gone, it looked like it hadn’t been restful, to say the least. They’d been to hell and back just fighting to keep Jiao and Harn from doing anything they wouldn’t be able to take back. It could’ve been really, unbelievably bad. The thought of Jiao coming back to herself after killing either of her daughters, or anything like… no. No, I wasn’t going to think about that. We beat Kwur, and none of us died. We won. 

Even if the pressing worry about just where the hell Azlee was kept burning like a match at the back of my mind. 

Before anyone else could say anything to Sarah’s suggestion, we heard more people approaching. Turning, we all saw Sariel, Haiden, Vanessa, and Tristan coming our way. They looked as worn out as the rest of us, but otherwise unharmed. 

Seeing Harn, Vanessa stopped short, staring at him. He, in turn, looked back to her, offering a slight, tired smile. “I wouldn’t… wish the circumstances on anyone,” he managed a bit weakly, “but it is still good to see you again, Miss Moon.” 

While Vanessa shook her head and stared at him helplessly, Sariel stepped in. “You do know my daughter then? You remember helping her? You remember her introducing you to Dakota?”

The man frowned in confusion. His eyes glanced from Sariel to Vanessa and back again, looking uncertain. “I… well, yes, of course I remember that. I worked with Vane–wait, are you… You’re her mother, aren’t you? And you–” He seemed to notice Haiden and Tristan for the first time, a delighted smile crossing his face. “Vanessa! You got your family back! That’s wonderful!” 

“I…” Vanessa bit her lip, wincing a little as she admitted, “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t remember you. I should, but apparently somebody… somebody altered my memory. They took you and Dakota out.” 

It looked like Harn was going to say something to that, but Haiden spoke up first. “We should really talk about this somewhere else. I don’t feel comfortable down here in Kwur’s tunnels, even if he is dead.” Offering a shrug, he added, “This place gives me the creeps.”   

He definitely had a point. I didn’t feel like staying down here any longer than we had to either. So, we started out of the tunnels. It was a lot different down here without all the plants, that was for sure. I could see a group of the previously mind-controlled people standing in a clump, with that ogre-like Luiena woman from the Oni and Eldridge from the Akharu talking to them.

As we approached, Eldridge excused himself and came trotting over. “Well, hey there!” He was grinning, clearly in a good mood. “Looks like calling in some help from the Heretic Rebellion was the right move after all.” His expression sombered just a little bit then, as he added, “Seriously, thanks, guys. Thank you so much. It looks like we’ll be able to wrap things up here without everything falling into open war after all.” 

“What about the rest of the missing kids who were taken with Jiao?” I asked. “And the princess, umm… Rowan, what about her?” 

Haiden answered, “Dare, Triss, Felix, and I found them. We… dealt with the people they had guarding them. They’re with the kids now, so it’s okay.” 

Eldridge nodded easily. “That’s right, and our people are already there too. The princess and her friends are safe, it seems everyone here has made it relatively intact. This was a success.” 

“But we still don’t know where that Azlee guy is,” Miranda pointed out. 

“And something tells me that’s gonna bite us in the ass at some point.” 

*******

Rowan was a cute kid. Half-Akharu and half-Vestil, she took more after the former, having a full physical body instead of the gas form. But apparently that was only the outside. Inside her body was primarily made of that gas cloud rather than any organs. Instead of having regular eyes, the space where they should be was filled with that rapidly color-changing gas. She was half and half, an exterior humanoid (or Akharu) body with a mostly energy/liquid/gas-like interior. 

In any case, the biggest point was that she was safe. And talkative. She and her friends who had also been rescued chatted up a storm with everyone who would indulge them. Which included Tabbris and December, of course. The other two came down from the ship to meet up with everyone, and we all reunited at the Vestil casino to exchange explanations and stories. 

Barnyard the troll, Pars the werewolf, and the rest of that group were there too. I made sure they were allowed to show up so we could thank them for helping to take care of our bodies as much as they had before our positions were swapped with our Theriangelos. From what I’d seen, they had done a lot of fighting to keep more of Kwur’s forces off of us when they could have walked away. We owed them for sticking it out at the risk of their lives, even if Pars insisted they were only making up for attacking us in the first place. He was a pretty cool guy, and so was Barny. I made sure to tell Pars he should look up Mateo’s pack if he had a chance, and that Barnyard might like to see Buddy System in Wonderland. 

We also got to see the parents of the missing kids meet up with them, including Rowan’s. There were a lot of tears, hugs, and overall joyful reunions. It was actually really nice to watch, even if I didn’t know these kids at all. I was glad we’d been able to save them. Or rather, that Dare, Haiden, and the cat-girls had, come to think of it like that. 

Anyway, the point was that it was really good to see these kids actually reunited with their families after everything that had happened to them. They had to all be checked for influence by Kwur, of course. But they came up clean. They were fine, and they were back with their parents. 

Then things got even better, as we stood in one of the private lounge areas of the casino watching all of this go on. Better, in this case, because one of the nearby doors opened and Avalon entered, accompanied by Sean, Theia, and Roxa. The latter two went to greet some of the others, but Sean and Avalon came to where I was standing with Shiori, Columbus, Asenath, and Jiao. 

Sean got to me first, and we embraced. “Hey, big guy,” I murmured. And big he was. It was still so strange to see Sean as a man in his twenties, after we’d… after we’d failed to rescue him for so long. He’d spent what to him was years in that prison. I honestly had no idea how he was holding up, aside from the fact that he spent a lot of time with his uncle, brother, and Roxa. I’d heard that he mostly coped by keeping himself busy, and that he did a lot of camping outside, under the stars. And yeah, I definitely couldn’t blame him for that last part. Apparently he hated being cooped up inside, hated staying in one place for very long at all, actually. He had a thing about never sleeping in the same place more than a couple times in a row if he could help it. Which, I supposed, made him pretty well-suited to traveling with a pack of werewolves who weren’t staying in the same place longer than a day or two if they could help it. 

“Hey yourself, Flickster,” Sean murmured, releasing me from the hug. “You’ve been busy. Out blowing up trees with ship-mounted cannons, huh?” 

“Eh,” I replied, “that tree had it coming.” 

It was Avalon’s turn then, and I quickly latched on, hugging the other girl as tightly as I could. Feeling her there, holding her after everything that had happened… it really affected me. I might’ve held on longer than strictly necessary, but it didn’t seem like she was objecting very much. The two of us clung to each other, before I leaned back and smiled. A joke of some kind found its way to my lips, but Avalon’s were there before I could say it. She kissed me, and I whimpered a little. Wow, yeah, it really did affect me. For a moment, I lost myself in that kiss. 

Eventually, we pulled back, and I took a moment to catch my breath before managing to focus on the smirking girl in front of me. I felt a bit giddy. And other things beyond giddy. “Umm… hi.” Coughing as the blush stretched across my face at the look she gave me, I managed a weak, “I guess you finished the errand you were on? How did umm…” I coughed again. “How’d that go?” 

“It’s finished,” she informed me, actually smiling genuinely. It was the smile of accomplishment, of finally finishing the project that her ancestor had worked on so hard. “Close enough, anyway,” she amended. “Dries and the others are putting the last touches on it. The spell should be ready to go within the day. We found what we needed.” 

Grinning, I hugged her again. “That’s great! See, we’ve both been busy little beavers lately.” 

“Yeah,” Shiori put in. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m ready to go back to boring old normal classes for a little bit.” Pausing, she amended, “Okay, our classes are never actually boring. But still. You know what I mean.” 

I nodded. “I definitely know what you mean. Believe me, we’re all ready for a good long break. But for now, hey, let’s just enjoy the celebration. The Gehenna people should be here any minute to give us a quick debriefing about the current Kwur situation.” As I said it, I gave Deveron a little wave over where he was talking to one of the Vegas people. 

“What about Azlee?” Columbus put in. He and Sean had been having their own little reunion. “We still don’t know where he is.” 

I started to say that that was going to be a job for the Gehenna people to track down their missing guy. We’d done our part. But before I could get it out, Dare approached with a simple, “They’ve found him.” 

“What?” I blinked that way. “They found Azlee Ren?” 

She gave a short nod. “Yes. Well, it turns out Larees did. She was determined to finish the job, given her… connection to Gehenna. She tracked him down in a motel on the edge of the strip. She’s bringing him back now, and the Gehenna people are on their way to pick him up.” 

Sure enough, it wasn’t long from then before Larees came in, accompanied by a figure who looked pretty similar to Prelate, actually. He had the same reptilian blue skin, vertically-pupiled yellow eyes, and so on. This had to be Azlee Ren. 

And… there was something… almost familiar about him? At first I thought it was just because he looked somewhat similar to Prelate. But that wasn’t it. The more I looked at him, as Larees led his shackled form across the room toward us, the more something niggled at the back of my mind. Wait… wait a minute…

Without really knowing what I was doing, I moved away from the others and stepped that way. They followed, and I heard Shiori ask if I was okay. But I didn’t answer. Instead, I held my hand out and said, “Stop.” 

Azlee stopped. He stood there, staring at me. Larees stopped too, looking from him to me. Her mouth opened, but I spoke again. “Sit down.” 

Azlee sat down. 

“Flick?” Shiori asked from nearby. “What… what are you… how are you doing that? Wait, are you controlling him? Because you could only do that if–” 

Spinning on my heel, my mouth opened as I blurted, “He’s a zom–” 

That was as far as I got, before Azlee exploded. His entire body blew apart in a blast of white light. I caught a glimpse of Dare in mid-leap, my name on her lips. Avalon and Shiori were there too, just behind her. Everything seemed frozen, as that white energy sought out me specifically. I felt the heat from it envelop my body, covering me from head to toe. It stung a little bit, just this side of being painful. Then I felt it cover me. I felt my body being yanked backward. I saw Dare, Shiori, Avalon, and all of the others grow smaller, their forms fainter as I was dragged from them. The world spun. My stomach heaved. Everything was upside down and inside out. 

A stone floor came up and smacked me, almost knocking the wind from my body as I fell with a yelp. Groaning, I lifted my head and looked around. I was… I was in a room I’d never seen before, a stone room covered in still-glowing runic symbols and devoid of any furniture or decorations. It was mostly dark, save for the small pool of light that I was lying in and the faint glow from the spellwork. 

Then I saw the figure who stood nearby, watching me. I saw the flickering light illuminate his slow, satisfied, triumphant smile. 

Fossor.

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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 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 if 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 8 – Ambuscade (Heretical Edge)

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Despite all of the attention the attack outside was getting, there were still a decent number of guards left in the prison. Those guards made their presence known as Flick and Sean’s group raced through the hallways of the facility. Most were dealt with by Athena, as she used her power repeatedly to warn her of incoming danger. Here and there, she would direct one of the others, warning them to stop, where and when to swing a weapon, and where to step to avoid the prison’s own substantial traps and defenses. 

As the group turned another corner, Sean scribbled on a piece of paper, drawing quickly while occasionally glancing up to check their progress. Finally, the boy-turned-young-man slapped the paper against a wall and blurted the activation word. As he did so, a knee-high wall apparently made of the same material as the actual wall shot out into the corridor all the way to the opposite side. A second later, the short, newly summoned wall extended itself clear back down the corridor they had just come from, curving around the bend. It seemed to stretch on for a good sixty or seventy feet, before popping upwards to fill in the space above itself, forming a full wall. A full wall almost a hundred feet long, leading back down the way they had come to close off the entire corridor for that length. 

“Been wanting to try that one for awhile,” Sean observed in a somewhat hoarse voice. “Nice to have space to actually use it.”

He tried to sound casual about it, but there was clear anger, loss, and bitterness lying just behind the words. 

They continued on, Sean laying more walls, traps, and illusions as they went. None of them were expected to actually stop any pursuit, but forcing them to deal with it would take time. As would forcing them to slow down, anticipating anything that was put in their way. 

Finally, the group reached the door leading into the room containing their part of the anti-teleportation defense. Just as they got there, however, the door opened and a guard stepped out. He didn’t seem surprised to see them, but neither was he holding any kind of weapon or making any move to attack. Athena also didn’t do anything more than raise an eyebrow at the man. The two of them stared at each other for a brief moment before the woman spoke. “You know why we came this way?”

The Heretic nodded, then grabbed the door to open it once more. “It’s all yours.”

Before Flick, Sean, Avalon, or Sands could question that, the door slammed shut once more, ripping its way out of the man’s hand. A new voice spoke up, from back the way the group had come. “It most certainly is not theirs.”

Everyone whirled that way, only to see Litonya. The ancient-looking Native American woman stood there, a scowl crossing her heavily-lined features. Power, the extent of which none of them, not even Athena, could hope to actually face straight on, emanated from the angry Committee Heretic. 

“Though I am quite certain we can find other accommodations for each of you.”

*****

A shower of tiny bone spears that had been shot from Pace’s raised hand were intercepted and destroyed by a flurry of lasers courtesy of a small, frisbee-sized drone. The drone adjusted its fire to shoot at her as well, but she blurred out of the way in a burst of super speed, catching only a couple of shots that hurt, but not nearly enough to put down a Heretic-werewolf. 

Unfortunately, she had only gone a few short feet out of the way before a heavily muscled arm slammed into her, going just as fast. Pace was knocked onto her back, as the adult male Heretic stood over her. The drone fit itself back to his arm, matching its twin on the other arm.

“Garden bitch, huh?” the man snarled while forcing a half dozen metal bands to pop from the ground and wrap around the girl as she was trying to catch her breath. “Gotta tell ya, I don’t hate the idea of killing one of those, orders be damned.”

With that, he raised his foot, silver encasing it just as he began to slam it down toward her head with a loud cry of rage. 

A small, blonde figure slammed into him from the side. It wasn’t enough to knock the man down, despite Roxa’s strength. But it did make him stagger just enough that his descending foot missed Pace’s head. It slammed into the ground a few inches away, leaving a small crater there, as rocks and dirt were sent flying. 

Before Roxa could recover from her headlong crash, the man’s hand snapped out, yanking her off her feet before he smacked her upside the head with his other hand, stunning the girl. An instant later, he shook her violently while holding the dangling girl up by her arm. “The fuck are you supposed to be, the cavalry?”

Though dazed, Roxa shook her head. A smile crossed her face as she held a small mouse up with one hand. Her answer was a quiet, “Transport.”

With that, her fingernails extended into claws, piercing the mouse’s throat. It died instantly, and a glowing figure appeared before revealing Theia, as she grabbed the man’s shoulder. “Hi, fuckface!”

She disappeared into him, possessing the man before he could do more than make a slight sound of protest. A moment later, his hand waved, removing the metal bands from Pace before helping her up while simultaneously setting Roxa down carefully. 

Wincing, Pace murmured, “Thanks, are you—”

Before she could say anything else, the man’s head abruptly jerked so hard to the side that it turned almost one hundred and eighty degrees. He fell to the ground dead, while Theia emerged from within him. 

“You could’ve passed off the damage to something else and let him go!” Pace blurted. 

“And we could’ve used his Heretic powers in this fight,” Roxa pointed out, a bit more mildly. 

To Pace, Theia sniffed. “He tried very hard to kill you. I don’t let that go.” To Roxa, she admitted, “But maybe I was a little impulsive about it. Which is very strange and out of character for me.”

The three exchanged looks, but couldn’t say anything else, as they were suddenly lifted off their feet and sent flying by a tidal wave of earth. A new threat had presented itself, and they were once more thrust into the ongoing battle. 

******

A gleaming blue sword cut rapidly through the air, intercepted three quick times by a shield that left a glowing forcefield behind. Miranda, back-pedaling with her shield raised, ducked under a fourth swing from her Heretic opponent. An instant later, the man pivoted in place, lashing out with a kick that took a second Miranda in mid-leap, colliding with her stomach and sending her to the ground. His sword snapped down to intercept the hurled forcefield disc from a third Miranda, before he used a gesture to send a diagonal pillar of stone out of the ground to collide with yet another. 

“You think you can beat me with numbers?” the man snarled. “Two can play at that game. Or should I say…”

Three more glowing figures emerged from the man. Each resolved into a near-copy of him, though rather than being exact duplicates, one was made of obsidian, one of silver, and the third some kind of red metal. 

“Four,” the quartet finished a bit smugly. 

In response, each Miranda duplicate split twice more, providing three opponents for each of the four of him. They all attacked at once, sharing powers between them as they collectively threw themselves at the man. It didn’t help that much. Despite being outnumbered, each of him was more experienced and had more abilities to work with. Several of the Mirandas were killed, briefly stunning the others. One of the Mirandas, on the ground from a particularly rough blow, slammed her hand against the dirt. As she did so, the sound of it was amplified into a shockwave that spread out from that point, staggering each of the men briefly. She then quickly rolled over, mouth opening to shout in a voice that was amplified and focused, “Hey!

The shockwave from her voice slammed into the original man, knocking him back a step. His hand snapped up, only to be hit from another side by a different Miranda using the same power with, “Leave!”

A third struck him from behind with an amplified, “Me!”

“Alone!” The final word came from the first Miranda again. But she didn’t use it to strike him. Instead, the girl turned her head toward the ground and used the force to launch herself up and at the man. He had already recovered and grabbed her leg easily. But a new Miranda burst forth from her in yet another duplication, locking her arms around the man’s neck as she shoved her face right up to his ear and used the power again. “Fuck you!”

That was enough to truly stagger the man. He went to one knee, dropping both Mirandas as blood fell from his ear thanks to his burst eardrum. 

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t keep him down long. Worse, there were still his metal duplicates to deal with, who didn’t disappear when the original lost focus as the Mirandas had hoped they might. Instead, the three metal versions of the man simply looked profoundly pissed off as they closed the distance with the various Mirandas. 

Then the girl(s) had help that actually wasn’t from herselves. A Hunga Munga throwing axe flew through the air just past the silver man, before stopping as Koren appeared, holding it. Without an instant of hesitation, she swung her second axe in the other hand. In mid-swing, the weapon suddenly grew in size, becoming almost comically enormous aside from the bit where she was holding it. The head of the axe was almost as large as the man himself. And more than its size was increased. Making it bigger also magnified the force with which she hit by many times. 

The blow literally cut the silver man in half, making the others stop short while Koren returned the axe to its normal size. “Hey,” she snapped, “didn’t my friend here tell you to leave her alone?”

Each remaining Miranda had gotten to their feet by that point. They spread out, a few more filling in their lost numbers. The man whose eardrum had been burst rose, a forcefield appearing around him as he snarled, “Traitors.”

Koren retorted, “Child-soldier rearing, mass-murdering psycho. Tell you what, when your side isn’t indiscriminately killing everything that isn’t exactly like you without so much as a trial, locking someone in solitary confinement for years, kidnapping toddlers to be held hostage, and seriously considering using a blood plague to enslave half their population, you can think about being within an airplane’s reach of the moral high ground. Until then, fuck you!

The man’s eyes narrowed as he gave a quiet snarling sound that resolved itself into the single word, “Lies.” 

With that, he teleported the distance between himself and the nearest Miranda. His hand grabbed her by the face and lifted the girl off her feet as he spun to slam her down into the ground on her back. At the same time, a group of precise waves of kinetic force struck each of the other Mirandas and Koren. They were thrown into the air with cries as the two metal duplicates each fired several bolts of electricity straight into the spot they were launched toward. Koren and the Mirandas were caught by the lightning bolts, spasmed in the air, and were dropped to the ground where they lay still. 

The man experienced a brief rush of pleasure as his blue aura flared. It wasn’t much, but then, a couple random students wouldn’t provide any huge boost. 

He exhaled after the aura faded, sighing a little as he stepped over to where Koren’s motionless form was. “Wasn’t really supposed to kill you, but oh well. Accidents happen. Guess that means you don’t have anything else to say though, huh, smarta—”

He was interrupted by the giant axe head suddenly bearing itself in his chest. Blood spilled from his mouth, choking the man as he blinked down in disbelief. The axe was held by a very much alive Koren. 

“Thank my Uncle Wyatt. He made a spell that triggers a small version of the Heretic kill aura. Only works if they actually think they could have killed something. So we had to give you an opening.”

With that, she shrank the axe back down to its normal size while yanking it out of him. The man choked up more blood before collapsing to the ground. As he fell, Koren’s aura flared to life, the girl’s back arching as an unwanted cry of pleasure escaped her. 

And hers was real. 

The remaining Miranda, the one who had been slammed into the ground, found her a moment later, both of them looking very bruised and battered. “You okay?”

Koren’s head shook. “I didn’t want to kill him. I… I was going to use the transport stone. But I was afraid it wouldn’t work yet. He wasn’t that hurt. If we didn’t stop him right now, he could’ve… I mean… it was the only opening we had, and we might not have gotten another one before… I… I… oh God.”

She turned then, throwing up on the ground while Miranda quickly moved to help her. She pulled the hair away from Koren’s face, keeping an eye out around them just in case while letting the other girl purge herself of at least the physical manifestation of her revulsion. Maybe it would help for a little while. 

Both girls crouched there on the edge of the chaos, each trying to cope, and help the other cope, with the violence they had to perform. Violence they would continue to perform, no matter how sick it made them. 

This was war, and it was only going to get worse. 

******

The man who had come through the door and began to let Flick’s group pass him was yanked off the floor, hurled down the corridor, and left to slam into the wall. He slumped unconscious, as Litonya announced, “I do not know if you are a coward or a traitor. Nor do I care. You will be dealt with later.”

Her eyes focused on the group, settling on Flick first, ignoring Avalon as the dark-haired girl stepped in front of the blonde. “Gabriel should have taken my advice and had you quietly killed before you could cause this much trouble. He still hasn’t learned his lesson. So absurdly soft-hearted, having your siblings spirited from their crib before my agent in the Rebellion could eliminate them.”

A look of mixed shock and confusion leapt to Flick’s face, as she stammered, “Wait, w-what?”

Litonya shrugged. “Gabriel believed that taking the children hostage would be enough. I knew that while it may temporarily force Joselyn into compliance, it would not truly change her. We would have this same issue soon enough, as proven now. But finding her infant children murdered in their crib? That would truly break her, and we would never have to deal with her again.

“We disagreed. I overruled him and gave the order. He went around me and had the children abducted before my agent could do the work. If he had simply listened to me the first time, we wouldn’t be here now.” Her head tilted a little thoughtfully, a small sneer crossing her lined face. “And, I suppose, you wouldn’t be anywhere at all.”

Flick rocked backward from that, both hands covering her mouth as her face turned white. A sound of various mixed emotions choked its way out of her covered mouth while Avalon and Sands split their attention between her and the woman in front of them, clearly at a complete loss. 

Sean spoke up, his voice was hard. “You tried to send someone to murder innocent children? You try to have babies assassinated, and you still think you’re in the right? You somehow managed to make Gabriel Ruthers abducting infants into a moral improvement over your own plan, and you still think you’re some kind of savior?” His voice shook with a mix of disbelief and anger. Nearby, all Flick could do was stare with her hands over her mouth, completely unable to find any words at all. 

“You’re an evil bitch,” Sands spat. 

Litonya regarded her impassively. “I do what is necessary to protect the majority of this world, against any who may threaten it.” 

Her attention shifted toward Athena. “And you are one of those threats, are you not?”

The Olympian drew herself up to her full height, short brown hair seeming to glow a bit as she drew Excalibur. “Am I a threat to your world? Absolutely. I am Athena, though many on your world know me as Nimue, the Lady of the Lake.”

Litonya’s eyes narrowed. “Do you truly believe that you have the slightest—”

Her head snapped to the side then, avoiding the sword as it was thrown through the air. It sailed past, missing her throat by an inch before embedding itself in the wall beyond. 

A dry chuckle escaped the old woman then. “And here I had believed that Athena was known for some great tactical ability. I suppose such accolades were thoroughly undeserved. Throwing away the most powerful asset you have was the single dumbest thing you could have done.”

Athena looked unperturbed. “Was it? I told you, I am also called Nimue. And if you knew anything at all about my history, you would realize one very important thing. I was not known for using the sword. 

“I was known for giving it to someone far better than I.”

A sound behind her made Litonya spin, in time to see a glowing figure emerge from the man she had knocked out, the man who had been neither traitor nor coward, but possessed. The figure resolved itself into a physical form, hand grabbing Excalibur before pulling it from the wall and turning to face Litonya. 

“Hi,” Chayyiel announced. “Do you mind sharing?”

“Do I mind—” The confused Litonya began to echo the words, but they weren’t meant for her. Another glowing figure appeared, as Tabbris stepped from Flick, who made a quick portal, hand extending through it. Chayyiel caught her hand, before disappearing into her. Flick straightened, one hand holding Excalibur while the other hand held her staff. 

“Now then,” Chayyiel spoke through her. 

“What were you saying about this girl’s family?”

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Denouement 1 – Commencement (Heretical Edge)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They would save Sean from his imprisonment. Today. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She’d decided to name her gun Nothing. 

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Patreon Snippets 8 (Heretical Edge)

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Author note:  I have decided to present these particular snippets without a preface before each one spelling out what they are about/who they are focused on. This is for a couple reasons. First, each snippet flows into the next in a deliberate way which a note like that would interrupt. And second, I believe even without that, these snippets are better if you find out exactly what is going on as you read them. But I would definitely appreciate any feedback any of you might have as to how well that works. Thanks!  

Through an empty, long-abandoned building, six figures fled. Though the place should have been dark, the corridors they desperately raced along were lit by globes of fire, lasers that shot through the air after them, and other flashes of light which served mostly to illuminate the fact that the fleeing beings, though each shaped very differently, were all almost completely transparent.

As a species, they called themselves Sceyl. But most referred to them as Glasswalkers. The name came both from their ability to transport (as well as manipulate and shape) any and all forms of glass and similar transparent material, and from the fact that the Sceyl themselves quite literally looked like living, moving glass sculptures. Their own shapeshifting ability meant that they varied wildly in size and shape, from small figurine-sized beings who looked like ballerinas, cats, horses, or other animals, all the way up to enormous hulking (yet still clearly glass-like) troll or ogre-shaped humanoids. No two Sceyl looked much alike, aside from their transparent body structure. They considered it offensive to copy each other, and always sought to make themselves look unique in some way.

The potential for evil, for the most part, existed in all species. And the Sceyl were no different. Some of their people who would be called Nocen even took on the forms of various weapons and allowed themselves to be used by others, purely to be directly responsible for deaths and destruction.

Yet, the group running frantically through this particular abandoned building were not those types. They were simply a group of travelers, heading for a gathering of their people on the northern edge of Arizona. Unfortunately, they had been spotted by a trio of Heretics, who had spent the past ten minutes chasing the group of Sceyl down, herding them here, to this building.

The place had to have been prepared ahead of time. There was no glass anywhere in it. The windows had all been smashed out, the shards taken away. There were no mirrors, no bottles, no glass bulbs, literally nothing that could be used by the fleeing, terrified Sceyl.

As they careened around a corner, searching desperately for a way out of this trap, the group suddenly skidded to a stop. The six glass-like figures, two fairly humanoid, one looking like a walking tree, another like a pixie, the fifth like a miniature horse the size of a chihuahua, and the last like a large rolling ball three feet in diameter, all came to a halt.

One of the Heretics was in front of them, waiting in that room. “Right,” the tall, bearded man announced as the room was abruptly illuminated by several glowing balls that appeared throughout it, “I think that’s far enough. If there were any more of you monsters, they would’ve shown themselves by now.” He held a long black-metal sword in one hand.

Behind the group of Sceyl, the remaining two Heretics appeared. The first was a dark-skinned woman with white hair, holding a double-bladed axe. Her companion was also female, a quite small and somewhat pale brunette woman who appeared to hold no weapon or defense, aside from a series of dozens of metal rings lining both of her arms from wrist to shoulder.  

Looking to one another, the glass-like figures all turned to put their backs to one another. Three faced the man in front, while the other three faced the women behind. With a sound that was a mix of shattering glass and ringing chimes, the ball-figure reshaped himself into something more like a humanoid lizard with a scorpion-like tail. At the same time, the small pony became a much larger centaur.

“So,” the male Heretic snarled under his breath. “You show your true selves after all. Good. Then let’s finish this.”

The six Sceyl broke in opposite directions, lunging for the three Heretics. Unfortunately, that only lasted for an instant before a wave of force knocked five of the six to the ground as the two female Heretics each used some form of gravity power to keep them there.

The last, one of the humanoid figures, was yanked backward, his neck caught and held by the male Heretic. “Now,” the man snarled while hurling his captive down as well, leaving him prone on the floor. “You’re never gonna kill anyone else.” The ebony blade in his hand was raised high up. “Not in this–”

He stopped then. Stopped talking and even stopped moving, aside from physically reeling backward as his eyes closed briefly, the sword in his hand wavering a little. On the other side of the room, the two female Heretics did the same, a pair of gasps escaping both. The smaller, pale woman staggered back a step, almost falling before catching herself against the nearby wall.

No longer pinned, the six Sceyl stared in confusion and apprehension. After a brief moment of that, as if they had all come to the same conclusion, they tried to jerk upright. But with a sudden roar of rage, the male Heretic’s eyes opened, and he drove his blade downward, on course toward the prone figure at his feet.

With a brief whistling sound punctuated by a loud clang that echoed through the room, the sword was struck in mid-descent by a metal ring that flew through the air to collide with it. Knocked off course, the sword was driven several inches into the floor beside the terrified Sceyl’s head. The ring itself, meanwhile, bounced off the blade, then off a nearby wall, a pillar, and then returned to its owner. The pale, small woman had straightened, arm extended to let the metal bracelet fall perfectly back onto her arm to join the rest. It latched into place with a click.

“Lillian!” the dark-skinned woman nearby snapped, while the male Heretic simply stared with his mouth open. “Stop, you can’t–”

“Can’t what?” Lillian Patters asked sharply. “Can’t make my own decisions? Can’t trust the people I was supposed to be able to trust? Can’t have my own memories? Yeah, I think all of that was made perfectly clear.”

“Lillian…” Speaking slowly, the bearded man straightened his blade. Instead of pointing it at any of the utterly bewildered Sceyl, he turned the end toward the small woman. “Don’t do this. We’re on the same side.”

Lifting her chin, Lillian retorted, “I’m going to go ahead and say that my side is the one that doesn’t slaughter innocent people wholesale. Oh, and also doesn’t wipe the memories of everyone who doesn’t think the exact same way we do, and then force them to keep murdering the same innocent people they already chose not to. And what was the other thing? Oh, right.”

Her eyes hardened, and the woman snapped both arms out to either side. The series of rings that extended up to her shoulders all flew off, ricocheting around the room wildly for a second before each ended up hovering around her at various heights and angles. She was surrounded by dozens of the metal hoop-like rings that hovered there, spinning rapidly with a soft buzzing sound, like angry hornets.

“We,” Lillian finished, her voice dropping into a dangerous tone, “don’t side with people who kidnap infants and hold them hostage.”

“You’re right.” The words came from the other woman.

What?!” the man snapped, jerking his head that way.

The black woman held up her hand, voice stammering a bit. “About… about the last part. That was–I… I don’t know what… That was wrong. It was wrong. But you’re wrong too. You have to be. Lillian, please. We can figure this out. We’re friends.”

“My friend,” Lillian informed them quietly, “is Joselyn Atherby. As long as you side with the people who kidnapped her children and mindwiped the rest of us… we are not friends.”

“Fine.” Voice dripping with venom, the male Heretic snarled, “Then I suppose we’re not friends. Your choice.” He took a step that way, sword raised. As he moved, the rings surrounding Lillian all began to spin faster. Some turned white, sending off chilling waves of cold, while others turned red, flames flickering around them. The rest became yellow, electricity crackling in the air where they were spinning.

Just as it looked like an all-out brawl would break out, the dark-skinned woman suddenly appeared behind the man. Grabbing his arm with one hand and his neck with the other, she blurted toward Lillian, “I don’t want to fight you!”

Then both were gone, as the woman transported herself and their male companion away. Left facing the empty space where they had been, Lillian slowly extended her arms, summoning the rings back.

“Wh… wha… what?” The voice of one of the Sceyl finally broke the silence that settled once the rings had all stopped spinning and finished attaching themselves to the woman. “What just… happened?”

“It’s a long story,” Lillian softly informed them, her voice cracking a little. “I have to get out of here. I have to find my granddaughter, my… my… she’s at Crossroads now. And Felicity. Oh my God, her baby girl. She’s–” Snapping out of it, she looked to the group of terrified Glasswalkers. Her voice softened. “I’m sorry. I know this won’t make any sense to you, but I am so… so sorry. There isn’t time to explain.”

“Uh…” One of the Sceyl raised a hand. “We sort of picked up the gist of it from your conversation. But… just… one question.

“Who is Joselyn Atherby?”

*******

“I have no idea who Joselyn Atherby is.”

With a sigh, Abigail Fellows dropped her gaze to the glass of iced tea in front of her on the table where she sat. The plate holding the crumbs of her finished lunch was nearby. “She’s my mother. She’s my mom, and I… I never knew her. I never met her. I’ve never spoken to her, never looked her in the eyes. Not since I was an infant, anyway, and I don’t… I don’t remember any of that. Or the Edge vision, I guess. I saw her then, but I didn’t… really talk to her. I never got to know her.”

From where he was sitting across from her, the cabin’s other occupant, Lincoln Chambers, winced. “Hey, I… I didn’t know her as a Heretic either. But I know Joselyn the person. And I know she would be so… indescribably proud of you, Abigail. You raised a beautiful, brilliant girl. You’re a lawyer. You stand up for people. You defend people who don’t have anyone else to defend them.”

Swallowing before taking a breath, Abigail raised her gaze from the glass to meet his gaze. “I can find out plenty about Joselyn the Heretic by talking to… to anyone here, I guess. Especially with that memory spell gone. It’s Joselyn the person I want to know about.”

With a little smile, Lincoln nodded. “Then I’ll tell you all about her. Anything you want. I…” He paused before giving a soft chuckle. “Sorry, this whole thing is just kind of… I don’t want to say–”

“Weird?” Abigail finished for him. “Yeah, it’s okay. You can say it. It’s weird. I mean, I’m sort of like your… stepdaughter, but I’m also older than you.”

“It’s a weird situation all around,” Lincoln agreed. “For us anyway. I get the feeling it happens more than not with these Heretic people.” He smiled despite himself then, adding, “But for the record, weird as it might be, you and Wyatt are a couple of the best people I’ve met. The way you stick up for everyone, the way Wyatt plans everything out so well… that’s Jos. I just… I just hope you get to know her for yourselves. So you can see how similar you are.”

“Well,” Abigail offered, “if this whole rebellion thing works out, maybe people can focus on getting her back from that psychopath.”

“True.” Lincoln started to nod before heaving a sigh. “I still can’t believe Felicity and that headmistress of hers pulled that off. Bringing the rebellion back, restoring all those memories… If they’d been caught before they managed it, if anyone else saw what was in that notebook, or looked too closely, or–”

Abigail stopped him with a raised hand. “They didn’t. The spell worked. There’s enough things to deal with as it is without fretting about bad things that could have happened.”

Coughing, Lincoln gestured. “Right, point. See? You’re already helping your dear old stepdad feel better.”

With a squint, Abigail snorted. “Right, dear maybe. Old… ehhh, you’re still a whippersnapper.” Pausing then, she added, “Speaking of which, you know what everyone’s wondering.”

“Yeah.” The man sat up a bit more. “They’re wondering when I’m going to do the Heretic bonding thing. I just… I haven’t decided exactly who or… or what… I…”

Resting her hand against his arm, Abigail met his gaze. “No, see, if you think about it, I’m pretty sure you know exactly who you should be bonded to.”

With a slow, soft exhale, Lincoln managed a very slight smile. “I suppose you’re right. Would you believe I’m nervous?”

The woman’s response was a simple nod. “Yeah. It’s a pretty big deal. But hey, I can’t think of a better person for you to be Bonded to than the Seosten kid who sees you as her father.” Her eyes focused on him once more, as she added pointedly, “You m–” Voice cracking slightly, Abigail cleared her throat. “You make sure she knows you see her as a daughter, okay? You make sure she knows every day. You don’t make that girl think for one second that she’s not wanted.”

“Never,” Lincoln vowed, his throat tightening at the very thought. He remembered all the times he had laid in bed with that girl curled up against him. He’d thought it was Felicity at the time, sure, but that didn’t matter. He knew now. He knew and he loved that kid as much as his own. Because she was his own.

Smiling at that thought before shaking himself a bit, the man finally spoke once more. “But hey, we’ve got some pretty impressive kids all around, huh?” His bright words turned to a very slight sigh. “Bright kids who are now part of this rebellion.”

“Better than being part of monsters who hunt down and slaughter innocent people and creatures,” Abigail pointed out. “Your daughters helped stop that. Every single person out there who remembers what they really believe, who remembers the choice they made not to kill innocent people anymore? That’s because of your daughters. Both of them.”

Lincoln’s smile had returned by then. “You’re right. They’re pretty damn special. Just like their mom. And their big sister.”

Picking up her glass, Abigail took a long, slow sip of her iced tea before she spoke again. “Don’t forget their amazing, goofy, wonderful big brother.” Pulling the straw out of her glass, she teased slightly, “Who might just be listening in on us through this thing right now, for all we know.”

With a snort, Lincoln shrugged. “Well, if he is, maybe he should go ahead and turn up the eavesdropping spell. Because I’m going to tell you all about Joselyn. The Joselyn I know. The one I hope you get to know someday.”

“Before you get started,” Abigail replied, “give me a second and I’ll get him in here in person. I want Wyatt to hear about our mother too.

“After everything he’s been through, my brother deserves that.”

********

“My brother does not deserve that!”

Brown eyes blazing with rage, Ian Gerardo swung his fist. It collided with the brick wall of the building next to the alley he was in, leaving a sizable hole. He stood there, two inches over six feet in height, his broad, muscular arms exposed by the sleeveless black shirt that he wore. He also had black jeans, combat boots, and a belt with several pouches. His black hair was slicked back, and he wore a single silver earring in his left ear.

As the dust settled, his companion, a red-haired man several inches taller than even Ian was and considerably better built, nodded. “You’re right,” he agreed while shaking out his long crimson locks, which fell almost to the middle of his back. “I don’t know your brother, but no one deserves to be left in time-accelerated solitary like that. That’s fucked up.”

“Look, you don’t–” Ian’s eyes were wild. “You don’t understand. I–I’ve been a pretty shitty big brother, okay? Especially lately. But now? I can’t just leave him in that hellhole! I have to get him out! I’m gonna go to my fucking parents and make those evil, psycho–”

“Ian, Ian!” the other man put both hands on the younger Heretic’s shoulders, squeezing firmly. “Stop. Listen. If you run off half-cocked like this, you’ll just end up captured too, okay?” As Ian’s mouth opened, the man quickly pressed on. “And you think you don’t care, I get it.  You feel like you have to do something right now. But do you want to help your brother, or do you want to feel better about yourself for two seconds just to fuck it up again?”

At first, Ian glared, his rage almost transferring itself to his companion. Then he sighed and deflated. “I know. Fuck. Frode, I just… I can’t leave him in there. I can’t.”

“I know.” Speaking softer, Frode leaned back to watch the younger man, who was barely in his twenties. “Look, I owe you. Penny, Owen, and I, we all owe you.”

When the spell that restored everyone’s memories and flooded the minds of every Heretic with the full and unfiltered details of the rebellion and everything related to it had happened, Ian, Frode, Penny, and Owen had all been part of another group of Heretics. They had been out on practice maneuvers, training to head for a newly discovered potential colony world.

Then the spell had happened. Frode, Penny, and Owen had all been part of Joselyn Atherby’s group back in the day. And all three were taken by surprise when the rest of their companions acted quickly enough to the reveal to take them prisoner, preventing them from escaping to rejoin the rebellion.

Ian was too young to have been part of all that. He had been ignored, dismissed as the trio of former rebels were secured.

But young or not, Ian was capable of seeing right from wrong. Ignored as he was, he had been able to take the Crossroads loyalists completely by surprise, knocking out two of them before managing to free Frode and the others. Together, the four had escaped before they could be brought back to Crossroads.

“You guys don’t owe me anything,” Ian insisted. “You’ve got enough problems.”

“We do owe you,” Frode informed him, giving the boy a firm nod. “And we’ll repay it. Trust me, just… just stick it out a little longer. We’ve still got friends. The rebellion… we’ll get your brother out of there, okay? We just have to meet up with some people. We’ll get Sean out. But we’ll do it together. Do it the right way?” He offered his hand.

Accepting the hand, Ian nodded. “Yeah. The right way.” He sighed then. “I can’t believe Madre and Padre would do something like this. I mean… I just… you know, I wish I could just tell them exactly what I think of them right now.”

*****

“I’m sorry that you can’t tell them.”

Gaia Sinclaire’s voice was gentle as she sat on a chair across from Flick in her office. The Crossroads headmistress was watching her student carefully as she continued. “The idea of keeping secrets, especially one this important, is probably quite troubling. But it is imperative that, if our plan is to succeed, no one else know about it until it is too late.”

Shifting in her seat, Flick met the woman’s gaze. “Even me, right?” she offered with what was clearly a weak attempt at humor. “I mean, even I won’t actually remember what I’m doing or why. Once we start this, you’ll be the only person who actually knows what’s going on.”

Except that wasn’t true. Once the memory spell was in place to prevent Flick from remembering the plan she and Gaia had come up with or from consciously realizing what she was doing whenever she wrote in that notebook, there would be one more person beyond the headmistress who would remember, one person who would know what they were doing.

And neither of them knew she existed.

Tabbris was silent, as always, as she watched through Flick’s eyes. She felt a flicker of sadness at the thought of what would happen when the girl one day knew about her. As much as some small part of herself might retain a tiny spark of hope that the two of them could be friends, she knew it wasn’t to be. The betrayal and horror that Flick would feel as soon as she knew just how long Tabbris had been possessing her, that would ruin any potential there might have been for friendship.

It was too late already for any explanations. Flick would hate her, would loathe her for that violation. Tabbris knew that. She was terrified of it, but she knew it would come.

But in the meantime, she would help as much as she could. She would continue to keep Flick safe from possession. And now, she would keep this particular secret.

How much would her own people, her… her mother’s people, want to know about this? A plan to undo the revolution-eraser and restore everyone’s memories? They would, quite literally, kill to stop that from happening. They would kill Gaia, and they would kill Flick.

If they found out. Which was why Tabbris would do absolutely everything she could to stop that from happening. Because even if… even… when Flick did end up hating her, Tabbris would still do everything in her incredibly limited power to keep the older girl safe.

Restoring the rebellion. That was what Mama would do. Tabbris knew that much. If her mother was here, she would be helping Gaia and Flick. Heck, she’d already started with the plan of restoring Flick’s mama’s memories before finding out that the woman had been abducted. So she would definitely be on board with this. She probably would’ve found a way to do it by herself already… if she was here.

But she wasn’t. She wasn’t here. Tabbris didn’t even know if she wa–how she was doing. All she knew was that her mama would have helped with this if she could. And since she couldn’t, Tabbris would instead. She would keep it secret. She would make sure the notebook was safe. She would watch for anyone paying too much attention to it. She would be a second set of eyes keeping the secret safe until it would be too late for anyone to stop it.

And maybe someday… someday if–when she saw Mama again, she would look at Tabbris and say…

******

“I’m proud of you,” Sariel announced to the group of huddled, traumatized figures crouched in what amounted to a crater that had been driven into the ground by a particularly hard stomp from a passing giant. That giant’s body lay just over a hundred yards away, being literally eaten from the inside out by a swarm of Fomorian-created insects the size of large dogs. A few of those insects had crawled out of the desecrated corpse to look for their next meal, only to be set upon by a trio of griffins that came soaring down out of the sky.

“P-proud?” one of the huddled group in front of Sariel stammered. She was a Relukun, a wood-person. Her companions were an assortment of other Alters and two young Eden’s Garden Heretics who had probably only graduated within the past few years. “Wh-what are you proud of?” the Relukun demanded. “That we’re all gonna die together? If we’re lucky?”

One of the Heretics peeked over the edge of the footprint crater, a slight whimpering sound escaping him. “Di-did you see what they did to that big guy? We can’t fight that. We can’t fight them. We’re gonna die. Oh God. Oh God in heaven. We’re going to die. We are going–”

“I’m proud of you because you’re here,” Sariel interrupted, drawing their attention to her. “Live or die, you’re here. You’re trying. You’ve made it this far. You knew the odds and you came anyway.”

“If we didn’t, we’d all die anyway,” one of the other Alters put in, his voice barely audible over the sound of fighting, screaming, and dying going on all around them. “Th-those monsters, they’ll just keep coming.”

“You’re right, they will.” The confirmation came not from Sariel herself, but from the enormous (for a human) gray-haired man who dropped into the crater with them. At his full standing height, were he not crouched as he was now, the man would have been just a hair under seven feet. The incredibly muscular physique of his bare torso had been the stuff of legends for thousands of years. Though there was only one person in this deep footprint who recognized the man, who knew exactly who he truly was.

“Alcaeus,” Sariel greeted him simply, her voice careful and measured.

“Sariel,” he returned just as carefully, both of them watching one another for a moment before the man offered her a very slight grin, showing his teeth. “Of all your people that I could’ve run into in this pit, you’re one of the only ones I wouldn’t chuck right out of it.”

“I shall measure myself relieved then,” Sariel replied smoothly. Sobering then, she looked into the man’s eyes. “It’s good to have you here. The battle is…” She turned slightly to look over the edge toward the continuing violence. “It’s not going well.”

“Fighting Fomorians rarely does,” the man who had once been known as both Heracles and Hercules murmured. “But someone’s got to. Otherwise those genocidal cocksuckers will just kill every last person, plant, and animal on this forsaken planet.”

“They’re coming!” one of the other Alters blurted. His eyes were wide as he stared over the rim of their cover at the horde of variously-shaped Fomorian creations that were swarming over the open ground toward them.

With a thought, Sariel summoned her bow to her hands. “Alcaeus?”

“It’s just Al,” he corrected, straightening. “And I’m right with you.”

Giving him a brief nod of thanks, the Seosten woman addressed the others. Her voice was sharp. “The rest of you stay here until you see an opening. We’ll take the brunt of it. Hit when you get a chance, once they’re focused on us.” Sparing them a brief glance, she added, a bit more softly, “For the dead. Those who are, and those who would be.”

The sentiment was echoed by the others, just as Sariel and Alcaeus heaved themselves out of the crater. The two found themselves facing dozens of Fomorian-crafted nightmares literally running over each other to reach them. Beasts of all shapes and sizes, some with only two legs, others with more than could be easily counted at a glance. Fat, skinny, tall, slimy, furry, and some that were all of those at the same time. They were a tidal wave of monstrous flesh and claws pushing inexorably onward.

Together, the woman who had been Artemis and the man who had been Hercules met their charge.

Taking the lead, Al ran straight for the incoming mass. In mid-step, his hand touched a rune that had been drawn on his opposite shoulder, and he spoke the command word to trigger the spell attached to it. Instantly, his bare torso was covered in gleaming silver and red armor, his head encased in a helmet in the shape of a lion’s head, complete with a long, flowing mane. In both of his hands appeared enormous weapons. One held a claymore, while the other gripped a massive hammer. With both of his weapons raised high, the man bellowed a roar of challenge that matched the lion’s helmet he wore, before charging straight at his enemies.

Four arrows, released simultaneously from the woman behind him, flew past the man. Two shot under each arm. All four impaled themselves through the assorted eyes of two of the nearest creatures in the horde before bursting into flames that engulfed their targets.

Ignoring the screaming, flailing monsters, Al lunged up and over their falling bodies. His hammer came down so hard on the skull of a crocodilian creature with its jaws open wide that it literally caved in the beast’s head. Blood, brains, and other fluids (some of which should not have been fluids) went flying. At the same time, his sword was driven up under the rib cage of the furry, two-legged beast who had been reaching for him from the other side.

“Boom!” Al called, while pivoting with his sword still embedded in the fur-covered creature. It was all he had to say. Just as he presented his foe’s back to the woman behind him, Sariel shot three quick arrows into it.

The moment the arrows were in place, Al heaved the monster off his sword, tossing it back into the incoming swarm. An instant later, the explosive arrows detonated, sending chunks of the Fomorian beasts flying in every direction.

It was a good start. But Sariel and Alcaeus had a long way to go to even begin to stall the Fomorian advance. If they were going to stop Earth from being yet another in a long, long line of worlds that had been destroyed by those monsters, they would need a miracle.

But they would keep trying. Because there was an entire world’s worth of innocent lives at stake. Alcaeus, Sariel, and the others who fought would protect those people from the Fomorians. They would save them, whatever it took.

******

“Whatever it takes, I’m going to fucking kill them!

As the words burst from her lips, Roxa Pittman’s face transformed partly into her wolf-self. Her teeth grew, face elongated partway, while her eyes darkened with rage. Claws had already appeared from her fingers, as she gripped the post at the end of the basketball court tight enough to leave deep grooves in the metal.

“I know.” The more careful, measured response came from Mateo, as the slight man stood behind her. His hand found her shoulder, shaking just a little before he caught himself. He took a deep breath. “Believe me, pup, I know. Sebastian, he’s… he’s basically in the same shape as you. It’s his brother that’s doing this to his own son, to Sebastian’s nephew.”

Whirling toward him, Roxa furiously spat, “How?! How can they do evil shit like this and still think they’re the good guys?! How fucking deluded are they?!” Her fist lashed out backwards, denting the post. “They’re torturing their own fucking child!” The bellowed words echoed over the otherwise empty basketball court, before her face shifted back to normal. Tears of rage and helplessness filled her eyes. “Mateo, please! Please! We have to do something. We have to–to… to stop this! We have to get him out of there! He can’t–we can’t–he’s–” She was in such a blind panic that she kept tripping over her words.

“Roxa.” Putting his hands against either side of the girl’s face so she would look at him, so that her eyes would be focused on his, Mateo spoke in a voice that was equal parts firm and gentle, forcing confidence and reassurance into his words. “Sean is going to get out of there, okay? Whatever it takes, everyone out here is going to find a way to get him out. You know that. No one is abandoning him.”

“B-but… but…” Squirming there on her feet, trying to keep her anger at the forefront of her mind so that despair and helplessness wouldn’t overtake it, Roxa stared into the eyes of her pack leader. “What if we can’t? What if he loses his–his everything in there? How could they do that? How could they–” She closed her eyes and looked away then. “I’m not supposed to be surprised,” the girl said softly, voice cracking with each word. “I saw too much bad shit as a Bystander. This isn’t supposed to surprise me.”

“The cruelty of those who believe themselves righteous very often outweighs that of those who know that they are evil,” Mateo quietly informed her. “And it almost always strikes much harder. They are his parents. They are supposed to protect him.”

“There’s a lot of parents who don’t,” Roxa muttered darkly. “They’re nothing new.”

With a nod, Mateo agreed, “You’re right, they’re nothing new. And we’ll stop them. We’ll get Sean out of there. As soon as there’s a plan, we will get him out. Which means you have to be ready. No running off, no getting yourself hurt or… worse, okay?”

It took Roxa a moment, but she finally nodded, lifting her gaze to him. “Okay,” she murmured softly. “I’m not going to do anything stupid. But just for the record, I still want to break every bone in their fucking bodies.”

“You and me both, pup,” Mateo confirmed, thinking back to his long discussion with Sean’s uncle when Sebastian had found out what was going on. It had been much harder to talk the man out of storming off to give his brother and the man’s wife every last piece of his mind. The rage, helplessness, exhaustion, and confusion in his beloved Sebastian was also here now in Roxa. And not just in her. The same feelings were in the whole pack. The werewolves had all known Sean since he was a kid. Hearing this… hearing what those psychos were doing… it was too much. It reminded Mateo of… of times spent with his own ‘well-intentioned extremists.’ And that thought… that was almost enough to drive him into a blood-rage the depths of which he might never escape.  

“You and me both.”

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Summer Epilogue 2B (Heretical Edge)

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“I don’t understand, this… museum is called Wonderland?”

As she voiced her confusion hesitantly, Marina slowly looked around. She, the children she had taken charge of, and Roxa were all standing in a large, brightly lit room that was full of dinosaur displays. The kids were nearby, gathered around the centerpiece Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the middle of the room as they excitedly jabbered back and forth about both it and the other displays scattered around. Across one of the walls was a mural depicting the various time periods of when various dinosaurs lived.

With a tiny smile, Roxa replied, “Wonderland is more an organization than a place. The location changes all the time, because…” She paused briefly, biting her lip. “Because of people hunting them. It was in a closed-down mall awhile ago. Right now, it’s in this closed museum. In a few months, assuming nothing happens, they’ll move again. Can’t stay in the same place too long.”

“There’s… there’s Strangers here, you said.” The words sounded awkward coming from Marina’s own mouth, as her eyes slowly looked around. She saw nothing out of the ordinary that would make her think this was a haven for monsters. The kids had moved to look at a Triceratops skeleton, while their self-appointed expert Alicia (an eleven-year old brunette who was actually currently wearing a shirt with a Pteranodon on it) began to list facts about the horned dinosaur for her enraptured audience.

Roxa was watching her, nodding slowly. “Yes. I mean, they’re not here in this specific area. They cleared out for now, to give you guys time to… to settle in. They’ll stay out of this room, if you want to keep away from any… any non-humans. We prefer the word Alter, for the record. Alternative from baseline human. Actually, they consider Heretics to be Alters too, which is a whole other can of worms. But… yeah, there’s Alters out there, and they’d like to meet you guys. But they’re not gonna force it. You’re welcome to stay here as long as it takes to get those kids sent to their parents, and if you don’t want anyone… else to come around, it won’t happen.”

Her expression softened then, as she quietly added, “I know it’s scary, Marina. It’s a lot to deal with, and all you want to do is protect these kids. But you’re afraid that you’re making the wrong choice, because you’ve been told all your life that the people who live here want to kill and eat the children you’re trying to protect. You’re wondering if you made a mistake. Every sound makes you look around like you’re about to be ambushed by a bunch of… well, monsters.”

Marina was quiet for a moment, looking away to watch the children. “I… you’re right, I’m afraid I made a mistake. I’m afraid if I close my eyes for more than a second, something horrible is going to happen. You said there’s… there’s thing–creatur–people… whatever through those doors that everyone I’ve ever known has told me were monsters. And I brought children here. Children that I’m supposed to be protecting, Roxa. What if I’m wrong? What if you’re wrong? What if you’re… lying? I don’t… I don’t think you are. But what if I’m wrong about that? It’s not me I’m risking. It’s these kids. And I can’t… I couldn’t… handle it if anything happened to them. I’d rather die.”

Solemnly nodding, Roxa murmured, “I get it. Believe me, Marina, I get it. It’s hard to… to move past that. I kind of got thrown into the deep end of all this. You did too, just in a different way. And you’re not just responsible for yourself. You’re responsible for these kids. I get that. I think… I think the only way to make you feel better about this is to let you meet them. If you don’t want to, that’s okay. Like I said, no one is going to force you. If you want, you and the kids can stay in this room, we’ll bring you food, and no one but me will come visit you. Or you can come out with me to meet the people here and decide on your own if you trust them enough to close your eyes.” She smiled just a little, watching the older girl. “It’s totally up to you.”

“But if I go out with you,” Marina pointed out, “wouldn’t that mean that I’m leaving the kids here alone? If this place is dangerous, that would be pretty stupid of me. I mean, not that it is, just… um, you know.” God, this felt awkward. She still just wanted to hug Roxa again, even though she kept feeling that dangerous Stranger sense every time she looked at her. It was just… wrong.

“Bring them with,” Roxa suggested, gesturing to the assorted kids. “Keep them with you while we go out there and look around. Like I said, no one’s gonna hurt them. And if they’re with you, you won’t have to worry about what’s happening to them.”

Marina hesitated at that before replying, “And if you’re right, then you have kids who are going back to their… loyalist parents after meeting a bunch of Strang–Alters who don’t seem like the monsters that their parents think they are. Even if they go back to parents who are… who are hardcore Crossroads loyalists, the kids might think differently after meeting those people.”

Roxa met her gaze without blinking. “And if I’m right, would that be a bad thing?”

It took Marina a moment to answer. She bit her lip, her gaze moving from Roxa to her charges and back again. A wave of indecisiveness washed over her. If she was wrong… if this went wrong

If she was wrong, she’d already fucked everything up more than anyone would ever comprehend. That was the truth.

“Guys!” Marina waved to the kids, beckoning them over. “Come on. We… we’re going to take a walk and meet some people.” Looking to Roxa then as the group approached, she added in a softer voice, “I’ve come this far with it. Might as well go all-in.”

It wasn’t as though she’d hate herself any less if things went wrong now rather than later.

******

Organizing the kids once more and giving them all firm instructions about staying with her, not shouting, not running off, not blurting out offensive things or anything that might make them look bad to their hosts, Marina finally led them through the door at the end of the room. Roxa was there, as was an incredibly thin Latino man with a neatly groomed thin mustache and dark eyes, yet a friendly smile. As with Roxa, looking at the man immediately made Marina’s Stranger-sense start blaring its warning at her.

“Good, ahhh, morning,” the man greeted, hands clasped behind his back as he stood straight beside Roxa. “I know this is a… tense and awkward situation, but I do want to say that it’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Dupont. And all of you.” He nodded to the group of children and early teens assembled behind the girl. “My name is Mateo Dias. I ahh–”

“Are you a monster?!” That was blurted from the eight-year-old Donny Kartner, prompting Marina to spin on her heel, a horrified sound of disbelief escaping her. The sound was more akin to air escaping a balloon very rapidly than it was any actual words, as she paled, trying to simultaneously shush and point at the boy in horror.

“What?” Donny blinked at her reaction, his expression betraying nothing but complete innocence and curiosity. “I was just asking.”

“It’s alright,” Mateo assured her while she continued to make the sounds of a broken computer trying desperately to restart. “Let’s see.” Taking a knee, he extended a hand to the boy very carefully. “What’s your name, if you don’t mind?”

The boy looked first to Marina, then swallowed uncertainly before slowly stepping that way. “Um. Donny? Donny Kartner. Kady heard Miss Marina talking to her.” He pointed to Roxa. “They said that you’re werewolves. Aren’t werewolves monsters? Do you eat people?”

Marina almost wanted to die right there on the spot, but Mateo just smiled a little encouragingly. “Well, Donny, let me ask you something. Do you know a lot of Heretics?”

The boy’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “My parents were Heretics. But… but they died.” His lip trembled a little before he bit down on it and stared at the man. “They killed a lot of monsters.”

Meeting the boy’s gaze with a nod, Mateo agreed. “I’m sure they did. They must have saved a lot of people. I’m sorry to hear that they’ve passed away. You miss them a lot, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” Donny answered softly, his voice shaking a little.

“And you’re proud of them, because they helped so many people,” Mateo guessed. “They must have stopped an awful lot of monsters from hurting others.”

Again, the boy nodded, sniffling quietly. “They killed bad guys. Until the bad guys…” Again, he sniffed, his voice failing him.

Mateo’s gaze softened even more, and he swallowed once before speaking. “Your parents killed… monsters. They killed bad people before they could hurt others. And that’s okay, because the ones they killed were bad.” He stared directly at the boy, raising his hand as though making a pledge. “I swear to you that I have never killed an innocent person. I fight to defend myself and my family, my people. I have killed, but I kill monsters, just like your parents.”

That time, it was Kady, the ten-year-old dark-skinned girl with a tight braid and purple glasses, who spoke. “But everyone says that werewolves are all monsters.”

Turning his gaze to her, Mateo nodded. “You’re right. There’s been a lot of… mistakes. There are some of us… some people like me, who are evil.” He touched his own chest. “They’re monsters. And your families, your parents, your grandparents, your brothers and sisters, they’re heroes for stopping them. They make sure those monsters can’t hurt other people. But… sometimes it’s hard to know if someone’s a good guy or a bad guy. You guys watch movies?”

All of their heads bobbed up and down quickly, and the man grinned. “Of course you do. You know Star Wars?” When that earned just as rapid of a series of nods, his smile grew. “Okay. Well, you know how Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader both have the Force? They both have special powers, but they’re not both evil, right? How do we know which one is evil?”

“Vader hurts people!” One of the kids blurted.

Another put in, “He kills them! And he blows up a planet!”

“That’s pretty bad, yeah,” Mateo agreed. “So… we know he’s evil because of what he does, not because he has powers. Because Luke has powers too. We know Darth Vader’s the bad guy because he kills innocent people. Just like we know that real life people are bad because they kill innocents.”

“But why do they say you’re all bad?” one of the kids asked while raising a hand. “My dad’s a Heretic and he kills werewolves, but he never said anything about some good ones and some bad ones.”

“Well, your dad’s trying to help people, just like the other Heretics,” Mateo carefully replied. “It’s just that sometimes it’s hard to tell who the good guys and who the bad guys are.”

“Does that mean my mommy’s bad?” The girl who asked that did so in a trembling voice.

Mateo shook his head. “No, sweetie, no. Your mom is a hero who wants to help people. That’s all. She wants to make sure monsters don’t hurt innocents. Right now everyone’s just arguing about who the bad guys really are. But your mommy, she’s doing the best she can, okay? She is trying to help people.”

That time, when the slow nod came, he straightened. “Okay. We’re gonna go for a walk and meet some people. And some of them are going to look a little different, or even scary. But no one is gonna hurt you. You are completely safe.”

While the kids reacted to that, Marina leaned closer to Roxa and whispered under her breath, “He’s very good.”

In turn, Roxa whispered back, “Why do you think I asked him to help? Also, werewolf hearing is super good, so he can totally hear this. Just FYI.”

They had barely started to walk again before a tiny figure zipped through the air. For an instant, Marina thought it was a large dragonfly. But then the figure stopped, hovering in the air in front of them and she saw that it… she… the figure was a small pixie. Her fluttering wings were bright purple, and her hair was dark blue. She wore a tiny sword at her waist, and leather armor that looked like it was made for a doll.

“Hiya!” the pixie blurted, waving.

The kids, in turn, jerked backward, one of the boys yelping in surprise. Kady pointed that way. “It’s a Fairy!”

“Humph.” The pixie folded her arms and gave them a scowl. “Pixie. A Fairy is different. And Faeries with an e are really different. Not a Fae. Pix. Pixie. My name’s Namythiet! What’re your names?”

The kids started to slowly introduce themselves while the hovering pixie gave them her rapt attention. One of them asked her a question about what it was like being so small, and she shot back that she didn’t know what it would be like to be as big as them and how they manage to avoid tripping over everything. That convinced another kid to ask a question, and then more came.

They were so busy asking the tiny pixie questions that they almost didn’t notice the tiny green cat that came trotting up. Marina started to ask why the cat was green, only to double-take as the thing looked at her to reveal long sabertooth tiger-like teeth.

“Kitty!” One of the kids announced, before taking a step back as she saw the teeth. “Whoa…”

Namythiet, however, landed on the green cat’s head. “It’s okay, this is my friend! His name is Clubber.”

If meeting a real life pixie and not being eaten was impressive for the kids, meeting a green sabertoothed tiger… thing was even better. Most wanted to pet him, though a few hung back and shook their heads, not wanting anything to do with either Namythiet or Clubber. They were staying away from Roxa and Mateo too, who hadn’t quite won all the kids over.

Biting her lip, Marissa hesitantly looked to her old mentee. “And you’re… I mean, you’re completely sure that there won’t be… I mean that it’s… I mean–”

“It’s okay,” Roxa assured her. “They’re safe, like I said. There are little things that look like pixies who are pretty nasty, but actual pixies like Namythiet just got lumped in with those things because they look similar. And, you know, because everything that isn’t perfectly normal human must be evil anyway.” There was a hint of bitterness in the girl’s voice, but she swallowed it back and smiled a little at Marissa once more. “I know, it’s too much to take in. But hey, at least the next meeting should be easier to take.”

“Next mee–” Marissa started to echo, before hearing something behind her. She pivoted, only to stop short at the figure she saw there in the museum corridor, grinning at her.

“Jazz!” The name leapt to her mouth even as she moved to quickly embrace the girl in question. “You’re–you’re okay! You’re–wait…” Leaning back in mid-hug, she stopped short to stare at her. “You’re not a werewolf too.”

Raising an eyebrow, Jazz shook her head. “Nope. C’mere.” She hugged Marina tightly then before stepping back. “I’m not. And neither are these guys.”

Looking to where she was nodding, Marina saw Doug and Gordon. Immediately, she embraced both of them. “Oh my God, you guys are just–you’re together and… and…”

“It’s a really long story,” Doug replied dryly. “But hey, at least we can finally tell it to you. All of it.”

Biting her lip as she looked around at the four of them while hearing the kids asking more and more questions of Namythiet and of Mateo, who had wandered that way, Marina took a moment before managing to speak. “I… I guess we can’t talk to Rudolph, Paul, and Isaac…”

That made the four exchange more glances, their expressions sobering. Gordon cleared his throat. “That’s one of the things we should talk about. You’re not going to want to hear it.”

“But you need to,” Jazz put in. “There’s a whole year worth of stuff that we all need to tell you about. Including that piece of shi–” She stopped then, clearly restraining herself. “We’ll talk about it.”

“Later,” Doug added. “Right now, we thought you might like some company walking through this place. You know, have some people you know around to help you meet all the people you… really don’t.”

“I–I just…” Blinking back the wetness that suddenly appeared in her eyes, Marina managed a weak, “I know I was a shitty mentor for you guys, I just–”

“Miss Marina!” The was Donny, eyes wide as he waved a hand to get her attention. “Nommy says they use the buddy system too! Just like us!”

Namythiet in turn bobbed up and down. “Yup! C’mon, you can meet him!”

“Meet him?” Marina echoed, blinking at Roxa. “How do you meet a buddy system?”

Roxa, Gordon, Doug, and Jazz all exchanged knowing looks before smiling at her. “Oh,” Roxa replied mysteriously, “you’d be surprised.” Then she sobered. “Actually, you being surprised is probably a bad idea. Buddy System is a–”

“Wonderful children!” The Russian-accented voice came from just down the hall, and Marina looked that way, only to see an enormous troll. The thing was almost nine feet tall, covered in thick muscle and leathery hide, with a face full of teeth that he was showing all of. Over his back he had a broken telephone pole with a big spike driven through it, and he wore a shirt that was almost comically too small for him, with words written across it. Words that read… ‘Safety First – Use The Buddy System’.

Marina, by that point, had put herself in front of the kids. Most of them had already shrunk back, hiding behind her while whimpering with fear. She found herself almost drawing the sword at her side, before Roxa was there with a hand on her arm to stop her.

“Ohhh.” Slowly slumping down to his knees with a pair of heavy thuds that shook the hallway, the enormous troll shook his head. His voice cracked a little.  “No scared, children. Buddy System not hurting you. Never hurting children.”

“It’s okay, Buddy,” Roxa assured the troll before walking that way with a quick look at Marina. She pointedly reached out, putting a hand on his gigantic arm. “He’s a nice troll. He protects the people here from the bad monsters.”

“M-Miss Marina?” one of the kids whispered in a trembling voice. “Is… is it okay? That thing looks… really scary.”

Marina honestly agreed. The troll looked terrifying. But then she looked at his eyes. She watched his eyes, and saw… dejection. He looked forlorn now, kneeling there staring at the children that he had… that he had been so excited to meet. He saw how they were looking at him, and it made him… sad. He looked… he looked… sad. He looked empty and sad.

She straightened. Clearing her throat, Marina took a single step that way, then another. She was shaking a bit, forcing herself not to cry from fear, and not to run away. One step at a time, she walked up to the kneeling troll. Her hand went out, shaking a little as she extended it to him.

“Mr… Buddy System,” she started, her voice cracking only a bit. “I… I’m… Marina Dupont. It–” She swallowed and kept her hand steady. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

The big troll gave her a hesitant look of his own, clearly gulping before he very slowly extended his own hand. It completely dwarfed her own, but he (extremely carefully) shook it, his strength obvious even through his incredibly gentle actions. “I am… being… good for meeting you too, Miss Marina Dupont.”

Very slowly, a couple of the kids came forward. Laina, the nearly thirteen-year-old girl who had been helping so much over the past couple days, was the first to put herself beside Marina. The little black-haired girl raised her own trembling hand, very lightly touching the troll’s before quickly jerking her hand back with a gasp. Then she put her hand forward once more and left it there, grasping his outstretched thumb. Her voice was soft. “You’re really big.”

“I like your shirt.” That was another kid, a younger boy named Thomas, who poked his head out from behind Marina’s other side.

The troll gave them a broad smile at that, his eyes delighted. “It is good shirt. And funny. I am Buddy System. We must use Buddy System for safety, yes?”

That made a few of the kids giggle, and more slowly came forward to join them. Their reaction made the troll–made Buddy laugh as well, a surprisingly pleasant sound.

Marina took a step back then, letting the kids move past her to meet Buddy. They were already asking questions, just like they had been asking Namythiet. And he was answering. At a request, he held his arm out, letting several of the children climb onto it in a vain attempt to pull it down.

“You’re wrong, you know.” That was Doug, who had moved up by Marina, along with the other three. “You’re not a shitty mentor.

“You just needed the right students.”

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Summer Epilogue 2A (Heretical Edge)

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The willowy girl looked as though she could have been blown over by a stiff breeze, as she stood next to a tall pine tree in the middle of a park across from a church in a medium-sized town somewhere in Arizona. The grass was somewhat yellowed from lack of water, and weeds had partially overgrown the nearby playground where a couple of children played under the semi-watchful eye of their babysitter, who sat on a bench.

Marina Dupont heard the kids yelling back and forth about how they wanted to go get ice cream, which brought a little smile to her face. But most of her attention was focused on watching the area around herself, eyes passing over the almost entirely empty park with a slow wariness. She was attentive and ready, waiting for whatever was going to happen next.

And in the end, it didn’t matter. She was still taken completely by surprise as a figure appeared beside her. Whether he came by teleporting, or by stepping through the tree, or in some other way, she had no idea. All the girl knew was that a man’s hand was suddenly around her throat, shoving her back against the tree. His hard grip cut off her air entirely, and she found herself staring with wide eyes at a man not much taller than herself, but considerably more well-built.

Dietric Collins. That was his name. He was a heavily tanned guy who wore what looked like a black muscle shirt (but upon closer inspection was actually closer to very fine chainmail) and jeans, his muscles rippling as he gripped her tight. His voice dark. “You think it’s funny to steal other people’s children?”

Marina tried to respond, but he was cutting off her air. She glanced sidelong toward the playground, and the man snarled, “Oh, don’t worry about them. They can’t see a damn thing that’s going on over here. They won’t interrupt us. No one will, until I’m done dealing with you.”

Dietric’s grip loosened just a tiny bit then, enough to allow her to choke words out. “Now, why don’t you tell me exactly why I shouldn’t squeeze your neck until your head pops right off, for taking my kid?” His words were a low, harsh whisper, eyes filled with anger that was barely controlled.

She managed to speak, her voice weak and almost inaudible. “Because you want your son.”

That made the man’s eyes flare with renewed rage, but he narrowly contained himself. “You… tell me where my son is right now, and maybe I will content myself with simply dragging you back to Crossroads to be thrown in the deepest, darkest dungeon we have.”

Again, she managed to push the words out. “Look… to your… right… at the… sign.”

Slowly, the man did so. His head turned a bit to look at a sign about not littering in the park. More specifically, his eyes found the small camera that had been attached to it, facing them.

“It’s… spelled to see through your Bystander illusion,” Marina informed him. “Your son… and the other children, are watching. They’re nowhere near here. But your son can be here in a second.”

The man’s eyes flashed with rage, but Marina pushed on quickly while trying to ignore how terrified she felt. “I didn’t mean to kidnap anyone. I meant to stop them from being kidnapped. They’re children, they don’t deserve to be pawns. You want your son, you can have him. Of course you can have him. He’s your kid, I’m… I’m not a monster, no matter what you think. But I’m not going to let you or anyone else take other children to use against either side in this war. You can have your son. You can leave with your son. But only your son. You can take your son and leave here.”

A very low snarl escaped Dietric. “What makes you think I won’t take Andrew and you?”

Swallowing hard, Marina very slowly and carefully lifted her hand, showing him the stone that she was holding tightly onto. Her voice cracked a little as she explained. “It’s an escape spell. As soon as I let it go, it’ll teleport me somewhere else away from here.”

Dietric glared at her. “I can stop you from letting go of it. I can stop you from teleporting. You really think that’s going to save you?”

Her head shook. “Not by itself, no. But you… you see that restroom over there? The men’s room door?” When the man glanced that way, she continued. “You know we have the field trip key. It lets us transport through any door. That’s the door that Andrew is going to use. They’re watching on that camera. There’s also a camera in the place this stone takes me. The second I disappear from here and reappear there, your son will come through that door. Then they’ll open a door for me in the new place, before you or any of the other Heretics you’ve brought with you can track me down. We’ll be gone. You’ll have your son, but we’ll move to a new place and contact another parent. Like I said, we want to give all children back to their parents. No matter what side they’re on.”

For a moment, Dietric scowled before demanding, “Why should I believe that you’re just going to give him back?”

Despite the fear that she felt, Marina met his gaze. “What would be the point of playing games with this, sir? I’m not asking for anything. I’m not demanding anything. I’m trying to give you your son back. No strings, except that I get to leave and you only take your son. If I didn’t want you to take your son, there wouldn’t have been any point in contacting you to have you come here. This whole situation would be completely pointless. I don’t get anything.”

The man considered that, letting the logic reach past his instinctive rage at his son being taken away from Crossroads. It took a moment, but he brought himself under control. Still, his voice was a snarl that showed just how angry he still was. “You know we’re still going to track you down. And you’ll still be tried for abducting all these children. It doesn’t matter what your intentions were. The rebels are criminals. You are a criminal. And you’ll be tried as one.”

“I’m doing what I think is right,” Marina quietly informed him. “That’s not going to change.” She took a breath to steady herself a bit before adding, “I’m going to drop the stone now. As soon as I do, your son will come out of that door.” She waited to see if the man would say anything else. When he didn’t, she exhaled, then dropped the rock.

Instantly, the world spun around her. She was transported to the back room of a department store across town. Nearby was a closet. As soon as her eyes found it, the closet door opened and a couple of the older kids, nearly thirteen themselves, waved her in.

Two portals opened up nearby, as a couple Heretics emerged. Marina saw them from the corners of her eyes, but managed to jump through the open door just before it was yanked closed after her. They left the pursuing Heretics behind.

They were in the abandoned house that the group had briefly set up in. Eli, the oldest boy and the one she’d left the field trip key with, quickly pressed it into her hand. All the other kids, sans Andrew and a few others who had been given back, were staring at her. Several were crying, while others tried to blurt questions about what was going on now. Marina, meanwhile, took the key, thought of a different destination, shoved the key into the nearby door, and opened it. “Come on guys! Field trip. Keep your buddies. Sara, you’re with Valerie and Tyson now that Andrew’s gone. Let’s go. Everyone wants some lunch, right?”

They went through the door. And then through another, and another, and one more. Then she led them through the streets of a small town to yet another door that they could pass through, then did the same in a larger city. Six or seven times they jumped to new locations, to leave as hard of a trail to follow as possible. Marina also used several spells she had learned about how to keep Strangers from tracking her after a hunt. She did everything she could to throw off the inevitable pursuit, before letting the kids take a break for lunch. They went to the food court of a mall and she let them get whatever they wanted. Of the many problems they had, money wasn’t one of them. She’d learned how to use a spell to take money from Bystander cash machines in the first semester of this (her second) year. They used the spell, among others like it, to allow Heretics to operate in the Bystander world without the need for one of their jobs.

So technically she was a kidnapper and a thief. Among everything else that Marina had done in the past twenty-four hours, getting money to feed the children she was taking care of and give them a place to sleep was at the bottom of what she felt bad about. But it was still a nagging thought.

Andrew wasn’t the first, though this one had gone off with the least hitches and problems as they’d worked out some of the kinks from earlier efforts. They’d now sent several other kids to their closest guardians. But that still left a lot more to send back. A lot more meetings with angry, frightened, possibly vengeful parents.

It was going to be a long couple of days.

******

It had been a very long couple of days. And they weren’t even halfway done. Setting up a new location for a transfer, vetting it as being clear of any problems, getting their escape ready, contacting the parent in question, all of it took time. And with each subsequent parent (from either side) who had taken longer to get their child back, many grew frustrated. Children wanted their parents. They were tired of the field trip. They were scared of what was going on.

Still, Marina pressed on. The older kids were a godsend. Especially Eli and another near-thirteen year old named Laina, both of whom helped keep the younger ones entertained and herded. Without them, all of this would have been impossible. They understood what was happening, for the most part, and kept the others a lot more calm than they would’ve been.

Marina had almost no way of knowing which side any given parent was on. She simply asked each child who their mother, father, or closest adult was and contacted that person to set up an exchange. Some were more understanding than others, and she had actually been struck more than once throughout this. But for the most part, the parents were more interested in getting their children back than in pursuing or punishing her. At least until they had them.

As the exchanges went on, the adults started showing up already knowing what was expected, as word of how Marina was doing it spread. Some came with various efforts to trick her, or end the situation. But Marina and the other kids varied things enough to avoid falling for them, though there were a few very close calls.

Now, most of the youngest kids had been given back. That was where Marina had focused first, on the smallest of her charges. They still had just over half of the children left, and she was trying to think of how to speed this up. She’d been varying times of when the exchanges happened, along with the locations. Sometimes she’d wait only ten minutes between contacting parents, while other times she waited hours while she and the children slept.

Slept. Hah. She’d only actually slept maybe three hours in the past couple of nights. Which, given powers she’d inherited, wasn’t too bad. She usually only slept about four hours per night anyway. But three hours in two days was pushing it a bit.

At the moment, Marina was letting everyone sleep in the several rooms they’d rented out in this out-of-the-way motel along a freeway somewhere in Oregon. Thirty-six kids sharing about five rooms. Most were bunched up together, sleeping on the beds, on the floor, nesting on the chairs and couches, wherever they could find space. Marina just made sure that girls were only rooming with girls, and tried to keep similar age brackets together.

A drink. She was tired and needed caffeine so she could plan the next exchange. So the girl made her way out of the room she was sharing with a handful of her charges. Stepping out to the parking lot, she headed for the brightly lit spot nearby where vending machines were.

Unfortunately, she’d barely reached the machines when the girl heard the scrape of footsteps behind her. She pivoted, hand reaching for the hilt of her hidden sword at her side. But it was too late. A man slammed into her. She was thrown back against the nearest machine with a yelp, while her attacker pointed a hefty one-handed axe in her direction, the blade pushing close to her throat. “Look what we have here.”

“Mr. Rusterfeld?” Blurting the name as her heart hammered its way almost out of her chest, Marina stared. Karl Rusterfield had been the last parent she’d delivered a kid back to that day, his young daughter named Esme. He’d been so grateful to get her back that he’d given her a brief hug.

“Yeah,” the man confirmed as though reading her mind. “And you didn’t even notice the tracker spell I put on you when we had our little moment, did you? Well, guess what. Now we’re going to have a different moment. And when I’m done showing you why you don’t take other people’s kids, you can spend some time in the–”

That was as far as the man got, before he was abruptly yanked from behind. A much smaller figure had caught hold of the man’s arm and hair. He managed a brief grunt of surprise before he was yanked all the way around and hurled face first into the next vending machine over. This one sold snacks, and the glass front shattered under the impact as he was bodily hurled into it.

He stumbled back, dropping his axe just as his attacker kicked the back of his leg out, catching the dazed man before he could recover. He made a noise of surprise, just as the smaller figure put their fist into his face, dropping the man to the ground. One more time, he tried to straighten up, but a foot to the same spot that their fist had hit an instant earlier put him back down. That time, he stayed there.

All of it happened in just a brief couple of seconds. Marina barely had time to yank her sword free and jerk away from the machine she had been shoved against before it was all over. Rusterfield lay on the ground, completely unconscious. And his attacker was straightening from him, turning to face her.

“Roxa?!” The name blurted its way from Marina’s lips instantly, her eyes wide with shock. “You’re here!” Reflexively, she took a step that way to hug the girl who had been one of her mentees for only the first couple of months of the school term before disappearing. The first who had disappeared, actually.

But then Marina stopped. She stared, mouth opening and shutting as she realized just what her Stranger sense was telling her. “You… you’re… you’re a…”

“Werewolf,” Roxa supplied quietly. As she straightened fully, Gidget came forward out of the shadows, making a hopeful sound upon seeing Marina. “Yes. That’s why I couldn’t come back.”

“I don’t… I don’t understand,” Marina managed, her voice cracking. She wanted to hug Roxa so much, after spending months worrying about where the girl was and what had happened to her. But she was a werewolf. And that meant… or rather, didn’t it mean… but those things that the rebellion said…

“I know it’s confusing,” Roxa assured her. “And it’s scary and… a lot of things. But I swear, I don’t want to hurt you. We don’t want to hurt you, or any of your kids.”

“We?” Marina echoed. Then she saw them. Several more figures hanging back in the shadows, spread through the parking lot.

“My pack,” Roxa informed her. “My friends. My family. We came to help, Marina. We knew they’d track you down eventually, so we had… we had other weres through the world letting us know if they saw you. They had your pictures and your scents. It took two days for us to catch up. But I guess it was pretty good timing. We’ve been watching for a couple hours.”

Through all of that, Marina kept staring at the shadowy figures, her eyes jumping from one to the next. It took her a moment to find her voice again. “You came with a pack of werewolves…”

Flinching, Roxa quietly replied, “Listen, I know you can’t trust them–that you can’t trust… us. But–”

“Fuck it.” The two words left Marina before she knew what she was doing. Then she was embracing Roxa tightly. She’d crossed the distance between them almost instantly, hugging the girl. “Fuck it. Whatever, whatever. You’re okay. You’re alive. That’s all I–that’s what matters. Roxa, Roxa, you’re alive!” In that moment, the hard knot that she’d been holding in her own stomach ever since Roxa had disappeared vanished. Werewolf or not, the girl looked healthy, and… and safe. And she certainly didn’t look or sound like an evil monster. Marina still didn’t know how she felt about this whole rebellion thing, but Roxa was right in front of her, and had clearly saved her from Rusterfield. That was worth something.

Flushing slightly, the other girl returned the hug after a moment. “Yeah. And trust me, there’s a lot to talk about as far as that goes. But you have to get out of here.” Her foot gestured to the unconscious man. “We don’t know how many people he told about tracking you, or who might be on their way.”

“The kids,” Marina realized, straightening. “I have to wake up the kids. You’re right, we have to get out of here, we–” She stopped talking then, looking again at the shadowy werewolf figures.

“You can go,” Roxa informed her softly. “We’re not going to stop you, Marina. You can take the kids and keep doing this by yourself, if you want to. We know what you’re trying to do, and we won’t stop you. But… but if you trust me, we can help you.”

“Help me?” Marina echoed, eyes moving back to the younger girl’s.

Roxa nodded. “Yes. We can help protect you. We can watch for any other Heretics. We can warn you about them. We can help get the kids back to their parents, on both sides. I promise, we just want to help. That’s all. We want to help you get these kids back to their parents, where they belong. And we have a safe place for you all to stay while you take the kids one at a time. A place where you guys can’t be tracked down. I promise, they–you all… will be safe there until you can send them home.”

It took Marina another few seconds to find her voice once more. “Roxa, I… I don’t know what to… you’re here. You’re safe. You’re a werewolf, you’re with werewolves, but you’re not… “ She closed her eyes briefly, feeling torn in every possible direction. A huge part of her wanted to tell the girl to take her wolves and leave, that she appreciated the help, but she just couldn’t trust them enough to take that next step. Not with children’s lives at stake.

Those words were on the tip of her tongue. But she stopped. Her eyes opened, dozens of competing thoughts tumbling through her mind. She stared at the girl in front of her. “I… we’ll go with you. If you vouch for them, if you say they’re safe, then I… Roxa, I trust you. Maybe not them. Not yet. Not even with all this new… rebellion stuff. I just can’t trust them yet. But I trust you. Maybe it’s wrong and I’ll regret it and hate myself forever. But… but I’ll trust you.”

“That’s enough,” Roxa agreed quietly. “I promise, I swear, you’ll all be safe. Where we’re going, it might look scary, but no one is going to hurt you or any of the children. On my soul, it’s completely safe for you guys. It’s hidden, and no Heretic tracking spells will find it.”

Swallowing hard as her mind fought back and forth with itself about whether she’d made the right decision or not, Marina asked, “What…  where is this place you want us to go?”

Roxa smiled faintly. “Well… it’s called Wonderland.”

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On The Edge 42-07

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Catching the swinging arm of the fur-covered figure who was trying to claw me, I pivoted, keeping one hand on his bicep and using the other to grab the back of his neck. With a grunt, I shoved him hard into the nearest wall, then used his body to brace myself as I popped up into a double-kick into the chest of another figure. I used the force from that kick, planting both feet against him and pushing off as he was knocked to the floor, to push myself into a backward flip over the head of a man who had been coming up behind me. My foot kicked his leg out from under him, and as he collapsed I brought the same foot down hard on his back to make him hit the floor with even more force. With one foot there still, I reached out to catch hold of the shoulder of the man I had first shoved into the wall, yanking him backward while stepping aside so that he tripped over the man I had just knocked down. At the same time, three more guys who were running toward me ended up flat on their faces as a cloud of sand flew under their feet.

Got one? I sent inwardly while all that was going on.

Got it, Tabbris shot back, filling my head with the exact information about what she was doing and what she needed, even as the two men on the floor at my feet ended up in a tumbled heap and the one I had kicked was recovering from staggering backward. In the distance, the trio I had knocked down with sand were trying to extricate themselves, but my partner threw more of the sand into their faces. Which would have been bad enough, but this sand was super-heated, so they had to deal with being burned as well. It was… not going well for them.

As the two guys at my feet got themselves situated and lunged at me, I dove into a forward roll to put myself next to the man I’d kicked. All three were right there, practically on top of me as my hand slapped down against the floor. Tabbris used my instant-image power to inscribe a rune into it, before throwing in some of our combined energy to trigger it.

The reverse and increase gravity spell activated, glowing red just before the three men who were diving for me were caught by it. The trio went flying up, slamming hard into the ceiling an instant before the reverse part of the spell cut off, leaving only the ‘increase’ part. Which, of course, yanked them back down again. They landed hard and didn’t move again, aside from a couple of groans.

It was an effect that had been limited to that very small area, and only for a moment. Still, Tabbris would need to recharge for a few seconds, at least. She would watch for another opportunity to use spells that she had learned from her mother over the past couple weeks and let me know.

In the distance, I saw Asenath and Bobbi. The two of them were working together to try and clear a path to the security panel. Unfortunately, the pair had been waylaid by a few controlled security guards and a single Seosten. And they couldn’t make their efforts to clear the path to the panel too obvious, or Kushiel’s forces would figure out what we were trying to do and just destroy it. Or at least make it even harder to reach, which we really didn’t need.  And I couldn’t exactly just use a portal to reach it. I didn’t know precisely where the slot for the USB thing was, and as soon as our friends here saw me groping for it, they’d… again, know to stop me.

No, I had to get to it. And the others were trying to help that happen.

Elsewhere, I could see Roxa in wolf form leaping on top of someone, carrying them to the ground before she bit into their arm. A second later, she shifted into her human self, twisting over to kick an approaching figure hard in the stomach from her prone position, a blow that sent that person flying backward. At the same time, her arm turned into its tree form, extending into an enormous branch that slammed into four more people to knock them over.

Miranda and Theia were fighting together too, also trying to clear a way for me to get to that panel. The two of them (or three, considering Miranda had split herself several times and two of them were there) were teaming up against an adult Seosten who just would not go down.

Further down the hall, the other werewolves of the pack were also fighting. Or… most of them were. Fezzik was on the ground. The big guy… I didn’t think he was ever going to move again. I hadn’t been there to see what happened, but given the size of the silver blade embedded in his chest and the way his head was… yeah. Yeah, he… damn it. God fucking damn it. The other wolves couldn’t even mourn him just yet or they’d risk losing even more of themselves.

He also wasn’t the only one down. A couple of the Seosten who had come in with us were on the floor. I didn’t know if they were dead or not, but… I wasn’t optimistic.

Then, of course, I had another problem. One of the young Seosten who wasn’t on our side was coming after me with a laser sword. He kept slashing at me, forcing me to back up or twist from side to side to avoid each humming swipe while I watched for an opening.

Not far away, I caught a brief glimpse of a third iteration of Miranda from the corner of my eye as the other girl used the metal shield on her arm to create three quick identically-sized and shaped round forcefields before making a quick gesture that sent them flying off to collide with the side of a big guy who appeared to be made of hundreds of different coils of rope all put together into one man-shaped figure. He turned at the blows, just as yet another Miranda hopped on his back, creating some kind of burning fist with one hand as she plunged it into his neck. He roared and jerked backward to throw her off, while that first Miranda ran that way at full speed, leaping up and twisting to plant her feet in his rope-coil chest. The impact sent him falling backward while the second Miranda hopped off. Another one appeared right where the rope-man was falling, already swinging that shield. The flat of it collided with the figure’s head and sent him to the ground, dazed.

Throughout all of that (which was only a couple of seconds), I was bobbing and weaving while backpedaling as the figure with the laser sword continued doggedly after me. Watch for the opening, watch for the opening, watch for it, watch for it…

There! As the man switched up his attack to stab at me instead of slashing with that blade, I created a quick portal with one hand right where his blade was heading. The other end appeared just behind the Seosten’s left leg. Which, since he had stabbed forward, made the energy blade go through the portal to stab himself. The man cried out, dropping the sword. I caught it, spinning to slam the hilt into the side of his head while he was collapsing. He went down and stayed down. For the moment, anyway.

That was the problem. While the Kushiel-aligned Seosten and the possessed or controlled Auberge security had no problems killing any of us, we were trying our level best not to use lethal measures with at least the latter. We really didn’t want to kill the guys who didn’t have a choice with what they were doing. But that was costing us. Had already cost us.

The security panel. It was still there, just past a spot where Larees and that Hasty chick were fighting basically back to back. They were right there, the fighting going on all around the panel. But it wasn’t too damaged. Not yet. Plugging in this USB could still bring us some help. But first, I had to get there.

Briefly, I thought of just shouting out for the Seosten woman or the werewolf and telling them what to do while throwing or portaling the USB to them. But I dismissed the thought just as quickly. Everyone would hear me, and I was pretty damn sure the bad guys would work out that they needed to destroy the panel pretty quick.

Had to get to it. And since whatever the floors and walls up here were made of, it wasn’t wood, I had to get there the old fashioned way. As I took a step, a figure blurred over to my right side. Theia. She flashed me a dangerous smile. “We’ll cover you. Get to the button to deploy presents for all the good boys and girls.”

Her saying the word ‘present’ instinctively made me tense up despite myself. But another voice spoke from my left. One of the Mirandas. “Yeah, we’ll cover you. Go. Go!”

No time to think about how Theia made me feel. Shaking it off, I went for it. The other two girls were on either side, covering me as we raced down the hallway. Theia’s fire and ice guns were busy. Mostly the latter, freezing people’s legs or other limbs. Meanwhile, Miranda’s energy shields kept us safe from that side. They blocked for me, and together we beelined right for that panel.

Four hefty figures were ahead of us. They looked like gray elephant-skinned orc things, and they clearly weren’t in any mood to move. Nor were they affected by either of Theia’s elemental guns, apparently simply absorbing both fire and ice with the only apparent reaction being that the parts of their bodies touched by either turned red or blue.

Oh, right, there was another effect. Namely, they spat out that fire and ice by opening their mouths to send it right back at us. We had to dive to the floor to avoid it. Then roll to either side (Theia one way and Miranda and I the other) so we wouldn’t be trampled as two of the four rushed to do just that, stampeding right where we had just been.

A quick input from Tabbris and I knew what to do next. Kicking myself up and into a roll, I ended right near the nearest gray elemental-absorbing orc and slapped a hand against the black leather pants that he wore. At that brief touch, my partner made a rune appear, once more using that instant-image power. She shoved more power into it, igniting the spell immediately.

The effect was just as immediate. The orc’s pants, and the rest of his clothes, turned to metal. He was trapped in place, utterly incapable of moving. I heard his shouts of confusion as he struggled, but the transformation extended down to his shoes. And they themselves were fused with the floor. He was stuck, and wouldn’t be a threat for awhile.

Unfortunately, there were still the other three. And while Theia/Pace and Miranda were dealing with two of them, that left one. Which was the one that yanked me up off the floor, throwing me into the ceiling hard enough to daze me. As I fell back down, a wild swing from the gray orc knocked the remaining sense from me, and I was pretty sure I blacked out for a second before the collision with a nearby wall snapped me awake once more.

Ow. Oww. At the last instant, Tabbris took over and threw us out of the way just as that same orc tried to stomp where my head had been. Then I was back in control, snapping my foot up and out of his reaching grasp. A thought sent a cloud of sand into his eyes, and I flipped myself backwards to my feet while he was recovering.

Still pain. Lots of pain. Regeneration was working on it, but this wasn’t fun.

Somewhere along the line of being thrown around, I’d dropped the laser sword that I had picked up. But I could still feel it. I knew where it was. As the gray orc–Deunren, Tabbris informed me. As the Deunren growled and lunged for me once more, I made a quick portal in the air above myself. The other end appeared right where my item-sense told me that laser sword was. It fell through, into my upraised hand. I hit the button to ignite the blade and swept it in front of myself quickly. The blade cut off both of the Deunren’s raised arms, making him stumble while crying out.

“Something something disarming pun,” I managed before slugging him in the face as hard as I could. Unable to put anything up to protect himself, he took the blow full on, crashing to the floor.

Hopping over him, I tried to reach the panel once more. There, I was there. I was right there.

Then I wasn’t. A gust of wind or something struck me. It felt like wind, but it was powerful enough to send me spinning down the hallway, tumbling into a heap.

I had no idea what had hit me, or if it had even been purposeful. There were so many powers and weapons being thrown around, I could’ve been targeted or that could’ve been accidental. But either way, now there were even more people between me and where I needed to get.

This wasn’t working. I couldn’t get there. The others couldn’t get there. Everyone who actually knew what to do at the security panel even if I could get the USB to them was pinned down. Larees was there with Hasty still, but neither of them knew what to do with it. And I couldn’t just shout across the– Wait a second. Duh. Stupid, Flick. There was something I could do for that. Part of which I had been practicing with basically all year long.

Keep them off us for a second, I sent inwardly while scrambling in my pocket. Tabbris took over my feet, making us backpedal as more enemies came for us. Two laser shots struck nearby before one hit my chest, but I absorbed it. By that point, Tabbris had sent up a cloud of sand, superheating it. The burning sand flew in a wild circle, forcing everyone back a few steps and giving us a momentary respite.

The whole time, my hands were moving. From my pocket, I managed to pull out Herbie in one hand. With the other, I produced a privacy coin. Quickly, I used it with myself as the only ‘allowed’ person to hear what I was saying.

Then I went back to fighting. Tabbris took over the other part. With Herbie in one hand, she used my–our ability to instill sound in an object. With my voice, she spoke the quick explanation, to plug the USB into the slot on the panel. The power would only let us use sounds that were a few seconds long. But there was a lot you could say in roughly five seconds if you were really motivated to make it fit.

The whole time she was fixing Herbie, I was avoiding all the guys who wanted me to be a smear on the ground. And there were a lot of them. Kushiel’s forces were everywhere. And they were clearly interested in what I was doing.

What I was doing right then, as it happened, was making a portal. The other end came out near where Larees was, and I quickly shoved a second privacy coin against Herbie, lodging it into the spot where his sword was while activating it to only allow the Seosten woman to hear. Then I chucked Herbie and the USB together through that portal while activating the sound projection on him.

She heard. And thanks to the privacy coin, no one else did. I saw Larees use her firebird to clear a space, shouting something to Hasty, who turned into a wolf and lunged onto the biggest of their opponents to clear a path. Larees went right over them, hitting the nearby panel where only a single enemy waited in her path.

The rest of the Seosten knew then. They made a beeline that way, a half-dozen of them converging on the spot where Larees was. They would get to her before she could deal with the single threat in her way and find the slot.

But a figure appeared in front of them. A very… very small figure. Namythiet. She flew down, hovering between the six enemy Seosten and Larees, with that tiny sword held out toward them. She said something I didn’t catch, but part of it was ‘Mister Seth’. The Seosten looked at each other for an instant, then ignored the tiny pixie to lunge past her.

That, ignoring Namythiet, was a mistake that they paid for immediately. Because that little pixie chose right then to show them (and me) why she had named the tiny sword of hers Cataclysm. The blade, itself about the size of a pin, began to glow bright red. A dozen lines of energy shot out away from it in the same positions as the numbers on a clockface, stretching about three feet in every direction before opening up a small portal at the end of each. And from each of those twelve portals appeared several more lines that created more. Twelve initial portals, each with three additional ones attached. Forty eight of them in all. Each were only about a few inches across. But through each of those portals appeared the barrel of various weapons. I saw cannons, rifles, wide-barreled shotguns, some kind of metal coil with electricity humming around it, even a flamethrower.

The literal arsenal instantly unleashed on the briefly paralyzed Seosten. Most of them managed to hurl themselves away from the worst of it at the last second. But two were caught right in the middle and went down for good, while the rest were at least injured. Not to mention the damage done to the wall behind them, which was quite literally blown to shreds. There wasn’t much of a ‘wall’ left to speak of.

It also gave Larees the chance she needed. The woman managed to deal with the only remaining threat that had been in her way, hopping over the falling body to reach the panel. Her hand slammed the USB into place.

And that was enough. The second the last number left her mouth, a dozen portals appeared all along the ceiling. Portals, not doorways. Which made sense. It meant that the turrets that shot down through those portals could actually be housed anywhere and just pop out where needed.

Either way, the turrets appeared and, as promised, began shooting only Kushiel’s forces with some kind of electrical stun blasts that knocked them out. Our side was completely safe, while theirs immediately began to collapse.

It was working. Between the turrets, which amounted to powerful reinforcements, and our own people, we quickly turned the tide against the mix of Kushiel’s Seosten and the controlled security forces. Getting that security to deploy had done the trick. We could hold them until the others managed to show up. We could hold them.

And then the turrets were ripped out of the ceiling. In a spray of sparks, they were torn down from the portals. The metal guns let out a scream of protest while being ripped open and flattened out. In the next second, while I was still realizing what had happened, pieces of the turrets began flying in every direction. Straight at us. One big piece slammed into my side before I could avoid it, knocking me to the ground. Then the chunk of metal literally wrapped around me, fusing itself to the floor while trapping me beneath it.

The same thing was happening everywhere else, up and down the hallway. Not just the turrets, but parts of the walls themselves, even the doors and decorations. They were all tearing their way free and trapping everyone on our side. The werewolves were being pinned in ways that would make it impossible for them to escape even if they shifted.

The green-skinned elf-like figure standing at the end of the hall with his arms going through motions like a conductor. It was him. He continued to pin everyone down. Then his form shifted once everyone was solidly trapped.

Ares. Abaddon. Whatever. It was him. He took back his normal form, while Radeuriel and Kushiel joined him. The three Olympians stood there, observing the corridor for a moment before starting to walk, calmly as they pleased, toward the door.

Where was Athena? Where was… was… anyone else? Where were they?

Not here. That was the answer, or at least the only one that mattered right then. They weren’t here.

Damn it, damn it. Move. I had to do something, anything!

There, Flick! Tabbris moved my eyes, making me look toward the unconscious figure lying nearby. It was one of the Seosten. I didn’t even know whose side they were on. He was several feet away, but that didn’t matter.

I saw Ares shift into another form as they walked, Kushiel casually telling him, “And make sure they don’t wake up any time soon.”

It was now or never. Whatever form Ares had shifted into, it would clearly knock everyone out. Quickly and as surreptitiously as possible, I made a tiny portal, just big enough to stick my finger through. With that finger, I touched the fallen Seosten and quickly possessed him.

My temporary host was unconscious, so I couldn’t see what happened. But I could hear some kind of pop in the air. I waited for a brief moment, then quickly stopped possessing him.

I was kneeling on the floor as I emerged from the unconscious man, keeping myself as low as possible. Ahead of me, the trio of Olympians had been joined by what remained of their forces. It wasn’t much, just three actual Seosten and a couple of the controlled security guards. But that was enough, considering everywhere else I looked, our side was knocked out. They’d been pinned beneath metal, then Ares had done… something. Whatever it was, whatever that popping sound had been, everyone was down. Everyone in the hallway that could have helped was unconscious.

Then it got worse. As the Olympians approached the door that led into the vault, there was a click, a chime, and then the door opened. It just opened for them. Just like that. the door was open. All that, everything we’d done, and Kushiel, Radueriel, and Abaddon were right there in front of the open door. They were about to go through it. They were about to go into the vault. Their little miniature honor guard or whatever it was had already gone inside. They were in.

We’re too late, Tabbris lamented, sounding crestfallen and about as broken as I felt then.

No, I shot back despite everything inside me saying she was right. We’re not. Boost.

With those words, I lunged to my feet. Shifting myself back to my normal form, I hurled myself that way. With everything I had, every last bit of strength and speed that I could drag from the pit of my soul, I sprinted down that hallway. The boost kicked in, and I was almost flying. My hands moved, calling my staff into their grip and pointing it behind me before I triggered the boost from that as well. And then I literally was flying. My feet left the ground as I rocketed straight to that group of Olympians.  Abaddon was at the back, then Radueriel, with Kushiel at the front. All of whom could kill me practically with a thought.

I hit them from behind. Only I didn’t hit them. I possessed them… all of them, in a line. One by one, starting with Abaddon, I possessed each one just long enough to avoid physically colliding with them before popping myself back out the front. I didn’t stay long enough to bother with a mental domination fight, because I wasn’t trying to control them. I possessed Abaddon, popped out through his front, immediately possessed Radueriel from behind before going out his front, and finally did the same with Kushiel. One by one, before my body even had time to shift properly from the glowing energy form that it took when exiting someone, I threw myself through all three of them, rocketing out of Kushiel before ending in a dive that took me the rest of the way into the vault itself.

As I passed through the last of them, my hand produced that crystal that Wyatt had given me. I let it go, before flipping over in the air. My staff was already shifting into its bow form as I took aim, drawing back an energy arrow. With a grunt, I released it, shooting the arrow back that way right as I landed in a crouch.

The arrow collided with that crystal, shattering it. I caught a brief glimpse of trio of Olympians there at the doorway, just as the spell on the crystal activated. A thick wall, appearing to be made of a mostly opaque crystal itself, appeared to block that doorway.

I was there. I was in the vault, which itself was mostly an empty circular room. Empty, that was, aside from a single pedestal in the middle of it with a book sitting on top. I was there and, for the moment, the Olympians weren’t.

It wouldn’t keep them out for long. But maybe… just maybe, it would be enough. Every second counted, and I had to hope… I had to believe that help was on its way. Deveron and the others in the panic room, Avalon, Gaia, and everyone else coming in through the other side. Seconds mattered. However long it would take Kushiel and the other two to break through that… whatever it was that Wyatt had given me, it might just be long enough.

Of course, I wasn’t in here alone. There were three non-Olympian Seosten and three other figures in here with me, all of whom looked pretty pissed off right then.

Help was on the way. It had to be. They were coming. But so were Kushiel, Radeuriel, and Abaddon. The first question was who would make it first.

And the second question, which sprang to mind as the guys in the room with me drew weapons of their own, was whether I would survive long enough for that to matter.

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On The Edge 42-04

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Quickly (and as concisely as possible) I explained the situation. I told the man about the Seosten, and about the vault they were trying to break into and why in as few words as I could manage without being too confusing. I told him about Athena fighting Ares, as well as the fact that Radueriel was controlling the security and other staff. I told him about how we’d come in to protect the vault, and why we couldn’t be up front about it, because we didn’t know who to trust.

He listened through all of it as I sped through the explanation, his expression pensive as he clearly stopped himself from speaking up a couple times so that he could hear the whole thing. Once I finished, he let out a long, low sigh before announcing, “This war shouldn’t have come here. The guests are supposed to be safe. We promised them that they were safe.”

Wincing, I nodded. “I’m sorry the Auberge was dragged into this. We had to come stop them. If we didn’t—”

He stopped me with a raised hand. “I know. You… you are your mother’s daughter. The Seosten need to be expelled from this place, now.”

My mouth open, before I caught myself. “Err, before I say anything else, can we get back to the girls I was with? They’re probably losing their minds right about now. I kind of have this habit of disappearing.”

The man looked at me for a moment, then gave a very tiny smile. “Yes,” he murmured, “mother’s daughter. And your friends are–”

That was as far as he got before the nearby door was kicked in. It came off its hinges, and both Larees and Asenath came through like they were bringing the fury of hell with them. Which, given the flames around Larees, might have been an apt comparison.

“Wait!” I blurted, jumping in the way before this could get any worse. “Wait! It’s okay! He’s–Uhh, he’s on our side. Or, you know, on the hotel’s side.”

They exchanged glances, then squinted at me. Asenath flicked her attention to the man in question and seemed… well, not very happy. Which I couldn’t blame her for. But at least they weren’t attacking. Taking advantage of that, I briefly introduced them before realizing I didn’t know the man’s name.

“Francis,” he announced, apparently immediately realizing the same thing. “Francis Gale. And I want these Seosten and their people out of this hotel.”

“Any more contact from anyone else?” I asked the other two, not really expecting any, but I had been surprised before.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t one of those times, both shook their heads. Asenath spoke quietly. “We don’t know where anyone is, just that they’re busy fighting. And we are pretty sure no one’s managed to find Kushiel yet. Or Radueriel himself. Just the people his devices are controlling.”

“Which is a distraction,” I put in. “We could fight those guys for hours while the real threats break right into the vault. We need to find the room they’re trying to break into. And get everyone together again.”

Francis shook his head. “No, you don’t. You just need to get to Caela Tombs’ office. She’s the owner. If you get to her and explain what’s going on, she can expel them. Privilege of the owner. They can expel any guest, which sends them out of the Auberge immediately.”

Asenath did a quick double take at that. “You mean we can cut this whole thing off at the pass by kicking them out of the building before they ever get to that vault.” She looked to me then, eyes solemn. “We have to get to the owner.”

Larees was nodding, but her eyes were on Francis. “Yeah, but I have a feeling if it was that simple, he’d be on his way to do it already.”

“Hey, yeah.” I looked back to the man. “You should know where she is, right? Can you just grab her. Hell, you just made that portal, can’t you just portal us to where she is?”

He winced, looking apologetic. “There is a problem with that. They’ve done something with these.” From his pocket, the man produced what looked like a silver ball ornament with some kind of circuitry running over it. “They’ve got these all over the hotel. They’re blocking my power. I’m a hybrid Steward. Basically it means I draw my power from my home and the people in it. But these things cut me off from that power. They must have been planting them for days, at least. They just turned them on, and wherever they are, I can’t use my power until they’re broken. I can’t even leave the safe area or I’ll… well, it won’t be pretty. That’s why I had to wait for you to come into my range, and we only teleported over a couple hallways.”

I exhaled, trying not to make it sound like too much of a sigh. “Right, so if we break those things, you can come with us and help get to that owner lady so that she can expel the Seosten.”

“Yes,” he confirmed. “Caela and her son will be in the panic room by now. If I can get to it, I can open it. Then I can tell her who to expel. She won’t just kick every guest out without knowing what’s going on. And she doesn’t know that our security has been compromised. So I have to get to her.” He paused then, looking like it was hard for him to add the next part. “But I need your help to do that.”

Larees was taking a long, steady pull from her flask. “Sounds like we need to get everyone focused on breaking those devices from here to the panic room.” She paused, taking another gulp before her eyes found the man once more. “I don’t suppose we’re lucky enough for it to be somewhat close to here.”

Sure enough, he shook his head. Raising a hand, he created an image of a map on the wall. It showed a side view of the hotel. “We’re standing here. The office with the safe room access is here.” The place he demonstrated was a full eight floors from where we were standing and on the opposite side of the building.

Makes sense, Tabbris silently put in. They’d want to trap him as far from being able to help as they could.

Agreeing with that, I passed the point on verbally before adding, “Everyone’s spread out right now, fighting security and the Seosten themselves while they look for that room.”

“Nine twelve.” That was Francis. “The room you’re looking for is nine twelve. And from what you said, it sounds like their leaders were staying in nine thirteen, next door. Here.” He showed us on the map.

I started to say something to that, but the man abruptly held up a hand. “Wait, something’s coming.” He put himself in front of me clearly protectively, which made me blink. My mother really must have made an impression on him. I’d have to ask him about that sometime. And also ask him how he remembered her after everything had been erased. Was it because the Auberge was in a pocket dimension, like how the Meregan has remembered her by being in another universe?

With one hand, Francis produced a long, wicked looking red-bladed sword. All of us watched that open doorway, before a wolf came trotting in. A familiar wolf.

“Wait!” I blurted once more, slipping out from behind the man. “It’s Roxa, she’s on our side.”

A moment later, Gidget entered as well, and Roxa transformed. Belatedly, I realized that she was wearing one of the Seosten bodysuits. Apparently spending some time at that camp had resulted in a little present.

Brief introductions and explanations were passed back and forth, and then the werewolf girl looked over to me. “It’s World War Three out there,” she blurted. “Everyone’s pretty much avoiding this area right here, but beyond that, it’s pure chaos.”

“They’re staying away from where Francis has power,” I realized. “Which means we need to make that area bigger. We need to break those blocker things, and get to the safe room. If we can get the owner to expel them before they get into the vault, we win.”

Roxa held up a prepared bit of wood. “I can use my fossa to get to everyone and pass the message about breaking those things. And about where the vault door is so they can head that way just in case. But I’ll need someone to watch my back.” Her eyes glanced toward her partner before she added, “Someone to help Gidget, that is.”

“I will make certain no one harms you,” Francis promised.

Larees nodded. “I’ll head for the vault access myself, try to stall them as much as possible. And collect people along the way.”

I looked to Asenath then. “I guess you and I are going to fight our way to the safe room and break all those ornament things we can find.“

Her smile was humorless, and I could see the pain of loss in her eyes. “Break things and fight people. You know, I think I’m ready to do that right now.”

Looking toward Roxa, I asked, “Are you sure you’ll be okay?”

“As okay as anyone else in here,” she pointed out, “or anyone trying to get to the vault from the other end. It’s fine. I can use the spell, and I can communicate through it. My fossa’s quick and agile. I can make it to where everyone is and tell them about breaking the things trapping Francis here, and where the room is. I can do that. You guys go get the owner to kick these bastards out.”

Returning her nod, I looked back to Asenath. “Then I guess it’s you and me. Though I am kind of at a disadvantage. The second I pull out my staff, they’re gonna know who I am. Which means they’ll  know what I can do. They’ll know I can possess them. And that’s probably something we should hold back. Knowledge is power, you know.”

“Do you know how to use any other weapon?” Francis asked.

“I’ve got a knife I can use,” I replied. “Not to mention my werelion claws. And I’ve been training with the bow for awhile.” Even saying those words made me think of Rudolph and I flinched inwardly. Focus. Grieve later, for him, for Seth, for everyone we needed to grieve for.

Holding one hand out, Francis produced a silver bow with a golden string. “It’ll produce arrows when you draw it back,” he informed me. “But it’ll only last as long as you’re here in the hotel.” He paused then before adding, “And try not to kill anyone that you don’t have to, okay? The guests here are supposed to be safe.”

I smiled, taking it. “I will, thanks.” Looking to the others, I nodded. “Right, let’s do this then.”

*******

A tall, thin figure with purple skin and gray hair who wore a security uniform caught the arrow that had been shooting toward his leg. In a single motion, he flipped the arrow around and threw it back at me. I barely managed to snap my head out of the way.

Yeah, I was really missing my own weapon right about then. This one produced real arrows that didn’t even explode. I was back in the form of red-headed Gabrielle, hoping that Athena‘s suggestion that I keep my presence and identity secret for as long as possible would pay off.

Just as the arrow passed my head, Asenath was there to catch it. Then she was a practically invisible blur, suddenly arriving behind the security guy who had appeared in our path. The arrow lashed out to cut the man’s leg, and then she gave him a shot of against the wall as he fell. Looking to me, she beckoned. I gave the man one last look while he was trying to pick himself up before running past him. On the way, I reached out and brush the hand across his flailing arm, giving him a quick look to make sure there wasn’t a Seosten there.

Roxa had been right, the area beyond the place where Francis had his powers was total and complete chaos. There were bodies lying here and there, screams coming from every direction, and we kept being attacked from all sides. People were popping out of rooms to attack us. Some thought they were defending themselves, while others were being controlled. Even that latter wasn’t always the same. Some were controlled by actual Seosten, while others were simply taken over by Radueriel’s toys. It was a total madhouse. And I was pretty sure there was a bad fire somewhere nearby.

Complicating things even further was the fact that we were looking for those little blocker things that were keeping Francis trapped. Apparently the Seosten hadn’t been nice enough to have only one thing per area. There were dozens overlapping the same spot, and they weren’t exactly easy to find. We needed help.

Reaching the bank of elevators for that floor, we were just in time to see a large gorilla pick up one of the uniformed security and truck him against the nearest wall, where he slumped. A Seosten popped out of him with a laser sword, only to be met with a fist to the face from another Seosten who popped out of the gorilla before catching the falling energy blade by the handle and used it to backhand his surprised opponent.

A second later, a figure moving even faster than Asenath suddenly appeared. That Bobbi girl, in some kind of armored costume thing. She skidded to a halt, throwing out on arm before an arc of electricity shot from her fingers to connect with a man who had been moving behind what was obviously Twister and her Seosten partner.

Then there was Namythiet. And Clubber. The latter came racing down the hallway from the opposite direction we had approached from. Right behind the green sabertooth tiger cub came a huge troll of some kind. He was almost too big to fit in the hallway, his pounding footsteps thundering as he charged after the little animal with a roar.

I quickly moved to intervene, but it wasn’t necessary. Right before the tiger would have been covered, the even tinier figure of Namythiet shot down from the ceiling where she had been hiding. The pixie landed on the troll’s head and stuck something to his face. There was a flash of energy and then the troll suddenly collapsed, snoring heavily after his body hit the ground.

“Nighty night!” Namythiet crowed, waiting down at the unconscious figure as she hovered in the air before noticing us. “Hiya!”

Zipping closer, she hovered in front of our faces while Twister and Bobbi also approached. “Everyone went crazy, but we haven’t found the vault door thingy yet. Is Mr. Seth with Athena still?”

Oh God, what was I supposed to say to that? She looked so expectant, looking back and forth between us without the slightest clue of what we had to tell her. Seth was her teacher, her friend. He took her seriously when so many others dismissed her as a useless, tiny pest. This would hurt her so much.

“Who?” That was Twister, clearly instantly reading our silent expressions.

“Who what?” Bobbi asked, blinking between us. Then she got it too. I couldn’t see her face through the helmet, but her body language changed completely, slumping. “Oh no.”

“What?” Namythiet looked confused. Or maybe she just wanted to be confused, clinging to that uncertainty for the precious last second or two that she could before reality settled in fully.

It was Asenath who answered. “Ares. It was Ares. I’m sorry. None of us could do anything. It was over before—”

“Don’t.” Namythiet shook her head quickly. She was so small I couldn’t see her eyes very well. But I could hear the emotion in her voice, could tell that she was barely clinging on. “We don’t talk about it right now, okay? We don’t talk about it. Don’t tell me. Don’t tell me anything.” Her voice kept rising with each word, becoming more desperate as she suddenly blurted out loud, “Don’t tell me!”

So we changed the subject. Quickly, I explained what we were doing, giving a very brief summary. When I got to the part about the spell ball things that were blocking Francis’s power, Bobbi abruptly held one up.

“You mean these things? I drained a couple of them for power back there. I didn’t know what they were, but they tasted good.”

My eyes widened at that. “Can you do that with more of them? Say, all the ones you can find?”

She nodded easily. “Sure. But the finding them part might be a little tricky.”

“I can do that.” Namythiet’s voice was firm, determined. “I can program one of them to find the others. Then you can drain them. At least, I think I can…” Despite her determination, she suddenly sounded a little doubtful. Losing Seth had rocked her that badly.

“You can.” The voice came from Clubber. Or from the Seosten who stepped up from him, carefully holding the emerald kitten in both arms. She was shorter than my natural body was, with red hair that was almost pink and worn long. “I know what these are. I can help you make something to locate them. With a Hephaesetical pixie, it shouldn’t be hard.”

The Seosten who had been in Twister cleared his throat. “The rest of us–Seosten that is, can head for the vault. We’ll do what we can to help the others stop the malefica from getting into that room.”

“And I’ll play muscle down here with these guys,” Twister announced. “We’ll get it done.”

“You’ll have help,” I put in then. “Roxa’s getting the word out to the others. But if you can get a jump on things while we get to that office…”

“Go,” Twister urged. “We’ve got this.”

I wanted to stay. I wanted to talk to the pixie some more and make sure she would be okay. I wanted to do a lot of things, but there wasn’t time. There was never time. So, with one last look back, Asenath and I rushed on. The elevators were completely locked down, so we had to use the stairs, and there were plenty more problems in our way. We fought our way through said problems, trying to do as little damage as possible while still getting past the people trying to kill us.

It was slow going, but eventually, we reached the area right before the office where the panic room was. There was only one real problem still in our way. Or rather, a lot of problems.

“That is many, many guards,” Asenath noted in a whisper. The two of us were peeking through a side door in at a large foyer which was full of about a dozen Seosten soldiers. They wore the same cadet bodysuit that had been pointed out to me before. So they weren’t that old, but still. A dozen was too many. Especially given that they were ready and waiting, clearly guarding the office.

“We could try it,” Senny whispered, “but I don’t like our odds. That’s a lot of bad guys, and we don’t happen to have an Olympian with us to help right now.”

My mouth open to respond, then I stopped. My head tilted.

Yes, my little partner put in. Yes, we can do it.

“I have an idea,” I announced aloud. “But I need to know how much you trust me.”

Asenath blinked. “Of course I trust you. But is this a good idea, or a completely fucking insane idea?”

I smiled.

“Yes.”

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