Roxa Pittman

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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On The Edge 42-01

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A short, yet also entirely-too-long time later, we were waiting in an alley next to the van that Namythiet had provided for Mateo’s pack. And that ‘we’ involved a few more people than I had expected.

Apparently when they said that Roxa’s pack was coming to help us check on the Seosten in this Alter hotel, that included Pace/Theia, Miranda, and Abigail. This was that new development that Shiori had mentioned. An extremely new development, which they only had time to give me a very quick summary of. Essentially it amounted to ‘some Eden’s Garden Heretics were psychotic assholes and now the other Heretics knew about Pace being a werewolf.’ Also, Roxa had killed their leader. So now they, along with Abigail, were on the run and had been taken in by Mateo and his people.

I would’ve said that line about it pouring when it rains, but it had been a fucking monsoon for a solid chunk of the school year by that point.

Technically, Pace/Theia and Miranda wouldn’t be coming inside with us any more than Roxa would. They were too identifiable as Heretics. But they would be waiting outside, ready to come in as back-up. Or cause a distraction, whichever was needed. They would be there, along with Abigail, though the latter was basically only there to play lookout and to drive the van that they would be waiting in. And also because she refused to stay behind. Which was why Koren had become the last member of that little van group the moment she heard what was going on. She would wait with her mother and the others who couldn’t go inside.

That was our group. Abigail, Koren, Miranda, Roxa, and Pace/Theia would wait in the van. Meanwhile, Deveron, Wyatt, and I would be going into the hotel (each of us in shapeshifted or magical disguise, of course) along with Roxa’s pack of Mateo, Fezzik, Lesedi, Corson, and Hasty; as well as the other group of Asenath, Seth, Namythiet, Twister, and this new girl they had whom I hadn’t actually met yet aside from a very brief introduction when we were quickly going over everything. She was basically a little kid who introduced herself as Bobbi. Which… I had questions. But there wasn’t time. Asenath was vouching for the kid to the point of saying we needed her help. And apparently she and Seth had some system set up to send her to safety if things got too bad. So my questions would just have to wait.

Waiting. That was the order of the day so far. We were still waiting for the Seosten who would be joining us. Athena and Sariel were giving the ones who agreed to go in (and whom they had cleared to do so) last minute instructions, then they would be here. Athena would also be going in with us, while Sariel stayed with Gaia, Avalon, and the others at the other end.

It was a large group that we were taking into that hotel. But that was good. We had no idea what we would be walking into, and I wanted to have all the help we could get. Just in case.

That, and having so many people around quietly talking helped distract me from thinking about everything that was going on back with Avalon and the others. They would be getting ready to go in the vault the front way. It was a plan that we’d been working on for a long time by that point, but it was supposed to happen in a few days, not today. And I was supposed to be there.

We were adapting, trying to cope with the news of Kushiel being so close to getting into that vault without us. If Jophiel and Elisabet hadn’t told us about it, if they hadn’t shown up to let us know, would we have just walked into that vault a few days from now and found the place empty? How would we have dealt with that? And could Earth possibly have maintained its standard orbit with the weight of Kushiel’s smug face weighing it down?

“Felicity.” Abigail’s soft voice came as she laid a hand on my shoulder. She was on one side of me, while Wyatt stood on the other with Koren nearby. The four of us were near a dumpster behind the van, watching the other groups milling around. Deveron was off talking quietly with Mateo. “Are you sure you want to go in there? They have plenty of help already.” She was trying, kind of desperately, to give me an out.

My head shook. “I need to.” Turning to look at the woman, I reached up to take her hand. “I can help them. I can help Wyatt and Deveron.” My free hand gestured back to the men themselves. “They won’t know who or what I am until it’s too late. I can make myself look like someone else and I don’t set off their Heretic alert. How can I possibly not go with them?” Biting my lip, I added, “Besides-”

“Avalon.” That was Koren, stating the word flatly. “She won’t stay out because Avalon is going in the other side.” From the sound of her voice, the other girl still felt bad that she couldn’t go in too. At least, not yet. She’d be ready with the others if things went wrong and we needed help.

“And Shiori,” I confirmed. “All of them. They’re going into that vault from the other end. I can’t just sit here and hope they’re okay, not when Kushiel and her people are right there. I have to help. If the bad guys are in that hotel, we have to find out and stop them from getting through to the vault before Avalon and Dries. I can help, so… so I need to help.”

Stepping around in front of me, Abigail put her hands on both side of my face. “Promise me, Felicity. Promise me that you won’t take unnecessary, stupid risks. If either of us are going to look your father in the eyes later, you promise me that you’ll keep yourself and Tabbris safe.”

Tabbris wasn’t here, not just yet. She was helping her mother and Athena give their people last minute help and advice. She’d come when they did, because I wasn’t going in there without my partner. We’d been through too much, had done too much, to leave her behind now.

“I promise,” I dutifully stated. “Trust me, trust us. We have to stop Kushiel, but we’re not going to be stupid about it. Besides, we’ll have Athena, Asenath, and plenty of other help.”

“I hope you’re counting me in that.” The words came from Seth, as I felt him approach right before he began to speak. The vampire stood there as I turned, thumbs hooked casually through his belt loops as he drawled, “I’d hate to think I wasn’t being helpful considering the several bathtubs worth of cash your headmistress just dropped into my bank accounts.”

Asenath, appearing behind him, remarked, “You know, you could just help because it’s the right thing to do without having to be bribed into it. The Seosten problem affects you too.”  

Seth gave her a wink. “And now it affects me even more, on a financial level. Besides, it’s not like they can’t afford it. And maybe I get a little enjoyment out of making Heretics pay for my help, considering how often they’ve tried to kill me.”

“That’s different Heret–” Asenath started before shaking it off. “You know what, never mind.” To me, she added, “Sorry, sometimes he and Twist are a little too mercenary for their own good.”

Twister, for her part, approached then while making a noise of indignation. “Hey, don’t drag me into this. I agreed to go in there out of the goodness of my heart. And also because the last time I was in the Auberge, their chefs refused to let me use the damn kitchen.”

I quickly took that as a quick jump off point to change the subject. “Speaking of which, thanks you guys. All of you. Not just for going in with us, but for finding out where this place was to begin with.” I looked to Seth. “It would’ve been a hell of a lot harder to track down without you.”

It was true. Seth had used his contacts as the Tiebreaker for Wonderland to find out where the entrance to the Auberge was, and to arrange entry. As far as the people in the hotel were concerned, we were all from Wonderland itself, on some kind of special retreat. Thanks to Seth, we would be able to walk right in the front door without causing a scene. Which would make it a lot easier to quietly look around to find out if Kushiel was really there and hopefully stop her.

Before Seth could respond, Namythiet flew in to land on his shoulder. “No problem, Flick!” the little pixie chirped. “We’ve got your back. Right, Clubber?” At her words, the emerald-furred sabertooth tiger cub (who had grown a bit since I’d last saw him, but not overly much) planted himself at Seth’s feet while giving a fierce growl of agreement.

Finally, the last member of their group made her way over. My eyes found the young girl, and I took her in once more. Like Twister, she had dark skin. Though I was pretty sure that was where the similarities ended. She was actually young, and very new to all this. From what Asenath had said, the girl was a Natural Heretic who had been playing superhero in her own neighborhood with her powers and knew nothing about the whole Alter/Heretic situation until they’d found her.

Hoping that Asenath was right about the girl being ready for this, I extended a hand that way. “Hey, uhh, Bobbi, right? Sorry, it was pretty chaotic when everyone was showing up, I hope that’s right.”

Her head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh, that’s me. You’re one of those people who go to school with the crazy zealots.”

Coughing at that, I managed a tiny smile. “I prefer just going by Flick. But yeah, some of us are less… zealot than others. Hopefully we can change things. Which is part of what dealing with all this is about.”

“The vault,” she put in with a little nod. “They talked about the vault. I’m um, still not sure I totally understand all of it, but we wanna help. I wanna help. Miss Senny says if we pull this off, the Seosten’ll be a lot weaker and they won’t be able to take people over without permission.”

Abigail spoke up then before I could. “They’re right. It is important, but I still don’t think you should be going in there.” The woman looked pained about all of this, but about Bobbi in particular. “You’re a little girl, you shouldn’t be–”

“It’ll be okay,” Asenath interrupted just as Bobbi looked as though she was gearing up to argue. “If things get too hot, she’ll be teleported out. Straight to you guys. In fact, here.” The vampire girl passed Abigail a small, smooth stone. “You’ll be watching what’s going on. If you think things are too dangerous, press the center of the stone there and say ‘Duckling run’. That’ll teleport Bobbi right to you.”

“But don’t do it just because there’s a fight,” the girl in question quickly put in. “I can fight. I have powers. I can help. Don’t you dare pull me out just because there’s a little violence.” As she spoke, the girl lifted her chin challengingly, staring at Abigail. I had a feeling she was partly rebelling against the idea of being mothered by the woman.

My older sister clearly noticed, but her only response was a slight smile. “As much as I hate the idea that you’re in any fight at all, I’m not going to yank you away the second someone throws a punch. But you have to promise to be careful too. All of you.”

She looked to me then, waving that stone, “And I wish there was one of these for you, Felicity.”

Stepping that way, I gave the woman a tight hug. “I wish there was one for everyone, and that we could all leave the second things got violent. But we need all the help we can get. If we don’t stop Kushiel here, we’ll never get Liesje’s spell back. And without Liesje’s spell, nothing will change. The Seosten are too entrenched. We need something to hit them hard, something to make them change. We need this spell. Which means we have to take risks.”

Abigail’s voice was soft, and more than a little sad. “You shouldn’t have to.”

Looking at her, I really wanted to ask what had happened to send her to Roxa’s pack. The details were too fuzzy. There had been a fight, at least one Garden Heretic had died after attacking them because they found out that Pace was a werewolf, and now they were staying with Mateo and the others. Clearly some bad things had gone down.

“Where’s Seller?” I settled on. “I would’ve thought he’d be here by now.”

It was Theia, or possibly Pace, who answered as she/they approached. “Busy. Garden leaders sent him on some kind of errand to get him out of the way so those thugs could come smack around Miranda and Abigail to teach them to stop acting out and fall in line. Which, you know, didn’t go well for them.”

Right, considering the straight-forward coherency of the answer, that was definitely Pace. I looked that way just as Miranda joined them, her expression grim. “Yeah, so I guess I don’t get the whole party that’s supposed to come a couple days after the renaming ceremony after all.”

Wincing, I stepped that way to hug my friend. “If it makes you feel better, I’ll make up a party to celebrate your… what was it they settled on?”

“Stray,” she answered before giving a faint, wry smile. “I guess it fits even more now, huh?”

“I’m sorry you didn’t get your celebration,” I murmured, finally releasing the other girl from the hug. But I caught her hands to squeeze them. “I know it’s a big deal. You were going to the school for years, and that whole thing is– you had to be looking forward to it.”

“I was,” she agreed. “But I’m looking forward to not being a puppet slave even more. Free will is kind of important. Besides…” Biting her lip, she looked over her shoulder to where Roxa stood with the rest of her pack. “They don’t seem too bad. None of them have tried to beat me into a coma for questioning them in the past few hours, which kind of gives them a boost over Garden.”

It was a dark joke, and I could tell she still felt betrayed and hurt by the whole situation. But I couldn’t think of what to say to make it better. Worse, there wasn’t time to do what I wanted to do, which was go have a girls night out with my friend so we could eat ice cream and watch movies while she vented. There was, as usual, too much to do.

But after we were done, after all of this was done, we would be spending time together. I promised myself that.

I did, however, look over to where Theia and Pace were standing. “It sounds like you guys stopped some pretty bad things from happening. So thanks.”

Pace shook their head, her voice quiet. “We didn’t stop every bad thing from happening. An innocent man still died.”  

“Yeah,” Miranda agreed softly, “that’s another reason I don’t feel too bad about not being considered part of Eden’s Garden right now.”

They told me a bit more about it, and I winced. A simple Bystander, just a guy trying to run his store, and that psycho Heretic piece of shit had killed him. Anger rose up in me, and I understood why Abigail seemed a bit out of it.

Something else occurred to me, and I looked to Theia. “Are you sure you want to go in there if things go wrong? I mean, if there’s a fight, if you have to come in to play back-up, it probably means that we actually ran into your mother…”

“Mad-bad Mum won’t play nice,” the Seosten girl spoke through Pace then. “She’ll hurt. She’ll kill. Theia-I won’t let her do that. We won’t let her do that. Pace wishes to help. She wishes to be here, and she gets to vote too. It’s her legs, her arms, her heart. Theia-I can’t make her stay away. That would be wrong. That would be evil. We are learning about evil. Miss Abigail is helping us learn.

“Besides,” she added with a predatory smile, “Theia-I wish to hurt Bad Mum back. Stopping this. That will hurt her.”

“You’re right,” Deveron agreed, stepping over to join us. “Losing here will definitely hurt her.” He stopped by Abigail and Wyatt, clearly unsure if he should touch them or not. It hurt to watch just how much he wanted to hold them while clearly knowing that it would make them uncomfortable.

A portal opened nearby then, drawing everyone’s attention just as Athena stepped through. She had Tabbris at her side, and a small group of Seosten right behind her. As they came into view, all the talking that had been going on through the alley stopped. Everyone was focused on the newcomers. More than a few were openly staring at Athena, and I had a feeling they knew exactly who she was. Probably from stories passed down by their friends and relatives.

Tabbris hurried over to me, catching my hand and squeezing it just as Athena began to speak. “I see my reputation precedes me. And it’s most likely not a very bright one. I know that… in the past, your ancestors and I had our differences. We probably still do. I have a great many things to make up for on this world and beyond. Tonight is part of that. Tonight, we will work together to ensure my people can no longer enslave anyone on this planet. But we will only be able to do that by working together. Make no mistake, Kushiel and her allies are not going to fail quietly. They will fight, and they will kill, to get into that vault first. We must distract them long enough for those on the other end to make it instead. You all know how important this is?”

There was a collective nod and murmur of ascent, and she gave a very slight smile. “Good. My people are here. They will only possess those who agree to it. Once possessed, they will only do as much as you allow them. For the most part, they will sit quietly and boost your strength and speed when the time comes. If things go wrong, they will jump from you and fight on their own. We will all be there as back-up to add to your numbers. If you are ambushed, if things go wrong, we will be there for you.”

“Yeah,” Larees, who had stepped up by Athena, put in. “Just remember we’re all on the same side.”

“Quite,” Athena agreed. “We are on the same side. As I said, if you do not wish to have a Seosten partner for this, you do not have to. But those of you who do, come this way to be paired up. And please be quick, we have very little time.”

Squeezing Tab’s hand, I managed a slight smile at the girl. “At least I already have my own partner, huh?” Voice softening, I asked, “How’s everyone doing on the other end?”

She flinched a little. “They’re scared. Scared for you, for me, for everyone. Scared but… ready. They’ll make it. They’ve gotta make it.”

“You’re right,” I agreed simply, trying to keep my voice from shaking too much. “But if they’re going to, then we have to do our part to give them the chance. Right?”

Hurriedly nodding, Tabbris answered a little more firmly. “Right.”

“Then hop in,” I replied.

“And let’s go give Kushiel something to think about.”

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Interlude 41A – Pace, Theia, Miranda, and Abigail

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“Oooh, can we get a Two-Face suit?”

The question from Theia came as she (with Pace, of course) stood in the middle of a clothing store holding a black leather jacket in one hand and a red leather jacket with the other. The store itself was a relatively small, corner-located business that specialized in second-hand clothing.

Abigail blinked once at the question, looking over to the girl(s) from where she stood at another of several nearby clothing racks. “A… two-face suit?” She had brought the girls here thanks to a conversation they’d been having earlier. Abigail had asked when Theia’s birthday was, which was something the girl herself didn’t know. Appalled by that, Abigail had said they would make today her birthday. So now they were out shopping for presents. Presents which, among other things, included getting Theia and Pace some actual personal clothes that they could enjoy.

The whole birthday thing was also helping to take Abigail’s mind off the memory of being abducted and nearly killed by her own much younger half-brother, who himself ended up dead in the process.

It had been a very long school year.

“She means like this.” Moving by Theia, Miranda reached out to take the jackets before arranging them next to each other so that the left half of one and the right half of the other were hidden, leaving the two jackets looking like one with different colors on each side. “Two-Face. You know, Batman.”

“We would make a very good Batman,” Theia noted. “Except for killing people. And being a girl. And not a detective. Or rich. Or broody. But we do enjoy beating people up. And scaring people by magically appearing behind them. Which is worth at least a passing grade at Batmanning.”

“So which is it?” Miranda asked, “Do you want to be Two-Face or Batman?”

Theia’s mouth opened, before the girl paused, a sudden gasp of realization escaping her. “We have a brilliant idea. Where is the nearest Batman writer? We can–”

“You can’t turn Two-Face into Batman,” Miranda interrupted, catching the other girl by the arm. “I’m pretty sure something like that already happened with Spider-Man anyway.”

“Besides,” Pace put in then as she briefly took over, “we’re here for new clothes. And if we went with a Two-Face suit, we’d probably stand out just a little bit. Or a batsuit,” she added belatedly before completely changing the subject, as she was wont to do. “You have a codename now too.”

“It’s not a codename,” the other girl corrected, “it’s a Garden name. It’s supposed to signify your rebirth or loyalty to the tribe, or to the Tree, or… whatever.”

Abigail sighed, looking to her. “The name is an insult. You know why they chose it, what they mean by it.”

Meeting her gaze, Miranda shrugged. “Stray? Yeah, I know why they offered the name Stray. Because I’m straying from the tribe, supposedly. Because I’m just a stray in general, just a nobody orphan that sniffs around until someone takes me in. And I know they expected me to object and drag it out. They expected me to make a big fuss about it, expected me to refuse and go with a different name. But I don’t need a different name. The name doesn’t make me, I make the name. And I’ll make this one what I want it to be.”

Theia, watching her carefully, offered an uncharacteristically somber, “Names are powerful. Like a wild bull. If you control it, you’re strong. But sometimes people throw you onto one, because they want it to throw you off and trample you. They throw you onto a bad name, because they want to hurt you.”

“I can ride this bull,” Miranda replied simply. “They don’t get to win.”

Running a hand over the girl’s hair, Abigail looked like she was going to say something, but stopped herself. Instead, she settled on reaching out to pick a handful of clothes. “Here, why don’t you three go ahead and head into the back to try these on. See if you like any of them, then we can go from there.” The woman smiled a little. “And while you do that, I’ll see if there’s a Batman costume hiding somewhere in the corner over there.”

The girls headed into the changing rooms at the back. Theia and Pace stepped into the nearest booth, taking some of the clothes in with them. Unfortunately, they had only just positioned themselves in front of the mirror with a pair of pants held up in front of Pace’s body when both abruptly stopped their ongoing inner dialogue about what color was better. Pace’s head turned, but it was hard to say which of them turned it. Both were in sync, both with that and with the slow, careful sniff that came next.

“Heretics,” Theia muttered aloud.

“Strange Heretics,” Pace added.

“What?” That last one was Miranda, poking her head under the partition to stare up at them. “What do you mean strange Heretics?”

Theia opened the door, whispering, “We smell Garden things. Fresh Garden things. And it’s not the Selling man. Four…” She sniffed again. “Five of them. On Theia-My’s birthday too. Rude.”

She started for the front, but Miranda stopped her with a hand on Pace’s arm. “Wait. They can’t see you like this, remember? Let me go check what’s going on. Just… wait here.”  She gave them a brief look of warning before quietly moving that way to glance around the corner.

Unfortunately, she did so just in time to be grabbed by the arm and neck and yanked fully out into the front area. The large man gripping her was covered in some kind of red metal that coated his skin, and he was incredibly strong. In one motion, he hauled Miranda into sight and gave her a firm shove, tossing the girl into the middle of the room. She landed next to Abigail.

“Hey!” Abigail herself reached down to help Miranda up, glaring at the man. “Watch what you’re doing, she’s a student!”

“What are you doing?” Miranda put in then, even as she set herself in front of Abigail. The other woman may have been older, but she was far less experienced if this came down to a fight. And Miranda knew too much about Eden’s Garden to think that this guy and his friends were here just to talk. “You–” She started to look for the proprietor of the shop, only to see the man lying unconscious near the checkout counter. One of the other Heretics was standing nearby. Another was by the door, scribbling a spell onto it that would convince any Bystanders who approached to go somewhere else. That was three, while the other two remained out of sight.

“You attacked that poor man,” Abigail finished Miranda’s sentence, pointing that way. “Who the hell do you think you are?”

“Who are we?” the red-armored guy who had thrown Miranda to the ground echoed with a smirk. The armor went away, revealing a man who appeared to be a Pacific Islander, and a well-built one at that. “We’re the heroes, duh.”

Abigail’s voice was flat. “Yes, I’m sure the Greeks would have been proud to write stories about what heroes you are, pushing around little girls and attacking innocent old men.”

“He’ll be fine.” The words came from one of the larger coat racks, as a man stepped into view. He wasn’t that tall, standing a couple inches under six feet, with a thin goatee and slicked back dark hair. “He’s just sleeping. We spend enough time risking our lives to protect these Bystanders, the least they can do is take a nap when we want to have a private conversation.”

“I know you,” Miranda announced, staring at the man while still standing protectively in front of Abigail. “Lovac. Your name is Lovac. You’re Weston Marrero’s uncle.” The boy and his arm-candy girlfriends Josie and Kumiko (who were suspiciously similar in appearance with Flick and Shiori) had clearly been holding a grudge against Miranda ever since she and Koren had their confrontation with them much earlier. The confrontation which had led to finding the video of Pace first being possessed.

“Yeah,” Lovac agreed, “so maybe I’m enjoying this a little more than I would.”

“Enjoying what?” Abigail demanded, setting a hand on the younger girl’s shoulder. “What is it you want? You have to have a point to all this. A point other than posturing, I mean.”

The large man who had been armored a moment earlier started to speak, but Lovac interrupted him. “A point? Yeah, there’s a point. But for the record, if you’re waiting for Seller to show up, you’re going to be waiting for awhile. Let’s just say the Victors have a job for him that should keep him out of the way long enough to do what we need to do.”

Squeezing Miranda’s shoulder before the girl could retort, Abigail spoke first, keeping her voice as calm and level as possible to avoid setting off this powder keg. “And what is it you think you need to do?”

A slight smirk touched the man’s face as he casually replied, “You think you’re hot shit. Old Bystander lawyer, stomping in and waving the rule book around. You think most of us care what some dusty old paper says? We’re the ones doing the work. We’re the ones protecting humans, and sometimes that means getting your hands dirty. You think you can just come in here, wag your finger, and change everything? You’ve got another thing coming. Mostly pain. Now, we’re not gonna kill you. After all, you’re one of us. But when we’re done, both of you are going to think twice before you try to throw your weight around again. You’ll shut up and do what you’re told.” He smiled thinly then. “Or we’ll just come back and give you the lesson until it sticks.”

The man who had put the spell on the door spoke up. “Stray there needs to be reminded that her loyalty is to Garden, not to some stupid little friend from Bystander school. And you need to figure out that you ain’t a lawyer here. You’re a bitch who can’t even fight. Maybe taking a little beating will make that sink i–”

That was as far as he got, before there was an abrupt and terrifying crash as something… or someone was hurled through the front window of the store. All eyes jerked that way in time to see another Garden Heretic, bound, gagged, and unconscious, crash to the floor amidst the shattered glass.

An instant later, the door was kicked open, as Theia appeared. She caught hold of the man there by the head, slamming him sideways with enough force to put a hole in the nearby wall from the impact. At the same time, she kicked his feet out from under him. Then she snapped his dazed form back the other way to drive his head into the counter before letting his unconscious form drop to the floor.

“You will not touch Miss Abigail or Miranda-Stray,” she informed the men. There was no humor in her voice, no mockery or sense of mischievous fun. She was bristling with anger.

Weapons were yanked free as the men all focused on the intruder, before Lovac put a hand up to stop them. He was staring, a bit wide-eyed at the figure. “… Pace? That… you’re… you’re a…” Slowly, he looked her up and down, a gradual smile touching his face. “Oh, this is beautiful. This is even better than I could’ve imagined. They’ve been harboring you? And you’re a monster. Werewolf, right? That’s my guess. Werewolf. Were something anyway. They’ve been hiding a fucking werewolf and lying about it? Oh, that is… thank you. Thank you all so much. Now we don’t have to stop at just beating the shit out of them. We can have them imprisoned. Probably even wiped and banished. This is just like… I’m so happy right now.” Belatedly, he added toward Theia, “And you can be dealt with properly of course. Locked up until you’re useful, or put down to make room for something that is. Like any other abomination.” Even as he spoke, the man was gently rubbing his thumb along the shaft of the long, metallic spear he had produced.  

Righteous fury filled Abigail’s voice then, as she snapped, “She’s not an abomination! Listen to yourself, what makes you think she’s any different than she was before? She has different powers now because she’s a werewolf? That doesn’t make her a monster! You have to judge people by their actions! She even knocked out your friends there instead of killing them! Would a mindless monster do that? Think for yourselves! Think! What has she actually done to make you call her a monster?!”

“Well,” Lovac replied casually while shifting his spear from one hand to the other. “She killed the poor, innocent Bystander that owns this store, for one.”

“What?” Miranda blurted, head shaking. “No, she didn’t! He’s fine! He’s right there!”

“Huh.” Lovac shrugged. Then, without any further preamble, unceremoniously drove his spear down through the unconscious shop owner’s chest. “That’s funny, he looks pretty dead to me.”

Miranda and Abigail both shouted in horror and disbelief, the latter throwing herself that way. She went to her knees by the impaled man. “What–what are you doing?! He–he was an innocent old man! What the hell is wrong with you?!”

“Wrong?” Lovac echoed. “Wrong with me? Nothing. What’s wrong is you not understanding something important. That guy was weak. We’re strong. The Strangers we kill or put to work, they’re weak. We’re strong. You are weak. We are strong. You think we don’t know that there’s Strangers out there just… living their dull lives, playing house, not attacking anyone? Of course we know. But we don’t care. We kill them, we get power. Because we’re stronger. We’re better. We are the superior breed. How are you not doing the math on this? Do I have to simplify it down to the point that your pathetic Bystander-bred mind can comprehend the–”

In mid-sentence, the man was cut off, his voice turning to the squeal of air escaping a balloon while he doubled over. Abigail’s foot was planted firmly between his legs.

“Funny,” the woman snapped, “the superior breed still has an off-switch.”

Chaos erupted then. The man who had been standing by Miranda armored up once more, spinning to grab the girl only to miss as she dove out of the way. Across the room, the other man brought his shotgun up, firing a shot at the front area where Pace and Theia stood.

With a roar of anger the man lashed out with his spear, only to have it caught by a suddenly-moving Theia, who had blurred forward away from the other man’s shotgun blast. She snatched hold of the spear to stop it, glowering. “I told you, you’re not touching Miss Abigail.”

Lovac’s response was a bellow, as a ball of concussive force erupted from his hand, slamming into the girl to send her flying backwards. She crashed through into the back area where the changing rooms were.

“Deal with them!” he snapped to his companions, already sprinting that way. “I’ll handle this one.” With those words, his body blurred as he too activated his own enhanced speed, reaching the back in an instant.

A broken off chunk of concrete from the back wall flew like a bullet at the man’s head as he stepped into the back room. But he twisted aside at the last instant, letting the projectile pass by, missing him by centimeters. In the process, he dropped his spear, leaving it to clatter along the floor.

Then a red blast of energy took the man in the face, burning his skin and singing that thin goatee even as his head jerked back with a gasp. Theia was there, her kusarigamas raised in their gun forms. Her finger pulled the trigger of the second weapon, sending a white freezing blast his way.

He recovered fast, conjuring a forcefield in front of himself that caught both incoming beams. A quick gesture with one hand collapsed part of the ceiling above the girl, forcing her to dive out of the way. With that opening, the man kicked his speed in once more, rushing that way. Before the girl could recover, he caught her by the throat while using his other hand to knock both weapons from her grasp. With a shout of fury, Lovac slammed her into the wall. Then he did it again, harder.

“Think I’ll get all your Heretic powers and there werewolf ones when I kill you, cunt?” he demanded while making a fist with the hand that wasn’t closed tightly around her throat. “Let’s find out.”

His fist slammed forward, only to collide with the bone-armor that had suddenly appeared around Pace’s body, including her face. Before he could recover from that, the girl shot a collection of bone darts into his foot, making him stumble just a little. That was enough for Theia to jerk free of his grip on her throat, catching his shoulders to hold herself up long enough to slam her armored head into his face.

Landing on her feet, Theia made a blade of bone pop from her armored wrist, snapping, “We are killing him.” With those words, she lashed out.

“We?” the man echoed, catching the blade before snapping it off. He kicked the girl back against the wall before driving the broken bone-blade for the slots in her bone-helmet. “It’s just you and me back here, bitch.”

Pace jerked their head out of the way an instant before the blade would have struck home. I’ll keep us alive, she privately informed her Seosten partner. You focus on putting him down.

Lovac was already following up his first bone-blade swipe with another, but Pace instantly ducked down and under his extended arm, Theia taking the opportunity to drive their fist into his gut. She extended another bone-blade in the process, but it snapped off against his skin.

What followed was a tornado of madness and violence that utterly demolished the back rooms. Acid, bone-darts, fire, and more were thrown in every direction. The two figures slammed each other through the walls of the changing areas, kicked benches into one another, used the shattered mirrors to fling glass into each other’s eyes, and thoroughly destroyed every scrap of furniture in the process. And considering their enhanced speed, all of it took less than a minute.

Lovac should have won handily, given his age, experience, and greater powers. But the man was too angry to take a step back and use his better abilities. And beyond that, he also wasn’t fighting only one person. Pace being able to focus solely on keeping them alive while Theia took any possible opening for attack was an advantage that allowed them to mostly keep up with him. Even then, he was still vastly superior, but their werewolf regeneration helped pick up some of the slack.

Unfortunately, it still wasn’t enough. In the end, Theia and Pace ended up on the ground. They were just starting to roll over, as Lovac drove his spear that he had managed to collect at some point through their left leg. The pain drew a howl from them. Which was worse as the sharp point at the end of the spear extended outward like a grappling hook, individual blades snapping into place to hold the spear in position so that it would be almost impossible to yank back out again.

“You like that?!” The man’s voice was high from the rush of violence, his breathing haggard. “Huh, you little bitch?! Tell me! You like it? You like losing?! You like knowing you’re about to die? You like knowing that?! You lose! All that, all that was worthless! You’re gonna die! What do you think of that?! What the fuck do you think of that?” He was so angry in that moment that it had taken him so much to actually put the girl on the ground that he wasn’t thinking clearly. His eyes were wild and crazed.

Lying there, Theia and Pace both looked up at the man. They stared for a moment. Then, together and yet with the same voice, they chuckled softly until it became a full on laugh.

Lovac, looking worn and bruised, stood there, spear impaled through Pace’s leg as he glared down at her. Spitting blood, the man demanded, “The hell do you think is so funny?”

From her position on the floor, Theia gave him a simple smile that was barely visible through the intense bruising already adorning Pace’s face. “We… are just… wondering how you are going to like being killed by a werewolf who is also a Heretic.”

With a sneer, Lovac twisted the spear in her leg to drive even more pain through Pace’s body. “Kill me? You’re as delusional as you are stupid. You aren’t killing anyone. You can’t even stand up. You’re just as pathetic as–”

In mid-sentence, a hand covered the man’s mouth. An instant later, the hand and the arm it was attached to turned into a tree branch. Part of that tree branch extended into the man’s open mouth, driving its way down his throat while he gave a muffled scream.

“She meant the other one, jackass,” Roxa Pittman informed him, before extending the branch that had been sent down through the man’s throat out in every direction. Sharp wood was driven through his heart, stomach, lungs, and more. Every internal organ in the man’s torso was torn apart in an instant.

Shifting her arm back to normal, Roxa let the body fall then, while her glowing bronze aura filled the demolished room. The pleasure made her stagger, almost falling as a loud gasp escaped the girl.

“Either the Heretic killgasm has become contagious,” Theia noted thoughtfully, “or we are just very glad that man is dead.” Pace took over then, expression clearing despite the pain as she quickly asked, “Miranda and Abigail?”

Roxa took a knee, nodding. “They’re fine. Mateo and the rest already helped Miranda finish dealing with the guys out there. Here.” Getting the girls to lift their leg a bit, she checked the spear before hitting the button that made the blades close back up into the shaft. Then she took hold of it and gave them a three count before tearing the weapon out. “Seller sent a message, said they were keeping him busy and that you might need help. You okay?”

It was Pace who replied. “Werewolf healing, can’t beat it.”

“You can if you use Heretic powers to stack a lot more healing on top of it,” Roxa pointed out with a wry smirk. With the bloodied spear in one hand, she extended the other to help them up. “Come on. We may have dealt with the initial problem, but there’ll be more. One of those guys got some kind of message out. Besides, I’m pretty sure Mateo wants to make you, Abigail, and Miranda an offer.”

Theia’s head tilted as she moved their hand to take Roxa’s, painfully straightening up even as their leg began to heal with the spear no longer embedded in it. “An offer?”

“Well,” Roxa pointed out, “you guys can’t exactly go back to Eden’s Garden like that. Not after what happened here. You’re kind of off on your own, and you’re gonna have a lot of pissed off Heretics who want to kill you. So it kind of sounds to us like what you guys need is a pack.”

It was Pace’s turn to blink at that, taking over the body to speak. “Miranda and Abigail aren’t wolves,” she pointed out. “Is that even allowed? I mean, traditionally a werewolf pack is for… you know, werewolves.”

“Sure, usually,” Roxa admitted with a shrug. “But what can I say?

“I’ve never really been much for tradition.”

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