Salten

Fusion 1-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Note: check the first comment after the chapter for some fantastic new character art by Coshiua. 

We rode the elevator (well, I called it an elevator, it was more like a mobile forcefield with glowing walls that surrounded us) down toward the living areas in groups of about ten or so. The people who would be living together in each house. In this case, our group consisted of Avalon, Shiori, Rebecca, Miranda, Columbus, Doug, and me along with that Jason/Danuja guy (the Natural Prevenkuat Heretic), the Relekun Kersel, and the cat-girl Triss. Not to mention Salten and Choo.

Tabbris was here too. She’d be living with us, while going to school in her own group. It was a deal we’d come up with. Our dad and a few others thought that Tabbris should have a chance to be with people closer to her own age some more. But they also knew that separating us would be a bad idea. So we came to an arrangement that she would live with us and also attend some of our classes and training (as well as participating in missions she could help with), but attend most of her classes with the younger groups. She was basically far beyond what they would be learning, of course, but Abigail and Dad both said she could benefit from being around people her own age at least for a semester. After the semester, if she really didn’t like it, they’d revisit the situation. 

Staring down through the forcefield floor, Rebecca murmured, “Holy crap. There’s a whole town down there. Look at all those houses. And… wait, are those other places over there more living areas?” 

“It’s like the spokes of a wheel,” I explained, watching as we descended toward the hill in the middle of the area gradually (I was pretty sure the elevator had been purposefully slowed down to give each group a chance to see where they would be living). “Each spoke is a different general city type. See those cliff dwellings over there to the left of the human area with the giant… uhh, bug people flying around?” I indicated the mosquito-like beings with humanoid faces. “They’re called the Teun. They helped build this whole place. They’re like… really good at architecture and design. And to the right, that place that looks like the volcano area of a video game with the red canine-people? Those are the… umm… Tabs?” 

“Lupera,” she reminded me. “They’re miners from the same world the Akharu and Vestil come from.” 

Right, the Akharu (the original source of vampires, like Senny’s dad), Vestil, and Lupera all came from the same world, along with one more sapient race. There was something about a war on their world between all of them, the Akharu won some kind of ‘throne’ or something that made them unbelievably powerful, but then the Vestil cursed them so they had to replace all their blood constantly or they’d freeze up and become paralyzed. It was a whole thing. 

The elevator was almost down by then, and I quickly pointed before it was too late. “Anyway, we’ve got the modern Earth neighborhood right over there. See, each block is rectangular. Sixteen houses per block. Two next to each at either end for four on the ends. Then six more down each side, back to back, with a little walking park or garden area in the middle. There’s six blocks, all arranged in a hexagon, with the streets along both sides and a bigger park in the middle. See that big building right in the center of the park area? There’s a gym there, and a theater for watching movies and stuff.”

Six blocks with sixteen houses per block. Ninety-six houses. Roughly ten people per house, equalled nine hundred and sixty people in this school. Well, that many that were considered old enough to live in separate housing rather than the younger student dorms. And it was closer to a thousand. A thousand college-aged students, divided between Alters, Natural Heretics, and Crossroads or Garden students. This was… gonna be a trip and a half. 

By then, we were down. As we all stepped away from the elevator, Triss spoke up. “Wow, did you live here before or something?” There was a faint Russian accent to her voice. When I looked that way, her ears flattened a bit against her head and she took what seemed to be a reflexive step backward. She didn’t pop her claws or anything like that, but I had a feeling it wouldn’t take all that much. Whatever had gone on in her past, she was incredibly wary of Heretics. Which I didn’t blame her for, even if it made me wonder exactly why she had agreed to come and live with us. Maybe it was just part of getting past those fears or finding out if we were serious about making things right? I wasn’t sure. 

I did, however, know that I needed to be careful about how I acted around her. And around Kersel too, for that matter. The Relukun boy was watching me just as suspiciously. So, I simply nodded. “Yeah, I ahh, spent some time out in Seosten space. A few weeks or so. It’s a long story, believe me.” 

Raising an eyebrow, Jason asked, “Wait, so you just… lived in Seosten space for awhile? You weren’t a…” He looked me up and down, clearly trying to come up with the best word for it. 

“A slave?” I shook my head. “No. No, it wasn’t like that. Like I said, it’s a long story. The short version is that me and some others ended up out in Seosten space, then Tabbris and I got separated from them, Athena found us, and we stayed here while waiting for the rest of our group out there. Eventually, we made it back here to Earth.” 

Shiori piped up, “And by eventually, she means after years and years and years–” 

“Or a couple months,” I corrected with a little smile, taking the other girl’s hand briefly. “Months that felt like years.” 

“Felt like centuries,” she retorted, giving me a look that made me blush. 

“I… ahhh…” I coughed, trying to collect myself. Glancing to the smirking Avalon didn’t help. Nor did the sound that Salten made, which sounded awfully suspiciously like an outright snicker. “Um. Anyway, Tabs was there too.” Gently nudging the smaller blonde girl at my side, I prompted, “She’s the one with the perfect memory, if you ever need to know where anything is.” 

Bouncing a bit beside me, Tabbris bobbed her head up and down quickly. “Uh huh, it’s a really big space station. We have to take that elevator up to go to class every day. And for food, if you don’t make it in the house. Chef Gisby is a super good cook. He’ll make anything you want.”

“She’s right,” I confirmed. “Gisby likes it when you make things a challenge. His memory is just as good as a Seosten, and he’s put basically all of it toward memorizing every recipe in the universe. If he doesn’t know what you’re talking about, just describe it and he can get close.” 

With a chuckle, Jason spoke up. “Sounds like a Natural Gordon Ramsay Heretic. Wait, is he…” 

“He’s–” I started before pausing. “I don’t know what species he is. But he’s definitely not human. Don’t worry, you’ll see him pretty soon. Probably for dinner tonight, I’m sure he’s got his people busy getting ready for that.”  

“He does, indeed,” Professor Dare agreed. She had teleported down ahead of us rather than use the elevator, and now approached with a raised hand. “Alright, boys and girls, let’s go see your new house and get you settled in while the next group comes down.” 

That was another reason for the elevator to be moving slowly. Not only did it give the group aboard a chance to see what they were coming down into, it also gave the group that had just arrived time to be taken to their house and shown where to go. Dare wasn’t the only one showing us around (there were a couple other elevators full of students that were also being escorted by staff), but it spread out the arrivals just enough. 

Glancing up as we started to watch, I saw the next forcefield lift start to descend. Sands and Scout would be on that one. Err, Sands and Sarah. Yeah, she was trying to go by Sarah more nowadays, even if it was hard to remember. She preferred Sarah in a normal, casual setting and Scout on missions or in official training, but still answered to either whenever. Mostly it was interchangeable, which was still a pretty big step for her from the way she’d been when we first met… a year ago (Jeez that still felt weird to think). I was trying to remember to think of her as Sarah whenever possible, because that was what she wanted to go by. And I understood that. 

Not only was Scout going by Sarah, but both the twins and their mother weren’t going by Mason anymore either. They were using Larissa’s maiden name of Lucas. Yeah. Scout Mason was now Sarah Lucas. Weird, I know. Sands, of course, was still Sands. I was pretty sure nothing in this universe would make her start going by Sandoval more often. 

Either way, Sands and Sarah were in the group behind us and would be taking the house right next door. Vanessa and Tristan were living there too, for two sets of twins, along with Koren, Aylen, Gordon, Jazz, and Harper’s old teammate Eiji. The tenth member of their group was a boy called Ruckus, an Alter who seemed to be made entirely of hundreds of metal coils, like a… like a Slinky. Or several of them. Yeah. His legs were a pair of big slinkies, along with his arms, with a slinky in the middle for his body and a head that was basically a slinky set onto its side with the ends connecting. His eyes were two glowing red orbs that seemed to peek out from between the vertical coils of his head. 

Jokai was there too, making their house one of the ones that had eleven people. Mostly because Jazz wasn’t going to live anywhere without him.  

As for our group, we followed Professor Dare through the street, passing a couple other houses where students who had already been brought down were looking over their new places and getting settled in. A few looked over as we passed, calling out greetings or just watching. But most of them were busy moving in or just getting to know each other. I could see Alters and humans alike staring at one another. Some were more comfortable than others, but it was even more clear that this whole thing was going to be a big… adjustment for everyone. 

Eventually, we reached the house we would be staying in. It was the third house down from the corner on the second block. The place was a two-story Colonial-style house, painted white with a dark red front door. There was a wide, spacious front porch lined by a knee-high white railing, set between taller pillars both at the corners and on either side of the front door to leave an opening. The same was duplicated above on another porch that wrapped around the second floor, though there was no opening in the railing there. There were four large bay windows in the front, two on the first floor on either side of the house, and two right above them. The roof was slanted, with several spots that stuck out from it with rectangular windows. The attic. 

Dare was already walking up to the front door, waving for it to open. As we trooped up the steps to the porch after her, she explained. “Four bedrooms on the first floor. See the two big windows there? There’s the same thing in the back. Two bedrooms in the front, two bedrooms in the back. That goes for the upstairs too. If you come in here…”

We followed her in (Choo and Salten waited outside along with most of our bags that we left sitting there), and found ourselves all standing in an entrance hall. The floor was wood, the walls pleasant but simple white, with a couple of nondescript paintings. To the left and right were doors to the front bedrooms. The corridor itself continued on past two more doors on either side. Those doors were open, and looking in as we passed revealed bathrooms. Big ones. 

“As with the bedrooms,” Dare explained, “the two bathrooms are repeated upstairs. Four total.”

Then we reached two open archways on either side rather than doors. The left archway led into a large living area with TV and game stuff. The right archway lead to a pleasant-looking kitchen and dining room with a window overlooking a small garden and the house next door. 

Just past the two archways was a set of stairs leading up to the second floor, with a door next to them. According to Dare, that led to the basement, where a laundry room and small gym were. 

“On the second floor,” she explained, “there is a library of sorts above the living room, and a magic testing room above the kitchen. It’s heavily protected, but it is still only to be used for relatively minor magic practice. Anything bigger or more extensive must be done in the designated training area upstairs. And by upstairs, I mean through the elevator into the rest of the station.”

Finally, we reached the doors leading to the back bedrooms on either side, and the rear door. It led to the rear side of the porch, just above a fenced off back yard. 

With an uncertain voice, Triss raised a hand. “I don’t understand. There are ten of us, but you have only pointed out eight bedrooms. I mean, I’m not the best at math, but eight is fewer than ten.”

Dare nodded. “Yes, there are two more bedrooms in the attic. The living space up there is slightly more limited, but with only two bedrooms, they’re about the same size as the ones down here.”

Doug raised his hand. “So, are you guys assigning bedrooms, or what?”

With a smile, Dare gave a slight shake of her head. “Nope, figuring that all out is part of your first job as housemates. We’ll step in if we need to at any point that people in a house can’t agree, but let’s try to work it out amongst yourselves. Similarly, we will not be patrolling who stays in what bed. You’re all either over eighteen or very close to it.” Her eyes flicked briefly to me with a certain tenseness before she pushed on. “You are all essentially adults, and we will treat you as such so long as you do not give us reason not to. Everyone gets a bedroom. What you do with that bedroom is up to you.

“Now, I believe you all have some exploring to do to can stake out what rooms you want. I need to go get the next group. If you have any questions, let us know. Otherwise, there is food in the kitchen for lunch and we’ll see you at dinner. Good luck.”

With that, she left, and the eleven of us stood there in the corridor looking at each other for a few long, quiet seconds. No one really seemed to know what to say first. Which was weird, considering most of us knew each other pretty well, except for Jason, Triss, and Kersel. 

Finally, Miranda clapped her hands. “Right, okay. So, unless anyone else has any better idea, I was thinking we’d write everyone’s name down on a piece of paper and put them in a hat or something. Then we can walk by each room and take out a name. That person gets that room.”

Kersel lifted his wooden head a bit. “Sure you don’t have some kind of paper manipulating power to get anything you want?” It sounded like one of those jokes that wasn’t really a joke at all, but more of a challenge. Yeah, this was going to be interesting. 

Before Miranda could say anything to that, Rebecca quickly spoke up. “The rooms are all the same, no one’s going to care enough to start cheating or anything. We’re just dividing them up faster.”

With a broad smile, Jason put a hand on the Relukun boy’s back. “Yeah, buddy. Don’t worry. It’ll all be fair. So let’s do this, I’d kinda like to stow my stuff.”

We did. Following Miranda’s suggestion, we pulled names from a pot that we found in the kitchen, matching everyone to a bedroom. In the end, the four downstairs bedrooms went to Rebecca and Shiori in the front, and Columbus and Miranda in the back. Upstairs were Avalon and Jason in the front, and Triss and Doug in the back. Kersel and I were in the attic. 

The stairs leading up to the attic were in the middle of the second floor corridor, basically right as you came off the stairs from the first floor. You just kept walking up the next set. The attic had a large open area at the top of the stairs, with only two spots set out for bedrooms, one at the front and one at the back. They were apparently more narrow than the other bedrooms, but wider, taking up the whole front or back wall respectively. There was also a single bathroom directly between the two rooms, but other than that, it was all empty. I wasn’t sure what this large open space in the rest of the attic was for, considering it was big enough to have a whole dance competition in. Maybe we were supposed to figure out what to do with it ourselves, or something.

Either way, Tabbris and I nodded to Kersel, who gave a polite, yet clearly dismissive bow of his head before heading into his own room. Which left the two of us standing there. 

“Well,” I started, “let’s go in and check out our new room, huh?”

I opened the bedroom door and stepped inside what turned out to indeed be a pretty spacious room, though one that was, again, much wider than it was deep. There was just enough room from the entrance to the wall for the large bed to be set in (with the head against the wall and the foot facing the door) while leaving space to walk past it to reach either side. On the other hand, as promised, there was plenty of width to the room to make up for the lack of depth. To the left of the bed was a dresser and a desk with a computer already waiting, along with a smaller dresser to the right. There was room on that right-hand side for Tabbris’s bed, once we let Dare know where she was staying. So, she’d have furniture of her own. And I was going to see about getting a couple of those privacy screens installed like they had at Crossroads so we could both have our own me-time. I wanted Tabbris to know this was her room too, as much as mine, and that she had every right to her own privacy. 

“Huh, not bad, huh?” I asked while stepping over to look out one of the three windows spaced along the width of the room. We were in the back, so the view looked out over the yard, and leaning over a bit allowed me to see next door. Eiji’s cyber-rhino was already there, making noises at Salten and Choo, who were investigating him through the fence. 

Tabs bobbed her head quickly. “Uh huh, it’s really cool. And umm… tonight, we try the thing again?”

“Yeah,” I confirmed, “tonight we try again. 

“And this time, hopefully I can keep Fossor’s sister here long enough to get something useful out of her.”

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Fusion 1-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Quick note – Some of you were told that today’s chapter would be the next Patreon snippets. I have, however, decided that interrupting the new year/book immediately after it starts like that is not a great idea. Don’t worry though, Patreon Snippets will be coming out tomorrow as an extra, off-schedule release. Thanks! 

Yup, school. As in classes and learning and everything else. Although it really wasn’t anything like what would be considered a normal school, even by Heretic standards. Especially by Heretic standards, come to think of it. There was, well, definitely a lot more to it.

At the moment, it was the morning after our little adventure at the theater. I was awoken, after getting the two hours of sleep I still needed, by a very small figure clambering onto the bed and falling onto me with a gleeful, “Fick!”

“Oof.” Opening my bleary eyes, I squinted at the tiny, grinning figure laying half-on me. “Hi, Savvy,” I murmured, reaching out to affectionately rub the Seosten toddler’s black hair.

“Fick!” She raised one dark-skinned hand to press against my face. “Fick up now. Bakefast.”

Chuckling despite myself, I sat up a bit and pulled the girl into a hug. “Yeah, I’m up now, so we can have breakfast.” Tickling her nose to make her smile, I asked, “Did Uncle Linc send you in here?” At her eager nod, I tickled her stomach, drawing a squeal from the girl. “I figured.”

Uncle Linc, of course, was my dad. Lincoln. Linc was easier for her to say, and Dad liked it.

With a yawn, I got up and moved over to grab some clothes. I had showered the night before, so I dressed quickly before reaching down to pick up the giggling toddler. Holding her, I headed out of my room and into the main part of my father’s cabin. I’d been living there all summer with Dad and (about half the time) Tabbris, though that would be changing somewhat as of this morning.

Tabbris and our father were both sitting at the table, watching as I came in with Savvy. Dad gave the little girl a thumbs up. “See, I knew you could get the sleepyhead up faster than I could.”

“Sleepyhead?” I retorted, “Yeah, right, sure. That’s me, totally sleeping almost three hours sometimes. The horror of such laziness.” Setting Savvy in the booster seat that Dad had put up for all the times she visited, I pulled out another chair beside Tabbris. “And not even that much with all the extra training everyone keeps demanding I do.” Between Avalon, Jophiel, Athena, and… well, more, a huge part of the last month or so of my summer ‘vacation’ (such as it was) had been taken up by near-constant training and exercises. Not that I could blame them, considering things were very unlikely to slow down any time soon. Especially with my birthday rapidly approaching. They wanted me to be as prepared as I possibly could. And so did I.

“So,” I continued while starting to fill a plate with a small pancake and some bits of sausage that I cut up, “did you ask Zadriek to borrow Savvy this morning specifically to get me up, or are you playing babysitter totally by coincidence?” With the food sufficiently cut up, I put some butter and syrup onto it, then set the plate over in front of the tiny girl in question, who squealed happily before immediately grabbing onto the stickiest bit of pancake to shove into her mouth.

Beside me, Tabbris snickered. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” She took a bite of her own breakfast before adding, “D’ya think they’re ready for us?” Though she was trying to seem calm and casual, I could hear the excitement in her voice, and her eyes were shining with anticipation.

There was a lot for Tabbris to anticipate. Not just the school thing, but it was also almost time for her and Dad to… bond. Okay, they’d been bonding over the entire summer. That was the point. They spent time together to build up the chance of a strong Bonding with a capital B. Dad was going to become a Natural Seosten Heretic. Or, more specifically, a Natural Tabbris Heretic. They’d spent the summer getting to know each other more fully. The closer their connection, the better chance the Bonding would take correctly.

Grinning, I rubbed her head. “I think between what Athena and Abigail will do if they’re not, they better be. Those two have been spending more time up there than they have in the camp.”

“Hey,” Dad objected. “Let’s not talk about that right now. I still have you girls for at least the rest of breakfast.” He made a show out of sniffing. “You’d think you couldn’t wait to get away from me… again.”

Reaching out with my foot to poke his leg, I pointed out, “Oh, stop, we’re coming back a lot.”

“Staying here every weekend,” he insisted with a nod. “And visiting more than that.”

My head bobbed. “Uh huh, for sure. And… you know… speaking of being close…”

He smiled faintly, glancing toward Tabbris. “Yup, we’re doing it two weeks from now, right, kid?”

As she quickly nodded with a bright smile, I raised an eyebrow. “Really? You’re gonna do the Heretic thing in two weeks? You think you’re ready?”

“Absolutely,” he confirmed, using his fork to point at me. “Now eat your breakfast. We’ve got about an hour before you’ve gotta head out with the others, and I mean to make the most of it.

“And just so you know, Kaste and Rain promised to show me how to create some really obnoxious nagging spells. Don’t visit every few days, and you’ll pay for it.”

I nudged Tabbris, “See how much things have changed? Dad’s threatening us with magic.”

Her answering smile was dazzling, seeming to light up the room. “Uh huh, things have changed. I get to go to school with you instead of… you know… inside you.”

From the other side of me, Sahveniah piped up a bit hopefully. “I go school?”

Reaching out, I gave the kid a tight hug around her booster seat. “Oh, don’t worry, you’ll be going to school right here in the camp. I hear Aunt Sariel’s got some kid classes lined up. And before you know it, you’ll be old enough to go to the big school.” I said it with a wink and smile that made her giggle happily, but inwardly I was hoping things would be a lot different by the time Savvy was actually old enough to even think about going to the other school. I really hoped that when she was my age, she’d never have to deal with any of this.

But somehow, I was afraid this whole thing would go on much… much longer than that.

*******

After breakfast and a little time spent with Dad (and Savvy), Tabbris and I grabbed a couple of modified backpacks that we’d already prepared (Herbie, Jaq, and Gus had their little home nestled in the bottom of mine), and left the cabin to join Miranda and Koren. They were waiting on the front porch for us. My not-so-young niece was practicing with one of the powers she had received from killing that old Heretic back during the prison assault. Specifically, she was creating a glowing bubble between her hands. Within the bubble, a small, roughly eight-inch long figure of a crocodile had appeared. It was still forming as Tabbris and I approached, the shape of it becoming more distinct over those couple of seconds.

The power, as I understood it, basically allowed Koren to create small facsimiles of any creature she could think of. They weren’t real or anything, amounting mostly to glorified solid holograms. The longer she took to form the creatures within the bubble before releasing them from it, the more detailed and stronger they could be. Also, the bigger they were, the longer it took to make them. Something like this eight inch crocodile took like fifteen seconds and would last a minute or so. If she wanted something big enough to ride that would last longer than a few seconds, she had to take much longer with them. Still, being able to spend about ten minutes to make a horse that would last about an hour was pretty freaking cool. Plus, she could make more than a horse. The other day, I’d seen her take fifteen minutes to make this giant rabbit with wings.

The tiny crocodile popped out of its bubble and roared like a lion, making me raise an eyebrow. “I uhh, think your little friend there is a bit confused about what he’s supposed to be, Koren.”

In response, she sniffed at me. “He’s more intimidating this way. Besides, you’re just jealous.”

“Jealous of your roaring crocodile?” I considered before grinning a little sheepishly. “Yeah, maybe a little.” As the summoned form vanished with another disconcertingly loud roar, I snickered despite myself. “At least you didn’t make the flying bunny roar like that.”

“No, but that’s an excellent idea,” she retorted before looking to Miranda. “She’s good at that.”

With a broad smile, my long-time best friend gave me a thumbs up. “She always has been. The only real difference now is in how feasible her random thoughts are.” To Tabbris and me, she added, “So, you guys actually ready for this whole new school thing?”

I shrugged, glancing to the girl beside me. “Not sure, but I guess we’ll find out. Have they already started taking people up there?” As I spoke, I was leaning up on my toes to look out toward the lake. Sure enough, there was a crowd of people there, despite the early hour.

Miranda nodded. “Yeah, some of the others already went up. They said they’d meet us there.” With a tiny smirk, the girl added, “I kinda can’t wait to see how some of the Garden people handle it. They’ve got a portal set up over there too. Actually, I think they started an hour ago.”

The Eden’s Garden rebels weren’t making this their official school or anything. But they had sent staff to it, and were allowing students to go if they wanted to. Basically, they knew that if they were going to have any chance of surviving and even winning this civil war (not to mention getting their vines to grow), they needed help, and alliances. Thus working with this school and sending some of their people.

“It’ll be different, that’s for sure,” I agreed. “But a lot of them are already open to this kind of thing, considering they… you know, rebelled against the status quo and all that.”

“Difference between feeling or believing something and actually experiencing it,” Koren pointed out, already turning to head off the porch. “But come on, I promised Mom we wouldn’t take forever. She wants us to get up there and see what they’ve been working on all month.”

We stepped off the porch, just in time to meet up with Columbus and Shiori, who came jogging over. The former had his familiar backpack full of tools and random odds and ends, having basically gone everywhere with it over the past month while he focused almost all of his attention on practicing what he was learning from that Harrison Fredericks guy.

“Hey, Flick!” Shiori chirped before jumping in to hug me tightly. “Guess what.”

With a smile, I returned the embrace, taking a moment to kiss her briefly before leaning back. “Guess what?” I echoed thoughtfully. “Hmmm… Well, shit, I was going to come up with something completely outrageous, but after last year, nothing sounds out of the question.”

Her eyes rolled a bit. “Tell me about it. But seriously, it’s great news. Senny’s gonna be there.”

Blinking at that, I asked, “Really? Asenath’s going to be at the school?”

She bobbed her head quickly, grinning. “Uh huh, she just told me last night. She’s gonna be a teacher. Apparently they knew about it all summer, but she wanted to keep it secret.”

I snorted. “Yeah, sounds like her. But that’s great, Shy, you guys can hang out a lot more.”

Her smile made my heart flip over a few times. “Uh huh, and Mom’s gonna visit too. Since, you know, she actually can.” Even as she mentioned her mom visiting, I saw the sudden look of guilt materialize in the girl’s expression, clearly thinking about the fact that my mother was still gone.

But that was silly. And dumb. She shouldn’t feel guilty about being glad that her own mother could spend time with her. So, I quickly hugged her even tighter than before. “That’s great, Shy! Come on, let’s find the others so we can get up there sometime before lunch.”  With that, I pointedly took her hand, nodded to the others, and headed for the lake with them.

On the way, Columbus spoke up. “So is it really… you know, where they say it is?”

Winking at him, I replied, “Let’s just say, it’s gonna be an interesting school year. And uhh… speaking of interesting school year, how’s… um, Sean doing with all this?”

He grimaced a little. “Oh, you know… about as well as can be expected. They tried to say that he’s free to attend classes with us, but he just said he went through eight years of being stuck in homeschooling and he’s not in any hurry to sit in a classroom anytime soon.”

“You know,” I murmured, “that’s totally fair. I just hope he’ll be okay.”

“His uncle and brother are keeping him busy,” Columbus assured me. “And Roxa, of course. Apparently they’re taking the pack to Brazil next. He made me promise to call him tonight to tell him how today goes.”

“I want in on that,” I informed the boy. “Lemme know when you’re gonna call him.”

Despite the crowd that was surrounding the lake, things were actually pretty organized. Due in no small part, I was sure, to the appearance of both Gabriel Prosser and Athena. The two of them were standing by several doors that had been summoned to stand in front of the lake, and had put people into lines based on where they were actually going. There were a few other adults, including Deveron, Nevada, and Professor Kohaku, who were going through the crowd, organizing them into the right lines.

It also wasn’t just former Crossroads students (of all four grades) lining up here. There were Alters too, as well as Natural Heretics from the Atherby camp who wanted to participate in this. The whole thing had originally sprung out of Abigail insisting that there still be school despite the war going on, that our education not completely disappear. She’d had to make a lot of adjustments to her initial idea, but with the help of Athena, Dare, and some others, it came together. And now here we were, heading out for… somehow, a school even more strange and unique than Crossroads had been. This… was definitely going to be interesting.

Avalon, with Salten walking alongside her, joined us. As I released Shiori for the moment and moved to kiss my other girlfriend (I was actually starting to get accustomed to that idea), she returned it with a fond murmur. Then she pulled back, announcing, “Don’t think you’re off the hook on training just because we’re busy this morning. We’ll find time later to make up for it.”

“I had no doubt,” I murmured with a quiet giggle, deliberately not thinking about the fact that she had been training us so hard to avoid thinking about the still-imprisoned Gaia. “After all, if you didn’t push training, I’d figure you were a doppelganger. Or a shapeshifter, or–huh. We have very strange lives, you know?”

The others agreed, just as Deveron approached. Boy, it was still odd to see him as an adult after the past year. Which just really fed into what I’d just said about the whole ‘strange lives’ thing.

“Hey guys, lookie there, I don’t have to go drag you out of bed after all,” he teased. “Without Avalon to browbeat you into sunrise training, I thought we might have some issues.”

“I still had a Savvy-shaped alarm clock,” I informed him primly. “And weren’t you the one sleeping in a lot this summer? I swear I remember something about you missing a couple training times because of that.”

“I earned it,” he insisted, winking before turning to gesture. “Okay, you guys want this line over here. No pushing, no shoving, and definitely no flinging powers around to get ahead. I know what troublemakers you people are.”

“Only when you’re the mentor,” Columbus retorted. “You’re a terrible influence.”

“Terrible, or amazing?” Deveron shot right back before giving me a brief embrace. “Head on up.”

We went to join the line there, standing just behind Rebecca, Tristan, and Vanessa. They were standing with a couple obvious Alter teenagers (one a tree-like Relukun boy and the other a white and gray female cat-girl who both set my Stranger-sense off), and a Natural Prevenkuat (the two-headed Hyena-type people who were really fast) Heretic boy whose name I thought was either Dai or Denji.

“You’re Flick, right?” Maybe-Dai-or-Denji, a dark-haired Asian boy with close-cut hair and a scar across his right cheek asked. He extended a hand to me. “I’m Jason.”

Wow. Boy, was I ever off. Where the hell did I get Dai or Denji from? Blushing a little, I took his hand. “Jason?”

He winked. “You were expecting maybe something like Haruto?” With a shrug, the boy explained, “My dad still lives in Japan. He calls me Danuja, and so do a few people around here. But I’ve lived in San Francisco my whole life… errr… or I did, before… stuff happened and I ended up here. Anyway, I’ve gone by Jason here in the states forever. Either works though. Jason, Danuja, hey you. It’s all good.”

“Then yeah, I’m definitely Flick,” I confirmed before looking to the other two unfamiliar figures alongside Tristan and Vanessa. “Sorry, I don’t think we’ve met.”

The cat-girl, a white and brown-furred figure with suspicious eyes, hesitantly replied, “Triss.”

“And Kersel,” the male Relukun flatly informed me. He and Triss both watched me, and the others, carefully.

Tristan spoke up brightly then, putting one arm around Triss’s shoulders. “Now isn’t this great? We all know each other.”

Despite her suspicion about me, the cat-girl (seriously, I needed to figure out what Alter she was, because referring to her as cat-girl was probably really bad) seemed more at ease with Tristan. Maybe it was the whole hybrid thing, because she wasn’t directing any kind of look toward Shiori or Vanessa either.

“Triss and Kersel, cool.” I gave them both a thumbs up. “Good to meet you guys. I guess we’ll be spending a lot of time together up there, huh?”

The two exchanged glances, a silent bit of conversation clearly passing between them before Kersel nodded. “Yes, it seems that way. We just… hope that things run smoothly.”

“We all do,” I assured him. “But even if they don’t, we’ll deal with it. We’re all in this together.”

Vanessa, who had been whispering something to Tabbris when the other girl went to greet her older siblings, spoke up. “Flick’s right. Whatever problems come up, we’ll deal with them.”

Behind us, Salten made a huff of agreement, the Peryton stepping up to my side before using a wing to nudge me until I reached out to scratch his neck. Again, the two Alters looked at each other. I had the feeling they’d been through a lot to get to this point. Between them and the stuff that Jason had hinted at about his own life, there was clearly plenty of history here I didn’t know.

But hey, there was a whole school year ahead of us. It would come up.

Together, we reached the waiting door by the beach a couple minutes later. Staring at it, I shook my head. “You know, I can’t believe I’m starting another school year by going through a magic door attached to nothing.”

“Of course, Miss Chambers,” Professor Dare announced while stepping up behind me, “perhaps this time you can go through without sending a rock in first.”

“And deny Herbie the chance to have a brother?” I gasped as though scandalized, putting a protective hand against the pocket of my backpack where the rock and my cyberform mice’s house was before snickering at the look on her face. “Okay, okay. We’ll just go.”

Rebecca poked me. “It’s not really… you know… is it?”

Just like I had with Columbus, I winked. “What do you think?” With that, added. “Come on, let’s do this.” Cracking my neck, I waved to Professor Dare for the moment, then moved up to the door.

The door, which would take me to the place that would be our temporary home and school while we weren’t here at the camp or out on missions to help the rebellion. Because we were still doing that. Abigail had basically made a deal to set up a school for us to spend about half our weekdays at, so we were still getting an education. The other half of our days would be spent helping to save Alters, building and training an army to stop Crossroads and Eden’s Garden from killing everyone, and… well, plenty of other things, I was sure. We were still students, but we were also more than that. We had to be.

Taking a breath, I stepped through the door… and onto the Aelaestiam space station, the base that belonged to Athena, which Tabbris and I had spent several weeks on back in Seosten space. It had made it to Earth, apparently thanks in no small part to Chayyiel, who had been busy doing a lot more while she was here than just piloting me through the biggest fight of my life. In any case, the station was now located within Earth’s sun, and had been prepared over the past month or so to take on a lot more students than they’d had before. Students from Crossroads, Eden’s Garden, Natural Heretics, and Alters, with teachers from all three of those groups as well.

Yeah, this was definitely going to be an interesting school year.

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Summer Epilogue 20 – Avalon and Miranda (Heretical Edge)

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Please note, this is the first of TWO chapters that will be released today. Come back in a couple hours to see the next one, which will finish out the regular summer epilogues we’ve been having, leading into the final rescue arc before the next book. 

With a hum of power, a blue energy blade flashed through the air. It was caught against a black metal shield with green gems adorning the front. 

Avalon Sinclaire and Miranda Wallbern stood facing one another in the middle of the forest on the far side of the lake where the Atherby camp was. Both were sweating, and the signs of their exertions were visible in scorch marks, deep gouges in the trees and rocks around them, and trampled bushes. 

It had now been seven weeks since that fateful night back at Crossroads. Things were gradually building up at the camp, as more and more former and brand new Crossroads rebels made their way in. The cabins had expanded all the way around the lake, a few almost visible from where the girls were sparring. For the most part, things were limited to making sure as many rebels found their way to the camp as possible and setting up in new places for them to live. That and training. Lots and lots of training. 

And letting those who were ready to see for themselves meet the camp’s Alters. Not all of those who came were quite that far along. Some only came to the camp because of their friends, or because of what they’d heard the other side do. Or they wanted to believe that not all Strangers were evil, but a lifetime of indoctrination made that more difficult to accept in person and they weren’t quite there yet. Whatever their reasoning, the Atherby people took it slow. The time would come when they would all need to work together, but they couldn’t rush it too much.

Breathing heavily, Miranda grinned at her sparring partner. “Any time you want to call it a tie, we can go get some lunch. Mmmm lunch. Doesn’t that sound good?”

A short distance away, Salten stood watching the pair. At Miranda’s words, the Peryton made a very clear scoffing sound before grabbing a mouth full of leaves. Porthos, standing between Salten’s antlers, chirped a long and rather detailed rant that most likely explained just how he felt about that suggestion. The words may have been indecipherable, but the general point was made. 

Avalon gave her an unimpressed look as well, after letting her eyes flash very briefly toward the animal and her cyberform partner. “If you want to quit, Wallbern, just say so.”

“Me, quit?” Miranda scoffed. “I can do this as long as you can. Or, you know…” Abruptly, the girl threw herself backwards, while leaving a force field where her shield was. In the next instant, a duplicate spawned in front of her, continuing the original’s words. “One of me can.”

Giving a very faint, predatory smile, Avalon ignited her second gauntlet. This one formed a long warhammer shape, which she swung hard at the newly-summoned duplicate while darting in closer. 

The new Miranda blocked the incoming hammer with her shield while making a pulling gesture with her other hand. The small hovering forcefield that Avalon had bypassed suddenly flipped around in the air and flew at the dark-haired girl from behind. At the last possible moment, Avalon shut down her gauntlets and dropped, letting the flying force field go right over her head as she spun into a low leg sweep that caught Miranda Two just as she was still recovering from the hammer blow. 

Even as she fell, however, the black girl managed to catch herself on one hand, using that to spring back up and over to her feet just before Avalon would have put her reignited (though ‘dulled’ for training purposes, of course) energy blade at where her chest would have been if she had landed on her back. 

Their training fight continued in much that vein for several more minutes. Various Miranda duplicates took turns stepping in to keep Avalon occupied, though only one fought at a time. They moved back-and-forth through the stand of trees, neither really pressing that hard to win, as they were simply enjoying the exercise. 

Finally, by silent yet mutual agreement, they stopped. The extra Mirandas disappeared, and the one who was left reached into a bag placed against a nearby tree, taking out two bottles of water before tossing one to Avalon. She twisted the top off her own and took a sip before approaching as she spoke up. “You know, it’s kinda funny.”

Catching the tossed bottle, Avalon took a sip as well before raising an eyebrow. “Funny?” Salten had come forward by then, and she ran a hand along his back before pouring some water out into a large cup that she projected from her gauntlet. The Peryton made a noise of thanks before loudly slurping from the bowl. 

“Well,” the other girl amended, “not that anything about you having to leave Garden under the… circumstances that you did was funny. But still, you left and yet you still ended up taking on a pretty Gardeny name. It’s like you kept up the tradition anyway.”

For a moment, Avalon didn’t respond to that. She simply took a long, silent pull from the bottle while watching Miranda. Finally, she admitted quietly, “I kind of saw it like that too. I was looking forward to changing my name for so long, to taking on the Eden’s Garden identity, it felt like that was ripped away from me along with everything else.”

Porthos made a soft, almost mournful noise before hopping from Salten’s head to Avalon’s shoulder. The small metal lizard reached out a hand to pat the side of her face while giving an encouraging chirp. 

Avalon, for her part, reached up to rub two fingers over the little guy before squinting at Miranda. “I’m not sure if I felt okay telling you that because you’re Chambers’ best friend, or because you had to leave too.”

“I prefer to think it’s because of my trustworthy face,” Miranda primly informed her before shrugging as she sank down to a sitting position against the nearest tree. “You’re kind of right though. We have a bit in common. We both had to leave Garden as traitors, and we’re both close to Flick. Just… in different ways.”

From the look on her face, Avalon was making an effort to restrain the slight smirk at the other girl’s choice of words. “Different ways indeed.” She sat down beside Miranda, breathing out in a long, low sigh while letting Porthos climb down to her lap. “Chambers has a way of getting… into your head.”

“You should’ve seen her as a ten-year-old,” Miranda retorted. “Every bit as determined to expose the truth and right wrongs, without being nearly as tempered by things like common sense and respect for adults.”

With a small smile, Avalon murmured, “I would have liked to know her back then.” 

Miranda shrugged. “Well, I can tell you all the stories you’d ever want to hear. I know lots of embarrassing ones too, and cool ones. Some that are cool and embarrassing. Like, I remember one time—”

She was interrupted in mid-sentence as a portal opened up nearby. Both girls snapped their attention that way, only to see a familiar figure step through. 

“Seller?” Miranda blinked, head tilting as she looked at the emerald-suited man. 

Avalon stepped over that way, embracing him. It wasn’t the first time that he had been at the camp since everything went down, but he had been very busy, and wasn’t around that much. 

After embracing the girl, and then giving Miranda her own hug as well, Seller asked, “You girls keeping yourself busy out here? He glanced around at the signs of their sparring. “Looks like you haven’t gotten too bored, at least.”

Salten bumped up against the man until he obediently rubbed the brilliant animal’s head. 

“We make our own fun,” Avalon replied dryly before squinting at him. “What about Gaia?” There was a slight tremor to her words. Though she had been trying to keep herself busy and distracted from worrying about her adopted mother, Avalon still felt a near constant pit in her stomach at the thought of what Gaia could be going through. The fact that she had absolutely no way to help the woman had not been easily accepted. 

With a wince, Seller’s head shook. “You know about as much as I do on that front. According to Sariel, she’s still being kept in that magical coma or stasis or whatever it is. If the Seosten lady can’t wake her up, then we’re going to have to go in the long way. And that means figuring out where she is being held. Not to mention how to get past all the defenses. And we haven’t even got the first part yet. We don’t have the faintest clue where they’ve got her.” He sighed. “Sorry, kid. Wish I had better news on that front. I swear, we’re working on it. I’m trying to get more help. Which is… tangentially related to why I’m here.”

The two girls blinked at one another before turning back to him. Miranda raised a skeptical eyebrow. “What, you want our help finding allies to save Gaia? I’m not sure how much good we could do.”

“No,” Seller started before amending, “well, sort of. The thing is…” He stopped, considering for a moment before letting out a breath. “Okay, well, where I just came from… it’s Desoto. I mean, where Desoto used to be.”

Avalon blinked at that. “Why were you in the gulf of Mexico?”

Meeting her curious gaze, he replied, “Because that’s where the tribes who left Eden are. Well, most of them are staying up in the border states, spread out as much as possible to avoid drawing attention. The leadership and some others have been spending a lot of time out on boats in the water.”

Miranda was the first to speak up. “What the hell are they doing down there? And wait, tribes? Like… entire tribes? Who… who left?”

For a moment, Seller didn’t answer. He was watching Avalon‘s reaction. But her expression remained unreadable, and she herself was silent. Finally, he glanced toward Miranda while replying, “Yeah, it’s… well, just under half of the tribes have rebelled. That includes the Victors. Vigilant Sons, Fate’s Shepherds, Dust Striders, and… half of the Reapers. One of their Victors left.” He shrugged then. “Obviously there’s some from all those tribes who stayed behind, and some from other tribes who went with. It’s a mess. But for the most part, that’s where it stands. Three and a half tribes left, four and a half tribe stayed.”

Miranda sighed heavily. “Including the Eternal Eyes.” The news is that her own (former) tribe had been one of those to remain part of the system even after the Gaia and Flick’s revealing spell made her flinch. She’d had a lot of friends back there, people she wished she could talk to again.

Seller nodded. “Yeah, sorry, kid. Wish I had better news on that front, but, well… sorry. As far as your tribe is concerned, you’re still the enemy. But hey, you’ve got a lot more company now.”

Miranda twirled a finger. “Yaaaaay.” Belatedly, she amended, “Sorry. Having a lot of people who know the truth now, who accept the truth now, it’s a good thing. I know that. It’s just…”

“They’re not your people,” Avalon finished for her. She looked over to the other girl. “Your people have consistently let you down ever since this started, and you were hoping that would change now.”

“It’d sure be nice,” Miranda agreed before looking toward Seller once more. “But whatever. What are the ones who did leave doing around Desoto?”

Taking in a long breath before letting it out again, Seller slowly answered, “They stole some of the fruit-bearing vines from the tree. Apparently, they have some idea from somewhere that the vines will work and grow if planted where Desoto was. They just haven’t quite figured out how they’re supposed to do that when the place doesn’t exist anymore.”

Avalon squinted. “Plant them underwater? That doesn’t really sound right.”

The man nodded. “That’s kind of the problem they’re having too. But they’re convinced that something will turn up. I guess that’s why they’re out there on boats, looking for a good island or something to plant on. They kind of need to get that going if they’re going to stand a chance against the loyalists. As long as the loyal tribes can make more Heretics and the rebels can’t, they feel pretty outmanned.”

“The Crossroads rebels can’t make more of that kind either,” Miranda pointed out. 

Seller nodded in agreement. “Yeah, and that’s kind of even more of the problem. As long as one side can make as many as they want, whenever they want, for the most part, they’ve got the advantage.”

Avalon was quiet briefly before speaking up. “The rebels can make natural Heretics. We have Alters on our side. Maybe it’s not the same as a Bosch Heretic. They don’t gain more powers from killing. But it’s not nothing.”

“You’re right,” Seller agreed. “It’s definitely a long way from nothing. But there is a reason Crossroads and Eden’s Garden became the de facto most powerful Heretic forces in most of the western world pretty fast once they got things going. It’s fast, easy power gain. And the loyalists have the advantage there.”

Avalon gave a very soft smile then. “Maybe we should focus on getting Aylen’s grandpa away from Crossroads. That’d stop their advantage.”

Seller gave a wry smirk at that. “First of all, the idea that that girl is actually related to the Heretical Edge itself? That’s pretty damn mind blowing, even considering the world we live in.” He paused, considering before asking, “What’s going on with meeting her parents and all that, anyway?”

“It’s happening,” Avalon replied, “Aylen’s still setting it up. Apparently her mothers and grandfather had some big thing to deal with and they’ll be back… eventually.” She shrugged helplessly. “All she could tell me is that it’s something important off-world.” 

Seller blinked. “Grandfa— oh, other grandfather. Her… other mother’s father? Or… what about her father? Does he…”

Avalon shrugged. “She says that whole thing is really complicated and that she’ll explain when we meet them.”

“Complicated seems like a pretty common thing anymore,” Seller noted. He shook his head then, putting a hand on Salten’s back before moving on. “Anyway, that’s not the point. And it’s not why I came. I came because, ahhh, they’d like to talk to you.” 

Realizing he was looking at her, Avalon blinked. “What? Why do they want to talk to me? Wait, who? The Victors?” Perched on her shoulder, Porthos made a sound that was suspiciously close to someone blowing a raspberry at the suggestion. 

Seller nodded. “That’s right. They’d like you to come down to where they are and talk to them. They said that you will have a completely free pass to come and go as you like, and that you may bring whoever you like with you. They’ve given their words that you will be safe, as well anyone who accompanies you.”

Avalon was staring at him, mouth opening and shutting a couple of times before she managed a weak, “Why the hell do they want to talk to me now?”

Miranda spoke up. “Because you’re Bosch’s heir. They probably don’t know about, well, Dries. So you’re the descendent.”

Avalon‘s head shook. “So what? I don’t—” She sighed. “They don’t know about the Seosten situation. They don’t know the truth about my ancestor and what he really did. They still think he’s this great, amazing guy who created this whole civilization.”

Seller reached out a hand, resting it on her shoulder. “That’s why I brought their offer to talk to you. I know how you feel about this whole situation, about how you’ve been treated. Believe me, I know. But Fu Hao promised that she and the others are ready to hear anything you need to say. They really want to listen. I can’t promise they’ll believe everything, but this might be the best chance we’ve got to get them to hear the truth. if we can get the rebel Victors to understand what’s really going on, it’ll spread from there.”

Avalon swallowed hard. “You want me to get in front of the leadership of the people who… who… treated me like a monster when I needed them most and convince them that their entire civilization is built on even more of a lie than they already thought?”

The man met her gaze evenly, giving a slight nod. “Yes. I know it seems pretty screwed up. But like I said, this is the best chance we’ve got to bring them on board the whole thing. Remember, we’ve only got a year to convince the Seosten leadership to be allies instead of enemies. Seems like we have an easier job of that if half of Eden’s Garden knew what was really going on. Maybe they have ulterior motives in wanting you to come talk, but at least they’ll be a half-willing audience for you. This right here really is our best shot. You are our best shot.”

Miranda was nodding. “He’s right, Avalon. It sucks that they didn’t listen to your side of the story before. And it sucks that they’re probably mostly only willing to talk now because of some kind of  political thing for who your ancestor was. But whatever the reason, you can talk to them. You can convince them about what’s really going on, about what’s been going on this whole time. If we can get half of Eden’s Garden to know about the Seosten and spread the word from there, that might even bring in more. Hell, it might help drive out the Seosten still hiding there. There’s got to be some in among the rebels, right? So we need to get the truth to them.”

Avalon was still quiet for a few seconds before letting out a breath. “Okay. Let me think about who to take. But fine.

“I’ll go talk to the Victors.”

Summer Epilogue 3 – The Hunted (Heretical Edge)

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“Mmm. You know, it may not be as great as Escalan made, but sometimes you just need a good grilled ham and cheese.” As she spoke those words, Shiori took a large bite out of the sandwich in question, swallowing before adding, “And as a pretty nifty bonus, this one wasn’t made by a zombie.”

At the moment, she, along with Avalon and Flick, were sitting in the large cabin that served as the camp cafeteria. The room was filled with long rectangular picnic tables, one of which the three girls sat at together. They were just finishing up a late lunch, and had the room mostly to themselves, aside from another group a few tables away. That group was made up entirely of old camp inhabitants, as the majority of the Crossroads students who had elected to stay after abandoning the school were still mostly keeping to themselves, not quite ready to integrate. They tended to stay in or right around the cabins they had been given, though a few had slowly started to wander around a little bit. It was progress.

“Ugh,” Flick groaned. “Don’t remind me. I felt like gargling with bleach or something after I thought about how many meals he made after he was already dead. Seriously.”

“You do remember that you’re a necromancer now, right?” Avalon mildly pointed out before plucking two things from her plate. The first was a chip, which she popped into her mouth. The other was a small metal bolt, which she flipped to the middle of the table, where Porthos sat. The lizard cyberform caught the bolt, making a delighted sound before chomping onto it.

“I don’t care, I still wouldn’t have a zombie make my food!” Flick squeaked. “Necromancer or not, that’s just gross. I couldn’t–” She stopped then, blinking over toward one of the windows of the cabin. “You see that?”

Both other girls looked that way as well, while Avalon shook her head. “See what?”

Flick kept her eyes on the window for several long seconds before shrugging. “I thought I saw something watching us. It was just–never mind. It was probably a kid or something.” As she spoke, the girl took two small metal washers and slid them over near Porthos, where Jaq and Gus were perched. The robotic mice picked the washers up in their paws and quickly nibbled.

“Or a pervert,” Avalon suggested idly, taking another chip. “Maybe one of you has an admirer.”  

“Oh sure,” Shiori shot back while rolling her eyes. “If there’s a pervert around, it’s gotta be Flick or me he’s staring at. Because God knows you’re so hideous no one can stand to look at you.”

With a smile that bordered on dangerous and feral, Avalon leaned closer while shaking her head. “No, I just mean that they know better than to stalk me like that.”

Porthos made a quick noise of agreement then, hopping up onto two feet while beginning a long tirade in his own chittering language about just what would happen if anyone tried something that stupid with Avalon.

“What, who’s being stalked?” Kaste, one of the camp’s primary mages along with her sister Rain, stopped by the table to blink at the girls. “What’s that about a pervert?”

Flushing, Flick shook her head quickly. “Theoretical pervert. Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong.”

Raising an eyebrow at them, Kaste urged, “Okay, well, let one of us know if something does happen. We’re still sorting out all the new protection spells since we’ve got all these people coming in. We’re expanding the camp around to the other side of the lake, so people aren’t cramped in so much. Especially if more keep showing up.”

“Garden people start trickling in yet?” Avalon asked, shifting a little as she looked to the woman curiously.

“A few,” Kaste confirmed. “There’ll be more later tonight. Apparently there’s a pretty big group that got out of there after the initial fighting. They’ve been shaking off any pursuit and making sure the people they’ve got are actually loyal before Gabriel sends someone out to guide them the rest of the way.” Snapping her fingers then, she added, “Speaking of which, I better go prepare a couple more cabins while I’ve still got the oomph for it. You guys enjoy the rest of your lunch. And remember–”

“Tell you about any perverts,” Shiori finished, giving the woman a thumbs up. “You got it.”

As the woman left, Flick picked up her now-empty plate. “What do you think the Garden people are gonna say when they show up here, Valley? You didn’t exactly leave on the best of terms. There might be people that hold a grudge about that.”

“I’ll deal with it,” the other girl replied. “They haven’t left on good terms either. And at this point, they pretty much have to listen to the explanation. That or I’ll hit them until they listen.”

“That’s my girl.” Beaming, Flick rose from the table, holding a hand out for Jaq and Gus to scamper up to her shoulders. “Come on, I kinda want to see where they’re gonna put those new cabins in. And besides, you’re not gonna let us have cake until we walk off lunch. Two birds, one stone.”

“You’re dreaming if you think you’re getting away with just walking,” Avalon informed her primly while standing up alongside the other girl. “We may be pretending this is summer vacation already, but no one gets to be lazy. Okay, well, some people do. But you two don’t. We’re doing a full work-out today. And every day. No classes means more time for training.”

Exchanging glances, Flick and Shiori grinned at one another, the latter handing a ten dollar bill to the former. “You were right,” Shiori admitted, “First couple days after everything that happened and she’s already been planning out a whole new training regimen.”

“Hey,” Avalon retorted, “there’s all-out war coming. And we are going to be ready for it. Now come on, we’ll go check out where they’re putting in the new cabins, then jog around the lake a few times. After that, we’ll head for the weight room and really work up a sweat.”

Chittering in agreement and pride, Porthos leapt from the table to her arm, then climbed onto the girl’s head and stood on two legs while holding his other legs up like arms in a standard muscle pose, as though showing off his biceps.

Adopting a baffled look, Shiori asked, “Why would we work up a sweat just by sitting around?”

Squinting at the other girl with a look that said she was going to be sorry for taking the bait, Avalon murmured, “Why would we just sit around?”

“Well,” Shiori innocently replied, “you did say that we were going to the wait room.”

“The wa–oh Gods damn it,” Avalon muttered, shooting the cackling girl a look. Even then, it quickly turned to a bright smile. “Oh well. I’ll just make sure you pay for that one later.” She gave a sigh of anticipation. “Won’t this be great? We can work for hours without being interrupted.”

“Stop, you’re drooling,” Flick teased before pulling both girls by their arms. “Come on, let’s go see. But first, I’ve gotta stop by Dad’s cabin and pick up my towel if we’re going to work out.”

“Yeah,” Shiori agreed. “And I wanna see if Choo’s up from his nap yet.”  

The three of them stepped out of the long building, glancing around the busy camp briefly before first heading for the cabin that Flick was sharing with her father and Tabbris (though the latter split her time pretty evenly between Lincoln’s and Sariel’s cabins). As they were walking between a couple of the buildings, Shiori stopped, turning her head to look into some bushes nearby. “Do you guys…” She paused, taking a step into the bushes to look around before returning with a slow head shake. “Weird.” Her hand waved at Flick. “See? Now you’ve got me seeing things too.”

“Hold on.” Avalon held a hand up, head tilting as though listening for anything. On her head, Porthos seemed to be listening as well. After a few seconds of silence, the girl looked to Flick. “You got anything?”

Flick shook her head. “I’m not sensing any objects or anything, if that’s what you mean. I’ve got nothing.” She, in turn, looked to Shiori. “What about you? That ‘someone’s watching me’ sense going off?”

“It comes and goes,” Shiori murmured. “There’s a lot of people around here and they tend to look at us a bunch. I’m not sure how trustworthy it is like this.”

The trio stayed there for another minute, poking around the bushes for any sign of anyone. But there was nothing. Finally, they collectively shrugged and started off again.

“Part of me feels like we should say something,” Flick pointed out as they reached Lincoln’s cabin. “But we’re probably being paranoid. I mean, we’ve got plenty of reasons to be, after… well, all that stuff.”

“Yeah, we should still say something,” Avalon agreed. “Maybe it’s paranoia. Maybe it’s not. Just dismissing it is stupid. We’ll talk to Rain and Kaste, see if they can run another scanning spell or something to make sure everyone here is supposed to be here. Though I’m pretty sure we’d know if anyone really bad managed to find this place. It just… doesn’t feel like anything bad. Annoying and confusing, maybe. But not bad.”

“It’s probably one of the Crossroads people, you know,” Shiori put in. “They’re probably trying to find a way to talk to the girl who brought the rebellion back but don’t know how. Or maybe it’s someone who knew your mom before. Either way, they’re probably nervous.”

That sounded about right, so the girls went into the cabin and picked up the towel, as well as a couple bottles of water. They took a few minutes to talk to Lincoln in there as well, before heading out to make another detour into the cabin Shiori had been sleeping in, collecting an excited Choo. The Jekern ran ahead of them, scampering through the camp with an eager series of snorts and oinks while electricity sparked around him. Every person they passed, Choo made happy noises at, especially those who took a moment to rub his head and pet him. He preened and posed for anyone who would pay the slightest bit of attention to him.

“Well, looks like someone prefers our new living arrangements over the old one,” Flick noted.

“Dude,” Shiori replied, “he is so much happier here. He doesn’t have to hide all the time. And do you have any idea how much he likes to play with those kids? It’s the most adorable thing ever.”

They went back through the line of cabins toward the lake then, and even Choo stopped a couple times as though he sensed something following them. Yet, still, none of them could spot anyone. They looked everywhere and used every power they could, but came up empty. Shiori even had her ‘someone is watching me’ sense trigger a few more times, but in the open camp area, that didn’t mean much. Whoever was there, if there was indeed someone, was very good at remaining hidden.

“Okay, that’s enough,” Avalon muttered as they reached the lake. “I’ve been trying to be nice about all this because I figured it was just one of your mother’s friends or fans or whatever, or someone who wanted to talk to me about Gaia. But this is absurd. We’re not playing this game anymore.” Raising her voice then, she called, “You hear that? We’re not playing this game. If you don’t knock it off and show yourself, we’ll just get one of the witches to use a spell to figure out who’s been playing peeping tom all afternoon. Then you can try to explain just what the hell is going on to one of them. Or, you could maybe try not embarrassing yourself and just–”

In mid-sentence, she was interrupted by a sudden splash from the lake. As all three of them jerked their gazes that way, they found the remnants of ripples spreading, as though something had just jumped in, or out, of the lake. Yet there was nothing in sight. The water was clear, revealing nothing beneath it beyond a few swiftly scattering fish.

“Wait.” Avalon squinted at the water while something seemed to dawn on her. “Something’s been following us this whole time, peeking in windows, hiding, stalking, hunting us. Something that… Oh, my God, it’s–”

That was as far as she got before something slammed into the girl from behind. It took Shiori and Flick both completely by surprise, a large shape that went right between both of them without making any sound until it crashed into Avalon. Then the two went tumbling end over end.

“Valley!” Flick blurted, grabbing her staff from its place at her belt. She and Shiori (with Choo right there alongside them) both went to lunge after their companion, only to come up short at a bafflingly unexpected sound, a sound that none of them saw coming.

Laughing. Avalon was laughing. And squealing. As the two stopped dead, staring, they saw the other girl roll to a stop there on the ground. Her arms were around the neck of her ‘attacker’.

“Salten!” Avalon blurted, jumping to her feet while the Peryton did the same with a little help from one of its wings. They landed facing one another, just before the girl threw herself at the winged elk with a sound that was somewhere between a put-on snarl and another laugh.

Salten met her charge, slamming right into her with a loud huff. His wings folded in against his body, and he brought his head down against Avalon’s. She, in turn, wrapped both arms around his neck and yanked to the side, her strength pulling Salten to the ground. They rolled several times, each fighting for position and advantage. Grunting, huffing, and laughing (or snorting, in Salten’s case), the two wrestled right there in front of the lake.

Through it all, Flick and Shiori stood there, staring. They were joined in that by Jaq and Gus on Flick’s shoulders, as well as Porthos from Choo’s back, where he had jumped from Avalon’s head at the last moment. Both girls, all three cyberforms, and the Jekern as well, were staring with open-mouthed surprise as Avalon and Salten went rolling back and forth along the dirt.

“I knew it was you!” Avalon blurted while rolling on top of Salten to put the animal into a headlock. “You’ve been stalking us all day, haven’t you, you big jerk!”

Salten, for his part, jerked his head to the side to knock the girl back before making a huffing, snorting sound as he pivoted to face the girl. Head down, he danced one way, then the other while Avalon mirrored his movements. Both moved in a circle around one another, gazes locked as they watched for an opening.

Porthos made a curious chittering sound from Choo’s back then, and Flick reached down to pat him. “No, she hasn’t gone insane, buddy. At least, I don’t think she has. They’re just really old friends. From what Seller said, they basically grew up together, since Salten was a… foal?”

“That’s a horse,” Shiori corrected. “You mean fawn.”

Salten faked right before lunging left, but Avalon was ready. She caught one of his antlers, kicking herself up and around to land neatly on his back. “Hah!” That lasted until the winged elk flew straight up off the ground and turned over, dumping the girl to the ground, where she landed in a crouch. “Cheating! No flying until the fourth round, we said that!”

Landing with a huff, Salten bumped up against Avalon, who wrapped both arms around him and clung tightly while looking to the others. Finally, she seemed to realize what was going on, flushing a little bit. “Errr. What–I mean, look, Salten made it.” She held a hand out for Porthos, who jumped up, ran along her arm, and perched on the Peryton’s head while making curious sounds of his own that seemed half-questioning and half-greeting.

“Salten, this is Flick and Shiori,” Avalon introduced them.

“Hi, Salten,” Flick greeted, stepping that way. She started to give a short bow to the creature, before gasping as he lifted his leg, extending his hoof to her. “Oh, uh, right. Good to meet you.” Her hand grasped his hoof, shaking it.

“You must be really good at hide and seek,” Shiori noted while taking her turn to shake his hoof. “You’re a sneaky sky-deer, you know that?” Choo, who had come up right alongside her, made a noise of agreement before nuzzling up against the Peryton’s leg affectionately.

“Let me guess,” Avalon announced, “Seller dropped you off and convinced everyone else not to tell me that you were here.” As Salten made what sounded like outright chuckling sounds, she rolled her eyes. “You’re both jerks.” Still, she was clinging to him, her adoration and love for the Peryton incredibly clear. “And I’ll get you both back. You’ve gotta sleep sometime, and that’s when I will piledrive the crap out of you. When you least expect it.”

Raising his head imperiously, Salten made a disbelieving or dismissive sound, snorting as he spread both of his wings out wide. He then brought the wings in, catching everyone to pull them right up against him in an embrace. Even Choo was included.

“Aww,” Shiori giggled while returning the hug. “I like you too, sky-deer.”  

“Okay, okay,” Avalon finally managed as she extricated herself. “Let’s go. We were on our way to see where they’re setting up the new cabins over there. You can come with. You know, so you don’t get any more ideas about another ambush.” Squinting at her old friend, she gave him a push. “Come on, don’t tell me you’re tired already.”

With an offended huff, Salten started trotting ahead of them, lifting his head imperiously as he  led the way around the lake.

“Hey, you know,” Shiori started, “if you want to spend some time with your friend, we can always do the work-out part later.”

“Pfft, nice try,” Avalon shot back. “But that Peryton’s a bigger stickler about exercise than I am. You thought I ran you ragged, wait until Drill Sergeant Salten gets hold of you.”

“Oh boy,” Flick murmured. “Shiori?

“I think we might be in trouble.”

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Interlude 24A – Koren and Miranda

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“I’m surprised the guys in charge let you come here,” Miranda Walbern announced.

Glancing to her as the two of them walked along the freeway-sized branch of the Eden’s Garden tree (seriously, this plant was the size of the Empire State building), Koren raised an eyebrow. “By guys in charge, do you mean the Committee, or… what were your leaders called again?”

“The Victors,” Miranda supplied. “And both, actually. I didn’t think either one would let you visit.”

A slight smirk touched the Koren’s face as she gave a small shrug. “What can I say? My mom is really good at arguing with people. She told your, uh, Victors that there was some kind of provision in your laws for close relatives from Crossroads to visit family here. Then Gaia gave the Committee a message from Mom that basically said that if they wanted her to join them instead of Eden’s Garden, letting her see her daughter, me, would be the best way to do it.”

All of which had amounted to Koren being allowed to visit Eden’s Garden to see her mother now and then, such as that evening. She’d done it a couple times by that point, though the first two had been under strict supervision. This evening was the first time she’d been allowed to wander a little bit, while her mother was in some kind of meeting about a position that she was trying to get. Koren still had to be with a guide, of course, but Flick’s old best friend (who happened to be Seller’s new apprentice since Hisao was subbing at Crossroads) had immediately volunteered.

Coughing, Miranda waved a hand pointedly. “Oh don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard how it happened. I’m just still surprised it actually worked on some of those stubborn old bastards.”

Koren’s eyes rolled. “It almost didn’t. I guess the ‘stubborn old bastards’ just got outvoted.”

Miranda’s mouth opened, and she was obviously about to say something when another voice interrupted from behind the two girls. “Well lookie here, it’s a couple of snoopy little rats.”

Before either of them had even turned around, Miranda was already sighing and hanging her head. “Weston, how many times do we have to do this?” Pivoting, she continued, “I’m not just–” She stopped talking then, because, as she and Koren could now see, the boy she was addressing wasn’t alone. He had two other figures with him, none of whom looked very friendly.

Koren took in the sight. The one who had been talking, Weston, apparently, wasn’t that much taller than Koren herself, standing only at five foot eight or so. He was stocky in a muscular way, wearing a black tank top that showed his generous biceps along with a pair of cargo pants. His forehead was heavy and almost Cro-Magnon-like, though he also had luxuriously silky long black hair. The two on either side of him were both female, one an Asian girl and the other blonde. Both looked more like they’d been chosen to accompany Weston more for their looks than for any intelligence or personality they might’ve had, practically hanging off of his arms.

“Oh,” Miranda finally spoke after a second. “Sorry, I thought you were here to bitch at me again about Doxer picking a fight he couldn’t win, but I guess you were just looking for a quiet place for you and your… uhh, what is this, exactly?” She waved her hand to encompass the three of them with an inquisitive look before snapping her fingers. “No, wait, I’ve got it. You two are just dying for a decent day of pampering, and Weston is an absolutely killer stylist and masseuse.”  

Weston shrugged easily, while his girls continued to hang off of him. “What can I say?” He gave a smirk that made it clear that he knew how what he was about to say would be taken. “Maybe I heard about how lucky little Hannah is with her girlfriends and wanted to see what it was like.”

There was a slight pause then, as Koren and Miranda both stared. Their eyes looked first to the blonde girl hanging off of Weston’s left arm, then to the Asian girl hanging off his right. The gears turned, and then they both simultaneously audibly dry-heaved. Koren jerked a bit, face paling as she covered her mouth. “Oh god. You’re making them rolepl–I think I’m gonna be sick. Oh god.”  

Once she had her own gagging under control (which required considerable heaving), Miranda took another second to find her voice as she stared at the trio. “Congratulations, I’ve literally buried myself up to the mouth in monster guts and that was still less disgusting than whatever the fuck this shit is. And how the hell do you even know that much about what’s going on over there?”

Weston lifted his chin, smirking. “You’re not the only one with friends in far places. Maybe we talk.”

The blonde that was hanging off the boy rolled her eyes before heaving a noise that was half-sigh and half-whine. “What’s it to you, huh? You just like, get in other people’s business to distract from those man-hands and that hair? Who fucking cut it for you, Edward Scissorhands?”

“Okay,” Miranda dropped her head and shook it before looking to Koren. “Where do I start?”

Shrugging, Koren offered, “How about you start with the fact that the insult doesn’t even make sense, because Edward Scissorhands was fucking awesome at cutting hair. That was like, half the point of the whole damn movie, practically.” To the girl in question, she added, “Duh.”

The blonde sneered at that. “Like I care about some stupid Bystander movie? But you know what I do care about? Putting snotty little bitches like you back in their place.” To that end, she used the hand that she wasn’t using to hold onto Weston’s arm to snap her fingers. Instantly, a dozen floating daggers made of solid ice appeared in midair, aimed directly at Koren.  

“Weston!” Miranda stepped in front of the other girl, glaring that way. “You know the rules.”

The boy lifted his chin, pretending to think about it for a brief moment. “You mean the one about how we can’t come after you unless we go through Seller first? Yeah, sure. But that little rule doesn’t say anything about that bitch right there. Far as I can tell, she was allowed to visit. But if something happens to her and the question of who started the fight comes down to your word against Josie’s, Kumiko’s, and mine… well, I think we all know how that’ll go, don’t we?”

The Asian girl, Kumiko, finally spoke up. “I bet we can make her cry. She looks like a crier.”  

“Okay,” Koren started slowly, holding both hands up. “This all sounds really fun and all. Big fight and everything, yay. But why don’t we all just take a long, deep breath and then count to–” In mid-sentence, the brown-haired girl snapped her hand down. As she did so, the tiny gold bracelet that she’d been wearing flew off and hit the ground at the trio’s feet. The instant it did, a glowing blue dome of energy sprang up around Weston, Kumiko, and Josie, surrounding them.

Pivoting even as the ice daggers Josie had been controlling shattered against the wall of the dome, Koren grabbed Miranda by the hand to pull her. “Let’s get out of here, it won’t last long!”

The two girls ran down the branch, sprinting away from the trio, who were shouting after them. They kept going, dodging around other people who stepped out to see what all the commotion was while putting as much distance as they could between them and Weston’s little group.

Eventually, Miranda pulled the other girl by the hand over to the edge of the branch. Pointing toward a smaller outcropping of wood below, she leapt toward it. Koren followed her lead, and both girls landed on what was essentially a six-foot wide knot in the giant tree. Crouching down then, they looked up in time to see the other three go rushing past just above them.

Waiting for another moment to make sure the trio wouldn’t come back, Miranda finally let out a breath and looked back over to her companion. “What the hell was that thing back there?”

Koren shrugged at that. “It’s a protective spell that Wyatt taught me. His can take a lot more punishment than mine can, and it lasts a lot longer. I’m still not that good at making them.”

“Hey,” Miranda pointed out, “It held them off long enough for us to get away. That’s pretty good.”

Blushing a bit, Koren asked, “So who was that guy anyway? What the hell was his problem?”  

Miranda shrugged, glancing away. “Just one of my fanclub.  You know, the people who are kind of upset about the whole Avalon thing, or about Flick killing Doxer, or about Trice disappearing, or… well, any of it. They think it’s fun to harass me as much as they can get away with.”

Biting her lip, Koren started, “I thought that Mom and that Seller guy took care of that stuff.”

“They made it so that the guys can’t actually legally attack me,” Miranda replied. “They can still do basically everything up to that. You know, threatening messages, a shove here and there, dead animals in my bed now and then, that sort of thing. They’re just quieter about it, not gone.”

Looking away as she flinched at that, Koren opened her mouth to say something about it, only to suddenly stop. Her eyes widened, and she blurted, “That evil fucking bitch!”

Blinking, Miranda hesitantly started, “Wait, which one are we talking about, because–”

“Not them.” Koren caught the other girl by the arm, tugging her around to point far below them, where a figure could be seen on one of the other knots in the tree. “Am I crazy, or is that–”

“Pace,” Miranda finished for her, staring that way as well. “But,” she added slowly, “She’s–”

It was Koren’s turn to interrupt. “Setting off the Stranger-Sense. Yeah, I’m feeling it too. Does that mean that–I mean, if she doesn’t have the choker anymore, then Flick must’ve…” She trailed off then before squinting. “Wait, where’s she going?” Far below them, Pace leapt off the knot of wood. She did something to slow her own fall before landing easily on the ground even further down. As the two girls watched, her body started to contort, slipping out of her clothes before a full-sized wolf wiggled its way free and immediately began to run off through the woods.

“I don’t know where she’s going,” Miranda replied. “But I know what she’s doing. She’s getting away.” A moment of focus and there were two Mirandas standing  there. One looked over to Koren. “Can you get down from here? I’m going to get Seller and tell him what’s going on.”

Drawing her hunga munga, Koren nodded. “Sure, I can get down. And I can take you if you wa-”

The second Miranda took a quick step forward, flinging herself off of the tree. She plummeted toward the ground, falling freely while Koren stared. At the last second before the girl would’ve hit, two things happened. First, a third Miranda appeared already on the ground. And second, the Miranda who had been falling winked out of existence, disappearing entirely.

The Miranda who was still on the tree explained, “She waited until she was close enough to the ground to summon a duplicate that was already there. Then I absorbed her again before she would’ve hit. Sure glad that worked.” She gestured. “So do you wanna come with me, or–”

“I’m not leaving you alone to chase that crazy bitch,” Koren retorted before pausing. “I mean, not leaving the other you alone–as alone as you ever–fuck it, I’m going.” With that, she hurled one of her hunga munga toward the ground. A thought made the weapon stop in midair right before it would’ve hit, and she easily transported herself down to it before dropping the rest of the way.

“She’s gone,” Miranda–other Miranda announced. She was crouched by a set of wolf tracks, staring off into the woods. “What do you think happened? How’d she lose that choker?”

“I dunno,” Koren replied while tugging her phone from a pocket. “I’m texting Flick.” She hit a few buttons, quickly typing out the message before adding, “I’d call her, but I’m pretty sure if she is part of whatever just happened, she’s probably too busy to be distracted right now.”

“Yeah,” Miranda nodded. “And we don’t have time to wait anyway. The longer we sit around here, the further Pace gets. She doesn’t have her choker now. We have to catch up with her.”

Koren’s head shook then as she stared off into the forest. “How? I don’t know about you, but I can’t run fast enough to keep up with a werewolf. Especially one with a head-start like that.”

“We can’t,” Miranda agreed, already turning. “But I know someone who can.” Putting her fingers to her mouth, she gave a long, sharp whistle that filled the air for a solid three seconds.

“What was-” Koren started before falling silent as the sound of pounding hooves reached her. She turned slowly, staring at the sight of the animal that was approaching. “What the hell is–”

“Koren,” Miranda gestured to the magnificent stag that came trotting up. But it wasn’t just any old deer. This one had enormous, utterly gorgeous wings tucked against his side. “Meet Salten. Salten, this is Koren. He’s supposed to be with Avalon, but she can’t use him right now, so Seller’s been taking care of him. And I’ve been helping. We can’t keep up with Pace, but he can.” To the Peryton, she added, “The werewolf girl, she’s back and she doesn’t have her choker. We don’t know what’s going on, but she went that way and we have to catch up. Okay?”

In response, Salten took a step forward before lowering himself slightly. His head went down, and his nearest wing stretched out and down as though to form a sort-of stepladder for the girls.

Koren’s eyes widened, and she made a noise of surprise. “Wait, wait, you mean you want to–”

Quickly, Miranda clambered up onto the winged stag’s back. “You can wait here if you want to.”

“Are you fucked in the head?” Koren blurted before quickly moving that way. “You’re not going without me.” Glancing at her phone once more and finding no messages, she hurriedly used the Peryton’s wing to climb up onto his back. It was a little awkward, but she wrapped her arms around the girl in front of her while hanging on with her legs. “Okay, so how do we make him–”

Her ‘go’ was cut off in a choked, barely audible noise as Salten leapt forward. With a single sweep of his massive wings to accompany the thrust from his legs, the Peryton was suddenly in the air and a good thirty feet away from where they’d been. He stayed about fifteen feet off the ground then, wings still tight but extended just enough to almost touch the giant (though not as giant as Eden’s Garden itself) trees on either side of them.

And with that, they proceeded to blow through the forest. The winged elk flew like an arrow, darting between trees as if the girls were mounted on one of the speeder bikes from Return of the Jedi. Salten was incredibly agile in the air, tucking his wings just enough to pass through spaces that seemed to narrow to make it, dropping low to go under certain branches or flying higher to go over others, even going so far as to twist sideways while pushing one wing up to hold the girls onto his back so that he could fit through an oblong-shaped space between two boulders. And all of this passed while the magnificent creature never bothered slowing down for even a second. Koren and Miranda could barely process what was going on, let alone have any kind of input. It was all up to Salten.

As both girls continued to hang on for dear life, the Peryton abruptly flew up high. His wings flared out to slow down before he alighted on a large branch that was just big enough to hold them. Stopping there, he made a soft huffing noise while gesturing downward with his head.

After glancing to each other, Koren and Miranda slipped off the animal’s back and crept forward a step to peer down. Far below, they could see two figures. One was definitely Pace. She was still setting off the Stranger-sense. Meanwhile, the figure next to her was… less obvious. They wore a dark cloak that seemed to blend into the trees around them, and they were faced away from the girls. The only thing that Koren and Miranda could tell for sure was that the hooded figure was taller than Pace was. Other than that, they could’ve been anyone. Next to them, there was some kind of small, half-hidden hole in the tree that they could see a light coming out of.

As they watched, unable to hear anything, the larger figure smacked Pace hard enough to knock her to the ground. Then the figure kicked her against the nearby tree, almost through the hole that led inside.

The figure shouted then, though the only word that Koren and Miranda could make out was ‘worthless’. Pace said something while gesturing back to the hole, and the figure gave a sharp shake of their head before pointing. A ball of fire erupted from their hand, flying into the tree. A moment later, it was all in flames.

Pace said something else. Again, it was inaudible, but seemed sullen as she straightened up and stared at the fire. But the hooded figure didn’t seem to care what she was trying to say, grabbing hold of her shoulder before creating a portal with a wave of another hand. A second later, both of them were gone.

“The fire–” Miranda started, but Koren was already grabbing onto her. Rather than take the time to climb onto Salten, she’d take them down the quick way. Throwing one of her hunga munga, she teleported both of them to the ground right in front of the burning tree. Flames were pouring out of the opening, but the two of them could still see the shape of what looked like furniture inside.

Looking toward the other girl, Koren called over the roar of the fire, “I’m flame-proof, are you?!”

Miranda’s head shook. “Go!” she called, “get whatever you can!”

Nodding, Koren whispered a silent thanks to the fact that her last hunt had resulted in the fire-immunity before throwing herself through the opening. The smoke was still blinding, and she was choking the instant she made it inside what turned out to be a small cave-like room inside the giant tree. There was a cot there that was already engulfed with flames, along with a table with a couple of pictures on it, a padded chair that looked like it had been salvaged from a dump or something, paperback books lined up on a shelf in the corner, and a chest on the floor.

Thinking quickly, already dizzy from the smoke inhalation, Koren grabbed the chest before backpedaling out of the opening. There was too much smoke to deal with, even if she couldn’t be burned.

Stumbling on the way out, she dropped the chest and fell to her knees, coughing and hacking. Too close. She hadn’t gotten far enough out. The smoke was still surrounding her, making it impossible to see where she was going. Too dark, too hard…

A hand caught her arm, yanking Koren completely clear even as the flames continued to spread.

It wasn’t Miranda. Seller was there, holding Koren up. A wave of his hand conjured a bubble of cold water that he used to splash into her face before making another one, which popped inside her mouth to pour what tasted like the purest, coldest water she had ever tasted.

“Idiot,” the man announced once she had caught her breath. “Smoke is just as bad as the fire, if not worse.”

“Wo-worth it,” Koren choked out, coughing a few more times. “I hope. That–that must’ve been Pace’s hideout or something. What… what was in that thing?” She looked over to Miranda, who was already crouched by the now-open chest.

“Books,” the other girl answered, peering inside the thing. “Money… passports… maps, I think Pace was thinking of leaving or something. Wait, there’s also this.” Leaning in, she pulled out a battered video camera, holding it up.

“I wonder what’s on this thing…”

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Mini-Interlude 12 – Seller and Abigail

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on Seller and Abigail talking about their family. 

Against the background of the giant forest, its trees like the skyline of office towers in the middle of New York or Hong Kong, a lone man in a pristine emerald suit and matching sunglasses stood out. Despite the superficial similarity in coloration between his apparel and the surrounding foliage, there could be no mistaking such vestments for camouflage. They were far too bright and clearly artificial against the simple earthy greens of leaves and bushes. The man stood out like a brightly polished ruby set against the fur of a red squirrel. Both ostensibly of the same shade, yet clearly very different.

“So I have another question for you.”

The voice came from behind the man in question, but he didn’t turn to look. There was no need to. The sunglasses that he wore provided him with full three hundred and sixty degree vision all the way around himself. They also amplified light so that he could see perfectly in near-total darkness, protected him from most harmful vision effects, and included various telescopic and X-Ray vision capabilities.

Some of those same skills weren’t exactly necessary due to other powers that he’d gained over the years from various creatures. But he kept the glasses anyway. Not only out of sentimental value (which there was plenty of), but also because an enemy believing they had stripped those abilities from him by taking away the glasses would be in for a surprise.

“I would be very surprised if you went too long without one, Abigail,” he replied easily to the woman who was picking her way carefully through the giant bush that he had been waiting in front of. “It’s a lot to take in. If possible, I’ll try to answer.”

Abigail Fellows, who at one point in her very early childhood had been known as Koren Atherby before eventually giving that forename to her own daughter out of some not-entirely lost memory, straightened up and dusted herself off before focusing on him. “Why do they call you Seller? I mean, is it—wait, is it safe to talk?”

“It is,” he confirmed, reaching out to tap the watch that he wore. Among the Bystanders, it was known as a Louis Moinet Magistralis, a watch brand which sold for roughly eight hundred and fifty thousand dollars. It also held enchantments remarkably well. “As long as you stay within a few yards of me, we’re safe from eavesdroppers for the time being.”

“Right, then why?” Abigail folded her thin arms, staring down her nose at him. “And is it Seller Atherby? Because no one I’ve seen ever uses a last name with you.”

“People of Eden’s Garden don’t usually stick with our birth names,” he answered carefully. “When trainees turn eighteen, they’re given a new name either by their closest mentor and teacher, or by a committee of leaders, depending on the tribe. A couple tribes even let people choose their own names. And, to be honest, even some of the ones that assign them mostly do that as a formality. If the trainee requests a specific name, they’ll probably get it.”

“So that’s why that boy that I saw Miranda with was named… Noble?” Abigail mused aloud. “And then the werewolf girl with the green hair, she was… Pace?”

“And her partners are Doxer and Trice, yeah.” Seller nodded. “Miranda explained the first one to me, but I didn’t follow most of it. Something about how finding out everything about a person or a company is called doxing, and he fancies himself good at finding that sort of thing, so he calls himself Doxer.”

“And Trice?” she asked, sounding annoyed at the very mention of their names.

“It’s an old Middle English word,” he replied. “It means either an instant or a very brief time. You know how people say ‘I’ll get that done in a jiffy?’ Well, same thing. ‘I’ll get that done in a trice.’”

“Well their names should be ‘pawn, stooge, and patsy.’” Abigail’s voice was a huff. “I cannot believe that there’s nothing we can do to make them–” She stopped herself through visible effort, muttering under her breath before focusing again. “Distract me, why the name?”

Shrugging, Seller started to walk again, leading the woman through the forest. “I wasn’t always part of Eden’s Garden. When I first started interacting with them, I was a mercenary. They called me Sellsword for awhile. Somehow that got shortened to Seller. I guess after I officially joined them, they wanted to sound more polite or something.”

After a moment of silence as they picked their way through more enormous bushes, he continued. “And I don’t use the name Atherby because it’s not mine anyway. My family married into that one after me. Not that I’ve had much to do with my bloodline in the past. I guess I ahh, kind of feel guilty about that sometimes, but another part of me figures most of them—you–are better off without any of my enemies knowing about you. Believe me, there’s people out there that wouldn’t rest until all of you were dead if they knew you were related to me.”

“Yeah,” Abigail retorted, “Because our family is doing so well already.”

He winced, just a little bit. “Fair. But my own problems would still add onto those threats. And as you just managed to point out, that’s the last thing you need.”

The woman turned, squinting at him intently. “And just how many other ‘family members’ do you have out there? How many generations separate us? Two, three, four? Should I call you Grandpa, Great-grandpa?”

“Call me Seller,” he insisted with a quick shake of his head. “Just Seller.” After a moment of letting that hang, he sighed. “But fine, if you insist. You know your mother. The one I can’t talk about that much because of the damn enchantment.”

“Joselyn—wait, why can I talk about her but you can’t?”

He chuckled darkly. “Part of the spell. You weren’t a target of it. I was. Anyway, some of the other stuff I can talk about. Her parents. Her father was Joshua, and his father was Lyell. Lyell’s wife was named Edeva. She was my daughter.”

Abigail blinked at that. “So you’re Wyatt’s, Flick’s, and my… great, great-grandfather. That’s… less than I thought there would be. Flick said that you didn’t know she was your descendant.”

He coughed. “Yes, but that’s not so much a matter of losing track as not knowing that the woman even had another daughter. Part of the deal with Crossroads was not tracking her down after all that happened.”

Abigail was quiet then, frowning thoughtfully. Before she managed to speak again, Seller stopped in front of another one of the giant trees. To anyone else, it would have looked like any other tree in this forest aside from the much larger one that the Heretics lived on.

Yet, to Seller’s eye, it stood out almost as much. “Here,” he announced, tapping his hand against the wood in a distinct rhythm. A moment later, part of the tree itself lifted up and turned, revealing a large opening. He gestured for the woman to precede him, then stepped in after her.

Abigail blinked in the darkness. “Well? What now?” The two of them were standing inside the tree.

In response, the man tapped the wood again in another distinct pattern. As he finished, the tree began to lower itself once more with the two of them in it.

“A—a hidden elevator?” Abigail demanded as the tree sank back into the ground before revealing a cave in front of them.

Seller nodded, gesturing for her to accompany him into the cave. “Over the years, I’ve found it beneficial to have a few places that even other Gardeners aren’t aware of. This is one of them.”

The cave itself was about sixty feet long by thirty feet wide on average, though there were spots that were much narrower and others that were slightly wider. Here and there he had placed chests of supplies or other things he thought he might need in case of emergency. And at the back of the cavern was the only living creature besides himself, Abigail, and Hannah who had ever been in the place.

“Oh… my… god.” Abigail’s eyes were wide as she stared at the thing even as it cautiously eyed them from as far away as possible. “Is that a… is that a Pegasus?”

“Of course not,” Seller retorted. “A Pegasus is a horse with wings. You see the antlers? This is a Peryton. It’s a stag with wings. His name is Salten, and he belongs to Han—Avalon. Obviously, she couldn’t take him with her to Crossroads, and she was afraid that Trice and his cronies would do something to him. So she asked me to take care of him. I take him out with me for exercise and fresh air. While you’re here, you can help out.”

He watched then as Abigail slowly stepped forward, staring at the majestic animal. It was slightly larger than an elk, yet smaller than a moose. Most of the Peryton’s body was white, while its antlers were a gleaming silver. Meanwhile, both its wing feathers and tail feathers were blue save for the ones along the edges, which were black with silver tips.

“Who would… hurt such a beautiful creature?” the woman asked breathlessly while taking another step that way. “Is it okay to touch him?”

“If he’ll let you,” Seller replied. “He and Hannah basically grew up together. They were more like siblings than mistress and steed, though he let her ride him. They wrestled a lot.”

She looked over her shoulder at him quizzically. “Wrestled?”

Seller smiled faintly at the memory. “Well, as much as a thirteen-year-old girl and a Peryton fawn can wrestle, yes.”

Abigail turned away from him then, looking back to the squinting creature. “… you miss her, don’t you?” she asked quietly, lifting her hand to show him her palm. “You miss Ava… Hannah.”

At the sound of the name, Salten took a quick step forward. His big head leaned around to peek behind Abigail as though searching for the girl in question. He seemed to sniff the air, then let out a slightly shuddering snort before focusing. Seller could see the eagerness fade into sadness when there was no sign of his long-time companion.

“Ohhh…” the woman shivered visibly before reaching up to put her hand against the side of the Peryton’s nose. “You do miss her. I know. My…” She swallowed. “I lost my husband recently, and I’m not… I can’t remember him. I remember… loving someone, and thinking about losing that makes me sad. But I can’t remember anything about the man himself. I don’t… I can’t feel what I’m supposed to feel. I can’t mourn him because I don’t remember him at all. I don’t know anything about our life together. And my daughter is… my daughter is off in the same place your Hannah is, and I can’t help her. I’m supposed to be okay with that but—but I don’t know how I can be.”

Salten went still for a moment, then lowered his head against the woman’s shoulder, stepping closer in what Seller realized was as close to a hug as the animal could get.

The two of them stood like that for a few minutes before Abigail collected herself, looking back toward Seller as something else obviously occurred to her. “You said Joshua, Joshua’s father Lyell, and Lyell’s wife Edeva, your daughter. What about Joshua’s wife? According to Flick, both of them sacrificed themselves to drive the Fomorians out of the world.”

Seller didn’t respond at first. He looked away silently for a few seconds before murmuring, “Not exactly.”

“What? What do you mean, not exactly?” the woman demanded while reaching out to gently run her hand down Salten’s side.

He sighed. “Both of them sacrificed themselves in a way. The magic they were doing, it required two kinds of sacrifice. One literal, one metaphorical. Joshua sacrificed his life literally. His wife sacrificed hers metaphorically. She sacrificed her identity as Joshua’s wife and her connection to that family. It was erased from everyone’s memory. Even I don’t know who she was. Every bit of her as connected to the Atherby line was erased, both physical and mental. When I think of her now, it’s just a black spot where her face and name should be.”

Abigail’s eyes were wide. “That’s—what—that’s vile. Can’t it be… undone?”

“If it was,” the man replied softly, “It would weaken the spell keeping the Fomorians away. There has to be a living component of the spell for it to stay as strong as it is. That’s part of the whole point of there being two sides of the sacrifice that banished them.”

“So this… woman, she’s still alive?”

He nodded. “I would assume so. Probably staying with Gabriel Prosser. He wouldn’t have wanted to leave Joshua’s wife all on her own, so I imagine he made arrangements beforehand, even if he wouldn’t remember afterward who she really was or about her connection to the Atherby’s.”

“So you’re telling me that we have a mother out there whom no one remembers… and a grandmother?” Abigail demanded. “What the–” she launched into possibly the longest single string of curse words Seller could remember emerging from an adult.

“If I had to guess, I’d say that your mother got the idea for her own erasure from her mother’s,” Seller replied once she had finally run out of breath. “But yes, self-sacrifice does seem to be an ongoing theme of the Atherby line. Particularly since my own family was connected to it.”

“Well, it needs to stop,” Abigail stated flatly. “And you need to involve yourself more. Don’t start on the whole enemies thing. There’s already enemies, so your excuses don’t hold water. Look at what’s happening. Look at what’s been happening ever since… well, it seems like it started back with the Fomorian… invasion. But it’s still going on. We need to work together, or we’re going to lose more of our family.”

Sighing, Seller gave a slight nod. “You have a point. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot we can do about it right now.”

The woman was silent for a few long seconds while she ran her hand along the animal’s side. When she spoke, her tone was thoughtful. “Actually… maybe there is…

“Tell me more about Edeva and Lyell.”

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