Sandoval Lucas

Causality And Casualty 5-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Azlee sat down. 

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

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

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

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

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

Fossor.

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Causality And Casualty 5-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Mom!” Shiori blurted, already starting to take a step that way as her eyes widened at the sight. 

My hand snapped out to stop her, but Asenath was there first, catching her sister by the arm. “Wait,” she said quickly. “Don’t get close to her.” As she said it, Senny was staring hard at their mother, a heavy, smoldering rage visible in those suddenly intense, dark eyes. “Let… her… go.” 

“Oh, don’t be like that!” Jiao blurted in a voice that I knew was entirely uncharacteristic. “Don’t be spoilsports! You’re all finally here, and we’re gonna have so much fun together!”  She sounded cheerful, energetic, like some kind of perky cheerleader hyped up on coffee and school spirit or something. This was absolutely not Jiao talking to us right now. Not even a little bit.  

“You really wanna have some fun?” Sands all-but snarled while clenching her hands as she stood next to Sarah. “How about we tell ghost stories and toast marshmallows around a bonfire. There’s a lot of fuel for it in this place.” With one tight fist, she indicated the plants around us. 

Instead of Jiao, it was Julius Harn who spoke next (or rather, he who Kwur spoke through). “Oooh, you’re just so precious with the threats and the angry little fist! Probably should have paid more attention in wilderness survival when they taught you about dead wood being better for making fires, but still! You’re adorable, I could just pinch your little cheeks!” That same broad, probably uncharacteristic manic smile was on the old man’s face, as he beckoned. “Come! Come, let’s not dawdle any further, we have so much to talk about. So many things to prepare!”  

“Listen, you chlorophallic weed!” That was Shiori, and she had both of her disc weapons out, as they sparked with electricity. “The only thing you need to prepare for is letting go of my mother!” 

Absent of any apparent feeling of intimidation, Kwur-Jiao spoke up. “Sweetie, as adorable and precious as your fleshy anger is, there is no need for it. Everything’s going to be just fine. Come, let me show you.” She pivoted, starting to walk deeper into the forested area before calling back in a slightly darker, yet still fairly cheerful voice. “That is, unless you’d prefer to see how well my having control of your mother can serve as a motivator, or as a punishment?” Even as he said it, Jiao’s hand moved to pull part of her jacket away, revealing some kind of explosive securely strapped to her back. “She was good enough to bring the party favors, after all.” 

Fuck. He was right, unfortunately. We couldn’t chance anything or he’d use those explosives. And I was pretty sure even an old vampire like Jiao couldn’t survive something like that. 

So, with a collective sigh and an exchange of looks promising each other that we’d find an opening, Sands, Sarah, Miranda, Asenath, Columbus, Bobbi, Shiori, and I reluctantly followed after Kwur-Jiao. Behind us, I heard and felt Kwur-Harn trail after, whistling cheerfully to himself as if nothing was wrong at all.

There was a narrow trail through the trees and bushes. Narrow enough, that was, for me to feel the leaves and branches gently brushing over me as we passed through. I didn’t think too much about that until I caught Kwur-Jiao glance back at me with a little smile just as one branch in particular brushed over my arm. Then I realized it was intentional. The plants were sticking out just far enough to touch us on the way past on purpose, like a… like a caress or something. It was enough to bring bile to my throat, before I turned sideways to avoid them. The others must have either picked up the same, or realized what I was doing, because they followed suit. 

The path led us in a loop, and we mounted a set of stairs that had been placed against the edge of the tracks to reach the platform. Not that it was easy to tell exactly where we were just from looking around. The entire platform was even more overgrown than the tunnels, with thick grass under our feet, along with bushes and trees all around. Enough of the latter were so tall and thick that they entirely blocked out the ceiling. It was like being in an actual jungle. Except for the whole lack of animal sounds. Which, in some ways, seemed even more eerie. The whole place was uncomfortably quiet, raising the hair on the back of my neck. I wanted to demand that Kwur stop this, that he tell us where we were going. I wanted to do a lot of things that might have made me feel better, or at least less useless, for a few seconds. But I kept quiet, for now. 

On the way, I focused a bit on seeing through Marian’s eyes. Jason, April, and the Alters who had been guarding our actual bodies before we were switched around looked completely baffled. There were bodies of other attackers lying around, some alive and some not. It was clear that Kwur had sent more people after us, but our new friends had pulled through in keeping us safe. Until we were switched. Now they clearly had no idea what to do. Especially considering, from the sound of things, they were still being attacked now and then. Before long, they’d be in real trouble. 

Quickly, I moved Marian, getting their attention as I had her paw touch the ground and focused on my image inscription power. Using that, I created a message on the pavement in bright red letters, giving them the phone number to contact Dare and tell her where they were so they could get help before they were overwhelmed. It was the best I could do just then.  

By then, we’d mounted the steps and moved across the subway platform. There was a hole in the wall ahead of us, one that had clearly been added for all this. The concrete there had been punched through, leading to a smaller, clearly more recent tunnel through the dirt and rock beyond. Without hesitation, Kwur-Jiao led us into the tunnel. It was just wide enough for us to pass through in a single-file, and Asenath went first. She was followed by Shiori, then the twins, Bobbi, and Columbus, with me bringing up the rear aside from Kwur-Harn. A quick check through my connection to Marian showed that April was already on the phone. Hopefully Dare would get to that group soon, because it kind of sounded like they were in trouble. Kwur wasn’t exactly reacting well to so many of his little puppets being freed from his control, apparently. 

As we walked through the tunnel, there were actual windows along either side. The windows peeked into large, hollowed-out caverns. But they weren’t just caverns. They looked like rooms in a house or apartment, complete with carpet, furniture, lights, everything. It was like… like a television or movie set, I realized. Or like the stage of a play. The rooms were sets, with the windows being where the fourth wall would be. And on those sets were people. Some Alters, some human, but just… people. They seemed to be carrying about their lives as if totally unaware of the windows looking in on their fake apartments and houses. Like… like a tv show. That’s what it was. That’s what all of this was, a living, breathing tv show. 

Even as I came to that realization on my own, Kwur-Jiao reached out to touch a button by one of the windows. Suddenly, we could hear sound coming from within the ‘house’ there, and it was… yeah, it was a TV show in real life. The human woman was lecturing some kind of amphibian boy who was apparently ‘playing’ her son about his grades and how if he didn’t get them back up, he wouldn’t be allowed to go to the picnic the next day. The Alter kid even said ‘gee willikers.’ It was fucking bizarre. 

We moved on and watched a couple more for a minute. They were all just like that. They were people being controlled by Kwur into acting out these ridiculous scenarios. And belatedly I realized that there were plants in every one of those scenes. Usually just house plants or flowers. He was watching. He was watching them play out these insane living television scenes. 

What in the serious living fuck was wrong with this monster? 

“You see?!” Kwur-Jiao cheerfully urged after muting the most recent scene and beckoning for us to keep following her through the tunnel. “We can all have such a wonderful time working together. I just know you’ll be fine additions to the cast, and we’ll have your friends join in soon enough. With all of you here, the show will be better than it ever was!” 

Through gritted teeth, Columbus demanded, “Are you seriously acting like this whole thing is just a bunch of tv shows, or… or movies or whatever for you to watch?” 

“Puppet shows,” Miranda corrected in a flat voice. “He’s making puppet shows for himself.” 

She was right, of course. This whole thing, all of it, was one big collection of puppet shows. And from the sound of it, that’s what he wanted to do with all of us. Maybe the whole world. He wanted to start this entire war in Vegas in order to get strong enough to spread his plants everywhere and turn the whole world into his own personal living puppet show to act out these stories. All of which made this quite possibly the strangest, most fucked up thing I’d ever seen. And that was actually a pretty long and exhaustive list of strange, fucked up things at this point. 

Kwur-Harn was talking from behind us. “So many of your people misunderstand me. They think I hate you flesh-things. Absolutely not! I think you’re amazing. You’re such wonderful creatures. But you waste it so much. You waste your lives on such frivolous, boring things. Surely you must agree by now. Look at how many wars there are on just your world. Look at what the Seosten have turned all of your species into. Nothing but fighting and killing. You ignore so many of the wonderful stories you could tell. Television and movies are your greatest achievements, you should embrace them. Act out the stories you like and then move to another!” 

Sarah spoke up quietly then while taking her sister’s hand. “You’re a little insane.” 

With a shake of her head, Kwur-Jiao insisted, “My methods may seem harsh, but I am trying to free all of your people from this endless cycle. There will be violence first, enough to give me the power I need to spread over this planet. But once I am strong enough, I will take the people of this world in hand, and give them better stories to tell than the ones they have been trapped within for so long. I know that may be very difficult for you to accept, but it really is for the best. You will be happy. Well, not always. Sometimes you’ll be sad, when the story says you should be. But I’ll make sure to give you happy stories too. Some of you may even see each other again. Sometimes you’ll be enemies, sometimes friends. It will be wonderful. And so very interesting!” 

“You want to play with us like the fucking Sims?” Shiori blurted. “You want to treat the entire world like a bunch of Sim games, movies, whatever. You think you can puppet our whole population into being your entertainment?!” 

That eerie, creepy, disturbing smile stretched across Jiao’s face once more, as Kwur made her respond with an enthusiastic, “It’s just as I said! So many think I hate you fleshy things. But I love you all. I love you all and I will protect you. I will give you much better lives. You’ll just have to trust me a little bit. There will be some harsh growing pains, but it will be wonderful in the end!”

With that, Kwur-Jiao turned back to us. More lights came on behind her, and I saw that the tunnel stretched on for what seemed like miles. There were dozens more windows that we hadn’t seen yet. How long had he been doing this?! How many people were down here? This was insane! Well, that much was obvious, but still! 

“You see?” he asked through Jiao, “I am not really your enemy. In fact, I believe we can all be quite good friends. If you cooperate, I will make absolutely certain that you get the best stories. We can even negotiate on keeping you together with those you care about! You won’t have to fight for your lives anymore. You won’t have to worry about all the bad things that could happen. Everything will be just fine.” Kwur-Jiao looked straight to me. “You won’t have to worry about all the terrible things that are waiting for you.” 

“Sorry,” I shot back, “I never really wanted to be an actress. I think we’re gonna have to pass.” 

“You’ll change your minds,” Kwur-Harn knowingly insisted, smiling the whole time. “Maybe if you see a few more of our shows down here, you’ll understand that it’s not a bad thing at all.” 

“Actually,” Miranda put in, “I think we’ve seen just about enough.” With that, she glanced toward me, hand rising with the Kwur-tracking stone cupped in her palm. She’d used a spell to summon it from her Theriangelos. It was giving off an intermittently bright green glow. “Getting dimmer here, it’s the other way!” 

Even as she said that, Asenath and Shiori were moving. The two sprang at their mother, Shiori lashing out with a fist that hit Kwur-Jiao in the face and rocked her head backward. At the same time, Senny’s blurred form rushed past her before pivoting with something held up in one hand. It was a piece from the explosives strapped to Jiao. “As if my mother didn’t make sure I knew how to disarm her bombs,” the vampire snarled. 

“Well then,” Kwur-Harn began in a voice dripping with that same false-kindness. 

“We’ll have to do this the old fashioned way,” Kwur-Jiao finished. 

Suddenly, a pair of stone walls shot out up from the ground as Sands raised her mace. They wrapped around Harn while the girl blurted over her shoulder toward Miranda, Bobbi, Columbus, and me. “Go!”

The four of us went. On the way, two duplicate Mirandas split off from the original and went to help Sands and Sarah with Harn, while yet one more raced back to where Shiori and Asenath were still trying to contain Jiao. 

Meanwhile, we sprinted back through the tunnel. And it wasn’t exactly a peaceful trip. Suddenly, the people in those glass enclosures weren’t acting out scenes anymore. Instead, they were pounding at the glass while screaming at us. It was creepy as hell.  

Then it got worse. Because the glass retracted, and the tunnel was suddenly filled with a bunch of random figures of all ages whose entire focus was on stopping Columbus, Miranda, Bobbi, and me. And we definitely couldn’t fight them. 

“Flick!” Randi blurted, tossing the stone underhanded to me before creating half a dozen quick duplicates. “Go, just go!” The seven of them quickly moved to block for me, the main one snapping, “Ears!” As soon as we all (including her six duplicates) covered our ears, she let loose with a deafening scream that filled the tunnel and made all of our attackers stumble. Then another Miranda extended both hands, summoning some kind of three-inch thick metal poles from each palm that shot out a good thirty feet before snapping to either side to knock the deafened figures out of the way.

Bobbi, Columbus, and I shot through the briefly cleared path, sprinting down the tunnel as fast as my feet could carry us. On the way, Columbus snapped at Bobbi to go, and she was suddenly gone, using her superspeed to get a hell of lot further than we could. As soon as she did that, the boy reached out to catch my arm, teleporting the two of us as far down the tunnel as he could see. He did that twice more in rapid succession before we reached the platform where Bobbi was waiting.

As we landed, I checked the stone in my other hand. The glow was getting brighter. The main part of Kwur. That was the important part, the most important part. I had to get to the main part of Kwur. Once we destroyed that, the rest would be a mop-up. 

But first I had to get there, and Kwur was not going to make that easy. I realized that as I looked out over the platform and saw even more guys coming for us. It was a mixture of people in the same ‘normal life’ costumes from those plays going on back in the other tunnel, and people in actual armor with weapons and such. Clearly, he was throwing everything at us. 

“Flick, get to Kwur,” Columbus told me sharply. “You’re the one with the–just go.” He looked to Bobbi. “We got this, right, kid?” 

“Sure,” she replied, already cracking her knuckles. “We got this.” 

I didn’t argue with them. There wasn’t time. As Columbus teleported into the midst of the incoming group and Bobbi created a wall of energy to clear a path for me, I took off running once more. 

Unfortunately, I’d barely crossed half the platform before seeing an even thicker, incredibly dense wall of plants in the way. They were growing in my path, even as I got there. Within seconds, there were three new trees blocking my way that simply grew up out of seemingly nothing. 

“Oh,” I snapped under my breath, “we’re playing that way, huh?” With that, I snapped my staff down, using a burst to launch myself into the air. I went straight toward the nearest tree. It was tempting to use my wood-traveling power, but given the warning against possessing people who were infected by Kwur, I really had no idea what traveling through one of his plants would be like. Too risky. 

Instead, I landed feet first on one of the branches, my staff already converted into its bow form. Drawing back an energy arrow, I quickly muttered a word to activate one of the spells Shyel had taught me. It turned my blue-ish arrow red. When I released it, the energy shot out, colliding with the thickest set of bushes and trees in my path before exploding into a burst of red-hot fire. 

Before the plants could grow back, I launched myself that way, sailing through the opening before rolling as I hit the ground. More plants. More plants everywhere, and none of them the actual one I was looking for. But the stone said to keep going that way, so I did. I raced through the thick jungle, avoiding more and more bushes and trees that kept growing in my path to slow me down. 

A figure appeared from behind one of the trees, gun raised. I didn’t even hesitate before snapping my staff out to slam into the side of his head. Another two emerged from a bush, and I hit them with an energy-arrow that knocked them flying before they could take aim. Kwur was getting desperate.

Which meant I was getting close. 

There! I saw another tunnel opening on the opposite side of the platform from where Kwur had taken us. That had to be it. Even as I saw it, an enormous, thick tree sprang up to block the tunnel. But I didn’t care. A simple redwood wasn’t going to stop me from getting where I needed to go. Not now. 

More people were emerging to stop me, but I ignored them aside from tapping my staff against the ground as I ran, leaving a few concussive mines for them. Most of my focus was on that tree, even as plants sprang up all around me. One tree burst out of the ground right at my feet, making me stumble and nearly lose my footing before catching myself. 

But I kept going. Just before reaching the tree, I sent a cloud of sand ahead. But this wasn’t just any sand. It was super-heated. The sand itself was protected from turning to glass because it gave off heat rather than being hot itself. I wasn’t sure how that worked, exactly, but it did. Somehow. 

In any case, the super-heated sand cut through the tree in a brief few seconds. As it fell, more were growing into its place, branches twisting around like hands reaching out to grab me. But I used that open moment to dive through the opening, rolling as I ended up in an open cavern. 

There. There was a single pine tree sitting in the middle of this cavern, attended by warming lamps and a sprinkler system keeping it warm and damp. 

Unfortunately, before I could even recover from my dive, something caught me by the arm. It was a thick root growing from the wall. The root yanked me back against the wall, before half a dozen more popped out and secured me there. I couldn’t even budge. 

“It’s too bad.” The new voice came from the far corner of the cavern, before an emaciated-looking figure stepped into view. It was a human (or looked human anyway, and didn’t set off my Heretic-sense) man who looked like he was barely this side of dead. “We could have had so much fun together. But the shows will go on without you. Still, unfortunate.” 

He paused then, head tilting a little. “Why are you smiling?” 

“Because you lost,” I informed him. “You let me find your heart right there.” As much as I could from my pinned position with a dozen different roots holding me in place, I nodded toward the tree. The one the enchanted stone, now bright red, had led me to. 

The emaciated-man looked that way, then turned back and shook his head. “Unfortunately, you won’t be able to do anything about that now. And your companions are already being brought into line.” 

“See, a lot of people have thought that they had me under control,” I retorted. “You think you’re the first? Hardly. They always get a little surprise. Heretics have super powers, you know.” 

“No powers that will let you get out of this,” he noted. “We know what you are capable of.” 

My eyes narrowed. “Buddy, you have no idea what I’m capable of.” 

After letting that settle, I turned my tone conversational then. “See, awhile back, I picked up a little power from something called a Blemmye. Long story short, it lets me know exactly where places I know about are, in relation to where I am. Like, right now I know the Vestil casino is exactly sixteen thousand, eight hundred and ninety-seven feet north-north-east of here. Or three point two miles. I know exactly how far this place is from my old house, or my elementary school. I know exactly how far we are from our new base.” 

“Curious, how exactly does that help you now, in this position?” the thin figure asked. As he said it, a couple more roots crept out of the ground to hold me even tighter, just in case.

“Three reasons,” I replied slowly. “First, because I know exactly where something else is. Last spring, a few friends and I traveled on a prototype ship to get back to Earth from Seosten space. Some of our people have been spending months fixing that thing up to get the cloaking device working, and now it’s hovering above Vegas. It’s been waiting up there. 

“Two, you may think you’re close to people when you infect them, but my little sister is closer to me than you’ll ever understand. Right now, she’s on that ship. 

“And three, the fact that I know exactly where things are down to the inch works both ways. It means I know where I am exactly in relation to where they are. Or, in this case, where a certain little tree is, exactly sixty-three feet and seven inches east of me.” 

As I said it, dawning comprehension appeared on the Kwur-infested man’s face, and he spun that way. But it was too late. My eyes snapped shut, as a terrifying, deafening, blinding flash suddenly filled the cavern. 

The six-foot wide laser from the ship-mounted cannon tore through the pavement, the ground underneath, blew into the cavern itself, and obliterated Kwur’s special tree. 

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Causality And Casualty 5-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So here we were. Everyone else was busy with their own situations, leaving Sands, Sarah, Miranda, and me to trudge our way through the secret subway tunnels under Las Vegas. And we weren’t even using our own bodies for it. No, we had to use our Theriangelos animals because those same tunnels were filled with plants that may or may not turn our normal selves into crazy mass-murdering monsters. Four of us were down here looking for the largest concentration of Kwur’s consciousness, so we could destroy it and get the hell out of here.

We also couldn’t bring most of our regular powers into this. I’d learned to channel some of my abilities through Marian, thanks to Shyel. And the other three had a couple gifts of their own they managed to use through practice. But for the most part, what we could do was very limited. 

Long story short, this was going to be a pretty… interesting time, particularly if Kwur had as many people guarding his main consciousness as I was pretty sure he did. Four of us, limited powers, using animal bodies, against an evil plant monster and all his minions. Fan-damn-tastic. 

There were so many plants in here, trees, bushes, flowers, vines crawling up the walls, and more, that it was like moving through a very narrow jungle. But there were at least a couple things in our favor. Firstly, we knew for a fact that while Kwur was aware enough to know we were somewhere around his plants, he didn’t know exactly where. Those guys from before hadn’t been able to pinpoint my location. I had the feeling it was sort of like a human having a tiny germ inside their body. They might feel the effects of it being there, but narrowing down its exact location was harder. He was generally aware that we existed, but he didn’t have enough of his consciousness in these plants to point his people to a specific spot, thankfully. 

And beyond that, the other positive was that between my fox and Miranda’s raven, we could pretty easily scout ahead without giving away our position. The two of us stayed close to the top of the trees and the ceiling of the tunnel as we took turns, swapping between scouting ahead and watching behind just in case a group tried to sneak up behind us. Meanwhile, Sands’ rhino and Sarah’s crocodile moved over the ground. They were the muscle, while Randi and I were the eyes and ears, alert to the point of paranoia as we all moved together through the tunnel. 

And yet, even with that level of alertness, we were still almost taken by surprise. I had Marian perched at the top of a tree, carefully watching the silent, vegetation-filled tunnel ahead for any sign of movement ahead of us. Seeing nothing, I was about to jump to the next tree, when something made me stop. I wasn’t sure what it was, aside from some vague feeling. I hesitated for an extra couple of seconds, asking myself what exactly had made me freeze like that. 

There. Ahead and a bit to the right, near the ceiling of the tunnel. A portal opened, and a lithe, thin figure dropped out of it before catching themselves on the branch of the tree. The figure was humanoid, but with an extra leg on each side and a very long neck with a small, ball-shaped head on the end of it. They were also carrying a very long rifle, already setting themselves up with it from their perch as they used the scope to scan the ground. 

Stay back, I quickly warned the others. Sniper in the trees. Maybe more than one, they’re really quiet and came through a portal, so there might be more in other spots. I’ll deal with this one. 

Right, ‘deal with this one.’ I was glad my telepathic voice sounded so damn confident. Now all I had to do was actually follow through. Not to mention doing it without letting Marian ‘die’, and hopefully without alerting any other snipers that may be in the area that they were under attack.

To that end, I quickly shifted Marian’s colors to match the wall of the tunnel before hopping over to the very small, decorative bar near the ceiling. Keeping my eyes on the sniper, who was panning his gun from one side of the tunnel to the other, I thought about what powers I had access to in this form. It took a lot of practice and effort to channel Heretic-gained abilities through the Theriangelos. At that point, I was able to use my shifting power to change Marian’s colors, the imbuing power to use instant spells, my enhanced dexterity, agility, and reflexes making the fox even more of a crazy acrobat, some of the enhanced strength making her stronger than she should be for her size, my ‘sense all objects around me’ power, and the ability to copy any sound I heard into an object and make that object produce that sound. 

So I was a tiny fox who was faster, stronger, and more agile than she should be, who could instantly create images and words (and thus spells) with a touch, sense all objects around me, change my colors like a chameleon, and make anything I touched produce any sound I heard.

Oh, and I had that whole ‘see through stealth powers and camouflage’ ability I’d gotten from the Pantler back in Seosten space. Which, come to think of it, was probably how I saw this sniper guy to begin with. 

So, I didn’t have anything too flashy. I didn’t have my weapon, and I was in the body of a tiny fox. But I could deal with that. I could take this guy down before he knew what hit him. Hopefully.

Moving slowly along that bar, resisting the urge to rush and give away my position, I kept my eyes focused on that sniper. He was still totally focused through the scope, intent on waiting for our group to blunder into his line of fire. He had no idea I was there, gradually getting closer.

Orrrrr maybe he did. Suddenly, the figure snapped that gun up to point directly at me. Only the fact that I’d been paying so much attention, combined with those enhanced reflexes, saved Marian from being blown to pieces. The instant the barrel was pointed my way, I lunged sideways off the bar. Behind me, a chunk of the wall about as wide around as Marian’s entire body was blown apart by some kind of totally silent and invisible shot. It was like a blast of air or kinetic force or something. Whatever, it was strong enough that one hit would have completely obliterated my fox. So avoiding being hit was probably a pretty good idea right now. 

Cursing frantically in my head (and probably aloud back with my body), I sent Marian lunging from one branch to the next, leaping quickly through several trees while Mr. Sniper kept shooting, totally destroying every branch an instant after my tiny paws left it. I barely had time to focus on evading the next shot, let alone try to figure out how to get closer to the bastard. It took everything I had just to keep Marian ‘alive’ through those brief handful of seconds (which felt like an eternity). I dropped to the lower bushes, but it didn’t help. I couldn’t stay still for a single second, or the next shot would have destroyed my Theriangelos. Which wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it would still be a pain in the ass to create a new one and meet up with the others. Especially in a situation like this, where every second counted, considering the rest of our people in Vegas were in the middle of their own battles to take out Kwur. 

Somewhere in the midst of that, the shots abruptly stopped. It took me a moment to realize that it had been a hot second since the last invisible blast had blown apart part of the ground where my furry butt had been an instant earlier. Even then, I figured it was a trick or he was just taking more careful aim. That was, until Miranda’s silent telepathic voice reached me. Got him, Flick. 

Stopping short, I blinked up that way. Sure enough, the sniper was stretched out unconscious across the high branch. His rifle was dangling from another part of the tree lower down where it had fallen. And Miranda herself, or her raven anyway, was perched beside the man. You make a really good distraction, you know? Her voice was very slightly teasing. 

Right, distraction, I muttered silently. That’s totally what I was going for. 

After reporting to Sands and Sarah that the first threat was taken care of, Miranda and I joined up at the top of that tree (I took it a bit slower to catch my breath from the panicked rush of adrenaline that those few moments of being shot at had been), watching for any more snipers. 

There were none immediately in view, and we called for the other two to move forward. Then the two of us kept going. This time, Miranda and I stayed together. If there were people ready to ambush us, we really needed both of us to deal with them. That much had just been proven. 

We moved back and forth as a pair, checking behind our small group, then ahead. A couple times we found more snipers waiting, but we dealt with them. Mostly by Miranda or me causing a distraction, before the other would move up behind the would-be ambush to knock them off their perches to the ground below. There, Sarah, whose crocodile form was almost as stealthy as the two of us despite being much larger, would make sure they weren’t in any shape to fight.

It was slow-going, to say the least. But it was also the best shot we had at making our way through these tunnels without ending up with our Theriangelos blasted apart. Which wouldn’t exactly be useful as far as reaching the main part of Kwur (that wasn’t already in the prison) and burning him went. 

Finally, Miranda and I both stopped. Ahead, the tunnel opened up into what looked like another station. And there were definite defenses there. The snipers spread through the trees may have been fairly subtle up to that point, but this was anything but subtle. Six literal turrets with dual-linked cannons that looked like they had come off an actual starship were set up along the entrance into the station, facing out into the tunnel toward us. They were each manned by a figure who watched the small jungle intently. What I could see of the station beyond them was even more filled with plants than the rest of these tunnels had been, the vegetation incredibly thick. I couldn’t see all the way through it to where the opposite tunnel was, but I had no doubt that they had cannons facing that way too. 

Yeah, it may have been a stretch, but I was pretty sure this was the spot. A guess that was proven as the enchanted stone hung around Randi’s raven gave off a firm, steady glow. It wasn’t flickering anymore. Whatever else was in that station, it was definitely where Kwur’s strongest presence in Vegas was. Now we just had to do something with it. Because not only were those cannons enough on their own to totally destroy each and every one of us (probably with one shot), but they undoubtedly weren’t the only defenses in this place. Kwur knew we were in the area. He knew we were looking for him, and he’d had time to prepare. Our only real saving grace here was that all those other groups were hitting more places where he had extended other parts of himself. Which might, maybe stretch his resources too thin. Even then, he’d have plenty of defenses if this really was his main… self here in the city (dealing with a being who could stretch himself through millions of plants and had multiple levels of consciousness was really complicated to even think about).

You ever miss being kids in school, investigating silly things? Miranda asked while the two of us stared at those turrets and tried to think of a way past them. 

Hey, a lot of that stuff was totally important, I retorted. 

Sure, Randi agreed. But we never had to deal with giant laser cannon turrets while we were working out the case of the missing crate of chocolate milk. 

Smiling inwardly despite myself at that particular memory, I replied, And just like Alison Kotters, Kwur’s gonna get exactly what’s coming to him. There was a brief pause before I added thoughtfully, Maybe not the head covered in sour milk, but hey, the day is young. 

Passing information about what we could see back to Sands and Sarah, the four of us held a brief conversation about what we could do. In the end, we went with the best plan we could come up with. Which amounted to me sneaking my way up to the turrets and using magic to secretly disable them while Randi provided overwatch support with her literal bird’s-eye view, letting me know when it was safe to move and when to remain still. Once the turrets were down, the four of us would crash the party inside the station, find the main plant, and make sure it burned.

Okay, so, stealth. I could do this. Never mind that only a few minutes earlier, that sniper had seen me. This was different. These guys were talking to each other, chatting back and forth while manning their cannons without scopes. And I had Miranda watching to tell me when it was safe to move. I would be okay. I could absolutely, definitely do this. 

Repeating that to myself as I crept as carefully and silently as possible through the underbrush, I kept to the corner of the tunnel. Camouflaging Marian with the same colors as the bushes she was moving through, I froze whenever Randi said to, not moving again until she gave the word. Bit by bit, inch by inch, I moved closer to the cannons.

Eventually, I was close enough to hear the men’s conversation. They were fairly tense, but chatting about some ball game or something. I wasn’t sure. The point was, from the sound of their voices, they were afraid of something. But whether that something was more our group, or the thing they were guarding, I wasn’t sure. Hell, I wasn’t sure how much these guys were actually themselves and not mind-controlled. Though the fact that they were chatting about sports implied there were still at least some of their own thoughts. 

Whatever, if we got through this and managed to destroy the Vegas portion of Kwur, I’d make sure to ask these guys what it was like. But for now, I had to make this work. So I kept moving whenever it was safe, inching my way up to the edge of the first turret. I was basically right under the wooden platform that the guy manning the turret was standing on. Peeking up, I could see him, an orc figure standing there, leaning against his enormous weapon while chatting about someone or something covering a spread. 

Carefully, I stuck one paw up through the cracks in the platform. Finding the bottom of the starship turret, I focused on one of the spells that Shyel had taught me. Essentially, it was a ‘jamming’ spell that would prevent any electronic equipment it was applied to from working for a short time. Hopefully, that would be long enough for all of us to get through. 

I didn’t activate the spell just yet, of course. Instead, I worked my way down through the line of turrets, carefully reaching through the gaps in the platforms with Marian’s tiny paw to apply it to each of the weapons in turn. 

Finally, they were all marked. I crouched in the corner, still hidden. You guys ready for this? 

Born ready, came Sands’ reply. I didn’t know exactly where she was, but she and Sarah had both moved into position and were apparently just out of sight. Miranda was still high above, hidden at the top of one of those trees. 

Counting down from five, I hit zero and activated the spell. At the exact same time, there was a sudden thunderous crash as one of the trees literally fell over when Sands’ rhino ran right over and through it. She tore through the entire tree like it wasn’t even there, charging directly at the line of turrets. 

Obviously, the guys manning those turrets reacted. First they laughed. But that laughter turned to confusion as none of their weapons worked. Soon, they were cursing out loud, just as the rhino (its strength and speed temporarily raised by Sands’ Seosten-gained boost ability) slammed into the middle turret. The guard there went flying with a scream, while Sands demolished that weapon, then turned to slam her horn into the one to the left. Meanwhile, Sarah, whose crocodile was perched on the rhino’s back, leapt off and crashed into the guard to the right. 

I made my move then, quickly lunging up to climb the leg of the man on the far left turret, using the same electrical-shock spell I’d used on the guy in the first station to put him down. On the far end of the line of turrets, Miranda’s raven was dealing with the last guy. 

We were through. The four of us basically blew right past these guards, rushing into the jungle-filled station. 

Then all four of us stopped short. Because a man was standing there between two trees. He was alone, and recognizable. It was the guy from the painting in the casino. The one who had apparently posed as a doctor to help Dakota seal Kwur’s flower away, or tried to. Julius Harn, that was his name. He was just standing there, as if he was waiting for us. 

“Oh, hello, girls!” the man called pleasantly as we came up short. “It’s so nice to meet you face to face. Or… well, I suppose not quite. Let’s try that again.” 

With that, he snapped his fingers. As he did so, I felt a sudden twisting sensation. My whole body shook, bile rose in my throat, and then I was there. My real self was there. I was sprawled across the ground at the base of the grass-covered subway tracks in my real physical body. Around me, Miranda, Sands, and Sarah were there too. Focusing briefly, I could see our new Alter friends up above staring at Marian and the other animals in confusion. He’d used some kind of… spell or power or something to swap our bodies, putting our real selves where the Theriangelos were and vice versa. 

The four of us scrambled to our feet, while Julius continued. “Isn’t that better?” 

No. No, it was definitely not better. The bushes, the plants, they were all around us. Even at minor strength, how long would it take them to completely leave us mindless as Kwur’s emotional manipulation took over? How long did we have? Minutes? Seconds? Far too short to get anywhere. The entire tunnel system was filled with these plants. And besides, we still had to destroy Kwur. 

Destroy Kwur? No, why would we do that? That was silly. Kwur was our friend. Why would we try to burn our friend? He was the most helpful friend I had, the best friend any of us had. He was going to help me deal with Fossor. He’d gone out of his way to make sure we could–

“Flick!” The voice suddenly cut through all the bullshit in my head in that second, and my gaze jerked just in time to see a blur of motion as a figure rushed right up to me. Something grabbed my arm, then a small pill was shoved into my mouth and my head was snapped backward to make me swallow it. The next thing I knew, my thoughts cleared up. 

Asenath. It was Asenath. She gave me a quick wink, then blurred her way to Sands. Another super-fast figure was with her, already shoving a pill into Miranda’s mouth. It was Bobbi. The two of them made all of us swallow those pills, and our minds cleared up. 

Shiori was there too. She and Columbus came rushing out of the same jungle the four of us had just passed through. Moving right to me, Shiori quickly blurted, “Are you okay?! The Gehenna people, they came through with the pills. They’re supposed to protect from…” 

She trailed off then, staring at the man who had greeted us. Asenath had already stepped over in front of us, with Columbus and Bobbi a bit behind her. 

If he was intimidated by facing the eight of us, or even annoyed that we suddenly had protection from Kwur’s powers, Julius Harn (however much of him was really Harn and not just Kwur) didn’t show it. Instead, he smiled broadly, arms outstretched as though he could just hug all of us at once. “What wonderful timing! I’m so glad you all got the invitation!” 

“Invitation?” Asenath echoed, her voice snarl. “How about I invite you to tell me where our mother is, before I–” 

“Senny,” a new voice interrupted. “Don’t be rude, dear.” With those words, Jiao appeared. She came from the thick clump of trees nearby, moving to stand next to Harn with a totally fake, plastered-on smile. Like a pod person. 

“After all, our host has gone to such lengths to bring us all together. The least we can do is be polite.”

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Causality And Casualty 5-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Before we’d even managed to explain more than a few words to the collection of now-freed Alters (all of whom looked very freaked out about the whole situation), Miranda, April, and Jason showed up. They came in at a run, but slowed when they saw our group there simply talking. 

“Explain it to them,” I blurted toward Sands and Scout before turning away to grab my phone. Quickly, I typed out a message to Tabbris and sent it to her. After that, I only had to wait a couple seconds before hearing her voice in my head as she projected her consciousness to me. Flick! Mr. Haiden found flowers too! 

Rather than explain, she simply dumped the information into my head. Haiden’s group, as well as the others, had all found various hiding places for the plants. They weren’t just in the tunnels, they were in random buildings too. This was even worse than we thought. But according to Sariel (through Tabbris), what we really needed to do was find the part of the plants that had the strongest consciousness in it. Not his core, that was still back in the prison. But if we found the main part that was out of it, the biggest collection of Kwur’s mind that was here in Vegas, we would be able to actually do something about him and that would affect the rest of it. 

Thanks, Tabs. You and December stay ready, huh? We’ve got it here. I tried to sound encouraging, and not like this was all spiraling very quickly out of control the way a nagging part of my mind kept insisting. This whole thing was like having gasoline spread throughout an entire building. These plants were everywhere. If someone lit the match and a war started… it would get really damn hot around here. 

So, we had to find the main plant. To that end, after quickly passing the information to the others, I closed my eyes and focused on seeing through Marian’s eyes. I’d left my little fox-friend crouched at the bottom of those subway (seriously, what the fuck was one of those doing here in Las Vegas?) stairs, huddled in a corner where she would hopefully be out of sight unless someone walked right past her. 

Thankfully, it seemed we’d indeed gotten lucky on that point. There was no one in sight as my little fox opened her eyes and looked around. I could still see that forest-worth of plants and small trees all over the subway platform, but there were no actual people. As far as I could tell, no one had seen Marian huddled in that corner. Which might give me a chance right now to get a closer look at this whole thing before they reacted to us disabling the small army they’d sent. 

The other good part of exploring this place with my Theriangelos, of course, was the fact that I didn’t have to worry about being affected by the plant bastard’s emotional manipulation powers. I sent Marian scurrying quickly across the platform, starting to move between clumps of flowers and grass. On the way, I belatedly wondered just how much awareness Kwur had around him in this state. I knew his primary consciousness wasn’t here, but how much could the part of him that was in these plants… see or hear or whatever? Was he actually able to notice the fox? More to the point, could he communicate that fact to his minions? That seemed important right now, for some reason. 

Sending Marian down onto the grass-covered tracks behind one of the trees, I hesitated before scampering up the tree. Yeah, it was even more dangerous, but really, in for a penny, in for a pound. If plant dude was aware of the fox and knew what it meant, I’d find out really quick. Hitting the tallest branch, I made the fox look one way, then the other. The tunnels stretched out in both directions and were totally full of plants. Seriously, the garden here wasn’t so ‘little’ after all. It went on as far as I could see. I’d thought it looked like a small underground forest, but there was nothing small about it. The plants took up the entire subway system. A subway system that, as far as any of us knew, wasn’t supposed to exist

A hand settled on my shoulder back with my real body. Quickly, I shifted my attention more that way, opening my eyes to see Miranda there, looking at me with concern while Sands and Sarah continued talking to April, Jason, and the people we had just been fighting a few moments earlier. Her voice was quiet. “What’s going on, Flick? What do you see down there?” 

As she asked that, the others started paying attention. The werewolf guy, Pars, spoke up, sounding guilty. “Kid, are you okay? Barnyard and I, we didn’t mean to hurt you or anything.”

“Barnyard?” I echoed uncertainly before remembering. He’d been calling the troll Barny. 

Sure enough, Barny/Barnyard the troll gave a quick, frantic nod. He looked ashamed of himself, shifting on both feet while looking at the ground and fidgeting with his hands. “Barnyard is very sorry, Miss Yellow-Hair. Barnyard did not really want to smash with friend-hammer. Barnyard was very angry before. But Barnyard does not know why. Barnyard will be very good now. Please do not be mad at Barnyard.” 

Feeling bad, I shook my head with a glance toward the others. “It’s okay, it wasn’t your fault. I–they explained the whole flower thing and what’s going on there?” I asked, looking at Pars. 

“Oh, they did, they did.” It wasn’t the werewolf who answered, but the many-tentacled figure from Miss Handsy’s race. He too looked ashamed, shuffling forward while keeping his long limbs back behind himself. I had the feeling he was doing that to look less threatening, keeping his hands out of the way so I wouldn’t think he was trying to attack me or something. He came a bit closer, still fidgeting while adding, “I… we did not cause too much harm, I hope?” 

Sands nodded from where she was standing, offering a flat. “It’s okay, we’re all in one piece.” I saw her glance toward one of the other Alters in the crowd, adding a bit more weakly, “Mostly.” 

“It’s okay!” that guy (a dark green figure with white spots over his skin and a vertical mouth) called, holding up his arm where I saw he was missing a hand. “It’ll grow back!” He sounded fairly casual about the whole thing, which was better than holding a grudge, I supposed. 

Coughing, I rubbed the back of my head. “The point is, this isn’t any of your faults.” 

“Still,” the tentacles-guy insisted, “it wasn’t… good. But you could have killed us. You didn’t. You’re Heretics. You are, aren’t you? You don’t set off the… bad sense for some reason… but you have to be Heretics with all those powers you were using. You’re Heretics, and you risked your lives to free us, to knock us out. That’s…” He hesitated, then offered me one tentacle, very carefully. “I am called, by your people, Cake.” 

“Cake?” I echoed, taking a second before getting it as I accepted his hand. “Oh, Patty Cake.” 

“Yes, that,” he agreed. “I thought perhaps Patty, but that is apparently a female’s name. So I chose Cake.” After a brief hesitation, Cake added, “We… are all very sorry for what happened.” 

“Eh, some of us are more sorry than others.” That was one of the humanoid-looking Alters, who stood at the back with his arms folded tightly. “You are Heretics in Vegas, aren’t ya? What’re you doing here?” His voice was darkly suspicious, though I had the feeling he was just as embarrassed and ashamed of losing control as the others were and hiding it through this. 

One of the other Alters elbowed him hard, leaning in to mutter something in his ear. I caught the word ‘rebellion’ before my attention was drawn by Pars once more. The werewolf spoke tersely. “Look, all of us here were, most of us don’t know each other. Last thing we remember, we were at a restaurant having lunch and the waitress brought out those leis for some kind of Hawaiian theme or some shit.” He offered a shrug. “Next thing we know, we’re totally blinded by rage and just have to kill something. It’s… that whole thing is just really blurry. All we knew was that we were in the middle of some wild fucking fight with a couple kid Heretics. Now these girls here say there’s some evil plant piece of shit that turns people fucking evil or something? What the fuck?” 

Before I could respond to that, Jason suddenly moved up next to me, drawing everyone’s attention that way as he asked. “You guys know what’s going on with the royals around here?” 

One of the other Alters replied, “Their kids got nabbed or something, right? They’re pretty pissed off about it.” His voice darkened, sounding somewhat bitter. “My buddy’s church got raided just cuz he put out some newsletters about how they’ve got too much power like a year ago.” 

There were a few other agreements with that, and I realized once more just how bad this was going to get if we didn’t stop it. The Vegas leadership was already pissing people off with their reactions to the missing kids (understandable as their emotions were), and with Kwur’s plants around to make things worse and fan those flames… yeah, this could get very bad very fast. 

And speaking of getting very bad very fast, I looked to the others, speaking quickly. “I’ve gotta use Marian to explore. You guys explain what’s going on and try to get Sariel and the others.” 

With that, I poured my attention straight back toward my Theriangelos. She was still in the tree. At this point, however, there was someone else nearby. Turning her head, I looked down. Orcs. There were three orcs and a single human (or at least one that looked human and didn’t set off my Heretic-Sense) pacing by right beneath me. It looked like they were hunting for something? 

Me, I realized belatedly. They were looking for me. Which told me that either Kwur could communicate that there was an invader of some kind but couldn’t explain where I was exactly, or they just had some other way of knowing there was something around without specifics. 

Okay, so it didn’t tell me much at all. Still, they knew something was in the area. That much was made even more clear as one of the orcs shook a rusty old sword through a tall bush and bellowed, “Where you are?! Come face bad now or bad get badly worse!” 

A truly poetic argument toward me revealing myself, for sure. Somehow, I resisted the urge to comply, making Marian shrink back against the tree while shifting her fur to match the bark. From there, I crouched and watched the group below. At the same time, I shifted a bit of my attention back to my real body, whispering (for no real reason other than instinct), “Okay, guys, we might have to go with something more obvious. These guys know I’m there.” 

Sands and Miranda said something about being on it, but my focus was quickly drawn back to Marian, as the quartet below were joined by half a dozen more figures of various types. One of them was a lizard figure like the ones we’d fought on the roof of the casino while chasing Sarez. That one seemed to be the leader, looking around suspiciously before speaking, “Bring the others in. Spread out. Find the intruder. Send a group to check on our rabble rousers in sector Three-F. They haven’t hit the next checkpoint yet. And bring more fertilizer and water for the Potentate.”

Well, I’d heard of leaders wanting to be given nothing but bullshit, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t usually this literal. But seriously, this was bad. I shifted my attention, speaking to the others. “They’ve got more than one group like these guys. They’re calling them rabble rousers, probably because you were all supposed to start fights in the city. And they’re coming to check on you. Which I guess means they don’t know everything that’s going on with the people he’s controlling. I think his… control is limited right now? Still, they’re coming.”

By that point, I was looking around, only to see Sands, Sarah, and Miranda standing nearby with their heads down and eyes closed. They were focusing on Theriangelos of their own. 

“We’ll protect you.” That was Pars, his voice firm as he looked around the rest of the group, getting nods in agreement. He focused on me then. “We owe you that much for… for not killing us when you could’ve. Whatever you’re doing down in those tunnels, do it. We’ll keep the rest of those bastards off you if they come sniffing around.” 

“He’s right,” Jason confirmed, standing by April. He had a sword in one hand and a pistol in the other, his expression solemn. “Do what you’ve gotta do down there. We’ll keep you safe here. And, you know, let you know if we can’t. Point is, we got this. Do your thing.” 

Right, so it was up to those of us who could safely move through this underground forest with the Theriangelos to figure out where the main plant was. We could do that, I hoped. 

Once more, I shifted my full attention to Marian. I’d been semi-watching what was going on before, splitting my focus just enough to know that I hadn’t been found already. Now I could see that there were about a dozen figures spread out across the whole platform, including that lizard guy who seemed to be in charge of this group. They were all searching the bushes intently. Yeah, they knew I was in here somewhere, but not exactly where. Not yet, anyway. 

There was also a heavily-armed group heading for the stairs. But before they managed to get out of sight, the whole group suddenly stopped short. I heard one shout out a warning, just before something slammed into him from above, knocking the figure to the ground. 

It was Sarah. Or, more to the point, her Theriangelo. Which was a crocodile. Specifically, a fifteen-foot long pink and red Nile Crocodile, slamming right into the guy before biting his arm with a quick, hard chomp that left him screaming and flailing. The others at the bottom of the stairs turned to help, but immediately had problems of their own in the form of Sands’ red and pink rhino careening down the stairs to slam into them. A raven, Miranda’s Theriangelos, was perched on the rhino’s back, with something around its neck that glittered in the dim light. 

The reptile guy was already shouting orders, but I quickly jumped down on top of his head and bit into his neck while using one of the fox’s claws to tear at his right eye. While he was reeling, I put one fox paw on the man’s shirt and focused. It took a lot of practice to use Heretic abilities through the Theriangelos. Plus, you had to practice with each individual power. Luckily, I had that practice thanks to Shyel. Not enough to use every power I had, but… well, I could use some. 

In that moment, I focused on my image-inscription spell. It created a rune on the man’s shirt, which I activated by saying (in my normal body, as distance apparently didn’t matter as long as part of me, the fox in this case, was there) the command word. Instantly, a shock of electricity went through the man as I jumped off him, leaving the poor guy to spasm, yelp, and hit the ground as if he’d been hit by a taser. 

The rest of the fight after that didn’t last long. These guys were basically taken by surprise, particularly when I ambushed their leader. Still, we couldn’t just kill them. There was no way to know how in control they were. Sure, none of the people here had actual flower necklaces on, but we still didn’t know how much of this was their fault. They could just be infected more permanently, or think that they were acting on Gehenna’s orders, or… anything else. 

So, we played… sort of nice. We hurt them, but we didn’t kill them. We knocked them out where we could, injured them, rounded them up into a group, and herded them into a side room before I used another quick-inscription spell to seal the door shut. They’d be able to break out of it eventually, but it would at least give us a little time down here. 

Still, we had to hurry. Thankfully, Sands had taught all of us the Theriangelos upgrade spell from Athena that allowed us to communicate what amounted to telepathically. True, we could’ve done it by talking in our normal bodies as we were right next to each other. But this was still faster and easier than constantly swapping our attention back and forth. 

Why don’t we just set fire to all this shit while we’re here? Sands demanded, her big rhino head looking back and forth as the four of us gathered near one of the trees. If this is all part of that evil plant fucker, let’s just be done with it

Sarah was the one who replied. Because we’re down here. And still looking.

Exactly, I agreed, hopping up to a nearby branch. We need to find the main part of him in the city before we start burning things. If we set fires down here right now, it’ll be harder to search these tunnels. 

From where her raven was perched on the branch just above me, Miranda added, That’s why I brought this. Her beak popped down to tap what I could now see was the enchanted green stone tied with a shoelace around her. It was glowing. I asked Sariel, she said the stronger the consciousness in these plants, the more it’ll glow. 

Right, Sands replied, so we find the spot where that thing glows the most, then burn this whole place down to make sure we got the evil motherfucker. 

And we have to do it before he starts the war that he seems to be like… ten seconds from doing right now, I added. Without most of our powers, because we don’t dare bring our physical bodies down here. But you know, no pressure or stress or anything. I’m just saying though…

If we pull this off, we better get some pretty impressive attaboys from the prison guys who were supposed to keep this asshole contained to begin with. 

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Causality And Casualty 5-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Right, so Sands, Sarah, and I were surrounded by a small army of bad guys. Actually, no, it was worse. We were surrounded by a small army of people who might not be bad guys. They were being manipulated or even outright controlled by the actual bad guy. Everything they were doing wasn’t their decision. For all we knew, these people could be perfectly pleasant, even friendly, most of the time. But right now, they had those leis around their necks making them act like this. 

The point was, lei or no lei, these guys clearly weren’t in the mood to chat or make nice. A point they all made pretty abundantly clear as weapons were drawn, swords unsheathing, energy blades humming to life, chains clinking as they unraveled, and regular guns were cocked. 

“Try not to kill them if possible,” I muttered while producing my own staff and spinning it once as I put my back to the twins’ so we could cover all sides. “Remember, none of this is their fault.” 

“Yeah, how about you tell them not to kill us?” Sands retorted darkly. “That sounds more useful right about now.” Adopting a bright tone then, she addressed the men surrounding us. “Hey, guys, I don’t suppose saying ‘take us to your leader’ would do much?”

The weapons rose, and Sands blurted, “Yeah, didn’t think so.” At the same time, she made a quick motion with her mace, thrusting it into the air. That made a thick, circular wall of concrete rise with it, surrounding us to block the suddenly incoming gunfire, a mixture of lasers and bullets that would chew through the impromptu shield pretty quickly. But, for a moment, we were protected. 

Grabbing a coin from my pocket, I quickly turned while holding it out. As the sound of all that gunfire tearing our shield to pieces filled the air, Sands was already snapping her own hand back to touch the coin that she knew would be there. In an instant, she disappeared into the coin, and I gave it a hard chuck up and over the wall. While the coin was still flipping end over end through the air, Sands popped out of it, free hand already raised and filled with several tiny enchanted metal balls. As the men reacted and tried to adjust their fire, she hurled all of those tiny silver orbs at the ground around them. The flashbang spells on them activated, and I heard a collection of cries and curses as the men were blinded and deafened.

In the meantime, I had already converted my staff into its bow form, while taking a running start straight at the wall. Just before I would have slammed into it, Sands opened up a hole about waist high while she was still in the middle of falling. I threw myself into a slide through that small hole, bow already aimed and firing off an energy arrow that hit the ground between a trio of men there (all of whom were still staggering from the flashbangs). The concussive explosion from the arrow knocked all three of them flying, clearing up the path for me to slide through. 

Rolling to one knee, I drew back another energy arrow without wasting a single second. I didn’t need to take stock of where anyone was. My item-sense power did that just fine for me, helping aim my bow so that the arrow hit right between two more guys and threw them in opposite directions. Knock-outs, we were going for taking these guys out of the fight, not killing them. 

Alternatively, I could also make sure they were in no mood to fight. To that end, I filled one of my hands with the largest gooey blob of that nausea-inducing stuff that I could manage. It reached about the size of a beach ball before I hurled it into the air just above the largest group of the guys on this side, who were already spinning toward me as they fought through the effects of the flashbangs. Right when the spinning gel-orb reached the top of their heads, I hit it with an energy arrow. The concussive blast sent that nasty goo spraying in every direction, dropping a dozen of the mind-controlled Alters to the ground retching and heaving. 

Immediately, I followed that up by hitting the button on my staff to summon all the sand I had stored. A huge dust cloud swirled around me, and I sent it in every direction, forcing the sand into the eyes and mouths of everyone I could see. Some of those were still retching from the explosion of nausea-goop, while others had been trying to force their way past those ones to get at me. Dozens of those guys all yelled out, grabbing their eyes and rubbing to get the sand out as they stumbled. 

That was a couple big groups temporarily handled, clearing out a lot of space around me. But I wasn’t exactly safe. Two guys were coming at me from one side, before each staggered as bullets came out of nowhere. One was hit in the shoulder, while the other had the sword he was holding blown out of his hand. Sarah, of course. She wasn’t exactly sitting idle while all that was going on. Through the hole that Sands had created, I caught a glimpse as Sarah fired three quick shots into a scope-portal (probably to help Sands, who had landed on the opposite side of the circular wall thing) before abruptly spinning as one of our new very-much-not friends who apparently wasn’t actually blinded at the moment phase through the wall. Yet even as he turned solid, Sarah was already snatching the pistol from his grip with her solid-light hand, crushing the thing into scrap before that same fist lashed out in a back-handed smack that put the guy on the ground. I had been moving to help, but clearly she didn’t need it right now. 

Which was a good thing, considering I already had my hands full. With a lot of hands. Because the creature coming after me in that moment looked like another one of Miss Handsy’s species. Like her, this one looked like a two-and-a-half-foot-wide ball floating in the air with a head attached to it by a single slender stalk, with dozens of other narrow tentacles sticking out of every inch of the main ball. There was a hand attached to each tentacle, as the being used two of those to walk and the other thirty or so to hold various guns and bladed weapons. All of which the guy was bringing to bear on me. Which was just fantastic

“Time to fight!” I blurted, the command summoning Jaq and Gus to assume their places on my staff, even as I snapped it up to intercept no less than five incoming blades of varying sizes. The force of all those hits probably would have knocked the weapon out of my hand entirely without my enhanced strength. As it was, I still had to stagger back a step. 

Now my staff was raised and extended horizontally, held in one hand while three blades were held against the left side of the shaft and two against the right. Another half dozen tentacles with a mix of metal and energy swords were still coming in from that right side, but I quickly triggered a blast from that end of the staff, sending out a concussive wave that blew them back for the moment. Simultaneously, I used my other hand to create a small portal on my other side, catching a shotgun blast from the tentacle that had been trying to be sneaky by coming in from there and sending it harmlessly out to the side. 

But this damn guy never seemed to run out of hands. From the corner of my eye, I saw two more without actual weapons trying to grab my ankles. At the same time, the five with blades that I had blocked with my staff had already rebounded and were trying to stab my leg, stomach, chest, shoulder, and face respectively. The tentacle-guy was doing his level best to leave me no room to escape. Or, more to the point, trying to make me dodge backwards and end up right in the grasp of the hands he was bringing up and around to hit me from behind. 

This was one fucking guy, and he had two hands trying to grab my ankles, five with blades coming at various parts of my front, another three extended up and around to sneak on me from behind, and even more with ranged weapons ready to take pot shots at me. One guy! How was this fair? 

Oh well, good thing I didn’t fight fair either. Instead of blundering backward into his waiting tentacles, letting my ankles be grabbed, or taking five different blades into my flesh (and definitely instead of all three of those), I flung myself into a sideways flip, twisting my body in the air and tucking my legs to pass right through a single narrow gap between all those flailing tentacles, hands, and weapons. It was such a small opening that it should have been impossible to pass through without being cut to ribbons by half a dozen swinging blades. But given the agility enhancements I’d absorbed combined with my instinctive knowledge of exactly where every blade was, I was barely able to make it. Clearly, I owed the werewolf and knockengerwicht I’d gotten those powers from a few thanks. 

I did not, however, owe thanks to every werewolf. Particularly not the one who was rushing straight at me from one side in his enormous, half-human battle form, already in mid-roar. I was still in the middle of that sideways-flip that carried me between all those lashing tentacles when I caught a glimpse of him. Even worse, I sensed yet another figure coming from behind me on the opposite side, someone running up fast with a big hammer. 

So, I was still in mid-jump, barely clearing the dozen or so armed tentacles from one fucking guy. A werewolf in massive humanoid battle form was rushing at me from the direction my lunge was carrying me, and some other guy with a big hammer was coming up from the other side. 

This was all going super-fantastic, that was for sure. 

Okay, time to start dealing with all these guys. Landing from that flip, I quickly ducked one lashing blade-armed tentacle, blocked three more in quick succession with various snaps of my staff to both sides, and then stabbed the bladed end into yet another tentacle to stop it. All of that took a bare handful of seconds, and came so quickly I didn’t have time to even look to see what kind of being was coming at me with that hammer. All I knew was that the weapon was huge, so I was pretty sure the thing holding it was too. 

More tentacles were coming. Hammer guy was coming. Wolf-man was coming. Fuck, fuck, move! 

I moved, triggering the boost of my staff to send myself toward the incoming werewolf and out of range of the tentacle guy. At the same time, I summoned a new ball of nauseating liquid into my other hand, sending it flying into the wolf-man’s face. 

Three quick energy blasts from various pistols that tentacle-guy was holding came at me before I reached the wolf. But I absorbed them, the warm, almost-burning feeling rose in me from being completely full of that energy. I’d have to let it out soon. But not… just… yet. 

Instead, I snapped my staff down. A thought made the weapon grow, extending to twice its normal length so that the end collided with the ground. I used that to shove myself higher, flipping over in the air so that my momentum carried me the rest of the way before landing on my feet right smack on wolf-guy’s back while he was still doubled-over retching. The impact knocked him to the ground with a grunt. 

Finally, I could see the figure with the big hammer that I’d sensed. And I had been right about it being something big. Troll. It was a troll. Quickly, I unleashed all of that power I’d just absorbed from those lasers, sending it back out in a broad wave of energy that hit the troll, burning him and making him stagger, his bellow filling the air.  

Honestly, this was normally where I might try to possess one of these three guys. Like the werewolf I was standing on, for example. Unfortunately, that wasn’t in the cards. That warning we’d gotten from Prelate played through my head. If I tried to possess anyone who was currently affected by Kwur, there was a good chance he’d be able to get to me too. So no possessing people like this. Between that and not killing them, I was going to have to get a bit creative. Or just hit them until they stopped trying to murder me. That could work too.

To that end, as the werewolf under my feet tried to push me off, I quickly lashed out with a kick to the back of his head that slammed his face into the concrete. Hoping that would stun him for a second, I summoned something else into my hand. Herbie. Rearing back, I chucked him as hard as I could toward the flailing mass of tentacles. He was small enough to pass through the narrow space between all those wild limbs, several of which were trying to grab onto him or knock him out of the air. Just before Herbie would have bounced off the head of the tentacle-guy, I focused on a certain other power. Suddenly, my tiny rock buddy was much larger. He was about four feet across (his hat and sword grew with him). 

Giant Herbie slammed into tentacle guy’s face, knocking him to the ground before I shrank my rock buddy and summoned him back to my hand. No way was I leaving him out there to get hurt. Either way, tentacle-dude was out of the fight at least for a second or two. The troll was briefly occupied as well, with that whole recovering from taking a massive energy blast into the face thing. And the wolf guy I was still standing on had yet to reorient himself after his own face had been kicked into the pavement.

All three of them not attacking me for two seconds was good, because it gave me the briefest of openings to try something. Namely, focusing on the lei around wolf-man’s neck. I didn’t grab it, given how much of a stupid idea that seemed like. Instead, I lashed out with the bladed end of my staff to cut through it. 

Maybe I was crazy, but it sure sounded like that lei screamed when I cut it. Not in pain, but in… rage. Yeah. 

Without thinking too much about that, I flipped the blade around, caught the lei on it, and focused on superheating the metal until the flowers caught fire. As they burned, I hurled them away. By the time I did that, the wolf guy under me was really starting to shove himself up, so I jumped off him just in time to see the severely burned troll make his move. He lunged with that big hammer raised, his terrifying roar filling the air. Actually, there had to be a literal psychological power behind that roar, because it hit me much harder than something like that normally would have by that point. Hearing the sound, I froze for just a second. I shouldn’t have, but I did. Something in it, some power the troll must have had, caught me flat-footed. 

Then I was grabbed, yanked off the ground by something large and furry. The werewolf. He hauled me up and leapt out of the way an instant before that hammer came down to pulverize the hell out of the pavement where I had been standing. The next thing I knew, the wolf man landed, letting me go while turning to look at the troll. “Barny! What the hell are you doing?! You could’ve–” In mid-sentence, he had to throw himself into a backward roll as the hammer went swinging over his head. “What the fuck!? Barny, it’s me!”

It didn’t help. The massive troll kept coming after him. Seeing that, and taking in how the werewolf was acting, I blurted, “The flowers around his neck! Get them off him! But try not to touch them!” Then I hit the badge and used it to connect to Sands and Sarah so that I wouldn’t have to scream it out loud across the battlefield and repeated the bit about getting the flowers off these guys. 

By that point, the tentacle guy had recovered and used several of his hands to push himself up. He came after me then, four tentacles thrusting back to throw himself forward, while the rest came flailing in toward me. Blades swung while shots from a dozen different ranged weapons filled the air in a hail of bullets, lasers, and more. Apparently Herbie and I had pissed him off.

I did the only thing I could in that moment. I ran straight at the guy. A quick word activated the kevlar spell on my clothes, instantly protecting me (however briefly) from the incoming bullets and other projectiles. I also focused on absorbing the energy from the lasers, gripping my staff tightly in one hand. Not yet, not yet, noooot yeeeeeet. My whole body was burning up. It hurt, each blast of energy tipped me closer toward just exploding. I held it. Through extreme effort, I held it. With the bullets striking me all over (their momentum almost entirely erased thanks to the spell) like a torrential rain of metal, I kept sprinting. Even as the tentacle guy loomed right up in front of me, fifteen different blades swinging my way from every possible direction that he could reach, I kept moving

At the last possible second, with those blades inches from my body and my opponent fully (eagerly) committed, I made my actual move. Channeling every last bit of energy I’d absorbed into my staff, I created a portal and launched a blast from that energy through the staff and into the portal. At the same time, I dove feet first, baseball sliding between the man’s tentacle-legs. The other end of the portal was right behind him and slightly angled making the blast from my staff launch him up and forward, leaving just enough space for me to slide by beneath him. The precise angle of the blast actually tipped the guy forward, leaving the narrow stalk between his head and body in view. I used that, snapping my staff up so that the grapple caught the lei that dangled there. A thought, as I slid under the figure, super-heated the grapple even as it tore the ring of flowers from my opponent’s neck and incinerated them. 

Sliding and rolling to a somewhat flailing stop a few feet past the tentacle guy, I quickly flung the still smoldering remains of the lei off my staff and snapped my head up with a quick blurted prayer. 

He wasn’t attacking. The tentacle guy wasn’t attacking me. He was stumbling to the side, looking very… drunk, basically. The weapons all fell from his hands, and I heard him mutter, “What… where…?” 

It worked! Fuck, fuck, it worked! Quickly, I rolled to my feet, stumbling a little as I turned wild eyes toward where I’d last seen the werewolf guy and the giant troll. 

The troll was on his knees, hammer beside him. He looked distraught as he crouched over a man I belatedly realized was the werewolf in his fully human form. The guy looked pretty injured, his leg bent the wrong way and partially smashed, with blood all around him. But he was also holding a metal pipe of some kind that had what remained the troll’s giant lei on it. The flowers were mostly burned, and I could see a lighter laying nearby. 

“Help. Help!” the troll called desperately. “Help friend! Friend! Pars! Help Pars!” 

Looking around even as I moved that way, I saw that things were under control. We’d knocked a few people out, but more to the point, as soon as Sands and Sarah started knocking people’s leis off them, those people were freed and able to start helping others. It was an exponential effect. The more people who were freed from Kwur’s control, the more they could help free others. 

“Flick, you good?” The words penetrated a second later, and I turned to see Sands and Sarah approaching while looking around warily.

Before I could answer that, the troll blurted, “Pars not good! Help Pars!” 

“I’m okay, Barny,” the werewolf insisted through gritted teeth, shifting a bit. “Nothing that won’t… gngnnmmm… heal…” He looked to the three of us then, along with all the other figures who were coming out of their mind-controlled haze. They all looked confused, disoriented, upset, and generally just very out of it. It was like they were waking up from a dream and had no idea where they were or what they had been doing. 

“So…” Pars the werewolf asked, clearly speaking for everyone around us. 

“Who the fuck are you guys and what the fuck is going on?” 

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Causality And Casualty 5-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“You know, I can’t believe that after everything we’ve been through and everything we’ve seen, all the magic, the aliens, traveling clear across the universe… I’ve still barely ever driven a car.”

Making that announcement while walking along a hard pavement in the middle of the hot Nevada sun, I looked over toward my two companions. “I’m almost eighteen and I’ve only legally driven like… once in the past year. Is that weird? That seems weird. Come to think of it, if I do turn eighteen and manage to not be horrifically murdered or enslaved by an evil necromancer, how do I get a new adult license? I don’t exactly live in Laramie Falls anymore.” 

The pair I was walking with were Sands and Sarah. As promised, the two of them had joined our little expedition group to try to fix what was going on with the whole Vegas kidnapped children situation. Mostly because adding more people to the search was the only real chance we had to track down where this Kwur guy’s spores were (and thus hopefully find this Azlee guy) before things escalated to the point of open warfare. Because Vegas going to war would just make Kwur stronger, and if he got strong enough to make one of his spores out here his primary body… things would get very bad. 

So yeah, we’d all met up again, bringing in a few reinforcements like the twins here. With the spore-detection enchantments finished, we split up into smaller groups and were essentially walking around hoping to find what we were looking for. Canvassing random streets wasn’t exactly the most elegant or quickest solution, but it was the best we had to work with right then. 

It was important enough that we weren’t even forced to be escorted by the Vegas people. We were checking in occasionally, but right now, we needed as many groups as possible combing the city to find any trace of Kwur’s influence before it was too late. So we divided Vegas up into a grid pattern and went out, mostly in trios and quads, to pound the pavement for hours.

Just in case someone around here happened to maybe recognize me from the chase through the city a couple days earlier, I was using my shifting power to disguise myself with black hair, slightly darker skin, and wider, lighter eyes. That should be enough for me to stay anonymous.

Sands was shrugging my way. “It’s not hard to get a license that’ll fool any Bystander system. Just–” Pausing, she thought about it for a second. “Actually, huh. I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do now that we’re… now that we left Crossroads.” Her face twisted a little, looking briefly annoyed at the entire situation before she sighed. “Still, shouldn’t be a big deal. I bet our mom could help us handle that. And hey, maybe you can give us lessons. Growing up on a small island doesn’t really leave much point to driving. But now there’s gotta be times when driving would be useful, right?”

Beside her, Sarah gave a short nod. She was looking away, glancing at a couple of homeless people staggering down the street across from us. They looked drunk, given the hard time they were having staying upright. “Can’t always portal everywhere,” the girl murmured absently. 

“Especially when we don’t know how to do that spell,” I agreed. Glancing at the small green stone I was holding in one hand, I watched as it flickered slightly with a very dim glow now and then, like a mostly dead flashlight straining mightily to keep going. 

“Still not solid?” Sands asked. “So it’s still just getting traces. What was the distance for a good lock, again? It’s supposed to be obvious when we’re close enough.” 

“According to Sariel,” I replied, “it should lock on if we’re anywhere within about a block of one of them. But the range could be shorter if it’s only a small spore or if they’re shielded somehow. And yeah, it should be obvious. It’s supposed to get brighter the closer we are, and turn red as soon as we get the thing right up within spitting distance or so of the main plant that the bulk of Kwur’s… you know, consciousness or whatever is in beyond the one Gehenna’s got.” Pausing, I added, “The point is, we’ll definitely notice when it goes off.” 

Unfortunately, up to this point, all we’d managed to get was this very slight flickering. Which, according to the others, meant the stone was picking up faint traces of the plant guy. But it was so faint that it could just be from an infected person passing by sometime within the past day or so. Plus, the others had picked up similar faint signs. We were trying to follow ours in a very slow and difficult hot-and-cold game. It was hard when the slight flickering came so slowly and sporadically. The trace here was just… too faint. Hopefully, one of our groups would find something stronger soon. 

Sands started to say something else, when the communication badges we wore abruptly activated. Tristan’s voice came through. He was with Vanessa and their mother at the Vestil Casino where they had been waiting to get information about that painting. “Okay, so we’re talking to these guys and they said the guy in the painting is Julius Harn. Apparently he’s some dude who used to live in the city and contributed a whole bunch of magic, money, and time to the Separation War. You know, the battle to force Heretics out of Vegas and keep them out. He was pretty big in the city up until the eighties, even served on their ruling council for a long time and helped establish a lot of their rules. Then he sorta became a recluse and ended up disappearing entirely about twenty years ago. No one around here’s seen him since then. They checked his house and it was cleaned out. No word, no notice, nothing like that. Guy just started showing up less and less before poof, totally gone.”  

“Not totally gone,” Miranda’s voice pointed out from wherever she currently was with April and Jason in their part of this search. “Since he apparently spent a lot of time in that hospital Vanessa and that Dakota girl were at, pretending to be this Doctor Folgers. Or maybe he really was a doctor and changed his identity. Whatever, that was just a few years ago, right? So he didn’t die or anything. He showed up there and helped Dakota seal off the plant at her house.”

Shiori spoke up then. She, Asenath, Columbus, and Bobbi were in their own group. “Maybe he had to take on another identity because of someone here in Vegas, one of the powerful players.” 

“We’ll ask him if we find him,” Haiden assured us. While the rest of his family was at the casino, Haiden was with Dare, Triss, and Felix. “All we know for sure is that he’s connected to Kwur through Dakota. How he connects to this Azlee Ren guy, who knows. We’re still missing things.” 

Thinking about that for a second, I touched the badge that was hooked against the pocket of my red button-down tee-shirt before speaking. “What if Folgers-errr, I mean Julius Harn wasn’t completely safe when he locked away that plant in Dakota’s house? What if Kwur’s spore was able to worm its way into him and that’s what brought Kwur’s attention to Vegas as a good target? If Harn was such a big player for so long setting this place up, he’d know a lot about the people here, even if he was out for a couple decades. You know, cuz if Kwur’s spore was able to grow and eventually twist this guy to his own ends over the past couple years, that might explain why Vegas was targeted to begin with as soon as they had Azlee’s help to pull it off.”

Sariel agreed, her voice thoughtful as it came through the badge. “I believe you may be right. We need to find Kwur or Harn to verify, but it fits what we know. If Harn was infected at the time, even faintly, Kwur’s spore could have laid in waiting for the right time. You said that the Gehenna people told you they transfer Kwur around a lot. Perhaps this is the first time he’s been here on Earth at a time when the spore had enough control over Harn to push this ploy.”  

“So nothing’s changed, right?” That was Asenath. “We trace the spores until we find Harn, Azlee, or whoever else they lead to. Then we get answers out of them about where Mom and those kids are. And we do it before these guys manage to start this war they want so badly.” 

“Yeah, keep looking,” Sariel confirmed. “We’ll check a little bit more around here in case anyone has unofficially seen Harn since he disappeared. Then we’ll hit the streets if we don’t find anything useful. Keep checking in and let everyone know the moment any of you get a hit.” 

We agreed before signing off. Then I looked back to the twins. “Well, I guess we just keep moving then? What do you say we head over to that apartment building on the corner and take a ride up and down the elevator just for the hell of it? Maybe the traces this thing’s picking up comes from someone on one of those floors.” 

“Yeah,” Sands agreed with a long, low sigh. “And if that doesn’t work, the map says there’s a mall right down the street that might be a–” She paused then, glancing over to her sister with a frown. “Sarah? You okay?” 

In answer, Sarah looked back to us and gave a slight shake of her head. Her voice was low. Belatedly, I noticed that she had activated one of the privacy coins and held it low. “Those guys over there aren’t actually drunk,” she informed us softly. “Don’t look at them right now.” 

Thankfully, I’d already managed to stop myself from reflexively glancing that way, instead focusing on the girl herself with a confused frown as I slowly asked, “The homeless guys who were wandering around across the street? What do you mean, they’re not actually drunk?” 

Sands, who had caught herself in mid-turn and used the motion to instead scratch the back of her neck idly, nodded. “Yeah, how do you know? They looked pretty drunk to me.” 

“One at a time,” Sarah informed us. “They… stagger one at a time. One staggers and almost falls over, but the other catches him, balances him. Then they switch. They’re play-drunk.” 

Raising a hand, I pointed to the apartment building I’d mentioned before, pretending to be suggesting we go there. With my other hand, I activated the badge. “Could someone check with our hosts to find out if they have a couple watchdogs pretending to be homeless drunks keeping an eye on us? I don’t want to go anywhere with this if it turns out they’re just secret babysitters.” 

It took a moment, through which Sarah, Sands, and I pretended to debate about which way we should go next. I used the time to get a look at the men in question once more through the corner of my eye. They’d settled in an alley across the street and a little bit up from where we were, and were currently passing a bottle back and forth as they took turns swigging from it. 

Finally, Sariel’s voice came back. “They’re not official watchers. Someone back up the girls.” 

Do you need help? Tabbris’s voice came through my mind through our connection as she used the partial recall without actually coming all the way to me. I could–

No, it’s okay, Tabs, I assured her. You and December stay where you are. What you’re doing is a lot more important than a couple of maybe bad guys. Plus, we wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise. 

Sands was saying much the same to Sariel. “It’s two guys. We can at least check them out. We’ve got this.” 

While Sariel and Haiden both warned us to be careful, and Miranda checked in to say her group would head our way to play back-up, I thought about it. Then I nodded while starting to move to that apartment. “Come on, I’ve got an idea. Act like we’re going this way. Can you cover me?” 

The twins did so, both stepping up to position themselves so that the guys across the street wouldn’t see exactly what I was doing. I used that to summon a small, prepared bit of wood to one hand. With my other hand, I created a quick portal that was blocked from view by Sands’ body, activated the spell on the wood, and quickly tossed it through the portal before letting it close. The other end of the portal was on the far side of the street, near a couple mailboxes.

“You’re gonna have to guide me,” I warned the other two before focusing my attention on the spell I’d just activated. It was my Theriangelos, of course. The fox. Or Marian, as Tabbris called her. Seeing through her eyes in addition to my own, I closed mine, taking the hand that Scout offered so she could guide me while I focused mostly on controlling my little summoned friend.

Right, the fox was crouched by the garbage cans, staring at a wall with random graffiti on it. Quickly, I made her turn around and peek out from behind them. Ahead, I saw the two ‘drunk’ guys watching our group walking away from them. Their act had disappeared as soon as it became clear that we were leaving and (apparently) not paying attention. I saw one of the guys saying something, but couldn’t hear what it was even with Marian’s keen sense of hearing. She was still too far away. But I did notice that the other guy didn’t respond at all. Yet a few seconds later, the first guy nodded and said something else. He wasn’t talking to his partner. He was speaking through some kind of communication device or spell, like we had been. Either to whoever they were working for, or maybe to other partners they had to catch up with us. Whichever it was, neither seemed to be in a hurry to follow. Instead, they turned and walked back into that alley. 

After checking to make sure the coast seemed clear and that no one was watching, I sent Marian after them. The tiny fox went running silently along the sidewalk, sticking near the edge of the nearby building to be as invisible as possible. The fact that it was red brick and the fox was also reddish-brown helped with that. 

Actually, wait a second. Thinking about it, I wondered if I could channel my shifting powers through the Theriangelos. Some Heretic-gained powers seemed to work easily, others took a lot more practice or didn’t work at all. Focusing on the brick I could see next to the fox, I thought about shifting her fur to more fully match. After a moment of that, while still trotting along, I had her glance down. Sure enough, she was more… brick-colored. Huh, that was cool. Chameleon-fox. 

By then, Marian had reached the edge of the alley. There was a dumpster there, and I quickly sent her under it so she could peer out from relative safety. It wasn’t hard to spot our two watchers. They were nearing the far end of the alley, where there was seemingly nowhere else to go. But one of the men simply reached out, pressing his hand into one of the bricks there. It pushed inward, before there was a slow grinding noise as a doorway-section of bricks moved out of the way, admitting the two men. 

“Diagon Alleying!” I blurted through my own mouth. “They’re Diagon Alleying!” While Sands asked what the fuck that meant, I quickly directed Marian to follow. She darted out, running quickly along the ground before slipping into the doorway just before the bricks could slide back into place. Passing through the opening, the little fox emerged into what was actually a dingy, very dimly-lit concrete stairwell. But it was wide, not narrow, with a metal handrail in the middle. Ahead, the stairs led down. It was dark that way, but I could hear the footsteps of the men who had been watching us. Actually, the whole place reminded me of…

“Subway,” I said aloud. “Brick wall with a hidden door leads to some old subway entrance. But… uhhh that sounds wrong. Unless I’m really behind, Vegas doesn’t have a subway service. Hold on, let me see…”

With that, I sent Marian scampering down the stairs. On the way, I matched her fur to the color of the concrete in an attempt to blend in a bit more. The fox’s night vision was pretty good, which helped as things got even darker away from the entrance. Ahead, I could hear the men still descending, talking to each other in low voices. Before long, I was actually able to make out what they were saying. 

“—get so close in the first place?” one voice asked with obvious annoyance. 

“Some kind of detector,” the second, more patient one replied. “A spell or tech from Gehenna. Whatever it is, they’re picking up traces of the Potentate.” 

Potentate. I knew that word, it was like… king or ruler or whatever. A monarch. Were they talking about Kwur? He was (apparently) just one of that evil Dragon-Heretic guy’s minions. But that was probably good enough to be a king to most people. And I had to figure that anyone nasty enough to be one of the most dangerous and evil prisoners in the universe almost had to have the kind of ego that would make his minions call him their king, or some version of that. 

“Will they track him here?” the first voice asked while the sound of the footsteps on stairs quickened a bit. I sent Marian scampering faster, hopping from step to step to catch up. 

“No,” came the response. “Whatever means of detection they have won’t penetrate our hiding spells. The Potentate will be safe.”

A moment later, Marian reached the bottom of the stairs. Sure enough, it opened up into what looked… well, like a subway station. Seriously, there was a wide platform, a spot for the train itself straight ahead, and the entrance into the tunnel at either end. It was a subway. It looked like any other subway I’d seen in movies and stuff. Except for one thing… the plants. 

Yeah, plants. They were everywhere. I saw vines covering the walls, flowers and bushes along the floor, a couple small trees growing out of the railway tracks, and more. It was a miniature garden down here. Actually, not-so-miniature. 

“Guys, we’ve got it,” I said aloud. “We’ve got the bad guy.” 

“Flick,” Sarah’s voice cut in, sounding urgent. 

So, I opened my eyes and looked around. We were behind that apartment building from before. And we weren’t alone. A small army of heavily armed figures stood around us. They were a mix of humanoid and very, very not. All of them looked very pissed off. Which seemed at odds with the flower leis they wore, unless you knew what Kwur’s whole deal was. Yeah. These people were clearly all under his thrall, and we were surrounded by them.

“Got news for you,” Sands informed me. 

“We’ve got more than one bad guy.”

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Causality And Casualty 5-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Needless to say, we were all very confused. Sands, Sarah, Felix, Triss, Tabbris, December, Dare, and I all stared at one another in wordless bafflement while Vanessa was clung to by the little girl who apparently knew her well enough to go for an immediate hug despite all her very understandable trauma. A girl she herself couldn’t remember at all. Which really should have been practically impossible given her memory powers, so what in the living hell?

Eventually, Dare stepped more fully into the room. “Dakota,” she started carefully. “How do you know Vanessa, exactly?” As she asked that, the woman glanced at the girl in question with an expression that clearly asked for her to wait until Dakota actually answered before speaking up.

For her part, Dakota stepped back, suddenly looking a lot more uncertain when she realized how many people were watching her. She actually half-hid behind Vanessa, which just made it more clear how much she trusted and looked up to the other girl. “Um. She visited the hospital where I was. She visited a lot of the kids, but she… she…” Biting her lip, Dakota glanced to the blonde girl. “She believed me,” the girl murmured in a quiet, hesitant voice. “When I told her what happened, she believed I wasn’t crazy. She… she’s the one who sent the doctor to me.”

Vanessa still looked pretty clueless. Considering that for a moment, she slowly nodded. “I did visit the hospital a few times to see people that I knew from before… but…” Focusing on Dakota, she continued. “What doctor are you talking about? Because…” She seemed to be considering her words very carefully to avoid upsetting the girl or dismissing her. “I think something happened to my memory. I don’t remember talking to you, and I really should.”

For a second, it was clear that the dark-haired girl felt reflexively hurt by not being remembered. But she pushed that down, shifting a bit on her feet before slowly asking, “Does… does that mean someone used magic on you? But you said you never forget anything. You said you’d always remember me because you have a magic memory. How can someone take that away?”

“There are always checks and balances,” Dare spoke up, drawing the attention of both girls. “Nothing is one hundred percent perfect and foolproof. Even a memory as protected as a full Seosten’s… or someone with that same gift, such as Vanessa, can be tampered with given enough power or skill. Remember, even Sariel’s memory was affected by the Seosten banishment orb. The real question right now is who changed her memory. And why.”

Yeah, she wasn’t wrong. That was definitely the most important question at the moment. But before we went further with that, something else seemed important too. And that something was introductions. So, I looked to the poor, clearly very skittish girl. “Hi, Dakota. I’m Flick. This is Tabbris.” I gently pulled my little sister up in front of myself, as she gave a short wave.

“Hi!” Tabbris piped up, her own hand moving to grab December (who still seemed surprised that anyone would willingly touch her), pulling the girl up beside us. “This is December! She’s cool.”

December’s mouth opened, then she stopped short. Turning to the girl beside her, she quickly asked, “Waitasec. Wasthatapun? YouknowcuzcoolandDecember. December’swinterandcold.”

Tabbris, in response, simply grinned and giggled a little bit. She said something very quick in Latin. I’d been learning a lot, but I wasn’t perfect yet. Plus, she said it at December speed.

So, instead of trying to follow that, I glanced to the others and asked, “Could the person who erased Vanessa’s memory have been the… you know, plant guy himself? Or one of the minions he took over, trying to isolate her from anyone who could help?” Belatedly, I added, “Or who could bring help.” Cool as she was, of course, I really doubted pre-Heretic Vanessa would have been much of an issue for someone like Kwur. Or any of those people, really.

Sarah spoke up then, taking a step closer with a look that made it clear that she was very much sympathizing with the girl who had witnessed (and been a part of) such horrific trauma as a child. Trauma that she couldn’t talk about very much. “Maybe the doctor Vanessa asked about?”

Before anyone else could say anything, Dakota shook her head quickly. “Nuh uh. Doctor Folgers is really nice and really cool and he helped seal the bad plant so no one could find it. Vanessa said she’d send someone who could help me and Doctor Folgers came and helped.”

“Doctor Folgers,” Dare echoed, looking over to Vanessa. “How about it, you remember them?”

A slight frown touched the other girl’s face, as she squinted off into the distance while murmuring, “Folgers. I…” Now she looked even more troubled while her head shook. “I don’t remember. No, I don’t remember hearing that name before.” Even as she said it, there was a slight hitch to her voice. It was obvious that she was very close to freaking out. Which I couldn’t blame her for, given how she’d relied on her perfect memory through literally her entire life. The idea that someone had actually messed with it after all had to be hitting pretty hard right then.

Dare seemed to consider for a moment before asking, “Dakota, what can you tell us about this Doctor Folgers? How did he meet with you, what did he look like? How long has it been since you’ve seen him? Did he tell you anything specific about how he sealed up that basement?”

“Why didn’t he take the plant or destroy it?” Sands quickly put in. “That seems pretty important.”

“Hey, yeah,” Triss put in from a bit further back where she and her own sister were standing (Felix was being pretty quiet at the moment). “How come this helpful magic doctor guy didn’t just destroy the stupid evil plant if he believed what you said and knew how dangerous it was?”

“He couldn’t!” Dakota put in quickly and a bit defensively before flushing a little as everyone looked at her. Once more, she seemed to instinctively shrink behind Vanessa for protection. Her voice was a bit quieter. “He said he tried to destroy it, but he could sense the… the voice trying to get to him. So he sealed it off. He said he was going to research more ways to safely get rid of it. He said he had some friends who knew magic better than he did and they could help.”

Reading something in her voice, I hesitated before asking, “You never saw him again, did you?”

“No,” the young girl confirmed quietly and with obvious sadness, shrinking in on herself a bit. “He never came back after that. I asked about him and they said there wasn’t a doctor by that name. I asked about Vanessa, and they said she was too busy to come see me anymore.”

Flinching noticeably, Vanessa went down to one knee and embraced the girl tightly. “I’m sorry,” she murmured while holding her. “I’m sorry I… I’m sorry something happened and I couldn’t remember you. We’re going to help you now, I swear. We’ll figure out what happened and make sure it never happens again. You’re safe here, Dakota. Can… can you answer Professor Dare’s question about what Doctor Folgers looked like? Maybe that will help me remember him.” She sounded doubtful about that, but was clearly ready to try just about anything that might work.

So, Dakota described the man. Apparently he was rather rotund, shaped basically like a large beach ball. She said he was maybe about my height, and wore a doctor coat over a ruffled lime green shirt with some flowers on it. His stethoscope was purple, and he was always chewing a lot of bubblegum. Oh, and he apparently had very dark green, almost black eyes, along with a very friendly smile that made her feel safe when he talked to her.

The more the girl talked about him, the more obvious it became that she really missed him. He’d obviously made a very strong impression on her for the limited time they’d interacted. It made me feel even worse about the thought that she’d been alone for so long after something as traumatizing and soul-crushing as what she’d been through. This kid needed a lot of help.

Unfortunately, getting the description didn’t seem to help Vanessa at all. She squinted, clearly focusing very hard on trying to remember before sighing almost explosively. “Not remembering something is awful,” she declared. “Is this what everyone else feels like all the time when they can’t remember? Gotta say, not a fan.”

“Yeah, pretty much,” I confirmed. “Maybe someone shapeshifted into you to talk to her because you went to the hospital and could be someone she trusted? But… why? And who?” My head shook. Too much speculation. “If your memory was messed with, maybe your mom can help? She’s basically the best expert we have at that kind of thing, isn’t she?”

As Vanessa nodded, Dare was already moving. “I’ll see if we can bring her down. You guys talk to Dakota a bit. Maybe she remembers some other things that could be useful.” To the girl in question, she asked, “Are you going to be okay here?”

Dakota gave a short nod, though she was staying very close to Vanessa. “I’m… yes, I’m okay.”

“Don’t worry, kid,” Felix declared. “We’re in a space station in the middle of the sun. Definitely don’t have to worry about that psycho monster plant dude finding you up here.”

“She’s right,” I agreed. “Plus you’re surrounded by people who would kick his ass.” Offering her a small smile, I added, “Do you mind if we take a few samples from you for the spell so we can go back out there and find this plant guy before he hurts more people? I swear it won’t hurt.”

“I don’t care if it does,” Dakota informed me solemnly. “You can hurt me to find him. I deserve it.” She said it so matter-of-factly, like… like it was a universal certainty that she deserved pain. That, more than anything I’d heard so far, showed me just how messed up this kid really was.

Vanessa, thankfully, was right there. Still on one knee, she shook her head while putting both hands on Dakota’s shoulders. But she didn’t say ‘you’re wrong’ or anything like that. Instead, she asked in a very calm, collected voice, “Why do you feel like you deserve to be hurt?”

Dakota stared at her, mouth opening before she swallowed hard and looked away. An expression of deep, lingering shame crossed her face. When she spoke, it was in a broken, halting voice while tears filled her eyes. “I did bad things.” For such a simple statement, there was a lot behind those few words. She didn’t need to say anything more than that. I… I didn’t want to hear more details. My own imagination was plenty bad enough as far as thinking about what had happened that terrible day. The last thing I wanted was to know for certain.

“Did you want to do those bad things?” Vanessa asked her simply, watching the girl’s eyes while still holding her by the shoulders. “Did they make you happy?”

Lip trembling for a few seconds, Dakota’s entire face crumpled in, tears falling freely. “No. No.” She repeated that a couple times, head shaking. Crying openly by that point, she stammered in a horrible, broken voice that hitched and cracked between almost every word. “No, I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to. I’m sorry. I want my Mommy and Daddy. I’m sorry. I didn’t wanna do that. I don’t want it. I don’t want to be here. I want my Mommy and Daddy and everyone. I want to go back. Please, please, I don’t want this, I don’t want this, I don’t want this.”

That was about as much as she could say, collapsing against Vanessa, who held her tight. The older girl’s voice was quiet and soothing. “You didn’t do it,” she assured her. “It’s not your fault. You didn’t choose it. You’d never hurt your family. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Dakota. Your mom and dad knew it wasn’t your fault. Your brothers and sisters knew that too. You’re okay.”

The two stayed like that for a couple minutes, Vanessa simply holding her close and soothing her the way I was pretty sure Vanessa herself had needed for quite some time as a child. Finally, Dakota looked up to her, sniffling a little. “You have to find the plant man and make him stop before he makes someone else kill people,” she said in a weak voice. “Please.”

“We will,” Vanessa promised her firmly. “We’re going to find him and stop him. We just have to take a few samples from you so we can do that, okay? It’ll be really easy and really quick.”

The girl agreed once more, and then Vanessa and Tabbris set out taking hair, skin, saliva, and blood samples from her. The last bit was the ‘hardest’, but even that wasn’t bad. All they did was set an enchanted vial against her arm and let it slowly fill up by essentially teleporting her blood the very short distance from her arm into the vial. There wasn’t even any penetration involved.

While they were busy with that, I focused on the others. “What do you guys think? Does this Doctor Folgers sound familiar to anyone?” To December, Triss, and Felix, I added, “You guys have more experience with the non-Heretic side of the world. Maybe he rings a bell?”

Unfortunately, they all shook their heads. As did Sands and Sarah. Triss spoke up with a hesitant, “I don’t think we know anyone who looks like that. I mean, he kind… maybe sounds a little bit like that one guy who used to be part of the Crossroads Committee before he died.”

“Brockett,” Sands put in. “Oliver Brockett. But it’s definitely not him. He wouldn’t need to go get help to deal with this guy. Or at least he wouldn’t admit it. And if the Committee knew that thing was there, they would’ve either destroyed it or blocked the whole house off a lot more than just putting an illusion over the basement. And he was still around until a few months ago. It can’t be him.”

“She’s probably right,” I murmured before offering, “Maybe we can go to the hospital where Dakota was and find the security footage from the last time she saw him? If we got an actual look at him, that might help identify the guy.”

“Not a bad idea, Felicity.” That was Sariel, coming into the room alongside Dare. As she entered, Tabbris and Vanessa both moved to embrace her, and she returned their hugs fondly. Then she looked at me, continuing her thought. “But there are easier ways to share the image of this doctor with you, without going to the hospital. First, however…” She focused on her Vanessa, frowning thoughtfully as she brushed the girl’s hair back and stared into her eyes with the look of a doctor examining a patient.

The rest of us exchanged uncertain looks and waited, while Sariel checked over her eldest daughter with a few prepared spells. Through it all, Vanessa remained quiet, clearly uncomfortable with the idea that her memory had possibly been altered.

“Something is definitely missing,” Sariel finally declared, straightening a bit. Her voice was tense. “Whoever did it was an expert, a surgeon of memory adjustment. They removed specific memories and carefully connected the remaining pieces so you wouldn’t notice. For example, say you were sitting in a chair in the waiting room, reading a magazine when someone came up and interrupted. The two of you have a ten minute conversation, then get up and walk into an examination room to talk to a doctor together before leaving to ride the elevator back down to the lobby before you finally part ways. Whoever went into your mind erased your memory of the other person entirely. They cut out the entire private conversation, then edited the person out of your memory of speaking with the doctor. Think of it as adjusting your memory of everything the doctor said to the second person as being said to you, with the other person’s questions being moved to you and even adjusted to sound more like something you’d say.”

Vanessa stared at her mother, mouth open. “That… that… who–why–” Her hands covered her mouth and she looked stricken at the thought. And for her part, Sariel didn’t look any happier. If anything, she was clearly even more upset and holding back most of it.

“I don’t know,” the Seosten woman replied in a quiet voice. “But we’ll find out, I promise you that much. Whoever did this was skilled enough that they didn’t leave much in the way of traces. We need to find the person themselves if we want to replace the memories.”

“Finding out who this doctor guy is might help with that,” I put in. “You said you could do something about that without having to go to the hospital to look through security footage?”

“Yes,” Sariel confirmed, clearly taking a second to focus on the issue at hand instead of her daughter’s altered memory. “We only need someone who does remember him.”

“Memory transfer?” Vanessa guessed, looking to Dakota before reaching out to take the nervous girl’s hand reassuringly as she spoke directly to her. “If it’s okay with you, we could project your memories of the guy so everyone can see him. Would you be okay with that?”

Yeah, it was clear that, memory or no memory, Vanessa was very protective of this girl. Maybe that was just her own personality and all. Or maybe some part of her actually did remember her, even if she couldn’t actively recall those memories. Whatever it was, she definitely felt something.

“Okay,” the girl agreed quietly. “Whatever you have to take, I don’t care. Just find him and stop him.”

Sariel moved that way, taking a knee alongside her daughter before gently grasping the traumatized little girl’s hands. “Dakota, my name is Sariel. I’m going to use a spell that’s going to draw out one specific memory and project it for everyone to see. That’s all. It will take the memory you’re thinking about, so I need you to focus on when you saw Doctor Folgers. Think about talking to him, about what he looks like and hold that in your head, okay?”

The girl quickly agreed, and Sariel produced a small pink crystal. Promising that it wouldn’t hurt, she held the crystal up to Dakota’s forehead before murmuring the activation word for the spell. Immediately, the crystal began to glow and give off a soft hum. I heard Dakota gasp, but clearly Sariel had been right about it not hurting. At most, it seemed to tickle her a little bit.

Then the crystal glowed a bit more brightly, a light projecting off of it to reach the middle of the room before resolving into a hologram. As we all stared, the image resolved into a man. Just as Dakota had described, he was about my height, very rotund, with that outlandish outfit. And just as I’d thought, he didn’t look familiar at all. Aside from surface-level description, he didn’t look like Counselor Brockett.

“Ummm….” Slowly, I shook my head. “Nope, I’ve still got nothing. You guys?”

“Oh!” That was Tabbris, whose eyes widened. “We’ve seen him, we have seen him! Or a–I mean a picture, a–Mama, do me before the crystal runs out!”

With a shrug, Sariel did so, moving the crystal over to her daughter’s head. It took another few seconds, then projected another image. This one wasn’t of a person. It was of a hallway. Belatedly, I recognized it as the hallway within the casino in Vegas. It was taken from the moment I was thrown across the corridor and up against the wall by Sarez’s defensive spell, the one that left me stunned for a few seconds while Tabbris took over and made me run after him. In that moment, the image froze, showing a single painting on the wall.

It was a painting of the man we had just seen from Dakota’s memories. A very detailed one too. It looked important, like… like the man himself was important.

“Oh.” Tilting my head as I stared at the image, I said, “that’s from the Vestil casino. I guess we’re going back to Vegas then.”

“We were going back there anyway,” Vanessa pointed out. “Now that we have what we need to make the tracking spells so we can find Kwur.”

“Indeed,” Dare agreed, her own gaze intent on the image hanging in the air. “And I believe it’s time you all had a little more aid in ending this situation.” She looked to the rest of us. “Not all together. We can split into smaller groups and search the city for any trace of these plants. The tracking spells should signal if anyone gets close to them.”

Sands piped up quickly, “Hey, yeah. This time, you guys are totally not leaving without us.”

“I will have a discussion with these… Vestil about who the man in the painting is,” Sariel murmured. “That may lead to who…” It sounded like she was going to say something else, before settling on, “… manipulated my daughter’s memory.”

“I’m going with you,” Vanessa declared flatly.

Looking to Sands and Sarah, I asked, “You guys wanna wander Vegas together?” As they quickly agreed, I glanced back to the image from Dakota’s memories once more. Why was the doctor who had helped that girl and had apparently also been erased from Vanessa’s memory in a painting hung on the wall of the Vestil casino? Did that have anything to do with why Vegas was being targeted now? Unfortunately, my morbid guess was that this guy, whoever he was, had made Vegas a target by getting involved in the situation. But who was he? What exactly was going on?

And at some point in the course of all this, would I end up with an actual answer instead of yet another handful of questions?

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Causality And Casualty 5-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Please note that the Heretical Edge edition of Patreon Snippets will be posted on Friday for Patrons and Saturday for the public. This is to avoid making everyone wait even longer to get back to the plot while not making my wonderful $10+ Patrons wait too long to get their own snippets as well. 

The girl’s name was Dakota Coalbright. Apparently, four years ago, when she was nine years old, her father brought home some kind of plant from Canada. The plant turned everyone in her family, including the girl herself, into murdering psychopaths. Her whole family was killed (by each other), leaving only Dakota. Exactly how many of those deaths she was… well, responsible for was the wrong word, given the situation. Exactly how many of the deaths she had been forced to participate in was not something the girl was talking about, according to Sands. For all we knew, she might not even remember exactly how it went. Actually, I was… kind of hoping she didn’t, honestly. 

How terrible would that have been? By that point in my life, I’d only had my dad. How would I have felt if some plant, or any other effect, made me kill him? It would have destroyed me. I was seriously unsure if I ever would have recovered from something like that. I had no idea what kind of horrific sights, sounds, even smells were locked in this girl’s memory. But it had to be really bad. 

For four years, the girl had been in some mental hospital somewhere, as everyone believed that she had killed her entire family all by herself. I had to believe that had something to do with the Bystander Effect making them believe that a nine year old girl could kill an entire family like that. Not just psychologically, of course. There were plenty of fucked up people out there. But physically. I kind of doubted it was physically possible for her to do some of the things involved in those killings. But the Bystander Effect knew that magic was involved, so it made them think this was possible. Or something. Or maybe they just didn’t want to look too closely into it.

Either way, the point was that the kid (well, now thirteen-year-old) broke out of her prison/hospital when she heard some voice in her head, the same voice that apparently had convinced her and her family to kill each other before. Realizing that it meant the monster was back and loose, she broke out to get home. My best guess was that she wanted to save whoever was in her old house. But it didn’t work. Apparently when she got there, the people didn’t listen to her. They heard the voice and left, rather than kill each other. Probably because the voice in their heads (Kwur, obviously) had actual instructions for them beyond violence. 

But Dakota herself had been left to deal with the ghosts of her dead family members, which led to her hiding in the same basement area the murder plant had previously been left in, when Sands, Sarah, Triss, Felix, and Kohaku found her and heard the whole story. Hearing about ‘Canada’ made them call us. Or try to. Apparently no calls had been able to reach us while we were talking to Prelate at the Gehenna outpost. They’d tried a few times, only getting through once we were out and back to the bus. Finally, Sands was able to get through and we found out the rest of the story. 

It was… kind of convenient, really, that Sands and the others managed to get hold of someone who had been infected by Kwur’s spores or whatever right when we needed someone like that. I wondered, honestly, if that had been some kind of trap or something. But I couldn’t figure out what the point would be. This Kwur guy (if guy was the right word for him) couldn’t know that Kohaku would investigate some random ghost sightings. And even if he did, there didn’t seem to be a point to it. No, I had no idea if this was anything more than coincidence. But if it was, it didn’t seem to be something that Kwur set up. That said, I still wanted to keep my eyes open.

In any case, the girl had very clearly been infected by those Kwur spores, which meant she could help us track down other infested people, or even the main part of Kwur that was out of the prison. As Vanessa and Tabbris had explained, it wouldn’t be an instant locator spell or anything. At most, it would let us know if we were anywhere near someone like that. But it was something. And something was more than we’d had before.

Still, the girl didn’t want to go to Canada. Which, given her history with just one plant from that place, I couldn’t blame her for. And we didn’t want to send her into Vegas, given it was apparently rapidly deteriorating into a warzone. The best place for the kid was up in the star station. So, Vanessa, Tabbris, December, and I were going to go up there. We’d talk to the kid, see if we could find out anything else specific from her (like if she recognized the name Kwur at all), and get the samples we needed for the tracking spell. Meanwhile, the others would go back to Vegas itself, try to calm things down if they could, and look around for any hint of the evil plant. Maybe someone had given a flower gift somewhere in one of the casinos? Yeah, cuz that would be incredibly easy to narrow down. 

Either way, they were trying. We just had to hope that this Dakota girl’s contribution would be enough to find that piece of Kwur before things got a lot worse than they already were. 

Coming through the portal that Haiden had set up, the four of us emerged into one of the transport rooms. As soon as we appeared, I saw Abigail and Dare, standing with one of the other male adults whose name I couldn’t place. He was a thin, fairly short Latino guy who appeared to be in his fifties. I was pretty sure he was one of the former Garden Heretics who was teaching some classes here now. 

The three adults were deep in conversation, but when we appeared, it stopped. The Garden guy leaned in to say something to Abigail more quietly, while Dare stepped forward to meet us. I saw her eyes flick briefly to me before she addressed the group. “Long couple days, huh?” 

Groaning, I bobbed my head up and down. “You could say that. And they’re not over yet.” 

“Butit’sreallyinteresting,” December piped up from where she was standing next to Tabbris and just behind Vanessa and me. “It’salotmorefunthan… justrunningboringsurveillence… allthetime.”

Exchanging a brief look with me, Vanessa asked, “What about the stuff up here? Are they almost finished with the spell yet?” We’d been told before we left the first time that Dries and the others were just about finished adjusting the anti-possession spell so that it would block any of our people from being possessed as long as they returned to the station periodically for a refresh. That was the whole reason Avalon stayed behind instead of going on this trip to begin with, because they needed her to be close for the last bit before the spell would be ready. 

Dare grimaced slightly. “There were a couple of hiccups on that front. Turns out to make the spell work properly, they needed a… let’s call it a rare crystal. And by rare I mean we only knew of a few of them on Earth. The good news is, one of the crystals we knew about is in Brazil.” 

I blinked, starting to ask why that was a good thing. But Tabbris quickly blurted, “That’s where Hasty and the other werewolves went.” When I glanced at her, she blushed before explaining in a somewhat quieter voice, “She told me where they were going cuz we’re supposed to watch the new Fallstrider season on DVD but she made me promise to wait until they got back.” 

Yeah, apparently over the past couple months, Tabbris and the werewolf known as Hasty from Mateo’s pack had bonded a bit over a shared interest that Fallstrider anime. Now, whenever the pack was around, those two would find a quiet place to pop in the show. Which, honestly, was pretty awesome. I’d been interested in seeing what the fuss was about, but I’d look into it on my own. I didn’t want to butt in on what was clearly something Tabbris liked having with someone else. She deserved that.

December, in that moment, looked a little confused. “Waityouhaveafriend…namedHastyand…. it’snotme? Butbeinghasty… iskindamything.” 

Tabbris giggled, head shaking. “Hasty’s her nickname. I think you’d like her. And you can watch the show with us when she’s back. Oh! I’ll have to show you the rest of it first.” 

“Youcanshowme…” December informed her, “Butifit’satvshow… itwon’tdomuchgood.” 

Tilting her head, Tabbris hesitantly asked, “Do you not like TV? Is it because you have to sit down?” 

“IcansitdownifIwantto,” December sniffed before shaking her head. “ButIcan’twatchtv… cuzthere’snomagic… inthescreen… soIcan’tseeit.” 

Frowning uncertainly at Tabbris, who was frowning back at me, my mouth opened. But Vanessa beat me to it. “December, are you blind?” 

Defensively, the girl insisted, “Ihearandsmellandtasteandfeelreallygood. AndIseemagic. Iseemagicevenbehindme. Allaroundme. ItbouncesoffthingssoIknowwheretheyare. Ievenknowwhattheylooklike…. cuzthemagicsenseisreallysensitive. Anddifferentcolorsfeeldifferent. Iseemagic… andsoundwaves… andheatandelectricityandstuff. But… I can’t… see… normal not-magic screens… andstufflikethat.” She offered a shrug, clearly still self-conscious. “Icanseewithanimals!” 

“No, no, it’s okay,” I quickly put in. “We just…” December was like that Daredevil guy back in Seosten space that I’d fought? What she was describing was the same thing Apollo had talked about back then. He’d said it was a rare mutation that was the result of various experiments the Seosten had done to cure their pregnancy problem. So this kid had both that and SPS? Geez. 

“You can see electricity and soundwaves and magic and stuff?” Tabbris had jumped straight to that, her eyes shining with delight as she started. “What does that stuff look like? What does anything look like? Do you–” Realizing they were holding things up, she shot a quick, apologetic look toward Dare before stepping back as she pulled December with her. The two lowered their voices to talk.

With a shake of her head and a small smile, Dare nodded to Vanessa and me. “In any case, yes, the pack was in Brazil. So Avalon, Rebecca, and Aylen went with Deveron and Lillian to see what they could do about getting that crystal they need. They just left right after classes this morning.” 

Grimacing at the revelation that I’d missed Avalon, I exhaled. “Makes sense, they’ve gotta get that spell up.” Pausing, I looked toward December briefly before adding, “I wish we had time to help them…”  

Giving me a look that said she knew exactly how I was feeling, Dare gently replied, “I think they’ve got it handled for now. You’ve got your own situation to deal with, it sounds like.” 

“Situation to deal with… yeah, that’s one way of putting it,” I muttered before looking back to her. “Seriously, monster alien plant thing, gonna try to break out the evil version of Arthur if we don’t put a lid on his bullshit. And part of said bullshit is starting a war in Las Vegas. So, ya know.” 

“We really need to talk to this Dakota,” Vanessa finished for me, voice slightly calmer than mine. 

Abigail spoke up then. “Yes, you will. She’s in one of the guest rooms with Sands and Sarah. They’re taking care of her. But…” She paused, clearly considering her words. “Be… careful, girls. I’ve barely spoken to her, but she’s obviously fragile right now. I know this is important, but don’t push her too hard. Making her think about what happened back then, it’s… it’s not a good idea.” It sounded like she was having a hard time even letting us go talk to this girl about the source of her trauma. Which was completely understandable, especially for someone like Abigail. Still, we didn’t have a choice. Not with Kwur (or at least a piece of him) out there ready to put a lot more trauma on a lot more people. She was our best, maybe only, chance to find him before things got so much worse for everyone. 

“It’s okay, Abigail,” I assured her, meeting my older sister’s distraught and conflicted gaze. “We won’t push her any more than we absolutely have to. We just need to get the samples from her and ask if there’s anything she knows that might help find this plant thing.” Offering her a small, hopefully somewhat reassuring smile, I added, “We’ll deal with this and then get right back to doing the school thing.” 

Returning my smile somewhat, she retorted, “You better. Don’t think you can blow off as many classes as you want just because we’re related. I’ll throw your butt in extra detention just to make an example out of you.” 

Making a show of shuddering at the idea of what extra detention would be like, I replied, “Well, we better get to it then. Guys?” I glanced over to Tabbris and December. “Ready to go?” 

They were. Dare escorted us out of the room, leaving Abigail and the other guy, who belatedly and briefly greeted us before returning to his conversation with my older sister. It sounded like they were talking about some kind of situation with the rebel Garden people who weren’t up here. I hoped they were okay. We kind of needed all the allies we could get. 

“What’s Mr. Echolls talking to Principal Fellows about?” Vanessa asked Dare curiously as we moved down the station corridor at a pace slightly faster than normal walking, but not quite jogging. “It sounded important,” she noted, glancing back that way with a thoughtful frown.

Without looking that way or breaking stride at all, Dare replied, “The Garden people have been having a bit of a problem with a group of Blemmye and their Manticore pets hitting a couple of their supply lines while they were in the middle of a fight with their own loyalists. They couldn’t spare the resources to deal with it without being hit hard on that other front. Nevada and Hisao took a few older students with Gordon, Douglas, Jazz, and Koren to help clean out that little problem. Abigail asked to be kept up to date with that, given… her daughter.”   

Right, the Blemmyes. Those were the humanoids with no heads but faces on their torsos that I’d seen (and fought against) when we were at Eden’s Garden looking for Roxa all those months earlier. Almost a year, come to think of it, considering it happened right at Thanksgiving. Damn. 

I also knew that the only reason Dare wasn’t out there with Hisao and Koren herself was likely because she wanted to know what happened with me being in Canada. Hell, the fact that Hisao was there was probably the only reason she wasn’t there with Koren. I wondered if she was having him keep her just as informed about what was going on as Abigail with that Garden teacher. It wouldn’t have surprised me if she had a spell ready to jump straight there if need be. 

Rather than address that, of course, I just shook my head. “Lots of things going on right now. It feels weird to know that… you know, Koren and Jazz and the others are out fighting one thing, Valley, Rebecca, and Aylen are dealing with something else, and Sands and Scout went out earlier and ended up bringing back this Dakota girl.”

“You mean it feels weird that they’re out doing all that and you’re not there?” Dare asked with a raised eyebrow before pointing out, “It’s not as though you’re sitting on your laurels, Felicity.” 

Flushing a bit, I nodded. “I know, I get it. They probably feel the same way about me being in Vegas, then Canada and all that. I guess you get used to feeling helpless like that and just having to wait to see how it goes.” 

“If you do grow accustomed to it,” my secret grandmother informed me in a soft voice, “it hasn’t quite happened for me yet. But you do learn to tolerate it. Just be there when you can.” She gave me a brief, yet meaningful look, offering a small smile of reassurance. “That’s what matters.”

Before long, the five of us reached the area with the guest rooms. Or at least these ones. I was fairly confident that there were a lot more, considering the size of this place. Felix and Triss were outside in the corridor, apparently having a conversation about some band they both liked. When the two saw us coming, Felix’s eyes lit up and the Nekomata Hybrid grinned. “Well hey, looks like neither of you bet enough to lose your shirts in Vegas.” At a sideways kick to the leg from her half-sister, she coughed. “And that’s a good thing. Very good thing. Don’t gamble. Or something.” 

“Felix,” Dare spoke warningly, raising her voice just a little bit so that it shifted from more casual conversation to the tone of an authority figure. That was all she said, that one word. But it was enough. 

“I know, I know,” the girl conceded. “That one was a bit over the line. I heard it as soon as I said it. I might be pushing it a bit hard to avoid thinking about… other things.” The white cat ears on top of her head flattened a little as she looked to the nearby door. 

Exchanging a brief look with Vanessa to make sure we were on the same page, I spoke up. “It’s okay. What’s going on with the girl?” 

Triss replied, again with that faint Russian accent I’d noticed the first time we met, “Sarah and Sands are in there with her. They’re playing one of those Zelda games. Apparently they had it in the hospital the kid was in and she knows it backwards and forwards, inside and out. She keeps telling the twins all about the lore of the whole series. Something about multiple timelines.” 

“Sounds like something Shiori’d be able to help her with,” I noted. “Is… do you think she’s okay to talk right now?” 

Both of the sisters looked to each other before Felix nodded. “Kid’s pretty tough, considering what she went through.” 

So, we went inside. I saw Sands and Scout sitting on either side of a couch. Sure enough, they were watching the Zelda game on a large screen, while the girl in question sat between them. She was pretty tiny, looking practically malnourished, with very pale skin and dark hair that apparently refused to be tamed. When the door opened, the girl turned quickly, reacting almost like she had been shot as she stared at us. 

Then she had an… odd reaction. I saw her face light up with recognition, and she blurted, “Vanessa!” In one move, the kid flung herself over the back of the couch, landing on the floor before bolting that way to embrace the girl beside me. “Vanessa! You’re here, I didn’t know you were here!” 

“Whoa, hey,” I teased while stepping back. “Didn’t know you had history with the new girl. How come you didn’t say anything? Dakota Coalbright’s a pretty unique name.” 

Vanessa hadn’t pulled back from the embrace. She stood there, returning it while looking at me of total and complete confusion. She mouthed a silent, ‘I don’t remember her.’ 

Wait… no. That was impossible. Vanessa’s memory was perfect. She’d never forgotten anything in her life. 

So how could this Dakota girl know her so well that she instantly went for a hug, while Vanessa didn’t remember her at all? 

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Interlude 3B – Triss, Felix, Sands, and Sarah (Heretical Edge 2)

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Sometime While Flick And Company Are In Canada

“So, what’s the deal with all the twins around here?” seventeen-year-old Felix Laja, the human-Nekomata hybrid asked her six-month older half-sister (and full Nekomata), Triss. She was eyeing Sandoval and Sarah Lucas (formerly Mason) as the four of them stood in one of the transport rooms of the Fusion School space station. Or, as many had taken to calling it, the star station. “Not that I, or my dreams, are complaining, mind you. Just seems to be a lot of them.” 

For their part, Sands and Sarah looked to each other for a silent moment before stepping apart. The latter replied simply, “Heretic regeneration abilities gained from various kills increase the chance of multiple-birth pregnancies by anywhere from twenty-five percent to thirty-six percent.” 

“Whoa, really?” Felix blinked at the girl while tilting her head, the bangs of her short white-blonde hair falling into her face briefly before she blew them out. “I didn’t really think there was a–wait.” She squinted at the straight-faced Heretic for a second. “You’re screwing with me!”

Snickering, Sands gestured to Sarah. “Yeah, she is. But you had it coming. Seriously, gross.” 

“Don’t mind her,” Triss spoke up in an obviously long-suffering voice while poking her sister in the back of the head. “Between being a complete lech all the time, and her obsession with pushing people’s envelopes, sometimes Felix doesn’t know where the line actually is.” 

“I’m a cat,” the hybrid girl retorted while doing a quick casual standing backflip for no apparent reason other than boredom. “If someone tries to tell me where the line is, I push it off the table. Even if I have to drag it onto a table first. Look, the metaphor falls apart pretty easily.” 

Triss opened her mouth to retort that she was more of a cat then the other girl. But before the words could come, the door on the other side of the room opened and Risa Kohaku entered. The former head of Crossroads School Security (and former host of the Seosten Manakel) crossed the room to where they were. She held a computer pad in one hand and glanced at it before stopping briefly to tap something in. Then she looked to the group. “You girls okay with a trip?” 

“You asked for the four of us, right?” Sands piped up, her tone making it clear that she was incredibly curious. “Which, for the record, thank you. Seriously, you have no idea how boring it is just sitting around waiting for Flick, Columbus, and the others to get back from their thing. We can’t even bug Avalon cuz she’s busy with the spell stuff. And Mom’s on that trip to London.” 

Giving a slight nod of agreement, Sarah added, “Why did you ask for us specifically?”  

“Well,” the woman replied, “first, because I know the two of you–” She nodded to the twins. “–are good enough to pull this off. And because I promised your mom I’d take you on a mission if something came up that seemed to be your speed. Something about wanting you to have a chance to stretch your legs a bit. I don’t know, seems like she might trust you or something.” 

Then Risa glanced to Triss and Felix. “As for you two, well, let’s just say you’ll be very useful for what we’re going to be doing today. But before we get into that, I need all four of you to swear to me that you’re going to work together. I mean it. No running off on your own, no solo heroics, nothing like that. I don’t mean you have to be joined at the hip in a fight, but be reasonable. You all work together. If you don’t, I’m sending all four of you back here immediately.” She squinted at them to make her seriousness clear. “Do you understand?” 

There was a chorus of agreement from the group before Risa nodded. “Good. Now, as for what we’re actually doing, take a look at this.” She touched a couple buttons on her handheld computer and a hologram appeared a few feet away from her. It was about ten feet high and ten feet wide, an image of a very large farmhouse, nearly a mansion in its own right, sitting in the middle of nowhere with a rundown silo and a barn that was missing several large pieces of its walls on either side of it. There was a fenced-in paddock that looked as though it hadn’t seen use in decades. The road leading through the field up to the house was made of dirt and covered in very deep ruts from heavy vehicles moving over it repeatedly. Yet there was no sign of any such machinery at the farm. And from the looks of it, there hadn’t been for some time.

“The place is known as the Coalbright Farm,” Risa informed them. “It’s been abandoned for four years, ever since the nine-year-old daughter supposedly went crazy and killed her entire family one night. Two younger sisters, one younger brother, and one older brother, along with both parents and a grandfather.” 

“A fucking nine-year-old killed her entire family?” Sands demanded dubiously. 

“So they said,” Risa confirmed. “And so did she. They were found by neighbors the next morning with the girl sitting with the bodies. She claimed she was possessed by a demon, which forced her to do it. She was found psychologically unstable, and remanded to a mental health institution, where she stayed until one week ago, when she escaped by stabbing an orderly with a ballpoint pen and taking his keys.” 

“Seosten?” Sarah guessed immediately while making a face as she glanced toward her sister. 

Sands quickly nodded. “Yeah, maybe this kid was telling the truth about being possessed before, and she escaped when the Seosten came after her again to shut her up? Or the Seosten just possessed her again for some reason. I mean, they love secrets.”

“A fair thought,” Risa replied, “But why wait four years to do it? And why do it while there’s a truce going on? There could be an argument that it doesn’t apply to this particular situation, but still. I don’t think any of those in charge would take that kind of risk unless they absolutely had to. And whether it’s something they had to take that much of a risk on, or something unrelated, we need to know.” She paused before adding with a look to Felix and Triss, “In any case, the Seosten bit doesn’t answer the other part of this whole thing, the reason the other two are here.”   

“Let me guess,” Triss put in quickly, “ghosts. There’s ghosts at that farm from all those dead people and you want us along because we can make ghost-fire to help deal with them, right?”  

The woman nodded once more. “Of course, there’s been various reports of ghosts from the farm for the entire time, since shortly after the deaths. But in the past week, ever since the girl broke out of the hospital, those reports have skyrocketed. Eighteen people in the nearby town have talked about being woken up at night by ghostly figures outside their windows or even inside their rooms. The police searched the property several times since the girl escaped, but they found nothing, not even any sign that she’s been there at all. And yesterday morning, two teenagers who snuck into the place to show off were found dead. They supposedly hung themselves in the main room of the house, suspended together from the upstairs banister.” 

“I’m gonna hit the X for doubt button,” Felix piped up. “I mean, yeah, they totally obviously didn’t kill themselves. Duh. But what’s going on then? Someone possesses this girl or controls her somehow back when she’s gods damned nine years old to kill her whole family for no apparent reason, then four years pass where people in the town occasionally report a ghost, and now the girl breaks out of her hospital just in time for those ghost sightings to go up several thousand percent and a couple more people die? What’s the deal with all that? How’s it connected, how–ohhh, right, we’re supposed to figure that out.” Quickly, she looked to the other three. “Dudes, dibs on Daphne if we run into the Scooby gang out there. I totally called it, you all heard me.” 

Risa gave a slight shake of her head. “Yes, we did. Now, to the next point. Yes, the five of us are going to investigate the farm and figure out exactly what is really happening. But that’s not our primary goal. We’re actually looking for a group of refugee Alters who were supposed to hole up at the house to wait for extraction. We’ve used the farm a few times in the past months with no problems. This time, our people found out about the situation when a pair showed up to take the Alters to safety and found the place crawling with police dealing with the supposed suicides. That’s when we picked up the news about Dakota Coalbright escaping, and everything else.” 

She said that, and she was even pretty convincing. But Sarah knew better. Risa had been controlled by Manakel to do terrible things. It wasn’t a coincidence that she’d chosen this mission. The stated goal may have been to find the lost Alters, but it was pretty apparent that Risa Kohaku had stamped ‘and help the girl’ in bright red letters across that statement. 

“You don’t think it’s one of the Alters in the group that killed those teenagers, do you?” Sands asked, biting her lip uncertainly as she quickly added, “I mean, I know, I know, they’re not all bad. Come on, I get it by now, definitely. But there’s still some bad, just like there’s some bad humans.” 

“That’s part of why we’re investigating,” Risa confirmed. “Just in case. We need answers either way. But the fact that Dakota escaped so recently after such a long time seems like too much of a coincidence to be unrelated. It’s probable that the Alters we sent there are in just as much danger as anyone else. We’re going to find them and work out what actually happened. 

“So, everyone ready to go? Because I’m pretty sure this is going to be a long day.” 

********

With a terrifying shriek that would send cold chills through anyone’s heart, the gray-green ghostly figure of an old man with a pitchfork dove at Sands as she stood in the farmhouse kitchen. Instantly, the girl shifted into her two-dimensional shadow form and allowed the ghost to pass right over her. Then she popped back up, spinning while activating the spell she’d put on her mace that allowed it to hit intangible figures. “Hey, bitch!” she blurted while slamming the mace in the back of the ghost’s head, “You’re not the only one who can pull the ‘can’t hit me’ trick!” 

The ghost stumbled from the blow, just before two quick shots from Sarah’s sniper rifle came through an invisible portal and struck him in the chest. Like the mace, the bullets were enchanted to be able to hit him, and his form flickered while the man bellowed in a mindless rage, which literally shook the house from the force of his anger. A couple dust-covered paintings were knocked from the walls to shatter against the floor, and the lamp hanging above the table swung a bit, shuddering as it was nearly torn from the chain holding it to the ceiling. 

While her sister followed up the attack against the angry, staggering ghost, Sarah (crouched on the front porch of the house) briefly switched the view of her scope to see through a different portal. That one showed her the living room next to the kitchen, where Felix and Triss were busy fighting a couple more ghosts, those of the older brother and the mother who had been killed. Taking careful aim, she fired a shot that caught the brother and stunned him long enough for Triss to swipe a ghost-fire covered set of claws through his chest. Meanwhile, Felix launched herself backwards, bouncing off the wall and using that to propel herself forward into a flip above the mother-ghost. She ignited her hands with the same ghost-fire while dropping down on top of the figure with a loud snarl that was, in turn, drowned out by the howl from the ghost herself. 

Felix fell through the ghost after damaging her with the flaming claws. Before the ghost, in turn, could retaliate, Sarah fired a quick shot that caught her in the forehead and made her reel. That left her open for the Nekomata hybrid to spin and rake her claws through the ghost’s leg. 

Without missing a beat, Sarah shifted her scope view back to the kitchen. She saw Sands use the spider-web production power she’d gained from the Spinnevurrs the year before to catch hold of the kitchen table and yank it to herself. The table passed harmlessly through the ghost in front of her. But just as the table landed in front of her, Sands slapped a prepared spell-coin against it. At a command word from her, the table ignited with ghost-fire, making the intangible figure flinch backward with a shriek. Before he could react further, Sands lashed out with her foot and kicked the table into him. His entire form went up in flames while his horrible screech filled the air. While he was still engulfed by that powerful ghost-fire, Sands used a power she’d gained over the summer. Specifically, she extended her left hand and projected what amounted to a shotgun-like burst of power that was capable of severely disorienting conscious minds while also damaging or even unraveling spells and other magical constructs, particularly those who weren’t shielded or were caught unawares. Which, given the fact that ghosts like this were not actually the ‘spirits’ of dead people, but the remains of their magic given semi-conscious form, did a lot of damage. The burning figure was blown in half by the shotgun-like blast from Sands. 

Sarah, meanwhile, disabled her scope view. She remained where she was for a moment, before abruptly rising and spinning on one foot. As she did, the solid-hologram that had been made to look like her missing arm shifted and turned into a blade. The blade went right through the face of one of the younger sister ghosts who had been attempting to sneak up behind her. Of course, the solid-hologram did little to the ghost. But the eight-inch long metal cylinder that was projecting the hologram had been given the same ghost-fire spell enchantment, and Scout activated that with a word while the cylinder was buried in the surprised ghost’s head. The ghost became even more surprised as she burst into flames and dissipated. She wouldn’t be gone for good, of course. That would take a lot more. 

“Good job, Sarah.” That was Risa, who appeared through a conjured portal from where she had been fighting in the upstairs of the house. “That’s the last of them for now. Come on.” With that, she led the girl inside to meet up with the others, who had just gathered. “Everyone okay here?” 

“Peachy,” Triss replied while rubbing her shoulder. Her tail swished back and forth before catching against her sister’s and intertwining with it fondly. “But what do we do now? Those ghosts aren’t going to stay gone forever. They’re tied to this place, right? The house, it’s gotta be what’s keeping them here.” 

Felix bobbed her head quickly. “Yeah, sounds like the best thing is to burn the place down. Burn down the house, get rid of the ghosts. The home is their anchor, so we get rid of it, right?” 

“We do,” Risa confirmed. “But first, we check the basement.” 

The four girls exchanged confused glances before Sands asked, “What basement? We’ve been all over this place, there’s no stairs down to a basement.” 

With a wink, Risa replied, “That’s because someone hid them with magic. Which is why the police never found their missing fugitive.” With that, she turned to an apparently blank part of the wall and made a gesture with her hand. A chunk of that wall was torn away, revealing a set of stairs leading, sure enough, down into the darkness. “Stay together, girls,” she ordered, before starting to descend. 

All five descended the stairs carefully, finding themselves in a wide open, unfinished basement. A dark-haired, pale young girl who had very clearly been long-deprived of much sunlight sat in the middle of the room on the hard basement floor. She was small and thin, her hair and skin dirty and clearly uncared for through not only this past week, but for quite some time before. Even as the group approached with weapons drawn, the thirteen-year-old spoke in a trembling voice. “It’s too late. It’s too late, he came back. He came back, he came back.” There was terror and loss in her voice and she barely seemed cognizant that they were there. 

Giving the students a look for them to be quiet, Risa carefully asked, “Who came back, Dakota? What happened here? What happened four years ago?” She took a knee next to the girl. “It’s okay.” Extending a hand carefully, she used a subtle power that would calm the clearly traumatized thirteen-year-old’s wild emotions slightly. 

It didn’t help very much. She blinked up, tears streaming down her face. “There were people here this week, strange people with powers and magic. He took them. They found their way in here and he took them. They broke the magic and came in here. They weren’t supposed to come in here. They found him, and he took them.” As she spoke, Dakota raised a small hand to point across the room. The group looked that way, but all they could see was a shattered flowerpot with a bit of dirt lying around it. 

“Dad… Dad went on a trip,” the girl was explaining in a hollow voice. “He went on a trip and he… he brought back a flower for Mom. But the flower was evil. The flower was evil. It made everyone do bad things. Mom, Dad, James, even Raina and she was practically a baby. I felt it too. I felt it too. It made me so mad. Like when James used to make fun of me cuz I sucked at basketball, but… but worse. Really worse. It was like that for everybody. We attacked each other. W-we… we attacked each other and I heard his voice. I heard… I heard him laugh. I could hear him laughing. And he.. he told us to kill each other. I wanted to kill them. I wanted to kill my Mom and Dad. I wanted to kill my–we were– They wanted to kill me. I was–he made us. He made us. I’m sorry. Oh god, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” The girl shuddered heavily, slow tears falling down her face as she continued, sounding empty and lost.  “I heard his voice again. I heard it in the hospital and I knew he was back. I knew someone found the basement. The doctor who believed me said he’d hide it with magic and no one would find it, but someone found it. Those people found it. I tried to tell them but they were already affected. They heard his voice and they ran away. They left. But my family–my family was here. I couldn’t–I couldn’t–” With that, she dissolved into wretched sobbing, doubling over.

“Something in a flower… turned all these people into violent monsters,” Sands murmured softly. “It was hidden down here in the basement, but the Alters found it and were affected. That… somehow woke up this thing and now the Alters are gone? Where’d they go?” 

Risa shook her head. “I don’t know, but…Dakota, this is important.” She tenderly touched the girl’s shoulder. “We’re going to take care of you, I promise. Nothing is going to hurt you anymore. But we need to know, where did the flower come from? Where did your father get that flower?” 

The answer came in a halting, miserable voice. “Canada.

“He brought it from Canada.”

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Learning Days Daze 2-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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 Yeah, on top of everything else, I was spending a lot of my evenings secretly being trained by one of the most dangerous beings in the universe. Or at least, by a sort of virtual reality copy of her. Which was pretty close. 

Tabbris knew about it, naturally. As for the others, Avalon and Shiori knew, as did my father, Dare, and Sariel herself. We were keeping it as secret as possible beyond that to avoid Fossor somehow getting wind of it, as he tended to do. Not that I didn’t trust the rest of my friends and family, of course. It was just… better to keep certain cards close to the vest until the time came to play them. The fewer people who knew about me having a copy of Chayyiel in my head, the less chance of Fossor finding out.

She was here to train me, to help me prepare for the future. That included whatever was going to happen when my birthday came around, and beyond. I’d even asked her opinion about the whole Fossor’s sister thing, and she gave me some tips. 

We split our time between her teaching me magic and teaching me to fight better. My lack of needing real sleep meant I could go through a lot more of these extended, intense virtual training sessions than others who needed more time fully shut down. 

It wasn’t exactly the same as a full physical training session, but pretty damn close. And coming from someone as skilled as she was, it was worth everything. Months of training under her several times a week was probably the equivalent of years or even decades training under other people. The extra help she was giving me this way was worth more than I could ever really repay, even if I lived a thousand years. It was completely invaluable. 

That was what I kept telling myself no matter how often she beat me up. And I got beat up a lot. The fact that this was taking place in my head apparently meant I could take all the damage in the world and then just be fine. I’d been ‘killed’ more times than I could count in these training sessions. But it was never gratuitous or anything. Chayyiel was teaching me. Or Shyel. That was what I referred to the one in my head as to separate her from the real one. Shy because she was hiding in my brain. Shy Chayyiel. Shyel. It worked. 

Shyel showed me what she was doing over and over again, getting it into my head as well as into my body until it was reflex. Then she did something else that totally destroyed me, and taught me how to handle that. Move after move, bruise after bruise, death after death, she had spent these past couple of months driving me as hard as she safely could given everything else going on. It wasn’t every night, but it was enough. At least, I hoped it would be. I hoped all of this would be enough to deal with Fossor. To say nothing of everything else that was bound to come up. After all, I had at least two members of the Crossroads Committee who were definitely royally pissed off at me. I needed all the help I could get. 

Groaning a bit as I lay half in a pile of leaves while rubbing my arm, I blinked up at the simulacrum. “You’d think that if we’re in my brain, we could make getting hit not hurt so much.”

Offering me both a smile (making her look even more like an innocent child than she already did) and her hand, Shyel replied, “It would do more harm than good to teach you how to handle something without any pain involved. It’s better for you to learn how it’s going to feel and go on through it anyway.” 

Her expression softened considerably then, as the girl helped me back to my feet. “But I’m sorry if I’m hurting you. I just know we’re running out of time and there’s so much more I want to teach you.”

“Hey, I am the one who’s supposed to be getting nervous and antsy about this whole thing,” I reminded her. “We’ve still got time. And I think I’m getting better, even if you keep taking me apart like I’m a toddler.” I didn’t have any problem admitting that, considering the real Chayyiel took basically everyone apart like they were toddlers. There was nothing to be embarrassed by. 

Hesitantly, I admitted, “I’m still not sure why you did all this, exactly. I mean why the original you went through all this trouble to help me train. I doubt you do this with everyone who gets into trouble.”

“That would be an awful lot of people to stick mental constructs of myself into,” she agreed, “even if I did only pick up the skill from Sariel recently. The truth is, I’m pretty sure you’re going to end up being important down the line, so I have a vested interest in keeping you safe and strong. And out of the hands of certain people.”

“Certain necromancers, for example,” I murmured before looking back to her. “Yeah, I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty awesome. It’s amazing, the fact that you’re doing all this. I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, even if that gift horse keeps beating the crap out of me. But if you say I’m supposed to do something important in the future… well, somehow I’m even more nervous.” 

“I think you might do something important,” Shyel corrected. “It’s a big distinction. I haven’t used some kind of future sight prophecy spell to prove it or anything. That stuff is impossible to really rely on anyway. It makes things more complicated. I’m going off what I know about your situation, and about you yourself. It’s an educated guess. The point is, there’s no such thing as ‘grand destiny.’ You take your own actions. And I think you could take some very important ones, if you get a chance to. You’re important because of the kind of person you are, not any mythical future. I want to make sure enough people like you make it into that future in good enough shape to actually do something with it.” 

Somehow, I managed to blush inside my own head and couldn’t stop it. Which totally wasn’t fair. Coughing, I glanced away before asking, “Do you think any of this is going to be enough when the time comes and Fossor decides he wants to take me?” 

“I think every little bit helps,” she informed me. “In the end, the more options you have for dealing with it, the better off you’ll be. That’s why I’m teaching you magic as well. And speaking of which…” 

“Time for spell lessons?” I managed a slight smile at that. “Good, give my bruises a chance to fade. By which I mean the ones on my skin and the ones on my ego.” 

With a (probably unneeded) wave of her hand, Shyel turned the forest we were standing in into a classroom. There was a single desk, and I sat down while she moved up to where a row of bookshelves were waiting. “Tonight,” she started, “we’re going to learn a bit more about transmutation spells. Specifically, the ones to protect or enhance yourself.” 

“Yeah,” I murmured, “I guess I can see how those might be useful at some point.” Sitting up a bit in the desk, I added, “Sounds good, Teach. Hit me. 

“And by that, I mean with knowledge. Like I said, still bruised over here.” 

*******

The next couple days basically went like that. We had classes in the morning, split between normal academic stuff and more exotic learning, then training in the afternoon. I had another nightly training session with my brain tutor, where I got beat up a lot while gradually learning what I was doing wrong. 

Then it was Friday. My first class that morning, which I had with Aylen, Sarah and Sands, Columbus, Miranda, and Jason, was xenozoology. We would be learning about various Alter animals, like Choo’s Jekern or Salten’s Peryton. Or, hell, like the Amarok that had given me my ‘hardly ever get tired’ power so long ago. We were apparently going to get into what kind of powers and advantages they had, as well as the best ways of either taming or at least avoiding a fight with one. And, of course, how to fight or kill them if we had to. Because there would be times when that was unavoidable. Even animal-intelligence level Alters could be a real threat. Like, again, the Amarok. 

But there were potential alternatives to always killing them. Alternatives which we would be learning here, in this small forested area built into one of the side rooms of the station. The place was basically like a park, with heavy doors along the far wall, opposite where we came in. Apparently there was a whole animal care facility beyond those doors, and our teacher would be bringing the creatures in to meet us whenever needed. Eventually, we’d even have a chance to go back there ourselves. But the teacher wanted to start us off a bit more slowly than that. Apparently he had doubts about a bunch of Bosch Heretics coping well surrounded by Alter animals, for some reason. 

To be fair, he was actually a Bosch Heretic himself. Specifically, the man had been part of Eden’s Garden, apparently since its inception. His name was Scratch. Or at least, that was the only name he went by, and he’d been going by it for so long that no one Miranda talked to had ever known or been willing to say what his original name had been. Not even Seller. 

Scratch was a fairly short, thin man, barely an inch taller than me. His long, dark gray hair was tied into a ponytail, and his heavily tanned face was marked by a single curved scar, shaped kind of like a crescent moon, up under his right eye and extending onto his cheek. I didn’t know what the scar had been caused by or why it wasn’t healed, but it had to have been something pretty bad. 

“Scratch was always good with the animals,” Miranda informed me in a hushed whisper while the man himself went to one of the large doors to retrieve the first creature he wanted us to see. “He was the Dust Striders’ creature keeper, but the other tribes got help from him sometimes too. He wouldn’t let anyone abuse his, ahhh, charges, even before the whole rebellion thing.” 

By that time, the man was on his way back. A large metal cage floated along behind him. Though ‘cage’ was probably a bit of a misnomer. I knew that, like the bag Shiori had kept Choo in through a lot of last year, there was actually a lot more room than it looked like in that box for whatever was in there. It would have its own private habitat built specifically for it. Or them, considering there could be any number of animals within. The box was just what it looked like from the outside. The entrance to the habitat, or whatever. 

In any case, the box was about nine feet long, four feet wide, and six feet high. It settled to the ground directly beside Scratch, while the thirty or so other students and I watched carefully and curiously. 

When the man finally spoke, his voice was quiet and subdued. It wasn’t hard to hear, exactly, it was just… sort of restrained. It was just loud enough to understand him and no louder. “Good morning,” he greeted us, dark green eyes scanning the group. He met my gaze for a brief moment before his eyes moved on. “I assume all of you have fought and killed what you would consider a monster of some kind before? It’s okay, we’ve all done it, to protect ourselves, to protect others, or because those of higher authority told us it was the right thing to do.” 

Gradually, everyone nodded in agreement or half-raised their hands, and Scratch continued in that same soft voice. “This class is going to teach you how to handle such creatures properly. And properly means different things depending on the situation. In some cases, handling a creature will mean killing it. There’s no two ways around it, there will be times when killing is the best and perhaps only solution to a situation. But there will be other times when you may be able to control and contain the creature, taking it away from where it was doing harm and either keeping it for safe study and care by experts, or releasing it in its proper habitat.”

Again, his eyes moved over us. “Many of you who grew up with Crossroads teachings have believed that all such creatures must always be killed immediately, lest they destroy all civilization. Others, who grew up under the Eden’s Garden ways, were taught that they can be controlled, used as beasts of burden, as slaves. And, of course, there are those of you who grew up under neither system and have been taught all manner of things. Some good, some bad. But here’s the truth: killing every animal, even the ones who seem threatening and dangerous, is wrong. Now, letting them hunt and massacre civilians, that’s wrong too. The point is to learn to recognize when a situation calls for violence, and when it calls for restraint.

“A lot of you have spent your entire lives learning to fear and hate the creatures out there. So, before I teach you anything else, before we say a single word about how to fight the kind of animals you see out there, I’m going to teach you something far more important than how dangerous they can be. I’m going to show you how wondrous they are.” 

With that pronouncement, the man took a laser pointer (or what looked like one) from his pocket. He pointed it at the ground a few yards in front of the box, and the laser from it created a blue line. Gradually, he drew a semi-circle around that area from one side of the box to the other. When he clicked another button on the thing in his hand, a mostly transparent, humming  forcefield popped into existence from the line he had drawn. It stretched up and over the box like a bubble, enclosing the space directly in front of the cage. 

Scratch spoke again, once the shield was in place. “Alter animals, those not of this world, can be incredibly dangerous. Never forget that. But they can also be beautiful, wonderful creatures, worthy of our respect, and our care. There is a balance to be found between fearing or hating them, and allowing them to slaughter innocents. This class is meant to teach you how to find that balance, how to kill when you need to, and how to control them when possible. My partner and I will teach you how to recognize aggressive behavior, how to stop it, how to make these animals listen to you.” 

I was just wondering what he meant by partner, when my item-sense picked up someone coming in from behind us. Turning a bit, I saw Rebecca’s grandmother, Lillian. Mom’s old best friend and roommate. The small woman approached, giving me a brief wink as she spoke up. “That’s absolutely right. I know Crossroads, for one, never stops to show their students how truly amazing some of these creatures can be. Only how dangerous they are, and how to kill them.” 

Stepping past us, Lillian offered the group a broad smile, laying her hand on the side of the metal box. “And speaking of truly amazing creatures, how many of you have ever heard of a Taynfiel? More commonly known as a lion-bee.” 

A few hands went up, mostly among the Alters and Natural Heretics in the group. A single Eden’s Garden student put his hand up too, though he looked a little uncertain. 

“Lion-bee?” I whispered to Jason, who had his hand raised. “Why do they call it a–” 

That was as far as I got before the door of the box slid aside, and the creature within came bounding out. It was… well, yeah, I could see why it was called a lion-bee. The thing was about the size of a large dog. It had dark tan fur, with a couple black stripes. Its head was very lion-like, complete with a full-on furry mane. It had a set of large insect-like wings, and instead of a floppy lion’s tail, it had a prehensile one with a long, sharp blade at the end. Like a stinger. 

It was a lion-bee, there could be no other conceivable name for it. 

And then it made a sound. It was like a cross between a heavy purr and a deep buzz. Its wings contributed, suddenly beating very rapidly but barely moving, going up and down only a couple inches each way. The thing looked back and forth between us, giving off that wing-assisted purr-buzz. 

“This,” Lillian informed us, “is Tatters. He’s a lion-bee, a Taynfiel, who was raised in captivity from birth. The only thing he likes more than fishing with his tailblade is cuddles. The forcefield was just to make you all feel safe. But we’re going to take it down in a minute. Everyone stay fairly still. Don’t overwhelm him, and don’t make any threatening moves. Tatters is tame and friendly, but he’s still an animal and he will defend himself if need be. Stand still, let him come to you. You can pet him if you like. If you’d prefer he not come to you, go ahead and take a few steps back. No one will blame you, I promise. If you’re not comfortable yet, go ahead and step out of the group.” 

A few people did so, not trusting either themselves or the animal. The rest of us stood still, while the forcefield lowered. The fuzzy lion-bee sniffed the ground where the shield had been, then took a quick wing-assisted jump over to where Lillian was. He enthusiastically sniffed her stomach and offered hand, licking her palm once before turning his attention to us. 

I was the first one he came to. Part of me wondered if that had to do with my own werelion form. I’d used it that morning to go running around the neighborhood, could he smell it? I wasn’t sure how that worked. 

Either way, he came right up and sniffed me. Slowly, I went down to one knee and let him sniff my face. His tongue, as he licked over my cheek, was a bit rough. Still, I giggled a little. Which he liked, apparently, going by the way his wings beat a little faster, making his purr louder. 

“Hey, buddy,” I murmured with a smile, rubbing my hands up through his luxurious, fluffy mane. “Who’s a good boy, huh? You’re a good boy. Good little bee-kitty.” 

A few others had a couple minutes with him, before Lillian and Scratch announced that we should step back, because Tatters wanted to stretch his wings. We did so, and the lion-bee zoomed straight up off the ground. He flew to the ceiling, flipped over to land there, and stared at us from an upside down position for a few long seconds before zooming off again. He did a few barrel rolls and loopty-loops, very clearly showing off for a (mostly) appreciative audience. 

Aylen stood beside me, her voice a soft murmur. “My family’s back,” she informed me while we all watched Tatters. “So, I guess, if you’re up for it… they’d like you and Avalon and a few others to come over for dinner tonight. But first, meet me out in the park by our houses after lunch.

“There’s a few things I really need to explain.”  

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