Sandoval Lucas

Kairos 9-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck, this was hard. 

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

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

Him. It was him. 

We found him. 

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

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

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

Like fuck would I let that happen. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck. That. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One way or another, this was the end.

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Kairos 9-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let us see who dies today.”

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Kairos 9-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N: For those who haven’t seen it, there was a new commissioned interlude posted yesterday that focused on the Alter-Natural Heretic organization Section Four. If you haven’t read that, you can click the previous chapter button above to do so. 

“Kill me?” Fossor chuckled, though it sounded more deranged and emotional than he probably meant it to. “Has that ever worked for you, my dearest woman, mother of my child? Oh…. I suppose I can’t call you that now, can I? Not after our girl over there got her own brother killed. Now how is that going to affect your relationship?” 

Mom’s voice was calmer than I would have expected. Cold, really. “Over ten years together. More than a decade. And you still know nothing about me.” 

“He knows little about what it means to care for anyone at all.” Those were the words that came from Rahanvael, as the ghost girl hovered nearby, her hand lightly touching her own throat, where I could see what looked like… marks of some sort. As if Fossor’s invisible grasp had left an impression in the… well, ‘skin,’ or whatever that would be called. 

As for the Necromancer himself, he actually looked a bit upset by what she’d said, his face flushing a bit as he snapped, “I have always cared for you, Rahan.” Again, he pronounced it ‘Rain.’ “Everything I have done, everything I’ve become, everything that has– it was all because I loved–love you. It was all because I wanted to protect you! I only wanted to keep you safe.” 

“You’re right.” Rahanvael’s voice was soft, barely audible, yet somehow filled with raw emotion. It quaked, the words hoarse and broken. “Everything that you have done started because you were trying to protect me. We lost our mother, and when we visited her spirit to say goodbye, you felt her. You tried to keep her there. That’s how you found out about your power, Mera. You felt her and you tried to stop her spirit from moving on, and when they wouldn’t let you, when our father forced you to let her go, you… you were so afraid. We lost our mother and you were afraid you would lose me, lose your twin. So you did what? You withdrew even more. You spent seven years obsessing over learning to control your power on your own, experimenting on animals in the woods. Seven years when we could have been living our lives.” 

“If you and Father had only listened to me, we could have had an eternity together!” Fossor… yeah, he was clearly unstable. Facing his sister like this wasn’t doing wonders for his emotions. Still, he took a moment, mastering himself (at least outwardly) before speaking again, a bit more coldly. “But you didn’t. He didn’t. He–he interrupted. I would have brought you back.”

“You did bring me back,” Rahanvael reminded him, voice still quiet. “And I have spent millennia watching you commit more atrocities, more… evil than I could have imagined entire civilizations being capable of. Your crimes may have begun when you cut my throat, Mera. But everything you’ve done, everything you’ve become, that is what tears my heart from my chest.” 

Her voice was even more hollow by that point. She finished with the last thing she needed to say. “I loved my brother. He was my everything, my Mera. You are not him. You are an empty, soulless abomination that needs to die.” 

“You…” For a moment, Fossor looked… almost lost, really. It was so brief that I might have passed it off as my imagination. But it was there. It was absolutely there. He saw his sister, saw the way she looked at him, heard what she said, and it looked like those words struck home, for just a moment. But then it vanished, either hidden away or dismissed entirely. In its place was anger. Cold anger, the sort that would leave any soul that could feel such emotion a barren wasteland. 

He spoke again, voice far emptier than I had ever heard it. “Each of you will learn the cost of your efforts. Because you seem to have forgotten one very important thing. You cannot harm me.” 

With those simple words, he straightened, blue-white flames flickering around his feet before extending out into the shape of a serpent that coiled up and around him almost protectively. It was like a… ghost. It was a ghost snake. A giant ghost snake. Fun. 

“My life is connected to those of my world–of our world,” he amended, with a look toward his sister. “How many of our people will you allow them to sacrifice before bowing to the inevitable? A hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? More? How many will you let them put to the flames?” 

His words had an impact. I could tell that much. Rahanvael swallowed, floating there next to me. But she refused to break eye contact, staring back at him with a sad, broken voice. “Whatever it takes,” the girl informed him very quietly. “You must be stopped. A man who has already murdered millions cannot bargain with the lives of those he would kill anyway.” 

The ghost-serpent around Fossor drew itself up a bit, even as the man coldly snarled, “Then, by all means. Come and stop me.” 

Even as he said those words, the ghost-snake launched itself toward us. The thing was as big as a bus, mouth stretching wide as though it was going to try to eat us. I had no idea if it was even capable of that, given the whole ghost thing. But nor was I going to test it. With a quick thrust of my staff, I triggered the boost on it, sending myself up and over the lunging snake. Below me, Mom vanished from where she was standing, appearing off to the side while producing a glowing blue energy sword in one hand that she used to cut into its side. 

The snake wasn’t the only issue, of course. Fossor still had a literal army of ghosts and zombies he could throw at us. And throw them at us he did, as what looked like a tidal wave of the undead creatures came swarming in from all sides. The Necromancer wasn’t fucking around anymore. Even as I launched myself up, I could see an army of the creatures coming in from all sides, practically falling in on us like a tidal wave. This wasn’t a few ghosts, or a handful of zombies. This wasn’t something he expected us to fight. He expected us to be massacred. 

In mid-air, I dropped my staff, focusing on using the object-stopping power I’d just learned about. The staff froze, even as my feet came down on it. The freeze would only last for a few seconds, of course. But for those few seconds, I could stand on the staff in mid-air as though I was on solid ground. And I used that by summoning a dozen or so coins to each hand. Coins I had prepared over my time spent in the future waiting for the time travel spell to be ready. 

With those coins in hand, as I perched on my frozen staff, a very slight, humorless smile touched my face. Then I threw the coins out in every direction, scattering them through the air while blurting the command word. 

That swarm of Fossor’s minions kept coming, even as the coins were flung into their midsts. Then the spells activated, and the coins exploded into several clouds of blue-green mist. Every ghost or zombie that was touched by the mist immediately turned on one another. Which made others around them, those not affected by the clouds, turn back to defend themselves or be dragged to the ground. No longer were they a coherent army sent to attack us. Thanks to my frenzy-undead spells (learned courtesy of Petan himself, actually), huge portions were stuck blindly fighting each other.

By that point, the item-freeze had ended, and I grabbed my staff while it fell. A quick burst sent me flying forward and to the ground, where I landed on both feet in an open space that had been created by the frenzy spells. 

Mom was still dealing with the giant snake. Fossor was moving to the altar. More of his minions who hadn’t been either affected by the frenzy spells or attacked by those who had been were closing in on me. I’d dealt with a large portion of his army with that little trick (one I’d deliberately been saving until Fossor actually committed himself to using more of his forces), but not nearly enough. There were still dozens, even hundreds in the way, coming for me. Coming to stop me from getting to their master. 

But it wasn’t enough. Not this time. I wasn’t going to let anything, not even a literal army, stop me from getting to that son of a bitch. Focusing, I took off, running straight toward Fossor, which put me on a collision course with the largest concentration of the undead creatures. 

I couldn’t control all of Fossor’s minions. I wasn’t that strong or skilled yet. Fossor was far better than I was at Necromancy. At most, I could control a few at a time, even after all the practice I’d had recently. 

But here was the thing. I didn’t need to control all of them. I only had to control the ones directly in front of me, the ones close enough to actually touch me. Because only those few were a real threat. Only those few, the ones near enough to reach out and scratch, claw, or bite me were the ones I needed to worry about. And those were the ones I took control of. With effort that manifested itself into a literal scream tearing its way out of my throat, I shoved my will into the handful of ghosts and zombies that were directly in my way. The four nearest pivoted, throwing themselves into those behind them to form physical blockades. 

Dashing through the opening that created, I instantly released my hold on those four, shifting it over to the next small handful. Two ghosts and three zombies all turned on their companions, freeing up another small bit of space for me to move through, even as I shifted my control yet again. 

I made my way through Fossor’s army like that. Yeah, I couldn’t come close to matching his power or skill, even while he was distracted. But there was only so much space around me, so all I had to do was control the ones right there for the few seconds while passing through the area. It didn’t deal with the problem entirely, but that was a lost cause anyway. The problem was Fossor, not his minions. He was the one I had to get to. 

Between using my own Necromancy to briefly control very specific figures, my ghost-fire enchanted weapon to cut through others, and a few strategic boost from my staff, I made my way quickly through the army that was trying to cut me off. Fossor. I had to get to him. That was all that mattered. Nothing else. All I had to do was stop him from getting to that altar. 

He could have made it. Even with everything I’d done, all the practice I’d had, he could have gotten there if it wasn’t for one thing: my mother. It was obvious that, while he’d dumped an army in front of me and left them on their own, my mom was a different story. She’d already dealt with that giant ghost snake, but Fossor kept sending more and more things at her with each step he made toward his actual destination. Burning metal spikes tore themselves up out of the ground. A dark, acidic fog that dissolved anything it touched. Skeletal creatures with a few scraps of rotted flesh hanging from their bones. Balls of greenish-white flames. Anything and everything he could summon was being thrown at my mother just to keep her busy, just to keep her away from him while he took those last few steps toward his destination. He wasn’t worried about me. He was worried about her, and it showed in how much focus and effort he was putting toward occupying her. The power, the spells, the sheer force of everything he was dumping into that one small spot where my mother stood was staggering. 

And yet, Mom met everything. She shattered his attacks, broke them apart like waves crashing against a boulder. Her powers, her skill, her magic, all of it matched what he was sending at her. He was so much older, so much stronger, but he couldn’t break her. Not as distracted as he was. His attention was torn between trying to get to that altar and keeping her busy. All while he simply ignored me, trusting the army he’d tossed my way to be enough. 

It was a mistake I would be glad to make him pay for. 

With a violent, inarticulate scream, I tore my way through the last of the ghosts in my way, the blade of my staff cutting through the glowing figure. The ghost disintegrated, leaving a clear, open space between us. Between Fossor and me. 

Four steps. He was four steps from the altar. My hand thrust out, creating a portal even as I triggered the boost from my staff and gripped the small bit of wood that was installed near the middle. A piece of wood that allowed me to possess it, disappearing into my own staff while the boost I had triggered sent it flying through the portal I’d created. 

I came out through the portal directly in front of Fossor, emerging from my staff immediately and catching it in one hand while glaring at him as I stood in his way. “No.” My voice was flat. I didn’t threaten him. I didn’t make some kind of cutting remark or give a witty comment. That single word was all I could force out through the thick lump that had formed in my throat. 

A cloud of ashes swirled around Fossor, pulled from that canteen before they settled in front of his feet as he took one more step to put himself closer. In the same motion, he lashed out as though to backhand me despite the fact that he wasn’t quite close enough. Still, my staff snapped up to block it. 

But he wasn’t trying to hit me with his hand. Instead, in response to his gesture, a giant skeletal version, almost as large as my entire body, tore itself out the ground and slammed into me with so much force I was sent staggering backward. He immediately followed that up by summoning two more smaller hands to grab my ankles, but I stopped one by throwing my own will against it, forcing the hand to freeze. The other I cut off with a quick slash of my staff. 

Fossor was there, right in front of me. His fist lashed out, and I ducked, my staff snapping up to drive the blade into the side of his wrist. I might as well have been hitting a mountain for all the good it did. His arm didn’t even move. The blade of my staff did nothing to him, any damage it might have been capable of simply and casually passed off to any of the billions of hostages he had. 

The Necromancer, clearly angry by that point, followed up with three more snake-quick strikes. I blocked one, twisted around the second, but the third caught me. He was so fast. Loathe as he obviously was to actually physically involve himself in a confrontation, he was still so fucking fast. And strong. That single blow, a contemptuous backhanded strike, knocked me to the ground. It was a momentary opening, but one that Fossor took advantage of, foot snapping out with deceptive casualness to kick me in the face. It was like being hit by a train. I was thrown to my back, dazed and barely conscious through those brief, crucial seconds. 

Standing over me, Fossor moved to finish up by summoning some kind of ghostly spear, sending it down at my chest with a quick, dismissive gesture. 

But I wasn’t alone. In that instant, the very moment that I was in real danger, Mom was there. She appeared, glowing blade lashing out to cut through the ghostly spear and knock it aside. Instantly, she followed up by summoning a ball of flame, sending it into Fossor’s face. 

It did nothing. He passed off the damage, snarling in annoyance before launching himself at my mother. Not just the man by himself. He summoned more arms, more flames, more blades, all of it filling the air with two intentions: to kill me and to kill my mother. 

If I had been by myself, I would have been dead. But I wasn’t. Mom protected me. With every motion, every snap of her sword, every flick of her finger, she stopped another attack, broke another of Fossor’s summoned blades, or disintegrated another of his ghosts. 

Through that, I somehow forced myself to my feet, intercepting a couple of those attacks myself. And beside me, Rahanvael appeared. She couldn’t do much, but, being a ghost, she could catch some of the intangible spears and blades that were sent at us. She was one more thing to take some of the attacks. 

Between us, between Rahanvael and myself, we managed to give Mom an opening here and there to actually counter-attack. She didn’t have to put everything she had toward saving us. She had a few moments to lash out with attacks of her own. Attacks that would have killed him. Again and again, my mother could have put that fucker in the ground. Her blade cut through his throat, tore into his stomach, her fire engulfed him. But nothing stuck. Nothing could stick. He passed all of it off to his hostages. No matter what we did, no matter how many times Mom fucking killed him, it never mattered. 

Finally, glowing ghost-like bars appeared, rising around Fossor to cut us off from him. I could see the effort on his face, could see that we’d had an effect, no matter what he may have wanted us to think. He was angry. But more than that, he was winded. Everything we’d done, it mattered. He couldn’t dismiss us, couldn’t just knock us aside like weeds. 

“You,” the bastard snarled, “cannot stop me. You will fail. You will fall. Your bodies will be buried here, alone and forgotten. Y–” 

And then a shovel slammed through those summoned bars, shattering them like crystal before crashing into Fossor’s face to send him flying backward from the sheer force of the blow. The evil fuck crashed onto the ground a good couple hundred feet back, just as one of his ghosts disintegrated itself under him so his body wouldn’t hit the dirt without the protective ashes. 

“Not alone,” Gabriel Prosser informed him, straightening to stand beside my mother. “And never forgotten.” 

Nor was he alone. All around us, throughout the quarry, more figures appeared. Sariel, Apollo, Dare, Gwen, Nevada, Kohaku, Carfried, Hisao, Asenath, Seller, Twister, Brom Bones, Mercury, and more appeared. Mateo and his werewolves were here, including Pace and Roxa. May and April were here. Misty and her brother Duncan appeared. Enguerrand, Larissa, and Haiden too. My brother, Wyatt, appeared with Koren beside him. Avalon and Shiori, standing together with Aylen, Miranda, Columbus, Sands and Sarah. Sean was there too, in his still-confusingly older form right alongside his brother Ian.

“No…” Fossor snarled, his eyes daring around to find himself surrounded as he picked himself up. “No, this is–no, you cannot be here! The beacons have not yet broken through the shielding! You cannot have been summoned, you cannot be here!” 

“We had a little help finding the place,” Apollo casually informed him. And with those words, more figures appeared. Ghosts, but ones who had not been summoned by Fossor. 

They were the ghosts I had freed, the ones I’d given the same power as Rahanvael by cutting them away from Fossor’s control. I saw Ahmose at their head, his eyes blazing with fiery hatred for the man who had destroyed and enslaved him for so long. 

“It ends,” the ghost informed his former master, his words echoed by the rest of the ghosts who had accompanied him to this final confrontation. The ghosts who, instead of running and hiding from the monster who had done so much to them, had found my friends, my allies, and brought them here to stop him once and for all. 

A hand touched my arm. My gaze turned, and I saw her. My little sister. Tabbris stood there, tears filling her eyes as she stared at me. “You’re okay,” she whispered, voice so soft it seemed as though she was afraid I would shatter. 

“I’m okay,” I confirmed. Then I extended my hand to her. “You ready for this?” 

Her tears melted away, expression hardening into determination, as she met my hand with her own. “Ready.” 

Then she disappeared, possessing me once more. Back where she belonged. Back with me. 

Now it was time. Either we would stop Fossor here and now. Or we would die, and the Earth would be his forever. 

As one, the army that had arrived to end Fossor once and for all fell in on him. 

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Interlude 7A – Dreamcalls (Heretical Edge 2)

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Lying on her stomach, sprawled sideways across the bed in a pair of dark blue drawstring pants and a gray tanktop, Sandoval Lucas (née Mason) snored lightly. Her outstretched hand, hanging off the edge of the bed, held a purple field-engraver loosely between several fingers, while her construction mace rested with the handle lying across her back. A soft drizzling rain sound from a prepared white noise sleep assistance spell drowned out most of those light snores, as the brunette girl continued to slumber. The blinds across the room’s windows were half-raised, with somewhat dim light from simulated stars within the simulated nighttime visible through the gap.  

At once and with no apparent warning, Sands jerked upward and very nearly fell off the side of the bed. Her hand clutched the field-engraver so tight she bent it nearly in half, while the mace fell off her back and onto the floor with a loud thump (which itself would be inaudible outside of the room, thanks to magically reinforced sound-proofing). Said soundproofing would also prevent anyone else from hearing the young woman’s abruptly blurted shout of, “Erin!” 

Eyes wide, Sands shoved herself off the bed. She nearly tripped over the fallen mace, before stooping to grab and set it up on the nearby chair. From there, she jerked a drawer open and began to hurriedly grab clothes almost haphazardly. In a bare handful of seconds, she had changed out of her sleeping attire and into jean shorts and a red tee-shirt, all in near darkness without bothering to flip on a light. Grabbing her phone and the mace, she shoved both into their containers on her belt before bolting for the door. The whole way, she muttered a mixture of curses and apologies under her breath, even as she jerked the door open to leave her room. 

In the corridor beyond her room, Sands almost ran into her twin sister. Sarah was just coming out of her own room. Both girls’ eyes were wide as they almost stumbled into one another. 

“Erin!” Sands blurted as soon as she’d recovered from the near-collision, staring wildly at her sister through the dim light coming from the open windows in the corridor. “Did you–” 

“Yes,” came the simple, flat response. Sarah gave a short nod, glancing over her shoulder back through her open door. “Erin came to my dream. Sort of. She didn’t… talk. But I saw her.” 

Sands’ head bobbed up and down quickly. “Yeah! Yeah, I saw her too. And she didn’t talk, but I got like… ideas. Impressions. She’s not at Crossroads anymore. She ran away or… or something. They’re looking for her. And she’s trying to talk to her dad but she can’t get through.”

“But she found someone to help her, another girl.” Those words came not from either twin, but from Vanessa, who had just climbed the stairs and stood on the top step, hand on the railing. “Someone who has… some kind of connection to my family. And they need us to find them.” 

Sands glanced that way, biting her lip as she stared at the blonde girl. “You got the dream message too… All three of us got it. You were roommates with her and we spent a lot of time with her when we were kids. That’s gotta be it, right? Whatever spell she’s using to communicate, it must need some kind of connection like that. So she sent the message to all of us just to make sure we wouldn’t blow it off or anything.” Even as she said that, a guilty flinch crossed the girl’s face. They’d left Erin behind back at Crossroads. After lying to her for a whole year and leaving her out of things. No wonder the other girl was afraid of being ignored now. 

From the look on Vanessa’s face through the dim light, she felt about the same guilt. Her voice was quiet. “I don’t know who this girl is that she found, or how she’s connected to my family. She couldn’t get that part across in the dream. But it doesn’t matter. Even if she didn’t have someone else, we still have to go help her. We can’t… we can’t just…” She trailed off, her voice pained. 

“We can’t fail with her like we failed with Flick.” Sands finished for the other girl. It had only been a couple days since the assault on Fossor’s compound. The Necromancer himself had escaped, of course, even if they’d managed to destroy a lot of his resources at what was apparently his primary residence. 

They’d destroyed many of his ghosts, had wrecked over a dozen ongoing horrible spells he’d had in various levels of readiness, had claimed a whole vault full of various magical artifacts, gold, and other useful tidbits. They’d driven him to retreat. 

They had hurt him. That much was indisputable. Fossor had been hurt and forced to abandon a large amount of his personal resources. But it wasn’t enough. He still got away, and they hadn’t accomplished the primary goal. They hadn’t saved Flick or her mother. 

There had been no sign of Joselyn at all. Wherever she was, the woman wasn’t in the palace when Sands and the rest of the quickly-gathered army had descended into Fossor’s secret underground chamber. 

But worse than Joselyn not being anywhere in sight, Flick had been right there, clutched in Fossor’s grip. And they’d still failed to save her. Fossor had used a time travel spell again. A much stronger one than before, according to the adults. From what Wyatt, Sariel, and Dries had been able to put together, Fossor had sent Flick several years into the future. Years. 

What the hell were Sands and the others supposed to do about that? For all they knew, that was where Joselyn was too. Either way, Flick was gone. The only way she could come back was if she on that end managed to get someone to send her back to some time after she was sent forward. 

Not that that was stopping Wyatt and the other spell-focused people. They were apparently working on a way of attempting to grab hold of Flick and yank her back through time from this end. But from everything Sands had heard, it was… pretty unlikely to work. Still, they were trying, and she couldn’t fault them for that. She couldn’t blame anyone for needing to try

“They’ll find Flick,” Sarah insisted. “Or she’ll find a way to come back. We can’t do anything about that now.” She turned to look pointedly at her sister, adding in a firm voice, “We can do something about this.” 

Vanessa was already nodding in agreement. “Right. We can get Erin and this girl she found, figure out what she has to do with my family, help Erin contact her dad… We can do that.” After a brief pause, she added, “We’ll need help to do that.”

Sands folded her arms, suddenly feeling uncertain. “I didn’t get an address or anything, but I got umm… images? It’s like the spell couldn’t give real words, just impressions and sort-of thoughts. Feelings, that kind of thing.” 

“There was a submarine,” Sarah put in. “A black submarine, in the water near a building. And a bunch of like… science places. There was a planetarium, a place where little kids were playing with science experiments.” 

Sands added, “And there was that red shuttle thing. Except not a shuttle. It was like… it didn’t go anywhere, but it went up and down and stuff and made you feel like you were moving when you were inside it? Except without any magic. That’s a Bystander toy thing, right? But where–”

“OMSI,” Vanessa abruptly interrupted. When the other two looked at her, she elaborated. “Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. I’ve been there a couple times. I told Erin about it. She said we should see it sometime. That’s… that’s what she was showing us.” 

“Are you positive that’s the same place?” Sands asked before making a face. “Why am I asking you if you’re remembering something right?” 

“I’m positive,” Vanessa confirmed. “The submarine. That’s the big thing. The other parts could maybe be other museums, but OMSI has a big submarine right next to their building. You can go on it and look through the periscope and everything. That’s–” She cut herself off, swallowing hard. “That’s the place.” 

“What’s the place?” That particular question came from Dakota Coalbright. The dark-haired girl, much younger than the others, had been staying in Vanessa’s room for these past weeks because it happened to be where she felt the most safe. She attended her own classes for those her age, but lived in this house. Vanessa didn’t mind. The two had been getting to know each other more. Plus, Dakota was apparently trying to help Avalon and Miranda fix the Eden’s Garden vines so they could grow properly. 

Now, the older blonde girl winced as she glanced toward her roommate, lowering her voice. “Sorry, Dakota,” she murmured. “Did we wake you up?” 

Head shaking, Dakota insisted, “I had to get a drink and you weren’t in the room. Then I heard you guys talking. What’s…” She looked back and forth between them, suddenly pensive. “What’s wrong?” 

The other three exchanged brief glances before Vanessa explained the dreamcall that they had all experienced, and what it meant. Given everything Dakota had been through, being forced to kill her own family members, spending years in a mental institution, all because she had been the unwitting pawn of an evil, potentially world-ending plant monster, Vanessa wasn’t about to try to keep the girl out of what was going on, even if Principal Fellows thought she should. Dakota deserved to know the truth, despite the fact that she was young and had been through so much. Vanessa herself knew as well as anyone what it was like to be in that situation. And even she couldn’t fully comprehend what it was like to have actually killed people you loved at all, let alone when you were just a little kid. Trying to avoid telling her what was actually going on now wouldn’t be fair. To say the least. 

Hearing that, Dakota hesitantly started, “So, um, your old roommate needs help getting here, and she has a friend that’s like… connected to your family. And now she sent you a message about where to meet her. But it’s not like, word messages, it’s just images of a place you know.” Once those words were met by nods, the younger girl bluntly asked, “Are you sure it’s not a trap?” 

“A trap,” Sands echoed thoughtfully, with a glance toward her sister, who grimaced. 

“Sure,” Dakota confirmed with a vague gesture. “You know, from those Crossroads people. Come on, your old roommate happens to run into someone connected to your family and they send you a magic dream message showing you where to meet them? That smells like a trap to me. What’re the odds of your friend finding some long-lost family member or something?” 

“You uhh, might be surprised,” Sands offered with a weak cough. “But yeah, you’ve got a point. On the other hand, we can’t just ignore it or abandon them.” Her voice was more firm then. “Erin was our friend for a long time. Even if we had to leave her out of stuff last year, even if we didn’t… couldn’t… get her involved, she’s still our friend. If she needs help, we have to be there.” 

Vanessa agreed hurriedly. “Yeah, she was nice to me. She helped me not umm, not stay in the library all the time. She was a really good roommate and I just… I just left her there. If she really does need help to get here and to contact her dad, then I’m going to help.” 

“But you’ll be careful, right?” Dakota insisted pensively. Her wide, perpetually sad eyes were focused on Vanessa as she continued, “You have to be careful. I mean–” Flushing belatedly, she waved both hands to indicate the twins as well. “Everyone, you all have to be careful.” 

“Don’t worry,” Sarah reminded the girl gently, “we can’t go anywhere without telling the adults what we’re doing.” Under her breath she muttered, “Even though we all technically are adults. I mean we’re eighteen, what–” Coughing to cut herself off, she finished with a shrug. “And they’ll insist that we all have a plan.”

Vanessa agreed, “Yeah, believe me, Dakota, we’re not just going to run off right now. We need a plan, and we’ll have plenty of help.” After a second of thought, she looked to the other two. “You didn’t get a time or a day or anything, right?”

“They’ll probably just be waiting there all day,” Sarah pointed out with a shrug. “You know, waiting for us to show up. 

“That was dreamjaunt they were using to communicate, right?” Sands put in as the memory of an old lesson from their mother came back to her. “Maybe we could find someone like Wyatt to mix some together and send a message back. You know, to let them know that we got it and show them like a clock or something.” 

“No!” That was Dakota, who hurriedly insisted, “If it’s a trap, you don’t want to give them any idea of when exactly you’ll be there. If they’re just waiting around there all day, it’ll be easier to check to make sure it’s not a trap. They have to wait around. But if you give them an exact time, they can plan a trap around that really easily, see?” 

“I get the feeling you and Wyatt are gonna get along really well,” Sands informed the kid before acknowledging, “But yeah, right, good point. Okay, so we just go tell our Moms what’s going on, right?” 

“We might want to wait a little bit on that,” Vanessa pointed out. 

“What?” Sands shook her head. “Why’re we waiting?” 

“Because,” Sarah reminded her sister while pointing to the nearby dark window.

“It’s two-thirty in the morning.” 

********

Thirty-eight hours later

 

Sands had wanted to go the very second the museum opened, of course. But Sariel, Larissa, Haiden, Principal Fellows, Professor Dare, and Professor Kohaku all insisted they wait until late in the day, to give the group time to plan a quick approach and extraction. As Kohaku put it, even if Erin and whoever she was with were on the up-and-up and weren’t trying to trap them, it was possible that someone from Crossroads or Eden’s Garden might have caught on anyway. They couldn’t be sure that Erin didn’t have secret minders following her around in case she might lead them somewhere important. 

Even without Wyatt (who was busy focusing on his attempt to work on a targeted time-travel spell to pull Flick back out of the future), the rest of the adults were definitely providing enough paranoia. Not that Sands could blame them, really. She knew all the dangers and everything, she just… she just wanted to get Erin out of there so she could say they accomplished something. With Flick banished years into the future, and no total guarantee that they’d be able to pull her back here… It was bad. It felt bad. But with Erin and whoever she had with her, that was something that had an immediate fix, something Sands and the others could do right then. They couldn’t help Flick right at the moment. But they could help another friend, the other one they had abandoned. 

As part of preparing to meet Erin and her friend, Dare and Kohaku, who had taken charge of the mission, such as it was, had sent several groups through the museum all day long. They were a mix of Natural Heretics whom Erin (and hopefully any Bosch Heretics following her) wouldn’t recognize and Alters who didn’t set off the Heretic sense for various reasons. 

They’d spotted Erin with some pale, dark-haired girl around the same age fairly quickly, apparently. From the description, Sands didn’t recognize her. Neither did Sarah or Vanessa. Or Tristan, for that matter. He’d insisted on coming too, and was currently sitting next to Sarah in the van they were all waiting in, the two of them whispering about some movie they’d watched or something. 

Sands knew those two had a thing. It had become progressively more clear over the past few weeks, even if they were obviously taking things slow. The pair read books together, went for walks together, watched movies, had food. They did all the dating things aside from actively calling it a date or kissing or anything. At least, Sands was pretty sure they weren’t kissing. 

Part of her felt like warning Tristan about hurting her sister. But she pushed that thought aside. Sarah didn’t need her to fight her battles or play protective sister for her. She was fine. Tristan was obviously going slow through all that stuff, and neither of them needed Sands butting in. 

Still, she couldn’t help but squint at the boy every time he wasn’t looking at her, before quickly looking away when he glanced in that direction. 

“Okay.” That was Larissa, sitting in the driver’s seat. “The four of you can make your approach. Tanner says they’re out by the submarine, sitting on a bench. We’ll be all around you. Kohaku’s nearby, just out of sight. Dare is on the submarine itself. We’ve got people on the roof, and I’ll be a few steps back in disguise, just in case.” As she said that, the woman took a masker and pulled it on, turning her appearance to an elderly, gray-haired woman. “Everything looks clear. But be careful.”

Sands, Sarah, Vanessa, and Tristan all slipped out of the van and headed that way. They bought their tickets, were informed that the place would be closing in forty-five minutes, and headed around toward the submarine. On the way, Tristan remarked, “You know, it’s too bad we have to rush in and out of here. This place looks pretty cool.” 

Vanessa shot her brother a quick look, eyes wide. “It’s science stuff. You want–” 

“Yeah, yeah, I said it’s cool.” Tristan nudged her. “Don’t have a coronary. Seriously though, we should come back here sometime.” His face and voice darkened then. “With Flick, if we can get her back sometime before we’re all over legal American drinking age.” 

Sands started to insist that they would get Flick back before then. But she was interrupted by the sudden sight of Erin. The girl’s hair had been bright pink the last time Sands saw her, but it was back to being blue. She was also, as promised, sitting next to a pale, anorexically thin girl with dark hair, who was staring intently at a very old-looking leather book in her hands. 

With a shrug, Sands walked that way with the others. Both seated girls looked up, before Erin quickly stood with a murmured word to her companion. 

“Hey, Erin.” Quickly, Sands stepped over to embrace her old friend. “You guys wanna get out of here?” She tried not to sound as nervous as she suddenly felt. 

Erin’s head bobbed, even as she took the time to embrace Sarah and then Vanessa. “Yes. Fuck yes, let’s go. There’s more than just you guys, right? Y-you’re sure there’s no Crossroads people here?”

“Definitely sure,” Sands confirmed. 

“Why?” That was Larissa, who had removed the masker and took Erin into her arms for a tight hug. “Do you think you might’ve been followed? And who’s your friend here?” 

“This is Dylan Averty,” Erin quickly introduced them all before adding, “And we have to get out of here. I have to tell you about Baron Dallant.” 

“Jeremiah?” Larissa frowned. “What about him? He’s undercover, but he’s on our side.” 

“He may be undercover,” Erin agreed, “but I’m pretty damn sure he’s not on our si–” 

“Pardon me.” 

The interruption came from a new figure, one who simply appeared a short distance away, prompting everyone there to jerk that way, drawing weapons and readying powers. Dylan had one hand raised with a small, strange, clearly magical bag clutched in it. Larissa and Dare were both right there in an instant. All of them faced the figure who had spoken. 

He was tall, purple, with red eyes and a long beard. Not to mention partially translucent. 

“Ghost,” Dare immediately snapped, her sword snapping upward. “One of Fossor’s.” 

“No.” That emphatic, sharp denial stopped the woman from lashing out. The purple ghost gave one shake of his head. “I am not his. Not anymore. That, in fact, is entirely why I have spent all this time searching for someone connected to the Chambers.” 

“What are you talking about?” Dare demanded, making certain to keep herself between the ghost and the teens, her sword already prepped with a ghost-harming spell. 

“I am no longer bound to the orders of that creature,” the spirit informed them. “Thanks entirely to the efforts of your… Felicity. And I am here to repay that incredible favor. 

“By leading you to where Fossor is, so you may stop him before it’s too late.”

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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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