Sarah Lucas

Greetings And Goodbyes 22-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So, we went back to Earth, after saying goodbye to the people on the planet and promising we would come back to visit and check on them. Well, most of us did. Athena and a few others were going to stay behind to keep working with these people for the time being. After all, they still needed to be taught how to protect themselves better. And apparently they were going to go into those tunnels to look for any more of the Seosten tribals who could have been left behind. We’d already had guards watching over the actual portal entrance into where the Revenants were, just in case, but still. Better not to leave the fanatics out there to do gods only knew what. 

Also, we weren’t going back strictly by ourselves. A few people from this world were going back to Earth with us, as sort of an ambassador/exploration situation. They wanted to see what it was like away from their home, maybe take back some new ideas or concepts when it came to putting their own society back together. One of those people was Beilela, the younger girl who they kept calling ‘The One Who Said No.’ She was famous in that first city we’d gone to for being the person who–well, said no. Specifically, she had refused to be a ‘willing’ part of that last round of sacrifices Fossor had been making before we cut off his power. More importantly (and amazingly), she had literally thrown a bucket of paint over one of that piece of shit’s statues before flat out saying she refused to lift another finger to do a goddamn thing for Fossor. She knew he could–and absolutely would have killed her for the defiance, but she didn’t care. This kid was a completely ordinary fifteen-year-old who told Fossor to go fuck himself while knowing there wasn’t a single damn thing she could do to stop him from absolutely destroying her. She had assumed it would happen, that she would suffer for the defiance, and she still did it. 

Yeah, Beilela was a bit of a badass, and she deserved to visit Earth, or anywhere else she wanted to go. 

And, of course, Rahanvael was staying on–uhh, Rahanvael. She was very clearly still embarrassed and sort of ashamed of the fact that these people had named the world after her. But she deserved that as much as Beilela deserved to visit Earth. It was just going to take time for her to understand that nothing Fossor had done was her fault. I was pretty sure staying and helping these people find their own place while learning the history of their world, which only she could tell them, was going to help an awful lot with that. I hoped it did, anyway. 

There was more going on, like the fact that the regular Seosten people were still sending a ship to check in on this place. But we had at least made them promise to extend the truce deal from Earth to this world as well, convincing them that their… cousins, for lack of a better word, had already been through enough and didn’t need to be dragged into more fighting. Between that and the agreement to find out if they could help with the whole pregnancy/child crisis situation, the Seosten leadership were being pretty nice about it. At least, enough of them were being nice. According to Chayyiel and Athena, there were still some of the Seraphs who were arguing for direct invasion and control of Rahanvael. They were simply outnumbered by those who were being more clear-headed, which was about the best we could hope for. 

In any case, all of that would be stuff for others to worry about for the time being. I was going to be pretty busy with my own thing. Or rather, with Ehn’s thing. I obviously had no idea how it was going to go, but I was relatively certain I wouldn’t have time to really focus on things like how Rahanvael (the person or the planet) was doing, or the search for Gaia. I just had to hope they’d be okay, and that everyone else could handle it.

“Are you sure about this?” Shiori asked, as she, Avalon, and I stood in my attic room back at the house in the Fusion School. And boy did it seem like it had been forever since I’d been here. After spending so long on the ship going to the other world, and then these past few weeks on the world itself, I could hardly remember the last time I’d actually slept here in my own bed. And from the sound of things, after these few days I had to get myself together and say goodbye to people, it was going to be a long time before I did so again. It kind of made me sad, thinking about all the classes I was going to miss with this whole thing. Sure, I’d be learning, but it wasn’t the same. Was it too much to ask for Ehn to wait and do this over the summer? Yeah, probably.

“Not in the least,” I replied while tossing a baseball up and down idly. “Trust me, I have no idea how this is going to go. But I do think it’s the best choice we’ve got. I’ve got this power, both of their powers, and I need to learn how to use them. I need to get stronger.” 

“That’s what Manakel is for,” Avalon reminded me sharply, arms folded against her stomach. She didn’t like this idea at all, understandably. “You’re learning how to use that power from him.”

“And I still will be,” I pointed out. “That’s why he’s coming with me.” That had been one of the agreements we made with Wukong. I was bringing several of my ghosts along, including Manakel so he could continue to instruct me with the whole Necromancy stuff. 

Giving an audible sigh, Avalon took my hand and pulled me closer, putting her other hand on my shoulder. “Listen to me. When you do this, you have to be careful. Yeah, you’ll be able to call for help through Tabbris or one of the ghosts, but this guy is more dangerous than anything we’ve gone up against. I don’t think any of us could get there in time to stop him if it’s an emergency.” Her voice cracked a little bit as she was speaking. “I think you’re right about him not wanting to hurt you or anything. But if he changes his mind, if he decides it’d be better to have some other Heretic take that power, or something like that, he just… watch yourself, Felicity.” 

“What she said.” Shiori’s voice was quiet as she leaned against the nearby wall, staring at me almost forlornly. “If this guy could just walk right out of that special prison like it wasn’t even there, I don’t think there’s much he can’t do.”

Yeah, one of the first things we had done when we got back here was check on the status of Ehn in Gehenna. And sure enough, they had informed us that the man was simply gone. No one knew how he disappeared, or at least they claimed they didn’t. But he wasn’t there. Obviously, Wukong knew where to find him, but he wasn’t going to tell those people. Nor were they likely to be able to re-capture him if they tried. Something told me neither of them would be going back to that prison ever again unless they personally chose to. Actually, I didn’t think either of them had ever been there without choosing to be. That ‘prison’ was more like a free relaxing hotel for people like them. 

“Which means if anyone can help me get strong enough to actually stop the Fomorians, and participate in that himself, it’s this guy,” I pointed out gently. “I don’t want to leave, guys, I swear. You know I don’t. But this whole situation is more important than just what any of us want. If I can help stop those monsters, I have to try.” 

We didn’t talk about that anymore, not right then anyway. We didn’t have time to dwell on something that wasn’t going to change. No matter how hard it was to leave them like this, even temporarily, I had to do this. Instead, the three of us discussed how we were going to stay in contact as best as we could, and how I was going to let them know things had gone wrong if it came down to it. Between our plans and those my mother and the other adults were cooking up, I was going to end up with over a dozen failsafes when it came to sending for help. And, if we were lucky, maybe one or two would actually work. 

That might have been a bit pessimistic, of course. But hey, I’d rather go above and beyond with so many options and assume only one or two would work, than settle for only having a couple and having end up not being able to get through at all. 

More importantly, at least as far as my sanity went, we just hung out. The three of us talked, played some games, watched a movie, we just relaxed and enjoyed our time together. All while I tried not to think about the fact that it would be a long time before we did this again, once I headed off to train with Ehn. I couldn’t dwell on that. I just had to enjoy what I could get. 

To that end, I turned to face both of them and caught one of each of their hands with my own. “Look, guys, this is basically like I’m going away to camp for a while. I’m going to be back before you know it, and you better have done your parts, okay? I mean, if I’ve got to miss all the excitement around finding Gaia, waking up Arthur, and all that, you better experience it yourselves so you can tell me all about it.” I left out the fact that we also needed both of them just in case the Ehn thing went wrong and he refused to let me leave. We were all thinking it, there was no need to actually say it out loud. 

Avalon squeezed my hand, meeting my gaze. “You’re right, we’ll do everything we need to do back here while you’re busy.” Her free hand moved to poke me in the forehead. “But you be careful. Yeah, we have our emergency stuff, but you know he’s probably too dangerous for that to work if he really wants to stop it.”

Shiori’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “We know why you have to do this, and that it’s a good idea. Or at least the best idea we’ve got, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it. Be careful, and keep telling us everything that’s going on, okay?”  

I promised to do so, before we went back to talking about other things. Happier things. After a few hours together like that, I spent a couple more alone with each of them in turn. First Avalon, then Shiori. Tomorrow was going to be the big group party with all my friends and anyone else who wanted to come. My last day, before leaving, would be spent mostly with my family. This, right now, was time alone with my girlfriends. 

And I was sure as hell going to enjoy every last minute of it. 


The next day, as promised, was my group farewell party. Which I honestly thought was a bit weird, since I hadn’t spent all that much time around school lately anyway, but still. It was more of an excuse to hang out with all of my friends together for most of the day. I heard all about stuff like how they had rescued Harrison Fredericks and captured one of Kushiel’s Olympian children, the one with the explosive teleportation. Aureus, the gold girl. Apparently she still wasn’t the least bit happy about being here, even after several people, including Abigail, had tried to talk to her. She was pretty violent about the whole situation, so they were mostly leaving her alone for the time being. 

So that was yet another thing I was going to have to let other people deal with while I was gone. By the time I got back, she would probably either be staying willingly, or have left already. Whatever happened, all I could do was wish the others luck. From the sound of things, they were going to need it. 

Kushiel, the Rebellion itself, Gaia, Arthur, all of these things might just end up being resolved by the time I was done with Ehn. Assuming I survived the training he had in mind. Either way, I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. Fortunately, in some ways, I was probably going to be too busy to think too much about that.

Besides, now wasn’t the time to think about that stuff. Instead, I was eating cake while playing a bit of doubles table tennis, with Columbus on my side and Sands and Sarah on the other. The four of us were chatting about–of all things, the first day we’d met over a year and a half earlier. Throughout the rest of this large rec room we had appropriated for the next few hours, my other friends and family were playing games, watching movies, talking, just… hanging out. People kept coming by to talk to me about anything that came to mind, or just to wish me luck with Ehn. I was doing my best to split my attention and give everyone a chance to talk. Fortunately, it seemed like this whole thing was more of an excuse to hang out in general than it was specifically about me. Thank God. I really didn’t think I could handle being the center of attention for three days straight. 

“I thought I was going to pass out while we were waiting for you to show up at the lighthouse, Flick,” Columbus was informing me. “Seriously, Shiori and me, we uhh, we spent a long time talking about how we probably didn’t belong there, how they were totally going to tell us they made a mistake and send us home. Before we actually went to the island, we were waiting for them to show up with the Men In Black neuralyzer thing. Then when we actually got there, I was just… I felt like I was gonna throw up. When they took so long to come meet us, I thought ‘picking up another student’ was an excuse.” 

“You thought they were having another meeting about whether they should kick you out anyway, and really they were voting about whether to let me in to begin with,” I replied with a snort. “Can you imagine how different everything would’ve been if one more Committee member voted no so Gaia couldn’t break the tie?” 

Sands caught the ping pong ball between two fingers in mid-bounce, examining it critically. “Everything would be a hell of a lot worse, because we wouldn’t know the truth.” She frowned, looking at me. “I’m serious, Flick. Stuff may be dangerous and hard now, but I’d rather have dangerous and hard things to do than be someone who would have killed as many innocent people as those bastards wanted. I know it was hard for me to believe you at first, and maybe back when this whole thing first started, I kind of thought it would’ve been better if you hadn’t said anything. But I was stupid. I wouldn’t change this back to the way it was for anything. I don’t want to be the person they wanted to turn me into.” 

“You’re afraid they’ll erase everyone’s memories again like they did with the first rebellion, aren’t you?” Columbus noted. 

Sarah spoke up. “They won’t. They can’t. Not without warning.” 

“Yeah, what she said,” I agreed. “Remember, we’ve got eyes on the Committee too. In more than one way. If they started moving along those lines, we’d get enough warning to stop them.” 

Bouncing the ball a couple times between her palm and the table, Sands nodded slowly. “Yeah, I know. But still. I have dreams sometimes about forgetting, about the sort of person I’d be if they wiped my memory and made me–” She visibly cringed then, dropping the ball before turning to embrace her sister, who was waiting for that. The two of them hugged one another. 

Looking over at Columbus, I offered a shrug. “You gotta help take care of them while I’m gone, you know?” 

“I’ll do my best to fill in,” he agreed with a small smirk. “But I don’t think I look that good in a blonde wig.” 

“Eh, you could pull it off.” That was Tristan, who showed up with Koren, both of them also eating cake from small paper plates. “But I know a guy who could totally grow your hair out and color it instead, if you prefer.” As he said that, the boy reached over to put his hand on the top of Koren’s head, making her hair extend another few inches before turning light blonde. Apparently he had another power I wasn’t aware of. 

Koren, swatting his hand away, used a couple fingers to pull her hair up and grimaced. “You better change it back. I don’t wanna be blonde.” 

Grinning, Tristan did so, also shortening it a few inches higher than it had been before, at her request. “See? I’ve got a strong career as a stylist ahead of me if the rest of this doesn’t work out.” 

“And we’re all so relieved for that,” I informed him with a small smile, looking back and forth through not only them, but the rest of the people who had come for this party. My friends knew what they were doing. They would be okay while I was gone. I just had to trust that, and focus on learning everything I could from Ehn. After all, it wasn’t every day that someone gave you the opportunity to learn from a Dragon-Heretic so you could become powerful enough to stop an entire species of genocidal monsters from destroying the universe. 

At least, I really hoped that wasn’t an everyday occurrence. I was exhausted just thinking about it.

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Patreon Snippets 29 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 29th edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Heretical Edge-related ones). Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, andb have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

The Calendar Discusses Kushiel’s ‘Children.’ 

“So that’s her in there, huh?” May, the dark-haired, Asian-looking member of the Calendar, murmured while standing in an observation room on the Fusion School sun station. She was looking through a one-way window at what looked like a simple bedroom, where a blonde figure was sleeping on the bed. Or at least, appeared to be sleeping. Judging from how tense the body actually was, May was pretty sure she was actually waiting for someone to come in so she could try to jump them. Which just helped show what they were dealing with, really. Both the fact that she wanted to ambush them and that she believed it was a trick that would work. 

Standing beside her, the red-haired April gave a short nod. “Uh huh. They said she calls herself Aureus. As in gold.” 

May shook her head. “You mean that’s what Kushiel named her. None of them have chosen their own names.”

“Does anyone?” April pointed out. “Other people are named by their parents or guardians, something like that. We don’t even have names of our own, not really. We have the titles Cahethal allows us to use.” 

Before May could decide how to respond to that, the two of them were interrupted. “Isawher… whentheybroughtherin!” That was the much younger December, bouncing up and down right near the window while staring that way eagerly. “She’sreallypretty, andstrongtoo. Shemakesexplosionssothey… hadtousemagictocalmherdown. Seethosescorchmarks?” She indicated the black spots along the walls and door, as well as part of the mirror they were looking at her through. 

“Yup, we see them,” May confirmed. “She wasn’t happy about being here, that’s for sure. And I don’t think she’s going to get any happier as it goes on.” Looking over at the girl beside her, she added, “You know what this means, right? It’s not just us. That girl in there and the rest of them aren’t Mendacia. They’re normal Seosten–no, they’re better than normal. They have powers from Tartarus. They inherited powers from their parents. And they still won’t give them real names, and raise them like soldiers, or tools.” 

“Every Seosten is raised to be a soldier,” April pointed out, though there was a bit of doubt and uncertainty in her voice. “We all fight the Fomorians.” 

“Sure,” May agreed, “but do you think Kushiel raised them for that? Because I’m pretty sure she just raised them to be her own personal army. Nobody else knew about them. She hid them away and trained them somehow. Probably ordered someone else to do the hard parts of taking care of them. Look what she did to her own daughter. Her real one, I mean. And now our leaders are going to be fighting over who gets to take them. That’s what they care about.” 

Moving up to stand next to December, April put her hand on the glass while speaking quietly. “They’re loyal to her because she took care of them. She raised them and told them to only believe what she said, and to think that they don’t have any other choices. She made them think she was their only person they could trust.” 

May stepped up on the other side of their smaller companion, who had remained silent through this. “Are you talking about Kushiel with them, or Cahethal with us?” 

April remained silent for several long seconds. Then, rather than respond to the question directly, she simply announced, “I want to go in there and talk to her. 

“I want to talk to all of them.” 



Thick, caustic clouds of smoke filled the air over the cliff and down into the valley far below. With a great, terrifying roar, the massive dragon, who had already suffered dozens of stab wounds through its side (though only a couple of any apparently real consequence) bellowed its last grievance before weaving almost drunkenly from one side to the other. Finally, it collapsed with an earth-shaking crash, before slowly tipping sideways off the edge of the cliff to fall far, far to the ground below, its body already beginning to be taken by the rapidly-spreading flames from the fire it had breathed. Soon, that entire valley would be stripped of all its once-glorious plant life, turning what was a green and fertile land into ash and jagged dirt. And the bones of a formerly unspeakably powerful beast. 

Wiglaf, the man who would in the future be known as Ehn, slumped over with a gasp of relief. His shield was long gone, his sword nothing more than a broken hilt. His skin was heavily burned, and drenched in blood that belonged not only to himself, but also the dragon. “Tis done, cousin!” He called. “The beast is–” 

Even as he started saying that, the man’s eyes looked up through his exhaustion, only to find the man in question, Beowulf, holding his chest and stomach where obviously grievous claw wounds left much more of his blood on the outside than there should have been. His face was pale, as he stared back at Wiglaf while teetering on the edge of that same cliff. “Yes, the beast,” he managed weakly, “the beast is dead. Gone. We have… we have… slain…” Unable to finish his words, he pitched over backwards, falling from the cliff. 

Wiglaf screamed a denial and dove that way, but he was too slow. Falling to his stomach, he stared down to see the body of his leader, cousin, and friend vanish into those flames alongside the dragon they had finally killed. By the time the flames were out, there would be little left of either. Nothing to differentiate one from the other. 

From that spot far above, leaning over the cliff, Wiglaf wouldn’t see a figure emerge from the flames at the far end of the valley. The man called Beowulf, brushing himself off, stayed near the edge of the cliff, turning to look up at the far distant form of the one he had called his cousin. They weren’t, of course. There was no relation between them. It was more of a term of affection. If they had been related–well, this trickery would neither have worked, nor been necessary.   

Well, it still would have been necessary, he just would have needed to choose another man. As it was, finding a true warrior, someone who could fill the role the one called Beowulf required, had taken quite some time. But now he was certain that Wiglaf would be that person. 

Allowing himself a smile of satisfaction, Beowulf turned and walked away. Wiglaf had the blood. He would be changed, would grow into an unbelievably powerful force. 

With each step, the ‘man’ grew in size, scales appearing across his skin, before wings emerged from his back. Creating an illusion of his own body in order for his shapeshifted self to ‘kill’ (and subsequently die as well) had barely required any effort at all. It was walking away from his friend that was the truly difficult part. He would never be able to explain the truth, or speak to the man he had spent so much time with over these past years. 

But at the very least, the dragon called Beowulf consoled himself while giving a mighty flap of his wings to fly off into the sky, he was done choosing his two champions. 

And now he would wait to see what Wiglaf and Arthur ended up doing with the gifts he had provided. 


Marina and Deveron When Charmeine Made Her Move To Abduct Flick And They Were Kept Busy Out Of The Way

Their van had broken down, because of course it had. They were in the middle of New York City, trying to show the first year students they were mentoring a good time, and then this had to happen. Marina shook her head while watching the van that had not ended up with a flat tire drive off. Her team mentees, as well as Deveron’s, who stood beside her, had all squeezed into that van. All aside from Rudolph and Felicity, anyway, who were further ahead in the car with Professor Dare and Josiah Carfried. They would all meet up together at the destinations. 

Turning back to look at the smoke coming out of the engine, Marina made a face. They had already tried to fix it for several minutes, including getting help from the drivers of both vans. But nothing worked. And neither of them wanted their charges to end up getting left out of any fun stuff. So, they sent them on ahead to meet up with Dare and the others while Marina and Deveron stayed with the van to wait for a Heretic to show up who could transport the van as well as the two of them where they needed to go. 

“Boy, you don’t really think a lot about mundane problems like this, huh?” As she said that, Marina looked over to see her companion not looking at the van itself, but watching the empty street around them. When the van had first begun to slow and shudder, the driver had managed to pull off the main street to a side road behind an old office building. And yet, even though there was no one around, from the way Deveron was scanning the area it was like he expected an army to come rushing into view any second.

“I don’t think it’s mundane,” he replied simply, without looking at her. “I think someone expected the van to break down and they’re looking for us. I think they wanted to find us here. That’s why I said the others should go on without us. And why I wanted you to go with them too.”

That was true, he had tried to convince Marina to leave him alone here, but she couldn’t do that. Leaving the boy alone in the middle of New York? It was out of the question entirely. Besides, what was he even talking about? Marina shook her head. “That doesn’t make sense. We’re all just students, why would someone try to ambush all of us? When did you suddenly become so paranoid?”

The boy was silent for a few seconds, before giving a soft sigh. “Look, I hope I am wrong, and that we just sit here for a few minutes until the Heretic the driver called manages to get here. I’d call to see how long it’ll take, but you know, with that blocking spell and everything…”

Taken aback by his last words, Marina started to ask what he was talking about, but he was already holding his phone up for her to see. “Look, we don’t have a signal any more. Went out just a few seconds ago. It’s being jammed, probably by some sort of spell.”

Okay, now he was really confusing her. Last year, Deveron had been this incredible, record-breaking student. So far this year, he had flipped into a lazy, do-nothing guy who really deserved a kick in the pants. That had been changing somewhat more recently, but apparently, now he had decided to change again, this time into a completely paranoid nutcase.

“Look, calm down,” she tried to tell him. I’ll just use my phone. Yours is probably broken or somethi–” She started to take it out of her pocket, but in mid-motion, Deveron grabbed her arm and yanked her out of the way, just as a blast of white-hot fire filled the air where she had just been. 

After a brief stumble, Marina found her footing and looked up to see a group of what looked like gang members stalking toward them. But these weren’t just ordinary gang members. They wore that sort of clothing, yet they weren’t human. Two looked like big heavy orcs, several had slimy, almost amphibian skin of various colors, another one was very clearly a troll of some sort, and more. The group was stalking their way, including one that looked kind of like a pterodactyl without wings. He was the one who had launched that fireball from his mouth. And all of them were carrying weapons.

“Still think I’m just paranoid?” Deveron asked while producing that pistol of his. “Come on, we can deal with these guys and then catch up with the others.” His voice was tense, but somehow Marina didn’t think that was because of these guys. He seemed to see them as barely an annoyance rather than a threat. 

As the stranger gang approached, the boy stepped forward and glared at them. “Sorry if you were expecting a bigger group,” he announced. “We’ll have to make up for the others.”

The gang stopped, exchanging looks and chuckles with one another before the pterodactyl man narrowed his eyes at them. “More of you? No, we were just sent for you two.”

Marina still had absolutely no idea what the hell was going on. And now even Deveron looked surprised. His mouth opened to say something, before he could, the gang attacked. 

She may have been confused and lost about what was happening, but Marina was still a Heretic who had been through a year and a half of training, so she knew how to react to being attacked. In one motion, her three-pointed corseque spear was in her hands, and she made a sharp upward motion to summon a glowing bear paw out of the ground, which emerged from underneath two of the monsters who were running at her and launched them into the air. While they were flailing, she hurled her weapon between them, focusing on one of her powers to make three different sharp metal blades extend from the shaft on either side in order to cut through the pair.

Those two fell, bleeding profusely, but not dead yet. Her first year had been spent learning how to fight and kill. But in the six months she had been going to classes for the second year, Marina had been learning better ways to put her opponents down temporarily, long enough to thin out a large number so she could kill them more easily without ending up getting herself killed while reacting to the pleasure rush that came when one of them died. Heretics were supposed to work together to help counter it, but they still had to know how to protect themselves from that particular downside. 

And it was a good thing she had learned to do that, indeed, because two more of the Strangers were right on top of her. From the corner of her eye, Marina caught a glimpse of Deveron trying to evade the rest of those guys as they swarmed him. She had to get over there and help the boy. He might’ve been good, but there was no way he could handle half a dozen bad guys coming at him from all sides, including that massive troll.

She had to help, but first, she had to survive the next few seconds. As one of the orcs came at her with a crude-looking sword, Marina transformed her neck and upper shoulders into her partial water form, allowing the blade to pass through without any damage. At the same time, she extended her left hand out toward the other one, an amphibian figure who looked like a man crossed with an eel. He fired the pistol he was holding, but the bullet had barely emerged from the gun before it dropped uselessly to the ground. Meanwhile, the force the bullet had been using was reversed, and pushed into the blast of concussive force that Marina had just sent flying from her palm. That power allowed her to steal the momentum of anything that passed through a small area that she pointed to, and turn it into a blast of force from any part of her body. In this case, she simply used the same hand to send that concussive force flying into the man’s head to knock him over.

The orc with the sword was already reacting to it passing harmlessly through her now-watery neck, but before he could try again, Marina caught his extended arm and spun, kicking to take his legs out from under him. As he fell toward the cement, she opened her mouth and spat just past him. The saliva hit the ground and instantly spread out, becoming a small, one-foot-wide puddle of incredibly sticky fluid. The orc fell onto it and couldn’t pull himself up.

During that same spinning motion that came as she kicked the man’s legs out from under him, Marina had extended her arm out. Her hand was literally launched away from her body, extending up and outward on a thin tentacle-like flesh thing that was attached to her wrist. It was gross, but the power allowed her to launch any part of her body out on those tendrils, which could grow to be as long as fifty feet. She could only make one at a time, and could manipulate it with as much strength and control as any of her limbs.

In this case, she used it to grab her weapon as it was falling toward the ground, yanking it back to herself. In that moment, the orc was trying to push himself off the glue she had stuck him to, the two figures she had sent her weapon cutting through in the air had just hit the ground and were groaning in pain, and the eel-man had fallen onto his back, clutching his face where she had sent the concussive force stolen from his bullet. He was also bleeding profusely. 

Without hesitation, Marina quickly stabbed each of them in turn, through the first lethal spot she could find. She had to be quick about this, had to kill them and go help Deveron. She got through two before the pleasure began to overwhelm her, and had to quickly stab the remaining pair before they could get up while she lost herself. Even then, the rush of four kills in quick succession left her panting on the ground for a moment before she managed to force herself back to her feet.

And yet, as she told herself to focus on her next opponent, Marina found nothing there aside from the massive troll, who had fallen on the ground and wasn’t moving. Blinking in surprise, she looked around, only to see Deveron shove the troll off of himself and roll out. He came to his feet, looking toward her. “Are you okay?”

“Am I okay?” she shot back. “What about you? Where’d they go?” 

The boy shrugged. “I guess they ran off, figured this big guy could do the job.” He started to say something else, only to groan. 

Belatedly, Marina realized he was looking past her. Turning, she saw another group coming their way, who looked just as dangerous, if not more so. 

“Great,” Deveron muttered while moving up beside her, “I guess they had reinforcements.” 

“Hey,” she awkwardly replied while holding her weapon up. “Maybe they’ll run away too.”

The boy just chuckled softly. “Maybe they will,” he agreed.

“But let’s give them a good reason to hurry along.”


Sarah And Tristan Go On A Date

With the lights and sounds of the amusement park filling the air all around them, including shrieks from dozens of people on the nearby roller coaster, Sarah and Tristan walked together. The boy held a half-finished cotton candy in one hand, taking a bite of it. Sarah, meanwhile, carried a box of roasted peanuts, which she occasionally took one from to crack open between her fingers and toss into her mouth. The two of them had just come from the snack cart, and were making their way through the rows of midway games. They both stopped in front of the dart toss, examining the balloons attached to the cork board. Immediately, the man there began to cajole Tristan into taking a shot at winning a stuffed animal for his date. The pair looked at one another, and smiled faintly. Tristan was the first to blush, and glanced away, while Sarah held her free hand up. A brief moment of silent communication followed before Tristan followed suit. They made their hands into fists and played paper rock scissors three times in quick succession. Sarah won before setting her peanuts down on the counter. Then she produced a five dollar bill and handed it over to the man. He shrugged before giving her three darts. Adjusting quickly to the fact that the girl was throwing, he stepped out of the way while cheerfully encouraging her to take her time and make her shots count. 

Sarah, in turn, gave her first dart an almost careless underhanded toss upward. It flipped up through the air before coming back down from above the balloons rather than hitting straight on. The added force from its downward fall popped the first balloon it hit. The man quickly cheered for her ‘good luck,’ followed by watching as she duplicated the move for the other two. Laughing a bit about how she must have some Robin Hood in her blood, he handed over a green stuffed elephant. 

Soon, she and Tristan were walking away from that booth. Sarah examined the elephant before smiling as she offered it to the boy beside her. He accepted the toy happily and announced, “I’ll name him Circus. I’m pretty sure he likes peanuts.” 

Raising an eyebrow curiously, the girl plucked a peanut from her small bag, cracked it open, and gave the nut itself a toss toward the elephant. 

Tristan, still grinning, held the toy up. Just as the peanut hit where the elephant’s mouth was, he used a power that allowed him to turn up to roughly ten feet worth of the same material he was touching into a portal, which would take any object that entered it and send it out at any other point on the same ten feet worth of material. The only visual indicator that this was happening was that the affected material glowed faintly. In this case, the peanut entered the ‘portal’ at the toy’s mouth before coming out the back of its head, straight into Tristan’s waiting mouth. He chewed and patted the toy on its head. “See? It’s his favorite. How awesome is this day for him? First, he gets freed from the oppressive prison back there by your amazing dart tossing skills, and now he gets snacks.” 

Sarah’s cheeks turned a bit pink as she snickered softly before pointing out in a soft voice, “You could have popped every balloon on the board.” 

“Probably,” he agreed with a shrug. “But it’s more fun to watch you do it.” They both glanced at each other for a quick second before looking away, blushing. The two of them had agreed that they liked each other some time ago, even if other things kept interrupting. They had eaten together up on the sun station, had watched movies in their rooms or in the small theater, had done all sorts of things like that. But this was their first time going on an official date down here on Earth. They’d intentionally chosen something they couldn’t easily do at the Fusion School, hence coming to a wide open amusement park with so many games and rides.

“How about the baseball toss?” Tristan finally offered after a moment of that. “We know you’re awesome at that. Those milk jugs’ll never know what hit ‘em.” 

Giggling a little self consciously, Sarah shook her head, informing the boy, “Your turn.” She felt her phone buzz in her pocket and already knew it was Sands checking in to see how things were going. That wasn’t simply because of insight to how her sister thought, or any sort of connection between them. It was also thanks to a power she had picked up, which allowed her to ‘read’ words written or displayed on any screen, paper, wood etching, and so on that happened to be touching her. It even worked through her clothes, so she could read a paperback book by putting it in her pocket. The reading wasn’t instantaneous, she still had to work her way through each page in turn and take the time to actually comprehend the words, but she could read that way. And, in this case, she could read the message that popped up on the screen. It simply read, ‘If everything’s all good, don’t respond at all. Don’t even take the phone out of your pocket! If you need to be rescued because it’s so awkward, send any message back at all.’

Sarah, of course, left the phone firmly in her pocket. 

By that point, Tristan had finished looking around before raising his hand to point. “Oooh, bumper cars! We are totally doing the bumper cars.” 

So, they did. The two of them went for a couple rounds through the bumper cars. The first time through, they teamed up together to take on all comers, the pair managing to dominate the whole arena. For their second round, they split up and went head-to-head. From there, they went through the funhouse, two different roller coasters, the rapidly spinning rotor ride, a couple more midway games, and the ‘scrambler’ ride, which consisted of a central machine with four extended arms, each of which had four small carts attached to it. The machine itself spun in a circle, while the arms holding the carts spun as well. 

Once they were through that much, the two teenagers grabbed a bowl of ice cream and a couple spoons before making their way to a quieter area at the back of the park to sit down and enjoy their treat while watching the excitement from the rest of the guests. There was a bench there, near the fence leading to the dark parking lot beyond, and they both sat next to one another, sharing the ice cream. 

While they were talking about which baseball team they wanted to keep track of in the upcoming season, Tristan abruptly put his hand on Sarah‘s arm while looking past her. With one hand, the boy produced a privacy coin and activated it so they wouldn’t be overheard. His voice was sharp, yet quiet. “Look over there.” 

She did so, glancing that way at what turned out to be an employee entrance into one of the buildings a few hundred feet away. It was illuminated by a hanging lamp, revealing a man and older teenager, both of whom were having an intense, whispered conversation. Sarah recognized the boy immediately as one of the previous third year, now fourth year students at Crossroads. He had stayed with the school when the rebellion restarted. She also recognized the man he was talking to after a moment. He had visited the school several times over the years to give talks to the older students. 

“Crossroads,” Sarah murmured, even as she and Tristan both slipped off the bench and moved to hide themselves behind the nearby bathroom building. She glanced around the edge of the wall in time to see the pair of Heretics in the distance look at their watches simultaneously, both checking the time. They were waiting for something. 

Her voice remained soft, as she tugged her phone out. “Not here to relax.” 

“Nope,” Tristan agreed, already looking at his own phone. “Okay, let’s call in backup and then—oh shit.” Even as both of them had been sending messages, they saw a third Heretic, this one someone from their own year. Or at least, the year they would’ve been in if they hadn’t left. It was Orvis Trench, a light-skinned, dark-haired boy neither of them, or any of their friends, had interacted with much. He was a very gung-ho type who took the job very seriously, and saw himself as one of the last lines of defense between innocent humanity and the armies of evil who threatened to wash over them. A true believer in every sense of the word.

Orvis also wasn’t alone. He was leading a group of obvious Alters. There were a dozen of them, of varying ages and descriptions, all different species for the most part. The weird part was that none of them seemed scared. At least not to the point that they should’ve been considering who they were following. And yes, they were following him, giving no indication of trying to get away.

Setting her phone down after sending her sister that quick message, Sarah reached out to her belt to find the fake camera case hooked there so she could reach into the pocket dimension and pull out her rifle. Still concealed behind that wall, she took aim and created an invisible scope portal out and ahead of them. With that, she sent another scope portal through it in order to get a close look at the group. The girl already had enhanced hearing, but the two by the door were clearly using some sort of privacy spell of their own, and the others were still too far away. Fortunately, her gun had been upgraded so that she could also hear through those portals with an attached earpiece. She put that in, handing the other one to Tristan. They were both just in time to hear one of the Alters thank Orvis for saving them. Only she didn’t call him Orvis. She called him Doug. A moment later, one of the other altars referred to him as Mr. Frey. 

That was why these people weren’t afraid. They thought the heretic who was leading them to their obvious deaths was Doug Frey. More to the point, they thought these three were part of the rebellion. Crossroads people were posing as the rebellion in order to get innocent Alters to walk right along with them. It was a realization that struck both Sarah and Tristan abruptly, making them snap their gazes to one another in shock, disbelief, and anger. An awful lot of anger.

Getting a message from Sands informing her that the cavalry was on their way and would be there soon, Sarah looked up as the group of completely unknowing victims began to be led through that employees only door. 

Her voice was flat. “No time.” 

Tristan gave a quick nod. “Yeah, you’re right. If we don’t do something, they’re dead. But there’s three of them and two of us.” 

Sarah took only a second, watching the group of Alters who thought they were safe, who thought they were being escorted by the Rebellion. “Wait?” she asked as gently and non-judgmentally as she could in that moment.

Tristan didn’t even hesitate. “Fuck no,” he replied. “The others are coming, we’ve just got to distract these guys for a minute.” He held up his fist then, and Sarah bumped hers against it. 

“Distract them for a minute,” she agreed. 

The two of them took only a couple seconds to come up with a plan. It was all they had, considering the people they were trying to save were about to vanish through the door that the older, fourth year student was holding open while all three Crossroads Heretics offered fake, encouraging smiles to the incoming group.

In the end, Sarah went for the direct approach. Taking aim through the scope portal she had already set up, the girl fired three quick shots, all of them aimed at the man in charge, the adult Heretic. Unfortunately, the man’s danger sense must have triggered, because he abruptly pivoted out of the way, hand snapping out while conjuring some sort of field that slowed the bullets, allowing him to pluck them out of the air.

The Alters cried out in fear, one of them shouting that they were under attack. A few tried to back out of the doorway, while others went forward. The fourth year student shouted for them to get inside and take cover, even as he held his arm out, summoning a large shield over it as though to protect them. 

Tristan was already on the move. He had Bobbi-Bobbi in her cannon form as he sprang around the corner of the wall and fired off a blast toward the assembled Heretics, being careful not to hit any of their would-be victims. The blast of energy went straight for Orvis. But the boy in question lunged right toward it while lifting his hand. A metal gauntlet appeared there, similar to the ones that Avalon used. He created an energy shield from the gauntlet, blocking the incoming blast. It was still enough to knock him stumbling backwards, and Tristan took advantage of that by racing that way, reshaping Bobbi-Bobbi from a cannon into a gauntlet of his own. A gauntlet with an energy shield around it as the cyberform used her power for defense rather than attack in that moment.

Orvis turned his own shield into a blade, lashing out at the incoming boy, but Tristan blocked it with his own glowing blade before driving his fist into the other boy’s chest. No, not his fist, his claws. He had produced his werejaguar claws at the last second, and drove them right into his former classmate’s chest before he could even start to react.

While that boy staggered and went down to one knee, the adult Heretic bellowed in anger, and vanished from where he was standing. He appeared behind Tristan, hurling the bullets he had caught with such speed and force that they would have torn through the boys back. But Tristan used the power he had played with on the elephant earlier in order to turn his shirt into a portal, allowing the bullets to pass through the back and continue through the front, where they hit Orvis in the arm while he was shielding his chest.

Sarah was already there, while the adult Heretic grabbed Tristan by the hair and began to yank him backwards. Before the man could do whatever he planned on, she reached for his shoulder. He, in turn, pivoted while still holding Tristan off the ground by his hair with one hand so he could grab Sarah‘s extended arm with his other and yank her off the ground as well. “Oh,” he snapped while using some sort of telekinesis power to hurl her gun off into the distance with a sharp chin motion, “is your dad gonna be glad to see you.”

Dangling from the man’s grip on her arm, Sarah gave him a thin, humorous smile. “I’ll send him a postcard,” she informed the man in that soft, barely audible voice.

The man’s danger sense went off then, and he attempted to fling her away, but before he could, Sarah’s arm exploded. It was her fake one, the one she had replaced over the summer with what amounted to an energy projection that could reshape itself. In this case, it didn’t reshape into anything. Instead, it simply blew apart, sending all the energy it could into the man’s hand. It wasn’t enough to cripple him or anything, but it still made the guy cry out and let both of them go while staggering backward.

The instant they landed on the ground, while the older Heretic was staggering, Sarah and Tristan didn’t hesitate. Tristan reshaped Bobbi-Bobbi into her snake form, lashing out so her fangs could dig into the man’s leg. She delivered what should’ve been enough venom to instantly put a full-grown and angry moose on the ground.

Sarah, meanwhile, flooded the area in front of her with a freezing mist that should have slowed their opponent down even more than he already was from the venom being pumped into his system.

But in this case, both of those attacks barely affected him at all. He got his feet back under him, his foot flashing out to kick Tristan hard enough that the boy was hurled over fifteen feet to crash into the wall of the employee building. At the same time, a massive hand made of concrete rose from the ground and backhanded Sarah hard enough to daze her. 

Orvis had recovered enough by that point to grab Tristan as the boy fell near him. He managed to get his knees onto Tristan‘s arms before driving a fist into his face once, twice, a third time. “You stupid, selfish bastard!” he shouted. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing!?” As he said that, the boy produced a bone blade from his wrist, and began to drive it down, right at Tristan‘s throat. But in mid-motion, a gunshot rang out, and he pitched over backwards with a hole through the center of his forehead. Sarah, who had managed to grab her rifle with her newly reformed energy hand, lay on her back while pointing it that way. 

Her voice was slightly choked. “Winning a war.”

That was all she managed to get out before the rush of pleasure made the girl gasp.

Unfortunately, before it had finished, the adult Heretic had his hand around her throat, and was lifting her from the ground. “Murderer!” he shouted into her face while she began to see spots. “I changed my mind, your dad isn’t going to see you again after all.” With that, he began to squeeze harder, intent on snapping her neck right there before she could recover. 

Tristan, however, was already back on his feet and racing that way. Without looking, the man pointed with one hand and sent over a dozen quick laser shots from his palm. But Tristan evaded each and every one of them, twisting and ducking to keep his body barely out of the way while continuing to run. Just as Sarah felt things start to go dark, Tristan launched himself at the man. He, of course, simply grabbed the lunging boy. But then Tristan vanished, disappearing into him, possessing him. Instantly, the man’s hand released Sarah, dropping her. 

“Go,” Tristan snapped with the man’s voice, “stop them!”

Sarah knew what he meant. The fourth year student had already vanished into the building, taking the confused and frightened Alters with him. He had abandoned his teacher and the other student, probably rightfully believing that Sarah and Tristan would have help soon. Or that the adult Heretic didn’t need any backup to deal with a couple students.

Sarah‘s head shook, even as she turned to run at the door, calling over shoulder, “Not fast enough!”

Tristan immediately interpreted what she meant, leaving the Heretic he’d just taken over and before taking several quick steps to lunge out and touch the girl’s back. In an instance, he was possessing her instead. 

The adult Heretic staggered, looking at his hands briefly before his gaze snapped back up as he started to shout. But whatever had been about to say was drowned out by the sudden explosion that came as the dozen magical bombs he had stored in his pockets, which Tristan had discovered and activated while possessing him, went off. Despite his incredible strength, the man couldn’t stand up to that. His body was blown apart into a fine mist.

Tristan felt the binding rush of pleasure while possessing Sarah, but fortunately, he didn’t have to focus on anything. He just used his boost and gave the girl as much speed as he could. She, in turn, sprinted blindingly quickly through the doors, and made her way down the hallway toward the sound of shouting.

They arrived just in time to find the fourth year student they had been pursuing lying on the floor with Sands standing over his obviously dead body. She was accompanied by half a dozen others, including Jazz, the actual Doug, Pace, Theia, and a couple adults. 

Seeing them, Tristan hopped out of Sarah, both them skidding to a halt.

“Heeeey,” Sands greeted them while the utterly confused and terrified group of Alters stared in confusion, “what’s up? How’s the date going?”

Tristan coughed, opening his mouth to reply. But Sarah caught his hand. When he looked back that way, she provided their real response, by leaning up to touch her lips to his. 


Eden’s Garden Hybrids Before The New Rebellion

“Lenny. Lenny, wake up.” The insistent voice was accompanied by an almost violent shake of her shoulders as Elena Four was startled out of a deep sleep. Her eyes opened, blinking up at the familiar figure, a red-haired, green-skinned boy the same age as her at twelve years old. 

“Muh, buh.” She had to open and shut her mouth a couple times, throat dry as she struggled to make words come out coherently after being awoken so suddenly. “Manny? What’s goin’ on?” 

Manuel Seven, or Manny as she knew him, grimaced apologetically at her reaction. “Sorry, Lenny, they need you to help track a couple of the calygreyhounds. They got out a couple hours ago.” 

It took a moment for the girl to process those words, but as soon as she did, Lenny pushed her way out of the small, military-style cot and stood. Her room was only large enough for the bed, a small desk with a mirror over it, and a chest to keep her clothes and other belongings in. She glanced toward that mirror then, seeing herself as others did, a small girl with short brown hair that was almost, but not quite light enough to be considered blonde. Her eyes were a dark red color, while her skin was very pale. When she yawned, the girl could see the same multiple rows of sharp teeth that others saw when they looked at her.

She slept in a dark red sweatsuit, so the girl didn’t bother to change clothes. She simply put her shoes on quickly and then left her room alongside Manny. Her door opened up into a field at the base of the Eden’s Garden tree. She and those like her, hybrids whose parents consisted of one human and one Stranger, didn’t live in the tree itself. And they certainly didn’t live near their parents, given one was an evil Stranger and the other a Heretic who couldn’t be expected to deal with the evil that they were capable of. Lenny and her kind couldn’t be trusted to be near proper civilization. Instead, there was a series of what looked like cabins arranged in a nearly complete circle here at the base of the tree. They were stacked on top of one another, ten cabins high. There were two doors on each cabin, and each door led into a room identical to the one she had just come out of. Rigid ladders were attached to the walls on either side of every door, allowing those who lived higher to climb up or down. The circle of stacked cabins was wide enough to allow for fifteen of the buildings. Fifteen cabins per level, each containing two single-occupancy rooms. Thirty occupants on each level. Ten levels. Three hundred of those like Lenny and Manny. 

They were hybrids. Children of Strangers and humans. Their human parentage gave them just enough control that they could avoid their other parent’s savagery and evil, if they tried hard enough. 

Their names came from others who had been here before. Others who had either died in battle or moved to another place such as one of the colonies. Either way, someone who wasn’t here at Eden’s Garden anymore. But none who had given in to their Stranger impulses. If you went feral, your name was stripped from the list of potentials and never used again. Lenny was Elena Four, the fourth to bear the name Elena since this had been started a couple hundred years earlier. Elena Three, who had come before her, was killed fighting the very Stranger who had given Lenny her pale skin and teeth. Fahsteth, the Akheilosan. 

Even at this early hour (it was not quite dawn) there were a few others standing around, making food at the fire pit in the middle of the courtyard. They greeted both children and the two waved back before running together to the space between the furthest two buildings, an exit leading out of what was dubbed Hy-town (for hybrid town). That led the pair to a series of trails, most of which proceeded deeper into the massive forest beyond the Eden’s Garden tree. But the two of them followed the trail that went right, Lenny not even needing to be told where the others would be waiting. That smaller trail led to another clearing just past a thicket of smaller trees and bushes, where dozens of large metal storage crates were stacked up quite similarly to the cabins they had just left. There were two men waiting there, deep in conversation. They were full Eden’s Garden Heretics, not hybrids. When they saw the pair come into the clearing, both men focused on them. The taller of the two, a man with black hair and a face lined from age, walked that way. “Elena Four, I trust Manuel Seven told you the situation?” 

Her head bobbed quickly at that. “Yes, Mr. Fernweh. Calygreyhounds escaped?” The creatures, despite their name being so close to that of the Bystander-bred racing dogs, were quite a bit different. Their main bodies were that of a deer, their front legs and feet looked like those of a bird of prey with talons, while their back legs and feet were more like a lion. Matching their hindquarters, their heads were always that of some form of various wild felines, aside from the antlers or horns they tended to also have. Finally, they possessed enormous feathered wings. 

Suffice to say, if a couple of them had gotten out of their pen hours earlier, they could be anywhere by that point. But that was why Lenny had been sent for. Even as Lenny confirmed that she knew what was happening, Fernweh was pointing to one of the stacks of enormous metal crates. Each was the size of a Bystander shipping container. As he pointed, the crates in that stack lifted up and rearranged themselves until one in particular was on the bottom. “Go get your friends and we’ll start tracking.” 

The twelve-year-old didn’t miss a beat before running that way. It only took her a moment to enter the code on the keypad attached to the crate. It beeped an affirmative at her and then rumbled open. “Sugar, Spice, come on, we’ve got a job!” she called out. 

As with all of the crates that were stacked up there, the interior of this one was quite a bit larger than even its decent size on the outside implied. In this case, the crate contained a vast open field, trees of its own, and even a pond where a dozen antelope were drinking. But her attention wasn’t on those antelopes. Instead, she watched as two gigantic figures bounded toward her. A pair of lions, one male and one female, mates of course though they had been sterilized to prevent any unwanted litters. But not just any lions. These were Nemeans. They were called other things, of course, it was just that they were most well-known by the name of the place where the legendary Heracles had defeated one. 

These two Nemeans were each almost fifty feet long and fifteen feet tall. The male, Sugar, had a mane that was incredibly thick and soft enough for Lenny to completely fall asleep in, as she had plenty of times. 

Thinking about sleep right then was a bad idea though. So she shook that off and gave each of them scratches in turn as they leaned in close to sniff her. Thanks to the girl’s Akheilosan heritage, she had been bonded to the pair since she was barely old enough to walk. They took care of her, and helped her contribute to the safety and prosperity of Eden’s Garden. 

At least, they would do that until she lost control over her evil side and had to be put down for the safety of real people. 

Soon, she was perched on Sugar’s back, holding onto his mane. The female lion, Spice, carried Manny. The boy’s own orcish parentage didn’t quite lend itself that well to tracking, but he was incredibly strong and would be able to help if they ran into trouble. 

Not that that was likely with two full Heretics accompanying them of course. Between them as well as Sugar and Spice, there was little out there in the woods that could prove to be a threat. 

“Alright,” Fernweh announced once the kids were set, “let’s get out there and bring those Calygreyhounds back before it gets too late. We’ve got more important things to deal with. 

“And you two don’t wanna miss the whole school day. I hear Miss Ævi wants to take you up into the branches, so you can meet some normal people and see what you’re protecting.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Interlude 21A – Rescue Mission (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

“Man, I hope this is the right place.” The whispered remark came from Columbus, as he, Sarah, Sands, Vanessa, and Tristan crouched behind a low wall on the far side of a seemingly abandoned warehouse. There was no real need to whisper, thanks to the privacy spells they were all using, but still. It felt like a whispering sort of situation. 

“Tell me about it,” Sands retorted, peeking through a hole in the wall at the distant warehouse a hundred yards or so away. “What’s this, the fourth possibility we’ve checked today? I lost track.” 

“Fifth,” came the answer through the magical communication badges they all wore. It was Croc, the Eden’s Garden Unset Heretic, who would be on the front side of the warehouse with Kohaku and about a dozen other adults. They were the frontal assault, the ones who would go straight in and draw the immediate response if this was the right building. 

Everyone here was looking for Kushiel’s ghost, those Seosten kids she had on her side, and Harrison Fredericks, the man they had abducted. Why they took the man who had invented cyberforms, no one knew. But it couldn’t be for anything good. They had to find the man and free him. So, while Flick’s group went to Fossor’s world, Columbus and the others had been running down every lead they could find about where Kushiel could be holed up. In this case, the clue had been that she was somewhere in a large building on the outskirts of Huntsville, Alabama. That didn’t completely narrow down the possibilities, but they were working their way through them methodically. 

“Is everyone back there in position and ready?” Kohaku asked through the badges. They could hear the tension in her voice. She wanted to get this done with already. The adults would draw most of the attention if their targets were inside. While they were doing that, Columbus and the others would make their way through the back, find Fredericks, and get him out. The main goal of their mission wasn’t to destroy Kushiel’s ghost, it was to save Fredericks before she could force him to do whatever it was she had abducted him for. 

Though to be honest, Columbus wouldn’t object if the opportunity to destroy that evil cunt happened to show itself. She had already been killed once, so the fact that she was back causing trouble again was unfair to begin with. He’d definitely be a-okay if one of their group got the chance to end her for good.

Shaking off that thought for the moment, he glanced over the others and received an assortment of thumbs up from them. “We’re set,” the boy answered simply. “So let’s see what’s going on inside. You guys got anything up there?” Even as he asked that, Columbus touched the side of his goggles while staring at the building. He cycled through various vision modes, zooming in and checking for heat signatures. That turned up nothing, but when he tried to use the x-ray vision to see through the walls, nothing happened at all. “It’s got some sort of shield, I can’t see into the building. Sarah?” 

The girl in question already had her rifle raised while sitting with her back to the wall. She created a quick series of invisible scope-portals, each getting closer to the building. But a moment later, she too shook her head and spoke quietly. “Can’t get inside with them. It’s blocked.” 

“Yeah, we’re in the same position out here,” Croc confirmed. “Whatever’s in there, it has some pretty powerful magic blocking anyone from seeing inside. So, I guess we’re just going to have to do this the direct way. Wait for us to go in loud, then make your approach. You’ve all got your escape stones if this goes sideways, right?” After they confirmed they did, he reminded them once more that Kushiel and those kids weren’t the main point of this mission. “You see Fredericks, you get him out and retreat, that’s it. We’ll handle the big guns. You know, with these big guns.”

“You know we can’t see you flexing, right?” Sands pointed out. 

“Maybe not, but you’re imagining it just fine,” came the confident reply. 

While waiting for the adults to do their thing, Columbus shifted his weight and scanned the grounds once more just in case. “What do you guys think she wants him for?”

“Probably wants him to build a giant robot thing for her,” Tristan replied, already shifting Bobbi-Bobbi from snake to cannon form. “You know, a body she can use even as a ghost, like the way those pals of hers were possessing the other cyberforms. You think he can build her something nasty enough to be a threat?”  

“If anyone can, it’s Fredericks,” Vanessa replied flatly. “But could she find a way to make him do it? I mean, from what everyone said, he’s pretty stubborn, especially when it comes to people using his creations. He managed to stay neutral between Crossroads and Eden’s Garden, and between the rebellion and loyalists. I don’t think it’s exactly that easy to make him do something he doesn’t want to do.” 

“In that case,” Sands muttered, “hopefully he hasn’t actually done anything for her yet. It’d be nice if we could get him out of there before Kushiel gets what she wants out of him. You know, so we don’t have to deal with the worst case scenario for once.” Her tone was almost wistful, a far cry from the girl who had been so eager, and even desperate to find some action and prove herself a year and a half earlier.  

Before anyone else could respond to that, the sound of a loud explosion drew their attention toward the building. As promised, the adults made their incursion very loud and obvious. One of them, probably Croc, blew a hole in the side of the building, sending chunks of debris flying in every direction. And with that, they were inside. The group could now see various flashes of light coming through that hole, where the magical façade could no longer cover what was actually happening within. They heard shouts, and caught glimpses of various forms moving around inside. From the look of things, either they had the wrong place, and this was just an unrelated magically protected building, or Kushiel had recruited a lot more people to help with whatever she was doing. Unless they were just more of those ghosts from before. But these figures seemed more solid than that. 

The moment the assault started, Sands put a hand out to touch the bullet that Sarah was offering her. Seconds later, she disappeared into it, possessing the small bit of ammo. Whatever happened next, she would be ready to appear right where Sarah sent her. 

Columbus, for his part, had just started to focus on getting a look inside that hole, when a flash of movement drew his attention to the opposite end of the building. Right there, at one of the back loading dock doors, were the Seosten kids they had seen at Fredericks’ lab when the group had briefly taken over the cyberform dragons. Seven of them, four boys and three girls, just like before. And just like that day, they wore the same uniforms. Gold with black piping for the boys, black with gold piping for the girls. 

The seven of them emerged together, clearly surrounding and escorting another familiar figure. It was Fredericks. The man’s hands were in some sort of shackles with glowing magic runes on them, and he was stumbling along with one of the boys, the one with short black hair and almost unnaturally pale skin, walking right behind him. It was Āter, latin for black (they were all named after colors, because gods forbid Kushiel actually put some effort into naming children). The boy had one of the luxensis, the Seosten laser swords, ignited and held close enough to do some real damage if Fredericks had tried to run. 

The blue-haired boy (Caeruleus) and brunette girl (Fuscus) were in front, eyes scanning the area ahead of them as they jogged toward the far side of the warehouse grounds. The green-haired girl (Viridis) and blond guy who looked like he belonged on the cover of a trashy romance novel (Lūteus) remained on either side, watching for attacks from that angle. Finally, the white-haired, well-built guy (Candidus) and golden-haired girl (Aureus) were bringing up the rear, a few feet behind Āter and Fredericks. All of them were watching for any attack, while heading straight for what looked like a large van parked just off the grounds. That had to be their escape route. Or at least the one they were planning on using now that the adults had cut off the ones that would have been inside. 

But this was precisely why Columbus and the others were here. Well, technically they had been here to sneak in the back once the adults had Kushiel’s attention. But like hell were they just going to sit back and let those guys get away with Fredericks a second time. The group all exchanged quick looks, nodded to another, and then made their move.

Sarah went first, firing two quick shots. The first contained Sands, and went through three portals before coming out on the far side of Lūteus. As that bullet hit the ground, the girl herself appeared, already making a sharp sweeping motion with her mace to summon a wall of solid steel all the way around the front of the Seosten youths before they could react. 

At the same time, Tristan brought his cannon in line with the group before shifting it to the side to fire a blast of charged energy right at the door they had just come out of. The shot demolished the opening, collapsing it under a pile of rubble to ensure they couldn’t go back the way they’d come. 

Columbus, meanwhile, was already sprinting forward. After a couple steps, he vanished, reappearing in the middle of the group, right where Fredericks was. Or rather, where Fredericks had been. Columbus had used one of the powers he’d picked up while being possessed by Charmeine to switch places with the man, leaving Fredericks next to Sarah and Tristan. 

The golden-haired Aureus was already raising her hands toward Sands when Columbus appeared. Catching a glimpse of him from the corner of her eye, her fingers extended that way. But before she could summon any explosions with her own power, Columbus sent a wide blast of concussive force from his goggles right into her. It was enough to knock the girl flying off her feet to crash into that pile of rubble that had once been the doorway the group had come through.  

Behind him, Columbus could sense Caeruleus and Fuscus turning, the latter sprinting toward Sarah and Tristan, where Fredericks had appeared, while the blue-haired boy snarled and went for Columbus himself. Viridis had already summoned a wave of water to carry herself toward Sarah, Tristan, and Fredericks as well, picking up Candidus first, then Fuscus on the way. And Lūteus was in the midst of a pitched fight with Sands. 

The explosion-teleporting girl he had just knocked into the rubble would be back up any second. But right now, Columbus had to focus on Caeruleus. Spinning around, he narrowly managed to twist his head aside from the glowing yellow luxensis blade that the blue-haired Seosten had suddenly slashed at him with. 

For the moment, Columbus was going to have to just trust that his companions could take care of themselves, because he was already dealing with about as much as he could handle. Bringing his hand up, the boy created a brief burst of flame to make his opponent back up a step. Unfortunately, instead of doing so, Caeruleus grabbed onto the flame. It somehow solidified into a glass like structure under his touch, allowing the boy to literally pluck the fire out of the air.

Columbus barely had time to curse inside his own head before the other boy threw the glass fire at him. Even though he had three different layers of heat protection from various powers, he still instinctively dove out of the way. Which turned out to be a good thing, as he could feel the pain from the flames when they exploded back to life. So this guy could turn fire into solid objects, even when that fire was created by other people, and made it hot enough to damage Columbus, despite multiple heat protection powers. 

Yeah, safe to say that was bullshit, but not all that surprising by that point. At least they had answered the question of what one more of these Olympian children could do. Now he just had to do something about that.

Already rolling back to his feet as he felt the explosion of fire behind him, Columbus pivoted and focused on summoning the metal armor around his body. Some might have seen that as a bad idea considering the way metal would conduct heat, but he had already done several experiments on that front and in this case, whatever metal his armor was made of added another layer of protection against fire. Between that and the skintight forcefield he was able to encase himself within, he would be safer. 

But not safe enough that he didn’t still wince as his opponent created a new wall of flames in front of him out of the remains of that explosion. Columbus was really starting to regret having made the fire to begin with. Though something told him this guy didn’t need his help on that front.

Forcing himself to ignore the pain, Columbus took a couple steps forward right through the flames. They solidified into that solid glass-like structure around him, but he was strong enough to punch his way through it with just a bit of effort. The guy was waiting with that laser sword already swinging, but Columbus was faster. He lunged, catching the other boy’s extended arm at the elbow to keep the blade raised while lashing out with a fist to punch him in the face. He didn’t strike as hard as he could. They didn’t want to kill these guys if they could help it. They had obviously been raised and corrupted by Kushiel, twisted into acting as her bodyguards or weapons. If it was at all possible to get them away from her and deprogram them or whatever, they had to try.

Besides, the Seosten would probably appreciate it, and right now Earth needed as many brownie points with them as they could get. They wanted this truce to keep going, and giving the Seosten leadership every excuse they could to keep playing nice was the best way to do that.

Caeruleus recoiled from the punch before abruptly rising into the air under a column of fire that emerged from his feet. The fire turned to that solid glass shape as quickly as it appeared, still giving off just as much heat, enough to make Columbus reflexively lean away from it. 

“Amethyst, fire suppression,” the boy snapped, bringing his arm out. From her place hidden within a bracelet he wore, the armadillo-porcupine cyberform appeared in her shield form. A handful of the enchanted quills he had prepared tilted upward before shooting off into the air. 

Caeruleus had already begun to surround him with a circle of blazing hot glass fire. But as the quills hit a spot several feet above the other boy’s head, the spells on them triggered, engulfing the area in a spell that would disrupt any fire or heat source over a certain temperature. Immediately, Columbus felt a wave of relief as the fire stopped burning him. But he couldn’t just leave it there. The other boy was already recovering, hands rising to summon more fire. So, Columbus reared back before thrusting both hands up and forward. The power he was summoning allowed the boy to project a blast of kinetic force out from any part of his body, magnified by the force with which he moved that body part in the process. In this case, the wave of energy was enough to knock his opponent off that now-frozen column of glass fire, sending him flailing toward the ground before he righted himself and landed smoothly.

They didn’t have time for an extended fight. That wasn’t what they were here for. They came to rescue Fredericks, and that’s what they were going to do. To that end, Columbus ran forward as though he was going to tackle the other boy. Caeruleus set himself, raising that laser sword. At the last second, Columbus teleported again. That time he changed places with Lūteus, the romance model who had been fighting Sands by animating pieces of the nearby building. The two Seosten almost crashed into one another as the switch was made, but both recovered quickly. 

Not quickly enough, however, to stop Sands from encasing them both in a steel dome. Which wouldn’t last long with Lūteus’s ability to manipulate walls and such, but it still bought them a couple seconds. Which the two of them used immediately. Columbus caught hold of Sands before looking toward Vanessa, who was in her werebear form keeping Aureus busy after Columbus had knocked her into the rubble, stopping the Seosten girl from focusing enough to do much damage with her explosions. 

The golden-haired Seosten girl had just forced herself up from the rubble. But before she could hit Vanessa, Sands extended a hand that way and fired off her shotgun-like blast of disorienting energy. It struck Aureus, making the girl reel and stumble dizzily for a second. Which was all the time Vanessa needed to spin around and lunge at the spot where her two companions were. In mid-leap, she returned to her human form, just in time for Columbus to catch her outstretched hand. Then, just as all their opponents in this little area were about to converge, Columbus teleported one more time with the other two. In that case, he made Sands, Vanessa, and himself switch places with Viridis, Fuscus, and Candidus, who were over by Sarah, Tristan, and the still-cuffed Fredericks. 

Landing smoothly, Columbus pivoted to look back that way. The six Seosten figures were already recovering and starting to move. “Do it, do it, do it!” he snapped. 

Vanessa did it. Triggering the transportation spell, she sent a wave of teleportation energy around them, engulfing the group to send them several hundred miles away, to the rendezvous point. 

As soon as they arrived in the empty field behind a grocery store, he quickly looked around to do a headcount. Vanessa, Tristan, Sands, Sarah, himself, and… Fredericks! They were all here, they did it. 

“Uggnn…” A groan drew everyone’s attention to the ground at their feet. Aureus, the golden-haired explosion-teleporter. She was lying there, apparently having teleported right into the middle of their own transport spell before being dragged along with it, and now she had been left even more dazed and disoriented. 

Oh. They hadn’t simply freed Fredericks, they had accidentally brought one of the Olympian teens with them. 

Well… that was going to be interesting.

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Interlude 19D – Cyber Defense (Heretical Edge 2)

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In the wake of Kushiel’s words, there was no hesitation, no moment of shock. The people she was gloating at were too well-trained for that, and none of them needed to have things spelled out even more than they already were in that moment. The whole group knew just how bad it would be to let someone like Kushiel and her… entourage take off with an assortment of incredibly powerful, giant cyberforms. Whatever she intended to do with them couldn’t be positive for basically anyone on the planet. Especially considering she was apparently working for Tartarus itself. And while the idea of a somehow sapient and evil alternate universe was still a lot to wrap their heads around, stopping Kushiel was not. That part basically went without saying. 

Less time than a blink passed from Kushiel’s announcement, before the others were moving. Tristan was first, launching himself off the ground. In the same motion, his own cyberform snake dropped from his arm, shifting to form a narrow sort-of  board under his feet with the cannon part aimed backward. It let off a blast of energy, propelling itself into the air with the blond boy balanced on top. His hand snapped out, as three feather-like metal darts rose from his wrist. As the rocket-propelled robot snake hurled him upward toward the nearest of the dragon robots, Tristan launched those three darts from his wrist. They shot unerringly that way, his inherited accuracy powers ensuring that all three struck the young Seosten boy with short black hair and incredibly pale skin who was perched on top of the mech. 

Or they would have, had the Seosten boy not just as abruptly snapped his head to the side to avoid the dart aimed for his forehead, twisted his body sideways to avoid the one aimed for his stomach, and used two fingers to snatch the one aimed for his chest out of midair. The dart disintegrated in his hand a moment later, before he could do anything more than give it a curious look. 

At the same time, Vanessa had launched herself upward as well. In her case, she didn’t rely on a cyberform partner to carry her upward. Instead, the blonde girl transformed into a raven, expertly guiding her small, black bird form through a sudden hail of gunfire that came from the second of the dragon mechs. A minigun that had popped up next to the Seosten girl there, a figure with long brown hair tied into a tight braid, and a very slim, almost anorexic-looking form. The large gun popped out of her own stolen ride’s shoulder, took aim seemingly of its own volition, and opened fire on the incoming bird. But its bullets came nowhere near Vanessa, who spun and barrel-rolled her way through the incoming fire like the most incredible ace pilot who had ever taken the controls of a plane. Where Tristan had used their mother’s perfect accuracy to send those darts at his own opponent, Vanessa used Sariel’s perfect control and understanding of her own body and its position to carry herself through the smallest of openings between incoming gunfire. She instinctively knew exactly where and how to position herself to make it safely through what should have been an impossible wave of bullets. 

Meanwhile, as the Moon siblings were busy finding their own ways up toward the dragon mechs, the other set of twins in the lot weren’t standing still. Sarah and Sands ran together, side by side. Two of the other mechs had already opened up on them with a barrage of lasers, which instantly chewed up the pavement around the pair, but they kept moving. As she snapped her rifle up with one hand, Sarah held the other one out with a bullet between two fingers, all while still running. No conversation or explanation was needed. Her sister immediately put her own hand against the offered bullet and vanished, using her object-possession ability to put herself into the thing. In the next moment, Sarah had shoved the bullet into her gun, diving into a forward roll to avoid another volley of destructive shots from hovering mechs. As she came to one knee, the girl took aim and fired. The bullet she had just loaded shot that way in an instant, heading straight for the head of the two cyberforms who had been taking careful aim at her. One would be distracted in just a moment. Unfortunately, the other, under the command of a green-haired girl crouched by its neck, was still right on top of the human girl, and began to chase her across the lot with a barrage of lasers as she ran.  

Naturally, the dragon mech that Sarah had shot that single small bullet toward initially ignored the projectile. But it couldn’t ignore Sands as she popped out of that bullet right in front of it. Especially when she went from being a five-foot nothing girl, to abruptly being thirty feet tall. Now, Sands was the same height as the mech. Her boosted threat became even more evident as her fist slammed into its head. Between her own strength and the force from being shot as a bullet, the impact knocked the dragon mech backward through the air, allowing Sands to grab onto the thing and ride it straight to the ground. It crashed hard into the pavement, sending up a shower of broken concrete. The Seosten teen who had been riding the thing, a male figure with white hair that was cut very short and a muscular build, leapt clear with a shout of annoyance, flipping over in the air before landing on Sands’ outstretched arm. Immediately, he snapped his hand down, clearly intending to possess her. 

“Yeah,” the giant Sands informed him as he reacted with confusion when nothing happened. “Good luck with that.” With that, she swung her arm sideways to throw her unwanted passenger off. He was sent flying, yet recovered in midair, producing a small pistol which he opened fire with. Several quick laser shots cut through even Sands’ incredible durability in her giant form, forcing the girl to stop short so the rest of the barrage would bounce off. 

In that same moment, Tristan leapt from Bobbi-Bobbi and landed neatly on the shoulder of the dragon mech he had been aiming for. His cyberform shifted itself once more, splitting in half as it jumped back over to attach itself to the boy’s arms, like protective gauntlets. Which was just in time, as his own opponent, the black-haired boy, ignited one of the Seosten laser swords and lashed out with it. Tristan caught the glowing energy blade against his own gauntlet, which glowed faintly with a short-range forcefield. There was a loud crack of power as blade met gauntlet, before Tristan pivoted on one foot to bring himself away from the luxensis (energy sword). His right hand snapped up, before a set of long, werejaguar claws emerged. Those claws were already dangerous enough, but they became immediately more so as the boy activated an entirely different power. This one superheated the claws, turning them bright red just as he lashed out with them. In that same moment, Tristan used his Seosten-inherited boost, pushing his speed and strength several times higher. 

The Seosten boy boosted as well, avoiding the strike… mostly. His head snapped backward, though the claws still cut along his cheek, leaving five long marks down the side of it. His luxensis blade swept upward, clearly intending to cut his opponent’s extended arm off. But Tristan was faster, abruptly shrinking several feet in height, which instantly yanked his arm away from the incoming blade. Just as quickly, he not only regained that height, but increased it further. He first went from being just under six feet tall, down to about three feet, then just as quickly grew to eight feet while driving his knee forward. It caught the Seosten in the chest, knocking him backward several steps before the other boy managed to catch himself just shy of falling from the dragon mech’s head. 

Unfortunately, Tristan couldn’t follow up with that, considering just as he took a step forward in his enlarged form with the intention of punting the other boy from the mech, a multi-barreled gun similar to the one that had just attempted to shoot down his sister popped into view partway down this dragon cyberform’s back, took aim, and opened fire. He was forced to shrink back to his normal size while throwing himself into a sideways dive, catching himself on his hand before shoving his body up and over the next wave of bullets. Just like Vanessa, he expertly avoided every incoming shot, but the very act of dodging carried him further away from his opponent and allowed the Seosten boy to regain his footing. 

For a moment, while the turret was adjusting its aim, both boys stood on opposite sides of the giant cyberform’s back. Then Tristan launched himself into a sprint that way. At the same time, his hand snapped upward, producing a small sheet of plastic just a few inches across. There was a pre-prepared rune there, which glowed pale red as he pushed the last bit of power needed into it to activate the spell that had been engraved on the thing. An instant later, several small beams of energy shot from the rune to hit the base of all those gun barrels. They were immediately severed as the metal-transfer spell took those small pieces that connected the barrels to the turret and transferred them several feet away. The turret was rendered useless as its barrels dropped and clanged loudly along the metal body before falling toward the ground. 

In the midst of all that, Columbus vanished from the spot he’d been standing on and reappeared directly behind the third male Seosten, aboard his own dragon mech. This one had yellowish-blond hair, worn down to his shoulders in luxurious locks. Between that and his well-built form, the boy reminded Columbus of one of those old romance novel models he’d seen on his adopted mother’s bookshelf. 

It was a fleeting thought in the heat of the moment, as he let off a blast of energy from his goggles. This was not a beam of concussive force. Instead, his goggles were set to project what looked like a wide burst of static electricity, which would slow his opponents movements dramatically. It was a recent upgrade he’d built, this being his first time using it in a real-world combat scenario. And, just like in testing, the blast did its job, forcing the Seosten teen to move at a tenth of his normal speed as he started to turn around while bringing his weapon up. 

Unfortunately, the mech’s attached weaponry wasn’t similarly slowed. Before Columbus could take advantage of the opening, a pair of barrels popped out of the metallic dragon’s neck and sent twin bursts of lightning his way. The boy was forced to pivot that way, bringing his arm up. As he did, a shield of amber resin appeared there, catching the electrical blasts. 

By that point, even slowed as he was, the Seosten teenager was able to use his own boost in order to get his speed up to something resembling normal. He finished pivoting around, his glowing luxensis blade snapping outward toward Columbus’s neck as the other boy stood with his side to him, blocking the incoming lightning shots on his resin-covered arm. 

But Columbus was ready for that. His other hand came up, palm extended as he created a forcefield about two feet across, just enough to catch the incoming blade and deflect it with a loud crack of energy as blinding sparks went flying in every direction. 

With the five young Heretics busy facing five of the seven mechs, that left two more. Including the largest, the fifty-foot cyberform dragon that had been one of Harrison Fredericks’ most powerful and advanced creations. One of, because his strongest creation was already glaring up that way. Galahad sighted in on his ‘big brother’ (in a manner of speaking), and the golden blonde-haired Seosten female who stood atop him. She was clearly the oldest of the group, her ponytail swaying in the breeze as the dark-skinned girl stared down at the others. Her mouth opened, and Galahad heard her voice as she shouted, “You know the job! Prove Mother’s faith has not been misplaced!” Even as she said that, the girl proved her control over the cyberform by making the metal shields covering one of its weapon sets slide out of the way. A half dozen one-foot-wide holes appeared, before the nose of a rocket poked out of each, the rumble announcing they were about to be launched.

Even as he saw that, Galahad bent at the knee before hurling himself upward. In mid-jump, his large metal body immediately began to transform. He did not, however, turn into a truck as he normally would have while out on the road. Instead, his parts shifted and twisted around until he appeared to be a VTOL Harrier attack jet. The parts of him that amounted to the ‘trailer’ for his truck form remained on the ground, turning into a surface-to-air missile platform that could provide covering fire for his jet-self. 

Vanessa, by that point, had shifted back to her human form as she landed on the shoulder of the mech she had been aiming for. The thin, brunette Seosten waiting for her gave a very slight smirk and nod before graciously gesturing. “Would you like a moment to catch your breath after such an impressive display?” 

Vanessa hesitated, but the girl’s words didn’t seem to be sarcastic. After she had sent the barrage of gunfire at the incoming bird, she really did want to give her a moment to prepare herself now that she’d actually made it. Her gaze flicked from one hovering cyberform to the other, just in time to see the giant Sands take hers to the ground. “You could just stop,” she tried, having to at least give that a shot. “Kushiel is evil, you guys don’t–” 

“Do you want to sit down for a second and catch your breath, or not?” the thin Seosten girl interrupted, eyes narrowing. It was clear that she wouldn’t listen. 

“No,” Vanessa finally replied, whip snapping out to one side. “I’m good.” As the end of her weapon snapped against the air, it left a whitish rune hovering seemingly on nothing. An instant later, the rune activated, sending a blast of wind that way.

Despite offering the other girl a break, her opponent was prepared for an attack. Before the wind blast could knock her off her perch, she dove forward, boosting herself so she could move even faster. She came up in a roll, foot lashing out to catch Vanessa in the stomach. Or she would have, had the blonde Heretic not brought her own arm slamming downward. In mid-motion, Vanessa transformed into her enormous werebear form. Her now much stronger paw casually slapped the other girl’s leg aside, throwing her clear off the mech in the process. Vanessa had known that her opponent would dive forward to avoid the wind, and had planned for that. 

That, however, wasn’t the end of it. Before she had fallen more than a couple feet, the Seosten caught herself on seemingly nothing. She stood in the air, as the empty space under her feet seemed to shimmer a little bit. Before Vanessa could see what was actually happening, the other girl threw herself back onto the mech, facing the huge bear with a reckless grin. “Now this,” she announced, “this is how I prove myself.” With that, she lashed out with one hand from several feet away. Despite the distance between them, Vanessa felt hardened air cut through her thick fur and muscles, a deep wound appearing along her side as she reeled backward. 

Was it magic? That didn’t make sense. As far as she could tell, this girl hadn’t activated any spell or anything. And she wasn’t using a weapon. She just had the ability to harden air like that. Enough to stand on, and to make those blades. But that would mean–

While Vanessa was having her realization, Sarah had taken aim through one of her scope-portals. Rather than focusing on the green-haired girl atop the dragon mech that was still chasing her across the lot with its flurry of shots, the portal she had created appeared inside the machine’s cockpit. Her body ran almost on autopilot, zigzagging across the parking lot as the enormous cyberform tracked her movement, sending dozens of deadly lasers downward. Each blast burned a hole through the pavement, while narrowly missing the girl herself. 

Then it was Sarah’s turn. Her portal was ready, as she pivoted back the way she had come, dropping into a prone position with her rifle held out. The next volley of lasers tore up the ground right where she had been heading. Before the mech could adjust its aim, she fired a single shot. Her own bullet emerged into the cockpit of the machine, struck the main controls, and then exploded dramatically. The metal dragon reeled backward before starting to pitch sideways. The green-haired Seosten girl atop it was forced to throw herself out of the way as it collapsed. Yet, as she fell, something exploded next to Sarah. She threw herself to the side, just in time to see a geyser of water from the pipe that had burst. The spray caught the falling Seosten girl, seeming to solidify somewhat under her, just enough to slow her fall so she could land gracefully. 

She controlled water. No spell, no magic, no technology. She had simply done it instinctively. But…

Galahad, by that point, had reached his own target. Still in his jet form, he shot right past the largest of the dragon mechs, before immediately transforming back to the humanoid shape. Though smaller without his trailer attachment, he was still a good fifteen feet in height, allowing him to catch hold of the fifty-foot tall dragon mech’s back and shoulders. The Seosten girl with the golden hair spun toward him, hand rising. But before she could do anything, Galahad extended half a dozen cables from his arm into the machine’s back. In an instant, he had regained control of the thing, and all the onboard weapons she had been about to direct at him abruptly turned to focus on her. She, in turn, cursed under her breath before an explosion appeared where she had been. An explosion neither Galahad nor the mech he had just regained control of had created. And the girl had vanished from that spot.

At the same time, the final mech, with the blue-haired boy on it, was taking aim at where Galahad was perched. But before it could fire, his other half made its presence known. The trailer-turned-artillery platform he had left on the ground opened up, sending three enormous laser blasts and a single powerful rocket arcing upward. Each shot struck home, sending the less advanced dragon reeling through the air as the boy fought to regain control. Then there was yet another explosion that Galahad wasn’t responsible for, as the golden-haired girl appeared next to the boy, followed by a third blast as they both vanished from that spot.

Soon, there was a rapid series of explosions all around the battlefield. The force of them threw the Heretics to the ground, while their opponents were casually picked up and carried along with the teleporting golden-haired girl.

Finally, they all picked themselves up and stood together, facing the other group as the Seosten teens appeared on the ground, the explosion that carried them there sending a shockwave through the ground. 

Vanessa was the first to speak, staring that way. “Wh-who are you?” 

It was the golden-haired girl who spoke, holding her hand up as a tiny series of repeating explosions, barely large enough to be seen, appeared in staccato bursts in her palm. “Why exactly should we tell you anything?” 

“She’s Aureus,” the thin brunette with the braid put in, giving their leader a glance. “I’m Fuscus. That’s Caeruleus, Candidus, Lūteus, Viridis, and Āter.” In turn, she had nodded toward the blue-haired male, the white-haired, muscular male, the blond romance cover male, the green-haired girl, and the pale, black-haired boy. 

“Gold, brown, blue, white, yellow, green, and black?” Sands blurted. “You’re named after Latin colors that happen to match your hair? Let me guess, the uncreative bitch over there–” 

Don’t talk about our mother that way,” Lūteus snapped. The almost-achingly handsome boy brought his hand up. As he did so, a two-foot wide, three-foot tall section of pavement next to him rose out of the ground and  formed a larger fist shape. 

Columbus shook his head quickly as they took that in. “Wait, you’re children from the Olympus. Your parents were—“

“Our mother is Kushiel,” Aureus, the golden-haired girl, interrupted. “She gave us everything, and we’ll make sure she gets everything she wants in exchange.” 

Tristan started to shrug. “Yeah, well if you want to help her now, you’ll have to–” He cut himself off, having turned a bit to look at where Kushiel should’ve been inside her forcefield cage. But there was no one there. He gave a double-take, blurting, “Where the hell did she go?” 

The group took that in before spinning back to the Seosten, as Viridis, the green-haired girl, winked and offered a sly, “I believe the term is, gotcha.”

With that, Aureus raised her hand, and another explosion enveloped the Seosten. Everyone was knocked backward, only to find the spot completely empty as the explosion cleared. Columbus was looking around, counting the mechs. “They’re all here,” he announced. “They didn’t get away with any of them.” 

“No,” Galahad agreed, his voice grim. “But they weren’t trying to. I’m afraid while we were all distracted, Kushiel escaped her cage and left with the biggest prize of all. 

“She has Fredericks.” 

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Interlude 19C – Cyber Attack (Heretical Edge 2)

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Sitting on the floor of an enormous, airplane hanger-sized laboratory (one of many in the space belonging beneath the Capitol One Arena in Washington DC), Columbus balanced his personal cyberform, Amethyst, in his lap. The robotic porcupine-armadillo made a soft chirping sound as he tinkered in one of her open compartments with a screwdriver and pen light. Testing one of the wires, he spoke up absently. “Could you hand me that box of one-inch star button head screws on the table over there?” 

“Sure thing,” came the loud, rumbling voice as the huge robotic figure crouched behind him turned a bit. Even kneeling as he was, Galahad barely fit within the space, often brushing his head against the ceiling if he sat up too quickly. An understandable issue for a thirty-foot tall blue-silver robot who could transform into a full-sized semi-truck and trailer. Of course, in most cases, he could have simply transferred his consciousness into his much smaller humanoid form, but that was busy being tinkered with by the lab’s actual owner, Harrison Fredericks. 

The man himself, responsible for the initial creation of the cyberforms that had become so useful to Heretics all over the world, was in the far corner of the lab working on that. Columbus and Galahad both doubted the distracted man had any idea they were still there, let alone that he had other visitors outside in the parking lot. He was quite occupied with his work.

Easily reaching from one side of the lab to the other, Galahad very carefully pinched the desired box between two of his fingers. His hand massively dwarfed the box of screws, yet he was delicate enough to pick it up, move his arm over, and set it down next to the boy. He had a lot of practice being careful with his large hands and great strength. Between that and the incredible work Fredericks did to begin with, he could have picked up a living mouse without harming it. Well, aside from the heart attack the poor thing certainly would have suffered. 

“Your friends are still waiting, you know,” he gently reminded the boy. 

“Almost done,” Columbus promised. “I just need to run a couple quick diagnostics and–” He had looked up and turned a bit to glanced toward a corner of the ceiling, the lenses of the goggles on his face glowing slightly as he activated the x-ray vision to see out to where Vanessa and the others had been playing an impromptu soccer game on the pavement above while they waited for him to join them for a trip to the movies. What he saw instead, however, made Columbus drop the screwdriver and penlight, bolting to his feet. “Oh shit! What the hell’s wrong with the alarms?”

“Alarms?” Galahad echoed, head tilting. “I see nothing wrong. Your friends are playing–wait.” He paused before making a noise of disbelief. “The security footage is fake. Harry!” That booming voice flooded the hangar, drawing even the distracted scientist from his work. “We have trouble.” 

“Trouble?” Fredericks dropped his tools, vanishing from where he was standing before reappearing next to Columbus. He was a remarkably short man, standing only four feet, one inch tall. His dark red hair was short, and he had a goatee that was neatly trimmed. Aside from a pair of unnaturally green eyes, his other distinguishing feature was an arm that was very clearly cybernetic. “What sort of trouble?” 

“The dangerous sort,” Columbus informed him, still staring through the ceiling even as he stopped himself from instantly transporting out there to help the others. Better to make sure Fredericks knew what was going on before this whole situation got completely out of hand. Including one incredibly important point. 

“Kushiel’s here.” 


Several Minutes Earlier

With a thump as the soccer ball bounced off his head, Tristan Moon watched it bounce between two small trash cans that they had set up to be a goal and pumped his fist in the air. “Ha,” he crowed, “three to two, we are so pulling ahead of you guys.” 

This side of the parking lot of the Capital One arena was essentially empty, given there were no games or events going on anytime soon. Despite that, in most cases, the security guards would have insisted several teenagers playing ball in it should leave. But those security guards were being magically charmed to ignore the group, thanks to one of many safety measures Fredericks had installed along the property. 

“Maybe by definition,” Tristan’s sister retorted to his teasing. Vanessa had her long, typically loose blonde hair tied back out of the way in a ponytail. “Three to two isn’t exactly an insurmountable lead, you know.” 

Grinning, Tristan waved that off. “You’re just jealous that we didn’t go with sibling pairs.” 

“That would’ve been cliche,” Sands pointed out as she pointed toward the ball. A blue glowing outline surrounded it, and the thing went in an exact reverse of its previous trajectory, as if it was being rewound. It was a new power she had picked up during a recent trip, when a group of Alters they had been escorting to a safehouse were unexpectedly ambushed by a trio of religious fanatics, cultists for one of the many supposed world-destroying entities that were said to live in the Earth’s core or some such. Either way, they were dead now and Sands had picked up this ability to reverse the motions of any non-living object, up to about fifty pounds, for up to thirty seconds. 

“Much as I would love to be on a team with my sister,” she added with a nod to Sarah, who stood behind Tristan, “we do have to mix things up a bit.” She left out the fact that she knew Sarah wanted to team up with Tristan, given the two of them had started going out together a few months back. It was still relatively new, and they were taking things slow. But still, Sands was happy for her sister. Even if she did have to resist the urge to take Tristan aside and warn him about what would happen if he hurt her. Tempting as that was, it wasn’t her place to play that sort of game. Sarah could take care of herself. She didn’t need her twin sister threatening her boyfriend. Even if there was a bit of uncertainty about what was going on between him and that Nereid girl, Dexamene. She had come all the way back from the future and across the universe. Yes, it was to help Flick get back to the present, and save Elisabet, but still. She was Tristan’s best friend, and maybe more than that? No one was sure, possibly not even the two of them. But whatever was going on there, Sarah, Tristan, and Dex could handle it between themselves. They didn’t need her help. 

Especially not when Sands herself didn’t exactly have any luck in the romance department. A fact that made the short (the twins were barely five feet tall) brunette give a soft inward sigh before reaching out to catch the ball as it began to make its way past her and back toward Tristan on its reverse trajectory. “Besides,” she added aloud, “hitting the ball with your head shouldn’t be allowed. I mean, it’s so hard.” To demonstrate, she reached out as though to rap her knuckles against his temple, before the boy drew back with a laugh. 

“Hard and oblong, that’s my head alright,” he replied easily. “Now are you guys gonna take the ball out so we can steal it from you and rack up another point, or what?” 

Before the others could say anything, Sarah held a hand out while speaking up. “Wait, look.” Her sister and the other two turned to see where she was pointing. On the sidelines of their impromptu ‘field’ in the parking lot, Tristan’s cyberform snake, Bobbi-Bobbi, had been curled up to watch them. Now she lay stretched out on her side, twitching a little. Nearby, one of the many cyberforms that Fredricks allowed to roam the property, a monkey robot called Tipsy, was also laying on her side with the same occasional twitch. 

“Something’s wrong,” Sarah announced, even as Tristan took off running that way. 

“Bobbi?” he called, dropping to his knees next to the snake robot. “What–” In the next instant, his hand lashed out. The bracelet on his wrist glowed brightly, producing a blue-white set of flames over his fist as the boy punched the partially transparent figure who had emerged from beneath the pavement and was halfway-into his robotic partner. “Ghost!” he shouted as his empowered fist collided with the spirit’s face. 

Unfortunately, while he had been quick enough to stop the ghost, who had been pushing its way into Bobbi-Bobbi, Tristan wasn’t able to catch the one next to Tipsy. It disappeared into the monkey robot, and an instant later, he had to throw himself backwards to avoid being kicked in the face as the cyberform abruptly shoved its hand against the ground and kicked out of him with its two long legs. Blades had emerged from Tipsy’s feet, narrowly avoiding cutting the boy’s throat. 

“Tristan!” Vanessa shouted. Before she could move that way, however, an owl and falcon cyberform who had been flying overhead dropped into view. The owl shifted into a helmet form, hovering in midair as its goggle-like eyes blasted a concussive wave of force that slammed into the blonde girl, as well as Sarah. The two were sent flying a good twelve feet before tumbling along the ground. Sands was struck as well, but she had activated the power that allowed her to remain completely motionless and protected no matter how much force she was hit with. Up to a certain level, of course, but the owl didn’t surpass that. 

She was already bringing her mace out to swing at the cyberform itself before it could blast them again, but the falcon had transformed itself into a two-bladed sword, one end swinging out toward her throat. The girl was forced to stop short, going still so her power would kick in again and force the blade to bounce off. 

Tristan, by that point, had rolled back to his feet with Bobbi-Bobbi in her cannon form on his arm. He extended it, letting off a quick shot toward the falcon-blade, while his foot lashed out to kick Tipsy as she leapt at him. “What the hell?! Since when can ghosts possess cyberforms?!” 

“Well,” an unexpected (and entirely unwanted) voice announced from nearby, “I suppose since I gave them a bit of an upgrade?” Kushiel’s own ghost hovered next to a parked car, regarding them with a mixture of contempt and amusement at their confusion. “Stand still for a moment, and you’ll see just how much of one.” 

“Kushiel?” Vanessa blurted while she and Sarah picked themselves up. Her whip was already out and ready, scanning the air for more attackers coming from that way. Distracting as Kushiel’s appearance was, it felt just like the woman to show herself just so another possessed cyberform could hit them unexpectedly. She was far from the type to fight fair. “What are you doing here?” Even as she said that, the girl’s free hand was grabbing for the emergency alert coin in her pocket that would bring a full set of reinforcements. 

Sarah, meanwhile, brought her rifle up, but stopped herself from pulling the trigger. Tempting as it was to shoot Kushiel with as many ghost-fire empowered bullets as she could, it would’ve been pointless. The woman would just pass the damage off to one of the others. Denny had already informed them that she still had that power, even after death. A fact she had apparently demonstrated quite thoroughly when the people at the Auberge had sought to interfere with her attempts to find Mordred’s sword, Clarent. She’d failed then, and the sword was now in the hands of Joselyn Chambers. So what was she doing here now? 

“Try to call for help if you like,” Kushiel informed Vanessa without apparent care, knowing exactly what the girl was doing with the hand in her pocket. “It won’t do you any good. Not anymore.” She sounded oddly casual, given her usual personality and anger. Which, to be honest, was a lot more troubling than if she had shown up in full righteous fury mode. Kushiel being calm meant she was confident, and none of them were comfortable thinking about why that was. 

Sure enough, Vanessa felt something blocking the spell that would have called her mother and others to their location. “What– you’re stopping it.” 

“Very good, abomination,” Kushiel tauntingly retorted, giving a soft clap while staring daggers through the girl. Despite her calm demeanor, it was the hatred in those eyes that truly gave away the woman’s feelings. “Your ability to state the patently obvious truly does mark you as the genius they all say you are.” 

“Genius, no,” Vanessa informed her simply. “Prepared, yes.” With that, she touched a different coin in her pocket and triggered the spell there. Instantly, the backpack she had brought with them, discarded along the side of their playing field, flipped over. The flap on it opened, seemingly by itself, before three steel balls, each about two inches across, burst out. The trio of balls flew into view and hovered in a triangular formation around the ghost woman before projecting a glowing semi-transparent blue pyramid around her. 

Arching an eyebrow, Kushiel reached out to tap the glowing wall. “A ghost capture field, hmm? And I see your mother helped you add in a bit of anti-Tartarus tech as well. It’s not quite enough to block my power entirely, but it’s certainly… muffling it a bit, I suppose. I can feel the energy it’s giving off, making it harder for me to reach for my gift. I didn’t know that was possible.” The fact that she was, even now, speaking calmly made the hair on every one of their necks stand up. Something was even more wrong than they already knew. 

“It’s not, for living creatures,” Vanessa replied flatly. “You’re a ghost. You’re different. Your connection to Tartarus is stronger, but the one into this world, the physical world, isn’t. We can trap you that way, block you that way.” 

“For a time, perhaps,” Kushiel acknowledged, sounding unconcerned. “Still, it is a remarkable effort. You and your mother have been busy little bees. But you and I both know this is a prototype. It will not hold for very long.” Her hand brushed the wall testingly. “No, not long at all.”  

Her calm demeanor in the face of being trapped was even more worrying. As was the fact that half a dozen more cyberforms of various types had begun surrounding the four young Heretics. They were all obviously possessed, but none attacked. Not yet, anyway. 

Sands, Sarah, Tristan, and Vanessa had all moved closer together by that point. Not right next to each other, as they all needed room. But close enough to watch each other’s backs. Tristan spoke up for his sister. “Doesn’t have to hold you for long. We’ll have help here soon.” 

“Sooner than you think,” Columbus, appearing nearby, announced. He was facing Kushiel as well, Amethyst perched on his shoulder to hiss at the ghost woman. “Don’t worry, Fredericks is working on a way to expel our unwanted guests from the cyberforms,” he informed the others. “It won’t take long.” 

“Oh dear!” With mock concern, Kushiel put her hands to her mouth. “I suppose I’d better hurry then. Friends, would you mind?” At her words, three of the possessed cyberforms, the owl, falcon, and a small bluejay, turned their attention toward the balls projecting the pyramid that was currently containing her. Meanwhile, the others, including Tipsy, turned their attention to the five Heretics. 

And yet, before either group could carry out their attacks, a large figure came flying down out of the sky. Galahad, still in his thirty-foot tall robot form, crashed onto the pavement after launching himself through the air. His hand lashed out, smacking half a dozen of the other cyberforms out of the way to send them tumbling across the ground. “Sorry, buddies,” he announced, “the big guy’ll fix you up as soon as we get rid of your hitchhikers.” 

Even now, Kushiel showed no particular annoyance as her plan to have several of her ghost-possessed, unwilling partners break her out of the temporary prison. In fact, she simply chuckled at the side of the giant robot figure smacking them aside. To his words, she offered a slight shrug. “Doing that may be harder than your friend suspects. And you may have even less time than you think to make it happen.” 

“What do you want?” Sands demanded, taking a step that way. As one of the possessed cyberforms made a move toward her, she quickly threw a wall up into its path with a swing of her mace. But her eyes never left Kushiel’s. “Why are you here? Too much of a coward to face your daughter or Flick again, so you thought we’d be easier targets?” 

Through all of this, Kushiel had shown herself to be unnaturally, unusually calm. Yet it was the mention of Theia that made her drop that facade, even if only a little bit. Her eyes blazed with even more anger than had already been smoldering there, as she half-spat, “The thing I spawned will meet her fate in time. As for the would-be Necromancer child, she is still no threat to me. That much should have been clear after our last meeting.” 

“I dunno,” Tristan remarked, “Flick has a way of surprising people like you. And by people like you, I mean evil, irredeemable pieces of shit. Just ask Fossor.” 

“She doesn’t have to ask anyone,” Galahad put in. “She isn’t leaving this place. Not after–” He stopped in mid-sentence, head turning toward a nearby section of the parking lot. “What…” 

“Ah yes,” Kushiel remarked, as everyone’s attention shifted that way. The dull rumble that Galahad detected was soon audible to all of them. “As I was saying, I did not show myself to all of you in order to begin carrying out my plan.” 

With that, the ground exploded outward in a violent shower of rock and pavement, as a dark-green, fifty-foot tall dragon cyberform tore its way out of the ground and flew upward with a terrifying roar. It was followed by another, slightly different one, and another. Soon, seven cyberform dragons were in view, all of them spreading out to surround the group. As they hovered there, a figure appeared on top of each of the seven dragons. These were not ghosts, but living Seosten. Young Seosten, by the look of them. They couldn’t have been older than twenty or so, which made them look only about fifteen by human standards. Four boys, three girls, all dressed in gold and black versions of the Seosten bodysuit. Black with gold piping for the girls, the reverse for the boys.  

“I showed myself,” Kushiel finished, “because my true children, born of the lab you helped destroy, have already succeeded.” 

To be continued next chapter

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By Blood 17-13 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Despite the fact that we had succeeded in rescuing the prisoners, the mood as we prepared to get the hell off this planet was somber, to say the least. My peers and I might not have known Tribald Kine that well, but I had still liked him. Hell, he was the one who had originally sent me to check out the photograph in the Crossroads hallway that gave away the fact that my mother had once attended there. He set me on this whole path, in a way. And the others… Deveron, Klassin Roe, and the Dornans had all gone to school with him. He was one of their oldest friends (and teammate, in some cases). Kohaku and Tangle had both known him as a child. They taught him. They–god damn it. Now he was dead, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

I couldn’t even summon his ghost. I tried, wanting to bring him with us. But there was no response. I even had the others boost me, and the adults made a small portal back to the prison camp. It was too tiny for anyone to get through, and in an out-of-the-way spot, just enough that I could find a connection to his ghost if it was back there. But it wasn’t. It should have been, but it just…. wasn’t there. Nor were any other ghosts, despite the fact that I knew for a fact others had died. It was like someone else had gotten there first, which…

The point was, I couldn’t summon him, which made this entire thing even worse. I felt like a failure as we carefully wrapped his body up and put it in one of the separate magical storage bags. He would stay safe there until we got back home so he could be buried properly. 

No. No, he wouldn’t be safe. He was dead. The correction blared in my mind as I closed my eyes tightly and turned away from the sight of the Dornans carefully putting the bag in the truck. On the other side of the clearing, I could see Tangle and Kohaku talking to the conscious prisoners, getting them organized to get on the truck so we could leave before the Eden’s Garden people showed up and turned this into a brawl again. I was done fighting for the moment. Hopefully for a long moment. There had been more than enough of that already. 

Avalon stood beside me, quietly speaking up. “I thought we made it without losing anyone.” 

“So did I.” As my voice murmured that, I found her hand and squeezed it. “We were close. And he would have been happy that we got the prisoners out.” Even as I said that, the words felt hollow and empty. Of course he would have liked that. But he also would have liked it to get out of there with his own life. And now I couldn’t even summon his ghost? This sucked. This whole thing was just–I wanted to leave. I really, desperately wanted to leave and never see this planet again. Between Heretics enslaving innocent people, fighting for my life repeatedly, and giant monsters fueled by blood sacrifices or whatever the fuck, if I ever saw this planet again once we left, it would be too soon. 

And yet, even as I had that thought, something made my head turn to look into the nearby trees. Nothing. There was no one there. If the Eden’s Garden people had found us, all the adults here would have reacted. They weren’t that distracted. But they just kept going about their business, getting ready to leave. 

“What?” Avalon asked, her gaze shifting between me and the woods where I was staring. I could feel her tense a bit beside me, clearly getting ready to call out a warning. 

“Nothing,” I started, before correcting myself. “I mean, I don’t think it’s anything. Just the same feeling as when we were going through the woods earlier. Like someone or something is watching. You don’t feel that?” 

There was a brief pause as the other girl considered before her head shook slowly. “No. I felt it before, but nothing right now. You still feel it?” 

A slight grimace found its way to my face before I sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m just making it up in my head because I’m paranoid at the moment. Maybe part of me just wants there to be something else to fight so I can stab something. I just–” Swallowing the thick lump in my throat, I set myself before starting to walk. “Come on, let’s check it out. Don’t worry, we’re not going to disappear into the forest, I just want a closer look.”

The twins joined us as we moved that way, and a quick consultation revealed that Sands didn’t feel anything, but Sarah did. Although she was just as unsure as I was about whether this was a real thing or just paranoia. The four of us got closer to the trees while I tried to determine where the feeling of being watched was coming from. A glance toward Sarah was met with a helpless shrug. She had no idea either. And yet, we could both still feel eyes on us. It was a creepy feeling, to say the least. Especially considering the other two didn’t feel it. Between that and the fact that we still didn’t know if it was real or just a product of our imagination… yeah. Walking toward those trees wasn’t the most fun time I’d had. I felt my stomach twisting a little the closer we got. It made my breathing instinctively get faster and deeper, like when I used to sneak peeks at scary movies as a kid when I wasn’t supposed to. The hair on the back of my neck kept standing up, and it felt like every step could result in the ground falling out from under me. I could almost hear the agitated violins in the soundtrack growing closer and closer to a terrible screech. Everything else had disappeared. I couldn’t think about the rescued prisoners, poor Tribald, or even about the fact that we had to leave before the Garden people counterattacked. I was barely cognizant of the others walking with me. The only thing that mattered, the only thing that existed, was whatever it was in that forest that happened to be staring at me. 

A hand caught my arm, stopping me in place. Only then did I consciously realize that Avalon had been repeating something for the past few seconds. I had somehow completely tuned out her voice. Now, she yanked me around, speaking louder. “Flick. What are you doing?” 

“Huh?” Blinking a few times, I looked around. We were much closer to the trees than I had planned on getting. Nearby, Sands was holding Sarah quite similar to the way Avalon was holding me. It looked like the other girl was snapping out of whatever she had been under too. 

“I–” Swallowing once more, I shook my head. “I don’t know. It just felt like I had to keep going. I wasn’t paying attention. I wasn’t–” Cutting myself off, I gave an uneasy look over my shoulder toward the trees. The feeling of being watched was still there, but it had lessened. Now it was more like idle curiosity. Which was still enough to make me shiver a bit. “Come on, let’s get back over there. We need to get the hell off this planet.” The words ‘while we still can’ tried to emerge, but I forced them back down. No way was I going to curse us like that. 

The four of us made our way back over to the others, where Deveron was waiting. The man clearly had a lot to deal with. I could see the emotions in his eyes even as he pushed them back to focus on the matter at hand, asking what happened. So, we explained the whole thing, starting with the fact that we had felt something watching us as we walked through the forest on our way to the prison, and now what had just happened to Sarah and me. 

Taking that in, Deveron frowned and looked past us toward the woods. His eyes scanned it as though he was trying to determine if there was anything dangerous, before the man sighed. “I don’t know. I don’t see anything, but–we need to leave.” 

“That’s what I said,” I murmured before adding, “I wonder if what we are feeling has anything to do with that monster in the prison cave.” 

Deveron blinked at me, frowning. “What monster in the prison cave? Wait, Jasmine and the others were talking about some big fight down there. What was that?”

Wincing, I gestured. “It’s kind of a long story, and we don’t have a lot of time, do we?” 

“I have no idea how much time we have, but let’s err on the side of caution,” he replied before giving a sharp whistle, raising his voice to be heard through the clearing. “Everyone on the truck, we’re getting out of here! We’ll sort out details once we’ve got some distance between us and this damn place.” Even as he said that, the man was already walking that way, waving for the rest of us to follow. 

Before going anywhere, I gave the woods one last glance. Whatever was in there that had been watching us, whether it had something to do with the monster we had killed or not, I wasn’t willing to just dismiss the whole thing as a figment of our imaginations. We had definitely felt something. But it seemed like a mystery that would go unsolved, given we weren’t going to be sticking around any longer. And I, for one, wasn’t quite so obsessed with learning the truth that I would be willing to change that. If there really was something in those woods that kept watching us, it could just go ahead and stay there. 

So, we all loaded onto the truck. There wasn’t quite enough room for all of us plus the conscious prisoners in the living area, given it hadn’t been intended to hold this many people. But we were able to shift the supplies in the main area around and drop a few crates. The supplies were intended to provide water and food for the whole prison for a few weeks, So we weren’t losing much by leaving a little bit behind. It allowed us to get more room in there for everyone, which became a bit more comfortable once we took some blankets and pillows out of the cupboards and laid them down over the floor. 

Two of the prisoners who were awake and moving around were trolls, so they took up a large portion of the space we cleared out. They looked bewildered by everything that was going on, but tentatively friendly enough. They also didn’t seem to speak much English or Latin, but followed instructions cheerfully enough when they were accompanied with hand gestures. One of the other conscious prisoners, an orc who introduced himself as Teragn (terrain), said that the Heretics had simply referred to the trolls as three-oh-oh-two and three-oh-oh-three. Or just Two and Three for short. Whether they had any actual names or not nobody knew, but they responded to those names for the moment. And, again, we really didn’t have time to get into details just yet. We mostly just pantomimed at the two trolls for them to sit, and gave them a large ball of cheese and a ham from one of the boxes. They really loved that and immediately proceeded to start making ham and cheese sandwiches. Which, in their case, meant using ham as the bread and cheese in the middle. 

Soon, we had all of them on the truck. Including the still-unconscious Eden’s Garden Heretic who had apparently turned traitor. Kohaku had gone over the man with a fine-toothed comb to find any tracking spells or devices, but came up short. Still, they were keeping him secured with those cuffs and magically asleep, lying on a cot in the living area so we could talk to him later. 

Once everyone was onboard, Deveron hauled the heavy doors shut. He gave a quick glance to the clearly still terrified and confused prisoners sitting around, before speaking as gently as possible. “It’s okay. I know you don’t have much reason to believe this, but you’re safe with us. We’re going back to Earth, then you can do whatever you want from there. We’ll… we’ll talk about it on the way. Right now–” 

“They’re on us.” That came from Kohaku, who was looking at what looked like an ordinary smartphone. There was a slight grimace on her face. “No more time for explanations, we need to jump now.”  

With a muttered curse, the man immediately darted to the control board on the wall. You could also initiate the jump from the cab of the truck, but this was quicker right now. Opening the panel revealed a keypad where the coordinates were supposed to be put in, and a lever to activate it. That was how it looked normally. But now there were eight glowing little gemstones attached to the console as well. The stones were essentially magical batteries, storing a bunch of power we’d brought with us from home. And now they were plugged into the teleportation system.

The truck abruptly started to jerk backward, as if a large hand had grabbed onto it. Several people cried out, but Deveron simply shook his head. “Not today,” he muttered before yanking on the lever. 

And with that, we were gone. Whatever hand or power had been trying to pull the truck was left behind as we instantly transported off the planet. In my imagination, I could almost hear the Eden’s Garden people screaming as the truck vanished right in front of their eyes.

Instead of letting go of the lever when the jump happened, Deveron shoved it up into the default position, gave us all a look, and then yanked it down a second time. We jumped again. Of course, we weren’t dumb enough to make a single jump and allow them to track us. Each time the truck transported, two of those initial eight gemstones went dark. It allowed us to make four rapid jumps, each one bringing us slightly closer to Earth. 

By the time the fourth jump happened, the truck was shuddering and making unhappy noises. Plus the transport console was giving off a little smoke. I’d asked why we couldn’t just make every jump we needed to go straight back home instead of only going slightly over halfway, and this was the answer I’d been given. The truck could only stand up to so many transports at one time, even with extra power. Four was apparently pushing it, and no one wanted to see what happened if we went for five. It wouldn’t do us any good to push so hard to get home, only to blow up or materialize in the middle of empty space with a broken transport system. 

We also weren’t going to their normal jump points. Instead, Athena had given us a list of habitable moons along the way, and those were the coordinates we used. Just for fun, those first three jumps had been to a desert moon, an ice moon, and a forest moon. Just so those chasing us could have the full original trilogy Star Wars experience. 

Once the truck settled a bit and we were all certain it wasn’t going to catch fire on us, Deveron breathed out and nodded to Tangle, who was standing by the main door. At his nod, she unlatched it and hauled the door up, to reveal… rocks. Lots of enormous boulders all around us. 

“Look, Herbie,” I announced while hopping down onto the gravel-covered ground. I had the heroic stone in question in my palm already, turning in a circle so he could see. “It’s your homeworld.”   

As planned, the place we had landed looked like a large quarry. And in this case, large meant the size of a full city back on Earth. The rocks varied in size from pebbles all the way up to boulders the size of skyscrapers. According to Athena, there was some sort of special material within the rocks that would help block scanners if our pursuers actually made it this far. Which was doubtful to begin with, but being extra careful didn’t hurt anything.  

Tangle and the Dornans stayed with the conscious prisoners back there to tell them exactly what was going on, and who we were. Meanwhile, Asenath, Twister, Shiori, Jazz, Gordon, and Doug worked with Klassin to check on the unconscious prisoners and try to see what we could do for them. 

Which left Avalon, Sands, Sarah, and me to talk to Kohaku and Deveron about exactly what we had seen down in that cave. The six of us walked a little bit away from the truck, standing near a rock that was a good thirty feet tall and almost as wide. There, we carefully went through the whole story. We told them about the carvings we had seen and about the big hole in the floor that had clearly been covered with a forcefield at one point. And, of course, we told them about the way those tubes had clearly been draining blood from the prisoners into the hole. 

When we got to the part about the giant monster and began to describe it, I could see a flash of what looked like recognition on both their faces, before they smothered it and told us to go on. They clearly knew something, but weren’t willing to get into it just yet. Not until we told them the whole story. 

The others obviously noticed too, because when we finished, Sands folded her arms and focused on them. “You guys know something about that thing, don’t you? Come on, we killed it, you can at least tell us what the fuck it was.” 

With a heavy sigh, Kohaku shook her head. “That’s the problem, you probably didn’t actually kill the main thing. Just one of its… extensions.” 

“Extensions?” I echoed that, frowning. “You mean like the whole Nuckelavee thing? Like how they’re extensions or… or creations of that Lotan monster under the ocean?”

“Something like that,” Deveron confirmed. “Deep-Walker is just one of the names it has. No one knows very much about it, but from what I’ve heard, the thing basically… infects worlds. You know how Seosten possess people? This thing possesses planets. It produces monsters a lot like that thing you fought, and killing one of them doesn’t hurt the Deep-Walker any more than killing a Nuckelavee hurts Lotan. And… and they’re usually even stronger than that. I think you managed to get what amounts to a baby.” 

“If that was a baby,” Sands managed weakly, “I really don’t want to run into the adult version.” 

“No,” Kohaku agreed firmly, “you don’t. Nobody does. Which probably means that was what was watching us in the woods. The Deep-Walker infests planets and then controls every aspect of them. Well, eventually anyway. It takes time for it to get control.” 

“But what was it–I mean what were they–” Cutting myself off, I made a noise deep in the back of my throat. “Were they feeding it?” 

Sarah spoke up then. “Taming it.” 

Deveron cursed several times loudly, before nodding. “You know, I think that’s exactly what that stupid son of a bitch was doing. Kyril Shamon had that mountain mined out specifically to find those tunnels and then built that place to feed blood into the–he’s trying to tame and control that fucking–it’s a world-ender and he’s trying to make it his fucking pet!” 

He and Kohaku stepped aside for a minute, conversing quietly with each other. Which left Avalon, Sands, Sarah, and me by ourselves. I looked at Sands. “Do uh, do you have any idea what you got from that thing?” 

She didn’t. Fortunately, I had a Tabbris on-call. As I used our connection to let my little sister know that we had successfully escaped with the prisoners, and about our single casualty, she projected herself to me. Not a full recall. We didn’t want to pull her away from the station for that long, not when she had her newly-arrived siblings to spend time with. But she could at least temporarily project to me. 

Sorry about Mr. Kine, her voice spoke hesitantly in my mind. 

Me too, I agreed. Can you tell the others back there so they… so they know? Is my mom– 

She’s not back from her thing yet, came the response. But somebody will tell her, I… maybe Abigail? 

I nodded a bit. That’s not a bad idea. Or Deveron when he calls to check in. I think–anyway, we made it. And we’re bringing his body back. With that, I gave her a quick rundown of what had happened, with the other girl reading my mind to fill in some of the blanks. Then I asked, Sands doesn’t know what she has, so… 

She agreed to help, and I asked Sands for permission to possess her. Once she had given it, I took her offered hand and disappeared. It only took a minute for Tabbris to reach through her connection to me and scour what Sands was capable of, then report back to me.

Oh, she announced once I stepped out of the other girl, um, I think Spark needs some help. 

Go, I urged, shaking my head at how guilty she sounded. It’s okay. Thanks for the help. We’re safe now. We’re out of there, and we’ll be home in a few days. I’ll check in later too. 

If… if you’d really needed me back there, with that monster, you would’ve let me know, right? Tabbris sounded hesitant, like part of her still felt guilty for not coming along in the first place. 

Of course, I assured her. That’s the fun part of having the whole recall thing, right? Now go have fun. Or whatever. Help your other sister. 

Her presence faded from my mind before I looked back over to the expectantly-waiting Sands. “Well?” she pressed, practically bouncing on her toes. 

“Well,” I echoed, before leaning in to whisper in her ear. 

Taking in everything I said, Sands gave a double-take. “Are you serious?” When I nodded, she flashed a short grin before gesturing. “Back up. Everyone back up.” 

The three of us did, with Avalon and Sarah giving me a curious look. Once we were out of the way, Sands cracked her neck. She had to focus for a few seconds, finding the right… trigger or whatever. Even though I’d told her what she could do, it still took a bit of time to figure out how to do it. In the meantime, I called a warning over to Deveron and Kohaku, who turned to watch.

But, after a few seconds, she found it. Instantly, Sands grew in size until she stood a solid thirty feet tall. She was gigantic and could apparently take an absurd amount of damage, even considering the size. Not quite as much as the monster in the tunnel, but still a lot. 

Okay!” Sands spoke, voice booming out. “I think I can get used to this.” 

“Better not get too used to it!” I shouted up at her. “I’m pretty sure you won’t fit in the truck like that!” 

Fitting in the truck was definitely something she had to do. We might’ve had to stop to let things recharge, and there were the prisoners to deal with, both of the conscious and unconscious variety. Not to mention the fact that we had to keep an eye out for pursuers. There was plenty of work to be done. But what mattered right now was that we… most of us anyway, had gone into that prison, saved the people we went there for, and got out. Now it was time to go home. 

And for Asenath and Gordon to officially be reunited with their fathers.

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By Blood 17-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Thankfully, I wasn’t out for long. When I came to a short time later, Doug was sitting over me, using one of the enchanted stones we’d all received from the adults to give me a bit of energy. Sort of like smelling salts mixed with strong coffee. My eyes blinked away the blurriness until I managed to focus on him, then started to sit up. 

“It’s okay,” he assured me. “Fight’s over. They’re… trying to figure out how to open the tubes and get everyone out without hurting anyone.” He looked over his shoulder, and I followed the boy’s gaze to where everyone else was, sure enough, working on that. Even Sands was up and moving around, talking animatedly to her sister as they crouched behind one of the tubes.

“Checking for traps?” I asked, my gaze turning toward the dead body of the giant monster. It was still there, and still just as horrifying. Okay, maybe slightly less horrifying dead than it had been when it was alive. But I still wasn’t going to get anywhere near it. Still, I took a second to stare at the thing, feeling a sense of awe and satisfaction both about the fact that we had managed to kill it, and that all those people who had been sacrificed to bring it to life had had a part in taking the the damn thing down. I’d felt their own intense relief just before they passed on.  

Doug confirmed that before hesitating. “I think I should use my question, but I’m not sure. What if we need it later for getting out of here? I’ve only got the one.”  

I knew what he was talking about, it was that thing where he could ask a question once per day and get either the answer or be directed toward the answer. It was the same thing that had pointed his team toward me when he’d asked how they could find out what was really going on with Roxa. And now he could either use it to ask how to get the prisoners out of those tubes, or save it in case we needed an answer to a more dire and immediate problem later. It had to be a hard choice to make every time he made it out in the field like this. How was he supposed to know if using his single question at any given point was the right time? It was a lot of pressure. I didn’t even like using limited quantity items in video games, let alone something like this. 

Still, I only hesitated for a moment in this case before giving a short nod. “Use it. The sooner we get them out of there and moving, the sooner everyone gets off this planet. That’s gotta be worth it.” 

Letting out an audible breath, Doug hesitated to think before starting. “Okay, well here goes nothing. How do we safely get the prisoners right there out of the tubes without harming any of them or setting off any traps?” His voice turned somewhat eerie through that, gaining a slight echoey quality to it. 

While waiting for him to get an answer to that, I looked over to where Asenath and Shiori were standing together in front of the tube that Tiras was in. His daughter had a hand against the side, clearly overwhelmed by the fact that she was seeing him in person for the first time since she was a child. Even now I couldn’t make him out very well, but she knew him. And for Asenath, ‘since she was a child’ had been a very long time indeed. I couldn’t even imagine the emotions that were going through her mind at that moment. Especially considering she was that close to him, but still couldn’t talk to him yet.  All those years and all that distance, and now the only thing between them was this tube, but she couldn’t get through it. Not yet, anyway. 

Gordon had found his father too. Standing at the far end of the line of tubes, the boy had his arms folded across his chest while he stared silently at the figure within. As always, it was hard to judge his emotions solely from the flat expression on his face but I had a feeling there were a lot swirling inside him.  

With a slight gasp, Doug started and gave a sharp shake of his head. He glanced toward me briefly before starting that way at a jog. “Hang on,” the boy called, “I know how to get them out! But uhh, they’re gonna be out of it for awhile. They won’t wake up even after we get them out of the tubes, so we’re gonna have to carry them or…” Trailing off, he frowned while taking in the amount of prisoners. Three rows of ten. Thirty prisoners. We didn’t have nearly enough people down here to carry that many. 

Fortunately, we had come prepared for that, just in case the people we were rescuing weren’t in any condition to move on their own. Granted, we were anticipating injuries or something like that, not some sort of stasis coma. 

“We’ll have to use the blankets,” Avalon murmured. “Get them out, guys.” To Doug, she added, “How do we open them up?”  

Sands, Sarah, Shiori, Jazz, and I started to pull ‘the ‘blankets’ out. They were the same sort of magical storage blankets that Kohaku had used to store the body of that Heretic up in the lighthouse. When they were placed over someone, the blanket would shift them into a special pocket dimension (one with oxygen, of course). Each blanket could be used multiple times to store up to ten people. So we had plenty for this. 

Of course, that raised another thought in my mind. We had seen prisoners walking around outside when we first arrived, doing work for these people. Where were they now? We hadn’t run into them on the way down here, so I hoped they were taking cover in one of the buildings so we could find them before we left. Or maybe Kohaku and the others already had. Either way, we just had to deal with these ones. 

By the time we got the blankets ready to go, Doug had already taken Avalon, Gordon, Shiori, and Asenath over to what at first looked like just an ordinary boulder near the wall. But when he ran his hand over it, the hologram vanished, revealing a console. He quickly started typing in a complicated sequence on the keypad there, and as he did so, each of the tubes gave an affirmative beep. Then the liquid in them started to drain out. Where it went I wasn’t sure, but it was gradually disappearing, leaving the bodies within to slump down. Then the ‘glass’ of the tubes rose upward, leaving an opening while the still-unconscious prisoners simply fell limply against the floor of their containment units. Not the most graceful way of getting them out, but at least it worked. We didn’t exactly have time to worry about treating them like they were at a five star resort right at the moment, and I doubted the prisoners would care. 

Quickly, we all started to move in pairs, Avalon and I working together, to lay each prisoner out and put one of the blankets over them. The things were made to stretch a lot and shape themselves around the person being put under it, so it wasn’t that hard. Nearby, I could see Shiori and Asenath doing that with Tiras, while Jazz helped Gordon with his father. The whole time, I just kept imagining a clock ticking down. We had no idea if the Eden’s Garden people had even managed to get any sort of message out let alone how long it would take help to arrive. It was like being in a room where there could be a bomb, but we didn’t know if it existed or how much time was on it. Not to mention, whether there were reinforcements coming or not, the adults were still out there fighting against a numerically superior force, and the element of surprise had to have worn off by now. So, we had no idea if the Victor was on his way, or how Deveron’s group was doing out there, and the longer we took with this, the worse off the situation could be. Especially after we had already taken all that time to get down here and fight that fucking monster. Stressful, to say the least. Every second we took getting these unconscious figures under the blankets to store them safely felt like an hour. 

Finally, we had all of them put away. It had obviously been hard for Asenath and Gordon to be literally touching their fathers after all this time, only to shove them out of sight again. At least it was incredibly temporary, and they knew that. We just had to get the hell out of here. 

“Okay,” Senny announced while rising with the blanket that had her father and several others stored within slung over her shoulder, “someone let them know it’s time to bug out of here.” Her voice caught just a little in the middle of that, betraying a tiny bit of the intense emotions she had to be feeling. 

I already had the coin in my hand by the time she finished saying that. Rubbing my thumb over it, I murmured the words to trigger the spell. It grew warm in my palm before letting out a loud chiming sound. In that moment, the identical coins in the pockets of Deveron, Kohaku, and all the others out there would be going off. It was the signal to let them know we had the prisoners and were on our way out, so they needed to be ready. 

Collectively, our group exchanged glances. We were exhausted from the fight, some of us even more so from multiple fights. But we had to keep going. This was almost over. We were this close to being done and gone. So, we steeled ourselves, took a breath, and then turned to run back up the tunnel we had come down. I ignored how exhausted I felt after empowering all those ghosts to hold the beast down. I ignored everything, my fear of what would happen if Victor Kyril Shamon showed up, the joy at seeing Asenath and Gordon manage to get to their fathers, my anger at what the Heretics here had been doing–wait, no, scratch that. I held onto that. I used that anger and focused on it as I ran with the others, keeping pace with them so we could all remain in a group just in case there were any bad surprises waiting for us. 

Fortunately, there didn’t seem to be anything in our way. I supposed that anyone who was still up and moving was probably thoroughly distracted by the huge fight going on outside. They didn’t exactly have time to set up a trap for the rest of us. No matter how long the paranoid part of my brain kept screaming that this was taking, it was all still pretty quick in the grand scheme of things. 

Shortly before we reached the entrance, as we passed through familiar parts of the tunnel, Sarah produced a second coin with near-identical runes as the one I had used before we started running. Its spell was activated, alerting the others that we were about to emerge. The first coin told them we were on our way, this one told them we were right there and they should tell us if it was safe to come out or if we should wait. 

At first there was no response and we slowed slightly while exchanging looks. Did we keep going if they didn’t respond? Or did we hold off and try to find out what was–

There. Thank God, that wasn’t a decision we had to make. Just as I was starting to think that something terrible had happened, a glowing green arrow appeared in the air in front of us. That was the signal. We were good to go. The fighting wasn’t completely over, or the symbol would have been a thumbs up. A green arrow meant it was safe to go and fairly clear, but there were still threats out there so we should keep our eyes open. A raised red hand would have meant stop, and a yellow question mark would mean there were threats right in front of the entrance that we would need to engage with. This wasn’t the absolute best response, but still. 

So, we kept going, sprinting straight out of the tunnel, through the spot where the forcefield had been before Columbus took it down. Right there, at the mouth of the cave inside the hollowed-out portion of the mountain, the Dornan cousins stood using a wave of blue-white fire from their hands to block several separate incoming blasts of energy. The Eden’s Garden people were still attacking, but Seamus and Roger were shielding the area. Tangle, looking a bit worse for wear and bloodied, was standing to one side, clearly watching for us. As we emerged, she shouted something to the other two, then beckoned for us to hurry. 

We didn’t see anyone else. They must’ve been fighting elsewhere, however, because I could hear shouting and explosions and… more going on in the distance. This place was a complete warzone, and something told me it was just going to get worse as the defenders warmed up. Let alone if they actually managed to summon reinforcements. 

Shoving that out of our minds, we ran straight toward Tangle. As we approached, the woman threw something toward the ground. It sprang up to form a door. A literal door standing right in the open, like the one I had taken to get to Crossroads. It was closed at first, but she shoved it open to reveal a clearing with black-gray trees and orange dirt on the other side. Still a place on this world, but away from the immediate fighting. A place to regroup so we could leave. 

Bobbi went through the door first, then Doug, Twister, Shiori, and the rest of us followed right behind. I was last, pausing just long enough to shout toward Tangle, “Everyone else?!” 

“Heading out right after you!” She glanced to me while shouting that. “Go!” 

Even as she said that, I could see the blue-white flame shield that Seamus and Roger were projecting start to flicker as more and more attacks hit it. Clearly, it wasn’t going to hold for much longer. Especially as the Heretics on the far side noticed the flickering and renewed their efforts. The blasts they were hitting it with were like artillery shells exploding against a forcefield of fire. It was going to fail any second now. And then, well, then we would really be in trouble. 

So, I went through the door, stumbling a bit in my rush. Then I was in that clearing with the others, who were already catching their breaths. Shiori quickly grabbed me in a hug that also pulled me away from the door just as Tangle came through. She was followed by Roger, then Seamus. Past the two of them, as I looked that way while still clutched by Shiori, I could see six Heretics coming straight toward us. They had spotted the door and were racing our way. One of them turned into a blur of motion, speeding straight at us so quickly he would’ve reached the door before anyone could react. 

At least, before I or any of my peers could react. Tangle’s hand snapped up as she turned back that way right after she and the cousins reached the clearing. A jet of water shot from her palm and between Roger and Seamus before expanding into a massive tidal wave the moment it passed the doorway. That tidal wave slammed into the approaching Heretic. I caught a brief glimpse of him attempting to fight his way through it and continue his forward momentum before the wave managed to shove him away from the door. 

That wasn’t the end of it, however. A circular blade shot through the doorway from that side, nearly embedding itself in Tangle’s throat before Roger snapped his hand out so that it embedded itself in his palm instead, making the man grunt. Meanwhile, Seamus grabbed the door to shove it closed, taking what had to be at least three or four blasts of energy against his arm and side, one of which destroyed half his shirt and left a truly nasty-looking burn across the lower half of his torso. It looked painful as fuck, to say the least. But the man showed no reaction other than to give a grunt similar to Roger’s when the blade had embedded itself in his hand.

In the next second, he had the door shut. The instant the latch clicked, the whole thing vanished. We were–okay, not safe. Not in the least. But assuming they had set this up the way we planned, we were now hundreds of miles from the prison. It would take them time to find us. Time we could use to get out of here on the– I looked around. There. The truck was waiting about a hundred feet away, just as pristine as it had been when we left it to make our scouting and sabotage trip. 

“What about the others?” Avalon was asking, panting a bit from everything. “And the rest of the prisoners? There were some out and standing, but the ones we found–” 

“Deveron and the rest have them,” Roger informed us. He was pulling the blade out of his hand. Grimacing at it, the man focused until the blade turned to dust. His wound was already starting to heal. “That’s why we had to split up. They had a bunch of slaves holed up in a corner of the compound. One of their people tried to send a bunch of fire that way to kill them off for retribution or whatever, but another guard was shielding them.” 

“Wait,” I spoke up. “You mean one of the Eden’s Garden Heretics was shielding the prisoners from getting hurt? Someone sympathetic to our side?” 

Seamus, gingerly touching his burn with a wince, shrugged. “I think they called him Coppe. Just someone who didn’t think their prisoners deserved to die like that, I guess. Can’t make him very popular with the rest of his people, though.” 

“No, probably not,” Tangle confirmed before focusing on us. “But what happened down–” 

In the midst of that clearly very important question, another door opened up nearby. We all spun that way, weapons raised. But it opened to reveal Klassin Roe, who stumbled through looking about as good as any of the other adults here. One of his arms was literally missing, and he had a hard shell of half-broken ice across half his torso, as well as a deep burn across his forehead. Clearly barely keeping himself upright, the man held the door as Kohaku appeared, followed by Jiao. The moment they were through, the trio moved away from the door, allowing a line of neon-red jumpsuit-wearing prisoners, of all colors, shapes, and sizes to pass through. A couple of them were too big for the door as it was, but it rose and changed shape to accommodate them. Soon, in addition to the thirty unconscious slaves we had taken from the tubes, there were a dozen or so more standing around. They looked bewildered, anxious, afraid, clearly unconvinced that this was a real rescue. Which I couldn’t blame them for. Not after everything they had been through, especially if they had the slightest idea what had been done to their fellow prisoners down in the caves. 

Either way, the second the last prisoner was through, another man appeared. I didn’t recognize him, but he wasn’t in prisoner clothes. He was a guard, another Heretic. Tall and blond. As soon as he was there, Roger and Seamus caught him by the arm and yanked the man out of the way. They had a pair of cuffs on him almost immediately, and Tangle used a field-engraver to put a spell on the man’s arm. She said something to him, he gave a short nod, and then she said another word and he collapsed. Roger and Seamus stopped him from collapsing, gently lowering him to the ground.

The traitor, I had already realized. It was that Coppe guy, the guard who had shielded their prisoners against his fellow Heretics’ retribution. That’s why he was here with us, but they weren’t taking any chances. He was being secured and knocked out until we could figure out what to do. 

Meanwhile, Deveron had appeared. He was dragging something with him, kicking the door shut while explosions continued on the far side. I could hear someone scream his name with rage that sent a chill through me. It was the sort of anger that promised retribution. This wasn’t over. We still had to get off the planet before they tracked us down. 

But wait. Where was–

Then I saw what Deveron had been dragging, as he carefully laid it down on the grass. No, not it. Him. Tribald Kine. Motionless, his eyes staring sightlessly toward the sky. 

We had escaped with the prisoners, for the moment. But not without cost. 

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By Blood 17-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Right, so this giant spider-crocodile-man thing wasn’t just really big and scary-looking. It was also very angry and incredibly violent, both of which were demonstrated as it let out a loud, piercing scream and brought two of those massive legs up before slamming them down toward the spot where we were all standing. Sands threw up a stone wall with her mace, Bobbi created a forcefield, and Gordon an ice-wall. All three defenses were layered together, and the creature’s legs punched through all of them like they weren’t even there. Thankfully, we were all already diving out of the way, but still. Seeing those deadly legs just punch through the walls of ice, stone, and light that easily from the corner of my eye as I was throwing myself to the side gave some small idea of how dangerous this thing was. Definitely not something to take lightly. Really, it seemed like the smartest choice was to turn around and get the fuck out of here. And yet, we couldn’t run away. Not now. We had to deal with it, if we were going to get those guys out of their prison tubes. And there was absolutely no way that Gordon or Asenath would leave without their fathers. Not when they were this close. 

So, we had to fight this thing. And we had to do it quickly, before the Eden’s Garden people managed to summon reinforcements. But at least there were twelve of us, right? We could bring this thing down pretty quick with all of us working together. At least, I hoped we could. 

Using a quick burst from my staff to lift myself back to my feet the instant I hit the ground, I spun toward the spot where those two enormous spider-like legs had just slammed into the rocks and dirt, spraying both in all directions. The creature was still screaming, but I shouted over it. “Get it away from the tubes!” Even as those words escaped me, I was already running to one side while converting my staff to its bow form. An instant later, I sent an energy arrow flying up to slam into the side of the thing’s monstrous humanoid head. The concussive blast barely seemed to register. The three eyes visible on its left side glared down at me, before the thing brought another of those ten legs out in a contemptuous swat, like I would when slapping a particularly annoying and persistent fly out of my face. 

Another quick kinetic burst from my staff launched me up and over the bus-sized leg. But while I was still in mid-air, a small opening appeared on the side of the creature’s neck, like a blowhole or something. But this didn’t suck in air. Instead, it shot this blob of sticky webbing that slammed into me. The next thing I knew, I was hitting the floor with this stuff wrapped tightly around me and holding me down. I couldn’t move, encased as I was in this sticky webbing. And it smelled awful, like rancid milk. Worse, it was starting to burn. Not like fire. Like acid or something. It felt like that, anyway. 

Thankfully, I wasn’t trapped that way for long. Even as my body had started to register the pain, Doug was right there. His hand rose, projecting what looked like a welding torch flame from his palm while he touched the webbing with his other hand. The flame cut right through the web, but didn’t hurt me at all, even though it should have been going straight into my side. As soon as I was free, he turned the blowtorch power to his own hand, cutting the webbing off that as well. 

The monster was starting to follow up already, lifting one of those legs. But before it could bring the leg down, Avalon screamed fire at it. Literally. She opened her mouth and flames shot that way. Flames which turned into a bird and flew right up into the side of the monster’s head.  She actually seemed more surprised than it was, mouth still open as she stood there frozen briefly. 

I and several others shouted a warning as the monster swung its leg back that way, abandoning its attack on Doug and me to instead swat at the source of that fire bird. At the last second, I saw metal armor encase Avalon, just before she took the blow from the leg. It launched her up and backwards against the rock wall, but she landed on her feet. 

Right, so we knew two of the powers she’d gotten from the guy in the tower. 

Meanwhile, everyone else was fighting too. Bobbi’s speed-blurred form raced up an energy-construct track she had created before driving a blade into the side of the thing’s head. Asenath was right behind her with a knife, stabbing into one of its eyes. Gordon had hold of one of the legs and was freezing it solid. Recovering from her fall, Avalon (still encased in armor) drove one of her gauntlet energy blades into the leg that had smacked her, while Shiori sent both of her electricity-covered discs flying up into another pair of eyes on the far side. Jazz had conjured her gravity orbs near another of its legs, trying to yank it off balance that way while Avalon and Gordon attacked its legs on this side. Twister turned into a bird, flying up to land on its back before transforming into a lion to bite into the base of the thing’s neck. Sarah had her rifle up, shooting multiple times into other eyes from several directions at once. Sands turned into her shadow-form, sliding up one of the thing’s legs to its back behind Twister before bringing her mace up toward the roof of the cave. With a grunt, she slammed it downward, bringing a sharp pillar of stone out of the ceiling to stab into the creature’s back. Finally, Columbus sent a blast of energy from his goggles into the creature’s long, exposed throat. 

And none of it seemed to accomplish anything. Columbus’s blast hit the neck with no apparent reaction. Everyone stabbing or shooting into the thing’s eyes had their attacks bounce off as if the eyes themselves were made of steel. Twister’s teeth couldn’t puncture its neck, and the stone pillar that Sands had conjured crumbled as it struck the thing’s back. Even Avalon, Gordon, and Jazz had no luck. The energy blade did nothing to one leg, the ice had barely settled on the second before the creature simply snapped it outward to send shards flying everywhere, and if it noticed the pull from the gravity orbs, it didn’t give any indication. 

But no matter how easily it had shrugged off every attack, the creature was still very angry. Not that it showed that through the scream. In fact, the scream itself had completely stopped. Instead, the monster made a dark, violent noise, like a growl. Its head turned a bit, as though it was considering us. Then a smile came across its face, showing those rows of deadly teeth. It saw us, evaluated us, and found us to be no real threat. And yet, threat or not, it was still going to kill us. 

“Flick, can you possess it?!” Columbus shouted across the cavern at me. 

Grimacing, I created a portal in front of my hand. I hadn’t really done a lot of possessing animals (if that was even what this thing was), but if it would stop it from being a threat… I shoved my hand through to grab the side of the monster’s leg, making physical contact before using my stolen Seosten power. 

I was in the creature. And yet, I was not in control. I felt bottomless, unfathomable rage. I felt destruction. I felt the unfathomable, unrelenting fury of a full legion of monsters stuck within the body of one. A hundred, a thousand voices in that head, each of them crying out for more death, more violence, for blood to be spilt upon the altar of their endless thirst. It was as though every dark impulse, every drive toward savagery and cruelty, had been drawn from thousands of beings and shoved into this single mind. If it could even be called that. This creature, this monster, had the violent desires of all those different minds, each clamoring for more destruction. I couldn’t control or direct it any more than I could tell a planet where to move. 

For a moment, I thought I would lose myself within that horrific tide of sadistic barbarity. But at the last possible second, I remembered to eject myself. And eject I did, flying through the air to land hard on the ground almost directly next to where I’d been a moment earlier. Crashing down, I managed a weak, “Don’t.. do that. Bad. Very bad.” 

“Then we do it the hard way,” Avalon announced, after giving me a quick glance to make sure I was okay. When I struggled upward, she snapped her attention back to the creature. “Don’t spread out your attacks!” she shouted while backpedaling a bit. “Focus on one eye and one leg at a time! Make a hole and punch through it! Chambers, Porters, Lucases, and Asenath on the eyes! The rest of us on the legs! One target at a time til you do some damage!” 

Even as she said those words, the creature was sending several shots of webbing from multiple holes in its long neck, forcing everyone to dive out of the way. I barely managed to avoid being hit that time. Which was good, because I had absolutely no desire to end up trapped by that shit again.  

Giving a quick nod and mutter of good luck toward Doug, I ignored the nausea that had swam up in me at the memory of what possessing that thing had felt like and shoved myself into a sprint, gripping my weapon tightly as I shifted it back into its staff form. Bobbi leapt down toward me, coming my way so fast she was almost still a blur. Without missing a beat, I held my staff up for her to grab onto it before pivoting in place to hurl the smaller girl in the direction of one of the legs so she could maintain her speed. In mid-flight, she produced a glowing red energy sword before slamming it into one of the joints. Still no damage. 

But I couldn’t think about that, other than to hope that one of their attacks eventually got through. My sprint, by that point, had carried me close enough to the monster that I was able to leap and summon my new rocket-burst power to carry myself all the way up to its scaled back, landing almost exactly where Columbus had been a moment earlier. 

Sands was still there, pivoting around to put herself next to me. Even as she did that, I was already pointing my staff toward the thing’s ring of eyes. “It’s cool, I’ve got this!” With those words, I sent my super-heated cloud of sand right there. Screwing with vision using my sand was sort of my thing, I could–

And then the creature sent what seemed to be high-powered blasts of wind out of its fucking tear ducts to blow the sand away from its face. The wind was too strong for me to get the sand close. 

“Okay,” I amended, “I don’t got this.” So I was zero for two in trying to end this thing instantly. Stellar track record, Flick. And on top of everything else, I could still feel that weird, silent voice at the back of my mind. Only now it was worse, like something was desperately trying to shove its way out, or dig its way in. I couldn’t tell. Either way, this was a bad place to be in. We needed to get the fuck out of here. But we couldn’t, not until we dealt with this thing and saved those prisoners. 

Sands and I exchanged a quick glance and shrug before moving onto Plan B (or whatever letter this was). Namely, we looked up toward that ring of enormous eyes once more, far above us at the end of that long neck. Then we both jumped. Our strength had been enhanced enough by that point that, even without a boost, we could get some decent vertical distance. And I added to that by catching hold of the other girl while triggering the rocket burst once more. It carried us the rest of the way up there, as we both lashed out with our weapons. My bladed staff and her mace both slammed into the eye one after the other with as much force as we could muster. Which, considering Sands was capable of lifting a good four thousand pounds even without the boosted strength from standing still, and killing the Heretic back on Earth had pushed me up to just over that, was a lot of force. 

But again, our blows did nothing. The creature barely blinked under the pair of attacks. I was pretty sure the most we managed to do was annoy it, considering the way it screeched. 

Nor did Columbus’s follow-up blast of concussive energy, Shiori’s lightning breath, or Asenath’s own blast of lightning breath (she had borrowed some blood from Shiori to gain her powers for this whole thing) manage to do much better. I had no idea how the others on the ground were doing with the leg, but I hoped they were getting further than we were. 

By that point, Sands and I had almost collided with the ceiling, flipping ourselves over as the other girl made a quick wall for us to bounce off of. Which was just in time, as the creature opened its mouth to send a long, sharp tongue at the spot where we would have been an instant earlier. The tongue was more like a rope, with a blade on the end that probably would have pierced straight through us considering how easily it punched right up into the stone ceiling. 

Right, so unbelievably tough to the point of taking half a dozen blows against one eye without even blinking, strong enough to basically pulverize any of us with those massive legs, a bunch of blowholes around its neck that each could shoot acidic, almost-inescapable webbing, and now the thing had a long, prehensile tongue with a blade on the end that could go through stone. Were there any other powers or advantages this thing wanted to pull out to show how drastically outclassed we were? 

Fuck, I really shouldn’t have asked. 

Sure enough, the monster seemed to read my mind. Because the instant that Sands and I landed next to the others, it immediately began to produce a thick cloud of dark purple smoke from the same tear ducts it had produced the wind from. Which was weird, unfair, and very clearly poisonous. I didn’t even need my power to smell poison to kick in (which it did) before I realized that. Before the gas could reach us, I blurted, “Don’t breathe it!” 

“Worse than that!” Columbus snapped. Bringing up Amethyst in her shield form, he fired four of her spell-quills outward. In mid-air, the spells activated at a word from him, each creating their own sustained blast of wind to send the gas out away from us in various directions. “It’s acidic and hallucinogenic.” His hand tapped the side of his goggles in explanation. “It’ll melt your face off while giving you a psychotic trip of your worst nightmares, like the Scarecrow in Batman!”

Okay, that was just… not good. Quickly, before those wind spells could wear off (I was pretty sure he didn’t have an unlimited supply of them) I spat a wad of that thick resin stuff over the nearest tear duct to stop the gas from that one. 

Thankfully, Sands was already acting too. From her hands, she shot two different lines of spider-like webbing over a couple more gas-producing tear ducts. Meanwhile, Sarah chambered a round in her rifle, snapped it up once more, and fired a shot. But instead of being a normal bullet, that one exploded into thick putty when it hit the tear duct on that particular eye, before solidifying. 

Of course, the monster wasn’t just going to sit still and let us do that. The whole time we were dealing with the terror-gas, it kept jerking itself violently back and forth in an attempt to throw us off its back. It was all we could do to stay on, and I was pretty sure we wouldn’t even have managed that much if this thing wasn’t also busy dealing with the others attacking its legs. 

Worse, it was simultaneously sending more shots of that nasty webbing of its own at us through the holes in its neck. But we still had Shiori and Asenath, who kept blasting the incoming webbing with directed sonic-attack screams from the Cù-Sith that Shiori had killed way back during the whole business with tracking down Fahsteth last year. The screams were a bit loud for us, but the power was focused enough that the bulk of the sonic energy was directed in a straight line toward the incoming webbing, breaking it apart and scattering it before the stuff could reach us. 

At that moment, just as we finished blocking the thing’s gas-producing tear ducts that could reach us, the entire monster abruptly lurched to one side with a horrifying scream of rage. It was the others. Through sustained, directed attacks that entire time, they’d managed to get one of its legs off. And boy was our new friend pissed about that. It staggered that way, very nearly throwing the rest of us off its back. Still, it had nine legs left, three of which were violently stabbing down at the others down there. They definitely had its attention. 

And hey, the good news right then was that the tear ducts were blocked, so I could use my sand again. Unfortunately, the bad news was that this thing had no intention of letting me get that far. The group below may have pissed it off, but it hadn’t forgotten we were there. As evidenced by the fact that several of those eyes were glaring straight at those of us on its back. Yeah, it definitely hadn’t forgotten we were there. And it was going to do something about that, before we could take advantage of its ‘vulnerable’ eyes. 

In this case, that ‘something’ turned out to be ‘hold itself up on two of its remaining nine legs (one on each side), continue to stab at the people down there with three of the seven free ones, and twist the other four around to stab upward at us. Like someone reaching their arm around to scratch their own back. Only, well, much worse. Four bus-sized sharp spider-feet slamming down toward us from all sides. 

We got out of there, barely. The six of us bailed in different directions just in time, launching ourselves off the thing before it could pulverize any of us. Unfortunately, now we were falling from pretty high. Not far enough to kill us, given our strength boosts. But still not great. Fortunately, I was ready for that. With a thought, I summoned some of my volunteer ghost friends, one for each of us. The six ghosts manifested, catching us under our arms as they turned solid just long enough to lower us to the ground so we could land on our feet. 

Immediately, I fell to my knees with a gasp, pitching forward before catching myself with my hands. A short distance away, I could half-see the giant monster flailing violently. Its leg shot out toward Doug, but he managed to manifest those metal coils from his hands to shove himself up and out of the way. The deadly tongue nearly tore through Gordon, but he summoned a pillar of ice under his feet to lift himself up while shooting the monster’s face repeatedly with his own tommy gun. On the far side from Doug, another leg nearly took Sands’ head off but she froze, making herself all-but completely invulnerable for that instant so the leg actually bounced off her. 

It flailed, shot out more webs, screamed, threw those deadly legs around in every direction, and more. Yet I simply knelt there, staring at the ground. Above my head, Shiori and Avalon appeared as though by magic, working together to stop a set of webbing that had been coming my way. 

“Flick!” Shiori blurted, “are you–” 

Shoving myself to my feet in a single, smooth motion, I brought my staff up. “Everyone get ready to hit it with everything you’ve got!” I shouted as loud as I could. “And I wish someone had a camera.

“Cuz this is gonna be epic.” 

With those words, I grasped my staff high over my head with both hands, and reached out with my power. With my necromancy. Because in the moment that I had summoned those few ghosts to catch us as we fell, I had realized what that feeling in the back of my head the entire time we’d been coming down into this cave was. I’d realized what was trying to get my attention, what had been clamoring for a bit of power, a bit of strength. With a scream that tore its way out of my throat like a force of nature as I slammed my staff into the ground, I gave them that power.

People had died in this cave. Not a few. Not a dozen. Not a hundred. Three thousand, four hundred, and eighty-five. All of them different ages, genders, and species. They had died here, as what amounted to blood sacrifices to create, empower, and feed this creature. In their terrible, traumatic deaths, ghosts had been left behind. At that moment, as I slammed my staff into the ground, I shoved every bit of power I could into those ghosts. I boosted myself for even more power, and I gave it all to them. Even then it probably wouldn’t have been enough to control that many ghosts with my particular skill level. But there was no controlling to be done here. I didn’t have to ask for them to do it. They were ready and waiting, desperate for a chance. 

Hey ugly!” I screamed as loud as I could, already wavering on my feet as the thing focused on me. My entire body was trembling from effort, sweat pouring down my brow. I could barely speak. “You got some friends…. who wanna say hi.” 

My staff collided with the floor of the cave, and in that instant, all three thousand, four hundred, and eighty-five ghosts launched themselves upward out of the cave floor, all around the monster. They caught its legs, its extended tongue, its neck, they fell upon its back. They drove it to the floor and they held it there through sheer weight of numbers. It flailed, it screamed, it struggled, but it could do nothing. It was held down, trapped, pinned by the ghosts of the very same people who had been sacrificed to create it. 

Just like that, the monster’s neck was exposed, and everyone hit it in those brief seconds. Everyone but me, at least. Every attack they had, every power, everything they could hit it with was directed to one spot on the thing’s neck. They blasted it, cut it, shot it, burned it, they hit that single, small spot together. And under that assault, they broke through. They cracked the thing’s scales, they made a hole. A hole that someone could take advantage of. 

Sands was that someone. Rearing back, the girl hurled something small that way, like a pitcher on the mound letting loose with a fastball. But this wasn’t a leather-covered cork orb. It was a piece of wood, with runes along the side. And as Sands let it go, sending the wood flying at the single exposed hole in the monster’s neck, she triggered the magic on that wood. 

She summoned her theriangelos, the massive red and pink rhinoceros. And that three thousand pound rhino went flying, as fast as a girl who could lift four thousand pounds could hurl a small block that weighed about five ounces, straight at the single weak point that everyone had created. 

The rhino utterly annihilated that weak point, tearing through the monster’s neck and out the other side. Sands had severed the monster’s head from its body, and as she collapsed with a cry of pleasure, I released the ghosts I had summoned. I felt their own relief, their gratitude, as they vanished forever. 

“See,” I managed blearily, swaying a bit on my feet, “told you it was gonna be ep–” 

And then I passed out.  

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

By Blood 17-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

The timing for our plan was incredibly crucial. We had to wait for enough of the guards to be thoroughly distracted by Deveron and the Dornans so the rest of us could jump them from behind. And if this whole thing worked the way it was supposed to, we would be doing that more than once. We just had to hit them just right. 

To that end, Kohaku and Tangle had the rest of us touch them and wait until enough of the guards had made their way to the gate on the far side of the complex below. Finally, it was time. There were still a few stragglers up on the buildings or coming out of side doors, but we couldn’t wait any longer. We needed enough of the guards to be over by the gate, yet if they got too far out, this wouldn’t work. So, with a word of warning, the two Heretic adults teleported all of us down to the roof of the building almost directly below us. There was a single guard there who had been taking aim with a rifle that looked a lot like Sarah’s. But even as he spun upon our arrival, Kohaku was driving her fist, abruptly shape-shifted into a glowing blade, into his gut. She cut him all the way up to his neck and then ripped her fist out. He was flailing and gasping until she transformed her hand back and caught both sides of his head so she could literally rip it from his body. It was brutal, efficient, and made my eyes widen as a noise of disbelief escaped me. The man had been gutted and then had his head torn from his shoulders before he even knew what was going on. Seeing it from this side was incredibly dark.

Meanwhile, Tangle wasn’t exactly slouching. There had been another Heretic coming out the door of the building we were standing on, and the former Crossroads teacher was already conjuring some sort of energy rope, which she threw around his neck like a noose before yanking him up to our level. He was choking and flailing even as she held the rope with one hand, produced some sort of knife with the other, and drove it into the top of his head. 

Both women acted together, and the whole thing took less than five seconds before the two guards were dead. I saw Kohaku and Tangle’s individual auras both flare, but if they noticed the rush of pleasure, neither reacted. Their attention was focused out on the yard itself, where we could see more Heretic guards racing around the fake smoldering remains of the transport truck on their way to deal with where they thought the main threat was coming from. 

Our main advantage throughout this whole thing, besides the element of surprise, was the fact that there weren’t incredibly powerful Heretics stationed here. At least relatively speaking. Honestly I thought the guy in the radio tower was powerful enough to be a problem. But the truth was that most of the people here were basically average. The strongest Eden’s Garden Heretics wouldn’t be guarding a backwater prison work camp with a few Alters digging out a mountain. They weren’t pushovers, by any means, but we weren’t dealing with the cream of the crop. And that was basically the only reason we had any chance of getting away with our small group performing a rescue mission. Especially now that we had cut off their ability to communicate easily with reinforcements. 

To the right, we could see another man come running out of the building there, shouting something about ‘the tower’ being down. Sure enough, he was pointing up toward the tower we had just come from, calling over his shoulder toward someone else inside the building. I could see him bracing himself for what was probably going to be a teleport up that way so he could figure out what was wrong with their radio. But then he caught sight of us on the roof of the other building, his attention snapping our way just in time for Tangle to hold her hand up. A strange set of dancing lights appeared in her palm. The man stopped short, staring at those rapidly moving glowing symbols with a slack-jawed expression. It only lasted for a brief moment, two seconds at most. But that was enough for Kohaku to appear behind him. And to the left of him. And to the right of him. While still standing right here with us. The two duplicate Kohakus on either side of the man caught hold of him, while the third pointed her hand into the back of his head and used the finger-laser I’d seen before. It took three or four shots, but the man went down. Which was just in time for a burst of flame from inside the building to engulf all three Kohaku clones and incinerate them. 

The regular Kohaku grimaced, then vanished from where she was standing, only to appear down there on the rear side of the building. As we watched, she raised her hands and then slammed them together. With that motion, the building crumpled in on itself, turning into a metal ball that was collapsed around the Heretic within. Unfortunately, he simply phased out of it, appearing in a ghost-like form with his gaze focused on Kohaku. 

Which meant he never noticed Tangle pointing a hand at him as she summoned a blast of electricity like the freaking emperor from Star Wars. The blast tore into his intangible form, seeming to hurt him even more than it would otherwise. With a scream, the man basically disintegrated. 

In what had to be less than thirty seconds, four Heretics were dead thanks to Kohaku and Tangle. Yes, we were taking them by surprise, and they were focused on other things. But still. 

That seemed to be all of the people who were right here, so we could move again. Our group hopped to the ground to join Kohaku, who was looking across the chaotic prison grounds. Her voice was terse. “Hit them now, hard as you can.” 

‘Them,’ in this case, were the Heretic guards on their way past the fake truck remains. They were in mid-sprint and hadn’t noticed the burst of violence behind them. We had to get their attention on us for this to work. So, Sarah brought her rifle to her shoulder and fired a shot, I transformed my staff into its bow-form to send an energy arrow that way, Avalon pointed one of her gauntlets to launch what looked like a bolt of energy similar to her constructs, and Sands drove her mace into the ground, sending a low, foot-high wall racing along the ground until it grew up and outward into a rock spike that slammed into one of the men. 

Between all those attacks and what Kohaku and Tangle sent that way as well, we definitely had some of the guards’ attention. They spun back toward us, bringing up their own weapons and powers. Which, for an instant, made this whole getting their attention thing feel like a bad idea. 

But, of course, there was a reason we wanted them to look at us. And that reason showed itself before they could launch their counterattack. From the fake rubble where they had been hiding, our companions abruptly appeared. Columbus rose, using his goggles to fire a blast of energy into one man’s side. Though strong enough to punch through rock like it was paper, the blast barely made that guy stagger a bit. He looked toward Columbus, just before Shiori launched herself at him from the side, her fist slamming into his face. Which didn’t do a lot on its own, but then six or seven glowing energy-like duplicate Shioris copied the same motion. That was enough to make him reel a bit, which was when Columbus brought both his hands together and shoved hard, sending a blast of kinetic force into the man that was hard enough to knock him a good twenty feet. And before he could crash to the ground, Bobbi was there in a blur of motion, catching the guy in the back as he was falling with a glowing energy construct of a fist the size of a small car. 

Shiori, Columbus, and Bobbi all hit that guy, while Jazz, Douglas, and Gordon hit another one, Tribald Kine and Klassin Roe hit a third, and Jiao and Asenath jumped a fourth. This was how we were hitting them, how our plan worked out to triple-ambush the prison guards. First Deveron and the Dornans unexpectedly attacked them from one side. Then, as they were running to deal with that, Tangle, Kohaku, and the rest of our group hit them from behind. And as the guards we hit were turning to deal with us, the others rose from their places hidden in the supposed wrecked remains of the truck to attack both the ones who kept going toward the gate and the ones who turned to deal with us. No matter which way they turned, the Eden’s Garden people were getting hit from behind by someone. 

Suffice to say, they were all having a bad day. And it was only going to get worse for them. They were stuck reacting to something that they hadn’t known anything about practically a minute ago. Up to that point, this had been a perfectly ordinary, mundane evening for them. And now they were under direct assault from what had to feel like all sides. They didn’t have time to adjust to what was happening, whereas our group had been planning this literally for weeks. We knew what we were doing, and we certainly weren’t going to give them time to recover. 

To that end, the second we had their attention and caught the guards between all our groups, Kohaku pointed toward the hole in the mountain. Specifically, to the cave entrance leading into what still remained of the mountain that hadn’t already been dug out. “You know your parts. Stay together, be careful.” 

That was all she had to say. Without missing a beat, Avalon, Sands, Sarah, and I were already running to the side. Twister jumped from my shoulder, transforming into a cheetah to run ahead of us. Part of me felt bad about leaving Kohaku and Tangle by themselves. But on the other hand, they could handle it. We had to do our part and get into the prison. 

Not that we would be getting in there alone. Even as we approached the cave entrance where the mountain had been hollowed out, the five of us were joined by Columbus, Shiori, Asenath, Gordon, Jazz, Douglas, and Bobbi. 

Yes, that left Jiao, Tribald Kine, and Klassin Roe in the middle of the Heretic guards, Deveron and the Dornan cousins in front of them, and Kohaku and Tangle at the back. They were all adults. Their job was to draw attention and keep the guards focused on them. Meanwhile, the rest of us had to make our way through the deeper prison complex, staying together to handle whatever and whoever might still be down there until we reached the prisoners themselves. We had to get in there and let them out so everyone could teleport the fuck out of this place before the Eden’s Garden people managed to recover too much. Again, the plan relied a lot on timing, on hitting these guys so hard and so fast and from so many sides they never had the chance to retaliate too much before we were already gone. And there were still so many ways it could fall apart. All I could think of, even as our groups ran through the hollowed-out portion of the mountain, was that we had to hurry. 

This place was weird, to say the least. It was like a huge bite had been taken out of the hill itself, leaving just under a third of its lower portion present. There were several large digging-like machines that sat motionless and unused for the moment scattered around the massive open cavern-like space, but nothing seemed to be holding up the hundreds of tons of rocks and dirt high above our heads. I had no idea how they were stopping the upper section from crashing in, and hopefully we wouldn’t be here long enough for that to become relevant. What we were interested in was a hole in the inner wall, which led to the lower tunnels where the prisoners were supposed to be kept. At the moment, a glowing blue forcefield was stretched across that hole, blocking entrance to those tunnels, but that wouldn’t be an obstacle for long. . 

“Didn’t take all the excitement for yourselves, I see,” Jazz noted once we all came to a (very temporary) stop at that forcefield. She was panting a bit, holding her falchion in one hand, its projected flames dancing around the blade. 

“Thought about it,” I retorted, “but we figured you’d complain if you came all this way just to be bored.” 

Even as we said that, Columbus had vanished from where we were standing. He appeared on the far side of the forcefield, standing inside the enclosed, previously empty security station there. We could barely see the boy through the narrow window where the guards were supposed to stand to control the forcefield whenever people needed to move in and out. 

Thankfully, it didn’t take the boy long to figure out the controls in there. Soon, the forcefield was down, and he rejoined us as we started running together once more. Now we were inside the cavern. The entrance tunnel, carved into black and gray rock, was about twenty feet wide and equally as high. So we weren’t exactly cramped, even with a group as relatively large as this was. The tunnel sloped downward, leading deeper underground and into the darkness. So, after producing flashlights, that was the way we went, keeping our eyes and other senses open as we raced deeper into the man-made (or at least living person-made) cave. 

I didn’t sense anyone, but I did sense… something. It was weird, a feeling pressing down on me from all sides, like… I wasn’t sure. It was at the back of my mind with every step, making the hair on my neck stand up. I felt something, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t good. But there was nothing I could do about it. We had to keep going. 

“Did we ever figure out what the hell they were trying to do down here?” Columbus asked, while we continued downward, spreading out a bit to avoid making ourselves a single target. “I mean, this is a weird way to mine, isn’t it? How much effort are they spending just to keep the top of the mountain from falling in? They’ve dug out so much of this place, for what? Minerals? The hell are they looking for and why are they taking out so much of the mountain to do it without taking the top?” 

“Those are all very good questions,” Gordon agreed simply while not breaking stride. “Maybe the prisoners will know more when we find them.” 

Yeah, he couldn’t have been any more clear. What he was focused on was finding his father. Everything else, as far as he was concerned, could take a back seat, including questions about what the Eden’s Garden people were trying to do with this place. Which was fair, given I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be interested in those sorts of details if I was in his boat. Still, Columbus had a point. We had spent the past couple weeks, including the trip here, trying to work out why the mountain would have been mined out this way, without any luck. Now we were here and seeing it in person, and it seemed to make even less sense. Between that, the weird feeling of being watched that some of us had experienced coming through the forest, and now the feeling was I was getting as we descended, this planet in general was giving me the creeps. 

All of which was just more proof that we needed to get all these prisoners and leave as soon as possible. As if we’d needed any additional motivation for that.  

We were rounding a bend in the tunnel when Doug called out for everyone to wait. His flashlight was pointed toward the inner wall, where we could see what looked like words carved into it. Words that had been broken and chipped away by time or erosion or whatever. It looked like at one point there had been a full message carved there, but there were only bits and pieces of it now, words here or there. 

“Uh, can anyone read that?” I asked. It looked like gobbledygook to me. The ‘letters’ were meaningless shapes to the point that I couldn’t even tell which ones were complete and which had been broken.

We needed to hurry, obviously. But something about this made everyone stop to look at it. The message, if that’s what it was, gave me a weird feeling. I felt like we needed to know what it said. So, Bobbi produced a bit more light, a couple glowing balls to illuminate the whole thing. It took up a good ten feet of space, and had obviously been an extensive bit of writing when it was complete. Now more than three-quarters of it had been broken. 

Avalon spoke quietly. “I think I can. That… guy back in the tower, he must’ve had some sort of language deciphering power.” She lifted a hand to point. “This little bit here, it says ‘blood taken’ or maybe ‘blood given.’ And here, it says ‘legs of the world.’ Or maybe ‘legs stretched across the world.’ Down here, it says ‘deep-walker.’ and in this last bit, it says, ‘powers of blood.’ 

“Well that’s all nice and creepy,” Shiori muttered. “Wait, what about this?” Her light had found another bit near the bottom right that we had missed. This seemed somewhat more intact, several complete sentences carved near the floor. 

Crouching down, Avalon examined it, grimacing slightly. “It says, ‘Before being taken, activate disintegration.’” 

“Before being taken, activate disintegration?” I stared at the other girl. “What does that mean?” 

Her head shook. “I don’t know, but I think the bit that comes after it was instructions for the disintegration they were talking about. Maybe a spell or something.” Her finger traced along the broken bit of wall next to it. “But from the look of this whole message, the tunnel was here already. It looks like it was just buried and these guys uncovered it.” 

Asenath spoke firmly. “Whatever it’s about, we need to get to the prisoners. Everyone outside is… they can’t hold out forever.” 

Nervous as we were about whatever that message was talking about, she had a point. We had to press on quickly, or all of this would be for nothing. 

The tunnel opened up wider and wider the deeper we got. There were several more of those messages along the way, although all of them were even more damaged than the first and didn’t give any more information. At least not in the brief glimpses we gave them, and we weren’t going to stop again for a closer inspection. The longer we spent doing this, the more likely it was that we would end up being interrupted by Eden’s Garden reinforcements. So we pushed the bad feelings we were having down and kept descending through the ever-widening tunnel. 

Finally, after what felt like far too long, the tunnel opened into a truly massive underground cavern. Seriously, this place was impressive. And we were able to understand just how impressive it was right from the start thanks to the fact that the whole place was lit up by powerful stadium-like lights hooked up all along the walls. Clearly those had been recently added. The far side of the cavern from where we were standing had to be at least two football fields away, and it was almost that wide. There was a huge hole in the center of the cavern that took up about a third of the floorspace. Meanwhile, to the right was a series of what looked like tubes similar to the ones Sariel, Larees, and the other Seosten prisoners had been kept in when Kushiel was trying to transport them off that lab. They were arranged in three rows of ten, all varying sizes to accommodate a single prisoner held within. Pipes were attached to the bottom of the tubes, all leading out to a single larger pipe that ran straight to that large hole in the floor. 

Asenath sniffed once. “Blood,” she murmured. “The pipes are full of blood.” 

Oh yeah, and that feeling in the back of my head was worse. It was like… voices, almost. Not whispers, and definitely not the Whispers. It wasn’t really voices, or even thoughts. But it was like… trying to be thoughts? I couldn’t explain it, even to myself. It was almost like when you saw someone shouting through a soundproof window, so you couldn’t hear them but you knew they were talking. It was like that, except in my head. 

Yeah, it made no sense at all. And I still didn’t know whether I was imagining it or not. 

“Okay, now I’m really freaked out,” Jazz announced. “The hell were they doing here? There was that warning back there, and now they’ve got all these prisoners in these tubes having their blood drained out to go into that hole? This is a horror movie. We have come into a–” 

“Papa!” Asenath blurted the word, lunging toward one of the tubes. Sure enough, there was a man floating in some semi-clear liquid there. It was hard to make out details, but if she said it was her father, I was willing to take her word for it. 

At nearly the same time, Gordon called out from where he had found his father as well. He was in one of the other tubes. Everyone started looking around, trying to figure out the best way to open those things up to let them out. 

“Um, Flick.” That was Columbus, calling me over to one side. “You see those antennae things sticking down out of the ceiling?” 

I looked. He was right, there were a dozen of the large metal ‘antennae things’ sticking down. “Uh huh.” 

“I’ve seen those before,” he informed me. “I mean, in Charmeine’s memories. They’re supposed to be producing a forcefield in the direction they’re pointing. Which would be over that hole in the floor, where those tubes were taking the blood.” 

“And now there’s no forcefield there,” I murmured. “So do you think–” 

That was when it appeared. In the midst of everyone else trying to figure out how to let the prisoners out of their tubes, a thing launched itself out of the hole. All I could see in that instant was a massive form moving very quickly. Then it landed in front of us, and we all had a good look at it. 

The thing stood on ten towering legs that were spread out around its lower body like a spider’s eight limbs, each as wide around as a school bus and at least twice as long. The body itself was more like a gigantic, very fat crocodile with those thick protective scales. A long neck like that of a giraffe, though also layered with heavy scales rather than fur, extended outward from the body, with an almost humanoid head attached to it. Almost humanoid that was, aside from the scales protecting it, and the fact that instead of two eyes, there was a ring of them all the way around it, so the creature could see in all directions. It opened its mouth, revealing a line of deadly shark-like teeth, and gave a dangerous hiss. 

“I uhh…” My voice came out soft, barely audible, a mouse-like squeak. 

“I think we just found out what they were giving blood to.” 

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