Sariel

Patreon Snippets 12A (Heretical Edge 2)

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Thanks to all $10+ Patrons who requested these snippets. These are the requests that were made for Heretical Edge. The two Summus Proelium Snippets, which are long enough to be their own chapter, will be released at the end of the current arc of that story. Thanks again! 

“Then add a little curl under the cross shape right there, like a tail,” Sariel Moon carefully instructed her eldest daughter while the two of them stood out in the woods a few hundred yards away from the lake where the Atherby camp was. “That’s right, just like that.”

Gaze intent on the metal bracelet she was catching the spell onto, Vanessa glanced up after a moment to her mother. “That’s it?”

With a smile, the older woman nodded. “Now you’re ready to power it. Remember, you want a very slow trickle of power in through the left side of the runes until it starts filling, and once it’s about halfway full, you want to go to the right side and flood it quickly so the two waves of power crash into each other in the middle. You have to get the fill-speed just right.”

Eventually, Vanessa had the bracelet enchanted properly. Clipping the thing onto her wrist, she touched it and murmured the activation word. It glowed briefly, and she reached out to pick up the dagger that her mother offered her. Taking a breath, she hurled it, the dagger spinning end over end before embedding itself in a tree a short distance away. Staring at the weapon, Vanessa flicked her wrist to the side, and an instant later, the dagger was back in her hand as the runes on the bracelet flared for a moment. 

It had worked. Her mother had taught her a spell to summon things back to her hand shortly after they left it. Sariel didn’t need it, of course, given her own natural power. But it would be very useful for Vanessa. And for Tristan, once his sister could sit on him and make him learn it. 

Watching her daughter practice with the spell a couple more times, Sariel finally, somewhat hesitantly remarked, “You haven’t really said anything about the other family, you know? It’s okay if you want to.”

Blinking over to the woman, Vanessa asked, ”Haven’t really said anything about who? What other family?”

Her mother offered her a small smile. “The one who must have taken care of you when we disappeared. You were still very little, I hope they found a good family soon, so you could have some stability. I was… thinking we might visit them at some point.”

For a long moment, Vanessa didn’t say anything. She fidgeted with the dagger in her hand before turning to throw it hard at a tree that was further away. When she spoke, her voice was quiet. “I didn’t really get adopted or anything. People want little kids, not twelve or thirteen-year-olds with emotional development problems.”

Staring at the girl, Sariel shook her head. “I don’t understand. You weren’t thirteen when we vanished, you were seven.”

With a sigh, Vanessa summoned the dagger back before looking to her mother. “Yeah, but I was a seven-year-old with a perfect memory. The Bystander Effect didn’t exactly work on me, so I remembered everything that happened. All of it. And I was too dumb to know I shouldn’t talk about it. I thought you were supposed to tell the police when bad things happened. So I told them that my family was abducted by a bad magic guy. I told them about the orb that exploded and sucked you all into it. I told them about a lot of things.

“They took me to a counselor, who tried to figure out what mundane explanation there was for the things I was saying, because I was obviously traumatized. But I just kept telling them more and more about the things I knew, and none of them believed me. Of course they didn’t believe me. They thought I was emotionally disturbed because of the things that I actually saw. Even when I pointed out the actual ‘monsters’ I could see walking the streets, it didn’t help. Actually, it made things worse. They decided I was crazy. Not the word they used, but that’s what they thought. I was just the insane little girl.”

Sariel, who had been staring at the girl with mounting apprehension and worry, gently took the knife from her daughter’s hand and made it disappear before interlacing their fingers. Her voice was quiet. “What happened, Nessa?”

The response was a few long moments of silence before the girl gave a small shrug, staring at the ground. “They put me in a group home for awhile, with other kids who had ‘emotional developmental problems.’ I tried to take care of them, tried to help them deal with their issues instead of focusing on mine. It was good for them, the other kids. Even though a lot of them were older than me, I still helped. I took care of them when the adults got sick of dealing with us. It was a good distraction. But I was still worried about you guys, so I kept asking when they were going to find you, when they were going to put the orb back together. I kept talking about the stuff I shouldn’t talk about. Because I didn’t know any better yet. 

“Eventually, they decided I was too disturbed to be in one of the homes. They said I was upsetting the other kids with the things I talked about. But they weren’t upset. The adults were the ones who were upset. So they put me in a hospital for the psychologically disturbed.”

Abruptly, Sariel’s hand grew tight against her daughter’s and she made a noise of disbelief before using her free hand to tilt Vanessa‘s chin up, staring down into her eyes. “No… no, baby. Please tell me they…. oh… no…” Memories flashed through the Seosten woman’s mind. Memories of a childhood spent in the old mental asylum, with her own mother. Memories of hiding in the passages between the walls. Memories of the horrors and nightmares she had witnessed and grown up with until the day her Lucifer had found and rescued her. The thought of her daughter being in any kind of situation like that, let alone one without any of her family and with no one who believed her, made a horrible shudder run through the woman. 

Her arms wrapped around the girl, pulling her tight while she whispered, “I’m sorry, baby. I’m so sorry. I should have been there. I should have been with you.”

Returning the embrace, Vanessa shook her head. “It wasn’t your fault, Mom. You weren’t exactly in a good place either. I know you would have stayed if you could. It wasn’t your fault. Besides, it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. Elisabet and Jophiel posed as one of the counselors and helped me sometimes. They took me out for ice cream and stuff.”

Sariel held her daughter tighter, demanding, “Why didn’t they get you out of there and put you in a better home?”

“I sort of asked Jophiel that awhile ago,” Vanessa admitted. “Or something to that effect, anyway. She said that it was safer for me to be there and out of the way where none of your people would pay too much attention to me until I was old enough to know how to keep quiet. She said it was best at the time because your people would have insisted I be taken or eliminated if I was even a hint of a threat. In the hospital, I wasn’t.”

Sariel was silent for a few seconds, considering that. Part of her wanted to scream at Jophiel still, for leaving her child in that kind of environment for so long. But she knew that a large part of the anger she felt now was actually guilt toward herself for not being there. Guilt for failing to protect her child. That, and the emotions from her own memories of a childhood spent in such a terrible place.

Vanessa spoke again. “I helped take care of some of the people in there too, like the kids before. People who really needed it. Eventually, the doctors decided I was okay. Because I stopped talking about that stuff. I learned better. They let me leave, but by then I was too old to be a good adoption. Like I said, people want little kids. So, I just sort of bounced through different homes. I’d spend a few months in one home, then they’d get a kid they actually wanted to invite to go to a different home. At least, that’s what I thought it was at the time. Jophiel told me they were moving me around a lot to keep me off the Seosten radar. She said they were afraid that some of your people would decide to get rid of the threat. You know, because I’m an abomination or whatever. Hybrid.”

By the time she was done explaining all that, Sariel could only hug her daughter tighter, so tight she was almost afraid she might break the girl. “I’m sorry,” she repeated. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I’m here now. I’m here now and I’m going to be here. But, for the times when I’m not, for the times when I can’t be, I want to show you everything I know, so you can take care of yourself. And your siblings. I know I can’t always protect you from everything. But I can help. I can teach you.”

Vanessa returned the hug before tilting her head back to look up at her mother. She managed was a very slight smile. “Trust me, Mom, if there’s one thing I really love to do, it’s to…” 

 

*****

 

“….learn from you?” the young man known as Amenhotep, sole ruler of the Egyptian Empire now that the death of his father had ended their brief co-regency, asked the man who stood across the fire pit from him. The two of them were standing out in the desert, where the elder figure was ostensibly attempting to teach his pharaoh all the magic he needed to know in order to rule and protect the lands he was now responsible for. 

Amenhotep, however, was impatient and annoyed about the entire exercise he had been dragged out on. Spending the past couple of years as a co-ruler under his father had made him long to be fully in charge, but without the maturity and grace that was needed for such a thing. He was far from actually ready, despite his impatience. Hence why he had just demanded to know what in this entire world he could possibly still have to learn from his companion after all this time.

The older man who had taken him here, to the wild lands away from civilization, was not human. He was a Rakshasa, an old cat-figure whose fur had deeply grayed with age. His name was Taleun, and he had served the pharaohs of Egypt for generations. Standing across the fire from the impetuous young man, he carefully replied, “It is the duty of the pharaoh to master the arts which have protected this land throughout its existence. There are secrets that only the true leader all of our people is privy to. Secrets about where we come from and the threat which lies in waiting should our guard ever fail. Secrets that could lead to the enslavement of all our people.”  

Amenhotep made a dismissive noise at that. “Our people are the rulers, not the slaves. We are far too powerful to fall to any of our enemies. You are a paranoid old cat, Taleun. Have you looked around at our people anytime recently? We are stronger than any who have ever set foot upon this world. Our Empire will not be threatened by your old ghost stories.” 

The Rakshasa pleaded with him, “We are strong precisely because of the precautions taken by your ancestors, young pharaoh. Do not believe that such a thing was easily gained, or that the threat has vanished. Those who lurk in the shadows ready to take our people for their own will not to be swayed by our power, for it is nothing to them. They will slither their way as serpents into your mind and take everything we have if you do not heed the warnings of the past. Learn the spells that will protect you, that will protect all of us. Learn to control the defenses that have been established by those who have fought and bled to erect those very protections. Or you may well rule over the collapse of this empire.” 

Pointing a finger at the old feline-figure, Amenhotep snapped, “I will not be threatened or spoken down to as a child. Do not forget your place. I am Pharaoh. I will decide how our people can be best protected. The gods have chosen me to rule our empire and I will not fail them.” 

Bowing his head, Taleun carefully conceded, “I mean no disrespect, of course. You are indeed the chosen pharaoh, and you will lead us to an even more glorious Empire than ever before. Yet to do that, you must utilize the power and knowledge that the gods have provided. Our true strength and glory is in the might of the Pharaoh himself, and you have the ability to be the greatest of them all. I believe you are more capable than any we have ever known. That is why I push you so hard. Because I know you can take it. Because I know you are the one who will expand our strength from one end of this world to the other. You are truly chosen.” 

Mollified by his teacher’s words, Amenhotep gave a short nod. “I suppose you have a point, yes. Strong as our empire is, the pharaoh must be prepared to lead it to even greater heights. Very well, I will learn these lessons you insist upon.” After a brief pause, he amended, “In three days, we can begin.” 

Hesitantly, Taleun pointed out, “This is something we should begin as soon as possible, my pharaoh. If our enemies learn that we are vulnerable now, that our leader is not prepared–” 

“I am prepared for all who may come before me!” the young ruler snapped, his voice a roar. “You forget that I am the most decorated warrior of our age. I am strong with or without your lessons. As I said, I will learn them soon. In three days. Now I have other business to attend to, business that does not involve standing in a desert learning from paranoid old cats. Be here when you are called to be, and I will learn your lessons. Do not trouble me before then. That is the end of it.” 

With that, he touched one of the many golden bracelets on his wrist and activated the portal spell upon it before stepping through, returning to his palace. The Egyptian Empire would not be led by paranoid cowards any longer. It truly would stretch across this world. 

Closing the portal, he looked around his private chambers before speaking up. “We are alone.” 

There was a brief shimmering in the air, before a remarkably beautiful and exotic light-haired woman came into view. Smiling at him, she purred, “I missed you, my pharaoh.” While speaking, she slinked toward him, taking his hand with a murmur of pleasure at his very touch. “Must you leave me alone for so long?” 

Hungrily kissing the woman, Amenhotep replied, “I came as soon as I could extract myself from the old man, Dumah. He’s so paranoid, if he knew I was involved with an outsider he might keel over and die on the spot.” 

Returning the kiss just as hungrily, Dumah snaked her arms around him tightly and murmured “Perhaps I would not be such an outsider if you were to allow me the great privilege of gazing upon you bare of all but the love between us.” 

“Would you be as bare, my love?” the young pharaoh asked with a needful murmur of pleasure as his hands ran up and down her lithe form. “Such a thing could tempt the gods themselves.” 

Smiling, the beautiful woman stepped away and began to disrobe before his needful gaze. Soon, she was naked before him. “Your turn, beloved,” she purred. “All of it. Take away all that hides your strong body from me. I wish to gaze upon my beloved as he was born.” 

So he did. One by one, Amenhotep removed his clothes and the many rings and bracelets that adorned his body. Some of which had been with him almost from birth, their potent magics something he would have been taught about had he simply stayed with his tutor rather than pushing the lessons away. 

Once both were naked, Amenhotep reached out for his exotic mistress’s hands. “Will you give yourself to me now? Will you give yourself to your pharaoh?”

With a smile, Dumah accepted his grasp, her eyes gazing deeply into his. “My dear Amenhotep, beloved leader of the chosen Empire… it is you who have given yourself to me.” 

With that, the woman vanished, her form merging with his. Amenhotep jerked reflexively, a gasp escaping him before his body jerked once. Then again. His eyes closed tightly, then opened as he straightened. As Dumah made him straighten. 

“Thank you for your cooperation, boy,” his voice spoke aloud, while Amenhotep himself railed impotently against her control. 

“It will prove most… helpful.” 

And it did. For a few years, while the now-possessed pharoah set about removing all references, however hidden or vague, of the Seosten from the Egyptian religion. Pushing them to worship the new sun deity of Aten, Dumah-Amenhotep had entire vaults worth of records destroyed, going as far as erecting a new city for the sole purpose of pushing this new way of thinking and erasing the old ways, which gave these people entirely too much information about how to detect and counter the Seosten Imperium. She even had the pharaoh’s name changed to Akhenaten in honor of this new sun god. 

But those who had stood against the Seosten in the past, who had come here to this world and left warnings to their descendants, had been thorough in their teachings. They were prepared for this sort of thing. Taleun was prepared. And as much as it pained the old Rakshasa to do so, he and the secret cabal of priests and other loyal followers of the old ways were eventually able to confront the Seosten-possessed ruler. In the course of that confrontation, the enslaved Amenhotep did the one thing he could do to protect his people. 

He managed, through extreme effort, to seize control for a split second. That second, taken at the exact right time, allowed Dumah’s attackers to pierce the pharaoh’s chest with their enchanted blades. Blades that were spelled to strike not only the possessed, but the possessor as well. 

Dumah was killed, as was Amenhotep himself. In turn, his heir, Tutankhaten, was made the new ruler. And he was prepared from that moment to resist the Seosten. Specifically, he was prepared by being turned into a Natural Seosten Heretic with the blood of Dumah herself, taken from the blades that had pierced her as she possessed the now-dead pharaoh. 

And with that, the Seosten’s attempt to infiltrate and take over the Egyptian Empire their old way was brought to a halt. They would have to engage in some other method to subjugate the people of this world. 

Whatever it took, the Seosten would find the way to break these Egyptians. Because no matter how difficult it became, the Imperium would never…

*******

“Admit they might be wrong?” 

Third year Crossroads student, Andrew Bruhn, had barely finished the words before his roommate, a boy named Carter, slapped a hand over his mouth as the two of them lounged in the recliners in their own dorm room. “Are you crazy?” he demanded. “Do you want to be arrested or something?” 

Andrew’s eyes rolled. Sighing, the pale, muscular boy pushed the hand away from his mouth. “They’re not going to start putting eavesdropping spells on everyone’s room. And they’re not going to arrest me just for saying that the Committee might have to admit they’re wrong about this.” 

Carter, a thin, dark-skinned boy, shook his head. “Okay, first of all, I’m only entertaining this because we’re supposed to be best buds. Second of all, why would the Committee need to admit they’re wrong when they’re not. We know monsters are evil. Do you have any idea how many people we’ve saved in just the two years we’ve been here already? Oh, and third of all, if you believe the Rebellion’s crazy theories, why didn’t you just go with them? I mean, you were the mentor for the Porter, Tamaya, Fellows, and Jameson girls and they all took off.” 

Picking himself up from the chair, Andrew walked to the window to look outside. “I’m not saying the Rebellion is right either. Not exactly.” He turned back to his friend. “What I’m saying is, what if these monsters can learn to be better? What if it’s possible to teach them? What if that’s what the Rebellion is experiencing when they think that they’re around ‘good Strangers?’ You know, like how you can train an animal not to bite.” 

“You mean they’re domesticating them?” Carter demanded, squinting at his roommate. 

Andrew frowned. “That sounds a lot like slavery, which isn’t what I meant. But… sort of, I guess. I just meant, we know a lot of them are intelligent enough to form traps and simulate society and stuff. They’re not dumb, mindless monsters. They just… they kill and eat humans. If the Rebellion has somehow taught them that eating humans will get them killed, then maybe they might have something resembling a point. Not that most Strangers aren’t evil right now, but that it might be possible, if we work hard enough, to make them not. I mean, wouldn’t that be nice? If we could have an end to this constant fighting?” 

Getting up from his own seat, Carter folding his arms over his chest. “You’re saying get them young and teach them not to hurt humans and if you do that long enough to enough of them, then the ones that know not to attack humans will outnumber the ones who do.” 

“Give evolution a helping hand, I guess,” Andrew confirmed with a shrug. “We did it with dogs. Who says we can’t stop all this killing just by incorporating a ‘reward-penalty’ system instead of just killing literally everything that isn’t human? If we can train them, if we can make being nicer to humans appealing instead of just murdering them instantly, maybe… maybe we could change things for good. Look, all I know is that this whole fighting each other thing is…”

******

(The following is Non-Canon/did not really happen. It is just for fun

 

“… not fun,” Bastet declared flatly. Her, as usual, intense expression that promised swift violence to those who happened to annoy her was somewhat muted by the… colorful clothing that she wore. A dark green sleeveless top over a long-sleeved red and white candy cane-striped shirt. Bright red tights. Green shoes with pointy ends that curled up and had tiny bells on them. A long, floppy, green felt hat with a white ball at the end. And, of course, long, pointy plastic ears over her own. She was, after all, an elf. At least, she was supposed to be. 

“Oh, come on, it’ll be fun if you let it.” The reply came from her wife, Sonoma, who was dressed almost identically save for flipping the red and green parts of the outfit. That and the fact that she wore a bright smile rather than a scowl. “Grandfather’s really looking forward to this. And you’re the one who lost the bet,” she reminded her with a wink. 

Huffing a bit, Bastet retorted, “I still say he helped that quarterback. No way a total Bystander high school kid has an arm like that. Their team should’ve been demolished.” 

Shrugging, Sonoma airily pointed out, “You were the one who gambled something like this on the outcome of a high school football match.” Grinning, she leaned in to gently kiss her wife. “And we do look adorable.” 

“Yes, yes, yes, you most certainly do!” Grandfather himself announced while leaping through the nearby doorway with a grand flourish to stand on the front porch of their cabin in front of the two. “And how do I look?!” 

Both women turned to take him in. What they saw was a full-on Fomorian. Tall, gray-green skin, bulbous eyes on an equally bulbous head. Long, gangly limbs with large hands and fingers. Over all of that, a Santa costume. A thick red coat with white trim, red pants, black boots, a floppy red hat with a white ball at the end, and a beard. A thick, very clearly false white beard. 

As both of them all-but doubled over laughing, Grandfather beamed. “You see, I knew I could bring joy to everyone as Jolly Old Saint Nick! People are afraid of Fomorians, but everyone loves Santa!” 

With that, he whistled. Which brought the sound of jingling bells as four reindeer came into view from the nearby woods, pulling a grand sleigh behind them until they came to a stop right in front of the trio. While there were four of them, however, there were actually eight heads. Each of the reindeer possessed two. 

“Well?” Grandfather cajoled with a quick wave of his arms. “Let’s go, let’s go! Lots of good little boys and girls to visit this evening!” 

With varying degrees of eagerness and reluctance, the two women climbed up into either side of the sleigh while Grandfather took the middle seat. Clearing his throat, he used long-fingered hands to pluck up the reins and gave them a quick snap while calling, “On Dashner! On Pranxen! On Compid! On Dondzen!” At the command, the four two-headed reindeer took off, charging across the field before great, expansive wings suddenly sprouted from their backs. That was the reason for only having one reindeer in each row, of course. Their wings got in the way and interfered with each other. But Grandfather couldn’t decide which of the classic eight he wanted to have, so he created reindeer with two heads and simply combined the pairs. 

It was the most obvious solution, of course. 

Flying up into the air, the four double-headed reindeer pulled the sleigh after them. The magic required for the group to actually visit every home in the world would be far too involved and likely to attract attention, of course. Not to mention how unlikely it was that Bastet would put up with it for that long, bet or no bet. But Grandfather had come up with a list of a few dozen very needy children who could do with waking up Christmas morning with some unexpected presents. 

As the sleigh found its way to the first house and hovered there over the roof, Bastet produced a small red ball. Judging her aim, she tossed the orb off the sleigh and down the chimney with perfect precision. 

In the living room of the house, the little crimson orb halted in the fireplace, floated out into the living room, and took a quick scan around. Finding the room dark and empty of people, it beeped softly once. A moment later, there was a brief flash of light as Santa Grandfather appeared with a pair of presents held in both hands. Carefully setting the gifts under the decorated tree, the tall Fomorian smiled at the sight. 

There was just one more thing to do. As quietly as possible, Grandfather reached into the pocket of his bright red coat and took out a handful of blue dust. Holding it up to his lips, he blew on it. The dust blew out through the room. It would wait for the parents to enter and then gently adjust their memories so that they would believe they had scrimped and saved to purchase the new gifts that were under the tree. They could be proud of what their children were receiving, rather than confused and possibly terrified of where it had come from. 

All that done, he grabbed a cookie from the table where the plate was waiting and ate it happily before catching the nearby floating ball. At his touch, it transported him back up to the sleigh. “Okay!” he announced, “one down. But next time, you’ll be coming inside, of course. Santa can’t do everything without his elves. Besides, that’s a lot of cookies and we know how much Bastet loves chocolate chip.”

Before the woman could retort to that, a sudden voice from above interrupted. “Fomorian!” 

It was a group of Heretics. Crossroads Heretics, to be exact. Ten of them, all bristling with weaponry and powers that seemed to electrify the very air around the group. They stood upon a hovering chunk of concrete that had been ripped from the ground. 

“Your evi…” In mid-declaration, the lead Heretic stopped, finally actually paying attention to the being who struck such terror into each of their hearts. A being… dressed as Santa… with the red suit… a clearly fake beard… and… and…

“What.” That was all he managed, in a flat voice of disbelief and confusion. 

“Why, hello!” Grandfather called cheerfully, waving. “I know our people have their troubles, but I’m sure we can all get along on this grandest of nights. The spirit of Christmas and all that?” 

Apparently not, because all ten of the Heretics immediately sprang to the attack, powers and weapons leaping into action to take down the monsters before them.

Approximately thirty-four seconds later, all ten of the Heretics lay on the snow-covered ground, covered in an assortment of bruises and energy-sapping spellwork. Their weapons were scattered around them, while Bastet stood in the middle of their group. 

“You’re lucky it’s Christmas,” she informed the groaning, pain-filled Heretics. “It means you get to live. Bother us again and we won’t be so nice.” 

“Ahem,” Grandfather interjected from where he was still standing in the sleigh, “Speaking of nice…” 

Rolling her eyes, Bastet nodded. “Right, right. Here you go.” With a wave of her hand, she summoned a piece of black coal for each of the Heretics, which flew out to land on top of them. “Welcome to the naughty list, assholes.” 

That said, she crouched before springing upward. A minor twist of gravity allowed her to reach the sleigh, landing lightly inside. 

“Well,” Grandfather began while giving the reins a quick shake to send them on their way, “let’s hope the rest of our visits aren’t interrupted like that, hmm?” 

“Actually,” Bastet informed him, “I’m hoping there’s a lot more where that came from. 

“Between beating the shit out of assholes and free cookies, there might be something to this Christmas thing after all.” 

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Commissioned Interlude 2 – Lucifer and Sariel (Heretical Edge 2)

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Author’s Note: Rysthael is the name of Earth as given by the Seosten.  

Several thousand years ago

Two figures stood atop a hill overlooking an ancient city. To its inhabitants, it was the pinnacle of civilization, a gleaming center of prosperity and protection. The magic along its walls protected its people from the wandering beasts and brigands who plagued the surrounding lands and ensured an area of safety for the populace to live and grow. Its standing guard were armed with swords and spears of iron, as well as heavy shields. All of them heavily enchanted to cut deeper, to defend against more, and to return to a hand when thrown. They used bows enchanted with fire and ice, the horns attached to their belts capable of producing a single blast of sound that could blow through great stone boulders before their magic would be expended. They were some of the strongest, most capable of any people who lived upon this planet.

The two figures who stood upon that hill, gazing down at the walled city, might as well have been twenty-first century scientists observing a village made of mud, stone, and sticks. 

“There it is,” the man casually announced while adjusting the fit of his leather tunic and hood. He smiled, staring down at the city with open and eager curiosity before turning a glance toward the woman who stood beside him. “You see, Sariel, I told you we’d make it before nightfall.” 

“You said we’d make it before nightfall yesterday, Lucifer,” Sariel reminded the man idly. “As I recall, your actual words were, ‘Rysthaelean maps show it only a fingernail width away, let’s walk.’” Despite her teasing, she felt no particular annoyance. Spending a couple of days walking across this land with the man who was a brother to her was a vacation from the myriad other tasks and seemingly endless array of problems that continued to pop up since they arrived on this world. Truthfully, she was all but certain that Lucifer knew exactly how long this would take and had been giving her plausible deniability about the mini-vacation he had brought her on. 

At the moment, the man simply shrugged. “Yes, well, I may have said it yesterday, but I’m quite certain I wasn’t specific about the day.” With a wink, he cleared his throat. “Anyway, we’re here. Time to go down and see what we can find out about these Rysthaeleans. But ahh…” He glanced to her with a small smirk. “What do you say we make a real challenge of it, hmm?”  

Flipping her own hood down to reveal her tightly braided blonde hair, Sariel replied without looking at him. “What exactly do you mean by a challenge, oh troublemaker of mine?” 

Grinning when she took the bait, Lucifer tapped a finger against his forehead. “Oh, I was just thinking it might be fun to see how much we can manage down here without resorting to cheating. No possession, no magic, nothing like that. Put some actual effort into this whole scouting thing. Talk to people, see what we can pull out of the populace the old-fashioned way.” 

Before Sariel could respond to that, they both became aware of the approach of several men on the back of the four-legged animals the locals referred to as horses according to the research they had already done. The men on their horses were coming at a pace much faster than ordinary animals of that type, a glowing mystical fog around their feet lending more proof to the idea that they were magically enhanced with a sort of speed boost. The men were certainly in a rush to get to the pair, though their weapons remained sheathed, at least for the moment.  

Glancing back to the distant city wall, Sariel noted several figures armed with bows that were drawn and ready. The archers appeared to be members of the bird-like Lavinsi people. Which made sense, given their remarkable vision capabilities. Marksmanship in general was one of their fortes. Which explained why the people approaching felt comfortable doing so without swords in hand despite not knowing who or what she and Lucifer were. They trusted the archers at their back to cover them in case of any threat, at least long enough to draw their weapons. 

“I suppose you mean for us to handle this without magic or other tricks as well?” she asked in a soft, private tone as her gaze went back to the approaching horsemen without making any sudden moves that might spook the archers. They could handle it if things went sideways here, of course. But getting into a fight would put a real damper on the idea of pulling this off subtly.  

“What fun would it be otherwise?” her companion drawled before adding, “First one to have to pull magic or possession before this is over has to do the other’s trench duty for a month.” 

Trench duty, in this case, referred to the act of performing the dozens of mind-numbing simple spells required to, among other things, keep their landed ship safely hidden and prepare it in case of attack. There were wards that had to be put up, countermeasures against spies and infiltration, even spells for safely luring in food for the crew, transferring fresh water, and eliminating waste. Everyone took turns contributing their own magic to keep such spells running properly, and doing so was referred to as trench duty because of how boring and repetitive it was. Not to mention the fact that, while boring, it still drained you. No one particularly enjoyed trench duty, least of all a couple like Lucifer and Sariel, who build their lives around creating and experimenting with new magic. Wasting their energy performing such incredibly mundane, though necessary spells was annoying enough that they often made these kind of bets. In truth, what they were actually doing was sharing the load so that one of them did trench duty while the other could perform all the spell research that they wanted. But they hid it behind these wagers. 

“Deal,” Sariel replied. There were a few in-depth tests she wanted to do with some of the flora and fauna of this world. From the little research she’d read, the native Rysthaeleans’ remarkable ability to form a genetic bond with other species only worked with creatures from other worlds. How and why a species would develop that kind of power and have it be utterly useless on creatures that were actually native to their world was… curious. She had some ideas, but they would require intense magical research. Particularly with Cahethal insisting on claiming the Olympus’s main labs for her own work throughout the foreseeable future. Though she had mellowed on the twins over the past decades that they had been shipmates and even allowed their assistance, the woman still preferred to work on her own, particularly with this sort of thing. She only truly trusted herself when performing research this important. Sariel understood that.

“Ho there!” The man on the lead horse called, riding his mount to within about twenty feet before drawing it up to a halt. The other two came up slightly behind him. While the man in front appeared to be Rysthaelean, the two behind him were a short, blue-skinned and four-eyed Pisendej, and a red-furred, long-eared Reusfeil. The two non-natives watched Sariel and Lucifer intently, hands on the weapons still sheathed at their sides while the horses whinnied softly. 

“Apologies for the tense greeting if you come in peace,” the Rysthaelean informed them in a voice that was casual, but could easily turn hard. “Things are just a bit tense around here lately, and we’d like to know where you come from. As well as your business at Ephesus if you don’t mind.” It was clear that, despite the polite way he spoke, this was not a simple request to be denied. 

Lucifer, as usual, took the lead in the conversation. “Hail and good evening, sirs. Our deepest apologies for disturbing the peace of your city. I am called Delian and this is my sister, Diana. We’ve left the lands of our parents far behind and have been searching for a quiet, peaceful place where we might live. We carry no trouble at our backs and mean you and yours no harm.” 

“I am Hector,” the Rysthaelean informed them. “And I’m afraid if you’ve come for peace, your journey has led you astray. You’ll find little peace in these lands, less if you keep going this way.” 

“I don’t understand,” Sariel chose to put in then. “Your city seems quite well-defended, and I see no armies camped outside its walls. Is there truly a threat to it that you cannot put down?”

“An army, no,” Hector confirmed. “One of those we could fight in a true battle and simply end the situation once and for all. No, the trouble in this case comes from the one called Faelt, a brigand, murderer, and king of bandits. He is a bad sort, an evil man. If you wish to avoid drawing the attention of him and his group, I would suggest you make a wide path around this place and push on as far as possible before night. It would be in your best interest to stay safe.”

Lucifer’s head shook. “What threat could a small band of murderers pose to a whole city? Surely your walls are warded against unwanted intrusion by such beings, and you have a night watch.” 

Instead of Hector, it was the Reusfeil who spoke, his tone one of long-stressed anger and helplessness, the tone of a man who was far beyond tired of seeing those under his protection die while he remained frustratingly incapable of protecting them. “We have all of those and more. They have always protected our city in the past. Now they do not, and we know not why.” 

“They are travelers and strangers, Sanja,” Hector reminded his companion sharply. “They are not here for our internal issues. For all we know, they were sent by the bandit king himself.” To the twins, he added a softer, “Apologies for any insult. We simply don’t know you, I’m afraid. We have problems enough without inviting strangers into our confidence. And I’m quite certain you have your own lives to proceed with. As I said, it would be to your benefit to push on while–” 

Before the man could continue any further with that, something exploded out of the ground directly near the feet of his mount. The creature’s head was split in two almost instantly. In that split second, Sariel triggered her boost. She saw the weapon that had burst out of the ground. It looked like a metal rocket of some kind. Having been launched vertically out of the ground, the bladed end ripped through the head of the mount and hovered there directly in front of Hector’s face. All around the cylindrical body, a half-dozen small arrows snapped down into horizontal position and began to launch out in every direction. Two were heading for the man’s eyes. 

But Sariel was quicker. A thought popped one of her daggers into one hand, and she gave a quick snap of her wrist to send the dagger straight into the rocket-like weapon. As it struck home, the spell on the dagger incinerated the weapon and most of the arrows attached to it. The single one that managed to fire was thrown off course, barely grazing the man’s ear as it shot past to hit the dirt nearby. 

Of course, his mount was still dead, and the man fell. But the Reusfeil called Sanja was already off his own mount and there to catch him before he could hit the ground, his figure a blur of motion. Meanwhile, the small, blue-skinned Pisendej was standing on his mount, a bow in hand and arrow nocked as he scanned the area around them wildly while making a hissing sound. 

Catching himself against Sanja, Hector stumbled before quickly spinning. He drew a sword from its sheath and blurted a command word. As he did so, the sword began to glow with a faint green light, and a bubble-shaped forcefield appeared, “That was dwellershot, are there more?!”

“Checking.” The terse response came from Sanja, as he took a glass ball from the leather pouch at his side. Clutching it in one hand, the Reusfeil murmured a command word. As he did, a holographic image of the land around them appeared. He studied it briefly before reporting, “No more. I see the path it took. From up there on that ridge. Looks like they took off.” 

“Then we’ll track them back to their base and see about ending this,” Hector ordered. Despite his words, the man took a knee beside his dead mount. His hand moved to touch the body, and he murmured what appeared to be a prayer of some kind. The pain in his voice, and the way his hand shook, made it clear just how much the animal had meant to him. He rubbed its motionless side with a heavy sigh before his head turned.  He was staring, first at the incinerated pieces of the rocket and the arrow that had grazed his ear, then to the woman standing in front of him. When he spoke, his voice was strained. “My… ahhh, my thanks to you, Miss Diana. Goddess be praised, you were blessed with great reflexes, it seems.” As he spoke, the man reached down for the gleaming metal dagger on the ground. “But if I may ask, where did you acquire such a weapon?” He carefully picked it up with two fingers, studying the thing briefly. “You have an item of the gods, they are far too rare for simple travelers. And your skill with it…” He trailed off before turning to extend the dagger to her. “I have many questions, but you have saved my life, so I will only ask rather than demand.” 

Lucifer exchanged a glance with Sariel before replying, “We are travelers, as we said. Perhaps not entirely simple, but we mean no harm to your city. Perhaps we can help with this bandit problem of yours, and you can help us. We’re very new to this land and we’d like to learn more.” 

There was a brief pause as Hector considered before sighing with a nod. “As much as I loathe to say it, we may need the help of outsiders like yourselves to settle this without more deaths.” 

“In that case,” Sariel announced while turning to look at the distant ridge that had been pointed out, “it sounds like we’re going that way. On the way, you should tell us about this bandit king and why he is still a threat to your city despite your walls, magical wards, and guards.” 

Hector agreed, before starting to walk alongside the twins. The other two guards brought up the rear on their mounts, keeping a careful eye out. On the way, the Rysthaelean explained that this so-called bandit king, Faelt, had actually been the second-in-command of the city guard at one point. He was found in the midst of raping the leader of the city’s daughter, and was set to be executed. Instead, the man escaped and united the bandits of the surrounding areas beneath his rule. He had apparently been using some sort of secret way of bypassing the city wards, as well as his knowledge of guard routines and perhaps even traitors within the guard itself, to conduct a campaign of terror against the city. He and his people came and went as they pleased, killing a few here and there before they could be found, then retreating. None were safe. He targeted the young and old, rich and poor alike. 

“He is evil beyond any you may have seen before,” Hector warned them. “And he will not fall easily. Be ready, for this coming battle may be the end for us all.”

******

The body of Faelt lay at Sariel’s feet, his casually discarded corpse bleeding across his own makeshift throne room while she stood over him, liberated bow in one hand. Two dozen bandit troops, most felled by herself and Lucifer, were scattered elsewhere through the room, with even more filling the tunnels of this cavern complex. 

Standing at one end of the room, staring in open wonderment, were Hector, Sanja, and the Pisendej, whose name they had come to find out was Nep. All three had dropped their weapons, their mouths agape. 

“You… the way you fight,” Hector breathed. “You are truly blessed by the goddess.” His gaze took in Sariel as he murmured, “Her hand guides your bow, that is certain. Never have I seen such skill, such…” He swallowed hard, his voice dropping to a whisper, “…grace.” 

Lucifer took a step that way, his tone curious. “What do you know of your goddess?” 

Hector answered promptly. “She is the goddess called Artemis, Lady of the Amazons, queen of their hunters and protector of this land.” 

“She protects your people,” Lucifer confirmed, easily jumping on that without a second thought. “And this Faelt, he is the greatest threat your city has ever known.” Pausing for dramatic effect, he corrected, “…I mean, was. He was the greatest threat. One that only your guardian could put down, with you all as witness to her act of protection.” 

“Delian,” Sariel spoke warningly, using the name Lucifer had given for himself as she realized where he was going with this.

“No, ‘Diana,’” Lucifer replied with a shake of his head. “They have suffered too much. The people of this land have lived in fear for long enough. They deserve to know that their goddess truly stands with them, that she is here when they need her.” 

He turned to the assembled trio, all of whom had already fallen to their knees while staring in awed reverence. “Let it be known that the goddess has not forsaken you, that she has returned in your time of need. Tell your people that the cloud of darkness that had settled above your lands has been pierced by her arrows. 

“Tell them that the Lady Artemis is amongst them.” 

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Learning Days Daze 2-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The silence following that particular announcement seemed to last for days. We all just stared at the kindly old Fomorian like he was… well, a kindly old Fomorian. There wasn’t really a more absurd example that sprang to mind. Yet, somehow, he had managed to make the situation even more insane. Which took some doing. 

“Grandfather,” Sonoma chided, “we said we were going to ease them into that whole thing. Gently, remember?”

An expression of confusion crossed his alien features, as he looked back and forth between our shocked looks and the Native American woman. “I did, didn’t I? I said we’ll talk about it later. How could—oh! Oh, oh yes.” 

Suddenly becoming completely distracted and clearly forgetting what he had just been talking about, the old Fomorian took a step toward Dare before catching himself. “Ah, pardon me. Not to startle you into any violent reactions, Miss Dare. But would you mind if I approach?”

Dare paused. For good reason, I knew. Not only did she have a lot of bad experiences with his people, but there was a lot riding on people not realizing exactly who she was. But, either she decided there wasn’t that much of a risk, or that refusing would be even more of a potential problem. Either way, she gave a slight nod while watching him carefully.

With a broad, disarming smile, the Fomorian quickly moved forward. I had the impression he could have moved even faster, but had deliberately slowed himself to avoid upsetting people. He was right there in front of Dare, gingerly taking hold of her wrist between two of his long fingers before staring at her arm. More specifically, at the bare part of skin between her wrist and the sleeve of her shirt. He made several curious hmmm noises while turning her arm this way and that before laughing with delight. “Yes, yes, I knew it! I knew this line was important when I saw it before. Didn’t I, little buddy? Yes, you. Who’s adorable? You’re adorable! Yes, that’s a good little trooper.” 

“Um.” Beside me, Rebecca asked quietly, “is he talking to her arm like it’s a puppy?”

My head shook. “I think he’s talking to her DNA like it’s a puppy.” Which was even weirder, but still.

After making another couple cooing noises of pride and delight, the Fomorian abruptly snapped his head around. It turned a full one-eighty to look straight at me. Which didn’t do anything to make me feel less freaked out. “Oh, but of course, of course. You have been forced to stay apart for such a long time, haven’t you?”

Wait, did… did he know… my eyes glanced up toward Dare, who looked almost physically stricken, mouth opening though it was clear that she wasn’t exactly sure what to say. But she had to say something, before this guy blurted out the wrong thing and—

“Yes, you certainly have,” the Fomorian concluded with a sage nod as he released Dare, his gaze still on me. “You’ve been separated from your mother for years now.” He stepped closer, going down on one knee again in front of me. His voice, while still cheerful, had taken on a note of somberness. “I’m sorry to hear of your family’s ills and trials. They’ve been through quite a lot. And have sacrificed much.” 

He knew. I was certain of that just from his words as I stared into his eyes. He knew exactly what the relationship between Dare and me was, and why it was so important that no one else find out. Had he known the whole time, or did he figure it out just by looking at us? If he had figured it out just by looking at us, had that hurt the spell? I found myself looking upward, almost anticipating some kind of cataclysmic sign of Fomorian ships like had happened back when Koren and I found out. 

But there was nothing like that, and the figure in front of me seemed to follow my gaze upward before assuring me in a casual tone, “It’s alright. I have great trust in the abilities of all of you.” 

He stood back up then, his infectiously cheerful voice continuing. “You’ve all done such amazing things. Removing that nasty memory spell. Building the Hoover dam. Bringing down that woolly mammoth in Broken Fang canyon. Defending your dens from the coyote pack near Moon Crescent Lake.” Pausing belatedly, his head tilted before he amended, “Wait, I was thinking of ancient tigers and modern beavers for those last two. But still!”

Of all of us, it was actually Vanessa who suddenly blurted, “What were you saying about my mom making a new universe?!” Her arms were raised in total bafflement as she stared at the figure. “What was all that about?“

Tabbris’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “Mom can’t make universes! I mean—” she cut herself off, shooting a quick, apologetic look to Sariel as though feeling guilty about saying there was anything her mom couldn’t do. “I mean, she didn’t make a new universe.”

Clearly chuckling despite herself, Sariel ruffled both of her daughters’ hair before nodding. “What they said.”

Grandfather looked to her, seeming to consider for a moment before he responded. “You’re right, of course. You didn’t create a new universe. Not at all. No, your work with Tartarus did that.” He said it matter-of-factly, as if that should explain everything. Which… well, given what we knew of that place, it probably did help at least a little bit. But still… not really. 

Bastet exhaled, gesturing. “Everyone sit down. We’ll explain the full situation, I promise. It does involve your work to reopen a way to the Tartarus universe, but there’s a lot more to the whole thing. A… lot.” 

“She’s not kidding,” Sonoma assured us. “That’s where we’ve been for the past few months. Though it wasn’t that long for us. It’s– complicated. Really complicated. So let’s all sit down, get comfortable, and we’ll try to get through all of it.” 

Somehow, we arranged ourselves at the tables. Though it was clear that the only thing anyone was interested in was hearing this story. I sat between Avalon and Rebecca, the three of us exchanging glances. Tabbris was by her mother and brother. Everyone was looking toward Grandfather. As for the Fomorian himself, he seemed to be considering his words carefully before straightening up, cracking his knuckles. Despite everything, I saw every single adult we had brought with us stiffen reflexively for a moment.

But Grandfather simply started to talk. “Right then.” He looked to Sariel. “You created an orb to re-open a path into the Tartarus universe. To do so, you summoned latent energy from that universe and brought it here to Earth from all over this universe, yes?” When she simply nodded, he continued. “When you brought that energy to this world, it… I suppose the best word is absorbed. It absorbed information about the Earth. All of the information about this world was imprinted upon it. Like pushing silly putty against a newspaper. That’s fun! Have you ever—”

Stopping himself, the figure shook his head and pushed on. “Ahem, in any case, the energy from Tartarus is not stable in time. It fluctuates, often very dramatically. So when it was absorbing information, it didn’t only take that data from the moment the energy was here, it did so across the planet’s entire history from conception to… well, to the moment it was drawn to. One single bit of that energy bounced back in time all the way to when the dinosaurs roamed the planet and absorbed all of the information about them. Every last detail about every dinosaur imprinted all of it into a that little spark. And the same thing happened throughout all of this planet’s history. Isn’t it glorious?” 

Tristan frowned. “I don’t get it. This weird energy stuff was making records of the world?”

Grandfather’s head bobbed quickly, eagerly. “Yes, yes! But not just normal records. No, that’s not what it was doing. It was copying entire living beings, you see? All that data about how many legs and arms something something is supposed to have, how many heads, how many teeth, or eyes, or how long their intestines should be. It was copying all of it. Physical data and mental data. Historical record and a sort of… what’s the word?”

“Photograph,” Bastet supplied. She was looking to the rest of us. “The energy was brought here to this world. It carried itself across space and time, recording all the information it could about Earth. But even for something as absurd as Tartarus energy, it can only record so much. So as far as keeping physical records, it focused on what it saw as native inhabitants. Animals native to this world, including humans.”

Gwen spoke then. “So if I have this right, this energy was called here and experienced all of human history. Somehow, for some reason, it was recording all of this. Not just the basic information but… like… physical structures of what it considered to be native animals. And plants, I assume. It was, what, taking pictures of people?”

“Oh, more than that,” Grandfather insisted, “so much more than that. It wasn’t just making pictures, it was making copies. Copies of every flora and fauna it saw as native to this world, across its entire history.”

“That’s impossible,” Vanessa blurted. “That’s over a hundred billion humans alone, let alone all the plants and animals and… do you have any idea how many different animals and people that is? Do you have any idea how many plants that is?”

Grandfather nodded excitedly. “Yes, it’s rather amazing, isn’t it? All that information locked into those tiny sparks of energy and then put in the sphere that Mrs. Moon here and her adopted brother created.”

Sariel sank back in her seat. “We sent the orb back to our people. What did we do…?”

“Very good things!” Grandfather insisted. “You remember the siphon?”

“You haven’t told them that part yet,” Sonoma gently noted. 

Finally unable to help myself, I quickly put in. “This is about the place Harrison Fredericks went, isn’t it? Columbus was telling us about that. Fredericks said he showed up in a world that was like ours, only they had… like… superheroes. Normal people with superpowers and costumes and everything. Superpowers they got from some orb that said Summus Proelium in their heads or something.”

Sariel gave a slight nod. “The orb ended up in an alternate Earth somehow. We knew that.”

Grandfather, however, shook his head quickly. “Not just an alternate Earth. One created by the orb itself. When your people activated it and sent it through to Tartarus, the safeguards that you put on the orb against danger activated. Tartarus is nothing but danger. So the orb attempted to escape. Your protection magic made it try to get out of Tartarus, out of its own home. It did so the only way that it could, by creating a new universe and popping itself out into it.”

Avalon’s voice was dull with disbelief. “The orb created an entire universe?”

It was Bastet who answered. “Not by itself. The orb was smart. Well, smart in a way, thanks to the magic put on it. It absorbed all the Tartarus energy it could and used that to both break out of there, and to create this new universe. Not a full copy, of course. It had records of where all the planets and stars and everything else were supposed to be, for the most part. But the only information about living beings it had was what it recorded on Earth.”

Sonoma took over for a moment. “The orb created an empty universe. Empty except for Earth. On that Earth, it bounced across billions of years, creating every living being in its memory. It literally created copies of every person, animal, plant, everything. It copied everything including the history. It made everything exactly the same. Only it didn’t copy Alters. Or Heretics. Because the energy saw Heretics as not being native to Earth. It copied their basic information, but not enough to create physical bodies.”

Grandfather spoke again. “This wonderful, loyal orb was trying to get home. Home to, well, its mother. But it was confused. A very brave and smart little magic orb, but not exactly perfect in its reasoning. It’s like a child, you see. It thought it could create home. So it made that Earth with everything being completely identical. It created new physical bodies of every human being it had recorded, filled them with their own memories and personalities, faked things where it needed to in order to force the history to go the way it was supposed to even without Alter influence, and generally tried its best to make what was supposed to be home.”

Avalon slowly exhaled. “You’re saying it made the history of this alternate world exactly the same as ours, even when Heretics and Alters didn’t exist, just by… forcing things to happen?” 

Again, Grandfather’s head bobbed. “Precisely! Brilliant, isn’t it? In its own way, at least. It thought it could create the perfect situation to make the world it was creating be the home that it left.” 

“But it couldn’t.” That was Bastet. “It couldn’t really make that place the way it wanted, because something was missing. It was still trying to find its mother.” She looked to Sariel. “Think of the orb as an AI. It’s been trying to find its creator and get back to you. When making this whole new world didn’t work, it had to try something else. So it created another world. It bounced back into Tartarus, absorbed more energy, then popped out again and created another Earth just like the first one it made. This time it changed a few things here and there. But you still weren’t there. So it did it again, and again, and again. It was trying to find the iteration of the world where you existed.”

It was Grandfather’s turn again, while all of us sat there stunned into silence. “The poor, loyal orb couldn’t find you anywhere, no matter how many different Earths it made. So it tried something else. I suppose it thought maybe the humans it made could find you, or become you, or help it understand what it did wrong. Maybe all of the above. The point is, it began taking Tartarus energy and using it the way it remembered from you.”

“Powers,” I realized aloud. “It started using the energy to give people powers. That’s what Fredericks saw. The orb created all these Earths and then just started turning the humans into superheroes because it was trying to find Sariel?”

“Superheroes on some worlds,” Sonoma confirmed. “Different things on others. One Earth became more of a… fantasy world of magic and monsters as the orb delivered specific Tartarus gifts unlocking the ability to use magic in the previously non-magical humans, while transforming others into approximations of what it remembered of various Alters from human memories. Other Earths it left completely alone with no interference. We believe it sees those worlds as a control group.” 

“And what was that you said about a siphon?” Koren put in, sounding just as stunned as I felt. 

“Oh yes!” Grandfather explained with infectious childlike eagerness. “Tartarus is fast and incredibly powerful. But it is not entirely without limits. This wonderful, wonderful little orb had been creating entire galaxies over and over again, and filling them with people. That takes a lot of power. Power it was draining from Tartarus, you see? It was a part of Tartarus itself, so the place couldn’t expel or stop it. But it was different, thanks to the magic placed on it. In trying to get home or create home, in trying to find its creator, it drained more and more energy from Tartarus. It’s still draining power from Tartarus. That wonderful orb is acting as a siphon, drawing power and weakening it so it can’t wake them up.”

Gabriel, who had been silent up to this point, asked, “Wake who up?”

It was Sariel who answered. “The monsters who nearly destroyed the universe before. My people developed our space flight based on technology we got from a crashed ship belonging to a race known as the Suelesk. Their entire civilization and most of the universe at the time were almost entirely wiped out by these giant monsters. Four of them. They were from Tartarus, weren’t they?”

Bastet nodded. “And it has been trying to wake them up, or find them, or retrieve them, or something. We’re not sure. Either way, it’s been using energy to try to bring them back. And it seemed like it might have been getting close. But that little orb you made keeps taking all the excess energy and stealing it. Stealing energy for its own little project, and Tartarus itself is incapable of doing anything about it.”

Vanessa spoke up quickly. “It’s like the orb infected Tartarus. Like… Tartarus knows something’s wrong, but it can’t detect the orb as an intruder because it’s all made up of its own energy.”

With clear delight on his widely smiling face, Grandfather pointed to her. “Yes! Yes, exactly! Brilliant girl. I knew your line was destined for something special the moment they used mud as a cooling agent.  Brilliant.”

Tristan patted his sister on the back. “Yeah, that’s our Nessa, always cooling off with mud.”

While Sariel sat there looking completely stunned into silence, Dare cleared her throat. “So, let’s sum up what you’re saying. The orb that was made to give the Seosten access to Tartarus again has managed to gain some vague form of pseudo-sapience. Now it’s looking for its mother, only it’s confused and thinks it can just make a new world and she’ll be on it. So it keeps making different variations of Earth based on all the information it absorbed about this place. Only on those Earths, humans are the only species who exist? Does that mean that if your people find these other universes they could have all the humans they could ever want?”

Bastet answered. “That’s part of the reason we went over there to check. No. The orb copied the physical form of humans, but it either didn’t or couldn’t replicate their bonding ability. They’re identical to humans from this Earth in almost every other respect aside from that. Even their history is basically the same all the way up to around the year two thousand. Anytime great historical events were influenced by supernatural forces on this world, the orb just faked it to try and make things as similar as possible.”

Sonoma added, “It’s been trying to throw in different variations to figure out why it can’t find its creator. So, as we said, in some worlds it introduces powers earlier than others, sometimes it introduces them in a different way or changes things, and in some it doesn’t introduce them at all.”

Remembering what Columbus had said once more, I asked, “What about the voice? It says Summus Proelium in a female voice.”

“Mrs. Moon’s voice,” Grandfather informed us. “The orb is trying to find its maker, so it uses those words to embed her voice into their minds. If they hear her voice, it will know and come to them.”

Sariel finally spoke up. “If this— If the orb is trying so hard to find me, I should go to it. It’s been creating entire universes trying to find me.” She sounded understandably dazed by the whole prospect. “It… I need to talk to it.”

Bastet replied, “The orb is bouncing wildly through time and universes. Sometimes more than one iteration of itself show up right next to each other. It seems to ignore most known rules of time travel, probably because it’s the one that created these universes. Either way, if you go there, you will probably end up drawing a lot of different iterations of it to you at the same time. It could end up causing more problems than it solves. Better to stay here and use magic to lock onto a specific version of it, pull that version to you and work things out from there.”

Sonoma added, “Besides, as they said, the orb is drawing energy that Tartarus would use to wake up universe-destroying abominations.”

Shifting up in my seat, I slowly spoke. “Sariel and Apollo accidentally created a sapient magic orb that’s saving the universe by draining power from the dimension of ultimate evil and destruction to create lots of different Earths so it can try to find its mother. Yup, that makes perfect sense to me.”

Raising her hand, Rebecca spoke up weakly. “You know, Grandma has been telling me some really crazy stories about when she and Mrs. Chambers were young. 

“But I’m pretty sure I’m gonna win the next storytime.”

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Learning Days Daze 2-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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As far as walking into potentially dangerous situations went, it couldn’t get much better than doing so with Sariel, Gabriel Prosser, Gwen, and Professor Dare surrounding us. That assortment of incredibly powerful, skilled people went a long way toward making the idea of walking into dinner with a Fomorian somewhat less terrifying. Aylen’s assurances that ‘Grandfather’ would never hurt us and her explanation of why that was so helped a lot too, but still. I’m not sure I would’ve felt great about going to this whole thing without all the protection. I probably still would’ve done it thanks to everything she said, but I would’ve been a lot more nervous. 

The point was, with all four adults, the rest of us felt better about the whole thing. I wasn’t sure how they felt about it given they had actually fought the Fomorians for a lot longer than we had (a lot longer in Sariel’s case), but still. They were staying quiet as we walked through what turned out to be a wide open grassy field with a cottage sitting next to a small lake. There were several long tables set up behind the cottage, covered in tablecloths and stacks of dishes.

Aylen was out front, by her own insistence. Avalon, Koren, Tabbris, Rebecca, Vanessa, Tristan, and I were walking together, with the four adults spread out around us. Gabriel brought up the rear, Dare walked to the left, Sariel to the right, and Gwen was right up front, just behind Aylen. As a group, we made our way across the field, approaching that pleasant-looking little cottage. 

A figure appeared there, between two of the tables as we got closer. One second there was nothing there, then there was. It wasn’t the Fomorian, probably purposefully. Intead, the figure was a woman. She stood there in a dark blue cloak that drifted loosely in the soft breeze, the hood leaving most of her face cast in shadows save for the soft azure glow from her eyes.  

If any of the adults were taken aback by the woman’s sudden appearance ahead of us, they didn’t show it at all. The four simply stopped walking, followed belatedly by the rest of us. 

“Mother,” Aylen chided while continuing on that way. “Stop trying to intimidate my friends.” 

The voice that came from the woman was quiet, yet reached all of us easily.  “I wasn’t trying to intimidate them. I was making it clear that we would not be intimidated. There is a difference.” 

“Sorry!” That voice came from the doorway of the cottage, as another female figure came rushing out. She was Native American, a fairly small and fragile-looking woman with long dark hair framing a soft, welcoming face. She was carrying a tray full of various crackers, meats, and cheeses, hurrying over to one of the tables to put it down before brushing off her simple jeans and red flannel shirt. “I told her to be nice.” To the first woman, she reiterated, “I said be nice.” 

“I was being nice,” the cloaked figure murmured. “I didn’t say anything wrong.” Her gaze turned to us then. Or me, specifically. The two of us locked eyes, as I stared into those softly glowing blue orbs. There was an incredible amount of power and knowledge there. As well as something deeper. Pain, loss, a very real sense of… worry. Somehow, looking at her, I knew she was… afraid of how this would go. She was as nervous as any of the rest of us, afraid this whole thing would go wrong and that Aylen would have to leave us. She was afraid that this would ruin her daughter’s relationship with us, with her friends. And despite all the reassurances Aylen had given her about how we could be trusted, she was still wary of potentially having to defend herself, her wife, and the Fomorian who had cared for her for so long when no others would. 

Wait. With a jolt, I blinked rapidly and broke the connection. How… how had I gotten all that just by looking in her eyes? What the hell? I didn’t have any kind of empathic powers as far as I knew. I couldn’t read people’s emotions like that. And it had never happened that way in the past in any case. So how had I just looked into this woman’s eyes and suddenly understood all that? Was she projecting her feelings to me? But that didn’t make any sense. There was no reason for her to do that, and I had the impression that she wouldn’t have wanted me to know that much about her own personal feelings and worries anyway. So what the living hell? 

The conversation between the adults who had come with us and Aylen’s other mother had continued, as she stepped over and extended a hand toward Gwen with a voice that was clearly pushing for cheerfulness to cover the tension and uncertainty that everyone very obviously felt. “Hi, good evening. My name is Sonoma.” 

Apparently Gwen was the right person on our side to break the tension, because she immediately shook the offered hand, her smile bright and genuine. “Well hiya! I’ve gotta say, meeting you and… well, hearing about your little family has done a hell of a lot to answer some questions I’ve had for a long time.” Her words were cheerful, as she shook the hand enthusiastically. This was real, I knew. She wasn’t putting on an act or anything. It was the Harper part of her, the part of Harper that had been the real Gwen. She was open, enthusiastic, cheerful, kind of goofy… that was Guinevere, wife of King Arthur and secretly the real Lancelot. She was a bit of a dork (like me, honestly) and absolutely the right person to speak first. 

Clearly taken a bit by surprise, Sonoma smiled reflexively while returning the handshake. “Oh. Well, yeah, I suppose we probably have left a few mysteries lying around over the years.” 

“Speaking of mysteries we’ve left lying around,” the hooded woman put in, “apparently you’ve picked up my wife’s ring, though it’s a choker now.” 

While I was blinking in surprise at that, Gabriel spoke up. “The Ring of Anuk-Ite.” His gaze was on Sonoma. “You were the old chief’s daughter, the one who searched out a shaman to help… ahhh, cure his child when she was turned into an Alter.” 

“Wait, yeah, I remember this,” Rebecca blurted. “You guys were telling us about it over the summer. Old shaman couldn’t turn her human again, but she enchanted a ring for the girl that would hide her from the Heretic sense, right? But… the legends said another creature killed her and took the ring.” 

“Took the ring,” Sonoma confirmed. “Not so much with the death thing. And that much wasn’t so bad. It’s how I ended up meeting Bastet again.” Her gaze turned slightly to the hooded figure with the same kind of smile that I often found myself giving Shiori and Avalon. “She and Grandfather were the ones who made the ring in the first place. My father and I found them. Or they found us. When the ring was taken, Bastet… helped me. We’ve been together ever since.” 

Bastet. Wait a second, Bastet and Grandfather. Why did that sound so familiar when put that wa–

“Bastet and Grandfather!” That was Avalon, not me. She blurted it out loud, eyes widening. “I know you. I mean, my–Liesje Aken, my ancestor, she knew you. When I saw her–I mean when she… she recorded a memory, a ghost, sort of. Her memory-ghost told me that Grandfather and Bastet helped her create the anti-possession spell that’s been protecting her descendants. The same one that Dries, Sariel, and the others have been fixing to protect everyone back at the school.” 

Right, right, that was how I knew the name. Avalon had told me all about that. Why hadn’t the name ‘Grandfather’ tickled anything in our memories before now? Maybe it was just that generic. But still. 

Bastet had finally reached up to take the hood down, revealing a Reaper-pale face and long azure hair that matched her eyes. Her voice was slightly warmer. “I remember Liesje. I liked her. She found us without any real nudges, essentially on her own. That was… impressive.”

“Liesje found you and this Grandfather guy all on her own?” I blinked, looking over at Avalon. “Damn, your ancestor was a badass.” 

“Like we didn’t know that already,” she retorted dryly before blinking. “The story. Right. The story said that the Ring of Anuk-Ite was made by a being who lived on Earth since the first wind touched the first dust.” 

“Grandfather,” Aylen supplied. “And he hasn’t been on Earth that long, but poetic license. Like I told you, he brought ancient humans here, so he’s been around since we’ve existed, basically.”

This was all making a lot more sense. Holes in what I understood were being filled in really quickly over these past few hours. 

Another long-standing mystery was filled in a moment later as something clicked in my head. “Wait a second.” My eyes snapped over to Bastet, who was watching me with a curious expression. “You. Your aura’s gold, isn’t it? Because your father is the–the reaper back at Crossroads. He’s your father and his aura is gold, like Gaia’s and mine. And my Mom’s. We’re connected to the Reaper in the lighthouse and he’s your father so your aura is probably gold.” When the woman slowly nodded, I snapped my fingers. “You were the one who killed those eleven Heretics awhile back! The one who jumped in to stop them from massacring those Alters and killed eleven of the twelve Heretics who were there. The Committee thought it was my mother, but it was you.” 

Her head gave a slight bow. “You picked up on that quite easily. Yes, Grandfather and I have spent generation after generation working in the shadows. Sometimes I choose to be… a little more open about things. It was not my intention to cast the blame to your mother. Apparently the Heretic I left alive did a terrible job of providing a description of her attacker.” 

“Or they just weren’t listening after she said ‘gold aura’ and my mother’s name popped into all their heads,” I pointed out with a shrug. “Still, that explains it. I’ve seriously been wondering about that for months.” 

Looking back over to me, Gwen pointed out, “Now multiply that by a thousand years or so with little mysteries piling up. Yeah, this whole thing answers a lot.” She glanced to Sonoma and Bastet then while adding, “We really need to sit down at some point and talk all that out. But it can wait until after we’re all a little more comfortable with each other.” Her expression brightened. “Which, hey, is what this whole dinner is about, right?” 

Tabbris, who had been sticking pretty close to her mother as well as Tristan and Vanessa through this, spoke up. “Do we get to meet this Grandfather guy now?” 

Her mother laid a hand on the girl’s head with a nod. “Yes, I believe we are all quite interested in that prospect. Even if we are also nervous about it.” That admission came with a small smile, obviously attempting to make light of what was probably a very tense situation for someone like her. The Seosten had been fighting the Fomorians for hundreds of thousands of years and had apparently never encountered a single good version. Maybe that was because only the bad ones went out conquering galaxies, but still. The fact that she had spent so long like that meant that being willing to accept that there could be a good one even through Tartarus shenanigans was pretty big. 

There was a brief pause as Sonoma and Bastet looked at one another, exchanging some kind of silent communication before the latter turned back to us with a slight nod. “Yes. Before we eat, it’s best if you all meet him.” Her eyes narrowed, however, as she slowly looked over our entire assembled group. “But let me make something clear. I understand–we understand– that this will be a tense situation and that you have never met anyone like him. With that in mind, if anyone makes a hostile move toward any of us, including Grandfather, you will not like how this meeting proceeds.” 

“Bastet,” Sonoma spoke carefully, taking a step that way before looking to us. “You have to understand, we aren’t exactly accustomed to reaching out like this… at all. Grandfather keeps himself secret for a reason. Not only because of how people could react, but also to stay away from his other half. Opening up like this is dangerous. But we… we thought it was the right time, after everything you’ve done. Everything that’s happening, it’s… time for us to open up a little bit.” 

It was Gabriel who responded to that first. “I believe we all completely understand why you would be hesitant to trust in your situation. Just as I believe you can understand why the idea of someone like this Grandfather is very… odd. But you’re right, given how things are progressing, we need to work together. Which means trusting one another at least enough to actually meet.” 

“Great,” Koren blurted, sounding maybe just a little hysterical. “Now that we all totally understand each other, can we get on with it?”  

“You, I like,” Bastet informed her before nodding. “Yes, now that we’re on the same page.” She turned, speaking in just as normal a voice as ever without raising it at all. “Grandfather, it’s safe.”

And with that, a figure emerged from the cottage. Everyone stood there, very much trying to remind ourselves not to freak out. It was the Fomorian alright. He was tall, with the same angular features, gray skin, and big eyes as the one we’d met at Thanksgiving. He looked kind of like one of those stereotypical ‘gray aliens’ from so many sci fi and alien abduction stories. Which made sense, given how ingrained these guys (and this one in particular) had to be in the human consciousness. Seeing him raised the hair on the back of my neck, even though I had been repeatedly assured about how safe and good he actually was. 

I wasn’t sure what I’d expected this ‘good Fomorian’ to be like, honestly. I didn’t know how I thought he would act or talk. But whatever I had expected, it was obviously way off. Because the first thing this Fomorian did, as soon as we had a chance to see him, was clap his hands. His voice was bright and cheerful, totally at odds with his appearance. 

Also at odds with his appearance? His appearance. Specifically, the apron he wore. Yeah. Despite my private assertion earlier, the Fomorian was wearing an apron. It was white, with words on the front, a mixture of handwritten and carefully printed. In printed letters at the top, it read ‘We–’ followed by the word ‘Grandfather’ in neat handwriting and ‘Aylen’ in the sloppy print of a child. Next to each was a handprint, the many-fingered Fomorian to the left of ‘Grandfather’ and a small human child’s print to the right of ‘Aylen’. 

Underneath their names and handprints were the neatly printed words, ‘Cooking Buddies! Together, we can make–’ And under that was what had at one point been a lot of blank space. But almost all of that blank space was taken up by scrawled words clearly written by the young Aylen, a list of the dozens and dozens of things she’d cooked with Grandfather over the years. Just glancing at it, I could see her handwriting getting better as the list went on and she grew older. That and the things they made grew more complicated.  

While we were taking all that in, the Fomorian known as Grandfather blurted a delighted, “Yes! Yes, excellent! You’re all here! Oooh, you’re all here, wonderful! Ohhh you all look so amazing! So much hair, so much color! Your eyes! Your little fingers! Ohhh my, oh my, oh my! Beautiful, and so handsome. So very handsome. We must get pictures. Yes, yes we must have pictures for the album. Our album is so very lacking in people other than us. And one with dark skin! Wonderful, so wonderful! I think I met your original progenitor once, dear boy. I have a picture somewhere. You have his eyes. Gabriel, yes? Yes, such a wonderful name. Such wonderful people! Children, children everywhere!” He was practically crying with happiness, arms extended wide as if to literally hug all of us. At the same time, he was bouncing back and forth from foot to foot, obviously far too excited to stand still. 

Yeah, this… this was not at all what I had expected. In the background, I could see Aylen watching us all with an expression that was clearly a mixture of nervous and amused. Amused to see how we would react, and also nervous about how we would react. 

Dare was stiff, but motionless. I could see the intense emotions playing out behind her eyes. Of course, considering she’d literally sacrificed her entire identity and her husband to kick the Fomorians off Earth, this would affect her. She kept it under control, eyes flicking towards me before giving a subtle nod. She would be okay. Gwen and Gabriel were taking it in stride, the former looking more curious than anything, while Sariel… Sariel looked… relieved? Not in a ‘oh good it wasn’t a trap’ way, but more… it was deeper than that. I had a strange feeling that some part of the Seosten woman had almost been desperate for this to be real, for a living ‘good Fomorian’ to exist. 

Meanwhile, beside me, Koren made a sound deep in her throat. Quickly looking that way, I saw her eyes widen, tears starting to leak from them. She wasn’t even looking at his disarming apron. She wasn’t ready. She was back there, back almost a year ago at Thanksgiving, in the house where her real father had been murdered and the Hiding Man had forced her to stick her hands inside her mother to keep her heart pumping. 

Grandfather’s bright, cheerful expression dropped a bit when he looked at Koren. Immediately, he went down to one knee. His voice, when he spoke, was much different than I expected. He sounded… well, like a grandfather, really. He sounded old and kind and knowledgeable. He sounded wise. 

“Dearest far-child,” he said quietly, his voice much more serious and gentle than his previous loud and cheerful words. “Excited as I am to see how much you have grown from your ancestors… I remember your progenitor too. I remember the look in the eyes of your ancient ancestor, the first of your line to look upon the sky. I remember watching him take up his first rock, hold it in his hand, and scrape his name upon the wall of the cave. I was so proud of him, so proud of all of them, all of you. You are all my most tremendous, remarkable creations, who have so far exceeded any of my dreams. 

“But in my excitement, I do sometimes forget that my appearance carries its own burdens. I am so very sorry for the losses you have experienced. It was not my intention to cause you grief or fear. I care for all of you. I would never wish to bring misery or harm to you. You are all the greatest achievement I shall ever experience.” He seemed to hesitate then before softly adding, “I would… ask that you please not be afraid of me. But should my presence inspire too much ache, I will step away and not intrude again, you need only give the word.” 

With a deep gulp, Koren glanced to me before very slowly stepping closer. “You’re… you’re not like the others.” 

“No,” he promised, giving a slight shake of his head. “I’m very glad to say that I’m not.” 

There was another brief pause, before Koren exhaled, her voice quivering just a little. “I think it’s okay if you stay.” 

The smile came back, a smile that somehow seemed to light up the whole area despite the fact that we were standing in daylight. Grandfather straightened slowly, clearly making a point not to move too quickly in front of us. “Thank you, far-child,” he murmured before turning to look toward Sariel. “And you,” he asked simply. “Honorable Seosten… and your children. Are you quite alright?” 

Sariel gave a single nod. “Yes, I believe I am.” 

“Excellent, excellent, very good.” That childlike enthusiasm and happiness was back, as he clapped his hands once. “In that case, shall we eat? I’m quite eager to share all this food we’ve been making!

“And then, perhaps I can tell you about the alternate universe that your experiments into what you call Tartarus has created.” 

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Learning Days Daze 2-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So, a Fomorian. We were about to go to dinner with a Fomorian. After everything I’d learned (and actually seen) about those monsters last year, the very idea of actually sitting down to a meal with one of them felt more like a threat of torture than anything else. Despite everything Aylen had said, along with everything we’d all been saying about how every species could be good, it was still pretty hard to just stop being nervous about it.  

That, more than anything else had in the past, gave me a bit of insight into how hard it was for other people who had grown up under the Bosch way of thinking to accept that their entire society had been wrong for so long. This wasn’t even my entire world view being challenged and changed. This was just accepting that, through extraordinary circumstances, one single member of an otherwise totally evil race was good. And I was still somewhat suspicious. Yeah, maybe it wasn’t quite as hard to imagine why people would stick to what they had been taught for so long. 

I shoved it down, knowing it was wrong, but that didn’t stop the hair on the back of my neck from standing up at the very thought of going to this dinner. At the very least, I definitely wasn’t going to be able to relax anytime soon. 

Lost in thought after explaining everything to a just-recalled Tabbris, I barely noticed as she turned my hair pink and looked over toward Professor Dare. We were still in the park area, aside from Aylen, who was still gone to give us all a chance to talk about what she’d said. 

“I want Mama to come,” my mouth said, before Tabbris stepped out of me. She drew herself up, looking at Dare and Gwen. “I think Aylen’s right, and telling the truth and everything, but I still want Mama to come.”

Vanessa and Tristan both nodded together, the former speaking up. “Yeah, our mom should come. She knows a lot about Fomorians. And about magical science. Which, for the record, is still a term that makes me twitch when I say it. Either way, Mom should be there.”

Dare paused before nodding. “That’s not a bad idea. If this…” She breathed in and then out, clearly having issues with the concept. “If this Fomorian is on the level, he won’t object to us having as much reinforcement as possible, within reason. And your mother is definitely within reason. But we need to keep this close and quiet. There are a lot of people who would never understand having any kind of discussion with a Fomorian, all explanations be damned. And this entire alliance is on shaky ground as it is. Until we find out more, don’t go telling anybody else about it, okay?”

Koren raised a hand. “What about my mom?”

Dare nodded to that. “You and I can go talk to her before any of this happens. Obviously, there are exceptions. I just mean in general, keep it quiet. I know this is a new year and a new school and everything. But let’s not push our luck for how much people will accept very quickly.”

She was right, and we all agreed to keep it as quiet as possible, at least until after this dinner when we would have a better idea of how on the level the whole thing was. 

We separated for the time being, Tabbris and I walking with Avalon. On the way out of the park, I looked over at the dark-haired girl beside me. “You think the Fomorian thing might have something to do with Aylen being the Merlin Key that’s supposed to wake up Arthur?”

She paused, head tilting slightly before offering me a shrug. “Could be related. Or maybe it’s still just the Reaper thing. Either way, she’s really different from most people.”

Tabbris looked at me with a raised eyebrow, and I nodded her way before speaking toward Avalon. “You kinda like her, huh?”

For once, the normally perfectly poised and graceful young woman missed a step, almost stumbling as she looked at me. “I haven’t— I mean, I wouldn’t—”

With a smile, I stepped around in front of her, putting both hands on the other girl’s shoulders. “Valley, listen to me. Do you know how they said that a million Earths could fit in the sun when they were talking about how hard it would be to find this place?”

“One point three million,” Avalon corrected, “but what does that have to do with anything?”

“Imagine the biggest hypocrite who has ever existed in the history of the universe is the size of the Earth,” I explained. “If I actually had a problem with you liking somebody else, I would be the sun to that Earth. You could fit one point three million record breaking hypocrites in the hypocrite that I would be at that point. I have Shiori, remember? I have her and you. And you, just you by yourself…” Swallowing, I reached up and laid my hand against her cheek. “You’re more than I ever thought I could have. I don’t mind if you like somebody else too. It doesn’t mean we don’t still love each other.  You share love, you don’t hoard it. So trust me when I say that it’s okay if you like Aylen.” 

That all said, I leaned in and gently touched my lips to hers before leaning back to smile at her. “Okay?”

She exhaled, hands moving up to settle on my shoulders, squeezing a bit before murmuring a quiet, “Okay. You’re a pretty good girlfriend, Chambers.”

Showing my teeth in a cheesy grin, I replied airily, “It’s all thanks to Herbie. He offers excellent relationship advice.”

That all taken care of, I looked over to Tabbris. “Speaking of your mom, how’s that whole multiple recall points thing going? Wasn’t she teaching you how to work with that?”

Her head bobbed quickly. “It’s really hard, though. It has to do with taking a little bit of the first person’s magical energy with you. But every time you take energy out of someone like that, it tries to fall out from being shaped like them to being shapeless. You have to try to keep it in the right shape the whole time until you get to somebody else and then leave it in them. Then you can trick your recall into thinking the bit of the first person that you left in the second person is actually the first person.” Her head tilted a bit and she worked through that in her head before nodding with satisfaction. “Like I said, it’s really hard. Mama does it really easily. She can take a little bit out of one person and copy it into other people. It’s crazy.”  Even as she said it, the girl was grinning broadly, unable to keep just how proud she was of her mother out of her face. 

Avalon raised an eyebrow. “That sounds pretty useful. Even just the copying someone’s magical signature part. There’s a lot you could do with that besides creating a duplicate recall point. Magical signatures are important all on their own for a lot of other things.”

“Uh huh, uh huh,” Tabbris quickly agreed. “She said we have to be really careful when we do it, because bad things can happen if it’s wrong.“

“Being careful sounds like good advice in general,” I murmured. “Especially when it comes to possession and borrowing someone’s magical energy. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that not doing that willy nilly without practice is a good idea. No wonder your mom’s being careful about who she shares that with.”

There was a general murmur of agreement from the other two before I straightened. “Now, speaking of things we’re going to have to be careful with, let’s go with Vanessa and Tristan and see about getting your mom involved in this insanity. Because in a dinner party that already involves a good Fomorian, an ancient Native American werecrow, and the half-Reaper daughter of the being who literally powers the Heretical Edge, we’d be crazy not to throw Artemis into the mix too.”

********

Eventually, after hours of worrying about it and obsessing over how this was going to go, it was time. As a group, including Sariel, we met Aylen in one of the transport rooms. They were  essentially large open metal chambers with spellwork all over them that was supposed to make it impossible, or as close as it could be to impossible, for anyone to backtrace a transport from here down to Earth. Or wherever else we went. A dozen of the best magic users we had, including Wyatt, had worked for over a month to ensure it was all as safe as possible. We knew that trying to get into this place would be one of the top priorities of the loyalists. So making sure that was as close to impossible as we could was one of our top priorities. 

Pffft, we and our. Like I had actually done anything. I’d seen some of what they were planning at the time, when Wyatt showed me his notes, and it was as far above my head as my new calculus classes would have been to a third grader. I’d say it was Greek to me, but I actually understood a little Greek. 

What it came down to was that the transport rooms were safe, and they were supposed to be the only place we transported from if there was any choice at all. It had been drilled into our heads repeatedly that just because we weren’t planning on facing any loyalists didn’t mean that they wouldn’t eventually find the spot we had transported down to, where they could possibly use residual energy to trace back to where we had come from if we didn’t use these rooms. 

Aylen was standing nearby, fidgeting with uncharacteristic nervousness as she watched everyone gather. I saw her eyes stray over toward Sariel now and then, before she finally spoke up. “Okay, um, there’s something you all should know about Grandfather before we go anywhere.”

Standing off by herself, Rebecca offered a weak, “You already told us he’s a Fomorian, what else could there be? Don’t say he’s a Yankees fan too. Hold on, wait, is that how they win all the time? Cuz that would explain a lot.

Stepping over by the tiny girl, I asked, “Your grandmother get you into Bystander sports?”

Her head bobbed. “I’m pretty sure she and Sands and Sarah’s mom tried to set up some kind of league for it awhile ago. You know, something fun that wasn’t combat training. They couldn’t get enough people interested.”

“Maybe they should try again up here,” I offered before looking to Aylen. “What did you want to warn us about?”

After a brief moment of hesitation, she explained, “Grandfather is very enthusiastic. He’s eccentric and friendly and maybe a little too forward, and very enthusiastic. He doesn’t tend to get to talk to a lot of people, for obvious reasons, so when he does, sometimes he goes overboard. Like I said, he’ll never hurt you. But he might get a bit… curious and touch you. It’s just something he does. He doesn’t mean any harm. He’s eccentric, and really nice.”

Sariel, standing with all three of her children around her, lifted her chin to watch the girl for a moment while speaking. “You must have grown up in a very curious household, Aylen. I would be very interested in hearing stories about it later, if you are willing to share.”

It was kind of weird. Out of all of us, Sariel actually seemed the most at ease with the idea of meeting a good Fomorian. I didn’t know if she was just better at hiding her feelings, or if knowing them as well as she did made this easier to believe somehow, or what. Maybe seeing all the evil her own people had done made all this easier to go with. Regardless, after getting the situation explained, she’d barely batted an eye before apparently being completely on board with it.

Abigail, on the other hand, had wanted to come. She also wanted to forbid both Koren and me from going. But Dare had promised her we would be okay, and that her going was a bad idea. Not only was she not exactly huge in combat, but she was also very important as a symbol here in the school. If she left, it would raise a lot of questions from everyone here. We wouldn’t be able to keep it quiet for long. She’d had put herself in that kind of spotlight and couldn’t easily step out of it. 

So, somewhat reluctantly, Abigail had agreed. We would go down to this dinner and let her know about everything that happened during it.

Gwen stepped forward. She had been standing back with Gabriel Prosser, who had transported up here to leave with us. The two of them had been holding a long, magically quiet conversation. Whatever they had been talking about had been pretty intense, just by judging from the outside. 

Now, Gwen looked to Aylen. “I know this was probably one of the hardest things you’ve ever done, given how we could’ve reacted. Believe me, I know what it’s like to have a really important secret that you’re keeping from people you care about.” Offering the much younger girl a wry smile, she added, “It must’ve been hard not knowing how it would go. Or still not knowing how it’ll go. It’s okay. Whatever happens, we’ll all try to be as diplomatic as possible. And hey, thanks for trusting us enough to even try this.”

The words were enough to draw a small smile out of Aylen, as she admitted, “Mother had me wear magic on my shoes that would have taken me out of here if you reacted badly.” She shrugged, casting a somewhat guilty look over toward Avalon. “Sorry, no offense. Our family’s just really accustomed to being careful.”

With a light chuckle, Gwen shook her head. “Believe me when I say, none taken. Isn’t that right, Gabriel?“

The large, dark-skinned man gave a single nod. “We do know something about needing to take care when reaching out to trust someone potentially dangerous.”

“And yet,” Dare pointed out, “we also know a bit about needing to take a leap of faith at times. You say this grandfather of yours is a good Fomorian? I have to admit, that’s pretty hard for me to accept, after everything I’ve seen. But, I’d be a pretty big hypocrite if I didn’t at least give it a chance.”

“Earths in the sun kind of hypocrite, huh?” I couldn’t help but put in, with a wink toward Avalon. 

Dare gave me a brief, curious look before nodding. “Indeed. Earths in the sun level hypocrisy. So believe me, Aylen, we’re going to give this a shot, no matter how uncomfortable it may make some of us.” She exhaled, adding, “I just hope your family understands if things are a little bit tense for a while.”

“Oh, they’re ready for it,” Aylen assured her (and the rest of us). “Grandfather’s been so nervous that he was baking all week long.”

Baking. Wow. That just filled my head with the image of a big gray Fomorian with bulbous eyes bustling around a kitchen wearing a frilly apron and one of those fluffy white hats, making little cakes and cookies. Which, of course, was just silly. He might’ve been eccentric, as Aylen said, but there was no way he would go around like that. 

Tristan interrupted my mental image by piping up then with, “So, are we gonna do this, or what? Because I don’t know about you guys, but I’m famished. And we already know it’s gonna take forever once we meet this Grandfather dude before everyone will be satisfied enough to actually eat. Let’s get this show on the road already.”

Smiling, Vanessa clapped him on the back. “My brother, cutting through any and all diplomatic issues at warp speed because he’s hungry.”

Tristan gave a firm nod. “Damn straight. Get done with all that and move onto the important stuff, like the first course. Come on, I’m giving up Chef Gisby’s stuff here, remember? Now that’s a sacrifice that should be written about in one of those old Iliads things. Which, for the record, are total bullshit anyway. I don’t remember there being one single mindflayer in that whole story.”

Vanessa made a disgruntled noise in the back of her throat while twitching a bit, looking like she wanted to say something to her brother, who was just smirking knowingly at her. He knew exactly how to push her buttons, and delighted in doing so at any given time. Even now, when we were about to go see what was possibly the only decent Fomorian in existence. 

In the end, the blonde girl couldn’t stop herself from rising to the bait, blurting, “That’s Illithid, not Iliad!”

Snickering despite myself at her inability to resist correcting him, I put in, “The boy’s got a point. You can go on about what a biological genius this special Grandfather of yours is, Aylen, but how is he with dinner, really? Hell, how’s the rest of your family? I mean, when it was my dad and me, we didn’t exactly go all out. Our idea of a big dinner with company that Dad wanted to impress was ordering Boston Market instead of KFC or pizza. So, are we talking microwavable stuff here, or…”

While Tristan made put-on horrified sounds and faces in the background (clearly playing it up a bit when he made Tabbris giggle), Aylen simply replied, “I told you, he’s been baking all week, trying to get everything just perfect. He really wants to impress you guys. Whether he’s any good at it or not…” She shrugged, clearly content to tease us at this point. “You’ll just have to come and find out. 

“Let’s just say, my family may be new to entertaining, but they’ve had a lot of practice when it comes to food.”

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Commissioned Interlude 1 – Sariel and Lincoln (Heretical Edge 2)

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Note: Commissioned Interludes are the same as Mini-Interludes, I’ve just changed the name for this second year and reset the counting. 

“So, now you’re a teacher.” Lincoln’s words were casual as he looked around the classroom in the Atherby camp. This wasn’t a class for teenagers, of course. They would learn at the space station school up… up in the sun. And wow did that thought keep coming out of nowhere to wallop him with how ridiculous it sounded. Seriously, a school inside the sun. He’d thought they were kidding when first explaining it. Hell, it took several times to convince him both that they were completely serious and that it was safe. Or at least as safe as it could possibly be. In any case, it would be very hard for any of their many enemies to find them up there, he supposed. 

But no, this school was for children, an elementary school, essentially. This particular classroom held about twenty desks, all facing a projection screen at the front of the room, with the teacher’s desk and table to the left, perpendicular to the student’s desks. 

Sariel was there, standing by the table with a cup of coffee. She gave a slight smile to his words before taking another cup and offering it to him. “Morning, and it seems that way. My… my brother and husband seem to think that I have a way with children. Personally, I’m pretty sure they’ve decided that surrounding me with kids all day stops me from getting into trouble, though that seems a dangerous assumption.” 

Taking the coffee with a chuckle before sipping it, Lincoln nodded. “Well, from what I’ve heard, I can’t say that getting you to take a vacation from all the danger is a bad idea. And it sounds as though you like teaching children as much as they like to learn from you.” He offered her a wink before adding, “I might’ve spoken to a few of them about how their first day went.” 

“I’m glad they gave you a good review then.” Sariel watched the man for a moment before curiously asking, “And how are you doing with Felicity and Tabbris away at their own school?” 

“About as well as you’re doing with Tabbris and both of your other children away as well, I expect,” Lincoln pointed out before adding a quiet, “You always think you’ll get used to it.” 

“Some days are going to be better than others,” Sariel murmured into her coffee before looking up to him. “You just take it as it comes. And make sure they call you and visit on weekends.” 

“Oh, believe me, they’re both in trouble if they don’t come on the weekends,” Lincoln assured her with a snort, glancing that way. “I’ll find a way to get up there and embarrass the hell out of them.” 

“Consider me your escort in that case,” Sariel replied with a soft chuckle of her own. “We can embarrass all four of them together. I’m sure they’ll get the point about visiting pretty quick.” 

Lincoln gave a nod of agreement. “It’s a plan. Not that I expect them to actually be embarrassed or anything about coming back here. More like…” He trailed off, considering his words for a moment. 

“More like they’ll get too busy with whatever mysteries and adventures and… problems are occupying them at the moment,” Sariel finished in a voice that showed she’d had the same understanding for quite awhile. “And let time get away from them while they focus on that.”

“Exactly,” Lincoln confirmed, shaking his head with an added, “Making them take a break, making them come here and spend time not… not involved in any of that, it’s important.” 

Sariel agreed quietly, her eyes glancing away. “Our children are very good at finding trouble. All four of them. But at least they have each other, and the rest of their friends. Which is good, considering I’m fairly certain this year is going to be even more complicated than the last one, even if that seems impossible now.”

Lincoln was silent for a few long seconds, looking toward some of the children’s drawings on the wall. A smile touched his face before it trembled just a little. “Felicity’s birthday is coming up soon. She’ll be an adult, as far as human government is concerned. She’s…” He trailed off, fist tightening at his side before he punched a blank part of the wall with an explosive sigh. Fist still against the wall, he lowered his head, voice quiet. “It’s supposed to be a celebration. She’s supposed to be happy, starting her life, being a young adult. She’s not supposed to be afraid of what’s going to happen when her birthday comes. That son of a bitch, that evil… arrogant… monster did this on purpose.” 

Sariel nodded, stepping closer to put her hand on the man’s back. “Of course he did. He wants to scare her, to scare all of us. This way she spent a year worrying about what’s happening to her mom, and what could happen to herself. She’s spent a year with this in the back of her mind, always there and waiting for her to dwell on. And now the birthday is getting closer and it’s even bigger. Soon it will be all she can think about. Even if she tries to distract herself.”

Lincoln exhaled, his voice quiet. “I keep asking myself if he’s going to attack on her birthday, or sometime afterward. The deal, as I understand it, just says that he has to leave her alone until her birthday.”

“He could go either way,” Sariel replied. “He’s dramatic enough to go for the day of, just to prove he can beat everyone else even with a year of advanced warning. But he’s also pragmatic enough to wait and make us use all our energy protecting her for several weeks until we think the danger is over. You’re right, the deal just says until her birthday. Technically, he could wait until she’s thirty and then make his move. It’s impossible to keep someone under that much protection for their entire lives, especially someone like Felicity. And he knows it.”

Giving a soft, humorless chuckle, Lincoln turned to look at her. “You’re not exactly making me feel any better about this, you know.”

Sariel offered him a faint smile. “I’m sorry. It’s important that you fully understand the seriousness of the situation. But it’s also important that you know that you and Felicity are not alone in this. There are a lot of very good, strong people working on it. Fossor is incredibly dangerous, but he is not some omnipotent enemy. Haiden and I consider both of you family. And I can never make up for what happened with Joselyn and her other children, but I won’t stop trying to help.”

“Deveron’s still not really talking to you, is he?” Lincoln waited until she shook her head before continuing. “I can’t really say that I’d feel any different in his position, given everything. I know you didn’t mean for Ruthers to take it the way he did, but it was still taken from your suggestion.”

Sariel nodded, her eyes still showing the deep guilt that was there. Yet it was the sort of guilt that spurred action and change rather than self-loathing and pity. She had made the choices that she made in the past. Many had been wrong, others had been right. She couldn’t change them. All she could do was make future choices that would lead to better paths. Those who were angry with her, and who might be angry forever, had every reason and right to be. She would never fault them for that. 

Finally, the woman shook those thoughts away before turning to walk to the other side of the room. “In any case, I imagine you’re wondering why I asked you to come and visit so early this morning?” Her tone had taken on a sort of forced casualness that made it clear she had something important to talk to him about.

“As far as the hour goes, I presume that whatever it is needed to happen before classes,” Lincoln replied, considering the woman for a moment before walking that way as well. 

“It’s not desperately pressing,” Sariel admitted while reaching out to touch a rune on the wall. “It could have waited until later. But I do think we need to talk about it, and I’ve been putting it off for awhile until I was certain. Or at least as certain as I can be without direct testing.” Under her touch, the rune glowed before a doorway appeared on the wall, revealing stairs leading down.

“Is this supposed to feel ominous?” Lincoln asked, only half-joking as he looked to the stairs. 

Sariel offered him a reassuring smile. “Not ominous. As I said, it’s not an emergency. Nor is it… a problem, exactly. Come, it’s better if I show you while explaining.” With that, she moved through the doorway and started down the stairs, to one of her private magical science labs.

The room itself was long and mostly rectangular, aside from a half-circle bit at the far end. There were testing stations along both long walls, and a large metal table in the middle covered in scrolls, notebooks, vials of different-colored liquids that glowed brightly, and various crystals.

“This is about that sample I gave you awhile ago, isn’t it? And the other ones you asked for,” Lincoln realized, following the woman over to the table. Sitting there at the end was what looked like a table lamp, except instead of a bulb, a large magnifying glass was attached to it. Runes covered the surface of the ‘lamp’ part. 

“It’s related, yes,” Sariel confirmed while pulling on the magnifying glass part. It came out, attached to a stiff cord that left the lens in whatever position it was when released. Holding it thoughtfully, she hesitated before looking over at him. “You know that I was looking over your samples just to make sure there wouldn’t be a problem with you bonding with Tabbris. And to see just how compatible you are so that… so that we could try to make it work the first time.” 

“See, when you say it like that,” Lincoln murmured, “my first instinct is that there’s some kind of problem.” He met her gaze. “Yet, before we came down here, you said it wasn’t exactly a problem. So I’m going to guess that it’s more of a… should we call it a complication?” 

“That’s a good word for it,” the woman agreed. “Here, take a look through this.” She adjusted the position of the enchanted magnifying glass to face the table, beckoning him over while carefully moving a glass slide into position under it. “This is a magically prepared bit of your blood. I’ve set it up to mimic the bonding process as if it was still part of you.”

Lincoln gave her a brief, curious look at that before stepping over and looking down through the large lens. It was bigger than his head, magnifying the view up onto its surface to make the whole thing very easy to see. The slide with his blood was there, as Sariel reached over with an eyedropper, explaining, “This is werewolf blood.” 

Watching, Lincoln held his questions as the woman released a couple drops of the werewolf blood onto the glass slide of his own. Over the next few seconds, the blood mixed, Sariel explaining, “The enchantment will speed up the process. What you’re seeing is what would normally take place over a few days.”

The blood mixed thoroughly, his own sample seeming to latch onto and pull the werewolf blood into it. For a moment, Lincoln saw nothing different, his mouth opening to ask what he was supposed to be looking at. Then he stopped, as the blood samples abruptly separated once more, the werewolf sample being pushed out of his own. “Errr, I don’t think…”

“That’s not supposed to happen,” Sariel confirmed. “Not after a few days, not after a few months, not ever. Not with an ordinary, average human, that is. What you’re looking at is an extremely rare condition that we’ve only seen a few times before.”

Frowning and certainly, Lincoln raised his gaze from the blood samples to look at her. “What does it mean? I can’t bond properly?”

Sariel’s head shook. “Not exactly. You seem to be what we call a Chimera-blood. It means that any sort of bonding won’t fully… stick. The first time you bond with someone, it will… unlock your bonding ability. You’ll have everything from that person, such as Tabbris, as if you’d become a true Natural Heretic. But it will fade over time, depending on how much is used to bond with, anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Once it fades, you’ll go back to being the way you are now. Except… except after that first time, coming into physical contact with any bodily fluid, even through your skin, will trigger the temporary bonding process. Your body will absorb the fluid automatically and provide you with the same abilities as if you were a Natural Heretic of that being.”

Rocking backward on his heels, Lincoln stared at her, mouth working a couple times. “I… does this have anything to do with Calafia weakening the Bystander Effect before?”

Sariel’s head shook. “I don’t believe so. As I said, it’s an extraordinarily rare condition. As far as I know, it’s only come up a few times that the Seosten are aware of. I’m sure there are others in different groups we never had enough access to. But still, not many. That’s why I’ve been taking my time examining all of this and getting some advice from Apollo. I wanted to be completely certain it was real and not a contaminated sample.”

Lincoln nodded slowly. “That’s why you had me give you a couple more. I thought you were just being overly cautious because of Tabbris. I… I have no idea how… or why… why I’d be like this. As far as I know, the family on my side is normal. Back through a couple great-grandparents, anyway.”

“There doesn’t necessarily have to be anything special in your background,” Sariel informed him. “It’s some kind of random mutation, possibly caused by something, but we don’t know. I actually haven’t had much chance to study someone like you. That fell more under Cahethal’s purview, the one your people knew as Demeter. She’s still with Eden’s Garden, the counterpart to Jophiel. Or they were counterparts, until Elisabet disappeared. Now, I don’t know.”

Realizing she had gotten off on a tangent, the woman shook herself. “The point is, I’d like to do some more direct tests with you, if you don’t mind. But… but I think that even if you can’t permanently bond with her, Tabbris would still…” 

“It’s still important that she be the first,” Lincoln agreed. “We’ve been talking about it a lot. And yeah, even if I can’t be bonded to her permanently, I still want it to be her. That way she’ll always be the one who unlocked it. That’s something. And I… hold on.” He frowned again. “What about Felicity? She’s my daughter, will this… condition… I mean, does she…”

“It’s rare enough that it doesn’t seem to be automatically passed to children,” Sariel assured him. “It’s been over a year now since Felicity was bonded, I’d say she’s normal in that respect. It’s possible something may pop up in the future, and I’ll run some tests to be sure, or at least as sure as I can be. But I would be very surprised to see anything at all in her case. Quite honestly, if it was going to happen, it almost certainly would have already. As I said, though, we can run some tests the next time she comes down.” 

“Good.” Lincoln stared through the magnifying glass at his blood. “How sure are you about it having nothing to do with my family?”

Sariel’s head shook. “Not that certain at all, to be honest. It doesn’t seem to be automatically passed on or anything, as I said. We’ve seen parents with it and then it doesn’t pop up again at all throughout any of their descendants for over a thousand years. From what I know of Cahethal’s studies, it’s just as I said, a completely random mutation that, if passed on, is extremely recessive. There could possibly be something in your background, but I would have to know a lot more before making any kind of educated guess.”

Lincoln thought for a moment. “I should talk to my parents. As far as they’re concerned, Felicity and I are in a deep cover witness protection program. I keep telling them we can’t talk about it and they keep guessing which of the bad guys I report it on in LA decided to come after us. So it’s been a bit awkward. They’ll probably be even more curious if I start asking about our family history, but maybe I can convince them that it’s just to take my mind off things. I think Dad might have some old journals or something. If this is from something in my bloodline, there might be something in there.”

“Anything might help,” Sariel agreed, “especially considering I very much doubt Cahethal will exactly jump to share any of her research notes. No matter how nicely I ask.” She had a slightly bemused expression while adding, “Although, it might be worth it to see the look on her face if I did.”

Lincoln chuckled softly. “I don’t know her, but I still think I might pay for that.” He sobered quickly, however, adding, “Anyway, yeah, run any tests you need to on both Felicity and me. Whatever causes this condition, I’d rather it not take us by surprise.”

With a nod, Sariel gently teased, “I take it that means you won’t have a problem donating more blood?” She had already summoned a syringe to one hand, wiggling it at him. 

Sighing, Lincoln began to roll up his sleeve. “You know, I lived with a vampire for months and she never tried to get my blood.”

Sariel shrugged at that, replying, “Maybe she would have if she knew what a rare genetic treat it is.”

The look on his face was worth it.

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Patreon Snippets 10 (Heretical Edge)

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The following is the tenth volume of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request 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. 

 

A few thousand years ago

The Phej were a tall, roughly humanoid species, standing just over two and a half meters in height, with dark blue, almost purple skin that grew darker at their heads, feet, and hands. They had four eyes spaced evenly around their face in a square pattern, with two vertical slit mouths parallel to one another in the middle. They smelled through organs within the mouths themselves. One mouth produced half the sounds their people were capable of, while the other, connected to entirely differently shaped vocal chords, produced the other half. The two worked in concert. 

At the moment, six of the Phej were striding purposefully through the corridor of their most powerful command ship. Four wore the uniforms of security personnel, while the remaining two were officers, the equivalent of a lieutenant and admiral (mnent and tauta respectively in their own language). They walked confidently, but quickly. Particularly when the ship shuddered under what was obviously an attack, the lights briefly dimming before returning to their steady blue emergency glow. 

The doors ahead of of the group swooshed open smoothly, admitting the six into a dimly lit, circular chamber that was just large enough for all of them with the control console and holographic display arranged in the middle of it. 

“Mnent,” the ship’s commander (and commander of the fleet itself) spoke, addressing his fellow (though much lower-ranked) officer. “Bring up the sitview.” 

Mnent Faa did so, pressing three quick holographic buttons on the console. In response, a display of the area surrounding their ship appeared. The Phej home planet lay relatively ‘below’ them to the left, with their own ship and a dozen others spread out to face the enemy fleet. Too many enemy ships, not enough Phej. But that was okay. Because they had a secret weapon, one that they had been working on for many decades for just such an occasion. 

“Are you sure it’s ready, Tauta Krin?” Faa asked a bit tensely. “If we take this shot and miss, we won’t get another one.” 

“It’s ready, Faa,” Krin assured the other man. “And if we wait any longer, there won’t be a point to using it. Bring up the targeting data for their ships. All of them.” He waited while the mnent did that, watching as white targeting reticles appeared on each of the twenty-seven enemy vessels. So many of their own ships had been destroyed by that fleet. That ended now. 

The reticles went from white, to green, and finally to the hard blue. With a low snarl through his twin mouths, he began to give the order to fire. 

In that instant, two of the security officers who had accompanied them abruptly drew their sidearms and fired. The shots instantly killed the other two guards. As Faa spun that way, hand groping for his own weapon, a shot took him in the face. 

With a bellowed curse of defiance, Krin dove for the control. But the glowing energy figure emerging from one of the ‘traitor’ guards caught him first, as the blonde Seosten dove into him. His hand stopped right next to the button. 

Head snapping to the side sharply with the distinct sound of a neck breaking, the remaining guard fell, revealing a dark-skinned Seosten woman, who grinned and pumped her fist. “Whoo! How great was that? We were right on top of them and they didn’t have a clue.” Charmiene turned then, spitting on one of the dead. “Think we’re just gonna let you blow up our people, assholes? Think again. We gave you a chance to surrender.” 

Her attention turned back to the possessed leader, pressing, “Come on, Brainiac, you said you knew how to work this system, right? So are we good or what?”

Perusing it briefly, Sariel finally spoke through the man. “Yes. Just a moment.” Her fingers danced over the controls, as she ignored the mixed pleas and threats from her host. “There.” 

On the holographic screen, the reticles over the Seosten fleet disappeared, replaced by more over each and every Phej ship. In addition, several targeting markers appeared on the planet itself. 

“What are those?” Charmiene asked, pointing to the latter. 

“Military bases, supply depots, places this man knew about that would make good targets,” Sariel replied with his voice. “One shot from this weapon of theirs, and we not only take out what’s left of their entire fleet, we cripple any potential resistance on the ground and their entire system of government.” 

Her words were met with a feral grin from the other woman. “So let’s do it and call Puriel to tell him how awesome we are. What are we waiting for?” 

Hand lingering over the button while her host desperately begged her to have mercy, to let them surrender, to spare his people, Sariel watched the holographic battle. 

“Nothing,” she finally replied. 

And then she pushed the button. 

*******

Immediately after the prison escape

 

As the Atherby camp and their allies celebrated their success in retrieving not only Sean Gerardo, but a good number of other prisoners, as well as powerful Crossroads weapons from the depot, and the destruction of several important Crossroads satellite stations, a single pale figure stood far away from all of it. With her back to the proceedings, Larees leaned against a tree and watched the sky while taking a long, lazy pull from her trusty flask. 

“You gonna come talk sometime tonight, kid?” she drawled casually, “or just stand back there and lurk some more?” 

Behind her, Theia slowly emerged from the darkness and approached. She paused while coming parallel with the woman, glanced that way, and then walked on past. Moving to another nearby tree in front of Larees, she positioned herself there before noting, “You are not celebrating.” 

“Ah, correction,” Larees countered while raising her flask to indicate it. “I’m not at the celebration. I am most definitely celebrating. In my way.” 

“Your way of celebrating does not look different from any other day,” Theia pointed out. 

Snorting, Larees replied, “Maybe I’m just celebrating all the time.” Raising the flask to her lips, she gulped a mouthful of the smooth, burning liquid before adding, “You’re not at the party either.” 

There was a moment of silence from Theia before she quietly said, “I make some of them uncomfortable. I didn’t want to do that to them all night long.” 

Instead of responding to that right away, Larees just watched her in silence for a few long seconds. When she did speak, it was a quietly muttered, “Your mother was a real piece of shit, you know that?” 

“I did not kill her simply because she forgot my birthday,” Theia pointed out, head tilting. “But what does she have to do with this?” 

“Sorry,” Larees muttered, head shaking as she pushed away thoughts of the children she had been forced to bear before they were taken from her, one by one. “It’s nothing. I was just…fuck. Never mind. You want a drink?” She held the flask up, nodding to it. 

Eyes centering on the offering, Theia pointed out, “Most of our people would never be comfortable sharing that with a Lie.” 

“You’re right,” the older Seosten agreed, glancing to the flask briefly as she considered. Then she tossed it that way. “Careful, it kicks pretty hard. Take it slow.” 

Catching it with one hand, Theia stared briefly at the woman, before gradually putting it to her lips. She took a sip, then another, before coughing loudly and repeatedly. 

A laugh escaped Larees. “Told you. It kicks.” 

Theia forced herself to take another drink just to prove she could, before clearing her throat. She glanced to her, hesitating before offering, “Do… you believe you’ll ever find your children? The ones that…” She trailed off, watching the woman’s face. “Is this one of those things I shouldn’t have said?” 

Larees opened her mouth, then hesitated before swallowing hard. She stepped over, took the flask back, and had a long drink from it before answering. “No, it’s–no, I don’t think I will. It’s a big universe and… and they could be anywhere. I’m pretty sure I’ll never see them. If any of them are even alive.” 

Theia’s voice was quiet. “I’m sorry about what my mother did to you.” 

For a moment, Larees didn’t respond. Then she held the flask back out once more for the girl to take again. “I’m sorry about what your mother did to you.” 

Trying the harsh drink once more, Theia still coughed, though she was more prepared that time. Her gaze found the other woman’s. “She was a… real… piece of shit?” 

“Yeah, kid,” Larees agreed. “But you know what, she did do at least one good thing in her miserable life.” 

Uncertain, the younger Seosten tilted her head. “What?” 

“Simple, kid,” her companion replied, taking the flask back for a long pull. 

“She made you.” 

******

Shortly Under A Year Ago

 

“Dude, you’re like… a king or something.” The words came in an awed voice as the young boy named Tristan Moon stared at the man in front of him. The two of them were alone in a side room, where Tristan had been ushered in order to meet his ancestor. “My great-whatever grandpa’s a king! That’s ffffffuuuuureaking awesome.” 

Nicholas Petan, a dark-haired, handsome man with just enough gray to be distinguished offered the boy a slight chuckle while shaking his head. “Not hardly a king, I’m afraid.” He paused then before offering a wink. “Maybe a baron.” 

A stunningly bright smile leapt to the boy’s face. “But you’re like this badass knight commander guy! That’s so cool! I bet you–wait, but… but your guys hurt my friends.” He frowned at that thought, clearly at a loss about whether he could still be excited or not. 

With a low sigh, Nicholas stepped over and took a knee in front of his descendant. “That… whole thing was a very tragic and… unexpected oversight. A mistake. I made a mistake when I passed orders to my subordinates. My phrasing when I asked them to retrieve you could have been better.” He glanced to the side, features briefly marred by a frown before a glance back to the charming blond-haired boy in front of him made it melt away. “But we will deal with that later, I promise. I’ll show you what we do to maintain the loyalty of our troops. Both magically and otherwise. You don’t want to rely entirely on magic. But I will teach you all of that on our way.” 

“You mean…” Tristan hesitated before asking, “You mean I can go with you? Wait, where are we going?”  

“Go with me?” Nicholas put a hand out to rest on his shoulder. “Greats-grandson, we are going many places. Most importantly, we are going to find your family. I have some… leads on that front.” 

That disarmingly brilliant smile returned for a moment, then Tristan hesitated. “I… what about the spell that keeps bouncing me back here? And… and… my new friends?” 

“The Heretics you will see again,” Nicholas assured him. “They have their own things to do, but your paths will cross soon enough. As for the Meregan, I’ve spoken a bit to their leader and… while a few will stay here, we will be working together. Some will come with us.” 

He exhaled then. “And the banishment spell, I have some ideas about that. It’s weaker than it should be, so we should be able to stop it from booting you back here unless you actually go back to Earth. That’s what it’s banishing you from. I can keep you with me, and we’ll work on finding a way to disable the spell entirely.” 

“And find my family?” the boy asked, hopefully.

“Yes,” Nicholas assured him, “and find your family. Most certainly that. That is… if you are… okay with the idea of living aboard a starfaring vessel traveling the universe searching out danger. If you– Tristan?” He blinked, waving a hand in front of the boy’s face as his descendant stared at him with eyes as wide as saucers, mouth open. 

Gradually, a sound similar to a tea kettle’s whistle emerged from Tristan, before he literally threw himself at Nicholas with a joyful shout, clinging to him while babbling something about someone named Picard. 

“I… ahhh… shall take that as agreement.” 

*******

Sometime over the summer

 

Feet pounding against the ground, Tabbris raced through the forest, chancing a glance now and then over her shoulder. Her heart beat faster with each desperate step, her breath hard and ragged. She fled blindly, dodging around one tree before leaping over a raised section of roots. Coming down, the young Seosten nearly lost her footing and sprawled, but caught herself at the last instant before pushing off once more. Behind her, she heard her pursuer getting closer with each step, the sound of their feet snapping twigs and branches growing louder by the second. 

She had nearly reached the next large tree, eyes focused ahead with the desperate certainty that at any second, a hand would grab her shoulder, when a figure emerged from that very tree. Her pursuer jumped into view, arms outstretched. She came within a bare instant of being caught, but triggered her boost just in time. The world slowed, and Tabbris dropped into a slide through the dirt that carried her under those open, anticipatory arms. 

Her pursuer spun, reaching down to grab for the back of her shirt. But she managed to throw herself forward from her slide, rolling to her feet before springing up. She didn’t want to waste her boost, but kept it going a moment longer. Just enough to let her leap from a standing position to the lowest branch in the tree. 

It was risky. The one chasing her could travel through the tree, like Flick did. Every step Tabbris took was another step where they could catch her. But she had to try. Running along the outstretched branch, she heard the figure jump into the tree. They would reach her any second… any…

She leapt from the branch just barely ahead of the arm that extended from the branch to grab for her. Tabbris flew from the tree, arms and legs windmilling wildly as she let out a loud squeal just before landing on her backside at the very edge of a steep slope that the edge of the branch had been hanging over. Aimed perfectly as she was, the girl slid on her back down the slope, half-falling all the way to the bottom before rolling to a stop. She lay there on her back, panting hard. 

“Hey!” A voice called from up above, prompting the girl to open her eyes. She saw her pursuer, a male Relukun (or wood-person) maybe a year older than she was. “No fair, you used your boost!” 

Staying on her back, Tabbris stuck her tongue out at him. Then she wondered if he could actually see it from up there. “You used your tree-walking power, Pickle!” she shot back. “Fair’s fair! You didn’t tag me, and I can still make it to base!” 

His name wasn’t really pickle, but the boy liked them so much, that’s what he became known as. Now, the tree-boy shook a wooden fist at her. “You’ll never make it, vile beast!” 

“Wanna bet?!” Tabbris retorted. She watched as he started to scramble down the hill after her, before laughing while scrambling back to her feet. A head start. She could make it to the boulder they’d picked out as home base, especially now that she’d had a chance to lay down for a few seconds and breathe. 

Then it would be her turn to chase Pickle, and she already had a plan. 

******

Shortly after the prison attack

 

Standing in the Committee headquarters, directly in front of the door leading into Counselor Litonya’s office, Liam Mason raised his hand to knock. Before he’d even gone halfway through the motion, the door opened and a voice within beckoned, “Come.” 

Thank God, he’d been losing his mind out here. After the day that had just happened, and everything he’d heard about how the traitors had attacked them, Liam needed to hear that things would be okay. More importantly, he needed to hear, from someone who had been there, how his family was doing. And who better to look to for reassurance on both fronts than one of the Crossroads Committee? 

The man stepped over the threshold, hearing the door click closed behind him. He was in a sparse room that looked quite similar to a Japanese dojo. The walls were lined with weapons, with a couple small tables of various food, drink, and other objects, while the floor was some kind of training mat. It was empty, save for a single figure who sat cross-legged in the middle. A figure who stood when he arrived, turning to face him. 

For a brief moment, Liam couldn’t comprehend what he was looking at. Counselor Litonya stood in front of him, but not… not all of her. She stood there with one entire arm missing, along with her other hand. It was… it couldn’t… that wasn’t…

“You requested this meeting for a reason other than gawking, I hope,” Litonya reminded him in the voice of a stern old school marm. As she spoke, the woman stepped over to a nearby table. A glowing blue semi-translucent image of an arm and hand appeared as she reached for the pot of tea, manifesting a similar hand on her other side to move a cup closer. 

“I–” Part of Liam wanted to ask if she was okay. But that was absurd. It was like asking a star if it was okay. The star was–it was a star. Barring age, of course it was okay.  It was–you didn’t ask a Committee member if they were–

But one had been killed earlier that year. They could be killed, he knew that. It had happened before. Hell, another of the Committee was currently missing. Yet somehow… somehow being killed or out of contact didn’t strike him as… as vulnerable as seeing one of the Committee members… maimed. Maimed. The very word was ridiculous. They were–if they–

“Mr. Mason,” Litonya urged him while looking that way as she took a sip. “Speak, or leave.” 

Swallowing, he forced himself to speak. “I just–I was… told that you saw one of my daughters earlier.” 

“I did,” she confirmed. “Unfortunately, we did not have the opportunity to speak much.” Her smile was thin. “She did call me an evil bitch, if you were curious.” 

Making a sound of shocked disbelief, Liam shook his head rapidly. “I’m sorry, I–it’s… it’s that girl. She’s–and Larissa is… that Felicity girl. She’s… they’re twisting everything around. It’s still–they’re still dancing to Gaia’s tune, Gods damn it! I don’t care that she’s locked up, she planned all of this, all of it, and she’s been manipulating them and they don’t know where to–” 

“Liam,” Litonya spoke sharply. “We are all well aware of how the creatures Sinclaire allied herself with have manipulated our people. Rambling accomplishes nothing.” 

“Who… who did… what happened to you?” He tried to stop himself from asking, but it came out anyway. “Why don’t you just… heal?” 

There was a low chuckle, like the sound of dry leaves being crushed. “Miss Chambers herself. Or rather, the creature she allowed to possess her.” Reading his wide eyes and open mouth, she interrupted his question. “It is a question I don’t wish to get into. Suffice to say, they possess the sword of the old King, and the wounds it causes take a very long time to heal.” 

“A… I don’t–” How could someone actually hurt you, even if it was with Arthur’s sword?! “What about… prosthetics?” 

“Believe it or not,” the woman’s sharp tone retorted, “you are not the first to suggest such a thing. Unfortunately, the reason the wounds take so long to heal is that the sword leaves lingering minor magical energy which slowly disintegrates anything it touches. Anything that comes into contact with… the wounds is gradually destroyed or at least damaged to the point of being structurally compromised. This–” She indicated her summoned solid-energy limbs. “–will have to do. Now, is there anything else? As you might imagine, I am rather occupied.” 

Hesitating briefly, Liam swallowed before asking, “That other thing that I asked about before. The one about the Chambers girl claiming her mother was taken by Fossor. Have you–” 

“She is with the necromancer,” Litonya confirmed. “That much we know. It was unfortunately rather brutally confirmed by the scouts who were sent to confirm Joselyn’s presence in a mall earlier today. Yet another part of the traitors’ plans, no doubt, meant to divide and conquer.” 

“Jos, she’s… she’s working with Fossor, willingly?” Liam murmured, shock touching his features almost as much as seeing Litonya’s injuries had. 

“That appears to be the case,” the woman informed him. “She has now taken to luring our people into traps in order to gain power by ambushing and murdering them. Now, if you will excuse me, I have pressing matters elsewhere. The Committee must choose three new members to count among our number.” 

“Wha–three? You’re choosing three new Counselors?” he blurted with surprise. That didn’t happen. 

“Pressing times call for pressing measures,” Litonya replied simply. “Our enemy has outmaneuvered us for far too long, has taken far too many of our people and assets. Don’t worry, Mr. Mason. We have just the people in mind for these positions. 

“And when confrontation comes again, it is the traitors who will find themselves at a disadvantage.” 

*****

Sometime over the summer. 

 

It was a short, very stocky man who stood in front of an unlabeled heavy metal door somewhere in Pittsburgh. He wore an olive green overcoat and a heavy beard. An old mangy cat of no possible discernible breed sat at his feet and licked his paws while the man reached up with one gloved hand to bang on the door. 

A moment later, a slot in the door slid open, allowing three eyes to peer out. “Whatayawant?”

In response, the man held up a leather bag, shaking it a bit to create a jingling sound. “Entrant’s fee,” he muttered in a deep, gravelly voice. 

The eyes disappeared, replaced by a single thin hand with too many fingers. The man put the bag in the palm, and it was withdrawn. There was another pause, before several locks were disengaged and the door was pulled open. The three-eyed man with too many fingers on his hands stood there watching him with a shotgun. “Name.”

Bowing his head a bit, the man in the olive coat replied, “Dark. John Dark.”

For a moment, the two stared at one another, the three-eyed man clearly sizing him up before finally offering him a broad smile as he stepped back and raised his arm to indicate past himself. “Well, John Dark, you just bought yourself into the auction. Congratulations, and don’t go blowing all your coin on the first decent beast you see.”

Returning the man’s smile with a nod of appreciation, Dark walked past him through the narrow corridor. The cat followed at his heels, offering a quiet meow. 

The corridor lead to a large circular room, big enough to be a concert hall. Throughout the room were dozens of beings of all shapes and sizes. And cages. Cages that were staggered randomly throughout the room, holding even more wildly varied beings. They were prisoners, slaves to be auctioned off for those who bought them, the people who were now examining their potential merchandise. 

The din of conversation continued for another few minutes before a new figure in a garish bright red coat and top hat swept his way into the middle of the room with a raised hand. Under the top hat, he had dark blue skin and hair like a mythical gorgons, full of living snakes. 

“Ladies and gentlemen!” he called loudly to draw all attention to him. “Welcome to our humble auction! We’ll get things started right away, but first—“

“One silver.”

John Dark spoke up loudly, interrupting the auctioneer with that single word. It drew everyone’s attention to him, and the snake-haired man frowned, his serpents hissing. “I am afraid we haven’t started the auction yet, good sir. And when we do, you shall have to pay a lot more than one silver if you wish to take any of our fine, quality merchandise home.”

John Dark spoke again, before the man could redirect everyone’s attention. “You’re wrong about two things there. First, I wasn’t offering one silver for one of your slaves. I offered one silver for all of them. One silver on top of whatever you value your lives at. I assume, quite a lot. You can claim that reward by leaving this place now, and never looking back.”

Dozens of weapons were drawn at his words, along with magic and other powers being readied. Around the room, security guards appeared, levying their own weapons at this simple-looking stranger. 

If he was put off by the display of force, the man gave no indication. He simply continued. “As for the second thing you were wrong about… I am no sir.”

With that, the ‘man’ swept off the coat to reveal a lithe, feminine figure beneath. Also hidden beneath the coat had been a heavy shield and spear, mounted to her back. 

Pulling both to her hands, the woman held the shield up as every non-slave in the room unleashed on her. Bullets, lasers, fire, wild attacks of every kind erupted through the room, centered on the spot where she stood. A spot where a glowing gold light had flared up. 

After almost thirty full seconds of non-stop attack, the slavers and their customers finally relented. They had poured enough fire power into that spot to kill nearly anything. 

Nearly. 

The woman still stood. Her false beard was gone, revealing a face that many could, and had, called beautiful, with a distinct resemblance to the classic actress, Audrey Hepburn. Her shield glowed brightly, almost blindingly so, extending its energy in a field that encased and surrounded her body like a second skin. 

“My name,” she began through the baffled silence, “is Jeanne d’Arc. And you are wretched, evil beasts. You enslave and sell the innocent as your chattel. You are a plague upon this land, and your judgment has come due.”

With those words, the woman known more commonly as Joan of Arc raised her spear. It began to glow with the same energy as her shield. It was the energy gifted to her through ritual by the angel… the Seosten… Michael. Only a small portion of his gift, yet enough to keep her alive all these years after he had saved her from the fire. A sliver of his energy which healed her wounds, ceased her aging, and allowed her to channel it through her shield to create an impenetrable barrier around herself or others, and through her spear to allow it to cut through near anything in existence. 

Many had wondered over the years what sort of Heretic Jeanne was. In truth, she was no Heretic at all, merely a human gifted incredible power through ritual magic. 

Incredible power which she put to use now, as the slavers opened fire once more. Joan went to work. 

Before long, it was over. The slavers and their customers were dead, and the prisoners were being escorted to safety by several people Jeanne had let into the building after dealing with the three-eyed man at the front. As she stood out of the way, a small, green-furred figure approached tentatively. “Err… what… what is this?” he asked with obvious confusion. “Are you with that… that new Heretic rebellion?”

A taller, gray-skinned figure spoke up then. “H-hey, yeah, that rebellion’s going again. I heard that… that Atherby woman came back.” His own voice was hopeful, wide eyes staring at their rescuer. “Are–do you know her? Is she really back? Is she–” 

“I’m sorry,” Jeanne gently interrupted, raising a hand to quiet the man in a soft voice. “I am with Wonderland, not the Rebellion, though we are connected. And I’m afraid that Chevalière Atherby is not… she has not returned.” For a moment, she thought of what she knew of the woman’s daughter, the girl who had brought back the rebellion. Jeane knew enough of her, both thanks to friends within the Atherby camp and Crossroads itself, and thanks to her own curiosity in the past. Not to mention the words of her off-and-on lover, the vampire Seth. His death had brought Jeanne to Wonderland to pay her respects, where she had agreed to take his place as their Tiebreaker for the time being. 

She and Seth had had their ups and downs, but they had loved one another for most of their time together. Even if that love turned to heated arguments now and then. She had mourned his loss, cursed the fact that she had not been anywhere near to aid him, and vowed to find the creature who had murdered him. This Seosten, the one called Abaddon. She would find and kill every body he manifested until she reached the last one. This she had sworn upon Seth’s grave. 

In any case, Seth knew Felicity. Or Flick, as she preferred to go by. He’d initially been curious about her when he found out she was dating the girl who was… essentially his step-sister, in a lot of ways. He’d asked Jeanne look into her, to see what kind of person she was beyond simply being her mother’s daughter. She, in turn, had told him that she didn’t need to look into the girl then, because she already had rather thoroughly in the past, and that he had nothing to worry about. Over time, Seth had actually gotten to know the girl a bit more for himself, and confirmed her assessment. It was no surprise to Jeanne whatsoever that the girl had brought back her mother’s rebellion. Not after being her teacher for most of a semester back in junior high.  

Seeing the look of disappointment on the two men’s faces after telling them that she wasn’t with that particular group, Jeanne assured them, “Her children are part of that rebellion. Her youngest daughter brought it back.” 

“Her youngest daughter?” one of the men breathed. “Who is she, do you know her? Did you know her mother?” 

A fond smile touched the woman’s face. “Joselyn… yes, you might say our paths have crossed. As for her daughter, she does not know it, but we have met. And eventually, we will meet again.” She offered them a slight shrug then. “As I said, Wonderland may not technically be part of them, but we have contact. Do you… have friends there?” 

“I don’t know,” the short, furry man lamented. “Maybe. Everything was so… so confusing in the escape from those tunnels, my people said they knew where to go to find them, but I don’t know if they did.” 

“Come then,” she urged, turning to gesture ahead. “Let us go see if your people are there. And if they are not, I will help you find them. 

The taller, gray man blinked. “You… you’d do that? But you don’t even know us.” 

Meeting his gaze, Jeanne replied simply, “My hands have no eyes, no ears. They need not know a man to bring him up, to offer him food, shelter, or aid. My oath is to help those who need it, not only those whom I have called friend. Now come, we will find your family and friends.” 

“If they’re not with the rebellion,” the green-furred man lamented, “they may have fallen in with other evil men, like these.” His small hand indicated the bodies around them. 

“If that is the case,” Jeanne informed him, “and your people have been taken by more evil men, 

“Then more evil men will die.”

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