Sariel

Causality And Casualty 5-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Got news for you,” Sands informed me. 

“We’ve got more than one bad guy.”

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Causality And Casualty 5-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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