Seamus Dornan

Denouement 12 – Life And Death (Heretical Edge)

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“You… you saw her?” Flick’s tentative, quiet voice quivered just a little as she stared at Sariel while Tabbris stood a bit out of the way. The three of them were otherwise alone in one of the Atherby cabins at this point, almost immediately after the escape from the Crossroads prison. The girl had been immediately pulled aside by Mercury and taken to where Sariel waited while everyone else was still sorting themselves out. 

With a single nod, the Seosten woman carefully replied, “Yes. She’s okay, Felicity. Or she was when I… when we left.” Her face fell a bit as she added, “I’m sorry that I couldn’t bring her out. There was no way to do it, not with the spell Fossor had on her. If I possessed her, or took her away from there, it… there wouldn’t have been time to save her. There just wasn’t time, and I didn’t want to play that kind of game with her life. I didn’t want to take that risk.” 

Flick was quiet for a few long seconds, mind lost in considering everything that could have been. So close and yet so far from being reunited with her mother. “And if you did bring her, we don’t know how much it would have helped,” she murmured quietly, clearly trying to convince herself. “She’s still under his control, still sworn to follow his commands. He probably has her under orders to come back to him the instant she’s taken away. There’s not–we don’t know what would’ve happened.” Despite her words, it was clear that Flick desperately wished that a miracle had happened. 

In the end, it was Tabbris who came forward and put a hand gently on her sister’s arm. “Flick?” she began slowly. “A… a lot of good things happened today too. We pulled off a lot of really hard things.” 

With a small smile, Flick took the girl’s hand and squeezed it. “You’re right. A lot of really hard things happened today. A… a lot of really hard things happened this whole year. Impossible things. Starting the rebellion up again, escaping Crossroads, meeting Guinevere, getting the Seosten to back off for a year, everything that…” She swallowed. “Everything that happened with us being out in space. Finding out about you…” Her free hand fondly brushed Tabbris’s hair back. “I can’t believe it hasn’t even been a year since that day on the bus. I haven’t known about all this stuff for even a year yet. I’ve said it before, but it… it feels like a lot longer. A hell of a lot longer.” 

Gazing off into the distance for a few seconds, Flick finally shook that off before focusing on Sariel. “If you think I’m going to blame you for not getting my mother out of there, you’re wrong. You did the best you could. You… you got her friends, her old teammates out. That should’ve been impossible. I know what Fossor does, how he… how he likes to be in control. I don’t know exactly what you did, but I know that if you got both of those hostages away from him, it must’ve been one of the most amazing things in a world full of amazing things. I know you must have risked a lot to save them. You could have left. You could have recalled out of there. You had to fight my mom with Fossor right there, and you stayed? You stayed and you got my mom’s friends out. You saved them. If your guilt complex thinks I’m going to be mad at you because didn’t manage to throw the game-winning touchdown through a neighboring basketball hoop to pull out that game at the same time, you’re crazy. Yeah, I wish my mom was here. I really wish we could’ve added her to the list of rescued parents this year like that. But I’m not mad because it didn’t happen. This whole thing isn’t over yet. Nowhere near it. You didn’t fail to bring her back, you succeeded at stopping him from using my mother’s friends to torture her even more. You took them away from him.” 

Through the resulting long silence as Flick finished talking, she and Sariel stared at one another. Finally, Tabbris leaned that way and stage-whispered. “See, Mama? I told you Flick’s great.” 

The words made both of the others laugh a bit despite themselves, before the girl in question cleared her throat a bit awkwardly. “Um, you said you brought Roger and Seamus out of there?” 

“Yes,” Sariel confirmed. “But they are… well, they’re still being tended to. We’re having them checked thoroughly for any traps or tricks. You can see them as soon as we’re absolutely certain nothing… bad will happen. I don’t believe Fossor intended them to be rescued, but we’ve already found several trap spells on the two that he clearly left just in case. We’re making sure those were the only ones before letting them anywhere near you or any of Joselyn’s family.” 

“That makes sense,” Flick muttered darkly. “I’m pretty sure Fossor doesn’t like his toys being taken away. Of course he’d have contingency measures for even ones like them. And… and my mother… he’s had her a lot longer.” Her voice shook, eyes widening with thoughts of what kind of measures the necromancer might have taken to ensure her mother would be with him forever as she clutched a hand against her suddenly queasy stomach. 

Sariel stepped that way to embrace Felicity. “I will promise you every day until it happens, we will get your mother away from that monster. Whatever we have to do, he is not going to keep her.” 

Flick, a bit surprised by the hug but going with it, swallowed hard. “I… I know. It just feels like we’ve had to ignore him for so long this year. We’ve ignored him and look what he’s done. He killed one of the Committee members and blamed Gaia for it. He stole the Hangman rope for… for whatever horrible thing he’s planning to use that for. When I met him, I had one year before he came for me. Now I have a few months. That’s it. A few months, then whatever plan he’s got for me, whatever he’s been working on this whole time, it’ll be time for it.” 

“Whatever it is,” Sariel firmly assured her. “I can’t promise we’ll be ready for it. But I can promise that we will do everything possible to make sure you’re not alone.” She released the girl, stepping back to look at her. “As long as you don’t go off on your own. You understand? I know you want to save your mother. And he will probably promise any number of things. He might tell you that if you come to him, he’ll take you instead and release her. He might even magically swear to it. Do not listen to him, Felicity. I don’t care what he promises, what he threatens. If you go to him, he will win. Your mother–” 

“Mom would kill herself before she let me trade myself for her,” Flick murmured, glancing away. It was clear the thought had occurred to her before. Particularly with the way she and Tabbris exchanged very brief glances before the older girl’s gaze found the floor. “Or she’d just kill herself trying to get me away from him. I wouldn’t be saving her, I’d be condemning her to die one way or another. Either from doing something stupid to get me out of there, or just… or just being killed by him when he didn’t need her anymore. Or because he sacrifices her for whatever plan he has. I know. I know all that. I get it. I’ve thought about it for months now, all the time.” 

“You thought about offering to trade yourself for her already,” Sariel gently noted, watching her. 

A slow nod came. “I thought about it. I even worked out how it might go, how I could maybe make sure he had to follow through.” Then she shrugged, her voice hollow. “It wouldn’t work. It would be dumb, and… I’d be betraying everyone here. My friends, my dad, the rest of my family… you guys. I’d be hurting everyone just to feel for a second like I was being proactive. It would make me feel less useless for a second or two, that’s it.” 

Smiling very faintly, Sariel noted, “The fact that you recognize that puts you quite a bit ahead of many others I could mention.” Her voice softened a little more, as she added, “You are like your mother in many ways, Felicity Chambers. Almost supernaturally surprising at times.” 

Finally glancing up, Flick met her gaze, voice hard. “Whatever happens when my birthday comes, let’s just hope that necromantic bastard gets to be surprised too. I really want him to realize he’s made a huge fucking mistake about two seconds before his head comes off and we get to play soccer with it.” 

Raising a hand, Tabbris offered, “Maybe Chayyiel could possess you again. I’m pretty sure Litonya was really freaking surprised by that.” 

The words made Sariel begin to chuckle. “Yes, I’m sure that would–” She stopped then, blinking at her daughter, then to Flick, then back again while her mouth opened and shut. “Wait…

“Chayyiel did what?!” 

*******

From the dark cabin where several of the strongest mages the combined Atherby, rebel Seosten, and former Crossroads groups could field had gone over him with a fine-toothed comb to ensure there were no spells or other magical tricks, Sean Gerardo emerged. He stepped out, feet making the porch creak heavily as he moved down onto the grass. Down into the sunlight. 

He stood there, eyes closed for a moment while he slowly tilted his head up toward the sky. There, he stayed motionless, simply breathing in the new, non-recycled air. The real, true outside. Freedom. He breathed in freedom after eight years of imprisonment. He breathed it in. 

And he cried. Hands clenched at his sides, face upturned toward the sun in this moment of what should have been pure, unadulterated joy at his own freedom, Sean cried. Tears fell freely as he let go of everything he’d been holding in for so long. The unfairness, the unjust treatment, the insanity of his parents agreeing to it. He let all of it free, allowing it to fall right along with his tears. He was lost, adrift on his own chaotic maelstrom of fears, joys, loss, and triumph. 

He was free. Yet how much had he lost? Eight years. He had been there for eight years. Eight times longer than he had even known Flick. Those people had completely lost their minds. They were insane. His parents and the rest of them, they… they had to be stopped. He understood that more than he ever had before this. He understood just how far they would go to maintain their delusions, just how obsessed they were and how willing they were to break everything to avoid admitting they were wrong. This wasn’t a case of simply misinformed people. They truly, fanatically believed that if the entirety of humanity would be erased if they didn’t do what they were doing. They believed that every single species in the universe would gleefully eradicate every human being if given half a chance, that they were the lone defending force against total human extinction. And against that kind of pressure, against the extermination of all humanity, there were no measures that were off limits, nothing some of them wouldn’t do. 

This was going to be a war, in every sense of the word. More than anything else, he had learned that over his time imprisoned. The levels they were willing to go to… This wouldn’t be some simple matter of just telling them the truth. Many would never accept it. And those… he knew what would have to be done. He didn’t like it. But it was coming. To change society, to really change it… they would have to do harsh things. 

“Hey.” 

The word caught his attention, and Sean turned a bit to see his brother there. Ian stood a few yards away, just as bloodied and dirty as he’d been back on that battlefield. It looked like he’d gone through hell. 

“Gross, dude,” Sean murmured after looking him up and down. “Ever heard of a shower?” 

A snort escaped the other man before Ian crossed the distance between them. His hand moved to take his brother’s before stopping himself. “I–sorry. That… I guess you’re probably not used to people touching you, huh?” 

Glancing away, Sean squeezed Ian’s hand a bit testingly. “It’s kind of a new experience, especially doing it for real instead of in my head.” Exhaling, he turned his gaze back to the other man’s. “And that sounded really creepy.” 

“I’m sorry, man.” Ian’s voice was quiet, his hand still holding his little–now not so little–brother’s. “I’m sorry I haven’t been there for you. Not just through this… this prison shit. Ever. I’m sorry I’ve been a shit brother for so long even before that.” 

Sean shook his head. “Part of me feels like I should make a crack about how you’re just sad that you can’t give me noogies anymore. But… but maybe that’s just because this whole thing is really awkward.” He focused once more, meeting Ian’s gaze. “Everyone keeps saying they’re sorry, as if this is their fault. But I know whose fault it is. And they’ll get theirs.” 

“Our family’s kind of fucked up, isn’t it?” Ian muttered the words under his breath before muttering several curses in Colombian Spanish. “You’re right, they’ll get theirs. Mom… Dad… and all the rest of them.” 

Before Sean could say anything to that, Sebastian came into view from the side of the cabin. “It’s not going to be easy, you know,” the man announced. “Physically or emotionally. It’s not just your parents. It’s your old classmates, your friends. It’s other people’s family, people they care about. All these people here in this camp? All the Heretics who came here, they’ve all got people they love or want to protect who stayed at Crossroads. This whole thing is going to be one big joda.” He gestured then. “Now, you two gonna hug so I can get my own out of my favorite nephew, or what?” 

“Oh, he’s your favorite nephew now?” Ian started before Sean gave him a little yank by the hand. The two embraced briefly, hands clapping each other’s backs before they stepped aside.

“Now?” Sebastian retorted while taking his turn to embrace Sean tightly. “He was always my favorite.” He leaned back then, looking up at the boy… man in question. “Even if he did get too damn tall like the rest of you.” 

With a dry chuckle, Sean replied, “Not our fault you stopped growing at sixteen, Tío Sebastian.” It was such an easy thing to say, springing straight to his lips. Then he thought about the fact that, from their point of view, he hadn’t been that much older than sixteen very recently. It was enough to cast a dark cloud over their reunion, but he pushed on anyway. Just because you couldn’t stop dark clouds from showing up didn’t mean you had to lay down in the puddles they made. “What are you doing here anyway? I thought you retired.” 

Giving him a long, thorough tongue lashing in Spanish at the very suggestion that he would sit on the sidelines while his nephew was in trouble, Sebastian settled with, “And I’m not sitting out any more. Not this. Not now. This war is going to take everyone. Especially if we’re going to get anywhere with it before this whole Seosten time limit thing is up next year.” 

“That and you don’t want Mateo running off by himself,” Ian noted mildly. 

“Mateo would never be off by himself,” Sebastian informed him. “He’s got his pack. And… speaking of which.” With a brief glance over Sean’s shoulder, he took Ian by the arm. “Come on then, let’s not monopolize the boy.” He met his just-freed nephew’s gaze pointedly. “Whatever happens with your parents, Sean, you’ve still got family. Don’t you forget that.” 

Ian started to say something else, before he too looked past Sean. Raising an eyebrow, he murmured, “Muy bueno, hermano.” Then he allowed himself to be pulled away. 

With a very small smile as he shook his head, Sean spoke up. “Hey, Roxa.” 

There was a brief pause before the girl’s voice flatly asked, “Did your brother just call me ‘very good?’” 

Snorting, Sean turned to face the girl. When he saw her, bloodied, covered in mud and dirt, clothes torn, he made a noise in the back of his throat. “Oh… God. He wasn’t wrong. You… look…” Stopping himself, he winced while shaking his head. “I’m sorry. Shit. I know we had this whole thing going on and to you it was like… a couple months ago. So you really didn’t sign up for… for this. I spent eight years building you up in my head. Eight years thinking about what you looked like, making this perfect picture of you in my own imagination, some… crazy version idealized of you that couldn’t hope to match up to reality. I spent eight years building the perfect image of you in my head. 

“So how in the hell is the real you even more beautiful than I ever imagined?” 

In a rush of motion, Roxa was in front of him. Her arms went around his neck, and she hopped, legs wrapping around his waist as her mouth sought and found his. 

He kissed her. He held her. His arms clutched the now-much younger girl tight against himself, and he didn’t let go. Not for a very long time. 

His girl. 

His wolf. 

*******

“You know, if you were really that tired of being identical, there were easier ways to take care of it.” 

The words came from Sands, as she stood in the camp medical center with her hands on her hips, staring at her twin sister. Scout was sitting on the edge of a hospital bed. Or rather, most of her was. Her left arm had been removed entirely, all the way up to the shoulder. In its place was a thin rounded metal cylinder about eight inches long and three inches thick. 

In response to her sister’s worried teasing, Scout poked her in the stomach with her remaining hand, offering her a smile before simply saying, “Upgrade.” 

“Yes, yes, upgrade.” Instead of Sands, it was a short, red-skinned man with a bright shock of wild white hair who spoke then. He stood barely an inch taller than the twins, approaching with a couple fancy-looking tools in two of his four hands (he only had two arms, each splitting around the elbow into two forearms) as he offered them both a smile. “It is an upgrade. But as I said, if you would prefer to take the time to let the arm regenerate more… naturally, even with magical assistance, that is an option. With your kind of power and what was done to your arm, it will take a month or so, but it’s there.” 

“Are you sure about this, Scout?”  Larissa asked from where she was sitting, tensely watching her girls. “You don’t have to go with the tech replacement if you don’t want to.” 

Head shaking at that, Scout softly replied, “Advantages are good.” 

“Alright,” the doctor, an Alter by the name of Bhenquiet (he went by Dr. Ben) announced while using his tools to make a couple last minute adjustments to the implanted metal cylinder. “Remember, anytime you want to take it out and allow the arm to grow normally, let me know. Do not try to do it yourself. I don’t want you hurting yourself or my work. Here.” He stepped back, gesturing for Sands to do the same. “Let’s see it. Just like I told you.” 

Closing her eyes, Scout focused. It took a few long seconds before there was a flicker of an image from the cylinder. It flashed in and out a couple times, then reappeared and solidified. It was her arm. Or rather, a solid holographic projection of her arm that looked identical to the real thing.

“It’ll be stronger than your old arm was, though not as strong as you could get it to be through… powers,” Dr. Ben informed her with only a slight bit of awkwardness around the idea of her killing others to make her real arm stronger. “Right now I’ve got it programmed for the arm, a sword, a shield, and a few other basic things. You can go through them and add more. I’ll show you how, or you can get a programmer to do it. There’s some other details, about what kind of magic you can use with it, that kind of thing. Oh, and don’t forget, you can’t activate magic that requires touch with this hand. It’s not real. If you’ve gotta touch a spell to activate it, you’ve gotta use your real hand. Understand?” 

Scout nodded, before asking, “Doug and Jazz?” 

“The girl’s just fine, just a little beat up.” The answer came not from Dr. Ben, but from Donald Therasis, Rudolph’s many-greats grandfather. The older man came into the medical cabin carrying a clipboard in one hand and a leather bag in the other. He set both down on the nearby table before adding, “Douglas chose to have his own eye replaced similar to Scout’s arm, though I’ll let him share the specifics with you. I wouldn’t dream of taking that kind of surprise away from him.” 

With that, he embraced Larissa. “I’m glad you all made it out. It sounds like things were… intense.” There was a certain sadness behind the old man’s eyes. Long as he had lived, he still felt great pain at the loss of those he cared about, and he had truly cared for Rudolph.  

But he did, at least, now understand what had happened to the boy. He had the whole story, and had made the choice to come here to the Atherby camp to help in any way that he could. 

With a small smile, Larissa squeezed the man tightly. “We’re all glad you’re here, Donald. I’m pretty sure we’re going to keep you, Dr. Ben here, and a lot of other people pretty busy this year.” 

“Not too busy,” Donald replied easily, “I’ve still got a tennis game to keep up on. And speaking of tennis, how’s the girl’s new arm working out?” 

With a thought, Scout made the holographic projection of her arm turn to a sword, then back again. “Good.” 

“So she says,” her mother murmured, stepping over to put a hand on it. “Feels pretty close to the real thing, at least.” She smiled then, though it was a worried smile. “My brave girls. My Sandoval. My Scout.” 

“No,” the girl corrected, head shaking. “Not Scout. Sarah. 

“Just Sarah.” 

*******

“Joselyn should be here.” 

It was late that night, the celebrations (punctuated by careful tests for any kind of trickery or traps) having gone on throughout the day and evening. There was still a lot to do, even just counting dealing with the prisoners they had pulled out of the Crossroads prison and figuring out who could be trusted. There was more work to be done than anyone could name. But for now, for this moment, they were celebrating. 

This particular celebration, somber as it might have been, revolved around the seven figures who sat around a small campfire on the edge of the lake. Five had been former teammates. Deveron, Lillian, Seamus, Roger, and Tribald. The other two were Felicity Chambers and her father, Lincoln. As the flames crackled, the group listened to the music, shouting, laughter, and general merriment coming from the rest of the camp. 

Roger, who had just spoken, continued. “She should be here. Not… not with that psycho.” 

“She started this,” Tribald murmured quietly, the incredibly tall, disconcertingly lanky man’s knees drawn up almost awkwardly as he poked at the fire with a stick. “She should be here now that it’s back.” 

Deveron cleared his throat a little, glancing toward Lincoln and Flick. “We just have to bring her back. Even… especially if it means prying her out of that necromancer fuck’s cold dead hands.”

“I like that plan,” Lincoln put in before laying a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “I mean, I didn’t grow up with Joselyn the way you all did. I don’t know her as well. But–” 

“Yes, you do.” That was Deveron, his voice quiet, yet firm. “You might not know the Heretic, Lincoln. But you know the woman. You know Joselyn. Everything important, everything that’s her, you know.” 

The two men met each other’s gazes for a moment, a deep understanding passing between them before Lillian spoke up. “Dev’s right. You know who Joselyn is, the kind of person she’s always been. For details… we can provide those. Until she’s here to do it herself.” 

“Speaking of details,” Seamus began, reaching over with his foot to bump Deveron’s, “are you planning on looking like that for the rest of your life, or would you like to join the rest of the adults?” 

Giving him a wry smirk, Deveron gestured. “Okay, okay. I guess part of me was just waiting for the best time. But this is as good as any.” His hand reached up, producing a knife from nowhere. Drawing a thin cut across his arm, he held it out over the fire. As the blood dripped into the flame, the man murmured a spell under his breath. He grimaced then, while the blood continued to drip until a small onyx marble appeared, drawn out of his arm. The marble fell into the fire as well, breaking apart into a cloud of black smoke. 

Over the next few seconds, Deveron’s appearance changed. He grew older, appearing much like himself, but in his late twenties. While the others watched, he stretched out a bit, cracking his neck and then his knuckles. “Ahhh… there. Good to be me again.”

“Pffft.” Dismissively waving a hand, Flick informed him, “Sean already beat you to the whole ‘suddenly appearing older than he was’ trick. Now it just looks like you’re copying him.” 

“Oh good,” Lincoln muttered in the wake of that, “now I can stop feeling quite as awkward about my wife having children with a guy who looks too young to vote.” 

“Gross,” Flick informed them both before pushing herself up. As Lincoln made as though to stand up as well, she waved him off. “Stay. You guys… talk. I just need to stretch my legs. I’ll be right back.” 

With that, she looked around the fire at the group of her mother’s old friends before stepping away. Silently, the blonde girl walked away from the camp a short distance. She climbed the nearby hill, thoughts kept only to herself, as Tabbris was with her own mother and other siblings.  

At the top of the hill, Flick stood there and looked out at the camp. She watched all the people. Some were Atherby regulars. Some were Crossroads rebels. Still others were Seosten former prisoners, freed from the hell created and maintained by Kushiel. 

Finally, she raised her gaze to the sky. “Well, Mom, we’re doing it. We’re gonna keep this whole rebellion thing going. You know, until you can be here yourself to show us all how to do it right. Then you can tell us all about how bad we are at it and fix everything.” 

Smiling a little to herself, Flick repeated those words more quietly. “Fix everything. I guess that’s gonna be a lot harder than I ever thought, huh?” She sighed, long and low. “There’s so much going on, so many bad… evil… horrible people. Sometimes it feels like it’s too much. I suppose… when it comes down to it, no matter how many things you have to do, no matter how… overwhelming it feels, all you can do is take one step at a time. It might be a lot of steps. But I’ve seen the video of you teaching me how to walk. I started… running almost before I even had walking down. Okay, it was a goofy run and I nearly killed myself a few times, but still. I’ve been crossing steps faster than I was supposed to basically my whole life. Old habits die hard.  

“I love you, Mom. We’re coming for you. No matter what happens, I swear, we’re coming for you. We are. I just…” She sighed, long and heavy. “I wish… I keep wishing we had something, anything that… that was an advantage. Something to… something to hold over him, or to trick him with, or… I don’t know. It just feels like he’s always ahead. Sariel got one over on him today, but I don’t think something like that’ll work again. And I just… wish we had… anything that could–”

“Hello.” 

The greeting, coming from behind Flick, cut her off. She turned, expecting to see one of the camp people, or maybe one of the new Crossroads rebels. Instead, she found herself facing a blueish-green figure, partially transparent. The figure was a teenage girl, pretty even in that state, with short hair and a mischievous look. 

“What–who… you…” Flick stared in confusion. “You’re a… a ghost, right? You’re a ghost. Did… I call you or something? I’m not very good at this necromancer thing yet. It’s kind of a whole issue.” 

“Yes, I am a ghost,” the impish girl confirmed. “And I’m here because of your power. But also because I want to help you.” 

“Help?” Flick echoed. “How–I don’t understand. What can you help with? Who are you?” 

There was a brief silence as the ghost girl hesitated. Then she met Flick’s gaze. “My name is Rahanvael. My brother is the one you know as Fossor. 

“And I can help you beat him.” 

TO BE CONTINUED IN YEAR 2. 

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Denouement 9 – Matres Dimicatio (Heretical Edge)

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The first attack came instantly, as a jet of white-hot fire erupted from Joselyn’s outstretched hand, straight toward Sariel. The Seosten boost kicked in and she threw herself into a sideways roll just as the lance of flame shot through the air where she had been. 

Coming up to one knee, Sariel managed to snap her arms up to deflect the kick from the other woman, who was suddenly in front of her. Despite her Tartarus-enhanced strength, and the similarly enhanced boost, she was barely able to deflect the kick from Joselyn. Instinct very nearly kicked in for her to possess the woman in that moment, but that would be very bad for both Joselyn and the other two prisoners. 

Using the moment it took the other woman to recover from her leg being thrown aside, Sariel came to her feet. “Joselyn, I know you have to do what he says.” She took a quick step back from the blade the woman produced from her arm that swipe through the air, before pivoting away from the follow-up kick. “So I—” 

The kick had been more than a kick. With that same motion, Joselyn brought a sharp spike of metal out of the carpeted floor. Sariel noticed it at the last instant, throwing herself into a backward flip almost too late, as the jagged steel spike lanced up to collide with the ceiling, cutting along her left arm in the process to draw a line of blood. 

Spinning around the spike, Sariel produced several metal throwing daggers. Her hand snapped out to send them flying toward Joselyn, but the woman was no longer there. She vanished from that spot, leaving the daggers to narrowly miss Roger. 

“Ooh, gotta be careful there,” Fossor noted. He was eating a small bowl of ice cream from the shop in the mall, while casually leaning against the door jam. “You kill one of these guys and it kind of defeats the entire purpose. It would be pretty fun for me though. So carry on.”

Joselyn was behind her. Sariel’s head snapped forward and down just as the woman’s blade arm cut through the space there, taking a bit of her hair with it. “I won’t try—” she began again while pivoting to face her as the blade cut close once again. Only her exact motion as she turned made it narrowly miss. “—to tell you to fight it or anything. And—”

Gravity reversed itself, abruptly making Sariel fall toward the ceiling. Joselyn created a dozen balls of green glowing energy and send them flying up after her while snarling a dark and angry, “My children.”

As she hit the ceiling, metal coils popped out of it to restrain her, but Sariel quickly kicked off, launching herself into a flip. She twisted and corkscrewed through the air perfectly to avoid the coils just before the balls of energy exploded. Sariel had managed to evade the worst of them, but the force of what did hit was enough to throw her out of range of the gravity reversal and to the ground, where she rolled and tumbled end over end before coming to a stop with a cough and grunt. 

“Yeah. Your children.” The words were a quiet murmur as she frowned inwardly before pushing herself up once more, just in time to snap her head back from the decapitating strike that Joselyn sent at her neck. She danced backward, head shaking. “Joselyn, I’m sorry. I am so—”

Once more, she was interrupted, as the other woman teleported right beside her, blade stabbing for her stomach. Sariel’s bow appeared in her hand, fully extended as she used the upper part of it to deflect the blade. She blocked several more furious follow-up swipes, backing up the whole time while Joselyn gave chase. Dancing back with a bit of boost to get a couple feet of distance, she quickly nocked an arrow by pulling the string and send a shot at the incoming blade. It bounced off, spinning through the air before cutting into the wall a few inches from Seamus’s cheek on the other side of the room, to Fossor’s obvious amusement as he raised the bowl of ice cream like a toast to her nearly killing the man.  

Grimacing, Sariel quickly ducked under a lunge, pivoting while staying bent over to avoid the follow up swing, before quickly snapping her body upright once more as Joselyn adjusted for a vertical slash. That last was so close it cut along her leg, drawing more blood.  

“I love my children,” she announced quietly while launching another shot that missed Joselyn’s head by a hair’s-breadth, taking a small nick out of the top of the woman’s ear before embedding itself in the wall. “I love them more than anything in this world or any other.” 

Joselyn’s hands snapped out, sending a torrent of fire that singed the other woman as she threw herself backward. Sariel’s back hit the wall next to Roger, and she blinked a bit, dazed for a brief second while Joselyn came for her. At the last possible instant, she recovered just enough to snap her head out of the way as the other woman’s blade cut past her to hit the wall. 

Joselyn tried to snap the blade back and down to cut through Sariel’s side while simultaneously using a telekinetic shove to push her into it, but the Seosten woman was ready for it. A small blue stone appeared in her free hand, the command word leaping to her lips even as she was shoved toward the blade by an invisible force. Instantly, the prepared spell made a glimmering forcefield appear directly behind her. Joselyn’s blade struck that, while the telekinetic shove knocked Sariel into the opposite side of it. Blade and woman were millimeters apart, separated by that simple glowing shield of energy. In the next instant, Sariel used the command to disable the shield, sending the kinetic energy it had absorbed from the blade blow back out the same way it came in. The force knocked Joselyn back a step, her arm snapping out as she grunted. 

Sariel tried to use that, pivoting around while notching three arrows at once. All of them were loosed toward Joselyn… and none reached their target. The one sent near her face was caught in a simple exhale of frost breath that caught the arrow in the air, stopped it short while ice formed around it, and dropped it to the ground. The other two, aimed for her left shoulder, were knocked aside by that blade arm and sent spinning off. One struck the wall across the room, once more almost taking Seamus in the throat. The other went straight for Fossor’s right eye before it was caught in the air by a ghost, who solidified just in time to catch the arrow. The necromancer didn’t blink. He simply took another spoonful of ice cream and smiled faintly. 

With a grunt, Joselyn sent herself up and back. She hovered near the ceiling while summoning a veritable armada of metal spikes, each about four inches long and razor-sharp. They were like Sariel’s throwing daggers, yet there were hundreds of them, all floating in the air around and in front of her. Her chin gave the slightest gesture, and they all flew at Sariel, like a swarm of angry wasps. On the way, they turned white-hot, and a small shield of energy appeared around them. The kind of energy that would allow the blades to pierce any more forcefields Sariel tried to summon on short notice. 

So, she didn’t summon a shield. Instead, Sariel threw herself into a long, backward fall while notching her bow once more. This time, she drew back not one arrow. Not even three arrows. Six. Six arrows were notched onto her bowstring. Two between her pinkie and ring finger, two between her ring and middle finger, and two between her middle and index fingers. As she threw herself onto her back, an instant before landing on the floor, she loosed those arrows toward the incoming swarm of blades. The arrows shot out, spreading to strike six separate incoming blades at seemingly random points. Those six blades were each knocked off course, crashing into six others, then a few more beyond that. The second set that were hit collided with more. Soon, most of the hundreds of hurled blades were sent flying into the floor, against the walls, or even up into the ceiling. 

In the end, only a handful of blades made it through and kept going. Three struck the floor where Sariel had landed, except she had already flipped herself up and over to land on her feet as the trio of blades sank into the floor. One remained, which skimmed past her cheek, drawing a thin red line there while also cutting a lock of her hair on its way past. 

Joselyn was behind her, and Sariel felt a sudden crushing force all but knock the wind out of her as she was slammed into the ground by the woman’s telekinesis. Landing hard, she was held in place by that same crushing force, which stopped her from moving and seemed as though it would collapse her chest and shatter her ribs any second. Standing above her, Joselyn looked wide-eyed and conflicted, her fury fueling the order she had been given, while her very nature and personality made her instinctively try to draw back from following through on this attack. But she couldn’t. Her deal with Fossor had been made. Killing Sariel in no way, as far as they knew, put Felicity in direct danger. And the sheer anger and grief that Joselyn felt so deeply at what had been taken from her so long ago made it nearly impossible for her to even slightly resist the order she’d been given to kill Sariel. Any hesitation, any at all, took a truly Herculean effort. 

So, Sariel didn’t rely on anything like that. As the invisible force continued to push down on her, she focused, summoning a new prepared spell-stone to her hand. As the blue rock with the rune inscribed in it appeared, she immediately spoke the command word while she still had a bit of breath to do so. The spell activated, sending a narrow burst of kinetic force almost straight up in the direction Sariel was looking: directly at Joselyn. It struck the other woman in the chest hard enough to knock her back a few steps, breaking her concentration. Instantly, the telekinetic force vanished and Sariel was able to flip herself to her feet. 

Even as she landed, another geyser of flame was coming at her. A new stone appeared, and she spoke the command to fill the air on that side with a wave of cold that froze the flame. 

Six metal coils popped from the ground like tentacles, attempting to grab Sariel. Yet another stone-summoned spell sent a cloud of reddish-brown dust in every direction. Wherever the dust struck, the metal coils rusted completely through instantly and fell apart. 

More powers were sent at Sariel. But while she was not a Heretic, Sariel had something almost as good in this moment. She had magic. Magic she had spent quite a long time preparing. And the weaknesses most mages possessed in needing to reach for their prepared-spells, she didn’t have. Her Tartarus gift meant that she could instantly summon any small object she focused on to her hand, including her spell stones. Dozens upon dozens of enchanted rocks and bits of paper were stored on Sariel’s person, and she could summon any of them to her hand with a thought. That was the only way she had to counter the powers Joselyn was sending at her. 

Finally, the oath-bound Heretic switched back to a more direct, physical attack. Appearing beside Sariel, she shifted her hand into a blade once more while lashing out for the other woman’s arm. Quick as she was while boosted, Sariel still only barely managed to avoid taking the full cut and possibly losing her arm entirely. As it was, Joselyn’s blade cut deep across her bicep. And the woman didn’t stop there, following up with a dozen rapid-fire cuts, all of them aimed to disable Sariel. She’d worked out that she couldn’t put her opponent down with one well-placed stab, so she was working to wear Sariel down with multiple small injuries, cutting her here and there while constantly forcing her on the defensive. She attacked relentlessly, never giving the Seosten woman time to regroup. 

Then she kicked it up a notch. Suddenly, Joselyn was moving faster than she had before, faster than even Sariel in boost. Her bladed arm snapped out cobra-quick, nearly taking her opponent’s throat in the sudden burst of speed. Sariel, in turn, barely managed to use the body of her bow to deflect the blade off into the wall, her retreat backward stopped as she ran into Roger. 

“I’m sorry,” Joselyn murmured while shifting her hand to a red metal as she slammed it toward the other woman’s stomach with enough force to punch through a stone wall. 

Before the fist could strike her, however, Sariel had already summoned something else to her hand. This was not a spell rock, however. It was a small metal ball that disintegrated as soon as her hands touched it. Within the ball was a tiny chipmunk. The tiny creature had time to look surprised for just an instant before Sariel disappeared into it, possessing the animal just as Joselyn’s empowered blow demolished a good portion of the wall behind them. 

As the chipmunk, Sariel landed on the floor before quickly jumping to bounce off of the woman’s leg then to the wall, parkour style. Clinging to the wall, she ran up and around it, past Roger’s head as the blade struck out multiple times, each cut coming within millimeters of taking the tiny animal’s heart out. 

In mid-run sideways along the wall, Sariel abandoned the chipmunk, leaping out while leaving it to continue running. Her energy form appeared in midair, reforming into her physical body, already holding her bow up and ready. Before landing, she shot off three arrows at once, then rolled and came up to one knee while loosing yet three more. 

The first three were shattered in mid-flight as Joselyn simply waved a hand. The other three were subsequently smacked aside by her blade and sent flying away. Before she could rise from her knee, a pillar of ice erupted from the floor under her, slamming Sariel upward toward the ceiling. She barely managed to fling herself off before she would have been crushed, flipping over in the air as she brought several more throwing daggers to her hand and sent them at the figure below her. Joselyn stopped them all in midair with a hand, while Sariel landed on her feet. But an instant later, the Seosten spoke the command word, making the daggers explode with enough force to stagger the enslaved Heretic. 

Sariel didn’t give her time to recover, instantly using her bow to launch five more arrows at the woman before launching herself into a sprint straight at her. Joselyn, stumbling slightly and off-balance, still managed to smack the arrows out of the way. All save one, which struck her hip. It didn’t do much, aside from draw blood. But Joselyn reacted, ripping the arrow out and disintegrating it into dust just as Sariel reached her, swinging the bow at her face. A thought brought the bow up short, stopping it just before the thing would have struck her. Joselyn could see the sigils glowing on the staff, proof of the spell that would have affected her had she simply allowed it to hit. 

For a moment, the two women stood face-to-face, simply staring at one another. Sariel’s expression softened, as she met Joselyn’s gaze. “I am sorry for what happened to your children. I never intended that. Never. But I did intend for your husband to be used as a hostage to force you to surrender. I was doing my job, trying to end the war and bring things under control. I thought… I thought things could change without everyone killing each other. I thought we could fix things peacefully. I thought…” She breathed in and out. “I thought a lot of things that were wrong.” 

“You keep apologizing,” her unwanted opponent managed to hiss. “But my children were still taken away. I lost decades of my life.” 

Joselyn came after her with the blade again, attacking relentlessly and with incredible speed. As before, even with boost, Sariel could barely keep up. Joselyn was faster, but Sariel had the edge in experience and the added benefit of a perfect knowledge and understanding of her own body’s positioning at all times. She kept moving, alternately ducking and using her bow to deflect incoming swings. Her opponent was like a woman possessed, power coiling around her as she attacked again and again, from every angle, a blur of motion. Sparks flew from the weapons as they clashed, along with the sound of the blade hitting the walls now and then. Back and forth they went, blade and bow clashing and swinging through the air in a wild, yet beautiful ballet of danger and violence. 

Finally managing to throw herself backward, Sariel notched an arrow and loosed it in one motion. The enchanted shot triggered as it hit the floor, sending a burst of kinetic energy. Joselyn was ready for it, raising a shield to absorb the impact. But it did slow her down a couple steps, giving Sariel time to speak as she notched more arrows and loosed them one at a time in quick succession while backing up. Each word came with another arrow. “I thought I could fix everything, if I talked to your husband.” 

Twelve words, twelve arrows. None actually hit Joselyn. They were deflected in one way or another, mostly knocked aside or disintegrated.

They were back to fighting straight on, Joselyn right in front of her as Sariel continued, blocking and dodging. “I thought if he was captured, I could find a way to talk to him privately. Get him to understand the stakes and that you needed to work more quietly, that we could change things from the inside if you negotiated. I thought I could set that up. I thought I could control what Ruthers did. 

“I was wrong. You and your children, your family, paid the price.” 

Thought it all, they were a barely visible rush of motion back and forth through the room. Powers flew, and were countered by spells. The blade came closer and closer, nicking Sariel here and there. Light to moderate cuts were all over her body, and both women were breathing heavily by that point as they put everything they had into this. 

“And I know. I know what that’s like,” Sariel informed the other woman in a soft, somewhat broken voice as they both broke apart briefly to regroup. “I know what it’s like to lose your children, to have them taken away from you. For that, I… for my part in that, I can never, never apologize. Not enough. I can never make that right. I’m sorry. From the depths of my soul and with everything I am or could ever be, I am sorry. I will bring you back. You have my word, my life on it. I will protect your children, and I will find a way to bring you back to them, back to your family, Joselyn Chambers. I swear to you.” 

Tossing his empty bowl aside, Fossor spoke up. “Ah, maybe you should focus on exactly what you’re going to take away from her right now so you can add that to the apology list. Just a thought.” 

Joselyn had stopped for the moment as Fossor spoke, giving herself and Sariel time to breathe. The Seosten woman gave a faint shake of her head without looking away from the powerful Heretic. “Nothing. I am taking nothing away from her. Not this time.” 

A light chuckle escaped Fossor. “You know the rules. You let her kill you, and Seamus dies. You kill her, and… well, you’ve taken her away from her. And also Roger will die, though I suppose that’s more pettiness on my part than anything else. You run away, they both die. So I must say, if you plan on getting out of this without taking anything from her… that would be a very good trick.” 

“Trick?” Sariel quipped. “It’s called an illusion. And the thing you should have remembered through all of this, Necromancer…

“… is that I don’t miss.” 

As she spoke those words, Fossor and Joselyn both looked, really looked at the room around them. The marks, the ones on the walls next to Roger and Seamus. The arrows that had been deflected that way, the thrown daggers, even the marks from Joselyn’s own blade as Sariel had lured her back and forth, they weren’t random. Some were, of course. She couldn’t control every deflection and some weren’t perfect. But enough were. The ones that mattered. The marks from arrows, daggers, and blade had been carefully planned throughout that entire fight, to form a very specific design around each of the men. 

Not just a design. A spell. Sariel had used her own deflected shots and Joselyn’s blade to mark both walls with a spell, while also using her telepathic connection with the other three Seosten to warn them to leave the mall. 

Fossor’s mouth opened, a command leaping to his lips even as several of his ghost servants appeared. But in that exact instant, as planned through their telepathic link, Mercury triggered the spell he had set up. All of the man’s zombies in the mall immediately blew apart or disintegrated, while the force of their destruction was sent back along the connection they had with their creator. Fossor literally staggered against the wall and fell, a cry of disoriented pain escaping the man as blood fell from his mouth and eyes to pool on the ground. Over only a few seconds, all of the fear, pain, and death he had inflicted on the people he’d turned into his zombies here in this mall was shoved right back into the man. He survived through his link to the people on his own world, but was deeply disoriented and hurt by the backlash. 

The oath Joselyn had sworn forced her to both obey and protect Fossor. She did so the only way she could in that moment, by lunging toward the Seosten woman. But Sariel was faster. With three rapid words and a rush of power that she shoved into the runes she had so carefully drawn out, the woman activated the teleportation spell. 

And in that second, she and both of the imprisoned men vanished, escaping safely while Fossor was left coughing up blood on the floor.

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Patreon Snippets 9 (Heretical Edge)

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Hey guys! Here are (most) of this edition of Patreon snippets. There was one request for a bit from Summus Proelium, which is awesome to already have! After some thought, I’ve decided that mixing snippets from different stories could probably get confusing for anyone who is reading through only one or the other at any given time. So I’ve decided to keep them separate. But by the same token, one 500 word snippet is entirely too short for a whole chapter. Thus, we will simply have that stuck onto the end of the next actual Summus Proelium chapter as a sort of addition, with a quick note about what exactly it is. 

As a quick reminder,  the way these work is that every month, each Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars is able to request five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. All of my gratitude and thanks go to them for making this story possible. 

“Koraug, Teragn, Meyfers, Three-oh-oh-two, Three-oh-oh-three, Zaps, and Qork, with me!” The tall, blond man calling out names from a list stood in the doorway of a large barracks-like room. Hundreds of simple cots filled the room stretching off into the distance. At least, they looked simple at first glance. In reality, there was a powerful forcefield blocking each occupant from leaving their cot or the small area immediately around it. Not only that, but while most of the cots were of generally uniform size, there were some that were either much smaller for occupants who were actually tiny, all the way up to beds that were several times larger than normal. 

Gordon Kuhn’s father, a dark-skinned man with a neatly trimmed goatee named Sindri Koraug, rose from his bed as the forcefield dimmed. His eyes, pure silver with no white or pupil to them, glanced over the other six people that had been called as they all made their way to the Eden’s Garden Heretic who had summoned them. 

A second Heretic stepped into view, this one a younger-looking dark-haired female. “The hell, Coppe? Where’re you getting all those names from? Only thing on that list is the numbers.”

The blond man replied, “Simple, Pike, I’ve asked them what their names are before. The ones who gave me a name, I use. Three-oh-oh-two and Three-oh-oh-three haven’t.” With that, the man gestured to the assembled group. “Come on, big job today.” 

He turned to leave through the doorway, followed by Pike. Sindri glanced around at his companions as they filed through as well. Teragn was a male Orc, Meyfers a female Deitezen (a humanoid species with no hair, green skin, four eyes, and no mouth who communicated telepathically and also had telekinetic abilities), Zaps and Qork were both male Gafaiez (short, squat beings who looked like piles of rocks and crystals capable of generating lasers of varying intensity from the gems that were scattered throughout their bodies), and ‘Oh Two and ‘Oh Three were Trolls. 

The group walked together through the Heretic outpost. The world they were on didn’t have a name yet. It had only recently been discovered. This was the first exploration camp sent by Eden’s Garden. By the Lost Scar tribe, specifically, to whom Sindri and all of his companions belonged. The camp itself had only been set up a couple weeks earlier, and was essentially a circle of quickly-erected buildings set down in the middle of a clearing that had been created at the edge of a forest of gray-and-black trees. The dirt under their feet was a light orange, and a mountain that the camp was near was mostly black as well. 

Given the make-up of their group, Sindri had a pretty good guess of what their job would be. His assumption was born out as they were led right up to the side of that jagged, imposing mountain.

“Boss wants a defensive station,” Coppe explained. “That means cutting into this mountain so we can use it as a backdrop. That’s your jobs today. Cut into the hill here so we can start moving buildings in. There’s a design page here.” His hand extended a sheet of paper, which Sindri took. “Follow the illustration, come if you have any questions. There’s breakfast on the table there.” He pointed nearby. “Lunch will be in four hours. If you do a good job, you’ll get double allotments for dinner tonight. Any questions?” Receiving nothing but silent looks, the man nodded. “Good. Get busy. We’ll be watching.” 

As he turned to start in on the newest job, Sindri thought briefly about his wife and the son he had not seen for so long. Were they okay? Were they safe? He had to assume they were, as if any of his captors had known anything about them, he had no doubt he would have been killed to prevent any word of human-Alter genetic compatibility. 

And that was good enough. Whatever he had to do, wherever he had to work, as long as he was put to work and treated like any other slave, it meant they didn’t know about his son. Which meant his family wasn’t in immediate danger.. 

If it meant they’d stay that way, he…

*******

“… could move mountains,” Lincoln Chambers announced. “You know, before I found out that Jos literally could at some point. But not counting powers or anything, just force of personality. Talk at a mountain and make it decide to move.”

Lillian Patters looked up from the table where she and Lincoln were sitting on the porch of one of the cabins. “Joselyn has that effect on people.” 

With a small smile, Lincoln noted, “I asked her about Lillian, you know.” 

“You asked her about Lillian?” she echoed curiously. 

The man nodded. “I asked her where the name came from. She didn’t know. She just said it was a nice name, that it made her smile and… and that she felt like our daughter would be safe with that name. Like it would watch over her.” 

With a small smile as a pang of heartache swept through her, Lillian quietly replied, “I felt the same when I suggested my daughter use Joselyn for her daughter’s middle name.  It just felt right.” She looked away then, thinking about her old best friend, her sister in almost every respect. Memories, newly unlocked, flooded her mind. Too many to focus on. 

Finally, she breathed out, forcing herself to speak through a somewhat shaky voice. “It… must have been hard for you, to believe that she would just leave her family like that.” 

Lincoln didn’t respond at first. She looked up once more to see him gazing off into the distance. His voice, when he spoke, was soft. “I didn’t believe it at all for… maybe ever. I thought she was… taken, abducted, from the beginning. The message she left, the things people said they saw when she took off, the phone call to the station… none of it was convincing. Not for me. I just… I just knew she was in trouble. Someone had her, someone was hurting her. I knew it. So I… I tried to find her. For a couple months, it was all I focused on, following every lead, harassing her old deputies, calling the FBI every day.” 

Watching his face, Lillian pointed out, “It doesn’t sound like you really changed your mind.” 

He swallowed. “I guess I kind of made myself set it aside. Two months, and… and I had to put it away. There were no leads, no signs of her, no one was taking me seriously.” 

“But you wouldn’t have given up like that,” Lillian murmured. “Not after two months. What happened?” 

“Taddy,” Lincoln answered softly, looking over to her. “Taddy was… he was the stuffed raccoon that Jos gave Felicity when she was a baby. She loved that little guy more than anything. I was still working on the case, still trying to find Joselyn a couple months after she disappeared. It was… it was getting to me. I found one of her sweatshirts that she wore the night before she disappeared and was trying to go over it for any hairs or anything that weren’t hers, in case the guy who took her made contact earlier. I guess I kind of lost myself in it, and Felicity saw me. The next thing I knew, she…” He swallowed hard once more, breathing unsteadily. “She cut it apart. She ripped it into pieces. She destroyed it, to hurt her mother, because she thought her mom hurt me.” 

Lillian winced. “That’s when you decided to focus on raising her.” 

“Yeah,” Lincoln confirmed. “That’s when I knew that… that Joselyn would want me to make sure our daughter was okay. That’s where I put everything I had, on… on raising Felicity, on being there for her. Because I realized that I was obsessing so much on finding Jos that I could lose our daughter too. I… I had to choose which one to save. I chose Felicity.”

“That’s the choice Jos wanted you to make,” Lillian assured him. She hesitated then, before asking, “What about this Flick thing? I prefer Felicity, for the record.” 

“She decided she hated the name Felicity,” Lincoln informed her. “I… I couldn’t argue with her. It made things worse. She connected Felicity to her mother, since Jos loved that name so much. It was…” He paused. “It was actually… this year, at her birthday, when she finally said she wanted me to call her Felicity again. Here I thought it meant she’d made some big breakthrough about forgiving her mother. And she had. Little did I know she made that breakthrough because the psychotic piece of shit necromancer who took her mother to begin with showed up to gloat about it and tell her that her mother never chose to abandon her at all.” 

Lillian reached out to touch his arm, squeezing it. “You and Felicity have been through a lot this year.” Pausing, she amended, “You’ve been through a lot your whole lives, even if you didn’t know it.” 

With a soft chuckle, Lincoln nodded in agreement. “Tell me about it.” He checked his watch before standing. “But do it on the way to meeting Scott. I’m told you and he have some history.” 

“Some history?” Lillian snorted. “The boy owes me fifty dollars from one of his previous lives.” She glanced to Lincoln while standing. “That must’ve been a lot for you to take in too, this boy who grew up right in your view turning out to be a lot older than that.” 

“In the grand scheme of things, it’s one of the larger surprises, yes,” Lincoln confirmed, heading for the steps. “Kind of makes sense though. I always thought that kid’s musical taste was really old-fashioned.” 

Lillian started to respond to that, before her gaze moved to look off the porch. “Looks like we have company,” she announced with a smile at the sight of the young Seosten children rushing up to meet them, accompanied by their current (rather exhausted) babysitter. As the kids approached, they waved while loudly calling…

*******

“Walker!” 

The trio of voices chorusing his name made Jonathan Walker look up from the newspaper he had been reading while leaning against the black Mercedes that he drove for his employer. He watched as said employer’s three young children, two boys named Bart and Max who were in sixth and fifth grade respectively, and a fourth-grade girl named Erica, all ran from their school to meet him. 

“Hey, kids,” the man greeted, opening the back door of the car to let them all pile in with their backpacks. “How was school, oldest to youngest?” He walked around to the driver’s side then, getting in just in time for Bart to launch into the story of his day. 

Pulling away from the curb while listening to that with one ear, he glanced into the rearview mirror and caught sight of his own face. The way the shadows fell across them made it look as though he had two very black eyes. And in that brief second, he wasn’t in the car. He was transported back to that day forty-five years earlier, when so much had changed. 

He wasn’t born Jonathan Walker. He’d gone through several names and identities in his time, most of them bad ones. Johnny Walker just happened to be the brand of whisky that was used in the bottle that was broken over his head in the barfight that had resulted in him having two actual black eyes. 

The barfight he had lost against a normal human. He was a werewolf. A werewolf, and he had lost a fist fight with an ordinary human being. A human being named Arthur Chambers, in fact. 

That had been a wake-up call, but it wasn’t the only one. Seeing him lose a fight had made his pack abandon him. The man left on the floor of that bar with no pride, no pack, and nothing left in his life had decided to erase it all. He’d changed his name, changed his entire identity. He had remade himself, seeing that as the low point from which he would either lose himself literally, or metaphorically. 

He chose metaphorically, abandoning everything he had been. Taking the name of the last drink he’d had (as well as the one that had been broken over his head), the newly dubbed Jonathan Walker set out to educate himself, grow in every way he could, and eventually became bodyguard and driver for the rich and secretive. His current job, protecting these children, had only been a thing for a couple years. But it was already one of his favorite gigs. He loved these kids, and God help anyone who tried to hurt them. 

“Sounds great, Bart,” he spoke up then while guiding the car to a stop. “Just make sure you ask your mom or dad before having those kids over next week. You know the rules.” His eyes moved then to catch sight of the other boy. “Max, how’d that project go? You tell Miss Forter about Donny not doing his share?” 

Yes, getting the shit kicked out of him and being abandoned by his pack back in ‘73 had been a damn fine wake-up call. A lot had changed since then. For the better, as far as he was concerned. He was a different man. Without that beating, he had no idea what kind of person he would be today.

When all was said and done, he definitely owed Arthur Chambers a drink. 

******

“Four. You owe me four drinks,” Seamus Dornan informed his cousin. The red-haired man, who stood only five-foot seven inches, seemed smaller than that as he leaned over the bar scribbling notes on inventory papers. Given the time, the place was empty aside from himself and the man he was addressing. Roger Dornan, his cousin. 

Roger was an inch shorter than Seamus himself, and of even slighter stature. His own hair was a very light blond, worn down to his shoulders. At the moment, he was throwing darts at a nearby board. “We own a bar, dude,” Roger informed his cousin. “Put it on my tab.” 

“You do have a tab, you know,” Seamus retorted. “I’m keeping track of every drink you take. Every drink I know about,” he belatedly amended. “Just because we own the place doesn’t mean we get to take everything we want. We have to keep track of it, or you’ll put us out of business.” 

“And I am right on top of paying that back,” Roger distractedly and unconvincingly replied, judging his aim before throwing the dart. Halfway there, it multiplied into a dozen identical darts, all of which hit the board along the triple score band, with one hitting the exact center. “God, I am good.” 

Turning then, Roger asked, “How many are we moving this morning?” 

Flipping over a paper, Seamus replied, “Looks like nine. They’re waiting downstairs. Seven are anyway. We’re still waiting on a couple Rakshasa. Think you can get all the way to Wonderland without getting pulled over for speeding again?” 

The cousins, though they were Heretics graduated from Crossroads, had abandoned their former beliefs almost six years earlier after encountering a group of Stranger children and finding themselves both unable and unwilling to kill them or leave them to die (or direct other Heretics to the so-called threats). They’d taken care of the children, realized they couldn’t go on like that, and proceeded to fake their own deaths. 

From there, Roger and Seamus had made up new lives, purchased this bar to operate as their cover story, and began to work as transport experts, helping take fleeing Alters safely from one place to another. The two of them knew how Heretic checkpoints worked, could break the various enchantments used to track down Alters or alert Crossroads or Eden’s Garden about them, and in general could keep their charges safe. 

It wasn’t much, given everything going on, but Roger and Seamus both knew they had to do something, and with only the two of them, they didn’t dare openly go against the Establishment. Faking their deaths, using their inside knowledge to keep some Alters safe, developing contacts within that world who were only now, six years later, starting to trust them? That was something. Not much, but something. 

Then it hit. As Roger drew back his hand to throw another dart, and Seamus opened his mouth to tell his cousin to do something useful by checking on the group downstairs, both were hit by a sudden wave. A sudden rush of information… knowledge… revelations. It staggered the men, sending Seamus stumbling back a step while Roger collapsed into the nearest booth. 

Slowly, the two rose. Their gazes found one another, and the two men each spoke a single word, a single name, together. “Joselyn.” 

“She needs help,” Seamus announced, his voice cracking a little from the force of the memories and revelations still exploding through his mind. 

“Yeah,” Roger agreed, just as staggered. “But where the hell is she?” 

******

“Right in there.” 

Atop a dark roof several blocks from the glitz, glamor, and blinding lights of the Las Vegas strip, two figures stood. Their backs were to the neon paradise, attention focused instead on a building across the street. It was ostensibly a motel, though one that charged only by the hour (and in many cases, not even that much time was needed). More relevantly, it had been closed for the past week. Closed to new guests, anyway. But it was far from empty. There were lights on in many of the rooms throughout the six-story structure, and the parking lot was half-full. 

“Yeah,” Haiden Moon continued under his breath, “I’d say that’s where our friends are. Right there.”  

Beside him, Sariel nudged his arm and nodded upward toward a large winged figure on the roof. It was armed and watching for people like… well, like them. But Haiden wasn’t worried. The invisibility circle that his wife had drawn around them would stop their friend up there from noticing anything as long as they stayed within it. 

“Yeah,” Sariel agreed quietly, “I’d say this is definitely where those kids got dragged to.” There was a hardness to her voice that reminded Haiden just how personally his wife took someone putting children in danger. 

It made him smile a bit. Sure, the two of them having children was apparently impossible. But still, if they happened to adopt or… or anything in the future, it was good to know that the woman he loved was so great with kids. 

“What do you see?” Sariel asked him, her own gaze on the lookout, who had brought up his rifle to look through the scope toward the strip off in the distance. 

Haiden lowered his gaze from the sniper to the rest of the building, focusing on running through several different vision powers as he scanned the whole place. “They’ve got it pretty well shielded, but… looks like a large group of smaller energy sources on the third floor, near the middle, with three stronger sources around them.” 

“That’ll be the kids and the guys watching them,” Sariel murmured. “As close to the exact center of the building as they can get, to make it harder for any outside group to reach them before they portal away.” 

Haiden nodded. “That was my read too. Beyond that, a few dozen guys spread through the floors above, same amount below. There’s a small army in there, babe.” 

“The part of that they’re going to regret is ‘small,’” she informed him with a wink. “You ready for this? I don’t want to take the chance that they move those kids again, after taking this long to find them.” 

“Yup,” Haiden agreed, reaching into his trench coat before withdrawing four metal balls. He held them out, his attention on the building across the way as he pointed with his other hand. “See that window with the blue curtains? That one.” 

Sariel took one orb at a time, running her thumb across the spellwork inscribed in each before throwing them across the street to hit the each corner of that window. The metal balls struck the wall there before sticking firmly. Once all four were in place, they glowed red once before fading. 

The room was too magically protected to go straight through from the outside. The abductors had taken care to put a powerful shield around the space they had the children stashed. It would take too long to break through that shield before the men inside could portal themselves and their prisoners away. 

But the point of the orbs wasn’t to break through the shield. Instead, the orbs would use the forcefield, adding their own effect to it. An effect which would essentially stop any sound from outside the shield from penetrating, leaving those within deaf to anything going on outside of it. 

In other words, Haiden and Sariel could make as much noise as they wanted without alerting the people inside the room. 

“You want upstairs or downstairs?” Haiden idly asked, glancing to his wife. 

“You take downstairs,” she replied, leaning in to kiss his cheek. “I think angels are supposed to come from above.” 

With a small smile, Haiden nodded. “I guess you should stick to the brand, huh?” Running his hand through her hair, he watched for a second until their friend on the roof moved to another spot of it to check that direction. Then he moved to the edge. “Let’s do this then.” 

“Yes,” Sariel agreed, taking a few steps back before running forward. “Let’s.” 

Haiden held a hand out, waiting for his wife to get near before creating an energy platform about knee height. As Sariel leapt onto it, he made a heaving motion, sending it, and Sariel, flying up toward the top of the other building. That done, he stepped off the roof, falling several stories before landing lightly on his feet on the street, as though he’d simply stepped off the curb. Straightening, he walked toward the door of the motel. 

******

Leaping from the flung forcefield to land silently on the roof of the building, Sariel saw the tall, angular figure across from her spin that way. His rifle was already raised and ready to fire. But she was faster, her hand having lashed out to send the knife in it flying even as she landed. By the time the lookout had the barrel in line with her, the blade had already driven itself through his eye. As the weapon embedded itself there, it sent an electric shock through his body to ensure that his brain shut down entirely. He collapsed to the ground without firing a shot. 

Using her power, Sariel recalled the throwing dagger without breaking stride as she moved to the nearby hatch. Crouching, she checked the spell on it, taking a few seconds to carefully break the enchantment that would have signalled everyone below if anyone but the man lying dead on the other side of the roof had gone through. Once the spell was disabled, she opened the hatch and dropped through. 

*******

As Haiden strode toward the motel entrance, a figure stepped out to stop him. “Sorry, bud,” the man started before jerking to a halt, hand grabbing for a weapon inside his jacket as he blurted, “Heretic!” 

That was as far as the man got before Haiden abruptly appeared behind him, teleporting to the man’s back before catching him around the neck. “You know,” he murmured in the frantically struggling guy’s ear, “I’ve felt pretty guilty about willy nilly killing every non-human out there for a long time. But you? Someone who kidnaps little kids just to start a war they can profit off of? I’m not gonna feel guilty about you.” 

With that, he snapped the man’s neck with a single motion, letting the body fall as that familiar rush of pleasure went through him. He barely acknowledged it, already moving to the door. A man was there, starting to come through with his gun raised. Haiden, however, teleported across the remaining twenty feet or so in an instant, lashing out with his foot to kick the door. The blow sent it flying backward, crashing into the face of the man who was trying to come through. He stumbled, gun firing wildly twice through the gap that had been left. The bullets struck Haiden, but did nothing to penetrate his skin. 

“Dude,” Haiden informed the man while stepping through the doorway, “you’re gonna need a bigger gun.” 

Then he moved, his speed suddenly magnifying to the point that all the man in front of him would see was a blur, as he tore the extended gun from his grasp, crushing it in the same motion as he threw it away. His left hand caught the man’s side while his right held his head, and he hurled the guy sideways to crash into the wall with so much force that his skull was instantly caved in. Haiden was moving so fast in that moment that he actually spun around to the opposite wall and used it to cave the other side of the man’s head in before his death even set in. 

Another rush of pleasure, even as the sound of running footsteps filled the hall. 

*******

Landing lightly on her feet after dropping through the roof hatch, Sariel found herself standing directly between two men, with a third further down. Even as they started to react, she drove her elbow hard into the face of the man behind her while simultaneously shoving the blade in her other hand up through the throat of the one in front of her. Blood sprayed wildly from the wound as she dropped her elbow away from the first man, letting him double over, clutching his broken nose. Using that, she vaulted up and over his hunched form, landing on the far side of him even as the one further down the hall opened fire. Three of his shots hit the body of the man she had already killed, while it was still collapsing. Several more hit the wall right where she had been an instant earlier. 

The man who had been doubled over gave a shouted curse, pivoting to bring his own gun up toward her. But it was gone. The weapon in his hand had vanished, as had the one being held by his still-living partner. Both guns simply vanished from their hands. 

They reappeared in Sariel’s, one held against the near man’s cheek, while the other was aimed down the hall toward the man who had been holding it an instant earlier. Each fired once, the resulting shots putting their respective owners on the ground. 

Tossing the guns to either side, Sariel retrieved her knife from the first man’s throat before jogging for the stairs. 

******

Seven men flooded the hallway ahead of Haiden, rifles raised or hands brimming with energy of their own. One held barely-contained lightning between his palms that was ready to lash out at the threat. All of them came rushing through, saw the Heretic ahead of them, and moved to open fire. 

Just as abruptly, they jerked aside as his black sword was hurled their way. It sailed past the men, embedding itself in an open door somewhere behind them. There was the slightest pause as the group looked from the apparently wildly thrown sword, then back to the Heretic. 

“Uh,” Haiden started with a small smile, “could I get a do-over?” 

Apparently not, as all seven of the men suddenly opened fire. Bullets, lasers, fire, and lightning were sent his way, while Haiden made a pulling gesture with his hand. A sudden pillar of rock broke through the floor, rising up to impose itself between him and the incoming shots. It instantly shuddered under the assault, unable to hold up for long. 

But that was okay. It didn’t need to hold for long. Safe behind his rock wall for the moment, Haiden gave a sharp whistle. Down the hall, beyond where the men stood, his sword reacted. The black blade slid apart right where the glowing red line was, and a pair of gun barrels popped out. They swiveled around to face behind the sword before opening fire to take the gathered troops completely by surprise. 

Several of the men were cut down almost instantly, and Haiden gasped his way through the pleasure of that before forcing himself to focus. A thought and a gesture with both hands broke what remained of the rock pillar into two balls, which he quickly reshaped into spears and sent flying that way. Two of the remaining four men were taken down as the rock spears went right through their backs when they spun to face the sword. The remaining two tried to run for it, sprinting past the sword while the guns swiveled to follow them. Haiden, however, quickly teleported that way. His foot lashed out to kick one of the running men into the nearby wall, while he yanked his sword free and spun, throwing it once more. This time, the blade went right through the last guy, impaling him against the wall. 

“Do-don’t-” the man that he had kicked into the wall used the second he had as his partner’s death gave the Heretic a brief rush of pleasure to plead through the blood that soaked his face. “Just a job. It was just a job. Nothing personal.” 

Haiden lifted his chin. “My friend,” he replied, “that job was kidnapping little children.” He grabbed the man by the throat with one hand, lifting him up before making a gesture that made a rocky spike pop out of the nearby wall. “I take that very personally.” With those words, he gave a sharp shove, impaling the back of the man’s head on the spike before turning away as his aura flared up. 

******

Eventually, Haiden and Sariel met at the door of their destination. Dozens of bodies lay around them, the last stand of the guards who lay outside of the hostage room, while dozens more littered the other floors of the hotel. 

“Chinese,” Haiden informed his wife while flicking blood and… other bodily remains off his blade. “We should totally have Chinese after this. I’m starving.” 

“Once the kids are safe,” Sariel reminded him. “And you’re always starving.” 

“I work up an appetite,” he defended himself, moving to one side of the door. “Let’s see…” He focused his vision on the door, looking through it as he judged locations of the energy signatures. With a flick of his hand, he made an image appear on the nearby wall, a roughly drawn outline of the room beyond. He sketched out the square of the room, showing where the door they were standing by was, then drew in the small circles of the children in the middle, along with the exact locations of each of the three guards. One was just behind the door, one in the far corner, and one standing just over the kids. “Got it?” 

Sariel gave a short nod, cracking her neck before producing her knife in one hand and a small rubber ball with a spell inscribed on it in the other. “Go.” 

He went. Haiden kicked the door off its hinges, already hurling himself through to tackle the nearby man to the ground. 

In the same moment, Sariel hurled the knife with one hand and the ball with the other. The knife flew straight through the eye of the man in the corner, dropping him an instant before the ball bounced off the wall where he had just been standing. The ball rebounded off that wall, flying toward the remaining guard, who ducked out of the way. 

Then Sariel activated the spell on the ball, teleporting herself to it. She appeared behind the man, a second knife appearing in her hand. She drove it through his ear, triggering the brain-killing shock on the blade before giving his collapsing body a shove over the nearby bed. 

Eight children, none older than ten, sat on the floor of the motel room, staring at her and Haiden as the man rose from the body of his own target. They huddled together, a few already starting to cry, while others rose protectively in front of their frightened friends. 

“It’s okay,” Sariel assured them, making her knife disappear as she took a knee in front of the kids. Her voice was as gentle as she could make it. “It’s alright. Your parents sent us to bring you all home. You’re safe now.” 

As safe as they could be, that was, while being the youngest children of the Three Families, the trio of Akharu, Vestil, and Oni who ran Las Vegas. Their abductors had intended to renew the bloody war that had been put on tentative truce for years now. The vampires had always hated the Vestil, and both hated the Oni. But the vampires and the mages had joined forces against the Asian demons, before one of the Akharu leadership’s sons had fallen for and married one of the Vestil princesses. That locked the local vampires and mages into a somewhat shaky alliance that the Oni didn’t want to risk dealing with. So, all three sides existed in something resembling a truce, controlling different parts of Las Vegas proper, with the strip considered neutral territory. 

With their children gone and all of them blaming each other, the war would have been rekindled. Sariel and Haiden had been hired to find the kids before that happened. 

It was a living. And with their children returned to them, Haiden and Sariel’s anonymity and protection within Vegas would be assured by the Three Families themselves. 

For awhile, at least… they would be safe here. 

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Mini-Interlude 80 – Joselyn and the Codell Tornadoes

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May 20th, 1919

“Boy, this place isn’t looking so good.”

“Let’s have your home get hit by three tornadoes in three years and see how good it looks.”

The first remark came from Roger Dornan, whose small stature and light blond hair were truly at odds with his fiery temper and impulsive attacks. The reply, meanwhile, came from his cousin, Seamus, who looked similar enough to Roger that many thought they were brothers or even fraternal twins. His hair was somewhat darker and he was a couple inches taller. But other than that, the two were quite similar in appearance if not temperament.

They were two of the members of seventeen-year-old Joselyn Atherby’s Crossroads team. Around them were Joselyn herself, her roommate and best friend Lillian Patters, Deveron Adams (whose appearance had been so radically altered several months earlier after he had killed an incubus), and his own roommate and best friend, Tribald Kine. All six wore civilian clothes rather than the school uniforms (with white trim in Tribald’s case, green trim in Roger’s, blue in Lillian’s, red in Joselyn and Deveron’s, and purple in Seamus’s). This was an attempt (hopeless as it was) to not stand out as much around here.

Here, the place being discussed, was the small town that the six of them were slowly walking through. Roger, for all his lack of tact, was actually correct. It really did not look very good. Despite the last tornado striking a year earlier, there was still visible destruction. They had already passed several houses as well as a hotel that had been completely torn apart, and according to their briefing, a church and school had also been ruined, along with more houses. Some of it had been rebuilt, though not all.  

“Seamus is right,” Joselyn noted quietly, watching as a stray dog jogged down the street across from them. “Three tornadoes in three years, always on May 20th. Something’s not right here, and I doubt it’s these peoples’ fault. So keep looking.”

“I’m looking,” Deveron replied, his voice flat. “I’m looking at all the people glaring at us because they think we’re lookie-loos just here to gawk at their town if it gets hit by a tornado again.”

From the other side of the boy, Lillian reached out a hand to pat his back. “Let us know if the bad people giving you dirty looks hurts your feelings, Dev. We’ll make them knock it off.”

Rolling his eyes at the girl’s teasing, Deveron retorted, “My point is that we’re attracting attention. Which is going to make it hard to look around. We kind of stand out.”

“We would anyway,” Tribald pointed out, “no matter what day this was. It’s a small town.”

“So how exactly are we supposed to find out what caused those tornadoes, let alone stop it this time?” Roger demanded through his teeth while flashing an elderly woman staring at them from across the street a bright, toothy smile. He waved at her, and she said something most likely nasty under her breath before going back into her house.

The woman wasn’t representative of the whole town, though there had been more than a few who expressed their clear annoyance at what they thought were, as Deveron had said, curious lookie-loos just there to see if another tornado happened. There were also plenty of those who had been quite friendly about it. And, of course, the ones who were sad.

Those were the worst. While the town had been hit by three tornadoes in as many years, always on the same day, the first two had been much less devastating. Not only had they been smaller, but they had missed hitting the town head-on by going to the east and west of it, respectively. But the one the year earlier had been both much stronger than the first pair, and had gone straight through the town. The first two had only done property damage. The last had not been nearly so lucky, killing ten people.

That was why Joselyn and her teammates were here. Crossroads was incredibly busy, still dealing with the aftermath of the recent Great War among the Bystanders even six months after it had ended. It was an ongoing effort to handle everything, which meant students had to step up, such as now. Looking into the causes of the past three years of tornadoes and (hopefully) stopping it from happening again was considered their ‘hunt’ for this month. And, Lillian had noted before they arrived, was probably also part of their yearly final.

It was also the second hunt after Joselyn had had her… life-changing experience during the werebear situation, and over a month since Gaia Sinclaire had taught her to keep her revelations more quiet rather than shouting them from every rooftop. She had, however, been through all of it with her team. They were her friends, and she would not stand idly by as they unknowingly committed atrocities just because that would be easier.

The conversations had not been easy. Some harder than others. Seamus had actually been the hardest to convince, while Lillian had been the easiest. The others fell somewhere in between. But they all listened eventually, particularly with a little help from Gaia. The woman had also helped to keep Headmaster Ruthers from paying too much attention to Joselyn and her team.

Joselyn still didn’t know what they were going to do, but she knew it was something. No matter what Gaia said about taking things slowly, they still had to actually stop what was happening. Innocent people were being slaughtered by Heretics who didn’t know any better. Someone had to put a stop to that, and Joselyn was damn sure not about to wait for some other person to do it.

That was, however, a problem for later. Right now, they had to figure out this tornado situation.

To that end, Joselyn shook her head at Roger. The six of them had stopped at the end of the largest street in town after giving the whole place a slow walkthrough. “I’m… not sure. I don’t think Professor Konstant knew either. She’s probably just hoping that we’ll stumble into something by blundering around and drawing attention to ourselves.”

“If whatever’s going on is Stranger-based, that’s not a horrible plan,” Tribald admitted. “I mean, considering they have no actual leads or anything. Strangers are probably going to notice a bunch of Heretic students snooping around.”

“This feels entirely too much like being bait,” Roger muttered under his breath. “I don’t like being bait.”

“Nobody does,” Seamus assured his cousin before shaking his head in Joselyn’s direction. “So what do you want to do now, boss? Should we tell Carver we couldn’t find anything?” Alvis Carver was their team’s second-year mentor. Apparently his father, Bentley, had turned down a teaching position at the school three separate times when Headmaster Ruthers had tried to bring him on. None of the students were sure why, and Alvis didn’t talk about it much aside from noting that his father and Ruthers didn’t get along very well.

Now, Joselyn shook her head, murmuring, “Not yet. Maybe they put us out here as bait and maybe they didn’t, but either way, we’re taking it seriously. We’re going to figure this out.”

How, she didn’t know. But it sounded good, and gave her a few seconds to think.

While she was thinking, Roger grumbled, “I bet this was all Ruthers’ idea. He wants us to fail.”

“He wants Joselyn to fail,” Lillian corrected. “The rest of us are just in the crossfire.”

She started to tell her friend that they didn’t blame her for that, when Joselyn interrupted. “We’re not going to fail. We’re going to figure this out and stop it from happening again. First…” She hesitated for just a second before pushing on, shoving her indecision away, “First, we check out one of the places the tornado hit the hardest. We’ll use that magic-tracer spell Seamus was talking about the other day and see if there’s any residual magic from anything that might have drawn the spell that way. Then we’ll go from there. Hopefully that’ll at least tell us something.”

“Yeah,” Deveron agreed, “like if there’s something else drawing a new tornado today.”

Together, the six made their way back through the town, attracting a little more attention. Not as much as they could have though. Most of the people were already holed up inside, trying to wait out the day while hoping their town wouldn’t be the sight of a fourth tornado in as many years. There weren’t that many people still out on the streets. Those that were mostly either gave the group annoyed or sympathetic looks. A few called out that they should get somewhere safe, with varying levels of annoyance or genuine helpfulness.

Eventually, they reached the ruined remains of the hotel that had been destroyed by the previous year’s incident. It was pretty much an empty lot at the moment, with most of the debris taken away to build new things, such as fixing up the also-demolished school. There wasn’t much on the hotel lot aside from the foundation and just enough of the walls to know that there had once been a building there.

Carefully, the group made their way over the ruins. Their gazes moved solemnly across the very few broken bits of debris that still lay scattered through the foundation, taking in the only signs that there had ever been an actual building in this spot. None said anything for a few moments, each simply thinking about just how much power it had taken to rip through this structure and reduce it to what they now saw. And each also thinking about the fact that so many people at Crossroads itself could manage the exact same thing with a flick of their wrist.

Finally, Joselyn cleared her throat. “Um, okay. Let’s spread out and try that magic-tracer spell. Everyone pick a different spot. If it finds anything, we’ll track back along the line.”

They did so, each of them moving to a different spot before using a field-engraver to carefully use create the symbol for the magic-tracer spell. Seamus, as the member of their team both most experienced with that rune and the best with magic overall, took the time to check and make minor corrections to each to make sure the spells were perfect before they were used.

Half of the spells were too far from any residual magical tracings to detect anything, and another barely found a hint, too little to work with. But Deveron’s and Lillian’s each managed to find a single, faint trail. Both of them could see a barely visible line leading out of the remains.

“This way,” Lillian started, waving for the others as she and Deveron slowly made their way back out to the street. The lines they saw were faint enough that it would have been very easy to lose track of them entirely, so they had to move very carefully. The rest of the team followed, staying out of the way and quiet to avoid disturbing the pair while they followed those lines.

They walked for well over an hour like that, all the way out of town. The lines of magic gradually grew more visible to Lillian and Deveron, making it easier to trace them back as they left the road entirely and began walking across an empty field in the middle of nowhere. The flat Kansas terrain meant that it would have been incredibly easy to get lost without any kind of landmark. Yet they kept going, following the gradually strengthening traces of magic.

Eventually, the traces led to a stream. Following the stream, they found a very small hill. The lines of magic seemed to lead directly into that hill. As the group searched around a bit, Roger pushed aside a bush and called to the others. He’d found a small hole, just large enough for one person at a time to squeeze through. Tossing a light stone through revealed a tunnel beyond that sloped downward.

“What now?” Seamus asked, looking to Joselyn. “Do we call it in, or–”

“Let’s check it out,” she decided. “One at a time. I’ll go first. You guys come in after me. Quietly.” She looked to the others until they nodded, then laid down on her stomach before pushing her way in through the hole as quietly and carefully as she could, trying not to make any noise. They had no idea what was in here, but if it was responsible for the tornadoes, there was no sense in warning the thing too openly that they were coming.

Scooting forward enough to get out of the hole and into the tunnel, Joselyn found the space just large enough to somewhat rise in, though she had to remain crouched. She waited there, moving out of the way so the others could come through. One by one, the rest of the team joined her. Once all were ready, they slowly crept down the narrow, sloped tunnel using the light from the enchanted stone to guide their way.

For ten minutes, they moved steadily downward, until the tunnel eventually opened up into a small cavern deep underground. The cave was about thirty feet across, went back about the same distance, with a ceiling of about fifteen feet. In the center there was a small metal circle about six feet across, slightly raised off the ground. It was clearly man-made. Or at least… not natural.

After exchanging brief glances, the group cautiously approached the circle. They took the time to check for more magic, eyes scanning to see if there were runes or anything to indicate traps. Finding none, they stopped at the edge of the metal circle and looked down.

There were words etched into it. Nothing they could read, as the symbols were of foreign or alien nature. But they were definitely actual, deliberate words. They stretched across the metal.

“It’s a memorial.” The announcement came from behind the group, and all of them spun to see a figure standing there in the shadows. As their light stones illuminated him, he stepped more clearly into view, revealing a body made entirely of stone. Their Stranger-senses instantly began to blare its unneeded warning, as the rock-man held up both hands, palms out.

“Heretics, right?” he muttered, seemingly unconcerned about that fact as he stared past them toward the metal circle. “I suppose it’s just as well. Better you do it than me. And at least I’ll be too dead to care.”

Though they had all drawn their weapons, Joselyn quickly put hers out to either side to stop the others from moving. Her gaze was intense as she stared at the stone figure. “Who are you? What do you mean, it’s a memorial? And it’s better we do what than you?”

There was a slight rumble as the stone figure raised part of his brow. “Heretics who ask questions? This is a strange day indeed.”

“We’re strange people,” Lillian informed him, while holding two of her metal bracelets in each hand. “Why don’t you answer them. Are you the one who keeps sending the tornadoes?”

“Am I the one who…” Echoing her words, the stone figure gave a low chuckle that echoed through the cave. “Ahh, if only it were that simple. How much better would this be, were it as simple as killing me to end such attacks.” He paused, seeming to realize that he had said nothing that would count as any sort of answer, before slowly approaching. The group parted, three to each side, while they warily watched him step near the so-called memorial.

He stood there, staring down at it for several seconds in silence. Finally, his words filled the cavern once more. “I am Dorarg. I know not why Heretics wish to know my name, or my story, before killing me, but I will… tell you. I am what my people call Denmiek.” He pronounced the word den-my-eek. “In our language, it means ‘soul of earth.’ Your people call me rock-elemental. There are also others of my world, called Denstarel, Denpien, and Denaksen. Soul of water, soul of fire, and soul of air.”

“Water, fire, and air elementals,” Deveron murmured, glancing to the others before asking, “Is that what those tornadoes were? Air elementals?”

Dorarg was silent for a moment before heaving what seemed like a long, heavy sigh. “Esenadey. She was… Denaksen. Soul of Air. She was… she was my friend. My best friend. We came to this world together. We explored it. We… we had adventures. And she fell in love. She loved a human from this world, a man of the place called Eden’s Garden. A Heretic, though he cared more for healing than for killing.

“They loved one another. They lived for one another. And we had… lives. But those of the Garden learned the truth. They hunted Esenadey and the man, Caladrius. I… I was not there. I could not get to them in time, and both were… were slain by the Caladrius’s brother Heretics. I came too late, discovered their… remains.

“You made this memorial,” Roger realized with the rest of them. “You… buried them here?”

“I’m so sorry,” Joselyn breathed, feeling a sharp pain in the pit of her stomach. “I know it doesn’t mean anything, but… I am. We are.”

Swallowing, Seamus carefully asked, “But… the tornadoes…”

Crouching, Dorarg brushed his fingers over the memorial, tracing the words on it that only he could understand. “I… Esenadey was… with children. Our people, when they… procreate, the eggs are set into our world. They hatch once a year, beginning a year after they are first laid. As each hatches, the child is drawn directly to their mother.”

“They’re drawn here,” Lillian realized. “And they find… they find out their mother is dead.”

“They’re children,” Dorarg murmured, hands running over the metal circle. “They are born with more… understanding than human children, about your equivalent of a nine-year old. But still, children. They come here. They learn that both of their parents are dead and that there is no place for them. In their grief, they… they rage. They flee. They… do what they do not mean to do.”

“They create the tornadoes,” Joselyn started, before amending, “They are the tornadoes.”

“But wouldn’t they be half-human?” Roger pointed out. “If her… if her lover was a Heretic.”

Dorarg’s head shook. “Our people do not procreate like that. It’s more… each parent invests energy, like creating a spell. That energy is used to split off small pieces of the chosen parent, creating eggs which eventually hatch into smaller versions of that adult. Caladrius contributed his magic, a part of himself, but they were physically Denaksen, not human.”

“They’re coming here once a year to find their parents,” Joselyn muttered, “air elementals with the intellect and emotions of a nine year old. They find their parents dead and… and they don’t know what to do.”

“They flee,” Dorarg explained. “They run, they fly, they… lash out. But they are children. Grieving children, but children nonetheless.”

“So you came here to… to try to talk to the next one?” Seamus asked.

The rock man slowly shook his head. “I tried to talk to the last one. It only made things worse. Our people are… long-time enemies. Esenadey and I moved past that, yet her children are too small and too new to these things to understand. They see an enemy. When her child of last year arrived, I attempted to explain things. But… seeing me so soon after finding his parents dead only made him lash out more. When her children come here, they feel her pain. They absorb her last emotions, so they can feel how afraid she was. Between that and seeing me…”

“That’s why last year was worse,” Tribald put in. “Because he saw you and… and fled.”

“He was afraid, and… and grieving,” Dorarg confirmed. “As I said, my appearance only made things worse. So I came here today to end this problem by destroying the bodies. Destroying the remains will prevent Esenadey’s children from finding their parents. It should prevent more destruction. I spent the past year trying to find another way, but… but there is none. Should you wish to kill me after that, I will not stop you. But either allow me to destroy the remains, or… or do so yourselves, to protect the town and prevent any more deaths. Esenadey and Caladrius would want it that way.”

The group exchanged looks, silent conversation passing between them before Joselyn shook her head. “We’re not going to kill you, Dorarg. Listen, it’s a long story, but–”

Before she could say anything else, everyone felt a very faint breeze brush through their hair.

“It’s coming,” Dorarg abruptly blurted. “Her next child. We’re too late. The child is going to come through and–”

“Out,” Joselyn snapped. “Go. If the kid sees you, they’ll just freak out more.” To the others, she added, “You guys too. A bunch of us standing around is just going to make things worse. Go, hurry! Get out, I’ll meet you!”

The others hesitated, aside from Dorarg, who stepped back against the wall and melded into it, disappearing from sight immediately. Deveron and Lillian looked most resistant to leaving Joselyn alone, but were pulled away by the others, eventually going with them.

Left alone in that cavern, Joselyn waited as the wind continued to rise, throwing her short blonde hair around more wildly with each passing second.

Finally, a ghostly figure appeared almost directly in front of her, near the memorial. It looked like a small child of indistinct form, more of an impression on the air with little bits of wind gusting around in every direction around it than a physical body. A moment later they became slightly more definitive, a clearly female figure with a small glowing stone directly in the middle of the form, a stone that pulsed with magical power. This, quite clearly, was the same sort of magic that the group had followed back to this cave. It was one of these stones, the heart of the wind-elemental, that had left the trail.

The wind-girl stopped short, staring down at the memorial. She seemed to take in what was below the ground almost instantly, a sound of confusion and grief escaping her.

“Hey.” It was the only thing Joselyn could think to say, drawing the suddenly terrified girl’s attention, as the wind abruptly picked up with enough force to almost throw her against the wall.

“It’s okay!” Joselyn blurted. “I–Esenadey! Your mother, your mother was Esenadey!”

The wind didn’t stop, though it also didn’t grow any worse. The wind-girl had backed up to stand over the memorial, eyes wide as she stared at Joselyn.

Feeling that pain return, Joselyn quietly murmured, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry about your mother, and what happened to her and your dad. I–”

Before she could say anything else, the wind abruptly redoubled. Suddenly, she was thrown against the wall. A wail of rage and grief filled the small cavern, as the air elemental fled for the exit.

Seeing her go, Joselyn lunged. Her hand lashed out through the powerful winds, catching hold of the stone in the center of the Denaksen child. She held on tight then, allowing herself to be hurled through the tunnel and out of the hole into open air.

Seeing her teammates spread out, each with weapons drawn, Joselyn had time to blurt, “Don’t!” Then she was flying through the air. The Denasken took her fifty feet up, then a hundred, winds already rising. Dirt, rocks, and other random debris were thrown in every direction, while the strength of the gusts nearly threw Joselyn to the ground. Still, she clung tight to the rock, the literal heart of the tornado.

“Please!” Joselyn cried out, “don’t! I know you’re scared and I know you’re sad, but your parents wouldn’t want this! What happened to them was terrible, and wrong! It was wrong! But you can’t make things better by hurting people! I know what you’re feeling. I know it hurts! You don’t want to make other people feel that way! You don’t want to take their mothers and fathers away!”

Through all of that, the winds were getting stronger. The tornado was forming, and already it was very apparent that this would be worse than all of the others.

Using both hands to cling to the glowing, warm stone as her body was violently thrown around by the wind, Joselyn closed her eyes tightly before opening them once more. There were tears in them. “I know you feel like you’re alone. I know you feel like you have nowhere to go, and no one who cares about you. I know you feel betrayed and lost. I know you feel like there’s no one to help you, no one to teach you who you are, or who you could be.”

She paused then, glancing down. They were several hundred feet up by that point, the ground looming far below. Still, the girl pushed on, even as the winds threatened to tear her from the stone she was clinging to. “So I’m going to teach you! I’m going to teach you who you are! You want to know who you can be?! You can be the one who destroys a town full of people who didn’t do anything to you! You can be the one who lets your grief and your anger control you!

“Or you can be the one who saves my life.”

With those words, Joselyn released her grip on the stone. The winds instantly flung her away, sending the girl flying end over end through the air before she tumbled out of the tornado. She was falling, plummeting toward the ground while the sound of her friends screaming reached her ears.

Then… the falling stopped. The wind had returned, as Joselyn found herself floating in the air, the air elemental’s form directly in front of her. There was still profound loss and grief in those eyes, as the girl stared at her. They floated in silence like that, slowly sinking to the ground before the wind finally faded.

“This is who you are,” Joselyn quietly managed. “This is who your parents would have wanted you to be.”

Finally, the small, insubstantial girl spoke through the wind. It had the effect of making her voice sound as though it was coming from everywhere at once. “Mother… Father…”

“I know.” Joselyn’s own voice was quiet, strained from emotion. “I know. It’s not fair. It’s not. But you’re not alone. There’s someone here for you, someone who can help take care of you. Do… do you trust me?”

There was a brief hesitation before the Denaksen slowly nodded. The glowing stone that was her heart moved up and out toward Joselyn, as though indicating her level of trust by exposing herself.

Very slowly, Joselyn reached out, putting her hand against the stone. She felt the wind gently rush over her, almost like an embrace.

“You’re not alone,” she repeated. “You never have to be alone. I’ll be there whenever you need me. I’ll come, I promise. But I can’t raise you. I can’t teach you. Not the way you need. For that… for that you need him.”

She turned then, raising a hand to point a bit into the distance, to where Dorarg stood. Seeing the earth-elemental, the wind-child jerked back reflexively. But Joselyn quickly spoke up. “It’s okay. It’s alright. He’s a friend. He’s a friend of your parents.”

The girl was clearly still skittish, yet she stood still while Dorarg slowly approached. Together, wind and earth elemental stood facing one another. They seemed to communicate without words for a moment, before Dorarg looked to Joselyn. “She needs a name.”

It was a request that made Joselyn rock backward a bit. “A… a name? You want me to…? I… umm…” She paused, then looked at the distortion in the air that was the wind child. “… Fiona. That was the name of my–of the woman who adopted me. My mother. Fiona.”

From the way the air elemental brushed over her face and hair, Joselyn assumed she approved of the name.

She was just going to have to be very careful from now on not to laugh too much every time Papa Dustin said his wife was full of hot air.

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Mini-Interlude 45 – Joselyn

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The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the specific event during Joselyn’s first year as a student at Crossroads that turned her from loyal Heretic to budding rebellion instigator and leader. I hope you enjoy. 

Sunday, March 2nd, 1919

“We’re clear on the north end. How’s it look where you are, Jos?”

The voice of Joselyn Atherby’s teammate came through the badge that had been pinned to the front of her school uniform. It was loud and clear to her, yet somehow no one else could possibly hear it, no matter how close they were standing.

Not that anyone else was close to the blonde, short-haired teenager at that point. The girl crouched on the roof of the drugstore, hidden in shadows while she watched people and automobiles alike trundling by. After scanning the alley below her for a moment, she spoke up. “We’re jake over here, Tribald. Alley’s clear. No one’s getting out this way. Dev, you still got the bear in sight?”

There was a brief pause before Deveron responded. “Well, she’s not a bear right now. But yeah, she’s inside the left-most apartment. Lillian, you finished with your bit yet?”

Again, silence reigned for a few seconds before the voice of Joselyn’s roommate came back. “All set. Magical boundary should keep anyone from walking by this way or hearing anything.”

“Can we do this already?” Roger Dornan, another teammate, demanded with obvious annoyance. “It’s one werebear and there’s six of us. We can handle her.”

“Take it easy, Rog,” the other boy’s roommate and cousin, Seamus, scolded him. “Remember, we don’t want to screw this up. Unless you want a failing grade for this hunt.”

Roger retorted immediately, “We could get a failing grade for taking too long too. The alley’s clear, no one’s coming to investigate, and Deveron’s got the Stranger in sight. Let’s do it.”

“Jos?” That was Deveron again. “What do you think? Time to move?”

Leaning over the edge of the roof to look down one more time, making absolutely certain everything was clear, Joselyn finally nodded to herself while replying, “Rog is right, we can’t sit around second-guessing ourselves all night. Time to stop that bear before she attacks anyone else. You guys know the plan. Deveron first, make all the noise, draw her attention. Roger and Seamus hit her when she comes out. Tribald and Lillian hit her once she’s engaged with those two. I’ll cover things here if she tries to retreat.”

The acknowledgments came quickly. And almost as quickly came the sounds of the attack. Deveron, being loud and obvious as he broke down the door of the apartment building behind the drugstore that Joselyn was perched atop. A second later, there was a loud roar that made Joselyn shiver, despite the fact that she had been ready for it.

“Be careful, Dev,” she whispered to herself without engaging the badge radio.

Thankfully, Seamus and Roger joined in right away. For once, Joselyn was grateful for the latter’s impulsiveness. It meant that Deveron wasn’t left alone with the monster for that long.

Thirty seconds passed. Thirty horribly long seconds. Joselyn was regretting putting herself on back-up duty. But it had been the best choice, the best use of everyone. She knelt there, listening to the sounds of Tribald and Lillian finally getting involved. Five Heretic students versus one werebear. They could handle it, right?

She wished she was there.

The sound of a door squeaking nearby interrupted her inner lamentations, and Joselyn turned quickly to see the back entrance of the apartment building opening. As she watched with confusion, a woman stepped out, looking both ways. As soon as she saw her, Joselyn’s Heretic-sense began to scream its warnings. Apparently there were more Strangers inside the apartment building than they’d thought.

Just as Joselyn started to gather herself to stop the Stranger from escaping, pulling her Hunga Munga from their spot on her belt, the woman turned and began gesturing frantically for someone else to come out.

And come they did. Eight figures hurried through the doorway and into the small courtyard between the apartment building and the alley. Eight children, some of them tiny little things, ranging from what looked like four years old to around ten. All of them were Strangers, not human. And all had tears in their eyes. A couple were outright sobbing.

“Kaya, Kaya, is it the Moffy guys?” One of the youngest, a tiny, blue-skinned girl with white hair tugged at the older woman’s leg. “Is it the Moffy guys?”

“Mafia, Limny,” one of the older boys corrected her. He was sniffling, clearly trying to be brave. “You mean Mafia. And nuh uh, it’s the Heretics.”

That caused a loud gasp to go up among the children, and the crying intensified. The older woman turned back, obviously fighting back her own fear. “Don’t scare them, Puck. Limnoreia, it’s going to be okay.” She put a hand on the tiny blue-skinned girl’s shoulder, squeezing it briefly before another loud roar from inside made her jump. “Come on, let’s go. Hurry, children.”

“Will Aunt Callisto be okay?” one of the other little ones asked, even as a terrifyingly loud bang came that shook the entire apartment building.

For a moment, the woman, Kaya apparently, looked like she was going to answer. In the end, with a worried look over her shoulder, she just urged them on with her hands. “Come, she’ll meet us later. Hurry, hurry.”

It was time to stop them. Time to drop down and get in their way so this could all be mopped up. So that the… the monsters… could be… so that the monsters could be… so that the monsters…

Joselyn stayed where she was, watching as the woman and eight very different children rushed by below her. None looked up. None noticed her there. They ran, they fled for their lives.

They weren’t putting on a show. They had no idea she was there. They weren’t faking.  They had no reason to, no way of knowing that they should pretend. They weren’t pretending. They were… they had been… terrified. Terrified… of… of Heretics.

She was still there, staring at the spot where the children had been as three more figures came into view. They were moving from the street, through the alley and to the apartment building. As they emerged, Joselyn’s Heretic-sense went off once more, for two of the figures. It was silent for the third.

“Ya morons!” the shorter, fatter man, the only one who didn’t set off Joselyn’s warning sense, smacked one of the others. “I told you we was gonna be late! Now look.” He waved a hand to the open doorway ahead of them. “They’re already gone!”

“Don’t you worry none, boss,” one of the other men announced. “Those kids smell something fierce. Olly and me, we can track ‘em down.”

The boss turned, jabbing a finger into the man’s chest. “You better. I paid good money, good money, to get that ursine bitch’s location into Heretic hands. She wants to stand in my way, in Leo Torrio’s way and stop me from getting my hands on what’s mine? Those kids are worth a fortune, a fucking fortune. Now those Heretics are getting rid of my problem, but the kids ain’t fucking here, cuz you stupid dewdroppers couldn’t get a fucking move-on! Now get those kids! Go!”

The Mafia, Joselyn realized, the ones that the little blue girl… Limnoreia had mentioned. The ones that they had been afraid of… the ones that the werebear had been… had been… protecting… them… from…

Before she knew what she was doing, Joselyn was already moving. Leaping from the roof of the drug store, she threw one of her Hunga Munga. A thought stopped it in the air just above the ground at the entrance into the alley, and she teleported herself straight to it.

There. The Mafia men were just leaving the alley. But she could pull them back in. It wouldn’t be hard. She’d distract them, make them think the children were here after all, and then–

A hand caught her shoulder. As she spun, weapons up, Deveron took a step back, holding his hands out. “Whoa, whoa, hey. You okay?” The boy was panting heavily, but grinning. “Annoyed you didn’t get in on the action?”

“Action?” Even to herself, Joselyn sounded out of it, distracted, confused.

“We’re all good, Jos. It’s over.” Still panting from exertion, Deveron continued to her that broad smile. “Bear’s down. We saved the day. Huge heroes.”

“Bear… the bear… you… you killed the werebear?” The words sounded and felt like they were coming from someone else, some other person far away.

“Uh, yeah? You know, our job? Woohoo?” Deveron squinted at her. “Are you okay? You’re not seriously sore that you didn’t get to fight, are you? She just went down sooner than we expected. Took most of that apartment with her too, you should see it. Lillian got the last hit, lucky girl. Don’t worry though, I’m sure you’ll get the next one. I mean, if that’s what you’re upset about. Jos?”

“I… I have to…” Joselyn took a step back, half-turning to look over her shoulder at the alley, back the way the Mafia had gone on their way to follow those children, the… the Stranger children… the… innocent… Stranger children.

A glowing blue portal appeared directly beside them, and a woman stepped out. Freidra Konstant, one of their professors.

“Excellent work, children,” she announced with clear pride. “The target has been eliminated and none of you were seriously harmed. Good show. Come, let us collect the others and then prepare to receive your score.”

Deveron moved that way, almost stepping through the portal before looking back to where Joselyn was still standing. “Jos? Hey, what’s–”

He said something else, but she didn’t hear him. Her attention was on the alley once more, even as her eyes slid closed. Deveron’s voice faded to background noise, as the memory of the children crying, that innocent little girl asking if the Moffy had come for them, and the Mafia man himself saying that he had deliberately leaked the werebear’s location so that the Heretics would kill her to get her out of the way so that he could take those children all flooded into her mind at once. Their voices in her memory were overpowering, so loud as they competed with one another for prominence. Deafening. Their voices were completely deafening. Almost as loud as the sound of her own heartbeat. Her own heart, pounding, thudding, thundering there in the alley. Couldn’t they hear it? Couldn’t they all hear it?

Miss Atherby!” Professor Konstant bodily turned her around, holding onto her shoulders. “Open your eyes. Look at me. Are you quite all right? What–did something happen to you?”

Slowly, Joselyn Atherby’s eyes opened.

And in a way… they would never close again.

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