Sean Gerardo

Summer Epilogue 7 – Sean (Heretical Edge)

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Time flew when you were having fun. Or when you were stuck in a nightmare prison where time passed much faster than it did for the outside world. Which was the opposite of having fun.

Sean had no idea how much time had passed for everyone else. He genuinely didn’t, considering every single person who had come to visit him, including his parents on different occasions, told him different things. He’d finally managed to get one of the nicer guards to confess that they were deliberately telling him conflicting stories about how much time was passing in order to confuse and disorient him. He did know that it wasn’t all that long, though whether it was days or weeks he wasn’t sure.

As for Sean himself… one year. He had been in this house essentially by himself for one year since his parents had come that first time. He’d get visitors roughly once a week, sometimes twice. They would come in, sit and talk with him, and try to get him to see things from their point of view. Some were nicer than others, but he looked forward to all of their conversations. Which was the point of isolating him like this, he knew. Unfortunately, knowing something like that didn’t exactly make it less effective.

He did what he could during those times between visits to keep himself sane. He had found notebooks and pens and wrote in them. Sometimes he wrote random thoughts, a journal of sorts. Other times he wrote down jokes that he wished he could tell his friends. And stories. He wrote short stories. Sometimes they were funny, sometimes they were scary, other times they were romantic. It was just ways to occupy and exercise his mind.

And he cooked. He practiced cooking, going through all the recipe books in the kitchen. Sometimes he offered food to his guests, other times he didn’t bother. A lot of it ended up being thrown out. Anything he couldn’t finish within a day or so, he tossed. Because he could always make more, and making it was more the point than eating it was. Cooking kept him busy.

Beyond cooking and writing, he exercised. He worked out. He couldn’t exactly spar all that well with just himself, but he could do everything possible up to that point.

He also practiced with what magic he knew. He hadn’t yet been able to convince any of the guards who visited to let him see any spellbooks, not even if they went through and tore out all the potentially dangerous pages. But he was able to practice the magic he did know. And he’d been getting pretty good at it, considering he had to work with those same few spells over and over.

It was weird, thinking about the fact that he had now technically spent longer in this prison cell disguised as a suburban house than he’d actually spent at Crossroads itself. He’d been sitting here in this house being isolated for the crime of knowing Flick Chambers and Avalon Sinclaire for longer than he’d actually known them. How fucked up was that? Months had passed. Months, and he was just sitting here, alone like ninety percent of the time.

There were many times when he was angry. He’d punched more than one wall, had thrown entire cupboards full of glasses and plates, had screamed until he was hoarse. Sometimes he would be more angry at his jailers, other times he would be angry with Flick, or Gaia, or the entire Seosten Empire, or humanity itself, when he was feeling particularly lost. Being alone like this for so long, it wasn’t… it wasn’t good for him. He could feel himself slipping.

Vulcan. He wanted Vulcan. He wanted Roxa. He wanted Columbus. He wanted… his friends. He wanted more than this Gods damned house. He’d memorized every fucking detail of the place over and over again. He’d broken down walls, only to have them magically repaired the next time he woke up after sleeping (along with anything else he broke). Food was replaced, supplies came back, more blank notebooks were added for him to write in. He was sure they were reading everything he wrote, but he didn’t care. In fact, sometimes he entertained himself by writing what they might think was some juicy information or secrets, but it was all bullshit.

But yes, he got angry at everyone now and then. He would curse, scream, even cry. Being alone like this, it was… it was rough. It was hard. Venting helped… a little… sometimes.

At this particular moment, he was looking through the assortment of DVD’s that he had been left with. The guards changed them sometimes, adding different ones. It helped somewhat. Which was one of several things that made him think that not all of them were exactly completely on board with the idea of keeping him in here like this. A few of the guards visited more than they absolutely had to, and also brought more varied books and movies for him to pass the time.

That could’ve just been part of playing ‘good cops’ to the others ‘bad cops’, but he wasn’t sure they’d go to that extent. And he wasn’t going to question or push it, because the new entertainment and extra visits were basically the only thing keeping him as sane as he was.

Hey, kid, how you doing?

Well, he’d thought that he was staying sane. Apparently the jury was about to go back into deliberations on that one.

You’re not going insa–hang on. Look, I’m really sorry, but I’m going to have to take over for just a second so they don’t see you fall over or something and get suspicious.

With that, Sean found his hand reaching up to put a random DVD into the player. His body turned and moved to go sit down in the chair, kicking his legs up onto the end table. All of it seemed to be happening on autopilot. He had no say. His body was just doing whatever it wanted to. And as long as he’d been in here with no one to talk to and no better stimulation, it was only then, as the movie started up, that he realized what was happening to him.

Seosten!

He was fighting then, struggling to grab control of his body. Struggling to scream, to kick, to curse, to call any guard who might have been watching. There was a Seosten inside him. There was a Seosten inside of him!

No! No, no, stop it! Get out, get out of me! Get–get your fucking–

Hey, kid! Sean! Wait a minute, it’s okay. It’s all right! Listen, it’s me! It’s–

Then he knew. He knew the voice, and he remembered… You?

Yeah, me. Just hold on. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Just a second here. Let me… here we go.

And in that moment, for the first time in more than a year, Sean was standing somewhere other than the house. It was an empty white void, to be fair, but it was not the house.

He jolted a bit, eyes widening while he spun in a quick circle. “What the–”

A figure appeared in front of him, standing a few feet away with his hands up. Sean’s eyes jerked that way, mouth already blurting the name of his possessor.

“Apollo!”

“Yup.” Sure enough, it was old Uncle Satan himself, standing there in this blank white space, watching Sean carefully. His voice was soft. “You okay?”

“I–we’re–how did–” Tripping over his own words, Sean slowly walked forward. His hand, shaking a bit, rose and extended toward the man in front of him. Real. He was real. Apollo was there. Sure, the guy wasn’t exactly his first choice for someone he’d like to see and talk to. But beggars couldn’t be choosers. It wasn’t Roxa, or Columbus, or Mateo, or Uncle Sebastian, but it was someone. It was someone to talk to who wasn’t part of the hardcore Crossroads loyalist group.

It was a new person, a… a friend, sort of. And seeing him almost brought tears to Sean’s eyes. God, just seeing the guy here like this was nearly too much. Yet at the same time, not enough.

A look of sympathy crossed Apollo’s face, and he raised his own hand to meet Sean’s, squeezing it. Before the boy’s mind could run too wild, he explained, “We’re inside your mind. I just made a bit of a VR space for us to talk. Your body’s still there on the chair. As far as anyone watching is concerned, you’re zoning out watching a movie.”

“But how are you–” In mid-sentence, Sean stopped. His reeling mind found a little bit of purchase. “The vault. Last year–I mean a few days ago–I mean… whenever it was. When we went after the vault, you possessed me. That’s how we snuck you in past the security. You were possessing me.” He breathed the words, the shock of the realization (and of actually talking to someone from the old group after all this time) making him physically gasp.

“I was,” Apollo confirmed quietly. “And I still had my connection to you. Luckily.”

“How… how long has it been?” Sean asked, already afraid of what the answer would be.

There was a brief pause before Apollo answered. “About a week. But I’m pretty sure it’s been a good bit longer for you, huh?”

Swallowing hard, Sean nodded. Glancing away, he murmured. “A little over a year.” He saw the man’s mouth opening from the corner of his eye, and quickly looked back to interrupt. “Did it… take a few days to remember that you could do this?” He tried to keep the emotion out of his voice, but from the way the other man winced, knew he wasn’t entirely successful.

Instead of answering immediately, Apollo gestured with one hand. “Something tells me you’re probably not in the mood to sit down and talk,” he remarked, while grass appeared under their feet, trees appeared around them, and a stone path came into view. “So why don’t we take a walk? This is a place from one of my memories, a park in London that I like quite a bit.”

He was right, it was better than sitting. Sean barely hesitated before starting to walk with the man. He could see and hear birds in the trees, squirrels scampering along, and even caught the sound of a nearby brook quite literally babbling.

After a minute of walking in silence together, Apollo spoke quietly. “I didn’t forget that you were my most recent host. But they’ve had spells up on your cell that… wouldn’t exactly stop me from recalling to you, since that’s all but impossible, but would keep me out of your head. I’d just pop up outside of you. And that might have attracted attention, since I wouldn’t have any idea if there was anyone with you, or guards watching, or anything. Thanks, no doubt, to one of the Seosten working in Crossroads security. They’d know there might be Seosten on our side who could get to you that way. Anyway, I didn’t forget you. For the past few days I was working on a way of getting around that, a way of seeing through your eyes anyway, or contacting you.”

“Wait,” Sean realized after thinking about that for a second, “you were working on it? The way you said that makes it sound like that’s not what happened here.”

With a little smile, Apollo nodded. “Yeah, well, turns out I ended up getting a little bit of help from one Felicity Chambers. She showed up with… uhh, let’s just say she had basically had the codes to the spell that blocks you from being possessed. With those, I was able to make the counter-spell and get through. So here we are.”

“How did Flick get that?” Sean had to ask, despite feeling that he really shouldn’t have been surprised.

The answer from Apollo was a soft chuckle. “She said she couldn’t tell me yet. Just that she knew someone with access, and that she’d be able to tell me all of it in a couple weeks. She’s also the one who told me about the time dilation and what they were doing to you. Couldn’t tell me how she knew that either. Just asked me to trust her. Which… I do. Plus, I’m kind of good with people having secrets. Especially when they promise to tell me soon. Besides, it worked. I’m here.”

“You’re here,” Sean agreed. “But from the sound of it, you’re not going to be able to break me out.” There was a dullness to his voice that even he could hear. “Not yet, anyway.”

“Not yet,” Apollo confirmed. “I’m sorry, kid. Or not-so-kid, anymore. I may have been able to possess you, but they’ve got you locked down with so much security, there’s no way I could get you out before we had half the loyalist Crossroads army right on top of us. We’re working on that. Sariel, she’s got some spells for retrieving a possessed subject, but getting past the security they’ve still got up… we’re working, I promise.”

Trying not to cringe too much at the thought of being locked up in that place even longer, especially when Apollo was right here, Sean hesitated before speaking again. “Don’t take this the wrong way, because I am definitely glad to see you, but… then why are you here?”

“I can’t get you out just yet,” Apollo replied, “but I’m going to. We’re going to. We haven’t forgotten about you, Sean. No one has forgotten about you. Now that we know what they’re doing, and I can get in here, you’re not gonna be left alone like that again.” He paused, looking around the park they were slowly making their way through. “Listen, I can’t be here one hundred percent of the time. And I know that every minute I’m gone is going to be a lot longer for you. But I’m going to keep coming back as much as I can, you hear me? I’ve got this place’s number now, and I’m going to call it up as much as I can. You are not going to go more than a day or so without me visiting. I will pop into your head so often you’ll get sick of me. Sometimes it’ll only be for a few minutes, other times it’ll be a lot longer. I will come in here. I will keep you company. Those assholes out there, they’re not going to be the only ones talking to you anymore. I’m just… I’m sorry it took so long for me to get here in the first place.”

“It’s not your fault,” Sean murmured while trying to ignore his own feelings of abandonment that had been getting steadily stronger over the past year. “You know, so long as you’re actually working to get me out of here.” Though he tried to make it sound offhand, there was an emotional crack to his voice that he couldn’t stop. “I’d really rather not be an old man the next time I see any of the others.”

“You won’t be,” Apollo promised him. “I promise you, Sean, we are going to get you out. Whatever it takes, whatever we have to do, we will get you out of there. And in the meantime, I’m going to keep you busy.”

Sean blinked at that, looking away from the small bird he had been watching as it climbed along a branch. “Keep me busy?”

“Damn right,” the Seosten man confirmed with a nod. “You might not be able to gain new powers in that cell, but I can help you learn new magic right here in your head. Hell, I can help you train too. Fighting, magic, schooling, I’ll be here to help you with all of it. All while they think you’re just sitting there watching movies or sleeping. Okay? I’m here for you. You are not alone, Sean.”

A lump formed in the boy’s throat for a moment, and he had to swallow hard before he could speak. “I… thanks. Thank you. It was… this year, it’s been pretty rough.” He blinked rapidly, trying to get rid of the stupid wetness that had appeared in his eyes. “I said things… I didn’t mean them. I was just–”

Apollo’s voice was soft, and understanding. “It’s okay. No one blames you. We’re sorry. They’re sorry too. They didn’t know until now that… that those psychos were doing this.” He took a step over, hesitating slightly before offering his hand to Sean. “Like I said, you’re not alone anymore.”

After a year of being left in that house without anyone more than a few guards to talk to about once a week, Sean watched the offered hand for a moment before slowly accepting it. He squeezed the man’s hand, breathing out hard as he did so. Even that little bit of contact felt… huge, in a way that he couldn’t hope to explain.

“So… so you’re gonna be teaching me while I’m in here, huh?”

Apollo smirked at that. “Teaching, entertaining, training, keeping you on your toes all sorts of ways.” His expression sobered a little then, as he pulled Sean from that simple handshake into an embrace. “I’ll be here as much as I can, I promise. However long it takes, I’ll keep you busy.” He released the boy, stepping back to wink at him. “You and I are going to get to know each other very well.”

Another lump appeared in Sean’s throat that he had to force down. “I… listen, are Uncle Sebastian and Roxa–”

“They’re okay,” the Seosten man assured him. “Pretty intent on getting you out. We all are. You’ve got plenty of friends and family out there on your side.”

Sean was quiet for a moment at that, before hesitantly asking, “What about… my brother, Ian? Mom and Dad said something about him doing something they didn’t like. And if they didn’t like it–I just… I don’t know where he is or what’s going on. Can you guys…”

“We’ll find him,” Apollo promised. “If he’s turned rebel, we’ll pull him in. Either way, we’ll make sure he’s safe.”

Once more, it took Sean a couple tries to find his voice. All of this, after the past year of nothing happening save for worse and worse visits from his jailers and parents, was a lot to deal with. “Thanks. I umm… I owe you.”

“Oh, kid,” Apollo breathed, shaking his head. “No. You don’t. I owe you.

“And I promise, I will deliver.”   

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Summer Epilogue 4 – Sean (Heretical Edge)

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It didn’t feel like a prison. At least, not on the surface. There were no bars, no guards with jangling keys and batons, no hard cot or moldy food. The house was nice, a two-story suburban affair with a well-stocked fridge, books lining the shelves, even a television and blu-ray player with an assortment of movies. The windows overlooked a quiet, pleasant neighborhood full of children playing, men mowing or watering their lawns, and women chatting. The house appeared to be a completely normal home in a completely normal, average neighborhood.

That, of course, was an illusion. Whether the people out there were real or complete fabrications, Sean Gerardo couldn’t say. What he did know was that he was trapped here in this house as thoroughly as though it was a simple eight by twelve foot cell. Any attempt to open the doors or windows failed. They were stuck tight. Attempting to break the glass, use the phone, shout to the people outside, and anything else he’d tried was equally fruitless.

He should know, he’d tried everything repeatedly in the three and a half weeks that he’d been here. Nothing worked. He’d received a single phone call the first day informing him that someone would be around to talk to him about his ‘traitor’ teammates when they had a chance, and then… nothing. He was just stuck here in this house, alone. He had food, he had entertainment, but no interaction. He could go nowhere and talk to no one. His life, for nearly four weeks now, had revolved around being in this house.

Stuck here like this, he’d had time to think about what had happened that night back at Crossroads. That girl, Harper, she had shown up while Sean, Columbus, and Doug were being taken from the dorm by those Committee goons. And then… well, somehow Harper had taken down most of the goons. Which was just– yeah, almost four weeks later and Sean was still utterly flummoxed by that one. The hell?

Either way, she’d taken down most of the Committee’s guys before starting to free the boys from the weird magical bonds they’d been put in. But just as she’d gotten through Doug and reached for Sean, he’d found himself suddenly flying backward through the air before another of those thugs caught him by the hair.

Columbus, Deveron, Vulcan, and Harper had all taken a step that way, but the Committee’s lackey had been prepared. He used an enchanted medallion to project some kind of blindingly powerful forcefield. From what Sean had heard later, the shield itself wasn’t made by that guy himself. Apparently certain Committee members empowered objects like that for their people to use in an emergency. So it was a Committee-level forcefield surrounding Sean and the guy holding him, while more reinforcements were on their way.

Columbus had tried to stay, but the others basically dragged him off. The last thing Sean had been able to do before his captor yanked him through a portal was to shout for Vulcan to follow the others, to listen to Columbus. His last sight was of his mechanical friend whining before being pulled away by Deveron.

That was three and a half weeks ago. For almost a solid month, Sean had been locked up in here. Even with the movies and books, he was going a bit stir-crazy. He missed his friends, his team, his dog, everyone.  Which was also probably the point. They wanted him to be good and ready to actually have someone to talk to when they finally showed up to interrogate him.

There wasn’t an exercise room in the house, but Sean had made do by dragging most of the furniture out of one of the bedrooms, fashioning makeshift equipment by doing things such as loading as many books as possible into a couple bags and tying them to a broken broom handle to function as weights. He also used the furniture itself, buckets of water he’d filled up, anything he could get his hands on that would work, he repurposed. He cleared space from the front door all the way down the hall, through the living room, and into the attached den, using that as a track to do sprints back and forth for hours at a time. He did pull-ups in the doorways and practiced his accuracy with the knives in the kitchen. Everything helped, both to keep him in shape and to occupy his mind through these weeks of no communication.

At the moment, he was keeping himself busy by fixing food in the kitchen. The fridge, freezer, and cabinets seemed to restock themselves about every week as needed. He never saw anyone do it, he’d just wake up and find them that way.

Sean wasn’t the best cook, but he’d been bored enough to try things over the past few weeks, and there were recipe books in the kitchen. He’d burned a decent amount, and had even had the thought to try to force someone to talk to him by starting a fire with the stove. But he honestly didn’t know how much attention they were paying to him. If they only checked in once in awhile, that could get bad quickly. Not to mention they might take away his ability to cook, which would make this place even worse. Because he was finding that he liked cooking.

Either way, something needed to happen. And finally, as he was flipping through a recipe book to see what he could try for dinner that night, it did. ‘It’, in this case, was the sound of a key in the lock of the front door.

For a moment, Sean didn’t recognize the sound. His head turned a bit as a frown of confusion touched his face. Then he got it. Eyes widening, he dropped the book and ran for the front hall.

He made it just in time to see the door open and two figures step inside. At the sight of them, the boy froze very briefly before lifting his chin. “Great,” he started simply, “now they’re sending total strangers in to gawk at me.”

“That’s not funny, son,”  Elias Gerardo retorted.

“Yeah…” Sean agreed slowly, “probably depends on which end of the neglect you’re standing on.”

Folding his arms with a simmering stare, Sean’s father stood beside his wife, Andrea Nores Gerardo, both of them staring intently at their son.

Elias looked a lot like Sebastian, Sean’s uncle. He was slightly taller than his older brother, at five foot nine inches. His hair was also worn longer, but he had the same thickly muscular arms and gray-blue stormcloud eyes. Andrea, meanwhile, was an almost painfully rail-thin woman, who looked as though a single touch would make her shatter into glass shards. Several had mistaken her for being a walking skeleton in the past, though her son knew from experience that she was much stronger than she looked.

Shrugging at them, Sean replied, “I dunno, maybe you’re right. My sense of humor might be on the fritz after sitting here by myself for a three and a half weeks.”

The words made both of his parents exchange brief looks, before his mother spoke. “We need to talk, Sean. Let’s go sit down and we can discuss this… entire situation.”

“I’m cooking,” Sean informed them before turning on his heel to walk back to the kitchen. “You’re welcome to stick around. Not that I could stop you. Hey, you know if anyone else is coming? You know, if you guys don’t like what you hear, does someone get to come in and play bad cop? I need to know how much food to fix.”

“You shouldn’t be in here, Sean.” That was his father. Elias followed him to the kitchen, with Andrea following behind. “That’s why we came, to tell you how to get out, how to get out of all of the trouble you’re in now.”

Picking up the cookbook once more, Sean murmured, “Let me guess, sell out all my friends.”

The book was plucked from his hands by his mother, who tossed it aside. “They are not your friends,” she snapped as the book landed on the nearby table. “They’ve gotten you all twisted around. And that stops right now, do you understand? You are going to answer every question the people here ask you. You are going to tell them everything you know about the Chambers girl, the Atherby camp, Sinclaire’s plan, all of it. You will answer everything, mi hijo.”

For a few long seconds, Sean met his mother’s gaze. The woman had barely had anything to do with him for as long as he could remember. And yet, despite that, she was also his mother. He’d never been able to deny her, or lie to her. What little attention she and his father did pay him had been so precious that he’d never found it in himself to argue or deny anything they wanted, for fear that they would pay even less attention to him. He never wanted to give them a reason to withdraw more than they already had.

Now, after several long moments of tense silence, he simply replied, “Where’s Ian? Does he know about any of this?” Sean’s brother had been much less absent than his parents in his life growing up, though even he had been gone a lot more lately. It was Mateo and Uncle Sebastian who had basically raised Sean in all but name. But the odds of either of them showing up here was probably slightly less than the odds of Flick herself waltzing in.

Actually, after spending most of a year with that girl, Sean was putting higher odds on her.

“Your brother is… busy,” Elias informed his son. “And we’re not here to talk about him. We are here to tell you how this is going to play out. You need to play ball here, Sean. We know you’ve been twisted around by that girl, that woman, those… people. But it stops now.”

Shaking her head, Andrea sighed. “Do you have the slightest idea what they’re doing, what they’ve done? Sean, they have restarted a conflict that nearly tore our entire civilization apart the last time. They’ve brought it back, and now everyone is fighting again. For what? For monsters? For beasts that will think nothing of killing you and everyone you care about? Why? Why would you side against your own family, to serve those creatures?”

“Oh, Madre,” Sean murmured as his own head shook as well. “You’d be surprised.” The thought of throwing Sebastian and Mateo in their faces came to mind, but was just as quickly dismissed. If they didn’t know about that, he wasn’t going to hand them anything about it.

Tugging out a chair from the nearby table, Elias pointed to it. “Sit.” His tone was firm, brooking no arguments or other such nonsense. In that moment, Sean found himself doing just that without thinking about it. He sat in the chair almost before he even knew it was happening.

That wasn’t any kind of superpower, he knew. It was just his father being his father.

Both Elias and Andrea sat at the table opposite him, the latter speaking first. “We’re going to get you out of this… situation, Sean. The Committee are prepared to wipe your entire slate clean. You get a completely fresh start, like none of this ever happened. They’ll chalk it down to you being mislead by a team and a headmistress who betrayed and tricked you.”

“So,” Sean dryly retorted, “while we’re making up lies, can I have a unicorn too?”

There was a loud bang as his father’s hand slapped down hard against the table. “Is this a joke to you?! Do you know what you’re facing here? Do you know what they want to do to you? They think you’re a traitor, son. If they can, they’ll make an example out of you.”

“They will Nothing you, Sean,” Andrea quietly informed her son. “They will banish you. They will make you human again, erase your memory of everything, and shove you out into the Bystander world. You will have nothing. You will not be a part of this world, or our family. We’re stopping that, for now. But if you don’t play ball…”

Sean coughed once, shifting up in his seat. “And by play ball, you mean betray all my friends. Not to mention everything I believe. Oh, and help perpetuate the murder and genocide of every non-human species on the planet that the Seosten point you at. Let’s not forget about that one.”

Staring at him blankly, both of his parents simultaneously demanded, “That who points us at?”

“Oh, right,” Sean muttered, “that bit wasn’t explained, was it?” He paused, squinting at the two of them for a long, silent moment before shrugging. “You know what? Fuck it. Seosten. That’s S-E-O-S-T-E-N. Say-Oh-Stun.”

“And what, exactly, do you think a ‘Seosten’ is?” Elias asked while squinting at his son.

Sean didn’t answer. Not at first, anyway. Instead, he leaned back in his seat and stared at the ceiling, mouthing something under his breath. Dozens of thoughts bounced wildly through his head. They’d been so careful for so long not to let anything they knew get out. But now? Now the rebellion was back on. Now everyone knew about Joselyn and all of that. Why shouldn’t they know the rest of it? Why shouldn’t they know the whole truth?

Because they wouldn’t believe it, for one. But at this point, he didn’t particularly care what they believed.

So he told them. Opening his mouth, Sean told his parents about the Seosten. He told them where they came from, why they’d set this whole thing up, their war with the Fomorians, how they infiltrated the place, that Columbus had been possessed by one, all of it. He told them how the Seosten had turned Earth into a training ground for Heretics so they could take their bodies and use them as what amounted to biological-mech suits against their own enemies, that they secretly controlled both Crossroads and Eden’s Garden, everything. Everything. It took most of an hour for him to get through all of it, because more kept spilling out. Partway through, he took a glass of water and sipped it. Other than that, and clarifying a few things as his parents asked questions, he spent the entire time talking.

Finally, he finished, sitting back to stare at his half-empty glass. Or was it a half-full glass?

“Anyway, that’s it. That’s basically the whole story, barring something I might’ve forgotten here or there. That’s the truth about this whole fucked up situation that you guys have been part of.”

“Dios mío,” Elias murmured, his tone shocked nearly into silence. “We… we had no idea.”

“We are so sorry,” Andrea added, sounding equally taken aback. “My poor boy. We knew it was bad, but this? This is our fault.”

“Wait… what?” Blinking, Sean looked up from the glass to his parents. “How are the… Seosten your fault?”

“We left you alone for too long,” Andrea replied, staring at her son. “We are so sorry. We should have taken more responsibility. We should have kept you with us. Maybe if we did, you wouldn’t have fallen for such… such absurd nonsense.”

What?!” Sean blurted, his own eyes widening. “What–nonsense? It’s true! Listen, how would–”

Face twisting up a bit, Elias swallowed hard before forcing the words out to interrupt. “Son, you’re confused. Look, listen to yourself. Think about everything you just said, about how… how crazy it sounds. An empire of super-advanced magical bodysnatchers are behind all of this? Seriously? All those monsters out there are just nice fluffy do-gooder innocent victims? Do you know how many humans I’ve seen those things rip apart? How many little children have been eaten?”

“That’s the point!” Sean snapped, rising from his seat. “There’s good guys and bad guys! There’s good Strangers and bad Strangers! Why is that so hard for you people to understand? And you’re willing to believe that everything that isn’t human is evil, but not that the Seosten exist?”

“Oh sure, they might exist,” Andrea allowed. “Actually, I’m sure they do. But they’re not behind Crossroads, Sean. That’s ridiculous. In fact, I’d wager they’re behind you thinking that they’re behind Crossroads. They’ve got you all… twisted up.”

“Yes,” Elias agreed. “That’s it. That’s probably what happened with Joselyn too. They got her all confused. They manipulated her, just as they’ve manipulated your team, Sean. They got her to start a Heretic civil war just to weaken us, and now they’ve got her daughter and Gaia doing the same.”

“That’s–no!” Sean’s head shook. “Damn it, that’s not what happened! That’s not what’s going on. You have to listen to me. The Seosten–”

“We’ve heard enough.” That was Andrea, standing from the table. “We are so sorry, Sean. We should have been there to help you learn to differentiate truth from lies. Maybe you wouldn’t have fallen for this manipulation then. Things would be different. If we’d known, we could’ve stopped Ian from–” She stopped then, at a glance from her husband.

“Stopped Ian from what?” Sean blurted, staring back and forth between them. “What did Ian do? What’s going on?”

“Never mind,” Elias insisted, standing as well. “We’ve been here long enough. Now that we know about this ‘Seosten-are-behind-Crossroads’ lie, maybe we can combat it more effectively. Thank you, son. And don’t you worry, we’re going to get you all the help you need to make sure you get better. We’re not going to abandon you, I promise.”

“You–you–what?” Sean floundered a bit, his mouth opening and shutting. “Just stop! I’m telling you the truth. You guys are wrong. You’re wrong! The Seosten want humans to hate every other species. They want us to hunt and kill them because it’s practice for the Fomorians. You know the Fomorians! You know they exist, you know how dangerous they are! This isn’t just a story! Think about it logically, if every other species was really–”

“That’s enough,” Andrea interrupted, already turning with her husband to leave the kitchen. “You’ll see, Sean. You’ll spend some time in here and forget about all this nonsense. We’ll have someone come in once a week to talk with you until you understand that your conspiracy theory was nothing but paranoia. No matter how long it takes.”

“You’re not listening!” Sean shook his head, quickly following after them. “Just stop, this isn’t a paranoid fantasy. It’s not delusion. It’s not a lie. It’s the truth. You–fuck. Yes, I know how it sounds. I know! But I’m trying to tell you the truth about all of it. If you’d just—” Groaning out loud as he realized just how fruitless the whole thing was, Sean blurted, “You really think you can keep me in here long enough to make me change my mind about this whole thing? It’s already been almost a month. Flick and the others, they’re going to get me out of here.”

For a moment, his parents paused. His father’s hand rested on the knob of the front door as he exchanged a look with his wife before turning back to Sean. “Son, I wouldn’t count on your friends coming any time soon. At least, from your perspective.”  

Sean blinked at that. “From my perspective? What?”

His mother spoke then. “You think you’ve been here for almost a month? Sean, that’s the time dilation spell. They use it to isolate a prisoner, like you, for much longer than they’re actually imprisoned. It hasn’t been a month. It hasn’t even been a week. Or a day. Sean, you’ve been in here for six hours.”

“So you see,” his father put in, “even if those people you call your friends do find you, it’ll be weeks from now. Or months. From their perspective. From yours…

“It’ll be years.”

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Patreon Snippets 7 (Heretical Edge)

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The following is the seventh volume of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. 

Theia and Gwen – Night After The Exodus

Standing in the middle of the forest, several hundred yards away from the Atherby camp, Guinevere watched the stars with her head tilted back. She had been there, motionless, for several minutes, her attention seemingly focused far away. Then, her voice cut through the silence. “You know, I’m told that technology has improved so much lately, you could take a picture and stare at that forever if you’d like. It’s pretty nifty.”

There was a brief moment of hesitation before Theia came forward out of the trees. “Theia-I knew you would notice… me. But w—I did not want to force you to acknowledge it. It… we… I can go.” She seemed nervous, fidgeting from foot to foot while her hand reached out to hold a nearby tree as though for balance and support.

Gwen blinked once at the girl, head tilting slightly. “Go? Why would I want you to go?“

Theia answered promptly. “Because you are thinking about your husband, the one who has been gone for so long.” Pausing, she added with a faint tone of uncertainty, “Aren’t you?”

With a slight smile, Gwen nodded. “Yes, but I don’t need to be alone to do that. Part of me is always thinking about him.” She beckoned with her hand then. “Hey, why don’t you come over here? I’ll show you what I was looking at.” She offered the girl a smile. “It’s okay, really.”

After another brief hesitation, Theia did so. She shuffled her way closer, stopping in front of the woman while staring at her with somewhat widened eyes and a look of almost puppy-like adoration.

Gwen started to raise her hand to point, before stopping to look at the girl curiously. “Are you okay?”

Theia’s head bobbed up and down as she nodded rapidly. “Uh huh, uh huh! Yes, yes. It’s just that… you… you’re good. You’re very good. You’re amazing, I have read about you. I heard about you. I took memory-spheres about your fighting as Lancelot. You–you are…” She stumbled over her own words, face flushed as she stammered.

Giggling despite herself, Gwen shook her head. “Hey, it’s okay. Pace yourself.” The last bit was said with a wink.

“You–” Theia stopped, head tilting. “Pace myself. You did that on purpose.” When her words were met with a silent smile, the girl started to return it, before stopping as her face fell a bit. “Pace is good. You… you are good. You are good, and Theia-I… I… am not good. I have done bad things.”  

Giving a soft sigh, Gwen reached out to carefully take the girl’s hand, using that to turn her to face the same direction before pointing up to the sky. Finally, she spoke. “You say you’ve done bad things? How do you know they were bad?”

Theia was quiet briefly before she answered. “Pace. Pace and Miss Abigail and Miranda. They showed me. They helped me. I don’t want to hurt them. They are my fr-friends.” Her voice cracked at that word, as though just saying it made her terrified that her deceased mother would somehow come back and take those friends away.

“They are more than friends. They are my…” And then she stopped talking. Because if saying friends was difficult for the girl to get out, the word that had sprung to her mind just then was impossible. Because they could not possibly be that word, because that word had always rejected her. That word had sent her away, had tortured her, had destroyed her in so many ways.

If she used it here, if she tried to claim these people as… as… that and it was rejected, she might never recover. A fear of that rejection deep in her heart stopped her from using the word even now, away from them.

Gwen spoke softly. “They helped you see right from wrong, good from bad. They help you see that you’ve done bad things. And now that you know that, you regret those things? You feel bad about them?“

Theia nodded, and Gwen smiled. “Good. Remember that feeling. Use it to be a better person. Because you are better, Theia. Don’t let your mother or your father or your people or even your condition dictate what kind of person you are. Don’t let anyone turn you into something you don’t want to be. You feel bad about the things that you did? Good, make up for them. Do good things. But do them because you want to. Do them because you want to be a better person.”

After the two stood there in silence for a few seconds, Theia murmured a soft, “I thought you would want to kill me, for being one of them. A bad one.”

Head shaking, Gwen replied, “I don’t need to kill the girl who did those things, Theia. It sounds to me like your friends already did that.”

They stood there like that in silence for a few seconds before Gwen lifted her hand. “Now look right up here, I’ll show you the constellation that Arthur made up.

“He named it Chadwick and Chickee.”

******

Bastet, Aylen, and Sonoma – One Year Ago

 

“And of course we have extensive contacts in over a hundred and twenty universities and colleges throughout the United States and Canada,” the man who had introduced himself as Tyson Larrington announced to the slender, diminutive Native American woman and her daughter, both of whom sat on the couch opposite the chair he had been invited to use. All three were in a pleasantly and warmly decorated living room, pictures on the nearby television and mantle showing times throughout the young girl’s life from being a baby to her current age of sixteen. Some of the pictures also showed the woman who sat beside her, while others had a different woman, with pale skin and hair that was so light it was almost white.

It was that woman who entered the room then. And from the looks of her, she very well might have come through a time warp. The pale woman wore an old green house dress and an apron, looking as though she was coming straight from the 1950s. She even carried a tray of delicious-smelling cookies.

“Well now,” Bastet replied to the man pleasantly while holding that tray of cookies, “that does sound very interesting, Mr. Larrington. This… ahhh… dear me, I’m just being as forgetful as an old rooster on Easter. What did you say the name of this school that you want to take our Aylen to was?”

“Crossroads Academy,” the Heretic promptly answered. “And I assure you, should you allow your daughter to come to our school, she will be in the best of hands. Our faculty and equipment are top of the line.”

Head bobbing easily, Bastet replied, “Oh, I’m sure everything there is cutting edge. Cookie?” she offered with a bright, winsome smile that could have come from a catalogue during the Eisenhower administration. 

“Thank you, ahhh, Mrs. Tamaya.” Larrington took the offered treat from the tray, turned it over in his hands, and then took a bite. That he managed to swallow the whole thing without betraying a reaction when, contrary to its amazing scent, the thing tasted almost exactly like dirty tree bark was quite a testament to his poker face.

Bastet smiled broadly. “Oh, it’s just Bess, Mr. Larrington. Sonoma here, she’s Mrs. Tamaya. I took her name when we… ah, broke Adam‘s covenant to be together instead of with a man.” She spoke the last bit in a stage-whisper, as though it was positively scandalous.

Sonoma cleared her throat, speaking up for the first time in the past few minutes. “Sorry, Bess has these little sayings and… ahem… whatnot because she grew up in a small, isolated religious…”

“Cult,” Bastet supplied cheerfully. “Yes, it was an extremist doomsday cult. Very dark. So much gloom and ranting. Boy, I could tell you stories about those people. And I don’t mean just the normal Bible thumping. They went all the way, yessir. It was just scary, you know what I mean? They were right off the deep end. Believed everyone who wasn’t exactly like them was evil and had to be killed. That’s right, killed. If you didn’t look and think exactly like them…” She drew a line across her throat with a finger and made a dramatic cutting sound. “You didn’t deserve to live. Crazy racist psychopaths.”

Letting that sit for a brief moment, she plastered another broad smile on her face. “Oh, but do tell us more about this wonderful school of yours. It sounds just delightful.” Her hands lifted the tray toward him. “Another cookie?”

Quickly demurring as politely as possible, Larrington cleared his throat. “Aylen, we like to get an idea of how the prospective student feels before bringing them in. I know this is a lot to ask, to be away from your mothers for so long when you seem so close. Does this sound like something you would be interested in?”

Shifting on the couch next to Sonoma, Aylen nodded slowly. “Yes, sir. From everything you said before, and today, I think Crossroads sounds great. I’d really like to go there.” She and the Heretic exchanged brief knowing looks, the two women clearly entirely clueless as to what their daughter could possibly be referring to.

Bastet spoke up then, as if a thought had just occurred to her. “Oh, but your teachers, they’re open minded, yes?” She gestured back and forth between herself and her wife. “As you might have guessed, we are kind of accustomed to a bit of ahhh, unpleasantness from certain sects. And not just my own family either. If she goes to your school, we want to be sure they’re not going to teach her to be hateful and prejudiced. I mean, these are teenagers, with such moldable minds. Can you imagine if the wrong people got a hold of them and started teaching them such awful, violent things?” She gave a visible shudder then, shaking her head. “No, I’m afraid we will definitely need assurances that your school is open minded about all life choices.”

If he made any connection between the truth of what his school was and her words, the man gave no indication. He simply smiled and nodded. “I promise you, Miss— ahh, Bess, Crossroads accepts students from all lifestyles, and does not discriminate based on race, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or anything of the sort.”

Clearing her throat, Sonoma glanced to her wife. “Well, that sounds good, doesn’t it?”

“It sure does,” Bastet agreed amicably. “Almost too good to be true. But then, we were talking about finding a good private school…” She appeared to consider it for a moment, before glancing toward Aylen. “You’ll e-mail every day, and call as much as you can. And pick up when we call you?” Her words were firm, brooking no argument.

Giving a quick nod at that, the girl replied, “Yes, Mother. Every day.”

Sonoma smiled, putting a hand on her daughter’s before squeezing it slightly. “You better, we don’t want Bess to have to come up there if you get busy and stop talking to us.”

“Oh, I’d make a huge mess of things there,” Bastet agreed with an easy laugh. “I’d take three steps into that school and before you’d know it, the whole place would be on fire or something.”

Chuckling as well, Larrington offered them a nod. “Well, we’ll just have to be sure that your daughter stays in contact. We wouldn’t want to have to rebuild the school. I’m actually part of the second year faculty, but I can promise you that my colleagues on the year one staff will be right on top of things. I’ll make sure you have the numbers for several of them before I leave here, in case you have any more questions at any point. But ahh, I don’t want to push you too much today. Would you like me to come back later in the week to discuss this further?”

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Bastet assured him, winking. “We’d be foolish as a lead kite if we let you walk out of here without making sure our girl’s got her seat in that school.”

Looking just a little surprised, the man blinked once before recovering. “Ahh, yes, of course. I can grab the paperwork from my bag if you’re certain you don’t need to talk about it more. We don’t want to rush you into an important decision like this.”

“Oh, we’re not rushing at all, Mr. Larrington,” Bastet informed the man.

“We’ve been talking about doing something like this for a long time.”  

**********

 

Virginia Dare – Day After the Exodus

 

They had prepared for this. Virginia knew that. For years, they had prepared for… well, something like this, at least. Gaia had warned her that things would probably happen to take her out of commission, either for a time or…

For a time. In this case, it was for a time. She would be back. Maybe it would take awhile to recover from the drain that casting that spell had put on her and to get out of whatever deep, dark hole the Committee goons threw her into. But she would be back. In the meantime, Virginia had to help hold things together. She couldn’t think about what would happen if Gaia didn’t wake up, or if…

She couldn’t think about that. Any of it. People were counting on her to hold it together, to hold herself together. Gaia most of all. And Virginia had no intention of letting them, or her, down.

“And this is the inner ward line,” Misty, the young (relatively) Ogre Heretic announced while gesturing to a spot of seemingly empty dirt and weeds. “See that tree over there with the gnarled roots coming up? That’s one of the signs of it if you get lost. Of course, there’s six other ward lines. This is the closest one to the camp, like I said. By the time anything gets through all seven, it’ll basically be an all hands on deck situation. Kaste and Rain redo the spells once every few days just to be sure. They’ve got some kind of system for it that everyone pays energy into. So, you know, if all you guys are staying, either everyone’ll pay a lot less or the wards are gonna be a lot stronger. Probably the second one, since there’s even more to protect.”

Misty went on to explain more about the wards, and Virginia listened with half an ear. She heard everything the girl said. But she didn’t need to. Because while specifics had changed and updated with the times, the general idea of how security for the camp worked had been the same since… since she was a part of it.

The camp had moved several times since those days. But there were only so many safe locations. And it was easier to move to a spot that they knew well enough to ward properly. So, while the camp didn’t always stay in the same place, there were about six or seven possible locations that they cycled through at random, using whichever seemed best at the time of the current move. After the location was freshly vetted, of course.

But Virginia knew this location for more than just that. She knew the location because she was the one who had given it to Joshua, and through him to his father Lyell, all those years ago. Because this… this lake, was where her family had lived, where the missing Roanoke colonists had eventually settled after leaving their original landing spot. And where they had all died when the Great Evil that so desperately wanted Virginia, the first English child born on the continent. This valley, where this lake and forest lay, had been the first home that Virginia ever knew. Until that home was destroyed, her family murdered, and she herself was made an Amarok Heretic.

It was also the place where Joshua had, centuries later, proposed to her. So maybe being here now was for the best. Maybe… it was somehow right that everything that had happened would lead to her being in this place once more. Especially as it had brought most of her surviving family with it.

Her family… her beautiful, brilliant, incredibly brave daughter. Her Joselyn. Her baby girl was still locked up by that monster. But the others… her three grandchildren and one great-granddaughter were here at the camp. Even if only Felicity and Koren knew who she was, they were here. They were in the place where Virginia had grown up. And, after they’d had a bit of time to adjust to the situation and take it in, she could actually tell at least the two of them about that fact. And that knowledge, the realization that she could actually talk to Felicity and Koren about this place, had stunned her beyond understanding.

Of course, thinking about the three grandchildren she had here at the camp reminded Virginia of the one who was not there. The one who would never be there, because she had…

No choice. She’d had no choice. Except that was a lie, because she did have a choice. She could have allowed Ammon to fulfill his plan. She could have sacrificed her oldest granddaughter, as well as Avalon, Vanessa Moon, and the other people in the stadium in order to ensure that no one found out she was related to him. That would have been the coldest thing to do. But it also would have been the thing that best protected the world at large from Fomorian invasion. It was what some would have chosen. Risking that again by allowing Felicity and Koren to learn her identity had been… selfish in some ways. She couldn’t actually say that her actions weren’t at least somewhat motivated by wanting someone in her family to know her. And the idea of letting Abigail and the others die to keep that secret had felt impossible.

It was a choice she stood by, and would have made again. But it had been so dangerous. And now they were here at the camp. At the village of her childhood, her first real home. How dangerous was that, and for how many reasons?

But Virginia had experience in keeping such things to herself. Her eyes, her expression, revealed none of those thoughts. Just as they betrayed none of her familiarity as Misty led her onward through the tour of a place that she had known like the back of her hand a hundred years before the girl’s great-grandparents had likely even been born. She feigned cluelessness as she was led through the camp, passing so many landmarks from her past. Some good. Many bad. All evoking thoughts and emotions that stayed deeply buried.

Much had happened in such a short time. Gaia was imprisoned. The revolution was back on. People were remembering many things they had been forced to forget. The war would soon be in full swing once more. But through it all, something else had also happened.

Virginia Dare was home.

******

Sean – Several Months Ago

 

Standing just outside his room at Crossroads Academy, Sean Gerardo closed his eyes and put a hand on the head of his constant companion. Vulcan made a soft noise in the back of his throat that was half-whine and half-question.

“I know, buddy,” Sean murmured. But he didn’t move. How could he do this? How could he just… just sleep in the same room as Columbus when he knew that that Seosten bitch was puppeting him? The thought of it, the thought that his friend was being toyed with, was being enslaved by that… that…

Calm down. He had to calm down. Luckily, he didn’t have to do that by himself. Reaching into a pocket, the boy retrieved a small silver coin. With a whispered word, he pressed the coin to his own arm to activate the spell that had been inscribed into it.

The effect was instantaneous, and Sean felt himself calming. His emotions settled a bit. According to Nevada, who had enchanted it, the spell would help settle him, dulling his emotions somewhat. And beyond simply dulling them, it would also help to mask the emotions he was giving off for anyone who was sensitive to that kind of thing. That way, there was less chance of the Seosten inside of Columbus noticing that something was wrong.

Even then, the boy had to take a few more deep breaths to prepare himself before setting his shoulders. Cracking his neck, he strode that way with Vulcan at his side and pushed the door open to step into the room he shared with his best friend.

And with the monster who had taken over his body and was enslaving him, apparently.

Columbus was in the room already, sitting at his desk doing some kind of homework. Or rather, the monster that was–

He had to stop thinking about that, it was just going to make him angry again, spell or no spell.

“Hey, dude,” Columbus idly waved with a pencil while focusing on the paper in front of him. “Sup?”

Speaking past the thick lump in his throat, Sean forced out, “Nada.” Jerking a thumb to his own bed, he added, “Gonna crash. You wanna hit the gym first thing?”

“Yeah, sure, wake me up,” Not-Columbus replied with what sounded like vague disinterest, ‘his’ attention already mostly focused on his paper once more.

Good enough. Turning back to his bed, Sean walked that way, patting the side of it until Vulcan hopped up to take his place at the foot. With one last glance toward his enslaved friend, Sean hit the button to plunge his side of the room into darkness as the privacy shield rose around him. Only then did he slump, falling onto the bed before muffling a scream against the pillow. Not that it would have mattered. With the privacy shield up, he could bellow at the top of his lungs and Columbus wouldn’t hear him.

He lay there on his bed, staring at the ceiling, for a few minutes. Sleep. He was supposed to sleep now. Even with his emotions dulled and masked, how could he do that? And for how long? How long was he supposed to sleep in the same room with… with that thing in his best friend in this place?

He had to. He had to keep the ruse going, for as long as it took. If he didn’t, if he changed rooms, if he did anything to let on that he knew, it could ruin everything. And then he might never get Columbus back at all.

Honestly, Sean was really starting to hate the Seosten Empire.

******

Croc – Night of the Exodus

 

As his enormous hand closed around the face of the screaming, cursing man who had come charging into the center of the tree, the Unset known as Croc heaved the man up and backward with barely a thought and less of an effort. The intruder, a Heretic from the Remnant Guardians tribe, continued his violent swearing until the back of his head collided with the wall. Then he slumped, his unconscious body dropping as Croc let it go.

“Whose side was he on?” The question came from another of the Unset. Counting Croc himself, there were eleven of the tribeless ones here, guarding the way up to where the Victors lived. All held their assortment of weapons or readied powers. And most looked as though they didn’t know whether to point those weapons to any potential intruders… or to each other. Glares of suspicion, dislike, and open hostility had replaced the camaraderie and trust that had been there only an hour earlier.

An hour earlier… before the spell that had revealed the truth to everyone.

“It doesn’t matter whose side he was on,” Croc replied flatly, his eyes snapping from one group of five to the second group of five. Was it fate that he had ended up with groups of equal size right here, right now? Five who had been part of the rebellion or at least agreed and sympathized with it in the case of the two who were too young to have been involved, and five who had and did not agree with it. Equal groups, both separated to either side of the stairway they were all supposed to be guarding.

“Doesn’t it?” That was Sabie, one of the loyalist group. The muscular dark-skinned woman squinted at Croc. “You were one of the traitors back in the day.”

Threefold, the short Asian man who appeared to speak for those on the other side, snapped, “You mean he wasn’t a fascist piece of shit who wanted to kill everyone who wasn’t human. And who–oh, by the way, supported a group that wanted to use a blood curse to enslave everyone who didn’t agree with them.”

Stop.” It was a simple word, but Croc put power into it. Literally, in this case. Power that knocked both groups back a step. His eyes moved from one set of five to the other before he spoke again. “All of you listen to me. It’s chaos out there. We can all hear it. We can see it. We can sense it. Everyone is fighting. It’s a war over the whole tree. Tribes are fighting tribes, fighting themselves, fighting… brother against brother. Families, friends, people who have lived together for decades are at each other’s throats. And everyone is caught in this.”

“What’s your point?” Sabie demanded. “It’s just your people causing shit again when they should have left well enough alone.”

One of the other group behind Threefold tried to snap a retort, but Croc spoke first. “The point is that both sides have things to lose. I don’t care who you are. I don’t care what side you’re on. Do you want this war to happen right now, right here? Do you want it to happen in the tree, with all the civilians and students around? Agree with them or not, they are your family, your friends, your fellow people. Stop throwing punches and insults and look at each other. You know each other. Whatever decisions were made back then, they weren’t made by us. We have worked with each other for decades. You’ve trusted each other. You’ve trusted me. And I trust you. All of you. But I swear to the roots, if any of you raise a hand to each other until after we deal with this situation, I will throw you off the goddamn tree. Is that understood?”

There was a brief pause before Threefold asked, “… Until we deal with it?”

Croc gave a slight nod. “Yes. Because that’s what we’re going to do. We are going to work together. We are going to get the other Unset, and we are going to calm things down. The Victors can take care of themselves. We are going to protect the tree, and everyone on it, by putting a stop to the fighting. We will make our way from branch to branch. We will separate everyone, and those who choose to leave will be allowed to do so uncontested. Later, both groups can debate, argue, fight, whatever they want. Both groups can kick each other’s asses to their hearts content… later. But they will not do it now, and they will not do it here. We will drag them apart and let the ones who want to leave do just that.

“We do not pick sides. If you want to choose a side after today, you can feel free. But right now, we are Unset. We protect the tree and everyone on it. No matter their side, no matter their choices, no matter what they have done in the past or may do in the future. We protect them. We drag them off each other, stop the fighting, and let them leave if they choose to. Now does anyone have a problem with that?

“No? Good. Then let’s get busy.”

*******

Gavin And Stephen – Night of the Exodus

 

“They’re gone, man,” Stephen muttered while sitting on his bed in the room that he shared with his teammate. The only teammate he had left in fact, the only one who hadn’t left. He and Gavin, along with the rest of the student body, had been ordered to stay in their rooms until told otherwise. He was pretty sure there were extra locks on the door, and spells to keep them there.

Gavin nodded. The tall boy, his height and relative thinness at odds with Stephen’s own short stockiness, ran his hands back through his hair while muttering several curses. “I know, man. They all left. They all left. What the hell?”

Grabbing his nearby pillow before throwing it angrily against the nearest wall, Stephen blurted, “You really think Shiori’s one of them? A… a monster?”

Gavin open his mouth to retort before stopping. He made a noise deep in his throat before shaking his head helplessly. “I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s all so screwed up. I mean, she’s not, right? I mean she’s not a monster. It’s just Shiori. She can’t be a monster.”

“She’s got a human parent, right?” Stephen offered. “Maybe that makes it so she’s not evil? That could work, could not? Being half human. If having a monster parent could make someone evil, then having a human parent could make them good just as easily. Isn’t that how it should work?”

Once more, Gavin groaned. “I don’t know. What about this whole rebellion thing? It’s like… they’re trying to protect monsters? They’re trying to work with them? I don’t get it. Why would they work with things that eat people?”

Putting his head in his hands, Stephen was quiet for a moment. “It’s not just Shiori. Aylen, Koren, and Rebecca left too. They’re gone. Did they join the bad guys? Are we the bad guys? We’re not the bad guys, right?” His tone was pleading as he walked toward his roommate and friend.

Gavin’s voice was soft. “They wanted to make a blood plague to enslave everyone on the other side. I’m pretty sure whatever side we’re on, it’s not the one with the angels on it. But I mean, the other side can’t be exactly right either, right? Working with things that eat people. How do they know that those things can just stop doing that? How do they know…” He trailed off, shaking his head helplessly. “Fuck, man, I don’t know.”

Stephen sighed before straightening. “Okay, how about this. We know our team, right? We know them. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong. And we know Shiori’s not a monster. Whatever else is going on, we know she’s not evil. So we try to talk to them. We get them to understand that this whole rebellion thing isn’t going to work. We can change things here. Maybe there’s people like Shiori who shouldn’t be lumped in with the evil ones. I don’t know. But this rebellion thing, that’s just going to screw everything up. So we talk to them. We get them to understand that.”

“What about the people on this side who wanted to use a blood curse?” Gavin asked. “That sounds pretty unequivocally evil to me.”

Stephen nodded. “Yeah, and that’s why we have to change things here. You have to get into the leadership. You have to work in the structure. Everyone who isn’t hardcore kill everything just pissing off to go join the rebellion only leaves the people who are. And then both sides are just going to fight until they kill each other.”

“So what do we do?” Gavin asked.

Stephen met his gaze. “I dunno. I… fuck, I don’t know.

“But I’m pretty sure, whatever we do, a lot of people are going to get hurt.”

*******

Erin Redcliffe – Night of the Exodus

 

Erin was hurt. Physically and emotionally, in fact. Emotionally because she had woken up from a deep sleep only to be bombarded by a tsunami of information magically shoved into her head that completely turned her entire worldview upside down. And the people who had shoved that information in there, the people who were responsible for changing everything she thought she knew about the world, were already gone.

She had left her room upon taking in all that life-changing information, only to find that anyone she could have talk to about it had left. Vanessa, her roommate, was gone. They left her here asleep.

That was another reason for her emotional pain, being left behind like that. And as for her physical pain, that came from the fact that she had punched the wall hard enough to put a hole in it after being basically shoved back into her room by a passing teacher and told her to stay there. Like a prisoner. They were treating everyone who was left like prisoners.

The fact that she was alone in this room only reminded the girl that she had been left behind. It reminded her that she had been roommates with Vanessa for almost an entire year and had never been talked to about any of this. No one had trusted her, had even thought about her, enough to broach the subject at all.

That wasn’t fair. She knew that. It would’ve been dangerous to do something like that. But knowing things logically didn’t get rid of her feelings. Especially when she had nobody to talk to.

What was she supposed to do now? With everything that had been shoved into her head, did she really believe what she’d been taught her whole life? And even if she didn’t, what could she do about it? She didn’t know where Vanessa, Professor Dare, and all those other people had gone. She wouldn’t have the first clue of how to find them.

Her dad. She needed to talk to her dad. He had been around when that rebellion from Flick’s mother was going on. Had he been a part of it? Had he been opposed to it? And how would she feel either way? Whatever, it hardly mattered now. She had tried to call him, as well as Vanessa. Neither call went anywhere. They were being jammed, communications with the outside world blocked.

If her father was part of the rebellion, was he again now that his memories were back? Wait, what were the Crossroads people going to do about students whose families were suddenly part of the rebellion again? What if her dad was part of the rebellion and now they wouldn’t let him come get her?

She was trapped here, trapped in this room where she had no chance to talk to anyone, or to understand anything. No one would say anything to her. They just shoved her in here, locked the door, and let her pace around punching walls while wondering what she was supposed to believe now.

She would have gone with them. Erin knew that. Whatever she believed, she would have gone with Vanessa and the others if she had been there. But she wasn’t. She was asleep. And now she was trapped here.

Gripping her short blue hair with both hands, Erin groaned while nearly ripping it out in frustration. She had to get out of here. She had to find the others, talk to her dad, and figure out what was going on. But most of all, she couldn’t stay here anymore. Not with what she had learned, with the information that had been shoved into her head. She couldn’t stay here. She didn’t believe in Crossroads anymore.

And what was going to happen when the people here figured that out?

******

Jessica Trent – Night of the Exodus

 

“Excuse me?” An elderly woman, speaking hesitantly as she stepped out of the small, almost cottage-like house set on the corner of a small, unassuming street in a town somewhere in Falls Church, Virginia, stared at the figure who had been standing in front of her house for the past thirty minutes.

If the figure had been a man, she might have called the police. She was still thinking about it. But looking out her window to see this woman in what appeared to be her early twenties staring at her house for so long without moving had made her more curious than frightened.

The woman had deeply tanned skin, as if she spent most of her time outside in the sun. Her hair was black and cut mostly short with one longer part on the left side that formed a braid. Her eyes were dark blue, to the point of almost being black, and a single jagged scar across her left cheek from her jawline up just under her eye and across her nose marred an otherwise stunningly beautiful face.

After hesitating just a moment upon getting a good look at that scar in the streetlight, the older woman approach. She walked carefully down her front sidewalk, her voice gentle. “Sweetie, do you need something? Would you like me to call somebody? Are you okay?” The lost, broken look in the woman’s eyes had raised every maternal instinct that Bethany Sweetwalker had.

Finally meeting her gaze, the scarred woman quickly shook her head. Though she tried to keep her voice light, it was obvious that she was barely holding it together. “No, no, I’m fine. I just… I’m sorry. My name is Jessica Trent. I… I used to live here.”

Blinking at that, Bethany replied, “Well, you must have been quite young at the time. You don’t look a day over twenty-one, and I’ve lived here for twenty years.”

Jessica gave her a soft, genuine smile that the scar did nothing to diminish. “I am older than I look,” she replied simply. Then she took a breath. “I’m sorry. I was just hoping that, if it’s not too much of an imposition, I might look around for a minute? I could pay you for the trouble.”

Bethany’s head shook. “Oh nonsense. If you’d like to see your old childhood home, who am I to stand in the way? You come right on inside, and take all the time you need. I warn you, it’s a little bit of a mess. I don’t get visitors very much since the grandchildren moved to Idaho.”

Jessica followed the woman inside, stepping into the small living room. The second she did so, more of the memories that had already been flooding her mind for hours came rushing in.

She saw him, the man with incredibly fine blue and white tiger-striped fur, and large eyes as green as the forest. She saw him, and knew his name.

Xhan. The man she loved. The man she had devoted her life to for over thirty years. The man whose child she had eventually borne.

Moving through the living room and into the nearby kitchen, before glancing through the two small bedrooms and single bathroom, Jessica remembered all the years spent here in this house with her husband and their son, Sergei. Everywhere she looked, in every corner of every room, another memory of their life here together made itself known. They had been happy here, a tiny family living together in this small house. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough for them. It was all they needed.

And then it had been taken away, in a way none of them could have protected themselves from. The spell that erased Joselyn Atherby’s rebellion had erased all of Jessica‘s memories of her family. Her husband and son were ripped from her mind entirely. For decades, she had been back at Crossroads, helping to fight and kill people like her husband and child because her mind had been violated.

For the Crossroads Committee, it had not been enough to make her stop fighting them. They had ripped her choices away, had ripped her family away and completely erased them. They had turned her into a murderer against her will. They erased her choices and destroyed everything she had built.

She had no idea where Xhan and Sergei were, or if they were even alive. And they would not remember her any more than she had remembered them until this moment, until the spell came that restored all of it to her. The spell had only restored her own memories, not theirs. They had no reason to come find her, because they had no idea who she was. If they were alive, she had no idea where to find them, or even how to look. They could be anywhere in the world, or on any world. It was a search that could very well be utterly doomed on the face of it. They had decades worth of a head start, and no reason to know she was looking.

They were gone, and she had no idea how to find them.

She stood there, fists clenched as tears fell freely down her face. Eventually, Bethany quietly asked, “Sweetie, are you sure you don’t want me to call somebody?”

“No,” Jessica replied in a flat voice. Her eyes opened and she looked to the kind, elderly woman who was actually probably several decades younger than her. “Thank you, but this was a mistake. There’s nothing here for me. I’ll leave you alone.”

After a brief hesitation, Bethany reached out to touch her arm. “I hope you find whatever you’re looking for.”

“So do I,” Jessica agreed. “But I’m afraid it might be gone forever.”

“Oh dear,” Bethany urged, “You have to keep hope. If you don’t have hope, what’s left?”

Jessica answered without looking at the woman. Her gaze was focused on the corner of the living room where she could see her husband and son comparing their height marks on the wall. Her response was a single, definitive word that filled her body and soul. It was an answer, but also a promise, a solemn vow.

“Revenge.”

******

 

Marina Dupont – Night of the Exodus

 

“Marina, would you go get the Bluejay group and bring them to the main room?”

For a moment, Marina Dupont stared at the woman who was speaking. The older Heretic, a woman named Kelly, was the only adult besides Marina (herself only technically an adult by being nineteen) who was still here in what was called the Nest. That was the word used for the daycare/school/orphanage where all the young children from toddlers all the way up to twelve years old stayed while their parents were busy… or gone permanently.

“The Bluejays?” Marina echoed. That was the nickname of the six year olds. Every age group had bird names, up to the twelve-year-olds, who were called Owls. “You want me to go get the kids? What about everything that just happened? What about everything that just popped into our heads? You know what it means?”

A rebellion. There had been a full-scale rebellion against Crossroads, against the idea of killing all beings who weren’t human. People believed that there were good Strangers. They actually believed that. They believed it to the point of going to war about it, until that rebellion had been erased.

And it was Flick’s group who restored those memories, or instilled them in those who were too young, like Marina herself. Everything that had happened over the year, all the students whom Marina was supposed to mentor that had disappeared or died, this had something to do with that. She knew it. She didn’t know how, but it had to be related in some way. All those secrets they had been keeping, it was about this. They believed that Strangers weren’t all evil, and they were afraid of how she would react to that idea. That was why they were so secretive around her. They didn’t hate her. They were just being careful. For good reason.

Kelly, a woman who would have appeared to be in her late forties as a Bystander, interrupted Marina’s thoughts. “Yes, I know what it means. It means that we are going to have a lot of parents coming to grab their children. We need to get everyone into the meeting room so we can work out which ones are safe to release.”

Blinking in confusion, Marina asked, “What do you mean, safe to release? If their parents come to get them, shouldn’t we just let them go? I mean, they’re their parents.”

Kelly’s head shook. “Only once they’ve been cleared by the Committee as not being traitors. Listen to me, we are not going to send impressionable, innocent children home with parents or other family members who are traitors. Besides, having their children means they’ll come and talk. It might head off a big part of any violence if they can be told to surrender for their kids, okay?” When Marina slowly nodded in understanding, the woman gave her a smile. “Good, now go get the Bluejays, I’m going to make sure—”

In mid-sentence as she turned to look down the hall, the woman was suddenly cut off by the feel of Marina’s hand against her neck, a coin clutched between her fingers. She tried to react, but Marina spoke the incantation first, sending a powerful sleep spell into Kelly that dropped her to the floor.

She wouldn’t be out long, maybe ten minutes. That was the best that Marina could hope for. Quickly, the girl went down to one knee and searched through the woman’s pocket until she found a large blue key. The field trip key, as people here in the Nest called it. It worked on a single door that would transport them to any of several dozen locations across the world.

Clutching the key in one hand, Marina jumped up and ran to the Bluejay hall.  Over the next minute or so, she gathered each of the ten children who fell into that category and ushered them with her to the main room where everyone else was already waiting. There were over sixty kids in there, most of them sitting around chattering about the coolness of being up in the middle of the night, or sleeping on the floor or in chairs. A few looked confused or even scared. All of them looked up as she entered with the other group, some blurting some variation of, “Miss Marina! What’s going on?”

Taking a breath, Marina held up the key. “Everyone get your buddy. We’re going on a trip.”

Danny, a young boy just over nine, raised his hand. “A trip? But we’re supposed to be sleeping. Where’s Miss Kelly? What’s going on?”

Forcing a smile on to her face, Marina put a finger to her lips. “Shh. It’s a surprise. Come on guys, you’ll like it, I promise. We’re going to have an adventure.”

She turned then, leading them to the field trip door. She had no idea where she was going to take them. But she knew one thing, she was not going to let either side of this war use children against each other. Every child’s parent, no matter what side they were on, would be able to come pick them up from wherever she took them. She was not going to be party to that kind of evil. Rebel or loyalist, they could all claim their offspring, siblings, or whatever.

There would be consequences, of course. She knew that. She’d known it from the moment she made the decision to knock Kelly out. She would probably be labeled a traitor herself for doing that. But Marina didn’t care. She didn’t care how anyone saw her, or what they did to her for it. All she cared about was stopping these kids from being turned into pawns for this war.

No one was going to use children as hostages. Not this time.

Not if she had anything to say about it.

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Interim Incursion 43-07 (Tristan)

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The entrance to the staff elevator was set up against the wall a couple feet from the regular one, only really hidden if you weren’t looking for it (and hadn’t just seen a creepy yarn-creature disappear into it a few seconds earlier).

Standing in the elevator with Scout, Sean, and Columbus after they’d pried the doors open, Tristan Moon bounced his foot anxiously while staring upward. “Top floor. Gotta get to the top floor. That’s where the bomb is.” He could see it perfectly in his mind, the memory of that Strings-creature’s thoughts crystal clear. As was the memory of just how terrible possessing it in the first place had been. It wasn’t like possessing a normal person. It was like being part of a hive. He’d nearly lost his mind and entire separate sense of self just in those brief seconds. It was an experience he never wanted to repeat, and shuddered now at the thought that the memory would always be a part of him.

But it saved Scout, so it was worth it. And if it helped them disable this bomb, it would be even more so. All they had to do was get to the thing before Strings set it off.

“It’s not moving,” Columbus blurted while hitting the elevator button a few more times. He grimaced, looking to Tristan. “Strings must’ve shut it down. I could try to get into it and turn the power back on, but–”

“Too long,” Tristan quickly agreed. “We’ll just have to get up the old fashioned way.” He wasn’t quite to the point of blind panic. From what he’d read in that… creature’s mind, even once it was armed, the bomb would still need time to gather energy before it actually exploded. They couldn’t exactly dawdle, but the explosion wasn’t going to happen any second.

Spending years helping Grandpa Nick and growing up on his ship had really helped with that whole ‘keeping calm when a bomb wasn’t literally seconds from exploding’ thing. Even if he tried not to think about that time too much at the moment since he knew it would be at least five years before he could have any contact with them. Consequences of time travel that had been thoroughly hammered into his head by Nicholas, Gaia, and more recently by Apollo and his mother. No matter how much he missed Nicholas Petan (or the other people who meant a lot to him, like Dexamene), he could not have any contact until their current time had caught up with the other man’s.

So for now, Tristan focused on dealing with the current problem, moving under the hatch in the elevator roof before looking up. It was pretty high, about nine feet up in this enormous elevator. Luckily, he could handle that. First, he touched the spell on his clothes that would send them into the pocket of the Seosten bodysuit that he wore underneath, not wanting to rip them. Then he let Bobbi-Bobbi off his arm, letting her sit in the corner of the elevator in snake mode for the moment.

Flashing the others a quick grin, the boy couldn’t help but note, “Let’s just hope that safety plaque over there isn’t lying about how much weight it can hold.”

Focusing briefly on his growth power then, Tristan made himself tall enough to reach up and push the hatch open. Then he reached down for Sean, picking the boy up before giving him a lift out of the hatch. He did the same for Scout, Columbus, Bobbi-Bobbi, and Vulcan before catching onto the edge, shrinking down to his normal height, and climbing out to join them.

Standing on the roof of the elevator, all four of them (plus the cyberforms) looked up. The shaft was long, with the top floor where they needed to get at least the equivalent of forty stories away.

“Why is this thing so big?” Columbus demanded with obvious exasperation. “The vaults are all below us, right? So what the hell is above us that takes up that much room?”

“Offices,” Tristan answered, remembering what he’d taken from that piece of Strings (that String?). “Security training rooms. Apartments for the permanent employees. I think a bowling alley too. Things like that. Even an on-site hospital. Oh, and generators for all the power they need. Electrical and magical.”

He paused then, before making a face. “Can we go? I sound way too much like Nessa right now. And Strings already has enough of a head start anyway. It’s gonna take time for them to get the bomb going, but not that much time.”

“I don’t think I can teleport that far,” Columbus murmured while staring up that way. “Especially not with all of you. I could try teleporting from floor to floor in those little elevator doorways, but that’s gonna wear me out pretty quick.”

“Nah,” Tristan replied, “I’ve got this one.” He moved to the other side of the lift, making sure to give the others as much room as possible before growing once more. That time he hit his full ten foot limit, which brought him within a few feet of the next floor. Close enough that, with brief hits from his boost, he could hop up and grab the elevator doorway, hauling himself onto it.

It wouldn’t have been hard to get up the elevator shaft normally. He could’ve done it as a child, scrambling up between the walls and cables. But with the added height and boost, it was even easier. He hopped from floor to floor, jumping to the side of the shaft, using the cable, or just clinging to the wall with his feet dug into small crevices. He climbed the elevator shaft in just a few short seconds, barely slowing to pay attention to what he was doing long enough to make sure there were no trap spells waiting at various stops.

Then his head hit an invisible forcefield just as he was starting to make one of the last jumps, and Tristan yelped. Nearly losing his grip, the boy windmilled before grabbing a nearby wall to catch himself. Grimacing, he looked up. Sure enough, the powerful shield hummed a little. He was three floors from the top.

With a sigh, he looked back. This was going to have to do. Settling himself against the nearest elevator doorway, the boy reached out for the cable and began to haul back on it. Bit by bit, he hauled the elevator with his friends on it up to meet him.

The bomb. Every bit of him itched to go after that bomb. But Grandpa Nick had hammered it so many times into his head to not run off by himself in situations like this. And there had been more than a few involving bombs, some of which were much closer to going off than this one was.

He knew they had time. He’d seen it in that String’s… brain, such as it was. But even telling himself that the bomb would need at least a few minutes to fully prep and deploy once Strings got to it didn’t really help that much. It was a bomb, they had to get to it now. Now. Holding himself back, forcing himself to be calm and smart about things, it wasn’t easy.

“What happened?” Scout asked him as soon as he’d hauled the elevator up to his level. She was standing with Bobbi-Bobbi wrapped around her waist, the snake’s head resting on her shoulder as both stared at him. She glanced upward at the several floors-worth of shaft yet to go.

“Forcefield,” he replied, “gotta find another way up.” With that, he shrank back to his normal size, before turning to face the closed elevator doorway leading to the corridor beyond. “Bobs?”

His snake unwrapped itself from Scout, lunging to him while he held his arm out for her. As soon as the cyberform was reattached to him, Tristan shifted her from cannon-mode to blade-mode and shoved the end through the tiny crack in the doors, using that to pry them open before pushing the rest of the way.

The others joined him, stepping off the elevator roof and into the corridor. The place was deserted. It looked like the lobby of some office building, complete with an empty receptionist’s desk ahead of them. There were signs on the wall about how to get to each office through the three different corridors (one to either side and one straight ahead past the desk), and even a flyer advertising some kind of staff basketball tournament.

Quickly scanning all of the signs, Tristan pointed. “Stairs. There, that way!” Without another word, he started running to the left, trusting the others to follow.

“How much time do we have?!” Sean called as he ran alongside Tristan, with Vulcan a few feet ahead. “And why does a bomb have a time delay before it goes off anyway?”

“It’s the only way they could do it,” Tristan replied without breaking stride. “The bomb needs a lot of power to break through the whole building with its defenses and take out everything below us. But if they had it just sitting there with all that power, Heretics who weren’t on their side would’ve noticed. They would’ve sensed it. So they had to leave it and let the thing charge up when the time came. Besides,” he added, “they figured if the bomb took a few minutes to charge up, they could nail Avalon and whoever was with her on their way out of the vault. You know, destroy the spell after she brought it out for them.”

“Two birds, one bomb, got it,” Columbus put in from behind him. “So we just have to get to it before it finishes charging up.”

Nodding her agreement, Scout added, “What if it’s about to go off?”

“It can’t be,” Tristan informed her and the others, “we’d feel it. Believe me, we’ll know when the bomb hits its half-charged point.”

He started to elaborate on that, only to stop as they reached the door leading into the stairwell. Without pausing, he lashed out to kick the door open, passing right through it. Unfortunately, a familiar hum brought him up short. Cursing, he lashed out to punch the forcefield blocking the way on the stairs. “Damn it!”

He looked toward Scout then. “Can you use your scope-portals to find the shield generator and destroy it?” Then his eyes flicked over to Columbus. “Or, or can you teleport through it?” He was mentally flailing, every other thought he had some version of wishing that Vanessa was there. She was smarter. She could have figured this out.

Scout’s head shook, even as she lowered her rifle. Her voice was soft. “Scope can’t go through.”

“Neither can I,” Columbus reluctantly muttered. “It’s protected against teleportation.”

“Can we just cut up through the ceiling?” Sean quickly put in, staring upward while shifting Vulcan into his minigun form.

Tristan’s head shook. “It’s all made out of starship grade metal. Trust me, Vanessa made m–starship grade metal!” He interrupted himself to repeat those words, eyes widening.

“Tristan?” Scout prompted as he went silent for a second, mind racing. “Are–”

He interrupted her that time. “Engraver! I need a–” Fumbling in his pockets, he finally came out with a field-engraver, promptly shifting himself up to a tall enough height to reach the ceiling even as he began frantically drawing a rune there. Too slow, it was too slow! He had to be faster. But he also had to get it right. It had to be just right. And he was too focused to explain anything. Thankfully, the others didn’t ask. They just waited while he drew the spell, planting power in it at the appropriate times.

Time. How much time did they have? Not enough. Faster. Remember faster. Draw faster. Work faster. Tristan scrambled, almost messing up the spell, which would have been the end of… everything. But at the last instant, he caught himself and adjusted the swirl of the line he was drawing. Just a little more. Do it right. He had to do it right the first time.

Finally, he tapped a hand against the completed rune, shoving the last of the power into it before dropping back to his normal height. “Please, please, please…”

It worked. The rune briefly glowed with a pale red light, before tiny darts of energy shot out of it to form a circle about four inches across. There was a brief high pitched sound like an electrical saw, before a small hole abruptly appeared in that space where the circle had been.

“Columbus!” Tristan blurted, “now, now, you can get through that, right?!”

With a nod, the other boy caught hold of everyone, pulling them in and snapping, “Hold on.” He stared up through that hole to the next floor up, and quickly transported them. Then they were through. They were on the next floor, in a hallway just outside what turned out to be the gymnasium.

Without wasting a second, Tristan was already moving for the stairwell ahead of them. He didn’t say anything to the others. There was no need, they were right behind him.

“What did you do?” Sean quickly asked once they hit the stairwell. “How did you do that? Did Vanessa-”

“Not Vanessa,” Tristan started before cutting himself off. Reaching ahead of himself on the stairs, he muttered a prayer… and was rewarded with no forcefield. They were already past it, and the bad guys hadn’t put one on every level. Pumping his fist briefly, the boy started to race up the stairs three at a time while continuing to explain. “Grandpa Nick! They use bigger versions of that spell during battles in space to transfer metal from these big blocks they have in order to patch holes or weak points in the hull. I just reversed it and sent metal from that little spot to other parts of the ceiling. It would’ve taken longer to make something big enough for all of us to get through, but since all you needed was a clear view to teleport through…”

By the time he finished giving that brief explanation, they were at the top floor. The door was locked, but Tristan was completely done with letting things delay them. He simply shifted Bobbi-Bobbi back to her cannon form, pointed, and blew the door open.

They emerged onto the top floor, an area for executive offices and the suites for the bank’s leadership and owners. It looked like a semicircle with half a dozen open doors spaced evenly along either side of a much larger set of doors that were straight across from the stairwell and elevator. The smaller doors led to vice-presidential areas, while the big ones right in the middle marked the entrance to the bank owner’s private home and personal office.

“Through there,” Tristan announced, moving for those doors. “They’ve got the bomb in the owner’s private quarters, it was the only way to make sure no one found it before they were ready.”

Just as they reached the doors, the group suddenly felt a heavy rumble go through the floor around them. It only lasted for a second, but all of their eyes widened as they looked to each other.

“It’s half-way through powering up,” Tristan snapped. “Which means we’ve got three minutes. Three minutes before it goes.” Even as he spoke, the boy was already racing for the doors. These too were locked, and resisted two quick shots from Bobbi-Bobbi. “Fuck!”

Scout’s hand caught his arm then, as the girl unslung her rifle with the other hand. “Together,” she muttered.

The others were already moving to do the same. Columbus put his hand to his goggles to move them up to full power, while Sean set Vulcan down to let the cyberform shoot on his own, taking VJ in his rifle form to add just a little more firepower. Together, they took aim for the middle of the doors, where they joined. Tristan counted down from three, all while hearing the inevitable clock of that bomb counting down each precious second.

They fired together, a sudden deafening cacophony of violent gunfire and lasers that blew the doors in, leaving a smoldering hole where they had been. Alarms finally started blaring, but none of them cared. They had to get to the bomb, now!

Two and a half minutes. Tristan’s internal clock was telling him that was how much time was left, even as they raced through the broken doors and he led the way in a dead sprint. Could they make it to the bomb in two and a half minutes?

They had to. It wasn’t a question. They would make it because there was no other choice. The Seosten Empire was not going to win this. Period, end of story.

Paying no attention to the lavish penthouse they were racing through, Tristan and the others ran straight for the back room, where the generator was. That would give the bomb its initial oomph, which it had just spent the past several minutes charging up into the devastating, skyscraper-demolishing explosion that it was about to trigger.

Step by step, they passed other rooms in a blur. One and a half minutes left. One minute, fifteen seconds.

At exactly one minute according to Tristan’s internal clock, they reached the room in question. It should have been a simply utility room with a couple generators and temperature regulators.

Should have been. The Seosten had… changed it. As the group raced into the room, they found it much larger. Football field-size, in fact. At the far end lay the bomb they were looking for, a device that looked like a dark blue cylinder pulsing with energy while surrounded by coils of metal and a complicated computer system. With every passing second, the cylinder was pulsing faster and brighter.

And Strings was there. Standing just in front of them, the hive-minded creature seemed to bounce from foot to foot, waving oversized hands. “Just in time,” they called. “Just in time to boom.”

“I got this,” Columbus snapped, catching hold of Tristan. He focused, then stopped. “… can’t teleport. Something’s blocking it. Something–”

“No cheating!” Strings interrupted. “No more cheating. Just stand there and be blown sky high like good children!” As they spoke, as if to add emphasis to the words, the hive-creature hit a button on a remote they held in one hand. Instantly, the full one hundred yards behind them leading to the bomb was taken up by hundreds of crisscrossing lasers. Some stationary, some mobile. It was a maze of deadly light. And Columbus couldn’t teleport through it.

Thirty seconds.

“Keep them busy!” Tristan snapped. He was already dropping Bobbi-Bobbi, leaving the snake behind as he ran straight for the lasers.

Behind him, his cyberform along with everyone else all opened up on Strings, driving the creatures to throw themselves out of the way, just as Tristan go close enough to leap past them. A half-dozen strings raced out toward him, but he dropped his size down to being a foot-tall, letting all of them miss before returning to his normal size.

Columbus and the others had Strings then, keeping the creatures occupied. Which just left the lasers, and the distance. Twenty seconds and a football field worth of deadly beams of light.

The record for the hundred yard dash among humans was just under ten seconds. And they didn’t have to deal with a shitload of lasers blocking their path.

But they also didn’t have Tristan’s boost, so he was going to call it even.

Kicking that on, the boy felt a rush of power and speed run through his entire body. He tore across the open space toward the bomb. Every move he made was instinctive, trusting his body to know how to avoid the lasers. They came from every direction, forcing him to dive, leap, spin, roll, and lunge to avoid them. At one point, he threw himself through a tiny square of open space between three crisscrossing beams, only able to make it through by shrinking himself down briefly.

But through it all, he kept moving. He kept running for the bomb.

Fifteen seconds.

Ten seconds.

Five seconds.

Lunging through the last row of lasers, Tristan’s hand slapped for the spellwork lined along one side of the bomb. He could feel the power in the thing rumbling through the floor and making his teeth rattle.

Four seconds.

Finding the right spot, he shoved his fingers into the appropriate spots and quickly began blurting the cancel code that he’d taken from Strings.

Three seconds.

The code was out, the system waiting for verification, which he snapped hurriedly.

Two seconds.

One second.

It stopped. The bright pulsing blue light suddenly went dim, and the bomb powered down.

Half-collapsing against the device, Tristan only belatedly remembered Strings. He quickly spun that way, finding the lasers shut down as well. Scout and the others were there, about halfway to him, while Strings was glowering, vibrating with anger. “Bad, bad, bad!” they snapped, quivering furiously. “Master will not be glad for this. Master will be very angry. Master-”

In mid-sentence, another figure suddenly appeared beside Strings before falling to the ground. It was a Seosten, heavily injured. His head was bald (and covered with blood along with his clothes), and he had a snake tattoo.

“Master!” Strings blurted, reaching for the gravely injured Seosten. The man, in turn, used what looked like the last of his strength to grab onto his extended hand, before disappearing into one of the String-creatures.

Tristan had already pushed himself back up and took several quick steps to join the others. Bobbi-Bobbi wound her way over his arm to resume her place, as he and the rest braced themselves.

But Strings apparently had no interest in fighting. Spitting a curse at them and a promise to make them pay for hurting Master, they disappeared.

“Is… is that it?” Sean demanded, staring at the spot where the creatures had been. “They just ran away?”

“Don’t trust it,” Columbus snapped. “They might come back.”

Tristan nodded. “He’s right. We wait here and guard the bomb, make sure Strings or… anybody else doesn’t double back to turn it on again. We’ll keep it safe.

“And hope Avalon gets into that vault soon.”

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Interim Incursion 43-05 (Scout)

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At least Scout knew what power she had picked up from the Seosten woman in the other building. As the swarm of the zombies made their way across the room toward the small group and the spell behind them, Scout kept trying to shoot faster to keep up with all the targets that presented themselves. Then, as if she had flipped a switch, she could suddenly think, move, and react much faster. It was like she had been thrown into fast forward, able to aim a shot, fire, aim another shot, fire, aim a third shot, and fire that as well before she normally would have finished aiming the first one.

She could only keep it going for a brief time, but in that time, she took down fifteen zombies with precise head shots. It was like that video game that Shiori had been showing her where you could use the occasional turbo boost to throw the world into slow-motion and auto-aim at your targets.

But it wasn’t enough. The zombies kept coming. They poured through every vault door, and immediately joined the horde in rushing for the spell that was blocking communication with the outside world. Even with Columbus, Sean, Tristan, and Professor Tangle adding their own firepower, there seemed to be no end to the creatures. They were killing them, but the zombies didn’t let up. More and more kept appearing, dozens at a time, even as they were mowed down just as quickly.

Beside her, Tristan took aim at a large clump of the creatures with his cannon, charged up a powerful shot, and let loose with it. The blast bowled through them and more beyond. But it was no more effective than anything else had been at actually stopping more from appearing.

Sean and the two Vulcans were laying down a dizzying hurricane of suppressive fire together. Sweeping their firing arc from one side of the room to the other constantly, they were doing the most to keep the flood of zombies from overwhelming everyone. Columbus’s goggle-blasts and Tristan’s cannon blew through the larger groups, and Scout picked off the sneaky lone figures that tried to go around.

Meanwhile, Tangle dealt with the ones that slipped through the cracks, sending waves of her ghost-like cars and other things summoned with her weapon to crash into them and knock the collective group back once more.

They were killing the zombies as fast as they could, and the flood wasn’t getting anywhere. But it also wasn’t going away. There seemed to be an unlimited number of the creatures that just kept pouring through. And eventually, Scout and the others were going to slip up, get tired, or run out of firepower. It was looking like the zombies would win this war of attrition through sheer force of numbers.

“Block the doors?” Scout blurted the suggestion in between firing three more quick shots, two of which struck home. If they could somehow close the vaults off, it could give them a break and stop the reinforcement zombies from coming through.

“With what?” Sean asked, even as he used Vulcan to tear through another handful of the relentless monsters. Hovering over his right shoulder, VJ fired a few shots of his own as if for emphasis. “We don’t have anything to block them, unless Tangle can?” He glanced that way with those words.

Tangle, for her part, grimaced while shaking her head. “Sorry, the only thing that comes to mind is–” She stopped talking for a moment, extending her flashlight-like weapon to project an elephant, which charged across the room to trample a dozen zombies under its feet. “The only thing I can think of is breaking the portals, but we’d need to be inside each vault to do that!”

“Scout!” Tristan blurted, charging up another shot to fire. “Scout, your rifle! Use the scope-portals to see into the vaults.”

“He’s right,” Tangle realized aloud. “Scout, forget shooting the zombies. We’ll handle them. Focus on getting a view into each room. Look for runes above and to both sides of the door and hit them with whatever you can to break them. Guys, hold the line until she manages that.”

Taking a half second to put a hand on Scout’s shoulder and squeeze, Tristan urged, “Don’t worry, you’ve got this. We’ll cover here.” Suiting action to words, the boy simultaneously fired a charged shot from his cannon that blew through a handful of the undead creatures while also producing a knife with his other hand. A quick flick of his wrist sent the blade through the eye socket of another zombie that he’d barely been glancing at. A moment later, a spell on the knife ignited the zombie’s head and blew it apart.

Trying not to think about how much pressure this suddenly was (or about how it felt to have Tristan’s hand on her shoulder even under these circumstances), Scout pivoted away from the group. She let them cover her, dropping to one knee while bringing her rifle up. Taking aim through her scope at a random bit of wall near the ceiling, she fired a scope-portal about midway there, above everyone’s heads. Then she switched her view to seeing through the portal, adjusting to point it toward the nearest vault doorway. Form that position, she could barely see the entrance, firing to create another scope portal in the doorway, just above the heads of the zombies.

From there, it was a simple matter to make one more scope portal inside the vault itself. The whole place was literally filled with zombies. The room was the size of a football field, with the creatures packed in like sardines. No wonder they kept coming, if every room was like this one. The only thing slowing them down was the size of the doorway they were coming through.

Time to end that. Adjusting the scope-portal to see back toward the vault entrance, Scout zoomed in on the doorway. Behind her, she could still hear all the fighting going on, but had to force herself to ignore the distraction and just trust that Tristan, Columbus, Sean, and Professor Tangle could handle it.

Sure enough, there were lines of runes along the top and sides of the door. As Tangle had said, now she just had to damage it enough to break the spell creating the portal. For that, Scout flipped two switches along the side of her rifle, switching to her explosive rounds. Those weren’t as plentiful as the regular ammunition that her rifle basically generated on its own, but they would do the job of damaging that wall a lot better.

She took a breath, slowly let it out while ignoring all the fighting going on mere feet away from her, and fired the first shot through the portal. Shifting the scope slightly to the right, she fired again, then repeated it a third time after another shift. All along the spell where her shots struck it, the rounds exploded into miniature balls of fire.

That was enough. The damage to the spell disrupted it, and Scout saw the doorway leading into the main room suddenly disappear, leaving behind a blank wall and cutting off that horde of zombies waiting to emerge.

Quickly, she looked up from her rifle, glancing toward the door from this side. Yes, the first vault was cut off, stemming one source of the monsters, at least. Unfortunately, that left a lot more to go, considering there were six vaults along on either side.

Oh well, that just meant she had to get busy rather than continue patting herself on the back. Quickly disabling the scope-portals she’d used already, Scout got to work setting up a new line into the second vault. This time she had a better idea of what she was doing, firing each viewing portal in rapid succession to get a good line on the spell there. In the background, she heard Tangle telling Columbus and Sean to focus on one side, and felt someone bump against her as they adjusted their stance. Ignore it. She had to ignore it. They would handle the problem here in the room, she just had to do her job. Even if the thoughts of what was going on with her mother back in the main building, or her sister downstairs, were just as distracting as the zombies right here were.

Shutting out every other worry, Scout took more shots at the portal spell for the second vault, destroying it and cutting off that room as well. Through the scope, she could see the confused zombies stumble up against the blank wall where the doorway had been.

Two down, ten to go. Faster. She had to be faster with it and shut these vaults down before she and the others were overrun. Every second that she let pass without closing another portal was a second where a dozen more zombies could stagger through into the room to join their relentless companions.

Settling into a routine by then, Scout took out the third vault, then the fourth one. Eight to go, and there was definitely a noticeable lag to the flow of zombies by that point. It was helping. Especially as she’d focused on one side first, cutting off two-thirds of the zombie portals from that direction to allow the others to focus more attention on the other side. More attention meant more focused firepower, which took the zombies down faster.

As she turned her attention to the fifth vault, Scout paused briefly. A strange, tingling sensation, like she was being watched, came over her. She felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up, and briefly raised her head from the gun. Her eyes glanced around, but could find nothing. There were no zombies anywhere near her, and no other threat that she could see.

Apparently catching sight of her looking out of the corner of his eye, Tristan turned slightly to see what she was doing. Scout started to shake her head at him, but the moment he was facing her, she saw his eyes widen.

“Scout!” the boy blurted, lunging to grab her arm. He yanked her up and out of the way, falling backward in the process. The two of them crashed together to the floor with a pair of yelps.

Right where she had been crouching, Scout saw them. Ten little… strings? They came from above, wiggling as though in agitation. Confused, the girl raised her eyes, following the strings to their source. And then she saw him.

The man clung to the ceiling high above. His figure was… wrong. His legs were drawn up so that if he had been on the floor, he would have been kneeling. Though he was ostensibly facing the ceiling itself, his torso was twisted around unnaturally to face the floor below, while his head was twisted even further so that he was looking at them from a completely different angle than the way he should have been. His arms were wrong as well, twisted away from the direction of his torso to point straight down. His long, gangly fingers were attached to hands that seemed three times too large for the rest of his body, and those ten strings that had been about to grab onto Scout came from each of those fingers. Strings which were already slurping back up even as the man’s twisted-around head met her gaze with eyes that weren’t there, the sockets dark, empty voids.

Tristan and Scout both brought their weapons up to shoot at the thing as their Stranger senses went wild, but he had already inverted to drop to the floor nearby. With creaking bones, the figure drew himself up to his full, impressive height, standing eight feet high. He wore black pants and an old-fashioned striped tailcoat over a frilly white shirt and stained brown vest.  

Tangle had realized what was happening by then, spinning that way with her weapon up. Seeing the man there, however, she paused. “What the…”

“Hello.” The man greeted them while holding up his hands, palm out. The strings were still hanging a few inches out from his fingertips, wiggling in the air like worms. “We can’t let you break any more of our master’s toys. It’s time to sleep.”

Abruptly, the ten strings launched outward, shooting through the air toward Scout and the others. The five of them each had two strings coming their way, fast enough that even as her recently acquired boost kicked in, Scout realized that they were coming too fast for most of the others to escape. Her gun snapped up and she fired two quick shots while throwing herself to the side. Though her boost made everything else seem to be in slow motion, the strings were so fast they seemed to be moving normally.

Both of Scout’s shots went straight for the man’s head. But just before they would have struck home, that head literally opened up. A hole appeared right in the middle of the man’s face, leading through to the open air behind the man just long enough for the bullets to pass harmlessly through before closing once more.

Beside her, Tristan was moving just as quickly, his own boost kicking in to send him the other way while he fired a shot of his own at the man’s chest. A shot which met with the same reaction, as his torso pulled apart with a distinct slurping noise, creating a large hole that the beam easily passed through.

The cannon on Tristan’s arm shifted then, switching from gun to gauntlet with an extended blade all along the side. With a grunt, he threw himself that way, his figure blurring as he swiped at the creepy figure. In response, the man instantly bent all the way backward at the knees, his body horizontal to the ground while the blade went through the air just above him. Staying in that awkward position, he sent those strings from his fingers up.

“No!” Tangle was there, using a wave of her hand and some kind of telekinetic or wind power to throw Tristan out of the way just before the strings would have caught him. “Don’t let those things touch you.”

“But we like to touch,” the eyeless figure announced, righting himself once more. The strings danced through the air as he wiggled his fingers. “We Strings touch and play. Strings do good work for their master.”

“If they touch you, they puppet you,” Tangle informed them, keeping a wary eye on the figure as it watched for an opening, head cocked unnaturally to the side. “Like a marionette. They’ll take control. Everything you see is strings. The whole body. That’s why it can pull apart and put holes in itself like that. The whole body is just millions of sapient strings shaped like a person. They’re a colony creature.”

A colony creature. Scout’s eyes widened at that. It was true. The whole misshapen thing was just one huge collection of strings, like a… like a puppet made of yarn.

The creature (or creatures, apparently) gave an empty smile at that. Then a dozen strings suddenly burst from their chest, rushing not for the group, but for the rune on the wall that was blocking communication with the outside world. They were trying to break the spell, but were blocked by a quick wave of fire that Tangle created, shrieking in a collective voice.

“Scout, keep killing the doors,” Tangle ordered, before going after the String-thing with Tristan right behind her. The two of them were dealing with that, while Columbus, Sean, and the Vulcans focused on the zombies.

Which left Scout to get those vaults closed off. Hurriedly, the girl returned to her work. Now it was even harder to ignore everything else that was going on. The horrible creepiness of the so-called Strings and the thought of what might happen to Tristan and the others was almost too distracting. But she bore down, forcing herself to shut that out. The sooner she closed those vaults, the better for everyone.

Finishing off the vaults on one side before turning her aim to the six on the far side, Scout heard Sean telling Vulcan to keep helping Columbus. From the corner of her eye, she saw the boy rush by her while VJ transformed into his sword mode and fell into his hand. He threw himself into the path of several more strings, slicing through them with his word before shifting VJ to a shield and batting away another group. They had been coming for her, but Sean stopped them, standing in their path. “Keep going!” he blurted. “I’ve got you!”

Another vault down. Five left. Just five. The zombies seemed to have realized they were being cut off, so they were trying to pour out even faster. But there were still less vaults, allowing Columbus and Vulcan to narrow their firepower. She just hoped they could keep it up long enough for her to close off the rest.

Another trio of shots. Another vault down, its portal broken. Then another. Grimacing as the sounds of fighting only intensified behind her, Scout set another line of portals. She was moving as fast as she could, her inherited boost kicking in once again to slow everything down so she could line up her shots in what amounted to a second. Three more shots. Boom, boom, boom. Another vault cut off.

Finally, she was down to the last one. Just as she lined up her shot, there was a thud beside her. Scout’s eyes snapped down to see Sean on the ground, trying to roll over. Before he could get up, one of those strings came shooting through the air toward her. Scout started to jerk her gun around while half-falling backward, but it was too late.

It was not too late, however, for Tristan to throw himself into the string. Literally. He used his possession, disappearing into the string just before it would have struck Scout. Instantly, the string jerked backward away from her. Tristan came stumbling out of the string a moment later, falling to his knees and puking on the floor. At the same time, the String-creature itself (themselves?) stumbled as well. Giving a shriek, they leapt to the ceiling and scrambled away, disappearing into what looked like a second elevator shaft across the room.

She wanted to check on Tristan, but there was one more vault. Taking those last couple shots to close it off, Scout finally dropped her rifle and looked up in time to see Columbus finish the last of the zombies that had emerged. He was utterly soaked in blood and… and other things, panting as he stood in the midst of a pile of re-killed corpses. But it was done. The doors were closed, the vaults were cut off.

“Tristan?” She managed, looking that way.

“Good,” the boy himself replied, even as Tangle crouched by him. “I’m–uuulph. Not doing that again. Hive mind. Controlling one just gets all the others in your head and… not… not good. Not fun.”

His head snapped up then, almost violently. “Bomb. Bomb. There’s a bomb.”

“What?” Tangle demanded. “What bomb?”

“Strings,” Tristan hurriedly blurted, “the Strings. They have a bomb in the building. It’s a failsafe. If they really think there’s a chance of Avalon getting to the vault, they’re going to blow this whole place up. They’re probably on their way to set it right now.” He forced himself to his feet, stumbling a little. “We have to stop them.”

“But if they double back,” Sean pointed out, “and we’re not here, they could break the communication-blocking spell and get reinforcements that we can’t handle.”

Tangle nodded. “I’ll stay here. I can protect the spell myself, just in case. You saw how the bomb works?”

“Yeah,” Tristan confirmed. “I can disable it.” He tapped the side of his head then. “I know where it is, and how to disarm the thing. Perfect memory’s good for something after all.”

“Are you sure you’ll be okay by yourself?” Columbus hesitantly asked Tangle.

The woman gave a single nod. “Kids, I–I hate this. I hate sending you–never mind. Not time. Just go. Stop the bomb. You can do this. Get past Strings and disable that bomb. Go!”

Glancing briefly to one another, Scout and the three boys ran for the elevator.

“Tell you one thing,” Sean announced as they sprinted.

“I’m about ready for a vacation from this vacation.”

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Interim Incursion 43-03 (Sean)

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There was at least one good thing about the vault mission coming a few days earlier than expected. It meant that Sean Gerardo didn’t have time to dwell on what his parents could possibly be doing with those Runner guys. It was probably just something for their work, but still, he’d been thinking about it ever since he and the others had spotted them.

Normally he was okay with his parents not really having much to do with him. He wasn’t exactly a kid anymore, after all. He’d grown up this way and it was just the way it was. He’d moved on from getting sad every time his parents failed to show interest in him. But this time, they had been right there. They were right there, and they either knew he was there on a field trip so they could have come over to say hi. Or they didn’t know, meaning they’d paid absolutely no attention to where he was and what he was doing. That one… that one kind of stung.

But now he didn’t have to focus on any of that. Because his attention was quite thoroughly occupied. If there was one thing that was going to stop him from thinking about his parents, it was a mission to prevent the intergalactic evil empire of body-snatchers from destroying the one thing that could stop them from enslaving all Heretics on Earth. That sort of had priority.

At the moment, the Seosten and their pawns at the bank were busy fighting Gaia and a bunch of other adults. They also thought that Sean and the others were safely contained under a marble dome that Sands had created at her mother’s insistence. As far as they knew, there was no way to escape that building.

But Sean’s side had a secret weapon: Dries Aken, who knew how to create temporary holes in their anti-teleportation technology. He’d done just that and extricated the group from their covered dome. So now, while Gaia and the others in there kept the bad guys busy, Sean, Avalon, Sands, Scout, Columbus, Doug, Shiori, Vanessa, and Tristan had joined Dries, Tangle, and Kohaku to sneak into the actual vault.

“Everyone move very slowly,” Professor Tangle quietly murmured as she led them around the side of the vans. The dark-skinned woman had one hand up, a red ball of energy pulsing with power within her grasp. From what she’d said, the ball was part of a power that would keep everyone within a few feet of her invisible against most forms of detection. They just couldn’t move too quickly or suddenly. It seemed a bit like Jazz’s invisibility power, except stronger.

Jazz. She and Gordon were with Gabriel Prosser and his people, helping to deal with the army that the Seosten had had lying in wait to act as reinforcements when the fight broke out here. Everyone was doing their part, from his group, to Gaia and the others playing distraction, to Prosser countering the Seosten’s reinforcements, to Roxa, Flick, and the others at the Alter hotel to stop the bad guys from going in the back door of the vault.

Thinking about Roxa in that moment was a mistake. It was a distraction. He couldn’t start thinking about every bad thing that could happen to her at that place, because then he wouldn’t be able to think about anything else. With effort, he shoved it aside, burying those nagging worries while reaching down to put a hand on the top of Vulcan’s head for comfort. VJ (Vulcan Junior) was there too, attached to Vulcan like a backpack, since letting him fly around would have stressed the invisibility power too much.

Even with the group inside drawing so much attention, there was still security outside in the form of cameras and a couple guards standing by the actual entrance to the vaults (hidden in what looked from the outside like a grain silo). Which was why they had to stay invisible and move slowly. Even knowing that, however, Sean was still antsy. With everything that was going on and how critical this entire mission was, the idea of moving across the lot and then the field beyond at such a… gradual pace was hard to accept. Part of him wanted to just make a sprint straight for the vault. It was right there, and the people inside were busy fighting Gaia and all the others. Surely they could make it if they just ran for it. Get to the vault and teleport out. But if something happened while they were taking their time and just sort of walking that way, either to them, to the people inside, or… or to the others like Roxa, he’d… they’d…

No. As hard as it was, as much as it let his mind drift more than he wanted it to, moving slowly was the answer. The Seosten would move entire planets to stop them from reaching the vault. If they had the slightest idea that Avalon wasn’t safely contained under that dome inside, that she was so close to the spell that her ancestor had left, they’d abandon the fight in an instant.

So they walked. With Dries and Tangle at the front, Kohaku at the back, and Sean and the others between them, the group gradually moved across the parking lot and through the field that led to the fake silo. Sean could see the two guards standing out front, their attention riveted on the main house where all the fighting was going on. He wondered how much they knew about what was going on in there from moment to moment. Did they have a way to watch the battle, or were they relying on updates? How distracted were they?

Both guards were dressed in what looked like simple ranch hand clothes, jeans, flannel shirts, and thick boots, with shotguns held loosely in their hands. Despite their appearances, however, Sean and the others knew the truth. They were both incredibly powerful Heretics who were currently possessed by incredibly powerful Seosten. If Sean and the others were going to pull this off without wasting too much time or alerting the others inside, the only chance they had was in taking them by surprise.

That in itself would have been impossible without Kohaku, Tangle, and Dries. The three adult Heretics between them had enough powers and spells to keep the group hidden. Kohaku by herself had been the head of security for the school for decades, and Dries, for all his issues, was a genius at that stuff. Tangle wasn’t particularly focused on stealth or security, but she was an experienced Heretic with plenty of motivation to stop the Seosten Empire.

They didn’t approach the silo directly. Instead, Tangle and Dries led the group slowly on a curved, rounding path, ever so gradually looping in toward the group from the side. It was excruciatingly slow, and every time the guards at the silo happened to glance that way or shift their attention at all, Sean became briefly convinced they had been exposed. Walking like this, right out in the open, was basically torture.

But it worked. Gradually, the group moved out of the guards’ line of sight and looped back from the other direction. They approached the silo from the side, moving slowly enough that any disturbance in the grass and weeds could be taken as just the wind. One step after another, they drew closer and closer to that building. And closer, by extension, to finishing this whole thing.

Finally, about twenty yards from the pair of guards, Professor Kohaku moved to the front while holding a hand up to stop them. She and Dries then moved slowly that way, relying on invisibility of their own while Tangle stayed with Sean and the others to keep them hidden. While Sean watched with the rest of the group, one hand still on Vulcan’s head, Dries and Kohaku slowly made their way closer, step by step, to the unaware guards. Despite himself, Sean had to hold his breath. This was a key moment, if something went wrong here… he didn’t want to think about it, despite his traitorous brain’s insistence on doing just that.

Dries and Kohaku split up once they reached the guards, each moving behind one of them. The security chief looked back toward Tangle, holding up a hand with three fingers raised. Gradually, she lowered each finger, then made a fist.

At the end of the countdown, Tangle used the hand that wasn’t currently raised with the glowing red orb to produce a small stone with a rune on it, activating a spell that would cast an illusion over the entire area around them to hide what was about to happen from the cameras and anyone who happened to glance that way. When he was told about it, Columbus had compared it to the humans looping camera footage. In this case, it created a hologram of the past several minutes and projected it over the area, hiding what was actually happening within it.

The guards clearly noticed something happening when the spell activated. But before they could do anything about it, Dries and Kohaku struck. Moving simultaneously, the two of them quickly slapped prepared bits of cloth against each of the men’s necks. There were three spells on those cloths, each prepared by Dries, Apollo, and Sariel working together. The first would knock the man out. The second was a variant of the expulsion rune, which would instantly kick their Seosten host out of the body. And the third would cut off those Seosten’s connection to the rest of their group through that mind-link thing they tended to have. Unless any of the Seosten inside actively tried to contact them, they wouldn’t know what had happened. And with any luck, Gaia and the others would keep them too busy to think about that.

As the unconscious Heretic guards dropped to the ground, the two utterly surprised Seosten who had been possessing them were revealed. They were then just as quickly killed as Dries and Kohaku cut their throats before they could recover from their abrupt exorcism.

With the guards down and their approach hidden by the magical hologram, Sean and the others quickly raced to the door. Dries was already working on getting it open, while Kohaku checked the fallen Seosten for anything useful, taking a couple weapons and other enchanted objects and dropping them into her jacket. Tangle, finally able to stop using that cloaking power, moved to help.

Sean, meanwhile, found himself looking toward Vanessa and Tristan. “You guys ever think this year would turn out like this when it started?”

Tristan, in turn, shrugged. Bobbi-Bobbi wrapped around his shoulders, basically did the same thing. How a mechanical snake managed to shrug was beyond Sean, but the creature somehow pulled it off.

“When your school year started, I was basically frozen in super-carbonite,” Tristan pointed out. “And also I was a kid.” He paused then, considering before giving a sharp headshake. “This year has been weird.”

“This life has been weird,” Vanessa corrected him. She was holding her whip with one hand and one of the Seosten laser pistols with the other after apparently commandeering it during the fight back in the building.

“Yeah,” Doug agreed. “I’ve only known most of what’s actually going on for a little while. I can’t imagine how long this year has been for anyone who saw the whole thing.”

“Some of us have been dealing with it for longer than just the year,” Avalon quietly muttered, exchanging brief looks with both sets of twins before turning her attention to Sean. “And some of us are practically saints for sticking through this even though it doesn’t directly affect them.”

“You’re my team,” Sean replied simply. “It affects me. Besides, kind of a personal connection to werewolves, remember? Getting rid of the bad Seosten and fixing this whole mess does affect me.”

“Now,” Sands started, teasing, “when you say personal connection to werewolves, do you mean through your uncle’s romance, or your own?”

Sean was saved from answering that by Dries, who announced, “It’s open.” He stood, stepping back as the twin doors into the silo slid apart, allowing them to enter.

“Move,” Kohaku urged, waving a hand quickly. “The sooner we get inside and close the doors, the sooner Dries can stop blocking the alarms about them being open.”

“Right, c’mon, buddy.” Sean waved for Vulcan to keep up, heading for the doorway. His cyberform partner followed, and they joined the others in entering the vault. Well, the building the vault entrances were kept in, anyway.

The room they entered was a couple hundred feet across and square. It was also completely empty, aside from six doors that lined the walls to either side. Twelve in total. Straight ahead and on the opposite side of the room from the entrance was a large freight elevator.

The elevator. That’s what they needed. The other doors were low-security vaults, and there was no way Liesje’s would be anywhere near ‘low-security’. They needed to take the elevator down into the bowels of this place.

Heh, bowels. He was still a teenage boy, damn it.

“No-no-nobody move. Nobody move.” Dries spoke quickly, already moving to draw something on the nearby wall while repeating those words to himself. “Not moving. I said don’t move so they better not. Better not move or this is going to go wrong. Wrong wrong, can’t go wrong. Too important. Stay–stay in place. Stay in that place. Not a prison. Have to stay out of prison. Look, do the spell. Do the spell, you can do the spell, see? See. Spell. Good, all good, it’s good.”

“Mr. Aken,” Kohaku started once she exchanged looks with the man himself, “has put a communication block over the building. Whatever happens in here, as long as the spell remains active, no one outside will hear about it.”

Raising her hand, Vanessa spoke when the woman looked to her. “Does that include the Seosten mind-link spell?”

It was Dries who answered. “Yes, yes, of course. Of course it includes that. But that–that…” He looked like he lost his train of thought for a moment, staring off at nothing long enough for everyone to look at each other, a bit antsy considering the time table they were working with. Then he just seemed to snap out of it, continuing. “That’s good and bad. It’s–it’s–it’s good and bad. It means they can’t send out a message. But it–they don’t get messages either. They don’t get messages, and they’ll know they’re cut off.”

“So any Seosten who are in here will know that they’ve been blocked,” Professor Tangle murmured. “And that means that–” In mid-sentence, the woman suddenly stopped. She pivoted on one foot, spinning completely around while her hand snapped out.

Three partially decayed figures were there, by one of the random vault doors that was suddenly open. They’d stumbled through the door and, seeing the group, started to lunge that way.

But Tangle was quicker. As she held her hand out, a ghostly image erupted from her. It looked… well, it looked like a car. A sedan, actually, aside from being grayish-blue and partially translucent. Like the… ghost of a car.

It certainly didn’t seem ghost-like, however, as the car literally slammed into the approaching zombies. It flattened two and sent one flying across the room. A second later, the ghost-car continued its path right through the far wall, disappearing without causing any other damage aside from its collision with the zombies.

Kohaku finished the creatures off, while Sean and the others simply stared with wide eyes. “What–what the hell kind of power is that?” Sean demanded.

“Not a power,” Tangle informed them. “My weapon.” She turned to show them then. It looked like a simple flashlight in her hand. “The short version is I record things and then project them doing the same thing that they were recorded doing. But more importantly, why are there zombies in here?”

“Security measure,” Scout announced, her brow furrowed as she pointed. “They’re not alone.”

She was right, there were more zombies emerging from more vaults. One that the girl herself shot, before the one that appeared beside it was taken down by a blast from Tristan’s Bobbi-Bobbi cannon. Another on the opposite side of the room was killed by a blast from Columbus’ goggles.

“She’s right,” Kohaku agreed. “Either an automated feature or someone below triggered them. Either way, I bet every one of these vaults is full of those annoying bastards.”

“They’ll go for the spell,” Tangle murmured. “That’s what I’d make them do. They’ll look for any unknown magic and try to destroy it. And the second they do–”

Columbus finished her words. “They’ll know we’re here. Too bad our brand-spanking new necromancer isn’t here. She’d be pretty useful right now.”

“But we can’t just stand here and babysit the spell all day,” Shiori pointed out, pretty clearly trying not to think about what Flick was doing rather than being there at the vault with them. “We’ve kinda got things to do.”

“We don’t all have to,” Sean found himself saying. “A few of us stay back, guard the spell, and the rest of you go.” Even as he spoke, a couple more zombies emerged from another vault and were put down.

“They’ll start coming faster,” Kohaku warned him. “There could be thousands of zombies in each of these vaults. You’ll need plenty of help.”

“He’s got it,” Columbus announced. “I’ll stay with him.” The two boys exchanged brief looks, their silent meaning clear. They didn’t want this to be like what happened back at the hospital, when Rudolph was… Sean shut the thought out of his head.

In the end, Tangle, Scout, and Tristan agreed to stay back as well. The five of them would guard the spell (and the exit, just in case they went for that too) from the zombies and anything else that came out. Meanwhile, Kohaku and Dries would go with Avalon, Shiori, Vanessa, Sands, and Doug to find the actual vault.

Shiori, Vanessa, and Sands were obviously more than a little hesitant to leave their siblings behind, but it was the best way. And there wasn’t time for more discussion, as the zombies kept pouring in, their appearances already starting to come faster and with more numbers. There was no telling which door they would come through next, and what had once been one or two was starting to be four or five per door. Sean didn’t want to think about what would happen if they all came at once.

When. When they all came at once.

Everyone wanted to say more, but there wasn’t time. Gaia and the rest could only keep their people busy for so long in there. Not to mention how long it might be before someone noticed something wrong in here. Every second that passed… they didn’t have time.

Killing several more zombies that had appeared to clear a path, Kohaku led her group on a sprint to the freight elevator. Then they were gone, descending deep underground to find the vault. Hopefully before Sean and the others were overrun.

“Okay,” Professor Tangle murmured while looking to the small group. “Don’t break ranks. Don’t let the zombies get past you. Stand together, shoot them as they approach. Watch for groups to cluster, and make sure they’re dead. Don’t let crawling ones take you by surprise. And… I know I haven’t really had a chance to be your teacher this year, but I want you guys to know that I’m really proud of everything you’ve managed to do so far. You’re–you’re pretty amazing.”

With VJ flying over his shoulder and Vulcan in his gun form in both hands, Sean set himself. He glanced to Scout and Tristan to his right, then Columbus to his left before replying. “Don’t worry, Professor. You might not have been there for any of our classes…

“But this is definitely a kick-ass field trip.”

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Interim Incursion 43-02 (Sands)

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As the shooting started, Sands had already tapped her mace against the floor to register that reinforced material. Then she swung it up, creating a wall out of that same material in front of herself and her sister. The building was designed to be almost impregnable through force. That included damaging the interior, such as cutting up through the floor. Which was coming in handy now, and would again in a few minutes. Once it was time.

Beside her, Scout snapped her rifle up and aimed at one of her scope-portals before pulling the trigger twice quickly. Sands wasn’t sure what her sister was aiming for, but there was a yelp of pain barely audible over the onslaught of gunfire. She kept that up for a moment, taking careful, pointed shots. The enemies they were facing weren’t going to go down that easily. They all had protection. Some weren’t even hurt that much by the bullets. But it still kept them busy. And helped distract them from the bigger threat. Namely, the adults.

On Sands’ other side, Doug appeared, putting his back against the wall she had created. He had a spear in one hand and shield in the other. “Your mom took that forcefield down pretty quick,” he remarked while clearly catching his breath. There was blood on his spear and dents in the shield.

Sands nodded. “There was no point to keeping it up. We need to fight these guys. Maintaining the shield would just drain her, and sitting here behind a forcefield isn’t the point. The point is to fight.”

“Kinda seems like you disagree with that,” the boy pointed out while nodding to the wall they were behind.

Sands grinned at him while raising the mace to make the wall as tall as she could. “Not exactly,” she replied before looking to Scout. “Ready?”

The other girl nodded, and Sands pivoted to face the wall. She made a sweeping motion with her mace. Because Sands, like others, had been upgrading her weapon over the year. Namely, she could now control portions of the structures that she created with her mace.

The wall, which she had added long, jagged spikes to all along the front, immediately began to tip forward as Sands removed part of the bottom front and directed the whole thing with her mace. With a terrifying crash, it collapsed toward the ground. The thing was tall enough that it reached all the way to the nearest wall, forcing any of the enemies who had been in front of it to scatter toward either side.

And the girls were ready. Scout already had portals set up along one side, creating a shooting gallery that she was able to flood with bullets without bothering to aim.

Sands, meanwhile, cut around the other side of the fallen wall. Her mace swung hard, colliding with the man who had just managed to dive out from under the collapsing structure. Even at full strength, which for her was pretty impressive, the mace barely seemed to do anything. It glanced off the man’s back as if she had hit a brick wall without any enhanced strength.

Sands swung again, a backhand strike with her mace. But the possessed Heretic was too fast for that. His hand snapped out, catching the edge of her weapon before his foot collided with her stomach.

His foot broke. Because, as tough as the man might’ve been, Sands was standing still in that second. And as long as she stood still, she was basically invulnerable. All of the force that the man put into his attack went right back into his leg as it met the immovable object.

With a quick gesture, Sands made a very small section of floor rise up under the staggering man’s good foot. It was barely an inch high. Then she immediately made a pulling motion that yanked the floor bit toward herself. The man was hauled completely off that remaining foot and began to stumble, even as Sands spun to bring her weapon around into a full roundhouse swing with both hands.

Even then, the man was too quick. He suddenly shrank down, dropping to about a third of his normal height so that her mace completely missed, whiffing over his head. Returning to his normal height as he pivoted, the man planted his suddenly healed foot down solidly. It had repaired itself that quickly. His hand snapped out, stopping just in front of Sands’ face before the man conjured some kind of blindingly bright flash centered right in front of her eyes. She stumbled with a yelp as she was briefly blinded, losing the invulnerability that staying still offered. Which was the opening that the man had been looking for, his fist lashing out toward her face while a gleaming metal blade slid out from his knuckles. Sands couldn’t see it, but she heard the blade appear, and felt as it cut right across the side of her face when her head jerked desperately to the side at the last instant.

Bullets tore into the man then, striking from several different angles. Scout, coming to her aid. Still not enough to kill him, but they stung and made him stagger back a step. Which bought Sands a brief opening, and she took advantage of by shifting directly into her two-dimensional shadow shape, hugging the floor like a puddle of darkness.

Using that insubstantial shadow form, Sands ‘swam’ up the man’s legs and over his back before reforming herself there to wrap up her mace around his throat tightly from behind.

He didn’t exactly go down. The man’s hand reached back to grab onto her, but before he could, Doug was there. He drove his spear into the distracted man’s hand. The blade broke against the skin, but the impact was enough to draw his attention that way just as Doug slammed his shield into the guy’s face.

Sands’ vision had come back by then, just in time for her to make that out. It was also in time for her to see the man snap his hand up, that blade that had extended from his knuckles cutting through Doug’s shoulder.

Choking him wasn’t working. The man clearly didn’t need air. Or at least not enough to matter in the short term. Instead, Sands released the man and swung her weapon one way, then the other, conjuring two quick marble pillars that wrapped around his arms to hold him in place. For a moment, anyway. With her other hand, she threw something into the air.

As expected, the man shrank once more to free himself easily from the pillars that held his arms. Which was when a shadow appeared over his head. His gaze snapped up, just in time to see Sands’ theriangelos rhino, conjured from the bit of prepared wood that she had just tossed into the air.

The man made a tiny noise in the back of his throat, already starting to dive out of the way. He was, after all, possessed by a Seosten, who boosted him to escape.

But two quick bullets from Scout caught his face, even as Doug’s hands lashed out, sending two metal coils from his palms that wrapped around the man to hold him. A new power that he’d picked up from the hospital trip. It was kind of gross, actually, seeing metal coils emerge from his palms. Columbus and Shiori kept calling him Scorpion for some reason.

The rhino fell, slamming into the man from above while he was held by those chains. And as tough as he may have been, that wasn’t something he could just shrug off. As the rhino straightened up under Sands’ command, the possessed man lay unconscious at its feet.

Which, of course, still left the actual Seosten. A glowing figure appeared, quickly resolving into a beautiful dark-haired female form. The so-called angel acted instantly, turning into a blur that kicked the feet out from under Doug, caught him by the arm, and threw him into Sands. She was even quick enough to dodge to the side just as another bullet from Scout tore through the air right where her head had been. She pivoted, her hand lashing out while she activated some kind of spell that brought five little marbles to her palm, throwing them. The tiny metal balls flew, correcting their course to collide with the sniper-girl in the distance before exploding in bursts of flame and made the girl yelp while falling over. Her rifle clattered to the floor.

“Scout!” Sands blurted before scrambling out from under Doug and to her feet. “Throw me at the bitch, then get ready to grab her,” she blurted to the boy beside her while grabbing onto his damaged shield. With a thought, she possessed it.

He did. Like that Captain America guy that Columbus kept talking about, Doug hurled his shield at the Seosten woman. As it spun through the air, Sands waited until the last second, just before the woman’s hand snapped out to catch it. Then she dove out of the thing, hitting the marble floor to slide between the woman’s legs and out the other side. In the process, Sands made a last second gesture with her mace, sending a thin pillar up. The pillar crashed into the shield as the Seosten woman held it horizontally in front of herself, slamming the thing up into her face.

As she slid between the woman’s legs, Sands popped back to her feet on the other side, already spinning to slam her mace into the back of her head. But the Seosten was still too quick. Even stunned by the shield to the face, she spun to catch the incoming mace with one hand. She yanked the thing from Sands’ grip, tossing it aside just as Doug’s chains caught both her wrists from behind. Her arms were yanked to either side, but the woman simply glowered briefly before giving a hard yank. Doug was hauled off his feet and brought flying toward the woman, even as she used the resulting slack to pivot in place, bringing up her foot to kick the boy when he reached her.

But Sands was quicker that time. Her hand caught the woman’s shirt, possessing it just long enough to pop out the other side. Landing directly in front of the woman, she braced herself. Simultaneously, Doug crashed into her from the front, while the Seosten’s foot slammed into her back. Neither made a dent against her motionless invulnerability, Doug yelping as if he had hit a wall, while the Seosten’s foot snapped, just like her host’s had.

Sands tried to follow up from that by slamming her elbow back into the woman’s face. But despite her broken foot, the Seosten was still too fast. Her head snapped out of the way, before she caught the back of Sands’ neck and gave a hard shove, smashing the girl’s forehead into the still-recovering Doug’s face. The next thing Sands knew through the moment of being dazed, she was being yanked around before a fist found its way into her stomach. Then she was flipped to the ground. A coin landed on her chest, before the spell on it was activated to create some kind of metal cocoon/shell that covered most of her body aside from her head and feet, trapping her against the floor.  

Oh well, it wouldn’t hold her. Sands started to shift into her two-dimensional shadow form to escape. But in that instant, she was struck by some kind of electrical shock, drawing a cry from her and leaving her unable to focus. Dazed, her eyes blinked up just in time to see the Seosten ignite one of those laser sword things, which she started to drive down toward Sands’ exposed face before she could recover or even think of using any kind of power.

Doug was there. Clicking his pen, he made some kind of ball appear in his other hand, flinging it at the woman’s face just before it exploded into a flash of blinding light that made the Seosten recoil, her laser sword missing Sands.

Another click of his pen and another simple ball was thrown. This one burst into goop. As the Seosten threw a hand up to block her face, the goop covered her arm. It instantly hardened and began to spread over the rest of her body, completely encasing her arm, then her shoulder and over her chest. As it continued to spread, the Seosten woman cursed, yanking a field-engraver out before drawing something quickly on the rapidly-spreading stuff. It turned to dust then, freeing her. Her hand immediately launched another of those coins, which struck Doug in the chest and expanded into a metal cocoon similar to the one trapping Sands. This one kept him upright, but he was just as contained.  

An instant later, the woman clearly heard the heavy pounding of Sands’ now-charging rhino, just before the animal would have slammed into her. That Seosten speed kicked in, and she managed to twist aside enough to avoid being gored by the horn. But the massive beast still sent her crashing along the floor while her laser sword flew from her grasp. But she got back up just as quickly, muttering a couple words while throwing what looked like a one foot long rope at the rhino. As the enchanted rope struck the theriangelos, it apparently cancelled the spell, dropping the animal back into a simple wooden block.

Doug and Sands were both trapped, and every time Sands tried to use her shadow-form to escape, the cocoon shocked her. From the sound of things, the boy wasn’t having much better luck.

Then the sound of a gunshot filled the air, followed by several more in quick succession. The Seosten woman was struck several times. Unfortunately, the protective magic she clearly had meant that none of the shots were lethal. Still, they hurt enough to get her attention. Scout had clearly recovered.

Taking several painful shots from all sides, the woman hit something on her arm to throw up a forcefield around herself, before turning right toward one of the one of the random pillars in the room. Scout’s gun was barely visible as it fired yet again through one of its portals.

Evading that bullet despite the fact that it came through a portal behind her, the Seosten threw yet another enchanted coin that way. That time, the coin exploded into some kind of white light which disintegrated the pillar, leaving Scout… not exposed. The girl wasn’t there. Her rifle was, set up on a tripod and left to fire through an automated routine.

Realizing that in the same instant that Sands did, the Seosten woman spun… too late. Scout was there, having worked her way around behind her during that distraction. Using the solid-energy power that most of the team had picked up from the Tzentses to form a dagger, she slammed into the woman hard while driving it into her neck repeatedly, yanking it out and then driving it in again several times before they hit the ground together.

In the end, the woman was dead and Scout lay atop her body, her own exhausted panting cut off by the gasp of pleasure that came along with her pink aura.

“You guys okay?” Columbus was there, with Shiori and Sean. Vulcan was trotting alongside them, while Vulcan Junior flew overhead, sending out the occasional shot at an enemy.

“Little help?” Sands asked. “I can’t get out.”

Columbus and Shiori both used their metal-manipulation powers to tear the cocoon apart, freeing Sands before doing the same for Doug. By that point, Avalon (with Porthos riding on her shoulder), Vanessa, and Tristan had arrived, the boy picking up Scout’s gun along the way and tossing it to her. The nine teenagers were together once more, while sheer chaos surrounded them. The adults were still fighting in a furious tornado of violence and magic. Sands knew that both the Columbus, Shiori, and Sean trio and the Avalon, Vanessa, and Tristan trio had dealt with more than the single enemy that her group had. But the adults were in another league beyond even that. It was awesome, in the original sense of the word. Most of the possessed Heretics and enemy Seosten weren’t paying any attention to them. They didn’t have the chance to.

Looking to Avalon, Sands started, “Think it’s time for the next–”

“Get down!” Her mother’s voice interrupted, as a new forcefield dome suddenly covered the nine of them. Sands saw her mom appear nearby, just outside of the field with her crystal weapon in one hand, shaped like a spear at the moment.

“It’s too dangerous here,” the woman sharply informed them. “Cover and turtle.”

“But Mo–” Sands started.

“Cover and turtle now!” her mother snapped, holding a hand out to conjure some kind of wooden spike, which she sent flying at an enemy.

With a heavy sigh, Sands focused on her mace, making a wide sweeping gesture. Another dome, this one made from the same material as the floor, rose up and over to cover them.

It was only dark for a second before everyone produced their own glowing rocks for light. Avalon and Columbus also held privacy coins that would ensure their words weren’t overheard by anyone who happened to have enhanced senses (and happened to somehow be paying attention through the fight).

“Yes,” Avalon dryly replied to Sands’ earlier question. “It’s time for the next part.”

The annoyance that Sands had pasted across her face when her mother had told them to turtle had already vanished, since she no longer had to put on a show. “Great, so that means–”

Again, she was interrupted. That time, it was by a sudden bright light as a portal appeared directly in front of them. Through the portal, they could see the area just outside the main building, behind the vans and safely shielded from view.

Without missing a beat, the group quickly moved through the portal, disappearing from the room with all the fighting going on. They emerged to find three figures standing there waiting for them: Dries, Professor Tangle, and Professor Kohaku. The latter two had worked their way to the vault after the vans drew everyone’s attention, before guarding Dries as the man had worked over the past few minutes to make a brief hole in the security that kept people from teleporting out of the main building.

Now Avalon and the others were out, while everyone inside believed they were trapped under that dome and simply hiding through the fight. A fight which was really nothing more than an elaborate distraction, drawing everyone in to deal with the flashy spectacle of Gaia, Haiden, Sariel, Apollo, Dare, Larissa, and several other Seosten.

“Everyone make it?” Professor Kohaku asked, casting her gaze over them briefly as though doing a headcount before nodding to herself. “Great, sounds like Gaia and the others have everyone’s attention in there.

“Let’s go open that vault.”

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