Sean Gerardo

Denouement 6 – Signa Inferre (Heretical Edge)

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Tsseewww! Tsssseeeww! Tsseeeeewww!

One after another, light green lasers filled the air, each shot blasting a hole into the dirt as the automated defense drone dove toward its target, a large grizzly bear currently ripping apart one of the Crossroads’ prison’s turrets that it had ripped out of the ground. 

The bear, Twister, pivoted around toward the incoming shots with a roar that seemed to shake the ground she was standing on. An instant before the next round of lasers would have struck her, the bear form vanished. In its place hovered a small hummingbird, just as four simultaneous shots sailed past her… striking another figure entirely, a girl who had been crouched behind Twister’s bear form, just waiting. 

“Thanks!” Bobbi Camren, clad in the blue-white, glass-like body armor created by her power, grinned as the energy from the drone’s shots coursed through her. It manifested in the form of brightly flickering lightning-like electricity dancing through her armor. 

The drone adjusted instantly. A small compartment slid open in its front, and a rocket shot forth with a sharp whistle on its way toward the pair. In the next second, the rocket would explode in a ball of fire and force powerful enough to destroy everything in a thirty foot radius around them. 

With barely a thought, Bobbi shoved all the power she had just absorbed into her speed. The world around her slowed to the point of nearly standing still. The rocket inched its way through the air, flames dancing behind it even as a second rocket very slowly began to emerge from the drone, a follow-up shot just to be sure of its kills, aimed in the direction they would likely flee. 

Bobbi cracked her neck, watching the rockets for a brief instant before shoving off her left foot. She sprinted that way, feet tearing up the ground, leaving little smoldering imprints in her rush. With a raised hand, she used a bit of her power to conjure a solid-energy ramp leading up along the first rocket’s path. Passing the rocket in a sprint, she grabbed the front of it on the way past. It turned, facing back the way it had come while continuing its oh-so-slow (from her current point of view) flight. 

From there, Bobbi leapt from her ramp. The second rocket had gained about a foot of distance in that brief time, and she threw herself at it. Her hands caught the side of the rocket, yanking it off course. A new thought summoned a small wall of energy in mid-air, which Bobbi kicked off of while holding onto the explosive weapon. Course adjusted, she let go and allowed herself to drop to the ground, landing in a roll. 

Her speed ended then, and the girl’s head jerked up just in time to see the first rocket slam into the drone it had emerged from. With a deafening explosion, the drone went up in flames, showering bits of metal debris all over. 

At the same time, the second rocket struck its new mark as well: another turret mounted on a nearby building that had popped out to begin shooting at the intruders. Both the drone and the turret were simultaneously destroyed by the former’s own adjusted rockets. 

In the next moment, a coil of stone and dirt erupted from the ground, wrapping around Bobbi and yanking her down. One of the loyal Crossroads Heretics came into view, his long, dark hair wet with sweat as he tightened his fist to make the rock coil in turn tighten. The rock was giving off some kind of… dust that went through Bobbi’s helmet and made her feel dizzy. It was hard to focus. “Stardrinker Heretic, huh?” The man’s voice was a mixture of harsh and genuinely curious. “Haven’t seen any of those for a long time, kid. Where’d you find yours?” 

“Mars,” came a snapped retort from about ten feet away, just before a blast of energy shot through the stone coil, blowing it apart into small chunks and freeing Bobbi. 

The Crossroads loyalist spun to the new attacker, already flinging his hand out to throw a dozen glowing energy blades that way. But Columbus, whose goggles had just blasted apart the man’s stone coil, vanished from sight. 

He reappeared on the opposite side of the man, already throwing both hands forward as he summoned a wave of incredibly powerful kinetic force to throw at him. Just before it struck him, however, the Crossroads man snapped his hand out behind his back, catching the force with a power of his own before converting the power into fire and flinging it back at Columbus. The fire took the form of a snake whose head was the size of a Volkswagen, mouth wide open as it flew at the boy. 

The fire-snake was blown apart into separate sparks and bits of flame in mid-lunge, as a new figure leapt through it. Aylen Tamaya, body covered in the armored shape of her own cyberform, Sovereign, landed in a crouch. The scattered remains of the fire snake turned white-hot before shooting back toward their progenitor. He, in turn, gave a sharp wave of his hand to summon a rush of wind to send them flying off into the distance. 

In the time that he was dealing with the flames, Aylen rose with a sharp whistle. The sound was answered by a heavy bark, as the cyberform dog called Vulcan all-but flew across the ground in a sprint to rush at her from behind. At the last instant before he would have collided with the girl (who showed no sign of moving), Vulcan leapt, his body splitting apart into two halves almost directly down the middle. As Aylen raised both arms to either side, the two halves of Vulcan latched onto her armor. The half on her left arm produced the minigun that gave Vulcan his name. Meanwhile, the half on her right arm produced a sharp, foot-and-a-half long blade. The bulk of the dog’s body had slid up into itself in both halves, leaving what amounted to a pair of shields all along each of the girl’s arms in addition to the weapons.

Columbus had already been putting his studies with Harrison Fredericks to good use. 

The minigun opened up, flooding the air with bullets as the Crossroads figure recovered from hurling the incoming flames away from him. Several shots took him in the chest, but did little more than stagger him before he brought a quick forcefield up to send further shots ricochetting uselessly away. 

Keeping his shield up with one hand under the assault of gunfire, the Heretic abruptly snapped his other hand down, turning just a bit to catch Columbus by the wrist just as the boy appeared beside him. Gripping tight enough to break the bone there, he began to jerk upward as though to hurl him out of the way. 

In the midst of that, however, Columbus’s free hand snapped up, throwing a cloud of sand into the man’s face. 

That sand promptly transformed into a certain small Asian girl who went by the name of Shiori, whose fist collided with the Heretic’s jaw with enough force to snap his head back with a sharp grunt of pain. Reflexively, he used Columbus as a flail, jerking the boy’s body at her while cursing out loud. 

Shiori, however, turned back into sand, allowing her brother’s form to pass right through her before reforming herself. Still in mid-lunge, she caught onto the Crossroads man’s shoulders, mouth opening. Just as Columbus collected himself enough to teleport away from his captor’s grip, Shiori unleashed a burst of lightning from her mouth that caught their opponent full in the face. 

It accomplished little, aside from briefly blinding the man as his head jerked back. Shiori, in turn, was hurled away from the man by a wave of force as he roared in annoyance while staggering a bit, eyes blinking rapidly. The Asian girl tumbled and fell, skidding along the ground with a yelp.

And in that moment, as the man recovered, he caught a brief glimpse of a crow flying directly into his face. In the next instant, that crow transformed back into Aylen. She had abandoned Sovereign and Vulcan, both still in the form of the armor with attached weapons, leaving both still there firing at the forcefield as a handy distraction. Now, back in her own body, Aylen brought both hands together in a hard slam that sent a deafening wave of sound centered solely on the man himself. To outside observers, there was simply a distortion in the air and a slight thud-like sound. To the Crossroads man, an earsplitting boom struck, sending him to one knee as blood poured from both ears.  

Still, the man was able to summon enough focus to draw a new rock-coil from the ground, wrapping around Aylen’s ankles before hurling her out of the way with a vicious slam into the ground that left her lying a bit dazed, as she lay in a slight crater that had been created there. Despite her prodigious protections and regeneration, she wouldn’t be getting up again for a moment or two. 

Disoriented as the man was by the loss of his hearing, he did not, however, detect the pounding footsteps coming up from behind him. Not even his assortment of danger senses helped, given it had been spending all its effort alerting him about the still-present gunfire from the Vulcan-Sovereign combination that whole time. The man’s only real warning was the way the ground shook around him, and he spun just before Twister, in rhino form (having just switched from the horse form she’d been using to gain as much speed as possible), crashed into him. The man went flying, bouncing end over end along the ground before ending in a tangled heap of limbs. He was still breathing, slowly trying to push himself up with a mixed mutter of curses and grunts. Despite everything, he was still ready to go, still oriented enough to fight, just as soon as he could get his feet back under himself.

Then Columbus was there, appearing beside the man just in time to press one of Wyatt’s knock-out and teleport rocks against the side of his neck. With a quick command word to activate it, the boy sent their opponent far away. He’d be pretty pissed off once he woke up, but that was something to worry about another day.

“Did… did we win?” Bobbi managed, pushing herself up as she finally shook off the effect of that rock coil. Nearby, Aylen was starting to do the same. 

“Win?” Twister echoed while shifting back into her own form. “Not yet, kid. Why, you’re not tired yet, are ya? Cuz we’ve got a long way to go, and Ol’ Assy’s gonna be pretty ticked off if we don’t hold up her end of the battle since she can’t be here with the whole sun thing.” She paused then before adding, “At least she’s keeping busy with the other thing.” 

“I’m okay,” Bobbi insisted, shaking the cobwebs out of her head as she focused. “But these guys really don’t want us to be here.” She took a quick glance across the chaotic battlefield. They were mostly along the outskirts, picking up stragglers and dealing with random defenses, while the bulk of the allied Rebel Heretics, Seosten, and Atherby Alters handled the main threats. Seeing the display of powers, weapons, and utter destruction that had overtaken the once-supposedly abandoned town was staggering. The destructive capability of an entire World War had descended into this small area. 

“Well,” Shiori muttered as she picked herself up and shook the dust out of her hair. “If they don’t want us here, they just have to do one thing. 

“Give us our people back.” 

*******

“I gotta say, Flick,” Sean called out over his shoulder as he jogged down the narrow prison corridor, “you guys still know how to make a pretty good entrance!” 

Flick, running along behind him with Avalon nearby, replied, “You like that, huh? Yeah, we would’ve been here sooner, but we really had to practice that.” There was a slight hitch to her voice, as, despite her attempt to sound casual, the very thought of joking about how long Sean had been left in this prison, from his point of view, was too much.  

Sands, just ahead of Sean, called back to the others, “Don’t… don’t forget about the part where we just could not get the welcome back cake to taste right.” She too, was trying to lighten the mood a bit after the shock of seeing Sean as an adult and realizing just how long it had been for him. And like Flick, her attempt to do so was accompanied by hesitation, and a voice that just couldn’t quite convey the casualness she was going for. 

The four teammates were accompanied by Athena, who was ahead of them by a bit to allow them to talk as they raced through the prison toward one of the defense stations. Vanessa, Tristan, and their father were heading for the other one, leaving Larissa and Apollo to guard the main room. All three groups would need to take down their respective defense consoles near-simultaneously to avoid triggering the evacuation procedures. 

Flick’s voice sobered a bit then, as she reached out to touch the back of the… now-man’s arm. “Sean,” she started. “Seriously, if–” 

“Not now.” His voice was rough, but Sean quickly tempered it, exhaling. “It’s not–it’s not your fault. I know you were trying, but… but I don’t want to talk about it right now. Later, okay? Just… later. Let’s get the hell out of here right now, before we get into the apologies, promises, and all that shit.” He knew even as he said it that it wasn’t the best response he could’ve had, but it had been quite some time since he regularly dealt with people he wasn’t openly contemptuous of aside from Apollo and the occasional visit from someone like Flick. This was different. Between that and his anxiety about being so close to escaping this hellhole, he just… couldn’t think about anything else. 

He’d thought of almost nothing more for so long than getting out of this place that had been his prison for so goddamn long. And now that the moment was here, now that it was so close he could taste it, the fear that it would all be snatched away and he would once again be trapped for endless weeks, months, and even years… it left his body shaking despite himself. 

Luckily (in a way), he didn’t have much more time to dwell on that for the moment. Because in mid-sprint, Athena abruptly spun back toward them. Excalibur leapt to her hand, already rising on an intercept course against seemingly nothing… an instant before it suddenly collided with the descending blade of the Crossroads Heretic who had just teleported into view, appearing between the Seosten woman and Sands. Simultaneously, another Heretic guard appeared ahead, that one armed with some form of shotgun, which she opened fire with. 

“Wall!” Athena snapped without looking as she threw her left hand out, a dagger flying toward the second Heretic before it exploded into a field of energy that intercepted the shotgun blast. At the same time, the woman used Excalibur to parry several quick thrusts from the first Heretic’s blade. 

Sands didn’t argue or wait for even a moment. Her mace snapped up immediately and she conjured a wall in front of herself, cutting them off from Athena for the moment so the woman could do her work without worrying about the four of them getting in the way. Where the girl Sands was at the start of the year might have tried to throw herself into the fight alongside Athena to prove something, the one she was now had already proven everything she needed to. And almost none of it was what she had set out that year to prove. 

Unfortunately, the group wasn’t exactly in the clear. While the sound of Athena dealing with the adult Heretics came through the walls (Sands had hastily erected a couple more just to be on the safe side), a new figure appeared between them. 

Sean saw the woman, a single word full of disgust and anger jumping to his lips. “Mom.” 

In the next instant, Sands and Sean were hurled backward against one wall, while Flick and Avalon were slammed into the opposite one. All four were held there telekinetically, as Andrea Gerardo brought both hands out, holding them in place. “That’s enough!” she blurted in a voice that filled the hall. “You children don’t know what you’re doing, but this is as far as you go. You’ve–” 

“Hey Sean!” Flick interrupted, drawing the woman’s attention. “I know I was late getting here, but how’d you like a–” In mid-sentence, a portal appeared in front of her hand as she was held against the wall. She stuck one finger through and out the other end of the portal behind Andrea to touch the woman’s neck. 

“–free shot?” Andrea’s mouth finished Flick’s sentence, as the girl disappeared from where she had been pinned. The others were all released, stumbling a bit. 

Sean, recovering first, didn’t hesitate. His fist lashed out, slamming into his mother’s face. Her head was knocked backward, and the woman collapsed as Flick’s glowing figure emerged and solidified. 

“Do I wanna know how much of that was you knocking her out and how much was me?” Sean asked, rubbing his bloodied fist. 

With a shrug, Flick replied, “Let’s just say she got the message.” 

There was a series of quick knocks against the walls that Sands had erected then, and the girl quickly dismissed them to reveal Athena. Stepping into view, the Seosten woman took a glance toward the collapsed figure on the floor, then looked at Sean. “Everything okay?” 

He swallowed once, staring at his mother for a moment before lifting his gaze with a slight nod. “Peachy. Let’s go. I’m not in the mood for any more family reunions.” 

“Well,” Flick informed him as they started to move once more. “Your brother’s outside, so I hope you’re okay with one more.

“Cuz he’s sure been anxious to find you.” 

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Denouement 4 – Chicanery (Heretical Edge)

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Hand pressed against the red circle on the wall of his living room to activate the intercom linking his prison house to the guards, Sean Gerardo’s mouth opened as he called, “Hey, Cristof! You still out there?” 

There was a momentary pause before Cristof Manders appeared in a brief flash of light. The man was three inches shorter than Sean’s own six foot four, and much thinner. Sean may have been stuck in this prison for eight years (from his point of view), but over time he had convinced his jailers to provide a few extra amenities, including an entire, well-equipped gym to replace his own makeshift one. He spent hours each day in that gym, and it showed in his form. 

But while Cristof may have looked smaller than Sean, the power discrepancy had always been far lopsided in the other direction. Cristof was a full Heretic and had been for over forty years. Which could be said for any of the man’s coworkers as well. Sean’s personal training and workout regime meant nothing next to the powers that any of his jailers could employ. 

Squinting at Sean suspiciously, Cristof asked flatly, “What do you want, Gerardo? Your parents aren’t scheduled to visit for another–” He paused, clearly considering the time differences. “–another two days by your clock. And you’ve already had your groceries delivered this week.”

Sean’s head bobbed up and down. “Right, yeah. But I figured you might want to play another game.” He gestured toward the table where he’d set up the chess board. “If you’re not busy.” 

Again, the other man paused. His head tilted as though listening to something that Sean couldn’t hear, before he lifted his chin. “I don’t know if you’ve somehow figured out what’s going on, or if this is all part of a contingency plan for anyone who ended up like you, but it’s not working.” 

Doing an admirable job of looking confused, Sean’s eyes widened fractionally. “Uhh, what?” 

“The people you’ve got outside,” Cristof snapped. “They’re not getting in here. And you know what? Even if they do, you’re still not getting away. Because the instant they breach the prison is the instant we teleport you out of here. I mean hell, that’s not even something we have to do manually. It’s built into the prison defenses, Gerardo. The instant anyone who isn’t allowed in this prison sets foot in it, you and every other prisoner are immediately transported to a back-up facility on the other side of the ocean. So this whole attack? It’s completely pointless.” 

“Okay, well, I don’t know anything about an attack.” Sean’s shoulders shrugged. “Not sure how I could, unless you guys are a lot worse at security than you’re supposed to be. But if there’s something going on out there, do you need to go out and help?” 

The man gave him a dangerous smile. “Nah. They don’t need me out there to deal with this. Trust me, we were ready. I’m here to play backup for the backup. On the off-chance your old friends manage to bypass the automated security, I’ll take you to your new prison myself.” 

With an easy nod, Sean’s mouth opened to ask, “Well, it’d probably be easier to protect those automated security spells if you were in the room with them instead of here, wouldn’t it?” 

“And leave you alone in here?” Cristof snorted. “Nah, you’re up to something. I can tell.” 

“Sure, okay.” Sean’s voice was agreeable and personable. “Well, I suppose the easiest thing to do would be to take me with you then, right?” His shoulders shrugged once more. “I mean, if my friends out there are coming here to get me out, my not being here would thwart that pretty effectively. You could keep an eye on me and the emergency security spells at the same time. Then if anything did happen to them, you could probably see it in time to fix it.” 

For a few long seconds, the man just stared at him. “Take you out of your prison cell?” 

“You have to admit,” Sean’s voice pointed out, “no one out there would expect it. They come bursting in, using all their plans and effort just getting to this cell and… whoops, I’m not here. I’m out there with you, in a secure room where they don’t have the slightest prayer of finding me. You’d be saving the day. Saving the whole prison, really. Hell, you could leave a trap here so that anyone who jumps in to save me gets caught in it.” 

“A trap…” Cristof echoed slowly, clearly considering it. “Yeah. Hey, you get over here.” He pointed to the front door. “Stand right there and don’t move, you got me? Do not move.” He waited until Sean had moved to stand there, then quickly scrawled a few quick runes around the walls, activating several prepared spells before backing up to join his prisoner. “Right. First one of your friends out there that manage to come here are going to get a real big surprise.” 

Sean’s head bowed. “I feel sorry for whoever ends up in here.” His mouth turned up in a very slight smile then as he looked at his jailer. “But hey, they did pretty much ask for it.” 

“Yeah… yeah, they did. Now come on.” Cristof grabbed him by the shoulder. “You try to pull anything right now and I swear, you won’t wake up from the coma for a month. Got it?” When Sean’s head bobbed in a nod, he grabbed the door, activating the spell on it to transport both of them out of the cell that the boy-turned-man had been trapped in for so long. 

They appeared together in a narrow corridor with metal walls lined with various glowing spell glyphs. Behind them was a vault door, apparently what Sean’s cell entrance had looked like from the other side. “You pull away from me,” Cristof warned him, “and those spells on the walls will put you on your ass so fast you’ll think you time-traveled.” He then yanked his charge along down the corridor. They passed several more metal vault-like doors. Other prisons. 

“I thought there’d be more guards out here.” Sean’s voice was contemplative, as they reached a short flight of stairs at the end of the narrow corridor. “You know, normal patrols just in case.” 

“There are,” his jailer snapped, grip tightening on his shoulder while all-but dragging him up those stairs. “Most of them are busy dealing with your friends outside. But don’t get cocky, I can deal with you myself, and I’m not the only one here. You’re not going anywhere, Gerardo.” 

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Sean’s voice was smooth and quiet, a reassuring timbre that eased Cristof’s suspicion while the man pulled him along in a tight, inescapable grip. 

“Hold it!” The new voice interrupted just as they reached the top of the stairs, where a pair of double doors waited at the end of a circular landing. There was another Heretic there, a guard Sean knew by the name of Julien. He had a three-bladed spear in one hand, his face a mixture of apprehension and disbelief. “What the hell, Cristof? You brought Gerardo out of–explain this! Do you have any idea what’s going on out there? We’re under siege and you choose now to-” 

“Yeah,” Cristof snapped, “I know what’s going on. And I know that if those guys actually make it in here, the first place they’ll go is this guy’s cell. So better for him to not be there, get it? This room is the most protected one in the prison. I’m taking him in there. Anyone tries to get past you, I’ll teleport him the hell out of here and they’ll get absolutely nothing.” 

“It–are you sure that…” With a frown, Julien slowly asked, “Is that really something that we–” 

“You’re right.” Sean’s hand rose for attention, drawing the men’s gazes. “It’s not a perfect plan. But you know what would make it better? You keeping guard right here.” His head nodded toward the floor in front of the room. “Believe me, I know my friends and you should be ready to deal with them if they get this far. Don’t let yourself get distracted, because they’ll take advantage. You should be here, ready for them.” 

“I… right, yeah. Go inside.” Julien stepped away from the double doors, already watching the way they had come from. “Get him in there, lock the place down. I’ll make sure no one gets through.” He gave a sharp look toward Sean. “Your friends are about to fail, you know. Then you’ll have plenty of company in here. Hell, maybe we’ll arrange some play dates so you can all talk about how dumb this rescue attempt was.” 

“Hey, that’s enough,” Cristof snapped. “Yeah, the kid–err… guy’s not going anywhere. But you don’t have to be a dick about it. These people are just doing what they think is right. They’re wrong, but we don’t convince them of that by being assholes. They’re misguided, not some kind of… Strangers. Just protect the entrance, let me handle Gerardo.” 

With that, the man opened the door and pulled Sean in after him before letting it close. They were now in a circular room about thirty feet in diameter. The walls were lined with consoles, computer monitors showing various parts of the prison inside and outside, and lots of flashing warning lights. On the screens for the exterior of the prison, they could see dozens of figures fighting, spells and powers sending bright flashes of light here and there as the intruders fought against the prisons defenders. It was total chaos, impossible to easily follow over the monitors. 

“Nice place,” Sean’s voice murmured as he slowly looked around the room, taking in the security screens with barely a glance before focusing his attention back on Cristof. “I can see why you’d bring me here. I mean, if you’ve gotta hold out somewhere, this is the place to do it. Hell, you could probably stick the controls for every security measure in this prison here.” His head shook. “But they didn’t do that, did they? They didn’t put every security measure in this room.” 

“Hell no,” Cristof retorted. “We’ve got spells to stop anyone not authorized from teleporting in or out of this place. Not just here. Two redundancies in opposite parts of the prison. Three layers of security, counting the one in here,” he bragged with a confident smile. “And if one goes down, the other two activate emergency evacuation in seconds. Like I said, your friends out there don’t have a chance. We know what we’re doing here. They’re wasting their time.”

“They’re pretty good at that.” Sean’s voice was a murmured agreement before he added, “But I hope you guys didn’t put those redundant spells too close together. They’re not like, next door or anything like that, right?” 

With a snort, Cristof snapped, “How stupid do you think we are? Look, right there.” He pointed to a map of the facility on a nearby wall. “See these two rooms? That’s where the redundancies are. Like I said, completely opposite sides of the prison, and far from this room. We’re safe.” 

Sean’s head bobbed in a quick nod. “Wow. Yeah, you guys really thought of everything. Seems like it’s all handled.” There was a brief pause before he murmured a thoughtful, “Unless…” 

Frowning with equal parts anticipation and suspicion, Cristof demanded, “Unless what?” 

The prisoner shrugged. “I dunno. I just… I mean, I certainly didn’t tell anyone about this place, right? And you know you didn’t. Seems to me like the only way my friends out there could know where this place was and how to get to it would be if somebody told them. But if it wasn’t me, because I’ve been stuck here the whole time, and it wasn’t you, then… it kind of had to be…” 

“Someone else,” Cristof finished, staring at him with wide eyes. “You think someone in this place told your friends about it. You think someone–one of the other guards– is a traitor.” 

With a cough, Sean’s gaze moved to watch the security monitors, his voice idle, as though it hardly mattered. “It’s kinda the only thing that makes sense. No other way for them to find this place. Lots of traitors going around, no way of knowing who might’ve changed their mind about the rebellion lately. And you know, if there’s a traitor in here, someone who told those guys how to get to this place, they could’ve done more than that.” 

Cristof’s weapon, a sword with two parallel blades that could each shift between various elements and metals, was in his hand. “More than that?” he demanded with a look at the door.

“Sure.” Sean’s head nodded toward the control consoles. “You know that security spell you were talking about, the one that’s supposed to teleport all the prisoners out of here the second an intruder sets foot in this place? Whoever that traitor is, he would’ve told my friends about it, right? No way he wouldn’t. So why are they trying so hard to get in here? Unless…” 

Eyes widening, Cristof’s gaze snapped from the door to one console in particular. “Unless it’s compromised,” he finished for the other man, already starting to step that way. 

“Yup.” Sean’s own voice was a conspiratorial whisper. “I bet they changed it. They made it so the spells will transport you and the rest of the guards out of here instead. You’ll be teleported so far away you’ll never make it back in time. And they’re just waiting to activate it, any… second…” 

“Not this time!” Cristof retorted, shooting Sean a hard glare before his hands danced over the controls. It was a mixture of spells and actual technology. One hand dismissed a rune intricately drawn across the console, while his other hand punched in a code on the physical keypad. His voice was triumphant as he spun from the console with a laugh. “Sorry, Gerardo, your friends’ little tricks aren’t gonna work today. I just disabled that security spell, so let’s see them try–” 

“What the hell did you just do?!” The demand came from the figure who appeared with a snap of power in the middle of the room. Another Heretic, this one a dark-skinned woman carrying a bladed shotgun, had teleported in, already whirling to face Sean while snapping her free hand up, a ball of semi-invisible force appearing at the ends of her fingers. 

At the same time, the door slid open, as Julien came rushing through as well to see what had just happened. His spear was raised and ready to throw. 

With a flash of light, a bright, glowing figure stepped from Sean’s body. Apollo stood there, hand raised. Two of the rings on his hand flared with power. The first summoned a forcefield, intercepting the ball of energy the Heretic woman had just flung toward Sean. The other sent a burst of electricity back that way, flinging her into the far wall where she crashed through one of the screens there with a spray of glass and sparks. 

Simultaneously with that, another figure shot out of the back of Apollo. Felicity Chambers was there, hand already raised. As Julien’s spear flew toward Sean, she summoned a small portal. The spear sailed through it before reappearing behind Julien to slam into the man’s leg. An instant later, Flick’s kinetic-empowered staff slammed into the staggering man’s face, knocking him into the opposite wall. She followed that up with another blow before he could recover, even as two blades, hurled by Apollo, embedded themselves in the wall to either side of Julien. 

Cristof, by that point, had jerked around, two-bladed sword coming up. But before he could do anything, Sean slapped a hand against his arm. A napkin, pulled from his pocket, was there. The napkin he had spent hours subtly drawing a spell on under the tutelage of Apollo. With a single word, Sean activated that spell, and the napkin exploded into a sudden spray of liquid metal that enveloped Cristof before instantly hardening into a cocoon. A second later, the cocoon was filled with a potent knockout gas. Even as the cocoon fell to the ground and began to melt away into a puddle, the man inside lay completely unconscious. 

Meanwhile, the two daggers Apollo had hurled produced figures of their own. Sands and Avalon both appeared while Julien was raising a hand toward Flick. He had just summoned a bolt of power that would punch through the girl’s body, when her newly emerged teammates each struck the man from either side. Sands’ mace and a glowing warhammer conjured from one of Avalon’s gauntlets each slammed into him. That time, he collapsed and didn’t rise again. 

Quickly, Flick and the others took the man’s spear from his leg before using one of the enchanted rocks Wyatt had provided. This one wouldn’t teleport the man anywhere (that was impossible from in here until the security defenses were taken down), but it would ensure that he stayed unconscious for a few hours.

That done, the trio looked over first to where Cristof was, finding the man completely in hand. The woman who had appeared was down as well, Apollo tugging her limp form over to lie next to Cristof. 

Another glowing figure emerged, this time from Flick. Tabbris appeared, before she in turn produced Larissa, who produced Haiden. Athena emerged from him, Tristan from her, and Vanessa from him. Soon, the whole group was there in that room. 

“Sean!” Flick blurted the instant the initial threat was over and they were all present. With that, she threw herself that way, even as Sean reflexively opened his arms. The two embraced tightly, as Flick’s head shook. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry it took so long. Oh my God. I’m sorry.” 

Shaking his head, Sean tried to say that it wasn’t her fault, that it wasn’t any of their fault. The words stuck in his throat, and he just clung tighter. They’d interacted before during all this, in his virtual reality space whenever Apollo brought her in. But that was different from this. He hadn’t even let Flick or the others see how old he was getting in comparison to them, preferring to project himself in his mind as the boy he’d been back then. This was the first time they had really seen him as he was now. 

“Holy shit, dude,” Tristan managed, staring at him. “You’re… you’re… fucking buff.” 

A hiss of disbelief that turned into a coughing-laugh emerged from Sean, as he shook his head. “I’m… a lot of things,” he muttered. “Mostly glad to see you, man.” The two boys embraced firmly. “Really god damn glad to see you.” 

Tabbris took her turn for a hug then, followed by Sands, Vanessa, and the others. Even Avalon took his hand for a moment, squeezing before leaning in for a brief hug as she whispered in his ear about being glad to see him. But before that went on too long, Athena spoke up. “Very good. But we have to keep moving. There are still two redundant defenses to take down. Thanks to Apollo and his Tartarus gift, we know exactly where they are.” Her hand gestured to the spots on the map that Cristof had so helpfully pointed out. 

“We split into groups. One group stays here to defend this room. Two more go to each of these places, and we shut down their security simultaneously.

“This isn’t over yet.”

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Denouement 3 – Fray (Heretical Edge)

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The secret Crossroads prison (or this one, anyway) turned out to be located in an old long-since abandoned mining town somewhere in southern Kentucky. Or, to be more precise… under said mining town. Despite the outward appearance of a few broken-down, cobweb-filled buildings, there was, apparently, an entire elaborate underground complex that had been constructed a mile and a half down. And every inch of that one-point-five miles was filled with various magic spells, traps, alarms, and other contingencies to keep the prisoners in and uninvited guests out. 

It was also a god damn hornet’s nest, because the very instant that the group of Atherby/Rebellion aligned Heretics and werewolves moved through the portal and appeared on a low hill just along the side of the ‘ghost town’, they were met with heavy response. Automated turrets appeared both from the ground and from the supposedly empty, broken-down buildings. Drones erupted into the sky and began to open fire as well, and several Crossroads portals opened up, releasing actual Heretics. A few of those had Cyberform partners to mix in with the drones and turrets. It was, in short, absolute and total chaos. 

Which, of course, was the plan. All this group had to do was keep the attention of the prison’s first line of defense. Guinevere and the others involved with the primary distraction would (hopefully) keep Crossroads from sending reinforcements immediately. It wouldn’t stop them for long, but a couple minutes was all they would need. Keeping the guards busy until the infiltration group could break down any anti-transportation powers that were in there and get out with Sean and the rest of the prisoners. That’s all they had to do. They didn’t have to win, just… survive. 

Unfortunately, that ‘surviving’ bit was going to end up being a bit easier said than done. In the mere twenty seconds that had passed since this attack began, it had already become a full-fledged warzone. Gunfire, laser blasts, balls of flame and ice, chunks of electrified sharp metal, bursts of intense gravity, and more were flung every which way. Entire sections of ground, some rather large, simply tore themselves up and went flying toward one enemy, only to be caught by another and returned. A blast of purple-tinted lightning, bright enough to blind one looking directly at it, crackled through the air before being converted into a chunk of frozen ice at a touch. A figure zoomed at super speed across the crater-filled dirt and grass, only to be struck from the side by a powerful wave of kinetic force, sending the figure sprawling. 

On one knee at the edge of a three-foot deep crater, Scout brought her rifle (Nothing) to her shoulder, peering through the scope. She cycled through several possible portals she had already set up in the midst of this chaos before settling on one that gave her a view of the sky. One of the drones flying overhead passed through, pausing briefly to reorient itself in order to open fire at someone else. But Scout took it out first, firing three quick shots through her series of portals that hit the drone repeatedly, sending it flying sideways before it exploded. 

Before she could adjust, she felt the sudden appearance of someone appearing through a portal or teleportation. Their hand caught her arm with a violent curse, and she felt it suddenly grow… hard. Her left arm had turned to stone, and it was already starting to spread up to her shoulder and down over her hand. She couldn’t move it, her rifle simply falling from her grasp. 

Then something hit her own attacker from behind. Scout fell hard onto her side, a shock of pain running through her as she twisted to see. Doug. The boy was about ten feet back, but he’d sent two metal coils from the palm of his hands to wrap around the person who had attacked Scout. 

She was a Heretic, of course, a short woman with fiery red hair and even more fiery eyes. As the metal coils yanked her away from Scout, she jerked her arms and both coils shattered under the force. This was no trainee, but a full Heretic. Strong enough to shatter coils that were made of what amounted to solid steel, and with the ability to turn someone’s arm to stone at a touch. 

Even as the woman spun toward Doug, Scout grabbed for the rifle with one hand. Before she could do anything with it, however, a pair of what looked like metal wings erupted from the Heretic woman’s back. One of the wings lashed out, smacking Nothing from Scout’s grasp and cutting her remaining arm pretty deeply in the process. The other wing moved just as quickly, pushing right up close to her face in a clear, sharp warning. 

“Stay down, girl,” the woman snapped testily, “before you get hurt. And you.” Her hand rose, extending toward Doug before she made a sharp gesture that brought the boy flying helplessly toward her before dumping him on the ground at her feet. “Both of you can cool off in–” 

Cool off was the wrong thing to say, apparently. Because in that instant, the woman suddenly spun to the side while bringing her metal wings in front of herself as a shield. Her danger sense had warned her just in time, before a three-foot-wide fist made of ice collided with the wings in a blow that sent the woman stumbling back several feet. 

Gordon. The boy was covered in ice armor that made him much larger than he should have been. The burst of intense cold from the blow enveloped the woman as he sent as much of the power inherited from his father as he could into her. Instantly, the woman’s skin began to turn white-blue, her eyelids frosted over, and a rapidly thickening layer of ice rose around her. 

And then, in a burst of fire, it was gone. The Crossroads woman let out a loud, violent scream as she let loose with the ball of fire around herself, melting the ice and singing both Scout and Doug. Another ball of fire appeared between her hands, before hurling its way toward Gordon. 

“No!” With that cry, a much smaller ball of fire suddenly appeared. It intercepted the large one, absorbing it and preventing the fire from hitting the ice-encased boy. A second later, the ball of fire shifted, transforming into a small, unassuming-looking girl. Rebecca Jameson. One of her gifts allowed her to transform into an orb of either water, fire, earth, or air, and (among other things) absorb/collect any of the same element she directly contacted in that form. 

Seeing the girl appear where the fire had been, the Heretic woman summoned some kind of green goo in her hand before flinging it that way. Before Rebecca could move, the goo took her in the chest, expanding quickly to almost completely envelop her. She was yanked to the ground with a yelp, unable to stand.

Scout couldn’t use her rifle right then, unable to reach it from where she was lying (and unable to hold it properly with one arm turned to stone anyway). But she could still help. With a thought, she summoned her Tzentses-given power to conjure small items made of solid energy in order to create a dagger, flinging it at the woman’s shoulder from behind. Nearby, Doug had managed to click his pen to create a spear, which he hurled at her as well. 

Both weapons stopped an instant before they would have struck the woman. The spear from Doug hit some kind of forcefield, while Scout’s energy-dagger was caught by an opposing power. The woman growled, arms rising. With that, part of the ground rose up as well, coils of rock and dirt appearing all around the group. “That,” she announced, “is enou–” 

In mid-sentence, a glowing orb appeared at the woman’s feet, and she was instantly yanked down toward it. The orb was one of Jazz’s gravity-manipulation balls, as the girl herself dropped her invisibility (she’d been moving very slowly to get close enough without being seen), one hand outstretched to keep the orb up while her other hand pointed that way, mouth opening to shout, “Now!” 

With that, the Heretic woman, held against the ground by the orb, was set upon by an army of… rats, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, and other small rodents. Dozens of the creatures, all that Jazz had managed to recruit around the camp using her power to vocally control any non-intelligent animal that met her gaze, and stored in a specially prepared extradimensional bag for just such an occasion. 

The army of rodents swarmed the woman with a loud series of chitters and squeaks. A dozen were instantly blasted away by a single laser from her hand, and several more were vaporized when the woman sent a second laser from her eyes. Their teeth could not even penetrate her skin. They were a nuisance at worst, not a threat. The gravity orb as well became an afterthought as the woman used a power of her own to negate it, pushing herself up. 

But both the rodents and the gravity orb were a distraction. A very effective one, as the woman couldn’t even pay attention to her danger sense anymore considering there were rats attacking her from all sides. She barely saw Gordon’s ice fist rearing back in time to fling one of those metal wings in front of herself, still taking a good blow from it that sent her tumbling. 

The woman ended up on both knees, skidding to a stop after the blow from Gordon. Her eyes snapped up as her power warned her of yet another threat, only to see Rebecca, apparently freed from the goop from before, there with her own weapon deployed. Her backpack, in full enormous cannon-mode, was pointed directly at the Crossroads Heretic, and already in the midst of firing. Once more, the woman was barely able to cross those metal wings in front of herself while summoning a powerful forcefield. 

The cannon blew through the shield and the wings, and even with that much of the shot dissipated, she was still flung a good twenty feet as a long, two foot deep ditch was torn through the ground along the path of the shot right up to the wall of the building she eventually crashed into. Her metal wings were left mangled and partially broken, bits and pieces missing. 

Bloodied and bruised, the woman rolled over, hand flinging out to conjure an eight foot tall, three-foot wide metal wall from the ground, which she sent toward Rebecca. It rushed that way, cutting through the ground it had popped out of as it moved fast as a car (and would probably hit just as hard). Powerful as the girl’s cannon was, it would take another second to recharge even to its least powerful state. The wall would hit her long before then. 

Or it would have. But Gordon was there, his huge ice form intercepting the flying metal wall. At the same time, he flung his hand forward, opening it to reveal Jazz and Doug. Both were sent flying toward the Heretic woman, crashing into her. Doug’s metal coils were back, wrapping their way around her while Jazz simply grabbed onto her arm, gripping tightly with her own enhanced strength. Both held on for dear life as the woman jerked first one way, then the other. 

“When will you kids learn?” the Crossroads loyalist snarled. “You can’t hold me.” With a grunt and a yank of her arm, she broke the coils once more before slamming Jazz and Doug hard into one another, then flung them to the ground in front of her with a curse. 

Her hand rose, but before she could do anything else, a shot ricocheted off of her forehead. It staggered the woman, making her head jerk toward an empty spot in the air just as a second shot from Scout’s rifle came through the portal there, rebounding from her cheek and snapping her head to the side with a sharp curse. 

Scout was laying on her side, using her one good hand to fire the rifle through the portal. She sent more shots that way, but they were caught by one power or another as the woman held a hand up, ready that time. Scout sent another handful of shots through more portals that she had erected around the woman, but none of those hit either. The Crossroads Heretic was ready for each of them, her warning sense giving her time to intercept each shot. 

What she was not ready for, was another shot from Rebecca’s cannon. By that point, it had recovered enough to fire again. As the woman’s danger sense flared up, she spun that way, hand up to intercept another shot from Scout. What she saw instead, was Rebecca’s glowing cannon in mid-firing sequence. 

She tried to dodge, of course. But Doug sent the remains of his metal coils up, smacking the woman in the back as hard as he could. At the same time, Jazz summoned another gravity orb directly in front of the woman. Between both, she was flung toward the orb and directly into the path of the cannon blast. With a scream of power, the blast struck her full on, and she was once more hurtled into the wall of the building. Reinforced as it secretly was, her impact still left a solid dent in the wall, and she fell limply to the ground in a heap. 

Before she could recover, Jazz was there, all-but flinging herself at the woman. She held a rock in one hand, quickly blurting the command word before shoving it against their dazed-maybe-unconscious opponent. The rock glowed brightly before disappearing. A second later, the woman did the same. 

Wyatt had made these rocks. They were all carrying a couple of them. According to him, the spells on the rocks would render the targets unconscious for a number of hours while also teleporting them to some random (relatively safe) location. The woman would wake up eventually, long after the fight was over. The only downside of the spell was that it wouldn’t work against a fully conscious and combative opponent. They’d had to knock her unconscious (or at least close to it) before using them. 

With that finally done, the small group gathered to collect themselves for a brief second. The battle continued to rage around them, but Gordon raised several ice walls around them, and everyone turned their attention to Scout, who stood there with one arm turned to stone. 

“Are… you okay?” Rebecca hesitantly asked. 

Scout hesitated before nodding. She hoped so. She really hoped that this rock thing was temporary or fixable. Having to regrow an arm would be hard even for regeneration. But now wasn’t the time to worry about it or be shocked into inaction. They still had a lot to do, even if they’d managed to dispatch one of the adult Heretic responders. One. It had taken five of them to even knock one adult Heretic out of the fight. 

At least there were a lot more here, many far more powerful than Scout and the others. And the group inside… well, hopefully things were going okay there. 

Because she wasn’t sure how long they were going to be able to keep this up. 

********

He knew it was coming. This was the day. Apollo had brought the spell in, and helped him place the very discrete beacon inside a book he was idly scrawling in. It was there. This was the time. They were coming. 

The problem, for Sean, was in not looking like he was waiting or anticipating anything. Because his jailers would definitely notice anything that was off. He had to go through the day like it was any other. Which was part of why he and Apollo had decided it would be better if he didn’t know the exact time they were coming. It could be morning or evening, or anything in between. He just had to play it cool. 

Well, as cool as he could. For the moment, that meant eating his breakfast of quiche Lorraine and skillet-fried potatoes while watching Jurassic Park yet again. He’d taken to watching movies by the year. This week he was up to 1993. 

Speaking in time with Ian Malcolm, he intoned, “That is one big pile of–” 

“–shit,” his mouth finished, as he briefly froze at the realization that there were suddenly a lot more minds inside his head than there had been a second earlier. Luckily, Apollo had quickly taken over to speak for him so any guards paying attention wouldn’t notice the stumble. 

Then there were voices. So many of them he couldn’t keep track, couldn’t hear them all. People talking. It almost made him drop his fork, but Apollo took care of that too, while telling everyone else to stop. 

Voices. People. People besides Apollo. Sean had… well, he’d talked to a few others. Flick had visited him before by possessing Apollo so she could hitch a ride here, just as the group had just done. Vanessa and Tristan both had also done the same a couple of times. But this… the whole group being here, this was new. This was different. 

This was final. His last few minutes in this prison… one way or another. 

The movie continued, as Sean reeled inwardly, trying to collect himself. Apollo kept his face impassive, his body still, even taking the time to have a bite of his breakfast. Outwardly, everything was completely normal. 

You okay, kid? The Seosten man’s voice was gentle, clearly understanding even as he repeated, No one else talk. Not yet. This is a lot. 

I’m… I’m okay, Sean finally managed. He could still feel a lot of their… impulses, their reactions. He could sense their minds. This whole Russian nesting doll thing was pretty shaky to begin with. Who knew how long it would hold up. Let’s do this. 

Apollo took over once more, rising to his feet. His eyes glanced toward the mirror on the wall, and Sean felt the reactions of everyone inside him. 

He wasn’t a boy any longer. For Sean Gerardo, eight years had passed. Eight years. He had come in here a boy of eighteen. He was now twenty-six. 

It was time to leave this prison. Because if he didn’t…

He would be leaving this prison. 

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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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