The Source 23-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Okay, what?! No, really, what the fuck? For a moment after hearing those words come from the tape player, I just stood there and stared down at it. My thumb had hit the off switch reflexively while my brain spun out. Fomorians coming here to Earth? They always came here, of course. But they were supposed to come sometime around the year nineteen hundred, not sixteen hundred! If the woman on this tape was right, if she wasn’t full of it, the Fomorians could show up over three hundred years early. 

How much would that change history? So many of the people who had helped stop them before–or would in the future (time travel was annoying) weren’t even around yet. And the ones who were, did they even know the spell that had been used to banish the Fomorians in the first place? Would the Seosten fight back as much to save Earth at this point as they had/would at the normal invasion time, or would it be easier for them to just pull out and grab as many humans as they could to breed as weapons? 

Something told me this whole situation would be very different, and unfathomably worse, if those monsters came through right now. I didn’t even know anything about this woman on the tape other than her name, Jaquelin Prose, and the fact that she worked for Section Four, which I had heard of. And I definitely had no idea how she’d sent this tape back. But whoever she was, I couldn’t take the chance that she was right. If the Fomorians were actually about to come through–no, there wasn’t time to waste. 

All those thoughts played through my mind in just a second or two, before I hit play again. 

Jaquelin’s voice continued as I held the recorder up and listened intently. “The third building from the left of the sheriff’s office, where you were before, is a church. There’s a tunnel underneath the altar. Err, that’s altar spelled with an a, not an e.” She sounded about as anxious and nervous as I felt. “The priest is one of his minions. You–you have to get past him. Then get through the altar, find the tunnel, and follow it to the chamber where he’s been setting up the spell to summon the Fomorians. The town–the people who live there, they’ll try to stop you too. It’s not their fault. Please, don’t–just don’t kill them. The priest has been putting… things in them, so he can control them, puppet them. They’ll do anything to protect the church and the altar, even sacrifice themselves. They don’t even know why they’re doing it or why it matters. He’s just… he’s infected them, and there’s no time to try to argue with them or fix it the hard way. They won’t listen to you. The second they realize you’re trying to get into the church, they’ll try to stop you. But if you can get through the tunnel under the altar and break the ritual, you can free them from it. You can stop the Fomorians from coming here early. Once you’re in the chamber where the ritual is, you have to–” 

The tape went fuzzy then, and I frowned before hitting the button a couple more times. “What? I have to what?!” 

“It’s enchanted,” Persephone informed me. “The rest of the tape won’t play until you’re in the proper location.” 

Oh, well of course. So much for listening ahead of time to know exactly what I was walking into. Apparently I had to actually get there first. And I had to do it as quickly as possible. Which meant I needed a ride.  “Percy–”  

She was already up on Cerberus, and just as I glanced that way, her hand caught mine and hauled me up. “What about Ehn?” she asked curiously. “He is quite powerful, and quite unlikely to want the Fomorians to overrun this planet any more than we do.”

Before I could respond, Cerberus was already running back the way we’d come. Holding onto Percy ahead of me, I blurted, “I don’t know if we have time to go find him! He said this thing was some sort of buried power, not a message! Maybe this is a test, more training, or–or… I don’t know! Seth!” Belatedly, I shouted the ghost’s name, summoning him once more. “You remember the way back to the creek, right? Go there, take some of the others so you can spread out, find Ehn and tell him what’s going on! And if he already knew this was a thing, tell him it’s not fucking funny and to help!” 

I barely heard his response as he and several other ghosts took off to work on that. The only thing I could focus on was the terror I felt about what would happen if we–if I screwed this up and let the Fomorians come through. The fact that they hadn’t previously made it to Earth in this time period had to mean that I successfully stopped them, right? But were things set like that? I was pretty sure they weren’t. I could still fuck this up. Wait, was it always me that stopped them? What if Ehn was supposed to be the one who found this thing? What if he was supposed to be with me right now? Oh God, what if other versions of me who got to this point had insisted that Ehn stay with them-me so he was there to stop the Fomorians? What if them-me had had better ways of contacting him to ask for help? What if–damn it, I didn’t know! I had no idea if anything was different, or if I could still make the wrong choice and screw this whole situation up. If I did–if I messed up, I could doom the entire human species! Or at least Earth. What if–what if I created a timeline where the Fomorians overran the planet? 

Yeah, I was kind of spiraling a bit. It was a lot of pressure, and I had absolutely no idea how bad things would get if I made the wrong choice. Or if I already had made wrong choices. Still, my desperately flailing mind stopped as Persephone put her hand on mine while my arms were still wrapped around her to help stay on the running three-headed robot dog. “It’s okay, Flick,” she assured me. “We can stop them. The future message wouldn’t be here to tell you what to do if you couldn’t do it. We’ll help you. Right, Cerberus?” Her words were met with a trio of sharp barks. 

Right, yeah. Her words, and Cerberus’s agreement, helped settle my nerves a little bit. They were right. Ehn be damned, I had them. It wasn’t like the Fomorians were here already, after all. Jaquelin had said that I needed to stop ‘him.’ That was singular. Was it the priest she had mentioned? No, that couldn’t be it. She’d said the priest was one of ‘his’ minions. Whoever this ‘he’ was, that was the main threat. But whether this was one Fomorian, or some other species who was trying to bring them over, or would do something stupid that accidentally summoned them, I had no idea. Not yet, anyway. If it was a full Fomorian… well, I had Persephone and Cerberus. Not to mention all these ghosts. I wasn’t alone. 

Wait, speaking of that… Another thought came to mind, and I reached out with my Necromancy once more. Once again, I didn’t make it a demand. I requested the presence of the ghosts I had already spoken to earlier. Kehchul the goblin, Elsworn the bear-man, Avonaco the Native American, and Francis the European settler. Soon, they appeared hovering in the air as Cerberus bounded up the hillside. In a few words, I told them what was going on and where we were going. They, in turn, immediately promised to ‘rally the troops,’ and said they would meet us there. Then they disappeared again. I just hoped they’d make it back in time to help. And also that Seth and the others would find Ehn in time for him to come help as well, come to think of it.

Yeah, there was an awful lot of hoping going on right now. Including the fact that I hoped the lady on the tape knew what she was talking about. And that she wasn’t lying. That had occurred to me as well. What if this whole thing was a trick right from the start and doing what she said would be what summoned the Fomorians? What if the ritual was actually helping to keep them away? Or whatever she told me to do would finish it? Sure, it didn’t seem all that likely that I’d be necessary for that, but… but…

Yeah, I really didn’t know. The truth was that I was going to have to make that estimation when the time came. I had to wait and listen to what this lady wanted me to do once we made it to that ritual room. And if the next words out of her mouth were, ‘have Ehn kill the ultra Fomorian kaiju beast that just appeared in front of you because you’re totally no match for it’ I was probably going to scream. 

Soon enough (hopefully), we reached the edge of town once more. Now there were people outside working, talking, or just walking around instead of hiding indoors. But they all stopped short as we came into view. And why wouldn’t they? I was a blonde human girl sitting on the back of a giant three-headed robot dog behind a pale woman with snow-white hair. Granted, this was a village full of Alters with a tall, blue-scaled man and his humanoid grasshopper deputy. But still, we probably stood out a little bit. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to reassure them. And I didn’t even know what I would have said anyway. All I could do was stare for a second, wondering briefly just how badly this was going to go. I had to get into that church and go under the altar, which would probably look bad even at the best of times, let alone when the entire town was apparently brainwashed or whatever to make sure that wouldn’t happen. 

Ehn had to know about this, right? There was no way he didn’t. He’d sent me off to find this thing, talking about how it was power or whatever, and it turned out to be this? I refused to believe that he didn’t know. This was an intentional test. He wanted me to be here, taking care of this situation. Well I was going to take care of it alright. And then he and I were going to have some words about his teaching methods. 

While I slipped off of Cerberus, murmuring for him and Percy to hold off and let me handle this, Sheriff Dune approached. “Well hey, can’t say I was expecting you to come back so soon. Did your partner find the guy he was looking for?” His words were friendly enough, but I could sense a tiny bit of an edge to them. Or maybe I was just imagining it thanks to what I had been told. Either way, I doubted he’d stay as friendly over the next few moments. 

Still, I had to try. Taking a breath, I met the man’s gaze. “I have reason to believe you and your people are being… manipulated. I need to go into that church and check on something.” My hand gestured toward the building in question. “I really hope we can do this the easy way, but if you–” 

All four of his six-shooters were in his hands before I could say another word. For most people, that probably would’ve been the end of it. He was so fast, his quick draw a blinding motion that brought the barrels right in line with my head in an instant. He didn’t wait for me to explain, didn’t even listen to anything past the point when I said I had to go into the church. He just drew, aimed, and fired with the full intent (in as much as someone who was puppeted via some sort of infestation could have intent) of putting all four bullets, and probably more besides, through my skull. 

Fortunately, as fast as he was, I was faster. And I had been expecting something like that. Both of my hands snapped up. The first summoned a small portal in front of my face, with the other end appearing off in the distance to make his bullets pass right through and shoot off into the woods harmlessly. Meanwhile, a sharp gesture from my other hand sent a spray of sand into his mouth and eyes, forcing the man to recoil reflexively. Which was all the time I needed to send even more sand inside the barrels of each gun. A moment of focus on my object size-changing power made all those grains grow. They only went from being as big as… well, grains of sand to being the size of large pebbles, but still. All of them together like that within the tight space of the gun barrels was enough to twist the weapons out of shape so they wouldn’t fire properly anymore. Part of me felt bad about that, but if this all went well and the whole planet didn’t end up getting invaded by Fomorians, I’d try to make up for it. 

Of course, Dune wasn’t done just because his guns were disabled. And the rest of the town wasn’t sitting idly by either. But before any of them could do anything, I felt the arrival of Elsworn and the others. And.. and a lot more besides. When those guys said they were rallying the troops, they had meant it. Without conscious thought, I shoved power into the ghost army, my voice rising to a shout. “Don’t hurt any of them!” 

And just like that, a swarm of semi-transparent figures rushed past and over me. Dune was grabbed by six different ghosts, struggling and cursing as they hauled him to the ground. Strex, the deputy, came bounding into view just in time to be caught by two more ghosts, disarmed, and pulled all the way to the roof of a nearby building. All around us, it was the same story. Every person in town was being held down by two or three ghosts. They came because I’d asked for help, because Elsworn, Kehchul, Francis, and Avonaco explained the situation and convinced the entire army of ghosts from the forest out there to come into town and hold down these people so they couldn’t stop me. 

Yes, I had a ghost army essentially holding this entire town prisoner. But now wasn’t the time to focus on how amazing and overwhelming that was. I had to move. If this Jacqueline woman was telling the truth, if she was right, then every last second counted right now.

While the townspeople struggled to free themselves from my ghost army, I ran straight toward the church. Cerberus and Percy trailed right behind me all the way. It seemed like the closer we got to the building, the harder the people who lived in this place fought to stop us from getting to it. They really were brainwashed. All those people were basically foaming at the mouth, spitting curses and threats as they clawed the ground and heaved against the spirits. But they couldn’t get free. Especially not after I sent another burst of energy to refuel those ghosts. There were so many of them and yet I just shoved a bunch of power into them all like it was nothing. Some part of me recognized how crazy that was, but I didn’t have time to think about it. It was just a thing that sat there in the back of my mind, telling me just how difficult this should’ve been. The power I was putting in those ghosts should have staggered me. There were two or three for every townsperson. Even if this particular town was only about a hundred people, that still meant I was fueling several hundred ghosts at the same time and didn’t even feel particularly winded by it. That was absurd, right? I was pretty sure it was absurd.

A man stepped out of the church just as we neared it. But no, this wasn’t just a man. It was something worse. I could sense the evil and dark power pouring off of him even as he came into view. There was something fundamentally wrong about him. His skin was grayish brown, and he stood about average height, a couple inches under six feet. He looked human aside from his skin, and the fact that he didn’t have any eyes. Not as in he had empty holes in his face. No, there was no place for his eyes. Where they should’ve been was simply flat skin. Then he opened his mouth, extending a foot-long tongue with two small bulbous structures on either side. They started near the middle of the tongue, but rolled down to the end as the tongue pointed toward us. A second later, those bulbs twisted and opened to reveal a couple eyes staring our way. Eyes attached to his tongue. 

Okay, I was officially creeped the fuck out. Which only got worse as the men let out a banshee-like scream that filled the air. He lifted his arms and a dozen rock and dirt golems rose from the earth around him, while the figure himself flew up into the air, lightning crackling around him.

“Go, Flick!” Percy gave me a push, even as Cerberus sent a bunch of lasers lancing out toward the incoming golems. “We’ll handle this, I promise! We’ll keep him off you! Go stop the Fomorians!” 

Oh boy did tongue-eye boy want to fight me when he heard that. But even as he turned his attention my way and shrieked even louder, Percy launched herself off Cerberus and crashed into him. Both went down hard onto the roof of the building. 

There wasn’t time to argue. Percy was dealing with that guy and Cerberus would keep the golems busy. For my part, I gave one last quick glance around, gave my ghosts a bit more power, then ran for the church once more. The heavy doors surrendered after a couple hard, boosted heaves, slamming inward. There, the altar at the far end. It was enormous and appeared to be made of a mix of gold and heavy wood. Still, I didn’t care about that. All I cared about was what was under it. 

To that end, I boosted myself once more and practically flew that way. I could take the time to shove it out of the way, or break it. Or… I slammed right into and through the altar, using my wood-possession power to pass right inside. 

Sure enough, there was a tunnel underneath the thing. I sensed it immediately, wide open space beneath the heavy altar. I couldn’t see down there, but it felt like the tunnel went on for quite some distance. 

Okay, the voice on the tape had been right so far. I just had to hope she was also right that I could stop whatever was going on at the end of that tunnel. 

Because if I couldn’t, the future was going to look a hell of a lot worse than it had when I left. 

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Greetings And Goodbyes 22-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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It was a good thing that Ehn had been kidding about me only having a few minutes to get into that house and stop this guy, because I stood outside with my ghosts coming up with the best possible plan I could for a bit longer than that. I didn’t only speak with Seth, Grover, and Manakel either. I also brought out the other ghosts I’d brought along for their perspectives. That included Jason, Kaleigh, Chas, and Emily. I had intended to leave them back at the Fusion School so they could spend more time with Miles and Royce instead of separating them so quickly, but they insisted on coming. They wanted to watch my back, and thought it would be good for their living teammates to have a little time without them while still knowing they were out there. A bit of safe separation to better come to terms with their situations.  

I wasn’t sure I understood all that, but it was their choice. So they had come along, and helped out when it came to figuring out the best way to deal with this evil Necromancer suburban guy. 

I also thought about contacting people back home through my connection with Tabbris, but decided against it. While it might still be within the spirit of things to use absolutely every resource at my disposal, something told me I should at least try to handle this without getting advice from my mother and everyone else back there. As far as this test went, it was better for me to use my own resources that I had with me. Especially since if I did screw this up, Ehn was still here to put a stop to the situation before it completely spiraled out of control. Even if I died, there was no way he would allow this guy to win. 

In the end, we came up with what I thought was the best plan we could given our time and resource restraints. I sent my ghosts off before shifting my face and hair to make myself look a couple years younger. I added a pink streak down on the side of my hair, and used magic to shift my clothes to better fit some sort of school uniform. After that, I used my face shifting power a bit more to add slight dark circles under my eyes, made them a little bloodshot, and finally put a thin line across my throat to make it look like I had been strangled. A quick check with Manakel had confirmed that even though I couldn’t access my powers once I got close to the house, the physical changes I made to myself beforehand would stay. 

Finally, I blanketed myself with Necromantic energy, wrapping it around my body like a cloak. It was like summoning power to use a spell and then just not using it. 

There, perfect. Looking up and down the street to make sure it was clear, I took a breath before starting that way. My eyes were on the simple-looking house ahead of me. I could still feel all that power coming off it. If anything, the sensation was even stronger. He was getting closer to finishing this thing, and that… yeah, I was willing to take Ehn’s word for how bad that would be. This guy had to be stopped, and it was now or never as far as I was concerned. 

With that in mind, I walked across that street, up over the sidewalk, and followed the path toward the front door. I made sure to put a little bounce in my step, trying to come off as a simple, careless girl scout walking from house to house taking cookie orders. Right, nothing untowards there. I was just a tooooottally normal girl who happened to walk up to the house of a man who was about to destroy the world. 

Doing my best to give off those vibes, I politely ignored the way various decorations in the flower bed seemed to turn to stare at me as I passed, bouncing cheerfully up the stairs with an audible giggle (ugh) before grinning as unnaturally widely as I could while hitting the doorbell. There was a camera there, and I kept my smile going while calling out in a singsong voice, “Cookies for sale!” Did I feel utterly ridiculous and stupid right then? Yes, yes I did. But that was a large part of the point. I was supposed to look ridiculous right now. 

I had the feeling that a big part of the reason for the following ten seconds of silence, with absolutely no apparent response from the house, was the man in question asking himself if this was really happening. It had to feel a bit surreal from his end, especially coming right on the cusp of his total triumph. But just in case he got the idea to ignore me, I reached out and hit the doorbell again. That same absurd, and honestly probably a bit creepy, smile stayed plastered to my face while I called out once more. “They’re delicious and for a very good cause, sir! Buy two boxes, get one half off!” I was, of course, ignoring the fact that I didn’t seem to have any actual boxes with me at all. Was that normal? Did people often buy cookies at home and have them shipped later? I had never actually been a girl scout.  

I pushed all those thoughts out of my head, however, at the sound of movement behind the front door. While keeping the clueless, creepy grin on my face, I strained my senses as hard as I could. I was actually really vulnerable standing right here in front of the door. If the guy just decided to deal with the situation by firing a gun through it or something, I could be in trouble. 

God, I wished I had my item sense. This was hard. I had no powers other than my Necromancy. I couldn’t tell what he was doing over there, what he was holding, or anything. It made me anxious, though I tried to clamp down on that as best as I could. The man was there, clearly still deciding how to react to all this. I could basically feel his gaze locked on me, and did my level best to make my eyes glaze over slightly, swaying there on the porch as though I was barely able to stand. All the while, I continued to smile, my face actually hurting a bit from holding that expression. Nor was it easy to stop myself from blinking through that entire time. I was just standing there on the porch, grinning like some sort of horror creature while the rest of my expression stayed carefully blank and empty, without blinking. I was smiling like a lunatic while carefully keeping my eyes dead inside. It was a hard thing to pull off, especially considering how nervous I was. But I managed to keep it going. 

Finally, the door opened almost without warning. The young-looking (he seemed to be in his twenties) man who stood there was just over six feet tall, with long red hair and a dark green flannel shirt along with jeans. He certainly didn’t look like a powerful necromancer. But then again, neither did I. His eyes were hard as he glared at me before making a dismissive noise with his mouth as his hand flicked to one side. I felt a bit of his power crash over me before allowing myself to fall over. My body collapsed entirely, crashing off the porch and down into the nearby flower bed. I got dirt in my mouth and crushed a rose under my leg. Its thorns didn’t exactly like that. And to be honest, neither did I. Falling off that porch and into the dirt was not my idea of a good time, especially when I didn’t have any other powers to mitigate it. No regeneration, no extra strength. It was just me falling on the ground without even trying to catch myself. That was the worst of it. I had to fall without actually rolling or putting my hand out or anything, hitting the dirt hard like that. And I couldn’t yelp or anything. 

Still, I laid there in completely motionless, drawing my power completely in on myself as much as possible, smothering it. To one side, the man walked down off the porch, raising his voice. “You can come out now!” His words filled the air, actually rattling the nearby windows from the force and volume, yet no one in any of the other houses came to investigate. Probably thanks to the shield he had around his property. “Sending one of your pets to distract me might have worked for someone of a lesser skill. But you have no idea who you’re dealing with!” 

There was a brief moment of silence before Seth spoke up from the front walk. “Are you sure about that?” As he said that, the whole area around him was filled with Necromantic power. Energy I had fed into him for this moment. Normally he could have used it to remain solid for a good hour, or even get in a full-on fight. But now, he expended all of it over those brief few seconds. It was like a bright flood light had suddenly been switched on, overwhelming this guy’s senses somewhat. It wasn’t enough to completely blind him or anything, but it certainly got his attention. I felt him gathering his own power, a long-handled, black-bladed axe appearing in one hand. There was a lot of power in that axe too, as the man reared back with it. He was too close to his goal. He wasn’t going to waste any time playing with this intruder. Not when he was right on the cusp of succeeding with a plan that had been centuries in the making. Instead, he waited just long enough to get a glimpse of the man standing at the front of his property, then hurled the powerful axe that way. The weapon went spinning end over end, heading straight for Seth’s chest. And then… then it passed straight through him of course. The axe flew out into the street, crashing down onto the pavement and skidding all the way to the opposite gutter. 

The man stopped short, finally allowing the rush of power that Seth had filled the air with to dissipate enough to see what he was looking at. “You… you’re not the Necromancer.” 

That was as far as the man managed to get before my silver knife was driven through his throat, as I had managed to very stealthily pick myself up and move directly behind him while he was distracted. As my knife sliced through his jugular, sending his blood spraying as he made a loud, horrified screeching sound and flailed in shock, I announced, “Man, you worked that out quick.” 

Yeah, maybe it wasn’t a hugely elaborate plan, but ‘let the bad guy think I was a random zombie instead of his actual opponent so I could slip behind him and knife the fucker before he even knew I was a threat’ had seemed simple and clear enough considering the time we’d had to work with. And hey, here we were. 

The man gurgled something about being so close as his body struggled against the inevitable. I felt him trying to summon the energy from a bunch of living things (animals) he had trapped inside. Oh right, he was basically attempting to do the same thing Fossor had liked to do, spend ‘death energy’ to heal himself. 

Well we couldn’t have that, could we? With a grunt of effort, I caught hold of the energy he was pulling in and shoved it aside so he couldn’t use it like that. Wait, that was an option now? Boy did I ever wish I’d been able to do that with Fossor. But at least now I didn’t have to deal with this asshole fixing himself the same way. “Really?” I managed while driving the knife deeper just because I could. “My last big Necromancer threat could pull energy from clear across the universe, and I’m supposed to be impressed by you pulling it out of your own house?” 

The man said something else, but it was completely unintelligible. He was too far gone. His body slumped, falling lifelessly against me before I stepped out of the way and let it collapse completely. In that moment, I felt another rush as his power filled me. It wasn’t anywhere near what killing Fossor or Manakel had felt like, but still managed to make me gasp and take a reflexive step back. Necromancy. I was getting even more Necromancy, just like Ehn wanted. But I also felt more than that. I had gotten more Necromancy, but also something else. Was that… wait, I knew a Boscher could get more than one power by killing another Heretic, but some random Incubus Necromancer? Why was I getting more than one power from him?

Shaking off that feeling, I looked around as Seth and the rest of my current group of ghosts approached. Grover shook his head, lamenting, “I still say I should’ve been the one to stab him. That’s not fair.” 

“I’ll let you stab someone soon,” I promised. “But he could have stopped you if you got too close to him. Problems with being a ghost going up against a Necromancer. This was the best way to do it.” While saying that, I stared down at the body on the ground. I didn’t know anything about the guy, except for what I could sense and what Ehn had told me. But he really had been a powerful Necromancer. And judging by what I was still sensing inside that house, he had definitely been up to something pretty bad. 

Wait, that was right, I was still sensing something bad in there. Which was probably why Ehn hadn’t come out to join us yet. I wasn’t done fixing this situation. Turning to look at the house, I frowned before starting to walk that way. In mid-step, I spun around and came back to take my knife out of the dead man’s throat. Stowing it, I gestured for the others. “Come on, there’s still something in there. Something… bad.” 

Instead of going straight in, I stopped at the doorway and checked for traps. Naturally, he had about half a dozen spells right there, waiting to do bad things to anyone who crossed them without his permission. And he wasn’t exactly in the best state to give that permission anymore. So, I took a few moments to carefully break those spells, ensuring the entrance was safe before heading in. Kaleigh, right behind me, murmured something about the house reminding her of her grandmother’s place, including the smell. 

It really did seem like the sort of house a grandparent would live in. Well, not mine, obviously. But the stereotypical sort. There were weird knick knacks everywhere, a piano in the nearby living room that was positively covered in tiny wooden figurines, a table full of expensive china that looked like it hadn’t been touched in years, plastic covering the couch as though just waiting for a little kid to fill the room with squeaking sounds as they desperately tried to get comfortable on it, random pictures across all the walls, and very thick shag carpet that looked like a small dog could get lost inside it. 

The rest of the ghosts spread out through the room to check for anything dangerous, while Doctor Manakel appeared beside me. Well, not right beside me. He seemed to be deliberately leaving a little space between us, which I appreciated. “The man outside was certainly a powerful Necromancer,” he informed me. “Your new mentor was right about that. Still, I don’t entirely trust him.” A pause followed before he bowed his head while adding, “Not, of course, that you entirely trust me either.” 

“We’re getting there,” I informed him quietly before giving the man a brief look. Yes, our relationship was complicated to say the least. After everything he had done the year before, all the shit that had led up to his death, it wasn’t easy for me to just accept that he was different now. But he really had been helpful so far. Not just for me, but for others while I was gone. He had apparently been giving information that helped track down several hidden Seosten supply caches for weapons and tools that would end up being incredibly helpful. 

The truth was, I had to accept that people could change. Otherwise, my whole way of thinking was going to fall apart. Just because I had personal feelings about the man didn’t mean I could simply throw away his contributions now. Besides, he was a ghost and I was a Necromancer. I had a bit of an advantage if things did go wrong. 

But I couldn’t let myself think that way. Instead, I turned away and continued looking through the house with the others. My senses led us down into the basement, of course. I had no idea why I ever thought his work would be anywhere other than the basement honestly, unless there had been a handy cemetery out back. And that didn’t really seem like something that would pass the neighborhood rules. 

This place looked like it had been pretty nice at one point. There was a whole entertainment center, a bar stocked with what I assumed was decent stuff, and a children’s room. But now the majority of that had been torn up, revealing a dirt hole where our friend outside had created a whole mess of weapons using bones. Yeah, they weren’t drawn on the ground, they were shaped out of various bones from what I was pretty sure were human remains. It created a circular spell-form that was about fifteen feet across in diameter. That was where the power I was sensing was coming from. 

“Okay, guys,” I started after taking all that in. “Time to dismantle this thing properly.” 

“Not just yet,” came a response from the stairwell, as Ehn descended into view. Persephone was right behind him. Cerberus, I assumed, was staying outside for now. 

My eyes narrowed as I looked that way. “Excuse me? Wasn’t it the entire point of this to stop what this guy had planned?” I felt my hands tighten into fists reflexively. 

The man bowed his head. “Yes, and you have done that, thank you. But there is no sense in throwing away potential resources. Especially not after so much time and effort was put into gathering all this energy. It should be put to a much greater use. And as it happens, I have just the thing.”

My mouth opened to say something, but Ehn was already raising his hand, with two coins held between his fingers. Before any sound could escape me, he snapped those coins together, saying a single word. As soon as he did, I was completely blinded by a blast of light, along with a physical shockwave that knocked me backward. I felt my stomach twist inside out, losing what little I’d been able to eat in a heave as I hit the ground. 

It was over almost as soon as it started. I found myself lying on some grass in a field behind some trees. Percy was right beside me, with Cerberus on the other side, all three of his heads anxiously whining and staring down at me as he waited for some sign of life. 

“—quite alright, I assure you.” My hearing kicked back in just in time to catch the last of what Ehn was saying. 

“What–what the fuck just–” I reached out reflexively for my connection to Tabbris, only to pick up nothing. “What the fuck did you do?! I can’t sense Tabs.” I was on my feet an instant later, my staff in my hand. 

Ehn simply watched me, holding up his index finger. “One moment, Miss Chambers, and I will explain. Your sister, as well as all your loved ones, are just fine. And you will be able to tell them you are fine as well, once we catch up with them.” 

“Catch up with them?” I echoed in confusion. 

“Well yes, you didn’t expect me to give you all the training you need in a couple months, did you?” Ehn shook his head. “I need much more time than that. Which is precisely what I’ve given us. 

“We have gone back in time. Now your training can truly begin.”  

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Greetings And Goodbyes 22-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Before I could find my voice in those first moments after Ehn greeted me, Persephone stepped past and grabbed his hand with both of hers, enthusiastically shaking it up and down while giving him a bright smile. “Well I’ve definitely been waiting a long time to meet you, Mr. Dragon-Bonded sir. I’ve heard so much about you. But I think some of it was made up. You don’t really have a goat that can eat stars and flies on a rainbow sled, do you?” The whole time, she was still rapidly shaking his hand. Even Cerberus was making excited noises in the background, though I was pretty sure he was just happy in general and going along with the flow. 

Ehn paused briefly, taking that in before offering her a small smile in return. “And you must be Persephone. It’s a pleasure to meet you as well. And no, I’m afraid that although I do have a great many intriguing creatures working with me, I’ve never seen one like that. Do let me know if you happen to locate one yourself.”

“Finders keepers,” she solemnly informed him, finally releasing the man’s hand before stepping back to join me. “If you ask nice, maybe I’ll let you rent them. You know, when I find them.”

Well, if this whole situation had been surreal enough as it was, that would’ve done the trick. Part of me wondered how much of that whole exchange was Persephone just being odd, and how much was her intentionally giving me time to compose myself the best way she knew how. 

Whatever it was, it worked at least a little bit. I breathed out, no longer so totally overwhelmed by the sheer power in his aura. Not that it was totally gone, not by a long shot. But at least I was able to speak again. Even if my voice was slightly strained. “Uh, okay first of all, I know you.” Raising my hand, I pointed that way. “You were on that ship back when we were fighting the Whispers. You disabled the traps or whatever. You were there, and… Gehenna didn’t even know you left that time.” 

The man offered me an easy smile. “Well I certainly couldn’t allow such a promising asset to die so soon after taking the more troubling, problematic one off my hands, could I? You had just recently taken the Necromancy power from Fah-Seur. I was intrigued and checked in on you now and then. When there was trouble, I did what was needed to make your work somewhat easier. And now, here you are.” 

Yup, here I was. And the whole situation was feeling more surreal by the moment. And I noticed he hadn’t addressed the fact that he’d left the Gehenna prison without being noticed. Shaking that off, I replied, “Well thanks for that. I was told that you’d be interested in me visiting for a little while. But then again, I was told by other people that you were in prison, and this place doesn’t really look like jail to me.”

The man looked around the small study before shaking his head. “Well, to be quite honest with you, my actual prison didn’t look much like one either. So you wouldn’t be able to judge just based on this. But no, we are not under the care of Gehenna right now. I thought it best to begin our lessons, and our relationship in general, in a place far away from the rest of my people, particularly the one you have experience with.”

“Kwur,” I acknowledged. “Unless you mean the one you spent thousands of years turning into the biggest piece of shit evil necromancer in the universe. Because from what I hear, he was basically one of yours too.” 

Okay yeah, I had definitely gotten over my initial reaction to this guy. The anger in me was winning out a bit over the part that was screaming for me to shut the hell up before I pissed him off.

Ehn, however, didn’t seem to mind. He just inclined his head very slightly in acknowledgment. “Unfortunately, a great deal of pain and suffering is sometimes necessary in order to reach the lofty sort of goals I have in mind.”

Before I could respond to that, Persephone spoke up again. “But you’re not the one experiencing the pain and suffering, Lord Farquaad,” she pointed out flatly. Something told me she had said it before I could so that if he took offense, she would be the one bearing the brunt of it.

Once again, however, the man just nodded after a brief hesitation. “Ah, I’m afraid I have no idea who this Farquaad is, but you are right that I am not the one who suffers the most grief, pain, or loss. Yet there is more to that situation than either of you are aware of. First, however, what would you each prefer to be called? Before we get down to business, as they say, I’d like to know what names I should be using to make you both as comfortable as possible.”

Shoving aside several sarcastic reports that came to mind, I took a breath before telling him to just call me Felicity. I almost said Flick, but that felt too familiar. I didn’t want the guy to think we were friends, so Felicity was the best. Persephone followed my lead and went with her full name instead of Percy. 

Ehn bowed to each of us. “Persephone and Felicity it is. As I said, it is a pleasure to meet both of you. I hope in time that you will feel the same, though I understand your, shall we say mixed feelings at the moment.” 

With that, the man walked to the nearby door, which opened for him without any gesture on his part, revealing a hallway beyond. “If you wouldn’t mind coming with me now, we have a great deal to get through.”

Well what the hell was I going to do, refuse? I’d already come this far. Sending another message to let Tabbris know that I was still fine, I walked after him, with Persephone and Cerberus right behind me. I knew there was very little either of them could do to help if he had anything bad in mind. As strong as she was, even Percy couldn’t stand up against him. But I still felt reassured by their presence. If he turned out to be an evil piece of shit doing evil piece of shit things, we would go down fighting. We’d probably go pretty damn quickly, but it would still be fighting.

The hallway beyond that study wasn’t very large. There was another door to the right that was closed, but he turned left, moving toward a set of stairs leading down. There was also a large floor-to-ceiling window on the right-hand wall and I looked out of it to see what looked like an ordinary neighborhood street. This house wasn’t even anything all that special. Sure, it wasn’t a hovel or anything. It probably would’ve cost a few hundred thousand. But it wasn’t a castle, and it wasn’t a mansion. It was just a nice house, in a decent neighborhood of what looked like a normal American town. It was a suburb. We were standing in an average house in a suburb somewhere. Of all the places I had expected to be sent, this definitely wasn’t on the list. 

Noticing that I had stopped to stare, Ehn paused to look back. “Is something wrong, Felicity?” 

“I umm…” I hesitated before starting again. “I thought we traveled a long way from the Fusion School. I mean, I know the sun is a long way from Earth, but I thought we went a lot further than that. Like, across the galaxy further. That’s just an Earth neighborhood.” 

The man offered a faint smile. “Yes, you did travel a vast distance. And then you looped back around to come back here. Anyone attempting to follow your trail, who could have had poor intentions, would take far too long to realize the teleportation trail actually ended in the same solar system it began from. If you’re finding your connection to your Seosten sister to be somewhat strained, I’m afraid that is less a result of distance and more a side effect of the shielding I’ve put over this place to prevent others from finding us. Of course, you may feel free to inform her that you are not so far away, but I do still insist on our privacy.”  

Uhh, right. Okay, so it turned out I was just a girl walking through a suburban house on Earth with my Olympian-corpse-possessing Revenant friend, giant three-headed robot dog, and an ancient Natural Dragon-Heretic who could absolutely turn this entire neighborhood–no, city into a crater in the time it took someone to scoff and say this would make a terrible sitcom. Nothing I couldn’t deal with at this point. 

Turning away from that window, I continued to follow Ehn down those stairs and through the rest of the house. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the other rooms either, as far as I could tell. It was all just… quaint. I glanced around as we went, taking in the casual furnishings as well as several pictures on the walls. Most of them were of an ordinary-looking family. But I didn’t see any of the people in those photos in any of these rooms. 

“They aren’t dead, if that’s what you’re wondering.” Ehn said that without looking back at me, as we walked through the short hallway to what looked like the front door. We had just passed a large framed photograph of that same family. “The family who own this house have been out of the country for a month, and aren’t scheduled to arrive back home until tomorrow. We’ll be long gone before then. Or, well–” He turned slightly, just enough that I could see the slight smile on his face, a look that said he had some private joke of his own that he wasn’t sharing just yet. “Close enough, anyway. Now come, I’d like to see how you handle something. Persephone and Cerberus, kindly give Felicity time to handle the situation on her own. It wouldn’t be much of a test otherwise.” 

“What?” His words made me blink in confusion. “What situation?” 

In answer, the man opened the front door and gestured across that pleasant, if mundane-looking yard, past the quiet street, and toward the house opposite this one. “The man who lives across the street there is what you would call a Natural Incubus Heretic. He’s spent the past two hundred years sacrificing children in order to gradually build up the power he needs to unleash one god-level apocalyptic threat or another. And as of right now, he’s about…” Tilting his head as though considering, Ehn slowly finished. “… Oh, three minutes from finishing the job?” 

“What?!” I snapped. “Get over there and stop him if you want the world to keep spinning!” 

Flashing me a quick smile, the man replied, “Relax, I was only kidding. He won’t be finished for another few days. But you really should get over there. He has quite the defenses set up, and the further he goes, the stronger he’ll become. Especially now, right on the cusp of his… ahh… ascension I believe he calls it? Every day he becomes exponentially stronger. If I was you, I really wouldn’t want to face him tomorrow. I mean, this would have been a decent enough test a few days ago, but since you took a bit longer to get here… well, now it’ll be quite interesting indeed.”

Wait, was this guy seriously saying that this whole test of his would’ve been easier if I had come immediately rather than spending time with my friends and family? Was this his way of chastising me or something? 

No, I honestly didn’t think so after spending another moment staring at him. He wasn’t actually annoyed about the delay. Why would he be? He’d been waiting and planning for thousands of years as it was. Another couple days wouldn’t have mattered to him. No, he was genuinely interested in seeing how I did against this threat, and really did believe that cutting it this close would be an even better test than he had originally planned on. Which made me wonder just how strong this guy I was supposed to stop was now, and how strong he would’ve been if I had come here a few days ago. Or even weeks ago when Wukong first showed up. 

Hell, no wonder Sun had been fine with waiting all that time. He probably wanted to let this guy, whoever he was, get as strong as possible too. I could absolutely see him wanting to stretch it out even longer so I could have a bigger fight.

While I was processing all of that, Persephone spoke up. “Flick?” She clearly wanted to know if I needed her to come with me, Ehn’s words be damned. 

I thought about it for a very brief second. But ignoring his request that I do this alone probably wasn’t the best way to start off this relationship. Besides, I didn’t think he would actually let that guy destroy the planet or anything if I happened to fail. Whether he’d actually let me die or not was a little more debatable, but hey. At least it meant I only had to worry about my own life.

Besides, he wanted the powerful Necromancy to stay on the table, so I was probably safe…ish. 

So, I shook my head. “Stay here with him. I’m sure you guys can find something to talk about.” To Cerberus, I added, “If anything happens to me, help Percy annoy him with that Barbershop Quartet thing you guys have been working on.” 

In response to that, each of the three heads, one by one, gave a low howl. Then Percy joined in with her own, before they grinned at me. 

After clapping for them, I produced my staff and focused on the man himself. “Anything else I should know, that you’re actually willing to tell me?” 

Ehn regarded me briefly before answering. “Well, I didn’t bring you here to this particular threat to test your ability to manipulate sand or change your facial structure. The threat you will face in that house is one of the Necromantic variety. In fact, as soon as you pass the wards he has set up, you’ll find yourself cut off from every other power you have. Your Necromancy will be unaffected, because his must continue to function.” 

Well that wasn’t fun to hear. I did a quick double-take. “I didn’t even know that was possible! And this guy can just–he can just do that?” 

“As I said, he has worked in this single location for hundreds of years,” Ehn reminded me, “allowing the town to build up around him. You will very much be on his… home turf I believe the phrase would be? ‘Turf’ he has had plenty of time to prepare. You will only be able to use your Necromancy while facing him. I do hope you’re ready.” 

“So what if I hadn’t actually asked you to tell me everything you knew about that guy, and just went over there without knowing I was going to lose access to all my other powers?” I found myself asking with narrowed eyes. 

His response was a casual, “Well, then I dare say I would have made a grave mistake when I judged you. Which would have been egg on my face.” 

Oh boy was there a lot I wanted to say to that. So much, really. But I pushed all that down and simply gave what I hoped was a reassuring nod to Percy and Cerberus. I could do this, right? Yeah. Here went nothing. 

Taking a breath before letting it out slowly as I stared at that ordinary-looking house, I braced myself, then strode out to walk down the front steps. I really hadn’t expected to be thrown into the middle of something like this right off the bat, almost before we even said much of anything to each other. But then again, maybe that was the point. I  couldn’t assume anything when it came to Ehn. 

On my way, I summoned up several of the ghosts I had brought with me. Seth appeared first, standing at the end of the front walk, next to the mailbox. His back was to me, staring intently at the house we were heading toward. Grover appeared beside him a moment later, looking equally intense. 

“You guys sense stuff over there?” I asked, assuming they knew the basics about what was going on. The way this whole ghost thing worked was that I could summon them all the way from the Haunted Mansion, but that took a lot more power and time (for me, anyway, Fossor could do it instantly), and they wouldn’t really know what was going on until I brought them up to speed. Or I could bring them with me wherever I went. In which case they basically remained attached to my body in an unformed state until I called on them. And in that case, they were aware of what was going on. Or at least as much as I wanted them to be. Essentially I could turn off their awareness of what was happening if I needed privacy. 

It also required a bit of Necromancy energy to hold onto them like this, even in their unformed states. But it was really an inconsequential amount by this point, unless I went nuts and started holding onto hundreds of ghosts to carry around with me at all times. 

Fossor could do that too. 

“Ohhhh yeah,” Seth confirmed. “Your new pal back there is right. Actually, I bet you can sense it too. At least you could if you weren’t standing in that shielded area.” He waved vaguely toward the edge of the yard. “He’s probably got it set up so nobody notices him here. Especially the guy across the street.”  

So, I took another couple steps forward, crossing the invisible line from the house property out to the public sidewalk. As soon as I did so, I could tell what he was talking about. It was like a sudden glaringly bright beacon had been shot into the air, powerful enough to make me flinch reflexively. Yeah, it was definitely coming from the house across the street. It might as well have had a giant neon sign with ‘I Am Practicing Necromancy Using Horrific Human Sacrifices’ on the roof, with a full brass band practicing around it, and a fireworks display in the background. Actually, that probably would’ve been more subtle than this. There was so much Necromantic energy pouring off that house, I couldn’t believe no one else had shown up to do something about it yet. 

Then I looked up and down the street, and understood a little bit better. There were several spots that were working together to create another magical barrier around the whole neighborhood. It wasn’t enough to stop anyone from leaving or anything like that, but it did shield this area from outside detection. You’d have to essentially be right on top of the place to notice the obscene amounts of Necromantic energy coming off it. No wonder there weren’t a hundred Heretics kicking in this guy’s door already. He was really good at masking himself. And, apparently, good at a lot of other things too. Between that and that whole ‘not being able to use my other powers’ bit, this was going to be tricky. Which was absolutely why Ehn had brought me here, of course. I was just a little surprised he’d managed to find such a perfect test in this amount of ti–no, that was the wrong way to think about it. He hadn’t ‘just happened’ to find the perfect test in short notice, he’d arranged to have me picked up to come see him because this perfect test existed right now. The timing worked the other way around. 

By that point, Manakel’s ghost had appeared somewhat behind me. I sensed him there, but didn’t say anything for a moment while I took all that in. Finally, I lifted my chin and spoke up. “Any advice about how to handle this?” He was the one with all the experience, after all. The whole reason I’d brought him along was so he could help. Maybe not with this sort of thing specifically, but still. 

“Yes,” he replied. “Be ready before you ever cross that street. Because he’s had centuries to plan out what to do if someone interrupts him. So you need to be ready to deal with whatever he’s prepared. You can’t wing this one, especially if you don’t have access to anything other than your Necromancy.”

I slowly nodded at that. “Right. 

“Then I guess it’s time to start talking about how we’re going to do this.” 

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The Storm 21-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Flick!” A voice shouted in my ear, drawing my attention away from seeing through Rahanvael’s eyes. Suddenly, I was back in the locked room, facing the others. Shiori’s hand was on my arm as she shouted my name, with Asenath and Twister right behind her. Tabbris was to one side, with Persephone, Stasia, Judas, and Robin a bit further back. All of them were staring at me intently, wanting answers about what the hell had just happened. 

My mouth opened, then shut, as a wave of confusion, fear, and guilt washed over me. Guilt that I hadn’t noticed anything wrong with my mother, no matter how ridiculous that was. Fear over what she was being forced to do and why. And confusion over what we were supposed to do now. Finally, I swallowed and quickly told them what I had seen. 

The revelation made them all reel backward. Stasia was the first to find her voice. “Denuvus? He is just a myth, a story!” 

“No, she’s not,” one of the Robins put in before adding that Denny’s power had come from Denuvus, by way of Ammon. 

“Yeah, she’s definitely more than a story,” Asenath murmured, frowning at the wall. “Even if she’s spent a lot of time and effort muddying the waters as far as that goes.”  

While they were explaining that, I looked back to the emergency containment wall. “We’ve gotta get out of this place. And then we’ve gotta find that ship, stop Mom from doing whatever Denuvus is trying to make her do, and–” I stopped myself. Focus. First we had to get out of here. Then I could think about the next part.

“Well, you can’t break it down.” That was Judas, speaking remarkably calmly considering the situation as he stepped up closer to examine it. “I’ve studied a lot of this stuff when I was trying to track down Charmeine, and this sort of seal is meant to hold in dangerous things.” 

“We can’t even break it with Robin?” Twister looked that way pointedly. “You guys are really strong, aren’t you?” 

“It’s not a matter of being strong enough,” Judas informed us. “It’s the fact that if you do break it down, the station goes with plan B.” 

“What’s plan B?” Shiori put in, giving me a quick, worried glance. 

“It vents all the atmosphere,” came the flat response. “And if that doesn’t do the trick, it gets rid of everything else. By which I mean it transports everything that is not marked as belonging in this structure out into the nearest star. Which, believe me, is harder to survive without one of those special stations you do your math homework on.” 

“He is correct, Flick,” Percy confirmed after reaching out to poke the metal wall. “This sort of system is designed to ensure that any dangerous thing–most dangerous things that might escape confinement are killed before they can become a threat.” 

Which, of course, meant Tabbris’s wings were out. She couldn’t destroy the wall that way. She and I exchanged a quick, meaningful glance. We’d both been thinking the same thing. 

Asenath sighed softly, fingers brushing the wall. “So we need a better way.”

“Yeah, and I have one,” I agreed, turning back that direction. “My ghosts. We can send them to find the control room and undo this lockdown. This place can’t be that big.” 

So, that’s what I did. Sitting down cross-legged on the floor, I focused on summoning up more of the ghosts I had brought with me, including pulling Rahanvael back and bringing Seth and Grover out. In total, I sent about twenty ghosts through the facility, telling them to look for anything that could control this security lockdown and to give a tug at our connection if they found something. 

Once they were all moving, I opened my eyes and focused on the others. They were staring at me again. Immediately, I glanced away before muttering, “I didn’t know she ever had any contact with Denuvus. When? Was Denuvus here on the station? Could she–” 

“No,” Asenath interrupted, taking a knee in front of me. Her gaze was gentle, yet I could still see the intensity buried behind it. She was suppressing all the emotions she was feeling right then, over yet another obstacle being thrown up between her and answers about what had happened to her father. “It had to be while she was with Fossor. Don’t you see? Whatever actually happened, the trigger was clearly her coming to his world. Denuvus had to have set that up while she was still with him, because she thought he’d take her back there.” 

“She’s right, Flick,” Shiori agreed, dropping down to sit next to me. “You said yourself that Fossor had a bunch of randos in that place watching his fights or whatever, right? She probably got in that way. It wouldn’t have taken long to talk to your mom and give her… whatever orders. Maybe she even told her to check in now and then without anyone knowing, so she could update them.” 

“But what orders?!” I found myself blurting. “Why–what does Denuvus want with Fossor’s world? Why is she taking Mercury and Nevada with her?! I don’t–I’m lost right now.” I felt like flailing, but instead folded my arms tight against my stomach. Even with the reassurances, I was still terrified about what Denuvus might be having my mother do, and what she might make her do when she was done. 

“We are all very confused.” That was Stasia, of all people. When I looked up, she met my gaze evenly. “And your fear is understandable. But fretting will not produce answers. Panicking will not produce answers.” She paused then before adding a bit more quietly. “Discussion can be helpful. Blaming yourself, or spiraling inside, is not.” 

Tabbris, crouched next to me, gave a quick nod. “We’ll find your mama, Flick. It’ll be okay. You know, cuz if Denuvus had her take Nevada and Mercury, it’s gotta be because she wants her to do something big, right? I mean, something that’s gonna take time. And we can use that time to get out of here and find a way to follow them, right?” She offered me a faint smile, hand touching my shoulder. “Denuvus does big plans, not little ones. And big plans take time.” 

“Besides,” Senny pointed out, “I doubt she would’ve allowed any leeway for your mom to leave the note telling you who it was if she intended to kill them. Murdering the founder of the Heretic Rebellion and letting everyone know who did it is… a bad idea.” 

She was right. They all were. Squeezing her hand, I looked over at Stasia. “Yeah, I’m not going to blame myself. I think I’ll focus on blaming Denuvus. Especially once we find her. But before that, we’ve gotta get out of here, then find my mom and the others before they do whatever that puppeteering bitch wants them to do.” 

Persephone spoke up then. “If this woman really set up these orders before your mother was ever rescued, it must be about something on that world that has been there for a long time. Something she could be certain wouldn’t be removed or leave before Joselyn could go there.” She paused then before adding, “Or die.” 

I blinked up at that. “You know, that’s a good point. This can’t be about a specific person there, because that piece of shit killed his own people all the time. He sacrificed thousands on a whim. There’s no way Denuvus could be sure that any particular person would still be alive by the time my mother was sent there. So it’s not about a person, and it can’t have any sort of time limit. It’s not a specific day or hour or time of year. Denuvus must’ve sent her for something that’ll always be there. Maybe some sort of artifact that Fossor found at some point and put in a treasure room or something?” I shrugged helplessly. 

We talked a little bit more, but didn’t really get anywhere important with it. We just didn’t know enough. Before long, however, one of my ghosts tugged at our connection. I focused on seeing through his eyes, and found myself looking at a small, twelve foot square room with a bunch of computer consoles around the sides of it and one chair with a few small beetle-like creatures crawling across it. Apparently even a place like this managed to have an insect problem somehow. In any case, I quickly thanked the helpful ghost and asked him to wait there. Then I relayed the information to the others before adding, “So, now what? How does my little buddy out there actually disable the security alarm?” 

It was Persephone who answered, her voice steady and… kind of calming, actually. In this moment, she seemed completely at ease. “Tell him to look for a series of four small light bulbs in a vertical line. The second one down should be slightly larger than the others. And there should be a horizontal lever somewhere close to it, probably a bit to the right. Do not touch it, but find the lights and tell us what color they all are.”

So, I passed the message along and then watched through his eyes as he scanned the consoles before finding what she was looking for. Speaking aloud, I informed the others, “Okay, the top light is sort of light blue, then the bigger one under it is red, and the other two below that are yellow. There’s that lever you were talking about about six inches to the right of the third bulb. Well, sort of in between the second and third.” 

“Good,” Persephone replied simply. “From the third bulb, moving to the left and slightly down, there should be a small toggle. It will be very difficult to see as it is quite small and the same color as the console, so he will probably have to look very carefully.” 

Once again, I relayed those instructions, and once the ghost found the toggle (brushing another bug out of the way in the process), I sent along Percy’s message to flip it. That turned one of the bottom two lights from yellow to red, but Percy insisted that was a good thing. And from there, we continued that way. She described what she needed to look for, I passed on the message and he found the bit in question. He pushed buttons, pulled levers, moved a small plug from one outlet to another, even ripped a couple wires out. According to Persephone, we didn’t have the actual code to shut down the alert manually, and it wasn’t as simple as just hitting a button. But apparently she knew the system well enough to actually override it. Essentially, we were hotwiring the damn thing. I had no idea the Revenant girl knew how to do something like this. But then again, she was full of surprises. 

Before long, even as a part of me was saying it was taking forever, Persephone passed along one last instruction, and when the ghost touched that final button, there was a loud buzzer that rang throughout the entire facility. Then, with a whooshing sound that was positively beautiful, the security door retracted. We didn’t waste another moment. As soon as it was out of the way, we were all running down the corridor. From my pocket, I produced the two tiny glowing rings from that power I had inherited from that Olympian ghost, Elemiah. Tossing them ahead of me, I made the rings flip around and grow so we could all run through the acceleration sides, picking up speed as we went. Soon we were running several times faster than usual. Obviously the vampires and Mevari could go even faster if they wanted to, but we were sticking together. 

We didn’t head for the hangar bay, however. We already knew that was empty. The ship we had arrived in had been the only one in there, and Mom had taken that. However, Grover had actually found another ship while he was searching for the security console. We weren’t sure what sort of shape it was in yet, considering how dark it was in the area where he found it, but it was our best shot.

Grover and Seth had used the time while we were getting the security lockdown lifted to carefully find a path through the corridors for us to take that didn’t involve needing to go through walls like a ghost. I followed that path now, with everyone else trailing right behind me. There was absolutely no time to waste. Whatever that woman had sent my mom to do, we had to catch up with them and make sure it couldn’t happen.

The area this other ship was in was some sort of maintenance hangar. Thanks to the investigation the other ghosts had done, we knew there was a sort of long, winding tube thing leading from here to the actual hangar bay. Or rather, the area underneath. We were pretty sure there was a lift or something that would carry the ship up into that so we could get out into open space once more. 

First things first, however, we had to get this ship up and running. I just hoped it being in the maintenance hangar didn’t mean it was completely broken. I was pretty sure we didn’t have time for all of us to become expert space mechanics or whatever. Even if we did apparently have a head start with Percy. 

As we went into the small hangar itself, Shiori, Judas, and I all set off light spells to illuminate the place so we could see what we were dealing with. And what I saw wasn’t exactly encouraging. My first impression was that I was looking at a Volkswagen bus. That was seriously what it looked like, though maybe a few feet longer than one of those. The main body was red, with a white trim. There were two ovular wing-like structures sticking out of the middle on either side, both of which were kind of an ugly off-green with spots of blue. The hatch on the side was actually missing. Well, it wasn’t actually missing, I could see it laying on the floor nearby. It just wasn’t attached. And the rear of the ship was open with several components lying around on the floor behind it. Also, there were more of those bugs crawling around, most heading for darker shadows. We all stood there and grimaced at the sight. So much for just jumping in this thing and turning it on. Which, to be fair, really wasn’t that surprising at this point, but still. Not surprising, and not frustrating were two different things. 

“Tell me you know how to fix this.” Judas was saying that while looking over at Persephone, his fingers visibly crossed. “Like you fixed the lockdown.” 

“Eh, I think we can do something about that ourselves.” Robin, whose eyes had shifted to purple, grunted the words while rubbing their hands together. They were staring at the bits of ship eagerly, as if they couldn’t wait to get started. Purple eyes… I didn’t know that one off the top of my head. 

“Grease?” That was Judas, blinking that way with what looked like surprise. “Haven’t seen you out for a while. I was starting to think you didn’t like us anymore.” Glancing to the rest of us, he added, “My old friend Grease here is a she/her facet. She runs most of their mechanical knowledge.” 

“Ain’t no reason for me to pop out willy nilly,” the purple-eyed Robin, Grease apparently, retorted. “But it looks like y’all need some help getting this puppy up and running.” She looked over toward Persephone. “That said, I wouldn’t mind a couple extra hands if’n ya got some idea of what you’re doing. Especially hands as lovely as those.” 

I swore Persephone actually blushed a little bit, reflexively looking down at her hands before giving a quick nod. “Yes, I believe I can help. But it would be good for you to take the lead. I am not an expert at putting space boats together.” 

“I know a thing or two about regular cars back on Earth,” Asenath noted. “It might not mean a lot when it comes to this sort of thing, but I can chip in.” 

“We will all help,” Stasia put in. “At the very least, to be extra pairs of hands. Just tell us what to do.” 

While they were starting to work on that, I turned to Grover, who was hovering in the background staring at the ship anxiously. When he saw me looking, the small ghost boy came closer, shaking his head. “Sorry, boss-lady. We tried to find something better, but that’s the best–” 

“Stop,” I interrupted. “It’s fine. It’s great. You did great, all of you. Seriously. This is a random defensive security station Fossor threw up. The odds that there would be anything we could use were pretty freaking low, dude. We can work with this. We’ll find my mom and the other two, and we’ll find this Denuvus bitch. And then–” 

“Stabbing?” Grover piped up, sounding hopeful. 

Smirking just a little despite myself, I nodded. “Definitely a lot of stabbing. As much as you can handle.” By that point, I could see Seth coming near, so I looked that way and met his gaze. “Hey, we’ll get to Fossor’s world, and find Rasputin so he can tell us what happened to Tiras.” 

“You’re right,” he agreed, “we will. But one thing at a time. You ready to see what we got?”

As he asked that, a dozen more ghosts appeared, all of them holding or dragging what looked like large pillowcases made of the same stuff they themselves were made of. Another thing I had learned from my studies was how to help my ghosts make these bags. It took a good bit of energy to make them solid enough to hold things, but I managed it. And they had put that to use while looking around for a ship we could use, grabbing as much of Fossor’s tucked away treasure and trinkets as possible. Anything that looked like it might be special. 

“No time right now,” I replied, tugging a real bag (this one with its own extended space inside so it could fit anything) from my pocket before tossing it that way. “Can you guys put all that stuff in here? We’ll look through it later. And… and thanks, without you we’d still be stuck in that room. We–I owe you guys.” 

While they were busy with that, I turned back to face the partially disassembled ship once more. The others were already starting to go about putting the thing together under Grease and Percy’s supervision. From the look of things, this wasn’t going to be easy. Some of the components literally fell apart as they were picked up. But Shiori had already found a crate of replacement parts, which she and I started sorting through together to find stuff that wasn’t completely busted. I pushed all my worries about my mother as far down as I could for the moment, and just focused on helping to get our ride working. 

In the end, it took us two and a half hours, and a lot of broken parts. But finally, we stepped back, covered in (lower case) grease and dirt. Asenath was alone inside the ship itself, and as Grease (upper case) called out for her to ‘hit it,’ she did so. There was an initial whine of protest, then a few stuttering coughs from the engines, followed by a thick plume of purple smoke, then nothing for about three seconds. But just as my heart started to sink, the engines caught and thrummed steadily, as the junky-looking little ship rose a few feet off the floor and hovered there. It was working. We’d done it. Step one was done. We had a ride. 

“Hang on, Mom,” I murmured while everyone celebrated. “We’re com–” In mid-step after catching a hint of movement, I stopped myself and looked down. Sure enough, another of those beetle-like bugs was there. It looked unique and kinda cool, so I gestured toward Robin. “Hey, can you like, scan this thing or whatever? Is it dangerous?” 

Robin, eyes shifting to green for Med, looked it over before shaking their head. “I detect nothing venomous or poisonous. It does look unique, however.” 

“Yeah, it does,” I agreed. Tentatively, I put my finger out. “Hey, little guy. You wanna come on a trip off this station?” When the beetle crawled up my finger, I straightened and grinned toward Shiori. “See? New friend. He’s coming with us.” 

Yes, I was trying to distract myself from my total panic when it came to what was going on with my mother. Seriously though, the beetle looked really cool, with its metallic, almost neon pink and blue shell, three antennae instead of two, and what looked like a tiny unicorn-like white horn coming off its head. But really, it was the small, yet clearly prehensile tail sticking off the back that really made this beetle unique. 

It almost looked like a monkey tail. 

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Calm Before 20-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Eventually, Avalon dragged me to the gym for some extra training while we continued to talk about everything that had happened. Despite having a very good excuse and not even actually being in that much danger this time, I had the sneaky suspicion that part of her still sort of wanted to kick my butt at least a little bit for disappearing again. Though to be honest, if she had said anything about taking it easy on me or giving me a break, I might’ve had to double-check to make sure some Seosten hadn’t figured out a way to bypass her possession protection after all. Seriously, that would’ve been about as alarming as if Shiori abruptly declared that puns were a low form of humor she wanted nothing to do with. If either of those things happened, I would know something was terribly wrong. 

We practiced for about an hour, after which I declared a time-out because I really needed to check in on my ghosts. Particularly Perrsnile and Ausesh, and then the whole Manakel situation. Not that I wanted to visit the latter alone or with only Avalon. But then again, I was pretty sure at least one of the other Seosten would still be there with him. At least, if my old friend had turned into a raging evil jackass for a long time before dying, then came back claiming to be good again, I’d probably have more than a couple hours worth of discussion with him straight off the bat. 

First though, we showered and changed into some clean, fresh clothes. Then Valley accompanied me as we headed for the young adult living area, where the haunted mansion was. On the way there, however, my phone buzzed. Checking it, I found an incoming call from… “Andromeda?” I asked, tapping the button to answer with a glance toward Avalon. Honestly, Andromeda didn’t even need to make it seem like a normal phone call. She could’ve just started talking to me through the phone’s speaker. But she liked to try to be more polite than that. 

“Good morning, Miss Chambers,” came the AI’s voice promptly. “I was glad to hear of your successful intervention within the hidden vault, as well as the identification and elimination of the murderer and child-enslaver within. Excellent work indeed.” 

“Uh, thanks,” I managed with a very slight blush as Avalon raised an eyebrow at me, clearly hearing all that. “I do my best. But it wasn’t really my–never mind. It’s uh, what’s up?” It felt awkward. I didn’t want to imply that Andromeda couldn’t just call me up to chat or anything, but I had a feeling there was more to it than that. 

Sure enough, she continued. “As far as what came directly following your mystery excursion, ahh, Percy is aware that Manakel’s ghost has appeared.” 

Yeah, I’d figured that was what this would be about as soon as I saw her name on my phone. The whole Percy and Manakel situation couldn’t just be ignored. I’d seen the way he reacted when I mentioned her before. The guilt in his expression… yeah. That was certainly going to be a thing. 

So, I hesitated only slightly before replying, “Is she okay?” Honestly, I really had no idea how she would react to this whole thing. Especially after she had been spending time with the other Olympians lately. There was a whole situation there, with them realizing how they had treated her before and trying to be better about not just blowing her off or outright getting rid of her. They had been trying to open up to her a bit more and treat the Revenant like one of their crew. So, yeah, I really didn’t know how she felt about her old relationship with Manakel, or how she would feel about his ghost showing up. It was complicated, to say the least. 

No sooner did I have that thought, than Andromeda helpfully informed me, “It is complicated. Yet, she does wish to speak with him. She would like you to be there as well. She is not certain as to why, but I believe it is for a sort of ‘moral support.’” She paused briefly before adding, “She would appreciate your presence.” 

“I’ll be there,” I promised. “Can you have her meet us at my Haunted Mansion in a few minutes? I’ve just gotta check on the other ghosts.”  

Andromeda agreed to pass that message along. Before she disconnected, I added, “You know, you should come with us the next time we check in on that vault. There’s a robot named Sitter in there.” 

Another pause came, before Andromeda spoke with a tone of obvious amusement. “Miss Chambers, are you attempting to set me up on a romantic excursion?” 

“Hey,” I retorted, “I just think you two would be cute together. It’s not my fault. And you did say you liked to jump into robot bodies now and then.” 

With what I swore was an audible chuckle, the AI confirmed that she would certainly give it some thought, before signing off. Once I put my phone away, my attention turned back to Valley. “Well,” I started casually, “should we head over there?” 

“I would make a comment about you playing Cupid,” my girlfriend remarked dryly, “but as it turns out, Cupid is a bit of a fucking prick. So I won’t label you like that.” 

Right, Cupid had been one of the identities taken by Paschar, the guy who started the entire thing with Dries and Liesje thanks to his relationship with them. A relationship which… had not gone well, to say the least. Grimacing despite myself, I gave a quick nod. “Thanks, I’d really rather you not associate that guy with me in any way.” 

With that, I took her hand and the two of us walked together through the corridors to the open forcefield elevator. As we descended, I glanced toward the other girl and smiled faintly. “You sure you’re not just hanging out with me so you can make sure I don’t fall into another pocket universe without you anytime soon?” 

Snorting, Avalon squeezed my hand and retorted, “Believe it or not, Chambers, I kind of enjoy spending time with you every now and then.” 

“Promise?” I teased with a tiny, irrepressible grin. 

Turning to me, the other girl brought our linked hands up so she could brush my own fingers against her cheek, then moved them to brush her own against mine. Which sent a tingle through me, as I gave a very soft gasp. Her voice was soft. “I promise, Felicity, spending time with you is one of my favorite things in the world. You might make me want to scream sometimes because of all the trouble you manage to find, but truthfully, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Because any other way wouldn’t be you. I don’t love some hypothetical version of you who could be different.” Bringing my hand closer, she gently kissed my fingers, meeting my gaze as the elevator reached the ground. “I love you.” 

Well, fuck, what was I supposed to say to that? My knees almost buckled, as a very soft, yet audible whine escaped me. I had to clutch Valley’s hand even tighter to keep myself upright, while swallowing hard. Our gazes never broke. “I love you,” I assured her, my voice trembling just a little. With my free hand, I reached out to gently brush her hair back, feeling an almost-electric shock as my fingers touched her cheek and then over her neck. To my gratification, she clearly reacted as well, visibly shivering. 

I wasn’t sure which of us moved first, but we kissed once more. Though it wasn’t nearly as long as I would’ve liked, before we both heard someone approaching. It was just one of the other students, probably heading up for an early breakfast. Or a very late dinner. Either way, they gave us an apologetic look while we passed one another, Avalon and I stepping off the elevator pad so they could use it. Then the two of us started walking together once more, heading for the mansion. It was still artificial very early morning down here, so the ‘sun’ was down, the overhead ‘sky’ dark aside from the pinpricks of light from the fake stars and moon. Between that and the sound of insects chirping (some of those were real and some were fake for ambiance), it really was incredibly peaceful. I was enjoying this, just walking along with Avalon. Maybe it was weird that I felt like that while we were on our way to visit a bunch of ghosts in a literally haunted house. But hey, I was a Necromancer. Ghosts didn’t scare me. And they sure as hell didn’t scare Avalon. I was pretty sure ghosts were more afraid of her than they were of me. 

As we reached the Haunted Mansion, Rahanvael was already hovering by the front door. She offered a faint smile, her translucent figure flickering just a little as she pulled in enough energy from the provided magical batteries within the house to make herself visible for us. “Andromeda sent a message through the radio to say you would be coming.” 

Seeing her made me smile just a little at the reminder that Fossor was gone forever. Yet it also reminded me that I needed to go to their world at some point and let her go. She wanted to do it on her homeland, wanted to move on to whatever might come next, if anything, on the planet where she had been born. I couldn’t really blame her for that. Besides, the people on that world deserved to hear exactly what had happened to the man who had ruled them for so long. I had a feeling that was going to be a long and involved conversation. 

But, for now, that was going to have to wait a bit longer. Pushing the thought aside, I gave her a quick nod. “I hope we’re not interrupting anything. I just wanted to come and check on things.” 

Rahanvael shook her head. “You’re not interrupting anything. Trust me, everyone here appreciates your visits, as well as your indulgence.” She paused as though considering her words. “You didn’t have to go so far out of your way to make the ghosts here so comfortable.” 

Meeting her gaze, I replied, “Yes, I did. And the fact that you think I went so far out of my way to do it is why. You guys all deserve a place where you can relax and just exist. Especially if I’m going to be asking you to help me with things. It’s the least I can do.” 

Beside me, Avalon cleared her throat before speaking up. “On top of that, having you all together here makes it easier for Felicity to train with her power.” Her eyes squinted toward me. “When she actually does that.” 

Flushing a little, I waved one hand. “I know, I know. I’m working on it. And hey, now I have a pretty important teacher for that. Which…” Blanching, I added a bit more quietly, “just happens to be the guy who tried to kill you a bunch last year.” 

“Yeah,” she replied flatly while gazing pointedly at me, “and yet, he’s the one who happens to be a ghost. I think I won that contest.” 

“You win a lot of contests,” I informed her. “When it comes to Manakel, all of them. Err, except maybe medical knowledge and also Necromancy. Which brings me back around to why it’s a good thing that I can learn from him.” Under my breath, I muttered, “I’m just gonna have to keep telling myself that every time I think about what he tried to do to you.” 

With a firm shake of my head to push that dark thought away, I sighed while looking back toward Rahanvael. “Besides, the whole thing is really just me getting a jump on Halloween for next year. If I can keep this place stocked with ghosts, I’m a shoo-in to win the haunted house contest that I still have to convince Abigail to throw.” 

The ghost girl actually giggled a little at that, and it was incredible to both hear and see. Ever since her brother had been killed, a huge weight had clearly been lifted from her shoulders as well. She clearly still felt the pain of what he had become, and everything he did. And yet, I could tell that things were better for her now. She was opening up a bit more. The sad part about that was that it had taken so long. She was basically my age or younger when she had been killed. And for every bit of the millennia that had followed, the parts she had been aware for anyway, she’d had to witness the atrocities her brother committed. She never had the chance to really become… anything. It was horrific. And to think that it had all happened, all of that, everything he did throughout his long and terrible life, because he had thought he could make his sister immortal. By, ahh… killing her. He was so terrified of losing his sister the same way that he had lost his mother, that he murdered her, with the intention of turning her into some sort of super-zombie. 

When you got right down to it, Teen Fossor was kind of an idiot. If nothing else, what would’ve stopped him from waiting until she did die of whatever hypothetical future thing he was so afraid of and then trying out his ‘put the soul back in the body’ thing? I was pretty sure his ‘super zombie who retained their personality and was basically just the same as a living person but immortal’ was bullshit anyway. But even if it wasn’t, what was his freaking rush

Oh well, it wasn’t like it was at all relevant anymore. He was dead and gone, and good riddance. I wasn’t going to waste anymore time wondering about that. Instead, I smiled a bit at Rahanvael, who was giving me a curious look after clearly reading a bit into my expression. Giving her a thumbs up, I asked, “So how are our new arrivals doing?” 

The girl turned to look over her shoulder into the house before looking back at us. “Ausesh is doing well. I don’t think she’s left the room we gave her to set up in. There’s a magic battery so she can move her equipment around, and she’s been running a lot of experiments on herself. She said she wants to understand what she is now from a very clinical perspective.” With a shrug, she added, “Everyone deals with becoming a ghost in their own way. I think she wants to science it to death. Or–you know.” 

Snorting slightly, I nodded. “Sure, science death to death. She seems like the type. And speaking of type, she’s also not exactly that outgoing, so don’t feel bad if she doesn’t socialize very much.” 

“Understandable,” the ghost-girl agreed before adding, “As for your other new addition, he is still in the cell in the basement.” She hesitated briefly, giving me a look. “Are you certain you don’t want to just… send him on? He seems dangerous to keep around, even if he’s contained. The others don’t like the idea of having someone like him in our home.” 

“Are they upset?” I asked quickly, not wanting to do anything to make things worse. 

Quickly, Rahanvael shook her head. “Not exactly. It’s more that we all feel gratitude to you for everything you’ve done, and we don’t like the idea that this… person might somehow find a way to hurt you, or any of us, because he hasn’t been sent out of this world.” 

“Believe me,” Avalon put in, “you’re not the only ones who want him to stop existing as soon as possible.” 

“I will, soon,” I promised. “But he helped sell those children, so we have to find them. I need to reunite them with their families. I don’t want to get rid of him and then find out he had the last laugh by managing to lie to me about where they are. Besides, even if he’s telling the truth, it might be harder to find them than we think, and he might have extra information we need to track them down. He might have answers that we don’t know the questions to yet. So, for now, he stays where he is until we can deal with all that. Unless you guys want me to find another spot to keep him?” 

“No,” Rahanvael immediately responded. “No, he should stay here.” 

“Exactly.” That was Seth, who came into view to stand next to her, giving Avalon and me both a nod of greeting. “Leave ghosts to watch over a ghost. We’ll keep him in line. Already got a shift of guards keeping an eye on that piece of shit.” 

“They’re not getting too close to the trap spell, right?” I quickly put in. I’d had help tying it into an extra battery so that it could be permanent. Essentially, the batteries in this place held magical energy that came from the station’s vast reserves. It allowed the ghosts to function as they wanted in here. And, in this case, ensured that Perrsnile would be trapped forever. Or as long as I wanted.

“We’ve got a safety line drawn on the floor,” Seth informed me. “They don’t go past it. But if he tries anything, they’ll sound the alarm and we’ll get news to you.” He paused briefly before adding, “In the meantime, I heard that the search for whoever erased Tiras’s memory is getting closer to actual payoff. I probably shouldn’t have to tell you–” 

“When we get to a result, I’ll bring you with,” I assured him. “I promise, you’ll be involved. But yeah, stuff is moving along with that. Come on, I want to check in on Perrsnile and Ausesh myself, just to say hi. And maybe a couple other words. We can talk about what Asenath and her new friends are up to on the way. 

“Yes,” Avalon agreed. “And then, I’ll go with you to see Manakel.” 

“I have a few words I want to say to him as well.” 

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By Blood 17-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Right, so the positive part of all of this was that I wasn’t facing down a full Heretic all by myself this time. I had Avalon and Twister with me. Which was good, because I was pretty sure this guy was more dangerous than the woman back at the truck depot had been. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but something about him just told me I would have been in very deep trouble if I was here alone. Or maybe I was just nervous about how important this step of the mission was. If I had failed back at the depot, someone else could have dealt with her and the rescue would go on. But here, right now? This was it. If he managed to stop Avalon’s device and call for reinforcements, the rescue mission would be over. And, worse, our friends would be captured or even killed. 

But yeah, no pressure or anything. 

With his energy-blade spear still held out toward Seth as though daring the ghost to make a move, the man narrowed his eyes at me. “Does this mean your bitch mother is here, little girl?  Because I would definitely like to have a word with her. Do you think she’ll come if you scream?” 

Well, I certainly wasn’t going to make the first move. If he wanted to waste time talking while Avalon’s device did its thing, I wasn’t gonna object. And I definitely wasn’t going to let him goad me into attacking first. With my staff held defensively in front of myself, I retorted, “I guess I should’ve expected that only the most psycho assholes of you Eden’s Garden people would be put on guard duty in a literal slave camp. Anyone with a shred of decency probably wouldn’t last long here.” 

The man chuckled as though what I had said was amusing for some reason. His eyes moved from me to Avalon and back again, brow knitting slightly as he thought hard. When he spoke, his voice was even. “I hate to rain on your parade, but you’re not breaking this tower, little girls.” 

Break the tower. He didn’t realize that Avalon’s thing was already attached and doing its work. He thought we were here to physically break the tower, or smash up the consoles, or… whatever. The point was, he didn’t know exactly what was going on. And we had to keep it that way.  

Seth spoke up then. “I know I’ve done some questionable things in my…” He paused, glancing down before grimacing at his ghost form. Then the man amended, “I know I did some questionable things in my life, but at least I can safely say I never helped keep a bunch of people as slaves. And I certainly didn’t go around murdering everyone who didn’t look the same as me while pretending I was some sort of hero.” 

I knew what he was doing. He was trying to pull the Heretic’s attention toward him and away from Avalon and me so we could make a move. But the man with the spear seemed to realize the same thing. A slight smirk crossed his face as he focused on me. “Puppeting a ghost to try to distract me, little girl? You’re going to have to try harder than that.”

My mouth opened to say something, but the man was already moving. His free hand snapped up, a wide blast of concussive force erupting from his palm. It caught both Avalon and me, launching us off our feet to fly backwards before we crashed into the glass windows. They were obviously heavily reinforced, because we didn’t go straight through them. Still, the glass cracked under our impact, and I was pretty sure a bit of me cracked too. Owww. 

At the same time, that spear of his sent a lance of bright, crackling lightning at Seth. The ghost man managed to dive downward through the floor, but I could feel the lightning sap at his energy, leaving him almost completely empty. He was barely present, a flickering form at the edge of my consciousness. 

Rebounding off the spider-webbed glass, I could see the Heretic man already lunging toward a console. He wasn’t going to waste any more time with us. He was already calling for reinforcements, his hand a mere couple of inches from hitting that button. And then our whole mission would be for nothing. 

I couldn’t move fast enough. My head was still groggy, still too out of it to focus on summoning my portal power, or anything else. Nearby, Avalon was in much the same state. We were both struggling to fucking move fast enough to stop him. But it wouldn’t work. We were going to be too slow. We were going to fail. 

But we weren’t alone. Twister had left my shirt while that was going on, transforming into some sort of small bug to almost entirely disappear. She reappeared just then, shifting from the bug back to a gorilla with both hands catching the Heretic’s arm. With a loud grunt, she yanked him away from the console. 

Unfortunately, he didn’t go very far. Even with that incredible (relatively speaking) gorilla strength that could lift a thousand pounds, Twister could still barely push him back from the button that would have ended our entire mission. With one human arm against both of her massive gorilla arms, the man still managed to only be pushed back a foot or so before lashing out with his other fist. It took Twister in the face, knocking out several teeth and doing who knew what other sort of damage. She went staggering backward, releasing the man. He followed up with a blast of fire from his mouth, clearly intended to melt the gorilla’s head. 

Thankfully, Twister was faster than that. She transformed into a snake, dropping to the ground while the fire filled the air where her injured face had been an instant earlier. 

The man adjusted his aim to look down at the snake while simultaneously reaching out to the console again. But by that point, Avalon and I were finally moving once more. We threw ourselves that way, the girl beside me snapping her hand out. Her gauntlet created a quick shield that reached out over the button, blocking the man’s hand for that crucial instant. 

At the same time, I opened a small portal in front of the Twister snake, just as the man breathed fire at her once more. The flames reappeared through another portal right in front of his face, making the man attack himself with his own fire. 

Sadly, that didn’t seem to do much. Either he was immune to his own fire, or to all of it.  But at least I managed to stop him from disintegrating Twister. And Avalon had blocked his hand from hitting the button. For the moment, at least, we were still in business. And if my mental count was right, just under half the time had passed. So we still had a minute and a half. We just had to keep this going for ninety seconds. Then he could hit all the buttons he wanted. 

Our lunge had ended with me on one side of the man, and Avalon on the other, closer to the button. Twister, meanwhile, transformed into a leopard, snarling dangerously in front of him. Three of us for one Heretic, keeping him busy for just ninety seconds. Eighty-nine, eighty-eight. 

With a grunt that sounded like it was half-anger and half-amusement, the Heretic abruptly sheathed himself in skin-tight metal armor. At the same time, his elbow snapped up and back toward my face. I managed to snap my head out of the way, but a wide, wickedly-curved blade emerged from that elbow in mid-motion and that cut across my cheek, drawing blood. Worse, I felt that side of my face go a bit numb, even from that very slight cut. It was poison. I could smell it. And if a tiny bit of it from a glancing cut to my face affected me that much, taking a full dose would have ended this fight for me. 

In the exact same instant that he was cutting my face with his elbow-blade, the man opened his mouth and a new burst of fire emerged. This time, however, it wasn’t a simple ball. The flame poured forth and transformed into what looked like a leopard identical to the one Twister had turned into. Though this one was made of fire. 

From the corner of my eye as I was spinning away from that blade, I saw the fire leopard leap down from the man’s face and almost landed on top of Twister, before she threw herself away from it. She shifted up to a bird to fly backward before turning into a komodo dragon. Both times, the fire-creature followed suit, matching her shift for shift and giving chase. 

And the man wasn’t even done there. Even as I was still in mid-pivot to avoid the worst of the poisoned blade, my gaze caught sight of Avalon being lifted off the ground by some sort of energy coil that came from the man’s left side. It was wrapped around her throat, jerking her back and forth twice before she managed to bring her own gauntlet up with an energy blade extended. Hitting it as hard as she could, the girl still couldn’t make the coil release her. Instead, she was slammed backward into another part of the window. Again, it spider-webbed, and I heard a yelp of pain from Avalon. 

Right, so this was going swimmingly. Three seconds in and half my face was numbed so I couldn’t talk right (meaning casting any spells that required verbal components was right out the window), Avalon was being slammed repeatedly into a reinforced glass window, doing who knew what sort of damage, and Twister was being chased out of the room and back down the stairs by a fire-creature that could match all of her shapeshifting and would literally incinerate her if she tried to fight it head-on. At this rate, we wouldn’t have to worry about the fact that there was roughly eighty-four seconds left before the communications would be locked down, because we wouldn’t last another five. 

Except we had to. Everyone was counting on us. In the midst of that panicked, desperate moment, Avalon and I met each other’s gaze. I was still pivoting away from the blade, just as the man’s energy coil was yanking her backward and bracing to throw her into the window even harder. For a frozen instant, we saw each other. And we knew we had to do better than this. 

The man slammed Avalon toward the glass, a bellow of rage escaping him. At the same time, he spun toward me and brought his hand up to send another blast of concussive force, just like the one that had caught both of us before. If it hit me, I would be hurled clear across the room once more. And if Avalon hit the glass as hard as that coil was slamming her toward it, she would break. 

A portal appeared in front of my hand, and I shoved it through just as the other end appeared next to Avalon’s. She was ready, our hands clasping for just an instant before I vanished. I possessed her. Yes, she had been immune before. Immune to all of it. But as part of the spell that had been done over Christmas, her immunity was adjusted to allow her to let anyone in that she wanted. And in that moment, she definitely wanted me to possess her. 

The incredibly destructive blast of concussive force passed through the space where I had been a moment earlier. But now I was inside of Avalon, and in the very instant that we were about to hit that glass, I boosted the other girl with everything I could, shoving all my Seosten-gained strength and speed into her. 

Just before she would have hit the glass back-first, Avalon snapped her hands back, catching herself against the window with her palms. It was enough to send a shock of pain through her, but with her own enhanced strength and the boost I was giving, she was able to bear it. At the same time, she brought her feet up and pressed them against either side of the energy coil. A snapped word triggered the defensive measures she’d put into her boots, sending a burst of electricity out of them and into the coil. It did enough damage to make the energy construct sputter and fizzle out of existence. 

With the coil gone, Avalon was released. We dropped back toward the floor, as the other girl flipped over to land on her feet. Her arms came up into a ready position, and her gauntlets created a pair of energy gloves over her arms and hands for protection. Cracking her neck, she spoke, voice dark. “Did they put you in this position because you’re tough, or because it keeps you away from anything important?” 

Oh, the man definitely didn’t like that. A snarl escaped him while two more blades extended from his metal form, these ones attached to his wrists. The blades turned from silver to red with white tips to show just how hot they were, before he launched himself at her, at us. He wasn’t playing around anymore. He wasn’t wasting time. He was just going to kill us. 

Avalon didn’t back off or retreat. She met the man’s lunge with her own, energy-sheathed arm snapping up to block his left super-heated wrist blade as he swung for us. I could still feel the heat from it, and it was very clear that Avalon’s energy constructs couldn’t take a lot of hits like that. As it was, the ‘glove’ around her arm flickered just a little. 

Still, it held for the moment, and she was already pivoting and ducking under the swing from his other hand. Her foot lashed out to kick as hard as she could into his leg. It was like hitting a brick wall. Well, a brick wall when you didn’t have much in the way of enhanced strength. The man clearly barely felt it, the blow drawing what amounted to a snort-chuckle from him. At the same time, he made two more energy coils appear. These ones didn’t come from the man himself, but from the wall behind Avalon. They lashed out in an attempt to grab her arms. 

But Avalon was quicker than that. Even as those energy coils lashed up from behind, she was already using her mimicry power to create a pair of her own. They weren’t as strong as his, but they still managed to intercept the coils before they could grab onto her. Meanwhile, Avalon launched herself upward into a flip to carry herself over the man’s head before landing behind him. Her energy-covered fist lashed out toward the back of his head. 

He twisted just in time, catching the blow against his elbow blade to deflect it. In the same motion, his hand snapped down to catch her extended arm, yanking Avalon forward even as his other hand went toward her face, blade extended. 

That was my cue. Lunging out of the other girl, I ended up on one side of the man and caught his arm in mid-swing. Strong as he was, I barely managed to halt its forward momentum an inch from Valley’s face before she jerked her head out of the way. Unfortunately, the second I caught hold of his arm and stopped it, the man gave a soft grunt before a series of razor-sharp spikes emerged from the metal covering his skin. My hands were punctured and cut in several places, though it wasn’t nearly as bad as it would’ve been before I gained a bit of boosted strength from that Heretic woman. Still, it hurt, making me yelp a little as I released him reflexively. An instant later, his metal fist collided with my face in a backhand that made me reel away from him. 

He instantly tried to follow that up by making a pair of spikes emerge from his fist before driving it right toward my throat while I was recoiling. But Avalon made a lasso of energy emerge from her left gauntlet, catching the man’s elbow in mid-swing before jerking it as hard as she could to the side. Which made his eyes snap that way, mouth opening to breathe fire at her. But before he could, I brought my staff around, triggering the rocket-burst power not on myself, but on the top-back spot of the staff itself. The visual-effect flames emerged from that spot, and the staff was suddenly moving much faster than I could swing it by myself. At the same time, I activated the staff’s own built-in kinetic boost, further speeding it up. It slammed into the side of the man’s face just as he was about to breathe fire at Avalon, snapping his head to the side. 

Jerking his arm free of the energy lasso (it sputtered and faded from the force of his violent motion), the Heretic man made a sharp gesture with his hand. A telekinetic force (or maybe just his concussive blast power coming from the floor, I wasn’t sure which) caught hold of Valley and sent her flying upward toward the ceiling, even as several long metal spikes emerged from that ceiling, ready to impale her. 

But I was ready, already flinging my hand upwards while summoning a simple coin to it. As Avalon’s gaze met mine, I hurled the coin to her. It flung that way, flipping end over end before she caught it in one hand. An instant before she would have hit the spikes, the other girl disappeared. She possessed the coin. 

In the meantime, the Heretic was coming after me, swinging with one of his wrist-blades toward my throat while simultaneously making a long spike of metal erupt from the side at a diagonal angle to catch me if I ducked away from the wrist-blade.

So I didn’t duck. Instead, I triggered the kinetic-boost on the back of my staff while my thumb found the little bit of wood that had been embedded in it. My entire body vanished just as Avalon’s had, as I possessed the wood in my staff. It flew up just past the side of the man’s face while he was swinging that wrist-blade, and I popped out of it in mid-air, my foot lashing out to collide with the side of his head before using the impact from that to kick myself up and into a backward flip away from him. 

In that same motion, my hand was snapping outward, as I sent the Avalon coin, which I had immediately summoned back to my palm as soon as the girl possessed it, flying past the man’s head while his gaze was snapping toward me. She appeared behind him, already projecting twin ropes from her gauntlets, which wrapped around his arms before she yanked back as hard as she could. It was just enough to pull his arms away from protecting his chest, leaving him open (well, as open as he could be with metal armor covering his entire body) for a second.

Landing from the flip at that moment, I spun in a full three-sixty. In the midst of that, my hand caught the small mouse form of Twister, who had been saved from the fire-creature by Grover. The ghost boy obviously wasn’t bothered by the flames, and had simply used some of the power I gave him to punt the thing out the window. Now, as Twister leapt off the nearby console toward me, I scooped her up. Then I continued my spin before fastball-chucking her straight toward the Heretic. Sailing straight at him, Twister transformed from a mouse all the way up to a rhino, colliding with the man while maintaining that same speed from being hurled as a mouse with all my strength. 

That was enough to knock the man to the ground and crack his armor, though he gave a wild backhand swing and actually threw the rhino-Twister away from him, cutting her pretty deeply with his blades in the process. Still, the cracks were at least something we could work with.

And work with them we did. Before the man could finish pivoting from his knees to drive his blade into the briefly-prone Twister-rhino, I was there. My foot lashed out, using a bit of rocket-burst against my leg to make it go even faster and harder, colliding with his arm to knock it off-course.  

Some sort of kinetic force or wind slammed into me, just enough to make me stagger backward. By the time I caught myself, the man was back on his feet. Avalon’s foot was already colliding with the small of his back hard enough to make him stagger forward a step. He pivoted that way, blade lashing out toward her while he simultaneously raised his opposite hand to send a concussive blast my way. 

But I was already running forward, diving into a feet-first slide with a little boost from my staff to carry myself under his blast before I popped back to my feet. As Avalon caught his blade against the side of her newly-reformed energy gloves, I was there to slam my staff as hard as I could into one of the slight cracks we could see from the rhino’s collision with him. Before impact, I used the rocket-burst on my staff once more. The armor didn’t break, but it was hit with enough force to widen the crack somewhat.

Before he could recover, Avalon shoved his arm out of the way with both of hers, just as her foot snapped up. In mid-kick, this weird gel substance appeared over her leg before instantly hardening. It was almost like my resin stuff, but clearly tougher. I’d seen her use it a couple times before in training, and it was hard enough to take a full barrage of shots from either Sarah or Sean’s guns. Unfortunately, it only lasted for a few seconds at a time. But a few seconds was all she needed to shield her leg from the impact as it collided with the same crack in the man’s armor. It was just along his left side, where the lower part of his ribs would be. 

While the man was spitting curses, Avalon’s hand met mine. I vanished once more, possessing her and giving the other girl a new boost. Our opponent lashed out with a swing, but with the added speed and strength my boost gave her, Valley ducked and spun under the blade, her energy-sheathed fist lashing out to hit that crack yet again. It was widening with each blow, though slowly. 

The man’s hand was snapping down to catch Valley by the hair as she was half-crouched in front of him. But I was already popping out from her extended-fist. My form materialized right there, our hands still touching. Which meant Valley disappeared right as the man’s hand was about to grab her hair, as she possessed my glove. 

I could possess her, and she could possess any item, including my clothing. And over the next few seconds, we used that. My hand caught his elbow to stop the man’s swing. Of course my arm buckled under the force, but Valley popped out of my glove, appearing on the other side of his arm so she could yank it back. Which gave me an opening to drive my staff into that crack once more before snapping it around under his extended arm so Valley could catch the end and possess it, vanishing even as his head turned that way to breathe fire on that spot. In the same motion, I brought the opposite end of the staff snapping upward before projecting a cloud of sand into his face to try to block his vision. I was pretty sure he had plenty of extra senses, but every little bit helped. 

While he was grunting from the sand flying into his eyes, Avalon popped out of the staff, holding it for me as my hand caught her elbow so I could possess her once more. But I immediately popped out on the opposite side of her, even as Valley was triggering the boost on my staff to send the bladed tip of it rocketing hard into the man’s chin. It didn’t cut through, but the force knocked his head back a bit while I appeared on the opposite side of him from where I had been an instant earlier. My arms wrapped around his arm, yanking backward so Valley could rear back with a violent kick into that same crack on his side. 

The man screamed in blind rage, still reeling from the sand in his face as I sent as much as I could into his eyes. They were shielded with some weird transparent metal too, but I was still able to coat them with the sand and block his vision. With that bellow of anger, four different metal spikes erupted from the floor where Valley had been. But she had already possessed my staff, which was still in her hands. And in that second, I recalled it back to my grip, spinning while triggering both the boost on the weapon and the rocket-burst to drive it into the crack. Which, by that point, had spread out over almost his entire front. 

For ten more seconds, we repeated that a dozen times, Avalon constantly popping in and out either my staff, glove, or some other item, while I, in turn, took turns possessing the girl herself. Sometimes I boosted her and helped attack, other times I simply went in and immediately out again from her extended arm, behind her, in front of her, or from some other angle. I threw my staff with Valley inside it, letting her pop out behind the man before recalling it, or hit him and let her pop out to take the staff in her own hands so she could hit him a second time while I possessed the wood spot briefly. Sometimes I let the staff go all the way past him before she popped out, while other times I recalled it immediately and we hit him when he twisted to anticipate the attack from behind. He never knew what was going to happen. Every move he made to attack one of us, we weren’t there anymore. At one point, we both possessed the staff (her possessing the staff itself and me possessing the small wooden spot on it), just after I used my object-resizing power to shrink the staff down to about the size of a slightly large toothpick and threw it that way. Before the guy could figure out where we had both vanished to, I popped out of the tiny flying staff in front of him and drove my knee into his face, just as Avalon popped out of it once it passed his head, appearing behind him so she could bring both gauntlet-covered fists in to slam hard into his ears. 

It was ten seconds of total chaos, but chaos the two of us had trained at over and over again. We had practiced these maneuvers, and our opponent had no idea how to deal with it. Every time he tried to counter attack, every swing, every blast of fire, everything he did met empty air as the person he was targeting had already vanished. 

Finally, the man screamed, “Enough!” His hands came slamming together, sending out a burst of kinetic energy that made Valley and me both stagger away from him. Snarling in rage, he went to drive his hands together once more, only to stop as there was a loud beep from the nearest console before every single one of them went dark. The antennae itself made a groaning sound as it clearly shut off. 

“What–what did–what was that?!” The man demanded, his gaze snapping around. 

“That,” I informed him, “was your time running out.” Already, I was rising, gripping my staff. Valley’s hand found it, before she disappeared into the weapon once more. 

As I reared back, the man was focusing on me. His mouth opened to scream, attack, or… or do something. But before he could, Twister caught both of his arms. Or rather, the octopus she had transformed into did. Eight long, red octopus arms caught his two, four for each one. In that instant, she yanked backward, holding his arms out of the way and leaving an opening. 

The staff left my hand, sailing spear-style straight at the man as I triggered the last of its kinetic boost. It slammed into his side, and that was finally enough to finish what the crack had started. A small chunk of his armor fell away, leaving a glimpse of his exposed torso. 

It wasn’t a huge opening, but it was an opening. And Valley took advantage of it, popping out of my staff while it was rebounding off the man. She caught the weapon before it could fall, then drove it as hard as she could, blade first up into the opening we had created. The staff went all the way into the man, driven as far as Avalon could shove it at an upward angle. 

The man staggered, slumping a little. With Twister still gripping his arms in her octopus-form, and my staff driven almost halfway up through his torso, he faltered. The rest of the armor he had encased himself in broke apart, and he lifted his gaze enough to snarl, “You’ll burn in–” 

“You first,” Avalon interrupted, spinning around as she projected a blade from her gauntlet to cut straight through the man’s newly-exposed neck. 

His head hit the ground a second before the rest of his body. And Avalon, a shocked gasp of pleasure escaping her, wasn’t far behind. 

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By Blood 17-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A/N – The noncanon chapter for Heretical Edge was posted over the weekend and is now available for everyone to read right here

The evil-looking forest didn’t get any better when we were inside it. Actually, I was pretty sure it got worse the deeper in we went. The place really was like something out of a horrifying fairy tale, of the Grimm Brothers variety. We had yet to see or sense any animals or anything, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was watching us. Even though Tangle and Kohaku both insisted that they couldn’t feel anyone or anything and none of their warning spells were going off, it still felt like there were eyes on us. Twister even turned into an owl and took a quick flight around, but couldn’t see or hear anything. But she did agree that it felt creepy. 

In any case, creepy or not, we had a schedule to keep. And a long hike to get through. The only way we had felt safe making that portal jump was by doing so far enough from the prison that it was going to take hours for us to walk that way. Any closer and we would have run too much of a risk of detection. 

So, eyes, ears, and other senses peeled for anything more substantial than just a creepy feeling, the seven of us kept moving. The rest of the group was waiting for us to take down those scanners and the communication tower, and we couldn’t let them down. This was too important. Asenath and Gordon were counting on us to have the next step ready so they could rescue their fathers. And I’d be damned if I was going to let feeling uneasy about this forest screw that up. 

There were ways we could have moved faster, of course. But we were leaning heavily on the ‘don’t be detected’ side of things. So most of the magic that Kohaku and Tangle could use was focused on shielding us. Which meant we were sticking to some good old-fashioned hiking. 

Of course, the forest being uninhabited and hours away from the prison meant that there wasn’t really a path. We just had to stay together and work our way through the thick trees while doing our best not to end up tripping over raised roots or falling in any holes. And there were plenty of both. To say nothing of all the sharp thorns. 

All in all, it was pretty far from a walk in the park. As I hopped over a deep ditch full of what looked like long vines with dagger-sized spikes sticking out of them, my attention turned toward Sands, who was hopping over right beside me. “Not exactly what you signed up for?” 

Snorting, she reached back to catch her sister’s hand, helping her across before looking toward me. “Let’s just say that if I could tell the me from before last year what I was doing, she’d think I’d completely lost my mind. Our mind. Whatever. Or she’d think I was possessed by a body snatcher, which is pretty ironic when you think about it.” 

With a small smile, Sarah spoke up. “But we have Mom back.” 

The words made Sands brighten, even as we turned to keep walking with everyone else. “Yeah,  We have Mom back. And we’re not on the wrong side of all this, that’s a plus too.” Her eyes turned it to me once more as she quietly added, “I would not want to be on your bad side. Or the bad side of your mother. But can you imagine if we weren’t friends? If–” Her face twisted a little. “Never mind, that sucks to think about.” 

“Aww.” Reaching back, I caught her hand and squeezed it. “Don’t worry, I like having you as a friend better than an enemy too. I wouldn’t want to take that mace to the face, lemme tell you that much. And having Sarah shooting at me from all directions outside of training was bad enough just the one time.” Even saying that made my face twist a little. That was when Ammon had told everyone in the dorm to hurt me that one night. That… yeah, I shouldn’t have brought it up. 

From the look on her face, Sarah didn’t like to think about that time either. She took a deep breath before pushing a branch out of the way for Sands and me to move past. When she spoke, her voice was troubled. “It could have gone the other way really easy.” Stepping past the branch and letting it go, she added, “Which side we were on, I mean.” 

Sands grimaced. “Tell me about it.” She ducked under a much larger branch that was in our way, glancing to the rest of the group before turning her attention back to me. “When you first started bringing up the whole Strangers aren’t all evil thing, I…” She hesitated before admitting, “ I almost didn’t react very well. I mean, I know I didn’t react very well as it was. But I almost did something really stupid. I was almost…” She sighed. 

“You almost talked to your dad about it,” I finished for her. “Trust me, I get that. I know how hard it was not to–okay no I don’t. I’m not going to try to say I know how hard it was not to talk to your dad about that, because I’ve never been in that exact situation. But… but I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you’re both here.” 

Taking her sister’s hand, Sarah nodded. “We are too. Even if we have to go on long, boring hikes.” 

“The long, boring hike is the easy part.” That was Tangle, speaking up from about ten feet off and a bit ahead of us. “Don’t forget, once we actually get to this place, things get a bit more dangerous.” 

“And that’s if we’re lucky,” Kohaku pointed out from behind us where she was keeping an eye on the rear of the group. “If we’re not and they realize they have company, things will get dangerous and exciting.” 

“Let’s try to make it take as long as possible for things to get dangerous and exciting,” Avalon put in from just behind Tangle. The two of them had been having their own quiet conversation through most of this hike. From what I have been able to pick up, they were talking about their whole family situation, given they were distantly related. Which was definitely a thing. I was pretty sure they hadn’t talked very much about that before now, but it wasn’t like there was much else to do while we were stuck walking through this forest. 

Besides, I was glad Avalon was actually talking to her. Tangle and Dries were the only two blood relatives she had, as far as we knew. And the woman who had become her mother, Gaia, was still locked up. Given how worried she was about the woman, she deserved to be able to talk to what other parts of her family she still had access to. 

Yeah, Gaia was a whole other situation we needed to deal with. I hadn’t expected it to take this long to find and rescue the headmistress, and I was pretty sure Avalon hadn’t either. I knew she got more worried about her the longer she was kept prisoner, and I couldn’t help but think about my mother’s imprisonment. Not with Fossor, but with Crossroads. She had been held prisoner by the loyalists for… decades without being rescued. That wouldn’t happen to Gaia, right? We would find and save her quicker than that. 

Of course, the whole idea of this war going on for decades made my stomach twist itself in knots. I can’t even fathom something like that. And yet, it was possible. More than possible. It was not completely out of the question that we would still be in a stalemate two decades from now, or three, or even more. I had to start thinking about all of this in much longer terms. After all, the Fomorian-Seosten war had been going on for hundreds of thousands of years. Sariel, Athena, and the others had been alive for thousands of years themselves. My mother started this war around 1920-ish. Even with a break of a few decades, it had been going on for a long time. 

The point was, expecting to be done with it anytime soon was really dumb. We would be doing this sort of thing for a long time. Gaia being held prisoner for a few months was probably nothing in the grand scheme of things. But telling myself that didn’t really make me feel any better when I saw how much her absence hurt Avalon.

Still, right now we couldn’t focus on Gaia. We had to work on one rescue at a time. Or, well, two in this case. One rescue location at a time. The time to save Gaia would come eventually. For now, we had this one to deal with, and I couldn’t let myself get too distracted. That strange feeling of being watched was still making the hair on the back of my neck stand up. And yet, a glance over my shoulder toward Kohaku was met with a slight headshake. She knew why I was looking that way, and still didn’t sense anything wrong. 

Somehow, that still didn’t put me at ease. Maybe it really was nothing. I certainly couldn’t think of any reason why none of our powers or magic had been able to detect any actual observers. Given the situation we were in, my mind playing tricks on me was certainly understandable. And yet… yeah. I didn’t like any of this. The worst part was that I had no idea if I was anxious for a real reason (beyond the obvious), or if the whole situation was just making me really jumpy. 

Still, I shoved those thoughts out of my mind and did my best to focus on walking and paying attention. I didn’t want to give into my paranoia, but staying aware of things was just common sense. So, hiking onward with my senses straining to pick up even a hint of a problem, I went back to quietly talking to the twins.  

Because Tangle and Kohaku were right, we should probably enjoy this quiet part for as long as we could. Creepy though it might be, this was still a peaceful hike through the forest. The dangerous part, where we had to sneak around the prison and take out their communications and scanners without getting caught would come soon enough. And it would rapidly be followed by the loud, violent part. 

So yeah, for the time being, I was going to enjoy the hike. And hope that if there really was something watching us with ill-intent, it would have the common courtesy to attack long before we reached the prison so that we didn’t have to deal with it and the Eden’s Garden Heretics at the same time. 


Well, if there was something watching us, it didn’t cause any problems throughout the rest of the hike to the prison. And yes, it did obviously occur to us that it could be some sort of security system letting the guards at the prison themselves know we were coming. But Kohaku and Tangle insisted that they weren’t getting that impression. They weren’t sensing any communication going anywhere and while they did agree that there was a strange sensation all around us, it didn’t feel malevolent or dangerous. Just… watchful. It was sort of like the feeling one would get when someone was staring at them from behind with curiosity rather than anger. 

In any case, we stayed on guard, and would be approaching the facility even more carefully than we already would have (which itself was pretty carefully). If there was something wrong, we would deal with it as best as we could when the time came. But for the moment, there wasn’t a lot we could do with ‘strange feeling.’ It wasn’t like we could call the whole mission off. We had to press forward and handle whatever happened. 

Finally, after several hours of hiking, we were approaching the edge of the prison complex security grid. It was still a good long distance from the prison itself, since the people inside wanted ample warning of anyone or anything approaching. Not to mention wanting to be able to track prisoners who got away from them. So, the initial alarm and monitoring spells were set up almost a mile away from the main fence. 

We stopped our march well-away from the spells, still hidden by the dense forest around us. The monitoring spells were obviously invisible. It wasn’t like we suddenly saw a dome or wall of energy telling us where not to go. At least, I didn’t. But apparently Kohaku and Tangle both had the sort of power needed to do just that. The two of them focused on the space between two trees just ahead of us, and began quietly murmuring to one another. They were both listing off the various bits of magic they could detect, comparing notes in case one of them missed something. The names and words they were using didn’t mean anything to me–okay that wasn’t true. I had been doing this stuff for long enough that I could follow some of it. But they were very obviously far more experienced and were using a sort of shorthand that left me completely clueless. And a glance toward the others showed that they were in much the same boat. Suffice to say, I was glad that we had them here with us. Otherwise, this would have been a pretty short rescue mission. Or at least, it would’ve turned into an open fight a lot more quickly. 

The rest of us stayed quiet while the other two began to work their way through carefully disabling the warning spells. It took almost an hour, but we weren’t going to complain. Better to sit here and quietly watch them work than end up alerting all of the guards inside that we were here. Patience was the name of the game. Taking the guards inside completely by surprise was the best chance we had at getting to the prisoners safely. If we could sneak in there and take down their communications tower, making it much harder for them to call in help (especially from their Victor), this whole thing would be a hell of a lot more doable. 

Eventually, they had done all they could. The actual alert spells had been disabled, which meant I could do my part without setting off any alarms. Or, to be completely accurate, my ghosts could do their part. I summoned Grover and Seth, both of whom had made it clear they wanted to be involved in this rescue mission. Grover because he was bored and wanted something interesting to do, and Seth because Tiras was important to him too. After all, he had been the one to save Seth’s life and turn him into a vampire in the first place, back during the American Revolutionary War. He was practically as much a father to Seth as he was to Asenath. 

With the alert spells down, the two ghosts were able to get through the actual forcefield parts of the shield to where the main sources of those shield spells were. It was very similar to the situation back at the Auberge, when I had sent Seth in to break the forcefield source so we could get to where Kushiel and Denny had been. Except in this case, we had to break two different spells in separate locations at the same time. It wouldn’t drop the entire shield, just this portion of it. Hopefully not enough to draw immediate attention, thanks to the work that Tangle and Kohaku had done. 

Once Seth and Grover were in position, I had them wait for the moment, looking over at the two teachers as I waited for them to give the go-ahead. They were straining their senses and magic to see beyond the barrier, checking for anyone who was paying too much attention our way. There were roving guards, and we wanted to wait until the nearest set had passed to give ourselves the most amount of time to get inside and do what we needed to do before they came back around. 

Finally, I saw Kohauku raise her hand while looking at me. She counted down from five, lowering a finger each time before finally making a fist. As soon as she did, I sent the impulse for Seth and Grover to do their thing while giving them enough power to become solid. Instantly, the two of them broke the part of the runes that had been carved into their respective trees, bringing down almost all of the shields that had been keeping the rest of us out.  

Almost all of the shields. There was still a single, emergency one left whose power wasn’t easy to get at. It was projected all the way from inside the prison complex. But, of course, we had plans for that too. Specifically, Seth’s anti-magic knife. Avalon already had it in hand as she cautiously approached that spot, flanked by Twister on one side and me on the other. The three of us got close enough for Valley to drive the knife into the very slightly glimmering spot in the air where the last barrier spell was. She drew the blade up and around, then down, cutting an opening into the shield. 

It was done. After all that work, we had our way through the ‘fence’ of protective spells. And, at least as far as we could tell, the guards had no idea we were here. Everything seemed quiet and normal from their side. Still, we had to keep our eyes open. It would be way too easy to get ahead of ourselves and screw this up. This was probably the most dangerous part of our part of the mission, aside from the actual fight. 

Now we were going to split up. Tangle was going with Sands and Sarah to do something about the scanners that would identify the fact that the people in the truck weren’t supposed to be there. Meanwhile, Twister, Avalon, and I were going with Kohaku to take down the communications tower. Or at least, get it set to go down. The moment the fighting broke out, we wanted to be able to shut off their contact with the outside world. Or outside worlds. 

To that end, we all exchanged good luck wishes and embraces. Then our groups split apart. Ours went north from the entrance we had made while Tangle and the twins headed south. Not that we could actually see anything yet. As far as I could tell, we were still just in the middle of a creepy forest. But Kohaku assured me that the prison was less than a mile to the west.

Now more than ever we had to be as quiet and careful as possible. So she was using several active camouflage spells to stop anyone from noticing our group unless they were basically right on top of us. 

We didn’t talk on our way to the tower. We could have, given the privacy and protection spells that we had around us, but it didn’t feel right. So, we marched in silence. Well, most of us did. Twister turned into a tiny mouse and perched on my shoulder, her ears and nose constantly twitching and turning in all directions while Avalon and I walked side by side with Kohaku ahead of us. 

Eventually, the Asian woman stopped and beckoned for us to get closer. Avalon and I exchanged silent looks before walking that way, moving up beside Kohaku. And from there, I could finally see our target. 

The prison was essentially built into the side of a low mountain. A large chunk of that mountain had been hollowed out, with the entrance to the prison and main courtyard taking up the open valley in front of it, while the buildings and actual mining operation were inside the mountain itself, leading deep underground. We were standing at the edge of the forest roughly halfway up that hillside, with the open courtyard and just a bit of the interior prison complex visible below. I could see a tall, visible forcefield wall surrounding the outer edge of the valley in a semicircle. Various magical traps filled the area in front of that wall leading out to the thick trees beyond. 

Once you got past the forcefield, there was a twenty-foot dirt space all the way around before you hit a solid steel wall, about fifteen feet high and covered by automated weapon turrets every few feet. Beyond that was another twenty-foot space filled with more magical traps set to go off, before a second fifteen foot high metal wall. That one had its own automated turrets, but also had several guard towers along it. Guard towers with actual Heretics in them. So we had to stay as far away from them as possible until we were ready for a fight. 

Beyond the guard towers was the actual open courtyard of the prison, where I could see several long, low buildings that looked like they were portable and able to be packed up and moved easily. There were a half dozen of them all along the eastern side almost directly below us, which looked like administration and guard quarters. Meanwhile, on the far western side away from us was a larger building with its own protective forcefield. The armory. A handful of prisoners in bright neon red clothes that would be easy to see in the forest were moving between buildings, escorted by watchful guards. But most of the prisoners would be inside the hollowed out mountain area that we couldn’t see much of yet. 

Once we had taken all that in, Kohaku touched Avalon and me on the shoulder before pointing upward. The communication tower was at the top of the mountain, its antennae visible sticking out just above the trees. That was where we had to go. 

Glancing back down, I focused on a relatively innocuous-looking building near the edge of the second interior wall. It was only about thirty feet wide and two stories tall, with what looked like a radar dish angled downward into the facility. That was where the scanner system was, which meant it was where Tangle and the twins were going. 

“Good luck, guys,” I murmured under my breath. 

Then I turned and started to hike up the mountain. Hopefully they would be able to do their part. But for now, it was time for us to do ours. In about twenty minutes, this whole rescue operation would shift into the next phase. 

I just hoped our luck would last through the end. 

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At Last 16-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Things were even worse, if that was possible. It turned out there were protection spells that the Whisper-possessed Seosten ghosts had put up around the Slide-Drive core. Which, of course, we didn’t have time to break through so we could disable the jamming. Not with Puriel already about to be taken over by those bastards. Every second we spent down here was too long. 

In the end, we only had one choice. My dad, despite his worry about his parents, agreed to stay behind and use the spells that he knew (and what Apollo and Aletheia showed him) to break through that protection so he could disable the jamming. It wasn’t perfect, but he had Mercury’s power. Which meant he could both speed up his own magic and make the protection spells run through their own duration much faster. He just had to do so carefully to avoid setting off any bad reactions. 

Tabbris was staying with him too. That was harder, but I convinced her that if I couldn’t stay and protect our dad from any of those Whispers that might come back, she needed to. She had her wings and knew all the ghost control magic I did, even if she didn’t have the same Necromancy power. I was trusting her to keep our father safe right now, and once they were done getting through the protections and were able to shut down the jamming, she would be able to recall back to me. 

Obviously, she felt guilty about leaving me ‘on my own,’ but I was able to convince her that it was for the best. We embraced briefly before separating so the rest of us could start running. 

Through my connection to Grover, I was able to describe exactly where Puriel and the others were both in appearance and in relation to our current location. Using that, Apollo and Aletheia figured out that they were in one of the special cargo holds. It was separate from the regular hold, intended to keep sensitive cargo that the Seosten didn’t want just anyone on the ship to have access to. The place was sealed behind high-level protections, which would have been a real problem if we hadn’t run into Aletheia already. Because she had actually been traveling on the Olympus already, and was trusted implicitly by Puriel, the Seosten woman already had access to the place. If it wasn’t for her, we probably would have had to spend way too much time finding a way to get through the security defenses. More time than we had right then, judging from how many of the Whispers I had seen doing their level best to get into Puriel’s head. 

As we raced back through the engine deck toward the elevator, Avalon complained, “This Puriel guy is supposed to be one of the strongest Seosten out there. I believe the exact words were ‘master of all energy, including magic.’ Shouldn’t he be able to wave his hand and blow these things away? It should be him saving us.” 

Aletheia’s voice was flat. “Ever since the… incident with the banishment orb, his mind has not been the same. Between that and the trauma he experienced at the orphanage when the Fomorians attacked, he has moments where he zones out and is incapable of reacting to the outside world. Spark is normally good at pulling him back from those moments, or simply taking over. But it seems that these Whispers are interfering with that.”

I gave a quick nod. “That’s what it looked like to me. I mean, from the outside.” Grimacing a bit, I added, “Whatever the reason, I’m pretty sure we don’t have much time. Things were looking pretty desperate up there.”

Thankfully, we wouldn’t be alone once we got there. Hopefully, at least. First, Miranda had already jumped back to her original body (it was with Athena and Dare) and was going to give them a detailed explanation straight up. As for the other two groups, I sent several of my ghosts back out to let them know what was going on as well. Between all that, it would hopefully make them meet us on the right deck so we could all do this together. That was the plan, anyway. 

By that point, we had reached the elevator, and I scrambled on before shifting my focus so I could look through Grover’s eyes once more to check what was going on. Things aren’t any better. It looked like Uncle Al, a Native American man, and my grandparents were all surrounding Puriel and the kids, protecting them from the ghosts that the Whispers kept summoning. Worse, I could see Invidia there, already in a duel with Uncle Al. Needless to say, he was holding his own. After all, he was Hercules. 

Even my grandparents were… doing something useful. It looked like Grandpartie was using a console to direct internal security weapons to fire on the ghosts, which were actually doing some damage to them. Probably shouldn’t have been surprising, considering how much experience Seosten would have with ghosts and other intangible beings, but still. And Grandmaria was… uhh, as best as I could tell at a glance, using magic to create a forcefield to hold the majority of the Whispers and ghosts off. 

I wasn’t sure which was more surprising and impressive to me, my grandfather being able to manipulate the ship controls like that, or my grandmother having a strong enough grasp over magic to create that forcefield. Or–wait, was she using magic or some power? Had she bonded to something? And come to think of it, Popser was barely touching the controls. It was more like his hands were resting on it, fingers twitching now and then. What–

Shaking that off, I focused on what was important right then. Namely, the fact that they were sort of holding off the attack. But still, things weren’t great. More Whispers kept getting through to add to the pile that were doing their level best to get into Puriel’s head, and the man himself still wasn’t moving or reacting to anything. He was just standing there with his head cocked to the side. There was clearly an internal struggle going on, and if we didn’t hurry up and get there, we were going to end up having to fight a Whisper-controlled Puriel. Which basically sounded like the exact opposite of anything approaching a good time. None of us were ready to deal with something like that. Hell, we weren’t enough even if we all joined together. This was Zeus, for fucks sake. We had nothing that could challenge him if he went after us. Especially on his own ship. Between that and all the other Whispers, including the Whisper-Possessed Charmeine, we would be completely fucked, in no uncertain terms.

Instructing Grover to tell my grandparents that we were on the way, I jumped back into my own mind in time to feel the elevator rising. It was going pretty quick too, and I could see Apollo messing with an open computer panel to one side. Apparently he had disabled the safeties or something and sped the thing up. Now we were flying toward the right deck. I just hoped we would make it in time. And, of course, cursed the fact that the Whispers’ jamming included blocking transportation powers. We had to do this whole thing the long way rather than just teleporting up there. Because, of course, this had to be as hard as possible. 

One day for a party to celebrate a victory. That was all I’d asked for. But did we get that? Of course not. And we still didn’t understand why the Whispers were here trying to pilot the ship into Tartarus to begin with. What did they think they could gain from that? Hell, what even were they? There were so many questions around this entire situation, and the only creatures with answers didn’t seem inclined to explain. But hey, maybe we could beat it out of them. 

Or maybe I was just looking forward to beating them in general. It was possible that I was slightly annoyed by this entire situation. Terrified too, of course. But also annoyed. 

The elevator finally stopped at the right deck, and the rest of us exchanged quick glances before stepping off together. The room beyond was shaped like a half-circle, with a line of elevators, including the one we had been on, along the flat line part. To the left and right were corridors, with several open doors along the curve part of the half-circle ahead of us. The main doors, straight across, apparently led to the primary cargo bay. But that wasn’t where we were supposed to go. Our destination lay to the left, down that hall. 

We were cautious, even as we stepped out of the elevator, weapons at the ready considering we had no idea what sort of traps or problems the Whispers might have left to slow us down so they would have time to take over Puriel. There could be anything waiting for us up here. 

And yet, despite having that thought, I still wasn’t prepared for what I immediately saw. Coming off the elevator, my eyes immediately fell on a single, lone figure standing with their back to us, staring through the doorway toward the main cargo hold. They showed no reaction to our arrival, and I took a quick second to size them up. They were solid, not a ghost, and seemed either human or Seosten from this angle. Probably the latter. A man, several inches under six feet, though pretty well-built. His brown hair fell to just above his shoulders, and he wore gray cloth pants and a simple white shirt, his feet bare. 

Even as I took that in, the man turned to look at me. Now I could see his face. He had a neatly trimmed beard and his eyes were a brownish-green. He looked, on paper, like a completely average guy of no particular power or importance. And yet, when I met his gaze, I felt myself shrink back reflexively. A lump had formed in my throat, as an inexplicable sense of danger and power filled me. He had made no threatening move, said no threatening words, had done nothing other than turn to look at me, but I still felt his power like a crushing weight. 

Abruptly, Apollo spoke up. “I’m not picking up any surprises.” He was holding a stone in one hand, enchanted to detect traps. “Doesn’t seem right.” 

“No surprises?” I found myself blurting. “What about–” Then my eyes flicked from Apollo, back to the strangely terrifying man by the cargo bay. But he wasn’t there. In that time, in that brief instant where my eyes had moved off him, he had vanished. “Wha–what?” I stammered, completely thrown off. I shouldn’t have been, given all the incredible powers I had seen. Yet something about that guy, something about… yeah. It threw me off, to say the least.

The others were all looking at me uncertainly, and I raised a hand to point to where the man had been, quickly explaining what I had seen. But none of them had caught a glimpse of the man. Even though he had been standing in plain view as far as I was concerned, they had not seen anything. A quick check with Seth and Rahanvael, each standing beside me, revealed the same answer. I was the only person who had seen him, or sensed anything at all. None of Mom’s powers, and none of Aletheia or Apollo’s magic, had picked up the man’s presence. 

And, come to think of it, I had not sensed him with my item-detection power either. He had definitely been in range of it, but I hadn’t sensed his clothes or anything. He had looked completely solid, but wasn’t detected by anything. Except by my own eyes, and only my eyes. No one else had picked up any sense of him at all. This was… weird. And it certainly wasn’t doing anything to make me feel better about the situation we were walking into. 

Mom and the two Seosten spent a tense moment focusing on that spot, but even after I pointed out exactly where the man had been, they couldn’t pick up anything at all. It was like he’d never been there in the first place. Which, again, was more than a little worrying. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to focus on any implications of that. Not with the problems we already had to deal with. We still had to get into the other room before the Whispers got through to Puriel, so any thoughts and worries about the man I had seen were just going to have to wait. All I could really do in that moment was hope that it wasn’t something that would come back and bite us in the ass before we were done with this specific problem. Hell, for all I knew, that figure was working with the Whispers. 

On the plus side, there didn’t seem to be any defenses here blocking our way. Which in and of itself was a bit surprising, but we weren’t going to dwell on that too much either. Especially not when two of the nearby elevators arrived in the next moment, with Larissa, Haiden, and Mercury emerging from one, and Sariel, Theia, and Pace from the other. With their respective Mirandas, of course. The ghosts I had sent to get them rejoined me, fading from view for the moment (though ready to be summoned back as soon as I needed them). 

“You guys okay?” I asked, thoughts of the man I had seen fresh in my mind. Much as I tried to set that aside, I couldn’t entirely dismiss his face. The way he had stared right through me, the power I had felt, it was too much to ignore. 

Theia waved. “We killed ghosts. And fuzzy-ghosts.” 

“Whispers, she means,” Pace put in, voice tense as she glanced around as though expecting to be ambushed at any second. “And we didn’t kill them so much as… make them go away for the moment.” 

“Yeah, and I’m pretty sure we know where they went to,” Avalon muttered, eyes on the left-hand corridor leading toward the special, extra-secure cargo hold. “They’re throwing everything they have into taking control of Puriel. Or at least turning him against the rest of us. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t fancy our odds if that happens.”

“Which is why we need to get in there right now.” That was Athena, speaking as she and Dare came off another elevator. Her attention was laser-focused ahead, a silvery-gold sword in one hand that was still glowing from ghost-fire. “Worry about specifics later,” she instructed while still walking. “Right now, all that matters is driving these creatures away and giving Puriel time to collect himself.” After a brief verbal pause, she added, “And hope that Lincoln and Tabbris break those protection spells so they can stop this ship before it’s too late to matter.” 

Oh, right, of course. We had that problem to worry about too. Even if we did manage to get the Whispers away from Puriel and the others before they turned him into a monster who would annihilate us all, it would all be for naught if this damn ship managed to take us straight into Tartarus. But, you know, it wasn’t like we were under any pressure or anything. 

Pushing aside those thoughts we started to move, I told Athena and the others what I had seen, and the fact that no one else had sensed anything. She and Sariel exchanged brief glances, before the latter spoke. “When this is over, if it is alright with you, I would like to take a look at that memory and see this man for myself. It would be better than a description.” 

I agreed easily, hoping it would lead to an actual answer. Then I pushed the thought as far from my mind as possible, focusing on the here and now. As we ran, Dare gave me a quick look, silently asking if I was all right. I gave her a thumbs up, but made it waiver a little. Between that and the look on my face, I was pretty sure she understood just how uncertain I was about the whole thing. She, in turn, took a moment to touch my shoulder in mid-run, squeezing it firmly to let me know she was there. Which was nice, but also reminded me yet again that she still couldn’t tell my mother, her own daughter, who she really was and why she cared so much.   

It was just another thing I had to push out of my head so I could focus on the problem at hand. A problem that was right in front of us, as we reached the door leading to the special cargo bay. Aletheia had already input the code, the door sliding open to reveal the same room I had seen through Grover’s eyes. And a situation that had not gotten any better in the time since I had last checked. The kids were still huddled into an even tighter circle, though Spark wasn’t visible. My guess was that she was inside Puriel, trying to keep as much control as possible away from the Whispers, who were basically flooding over his body so much that there were constant distortion waves all around him. The rest of the Whispers, and the ghosts, were being desperately held back by Uncle Al, my grandparents, and that Native American man. But they were, unfortunately, fighting a losing battle, constantly having to pull back closer to the others as the attackers continued to flood into the room. There were so many Whispers. Obviously there weren’t as many ghosts for them to control, given–well, there weren’t an unlimited number of Seosten on the Olympus who had died, even counting ‘ordinary’ crew members. Still, they were all here, and they were making a huge push. Probably because this was as much a do-or-die moment for them as it was for us. 

Seeing us enter, Grandmaria raised a hand, the other held out to reinforce the shield she had erected around them. “Good to see you, kiddo! Wish I had time to have cookies ready.” 

“Later, Maria,” Uncle Al cheerfully replied even as his fist slammed into a ghost. It shouldn’t have done anything, yet the incorporeal figure still blew apart from that single blow. “There’ll be time for cookies once we remind these bastards they’re supposed to stay gone when they die!” 

“Hurtful,” Seth remarked beside me. “But considering the situation, fair.” 

Before I could respond to that, Sariel had taken a step that way, her eyes on the huddled children trying to make themselves even smaller. Specifically, on a small boy who was peeking up to stare right back at her. Omni. He was right there. 

Unfortunately, that single step was as much as she was able to take, before a familiar form coalesced right in front of us. Charmeine. No, Invidia. Her colored-in ghost form appeared, already smirking. “Oh, you people got through those traps even faster than we thought you would. That’s surprising. And annoying. But I think that’s about far enough.” Pausing, her head tilted before she raised both eyebrows. “Ah. It seems my host here has complicated feelings about seeing you, Artemis. How interesting.” 

Traps? What traps was she talking about? There hadn’t been any traps. Huh? A moment of confusion passed through me, as I exchanged a quick glance with the others. They looked just as uncertain. 

Sariel, on the other hand, manifested her bow and drew back an energy arrow before pointing it that way. Her voice was tight. “You and the rest of your kind need to get out of here right now. Why do you even want to take this ship into Tartarus in the first place? What could you possibly hope to get out of that?” 

“A fine question,” Athena put in, stepping beside the other Seosten woman, sword at the ready. 

Invidia, in turn, glanced between them before giving a slow, audible chuckle. “Taking this ship into Tartarus?” She echoed the words as though they were the silliest thing she had ever heard, shaking her head. “Oh dear. I believe you’ve made a very dangerous assumption. We have no intention of taking this ship, or anyone on it, into Tartarus. You see, in moments we will have control of one of the most powerful and instinctive magic users in this entire universe. But even more importantly, he has a direct connection to Tartarus itself. After all, it is the source of his power.

“Once we have him in hand, we will use that power to open the portal into Tartarus. Of that, you are correct. But we will not be going inside. No, quite the opposite. When the portal is open, we will be releasing the creatures which dwell within that universe into this one. Then our people will fulfill our destiny by taking the creatures for our own use. 

“And together, we will erase everything in existence.” 

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At Last 16-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Invidia was fast. Or maybe that was just Charmeine. Either way, she was practically on top of my mother the moment those words had left her mouth. Before any of us could move, she pivoted under the raised sword and lashed out with a fist. No, there was a dagger there, I realized at the last instant. A ghost-dagger which turned solid in mid-strike. 

But Mom was pretty fast too. The sword that the ghost-woman had ducked under was suddenly in her other hand, transferred instantly before she brought it up to block the incoming blade. With her other hand, she summoned… what looked like a ball of ghost-fire around her fist before punching through Invidia’s face. Or rather, where her face had been, because the ghost-woman dodged it with a loud, cheerful laugh. Yeah, a laugh, as though this was a game. Because just like she’d said a moment earlier, this was fun for her. For them. 

As for me? Well, a lot of words immediately sprang to mind when it came to the idea of fighting Whisper-possessed Olympian Seosten ghosts. But none of them were ‘fun.’ Or any word that could be found under its entry in the thesaurus. Especially not when we still didn’t know exactly where my grandparents or the others were. I just had to hope that my ghosts were getting the message across to the other searchers. Who, of course, might be dealing with their own problems already. Because somehow I really doubted we were looking at all the Whispers on the ship. Or even all the Seosten ghosts. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to focus on that. Or even time to go to my mother’s aid, because the rest of those ghosts seemed to have taken Invidia’s laugh after that first, blindingly-quick exchange as an invitation, as all of them attacked at once. And yeah, they were laughing too. 

The nearest Whisper-Ghost throwing himself at me was a tall figure. Well, sort of tall. A few inches over six feet, with black and red hair worn long, and incredibly fit. Not to mention clearly angry, and focused on killing me in particular. Not that anyone would know just from listening to him. He was laughing cheerfully, like a kid at the carnival or something. Which was juxtaposed against a look of such vile hatred that I seriously took a reflexive step back. The mix of cheerful laughter with looks of utter disgust and bitter animus was disturbing.

But I had my own ghost. Rahanvael was right there, interposing herself between us. The moment I saw her block the Seosten, I focused on shoving power into her so she could do more than simply be visible. In this case, she used that power to catch the Seosten’s arm as he reached for me, driving her knee hard into his stomach before flying straight up while dragging him up after her. Then she sort of inverted in the air, essentially giving him a shoulder throw. Except instead of tossing him toward the floor, she heaved the other ghost up toward (and through) the ceiling. Then she followed him up and out of sight.  

That gave me time to grab for the piece of pencil-sized wood Sariel had provided. As instructed, I snapped it with my thumb before giving it a toss toward the nearest Whisper-Ghost just as he was coming for me. As the spell activated, a half-visible greenish cage appeared around the form before falling to the ground with the ghost contained within. 

Around me, I could see the others doing the same. Some managed to catch their targets while a couple missed. But it still helped, immediately taking out about four or five of the things. 

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a perfect solution. I saw the familiar distortion in the air as the Whispers who had been possessing those particular Seostens escaped, and several new ghosts appeared. Like–like they had summoned brand new ‘bodies’ to possess. We had trapped some of their ghost options, but they still had more to choose from. 

In other words, things were still bad. As evidenced when I caught sight of another of the things… not coming straight at me. Instead, she was standing back a bit, hands raised. Just as my attention snapped that way, I saw a slight distortion in the air. Something that looked a bit like a diamond-shaped icicle flew straight at my face, so fast that even with my reflex-enhancements, I barely managed to snap my head out of the way in time to avoid most of it. I felt the thing slice across my cheek, drawing blood on its way. Worse, there were three more coming right at me, moving just as quickly. 

Instantly, I hurled myself into a sideways flip, allowing the first of the three icicles to pass inches away from my stomach. A thought brought my staff to one hand while I was still in mid-flip, and I snapped it outward to knock the second icicle out of the air while simultaneously hitting the button to shoot a burst of kinetic force out the other end, which took care of the third icicle. 

Landing on my feet, I brought the staff up and out, snapping, “Time to fight!” The words summoned Jaq and Gus, who assumed their positions as blade and grapple. But that was for later. First, I hit the button on my staff to make a cloud of sand shoot out one end to form a thick cloud. 

It was just in time too, because there were suddenly seven of those deadly icicle things flying at me. All of them spaced perfectly in an attempt to hit me with at least one of them no matter how much dodging or staff-swinging I did. 

Thankfully, I wasn’t planning on doing any. Instead, I focused on the sand I had summoned. It immediately turned red-hot, even as I spread it out and sent the cloud flying forward to catch the icicles. They melted, turning to steam. Which itself might’ve been a problem, as it was still spraying forward toward me. But I was ready for that too. Or rather, Tabbris was. She had taken control of one of my hands, summoning a small stone to the palm before tossing it forward while triggering the power that made it grow to the size of a much larger boulder. In mid-flip, it caught the incoming super-heated spray, shielding us. 

Before the Whisper-Ghost could send any more of those things at me, I made my super-heated sand fill the air around her, specifically spreading it out a bit to make it as hard as possible for her to actually form the damn things. From what I had seen in those few seconds, she made them right in front of her hands before launching them. Now, she couldn’t do that. Because every time the icicle started to form, my sand instantly melted it.  

She hasn’t played enough Pokemon, Tabbris noted in my head. Everyone knows ice is weak against fire, fighting, and rock. Her power loses three different ways. 

Yeah, I replied, and you know what ghost is weak against? Other ghosts. 

Abruptly, Rahanvael appeared behind the ice-creating ghost, as I sent more power into her. Enough power that she was able to shove the Whisper-Ghost hard, making the figure stumble forward just as I hit my boost and threw myself that way. My thumb found the spell I had there to summon ghost-fire, surrounding the staff in that glow just before it collided hard with the side of her head, snapping it back. Before she could recover, I spun the staff around, driving the blade through her chest. 

The ghost vanished, though I knew she wasn’t gone for good. I could still sort of feel her essence around. I had just disrupted her for now. Or them. All these Seosten ghosts were actually possessed by Whispers, I had to remind myself. It was just… weird. 

At that moment, I barely had time to glance around to see how the others were doing. From the corner of one eye, I caught a glimpse of Avalon rapidly parrying with blades formed from her gauntlets as a Whisper-Ghost went after her with what appeared to be a pair of swords made out of electricity. Avalon was back-pedaling, but Miranda was right there, shield raised to block one of the incoming swords, giving Valley an opening to turn her energy blade into a large fist. And apparently the energy constructs from those gauntlets had been upgraded to actually affect ghosts, because it slammed into their opponent, making him stagger, form flickering a bit from the effort of maintaining cohesion. 

Further away, I could see Apollo and Aletheia standing together against two more of the Whisper-Ghosts. They seemed to be handling themselves well enough, unsurprisingly. It looked like Apollo was doing some sort of containment spell, while Aletheia held her hand out and used what had to be her own power, which was… disrupting them or something. I wasn’t sure, but every time she used it, the ghosts who were trying to attack them sort of… flickered a bit. It threw them off, whatever it was. Slowed them down, delayed their reactions, made them sort of dazed or whatever. Enough that Apollo was able to finish his spell, tossing a playing card from his palm, which hit one of the ghosts and literally sucked it inside. Yeah, he threw a card and sucked one of the ghosts into it. 

I really needed to get him to teach me that spell. 

And yet, just like the others had with the first containment spells, the Whisper who had been captured simply escaped the ghost it had been possessing and summoned a new one to control. Which put Apollo and Aletheia, not quite back to square one, because they had still taken one of the Seosten ghosts out of the equation and made the Whisper bring out another (and there wasn’t an endless supply of those), but still. Not great. 

Meanwhile, apparently a couple of the ghosts had gotten the idea that my dad might be an easy target. It was a mistake they quickly came to regret as, at that particular moment, the Seosten Dad had Chimera-bonded with while attempting to recall to Grandmaria was Mercury. The Seosten man’s Olympian power allowed him to extend, shorten, or delay effects on himself. Which also allowed him to boost for minutes at a time rather than seconds, and with even more effectiveness. That was where Mercury had gotten the reputation for having super speed from. And Dad was using that in the moment to speed himself up so he could create and empower specific anti-ghost magical enchantments on the blank coins he’d brought with him. In the short time that I spent glancing that way, I saw my father’s blurred form rush through scrawling a spell onto his latest coin, before tossing it at the floor right in front of the ghost who was coming for him. A burst of purple electricity shot from the coin, making the ghost blow apart (though it left that distinctive distortion in the air that meant the Whisper itself was still around). 

Then there was my mother. She was still going toe-to-toe with Invidia, both moving too quickly for me to keep track of very well. The Whisper-Ghost still had her daggers, and was a blindingly-fast dervish, attacking my mother from all sides. Mom, meanwhile, continued to block or evade every strike, lashing out with several of her own. Yet no matter how quick she was or what extra powers she threw into the mix, Invidia evaded all of it. It was clear they were pretty evenly matched. And I still had no idea how much of that was the Whisper herself (or itself), and how much was Charmeine’s skill and power. 

That was as much as I was able to take in with that quick glance around. We weren’t falling, but we weren’t exactly winning either. There were more of these things jumping into the fight already, and the ones we did manage to hit hard enough to disrupt simply reformed shortly afterward. Or summoned new ghost bodies to use.

Oh, and on top of all of that, all of these ghosts were still laughing. They were just having a grand old time with this whole thing. Laughing while giving those hateful, threatening glares and trying to murder us. It was really sending mixed messages. 

Behind me, Rahanvael intercepted the return of the ghost she had followed through the ceiling. I gave her a quick boost of power before pivoting to snap my staff up, intercepting an enormous ghost-like hook on the end of a pole that had been coming toward me from behind. The Whisper-Ghost there was a lanky woman with short blueish hair and light skin. Well, light even for the whole ghost thing. Which, again, the fact that ghosts possessed by Whispers had pretty much their normal color tone was just… weird. Her polearm had that large hook at the end, now caught against my staff. 

“Kinda hard for a ghost to sneak up on a Necromancer,” I informed her a bit tersely. “Just FYI.” Worry about everyone else kept any amusement out of my voice. The words were dark. I wanted these ghosts to back the fuck off, and the fact that I couldn’t affect them (at least, not very easily) even with my own Necromancy power was incredibly annoying. I wanted to find my grandparents, damn it! 

If this particular Whisper-Ghost cared about my anger, she didn’t show it. Instead, she just glared at me even more hatefully, while simultaneously giving a delighted squeal of laughter, like a small child going down a water slide. 

“Yeah,” I grunted, “haha to you too.” And without another word, I knocked her hooked polearm away from my staff and pivoted, bringing the weapon around toward her head. She recoiled to make it miss her by about six inches. Or rather, it would have missed by about six inches, except in that moment, I focused on the ‘make things grow’ power once more. That time, instead of turning a small stone into a boulder, I extended my staff several more inches so that Jaq, in his blade form and glowing bright from ghost-fire empowerment, cut straight through her throat. The form dissipated violently, that condensed magical energy blowing apart. And yet, she never stopped laughing. Well, until the form had completely vanished. Even then, I was pretty sure the Whisper left behind hadn’t stopped. I just couldn’t hear her thanks to Liesje’s spell. 

At the same time, while that had been going on, Tabbris was busy keeping another of the ghosts, a guy who looked like he could have passed for a particularly buff Indian man on Earth, busy by directing the superheated sand into his face. Which didn’t actually hurt him, of course. But it did obscure his vision enough that he didn’t see as she also directed my finger to hit the button that would launch the ghost-fire empowered grapple right into his chest. Or… it would have, except that just before the grapple reached him, he abruptly appeared in like six different places at once, scattered all around within about a twenty foot area. There were six versions of him for a second, then five of them disappeared. Including the one the grapple had been shooting toward. 

Wait, I knew that guy. Or rather, I knew of him. Apollo had mentioned him one day when we were talking to Miranda about her duplication. His name was… Enyalius, that was it. Apparently he had been a big disciple of Abaddon. His power had allowed him to–well, do exactly what I had just seen, make anywhere from five to ten duplicates of himself within an area that stretched to about fifty feet wide. He had little-to-no control over where all of them ended up appearing, and had to pick one to keep before the rest disappeared within a couple seconds of being created. 

Oh shit, which meant– with the realization and my own senses screaming at me, I spun around, snapping the staff up to knock aside the ghost-figure’s reaching hand. No, hands. My staff knocked two hands and a knife away. As expected, he had duplicated himself again, and several of the ten clones he had created had been close enough to lunge at me. I deflected their attacks, barely, and they vanished an instant later. He just chose to keep one of the clones that had appeared further away. 

This was his game, it was how he fought. He would create a bunch of short-lived duplicates, attack with as many as were close enough to reach the target (or targets) in the couple seconds of life they had, then simply allow them to disappear while choosing to keep one who was far enough back to be safe from immediate retaliation. 

All of which meant that fighting this guy was a pain in the ass. Soon, he was pressing the attack. He just kept creating more duplicates, coming after me with whoever was close enough, and then allowing them to vanish a second later. There was no point to actually trying to hit any of them, because they were just going to vanish almost immediately anyway. And I couldn’t take him out, because he could just pick any of them at random to make his new self. 

I might have been overwhelmed pretty quickly, except I did have a couple of advantages to help out. Namely, I had Tabbris copiloting to help deal with defense, and Rahanvael had returned to cover my back. Even then, however, keeping up with the guy who could mass-spam these two second duplicates all around me was pretty much a losing battle. It was just a matter of time. He could just keep pressing and waiting for us to make a mistake. Worse, the Whisper-Ghosts I had already dealt with were reforming. This could get bad very quickly. 

But the thing was, I wasn’t limited to only having one ghost for help. Through those frantic few seconds, I let Tabbris partially take over so I could put some focus toward calling back some of the spirits I had sent out to search the ship. I made the call pretty simple, if they hadn’t found anything yet or had already delivered their message, they were to come back to where I was. 

Just as the next wave of duplicate attacks came, Seth appeared to one side of me. His hand caught the nearest Whisper-Ghost-Clone’s wrist and yanked hard before throwing a punch at his face. Only for that one to poof out of existence. Seth, in turn, blinked at his own fist and muttered something about not knowing his own strength. 

The rest of the ghosts aside from Grover appeared shortly afterward. And now it was a much more fair fight. I had five ghosts on my side, counting Rahanvael, so it was a lot harder for Enyalius to find a blind spot to hit me from. And having all these ghosts with me to cover my back meant I could press my own attack. No matter which duplicate he chose to stay in, I had someone nearby ready to hit him. And my ghosts could actually touch his. 

All of which meant that it wasn’t long before the blade of my staff found his main body (or ‘body’) and made it burst apart in another spray of ghost… energy or whatever. Not that the threat was over, not by a long shot. He wasn’t gone for good, either him or the Whisper who had been piloting him. Not to mention the rest of these damn things. But I did feel a burst of satisfaction in the moment.

But it wasn’t enough. Again, no matter what we did, we couldn’t get rid of them for good. Tabs, I think we might need to do the super-wing boosted ghost shove. And later come up with a better word for it. 

But we can’t hit all of them! Her voice was plaintive. Last time it was all we could do to shove Kushiel away, even with the wing-boost. 

These guys aren’t Kushiel, I reminded her. But you’re right, we need a better idea than the shove. And I just got one. 

She already knew what it was, of course, as soon as it had occurred to me. Immediately, the two of us began to coordinate moving closer to where Apollo and Aletheia were. Everyone else was fighting, keeping the Whisper-Ghosts back without actually stopping them, while Mom and Invidia’s fight continued without either gaining any real advantage. 

“Apollo!” I shouted as soon as I was close enough to be heard. “Let us in!”  

Thankfully, he understood immediately, and extended his hand. I used a portal to reach the distance between us, grabbing on before possessing the man with his permission. Then I was inside him, and he knew my plan in an instant. Immediately, he drew another of the spell cards with the ghost-trap enchantment on it. But this time, just as he went to power it, Tabbris manifested her wings through him. They flared to life, extending out behind the man while the power they provided was shoved into the spell. 

Most of the Whisper-Ghosts had no idea what hit them. The ghost trap spell filled the entire room. Knowing it was coming, I had already ordered my ghosts to disappear. But our opponents didn’t get the message. Almost every single Seosten ghost in the room was sucked into the card. 

Almost every single one. Invidia resisted it, though she did snap her head around to snarl in our direction. Mom attempted to take advantage of that, but the woman vanished from where she had been standing. Only to reappear right where the card newly-full of ghosts had fallen. 

We didn’t have a chance to grab her, or it. Apollo was staggering from the effort of putting everything he had into that spell. Aletheia made an attempt to blast the ghost-woman with her power, but she grabbed the card and vanished. 

“Wha-what just happened?” Miranda demanded, looking around the suddenly empty battlefield. 

Stepping out of Apollo, I replied, “They’re uhh, they’re gone for now?” 

Apollo nodded, his face a bit grim. “It’ll take her a little bit to get her pals out of the card, but I’m not sure how long. We need to move. Come on, the jamming spell should be right in the core here, they probably have it drawing power from that.”

Appearing beside me, Seth spoke up. “So your pals on the bridge know what’s up. And from what the others said, they warned the rest of them too. Just in time too.” 

“So there are other Whisper-Ghosts. Are they okay? Sariel and the others, I mean.” 

“Sounds like it,” he confirmed. 

I started to say something else, but felt a tug at my consciousness. Grover. The last ghost who hadn’t shown up for the fight. Reaching out to him, I looked through his eyes to see what was up. And what I saw only took a few seconds to compute before I immediately withdrew and blurted, “Guys, we need to move, right now!” 

“What’s going on?” Mom asked, quickly turning to me. 

“I know where Popser and the others are,” I replied, using the name for my grandfather that I had used for such a long time while I was a little kid. It was always Popser or Grandpartie. “And they’re in trouble. Puriel’s like–not responding to anyone, not doing anything, and there’s a lot of Whispers all around. The others are trying to hold them off, but… but the Whispers are doing everything they can to get into Puriel’s head. 

“And if they take him over, we’re all fucked.” 

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