Seth

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)

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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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The Runaway 15-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The moment the horrible ghost woman was gone, I fell to my knees and gave a deep gasp. Even with help from Tabbris, and my ridiculous stamina, that had taken a lot out of me. A large part of it, of course, was actually channeling all that power into my necromancy and using it properly. It was a lot to push through my system. I had to sit there for a few seconds to catch my breath. Mom and Asenath had already rushed forward to see what happened to me, while Sean and Twister moved to check on Francis, who had apparently passed out the moment Kushiel disappeared. While I was busy catching my breath, I felt my little sister step out of me to quickly explain that I was okay, just really exhausted after all that. 

My head bobbed as I looked up to see them staring. “She’s gone. Not for good, but it’ll take her a while to get herself sorted out after getting hit that hard. And even then she can’t get back here without a lot of help.” Biting my lip, I looked over to where Francis’s limp form was. “Is he okay?” 

“Breathing,” Sean confirmed. “I think he’s sleeping it off. Whatever Kushiel was doing to keep him paralyzed while she wasn’t even possessing him, it looks like it packed a pretty big wallop. Which, what was she doing? How the hell is any of that possible? Is it all just Tartarus bullshit?” 

“I don’t know,” I admitted weakly. “All I know is that we don’t have to deal with her right now.” 

“But we will have to deal with her eventually,” Mom murmured, her voice dark as she gazed off into the distance. “A problem that should have been dealt with and gone for good, yet suddenly she’s back again and somehow even worse. Strangely, that isn’t nearly as surprising as I feel like it ought to be.” 

Grimacing it despite myself, I offered a weak, “I’m sorry, I should have been able to handle her. I’ve got all of this power from two different necromancers, and she’s a ghost. But she was just so strong. It’s like that Tartarus place is still fueling her or something. I don’t know. But one thing’s for sure, she’s not just going to go away. She’ll keep trying to get that sword. I just…” 

“First, don’t apologize.” That was Asenath, her hand moving to squeeze my shoulder as I knelt there. “Seriously, if it wasn’t for you, we would have been completely screwed. She has her old power plus now she’s a ghost, so she’s even harder to hurt without the right skills. It may have taken a lot out of you, but you still got rid of her. At least for now. And next time, we’ll be more prepared. This was a complete ambush and you still handled it better than most would have.” 

“Yeah, what she said,” Sean agreed. “That bitch be as crazy strong as she is just plain crazy. At least now we’ve got the time to practice and prepare stuff for whenever she shows up again. There’s some anti-ghost spells in some of the books I’ve been looking at, and she feels like just the right pain-in-the-ass spook to use them on.” Belatedly, he glanced over to Grover and Seth. “Uh, no offense.” 

Seth just blinked at him. “Why would we be offended by you wanting to get rid of that psycho bitch? Come on, I wanted her to burn in hell when we were alive, so I’m sure as fuck not gonna start feeling attached just because we’re both dead. We’re not suddenly kin or something.”

“Yeah, man,” Grover put in. “Hashtag not all ghosts.” Leaning over, he stage-whispered to me, “Did I use that right? I feel like that’s how they were using it back in the Runaway.” 

My mouth opened to confirm that before the word ‘runaway’ suddenly made me remember the other person in the room. With a gasp, I turned and looked over to the corner. Denise was crouching back there, looking like she was trying to disappear. As everyone else followed my line of sight, she cringed. “I–I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt anybody. I didn’t want to help her. I don’t even know what’s going on, I don’t–I wasn’t trying to–I was–” 

“Denise.” Speaking quietly, Mom took a step over there, going down on one knee near the girl, but not quite close enough to touch. She was clearly worried about scaring her even more. “It’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong. We’re the ones who should apologize. We didn’t know you would remember anything. We didn’t…” She trailed off, exhaling. “We thought you could go back to a normal life. I suppose we should have known better.” There was a brief pause before she amended in an even softer voice, “I should have known better.” 

That made the girl blink in confusion, her eyes taking the rest of us in before her head shook. “I don’t know what you’re–I don’t… wait… I know you. I mean, I don’t. I don’t know you, right? But I do. But I… I don’t. You’re… I’ve seen you before. But I haven’t.” She made a helpless noise in the back of her throat then. It was clear that this was confusing her even more. 

“Denise,” I started while pushing myself up so I could move over to take a knee next to my mother. “Maybe you could tell us what you remember, then we can help by filling in the blanks. It’s okay, no matter how… strange you think it is, we’ll believe you, I promise. Just tell us what you’ve seen, what you’ve heard. Just… talk to us. We’ll help, I promise.” This whole situation was so much to get into (seriously, it was so much), that it felt like the best place to start from was by finding out what the girl herself already knew. 

So, Denise launched into the story of everything that had been happening to her over the past long while. It was a horrible story to sit there and listen to, knowing how many answers we could have given her. She had been having nightmares about her death and about Ammon’s own memories. Somehow, she was dreaming about all the terrible things he had done. His memories were mixed in with hers and it was really screwing her up. Not only that, she had indeed also somehow ended up with his power. Despite the fact that the power transfer thing was only supposed to be temporary (and, I was pretty sure, was only supposed to give her his Pooka power for that temporary time rather than everything), it seemed to have been permanent. She had his power and some of his memories, though all jumbled together. That was why she was having nightmares. She dreamed of being murdered by him, and of being him as he murdered her. Seriously, how fucked up was that? No wonder this kid was having a hard time. That would have been bad enough by itself, but she was also dreaming about all the other people he had killed. And seeing ‘monsters’ because the Bystander Effect wasn’t working properly. Monsters like Mercer, whom she had used Ammon’s power to make forget about that whole debt thing. So that explained that whole situation. 

The only positive part of all this was that Ammon wasn’t actually back. Not exactly. She had some of his memories, but it was still Denise in there. She was still in control. Yeah, positive in the sense that Ammon wasn’t back. Instead, Kushiel was. Honestly, I’m not sure that was really an improvement. Sure, Ammon’s power was terrifying,  But we had people who were immune to it, and he was still just a kid. Kushiel could conceivably be a hell of a lot more dangerous. 

But in any case, right now we had to focus on Denise. Who apparently also remembered a bunch of fairly inconsequential, academic-like stuff from her previous life. She remembered math and science and history that she had learned as a high school student, despite technically looking like she belonged in middle school. Which wasn’t exactly a problem, really. But it did add on to her confusion, which was even more stressful. Yeah, this poor girl needed help. And by help, I meant an explanation. She desperately needed, and definitely deserved, an explanation. 

“Sean,” Mom started once the poor girl had finished telling her side of the story, “I believe things should be fairly safe now. Could you go down and find Mennin to let him know what’s going on, and have him send some help for Francis?”  

As if her attention had only just turned that way, Denise abruptly blurted, “I-is that a robot dog?” 

“Sure is,” Sean confirmed, putting a hand on his head. “This is Vulcan. Vulcan, why don’t you go say hi?” 

The cyberform promptly moved that way, trotting closer. He passed my mother and me, before sitting on his haunches right in front of the girl. Denise hesitated, then reached out to tentatively touch his snout. Running her fingers along his mouth curiously, she inched closer, then slowly put both arms around Vulcan in a hug. One that I was pretty sure the poor kid desperately needed. 

Apparently Sean agreed, because he told Vulcan to stay here for now. Then he headed out for the medical room, calling back that he would find out what was going on with the other guests too. 

Once he was gone, I looked toward Denise once more. She still had both arms around Vulcan, clinging to him like a lifeline. “Okay. So, we do have answers for you. Some of them are really not… some of them are gonna freak you out. But it’s the truth. We won’t lie to you, I swear.” 

“Yes,” Mom agreed. “You deserve… a lot. But the very least we can give you is the truth.” 

So, we started from the beginning, at least as far as we could while still being vaguely relevant to Denise. We told her about Crossroads and Heretics, about the rebellion and my mother being sent away with a new memory, and eventually being taken by Fossor. We told her about Ammon, and how he had been turned evil. Then we got into the fact that he had gone to that gas station while on his way to find me

“That girl worked there,” Denise filled in, her voice full of trepidation as she clung even tighter to Vulcan. “He killed her, didn’t he? I saw her memories too. I saw… I mean… what?” She was looking at all of us as we stared at her, clearly reading the trouble in our expressions. 

Realizing how hard this was going to be, my mother and I exchanged looks before she turned back to the girl and started to gently explain the full truth. She started by calling Twister over, before the two of them explained what a Pooka could do beyond turning into animals, how they would ‘respawn’ as a child upon being killed, then mentioned that Ammon had forced one to ‘kill’ himself, thus inheriting his power. Twister tried to explain what it was like, waking up as a child once more and then gradually getting the memories of her past lives back. 

From the look on her face, I had the feeling that Denise was starting to put things together, though she was clearly still in some denial. She held onto Vulcan even tighter while watching, eyes completely unblinking as she waited for the other shoe to drop.  

In the end, Mom tried to lower the shoe as much as possible before dropping it, but there was no way to stop it from hitting the floor. Taking a deep breath, she explained exactly what had happened, that the dreams about dying Denise had been having weren’t dreams at all, but her actual memories. She told the girl exactly how that whole thing had gone down, and how she had transferred Ammon’s powers to her in order to bring the girl back to life. She also told her about how she wasn’t supposed to remember anything, and that the powers were supposed to be incredibly temporary, only lasting for a few seconds at most. Just enough to bring her back. 

“If I had had any idea that you would actually remember anything, or retain any of it, I would have… I would have made sure someone was there for you.” There was pain in Mom’s voice,  and I could tell she wanted to reach out to the girl, but didn’t know how it would be taken. She clenched her hands and quietly added, “I’m so sorry for everything you’ve been through. I’m sorry no one was there to help explain things to you, and I’m sorry you’ve had to try to understand this all on your own. You deserve better than that. Much better.” 

Denise didn’t respond at first. She stared at my mother, then at me, then looked down at the floor. Her grip on Vulcan remained tight as she made a low whimpering sound deep in her throat, clearly trying to cope with what she had just been told. I tried to think about how I would feel in her position, but I couldn’t even imagine it. Even after everything I have been through, I wasn’t sure how I would cope with being given the story that Denise had just been given. It was too much. How was she supposed to cope with the amount of shit that had just been dropped on her? She wasn’t just finding out the monsters were real and all that, she was also finding out that she had literally been murdered and brought back to life as a younger version of herself. 

“I know it’s a lot, kid,” Twister put in. I expected her to add a joke or something after that, but instead, she simply added, “Some of us Pooka have a sort of group meeting sometimes where we can talk about our memories. You know, the ones about being killed, and all those times where we don’t remember our past lives and think we’re just normal people. Sometimes the real memories kicking in are… well, kicking is the right word. Like a mule. It can really hurt. So, you know, you can come and be a part of that, if you want. Anytime you want, when you’re ready.” 

Staring at the floor and silence for several long seconds, Denise finally pushed herself up and folded her arms tightly, turning away from us. Her shoulders were shaking visibly, though no sound emerged. After an extended moment of that, she took a long, deep breath before quietly speaking. “I’m scared. I thought getting answers would make things better, but now I’m even more scared. You e-explained everything, but it didn’t help. It doesn’t help. I’m–he’s… he’s still there.” She turned it back to us, fists clenched. “I can feel him. I can hear his voice. I can see the things he did, the things he wants to do. And now… now I know it’s not just in my head. He’s really evil and he really killed all those people. He killed me. They aren’t just dreams. They’re real. And the things he makes me think about when I look at my mom and dad, they’re what he wants me to do. He wants me to kill them.” Tears had flooded her eyes, as she shook violently while standing there.

It was Twister who moved first, stepping over to embrace the girl tightly. Again, there were no jokes, no off-color remarks or attempts to break the tension. She just held onto Denise and let the girl cling tightly to her as the tears continued to pour out, uncontrolled. A dam had burst, and it wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. Not with how long Denise had been holding so much of it back. She had answers now, but as she’d said, the answers didn’t exactly fix things. 

“But you won’t,” I found myself saying before even realizing that I was going to speak up. The words came without conscious thought. And it wasn’t because of Tabbris, because she was still out of me. “You’ve already proven you’re stronger than him, than those memories. You were all by yourself and you still beat his memories. You resisted. You already proved you can beat him. And now you’re not alone anymore.” 

Mom gave a short nod. “That’s right, and you’re not going to be alone again. I don’t… I know you probably don’t want to be around us very much. Not after what you just found out. But we have people you can stay with, others who can help you understand your… power and how to get through those memories and dreams. We have friends who can be there for you.” 

For a moment, it looked like Denise was really fighting to find the right thing to say. Her mouth kept opening and shutting before she looked back to the floor, a frown knitting her brow. “Can’t you just erase those thoughts and memories? You do things like that, right? You could take his memories out of my head, right?” 

Again, we all exchanged looks before I hesitantly answered, “We have someone who might be able to do something with that, but I don’t want to speak for her. She’s definitely an expert at that sort of thing, so if anyone can do it, she can. But she’ll have to talk to you for a while and find out for herself if it’s possible. And how to do it without hurting you.” 

Swallowing, she met my gaze. “I just want them gone. I just want him gone. I just…” Her eyes closed and I saw a few more tears fall as she whispered in an exhausted voice. “I just want to sleep without dreaming about killing people.” 

Oh boy, what was I supposed to say to that? I had no idea. The only words that would come was a very weak, “Come with us and we’ll get you some help. Somehow.” I didn’t know if it would be as easy as just removing those memories or not, but somehow we would help her. 

“What about my parents?” she asked then, just as weakly. “They think I’m at my aunt’s. I… I lied to them.” Her voice was even more pained than before at the admission. “It was bad. It was wrong. But I had to tell them something. I had to… I had to leave, before the dreams made me… before…” She shuddered visibly, unable to go on. 

“We’ll work out what to do with your parents, I promise,” Mom assured her. “We’ll figure all that out later. Right now, we just need to have you talk with Sariel and see what she can do. That’s the first thing.” 

Even as she said that, the doors opened and several uniformed medical people came in, escorted by Sean. He waved them over to where Francis was (someone had put a pillow under his head). One of them split off to move over to check on Denise as well, taking a knee while having her sit in a chair so he could ask medical-related questions. 

Meanwhile, the rest of us moved out of the way for the moment. Feeling a tap on my shoulder, I turned to see Seth there. He arched an eyebrow. “So, seems like this ghost problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Think I could tag along with you, Miss Necromancer?” 

“Do you mean the problem of Kushiel being a ghost, or of you being a ghost?” I found myself asking. 

“Sure,” he replied with a sly wink before sobering. “Seriously, better than sticking around and haunting this place even longer. Last time I checked, you’re where the action is.” 

“Yeah, hey, me too.” That was Grover. “Your life seems pretty exciting. I want to see more. Besides, you still owe me a stabbing.” 

Glancing toward Asenath, who was standing in a corner of the room trying not to stare too much, I gestured. “Yeah. You’re welcome to stay. I need more ghosts. But uhh, maybe you should go talk to her, huh?” 

Giving me a brief salute, the man turned and moved that way. I couldn’t hear what they were saying to each other, and I didn’t want to eavesdrop. It was between the two of them. 

Instead, I looked over at the doorway, where Koren and Rebecca had arrived. They looked at me questioningly, and I exhaled before stepping over to explain what was going on.  

They listened, with obvious increasing incredulity about the whole thing. Partway through, however, I paused and looked toward my mother. “Why do you think Kushiel was so convinced that sword was in here?” 

“Oh!” Denise piped up. “Um, because it was.” As the rest of us stared, she darted off the chair, moving to the fireplace to root around inside it before coming out with something long wrapped in cloth. She carefully set it down on a table, then unveiled… the sword. It was absolutely the right one, fitting the description perfectly, with a black blade, a red handle, and an amber jewel at the end. The sword, it was here. It was right here the whole time.

“What… but… but…” My mouth opened and shut, staring at the thing. “You said you couldn’t find it.”

She, in turn, squirmed a little uncomfortably. “I thought umm, I thought it’d be bad if she got it. She said she’d kill people if I didn’t help her find it, but I’m pretty sure she wanted to kill people anyway. I thought if she found it, everything would be worse. If she killed people because I didn’t give it to her, she would’ve done that anyway. But if she killed even more people because I did give it to her, it would’ve been my fault. I umm… I know it’s bad to lie. Am… am I bad?” 

“No, Denise,” I started. 

“Denny,” she interrupted. “I umm, please. Please call me Denny.” 

“Sure, anything you want,” I agreed while continuing to stare in disbelief at the sword. “But you’re not bad, Denny.

“In all, I’d say you’re pretty amazing.” 

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The Runaway 15-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The first non-canon for Summus Proelium this month was just released for everyone right here

Seeing Seth as a ghost had been a pleasant sort of surprise. This? This was basically the worst kind. Seeing Kushiel there, even as a ghost, made me reel backward. This was wrong. This was all wrong. She was supposed to be gone completely. And how was she possessing Francis? I didn’t–what–how? All those questions rushed through my head as I stared open-mouthed at the figure. 

“Lady,” Mom announced, “I don’t know who you are, but you’re going to explain just what the hell is going on here. And let Francis go. Now.” Even as she spoke, my mother focused, producing a gleaming silvery-gold sword out of nowhere, with runes inscribed on it that were glowing with energy. I had no idea what it was or where it came from, but it seemed pretty dangerous. My mother clearly wasn’t playing around. 

“It’s Kushiel,” Sean informed her in a flat voice, without taking his eyes off the woman in question. He had one hand on Vulcan’s head, while the cyberform gave a low growl. “Puriel’s wife. Theia’s mother.” 

“Her name is not Theia!” Kushiel practically thundered. Seriously, the room shook a little bit, with paintings and light fixtures rattling against the walls. Her ghostly figure turned a bit red, and seemed to actually give off a bit of heat. “She has no name, she is Mendacia. She could have earned a name if she worked hard enough to help fix what she is, but she wouldn’t. She didn’t. She has no name. And even if she did, it certainly wouldn’t be that name.”

“What are you doing?” I put in, before we could get more off track. Besides, I really didn’t feel like letting her talk about Theia at all. She didn’t deserve to. “How are you controlling Francis? And what the hell did you do to Denise?” Even as I said that, I gave the girl in question a quick glance. She had moved to hide behind the nearest couch, peeking over it with a tiny whimper when I said her name. 

“What am I doing?” Kushiel echoed, her voice reverberating through the room once more. “Well, little girl, as it turns out, it would seem that being dead is not exactly the end for those of us with enough of a Tartarus gift. We still have things to do. That energy, that power… I can still feel it.” She looked at her own semi-translucent hand, clearly marveling. “Yes, I am a ghost. But you can feel for yourself, not the ordinary sort. Tartarus sustains me, gifts me with the strength to resist even your control. I even maintain my ability to possess and control others.” She glanced over her shoulder at the motionless man behind her. “In exchange for service.” 

“Something’s wrong,” I murmured. “This isn’t her. I mean, it is, but it isn’t. She’s different.” 

“Different?” Kushiel glowered at me, gaze seeming to burn straight into my soul. “If I have changed in some way, perhaps it is the fault of the creature who murdered me.” 

“That creature is your own daughter!” I snapped back. “The one you abused and tortured for most of her life, just because she’s different.” 

“She is an abomination!” The ghostly figure roared. That time, several of the paintings fell off the walls and I felt a blast of heat fill the room. It was enough to make me wince a little bit, though it only lasted for a moment. “And I assure you, she will get what is coming to her.” 

Mom spoke up then. “You are not going to hurt anyone else.” As she said that, the sword flared to life with light blue flames. A form of ghostfire, I was pretty sure. 

“You might want to think twice about using that,” Kushiel retorted darkly, even as her form seemed to fade just a little bit. She didn’t disappear, but most of her body turned even more translucent. Except for her eyes. Those flared even brighter. “Even in life, I was a bit harder to harm than you might assume.” 

“She reflects damage to other people,” I put in. Mom knew that, she’d heard the stories. But I wanted to make sure everyone remembered, just in case. High as tempers were right now, one wrong move could turn incredibly bad. “You hurt her, she makes it hurt someone else instead.” 

Kushiel’s cold, dead gaze focused on me. “Very good, child. Gold star for you. That is what they say on this backwater, nothing world, isn’t it? Several gold stars. Have all you want. For all the good they will do you.” 

Twister, straightening up beside Sean, replied, “How do you know she even still has that power? I mean, she’s a ghost. Did she really get to smuggle that sort of gift past Death Customs?”

A look of amusement crossed the woman’s gaze, as she stared Twister down. “Oh, by all means, have a go if you wish to see for yourself. Or, perhaps you should ask the child there.” 

Denise, with a tiny gulp, managed to weakly put in, “They tried to hurt her when she showed up. Mr. Gale did, before she… before she took him. But everything they hit her with, it… it hurt other people.” 

Great, so there was our confirmation. Kushiel really had kept her power after death. Because that was fair. Sometimes I really just wanted to look at the sky and scream bullshit as loud as I could. Not that it would actually help anything, but it might make me feel a little better for a few seconds.  

Asenath finally spoke up, her voice quiet. “But what does Denise have to do with any of this?” 

“That child?” the tall, ghostly woman gave a contemptuous glance that way, making the girl in question whimper and duck down again. “Everything and nothing. I sensed the dark presence in her as soon as they brought her in. The power she has, I can smell it. For months, I had no firm presence in this place. I floated through its walls, my form… scattered. It was so… difficult to focus, to think. I was dreaming of Tartarus, of what has to happen. Dreaming of what must come, but unable to bring myself together. I could not force myself to coalesce, no matter how hard I tried. Like attempting to wake from a deep slumber. The protections within this place forced me to continue my aimless drifting, my sleep, my dreams. When that child was brought into this place, I felt her presence like a beacon. It helped me bring myself together, just a bit more. Not enough, but it was better than nothing. And then… when the man who has been entrusted with this hotel’s care left the premises, my head cleared even more.” 

Mennin, I realized. His mother was gone, and when he had left to come collect us, it somehow removed the protections that had stopped Kushiel from bringing herself together fully. I didn’t know how or why that was a thing in the first place, but it was the only way this made sense. For a certain definition of ‘making sense.’ The thought that all of this had started happening just because we pulled the man away from the Auberge was enough to send a cold chill through me. 

“I felt my strength return,” Kushiel was saying. “For the first time in months, I truly felt like myself. And I knew what to do. I took their protector.” She gave a dismissive wave of her hand toward Francis, who was still standing motionless, staring at nothing. “I took his body for my own. He fought me, as she said. But it was both meaningless and too late. And, of course, it did not help that he was distracted attempting to aid the child there.” 

“She killed them,” Denise managed in a voice that cracked from fear and grief. “They were trying to h-help me, and she… she killed them. She killed them and their… their ghosts were there. But sh-she took them. It was like she… swallowed their ghosts.” 

That was enough to make Grover and Seth each take a step back, while Kushiel gave them a dark smile. “Yes, absorbing other ghosts does seem to help with my own focus and strength. And I am getting a bit peckish.” 

Denise went on quickly. “I tried to stop her, I tried to use the voice, but she didn’t listen. It didn’t work. I-it didn’t do anything.” 

Kushiel was immune to Ammon’s power? That raised even more questions. Was it a ghost thing or–yeah, I had no idea. Not to mention the way Denise talked about it seemed to indicate that she wasn’t actually being controlled by Ammon’s memories or whatever. But that opened a whole new confusing can of worms that we didn’t have time to get into thanks to the elegantly dressed and psychotic ghost elephant in the room. 

Denise was still talking. “Sh-she said she’d stop killing people here if I helped her find the thing she’s looking for. I-I didn’t want to, but she promised she’d leave everyone else alive if I found it.” 

“Yes, and you have failed at that repeatedly, haven’t you?” Kushiel shot back, her harsh voice making the girl recoil and drop back behind the couch once more with a choked sound of terror. 

Asenath quickly snapped, “Leave her alone! What the hell are you even looking for in here? What do you want?”  

From the corner of my eye as she was saying that, I noticed Seth move to put his hand on her shoulder, only to fail as it simply passed through the girl. He glanced down at his hand and grimaced. 

“What do I want?” Kushiel echoed the question, just as she had the earlier one. “What I want is what belongs to me. Perhaps if you children assist that one in finding it, I will be grateful enough to allow you, and everyone else who still resides in this pit, to live for the time being. Who knows, if I get what I want, I may be so pleased that I will spare you permanently.”

We really were in trouble here. I had been trying to get hold of her ghost form with my power this whole time, to no avail. It was that Tartarus energy. Not only was it somehow sustaining her as a ghost and allowing her to do far more than she should have been able to, it also made it impossible for me to make my Necromancy latch onto her. It was shielding her or something. Or it just made her ghost too different for my power to get a good grip. I could sense her pretty well now. Hell, I could even sense the link she had to Francis, like a piece of her sitting inside him. Her recall point. 

Either way, beating her the easy way was out. At least for now. Worse, none of us had the sort of power it would take to kill Kushiel without having it rebound back on one or more of us. I was curious whether Tabbris’s wings could destroy her without being reflected, but I wasn’t sure. And that really wasn’t the sort of thing that you could just test. If I was wrong and the damage from the wing blasts could be reflected, whoever it hit would be obliterated. We couldn’t risk that. 

On the other hand, thinking about that made another thought pop into my head. Immediately, I blurted, “Well, it’d be pretty hard to help you find whatever you’re looking for when we don’t even know what it is.” 

“I-it’s a sword,” Denise put in. “A sword with a red handle, a umm, a little yellow jewel at the end, and the blade is black. Like, totally black.” 

“Shit, you really think you can find that thing?” That was Grover, of all people. The young-looking ghost boy had floated up to one side of me, staring at Kushiel. “You know how many of our folks have scoured the whole world for that sword? It’s a myth. And not the real sort of myth. The fake kind. You think you’re the first dead thing to try to get it? I had a pal who wasted two centuries looking for that thing. Never got anywhere. You know why? Because it’s a dumb bedtime story. It ain’t real and it never was.” 

Kushiel looked like she was about to retort, before giving a double-take, her eyes narrowing. “I have no idea who you are.” The words came in a suspicious snarl. 

“Grover Clyde, at… her service,” he replied with a nod toward me. “And like I said, lady, if hundreds of ghosts over the past thousand years can’t find that sword, what makes you think you can within five minutes of waking up?” 

Glowering once more, as her ghostly form gave off even more heat, Kushiel snapped dangerously, “Perhaps it is the fact that I was there when it was enchanted, simpleton. I know who took it. And I know he stayed in this hotel, in this room. It may have been changed and redecorated many times over the centuries, but I know it was here. The blade is in this room somewhere. I can feel it.” 

“Uh, for those of us who have no clue what the hell you’re talking about,” Sean spoke up, “how about you tell us what the hell you’re talking about? What sword? Why do you want it so bad? And why were a bunch of ghosts looking for it?” 

Kushiel’s glower turned that way. For a moment, I was afraid she’d get so hot she might start incinerating things. It was almost like that old Disney Hercules movie, when Hades would get so pissed off he turned red. But this wasn’t funny. It was dangerous, and we still didn’t have a way to safely counter her. Especially not when she could jump back into Francis at any point and suddenly be in control of a Steward-Hybrid within his own home. That was a recipe for disaster. 

In the end, however, I supposed her need for the sword was stronger than her rage. Because the ghost woman calmed a bit, lifting her chin thoughtfully. “You want to know what this sword is? Why doesn’t your little friend there tell you all about it? Given his clear expertise, and all.” 

“Yeah.” Seth was looking at Grover as well. “I’m kinda curious about that myself.” 

Grover, in turn, shrugged carelessly. “Well sure, I guess. According to the myth, because that’s all it is, the sword is called Clarent.” 

“Wait, hold on,” I blurted. “I know that one. That’s the, you know, the sword Mordred used. G–Morgan’s son. That was his weapon, right?” Yeah, I had done a little research after the whole Guinevere revelation. Not to mention finding out that Aylen was supposed to be the one that brought Arthur back to life somehow. That was still a doozy. 

“Very good, another gold star,” Kushiel put in, a bit tauntingly. It made my mother growl just a little while stepping closer to me. If the Seosten woman cared, she didn’t show it. Instead, she simply offered me a very faint, humorless smile. “But then, from everything I have heard, you were always an ambitious little go-getter. I’m not surprised you did your homework.” 

Grover quickly pushed on. “Well, uh, anyway, according to all the rumors, this Clarent can be picked up and used by ghosts. Or anyone else of a less-than-tangible nature. It’s got a lot of powers attached to it. And it’s supposed to help you find his body. Mordred’s that is.” 

That made me do a double-take, though Sean spoke first. “Why would you want to find that body?” 

The ghost-boy’s eyes glanced toward me before he flatly replied, “Because that body is special. You know, according to the legend. Yeah, even ghosts have legends. If you believe them, a ghost is supposed to be able to possess that body and control it permanently. You know, basically coming back to life. And you get all his power and everything too. Supposedly.” 

Turning my gaze sharply back toward Kushiel, I snapped, “That’s what you want? You want to find that sword so you can get to that body and possess it?” 

“What can I say,” she lazily replied, “there’s a few bells and whistles on that corpse that would be very useful for someone as living-impaired as I happen to be. To say nothing of some other benefits. My little friend behind me there is a decent temporary fix, but maneuvering him is so much more awkward than it should be. He’s always fighting me. But with the body that Manakel and my dear husband prepared? It would be exactly like coming back to life again. Or, as close as one can get. Add a little magical shapeshifting, and I’ll be as good as–well, better than new, really.” 

Yeah, this was definitely bad. One of the last people I wanted to find a way to come back to life again was Kushiel. Not exactly the very bottom of the list. That spot was and always would be reserved for a certain necromancer. But she was definitely pretty far down there. We couldn’t let her find that sword or that body. And we absolutely couldn’t let her kill anyone else in this place. But we still couldn’t fight her directly. Anything we tried to hurt her with, she would just reflect back at one of us. 

“How do you even know that sword is in this suite?” Sean demanded with a glance toward me. “Seems to me like the kid over there has been tearing this place apart without much luck. Maybe you got your rooms wrong. Did you mix up the one and the seven, or maybe the nine and the six? People do that all the time. I’m just saying, we could expand the search.” 

Kushiel was… unamused. She gave him a withering stare before retorting, “The sword is here. I know it is here. And now that you are all here as well, you can help find it.” 

Taking two steps forward, my mother spoke quietly. “And just what on this planet, or any other, makes you think we would ever help you find something that would allow you to be that dangerous?”

Unmoved, Kushiel flatly replied, “Because unlike me, your daughter is not a disappointment. Truly, you have so much to be proud of.” Her eyes moved to me, and I felt a shiver run down my spine at the coldness of that gaze. “She has done so much to gain the enmity of me, and my people. But given our respective sides, I believe that makes you care for her even more. As you care for all these people. So allow me to put this plainly. Find me what I am looking for, and I shall take my leave of this place and you may all go about your day. Perhaps you may even discuss a way to kill me again.

“But deny me? Try to keep my property away from me? Should you make such a foolish choice, I will have the gentleman behind me incinerate every room in this hotel. Believe me when I say he is capable of it. This is a true Steward Hybrid.  And this is a home full of so many gifts for him. You cannot harm or stop me without killing yourselves. And should you try, I will burn this entire place to the ground and retrieve my property from the ashes.”

Mom started to say something to that, but I quickly interrupted. “You were right about something else, you know.”

That made Kushiel look at me, eyes narrowed. She was clearly suspicious, and yet too arrogant to act on that suspicion. Which said a lot given the fact that she was literally dead thanks to underestimating someone. “I have been correct about a great many things, child. Perhaps you should be more specific.”

For a moment, I didn’t respond. Instead, I took in a deep breath and let it out, eyes closing briefly. Then I opened them and looked at her. I intentionally kept my voice as calm and steady as possible. “A minute ago, you said I was an overachiever. I guess I have been in some ways. It’s been that way for a long time. I always felt this extra drive to try harder at something I cared about. And awhile back, I found out why that was, where that extra drive came from. The truth is, I was feeling the drive of two people. There is always someone right there with me cheering me on, encouraging me, pushing me to do better. She was right there, every time I needed her.”

Kushiel raised a hand, but it was too late. Because in that moment, Tabbris, whom I had spent the past several minutes summoning and silently conferring with, made her presence known by manifesting those glowing wings out of my back. 

But we didn’t use them to blast the woman, not without knowing whether it would work or not. Instead, every ounce of the power they could provide was pushed into my necromancy. The wings flared blindingly for one instant before fading, as I felt their strength flood through me. 

“Bye, bitch.”

With those words, I pushed as hard as I could with every ounce of power I now had.

And with a scream of rage that seemed to shake the entire building to its foundation, Kushiel’s connection to Francis was snapped, and the ghost herself was sent far, far away. 

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The Runaway 15-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

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For several long seconds, all of us just stared at the ghost figure. My mouth had fallen open, a noise of disbelief escaping me. Somehow, in the rush of trying to find out what had happened to Denise, I had entirely forgotten that Seth had been murdered right here in this building. Abaddon. Abaddon had killed him. Of course it made sense that one of the ghosts I would feel was him. He had to be one of the most recently killed people, aside from… aside from those three below and whoever else Denise-Ammon had killed. Of course it made sense. But I hadn’t thought about that at all. It had completely slipped my mind until he was standing right in front of us. 

Asenath was the first to actually find her voice, stepping right up to the shield. “Seth,” she managed, eyes wide. “You–you actually left behind a… you.” 

“A ghost?” He winked casually. “Yeah well, you didn’t think I was just gonna fade away into nothing, did you? Someone like me, we pretty much have to leave a mark on the world. In my case, it turns out that mark is literally a copy of myself.”  He squinted thoughtfully before adding, “I suppose there’s a story in there somewhere.” 

“That’s the sort of story that can come later,” Mom put in. “Can you do what we need?” 

“Oh, hey there, Jos.” Seth turned his attention to her and gave a little bow, his look one of familiarity. “I heard a few of the people around here talking about you getting out from under that fuck’s heel. Good for you. Wish I’d been there for that little scuffle. I had a few things I wanted to say to the bastard. As for this, yeah, I know where the power source for the shield is, but I need a little boost.” His eyes found me. “Can’t really generate enough physical force to break it without some help. Suppose that’s the problem with being dead.” As though to demonstrate, he waved his hand through a nearby wall. “If you wouldn’t mind, Miss Necromancer? I hear you’re pretty strong with that these days.” Raising a hand to the side of his mouth, he stage-whispered, “Ghosts gossip.”

Yeah, it was definitely him. Even in this sort of situation, Seth just didn’t take anything seriously. If I had thought his own death might change that, I was sorely mistaken. Or maybe it was just that ghosts were literally an impression of the original person left on the world using their magical energy. Either way, he was definitely still Seth. I was sorry that Shiori wasn’t here to see him. I knew how much she had liked the guy. 

Pushing all that out of my mind immediately, I gave a short nod. “I’ve been practicing,” I confirmed before closing my eyes. I focused on the energy in front of me. It took a moment to reach past the forcefield in order to feel Seth himself, but I managed it. With a little bit of effort, I pushed more power into him. I could feel his form solidify a little bit. It was somewhat like filling up a balloon with water, if that balloon had already held its shape for the most part. He became more present, more capable of acting on the outside world. 

“Ah, better.” Seth exhaled. “There we go. Now you all sit tight here. I’ll be right back.” With that, the man spun on his heel and walked into one of the nearby rooms we could see. The rest of us exchanged anxious looks. 

“Damn,” Twister noted, “even dead, he’s still pretty damn cu–”

“Don’t say it,” Asenath interrupted. “Trust me, he can hear you. Even as a ghost, he’ll never miss out on a chance to hear someone saying something that could inflate his ego.” 

“So what’s the deal with that guy?” my ghost buddy from the other hotel spoke up. “Sounds like you guys all know each other. C’mon, gimme the story. I like stories almost as much as stabbings. Especially if the story involves stabbing.” 

“I don’t think–hang on, what’s your name, anyway?” I realized I had never asked him. Mostly because I’d been a bit occupied back at Mercer’s place (not that I wasn’t occupied now), and didn’t think I’d ever see him again. 

“Grover,” he replied. “Grover Clyde, at your service.” He flashed me a smile that had probably melted a lot of hearts back when he was a living little boy. 

Over the next twenty seconds or so, I quickly gave Grover the rundown on who Seth was and what had happened. When I was done, he actually seemed to blanch a bit. “Damn. That sucks, man.” 

“Tell me about it,” Senny murmured. There was clear emotion in her voice, despite her attempt to play it off casually. For all that she had given Seth shit for being… well, Seth, it had always been obvious that she cared a lot about him. He was basically a brother to her, and I knew she felt horrible for what she saw as ‘letting him die’ before they could find her father. Who, of course, had been the one to turn Seth into a vampire in the first place. Tiras had brought him into their family. Asenath saw his death as a personal failure on her part. Which wasn’t really fair, but feelings and emotions seldom took fairness into account. 

Reaching out to avoid focusing on that, I looked through Seth’s eyes. He was standing in front of a black crystal about the size of a bowling ball. It was red and silver, floating in the air on a cushion of magical energy. That same magical energy surrounded the thing, seeming to form a sort of shield around it. Seth had already punched the thing a couple times, wearing out some of the power I’d given him. So, I filled him up with more, shoving my own energy into the ghost-man. He gave a gasp, before I saw him look down at his hands, clenching them into fists. “Why, thank you.” He was clearly talking to me, before rearing back to punch the shield surrounding the crystal once more. That time, it was enough, and the shield shattered. Which allowed Seth to reach in and grab the floating thing. He held it up above his head, grunted, and then slammed it down to the ground. The crystal shattered entirely, and I snapped myself back to seeing through my own eyes just in time to witness the forcefield that had been blocking our path completely vanish. 

Immediately, we all started to run that way. Twister flew down in hummingbird form, transforming to herself briefly before shifting into a wolf that raced alongside us. Even Seth jogged along with the group as soon as we passed the room where the crystal had been. I could still feel Denise ahead, on the far end of this floor. And yet, something was bugging me. I quickly spoke up, “Where did Denise-Ammon get a big crystal to power that forcefield?” 

Mom pivoted, facing me while still moving. “What big crystal?” 

Seth explained what he’d had to break in order to make the forcefield come down. Which brought my mother to a momentary halt. “Wait,” she spoke up sharply, making the others stop as well. “Felicity’s right, why–how would Denise, or Ammon if his memories have taken over, have that crystal? It’s… possible that it was already here, for some other purpose and they just took it.” Even as she said that, I could hear the doubt and uncertainty in her voice. And I didn’t blame her for that. There was just something very strange about the fact that crystal was there. Strange and convenient for trying to keep people like us away from them. There was a lot about this whole thing that wasn’t adding up. Could someone else be involved? That felt like wishful thinking. 

“Ammon… Ammon probably made someone tell him where he could get an energy source,” Asenath pointed out. “There have to be a lot of them around here.”

I nodded slowly. “Yeah, fair point. Still, something just seems…” 

“Off,” Twister agreed, rising up into her human form. “Yeah, babe, it’s felt off since we’ve been here. And it’s not just the fact that there were three dead bodies waiting for us. This whole place is just… it feels like someone’s watching us, you know?” She shivered, folding her arms. “I thought it was my imagination, paranoia from that whole creepy Ammon thing. But I dunno.” 

“We need answers,” Mom pointed out, gazing in the direction of where I could still feel Denise. “The best way to get those is to find that girl, make sure she can’t hurt anyone else, and then ask her some questions.” 

“Ahh, just out of curiosity here, what girl are you all talking about?” Seth put in. He rocked back and forth on his heels, his gaze sweeping over us. “I didn’t exactly see what happened here before you showed up, but I’ll tell you this much, there was definitely more than one person. I heard lots of voices, and some of the scuffles that happened, it wasn’t some little girl doing it.” 

“She could have put people in the hotel under her power. Or his power. Or–” Shaking off the whole confusion of that, I focused, telling Seth what we believed had happened. “The Ammon part of her has probably put some of the hotel guests and staff under her control and made them fight the others. That makes sense, right?”

“It does,” Mom reluctantly confirmed. “But we should still make sure we know what we’re walking into.” It sounded like the last thing she wanted to say. Mom needed to get in that room and stop Denise from doing… whatever she was doing. But she was right, we needed to know more. We weren’t going to do her or anyone else any good if we ran straight into some sort of trap. Sure, maybe this whole thing was just a result of Denise being taken over by Ammon’s memories/personality and using his power to make people in the hotel do things (including bringing out that crystal and setting up the forcefield), but even that still left a lot of questions. Including a lot of whys. Why would she want to do that? Why was she still spending time in this hotel instead of leaving? What was she looking for up here? What were we missing? Besides a lot. I was pretty sure one of the main answers to that last question was, ‘a lot.’ 

With a slight shudder to myself about how badly this whole situation could go, and was already going considering the dead people, I offered, “Maybe Grover and Seth could scout ahead and see what’s going on first?” Belatedly, I looked at the two ghosts. “That is, if you guys don’t mind that.”

The two, who had just met, immediately and without hesitation replied together, “Sure, what’re they gonna do, kill me?” They both then pointed and blurted, “Jinx!” 

Quickly, I waved my hands. “Just go see what’s going on in there!” Something was wrong. Something more than we knew. The urge to brush down this last hallway and run right into the room where I could still feel Denise moving around was almost overwhelming. I had to grab my own arms and make myself stop. A glance over to the side showed that Mom was basically in the same situation. She was staring that way, tightening and loosening her fists repeatedly. We had to help Denise. But we had to actually help her, not go rushing into a trap, or whatever this was, just because we were anxious. 

So, hard as it was, we waited. At least I had it a little easier than my mother. I was able to close my eyes and focus on the vision of one of the ghosts so I could see what was going on. I chose Seth. 

Immediately, I saw the door he was looking at. It was clearly an entrance into one of the fancier suites. Which also meant that it had a lot of magical shielding around it. Or at least, it had had a lot of magical shielding. Even while looking through Seth’s eyes, I could see where over a dozen different protective runes had been expertly broken. He and Grover were both leaning in to stare at where the shielding had been destroyed, clearly checking to see if there was any protection left. But I could tell already that there wasn’t. The room was completely open, at least as far as its magical defenses went. 

Sending a silent message for the two of them to wait for a moment, I opened my eyes and turned back to the others, telling them what we had seen. My head shook once I’d finished. “Does Ammon know how to break magic like that?” 

“Not that I’m aware of,” Mom murmured thoughtfully. “But it’s possible that his father taught him without my knowledge, or that he forced someone else to teach him at some point. It’s also possible that he controlled someone here into doing it. Through Denise.” With those last two words, her eyes darkened considerably.   

While she was saying that, another problem had jumped into my mind. If Denise had Ammon’s memories, or his personality had taken over, or… or whatever, did that mean that she remembered what had happened to kill him? More to the point, did she know that Dare was immune to him, and what that must mean? We hadn’t seen the sky crack apart temporarily like it had back when Koren and I had figured it out, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t happen at any second. Hell, it could have happened outside now without us knowing, right? Because what I really needed right now was another huge problem to worry about. If Denise really did have Ammon’s… everything, I had to find a way to make sure it didn’t get blurted out in front of everyone. Or we would risk an entire Fomorian invasion taking over the planet and probably killing billions of people in the process.

But hey, at least there was no pressure or anything. 

Realizing that the others were looking at me expectantly, I tried to shake that off and focus on the problem right in front of us. First we had to figure out what was going on with Denise. Then we could deal with the fallout of everything related to it. 

To that end, I focused on the two ghosts once more, seeing through their eyes as I asked them to turn invisible and poke their heads through into that room. There were no more defenses, so hopefully they wouldn’t have any problem taking a peek. We had to know what the hell was going on there. Especially considering my blood sense was still pointing directly through that doorway. Denise should be in the room right in front of them. For better or for worse, we were about to find out what she was doing. 

Holding my breath, I reached out for my mother’s hand blindly while watching through Seth’s eyes as he and Grover leaned over to peek through the door. The instant their heads passed through, we could see the grand entryway of the suite beyond. It was even bigger and more lavish than the other room, with an actual foyer beyond the entrance with a marble floor and a couple statues of centaurs holding up spears over the archway leading into the living area beyond. A staircase to the left (before the archway) spiraled up to a second floor with a balcony just over the arch where someone could stand and look down, and a doorway behind that seemed to lead into a library of some sort. Through the arch back down on the first level, there was a front living area, with several plush couches just in view surrounding a massive fireplace. 

While we were taking that in, a small, dark-haired girl went running past the archway, inside that front living area. Denise. Her sudden appearance made me reflexively jump, but she wasn’t attacking or hiding or anything. It didn’t look like she knew anything about the ghosts who had just poked their heads in. Rather, I realized as she darted past the archway again, dropping to her knees to peer under a couch, it seemed like she was looking for something. Rather frantically, if I wasn’t mistaken. 

Sure enough, a moment later we heard the girl blurt in a desperate voice, “I don’t know! I don’t know where it is! You have to be more specific. They moved everything around or something. Are you sure it’s in here?” There was a brief pause before her head shook quickly. “I know, I know! I’ll find it, I promise. I’ll find it, just… just don’t hurt anyone else, please? You don’t have to hurt anybody else, I’ll find it.”

Telling Grover and Seth to wait again, I popped back out of their vision. The others were watching expectantly, so I quickly explained what I had seen. Not that it gave a lot of answers, but still. With a grimace, I finished, “It sure doesn’t sound like she’s turned to evil or anything.” 

“She’s talking to someone,” Asenath murmured. “Ammon, maybe? Or the Ammon in her head. Maybe she’s trying to appease his voice or personality. You didn’t see anyone else in the room?” 

“No, and no one said anything when she stopped talking, before she responded,” I confirmed. “So yeah, that does kind of sound like a voice in her head. But if Denise is still herself enough to argue with the Ammon part that much, maybe we can actually pull her out of it and get her back to normal.” I gave my mother a hopeful glance at that. 

“Yes,” she confirmed, “that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Keep the deafening spells handy, but only use them if it looks like she’s about to do something with that power. I want to give her a chance to explain what’s going on.” With that, she started moving that way, while the rest of us quickly followed after. Now that we knew Denise was in there, and seemed to be alone, Mom wasn’t going to wait any longer. She wanted to get in there and help that girl. Asenath was right beside her, with Twister, Sean (with the Vulcans), and me bringing up the rear. 

On the way, I gave one more peek through the ghosts. But nothing had really changed. Denise was still looking for… whatever it was. At the moment, she had her body half-twisted inside the fireplace, peering up the chimney as she insisted there was nothing in there. Still, there was no sign of anyone else. And I heard nothing during the pause while she was silent before responding to whatever it was she heard, quickly pleading for more time. It sounded like the voice in her head was getting pretty impatient. I really didn’t want to think about what it might be threatening to terrify the girl so much. This whole situation was creeping me out even more with every passing moment. We had to get in there and deal with whatever this was. 

It didn’t take long for us to reach the entrance to the suite. As Grover and Seth glanced over to us, looking just as uncertain as the rest of us were, my mother kept going. She didn’t even break stride while waving her hand to make the doors swing open so she could pass through, Asenath right at her side. As we followed right behind, Mom’s voice called, “Denise? Denise Cartland!” 

With that, we were there, passing through the foyer and standing in that archway. And I could see Denise with my own eyes. She had jolted at the sound of my mother’s call, jerking upright from where she had been peering behind one of the statues in a corner. Eyes wide, she pivoted to face us, looking panicked. “N-no! No, what are you doing here? You can’t be here. Please, please, go away. If you don’t leave, she’ll hurt you.” 

“It’s okay, Denise,” Mom assured her. “We know what…” She trailed off then. “What… do you mean, ‘she?’ You mean he.” 

“Wh-what?” The girl, looking even more terrified as she saw how many of us there were, pressed her back against the wall as her head shook wildly. “N-no, no, she. She made him do it. She made him hurt them. She–she hurt–she–” 

“That’s enough, dear.” A new, yet vaguely familiar voice spoke from the other side of the room. Our gazes snapped that way, to see a man standing in one of the doorways. A man I knew, with light-blond hair, a slim build, and amber eyes. As with the last time I’d seen him, he wore a pristine white trench coat over a red silk shirt with buttons down the front, and white slacks.  Francis Gale, the Steward Hybrid. The Auberge’s head of security, essentially. He was there. But… but…

Even as a rush of confusing thoughts ran through my mind, a glowing figure emerged from him. My first thought was ‘Seosten.’ But I immediately felt the difference. This was a ghost. An incredibly powerful ghost. Instantly, I reached out with my power, attempting to halt it in its tracks. But my power just slid off it. The thing was too powerful, shrugging away my attempt to grab it. 

“I’m sorry dear,” the figure informed me, as the glow faded. “You’ll have to try harder than that. Perhaps you should go practice. In the meantime, where is my daughter? 

“We have some catching up to do,” Kushiel’s ghost announced.  

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The Runaway 15-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

While the rest of us stood frozen for a moment, Mom and Asenath were already moving. They both crouched beside one of the bodies, checking it briefly before looking to one another. Some sort of silent conversation passed between them before my mother looked over at Mennin, her voice tense. “Are you sure your mother isn’t here? And Francis? Why hasn’t an alarm been sounded yet?”

“Yeah, like I said, she’s in Paris for a meeting,” Mennin informed us, already whipping a phone from his pocket. “Francis should be here. He should–The whole system is down. Alarms, communication, everything. It’s all down. Only someone with top level access should have been able to do that.” His long fingers danced over the phone, before he cursed in frustration. “They crashed the whole system. It’s a mix of technology and magic. I can bring it back up, but it’ll take time.” 

“We have to find Denise,” Asenath announced sharply while starting to rise. Half-way to her feet, she paused and tilted her head. “That blood.” Her hand rose, pointing to a small spot against the side of the bed that was almost invisible unless you were looking at the exact right place. “That’s hers. The rest of this belongs to these three, but that spot is hers. She was cut.” 

“You remember the smell of her blood from that long ago?” Rebecca asked, eyes widening. 

Asenath, in turn, gave a short nod. Her eyes had narrowed. “Yes. It was important blood. She’s still bleeding. I can track her scent if she hasn’t gone too far.”

“We can do better than that,” I replied, already moving to that spot. The blood-tracking ability the harpy had given me way back when we first ended up on the Meregan world. All I had to do was touch the spot with my finger, and…

“Top floor,” I announced, turning a bit to point. “She’s all the way up on the top floor and… and it feels like she’s moving fast, that way.” 

As I was saying that, Koren moved forward. She yanked a bit of cloth from one pocket and wiped it through the blood, then handed it to me. “So you can keep tracking her.”  

Mom immediately pointed to Mennin. “Get the system up and running again. Koren, Rebecca, December, and Tabbris, stay here to protect him, just in case. Tabbris can keep in contact with Felicity to let us know if anything happens.” To Asenath, Sean, Twister, and me, she gestured. “Let’s go find Denise. And… and stop whatever’s happening.” Her voice was thick with barely restrained emotion. It was obvious that she knew what all of this most likely meant. Ammon’s memories or… or personality, or… whatever must have managed to take over. And now she–or he–whoever she was after that, was going around the hotel doing… this. Killing people, making them shut down the whole security and communications system, and who knew what else. Whatever was actually going on, we had to find Denise and fix this, no matter what it took. That poor kid. God, fuck, how could this have happened? It didn’t even–was it just because of what Fossor had done? Did he plan for something like this, or was it all just an accident? 

Whatever it was, the point remained that we had to stop Denise and bring her back to her senses. Whether that took some sort of exorcism to get rid of the Ammon memories, or… or whatever. We had to fix this before things got even worse. And before Denise-Ammon made it out of the hotel and disappeared, since I had no idea how long this blood would keep telling me where she was. Especially considering if she–they got out of the building, I was pretty sure the Ammon part of her would be able to grab a ride and really disappear. 

Pushing that worry aside, I focused on something else that might actually be useful. “Hold on. If these guys died recently, I think I might be able to find their ghosts, if they left any. They could answer some questions.” My eyes closed, as I focused intently on my inherited Necromancy. I set aside all reflexive disgust at where the power had come from. What mattered was the fact that it could help us find out what was going on with Denise right now. It could give us answers about what had actually happened in here. Even if I was terrified as to what those answers would be. 

For a few seconds, I focused on that, before frowning. My head shook. “I don’t sense anything. I can’t feel their ghosts at all. I should be able to feel… you know, something. But it’s not there. It’s like…” I hesitated, a grimace touching my face. “It’s like someone else already took their ghosts somewhere else.” 

Everyone exchanged looks at that, their expressions making it clear that they didn’t like the sound of it any more than I did. Something was clearly very wrong here. Even more than we had already known. The thought sent a shiver through me. 

“We have to find her,” Mom announced, cutting through the brief silence that had followed my announcement. “That’s what matters. We’ll figure out the rest of it after she’s safe.” 

She was right, of course. What mattered was finding Denise and making sure she didn’t… that Ammon didn’t… making sure no one else got hurt, or worse. We could figure out the details, such as where the ghosts of these three people who had been murdered so recently had disappeared to, later. It was too bad that we couldn’t get easy answers about what actually happened, but there was no sense in wasting any more time standing around trying to figure it out. Not when Denise was right upstairs. 

Mennin apologized for the fact that he couldn’t send us directly to the top floor with the whole system being down, and gave us directions for the employee-access stairs that should go straight to the top. After a brief hesitation, he pleaded with us to hurry before focusing his attention back on getting the system running again. Apparently whatever Denise-Ammon had done was pretty extensive, because from the way the man was cursing, it didn’t sound like he was having much luck. Which really said a lot about how thoroughly it had been taken down, considering he was literally the son of the owner and apparently had the highest access. 

Either way, we left him working on that, with Tabbris (who had hopped out of me) and the others protecting him. Meanwhile, Twister, Sean, Asenath, and I jogged out of the room together with my mother, emerging into a white-carpeted hallway with various paintings along the wall. The art varied wildly in both style and ability. Next to what looked like a Renaissance masterpiece, there was a crayon piece that had to have been drawn by a child and hung up on a mother’s fridge. And right next to that one was a photo-realistic drawing of a man standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to how the artwork was arranged. And we really didn’t have time to focus on that anyway, immediately turning to the left to rush down the hall.  

I could still sense Denise far above us, though now It felt like she was moving back to an area she had already passed before. I wasn’t sure if the Denise part and Ammon part of her were arguing, or if they were looking for something, chasing someone, or what. But they were definitely moving back and forth, because now I could feel her moving back the opposite way, toward the spot I’d sensed her in first. 

I informed the others, and Sean shook his head. “Is she looking for an emergency way out or something? With the whole system down, maybe the exits don’t work.”  

“Well, we got in, right?” Twister demanded. “That Tombs guy just waved his hand and made a door.” 

“He’s the son of the owner,” Mom reminded her. “That comes with privileges.” 

“Speaking of privileges,” I put in, “What exactly are we going to do when we find, uhh, them? Mom and I, we’re immune. And Koren. I mean I think we are. I mean…” Frowning, I shook my head. “Hold on, if she has his power does that mean we’re still immune or–” 

“We won’t take the chance,” Mom informed me, already reaching into her pocket. She produced a handful of coins, tossing one to each of us. “When we get close, put that against your forehead and say ‘Lestansurdi.’ It should make you deaf just long enough to secure Denise and stop her from saying anything. As soon as she’s… as soon as everyone is safe, we’ll work out how to extricate Ammon’s thoughts from her mind.” With a glance toward Asenath, she added, “Felicity, you should help Senny with that.” 

Right, because Asenath couldn’t use magic. She had been upgraded to the point that she could temporarily use other people’s powers by ingesting their blood, but magic was still a no-go for her. It had something to do with the original blood curse that the Vestil had put on the Akharu over the whole throne of the world thing. It cut them off from using any magic, and that curse extended through vampires (who were literally just Natural Akharu Heretics, if you got right down to it). Asenath had a lot of advantages, even more now that she had that upgrade, but she absolutely could not do anything with magic. 

“Uh, quick question, will that work?” Twister piped up. “I’m pretty sure the Denuvus power thing cuts through most forms of ‘can’t hear you,’ doesn’t it? Doesn’t seem like it should be that easy.”

“It worked back when Vanessa and Avalon used those earplug things last year,” I noted. “Though they said something about that being magical temporary deafness with limited charges. Only lasted a few seconds.” 

“Yes,” Mom confirmed. “They would have had to use a special sort of deafness spell to make it work. Probably similar to the one on these, but it works longer. I’ve been working on it since… since my son was given his power. It… it should work. It’s the best chance we have, in any case.”  

By that point, we had reached the end of the corridor. It was an L intersection, cutting to the right. But we didn’t turn that way. Instead, Mom moved to the small painting of a farmyard and put her thumb against the door of the barn, reciting a three sentence code that Mennin had given us. Then we held our breath for a moment. He had said that this emergency stairwell should work even with the system down, but I was pretty sure we all half-expected to be screwed over again anyway. Because at this point, it really wouldn’t have surprised us. 

Fortunately, the wall slid aside as promised, revealing a circular metal stairwell leading up. It was very narrow, only meant for one human-sized person to move up at a time. Which made sense, considering it was essentially only intended for Mennin or his mother and their immediate family to use. 

I went first, since I could detect Denise’s blood and knew exactly where she was. Asenath was behind me, with Mom right behind her. Twister, Sean, and Vulcan brought up the rear. We might have been more wary, but my ability to sense Denise eased tensions a bit. Still, we had no idea what sort of orders an Ammon-possessed (or whatever) Denise might have given anyone else in the building. So, we weren’t going to reach out for help. We had to get up there ourselves, use the special deafening spells, and… and capture Denise. After that? Yeah, I had no idea. Get Ammon’s thoughts and memories out of Denise somehow. We’d deal with that as it came. 

There were other landings to get off at more floors, but we ignored them. The only exit we needed was the one that led to Denise. And there it was. We finally made it. In the lead, I stopped by the door, focusing just a bit. It was getting harder to sense the girl’s location through the blood, but I could still do it. “This floor still,” I murmured under my breath. “Far end, all the way in the corner. I think she’s… she’s moving around one room? She keeps, like, standing in one spot, then darting to another, staying there for a few seconds, then darting to a different spot. It’s like she’s–” 

“Searching,” Asenath finished. “Whatever that room is, it sounds like she’s ransacking it. Or they are. Or–” A frown crossed her face.

Looking over my shoulder down to where she was, I gestured. “I know, confusing, right? No idea how to refer to… umm… them?”

“Them is as close as I think can be accurate,” Mom muttered. “At least until we know more about… about what happened.” 

Swallowing hard, I nodded before turning back to the exit. “Well, let’s go find them then.” Pushing the door open, I stepped out cautiously. Neither my item sense nor anyone else had picked up any sign of anyone beyond, but still. Again, with Ammon involved (in some way), there was no such thing as being too careful. They could have ordered anyone to lay in ambush in case someone came after them. 

The area we emerged into looked like (duh) an extremely high-end hotel. The floor was marble under our feet, with a very wide hallway (seriously, the corridor was like twenty feet across). The walls were this beautiful reddish wood, and chandeliers hung from the ceiling at equal intervals going down the hall. To the left, wide windows displayed various scenes from different parts of the world. To the right, spaced just as equally apart as the chandeliers, were doors leading into private suites. Next to the windows here and there were small tables with statuary, plants, chairs to sit in, and so on. 

“They’ve done some remodeling since we were here last year,” I muttered, eyes scanning the whole corridor rapidly. “The place looks different.” 

“They do that,” Mom informed me, stepping up to one side as she kept her gaze laser-focused ahead of us. “With the sort of magic and resources this place can pull in, they like to mix things up a lot. Probably even more after what you said happened. They would want to distance themselves from experiencing a full-on Seosten invasion and battle throughout their sanctuary.” 

“And now look what happened,” Sean put in flatly. He had moved up on my other side, Vulcan creeping ahead of him a bit while sniffing the air. “Their system’s down and at least three of their people are dead.”  

“Let’s just hope it doesn’t turn out as violent as it did last time,” Twister noted. She hopped up, transforming into a small hummingbird before landing on Sean’s raised arm. 

Asenath, moving up next to Vulcan, shook her head. “It won’t. Whatever Ammon’s trying to do, whatever… whatever’s going on, we just catch Denise and evict every part of that… that… boy out of her.” It was clear that she wanted to say something worse than boy, but restrained herself with Mom right there. 

For her part, my mother simply started walking, gaze focused forward. “Yes,” she agreed, “we find Denise and free her. Whatever that takes.”

The rest of us exchanged brief looks before setting off after her. Yeah, I knew just how bad Mom was taking this whole thing. After everything she had done to make sure her own son wouldn’t resurrect, specifically so that he wouldn’t hurt anyone else, and now… now he was hurting more people. Or his memories were, his thoughts, his–ghost. His something. Whatever, the point was, people were getting hurt and killed because of him. And Mom was feeling the guilt of that, magnified by the whole situation that had led to it. 

Something that struck me as odd as we ran down the hall past all these doors was the fact that we still hadn’t seen anyone else. No guests, no employees, no one. I’d expected to see a bunch of Ammon-controlled people blocking our path. Or at least a lookout or something. There should have been people ready for, if not us, then any other interruption. I was pretty sure that’s what Ammon would have done. But there was just no one. The whole place was eerily empty and silent. I had no idea if there were people inside their rooms, but there was no one out in the hall. In some ways, that was worse. It made me even more anxious. What was going on? Why was Ammon-Denise ransacking some room on the top floor instead of getting out of the hotel? What could they possibly want up there? Seriously, as far as I knew, Ammon had never even been here. He shouldn’t know anything about the place, and Denise definitely didn’t know anything about it. So what the hell was going on? We were missing something, and the closer we got to where they were without figuring out what that missing something was, the worse I thought it was going to be. 

Unfortunately, we were going to have to wait even longer to find out. Because just as we turned the corner at the end of the hall, a glowing reddish forcefield blocked our path. It stretched across the entire hallway, stopping us from moving forward. We all came to a halt, and Mom reached out to put her hand close to the thing. “It’s blocking transportation powers,” she murmured. “And it’s… really strong. I don’t think we can break through it. Not quickly, anyway. We need another way. Are they…” She looked toward me questioningly, while the others followed suit.  

“They’re still in that room,” I confirmed after a moment of focus. It was even harder now, the sense even more faded. But I could definitely still feel it, especially when I pressed my finger against the blood on the cloth. “Still moving around, just like before.” A frown touched my face once more. “I still can’t figure out what the hell they’re doing.” Looking to my mother, I asked, “Are you sure you can’t see them from here?” 

Mom shook her head. “Between the hotel’s own safety measures that are still running, and whatever they set up, I can’t see any better down this hall than you can.” 

We tried a couple of different things. Twister turned into a bug to find a way around or under the shield, but apparently it extended through the solid material. She couldn’t get anywhere. Mom, Sean, and I tried any combination of magic we knew to take the shield down, and that showed some promise, but it was too slow. Even working together, we would take at least an hour to break through the thing. And I was pretty sure we didn’t have that sort of time. We had to get in there and find out what the hell Ammon-Denise was doing. Every second that passed made me even more anxious. This was really bad. 

Punching the wall, Asenath turned to me. “Ghosts? There have to be some ghosts around here, right? Or you can use one of the others you already have. Maybe they can get through.” 

Mom was nodding. “Yes, they should be able to. Or you can summon them onto the other side. A shield like this has to have a power source somewhere nearby. If they can find and disrupt it, the shield should go down so we can get through.” 

Right, I could do that. If we needed the ghost on the other side of the shield, it was probably a good idea to reach out for one that was already over there. So, I pressed my hands against the force field, closed my eyes, and focused. Immediately, I sensed a presence. A familiar one at that. 

My eyes opened, to find the ghost boy from before, back at the other hotel. He looked the same as before, in his old-style clothing. “Hiya, boss lady,” he greeted with a casual wave. “You rang?” 

“You–how–what?” My mouth opened and shut, staring at him. “How are you…?” 

“Right, I got bored back at the motel, and your life seems exciting,” he informed me. “So, I figured I’d follow you and see what happened. You really need to get better about sensing that sort of thing. I mean, you got a lot of raw power, sure. But you need practice. No way should I have been able to follow you guys without you knowing. That’s just crazy. Probably would’ve sensed me downstairs when you were looking for those new dead folks, but I took a walk to check this place out. Pretty swanky.” 

“Felicity?” Mom prompted. “Is this a friend of yours?” 

“It’s a long story,” I replied. “Wait, not that long. He was back at the other hotel, where Mercer was. He helped me get through there. And now… now he’ll help here?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. 

He, in turn, shrugged. “I suppose. But maybe you should ask one of the ghosts who lives here. Like that guy.” Turning and moving a bit to one side, he raised a hand to point toward a dark figure that had just appeared in the hall behind him. Another ghost. I felt it. I could sense death surrounding the shape, which grew stronger as it came closer. 

Stronger… and even more familiar than the boy. 

“Well… hey there,” the figure drawled as they got close enough for everyone to see. 

“Didn’t expect to see you guys any time soon,” Seth’s ghost announced. 

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On The Edge 42-02

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“You know,” Seth’s voice announced, “this guy is really good at violence. I think I like this partnership thing.”

His expression changed then, as the man spoke for himself. “That was a compliment,” he drawled, “so I let her go ahead and say it.”

Larees was the first one who had spoken. She and the vampire had chosen to team up. As capable as Seth was normally, I couldn’t even imagine what he would be like with a full Seosten boost. To say nothing of Asenath and the werewolves.

Even with short notice, we definitely weren’t going in unprepared. I just hoped it would be enough to deal with what we found in there. I didn’t want to have to fight the hotel residents any more than we had to, and I had no doubt that Kushiel would throw as many of them in our path as she possibly could. It wasn’t like killing innocents mattered to her.

A group of us was walking down the street to approach the most recent entrance to the Auberge. It wasn’t everyone. The Auberge had rules about larger groups. Even if you were together, you couldn’t approach and enter with more than seven or eight people at a time. It was to avoid attention from the outside (and probably for other security reasons) and they were very strict about it. Which worked for us, since splitting up to search the hotel was what we wanted to do anyway.

I was going in right alongside Wyatt and Deveron, of course. Neither of them had agreed to be possessed. Asenath, on the other hand, had agreed to be possessed by Athena. I’d pointed out that that seemed like a good way to commit suicide given the whole vampires being hybrids thing, and Athena had told me that holding Excalibur actually allowed her to possess hybrids, so long as she held the blade against them for a few seconds first. Which… was there anything the sword couldn’t do? We also had Seth, possessed by Larees and Namythiet (with Clubber), Bobbi, and Twister. Each of them (including the tiger cub) were possessed by a different Seosten, who were all quietly waiting for if (or when) things went wrong. I just hoped all the possessors and possessees were taking a chance to get to know each other while they had the chance. Because when this went down, they really needed to be able to work together as much as possible.

Either way, it wasn’t long before we reached the back alley that Seth had pointed us to. At the end of it was a single red door, lit by a weak little lamp. There was no sign of anything special about it at all. Which made sense, given the fact that it was, well, a secret.

Deveron looked towards me, quietly asking, “You ready for this, kid?”

My eyes met his. Not that either of our eyes, or the rest of our faces, looked the way they should. He had made himself look like a very pale blonde guy with a hint of fat in his cheeks, while I had gone with the appearance of a nearly anorexic redhead.

Besides our appearance changes, we were both also using the spells Wyatt had provided to fool any shape-shifting detectors the hotel happened to be using. That was on top of the spells he had put on us that would allow the others out in the van, like Abigail, to watch what happened. Which had once again reminded me of just how important and useful my magic-inclined big brother was.

“I’m ready,” I replied simply. “We’re ready. Or at least as ready as we’re going to have a chance to be. I’m pretty sure Kushiel won’t pay attention if we call for a time out for a year or two so we can really get ready.”

“Yeah,” Asenath put in. “I’ve found that people like her are really inconsiderate when it comes to that.” Pausing, she added, “And when it comes to basically everything else, really.”

Her expression shifted slightly then, as Athena spoke through her. “Be ready for anything. We don’t know how long they’ve been here, or how many resources they brought in. Assume that everyone inside is a potential threat, either through coercion or possession. It’s okay to look around and be curious. Remember, we’re tourists, so it’s expected. It’s our first time here.”

“Well,” Twister put in, “most of your first times here. Some of us know how to enjoy ourselves now and then.” She and Seth exchanged high fives without either looking at the other.

We reached the door then, and Seth reached out to knock. One quick, two long, then three quick.

As soon as that was done, a slit that hadn’t been there before appeared in the door. It slid open to reveal a pair of eyes, which immediately gave me the creeps. The eyes shifted slowly to take in each of us in turn, scanning up-and-down. I didn’t know exactly what they were doing, but it tickled. These definitely weren’t ordinary eyes, which was to be expected.

Apparently the shape-shifting combined with Wyatt’s spell worked, because a moment later the slit closed and the door slid open. As a group, we exchanged glances before starting through. Seth with Larees and Asenath with Athena went first.

We emerged into an incredibly lavish and beautiful hotel lobby. Seriously, this place was gorgeous. If it had been a Bystander place, it would have cost like a thousand dollars a night for an ordinary room. It was that good. There were chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, fine wood paneling, luxurious chairs, a huge fountain in the middle of the lobby, and even statues. The place was amazing.

It was a good thing that we were supposed to look like tourists, because I spent a minute just standing there looking around with my mouth open. Now I felt even worse about there being a potential (Probable, Tabbris corrected) fight here, because I didn’t want to break anything.

My attention was drawn then to the approach of a smartly dressed, dark haired man. He wore a crisp suit, and he was one of those guys whose appearance made him look anywhere between thirty and fifty with no real way to be sure. Not that appearance meant anything with people who could live for centuries or longer since I had no idea what this guy was (aside from the fact that he did set off my Heretic-sense), but still.

I also sensed an awful lot of weapons hidden on him under that simple suit. He had several guns, knives, what felt like a very large sword, a couple grenades, and more. The man was a walking arsenal. Which almost made me tense up a bit reflexively, but he didn’t seem to be coming for a fight. Not yet, anyway.

“Good evening,” the man started politely. “My name is Deacon Carterfield, and I would like to welcome you all to the Auberge. It’s very nice to see you again, Mr. Dozeran. And you as well, ahh, Twister.”

Nodding politely to both of them, the man continued, “I’m told that your Wonderland organization is interested in creating an ongoing relationship with our establishment. A relationship which would have you picking out permanent residences and allowing your people to, ahh,  take turns?”

That was a lie that we hoped we would be able to explain to them later. We couldn’t exactly tell them the real reason why we were there, and with any luck, when we were done, we wouldn’t have ruined any relationship between the two places. Especially if it meant we cleared out their Seosten infestation. Explaining that we couldn’t tell them the truth beforehand because any of them could have been possessed or compromised in some way would probably go a long way toward handling things.

But first we had to get through this.

Seth extended a hand to the man. “That’s what we’re hoping,” he confirmed with an easy smile. “It’d be nice for everyone to have a little treat like the Auberge to look forward to if they behave, you know?”

Deacon bowed his head in acknowledgment of that while shaking of the other man’s hand. “I’m quite certain I do. Just as I am certain that your party will enjoy their stay here, and that we will come to a very equitable agreement.“

He took a moment to shake hands with a couple of the others, before turning to me. Which made it my turn. And more importantly, made it time for the first test.

I was wearing the choker of Anuk-Ite. It had been disguised to look like a different necklace, of course. But I was still wearing it. It was a quick and easy way of testing for possession, and we weren’t going to go in here without an advantage like that, relatively small as it might have been in the long run.

I shook the man’s hand, introducing myself as Gabrielle Sezmin.  As our hands touched, I watched the man, but there was no sign of possession. Which still didn’t mean we could exactly tell him everything that was going on, considering every other way he could have been compromised. But still, at least there wasn’t a Seosten inside him.  

Eventually, he led us up to the front counter to check in, promising that he would send our other group around when they arrived and that he or any of the hotel staff would be more than happy to answer any questions we might have in the future.

We checked in, got our room keys, and then a little goblin girl named Elky, who was dressed like a maid, showed us to our rooms on the fourth floor. She babbled on the whole time very adorably, telling us about the hotel and some of the amenities in it, as well as promising that she or one of her fellow staff would take care of anything we needed if we just rang the little silver bells that were in each room. She was incredibly enthusiastic about everything, and it was fun to listen to her. I also took the chance to surreptitiously touch her shoulder on the way up, confirming that she wasn’t possessed either.

The rooms themselves were so nice that I was almost sad that we weren’t actually planning on staying. Each was enormous, of course, built like a million dollar penthouse with full-sized kitchens, bedrooms so big you could play a half-court basketball game in them, and bathrooms with tubs that you could do laps in. The place was amazing, and it was easy to see why they were proud of it.

Once we were left alone (Asenath gave the goblin girl some kind of gold stone for a tip), we waited for Mateo and the members of his pack who had come in with him to join us. Briefly, Athena separated from Asenath within the privacy of the room that we were using for this discussion so that she could go over the next part of the plan. We would split into somewhat smaller groups and wander around the hotel, ostensibly just doing touristy things. There were plenty of other inhabitants doing the same, so we wouldn’t stand out. Once we knew what was going on, we would join up again and plan out how to assault wherever Kushiel and her people were holed up.

Tabbris and I were paired up with Asenath and Athena. The four (or two, depending on how you were counting) of us would check the pool area and fitness rooms on the third, fourth, and fifth floors (they had a lot of them). Considering the choker, we would have the easiest job of identifying the Seosten. Which, I was almost positive, was the reason Athena had paired herself with me. Because she wanted to be the first one there when I finally found one of her people. I was also just as positive that Deveron and Wyatt, who were also paired together, had only agreed to the separation because I was with Athena. If Deveron would trust anyone to keep me safe, it was her. Plus, Wyatt had those spells to let him know if I was in trouble. That combined with the fact that Abigail and the others outside would see everything that happened gave them plenty of reason to go with the plan.

And yet, I still had to promise about twenty different times that I wouldn’t run off on my own when things went down. Which, yeah, that tracked.

Separating into our small groups after making sure that those outside in the van could still see everything just fine, we started out. I walked alongside Asenath down the hall to the elevator, making sure a privacy spell was active before speaking.

“How many people do you think she’s brought in with her for this whole thing?”

Reaching the elevator, Asenath reached out to hit the button while Athena spoke through her. “I am not certain. Losing the laboratory base would have put quite a dent in both her resources and her reputation. But this mission is important enough that the Seraphim may not have cared. She was… she was likely given anything she asked for that could be spared.”

“But if she fails here, after all that…” I started slowly.

“She will be, as you say, boned?” The word sounded unfamiliar coming from Athena, even through Asenath’s voice. “Yes. The Seraphim will not be pleased.”

“Which is just another reason to make sure it happens,” I noted while stepping onto the just-arrived elevator with her. “As if we didn’t have enough already.”

Together, we started working our way through the various gyms and pool areas. And of course, it was yet another reminder that I actually would’ve liked to stay here. The pools were beautiful, and while a couple were the standard rectangle, there were others in various shapes, with islands and fountains spread through them. Some were clearly meant for kids to play in, while others were reserved for adults. Some were quite hot to the point of boiling for species who enjoyed that, while some had chunks of ice floating in them. And the gyms were just as eclectic, with so much equipment that I couldn’t even begin to guess the uses of. I saw one Alter in there that looked like a mass of tentacles attached to a furry ball. Each of his (or her) several dozen tentacles were latched onto a different circular hook attached to a cable, which itself was attached to various weights.

There were lots of people around, actually. And though I couldn’t really outright shake everyone’s hand, I did find excuses to bump into them or brush by, which let me check them for possession. One by one, as we continued through a couple floors worth, they came up clean. No Seosten. And judging by the reports we were getting from the others, no one else was having much luck either.

That, however, changed entirely in an instant. We were heading through an otherwise empty conference room that we’d looked through after clearing the spa on that floor, when I brushed past a bellboy carrying a couple suitcases. As my hand brushed his leg, the choker activated, and I glanced that way to see the outline of a woman. Not Kushiel, but definitely a Seosten.

Something in my gaze must have given it away, because the man’s hand abruptly caught my wrist so tight I felt the bone in it snap. His fist was flying at my face.

Then he was stopped as Asenath caught him by the elbow. Without a word, she spun, hauling him off the ground before hurling the man back into the conference room we’d just been leaving. His body collided with the wall, before the vampire super-sped that way. Her foot hit the back of his head hard enough to stun him, before she went down on top of him, using her body to keep him pinned. “Now!”

I was already there, putting my hand to the man’s arm while he was dazed. With a thought, I used my ‘instant-picture’ power to make the expulsion-rune appear. So much faster than using the field-engraver, especially as I’d practiced with it extensively.

It worked. The female Seosten (one I didn’t recognize at all), was forced out of his body. She stumbled, and Asenath was right there to grab her. Using one hand and a hell of a lot of strength, she hauled the Seosten off the floor before slamming her down in one of the conference room chairs. From her pocket, she produced a length of magically reinforced cable, securing our new prisoner to that chair so that she couldn’t go anywhere.

Then she looked to me, and it was clearly Athena speaking. “Call in the others, we have no time. They’re connected, so Kushiel and her people will already know that we have her.”

From her secured position, the now-exposed Seosten smirked. “Is that who I think it is? Auriel? It’s you, isn’t it? You just had to involve yourself in this. Why? Why do you want to destroy our people? Are you that much of a traitor?”

“I don’t know you,” Athena informed the woman. “So don’t think that you can judge me.”

“Don’t know me?” The Seosten woman echoed, head tilting. Her voice was quiet, a bare whisper that was somehow much more immediately frightening than a scream would have been. “You wanna bet?”

Then it happened. Without warning, the Seosten lunged up from the chair. Her bindings were gone. She was so fast that the first hint I had that anything was wrong was her foot hitting me in the stomach. The air was knocked from my lungs as I went flying backward, rolling into a heap. As my head snapped up, I saw Asenath take a hit that made her crash into the nearest table so hard that it collapsed under her.

Wait, that didn’t make sense. Asenath had Athena. There was no way that some random nobody Seosten should have been able to lay a finger on her. None.

Tabbris helped me orient myself, getting my hands down to push up. But before we could do more than get to a kneeling position, there was a rush of motion. Seth was there. The vampire blurred his way across the room, slamming into the Seosten woman. His knife was driven into her chest, and his other hand caught hold of her throat to snap the woman’s neck. Then he gave her a shove backward to fall against the nearby wall as the body collapsed.

“Now see,” Seth started while turning to where Senny was. “That’s what happens when you don’t just finish the job. You end up looking embarassi-”

Too late, I saw the shape behind him. Too late, I saw it rise up. Too late, my mouth opened to scream a warning.

Too late, Seth began to turn in mid-sentence, his arm rising with that knife. Too late.

He stopped short, arms falling to his sides, knife collapsing to the floor. Larees appeared nearby, her glowing form resolving into her full body, her face settling into a confused expression.

Seth fell. His body collapsed, as the figure standing behind him held the vampire’s heart in one hand, crushing it between blood-soaked fingers before straightening to his full, impressive height.

“Okay, that makes us even,” Ares, the Olympian whose power allowed him to shift into the forms (including the powers) of the past several dozen people he had possessed, announced while cracking his neck. His foot lashed out, colliding with Larees to send her flying into the nearest wall, her unconscious form sliding to the floor. “You killed one of me, I killed one of you.”

“But something tells me you’re gonna run out before I do.”

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