Shiori Porter

Denouement 6 – Signa Inferre (Heretical Edge)

Previous Chapter

Tsseewww! Tsssseeeww! Tsseeeeewww!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Give us our people back.” 

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Denouement 1 – Commencement (Heretical Edge)

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On the edge of the lake in the middle of the Atherby camp, as the sun had barely begun to rise over the distant horizon, a dozen or so figures milled around the rocky beach. Two in particular, identical in outward appearance, stood a bit apart from the rest, facing one another. A bird gave its trilling morning song while flying overhead as the two of them stepped in to hug each other. 

“Be careful, Sands,” Scout whispered in her sister’s ear as the two embraced tightly. Her voice caught just a little, and there was an obvious look of fear in her eyes as she leaned back. 

Sandoval Mason forced herself to smile, trying to reassure her twin. “Hey, you better be careful too. I mean, you’re not exactly gonna be sitting here twiddling your thumbs, you know?” 

Her words brought a small smile to Scout’s face as well, before the girl gave a short nod. “But you’ll be inside. I’ll be outside.” Her words were tentative, voice making it clear just how much she wished that she could actually accompany her sister for this little trip. 

Sands held her fist up, extending it to the other girl. “One of us inside, one of us outside. That way they’ve got a Mason twin at both ends of this thing. Lucky twin charms, huh?” 

It took a moment, but Scout bumped her own fist against Sands’. “Lucky twin charms.” She hesitated before leaning closer once more to whisper, “Look out for Mom, and Uncle Haiden.” 

Reflexively, Sands glanced over toward the rest of the group. Their mother was there, along with Profe–um, Miss Kohaku, Rebecca’s grandmother Lillian, Miss Dare, Uncle Haiden, Athena, Tristan, Vanessa, and Apollo. Flick, Tabbris, Shiori, and Avalon were standing a bit away from the others, having a private conversation just like the twins were that was probably going along the same lines. Further off, Columbus stood basically in the water up to his ankles, ignoring the groups as he focused on staring out at a couple of Flick’s sharks that were swimming around. Vulcan lay on the beach a few feet away, rolling a large stone back and forth with his snout. 

Nodding to her sister, Scout stepped away to move up by Columbus. He clearly noticed her approach, but said nothing until she stopped right beside him, both of them watching the sharks. The quiet (aside from the various birds giving their morning songs and the murmur of conversation around them) stretched on for a minute or so before the boy finally spoke. “We have to get him out of that place.” His voice was firm, and he turned a bit to look at her. “Whatever it takes. He’s been in there too long. Apollo and… and Flick visiting him, I know that’s helped, but…” Slowly, he shook his head with a hard swallow. “We can’t leave him anymore.” 

Behind them, Vulcan made a noise of both agreement and worry, a soft whine that came as the cyberform rose to his feet and moved over to join them, splashing through the water a bit.

Reaching down, Scout put her hand on Vulcan’s head, patting it with a single nod. “We will,” she said simply. There was no more to say than that. Columbus was right, Sean had been locked up long enough. Too long, from his point of view. She had no idea exactly how much time had passed for the boy, other than the fact that it had been years. Years. He had been locked up in that place for literally years by that point. To Scout and the others, it was July sixteenth. To Sean? Who the hell knew how long it had been for him? 

How the living hell could anyone, anyone do that to another person and still think that they were the good guys? How could the Committee, Crossroads in general, or any of his guards see their prisoner locked in one place for literally years from his point of view and still think they were in the right? Even Bystanders knew solitary confinement was incredibly dangerous and wrong. 

It was wrong. It was evil. And it was time for that to end. Sean and… and whoever else was locked up in that place (Scout actually wasn’t sure who else was there) had to be saved. If Crossroads was doing this to other prisoners, they had to be saved too. It was just… evil. 

They would save Sean from his imprisonment. Today. 

“Alright, guys!” Haiden Moon called, pulling everyone’s attention to himself as he raised a hand. “Let’s come in a bit and get this started, huh?” Scout saw him glance toward Athena and murmur something under his breath, to which the Seosten woman gave a short nod. 

“Well,” Columbus muttered, “time to do this thing. Ready, boy?” He waited for Vulcan to give an affirmative bark before walking that way. Scout followed, meeting up with her sister as everyone  gathered in a loose circle around the spot where Haiden and Athena stood waiting.

“We’ve been over how this is going to go,” Haiden was saying, his voice somewhat tense given what they were about to go into. “Does anyone have any questions?”  

When none were forthcoming, Virginia Dare spoke up. “If you’re part of the outside group, come with Risa and me. We’ll go meet up with the others and be ready to make our move.” 

Scout and Sands glanced to one another, squeezing each other’s hands one last time before separating. Sands stayed with Haiden’s group while Scout moved with Columbus and Vulcan over to join Dare, Lillian, and Kohaku. Shiori joined them, as Rebecca’s grandmother took Columbus by the shoulder gently, leaning up to whisper something. Scout caught the words ‘burn the fuckers down’ as part of it.

“Right,” Dare announced easily, giving their group a slight smile. “Let’s go meet the others.” With that, she pivoted and began to walk away, back toward the other side of the camp. Scout looked over to where Sands was, giving her sister a wave before following suit. 

*******

Sands watched her sister head off, murmuring a wish for her safety before turning her attention back to the rest of their group. “So, we gonna do this or what?”

“Actually,” Vanessa put in, “we should wait. Holding a stack like this is probably… unstable.” 

“She’s right,” Athena confirmed. “Seosten don’t have a lot of experience with this kind of thing, but we do know that the higher the stack, the more… potentially unwieldy it becomes. Better if we wait until the last minute. Let the forward groups make their assaults.” 

Forward groups, plural. Scout and Columbus were part of the group that would be attacking the prison straight on, along with Roxa and the rest of the werewolves and some others. But before they did, another group of mixed Seosten, Heretics, and Alters would be making a feint attack against one of the Crossroads secure weapons development locations. The hope was that not only would the first attack draw resources, but that it would be seen as a feint for the frontal assault on the prison, rather than both being feints for this small group. 

Avalon, standing by Flick, spoke up. “You know we can’t wait too long. From what…. Jophiel told Flick and the others, the guard area of the prison is slightly sped up too.” 

“Yeah,” Tristan put in, “not nearly as much as the cells themselves, but it’s something like five minutes for every one minute outside. Once they get word that the prison is under attack, they’ll have a lot more time to work out a response than they should. And if they decide the best response is to cut and run with their charges, or…” He trailed off for a moment before finishing with a quiet, “Or if they decide to kill them just to make sure we can’t get them out.” 

Sands couldn’t even articulate how much she wished she could tell the boy that he was being ridiculous and that even strict Crossroads would never do anything like that. But she couldn’t. Especially not considering Litonya was behind this prison, who had apparently killed her own brother in cold blood when he expressed rebellious sentiments. Yeah, nothing was out of the realm of possibility when it came to what the guards might do if they were about to lose. 

“Don’t worry,” Apollo informed them, “we’ve got that covered.” With that, he tossed a silver bracelet onto the ground, as a portal appeared in front of it. “Come on in, to my humble abode.” 

Sands and the others passed through the portal, ending up in a cave that was filled with book shelves, spell implements, weapons, and more. The walls were thoroughly covered with spellwork, runes that softly glowed and seemed to shift the more Sands looked at them. 

Once they were all through, Apollo closed the portal. “I’ve matched the time spell on my little hideaway here with the one being used by the guards at the prison. We’re moving along at the same speed as they are. As soon as the other groups start their attack, we’ll be ready. The guards there won’t have any kind of advantage as far as time goes.”

With a nod, Athena put in, “But we’ll still give them a minute to react. We want them focused on what’s going on out there before we make our move. Wait until the other group reports that they’ve reached the prison and started their assault. Then we’ll start the stack, settle in, and go. Everyone make sure you’re ready. If you have any questions, or problems, speak up now.

“Because whatever happens, we won’t get another shot at this.” 

*******

Scout and her group made their way to the edge of the camp. Roxa’s pack was there, along with Miranda, Deveron, Jazz, Gordon, and Doug, a group of Seosten, some of the Atherby people including Misty and her brother Duncan, and Gabriel Prosser along with a few Crossroads Heretics who had volunteered. Bobbi Camren and Twister were there too, though the rising sun meant that Asenath wouldn’t be able to participate in the assault. She and Namythiet were both helping elsewhere. Theia and Pace were standing a bit away from the group, and Scout found herself stopping next to them, looking that way. “You okay?” she asked softly. 

“We are,” Pace murmured with a glance to Theia before nodding the other way. “He’s impatient.” 

Scout turned at that, seeing a figure stalking back and forth by the cabin. He was at once very familiar and not. Ian Gerardo clearly resembled his younger brother in some ways. Enough to tell that they were related. The man looked like a wild animal, pacing like that. He clearly wasn’t in any mood to wait longer. 

“He’s mad,” Theia observed, leaning up onto her toes. “He didn’t want to take this long to save his brother.” 

“Better to take a long time to set it up right,” Pace replied, “than to rush and screw it up. It’s not like we can just hit the reset button on this if we lose. Right, Scout?”

Scout nodded, while Virginia Dare whistled for everyone’s attention. But it was Gabriel Prosser who spoke once the rest of the group was looking that way. “Okay, guys,” the man announced, “it’s time to make our move. The first group launched their attack about fifteen minutes ago. That should be enough time for word of it to start reaching other places and for the first set of reinforcements to be sent out. Time to do our part.” 

“Finally,” Ian snapped, though he immediately flushed a little, apparently embarrassed about having that kind of reaction to someone like the man in front of him. “Sorry,” he added quickly. “I just–” 

“No,” Gabriel interrupted, head shaking. “You have nothing to apologize for, believe me. We all want to get your brother, and any of the other prisoners being held by Crossroads, out of there.” 

“Not any of the prisoners,” Theia quickly chimed in. “There could be bad people in there, you know. Not every prisoner in there is gonna be a happy cheerful rebel ready to fight the good fight and save puppies.” 

Zadriek, the Seosten former prisoner who was the father of tiny Sahveniah, spoke up. “The…” He paused noticeably, his eyes glancing toward her. “That is… Theia… is correct. There will be those who should not be released. They could be a danger to your civilian populace of this world, even if Crossroads’ methods are wrong and abhorrent.” 

One of the Crossroads Heretics, a short, thin man named Jake Lane, muttered, “I guess we have your people to thank for teaching ours how to be monsters, don’t we?” 

“That’s enough, Jake,” Deveron admonished. “We’re all in this together. You were on the other side for the last rebellion, so let me tell you, knowing about the Seosten and having them with us this time is going to make the whole thing a hell of a lot easier. Besides, we’ve got enough problems without sniping at each other.” 

“We don’t believe that all the cells are functioning in the same time acceleration as Sean,” Dare put in, pulling the subject back around. “This seems… special for him. The other cells may have time effects, but not to that extent. The fact remains, however, that Theia and Zadriek are right. Some of the prisoners should be released. Others… shouldn’t. And if our people just go around opening all of the doors, we’re going to end up letting out someone we’ll wish we hadn’t.” 

“Athena and the others are well aware of that,” Gabriel assured them. “And I’m told they have a plan for dealing with it. We’ll trust that they know what they’re doing. Meanwhile, we focus on our jobs, to draw as much attention as possible.” His head turned a bit, as he listened to something no one else could hear before nodding once. “The first group has begun their attack. Time for us to get moving.”

Scout exchanged a brief look with Pace. The other girl offered her fist, and Scout bumped it before moving over to join Doug and the others while Pace and Theia went to the werewolf pack. Gabriel, Dare, and Kohaku had created a portal by that point, holding it open. 

Right. Time to do this. A frontal assault on the secret Crossroads prison that was simply a distraction away from the actual insertion team. Here went Nothing. 

She’d decided to name her gun Nothing. 

******

“I wish Mama was here.” The words coming out of Flick’s mouth might’ve been simultaneously confusing and totally understandable (having someone like Joselyn around would have been amazing). But as Sands glanced that way, she saw that the girl’s hair was pink. Tabbris. Tabris was the one talking through her. 

Vanessa’s head bobbed. “Yeah. But she’s super busy helping Jophiel with all that stuff. And we can’t really wait for this. Don’t worry, we’ve got enough people.” 

Tristan leaned against his sister with a humorless smile. “Yeah, and besides, if a bunch of things all go horribly wrong at once, we’re gonna want to have some good people out there to come save us. It’ll be Mom’s turn to do a jailbreak.”

Shifting her hair back to its normal blonde, Flick (as herself this time), winced. “As awesome as I’m sure that would be, let’s find another way for your mom to show off.”  

“Yeah,” Sands agreed with a grimace. “She’ll get plenty of chances for that. Let’s just do this right.” 

“Doing it right is the plan.” The reply came from Larissa, as the woman raised her voice a bit for everyone’s attention. “And that means pulling this first part off.” She looked over to Athena, giving her a short nod. “Are we ready?” 

“We are,” Athena confirmed. “It’s time for the Choo-Maneuver.” 

“Good luck, guys,” Sands murmured before stepping back. Avalon joined her. 

The two of them watched then, as first Tristan held his hand out to his sister. Vanessa took it, then disappeared, possessing him. The order of this had been very carefully determined, given what normally happened when a Seosten attempted to possess a Hybrid. They were capable of possessing each other safely, so the twins had to be first. With his sister inside him, Tristan turned toward Athena, who stood waiting with her own hand out. He took it, before he too disappeared. Athena’s hand then found Haiden’s, and she vanished into him. The man, in turn, possessed the waiting Larissa and looked toward Flick. A moment later, there was a glow before Tabbris emerged. The young Seosten girl took Larissa’s hand, allowing the woman to possess her. She then hopped back into Flick. 

Finally, Flick in turn looked over to Apollo, before swaying a bit, almost like she was drunk. “Wow,” she murmured, “There’s a… a lot of people in here.” Shaking her head, she took Apollo’s hand and vanished a second later. 

Standing for a second as he collected himself from having so many minds (it had to be disorienting even if they were cooperating) sharing space with his, Apollo straightened and looked over toward Avalon and Sands. “Okay then. You girls ready to do this?” As he spoke, the man produced two daggers, extending them that way. 

There was a brief pause, as Sands thought about everything that could go wrong, along with everything that had changed since the beginning of the year. They were literally mounting an assault to rescue their friend and anyone else they could from a Crossroads prison

“Yes,” Avalon confirmed, her hand finding the other girl’s shoulder. “We’re ready. Right… Sands?” 

With a small smile, Sands replied, “Right, Sinclaire. Let’s do this.” 

That said, the two of them reached out, one to each knife. Their hands found the blades, and Sands projected herself into it. She might not have been able to possess people, but she and Avalon both still had the Knockengerwicht’s power to take over objects. 

Technically Avalon could have ‘borrowed’ someone else’s possession using her ability to temporarily mimic powers, but the stack of possessed people was big enough as it was. And, though she hadn’t said anything, Sands was pretty sure Avalon wasn’t ready to share head-space with that many others, even if they were friends. 

Now she just had to wait, seeing the world through the space around the knife while Apollo held both. “Okay, guys,” he spoke to everyone at once, “let’s do this.” 

With that, he recalled to Sean, and the rescue was officially underway.

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Summer Epilogue 19 (Heretical Edge)

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As it turned out, Harrison Fredericks was in the so-called dragon room. As Galahad in his humanoid robot body led Columbus and Shiori, along with Vulcan, through a set of vault-like doors in a corner of the main room, the four entered what looked like a dark cave. The floor became dirt and stone, with crystalline rock walls around them. The entrance was a tunnel that sloped downward, gradually opening into a cavern even larger than the room they had just left. Straight ahead was a giant lake with a trio of underground streams feeding into it from various tunnels, one of which dropped from above in a cascading waterfall. 

Right in front of the lake stood a dragon. Well, a clearly mechanical one, anyway. It was dark green with gold patterns weaved throughout. Sitting up on its haunches, the thing was tall enough that its head just crossed the fifty-foot mark. It had a long tail wrapped around its body with what looked like four massive mini-guns mounted to the end of it, one on each side of the tail. All along the dragon-bot’s back leading clear to its head was an ungodly enormous starship-grade cannon. 

“Holy Fin Fang Foom,” Shiori breathed out, eyes wide. She’d come to a stop and stood there, staring open-mouthed at the giant cyberform. “That’s a big gun. That’s a really big gun.”

As if reacting to the sound of her voice, the cyberform dragon’s head turned a little, focusing on them. Vulcan, meanwhile, took a step forward and lowered his ears, making a soft whining sound before barking once to show that he definitely wasn’t afraid, no sir, and that if the fifty-foot tall dragon robot wanted to hurt Columbus and Shiori, he’d have to go through Vulcan to do it.

The dragon’s mouth opened, but just as Columbus was about to grab Shiori’s arm and teleport them the hell out of the way, a man appeared there… in the dragon’s open mouth. Apparently there was space inside the giant cyberform, and the mouth was a hatch of some kind. From that distance, the two now-former Crossroads students thought there was something odd about the man who stood framed in the open mouth, but couldn’t tell what it was, exactly. 

The answer to that became obvious a moment later, as the man stepped off the edge of the mouth and dropped toward them before landing easily on the ground. 

He was short. That was what the siblings had noticed from the distance. The man stood only an inch over four feet, with dark red hair cut short, and a neatly trimmed goatee. His eyes were an unnaturally bright green, and one of his arms was very clearly cybernetic.  

For a brief moment, the man stood there, squinting at two teenagers and their robotic dog. His eyes scanned them curiously and intently, as though reading everything in their lives in those couple of seconds. Just as Columbus and Shiori were starting to get uncomfortable with his attention, he straightened and abruptly announced, “What, our guests are here already? You sure are eager to get started early this morning, aren’t you?” 

“It’s mid-afternoon, sir,” Galahad politely corrected. “You were working all day again.” 

“Was I really?” The short man looked surprised by the information, blinking that way before looking back toward the teens. “Well, in that case, you’re late. What, am I not important enough to spend more time with? Tearing you away from your computers and your Playstations?” 

With a wince, Columbus started to stammer a response, only for the man to laugh and shake his head. “I’m just messing with you, kid.” With that, he thrust his flesh and blood hand out to them. “Name’s Harrison Fredericks. You knew that, but you can call me Harry. That’s what I prefer.” 

Shiori was the first to react, introducing herself while shaking the man’s hand quickly. “And for the record,” she added while waving her phone his way, “I can play plenty of games even while we’re–holy crap!” The girl blurted the last bit after glancing to her phone screen. “Did you know you’ve got a shiny Mareep in here?!” With that, the girl stepped away, eyes focused on her phone. “Uhh, just a second.” 

Snorting at his sister, Columbus started to focus on their host once more “Hi. Sorry, she gets into that stu–uhh…” 

He trailed off upon realizing that Harrison had also yanked a phone from his pocket and was furiously tapping at the screen while blurting, “There is?! I knew it, I knew they wouldn’t let me down.” 

Columbus and Galahad glanced to one another, each offering a shrug before the latter murmured, “He’ll ahhh, be right with you, I’m sure. Sometimes Harry’s priorities are just a little skewed.” 

“Tell me about it,” the boy murmured, glancing to his sister before returning his attention to the dragon-robot nearby. Only then did he actually notice that it wasn’t the only one here in the cavern. There were several others spread out throughout the wide open space. One was clinging to the ceiling, shaped more like a traditional serpent. Another was under the water, its distorted form barely visible. A few more smaller ones were up against the cavern walls, mostly blending in through a semi-chameleon quality to their exterior. Taking all those in, the boy was sure there were more he couldn’t see. “Shit,” he murmured under his breath, “no wonder people don’t try to take this place over.”

“They have before.” That was Harry, his full attention once more on his guests. “Independents, Crossroads or Garden people that just think the rules don’t apply to them, and more. Took me adding penalties where I won’t sell to any group connected to the ones that piss me off for awhile before they wised up and started policing each other. But they seem to have gotten the message now. They leave me alone, and they get to buy my little friends.” As he finished, the man shook Columbus’s hand, adding, “Don’t look so worried. I’m not about to freak out and throw you to the wolves just because you mention what side you’re on or bring up your opinion. Some of these people just need a really firm line drawn or they’ll keep pushing.” 

“I uhh,” Columbus started before hesitating. “I can see why you’d be pretty sought after.” He nodded up to the nearest, most obvious dragon. “With things like that, it seems like the ones you sell people are toys.” 

“They basically are,” the man confirmed with a wink. “I’d be an idiot if I gave out my best work. The only reason I’m not chained up in some lab somewhere, making personal versions of Tigger over there for whatever Heretic group grabbed me first is keeping the strongest guys here. You people get the small versions because that’s the way I stay independent.” 

That said, Harry took a knee in front of Vulcan, meeting the cyberform’s gaze. “Anyway, how’re you doing, buddy? These two treating you alright?” 

He reached up, rubbing Vulcan’s head and murmuring softly for a moment before glancing to Columbus. “You’re not the one he’s bonded to, are you? Neither of you are.” 

“Not… exactly,” Columbus confirmed before hesitating. “Okay, so, what I’m about to say is totally not supposed to be breaking your rules about trying to convince you to join one side or the other. It’s just… you know, the facts. Just wanted to get that out of the way.” 

With that said, he carefully gave a quick summary of what had happened to lead Vulcan to being with him instead of Sean, and where the other boy was. He tried to keep things as matter-of-fact as possible, but couldn’t keep all the anger and frustration out of his voice. Which was not helped by the way Vulcan himself gave a soft, weak little whine whenever Sean and his current imprisonment was mentioned. Hearing that just made Columbus angrier. 

Thankfully, Shiori helped partway through, taking turns explaining the rest after sliding the phone away, back into her pocket. She stood there on Vulcan’s other side, hand rubbing the cyberform canine’s back while finishing with, “So now we’re trying to figure out how to get him out.” 

Once they finished with that, Harry looked back and forth between the two for a moment, clearly lost in thought. “I see,” he murmured, “I hope your friend ends up alright. Neutral, mind you, but still. I hope he comes out all intact. And hey, if he does and this little visit today ends up alright, maybe you can bring him over. I’d like to see Vulcan here with his partner. I don’t… ahh, get that many visitors.” He looked briefly regretful about that before turning away to walk toward the nearby dragon. “Well, in any case, come on, I’ll show you what I’ve been working on lately. Then we can talk about the reason you really wanted to come here.” 

After exchanging brief glances, the two siblings shrugged at one another and followed the man. It was very clear that he was intent on not saying more about the situation than he already had. Whatever his personal opinion on the matter, he wasn’t saying. And pushing would be bad. 

On the way over to the giant cyberform, Shiori spoke up. “Ah, Mr–I mean Harry, did you say this one’s name is Tigger? As in–” 

“The one above our heads is Winnie,” the man confirmed. “The one in the water is Piglet.” He smiled over his shoulder at them briefly. “I find it helps my creative process to have a theme.”

With that, he snapped raised his mechanical hand and snapped the metal fingers, calling, “Tigger, entrance!” 

At those words, the massive cyberform abruptly took a step back, partway entering the water before it lay down on its stomach. The mouth opened wide, and Harry led the two students, Vulcan, and Galahad around to it. There was a door there, barely visible with the mouth opened the way it was. The door was round, with a slight indent for a handle. Beside it was a red half-globe about the size of a softball that had been cut in two. It glowed as they approached. 

“Don’t get any closer,” Harry warned the pair of teenagers and their cyberform companion. “Not until I let him know you’re alright. We wouldn’t want any… accidents.” 

With that bit of warning ringing in their ears (and a pair of vivid imaginations about just what kind of ‘accident’ there could be, Columbus and Shiori stayed very, very still. After assuring himself that they had taken heed, Harry stepped up into the mouth, then froze as the red orb projected some kind of light over him. The light scanned the man up and down twice before it, and the half-globe itself, turned green. 

“Full body scanner,” Harry informed them. “DNA through the hair and skin, retinal, fingerprints, bone structure, check for active hologram or magical shapeshifting, and more. Also scans the voice for distress.” Clearing his throat, he spoke clearly, “Everything’s fine, Tigger. These two humans and their cyberform companion are friends. State your names.” 

“Oh, uh, Columbus,” the boy quickly put in. “Columbus Porter.” He went still then, as the green light turned yellow while scanning over him from head to toe. As with Harry, it repeated twice before shifting back to green. 

It then did the same with Shiori after she gave her name. In her case, however, it stopped and began to blink yellow after the first pass. A soft warning tone chimed a few times, which brought Harry’s head around sharply. “Miss,” he began with a frown. “Is there something you haven’t–” 

“My mother’s a Vampire!” Shiori quickly blurted. “I mean, I… I’m… half-Vampire. Dhampyr. I wasn’t trying to hide it or anything, I just didn’t think it was relevant, and–” 

“Stop, stop.” Harry’s head shook. “Wait, Dhampyr-Heretic? Is that even po–” He stopped himself. “No, you’re right. It’s not all that relevant. Tigger was just anxious because I introduced you as human and you’re not… not exactly. Apologies. Tigger, it’s okay. She is a Dhampyr-Heretic.. apparently. It’s safe. She’s clear.” He gave her a strange look then, but kept quiet. 

The light turned green then, before moving to quickly scan Vulcan. Finally, it was done, and the half-globe turned light purple before giving a triumphant chime. As it did, Harry reached out, caught hold of the handle of the circular hatch, and pulled it open. “Come on then,” he urged, “you’ll be the first people besides Galahad there to see this new project from an… inside perspective.” He actually giggled after saying those words, clearly amusing himself before stepping through. 

The others followed, finding themselves in what looked like the entrance of a submarine. The corridor was narrow and made entirely of metal, with a few hatchways along both walls and one at the end. That was the way Harry strode, pounding a fist against each door that they passed while explaining what was beyond. “Laundry’s through here. Kitchen and dining in this area. This here on the left is a rec room to keep up spirits. The whole thing’s bigger on the inside, but you should be used to that stuff by now.” 

“Are we in a pocket dimension or something?” Columbus asked as they reached the hatch at the end of the corridor, revealing what was obviously the bridge. It was a half-circle space with a raised platform and seat in the middle for the captain, a hologram projector screen in front that seemed to show a view of the cavern they had just left, and various control panels and comfortable chairs scattered throughout. A couple more hatches leading elsewhere in the dragon interior were against the back and far walls. 

“Hey, yeah,” Shiori realized, “are we? Because otherwise, what happens when the dragon stands up?” 

“Sort of,” Harry confirmed. “The space we’re in is stable. It’s always upright, and the body of the dragon moves around it. There’s more to it, but hey, trade secrets.” He winked before gesturing around the bridge with a bright, contagious smile. “Pretty cool though, huh?” 

It occurred to both teens at the same time that this was a man who ached to show off his toys. He genuinely wanted to share what he could make with people, but the fact that anyone he let in would almost inevitably try to take advantage of that necessitated his almost hermit-like lifestyle. They were, Columbus and Shiori realized, probably seen as ‘safe’ for him to open up to just because they presented absolutely no threat of being able to imprison Harrison or take his creations away. Because people clearly had. It made them both wonder just what had happened to make him learn that lesson and both institute and strictly enforce his neutral position. 

Shaking that thought away, Shiori smiled. “Uh huh, it’s really cool. But um, what is it? I mean… you’ve got seven seats in here, counting the… captain’s? Who’s piloting this thing? I thought you didn’t send the big ones anywhere.” 

“I don’t,” Harry replied, looking away to squint at one of the nearby consoles before offering a small shrug. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t build things that could take a group. I uhh… I like to stretch my hands and my brain like that.” Tenderly, the man ran his hand over the hologram projector, his voice wistful, “It’s just too bad that Tigger’ll never have a crew.” 

Galahad stepped past the others then, resting a metal hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Hey,” he started, “why don’t we take this thing for a spin before getting down to the important stuff?” 

A broad smile broke across Harry’s face, and he nodded before stepping up to plop himself into the captain’s seat. “Right, you two, pick somewhere to sit and we’ll get underway.” 

Shiori and Columbus moved to do just that, picking a couple of the crew positions. On the screens in front of them were a couple words floating back and forth, which they barely paid attention to… at first. Columbus, however, gave a short double-take after seeing them from the corner of his gaze, eyes widening dramatically as he absorbed the words on the screen. 

Not noticing the boy’s reaction, Harry started, “Okay then, let’s talk about where we’re going on our little joy–” 

“Excuse me,” Columbus found himself interrupting, unable to look away from the screen. He pointed with a shaking hand. “What… what is that?” 

“What’s what?” Harry asked, squinting that way while leaning up off his seat. 

“This.” Columbus leaned back, letting the man see the screen. “Why does the screen… why are those words there?” 

“Those words?” Harry looked even more confused by his reaction, which was furthered by Shiori’s own gasp as she finally focused on them herself. “It’s just Latin. It means–” 

“Summus Proelium,” Shiori read out loud. “Why did you write Summus Proelium on the computers?” 

Clearly lost about why the two were reacting that way, the short man stood and moved over. He squinted at the screen before shrugging once more. “It’s just the words from the world where I… where I took my power.” The two turned baffled looks toward him, and he explained, “It was an alternate Earth. One like ours, but different. Actually, it was the future on that world at the time. I went decades back, but it was like… two-thousand something there. Dimensional travel is weird. Anyway, my group and I went there, got separated, and I ended up fighting and… and killing one of their super-powered people.” 

“But where did you hear Summus Proelium?” Columbus pressed, trying not to grab the man. That definitely wouldn’t end well. 

 “It’s how they get their powers over there,” Harrison slowly replied. “These little orbs appear, announce… well, those words, and then transport the people into some pocket dimension where they’re empowered before being sent back. Why?” 

“The orbs… say Summus Proelium?” Columbus opened and shut his mouth, making a noise in the back of his throat. “And they transport these people to some other place to give them powers? I… that… oh.” 

“What’s going on?” Galahad spoke up sharply. “How do you two know those words?” 

“Umm…” Columbus exchanged a look with his sister before slowly replying, “I know you said you never met Arthur, so I guess you never met Nimue either. But–” 

“She’s a Seosten, I know that much,” Galahad confirmed with a brief glance toward Harrison. “He knows about them too. Part of why we’re so strictly neutral. Dunno what side’s still safe from them. But what do they have to do with this other world?” 

Hesitantly, the two siblings explained where they had heard the phrase before, and about the Seosten super-soldier project that had created the Olympians to begin with. 

“So, uhh,” Shiori finished, “the odds of little orbs that say those exact words before transporting the people from that other Earth somewhere else to give them powers not being related somehow to this are umm… small.” 

“Small indeed,” Harrison muttered under his breath before straightening to his full (still not exactly impressive) height. “Well. Maybe you should bring this Nimue or Athena or whatever she’s going by here next time, so we can figure out exactly what this means.” 

“Next time?” Columbus echoed, a note of both eagerness and caution in his voice. 

The man glanced to him. “Well yes, that’s what you were going to ask, wasn’t it? If I would teach you how to work with cyberforms and perhaps even start to build them.” As the boy fidgeted and stumbled for an answer that wouldn’t be rude, Harrison chuckled. “It’s okay to be eager, kid. I’ve been looking into your history, your school records both out of Crossroads and in, ever since Broker said you were interested in coming. Yeah. Yeah, as long as you don’t do anything stupid, I’ll… ahh, I’ll give you some pointers and we’ll see how it goes. But it means coming here four days a week for the entire summer. You got that? I’m gonna work you ragged if you wanna learn from me.” 

Quickly, Columbus nodded. “Four days a week, got it. I’ll be here. Whatever it takes. I want to learn.” 

“Oh, you’ll learn alright,” Harrison agreed. “And you’ll work. But like I said, bring this Nimue with you next time. And–” he glanced toward Galahad. “And bring that Lancelot too. They need to catch up.” Belatedly, the man amended, “That is, as long as you get through this test flight here without proving to be a completely incompetent ninny. Think you can do that?” 

“I… ahh, I’ll do my best, sir,” Columbus weakly promised, swallowing hard. 

“You do that.” Turning on his heel to move back to the captain’s seat, Harrison finished with, “Now, enough talk of Seosten, Olympians, wars, and everything else. 

“Let’s focus on seeing what this puppy can really do.” 

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Summer Epilogue 18

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As he parked the beat up old jalopy he drove in the staff lot of the Capital One Arena in D.C., the Heretic known as Broker glanced toward the boy in the passenger seat beside him. “You remember what I told you?”

Columbus nodded dutifully. “Don’t try to talk him into siding with the rebellion. Don’t try to talk him into picking any side. He’s neutral and he stays neutral. If I try to talk up our side he’ll—”

From the backseat, Shiori piped up, “Throw both of us out so fast our heads spin?”

Opening his door, Broker stepped out. “Correction, he’ll throw all of us out. And I’ll have lost any good grace I had with him. I went out on a limb to get you this meeting, kid. Don’t make me regret it.”

“We won’t,” Columbus promised, opening the other door while looking over his shoulder at the backseat. “Will we, boy?”

Giving a soft wuff of agreement, Vulcan waited for the back door to be opened before hopping down. Shiori followed suit. The metal dog cocked his head sideways as though listening for a moment before trotting over to a semi truck that was parked nearby. 

Watching the cyberform sniff for a moment, Columbus turned his attention back to Broker. “The others thought I shouldn’t meet with you. They thought it was a trap or something, because you’re still part of Crossroads.”

Shiori stepped beside her brother, adding, “Some of them were pretty adamant about it.”

The dark-skinned man chuckled, making his long, clearly dyed red braids bounce a bit as he shook his head with a flash of golden teeth as he smiled. “That’s why Prosser showed up to check things out first? Yeah, I figured it was something like that. Let’s just say maybe I inherited a little bit of my old mentor’s thing for neutrality. You seem to make a lot more money if you sell to everyone.”

Quietly, Shiori noted, “I guess we’re glad no one paid you enough to turn us in.”

To that, the man shook his head once more. “Betrayal’s bad business. It might pay off once or twice, but your customer base dries up damn quick. Fredericks taught me that too.”

Columbus, meanwhile, watched him for a moment before quietly noting, “I guess I shouldn’t try to talk you into choosing a side then either.”

Broker shrugged. “Consider it easy practice for not talking the big guy into it. Now come on, you wanna meet him or what?”

Before answering, Columbus looked around the almost completely empty lot. “Not very busy, huh? Does Fredericks still have security around here?”

“NBA and NHL are both in the off-season,” Broker pointed out. “And yeah, he has plenty of security. As your little friend there is about to find out.”

Blinking, Columbus turned to see Vulcan still curiously sniffing at one of the wheels of the silver and blue semi. His mouth opened to say something, only to stop short as the truck abruptly moved. Except it didn’t just pull forward or something simple like that. Instead, the sides of the truck cab bulged out and then extended down toward the ground. Several giant metal fingers appeared, while the back of the cab shifted and extended a pair of legs. The truck cab straightened up on those legs, a head that looked like that of a human in a full plate mail helmet appearing. 

Actually, Columbus realized, the whole thing looked like a guy in plate mail. Standing at its full impressive height of just over thirty feet, the silver and blue figure looked like an old knight combined with a…

“Transformer!?” he blurted out loud, eyes widening. For just a second, he actually forgot about everything else. “Holy shit, he made an actual Transformer?”

“Only because I asked very nicely.” The booming voice came from the upright robot itself, as he loomed over the pair. “You should’ve seen how many chores I had to agree to do.”

While Vulcan gave a single bark, Columbus  opened and shut his mouth a couple times, feeling like he needed to sit down. There was a high-pitched whining sound in his head. Wait, that wasn’t just in his head. It was coming from… 

He turned, to see his sister standing there, mouth hanging open as an incredibly high-pitched squeal escaped her. The girl’s eyes practically had stars in them, and she started a full-body shake that rose up from her toes, reached her head, then extended down her arms to her hands, making her fingers all-but vibrate. 

“Is… uhhh…” The knight-robot pointed a finger to her. “Is she okay?”

“Eeeeeeeeeee!” With that glorious, delighted squeal, Shiori suddenly raised that way, arms flailing wildly before throwing herself up against the standing figure’s metal leg in a tight hug. “Ohhh my God, you are so awesome! This is the coolest thing ever! Ever! Aaaaaaahhhhh!

Tilting his head to look down, the knight-cyberform asked, “She’s not letting go anytime soon, huh?”

“Kinda doubt it,” Columbus agreed. “Maybe if you told her what your name is so she doesn’t start calling you Optimus. Wait.” He paused, frowning. “Am I talking to an actual cyberform?”

A sound that was suspiciously similar to a cough escape the giant metal figure before he reached down to gently tap Shiori with one finger. “Milady?” He opened his hand then, offering it to the girl, who gave another high-pitched squeal before climbing on so that he could lift her up, depositing her on his shoulder.  

Finally, the ‘robot’ answered. “No, I’m not a cyberform the way you know them. I used to be a… person. I was about to die and Harrison transferred me into one of his little friends.”

“Wait.” Perched on his shoulder, Shiori piped up, “He can do that? You used to be like, a human or an Alter and he just put you in a cyberform body?”

The figure was briefly quiet before replying, “I was a bit of a special case.” Looking over toward Broker then, he added, “I’ve got it from here. Harrison says he wouldn’t mind having lunch on Sunday if you’re up for it.”

Shrugging, the adult Heretic replied, “Sure, he knows my number. Assuming he didn’t lose it again.” With a wink, he pivoted to head back to his car, calling over his shoulder, “Have fun, kids.”

From her high perch, Shiori called, “Thank you for introducing us to the coolest thing ever!” Belatedly, she amended, “I mean coolest… guy?”

“I like to think of myself as still male, yeah,” the figure in question replied. “Haven’t had much luck trying to convince Harrison to make it physically official, though.”

Columbus shook his head slowly back-and-forth. “I came here to meet the father of cyberforms, and now my sister is talking about robot penises with a Transformer.”

“I know,” Shiori blurted, “isn’t it great?! Err, the Transformer part. Wait, what do we call you?  Because seriously, I am really close to the whole Optimus thing.”

“As cool as that kind of universal crossover might be,” the metal man easily replied while watching Broker’s car pull out, “you can call me Galahad.”

That made both young Heretics and Vulcan do a double take as sounds of surprise escaped all of them. Columbus blurted, “Galahad? As in the Galahad?”

There was a brief pause, before the large metal man slowly answered, “Yeah, see, I know it might be hard for you to accept if you were raised as Bystanders, but Arthur was a real person and—”

“Hard for us to accept?” Shiori blurted. “Dude, we already know that Percival guy on the Committee is one of the knights. Not to mention, ya know, Guinevere is living at the camp with us. We are already completely brought up to speed on the whole Arthur thing.”

Galahad’s gaze snapped to the girl then, head turning and shifting back so he could stare at the girl as if she had become a second head attached to his shoulder. “The who in the what is staying where?”

Snorting at his reaction, Columbus spoke up. “She’s right, Guinevere’s at the camp. She was at the school, posing as a student.”

“And she kicked Ruthers’ ass,” Shiori noted with a grin. “It was awesome. But yeah, dude, we already know all about Arthur and all that. You’re really Galahad?” 

Columbus wasn’t sure how a face that looked like the front of a plate mail helmet could look flummoxed and taken aback, but Galahad managed it. He stared at both of them, switching his attention between looking at the girl on his shoulder, then at the boy on the ground, then back again, repeating that several times before he finally spoke. “Okay, well, I definitely wasn’t expecting that reaction. She’s… she’s really at the Atherby camp? I didn’t think she’d ever join up with…” He trailed off, managing another minor miracle by looking thoughtful. 

“You were one of Arthur’s knights?” Shiori hesitantly prompted, staring at him. 

Seeming to snap out of a deep well of memories, the tall robotic figure made a noise before shaking his head slightly. “No. I mean, yes. Sort of. Yes, I was… I was part of… of that group. But I was never officially…. I started as a–I was only. I–” He stopped then, head turning toward the stadium. “Oh, uh, we should head in.” 

“Head in?” Columbus stared at him a bit doubtfully. “How are–I mean you’re pretty–wait, what do people think they’re looking at when they see you?” 

“You mean Bystanders?” Galahad shrugged the shoulder that Shiori wasn’t sitting on. “Depends. Sometimes they forget me entirely. Sometimes they act like I’m a really tall guy. I think the Bystander Effect has its work cut out for it with me in this form.” 

“In this form?” Shiori jumped on. 

He reached a hand up once more, holding it out for her to climb on before lowering her back to the ground. “That’s right. This isn’t my only body. I’ve got a handful of them scattered all over the place that I can jump between. It’s ahh… useful. Hang on, I’ll lead you in with a different one.”

His current robot body shifted back into its truck form while the two adopted siblings watched in awe and fascination. Afterward, the two of them just sort of looked at one another, then to Vulcan, who whined quietly before moving to Shiori for head pats. 

They were waiting for only about thirty seconds before a man approached. The three looked that way, a bit uncertain. The man looked perfectly ordinary, just under six feet in height, with short brown hair very slightly unkempt, slightly tanned skin, and a cleanly shaven face. He wore nondescript jeans and a brown button-up shirt. 

“Uh,” Columbus started, “hi?” Beside him, Vulcan made a curious sound, sniffing once before huffing with what sounded like amusement. 

Giving them a brief smirk, the man raised a hand to wave. “Hi, yourself,” he replied. With those words, his appearance abruptly changed. The hologram of a normal person disappeared, revealing a metal humanoid shape beneath. His body was gleaming silver, with a glowing purple line running up both legs before joining into an arrow shape on his chest. His eyes were purple as well, and glowed just as brightly. When he spoke, it came through a speaker where his mouth would be. “You guys coming or what?” 

Vulcan, for his part, trotted over that way while making a woof sound that clearly translated as, ‘Yeah, come on already.’ 

Recovering quickly, Columbus and Shiori both nodded before moving. Galahad pivoted back the way he had come and began to lead them to the stadium. As they went, Columbus spoke up. “Oh, um, this is Shiori and I’m Columbus. And that’s Vulcan. You know that already, but our parents sort of taught us that it’s rude not to introduce yourself. I’m pretty sure they meant for us to do that before we go climbing all over someone though.” He added the last bit with a squint toward his sister.

“Dude, he was a giant Transformer,” Shiori retorted defensively. “Dad would totally understand.”

“I’m with her,” Galahad put in. “I mean, if it was me, I’d understand. I mean, it was me, but it wasn’t… I mean…”

Shiori leaned close to her brother, whispering, “I honestly don’t know which is cooler, that Galahad can be a giant Transformer, or that he’s also kind of a massive dork.” 

Giving up on the semantics of what he was trying to say, the man clearly just opted to change the subject. “Right, so where was I? Oh yeah, I never actually met Arthur. I came later, after he was already… gone. My umm, my father’s people tried to kill me as a boy. Guinevere saved me. She raised me from the time I was a kid. Taught me everything I know, and… eventually knighted me.  

“So she’s kind of like a mother to you,” Shiori murmured. 

Making a soft chuckling sound, Galahad’s robot head tilted over toward the girl. “Yeah, you could say that Guinevere is like a mother to me and Lancelot is like a father. Which is kind of funny if you–” 

“Guinevere is also Lancelot,” Columbus finished for him. “She kinda gave that away too, back at the camp.” 

“Well shit, is she keeping any secrets anymore?” Galahad blurted, just as they reached a door on the side of the stadium marked for staff use only. There was a keypad there, and he reached out to hit a series of buttons until it beeped and turned green. Then he hauled the door open and gestured for them to head through. “Things must really be coming to a head if Gwen’s being open about stuff. That lady and her secrets…” 

As they walked through an ordinary looking corridor that could’ve been in any office building to a completely unlabeled door, Shiori asked, “If she meant so much to you, why did you leave?”

“Does it have to do with your, uhh condition?” Columbus added. 

Galahad opened the door and ushered them through into what appeared to be an unfinished room. “Yes, at least at first. I was… let’s just say I was magically cursed. I was going to die and there was nothing she could do about it. I didn’t want her to see me like that, and I didn’t want to see her get more and more desperate. So I left to die alone.”

Moving to the other side of the room, he reached up to the apparently blank wall and pushed something on it. There was a chime, and part of the wall slid aside to reveal an elevator. As the group stepped into the elevator, he continued. “Long story short, Harrison Fredericks found me and managed to transfer me into one of his cyberforms. He saved my life. But I wasn’t exactly… good with having robot bodies for a long time. It took a lot of effort and failure before I could control them properly.”

The elevator began to descend, as Columbus rested a hand on Vulcan’s head while speaking up. “That’s why you didn’t go back to Guinevere, at least right then?”

Galahad gave a brief nod of his metallic head. “That and I was ashamed of what I became, for awhile. Maybe it was stupid. Okay, it was definitely stupid. But I felt like I had lost who I was when I lost my body. I was a robot who couldn’t even control my arms and legs properly. It took me six months to figure out how to walk in a straight line. I didn’t want Guinevere to see me like that. After that, I just felt like I owed Harrison too much.”

As the elevator came to a stop, he added, “And by the time I felt like I could face her, I had no idea where they had moved on to. I didn’t know how to find them. She’s really good at hiding, let me tell you.”

The elevator doors opened to reveal a room whose size was truly mind-boggling. Despite the fact they had not gone down all that far, the ceiling appeared to be a good ten stories up. The room itself was circular, and the distance from one side to the other was the length of at least four football fields. Dozens of vehicles of all shapes, sizes, purposes, and conditions were scattered through the place, from bicycles to motorcycles to cars, trucks, full fighter jets, and even yachts. Various mechanical animals of literally any conceivable kind wandered or flew through the room as well, some in completely finished states, others barely more than a metal skeleton with wires and circuits hanging out. Tables piled high with equipment and tools were everywhere, along with blueprints, notes, odd ideas, and more scribbled on paper, on tables, on the side of passing cyberforms themselves (there was a half-finished cow with a sticky note on its rump about buying milk), and more. 

“Um,” Shiori started while pointing toward the far end of the room, “are those dinosaurs?” 

Sure enough, in a pen whose six foot fence seemed hilariously ill-equipped to hold them, a handful of cyberform dinosaurs, including a Triceratops, an Ankylosaurus, a Tyrannosaurus rex, and several others, wandered. 

“Yeah,” Galahad confirmed. “Harrison likes his dinosaurs. Don’t worry though, he’d never let anyone buy one of the big ones. He has a thing about keeping anything over a certain size for himself, or super-close friends. Helps maintain our neutrality.”

Stepping in front of them, he turned to spread both arms out as if to gesture around the entire facility. “Anyway, this is one of the labs. You like it? We, ahh, don’t get many visitors.”

“Wait,” Shiori realized, “one of the labs? You mean this isn’t the only one?”

Galahad chuckled. “The only one? No, there’s at least five more this same size. Some of them have more stuff than this, some of them have just one or two things that he wants to work on in private. I’m pretty sure he’s got a whale-Titanic thing in one of them. He keeps himself busy. Which is why meeting new people for once is a good thing.” Turning, he pointed toward a door on the far left side of the room, so far away it was barely visible, and only then because it was a different color than the wall. “So, you three ready to meet the man himself? Let’s go say hi.

“Oh, and if he’s in the dragon room, try not to make a lot of loud noises. They startle easily sometimes.”

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Summer Epilogue 12 (Heretical Edge)

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“So that’s why I wanted to tell you about it alone,” Flick announced to Virginia Dare, just after explaining the entire situation with Jophiel and Elisabet, as well as the more recent revelations, as the two of them stood out in the forest a bit away from the camp. “Now that the spells stopping us from talking about it are gone, I wanted to… to tell you myself. So we can talk about it without talking around all the other stuff that no one’s allowed to know.”

With a faint smile while her eyes remained contemplative, Dare replied, “You mean the fact that I’m your grandmother, so I might feel especially outraged at what those two want to use you for.”

Biting her lip, the younger girl nodded. “Yeah, that’s about the size of it.” She hesitated then, looking to the woman directly. “Sorry we couldn’t tell you about it before. But, I kind of figured that if anyone was going to understand magic stopping us from talking about something, it would be you.” She ended that with a kind of sheepish half-smile, trying to break the potential tension.

Raising an eyebrow at that, Dare was quiet for a moment before heaving a long, low sigh. “A part of me wants to confront them, yes. For whatever little good that would do. But, on the other hand, as you said, they could have done much worse. And their intentions are… if not totally pure, at least along similar lines as our own. We don’t always get to pick our allies, and it sounds as though their goals and ours are at least within similar… ahhh, zip codes, as it were.” Lifting her hand, she laid it on Flick’s shoulder and squeezed. “If this Jophiel has already taken a few steps from ‘only Seosten are worthy’ to ‘Seosten and humans are worthy’, it feels like a better idea to keep pulling her toward ‘all species are worthy’ rather than shoving her off the bridge entirely just because she’s not quite to the end of it yet.”

“That’s a… a good point,” Flick agreed, looking over to the woman while reaching up to put a hand over the one on her shoulder. “I also thought you’d be mad that they weren’t doing more to get Gaia out of the Crossroads prison. I mean, part of me is kind of mad about that.”

“Yes, well…” Dare hesitated before murmuring, “there is a bit of that. But on the other hand, I highly doubt even a full Committee member could simply release Gaia, given everything that’s happened. If they were to push too far, they would blow their cover with both the Committee and their own people. As much as I want Gaia back, I can’t blame them for being more cautious.”

She looked to Flick pointedly. “They have already helped you in aiding Sean, after all.”

Quickly nodding, Flick confirmed, “Yeah, they were the ones who helped get Apollo in so he could start helping Sean stay… you know, sane.” She hesitated then, before adding. “I… I could go in with him, you know. I could possess Apollo and let him pull me in to talk to Sean.”

“You could,” Dare agreed, glancing to the girl curiously. “Are you going to?”

“Yes.” Flick spoke instantly before pausing with a wince. “Soon. I just… want to have something to tell him about how we’re going to get him out of there. I don’t want to tell him that we don’t have any ideas. I feel like that would make things worse, somehow, you know?”

“Felicity,” Dare started, then hesitated. Her voice turned softer. “Sometimes it’s good just to know someone is thinking about you, even if they don’t have all the answers. If you want my suggestion, go with Apollo. Visit Sean. Just the fact that you’re there, that you take the time to visit him, could make a world of difference in his… psyche. Having Apollo to talk to will help, of course. But one of his friends showing up? That’s even better. Even if you can’t get him out.”

“Good point,” the girl agreed softly before kicking at the dirt. “I guess I also feel bad. I mean, we can’t help him except for this. We have no idea how to get him out. And I feel like… we escaped and he didn’t. I don’t know how to look him in the eyes with that. I can’t tell him that we can get him out, only that we’re trying. And we’re not even doing that twenty-four seven. I’m… I’m having fun with Avalon, Shiori, and the others. He’s in prison constantly, and I’m just… every time I think about him and remember that we don’t know how to get him out, I feel like a… a traitor because I’m not burning down the world to try to get him out. I feel helpless. And then sometimes I don’t feel helpless because I stop thinking about it, and that makes it worse when I do think about it.” She was half-flailing by the end before folding her arms tight against her stomach. “I feel like a shit. I should have found a way to get him out of there by now.”

“I wish I had a better answer for you.” Dare’s voice was quiet, as she stepped around in front of Flick, adding a second hand to her opposite shoulder and squeezing with both. “I wish I knew how to get him out of there, just as I wish I knew how to save Gaia. But we don’t have those answers yet. You, however, have the ability to let your friend know that you’re still thinking of him, that you’re trying. Do that. Be there. Let him see and hear you. I think you’re truly underestimating just how much that can help when he feels alone and lost.”

With a tiny smile, the girl nodded. Then she embraced the woman. “I know. I… you’re right. See?” She leaned back and winked at her. “You’re already giving good grandmother advice.”

“I think that falls more along teacher advice,” Dare mused, “but I’ll take it.”

The woman turned then, starting to walk through the trees, with Flick following. “For now, I’m less interested in impotently ranting about what I’d like to do to Jophiel and Elisabet if they hurt or manipulate you, and more interested in hearing about what you’ve learned from them so far.” She glanced sidelong to the girl, adding, “Or what they plan on teaching you. After all, if they want to be helpful, even if it is for their own purposes, there’s no reason not to take advantage. Learn everything you can from them. If it helps convince the Seosten leadership to ally with humanity, great. If it doesn’t… well… you won’t be alone out there, I can promise you that. But even if you were, I’m pretty sure those Seosten would end up being pretty surprised about what you pull off.”

Another brief smile came to Flick’s face, and she walked faster to move alongside the woman. “Speaking of surprises, you should’ve seen Harp–I mean, Gwen’s face when Aylen turned out to be the person she’s been looking for all this time.”

“I can imagine,” Dare murmured thoughtfully. “What about Aylen’s… mothers? Do they know anything about this connection with Arthur?”

“We don’t think so,” Flick replied, walking literally through a tree and out the other side using her wood-traveling power. “But I guess we’ll find out in a few weeks, since we’re supposed to meet them, and her other grandfather.

“I just wish I knew why she keeps snickering whenever someone asks if her grandfather thinks it’s weird having a Reaper in the family.”

*******

“Okay, Chambers, new rule. You have to deal with at least six of the gigantic conspiracies that you’ve tripped into before you’re allowed to find any more of them.”

The words came from Avalon, as she stared intently at the girl in question. The two of them, along with Shiori, were sitting on a small sailboat out in the middle of the lake. Flick had brought her girlfriends out here to talk about everything, and was sitting across from them, looking a little sheepish.

“It’s not my fault things keep jumping into my lap!” Flick protested, face flushed. “Besides, most of these are things that have been going on for a long time, I just stumble across part of them.”

Shiori used her foot to poke Flick in the leg. “Are you okay, though? I mean, if Elisabet and this… Jophiel put all those spells on you, did they really get rid of all of them?”

“Wyatt, Athena, Sariel, and Gwen went over us,” Flick replied with a quick nod. “They said we’re clear of any unknown magic as far as they could see. And trust me, they were thorough. Especially Wyatt.”

“Good,” Avalon replied shortly, head tilting a little as she watched the blonde girl.

“Are you… upset?” Flick asked hesitantly, biting her lip as she watched her reaction.

With a long, quiet sigh, Avalon shook her head. “No, Chambers… Felicity. I’m not upset or angry. I’m a little… disappointed that I didn’t realize something else was going on. And I kind of want to yell at them for not saving Gaia, but… but logically I get it. And for the record, I would’ve understood even if it took you a lot longer to tell us the truth. You’re allowed to have important secrets. Especially ones like that. Because… because I know if I was in their situation, I’d want to make sure you were safe, above everything else. That’s what they were doing by putting those spells on you. They were protecting each other. I get that. And you were making sure you could rescue Sariel. I get that too. I’m not going to be mad at you just because you were in an impossible situation, and I’m not going to be mad at them for doing something I could see myself doing if it meant protecting you from a potential enemy.”

Her words were perhaps slightly undercut in seriousness by the fact that Porthos climbed from the girl’s pocket to her head and made chittering noises of agreement. The little metal lizard ended by jumping from Avalon’s head to Flick’s quickly raised hand, landing in her palm before dashing along to her cheek so he could reach up and pat her cheek.  

Shrugging, Shiori gestured toward Avalon. “She said it better than I could, but yeah, that. We get it. And she’s right, those two might have really different ideas about the whole… enslaving other species for the good of the universe thing and all that, but in this case, they’re protecting the person they love. I can get mad at them for a lot of things, but not that.”

With a tiny smile, Flick stepped over and embraced Avalon first so that Porthos could jump back to his partner’s shoulder. The two girls exchanged a brief kiss before Flick did the same with Shiori, quietly murmuring, “You guys are pretty awesome, you know that?”

Grinning despite herself, the Asian girl drawled an easy, “You ever wonder why awesome is good and awful is bad? Wouldn’t it be better to be full of awe instead of just some of it?”

“Okay, fine,” Flick replied deadpan, “you’re awful.”

With a snicker, Shiori blurted, “Yay!”

“You’re both awful,” Avalon informed them both, rolling her eyes before settling into a slight frown. “But I do want to know what Jophiel and Elisabet can do about Gaia. I… understand that they can’t get her out. But they have to be able to do something. Tell us what kind of spell they’re using to keep her asleep, let us know who is in charge of her, any ideas about where they have her, anything. They have to know something. And they have to know that getting Gaia back is the best chance we have of being strong enough to actually make the Seraphim listen to any alliance ideas.”

Flick and Shiori exchanged brief glances, the former nodding. “I mean, you’re not wrong. There’s others that are stronger, but Gaia’s got her whole ‘I puppet your technology’ thing that might make them think twice about bringing their ships here.”

“Not to mention,” Shiori added, “there’s lots of Heretics that will listen to her because of everything she’s done for them. And she’s the one who knows the most about who and where all the hybrids that are probably still pretending to be loyal are.”

Slowly nodding in agreement, Avalon murmured, “So, they have to know something, anything that might help. Even if it’s not useful right this very second. I want to eventually succeed at saving Gaia, not just make myself feel better by trying something immediately that fails.”

“We will, Valley,” Flick promised while putting a hand on her arm. “We’ll get her back.

“I just hope we can do it before whatever Fossor wanted her out of the way for happens.”

******

“Knock knock.”

As she said those words, Avalon rapped her knuckles against the side of a tree in the forest while looking up into it. Her other hand was taken up by the plastic bag that she carried.

In one of the branches above her head, Aylen leaned over, face appearing as she blinked a couple times, clearly having just woken up. “Oh… uh, hi.”

“Do you mind if I come up?” Avalon asked, lifting the bag. “I brought food.” She felt awkward. This kind of outreach was usually more Flick’s thing. But she’d gotten to know Aylen a lot better than the other girl had while Flick was gone, especially after finding out her secret.

Nodding quickly, Aylen started to ask if Avalon needed a hand. But the girl was already on her way, taking a few steps back before running up and jumping to plant her foot against the tree, using that to reach a lower branch. From there, she made her way rapidly and smoothly up before settling in beside her.

“I guess you’re fine then,” Aylen noted dryly, shifting over on the branch a little to give Avalon more room before returning her attention to looking out over the cabins and lake in the distance. As she did so, Sovereign landed further out on the tree, giving a soft scree that drew Porthos out of Avalon’s jacket. The two exchanged a flurry of sounds, before the little lizard looked to Avalon for permission.

“Go on then,” the girl motioned with one hand. “Have fun.”

With a chirp, Porthos darted that way, clambering up onto Sovereign’s back before the flying cyberform took off into the air.

The two girls sat there in comfortable silence for a minute or so, neither needing to talk. They just watched as Sovereign flew with Porthos riding. Finally, Avalon spoke up with a soft, “How’re your mothers doing with all this?”

“I don’t know,” Aylen admitted. “They’re still off on their… uhh, mission. I’m not really sure exactly what they’re doing, but they said it’d be another few weeks. It was an emergency.” She glanced over to the girl beside her, adding, “If this was an emergency, I could get them here right now. They’d drop everything. But I don’t think it is, so I don’t want to take them away from what they’re doing. I mean… Arthur’s been… gone for this long, and we don’t even have all the bones or anything, so–”

“Bones?” Avalon echoed, raising an eyebrow.

“Oh, yeah.” Aylen gestured over toward the cabins. “I talked to Ha.. I mean, Gwen. She said we need to find all of Arthur’s bones before we can do… uhh, whatever it is I’m supposed to do. She’s got most of them, but apparently there’s still some out there.”

“Do you think they used some of his bones to help make the Heretical Edge?” Avalon suggested. “If he’s so powerful, maybe his bones are powerful. And if you were going to try to free your… your grandfather from that, maybe freeing him is what releases Arthur’s bones. That could be how you’re supposed to bring Arthur back.”

Aylen blinked at that, head tilting a little. “I… huh. Maybe, I didn’t think of that. But Gwen and that… um, Mercury guy said the Seosten didn’t want to just kill me because they were afraid that might be what wakes up Arthur.”

“They probably don’t know what you’re supposed to do,” Avalon pointed out. “They’re erring on the side of caution because they have no idea what could happen to make him come back.”

“Point,” Aylen conceded before letting out a long breath as she tilted her head up to the sky above, visible through the tree canopy. “Maybe that is it. I dunno. It’s strange though, right?”

“Definitely strange,” Avalon agreed before adding, “Though strange is normal anymore. Here.” She lifted the bag, offering it to the other girl. “Here. I thought you could use it.”

Aylen took the bag, blinking once before reaching in to retrieve a small glass box with holes in it. A rat was there, breathing slowly as it was clearly alive, but sedated. “What–you… brought me…”

“I knew it was getting about that time,” Avalon murmured, feeling a little uncomfortable. “And I didn’t think you’d been out lately. If that crossed a line or something–”

“No,” Aylen quickly interrupted, shaking her head. “No, it’s okay. I just meant… thank you. Most people would not be bringing me something to kill just like that.”

“You kill to eat,” Avalon replied flatly. “How is that different from any non-vegan or vegetarian out there? If you eat meat, something died to feed you. This isn’t different, you’re just… not exactly eating it.”

With a tiny smile, Aylen retrieved the rat from the box. Taking a breath, she hesitated before carefully asking, “You’re sure you’re okay with this? I can wait until later.”

Shrugging, Avalon assured her, “Don’t worry about me.” She reached into the pocket of her jacket, retrieving a wrapped sandwich, which she began to pull the plastic off of. “I brought my own.”

The simple words and actions, completely dismissing any thought that there was something wrong or strange with what she was doing, made Aylen’s smile grow a little. She glanced down at the tranquilized rat before smoothly breaking its neck. A rush of energy flooded the girl, put off by the animal’s death. She gave a soft gasp and slumped slightly from the rush. She could… feel the creature’s life, could… see a flash of memories from its life, short as it had been. It was tiny and incredibly quick, but it was still a wave that washed over her.

Avalon’s hand was on her shoulder, keeping the other girl steady on the branch. “You okay?”

“Um… yeah.” Aylen blushed, sitting up a bit more. “I’m good. And thanks.

“I guess if I’m supposed to wake up Arthur, being close to Avalon isn’t a bad start.”

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Summer Epilogue 3 – The Hunted (Heretical Edge)

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“Mmm. You know, it may not be as great as Escalan made, but sometimes you just need a good grilled ham and cheese.” As she spoke those words, Shiori took a large bite out of the sandwich in question, swallowing before adding, “And as a pretty nifty bonus, this one wasn’t made by a zombie.”

At the moment, she, along with Avalon and Flick, were sitting in the large cabin that served as the camp cafeteria. The room was filled with long rectangular picnic tables, one of which the three girls sat at together. They were just finishing up a late lunch, and had the room mostly to themselves, aside from another group a few tables away. That group was made up entirely of old camp inhabitants, as the majority of the Crossroads students who had elected to stay after abandoning the school were still mostly keeping to themselves, not quite ready to integrate. They tended to stay in or right around the cabins they had been given, though a few had slowly started to wander around a little bit. It was progress.

“Ugh,” Flick groaned. “Don’t remind me. I felt like gargling with bleach or something after I thought about how many meals he made after he was already dead. Seriously.”

“You do remember that you’re a necromancer now, right?” Avalon mildly pointed out before plucking two things from her plate. The first was a chip, which she popped into her mouth. The other was a small metal bolt, which she flipped to the middle of the table, where Porthos sat. The lizard cyberform caught the bolt, making a delighted sound before chomping onto it.

“I don’t care, I still wouldn’t have a zombie make my food!” Flick squeaked. “Necromancer or not, that’s just gross. I couldn’t–” She stopped then, blinking over toward one of the windows of the cabin. “You see that?”

Both other girls looked that way as well, while Avalon shook her head. “See what?”

Flick kept her eyes on the window for several long seconds before shrugging. “I thought I saw something watching us. It was just–never mind. It was probably a kid or something.” As she spoke, the girl took two small metal washers and slid them over near Porthos, where Jaq and Gus were perched. The robotic mice picked the washers up in their paws and quickly nibbled.

“Or a pervert,” Avalon suggested idly, taking another chip. “Maybe one of you has an admirer.”  

“Oh sure,” Shiori shot back while rolling her eyes. “If there’s a pervert around, it’s gotta be Flick or me he’s staring at. Because God knows you’re so hideous no one can stand to look at you.”

With a smile that bordered on dangerous and feral, Avalon leaned closer while shaking her head. “No, I just mean that they know better than to stalk me like that.”

Porthos made a quick noise of agreement then, hopping up onto two feet while beginning a long tirade in his own chittering language about just what would happen if anyone tried something that stupid with Avalon.

“What, who’s being stalked?” Kaste, one of the camp’s primary mages along with her sister Rain, stopped by the table to blink at the girls. “What’s that about a pervert?”

Flushing, Flick shook her head quickly. “Theoretical pervert. Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong.”

Raising an eyebrow at them, Kaste urged, “Okay, well, let one of us know if something does happen. We’re still sorting out all the new protection spells since we’ve got all these people coming in. We’re expanding the camp around to the other side of the lake, so people aren’t cramped in so much. Especially if more keep showing up.”

“Garden people start trickling in yet?” Avalon asked, shifting a little as she looked to the woman curiously.

“A few,” Kaste confirmed. “There’ll be more later tonight. Apparently there’s a pretty big group that got out of there after the initial fighting. They’ve been shaking off any pursuit and making sure the people they’ve got are actually loyal before Gabriel sends someone out to guide them the rest of the way.” Snapping her fingers then, she added, “Speaking of which, I better go prepare a couple more cabins while I’ve still got the oomph for it. You guys enjoy the rest of your lunch. And remember–”

“Tell you about any perverts,” Shiori finished, giving the woman a thumbs up. “You got it.”

As the woman left, Flick picked up her now-empty plate. “What do you think the Garden people are gonna say when they show up here, Valley? You didn’t exactly leave on the best of terms. There might be people that hold a grudge about that.”

“I’ll deal with it,” the other girl replied. “They haven’t left on good terms either. And at this point, they pretty much have to listen to the explanation. That or I’ll hit them until they listen.”

“That’s my girl.” Beaming, Flick rose from the table, holding a hand out for Jaq and Gus to scamper up to her shoulders. “Come on, I kinda want to see where they’re gonna put those new cabins in. And besides, you’re not gonna let us have cake until we walk off lunch. Two birds, one stone.”

“You’re dreaming if you think you’re getting away with just walking,” Avalon informed her primly while standing up alongside the other girl. “We may be pretending this is summer vacation already, but no one gets to be lazy. Okay, well, some people do. But you two don’t. We’re doing a full work-out today. And every day. No classes means more time for training.”

Exchanging glances, Flick and Shiori grinned at one another, the latter handing a ten dollar bill to the former. “You were right,” Shiori admitted, “First couple days after everything that happened and she’s already been planning out a whole new training regimen.”

“Hey,” Avalon retorted, “there’s all-out war coming. And we are going to be ready for it. Now come on, we’ll go check out where they’re putting in the new cabins, then jog around the lake a few times. After that, we’ll head for the weight room and really work up a sweat.”

Chittering in agreement and pride, Porthos leapt from the table to her arm, then climbed onto the girl’s head and stood on two legs while holding his other legs up like arms in a standard muscle pose, as though showing off his biceps.

Adopting a baffled look, Shiori asked, “Why would we work up a sweat just by sitting around?”

Squinting at the other girl with a look that said she was going to be sorry for taking the bait, Avalon murmured, “Why would we just sit around?”

“Well,” Shiori innocently replied, “you did say that we were going to the wait room.”

“The wa–oh Gods damn it,” Avalon muttered, shooting the cackling girl a look. Even then, it quickly turned to a bright smile. “Oh well. I’ll just make sure you pay for that one later.” She gave a sigh of anticipation. “Won’t this be great? We can work for hours without being interrupted.”

“Stop, you’re drooling,” Flick teased before pulling both girls by their arms. “Come on, let’s go see. But first, I’ve gotta stop by Dad’s cabin and pick up my towel if we’re going to work out.”

“Yeah,” Shiori agreed. “And I wanna see if Choo’s up from his nap yet.”  

The three of them stepped out of the long building, glancing around the busy camp briefly before first heading for the cabin that Flick was sharing with her father and Tabbris (though the latter split her time pretty evenly between Lincoln’s and Sariel’s cabins). As they were walking between a couple of the buildings, Shiori stopped, turning her head to look into some bushes nearby. “Do you guys…” She paused, taking a step into the bushes to look around before returning with a slow head shake. “Weird.” Her hand waved at Flick. “See? Now you’ve got me seeing things too.”

“Hold on.” Avalon held a hand up, head tilting as though listening for anything. On her head, Porthos seemed to be listening as well. After a few seconds of silence, the girl looked to Flick. “You got anything?”

Flick shook her head. “I’m not sensing any objects or anything, if that’s what you mean. I’ve got nothing.” She, in turn, looked to Shiori. “What about you? That ‘someone’s watching me’ sense going off?”

“It comes and goes,” Shiori murmured. “There’s a lot of people around here and they tend to look at us a bunch. I’m not sure how trustworthy it is like this.”

The trio stayed there for another minute, poking around the bushes for any sign of anyone. But there was nothing. Finally, they collectively shrugged and started off again.

“Part of me feels like we should say something,” Flick pointed out as they reached Lincoln’s cabin. “But we’re probably being paranoid. I mean, we’ve got plenty of reasons to be, after… well, all that stuff.”

“Yeah, we should still say something,” Avalon agreed. “Maybe it’s paranoia. Maybe it’s not. Just dismissing it is stupid. We’ll talk to Rain and Kaste, see if they can run another scanning spell or something to make sure everyone here is supposed to be here. Though I’m pretty sure we’d know if anyone really bad managed to find this place. It just… doesn’t feel like anything bad. Annoying and confusing, maybe. But not bad.”

“It’s probably one of the Crossroads people, you know,” Shiori put in. “They’re probably trying to find a way to talk to the girl who brought the rebellion back but don’t know how. Or maybe it’s someone who knew your mom before. Either way, they’re probably nervous.”

That sounded about right, so the girls went into the cabin and picked up the towel, as well as a couple bottles of water. They took a few minutes to talk to Lincoln in there as well, before heading out to make another detour into the cabin Shiori had been sleeping in, collecting an excited Choo. The Jekern ran ahead of them, scampering through the camp with an eager series of snorts and oinks while electricity sparked around him. Every person they passed, Choo made happy noises at, especially those who took a moment to rub his head and pet him. He preened and posed for anyone who would pay the slightest bit of attention to him.

“Well, looks like someone prefers our new living arrangements over the old one,” Flick noted.

“Dude,” Shiori replied, “he is so much happier here. He doesn’t have to hide all the time. And do you have any idea how much he likes to play with those kids? It’s the most adorable thing ever.”

They went back through the line of cabins toward the lake then, and even Choo stopped a couple times as though he sensed something following them. Yet, still, none of them could spot anyone. They looked everywhere and used every power they could, but came up empty. Shiori even had her ‘someone is watching me’ sense trigger a few more times, but in the open camp area, that didn’t mean much. Whoever was there, if there was indeed someone, was very good at remaining hidden.

“Okay, that’s enough,” Avalon muttered as they reached the lake. “I’ve been trying to be nice about all this because I figured it was just one of your mother’s friends or fans or whatever, or someone who wanted to talk to me about Gaia. But this is absurd. We’re not playing this game anymore.” Raising her voice then, she called, “You hear that? We’re not playing this game. If you don’t knock it off and show yourself, we’ll just get one of the witches to use a spell to figure out who’s been playing peeping tom all afternoon. Then you can try to explain just what the hell is going on to one of them. Or, you could maybe try not embarrassing yourself and just–”

In mid-sentence, she was interrupted by a sudden splash from the lake. As all three of them jerked their gazes that way, they found the remnants of ripples spreading, as though something had just jumped in, or out, of the lake. Yet there was nothing in sight. The water was clear, revealing nothing beneath it beyond a few swiftly scattering fish.

“Wait.” Avalon squinted at the water while something seemed to dawn on her. “Something’s been following us this whole time, peeking in windows, hiding, stalking, hunting us. Something that… Oh, my God, it’s–”

That was as far as she got before something slammed into the girl from behind. It took Shiori and Flick both completely by surprise, a large shape that went right between both of them without making any sound until it crashed into Avalon. Then the two went tumbling end over end.

“Valley!” Flick blurted, grabbing her staff from its place at her belt. She and Shiori (with Choo right there alongside them) both went to lunge after their companion, only to come up short at a bafflingly unexpected sound, a sound that none of them saw coming.

Laughing. Avalon was laughing. And squealing. As the two stopped dead, staring, they saw the other girl roll to a stop there on the ground. Her arms were around the neck of her ‘attacker’.

“Salten!” Avalon blurted, jumping to her feet while the Peryton did the same with a little help from one of its wings. They landed facing one another, just before the girl threw herself at the winged elk with a sound that was somewhere between a put-on snarl and another laugh.

Salten met her charge, slamming right into her with a loud huff. His wings folded in against his body, and he brought his head down against Avalon’s. She, in turn, wrapped both arms around his neck and yanked to the side, her strength pulling Salten to the ground. They rolled several times, each fighting for position and advantage. Grunting, huffing, and laughing (or snorting, in Salten’s case), the two wrestled right there in front of the lake.

Through it all, Flick and Shiori stood there, staring. They were joined in that by Jaq and Gus on Flick’s shoulders, as well as Porthos from Choo’s back, where he had jumped from Avalon’s head at the last moment. Both girls, all three cyberforms, and the Jekern as well, were staring with open-mouthed surprise as Avalon and Salten went rolling back and forth along the dirt.

“I knew it was you!” Avalon blurted while rolling on top of Salten to put the animal into a headlock. “You’ve been stalking us all day, haven’t you, you big jerk!”

Salten, for his part, jerked his head to the side to knock the girl back before making a huffing, snorting sound as he pivoted to face the girl. Head down, he danced one way, then the other while Avalon mirrored his movements. Both moved in a circle around one another, gazes locked as they watched for an opening.

Porthos made a curious chittering sound from Choo’s back then, and Flick reached down to pat him. “No, she hasn’t gone insane, buddy. At least, I don’t think she has. They’re just really old friends. From what Seller said, they basically grew up together, since Salten was a… foal?”

“That’s a horse,” Shiori corrected. “You mean fawn.”

Salten faked right before lunging left, but Avalon was ready. She caught one of his antlers, kicking herself up and around to land neatly on his back. “Hah!” That lasted until the winged elk flew straight up off the ground and turned over, dumping the girl to the ground, where she landed in a crouch. “Cheating! No flying until the fourth round, we said that!”

Landing with a huff, Salten bumped up against Avalon, who wrapped both arms around him and clung tightly while looking to the others. Finally, she seemed to realize what was going on, flushing a little bit. “Errr. What–I mean, look, Salten made it.” She held a hand out for Porthos, who jumped up, ran along her arm, and perched on the Peryton’s head while making curious sounds of his own that seemed half-questioning and half-greeting.

“Salten, this is Flick and Shiori,” Avalon introduced them.

“Hi, Salten,” Flick greeted, stepping that way. She started to give a short bow to the creature, before gasping as he lifted his leg, extending his hoof to her. “Oh, uh, right. Good to meet you.” Her hand grasped his hoof, shaking it.

“You must be really good at hide and seek,” Shiori noted while taking her turn to shake his hoof. “You’re a sneaky sky-deer, you know that?” Choo, who had come up right alongside her, made a noise of agreement before nuzzling up against the Peryton’s leg affectionately.

“Let me guess,” Avalon announced, “Seller dropped you off and convinced everyone else not to tell me that you were here.” As Salten made what sounded like outright chuckling sounds, she rolled her eyes. “You’re both jerks.” Still, she was clinging to him, her adoration and love for the Peryton incredibly clear. “And I’ll get you both back. You’ve gotta sleep sometime, and that’s when I will piledrive the crap out of you. When you least expect it.”

Raising his head imperiously, Salten made a disbelieving or dismissive sound, snorting as he spread both of his wings out wide. He then brought the wings in, catching everyone to pull them right up against him in an embrace. Even Choo was included.

“Aww,” Shiori giggled while returning the hug. “I like you too, sky-deer.”  

“Okay, okay,” Avalon finally managed as she extricated herself. “Let’s go. We were on our way to see where they’re setting up the new cabins over there. You can come with. You know, so you don’t get any more ideas about another ambush.” Squinting at her old friend, she gave him a push. “Come on, don’t tell me you’re tired already.”

With an offended huff, Salten started trotting ahead of them, lifting his head imperiously as he  led the way around the lake.

“Hey, you know,” Shiori started, “if you want to spend some time with your friend, we can always do the work-out part later.”

“Pfft, nice try,” Avalon shot back. “But that Peryton’s a bigger stickler about exercise than I am. You thought I ran you ragged, wait until Drill Sergeant Salten gets hold of you.”

“Oh boy,” Flick murmured. “Shiori?

“I think we might be in trouble.”

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Mini-Interlude 76 – Rebecca & Mini-Interlude 77 -Sariel (Heretical Edge)

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“I can’t believe you guys were dealing with this for like, the whole year, and I didn’t know anything about it.“

As she spoke, Rebecca Jameson looked at two of her teammates, Koren and Shiori. All three of them were sitting on the long wooden dock that lead out over the lake at this campsite they had come to. “You must think I’m pretty oblivious, huh?”

Koren snorted, shaking her head. “You’re not oblivious. I mean, we were keeping secrets from full power Heretic adults. If they didn’t figure it out, you shouldn’t feel bad.”

Shiori nodded. “And we had help from Gaia and the others. You didn’t have anybody helping you figure stuff out.”

“Figure stuff out…” Rebecca echoed that quietly. Sitting there with her legs hanging off the edge of the dock, the diminutive girl bit her lip before looking at Shiori. “That’s what happened at the beginning of the year, isn’t it? When you were all quiet and upset. It’s because you found out that you’re… a… vampeel?”

“Dhampyr,” Shiori corrected. “Dhampyr have one human parent and one vampire parent. Vampeel have both vampire parents.” She hesitated before adding, “My sister was a vampeel before she became a full vampire.”

Rebecca‘s head shook quickly, as she clamped her mouth shut tight while trying to come to terms with everything she was hearing. It was all coming too fast. It was too much. She just couldn’t handle everything. The information that had been shoved into her head by that spell, the subsequent realizations that had come to her, the things she was hearing now from her teammates, any of it alone would have been too much for just a couple of days. All of it together was just… insane.

She found her voice then, managing a quiet, “But that’s what you were so upset about before?“

Again, Shiori nodded. “Yeah, it’s not a lot of fun to find out that your mom is one of the so-called monsters that you’re supposed to be training to kill. And that you’re probably one of them too.” The last bit came in a very soft voice that was barely audible. Then she straightened a bit. “But Flick helped me. It’s a long story, and it’s about going to another world to help these giants. And then… yeah, it’s really long. I’ll tell you about it later. But the point is, she helped me figure out that I wasn’t a monster.”

Koren coughed. “Yeah, Aunt Flick’s good at that.”

That made Rebecca blink, looking at the brunette in confusion. “Aunt?” Then her eyes widened as the realization came. “Wait, are you saying that one of those twins from that story, the ones that…”

Koren nodded. “My mom. She’s Flick’s big sister. Joselyn’s oldest daughter. I know, it’s weird. I think they—” She paused, frowning. “Wait, why can I tell you that? The… huh. The spell that stops us from telling people exactly who they are must’ve broken with the Revolution eraser when Flick did that thing, I guess.” Frowning uncertainly, the girl shook that off. “Anyway, yeah, Joselyn. She’s–”

“My middle name is Joselyn,” Rebecca suddenly blurted, unable to contain herself. Her eyes were wide as she pushed on. “My grandma chose it. My grandma who went to school at the same time as that Joselyn. And she even spelled it that way, with an S instead of a C like it usually is.”

Looking to the other two, she hurriedly continued. “I was curious about Grandma‘s life at Crossroads, about what her life is like. So I tried looking it up awhile back. But the records barely mention her. Like she didn’t do much the whole time she was there. And she didn’t have a roommate. Like, through all four years, she never had a roommate. At least, that’s what the records said.”

“Joselyn,” Koren agreed. “She was your grandmother’s roommate. She had to be. And if she made your middle name Joselyn… they were close. That’s probably why they erased most of the things she did. When they erased Joselyn completely, most of what your grandmother did had to disappear too.”

Cringing in on herself, Rebecca looked down at the phone sitting in her lap. “I need to talk to my parents, and to my grandma. But they’re not answering. I’ve tried like twelve times, and they haven’t sent anything back, or answered. What do you think is wrong? Do you think the Crossroads guys went after them already? Do you think—”

Shiori’s hand found her shoulder, squeezing. “Hey, we’ll figure it out. They might just be busy getting out of there, you know? They got hit with some pretty big memories too. Your grandmother is probably still dealing with remembering Joselyn.”

Rebecca push herself to her feet, the tiny girl shoving her phone in her pocket as she straightened. “We have to find them. We have to find my parents and my grandma. We can’t just sit here doing nothing. If Grandma Lillian was so important to Joselyn, Crossroads is going to go after her, right? I mean, they know the rebellion is coming back and all that, so they’ll see her as like… an obvious target. They’ll take her, and throw her in a dungeon like they did Joselyn, and they might—”

“Hey.”

The single word interruption came from further back on the dock. Rebecca turned that way quickly, seeing the girl standing there. The second she did, her Stranger sense started screaming at her, and she reflexively grabbed for her backpack, the one that transformed into a cannon. Then she stopped short. “Wait… you’re…”

Shiori stepped past her quickly, gesturing to the other girl as she came forward out of the shadows. “Rebecca, this is my big sister, Asenath. Asenath, this is my teammate, Rebecca. She’s still trying to get used to this.”

Asenath nodded, taking a step closer with both of her hands open and out, palms showing. “It’s okay, Rebecca. I wouldn’t have interrupted, but I was checking on Shiori, and I heard what you were saying. You’re right, your grandmother was close with Joselyn. They were best friends.” She pointed to her own head. “I was part of the rebellion before, and I’ve been remembering things all year. Things that were erased. And I remember Lillian. She and Joselyn were best friends, and they’d do anything for each other. I mean, they were close enough that your grandmother chose Joselyn for your middle name even though she was erased. That’s how much she meant to her. They couldn’t erase that entirely.”

It wasn’t exactly news that made Rebecca want to jump for joy. Her fear just redoubled. “So they will go after her. If she was that important, they’ll definitely try to grab her.”

It was pretty terrifying, how quickly she’d gone from loving Crossroads and everything that being a part of it meant, to fearing what they would do to her family. And it gave her some idea of what people like Shiori had gone through.

Asenath’s head shook. “I’m not going to let that happen, Rebecca. Trust me, I have plenty of experience in finding people. As long as there’s a chance, I will find your family. I owe Lillian a lot. I’ll get out there, figure out where she is, where they are, and bring them back here. I’ll let them know where you are.”

Shiori did a quick double take, stepping that way. “But it’s going to be dangerous. If Crossroads is really after her, they’ll have Heretics looking. Full Heretics. It’ll be too dangerous to go by yourself.”

“She won’t be by herself.” That announcement came as Deveron stepped into view on the dock. He moved beside Asenath. “I remember Lillian too, and I am not about to let those assholes hurt her, or her family.”

Rebecca stared at the boy, mouth opening and shutting. “You remember… What?

With an incorrigible grin, the boy held a hand out to her. “Hi, nice to meet you. Joselyn is my wife. The twins are our kids. I’ve been posing as a teenager to keep an eye on my family and find a way to get close to that piece of shit Ruthers, which I did by having my memories erased for awhile last year. But I got them back for this year. And all my powers from most of a century of fighting in Jos’s rebellion.”

“Oh.” Speaking that single, soft word, Rebecca slowly sank back down. “I think I need to sit for a minute.”

Deveron pressed on. “Asenath’s right. We won’t let your grandma be taken by those bastards. The two of us, we’ll track her down, and the rest of your family. We’ll get her back here, okay? Lillian was my friend and my teammate. She’s my wife’s best friend in the world. I’m not going to let a damn thing happened to her.”

Swallowing hard, Rebecca looked up at him, her voice quivering a little. “You promise? I mean, I know you can’t really promise that nothing will happen. You can’t control the world. But you promise you’ll try to get them? You promise you’ll help?”

Crouching down there in front of her, Deveron met Rebecca’s gaze. his voice was solemn. “Rebecca, I give you my word, I will do absolutely everything in my power to bring your family back here. And I won’t rest until they are safe with you. Okay?” He extended a hand to her.

Rebecca took his hand and shook it, murmuring a soft, “Okay.”

Then she stood, stepping past the man to stand in front of Asenath. Her voice was quiet. “You’re a vampire.”

The woman gave a single nod, watching her. “Yes.”

Almost ten full seconds of silence passed then as the two stared at one another, Rebecca‘s mind spinning a dozen different ways. Everything she wanted to say, all the fears and doubts that she had, everything tumbled back-and-forth in her head through that long silence. Finally, there was only one thing she could say.

“Please bring my family back.”

 

*******

 

Sariel was floating. A vast, unending ocean surrounded her on all sides as she lay spread eagle, her gaze directed toward what would have been the surface if there had been an actual end to the water. But there was nothing to see, no light, no land, nothing but dark emptiness that stretched on forever. Her world was empty, a void that went on into infinity, leaving the woman questioning whether there had ever actually been anything else.

Yes. Yes, there was more than this. There was her family. She knew they existed. They were real, tangible, living beings. They weren’t figments of her imagination. Most of them weren’t, anyway. She was pretty sure that she had made up a few in her head, and had imagined entire long lives with them during these times of loneliness.

These times? This time? Was there more than one? She had the feeling that there had been interruptions. Interruptions by that woman whose face came swimming into her mind. A face that was always the same, with its hateful, glaring eyes. Was she real? Were faces real at all? If they were real, were they… right? Did she remember where eyes and noses and mouths went? Did food really go in the mouth? Was skin really that color? Were there really multiple colors? Which one was right? What color was she? How many fingers did she have? Fingers. Hands. Toes. She knew those words. She knew where they went, how many there were. At least, she thought she did. Everything was… fuzzy.

How many dreams had she made up through all of this? How many of those dreams were real memories? How long had she been lying in this void, her mind forced into this nothingness, this sanity-killing emptiness by her captor?

Kushiel. That was the name of her enemy, the name of the woman who had so thoroughly imprisoned  her. The name and face came and went with her sanity. Sanity that faded more rapidly every time she was shut in this void and left for her mind to wander.

It was a spell. She knew that much. Kushiel messed with her mind by shutting her in this void, leaving her mind trapped floating in this empty ocean with nowhere to go, nothing to see, nothing to focus on. And because that wasn’t enough, that spell also altered her perception of time. It could make her think that one minute had passed when it was actually a month, or stretch what was actually a single hour out into years. Years spent floating in this place, making up stories in her head. Stories that fought with her true memories until she had no idea what was real and what wasn’t. Decades passed in her mind, while only minutes or hours passed in the real world. Or days. Days and decades, did she have that right? Was it the other way around? Which word meant what? It all jumbled together. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t talk to anyone. Years would pass in her head with no one to talk to, nothing to save her from the soul-crushing emptiness and solitude.

And yet, she would prefer this punishment over others that the woman had invented. Being lost in this void was nothing compared to other things Kushiel had done. She had pushed virtual reality scenarios into Sariel.  Scenarios which forced her to see her family being killed in so many different ways. She had witnessed the torture and death of her husband and children more than a dozen different ways. She had screamed herself hoarse until she tore something in her throat. She had lost and failed over and over again to save them, never succeeding, always seeing them die. Then she had woken up, and realized that it was only another forced dream brought on by the monster for her own petty amusement. For revenge.

Or was it? Some days Kushiel told her that they were fake memories, that her family was out there and had forgotten her. Other times the woman told her that they had been killed, that one of the memories she was implanted with was the truth, but she would have to figure out which one. Other times she was told they were still prisoners and that Kushiel was putting them through the same thing. And still other times, Kushiel made her believe that her children were being taught to hunt and kill everyone she ever cared about. She changed her story all the time. Purposefully, of course. That made it harder for Sariel to keep her own thoughts straight. It tormented her more.

She didn’t know what was true. She didn’t even know for certain which children were real and which ones she had made up in an attempt to cling to her sanity. Sometimes she almost thought that nothing was real. Her mind would have given up entirely, collapsing under the weight of these attacks on its psyche, if it wasn’t for one thing. One thing that Kushiel couldn’t touch.

Tabbris. Tabbris was real. That was one of the only touching stones that Sariel had. Tabbris was the only thing keeping her from losing herself completely. She was a single light in the vast darkness. Because Kushiel didn’t know about her, she couldn’t mess with Sariel’s memories about her. That memory, the memory of her tiny, innocent little girl, was enough to stop Sariel from going completely insane after being subjected to all of this. Tabbris was her lighthouse, her beacon.

Tabbris was her savior, in so many ways. Her existence was something that Kushiel didn’t erase or throw doubt on, because she didn’t know she should erase it.

And yet, was she even still alive? Sariel didn’t know. Not for certain, anyway. Her only true source of hope in that regard was the fact that Kushiel had not taunted her about the girl. Sariel had no doubt that if that vile, evil woman ever actually knew about Tabbris, she would not hesitate to use that information to torture her. She used everything else she knew about Sariel to cause as much pain as possible. Whether they caught the girl or not, simply knowing about her would make Kushiel torment Sariel with stories about her imprisonment or death. The fact that the woman remained completely silent about her proved that she knew nothing as far as Tabbris was concerned. And that little bit, the knowledge that Tabbris existed and was out there, was enough for Sariel to hold onto her hope. Hope that kept her somewhat sane through all of this. That alone provided a focus for her to cling to in the storm of this emotional torture.

But hope or not, she was still trapped here. Trapped in this emptiness with no one to speak to, no one to tell her what was right or wrong about her memories. She couldn’t help the family like this, could not save the people she cared about from the monsters that were out there. She could do nothing like this. Nothing but float here in the ocean with her thoughts, her doubts, and her fears. Fears that threatened to suffocate her soul the way this ocean would have suffocated her body if it had been real. She was alone. And at this point, there was a not-insignificant part of her who wondered if she had ever truly not been alone. Was any of her old life real? Or was she always like this. Was she always floating here, alone and empty? Was there anything else in the world? Was this the universe?

Tabbris. Tabbris was real. She had to hold onto that. It kept fading, as she almost slipped from the single buoy that was her daughter’s existence. She had to cling to that single bit of certainty. Because if Tabbris was real, then the rest of it was also real. She had to be. It had to be. She had to hold on to her sanity. She had to hold on. Even as the ocean threatened to tear her mind apart with it’s eternal emptiness. Hold on to Tabbris. Hold on to her little girl. Nothing could tear that away from her. She would hold onto it, hold onto… onto… her.

Oh Void, she wanted to. She wanted to hold her little girl. She wanted to hold her children so badly. It was a physical ache deep in her heart.  Please. They were real. They had to be real. They were alive. She couldn’t live in this world or any other if they weren’t alive. She would gladly spend an eternity in this void if she could just know that they were okay, if she could just hold them one more time. Please, let her hold them once more. Let her touch their hair and smell their soft skin. That was all she really wanted. Her children… her husband. Her family. She needed her family more than she needed her next breath. Please, please…

Mom?

At first, she thought that she had thought the word herself. Yes, she was a mother. She was a mother of such beautiful, wonderful children. Wasn’t she? That was real, right? She didn’t make that up. She couldn’t have. This ocean was so empty, so quiet, she was—

Mom!

Sariel’s eyes opened under the water. But there was nothing to see. Nothing but vast ocean in every direction. There was nothing for her to see, and nothing for her to have heard. Her mind was playing tricks on her again. Or maybe the tricks were coming from Kushiel. Either way, it wasn’t real. She was as alone now as she had ever—

Mom!

Something appeared in front of her then. No, someone. His form was hard to make out in the darkness as he caught hold of her arms, shaking her.

Mom, wake up! Snap out of it! You’re okay, you’re alive! Mom!

Her drifting, dreary mind focused. Her eyes narrowed and she truly saw the boy in front of her. Truly saw him, and truly knew him.

Tristan. It came to her mind that easily, that swiftly. She knew the boy in front of her even though she had not seen him for a decade. Even though she had last known him when he was a small child. She knew him, knew her son.

But that was wrong. He couldn’t be here. The realization crushed that tiny budding bit of hope that had only briefly appeared. This was simply Kushiel trying to destroy her once more with yet another glimpse of hope that would be snatched back and destroyed in the worst possible way.

She saw pain flash across the boy’s face then, his mouth opening and shutting in front of her before he whispered, It’s real, Mom. I’m here. I promise. Just… just hold on. I’m gonna get you out of this. I’ll get you out. Trust me, Mom. Just… just trust me.

He reached out to her then, his hand touching his mother’s face gently. A myriad of emotions passed through his eyes then. If she had believed he was real, the look in those eyes would have made her cling to him. But he wasn’t… He wasn’t real. She wouldn’t fall for that again. Not this time.

The boy moved. His arms wrapped around her. He was holding her tight, and Sariel’s mouth opened under that water in a sharp gasp.

Memories. They rushed from the boy into her. He shoved his thoughts into her head. Thoughts that were real. They were too complete to be fake. She saw everything. She saw what he had been through. She saw how far he had gone, and how he had found his way back to Earth. She saw his reunion with his sister, the friends he had made, the things he had done. She saw how he had come to Seosten space, how they had found the facility where she was being kept. She saw where they were, what had happened, and the danger they were in. She saw all of it.

Everything, in that moment, became real in a way that it had not been for so long. Her sense of self, of purpose, of sanity, came roaring back thanks to her son. She knew where she was, she knew who she was, and everything that was happening. Her son was here, right here with her. He was real. He was alive. And he was here.

Her arms moved. She put them around him, holding onto her son tightly in that… dream world. Her mind. They were in her mind. She understood that now, in a way that had been more vague and uncertain only moments earlier. He was there with her. He had… he had recalled to her. He was there. Right there. She could feel his presence, as it dragged her out of the drifting, vague void that she had been lost in. If the thought of Tabbris had been an anchor that kept her from floating out to be lost forever, Tristan’s presence pulled her completely out of the water entirely.

Out of the water. It was gone. The ocean had disappeared, and Sariel was no longer floating. She was standing, she and her son together. The vast emptiness had been replaced by a room… their living room, she realized. It was the room of their home, back before… everything. It was the last room they had stood in before Puriel had arrived.

Perhaps that was a room that should have held bad memories, given everything that had gone wrong. But it didn’t. Being here, even if it was a facsimile, felt right. It felt safe. She felt truly at home here, in a way that cleared more cobwebs from her mind.

“Mom.” Tristan spoke out loud, his voice cracking just a little. “Mom, we found you.”

A little shudder ran through Sariel at the sound of her grown son’s voice. She made a soft noise of amazement, hugging him tighter while giving his hair a slight sniff. “My son,” the woman whispered. “My son. You’re alive. You’re okay.”

“Mom.” Leaning back, Tristan stared at her. “Mom, I’m gonna get you out of this tube, okay? I’m gonna wake you up and get you out. Just hold on for a second.”

They embraced once more, and then he disappeared, withdrawing from her mind. For a moment, the rush of fear threatened to come back, like a tidal wave that was barely held back by a swiftly crumbling dam. The fear of being alone again, of this being yet another trick by Kushiel to destroy her hope, crept into her mind despite her own firm assurances to herself that he was real. Yet every small second that passed allowed another crack to appear, and more of that cold, dark water began to fill the room while the furniture began to fade away along with the light itself to leave everything cold and dark once more.

“No.” Opening her eyes, Sariel looked to the cracks along the wall of the room where water had begun flooding in. She focused, and the water vanished, along with the cracks. The light, which had been gradually fading, returned. The living room was restored to the way it had been.

“You will not win, Kushiel. My son is here. My family is here. I am not lost.”

As she spoke those words, Sariel felt a rush of air on her skin. A sudden, almost blinding light came from above, as if the roof of the room was being taken aside. And as she looked that way, head tilting back to stare up at that light, the woman woke…

She was in a tube. The same tube that Kushiel had sealed her into, leaving that hateful woman’s face as the last thing she had seen, with the promise that it would be the first thing she saw when they arrived at their destination.

But Kushiel had been wrong. Because it was Tristan who was staring down at Sariel as her eyes opened. His beautiful, amazing, wonderfully living face wore an expression of worry and also hope as he spoke quickly. “Mom? Mom, please, you have to help Nessa and Flick. Please–”

She sat up. Breathing out, Sariel pulled herself out of the tube. Her arm extended before slamming back to crash into the tube, shattering the glass in it. Taking one piece of broken glass in each hand, she nodded to her son. “Go. I’m right behind you.”

She wanted to hug him and never let go. She wanted to cling to him, weep and plead with him to be real and to stay with her. But there wasn’t time for that. Vanessa needed her. Tabbris needed her. Felicity needed her. They all needed her right then. And she would be there for them. Finally, after everything that had happened, after everything she had been forced to sit aside for, she would be there.

She would save her children.

Flashing a quick, relieved smile, the same smile that she knew from so long ago on a now-grown face, Tristan pivoted and sprinted toward the open hatch of the ship. As Sariel followed, leaving the broken tube behind, she thought of the void, of floating alone and lost in that empty place. She thought of being taken away and cut off from everyone she had ever cared about.

And then she thought about just how furious Kushiel was going to be that she had escaped, that her children had saved her. And that thought actually made Sariel feel better. Good enough, in fact, to smile just a little as she followed her son, her pace growing more assured with each step.

Kushiel wasn’t here. But her soldiers were. Her soldiers were here, trying to hurt those children, Sariel’s children, and the child of a woman she deeply respected.  

They were hurting children. And they were about to learn just how much of a mistake that was.

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