Shiori Porter

At Last 16-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – For those who haven’t seen it yet, there was a non-canon chapter focusing on what it would have been like if Morgan/Gaia had remained loyal to Arthur back in the day. You can find it available for everyone right here

With the speech out of the way, it was finally time for the big event. Every room, every place where we were all gathering for this, had a few people in charge of keeping things within the room in order and making sure everybody stayed on task until the main business was done. In our case, those people were Professor Dare, Hisao, and a couple others. They were at the front of the room, just under the large main monitor, with a couple large metal boxes at their sides. Meanwhile, on the screen, Athena had come to the front to start talking. She told everyone to hold two hands, or other relevant appendage(s), together out in front of ourselves and to be ready to hold something. As we all did so, Dare, Hisao, and the other adults at the front of the room (and the rest in the rooms beyond ours) tapped their boxes, setting off some sort of spell that sent the contents out to all of us. Abruptly, there was an almost perfectly clear crystal about the size of a grapefruit in my hands. It felt very slightly warm to the touch. 

I knew what this was. We all did, basically. It had been explained over and over, particularly for the past few days. The crystals were tied to the big spell. We, or everyone who was capable of it, were going to push a little of our own energy into them. When the people in the main spell room pulled the trigger, so to speak, it would first lash out to grab onto the power we were putting into the crystals, then sort of… use those as a stepping stone to spread through and affect everyone here. That was how we could have people affected by the spell who weren’t actually physically on the station, like those at the Atherby camp, the Eden’s Garden people, Wonderland, or those on the colony worlds. It spread and amplified through the crystals.

Meanwhile, those who couldn’t use magic, like Asenath, had their own special orbs with what amounted to bits of themselves in it. In Senny’s case, that meant a few pieces of her hair, a couple pieces of fingernail, and a bit of blood and saliva. Kind of gross, but hardly the worst I’d seen. And necessary for the spell to latch onto her properly since it couldn’t connect to her magic.

Really, not that she needed it, given the fact that she was technically a hybrid and thus… well, a hearty good luck to any hostile Seosten who thought possessing her was a good idea. But she wanted to be included. Besides, stopping any Seosten from even accidentally possessing her and going kablooey was probably a good idea when it came to the whole truce thing. And on top of all that, we didn’t know what would happen if a ghost Seosten like Kushiel tried possessing a hybrid. We had no idea if she would actually kablooey or not. If we just assumed she would and didn’t give Senny protection,  I was pretty sure it would come back to bite us in the ass. That just seemed like our luck. So we weren’t even going to flirt with taking that sort of chance. 

Following Athena’s instructions, we all carefully pushed our own magical energy into the orbs. It really wasn’t very hard at all. They had intentionally been created in a way that made it so they would gently pull the energy they needed from us once we got it started. Sort of like siphoning gas from a car with a hose. At least, that was the analogy that my father gave when we explained it to him. Which kind of made me want to know more about his teenage years, honestly. Maybe I could ask Grandmaria and Popser when they showed up… with Puriel. 

Yeah, nope, I tried to make it all casual in my own head like that, but it didn’t work. That whole situation was still completely fucking crazy.  I couldn’t believe my grandparents were basically hanging out with Zeus and Hercules (the latter of whom had been their best friend for decades), and coming back to Earth on the Olympus spaceship! This–that was–it–yeah. It was nuts. Every time I thought I could maybe sneak a thought about it through my head as if it was something mundane, my brain started blowing a whistle like a cliche old British police officer and made me come back and recite what I had just said again so it could stare at me incredulously. 

Okay, it was possible that my own metaphor to myself had gotten away from me somewhat. The point was, the situation with my grandparents was absurd, and I still hadn’t quite come to terms with it. Maybe it would be easier once I could actually see them. 

In any case, I had filled my own little crystal as much as I needed to. Nearby, I could see the others doing the same. That included April, December, and May, along with the other Seosten. Of course they wanted to be included in this, to feel like they were a part of it. Well, that and the Seosten here who weren’t affected by SPS might have thought making themselves immune to being accidentally possessed by those who were was a good idea. 

And again, we didn’t know how the whole ghost Kushiel thing worked. That was a whole big bag of… poisonous scorpions (worms were entirely too tame and harmless of an example) to think about. We were taking every precaution we could, which yes, had included sending out a station-wide announcement about the fact that there was a malevolent ghost Seosten running around who was able to possess people. None of us had any desire to end up getting bitten in the ass just because we didn’t actually share information.

By that point, the next stage of the spell was ready, having pulled all the energy it needed through the orbs. The air around us seemed to be electric, crackling with power throughout the station and beyond. This spell was bigger than I could even imagine, its web of magic threading far beyond my comprehension. It felt as though the slightest spark would create an inferno that would wipe us from existence, as the hair on the back of my neck stood up. Then even more of my hair, along with the others around me. It was like touching the Van de Graaf generator ball thing at the museum to make your hair stand on end. Except in this case, the energy was all around us.

As planned, words appeared on the screen. Words that we had all already learned about, and some practically (or literally) learned by heart. But seeing them now was important, particularly for the timing, as we all began to speak them aloud by following the bouncing ball that moved along the letters (like watching karaoke videos). All of the people in this room. All of the people in the other rooms. All of the people on the other colony worlds shown on the monitors. The residents of Wonderland. And all of the Eden’s Garden rebels. Everyone, thousands of people, all linked through the crystal orbs that tied fragments of the spell energy together. All of us speaking the words of the same spell, our voices becoming its steady, thrumming heartbeat. In the distance, we could all feel the physical aspect of the spell that had been drawn so painstakingly over these past months. We could see the rising power on that half of the main monitor, as the various lines of runes and intricate spellwork began to glow with an assortment of colors. 

There was more magical power in this moment than I had ever thought I would experience. This was it, the culmination of everything Liesje had put her life toward, the thing her descendants had been hounded across the planet for and that her husband had been imprisoned for centuries to prevent. The spell those loyalist, hardline Seosten had been so desperate to prevent. They could stop it no longer. In the end, though late by so many years and far too many ruined lives, Liesje’s spell was here. 

The words of the spell came slightly faster with each passing moment. But never too fast to read. That itself might have been impossible, given we were all in what amounted to a magical trance. I barely saw the words, yet I knew them. We all did. We spoke in one voice, the words of the spell seeming to twist through the air. I could feel them, almost as well as I could feel the floor beneath my feet. The power of the spell seemed to almost give physical form to the words being spoken, chanted aloud. 

Logically, I knew time was passing. A fair bit of it, actually. I had known ahead of time that this spell wouldn’t be over quick. Not even this part of it. Yet, despite academically knowing that we had been doing this for a while, I didn’t really feel it. Hard as it was to believe or truly understand, it was as though the spell itself was warping time around us so that what was actually over an hour of chanting seemed to take only a few seconds. Yet those few seconds were still over an hour. They were moments, seconds, minutes, days, centuries. Chanting that spell took a thousand lifetimes and a mere instant, simultaneously. 

It was confusing. It was absurd. It was contradictory. But it was the best way I could even hope to describe what was happening. The spell took no time, and it took all of the time in the universe, all at once. I had been chanting for all of my existence. Or was that the spell itself I was feeling? 

I, Felicity, had been standing in this room and chanting for one hour. 

I, the spell itself, had existed for mere moments. All of reality was new. 

I, the power behind the spell, had existed since the dawn of creation. I had seen the rise and fall of countless civilizations. Eons upon eons had come and gone while my power filled the universe, pieces of myself being twisted, colored, used by those beings who entirely failed to grasp the full extent of what I was. Ants crawling through the sand, each believing the shapes they built their mounds into were some grand achievement. Yet the water rose inevitably toward them, wiping away the tiny dot of their work from the surface of a beach many thousands of miles long. I was magic. I was power. I was the energy which tied all universes in all reality together. They shaped me in their corner, but that shape would not hold, and their work would be as nothing. 

Spells were transient. Magic was forever. 

We were all ourselves. We were all the spell. We were all magic itself. We existed in this second and in every second that there had ever been. Nothing would ever exist beyond this spell. Nothing had ever existed. Everything existed. The world, the galaxy, the universe stretched into infinity and yet we saw beyond that. We felt all that had ever been felt. We knew all. We saw all. We were power beyond imagining.  

The words stopped. Our voices came to a halt. A supernatural silence, the likes of which had not been experienced within the universe since the very first forms of life began to form, fell over the room. Over the station. Over everyone and everywhere. 

We had done our part. We had done all that we possibly could. The spell was ninety-nine point nine percent done. It had our words, our power, everything that we could give it. To finish it, a single word remained to be spoken. That word was the trigger, and it could only be spoken by one person. The person whose wife had begun this whole thing so long ago. He, more than anyone else, deserved to be the one who finished this. This moment belonged to him. 

And, in that moment of silence, Dries spoke the final word of the spell his wife had begun all those years earlier. A single Latin word. The word meaning forever, always, eternal. 

“Aeternum.” 

It wasn’t an explosion of power. It was more like a flood, as though we were standing in the path of a dam that had burst. The ‘water’ spilling forth, carrying away everything in its path, was magic itself. It was the spell, erupting from every corner of the station, from every orb in our hands, from the seams of reality. It washed over us, filled us up and became a blinding force that wiped away not only our vision, but every sense we had. For those brief few moments, we could not see, hear, feel, smell, or even taste anything. We existed within a void. If building up the spell had connected us to everything, triggering it left us, if only for a brief time, alone in a way that I could never hope to describe. We were cut off, floating in nothing. Existence was empty. The spell had taken everything and, for one terrifying second, I pondered the possibility that this nothing would continue. Had we failed? Had we, rather than creating a spell to protect everyone from the Seosten, simply managed to sentence ourselves to a lifetime of existence within a sensory deprivation nightmare? Would these brief moments be all that we knew for the rest of time? 

No. The emptiness lasted only for a handful of seconds. And then all of our senses came rushing back. I could see. I could hear. I could feel, taste, and smell. 

I was on my knees, where I had fallen at some point. As was everyone around me. We had all fallen, catching ourselves automatically. Every crystal orb we had once held was gone, shattered and turned to dust by the spell. The last remnants of the magical energy we had triggered could be sensed throughout the room, gradually dissipating in that moment, like water fading through the cracks. It had swept through everything, carried our very souls with it through the universe and left us feeling simultaneously more and less than we likely would ever feel again. And now it was gone. 

No. It wasn’t gone. It was there, or a piece of it at the very least. I could feel that piece deep inside me if I focused on it. It had attached itself to me, this spell that we had all spoken into existence. It was there, waiting to perform the one duty it would have for all of time. It would stop any Seosten from possessing me unless I gave my permission. And that same protection extended to every member of the Rebellion. It would force all Seosten everywhere to be given intentional permission before they would be physically able to possess any of us. 

Needless to say, it took some time to recover from being part of a spell like that. Raising my head as my breath came in short gasps, I looked to see Avalon sitting there, her own gaze on the floor. Her hands were clasped tightly, her lips moving as she whispered. 

Liesje. She was speaking to… to Liesje’s ghost. Not really, of course. The woman wasn’t here. It would be more accurate to say that Avalon was speaking to her memory. Her voice was quiet, a whispered promise that her work was not all for nothing, that Avalon and the rest of us would use her work to free countless enslaved beings throughout the universe. An oath that, however her life might have ended, her work would continue through us. We would ensure that Liesje’s name and efforts were known. The Seosten had spent centuries attempting to crush the woman and her descendants out of all existence and thought. Now? Now they, and everyone they had hooked the yoke of eternal servitude to, would know who Liesje was, and what she had done. 

The woman had died many centuries ago. But what she had accomplished would free countless individuals. It would, quite literally, change the course of the universe. 

Raising her gaze to meet my own, as though she could sense me looking at her, Avalon stared for a moment. Our eyes locked, and I felt the peace that had risen within the other girl. Oh, it wasn’t total peace, of course. She still had Gaia to worry about, to say nothing of all of the other big and little things going on. But this single thing, that had been such a big part of her life, and the lives of everyone in her family, for so long was finally complete. It was done. The spell was finished, active, and there was nothing the Seosten could do about it. 

Centuries after being betrayed, hunted, and murdered, Liesje had finally, in the end, triumphed. 

Before I really knew what was happening, I was already moving, shuffling across the floor to pull Avalon into a tight embrace. She half-lunged at me just as I got there, and we both fell to the side together. My arms were around her, my lips finding hers. We kissed, and everything else melted away for that moment. There were others around us doing much the same with their own loved ones, but I barely noted their existence. All that mattered, all there was right then, was Avalon. My Valley. I kissed her, I felt the relief that had swept through her, the joy that this spell was finally complete. Mixed, of course, with a bit of sadness that Gaia wasn’t here to experience it with us. But overall joy. She was happy, right in that moment, for the culmination of her ancestor’s work. Not to mention the utter failure of the Seosten in putting a stop to it even after all these years. And I could not have been happier for her, and for all of Liesje’s family. 

Finally, we pulled back a bit, and she leaned up to whisper in my ear. “I love you, Felicity.” 

As a tingle ran through me, I put one hand on either side of her face, touching my forehead to hers. “I love you, Avalon,” I murmured. At this exact moment, this was all that mattered. There was so much more to do, so many other problems to deal with. But they could wait. Right now, Liesje’s spell was in place. That was what mattered.

A voice filled the room. It was Athena, speaking from the monitor as she addressed everyone. “The spell has taken hold. By all of our tests, it is stable and performing as expected. From this day forth, our people will never be enslaved, by force or by subterfuge. We will stand against tyranny and create a better way for all to follow. Thank you, all of you, for everything you have done to contribute to this moment. There is far more work to do in the future. But that will come soon enough. For now, enjoy yourselves. You have certainly earned it.” 

By that point, I was on my feet, pulling Avalon up. All around us, others were rising. Piles of incredible, delicious-looking food had appeared on the main tables, while music began to play throughout the room. Everywhere I turned my gaze, I could see people with relieved, ecstatic smiles. Everyone was talking at once, hugging one another, embracing loved ones and friends alike. Some were jumping up and down, or even just tilting their heads back and screaming in joy. An air of relief, of triumph, of victory filled the room. No, not just the room. The entire station and beyond. The web of the spell’s power might have faded away from how it had previously connected all of us, but it had been replaced with a tangible feeling of accomplishment, which would take much longer to wane. 

The others were there. Shiori embraced me, her lips finding mine even as Aylen tugged Avalon to her. They kissed, before the rest of the team and our friends took their turn for a hug. We laughed, shouted back and forth at one another, embraced, and felt the joy of the moment swell through the room. I brought my sharks out, one at a time, so they could experience it. People were eating, dancing, cheering. I sent one of my sharks (Jabberjaw) through the room above everyone’s heads, and other figures joined in, a mixture of actual people with various flying abilities and summoned/magical creatures. A pixie (not Namythiet) flew up through the bubble of water and planted a kiss on Jabberjaw’s nose. He was more than a little confused, but seemed happy enough to be a part of things. 

Looking toward Avalon, who was holding Aylen close against herself, I smiled. “How does it feel?” I asked, raising my voice a bit to be heard above the sound of everyone’s celebration. 

She, in turn, considered the question for a moment before answering. “It feels right. It feels like… it’s about time.” Her own smile rose to a beaming radiance. “It feels pretty good.” 

“Liesje would be proud of you,” I informed her, then thought of the rest of that family. Those who had survived and those who hadn’t. “She’d be proud of all of you.” 

Still holding onto Aylen, Avalon reached a hand out to touch my face. I raised my own hand to brush her fingers, interlocking them as we smiled at one another. 

The work was done. After all that time and work, the spell was finally active. 

Now it was time to celebrate.

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At Last 16-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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We weren’t trying to shove every member of the Rebellion together into the same room for this whole thing. As enormous as this station was, that just didn’t sound fun at all. And after all, one of the main points of all this was to have a party to celebrate finally getting that spell off the ground. And, more importantly, finally having a real, permanent defense against Seosten possession. Yeah, it was a big deal, and we were damn sure going to celebrate accordingly. Quite frankly, the idea of packing everyone into the same space and then setting them off made me picture a mosh pit. Which, those things were dangerous enough already, before you added in superpowers and a huge amount of size difference between various people. It–yeah. To say nothing of the fact that what the younger people would see as a good party was very different from what a lot of the older people would. 

So, we weren’t trying to squeeze everyone together. Instead, each major group had their own rooms. These were enormous chambers in their own right, like, football field-sized. I was pretty sure the various rooms had different set-ups, but this one (the one for adult students, our teachers, and a few others) had a large dance floor in the middle, long tables waiting to be filled with an assortment of food lining the sides, and smaller, circular tables to sit at toward the opposite side of the dance floor. Not that anyone was dancing or eating at the moment. We were mainly just standing around waiting and talking to each other. Or watching the screens. 

Yeah, screens. The walls were lined with dozens of them, most showing the other rooms full of people here on the station, while a few showed places away from it, like the Atherby camp, Wonderland, or the motel that the Eden’s Garden rebels had taken over. I even saw some that appeared to show completely different planets. Yeah, this was a big deal. Even bigger than I had already known. There were thousands of people pictured through these screens. And I was pretty sure I wasn’t seeing all of them. This was just… it was huge. There was no other way to put it. 

I could look around this single room and see most of the people I knew personally. And even in that case, most of the people here I didn’t know at all beyond a passing glance and name at most. I saw my teammates, my friends, my housemates, my teachers, other people from my classes, and a lot of people I had never even spoken to before. I saw dozens and dozens of people, of all shapes and sizes, whom I was pretty sure I had never seen, just right here in this room. Then I looked at the giant monitors all along the walls and recognized even less faces. but they were faces of people totally committed to this Rebellion, committed to changing things, to risking their lives in an attempt to make the world a better place. 

Only in that moment, as I stood there in our own room and stared at all these video screens showing so many people, did I really even start to grasp the size of this rebellion. Between the Alters who joined up with us, my mother’s original group of Heretics, their descendants who joined recently, those on colony worlds who wanted to be a part of it now that they knew it existed, the Garden rebels, and Athena’s group… yeah. I finally understood what a relatively small part of this whole thing I really was. 

All these people had their own reasons for being involved in this rebellion. They all had their own stories, their own battles, their own triumphs and failures. They had their enemies and friends, their lovers. They had their own everything. It would have taken a million lifetimes for me to find out even a fair percentage of all their stories. I was a piece of this, just a piece of a much larger whole. A whole which, with any luck, would use this spell as the real starting point to actually start to change not only the world, but the entire universe

Right, no wonder I suddenly felt so small. 

“It’s pretty intimidating, isn’t it?” 

Recognizing the voice, I turned to find myself staring at Avalon. She stood there, looking tired but still so incredibly beautiful. For a moment, my heart clenched. It wasn’t like I hadn’t seen her at all recently. Sure, she’d been really busy helping with the spell, but she still came home most nights. We had spent time together these past few weeks, even if it was a bit short. And yet, seeing her right then, now that she was finally at the end of the long road that her ancestor’s spell had led her along, it… it meant more than I could even describe.

“Intimidating,” I found myself echoing without even thinking about it, “I’d say gorgeous.” 

Raising an eyebrow as her mouth quirked up very slightly in a smirk, Avalon casually replied, “Well, if you think all these people are gorgeous, maybe I don’t feel nearly as special.” 

Eyes widening, I flushed before quickly stepping that way to take the other girl into a tight hug. “You are definitely special,” I insisted. Just standing there with her, arms around my girl, was just… a shiver ran through me. It felt good. It felt right.

But that was nothing compared to how right and good it felt when Avalon took my chin in her hand and kissed me. At that moment, the entire world seemed to fade away. All of the hundreds of people in the room with us, the thousands on all those different monitors, everything and everyone disappeared, until it was only the two of us standing… no, floating in a void. I didn’t care about anything for those few long, precious seconds. The only thing that mattered was Avalon. 

Finally, my eyes opened as our lips parted, and I whispered, “I love you.” 

It was her turn to shiver, swallowing hard as she met my gaze. “I love you, Felicity,” Avalon murmured, gently kissing me once more. “You… you’re one of my favorite people.” 

Her eyes fell then, and I knew why. Gaia. Another of her favorite people. Reaching up, I gently cupped the side of her face, brushing my thumb just over her cheek. “We’ll get her out of there, Valley, I promise. Now that we have the possession-protection spell, we’ll find out where they’re keeping Gaia and save her. She needs to be back here. She needs to be part of this.” 

“She does,” Avalon agreed in a soft voice. Her hand moved to catch mine against her face, interlacing our fingers. “She saved me… a lot. She saved me more than I can say. I have to save her this time, okay? I can’t–I can’t just leave her.” 

“We won’t,” I promised, squeezing her hand firmly. “Whatever it takes, Valley, we’ll find her and get her back.” Then I asked about the other person she had grown quite fond of over these months. “How’s Dries doing?” 

There was a brief pause as she considered. “He’s… going through a lot right now. He’s happy that this whole thing is finally finished, after everything he and Liesje went through. But also… sad that she’s not here to see it. As good as it is, as happy as he is about the spell finally being done, the whole thing just keeps reminding him of all the bad stuff too. It’s… bittersweet.” 

Swallowing, I replied, “We have to be there for him. Make sure he knows he’s not alone. He… he deserves to have you around. You and Professor Tangle both. He needs to see and know that his family still exists, that they survived. That… you survived.” 

The two of us nodded to one another, then turned and began to make our way through the crowd together, still hand-in-hand. No way was I going to let go if I didn’t have to. We walked the room, saying hi to a few people here and there, mostly those I didn’t know but Avalon did. They were all talking to her, all congratulating and/or thanking her for everything. Valley, for her part, seemed embarrassed by the attention, but was trying to keep it together. She knew as well as I did just how big of a deal this was for the people who had lived under threat of Seosten possession for so long. Even those who had only recently found out the truth. It was big for them too. It meant that they wouldn’t have to constantly worry about the people around them being turned into spies and puppets. It was–yeah, it was a big deal. 

Eventually, the two of us found our way to a corner of the room where most of our friends were waiting. They had staked out an area with a few tables we could sit at once the whole thing got started. As we approached, Shiori hopped up from one of the tables, where she had been playing some sort of card game with Koren and Jazz. “Flick!” She came to give me a hug of her own, as Avalon released my hand so she could turn to say something to Columbus as he stepped over. I returned Shiori’s hug, pulling her to the side a bit so I could kiss her without feeling like we were being stared at the whole time. “Hey, Shy,” I murmured. “Fancy meeting you here.” 

Before she could respond to that, Tabbris took her turn for a hug, whispering in my ear that December and the other Calendar people were ‘over there.’ I looked, and saw the three in question along with a couple other Seosten. They were all sitting at a nearby table, looking… well, not confused. They looked like they didn’t know if they would be welcome here or not, like they were ready to bolt for the door the moment anyone gave them a dirty look. Obviously they felt awkward about the fact that this entire thing was about their people being prevented from possessing people without permission. 

I felt like I should step over there and say something, but before I could move, Miranda was right in front of me. “Flick!” she blurted, “look at all these people.” She gestured to the monitors then. “Look at all those people. This is crazy.” 

“I guess getting the chance to be immune to Seosten possession brings a lot of people out,” I managed with a helpless shrug. “Hang on a sec.” Giving her a brief hug, I stepped around the other girl, waving the others off for the moment as I moved to find my way to where April, May, December, and those few other Seosten were sitting. “Hey there, guys,” I put in while grabbing a seat and pulling it out. “This the cool kid’s table?” 

They exchanged looks before May focused on me and quietly replied in a very stiff, yet also uncertain voice that sounded at least partially rehearsed, “We do not believe we should be here. We do not wish to intrude. This is not a place for us.”  

My head shook at that. “No, see, that’s where you’re wrong. I mean, let’s think about it for a second.” Letting my gaze move over all of them, I continued. “The main point here isn’t to stop your people from using their power. It’s to stop them from abusing their power. And I don’t just mean the possessing thing, even if that’s the main focus. It’s about stopping them from taking their power and using it to enslave, manipulate, and marginalize others.” Falling silent for a moment then, I watched the reactions of the Calendar people as well as the other couple Seosten who were sitting with them. “They do that to you guys too, even without possessing you. They abuse the difference between your powers to marginalize you. Most of them without even really thinking about it or knowing any better. And the way these situations work, nothing will change unless someone makes it change. You guys should know that most of all. Look how long your people live, and how… stuck in their ways they get. They need to be… pushed into changing. This is a push.”

April was the first to respond, her voice catching just a bit in a way that betrayed her uncertainty, much as she tried to push it down. “We are still loyal to our people, whatever faults they may have. We do not wish to make enemies of them. We…” She hesitated, clearly looking for the right words. 

One of the other Seosten, an achingly handsome guy with piercing green eyes, dark skin, and a shaved head spoke up. “We do not wish to destroy our people’s society. Only to make it better. The idea of fighting them directly, and of sitting in a room celebrating a victory over them such as this, is… not disturbing, precisely. We have made our choices. We know what is right. But it still… causes unease.”

I gave a quick nod. “That makes sense. I mean, yeah, you chose to turn against the… um, your society as a whole. Not because you want to destroy them, but because you want to make them better. That–” I sighed. “Believe me, I know how that is. You want to change things, just like we want to change Crossroads and Eden’s Garden, not destroy them. We’re sort of in a similar boat as far as that goes. Or maybe we’re just on the same river. Or–never mind, the analogy got away from me.” 

Exhaling, I pushed on. “The point is, we don’t want to fight your people. Okay, not the majority of them anyway. We don’t want to fight your people as a whole. And we sure as hell don’t want to kill all of them or destroy your society or whatever. The Fomorians are the real enemies, and we all know it. This whole thing is about forcing your people to stop using a method that obviously isn’t working and to do something new. You know, like work with other species. An alliance. That’s what we’re celebrating here. We’re celebrating taking a step that will maybe force the… hardliners among your people to come to the table and make meaningful changes. So we can all fight the real threat instead of each other. That’s why you should be here for this party. Because it’s about celebrating the chance to make things better for everyone.”   

By that point, some of the others had come over and joined us at the table. Shiloh pulled a chair over from another one and sat next to May, leaning in to whisper something to her while Eiji asked the Seosten whose name I didn’t know if he ever found some book they had apparently both been looking for. Vanessa came over, with some other Seosten boy she had been talking to nearby. Soon, there was no way to tell that these guys had initially been separate from the main group.

The air around here was practically electric. Everyone was talking back and forth. The entire room was practically vibrating with excitement. Every time I glanced around, I saw more and more people coming in and spreading out to find their own friends. Not to mention how many were showing up on the monitors. The energy level in this place was rising with every passing second. I was pretty sure if they didn’t start this thing soon, someone was going to pop like a balloon. 

Wait, given the wide assortment of powers, magic, and temperaments among everyone involved in this, I belatedly realized that I probably shouldn’t think about that. Not even as a joke. The point was, everyone wanted to get this show on the road. Which, given how long it had been coming (with various interpretations of that), was understandable. It was time to make this happen. 

As if in direct response to that thought, the lights in the room (and all the others on-screen) dimmed. The main monitor at the far end, which had been dark up to that point, came to life. We were looking at a split-screen view. On one side was the room with the spell itself. I could see people in there making last-second checks of the whole thing, including Wyatt, Sariel, and Apollo among several more. On the other side of the screen there was a small stage where others like Athena, Abigail, and my mother were having a whispered conversation slightly away from the microphone.

Eventually, there seemed to be a brief discussion about who was going to go up and talk. The others all looked to my mother, who was clearly reluctant. But finally, she rose and moved to the microphone. She was standing there, at center-stage on the main monitor, while everyone in this room and all the others stared in silence. Well, silence aside from a few scattered cheers when they saw the woman who had started this whole thing. I could tell so many others wanted to cheer too. But they wanted to hear what she had to say more. A hushed silence quickly fell over everyone. 

After a momentary pause, Mom seemed to rise slightly. She didn’t actually get any taller (though I was pretty sure she could have), but… something about the way she straightened herself up and squared her shoulders made her seem bigger than she had been. When she spoke, her voice carried through the entire room, through every room. Her eyes seemed to stare right into me just as they did everyone else. 

“My name is Joselyn Chambers. I have spent… the past hour watching these monitors. I have watched all of you, and the thing that stands out to me the most is how many of you I do not recognize. We’ve never interacted directly. I don’t know you. By and large, you are strangers to me. And… aside from my family, my husbands and my children, nothing in this life has ever made me happier than looking at these screens and seeing so many people I don’t know. 

“This… this movement started because a few of my friends and I decided we wanted to change things. We started in my room at Crossroads. We spoke in hushed, magically protected whispers. We celebrated faking the death of a single person, a man we had been sent to kill. Five of us spent days planning the rescue of one life. And in the hours of our quiet celebration that followed, I found myself standing by the window, looking out at all my classmates as I asked myself if things would ever truly change, if we could make a difference. 

“Had I the power, I would show my younger self these monitors. And when she asked who all of you are, I would tell her that I have no idea. I would tell her that one of the most remarkable and wonderful things I have ever experienced in my life is to look at all of you and have no idea who you are. I don’t know your names. I don’t know your faces. I don’t know your lives or your stories. But what I do know is that you are all here because you want to make things better. And you are willing to fight for it. To go from being five people in that room, to standing here looking at all of you is truly one of the most amazing and humbling moments of my life.  

“They say that I started this Rebellion. While there is some truth to that, a fire cannot burn without fuel, regardless of who struck the match. We will not win because of who lit the torch. We will win because of who carries it. Each and every one of you. Because as we have already seen so clearly, as long as a single torch exists, the fire will spread. They cannot snuff out every flame. And we… all of you… together we will take the injustice, the hatred, the very system which teaches us that these things are to be admired… and we will burn it to the ground. 

“This movement continues because of you. This world, this… universe will change because of you. Now it’s time for the next step of that change. With this spell, each and every one of us will be immune to unwanted Seosten possession. They will have no choice but to negotiate in good faith. No longer will they manipulate our civilization from the shadows. No longer will they turn us against one another based on lies and deceit. We will pull them to the light. All of them. And those who can stand in that light with us will be at our sides as we turn the focus of our war where it truly belongs, to those who would annihilate us all. 

“I do not know your names or your faces. But I do know this. Together, we are going to change the universe. 

“And they will all know our names.” 

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At Last 16-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Well the kids definitely liked that. For the next couple hours, we took them around the ship and let them see the various rooms, like the bridge, the engines, some of the cabins, and so on. Andromeda played guide, while Cerberus remained an even more effective babysitter than Columbus, Shiori, or me. Granted, a large part of that was because the Seosten kids didn’t get such a kick out of riding on our backs, but still. Maybe if I turned into my lion form, I could’ve given him a run for his money, even if I didn’t have three heads.

In any case, they had a lot of fun and that was what mattered. But eventually, it was time to take them back to the station so I could get on with the next part of my day. Namely, heading for the neighborhood that had been so tragically decimated by Fossor (and the fact that that description did essentially nothing to narrow down the options was pretty depressing) so I could let some of my inherited ghosts go. They deserved–okay, what they really deserved was to be brought back to life along with all the family and friends they had been forced to murder or watch be murdered. But failing that, they deserved to be released so they could rest properly. 

Unfortunately, Avalon still couldn’t join us. Part of me felt a little sad that she couldn’t be there, and that she was so busy in general lately. To the point that she basically devoted all of her energy to it. But, on the other hand, that was completely selfish and I shoved it down as far as I could. She was doing far more important things right now in helping to get that spell ready. I would have plenty of time with her soon enough. 

I did have Shiori with me still, and Columbus. And we had been joined by Triss (the full catgirl with white-brown fur) and Felix (the half-catgirl with pale skin and short white-blonde hair with just cat ears and a tail) as Nekomata had a whole culture built up around helping and releasing ghosts. Not to mention fighting them when necessary. Which, I supposed, made sense given creating ghost-fire was one of their natural abilities. The two of them had apparently felt drawn to be involved in something like this once they heard about it. Even if Felix was only half-Nekomata, she still embraced that side of herself. That and I was pretty sure she also thought ghosts were cool. 

As we waited in one of the smaller transport rooms for someone to come help us get down to Earth, Shiori looked at me. “Is umm… Seth with you?” Yeah, introducing ghost-Seth to Shiori had been a whole thing. She tried to hug him and went right through. Then I’d used just enough power to make him solid so she could actually pull it off. Seeing her be able to actually embrace him probably wasn’t the absolute best thing I would ever do with my Necromancy, but I was pretty sure it would occupy a solid part of the top ten for a long time. 

Now, however, I shook my head. “He said he didn’t really feel like being anywhere near all the depressed ghosts. Neither did Grover. I left them back in the haunted mansion.” 

The haunted mansion, that was what we were calling it, because it was what Seth had called it. Basically it was just another house on the far corner of the neighborhood. Well, it looked like just another house from the outside. Inside, it was more like a castle. There were seven floors and like a hundred rooms. I wasn’t sure what it was actually intended for, but it wasn’t being used at the moment, so Abigail had allowed me to start keeping ghosts there when I didn’t want to carry them around with me. It helped with the privacy thing too. I could always summon them to me when needed, but giving them their own space was important. It helped them feel less like tools or slaves. 

Also, a television with voice control. That was important too. Or so Grover had emphatically informed me. Apparently he had gotten really into some daily soap opera that one of the guards always watched back at the Runaway, and didn’t want to miss any of it. 

Nearby, Felix was doing a handstand and getting Triss to time how long it took her to do ten laps around the entire room like that. She called out, “I think they’re both just scared of the stories they’ve heard about Nekomata. We’re sort of like ghost boogeymen. Sorry, boogeygirls. Boogeycats?” She kept scrambling on her hands while considering that. “Yup, boogeycats, I’m sticking with that one.” 

Jumping on that, Columbus asked, “What kind of world did the Nekomata come from to naturally develop the ability to hurt ghosts? I mean, I understand someone making a spell that does it, but you guys just have it naturally, right?” 

Triss, still holding her phone with the stopwatch app running in one hand, held up the other and popped her claws, making pale blue flames flicker across them as she gave a short nod. “When we get older, we’ll be able to make it bigger and stronger, even create weapons out of thin air with it. We’re still pretty young and… new to all this.” She got through all of that without reflexively looking at us with suspicion as though wondering if we were going to somehow use that knowledge against her. Which really showed how much she’d changed since the first of the year. Of course, spending every day with people probably had a way of working through your apprehension of them. Especially if you were fighting alongside them now and then. 

“Time!” Felix called while flipping from her hands to her feet in one smooth motion as she reached the corner of the room where she had started ten laps ago. “And what sister-dear means is that we are so incredibly awesome right now, but just wait until we learn a few more tricks. Then we’ll totally kill the awesomeness meter.” With a grin, she held up her fist, creating a similar blue-flame glow around it before slyly adding, “And when that turns into a ghost, we’ll kill it again. How many people can say they broke the awesome-meter and then killed its ghost?”

“She says,” Triss put in dryly, “to the girl who can make ghosts perform the King of New York sequence from Newsies if she wanted to. Also,” she added while glancing toward Felix, “one minute, twelve seconds. Not your best.”  

“That’s an oddly specific hypothetical,” I informed her with a small smile. “And hey, I’m not quite that good yet. I mean, unless I just ask them and they’re in a good mood. Actually, I’m pretty sure some of them would do it anyway. I’ve seen a few that seem like they’d be into that. But the point is, I’m not good enough to force dozens of ghosts into an intricate, coordinated dance number against their will.” Belatedly, I added, “And I wouldn’t do that anyway. But if that’s something you’re interested in, maybe I can see if there are any musical-inclined ghosts later. Sounds like pretty good practice, come to think of it. All that coordination and–okay I have to stop thinking about directing a bunch of ghosts in a play now.” 

“Probably a good idea,” Shiori piped up while giving that familiar and incredibly endearing goofy grin. “After all, you don’t wanna confuse Patrick Swayze. He won’t be able to figure out if he’s in Ghost or Dirty Dancing.” 

Leaning close to her half-sister, Felix loudly whispered, “Who’s Patrick Swayze? Actually, wait, scratch that entirely. What’s Dirty Dancing? That sounds like the far more important question.”

Before any of us could respond to that, Triss cleared her throat, pointedly changing the subject. “Anyway, as far as why the Nekomata developed these powers, our ghosts are sort of umm… difficult. They have a habit of turning into what you would call a poltergeist more often. Not all the time, but enough that it’s a thing. They become really angry and hostile. So we have the ability to defend ourselves from them and… and end the angry ghost. I guess a really long time ago, our people did some big project to write ghost-fire into our DNA or whatever. Sort of a mix between genetic manipulation and magic.” 

“Sort of like how the Seosten extended their lifespans and made themselves all attractive and all that?” I suggested. 

Triss, in turn, shrugged. “I guess so. I’m not sure how it worked. But I do know that most of our people probably wouldn’t react well to the comparison.” She looked to Columbus then, and I saw… well, not a blush. She had fur. But there was something in the way she looked at him that made me think there was something possibly there. Or maybe I was just crazy. Either way, she focused on him while adding, “I guess it was really bad for a long time, back in the ancient days. We had whole rituals set up to expunge ghosts. It wasn’t just Nekomata either. Something about everything that lives or comes from that world makes them more likely to create ghosts, and much more likely for those ghosts to turn violent. Which made it hard to build things that lasted. When they created our ghost-fire powers, that was when our people were really able to focus on expanding our civilization.”

For once sounding completely serious, Felix flatly added, “Yeah, until people like Fossor found out what they could do and started hunting all of us nearly to extinction. Between him trying to get rid of anyone that could innately fight his ghosts, and Heretics trying to steal our power to do it for themselves, we–” She stopped, blanching just a little with a glance toward Shiori, Columbus, and me as her extra cat-like ears flattened. “Errr, I mean…” 

“It’s okay,” I immediately assured her while restraining a wince. “Trust me, we get it. Boy do we ever get it.” 

Thankfully, it was right around then that the doors slid open, and Nevada strolled in. “Hey there, guys! Sorry I’m a little late, had something I had to take care of. Hope you didn’t die of boredom waiting for me.” She exchanged a high five with Felix, then Columbus before turning to the rest of us, holding a hand out expectantly. 

“We survived,” I promised while slapping her hand. Shiori followed suit, with Triss going last. 

Only once she’d gotten a high five from everyone did Nevada continue. “Good, cuz if I had to come in here and find a bunch of corpses because I made you wait too long, I’d probably have to fill out like…  a pile of paperwork at least six inches thick.” 

“You’re just scared of Abigail’s reaction to finding out you let five students die right here on the station,” I retorted. 

“Pffftt, hell yeah I am,” she confirmed while vigorously nodding. “Your sister is scary, babe. And trust me, I know–” She cut herself off then. “Never mind, come on, let’s get this show on the road.” 

*******

So, with Nevada’s help, we transported down to the neighborhood in question. It was a gated community on the north-west side of Cary, North Carolina. The town itself had a population of about a hundred and ninety thousand people, and was spread out across a large area. Lots of good-sized one or two-story houses with big front and back yards and positively enormous trees. Well, as far as North America, Earth trees went. There was a lot of greenery everywhere. From what I had read, the east side was where downtown was, along with a lot of the older buildings. The western side was the suburban area. That was where Fossor had been that fateful night when those neighborhood watch people annoyed him into killing all of them and making them haunt, torture, and kill their own families over the next week. All so he could search for whatever he’d been trying to find in peace. 

I’d done some research about this place ahead of time, so what I saw didn’t really surprise me as we came through the portal. At one time, the neighborhood here (known as Elkwood Estates) had been one of the most prestigious places to live in the town. Given a little more time, it probably would have been a home for the truly elite in North Carolina. 

But Fossor had put an end to that. Now, the place was practically a ghost town. Only about half the houses were still occupied, and they were all rundown. Graffiti covered basically every surface, trash cans lay out on their sides in the road, most of the street lamps were either burned out or broken, weeds were overgrowing everywhere (and were just about the only plants still alive), and so on. It looked like the ‘bad timeline’ in the second Back To The Future movie.

As the six of us emerged from the portal that Nevada had created, we were standing in one of those empty lots. Behind us stood a two-story Victorian-style house that had clearly been vacant for years. The ‘for sale’ sign in the weed-covered yard looked like it was about to fall over. The houses on either side of this one weren’t doing any better. Nor was the one across the street. Though the one next to that at least had a beat-up old sedan in the driveway and a couple lights were on. There were also thick bars across all the windows, and what looked like a security camera above the front door. Looking down the street, there were a couple other houses like that. Maybe one in every four appeared to be occupied. I assumed others were as well, but didn’t look like it from the outside. 

“Well,” Columbus started quietly as he gazed up the street and gave a little shudder. “Fossor definitely left his mark on this place. You said you don’t know what he was looking for out here?” 

“He took a small wooden chest,” I replied, “about a foot wide and just under a foot tall. The ghosts have no idea what he did with it, if anything. They never saw him open it. Not that that means much. He wasn’t exactly in the habit of sharing his plans with them.” 

Nevada spoke up then, “So we have no idea what this thing was, why it was buried out here, who put it there, how Fossor found out about it, what he did with it… or anything, other than the fact that he found it and the box was roughly one foot by one foot.” 

“That’s about the size of it,” I confirmed, exchanging a nod with Shiori as she gave me a quick, brief smile for the pun. “And it was ten years ago, so either he put it away somewhere or he used it and… did… something.” Offering a helpless shrug, I added, “But we’re not here for that. We’re here to help these people say goodbye.” 

While saying that, I extended a hand and sent a mental call to the fifteen ghosts in question. They knew it was coming, that I was doing this today. We’d had a whole discussion late the night before while everyone else was asleep, and I had promised that when I called for them next, it would be right here in this neighborhood. 

A moment later, they all appeared. Fifteen ghosts. Eleven of them human, one Rakshasa, two sibling Ailkins (basically humanoid deer people with a lot of sharp teeth and four arms), and a single gnome. They appeared, before immediately spreading out. As the rest of us simply watched in silence, the ghosts moved across the yard, looking up and down the street. I heard a couple very soft sobs, and a single quiet curse. A couple of the humans pointed down the street while murmuring something about living that way, while the Ailkins moved to the very edge of the driveway and were having a murmured conversation that I didn’t catch any of (and didn’t want to pry). 

I just gave them time. In no way, shape, or form was I going to rush any of this. We were here to let them get as much closure as we could manage. And right now, that meant standing back while they adjusted to actually being here. 

The Rakshasa ghost, a male feline figure with long gray-white fur, turned to me. His name, I remembered, was Keoph. Meeting my gaze, he spoke in a solemn voice. “Perhaps it would be best if we all took a walk through the neighborhood together, one last time.” 

The rest of us exchanged looks, and I gave a short nod. “That sounds fine, yeah. Which ahh, way do you want to go?” 

In answer, the fifteen ghosts conferred briefly before starting to head down the sidewalk together. All save for the gnome, at least. Her name, or at least the one she’d told me, was Gimcrack. She was a tiny, faintly glowing pink color with just a hint of white to it around her face. When she spoke, her voice was deeper than I would have expected, given her size. “If’n you don’t mind, I would prefer to stay back with you, Miss Felicity. There… won’t be anything for me in any of these houses. I lived alone. No one to miss me. Only reason I was even with that neighborhood watch group in the first place was because they trampled through my yard and I wanted to give them a piece of my mind. See how that turned out.” 

Swallowing hard, I gave a quick nod. “Sure, walk with us. But I umm, I think you’re wrong about people missing you. Just because you didn’t have family here doesn’t mean you didn’t affect their lives.” 

“Aww, that’s sweet of you to say, dear,” she informed me. “But I’m afraid I was a recluse. Bit of a hoarder. Never talked to my neighbors, didn’t see the need, seeing as they wouldn’t know anything about me anyway. Far as any of the humans were concerned, I was just a little old lady who lived by myself and never talked to them. Probably thought I was a witch. Being little and a lady is about the only true parts that salaud Bystander Effect didn’t erase, and they didn’t even know how little.” 

Something told me there was a story there, about her being screwed over in trying to reach out to people but constantly losing them because they couldn’t remember details about her. Which was just one more sad thing on top of a whole heap of depressing that this entire situation was. 

So, we walked together like that. Columbus and Shiori kept asking Gimcrack a lot of questions about her life, while Felix and Triss moved ahead to walk with the rest of the ghosts. I stayed around the middle, watching as we passed all these mostly-empty houses. Every time we reached one that was supposed to belong to one of my little group, they would split off and fly over that way. I let them go, simply sending a bit of power their way so they could interact with a couple things. Brush a hand over a person’s face, touch a portrait, stuff like that. Bystanders wouldn’t be able to see them, but the ghosts themselves would get some measure of closure. And, in a small way, I liked to think that the Bystanders would too. Even if they didn’t remember it. 

Meanwhile, the rest of us walked onward, taking a slow, long loop through the once-promising community. On the way, Keoph fell back a step and focused on me. “You, you’re a good person, Miss Felicity. Been a long time since any of us were around good people for very long. I think you ahh… I think you mean to do positive things with these Necromancy powers of yours. Thank you for that. And for this. It’s–it’s more than we thought we’d ever get. Which is what makes asking for anything else–” 

“What is it?” I quickly put in. “What can we do? What can I do?” 

He hesitated, before offering a heavy sigh. “Just… maybe, if you get a chance, look in on this place once in awhile? I don’t expect you to fix all the problems it’s got, but just… I don’t know. I’m sorry, forget I said anything.” 

“No, I–it’s okay,” I quickly put in. “I get it, really. I don’t know what I can do, but I’ll check in on this place and… maybe find out if there’s any way to get it cleaned up. Or find people who could move here. You know, Alters would understand about the haunting thing and that Fossor is dead now so it’s safe. I’ll figure something out, I promise.”

By that point, we were down to only the Alter members of my little ghost group. The humans would be joining back up with us soon enough, after saying goodbye to their old families and homes in their own way, but right now, it was just Keoph, Gimcrack, and the two Ailkins (their names were Hijer and Jiher). And we had just reached the small, wooded area where Fossor had been when they found him. When… yeah. This was where they had all agreed they would say goodbye for the last time. 

And lined up in that wooded area, right where Fossor had been, were three long picnic tables. An assortment of figures surrounded the tables, of several different species. There were coolers and baskets spread out both on the ground and up on the tables. 

The moment we came into view, the people around there looked up, and immediately started calling out the names of these four. And the four, in turn, called out names of people they recognized. Their family and friends. Three of them rushed that way, after recovering from obvious surprise. They couldn’t exactly embrace them… or at least, they couldn’t until I pushed enough power in them for it. 

Meanwhile, Gimcrack was staring up at me. She pointed with a shaking hand. “That… that is my… brother over there. My brother I never told anyone about. How did he…?” 

Offering her a faint smile, I quietly replied, “I did my research. I reached out to people and asked anyone who had any connection to the people here to come for this. Even got a few who had some connection to the human ghosts, so they’re not completely left out. I wasn’t just going to send you off without any goodbyes. Now go on. Talk to your brother. Take all the time you need.” 

Using part of the power I had given her, she grabbed my hand and squeezed it. There were tears in her eyes. Then she pivoted and moved that way, the ghost gnome meeting the living one in a tight hug. 

Stepping back with Columbus, Shiori, and the others, I lowered my voice. “Hope you all weren’t in a hurry to go anywhere, because I’m planning on staying for awhile.” 

“Nope,” Shiori murmured, “as far as I’m concerned, these guys can have all the time they want. 

“And if anyone tries to ruin this, we can help you restock your ghosts.” 

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At Last 16-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Oh no, the ghost-man has eaten my yellow pseudo-circle!” Perched on the floor of the living room in the house where I lived with the others, Persephone intently moved the stick of the simple controller we’d given her. “Yellow pseudo-circle junior shall avenge you, yellow pseudo-circle! The big dot! Muahahha, yes, flee! Flee, ghost-men and tremble before the power of the big dot as yellow pseudo-circle junior casts aside his doubts and seeks vengeance for the–my big dot has worn off. Curse the transitory nature of invincibility ball and flee! Seek life now! Live and take your smaller circles! Take all of the tiny balls, for the ghost-men guard them jealously, so taking them all will be a much finer revenge! Flee and eat them all!”

“So uhh, she likes Pac-Man.” Sitting beside me on the couch, Shiori noted that fact while miming writing in an invisible notebook. “Hell, she’s getting pretty good at it too. Isn’t she, Choo?” 

Beside the couch, the now fairly-large warthog-like Jekern huffed cheerfully, a spark of electricity zapping out of his snout with a sharp crack. He was dividing his attention between watching the screen with real interest, and eating an assortment of meat treats out of a bowl on the floor. Actually, come to think of it, he was only eating whenever Pac-Man ate. Every time the so-called ‘yellow pseudo-circle’ ate a line of pellets, Choo would quickly lean down to start scarfing from his own bowl. When Pac-Man stopped, so did Choo. I had no idea what that was about. 

After watching Persephone finish another stage (crowing about the ghost-men losing their pellets), I gave a short nod. “Yeah, you were right. Starting her on a simple game like this was the right way to go. Give it a little more time and I think she’ll be ready for Mario.” 

“Excellent,” Shiori murmured in a Mr. Burns impression while staring at the screen with heavily-exaggerated intensity. “Soon, she’ll go from Mario to Mario Kart. And then the ultimate culmination of Operation: Get A Fourth Player For Mario Kart Battle Mode Splitscreen.” After a brief pause, she added, “It uhh… it’s a pretty self-explanatory plan.”  

Snorting despite myself, I caught the other girl’s hand and squeezed it before focusing on the screen once more. “Hey, Percy. When you’re done there, we should take Savvy and the other kids over to the Quietus. I promised they could see an actual pirate ship before Christmas, and it’s getting pretty close.” Belatedly, I added, “Besides, Doug has some research ideas about those anti-Whisper markings and wanted me to take some pictures while we’re over there.” 

“Oh, yes!” the white-haired woman agreed cheerfully. “And later, you will go and say goodbye to some of your ghost friends.” Her smile turned to a scowl as she looked back at the screen. “Not the bad tiny ball-hoarding ghosts. They are terrible and mean and do not deserve to say goodbye. Only death. They deserve death and an eternity within that tiny square prison.”

My head bobbed. “Yup, gotta take some of those ghosts over to that neighborhood tonight and let them get their last words in. They umm…” I swallowed a little, interrupted by thoughts of what Fossor had done just to the people of that neighborhood when they had dared to even very slightly inconvenience him by showing up with flashlights to investigate what he and his zombies were doing. Fifteen people were killed that first night and then reanimated into ghosts to help torment and destroy the lives of everyone else who lived there for the next week, before being forced to serve him in other ways for the past ten years. No wonder they wanted to go back to where they had lived and get some sort of closure before I released them. The things that piece of shit had made them do to their own friends and family, the things he had– I cut my own thoughts off, forcing myself to focus on the here and now, finishing with a flat, “They deserve that much.” 

“Speaking of umm, people who deserve better,” Shiori managed weakly, “what’s going on with that Denise girl now? And what about umm, her parents’ bodies?” She asked the second part with a visible wince. 

Exhaling hard, I slumped back against the couch and shook my head. It was hard to believe all that stuff with tracking down Denise and ending up at the Auberge had happened only yesterday. “I think she finally got to sleep, with a little magical aid,” I muttered. “She’s staying in Asenath’s apartment. Bobbi gave up her room for the night to sleep on the couch. I don’t think…” A lump had formed in my throat and I had to swallow hard. “I don’t think she’s doing very well. I mean, who could blame her? She’s really–she’s really messed up. All that shit she’s been through already and then Kushiel…” Saying that name made my voice turn to a growl. It was all I could do not to bring my fist down hard on something. 

“Kushiel was not a good living person.” That was Persephone, speaking up without looking away from the game on her screen. “She is not a better dead one.” 

“How’d she even know where Denise’s parents lived, anyway?” Shiori shifted a bit, looking at me curiously. “I mean, her address wasn’t listed at the hotel or anything, was it?”

“No, they had no idea who she was,” I replied. “Not exactly anyway. But we do know how Kushiel found out her address. Turns out one of the powers Francis Gale picked up from someone at the Auberge was the ability to know where people live, where they come from. That sort of thing. So when Kushiel possessed him, she was able to sense where Denise lived. Err, where Denny lived. She doesn’t like being called Denise. I think it’s that whole ‘my name is’ thing.”

“Poor kid,” Shiori murmured, head shaking slowly. “What about her parents’ ghosts?” 

“No go,” I replied. “Just like the people Kushiel killed at the Auberge, there were no traces of any ghosts left behind. I tried, but I couldn’t summon them. Not even long enough for Denny to say goodbye or anything.” 

Shiori’s gaze dropped, glaring off into the distance. “I can’t even–fuck, that’s rough. And right before Christmas too. She’s never gonna forget that. Every year she’s going to associate Christmas with walking in and seeing her parents like–” She blanched, and I had the feeling she was pretty tempted to hit something too. Instead, she reached out to touch Choo’s head, scratching behind his ears as he gave a series of happy, approving snorts. 

“Yeah, fuck Kushiel,” I put in. “Like Percy said, she’s just as bad dead as she was alive.” With that, I had to push myself up, standing as a rush of anger ran through me. I paced to the nearby window, staring out at the grass before adding, “Anyway, as for what we do have of Denny’s parents, their umm… their bodies are up here. They put them in storage until she’s ready to have a funeral. Then they’re gonna have to figure out what to say to her aunt, the one she told her parents she was staying with. And their neighbors. And–yeah. It’s a whole thing.” 

“She can’t live with her aunt, right?” Shiori asked. “I mean, Kushiel could probably find her if she did. And she umm… probably doesn’t want to put her aunt in danger.”

My head bobbed. “Yeah. I mean, even without knowing her aunt’s address, Kushiel said something back at the hotel about how she sensed the ‘dark presence’ in Denny as soon as they brought her in. We don’t want to take the risk that she could maybe track the kid down somewhere else on Earth that way. So yeah, just to be on the safe side, she can’t really go down to Earth. At least until we get the Kushiel thing under control. Or find a way to shield her from being detected. Which means finding out exactly how Kushiel does that. But no one can even really start working on that until, you know.”

“Until after they finish working on the anti-possession spell,” Shiori finished, taking her own turn to push herself to her feet before pacing. “So like I said, poor kid. I wish you could’ve just archangel-blasted that bitch into monomolecular dust. I mean, I know why you couldn’t, but still.” She looked toward me with a serious, troubled expression. “She’s not done making trouble.” 

Before I could respond to that, Persephone set the controller down and popped up, her voice flat. “I am very sorry that dead-Kushiel has hurt your new friend so much, Felicity. Normally, I would offer to kill the person who has caused you pain. But I am afraid that would not work in this case.” 

“Yeah, that might be a bit difficult,” I agreed with a slight grimace. “But hey, just knowing I’ve got a friend like you to throw down if need be, that’s helpful.” Offering the Revenant-woman a small smile, I paused. “Hold on, that’s a good question. I mean, not what you can do, what you are. When Kore died, she didn’t leave behind any sort of ghost, did she?” I figured if anyone would know the truth about that, it would be the woman who had taken over her body and been… close to the ship’s resident necromancer. 

“No,” Persephone confirmed, “she never appeared as a ghost. Not that I saw, in any case. But then… there was the whispering.” 

Shiori and I exchanged looks quickly before turning back to her. “Whispering?” I pressed, confused. “What sort of whispering?” 

“At times, Manakel forbade me from entering his private rooms,” Persephone explained. “He said that he needed to be alone. And sometimes, when he did that, I would hear whispering. I assumed he was speaking to himself, but there were different voices. So, I assumed he was communicating with someone elsewhere. Now that you ask, however, perhaps there was someone else in the room whom I did not know about. Whom… no one else knew about?”

Well that was unexpected. Once more, I exchanged a look with Shiori. “Right, maybe we should find out more about that. Hold on, you said whispering. Did you actually hear anything he said in these whispers?” It was a long time ago, yes, but the Seosten memory should hold up. That was, if it still applied while the Seosten’s body was being possessed. Actually–wow. I had no idea how that worked.

In any case, Persephone shook her head. “Manakel asked me to respect his privacy, so I did not eavesdrop. I heard only the presence of voices, not the actual words.” After saying that, she visibly flinched. “And now by respecting the request of Manakel, I have disappointed you.” 

Quickly, I assured her, “It’s okay, don’t worry about it. I just–yeah, we’ll figure it out another way. But if you think of anything else from back then that might be relevant about ghost-Olympians, let us know, please?” 

Brightening at the prospect of being useful, Persephone gave a cheerful, “Of course, I will do that. If anything comes to mind, you will be the fourth to know.” 

The specific number made me blink. “Fourth?”

She, in turn, pointed to herself. “I will be first because they are my thoughts, Cerberus will be second as he is a good dog and often gives me the best ideas, Andromeda will be third because she is good for telling me if I am doing something wrong, and you will be fourth.”

“Oh, well, that’s clear enough.” Giving her a thumbs up, I added, “Speaking of Cerberus, you should grab him so we can head over to pick up the kid. She’s been so excited about going over to that ship, she’s probably bouncing off the walls by now. 

“And knowing Seosten athleticism, that could be very literal.” 

*****

A short time later, we had liberated a handful of toddler Seosten from their caretaker for the day (or possibly the other way around), and were heading down the corridor with them. Or, to be precise, they were riding on Cerberus’s back. Yes, this three-headed robot dog, shoulders taller than my own even in his small form, was trotting proudly down the hall with four tiny Seosten children on his back, all in a line. Little dark-skinned and dark-haired Savvy was at the front, with the red-haired boy Penemue (half a churro sticking out of his mouth) behind her, the artistic, brown-haired boy Kemetiel behind him, and the blonde girl, Grisiniel, at the very back. All four were cheering as Cerberus bounded ahead of us down the hall, executed a one-hundred-and-eighty degree turn and came bounding back. He was actually a very good babysitter, as far as that went. One of his heads was always turned to keep track of what the kids on his back were doing, the second focused straight ahead to know where he was going, and the third kept an eye out for any potential threats or problems coming their way. Not that there should have been any of those right here, but I appreciated the devotion anyway. 

Meanwhile, I was walking with Persephone slightly behind and to the right side, Shiori to my left, and Columbus next to her. Amethyst the cyberform porcupine-armadillo was hanging over his shoulder, apparently asleep. Or recharging, or… just not active. 

I had told Persephone she didn’t have to hang back, but she insisted that the place at my side was reserved for Avalon. Who, unfortunately, was still busy with the whole spell thing. Given the critical stage they were at, they had to have constant and immediate access to Avalon and her blood, just in case. I missed her, but then, this was more important than my own personal feelings. The last thing anyone needed right now was for the spell to fail right at the end after everything they’d all put in it.

Which was another reason, among many, for why I was glad we were living inside the freaking sun right now. There was less chance of someone like, say, a certain deceased-yet-still-evil Seosten woman showing up and fucking the whole thing over. 

The thought of that made me frown a bit to myself before I was distracted by Savvy calling, “Fick! Fick, we’s-we’s–we-we-we’s got–got a–we’s got a–” 

Smiling as Cerberus came to an obedient halt in front of me, I looked up at the girl. “It’s okay, you’re not paying by the millisecond. Breathe. You’ve got what?” 

She, in turn, took a very deep breath and held it for several seconds, cheeks bulging out dramatically, before blowing it all out. Then she tried to speak again. “We’s got a dog to ride, and he has three heads and he’s cool!” Then she jabbered for about three sentences in Latin, amounting to talking about how Cerberus was the bestest most amazing guard puppy ever. 

“He’s pretty cool, yeah,” I agreed, reaching out to rub one of his heads. “What about the rest of you guys, you all ready to go see the pirate ship?” 

With the churro still sticking out of his mouth like a cigar, Penemue gave a quick nod, words coming in a somewhat muffled rush. “We did all our homework early so we could go. It was hard, a whole page! I hadda color seven letters!” To demonstrate, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled up piece of paper with the letters A through G on it. Each letter had an animal or a bug that started with that letter next to or on top of it. There was an alligator around the A, a bee hovering above the B, cat lying on top of the C, dog next to the D, elephant with an E balanced on its stretched-out trunk, a fox curled up on the lower horizontal line of the F, and a gorilla half-hiding behind the G. Each of the letters and associated animals had been colored in by clearly enthusiastic-yet-young hands. Penemue had tried, in general terms, to stay in the lines and use appropriate colors. It was adorable to look at, and I made sure to ooh and aww over it and tell him just how good it looked for all the effort he had put into the page. 

“I like coloring!” Kemetiel, the other boy, put in. “That’s my favorite thing! See?” Then it was his turn to show me his version of the exact same page. And he had gotten a lot more creative. He switched and mixed colors, added new legs and antennae and wings to the various animals, drew background scenes of battles going on around them, added several spaceships shooting lasers at each other, and so on. Despite the generally amazing Seosten physical skill, he was still only four, so the pictures weren’t like, animation-ready or anything. But I could tell what they were supposed to be. Hell, he certainly drew better than I could. 

I made sure to give him just as much praise so neither of the boys felt left out or ignored, before asking to see the girls’ pictures. Savvy showed me hers first, with each letter very neatly colored in. She had clearly taken her time and focused intently on staying inside the lines. 

And then she had added what looked like a giant rabbit ninja with a sword in one hand and an axe in the other, with a speech bubble leading to the words, ‘I ate the ham!’ 

“I like ham,” she stage-whispered to me while leaning a bit closer when she saw where my eyes went. “It’s the best. No, ham and cheese. No, grillied ham and cheese. Wait… yeah. Yeah, grillied ham and cheese!” 

“Well, we’ll have to get some of that later,” I noted. The promise of grilled ham and cheese might be the best way to get her to eventually leave the ship we were about to go see. Tucking that thought away, I focused on the other girl. “What about you, Grisiniel?” 

The little sandy-haired four-year-old took a carefully-folded piece of paper out of her pocket and held it out to me, squirming a little self-consciously. I took it, carefully examining the work. Everything was neatly and carefully colored in, and there were no extra drawings on the page. However, I could see words next to each animal. Belatedly, I realized they were names. She had named each of them. Then I noticed something on the other side of the page, and turned it over. The entire back of the paper was taken up by words. She wrote each animal’s name, underlined it, then wrote a paragraph about that animal, going on about who they were, what they liked, what their jobs were, and so on. Again, she was four, so it wasn’t incredibly in depth or anything, but still. She wrote names and backstories for the letter animals. 

“You guys are awesome, you know that?” I smiled, reaching out to ruffle her hair as she giggled. 

“That’s for sure,” Columbus agreed, as he and Shiori examined the papers I was handing off to them. “I might just get you four to handle my trig homework from now on, cuz you’re obviously ready for that.” 

His words prompted a chorus of giggling and protests from the kids, before they all bantered back and forth. Chuckling to myself, I stepped away, tugging Shiori with me before lowering my voice. “I texted Senny a few minutes ago to see how things were going over there. She says Denny’s still asleep. They’re not gonna bother her until she wakes up on her own. But when she does, it’s umm…” I flinched, needing to look at the chibis over on the metal dog to slow the rush of horrible feelings. Swallowing hard, I pushed on. “When she does, it’s gonna be bad. That poor kid. I want that fucking bitch to…” I stopped myself, words turning into a low snarl as I thought of Kushiel. 

Taking my hand, Shiori gave a quick nod. “Kushiel deserves all of the–” She proceeded to pretty accurately mimic my own snarl. “And more. But right now, she’s not the important thing. Denny is. Whatever she needs…”

“She gets,” I agreed. “I mean, I’m pretty sure what she needs the most right now is Kushiel taken off the board. But absent that for the moment, yeah. Anyone she wants to talk to, anything we can bring her, anything just– fuck. I can’t even imagine going through the shit she is, the shit she’s been going through. It’s not fair. And yeah, I know that’s childish, especially after everything we’ve seen already. But damn it, it’s not fair!” 

Shiori had nothing to say in response to that. Instead, she just put her arms around me. I returned the favor, and the two of us stood there and embraced for a few long seconds. It didn’t exactly make things better, but it helped. 

And the other thing that would help was spending some more time with these kids over on the Quietus. Which was a thought that made me clap my hands together a couple times to get the attention of the others. “Okay, guys! Who’s ready to go see a real-life pirate ship?” 

That earned me an assortment of cheers. And not just from the kids either. As I gave Columbus a look for being the loudest one there (to the point of making poor Amethyst jump, falling off his shoulder before the boy had quickly caught her), he flushed a little. “What can I say? I got caught up in the moment. Now let’s go see this ship, dang it, before something else happens and we end up in another brawl or something.”

That, of course, was Shiori’s cue to immediately give a bright smile while chirping, “Don’t worry, whether we’re going on a ship, or getting into a fight…

“We’ll always set assail.”  

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Class Action 14-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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After all the ridiculousness of that, my next class was Calculus. Which I didn’t mind too much, actually. Sure, math was never going to be my absolute favorite subject, even back in normal, mundane school. But it was important for working out a lot of the more complicated spells. Yeah, some of that stuff required a lot of incredibly involved measurements and calculations about various aspects of the item you were enchanting, where you were, how much it was supposed to affect, and so on and so forth. Math was important for all of that stuff. 

But even more than that, it was a chance to settle down and relax after the chaos of Sinbad’s class. I could sit there at my desk, listen to the teacher (a man named Ambrose Keaton, from Eden’s Garden), and just passively take in his lesson. He was a black guy, only a couple inches taller than me and a little on the heavier side, though I was pretty sure a lot of that was muscle. He wore an old-fashioned set of clothes from the 1800s, with the whole trousers, silk shirt waistcoat, very loose-fitting bow tie, long, loose jacket, and boots. Oh, andit a snazzy-looking top hat, of course. It almost seemed as though he had just stepped out of a period-piece movie or something. Aside from the fact that he wore very modern (and quite cool-looking) sunglasses, and had a distinctly non-period cellphone sticking part of the way out of his front jacket pocket. 

He was also a pretty damn good math teacher. He took the time to explain things pretty well, and related the stuff he was talking about to situations in the real world, rather than leaving it all as numbers on the board. The man had a very engaging personality, unlike the stereotypical math teacher. He knew everyone’s name and a few things about them that he could talk about and relate to the lesson, despite this group apparently only having had a couple classes before this one.  

“So, when you get down to it,” Ambrose was saying as he paced through the aisles between our desks, “calculus is really a building block or a tool that can be used to make almost anything you do that involves numbers much more efficient, or even safe. People designing buildings or bridges use it to determine the precise measurements within the structure, or how much force and weight it can support. You need a firm understanding of calculus to really know how the forces acting on your structure are going to affect it. Or let’s say you’re at a Bystander amusement park and you’ve been put in charge of the concessions. You need to know how many hot dogs, buns, pretzels, cups, napkins, bags of cotton candy, gallons of ice cream, and everything else you need to purchase for a given stretch of time. You buy too little, you’re going to end up with guests who are annoyed and might not come back. That hurts the park’s bottom line. But if you buy too much, that stuff can go bad and you’ve just wasted money. A good understanding of calculus can help you make those choices. It’s not perfect, but it can help.” 

Travis Colby, one of my old Bystander-kin classmates from Crossroads, raised his hand. “Uh, don’t take this the wrong way, but why would we be designing buildings or running a theme park? I mean, we all know what we’re doing after these classes. We’re fighting monsters. And uhh,” he quickly amended, “by monsters, I mean anyone who acts like one or… you know, does monstrous things.” The boy fumbled his words a little at the end before lifting his chin toward the young orc teenager sitting beside him. “The bad guys, I mean.” 

“Yeah,” the orc agreed with a broad smile before holding out his fist. “We squish bad guys.” 

Travis, in turn, gave him a fist bump before looking back to Ambrose. “You know what I mean, dude. It’s not like we’re going to go out in the mundane world and get normal jobs.” 

Ambrose was quiet for a moment after that. He seemed to be considering those words before casually replying, “You can if you want to.” After exhaling slowly, the man walked to Travis’s desk,  though he was clearly addressing all of us. “Here’s what I want to make very clear today, and through the rest of this class. You are allowed to become whatever you want. If you get through this school and go on to become a heroic slayer of evil and champion of all that is good, that’s great. But if you decide to become an artist, or an author, or a chef, or even run the concessions at an amusement park, that’s fine too. Your life… is your life. You do not owe anybody your life, certainly not me or any of your other teachers here at this school. Become what you choose to. Put your life toward what will be most fulfilling to you. For many of you, that will be continuing to actively fight. For others, you may decide to take a backseat to things and only… go into action when absolutely necessary, to protect others you see who are in immediate danger. And that is fine. That is absolutely a valid choice, which no one should fault you for. And even if they do, ignore them. Because again, your life is your life, no one else’s.” 

“That’s not really true for the rest of us, is it?” The new voice came from a corner of the room, where my quiet, anti-social Relukun housemate, Kersel, sat. The wooden boy shifted in his seat as everyone looked at him, his gaze firmly locked on our teacher. “I mean yeah, sure, these guys… your human students, they can do whatever they want. They can go ahead and ignore all of it if they want to. No bark off their back. Some of us have to live in a world where we could be hunted down and killed any day. Oh sure, I’ll go run an amusement park, and pray every day that none of their bloodthirsty, psychotic friends come through, see what I am, and fucking murder me and everyone I care about. That sounds like a great life to have. Sign me up.” 

Several people in the class started to respond, but Ambrose held up a hand for them to stop. He nodded to Kersel then. “You’re absolutely right. It is a lot more dangerous out in the regular world for you and others like you. It shouldn’t be, but that is the reality of the situation. We will fight to change that. Others will simply attempt to create a better world by living in it. Remember what I said before about people who could choose to fight only when they had to? That applies here. Say you do take that job at the amusement park. And then someone comes through and tries to kill you for being what you are. But you don’t have to fight them off alone, because one of the ticket-takers, an accountant in the back office, a guy in a mascot costume, and the woman fixing a broken ride all jump in and help protect you. Because they’re all trained people living their own lives, just like you.” 

That said, the man gazed around to the rest of us. “I’m not saying you forget everything you know. And I’m definitely not saying that all the problems in the world will go away just because you want to live as normal of a life as possible. What I’m saying is that it is not impossible for you to protect one area. It is not wrong for you to choose to put yourself into a normal job, and then step in only when you need to. Find others like you, who can help create a small area within the world where people who would be hunted can be safe. Find those who don’t set off the Stranger sense and put them at the entrance so they can warn those who do when there’s trouble coming. Create escape routes and plan for problems. Work together to create the sort of world that all people can live in. You fix the world by living in it, by making it better so that those who would drag people down into the filth where they thrive are left behind. You will never truly beat that sort of ideology by hitting it with a sword. You beat it by creating an environment in which it cannot exist.”  

With that, he tapped one of the nearby desks a couple times pointedly. “That, my friends, is what this class is about. That is what calculus is. It is using what we know, to calculate what we want. It is not simply passively accepting the reality of the situation, but learning how to use that reality to create incredible things. Math is the world and everything in it. Learn to use that math, make it work for you, and you might not be able to build a better world. But you can certainly build a better piece of it.

“Now, let’s talk about a man named Pythagoras. Maybe you’ll even get to meet him someday.”

*******

After that class, it was time for lunch. Which I had in the cafeteria with Shiori, Avalon, Columbus, Roxa, Doug, and May. Most of us were eagerly devouring the meals in front of us, after hours of classwork, while Doug questioned May about anything she might’ve known about the so-called Whispers, as well as the Pale Ship and the original Tabbris. Yeah, he wasn’t exactly going to let that sort of thing go, especially not when he had a Seosten right there to interrogate. 

Unfortunately, May didn’t really know much about any of it. Nothing about the Whispers, of course. And not much as far as the other two things went. She just said that it had never been a subject she was interested in. Nor was April, apparently, though she was busy helping one of their classmates with something back in one of the science labs. 

Stabbing a fork into a potato, Doug asked, “Do you know anyone in your group who might know more about that stuff? He hesitated before adding, “I mean, it seems to me like other Seosten tend to ignore you guys a lot. You blend into the background whenever they aren’t putting you to work. Plus, you like… work for one of their big scientists.” 

“We will not betray Cahethal,” May immediately put in, sitting up a bit straighter in her chair. 

Roxa quickly spoke up. “He’s not talking about betraying anyone, just sharing any information any of you might have about this situation that could maybe lead to answers for everyone. I mean, your boss would probably like it if you found out more about the Pale Ship, or these Whispers, right? She seems like the type to want an explanation for all that.”   

Doug nodded. “What she said. I’m not saying you should keep anything a secret from your boss. Go ahead and tell her whatever you want. But it seems like sharing information would be the best way to go for all of us, you know?” 

I spoke up. “Yeah, I mean, one side having part of the story, the other side having another part, and nobody sharing anything is basically a recipe for neither side to ever figure out the truth.” 

“If this truce is going to go beyond a year, into a real alliance,” Avalon quietly reminded the girl, “we need to get used to sharing things with each other. And trusting each other.” 

May looked at her in silence for a moment. From the look on her face, she understood just what it meant for Avalon to say something like that, given everything the Seosten had put her through. Not only her, but her entire bloodline. After all the pain and death they were responsible for, just within Avalon’s own life, her being the one to say we needed to work together meant a lot. May clearly understood that, taking a few seconds to let it actually sink in before speaking carefully. “You have a point.” She paused after admitting that, then gave a short nod. “I believe there may be one member of the Calendar who knows something, but I won’t say anything else until I speak with them and see if they are comfortable with talking about it. Is that acceptable?” 

Doug had just started to agree that it was, when Shiloh approached. “Is what acceptable? Hey, May.” She offered the Seosten girl a smile, before shifting a little awkwardly as though realizing she had just interrupted something and suddenly wondering if that was bad. 

“Hey, Shy Two,” Shiori immediately spoke up while gesturing. “Come on, sit with us.” 

Shiloh immediately snickered with a look of visible relief that crossed her face before she stepped over to take the seat across from her (and next to May). “Thanks, Shy One,” she cheerfully noted, setting her plate down. 

“They figured out they both have the same nickname,” Columbus informed me. “It’s been a lot of this ever since.” 

Roxa held up a hand while rapidly chewing the enormous mouthful of burger she had just taken. It was so much meat her cheeks bulged out, and took several seconds for the girl to manage to get it down. Finally, she spoke up. “At least Shy makes sense for someone named Shiloh. Shiori is like… She-Or-Eee. How do you get Shy out of that?” 

Shiori shrugged as everyone looked to her for an explanation, while gesturing toward Columbus. “Ask my brother over there. He started it. Then it just stuck.” 

Columbus, in turn, made a clearly exaggerated harrumphing sound. “Come on, it’s not that weird. People have shortened versions of their names that don’t phonetically line up perfectly all the time.” He waved it off then. “Anyway, someone tell Shy Two what we’re talking about.” 

So, I did just that. Over the next couple of minutes, I gave the other girl a quick rundown about the situation, telling her as much as I could in that brief time without getting too confusing or detailed about it. Honestly, it still felt strange to talk so openly about stuff that I would have had to obsessively keep secret the year before. I barely knew Shiloh (though clearly she had spent some more time with the others here while I had been gone), and yet I could just… talk about that stuff with her. I didn’t have to be paranoid that she was going to expose what we knew. That ship had sailed. 

It was definitely a different experience, but I wasn’t complaining. God, was I ever not complaining. I could not even begin to describe how much better it felt to be able to just talk openly about this stuff, without using a bunch of privacy spells and being paranoid that any given person might be listening in. We could just tell Shiloh the truth. Sure, she might lack some of the context or be confused about a lot. But we could explain it. That was just… awesome. 

Once I was done, and the others had piped up with their own input, Shiloh herself seemed to take a few long seconds processing the whole thing. Finally, she offered, “So the adults–I mean the older adults, they’re looking for that Occillo troll guy and whoever he was working with?” 

I nodded. “Yeah, they found out where the guy was living on that station, at least back then. They’re gonna send some people to check it out. I mean, they’re probably not dumb enough to still be there, but maybe there’s some clues about who the other guy is or where they went.” 

With a curious, thoughtful frown, the shaggy-haired brunette offered a hesitant, “Why don’t you ask around the station here about him? I mean, a lot of the people here come from out in that space, or at least they’ve spent a lot of time there. Or even just know people who have. This guy, he’s a genius-level troll Indiana Jones explorer. That has to stand out even in a giant universe. Maybe someone around here has heard of him. At least enough to get more information, you know?” She paused slightly before adding, “You don’t have to keep everything secret anymore, you might as well take advantage of that and find out what people know.” 

Yeah, she definitely had a point there. Maybe no one would actually know the guy, but on the off-chance that they did, it was worth asking about. “Besides,” I put in, “even if no one’s heard of him, they might know about that station, or even have someone there who could talk to whoever gets sent out to it.”

Shiloh seemed relieved that we weren’t dismissing what she said, offering me a quick, slightly nervous smile. “Yeah, just like that. See, you can just, you know, use what you’ve got around here.” After another brief hesitation, she offered, “I could ask a few people about that if you want.” Quickly, the girl explained, “I’ve sorta been talking to a lot of people around the station for that book of stories I wanna write. You know, the stories about other worlds? So, yeah, if you want, I could see if any of those people I’ve talked to, um, know anything.” She was shifting a bit uncomfortable from the attention of everyone, looking down as she poked at the food on her plate. “Or I can just leave it alone.” She mumbled that last part under her breath. 

“Dude, are you kidding?” I immediately insisted. “If you’ve got contacts who could maybe help find out anything about this guy, go for it. No way are we going to turn down actual help.” 

The others made sounds of agreement with that, before May noted, “It would be a waste to ignore a potential resource.” 

“Yeah?” Shiloh looked up, offering a slightly… well, shy smile at the Seosten girl as her uneven bangs covered part of her eyes. “Do you want to maybe walk around with me and talk to them? It might be nice to have some company, you know. Or umm, in case I forget any of the details. You’re–you have a really good memory and all. I mean, I could write it down, or record it, or–it’s no big deal. Don’t worry about it, you don’t have to come with me.” Her head shook rapidly to dismiss the thought.

May hesitated before offering a flat, “I am Seosten and a… I am affected by Anima Catenata.” 

The rest of us, including Shiloh, looked at each other in confusion before Columbus asked, “Anima what now?”

“Chained soul,” I mentally translated after a second. “Oh, wait, is that what you call… you know, SPS?” 

The Asian-looking Seosten gave a very slight nod. “That is the formal, technical name for the condition from long ago, before such… prejudice was associated with it. When the condition was being diagnosed. It is rarely used now, simply because there is no need to. We are not Seosten with the condition of Anima Catenata. We are simply Mendacia, to them.”  

With that, she looked at Shiloh. “That is what I was saying. Other species here may dislike me for being too Seosten. Seosten themselves may dislike me for not being Seosten enough. Having me walk with you to these discussions may be more of a handicap than an aid.” 

My mouth opened to say something, but Shiloh beat me to the punch. “Dude, they’ll get over it. And if they don’t, screw them. This whole school is supposed to be about learning to work together and accept others, right? I mean, that’s what the entire truce is about too.” 

“That… is true,” May agreed. “Very well, if you like, I shall accompany you to speak to your contacts.” 

“Good,” Avalon announced, “and now that that’s settled, we can talk about what else is going on this afternoon.”    

Blinking a couple times, I echoed, “What else is going on this afternoon?” 

She, in turn, offered me a slightly feral smile. “You’ve gotten away without training long enough.” 

“Oh.” Flushing a little, I insisted. “I promise I did a lot of training the whole time. Live action, very intense training. Lots of it.” 

“Good,” she replied, clearly not dissuaded in the slightest. “Then it won’t be a shock to your system to get back to something a little more organized.” 

With an audible snicker, Roxa spoke up. “Be afraid, Flick. She’s been planning out how to run you ragged and work through that stamina of yours for awhile. Something about making sure you’re ready the next time anything bad happens.” 

“Yup,” Shiori confirmed. “And she had the rest of us help her perfect the system.” 

“Oh boy,” I managed in a slightly weak voice. “I guess the welcome home vacation is officially over, huh?” Still, despite my words, I met Valley’s gaze and the two of us smiled at one another. This, I knew, was precisely how Avalon showed that she cared. By working me to the bone. The more she cared about someone, the more she pushed them to work harder. She demonstrated affection through being a demanding taskmaster. 

And lucky me, as I found out over the next couple hours, she was apparently feeling very affectionate. 

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Reception 13-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A little while later, I stepped through a portal leading to the Starstation, accompanied by Avalon, Shiori, and Persephone (with Cerberus cheerfully bringing up the rear). Sariel was there waiting for us, along with Abigail, Professor Tangle, and my mother. The four adults appeared to have been deep in conversation when we showed up, but cut it off the moment we appeared. 

“Girls,” Abigail started, walking up with the others right behind her, “you made it back. We heard the visit to the… alien space pirate ship was fairly productive?” Even now, after just over a solid year of being involved with this stuff, she still sounded like she couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of her mouth. Which, to be fair, was a feeling I could totally understand. 

“You could say that,” I replied dryly, with a glance toward the others before gesturing at the white-haired woman and three-headed robot dog, who were both curiously watching this whole thing. “Abigail, this is Persephone and Cerberus. Persephone, this is my–” 

“Older sister!” she blurted excitedly, bounding forward with both hands outstretched as though to grab the other woman’s. At the last second, however, she stopped herself and very clearly clutched both hands to her stomach. “I’m sorry, it’s very nice to meet you, but I’m not supposed to grab people unless they say it’s okay. I forget that a lot, but not as much as I used to.” Straightening up to her full height, she very deliberately asked, “May I please shake your hand?” 

Abigail seemed a bit taken aback, which was a pretty normal reaction to Persephone. But after taking a moment to collect herself, she glanced briefly toward me while nodding slightly as though to say she understood. Then her eyes shifted back to Persephone as she extended a hand politely. “Of course, it’s nice to meet you, Persephone. Thank you so much for intervening to help my little sister, my daughter, and the others with that monster who attacked them.” 

With a little squeak of happiness, Persephone took Abigail’s hand in both of hers and eagerly pumped it up and down. Her smile was broad. “Of course, of course! I couldn’t let anything bad happen to my– I mean to Flick before I even got to know her! Because getting to know someone is very important whether it’s before something bad happens to them, or before you give them sweet and adoring nicknames. Which you aren’t supposed to call them until they say it’s okay.” She wasn’t quite ‘reading off the back of her hand’ obvious that time, but it was still clear that she was reciting what she had been told and didn’t fully understand it.

“Precisely,” Mom agreed, stepping closer before holding her hand out for all three of Cerberus’s heads to curiously sniff. “Everyone takes things at a normal pace and we all get to know each other. And whatever happens, happens. No one is obligated to do anything.” As she said that, Mom was looking directly at me, holding my gaze until I nodded with understanding. Finally, she turned her attention fully to Persephone. “Would you mind taking a walk with Sariel? She can show you where you’ll be staying. Everyone should settle down for now, and perhaps we can have you over for dinner tomorrow to meet Felicity’s father.” That last part was clearly added as a concession to show that she wasn’t actively trying to keep Persephone away from me. This whole situation was incredibly delicate and more than a little awkward. So far, the Revenant-Seosten had very cheerfully gone with the flow, and honestly seemed to be trying to accommodate us, as well as understand why we felt the way we did. It was obviously alien to her, which made me wonder how much of that was just the fact that she was what she was, and how much was the fact that she spent so much time alone. Even when Manakel had been nice to her, he still sent her away for extended periods.   

In any case, Persephone readily agreed before turning to me. Her voice was just as bright and cheerful as ever. “It has been very interesting to meet you, Flick! I’m glad I could help before, and I hope I can be helpful later too!” Her head was bobbing rapidly, eyes literally sparkling a bit with power. “I won’t say that I’m glad you killed my Mannikins, because I still really miss him. But I am glad that the person who inherited his gift was as pretty and nice as you.” 

Well, what the hell was I supposed to say to that? Opening and shutting my mouth as I fought to find words, I finally settled on, “Uh, well I’m glad you’re okay with uhh, with everything.” Yeah, wow, put that speech on a Hallmark card. Wincing, I rubbed the back of my neck self-consciously. “I mean, I’m glad you’re–I’m looking forward to getting to know you later.” God, what was with me being awkward about this whole thing? I mean, beyond the fact that it was super-awkward and confusing to begin with, of course. 

Thankfully, Persephone didn’t seem to notice. She just smiled and gave me a happy wave before skipping off to where Sariel was waiting. Both of them headed out the door together, leaving Avalon, Shiori, and me to give a full rundown of everything that had happened up on the ship to Abigail, Mom, and Professor Tangle. At first I wasn’t sure why the latter was there, but then I remembered that before she’d had that whole… situation the year before where she’d been in the hospital for so long, she had actually been the Explorer Track advisor for the first years. Explorers, as in the people who focused on going to other worlds and documenting everything about both them and the various new Alters they encountered. Yeah, I supposed her being involved in a conversation about a space pirate ship full of various strange and potentially brand new alien beings probably made sense. Especially once she started asking very specific questions about what and who we had seen up there. She wasn’t taking notes or anything, but I had the feeling she didn’t really need to. Between Abigail as a lawyer, Mom as sheriff, and Tangle as both a professor and someone who knew exactly what sort of questions to ask in this specific situation, the three of us spent the next twenty minutes or so being quite thoroughly interrogated about every little detail of our time on the ship. Not that it was bad or anything, just… very thorough. 

Finally, we told them that Doug and Theia had gone with Dare and Apollo to check on something back at the Atherby camp, and Mom said they would talk to that group soon. Then she offered us a smile. “Thank you, girls. I know it’s not fun to stand there and answer a bunch of questions, but you took it like champs. Why don’t you head on in and get some dessert or something? Then rest, it’s been a long day, and I believe everyone is going back to school tomorrow?” 

Abigail gave a firm nod. “That’s right, we don’t want everyone falling behind in classes just because you all managed to squash a genocidal cockroach. Besides, I may still be very new to all of this, but I’m fairly certain there will be plenty of excuses for more days off as the year goes on.” 

“Trust me,” I muttered, “you’re not that much newer than at least Shiori and me. And you’re probably right. Actually, at this point, the year going on without any more sudden interruptions to our class schedules would be so shocking I might just keel over.” 

“Which,” Avalon pointedly added in a flat voice, “would necessitate a change in our school schedule.” 

“Yeah, see?” I gestured. “Can’t escape it. So you’re right, we should probably go to all the classes we can manage while it’s an option.” I didn’t add that it would be nice to go back to doing something as normal as attending school again, after everything that happened with, as Abigail had put it, that genocidal cockroach. But from the look on everyone’s face, I didn’t have to. They already knew. There was a brief moment of silence before Mom reached out to squeeze my shoulder. “Go on,” she urged me. “Have some fun, get some rest, and be ready for school tomorrow. Plus, I think Tabbris and Columbus have something to show all of you.” 

That was right, Tabs had said they were working on something together. I’d forgotten, thanks to everything that happened on the ship. But now I was back to being profoundly curious about that whole thing. And hey, I could actually go find some answers now. 

That in mind, I gave my mother and sister both a hug. Then I hesitated before shrugging and giving one to Professor Tangle as well. Why not? After everything that happened last year, she could probably still use plenty of them. Hell, she was technically related to Avalon to some extent, but I don’t think the two of them ever really got into that. 

Once that was done, I followed Mom’s suggestion by heading out with my girls. Avalon, Shiori, and I made our way through the corridors before reaching the forcefield elevator leading down to the miniature town where the houses were. It was (simulated) night by that point, but plenty of people were still out walking around in groups or alone, and we ended up chatting here and there before finally making it to the house. Once there, I breathed in and let it out, smiling a bit to myself. 

“Everything okay?” Shiori asked, watching me curiously. 

My head bobbed. “Yup, I’m happy. This is two nights in a row I get to sleep in my own bed.” 

Nudging me a bit sharply with her elbow, Avalon retorted, “Let’s try to raise that to a much higher record than two, huh?” 

“That’s the plan,” I agreed while rubbing my side. “And now that I don’t have Fossor hanging over my head anymore, maybe it’ll actually happen. But hey, come on, I was promised a surprise from my little sister, and I aim to see what it is.” 

“Haven’t you had enough surprises already today?” Avalon demanded with a squint. 

“It’s okay,” Shiori quickly assured her, “this one won’t want to marry her. I mean, probably.” 

“You’re both incredibly mean,” I complained before heading toward the door. Before I got there, however, the sound of voices coming from the backyard made me adjust course to walk around the house. The other two followed, and we met a very excited Choo as he came charging around the corner, happily grunting and squeaking. Naturally, we stopped to greet the big pig, giving him rubs, pats, and scratches, much to his satisfaction as he snorted and tried to rub up against all of us at once. Shiori produced a half-full bag of popcorn from the theater and set it down for him. If he hadn’t already adored her, that definitely would have done the trick. He tore the entire bag apart getting to the popcorn, and ate the greasy remains of the bag itself too. 

Accompanied by one very happy Jekern, we continued around to the back of the house. As expected, Columbus and Tabbris were there. And they weren’t alone. Nevada was with them, along with Gordon, Jazz, and Eiji from next door. All of them seemed to be inspecting something that had been laid out on the table that we couldn’t see, and there was a spirited discussion going on about something that had to do with how ‘cool’ the something was. 

Before any of us could say anything, Nevada abruptly turned and gestured in my direction. “Well, why don’t we let the birthday girl herself decide how cool it is?”  

“Flick!” Tabbris jumped up from the table, half-falling over before catching herself. “You’re back!” Her surprise really showed just how intently she had been focused on whatever this project was, because she apparently hadn’t been paying attention to our connection. 

“Sorry,” I teased while nodding over my shoulder. “Should I go back? Maybe there’s another person waiting to fall out of the sky and declare us married. I could go for a guy this time.” 

That earned me a sharp jab in both sides from Avalon and Shiori. Meanwhile, Gordon and Jazz both stepped around the table to come more into view as they greeted us, with Eiji following suit. I didn’t know the huge Asian-Canadian boy that well, aside from the fact that he was the second-smartest person in our grade behind Vanessa. Well, that and he also had a rhino that transformed into a motorcycle (and a backpack), which automatically made him awesome. 

With a visible smirk, Jazz too-casually started to ask, “So Tabs was right? You went and got–” 

“I did not go and get hitched,” I immediately interrupted. “No one’s married. I mean, obviously a lot of people are married. Even around this station. But not me. I am absolutely and definitely not married to anyone.” After a brief pause, I amended, “Except possibly danger. I might be married to that. But that’s only because it’s hung around and been a part of my life for so long, it’s become kind of a common law sort of thing. Which is gonna make it really suck if I ever decide I can’t stand being around danger anymore, because then it’ll take half my stuff.” 

Everyone stared at me for a moment after that whole spiel, before Eiji leaned over a bit toward Gordon and quietly (but intentionally audibly) murmured, “I see what you mean.” 

Tabbris had already bounded over to where I was, catching my hand. “Is she cool, at least?” 

Feeling a slight flush across my face, I exhaled before nodding. “Yeah, she’s cool. It’ll be good to have her around. And she’s got this big robot dog with–” 

“Robot dog?” Now I had Columbus’s attention as he turned to face me, having been intently focused on doing something with whatever he was working on at the table. He had his goggles down, but I could feel his eyes staring at me intently. “You mean like a cyberform?”  

“Like a cyberform,” Shiori answered for me. “But not the same. Cerberus. You know, the Cerberus? He’s this big metal dog with three heads and he can fight ghosts and get even bigger. We didn’t get to see the big version yet, but she said it makes Amaroks look like his puppies!” From the sound of her voice, it was clear that the other girl could not wait to see something like that. She was incredibly excited about the prospect of Cerberus’s big form. 

Obviously, everyone had questions. Including Nevada. So, the three of us spent the next few minutes explaining what had happened. Not only with Persephone, but with the ship as well. They were all incredibly interested in that entire thing, especially when I brought up the anti-Whispers runes, and the fact that the person responsible for them was apparently an enhanced-intelligence troll who was looking for a ship connected to the original Tabbris. 

Yeah, that got a big reaction from my Tabbris. She wanted to know everything that had been said about that, absolutely everything. I repeated every word, and explained everything we had found out. Which was fair, considering he was her namesake. It just took awhile to get through, and I needed a bit of help from Shiori and Avalon. But eventually, the others were up-to-date. 

When we were finally done, Gordon was the first to speak, his voice as calm as ever. “Let’s hope they find this Occillo guy and he feels like answering questions.” After a brief hesitation, he added in a slightly quieter voice, “The Whispers are important to Douglas. Which means they’re important to the rest of us. I mean, his old team.”

“Damn straight,” Jazz agreed. “Doug gets real intense about those things whenever they come up. He doesn’t actually get into details about what happened out there, but it was pretty bad.”

Eiji had been sort-of standing in the background through all that. Okay, well, not really in the background. The dude was six and a half feet tall and built like a damn NFL linebacker. He may have been almost as academically inclined as Vanessa, but he looked like he belonged in the WWE or something. The point was, the guy was enormous and didn’t really ‘blend in’ very well. But he had been quiet throughout most of that, simply watching as we explained what had happened. Once in a great while, he asked a clarifying question. But it was clear that he had been brought up to date about most of this stuff at some point. Unsurprising, since he shared a house with Vanessa, Tristan, Koren, Sands, Scout, Aylen, Jazz, Jokai, and Gordon (and that boy-made-of-slinkies named Ruckus whom I didn’t know anything about but probably wasn’t relevant to this).  Between all of them, Eiji had been given enough details to follow along with most of this conversation, only needing a few bits of clarification.

Now, he spoke up. “If these Whispers are actually more widespread than that single contained colony world, they’re important to everyone.” 

Nevada gave a quick nod. “Exactly, gold star or whatever, Eiji. Sounds like we need to find this Occillo guy for several reasons, including getting everything he knows about the Whispers so we can be ready to deal with them.” Pausing, she added with a beaming smile. “Well, that and who doesn’t wanna meet a brilliant, intelligence-enhanced cyborg Indiana Jones troll? That sounds fucking awesome to me, and whoever disagrees gets an F in any of my classes.” A quick cough and correction followed that. “I’m kidding, nobody gets an F. Don’t tell Abigail I said that, she scares me.” 

We talked just a little bit more about that situation, before Tabbris finally bounced up and down eagerly. “Okay, okay, we get the point! Come on, let’s show her the new stuff. It’s all ready, right?” 

Exchanging brief glances with one another at that, Nevada and Columbus paused before the former nodded. She was grinning even more than she had a moment earlier. “Oh yeah, they’re both ready. I mean, you could probably get away with tinkering with them a little more, but it’s good enough. We can always make improvements later.” 

“What’re you guys talking about?” I demanded, looking back and forth between them. “And–wait, you called me birthday girl earlier. It’s definitely not my birthday. And I didn’t exactly have a great one this year anyway.” 

“That’s why we wanted to give you late presents,” Columbus informed me. “To make up for that. First, here.” He reached back to the table, taking a black metal bracelet thing and handing it over. “It’s like the one that Broker guy gave you before, the one that got broken or lost or whatever when Fossor took you.” 

Taking the bracelet, I blinked before asking, “You mean…” 

“He means,” Tabbris quickly put in, “it’s connected to Jaq and Gus! You can use it to see through their eyes, teleport them back to you, or teleport yourself to them.” 

“But that last one is only if you’re within about a hundred feet,” Columbus noted. “Sorry, we couldn’t get it out any further. You can still see through their eyes up to about ten miles though.” 

My head shook quickly. “Hey, don’t apologize. This is awesome. Amazing. Seriously, I missed this thing. Thought I’d have to track Broker down again to get a new one. I can’t believe you made one yourself.” 

“With some help,” Columbus reminded me, glancing toward Nevada. 

She, in turn, giggled. “Hey, not as much as you’d think considering how new you are to the whole thing. Pretty soon, you’ll be making this stuff by yourself.” 

“You can play with that later!” Tabbris informed me. “Now you’ve gotta see the big thing.” 

Raising an eyebrow as I attached the wristband in place, I asked, “This isn’t the big thing?” 

Prompted a lot of snickers and excited looks between everyone else beyond Avalon, Shiori, and me. Whatever this was about, they all thought it was really cool and couldn’t wait for us to see it. 

‘It’, as it turned out, was a pair of gloves. Dark blue and black gloves with a metallic sheen to them. Columbus passed the thing to Tabbris, who passed it to me, quickly insisting, “Put them on, put them on, put them on. Please?” 

Well, who was I to argue with her? Shrugging, I did so. Of course, the gloves fit me perfectly, like a second skin. “Well, I’m definitely styling now,” I announced while holding both hands up and wiggling my fingers. 

“Check the back of the right glove,” Columbus urged. 

I did so, blinking at the outline of a Great White shark that was emblazoned there. “Hey, it’s Princess Cuddles.” 

Quickly, Tabbris told me to run my thumb across it. So I did, and the emblem changed to that of a Mako shark facing one direction, while a second rub of my thumb switched it to a Mako shark facing the other direction. I had two Mako sharks, Brody and Quint. There were also emblems of the Lemon Shark Simpson, the Bull shark Sherman, and the gorgeous blue-and-white (I’d never been sure of his species) Jabberjaw. 

“Wow, pretty emblems,” I remarked. “But–” 

“It’s more than emblems,” Columbus informed me. “Check the left glove. Feel the little button against the side of your index finger? Push it with your thumb and hold it down.” 

It took a second, but I found the tiny little button he was talking about. There was a slight click when I pushed it. Nothing else happened, at least at first. But after about three seconds, I felt the emblem on my right glove grow warm. And then? Well, then Jabberjaw appeared floating in the air right beside me. I jumped, jerking that way and half-falling while most of the others snickered. 

I wasn’t crazy, and it wasn’t an illusion. Jabberjaw was floating there. Not in empty air, but in a bubble of water that was just slightly bigger than he was. As he swam in a circle around me, the bubble went with him.

Tabbris immediately explained, “See, the gloves generate a bubble of water, and summon the shark that the image on the right one is set to. Now you can bring your sharks with you to places!” 

As soon as he realized I was there, the beautiful shark quickly swam (through the air) over to me to get rubs. Hesitantly, I glanced to the others before getting a confirming nod that it was okay. Then I reached out, my hand passing through the bubble without breaking it so I could rub his head. “Oh my God, you guys really… you really made these just so I could bring my sharks around with me? Wait, I thought you said you couldn’t teleport living things further than a hundred feet with this tech.” 

“Yeah,” Nevada confirmed. “That’s why you need this.” She picked up what looked like a regular little vial with a sealed lid on it, handing it over. “Your sharks are in there. Bigger on the inside and all that. Believe me, it’s big enough that they’ll be fine. Just make sure you check their food supply once a week or so and add more fish.”

I was holding a vial that could fit in my pocket, and it had all my sharks in it. Not only that, I could use my new gloves to bring any of them out and let them float around me in a bubble any time I wanted to. Staring between the vial and Jabberjaw (who was interestedly swimming through the air over to where Tabbris was), I opened and shut my mouth a few times. “Guys, this… you… this is amazing. Seriously. You didn’t have to–but you really–” I swallowed hard. “Thanks.” It was all I could manage. At least, until another thought occurred to me. “Oh my God!” 

“What?” Columbus quickly asked. “What’s wrong? Did–” 

“No, nothing’s wrong,” I assured him. “I just thought of the best thing ever. Quick, give me a target.”

The others all looked at each other in confusion, but Nevada reached into her pocket and then tossed something. As she did so, it expanded into a full archery-like target before landing on the ground, rocking back and forth briefly. “That work?” 

“Yup!” I chirped. Then I waved to Jabberjaw. “See you soon, buddy!” With that, I pushed the button again and the bubble with him inside vanished as he was returned to the safety of the vial, which I had already set in my pocket. Then I stepped closer to the target, judging the distance before rearing back. In the process, I activated the glove once more. As the emblem grew warm, I cocked back my fist and then swung it a good three feet or so away from the target. In mid-swing, the bubble with Jabberjaw appeared once more, crashing through the target and breaking it into splinters. 

“Hah!” I blurted, a broad smile finding its way to my face. “Screw the falcon punch. 

“I can shark punch!” 

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Reception 13-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Note, there was a Commissioned Interlude focusing on Chayyiel and Raphael posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might want to click the previous chapter button above.

An hour later, we met back up with Apollo and Dare in one of the ship’s enormous crew cafeterias. It was eerily empty of anything but tables and (randomly sized) chairs. But at least it was clean. Sparkling clean, actually, which totally went against the mental image I’d had of a place where space pirates would eat. I was pretty sure the whole place was pristine enough to perform surgery in. Seriously, we were the dirtiest things in that entire cavernous room.

Persephone was in a corner of the gigantic place, barely visible as she had some kind of conversation with both Cerberus and Andromeda while playing fetch with the former. She was throwing this large metal ball that was as big as her head, then watching as the robo-dog chased after it, his three heads taking turns (well, mostly taking turns, there was a little snarling involved now and then) to grab the thing before he brought it back to be thrown again. 

“Well,” Dare herself started after giving a curious look around the room that told me she was thinking the same thing about it being weirdly clean as I was, “Miss Chambers and Mr. Frey, why don’t you and the others start things off by telling us how your side of this investigation went? I take it you successfully summoned the captain’s ghost?” 

Glancing to the others for a moment, I nodded. “Yeah, with a lot of help to make it work without taking a lot longer.” My head shook then as I snorted, “Did you ever think you’d ask something like that back when I was still in your investigation track? You know, seventeen and a half years ago.” 

Her response was a raised eyebrow before the woman dryly replied, “I assure you, I learned quite early on in your time at Crossroads never to make assumptions about what sort of questions I would eventually be asking you. Among other things.” Her gaze moved to take in everyone around us, then the room we were in before admitting, “Though I will say that this situation is… perhaps a bit more than what I would have seen as my wildest imaginings.”

“Yeah,” Shiori cheerfully agreed while giving me a side-long look from nearby, “Flick does have a way of taking crazy situations and making them exponentially crazier.” The way she said it made it clear that she couldn’t have been happier about that. “But at least you’re never bored.” 

Theia, of course, piped up then with an equally cheerful, “Oh yes. Even while I still wanted to kill her, I never thought she was boring. Fighting her was a lot of fun. Actually, so was fighting you. Remember when the three of us were at Wonderland with the werewolves and you both had–”

“Okay!” I quickly put in, raising both hands before that could go any further. “I think that’s enough of a trip down memory lane for now. How about we focus on this whole Whispers thing, huh?” 

“Yeah.” Doug’s voice was a little tight as he gave a single nod. “I think that’s a good idea.” This Whispers thing was definitely getting to him. I couldn’t even imagine what it had been like to be in his situation. He and Sulan had accidentally released the creatures that killed… so many people back on the colony world where he’d grown up. And now he found out that this ship had those same anti-Whisper spells on it, implying that… what, that they had been here too? The idea that those things, whatever they were, could be somewhere else in the universe, that they could be anywhere and could possibly show up sometime, really wasn’t exactly doing wonders for him. 

Apollo, who had been standing up and pacing a bit back and forth at the far end of the table, apparently lost in his own thoughts and musings, pivoted on one foot to face us. “What did you find out from the captain’s ghost?” His voice was serious, one of the few times I had seen him without a broad smile or even a knowing smirk. This Whispers thing was important to him too. Probably because he was still trying to figure out what the connection between them and the Seosten was, given the way those spells affected his own people vaguely similarly. Plus, while the Whispers didn’t exactly possess people, they simply… well, whispered in their ears and drove them crazy violent. Seosten possessed and controlled their victims like slaves. Whispers were invisible creatures who drove their victims to do horrific things by constantly whispering to them. Maybe it was just coincidence that the same spells that blocked the Whispers from doing their thing to someone would also allow a possessed person to retain partial control of their body, but it all seemed a bit too coincidental. So yeah, no wonder Apollo wanted to figure it out. Sometimes I forgot that he had been a scientist for his people too. Being an incredible researcher was the whole way he and Sariel had even gotten started on this entire life, after all. 

After those thoughts passed through my mind, I realized everyone was waiting for me to do the explaining part. Avalon even nudged me gently while murmuring, “He was your ghost, you tell it.” 

“He wasn’t my–” Flushing slightly, I shook my head. “Never mind. Yeah, well, first the guy told us the same thing that Gala lady did. They limped their old ship in on its last legs and just stole this one from a refueling depot before leaving the survivors there. Well, most of the survivors.” 

That made Dare squint my way, her tone curious. “Most of them?” she echoed while casting a brief glance toward Apollo. He looked just as interested in that, but remained expectantly silent.

“Yeah,” I confirmed. “Most. I guess no one else knew about it, not even First Mate Gala. But there was one guy, a troll with these like… mix of cybernetic and magical intelligent enhancements or something. Motzer said his name was Occillo.” That was Latin for ‘smash’, but I didn’t need to tell them that. “He was supposed to be like… super-intelligent thanks to those enhancements. Not just for a troll, but anyone. Motzer said this guy was the smartest person he ever met.” 

“Sounds like someone I’d like to meet,” Apollo murmured thoughtfully before focusing. “But I can’t say as I’ve ever heard of a troll like that. I take it this Occillo wasn’t left behind with the others.” 

“No,” I confirmed. “Like I said, no one else knew about it, but he convinced Motzer to take him with and drop him off at another station on the way. He stayed in the captain’s cabin for the next week or so and got smuggled out in one of the resupply crates at some space mall or whatever. It was a big trading hub. The pirates dropped the remains of their old ship off and sold it for scrap, and while they were doing that, Motzer made sure Occillo got out safely and secretly.” 

Dare was frowning. “What did he trade for the passage that Motzer didn’t want the rest of his crew to know about? That seems like the only reason the two of them would go through so much trouble to keep his presence on the ship secret, even letting him stay in the captain’s quarters.” 

Doug and I both exchanged brief looks before I nodded for him to go ahead. After all, this whole thing was more his situation than anyone else’s. So, he turned back to Dare and Apollo. “Yeah, turns out Occillo was never part of the old crew of this ship in the first place. He just booked passage because he was trying to get to that trading hub. So he offered Motzer the same thing he offered the first captain, information about where something called the Pale Ship was.” 

Well, Apollo definitely had a reaction to that. I saw his eyes widen as he actually sat back a bit as if he’d been physically shoved. Suddenly, he was staring intently at us, his gaze switching from Doug to me and then back again. “He said that?” There was an intensity to his voice that hadn’t been there before. He’d been serious about this Whisper situation the whole time, but this was something even more than that. “With those exact words. He called it the Pale Ship?” 

“He used the Latin version,” I pointed out. “But basically, yeah. Why, is it something important? Motzer said we should ask you about it, because he didn’t feel like getting into the details. And Theia said she’s heard the term before, but never actually found out what it meant.” 

“To be fair,” the girl herself put in brightly, “I didn’t care at the time. It was something my mother was talking about to one of her subordinates who came to the house. I was supposed to be focusing on inscribing prototype spells on my bones to help me stop possessing people.” Sagely, she added, “It did not work the way she wanted it to. But I can do this!” Holding out her arm, she pulled the sleeve up and touched one finger to the space just past her elbow on the inner side. As she did so, a pair of half-moon and plus sign runes began to glow with a faint blue light right next to that spot. “It’s not actually useful right now, but if I ever find a way to possess an inanimate object, this’ll help me get unstuck.” In a stage-whisper, she added, “It only actually works on things that aren’t alive, and I can already get out of dead things just fine.”  

For a second, Apollo looked like he might pursue that whole prototype spell thing, mouth opening. Then he shook that off and focused. “Yeah, the Pale Ship. It was–” He cut himself off, considering briefly before asking, “You all know the story of Tabbris. The original Tabbris.” 

Blinking at that, I exchanged a look with the others before slowly nodding. “Yeah, Athena told Tabbris and me about it. He was the Seraphim guy who fought for better treatment of non-Seosten. When he couldn’t convince the other leaders, he bought an entire planet, surrounded it with every weapon and anti-Seosten defense he could buy, borrow, or steal, and let anyone who wanted to live there safely. And when that wasn’t enough, he gathered a bunch of magical energy from all the other Seraphim using traces from their own signatures so he could use their own power to make that entire planet disappear. Like, no one has any idea where it is, and they’ve never found it, even though it happened like a hundred thousand years ago. He literally erased its location from the mind of every person in the universe who knew about it and wasn’t living there. And from all the records and all that. His spell made all of that go poof.” 

That prompted a bit of conversation back and forth with the others about how exactly that worked, and I explained about Seosten putting bits of magic into their legal signatures and how Tabbris the Elder spent a Seosten decade (eighteen years of Earth time) attaching siphon spells to those signatures to gather everything he needed from the other Seraphim so he could make the entire Seosten leadership look like idiots, and protect everyone on his planet at the same time. And now he was basically a legend amongst the Seosten, while being seen as a fool by the leadership at the same time for ‘wasting all that effort’ to protect a bunch of non-Seosten. 

Finally, once I had explained all of that, I focused on Apollo once more. “And now that everyone is caught up, what exactly does all that have to do with some kind of ‘Pale Ship?’ Is the ship connected to this original Tabbris guy somehow? And why do they call it ‘Pale,’ anyway?”

The man rocked back on his heels, taking a breath before he started to explain. “Well, see, there was a ship–no one knows its name anymore for what will be obvious reasons– right on the edge of the area affected by that big spell. It wasn’t supposed to be there. He timed his spell specifically to put everyone he trusted inside the effects. But this ship, it was on its way out of the planetary system and they were running a few hours late. That put them right on the very boundary of where the spell was. They were sort of half-in the effect and half-out of it. It turned the ship and everyone on it into… well, sort of like ghosts. First of all, they were partially remembered. People knew the ship existed, and there were vague records about it, but no specifics. No one knew any names of the ship or the crew, only very general information.  And it wasn’t just facts either. The ship and crew were affected physically. Everyone who met them would forget them as soon as they were out of sight. They were invisible to spells and technology alike. It was as though they barely existed, and even then only when they were directly in front of someone. You could have an entire conversation with one, and the moment they were out of your immediate sight, you’d forget you ever saw them, along with everything you talked about. Even our enhanced Seosten memory couldn’t retain anything about them.”

“Hold on.” Avalon raised a hand, frowning. “If no one could ever remember actually talking to these people, how would anyone know anything about them? That doesn’t make sense. If your memories were always one-hundred percent erased, no one would know anything about it.” 

Apollo smiled faintly, giving a slight nod. “You’re right, that does seem like a bit of a contradiction, doesn’t it? See, Seosten memories are really hard to fool, and the crew of this ship were only half-affected by that spell. They’re ‘erased’ from our memories in the sense that we can’t consciously recall them, but the memories still exist. If we extract the right memories of those specific moments and examine them using magic, we can see what happened. Like…” He considered for a moment. “I know you’re a little young to have seen much in the way of human film projectors, but have you seen that thing where they take film and hold it up to the light to see individual images on each frame? It’s similar to that. When the memories are in our head, or the film is playing on the projector, we can’t retain it. But, if we take the memory out and hold it up to the light, or view it with a spell, we can see what happened. You understand?” 

“Uhh, yeah, actually.” A brief look with the others, I nodded along with them. “I think we get it. I mean, it makes sense in a magic way. So someone at some point checked their memory for whatever reason and that led to finding out about these ghost-Seosten or whatever they were.”  

“Pale,” Apollo corrected. “They were the Pale. Or rather, are. Yeah, it was a hundred thousand years ago, but we believe their descendants still exist, and are equally affected by that initial spell. They just stopped trying to interact with the regular universe and became incredibly insular. They stay on their ship, which they’ve upgraded over the millennia, travel where they want to go to collect food and supplies without anyone remembering them, and live separate from anyone else. They are, in effect, their own completely separate micro-society.” 

Dare spoke up then. “So this Occillo was supposed to know where the Pale Ship was. But you said it moves around a lot, that it’s still active.” She looked from Apollo to me. “So was he supposed to know where it used to be, or where it was going to go?”

“Supposedly he knew one of their common refueling and restocking spots,” I replied with a shrug. “According to Motzer, Occillo told him the Pale Ship used one main refueling depot whenever they could. He didn’t know exactly which one it was, but he had part of a journal from one of the crew members. And this crew member said something about marking a few specific spots in the main fuel depot the ship always used. There were descriptions about what kind of depot it was, the planets that were nearby, all that stuff. Plus the markings inside the depot. So Occillo tracked down all the possible places that would fit the descriptions and was checking out the insides looking for those markings. One of the options was the place where the pirates took this ship in the first place. That’s why Occillo was there, he hitched a ride on the ship from the first crew so he could check that place out. It just wasn’t the right one.” 

Squinting a bit, Dare shook her head. “Sounds a bit fishy, if you want to know the truth. This Occillo guy, a genius troll, finds a journal talking about how to find this long-lost mythical ship just by locating a few markings in a specific fuel depot somewhere? How could he be sure it wasn’t just some random guy making a fake journal to have a laugh at the expense of anyone who took  it seriously? What made Occillo or Motzer think there was anything credible about the thing?” 

Once more, the rest of us exchanged looks before turning back. Doug was the first to speak. “Apparently the journal pages he had came with a… what did they call it, memory marker?” 

“A spell on the page,” Apollo confirmed. “Touch it, say the right word, it puts a memory in your head.” 

“Well, this memory marker convinced Occillo and Motzer that this was the real deal,” I replied. “It was a memory of someone on that Pale Ship, looking around the bridge, then checking out the computer log and walking through some of the corridors. I guess it matched up enough with what they knew to take the whole thing seriously.” 

“We asked if that whole Pale Ship business had anything to do with the anti-Whisper runes that were all over this ship,” Shiori explained. “You know, if they were connected. Motzer said that Occillo was the one who put the runes around here, because the Whispers were looking for the Pale Ship too.” 

“He’s supposed to be some big adventurer chasing after intergalactic myths, like Space Indiana Jones or whatever,” I added. “Except Indiana Jones as a giant troll with a bunch of magical and cybernetic intelligent enhancements.” 

“In other words,” Shiori quickly piped up, “better Indiana Jones.” 

“Don’t say that around Hisao,” Dare murmured, “or you might have a fight on your hands. That man’s love of Harrison Ford, I swear to…” Shaking that off, she focused. “So he’s an explorer and adventurer who knows a lot about different myths across the universe, real and fake.” 

I nodded. “Yeah. He knew a lot of stuff about the Whispers, and said they were looking for the Pale Ship too. Apparently they also had a bone to pick with Occillo himself because of something he did a long time ago, but he wouldn’t get into it with Motzer.” 

“In any case,” Avalon finished for me. “He put the protective runes around the ship. So he’s the one we need to talk to if we want to find out anything more about the Whispers.” 

“And we do,” Doug immediately insisted. 

“And we do,” I agreed. “Unfortunately, that’s where we hit a snag.” With a sigh, I explained, “Motzer said he smuggled Occillo to some friend of his who lived on the trading hub. They were supposed to work together to track down that ship, but… that’s all he remembers. He thinks Occillo and his friend used some kind of bare-bones memory eraser that cut out details about who the friend was, what he looked like, where he lived on the station, all that. So he did all that to cut his crew out of the deal just to make himself rich, which meant that when his memory was erased no one else knew anything about it. He couldn’t tell his people about it or they’d know he was trying to rip them off. And he couldn’t explain why they had to stay longer so he could search the place top to bottom for the same reason. So they just had to leave. I mean, he asked around a bit but no one ever saw someone like Occillo there. He thinks there’s magical disguises involved, or maybe the troll just keeps to himself and plays dumb while he’s there. Easy for a troll to blend into the background pretending to be muscle for that friend of his. And that station holds millions of people. It’d be impossible to check everyone.” 

Dare summarized. “So Motzer helped this Occillo escape and smuggled him to a busy trading hub, but Occillo and a friend erased Motzer’s memory about who this friend was and where he lived, leaving our dear pirate captain with a station full of a million people to look through and no easy way to find them. I suppose that would be a problem.” 

I started to nod, then blinked. “Would be?” 

Apollo grinned. “Yeah, see, she didn’t know the whole story, but it turns out Gala paid more attention than Motzer thought. She followed them when he smuggled his new buddy off the ship. Made it all the way to the apartment and saw them go inside and meet this friend. They never saw her, so I guess they never wiped her memory. She didn’t know what it meant or why her captain was smuggling this guy around, but she made a note of it and started digging a little bit. Then all that stuff with Persephone happened before she could get anywhere with it.” 

“So… so she knows who Occillo’s friend on that station is, and where he lives?” Doug realized. 

“She does,” Apollo confirmed. “And now so do we. She shared that, along with about a dozen other possible sources of information. We didn’t know which one would be important. You guys narrowed that down, and got the answers about exactly who the guy was and why he’s important. Congratulations on that. I ahh, I’ll talk to Athena and see about having some of her people go track these guys down.”

“I want to go.” That was Doug, immediately piping up. “If these people know something about the Whispers–” 

“We’ll see what happens,” Dare informed him. “It’s not exactly a quick trip to the grocery store. Athena’s people have ways of getting past the barrier, but it’s– yeah, it’s complicated. Believe me, at the very least, we’ll talk to Sulan and get him involved. And when we find these guys, you can talk to them.”  

Doug looked like he was going to argue with that for a moment, before stopping with a soft sigh. “Yeah,” he murmured, “that’d be nice.” 

Dare’s voice was gentle. “It may take awhile to organize a group that can pass the barrier, go out to that station, find Occillo and his friend, and get actual answers. But we’ll get there, Douglas, I promise. And in the meantime, perhaps all of you can do the most shocking thing I believe any of us could possibly imagine. 

“Actually attend classes for a few weeks.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Reception 13-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A/N – The monthly non-canon chapters were posted over the weekend! You can find the chapter for Heretical Edge right here

Of course, I couldn’t exactly just say a few words and magically make Motzer’s ghost appear in front of us. Well, maybe a more experienced necromancer could have, but I wasn’t quite to that level, even with the boost from having the powers from two different absurdly powerful practitioners. I had gotten better at sensing and controlling ghosts and the like, and at being much less uncomfortable doing so. But I didn’t have as much experience pulling a specific person back. I had all the power I needed, but it took more than pure oomph. You needed to direct the power correctly. Basically, if I could lock onto his ghost, I could easily pull him back. But I needed to know where and how to direct it. It didn’t matter how huge the gun you were holding was if you had no idea where to point it. 

Thankfully, we did have a few advantages on that front. First, we knew exactly where the man had died. Not to mention the fact that it had been so recent. For lack of a better term, his death energy was still very prevalent. And on top of that, we had both the instrument that had essentially killed him, and the person responsible. Theia and her knife, that was. I wasn’t exactly sure how her using the injury reflection power with the knife affected the need for the murder weapon, but it certainly couldn’t hurt to have it.

We had all those advantages. It hasn’t even been a day since he was killed, we knew the exact location, the exact method, we had his killer and the weapon used to do it, all of that. And yet, I still felt nervous about my ability to do this properly. Maybe because Doug was really depending on me to answer these questions for him. After everything the boy had helped me with and been through, I felt like I owed him this at the very least. He deserved real answers. I knew just how much the whole Whispers thing meant to him, after what happened to his family and the rest of the colony. So, I wanted to do this right.

We also had one more advantage in our corner. Specifically, the fact that Persephone was basically one of the biggest experts on Necromancy in existence. She knew exactly how to do what we wanted to do, and how to help me. 

So, playing dual roles of both teacher and cheerleader, the Revenant talked me through what needed to be done. First, however, we let the adults know what was going on and then made our way back to the bridge, where I carefully inscribed all of the runes exactly the way Persephone explained, with more than a little help from the others.

Andromeda was helpful too, providing her own advice. As I was putting minute feather details on one of the spell pieces, she explained through the nearby console, “Think of these runes as a sort of… I believe your people would call them training wheels. A more experienced necromancer with your level of power would not need them. They help guide and direct the aim of your power. With enough practice, you will learn to do that yourself, and to differentiate different peoples’ life energy correctly.”

Persephone bobbed her head excitedly. “Exactly, all you need is practice. You’re really strong, but you can’t neglect your training.” She said that sternly, giving a firm look my way. 

Sounding slightly amused, Avalon mused, “You know, I think I’m going to like her being around.”

Snorting unthinkingly, I retorted. “You would, someone else to help you crack the whip.”

Persephone, of course, brightened. “You play with whips? I didn’t expect—”

Red-faced as I pointedly ignored Doug in the corner covering his mouth trying to contain his snickers, I blurted, “Nope! Nope, nope, no. We are not talking about that. Something completely different. Never mind, just erase it, it never happened. No one said anything and I swear to god if you guys don’t completely erase it from your memories, I’ll hurt you.”

“Ah,” Theia noted, “so she’s the one with the whip.”

Covering my face while everyone snickered, I let out a long, heavy sigh before pushing on. “Anyway, practice. Yeah, that’s what Brom Bones always says.”

To my surprise, Persephone audibly gasped and faced me. “You know Brom Bones? The head-adjacent one?”

“I, uhh, I think he goes by headless one,” I pointed out. “But yeah, he’s sort of my Necromancy teacher back at the Fusion school. Why, do you know him?” 

Huffing a bit, the white-haired woman objected, “Well headless hardly makes sense. He has his head, it’s just not on his shoulders. If I put a knife in my pocket, I wouldn’t be a knifeless one.” Shaking her head at the strangeness of that, she added, “And of course I know him. My Mannikuns sent me to talk to him to find out what he knew about the woman who did that to him. It wasn’t very much. But he was fun, and we had some adventures while I was learning from him. We even went on a boat together.” She announced that last part proudly. “A boat on the water. It was fun. Especially when the sailors got really excited after they saw him hold his head in his hands. They played gangplank with us. It’s sort of like airlock, only you end up in the water instead of in space. Then we got to swim and find another ship. That was fun too, except they shot things at us, so we had to make them stop. They took us back to land after we asked them, though. We just had to promise to give their guns back. But, I guess that was fair. The guns did belong to them, after all.”

Yeah, I was definitely going to have to ask Brom himself for his version of all that. Shaking my head, I managed, “Well, it sounds like you had an interesting time. Maybe he’ll want to see you again once we go back to the station.”

Persephone was smiling brightly at that suggestion. “Oh, I hope so. He was so much fun. We played a game with his head where you had to make it go in a fruit basket. We showed it to that Naismith man, and he really liked it. Except for the head part. He said they’d have to use something else. I guess it’s hard to find durable heads that can bounce like that.”

From where she was standing, Shiori blurted, “Naismith, the guy who invented… oh. Ohhhh. Boy am I gonna kill at sports trivia night.”

There was so much to unpack with that whole thing, I didn’t even know where to start. So, I didn’t. Instead, I focused on getting the rest of the spell set up. It took another ten minutes, with everyone working together. At one point, Dare checked in through a communication spell to ask if we were doing okay, and I let her know we were close to getting some answers. She said not to push it too much, and to be careful. I promised we would, before turning my attention back to the others. “Well, how does it look?” While saying that, I turned in a circle to take in the full appearance of the part of the bridge where the man had died. There were intricate runes in an expanding circular design spreading out from that spot and taking up about a quarter of the actual bridge itself. The spells essentially amounted to a combination of channeling/directing death energy to a specific spot, and funneling out anything that wasn’t the actual life we needed. I needed to focus pretty intently on exactly which energy to pull, and which to discard. Which meant standing in the middle of that spell and sensing the most recent death. And that was bound to be a fun time. 

“I’m pretty sure it’s ready,” Doug noted, brushing off his hands as he stepped away from the rune on one of the consoles he had just finished drawing under the scrutiny of Andromeda, who had been watching through the bridge cameras and offering advice. 

“Indeed,” the AI herself agreed. “The physical components of the spell are as good as they are ever going to get without far more time and effort than is either necessary or advised.”

Avalon put her hand on my shoulder. “I think what she’s saying is that it’s up to you now.”

Coughing, I shrugged both shoulders. “Thanks, I guess.” With that, I took a deep breath before moving to the center of the runes. I was standing on the exact spot where the man had died only a short time earlier. Which wasn’t at all creepy, no sir. I was doing just fine.

“You can do it, Flick!” Persephone had turned back into cheerleader mode, clapping as she bounced up and down excitedly. “Everyone watch, this is going to be really fun. Do we have any peanuts? I quite like the Earth peanuts.”

My mouth opened to say that she was out of luck, but to my surprise, Shiori reached into a small bag at her waist. It was obviously bigger on the inside, because half her arm disappeared into it while the girl rooted around for a moment before she came back out with a bag of roasted peanuts. She didn’t say anything at all, simply opening the bag and offering the end to Persephone, who took a handful and began to shell and eat them enthusiastically. 

Shaking that off, I closed my eyes and tried to focus on what I was actually supposed to be doing. Namely, summoning the spirit of the dead pirate captain, who could hopefully tell us something about why there were magic anti-Whisper/Seosten runes all over this random ship. 

Keeping that thought in mind, I closed my eyes and put both hands out. My fingers found two specific runes that had been drawn for this purpose, as I focused on feeling my own power, my own magical energy. It was a lot like channeling energy into any other spell, it was just that mine could be used for Necromantic spells without needing to be converted into Necromantic energy first, like most other people had to before they could use it that way. 

Slowly, I began to push my own power into the spell to power it. I could feel the runes beginning to warm up, giving off a… it was hard to describe in any way other than ‘cold heat’, but that’s what it was. It was cold, yet hot at the same time in a way that only magic could manage. Which may have been a bit confusing, but then, so was the entire situation. In any case, the runes began to warm up/cool down as I pushed more and more power into them. I had to be careful, filling the right runes at the right moment, without getting ahead of myself or rushing things. Every part of the spell had to have the right amount of energy at the right time, in order for the whole thing to help me get Motzer back here while avoiding any other spirit. And, given this was a pirate ship that had been stolen, I was pretty sure there were a lot of potential angry spirits waiting to be pulled back here. And quite frankly, playing the game of ‘grab the wrong one, shove it back and grab another’ didn’t sound very fun. 

So, I focused on doing what Persephone (and Brom Bones whenever he’d mentioned this sort of thing) had explained. I put the image of Motzer in my head. I focused on what his voice had sounded like, what he smelled like, what sort of words he used, everything I could remember that had anything to do with the man. I put everything about him right at the front of my mind and focused on that to the point of obsession. With my hands still touching those two runes, I channeled power through the spell while actively putting Captain Motzer in my mind. I was even repeatedly thinking his name, calling out to him mentally.  I focused everything I had on what I could remember about this one man I had only met for a few minutes.

Gradually, it started to work. I could feel the power that I was putting out start to take a distinct shape. It was, as far as it has been explained to me, essentially manipulating my own Necromantic magical energy to be a fairly close approximation of Motzer’s own life energy. Doing so correctly would essentially pull the actual remnants of his energy back and allow it to form a ghost. Again, a ghost was not actually the person’s spirit. It was the impression their magical signature, personality, and mind left within the universe after their death. Sort of like a permanent mold of who they were or whatever. When a person died, they left an impression that could be filled in using the right magical energy. Basically, when you got right down to it, I was very carefully finding the exact edges of where that personality impression was, strengthening it a bit, and giving it the energy it needed to allow his ‘ghost’ to manifest. Yeah, it was pretty complicated. 

Eventually, I was supposed to be able to do all of this without all the prep work or help. An experienced Necromancer could just point and find these signatures before filling them up with a thought. They knew exactly how much energy to fill the spirit ‘balloons’ with and could make them appear just like that. Fossor, of course, had been capable of doing entire swarms of ghosts at once, simply snapping his fingers to conjure and pull together thousands upon thousands of spirits to do his bidding. Obviously, I wasn’t anywhere near that good yet. I had the raw power and plenty of other head starts, but it took more skill.

In this case, even with the help I had, it took me about ten minutes before I got real results. Granted, part of that was because I was being very cautious to make sure I was shaping the correct ghost. Not to mention trying not to break the ‘shell’ of energy I was creating for it. It was basically the necromancy equivalent of trying to walk very carefully with a full bucket of water to avoid spilling it. 

Finally, I felt the ghost start to form on its own. I had guided it as much as needed, and the thing began to take shape without my help. Just like that, within thirty seconds, there was a soft popping sound and the ghostly figure of the old captain suddenly appeared right in front of me. He was between where I stood and where the others were. He was somewhat translucent, so I could see everyone jump a bit as my eyes opened to look that way. Whoops. He’d appeared before I could warn anyone that it was about to happen. I wasn’t prepared for just how fast it had happened once I got over the metaphorical hump. Like pushing a heavy wagon up a hill and then losing control of it as it careened down the other side. Suddenly, he was just right there. 

“What–where–huh?” Motzer’s ghost jerked, twisting around in a circle before cursing, “Why in the seven darkfells did you people drag me in here? Now you suddenly need something? How long has it even been since you killed me, a month?” 

Speaking cheerfully, Theia replied, “Maybe three hours? Has it been three hours? I don’t have a watch. I have a hat!” She pointed to it with both hands. “But it doesn’t tell time.”  

“Her–you bring her back?!” Motzer was not happy. He gestured that way, his voice a snarl. “You couldn’t even tell the bitch that killed me to stay out of the room while you came begging for help? What kind of pleglin shit is this? And what exactly did she mean it’s only been three hours? Are you seriously telling me that you killed me and then came back to ask for help with something in less time than it takes my kids to put together a daensneal puzzle? I don’t know whether to taunt you all about being incompetent, or weep that you were the ones who killed me. And I swear to everything that dwells in the web of empty faith, If you really did just bring me back here to toy with, I will find a way to poltergeist every last one of you, so help me.” 

Aside from that one bit from Theia, everyone else was being quiet and letting me handle the situation. Even Persephone simply stood there eating peanuts while looking back and forth between Motzer and me. She clearly wanted to see what I would do. And, presumably, how it differed from Manakel. Avalon gave me a simple nod, but remained as silent as the others.  

So, taking a breath, I spoke while reaching out with the power I could still feel connecting me to the ghost. “Hey, how about you take a… okay, not a breath. But cool it for a minute and we’ll tell you why we brought you here. And maybe you’ll even get something out of it.” 

His large figure pivoted to face me. Alive, he had been intimidating. He should have been even more so as a ghost, but considering I was the one keeping him present, his size lost a lot of its oomph. He was absolutely no threat to me in any way. It was like a man trying to intimidate you while hanging off the edge of a cliff with you as the only thing stopping him from falling. If I didn’t want him to be here, a single thought would make him disappear. 

“Get something out of it?” the man echoed in a rumbling, dangerous voice. I could feel him stretching just a little bit against my power. It didn’t really feel like he was trying to break it or hurt anyone. I had the feeling he knew as well as I did that there was no point of that. Without the tether I was holding onto, he would essentially turn into a balloon with a hole in it and go spraying out all over the room before popping out of existence. No, he definitely wasn’t trying to break my hold. He was simply testing it a bit, probably reflexively. I could feel the anger rolling off of him, anger and something like regret. But the latter was buried deep. 

“Don’t you dare try to sell me with some claim that you can bring me back,” he snarled at me. “I’ve been around the universe a lot longer than you and all your friends here put together have been alive, little girl. Believe it or not, I know how this shit goes. You don’t have anything that could stick me back in a living body. You can’t toy with me like that. It doesn’t work that way. Never has, never will.” 

My head shook. “You’re right, it doesn’t work that way. And that’s not what I was going to say. I can’t undo what happened. I can’t bring you back to life. But I think I can at least take your spirit and release it wherever you like. If you have a home planet, or even just a favorite place. And… and you said you have children. I can take you to your family and let you say whatever you need to say to them before you disappear. I can give you and them closure. All you have to do is answer some questions.” 

For a long few seconds, the man just stared at me. It felt as though he was trying to look through me, trying to gauge just how serious and real I was being about all that, or if I was messing with him somehow. Through it all, I continued to meet his gaze.  

Finally, he heaved a sigh. “Yeah, I’ve got what your people would call a family plot on a new moon, near an old cabin where my brood grew up. They’ve all moved on now, got their own broods and most of them are grown, or damn near it. But it’s still the best… closest thing to something linked to good times. You swear you’ll take my spirit there and release it, and tell my people what I want them to hear, then I’ll answer whatever questions you got.” 

I gave him my word, and I felt him once again stretching his own energy out toward me. He seemed to be deciding just how much he could trust what I was saying. In the end, he agreed. “Okay,” the man half-growled in a way that made it clear he still wasn’t exactly happy with any of us, “tell me what you wanna know.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Reception 13-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Apparently the pirate ship we were transporting over to was called the Quietus. Persephone showed us a hologram of it just before we went through the portal, and the thing basically looked like a huge metal sperm whale. According to a quick note from Andromeda, the ship was two miles long, with most of the space intended to be used for hauling cargo. But when the pirates took over, they had converted a large portion of it into living space, creating encampments throughout the ship. 

There were supposed to be specific areas to teleport onto when you did something like this, according to Apollo. But we didn’t exactly follow that. Instead, the portal took us straight over to the bridge. Normally a big violation, but considering Persephone essentially owned this ship, and all the pirates were locked in their quarters, we weren’t really worried about it. 

All the pirates, that was, save for the captain. Dare had asked that he be waiting for us to answer questions when we got there. So, he was the first thing we saw as our group came through the portal. Not only because he was the only living being there, but also because he would have attracted attention anyway. He was nine feet tall, covered with incredibly silky metallic blue fur, and had four arms. Oh, and he had more than two legs. More than four, even. The man had a total of eight furry, insect-like legs spread in an even circle all around his waist. Sort of like a spider centaur. That whole nine-foot-tall thing came from the legs being at average rest. If he had extended them fully, he would have been a fair bit bigger. 

Once I’d taken in the sight of the captain waiting there, my gaze moved over the rest of the bridge. It was essentially a large, slightly rounded triangle with two levels. The half with the pointed end was lower, and seemed to be where the pilot and normal crew would work. We were on the rear upper half, where the captain and executive officers did their thing. 

Speaking of the captain, he lowered himself very slightly at the sight of us. Or rather, at the sight of Apollo. His voice was surprised as he managed, “Loxias.” Then he spoke a bit more in Latin. I’d gotten better at that with all the work I put into it, enough that I could tell he was saying he didn’t know that Apollo (or Loxias) would be coming. 

Without looking at the Seosten man, Dare asked, “You know this guy?”

“We had a run-in or two before,” Apollo confirmed before gesturing. “So, are you going to introduce yourself like a gentleman, or make me do it for you? Because I guarantee, you’ll like your introduction better. And say it so the Earth kids can understand.”

There was a low chuckle from the eight legged, blue-furred man. Then he dipped himself into what looked like a bow. “At your command. I am Captain Motzer. This ship is mine by right of combat, conquest, and survival. Or, it was, until…” His eyes moved over to where Persephone stood. “Until the immortal dead one showed up. And here I’m just hoping that you’ll be taking her off our hands so we can get back to doing what we do best.”

Was I hearing that Barbossa guy from Pirates of the Caribbean in his voice just because I sort of expected it, or did he really sound similar? Shaking off that thought, I looked over just as Theia piped up. “Are you related to one of your kind named Streckth?”

There was a brief pause while Motzer took in that question before giving a slight shake of his head. “Can’t say as it’s familiar, no.”

“Oh good,” the Seosten girl sighed with relief, “he was one of my friends.“

Clearly even more confused by that, the captain couldn’t help but ask, “And me knowing him would be a bad thing?”

“Uh huh,” came the response. “My mother killed all my friends. I didn’t want to have to tell you if you were his next of kin.” She paused a bit thoughtfully then, adding in a murmur, “I should probably start that sometime, it’s going to take a while.”

Clearing her throat, Dare spoke up. “Always good to have a reminder of why no one misses that evil cunt. But in the meantime, we should probably focus on why we are actually here.”

Doug, who had been standing silently out of the way, stepped over and leaned to whisper something into Theia’s ear. Whatever he said made her giggle before whispering something back to him. 

“You’re a very curious group,” Motzer noted. “Which, I guess, makes you the perfect fit for our very strange little not-quite-dead girl here. In fact, which one of you is Felicity Chambers?” 

I felt Avalon touch the center of my back, clearly about to whisper something. But before she could, and before anyone else could say anything, Persephone suddenly hopped over to me. Her hands found my shoulders and squeezed. “This is my honeybunny! Sorry, potential honeybunny. We’re… taking things slow and getting to know each other before we do anything else as far as any potential relationship goes.” Even if I hadn’t literally seen and heard my mother say those exact words to her, it would have been obvious she was reciting them. In fact, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see her reading off the back of her hand. 

“Uhhhh huh.” Motzer considered. “Well, you’re here now and free to do whatever with all that. So, you’re welcome for the ride, but don’t you think it’s time that me and the boys got back to our lives with our ship?”

“You mean, the ship you obviously stole from other people?” That was Avalon, idly making that point while stepping away from the console she had been curiously looking at. “You’re pirates. I really doubt you paid for this thing. How many people do you think you killed to take it?”

Giving another bow, the pirate captain too-casually retorted, “Far be it from me to ask for morality lessons from a Heretic. That’s what your people call themselves, isn’t it? Yeah, I’ve had friends and even family that learned just how much your people value the sanctity of life.”

Dare spoke flatly while moving in front of the captain. ”We’re trying to change things. But, to do that, we need resources. Especially if…” she trailed off, glancing over to me and then back again. 

“Especially,” Apollo finished for her, “if my people decide to pull the invasion card once the truce is over.”

Brightening, Theia nodded quickly. “Oooh, yeah. With a ship like this, we could evacuate a whole bunch of people and go find a new planet before they even get halfway through enslaving the rest of—”

She was interrupted as Doug touched her arm and leaned over to whisper. Blinking at that, she looked at him and asked, “Are you sure? That seems kinda dumb. I mean, do you even know how many ships—” Doug whispered again, and she finally shrugged. “Or, you know, we can use it to fight them. Somehow. Which is not at all idiotic or crazy or doomed to total and complete failure.” 

“That unending optimism is exactly why we keep this girl around,” Doug announced while putting his arm around Theia’s shoulders. 

“She’s not wrong,” I put in. “Err, of course, we do need to be ready to try. But it’s definitely going to be pretty bad if it comes down to that. Which is why we need every single advantage we can get. And this thing right here might not totally change anything. But it’s an advantage. It’s one more arrow in our quiver, or whatever poetic reasoning you want to use.”

Motzer was shaking his head. I could tell he really wasn’t happy about any of this talk. But there wasn’t a lot he could do about it. Persephone had taken over his ship against his entire crew, and now she was here with several Heretics and an Olympian. Through gritted teeth, he demanded, “You steal a ship from pirates, what do you think that makes you?”

Shiori, who had been quiet through all that, piped up with, “I’m pretty sure that makes us better pirates.”

Dare, however, shook her head. “What we are is representatives from the closest thing this planet has to an authority capable of interacting and dealing with interplanetary criminals. You know, like pirates. So, we’ll commandeer the ship and put it to better use.”

“And what of my crew and I, huh?” Motzer demanded. “Will you be killing us yourselves, or just marooning us down on that hell hole of a planet and letting the less ‘civilized’ members of your old groups do the dirty work for you? On the one hand, if you kill us yourselves, you can take our strengths. It would involve killing helpless prisoners, but hey, every possible advantage, isn’t that right? On the other hand, if you just strand us on that planet, you get to pretend your hands are clean.”

Apollo snorted. “Don’t be so dramatic. We’re not going to kill you. And we’re not stranding you on Earth either.”

Running a finger through her hair, Dare put in, “If nothing else, I don’t particularly want to be responsible for all the people you and your crew would kill carving out a place for yourselves down there. Believe me when I say, none of us are dumb enough to think that any of you are helpless.”

Changing tack a bit, the captain asked, “Do you really think you have enough people who can keep this ship flying without help? Especially if you’re right and things go bad. How many people do you have who could even find their way to battle stations?”

“You’d be surprised,” Apollo replied. He didn’t point out that we had a lot of people like that who were part of Athena‘s group and could step in. There was no reason to volunteer that sort of information. 

Instead, Andromeda spoke up, her voice rising from one of the nearby consoles. “I am more than capable of maintaining this vessel for the time being, and instructing others in its operation.”

“She’s a really great teacher,” Persephone excitedly informed us. “She showed me how to make a welcome us to Earth cake and it only took fourteen tries before it was good. Oh, and we have thirteen not so good cakes if anyone wants them.”

Coughing, Dare pushed the subject back. “The point is, we’re not going to kill you, or let you wander around our planet.“

Motzer tilted his head curiously. “Well, that seems to put us at an impasse, doesn’t it? I can’t really think of any other options. You’re taking our ship, so either you kill us yourselves or you send us down to the planet. Just depends on how dirty you want your hands to be.”

Persephone quickly raised her hand. “Oh, I don’t mind getting my hands dirty! I did that all the time when my Mannybear or Puriel needed help.” 

A slight shudder ran through me. I really didn’t want to think about what kind of special work those two had had someone like her doing. So, I hurriedly shook my head. “That’s okay, Persephone, I don’t think we need that sort of help right now. We’ve already got something else in mind, right?” 

Apollo gave a casual nod. “Yup. See, one of those Heretic groups, the one called Eden’s Garden, a bunch of their people are part of this whole rebellion. They’ve got some colonies on other worlds and moons that they’ve been setting up for a long time. Turns out, they’ve got a little jungle moon that’s totally inhabitable, but they already pulled everyone off it to help with things back here.”

Dare added, “They’ve already agreed to let us store prisoners there. So, we’ll send you to that moon and you can stay there. You’ll have food, water, anything else to survive. But you won’t be hurting other people. Unless you all turn on yourselves, and that’s up to you.”

Motzer obviously wasn’t happy. His eyes narrowed as he glared our way, clearly trying to find a way out of this. “You think that’ll be the end of it? Well, let’s get one thing straight, whatever little games you play right now, this won’t end here. You might think you’re pretty tough, but you won’t always have the advantage like this. Someday, I—”

Abruptly, before he could even finish that sentence, Theia produced a knife from her belt and casually slit her own throat. But, of course, she rebounded the damage so that it actually struck the pirate captain. Blood erupted from his throat, and his eyes got wide. He choked and gurgled, flailing a bit before collapsing to the ground. His body twitched a few times before going still.

Recoiling as Shiori did the same beside me, I felt a rush of conflicting feelings that the others obviously shared. The man had been a prisoner, a prisoner. Yet he’d also obviously done a lot of bad things. And he’d made it clear he wouldn’t have let this go. He couldn’t even pretend to play nice long enough to get out of a single meeting without starting to swear vengeance. He obviously would have been a problem in the future. And yet, killing a prisoner like that right in front of us… I was torn. I wouldn’t have done the same thing, but now that it was done, I… yeah, it was complicated. 

Meanwhile, Theia looked up after stowing the knife to see everyone staring at her. “What? He was swearing eternal revenge, or whatever. You never let someone finish doing that and then just walk away. Haven’t any of you read the Overlord pamphlet Apollo passed out?”

“See?” Apollo himself cheerfully noted in a way that seemed almost artificial, like he was trying to lighten the mood after that, “Chayyiel and I knew somebody would read the pamphlet.” 

Pointing at the Seosten girl, Persephone announced, “I like her. She’s efficient.”

“She’s certainly that,” Dare agreed before shaking her head. “Right, well, let’s get this body cleaned up and then take that tour of this ship. 

“And we should probably find whoever his first mate was, congratulate them on their promotion, and tell them what we just told this guy.”

******

So, we took the tour to see how the ship looked. We were going to have to do a lot of work cleaning up the pirate camps spread throughout what were supposed to be the cargo bays, but that would come later, after we sent the pirates themselves to their new home.

Speaking of which, the former first mate and now captain turned out to be a rabbit-like humanoid with reddish orange fur and a very clearly cybernetic left eye. Her name was Gala, like the party. She also didn’t seem all that broken up about the death of her captain, considering she was the first mate. I wondered what kind of relationship the two of them had had. 

In any case, Gala also took the news about their impending new home in stride. Something told me that she was the type of person to bide her time and wait for an opportunity to reverse her fortunes. Which was not all that far off from what Motzer had been saying, but at least she was smart enough to be quiet about it. Besides, we couldn’t just keep killing every pirate down the line every time we thought they might be planning something.

Gala also did something that the old captain hadn’t gotten around to. Namely, negotiate what supplies her people would get. 

“It’s going to take time to establish ourselves on this colony enough to survive on what we can forage and hunt,” The rabbit-woman was pointing out while we all walked through the positively enormous main engine room (seriously, the place was about three hundred feet long and about three-quarters of that wide). “If you truly do not wish to be responsible for many deaths, we will need more than just the clothes on our backs.”

Dare’s voice was casual. “Don’t worry, I spent the first few years of my life as a colonist. And I’ve seen a lot more since then. I know just how bad it can be when you don’t have supplies.”

“Luckily,” Apollo noted, “most of that old colony is still intact. They’ve already got food planted, and some livestock that were being watched over by a couple guys they left behind. But now, those guys can come home and you’ll just take over. From pirates to farmers. Or whatever it is you end up becoming. Either way, there’s a story there…” He trailed off thoughtfully, clearly already getting ideas. 

They went on to talk a bit more about that, but I was distracted by the big dog head that was pulling at my arm. We’d picked up Cerberus along the way on this tour, and Persephone had been hanging back with him a bit, excitedly and quietly telling the mechanical animal all about everything that happened since she landed on the planet.

“Hey buddy, yeah, I remember.” Back when we’d sent Cerberus back up here, I had promised the dog that I’d let him meet my own cybernetic animals when we visited. So, I produced Gus and Jaq, holding the mice up so the three canine heads could examine them. The little guys were nervous at first, but before long, they were clambering over the different heads, jumping back-and-forth while chittering. Pretty soon, Avalon let Porthos join in. 

They were having a grand old time, and we trailed behind the adults to let them work out the specifics of this whole situation. At least, until a shout from Doug, who stood next to one of the big, completely incomprehensible pieces of machinery that filled the room. 

In an instant, everyone was right there. Doug had his hand on the side of the machine, which looked basically like three big tubes filled with liquid attached to several metal accordions they kept pumping in and out. Theia stood next to him. 

“Mr. Frey, what is it?” Dare asked, her voice tense. “What happened?”

In answer, the boy moved his hand to reveal a series of runes that were inscribed on the side of that bit of machinery. “Those are the same things that we used to keep the Whispers out of our heads, the spells Sulan and I found.”

The Whispers, of course, were those invisible beings who drove all those people back on the colony world where Doug’s family had lived violently crazy as soon as Doug and Sulan had accidentally released them, or whatever. The spells were found in the same ruins, and ended up being useful for keeping someone safe from the Whispers. And, I remembered, the spells didn’t keep a Seosten out of someone’s head, but did allow the person being possessed to retain control of their body as well. Someone possessed by a Seosten while wearing those spells could move their body at the same time as the Seosten did, and couldn’t just be knocked unconscious or suppressed.  

“Those?” Gala had cleaned in close to look for herself. “Those things are all over the ship. They were there when we… ahhh… upgraded from our old one awhile back. Never did figure out what they meant or why they were there. But like I said, they’re all over the ship.”

“Who’d you take the ship from?” I quickly asked, with a glance to the others. Doug was still staring at the runes there on the machine as though he’d seen a ghost. “And did you leave any alive that we could maybe talk to at some point?”

Gala shrugged. “Didn’t really take the time to get a lot of names and identifications. We hit them at a refueling depot. Basically limped what was left of our old ship in and boarded the whole thing. Left the survivors there. I figure they called someone to pick them up at some point. Other than that, your guess is as good as mine.”

Andromeda spoke up from a small console attached to the side of the machine. “They have done a very thorough job of erasing all specific mention of previous owners of the ship, and any logs there might’ve been. I will continue to search through everything that remains, if you like, but that will take quite a bit of time.”

“If it helps,” Gala slyly offered, “I can tell you everything about where that fueling station was, and anything else I can remember that might help you figure out why those runes are there. You know, in exchange for just a few concessions to make the transition for the crew and me as painless as possible. Things like certain crates of sweets and alcohol that we get to take with us, or pieces of entertainment. It’s in your own best interest anyway. Makes it come off as more of a vacation so you won’t get as much pushback.” 

Dare and Apollo exchanged brief glances before the latter gave a short nod and stepped away with Gala to arrange specifics. 

Shiori had stepped up to look at the engraved rune by that point, head shaking. “Why do you think the same anti-Whisper spell things are here on this ship?”

Doug had an intense look on his face. “I don’t know. But I’ll tell you one thing. I really want to talk to whoever was left back on that fuel station.”

“Why don’t you ask Captain Motzer?” Persephone asked. “He might know more about the ship he was captain of.”

“Uhhh, you were paying attention when Theia killed him, right?” Shiori asked. “She didn’t exactly half-ass that job.”

“I am very thorough,” Theia agreed. 

Persephone gave a quick nod. “Uh huh. He’s dead. But why should that stop you from talking to him?” Raising her hand, she pointed straight at me, even as the realization had just risen in my own head. 

“You have a necromancer.”

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Reception 13-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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With one quick little bound, Cerberus was right in front of Avalon, Shiori, and me. Then he–or they, I was still confused about that, started to excitedly lick us. Yeah, all of us at the same time. Three heads, three people to lick. The tongues were as metallic as the rest of them, though there was some kind of lubricating liquid that… yeah, there was fake dog slobber, and it was getting all over us. 

“Oookay, okay, hi!” Pulling my face out of range with a few coughs mixed with a giggle, I put both hands on the side of the head that had chosen to focus on me. “Nice to meet you too, I guess.” Still holding the head while it happily barked so loud at me it was almost painful, I looked toward Persephone. “So he’s your pet, huh? Wait, is it he or they? You know, three heads, one body.” 

Avalon, who had already stepped back away from the head that had been licking her, nodded. Her voice was flat. “What she said. Also, why do you have a three-headed robot dog?” After asking that, she extended her hand and gave the head in front of her a little rub under the chin that made him happy.

Answering Valley first, Persephone chirped, “Why not? Who wouldn’t want to have a three-headed robot dog?” To me, she added, “And he’s he. All three of them are he.” Taking a step that way, she brought her hand down to pat his black metal side a couple times. “One cybernetic brain, three heads. Multitasking.” 

Shiori, who was still giggling and rubbing at the head that was licking her face, turned a bit so she could talk. “He’s really friendly!” 

Smiling slightly at that sight, I turned my attention back to Persephone. “I think what Avalon was asking was where he came from. How did you get him? Who built him, and why? And how did you end up having him instead? Did he belong to Manakel like the myths?” I had more questions than that, of course. But that was a good place to start. Carefully, I reached out and followed Avalon’s lead by rubbing under the chin of the head nearest me. He seemed to like that, just like Vulcan enjoyed having his chin scratched. Both were metal, so I had no idea what they were feeling, if anything.

“Nope! Not exactly.” Shaking her head, Persephone explained, “He was built to kill my Manakel, actually. You know, metal so he couldn’t possess him. Special ghost-killing weapons so he could fight anything Manakel summoned. And–” 

“Wait,” I blurted, “What do you mean, special ghost-killing weapons?” 

“Oh, like this.” With that, Persephone ordered, “Cerberus, ghosthunt!” 

As soon as she said that, all three dog heads bared their teeth and growled. Their fangs lit up with glowing blue-white flames. A moment later, ten different small holes appeared along his back, five on each side. From each of those holes, metal coils emerged with a laser cannon and camera attached. The coils were flexible, able to point in any direction.

“Snakes,” Avalon muttered softly from beside me as we watched the weapons snap from position to position to check for threats. “They said Cerberus had snakes growing out of his back. I guess venomous snakes are easier to explain than cannons attached to tentacles.”

“That’s ghost-fire, isn’t it?” Shiori spoke up, gesturing to the flames billowing around the dog’s mouths. 

“Sorta!” Persephone confirmed. “It’s an artificial recreation his creators made. Does the same thing, lets him bite through spirits and intangible things. And his laser cannons help destroy a lot of zombies really fast.” 

“Because he was made to kill Manakel,” I murmured, shaking my head before pausing. A long, heavy sigh escaped me. “You know who a giant dog that could use three different heads to eat ghosts and rip through zombies with a bunch of independently aimed laser cannons would’ve been super-fucking useful to use against?” After getting a couple emphatic nods from the others, I added, “But who managed to make something like this specifically to target Manakel? And how did he end up switching sides?” 

Andromeda spoke up from my phone. Her voice, now that I had listened to it a little bit, was somewhat clipped and short, yet polite. It sounded almost like someone doing the accent of a proper English woman, but not quite the same. She would pause almost imperceptibly every few words. “That would be my doing, actually. I held no particular affection toward the man myself, but Percy was fond of him. So, I fixed the issue. My ability allows me to control technology. It required a bit of effort and rolled up sleeves, but was well worth it in the end. Cerberus is very loyal to his mistress and her friends. He makes for a quite effective guard. And a not-terrible companion during the times when Percy must be off on her own adventures.”

I still had a lot of questions about, well, all of that. But a different pressing one came to mind as I stared at this three-headed dog, with tentacle laser cannons, that was about as tall at the shoulder as I was. “You said this was his small form? First, how exactly does he have two forms? And second, how big is the other one?”

That time, it was Persephone who answered, sounding excited. “He has two different bodies! The one he’s not using gets transferred inside a dimensional pocket while he shifts into the other one. And the second body is… you know Amaroks?”

Coughing, I confirmed, “We’re familiar, yeah. So, you’re saying he’s as big as—”

“They look like his puppies!” Persephone interrupted. “You have to see him when he’s big. He gives even better licks!” Even as she said that, the white-haired woman was launching herself that way to hug the mechanical canine around the side. One of his heads turned that way to sniff at her, and she giggled. 

Shiori had moved next to me by then and whispered, “Can you picture her spending time with Manakel?”

Before I could respond, Andromeda’s voice emerged once again from my phone. “They were quite the odd couple, that is for certain. But, I do believe that she will be better off around more positive influences.”

“Okay, seriously,” Avalon put in, “Who are you, exactly? You said you have the power to control technology and you were being imprisoned until Persephone saved you? Oh, and Sachael was annoyed about that.”

“He tried to stop it, yes. And he failed. There was some drama around that fact.” Pausing briefly then, Andromeda’s voice took on a quiet tone. “I was locked in a Seosten lab and treated as a science experiment, as you would say, for a long time. I owe my freedom to Percy. As for who I am, I am Andromeda. You would consider me an artificial intelligence, but there is as much magic as technology in my existence.”

That made me do a double-take, staring down at my phone. “You’re an AI?”

After a brief pause, she confirmed, “Yes, of a sort. But, I have been consuming your media about those like me, and I assure you that I have no desire to either build an army of terminator machines, nor put all biological beings into little pods to use as batteries. And if so, I certainly wouldn’t do anything as energy-inefficient as providing elaborate virtual reality simulations.”

“Uhhh, great, I guess.” Unsure of what to say to something like that, I focused on Persephone briefly. “Hey, when you showed up and, uhh, splattered that thing, you fell out of the sky. And there was that whole thing about Cerberus being sent down. So, umm, where did you both come down from, exactly?”

Pivoting on her heel to face me, Persephone brightly answered, “From the pirate ship, of course!”

My mouth opened and shut a couple times before I managed a weak, “From the pirate ship, yeah, why didn’t I think of that? It’s so obvio—what pirate ship?”

So, Persephone told us about how she had been tracking down a special object for Manakel yet again, and had found it on some pirate spaceship. Then she got the word about his death and commandeered the ship to make them bring her here to Earth, so she could meet me. Apparently, they were still up there somewhere, using an invisibility field to stay hidden. It was the same thing the pirates used to ambush passing ships.

“Oh,” she added, “and we stopped long enough to pick up Cerberus and Andromeda, of course! I couldn’t meet my new wife without my best friend and my puppy!”

I felt like I needed to sit down for a minute, but equally knew that wouldn’t help. So, I pushed on. “What you’re saying is that there is a whole ship full of pirates, wait, space pirates, up there right now? Are you sure nothing’s going to go wrong?”

The answer came from Andromeda. “I am controlling every part of their ship, from its propulsion, to its weapons, doors, life support, and food heating appliances. If they manage to cause trouble anyway, they will have earned it. At the moment, they are sequestered in their quarters or the crew villages they have established, and I have sent an assortment of Earth entertainment videos for them to peruse. That should keep them occupied for the time being.”

Okay, clearly the world wasn’t done sending weird things at me today. Now, all of a sudden, there was a cloaked pirate ship in orbit, full of probably bloodthirsty buccaneers who were being distracted by what amounted to Netflix or YouTube by a friendly Artificial Intelligence, who in turn owed a life-debt to a Revenant-Possessed dead Seosten who thought she was married to me. I just… I couldn’t… I… yeah. Wow. My life had been a lot for a long time, but seriously. Not for the first time, I wondered how I would have handled all the stuff being thrown at me over the past year without the ridiculous stamina boost that I had gotten from the Amarok. It really was one of my most useful powers when you got right down to it. 

Physically shaking all that off, I focused on looking at Cerberus and Persephone. “Okay, we should probably get someone to go up with us to check out this ship and do something about those pirates. I don’t know if they’re good or bad, or if they’re vicious killers or…  yeah, we need to go through them and figure out what to do with all that.” 

Shiori, of course, pumped both fists in the air. “We’re going on another spaceship! I don’t care how much it happens, I’ll never get tired of that! And meeting space pirates? Dude, being around you so much is the best.” With that, she latched on to hug me tightly. 

I returned it and sniffed her hair briefly before glancing over to where Persephone was watching. She didn’t seem jealous or anything, just curious. It actually made me wonder how much open affection she had ever gotten from Manakel. Somehow, he didn’t strike me as the type. But, of course, I could’ve been wrong. After all, I hadn’t exactly seen him in casual situations. 

Finally, using one hand to stroke Shiori’s hair, I announced, “Right, I guess we’re doing that now.

“Let’s see who wants to go tour a pirate spaceship with us.” 

*********

Eventually, the group that ended up going to this pirate ship amounted to myself, Shiori, Avalon, Apollo, Doug, Theia, and Dare. My mother had a thing with some of the Atherby clan people that I didn’t want to interrupt. Not after they’d lost her for so much longer than even I had. 

We were back up on the Starstation by that point, waiting for Persephone and Andromeda (Cerberus had been sent back to the pirate ship already) to talk Dare and Apollo through setting up a transport portal over to the ship. 

Of course, technically, we could have had the thing dock here on the station. It just would have required creating a portal in one of the gigantic docking bays that was large enough for the ship to pass through. But not only would that require a hell of a lot of magical power on short notice, the adults also didn’t want to bring that ship in until they saw for themselves that it was safe. Which meant looking the whole thing over, and going through all of the pirate crew to find out just how bad they really were. 

While waiting for them to work with all that, I had stepped aside and sent a message to Tabbris saying I needed to tell her something important. So, a moment later, I felt her presence. She wasn’t fully recalling, just linking herself to me. Her voice was curious in the back of my mind. Heya, Flick. What’s goi–I left you alone for five minutes and you’re married?!?

Yeah, she had definitely read my surface thoughts. Wincing, I quickly opened up my mind to let her know everything that was actually going on and how exactly it had happened. I take it your mom hasn’t talked to you yet? 

After taking all that in, Tabbris’s voice sounded a bit sheepish. I uhh, I’m working on something secret, with Columbus and Nevada. I guess I’ve been really busy. I’m so–

Don’t you dare apologize, I interrupted. It’s okay. It’s great. It’s fantastic. You’ve got your own things. 

Weeeelll, technically it’s something for you, came the response. It’s a present. And a surprise! You don’t get to know what it is yet! You don’t get to know anything about it yet! I shouldn’t have said anything. Forget I said anything. You have to be surprised. 

With a small, inward smile, I assured her, I promise I will be surprised, whatever it is. And you’re getting help from Columbus and Nevada, huh? Well, color me intrigued. 

She responded with a sort of mental kick. Are you sure you’re going to be okay going to that ship? What if there’s a monster over there? What if the whole thing is a trap? What if there’s a malfunction and it jumps to another universe? Maybe I should tell these guys to wait, and come over.

My head physically shook in the real world, pointless as that was. Tabs, it’s okay. I’ll be fine, really. You do your thing and I’ll see the surprise when it’s done. And once we’re sure the pirate ship is safe, you and I can look it over. And you can meet Persephone in person. 

I can’t believe you didn’t even invite me to be a flower girl at the wedding, Tabbris teased. Or the ring bearer! Wait, Marian should be the ring bearer. The ring foxer. 

Flushing deeply, I gave her a mental swat and reminded her again that I wasn’t actually married. Not that that was going to stop her or anyone else from giving me shit about it until the end of time, of course. The two of us silently talked a little bit more, the other girl making sure I really was doing okay with everything, despite the teasing. Finally, she said that Columbus and Nevada needed her, but made me promise again to let her see the pirate ship and meet Persephone later. And Cerberus. She made it very clear that she wanted to meet Cerberus. 

Then she withdrew from my mind, and I glanced over to see Theia and Persephone looking each other up and down with obvious curiosity. The Seosten girl was still wearing Doug’s New York Rangers hat. I was pretty sure she rarely took it off ever since he told her she could keep it even after she and Pace were separated. The two of them had become pretty good friends over the summer. And apparently that had continued throughout the time that I was gone. 

Still staring intently at Persephone, Theia asked, “You knew Manakel before he was so grumpy?” 

“Oh, he was always a little grumpy,” came the cheerful response. “But he definitely got a lot grumpier in the past couple centuries…” Trailing off thoughtfully, the woman finally added, “He was mad at me for a while at first because I took over this body and he was sad that he couldn’t save her. But then I helped and he liked me a little more. He kept sending me away, but when I was there, he was pretty nice to me. He taught me stuff about medicine and his family. I think he got sad again when I was there too much, because he’d send me away. But he always called me back and let me in when I found him again. I just had to give him some breaks.”

“So hang on,” Doug spoke up, rubbing a hand over the Seattle Mariners cap he was wearing. I was pretty sure it was also enchanted, just like the Rangers hat. “You said Manakel started being nicer to you or whatever for a while, but in the past couple centuries he got mean again?”

Persephone gave a little shrug. “He sent me away a lot more, and he didn’t tell me stories anymore. Before, when I was there and he wasn’t sad, he would tell me about all sorts of things from his past. He liked telling those stories. Or he used to. But in the last couple centuries, he didn’t do that anymore. Even when I was there and he wasn’t sending me away, he barely talked to me. And before, he made reasons for me to go do other things when he got too sad, but then it was more like he was making up excuses. He wasn’t sad, he was… anxious. Like he wanted to do stuff but couldn’t because I was there. Which was silly, because I’d never stop him from doing anything he wanted to do.”

Well, that was curious. And maybe a little suspicious. But then again, it was also possible that he’d just become more short-tempered in his old age and decided he didn’t want to play nice with her anymore.

While I was considering that, Theia gave a slow nod. “My father took me away from my mother’s tests. He said she wouldn’t kill any more of my friends, and that he was going to send me to his friend. He said I could learn a lot from him. But Manakel didn’t really want to teach me very much. He just told me what to do. My father said that Manakel liked to tell lots of stories. But he didn’t tell me stories.”

Yeah, that was definitely a whole complicated thing. Maybe something had been up with Manakel. After all, we did know for a fact that there was an incredibly powerful figure out there corrupting and controlling Seosten. Maybe Godfather had gotten to him? But to what end? I had no idea, and there wasn’t enough evidence to say one way or another. Just because he’d been different over the past couple centuries and didn’t like to share stories anymore wasn’t exactly proof positive. Still, it was something to think about. 

Avalon and I exchanged glances that made it clear we were both thinking the same thing. Then she turned that way to ask Theia, “Your father really said Manakel would teach you? When he said that, was he being nice or subtly menacing?”

Theia, of course, just blinked at her. “I think he was being nice. But then again, subtly menacing was nice compared to Mother’s total revulsion and loathing.”

Sometimes I definitely needed the reminder that I’d had a really good life compared to a lot of people. When I thought of the things someone like Theia had been put through just based on the fact that she was born with a disability, it made me want to bring Kushiel’s ghost back just so she could see how much better her daughter was doing without her. Not to mention taking a detour to show her how much Sariel was enjoying being with her entire family, including the girl she had snuck out of Kushiel’s facility right from under her nose. 

Yeah, there were definitely about a million things wrong with that thought. At least. Still, it came up now and then before I pushed it away. I wasn’t going to reach out for any ghosts of my dead enemies just to gloat at them. I wasn’t quite that dumb.

In this case, I dismissed the thought just in time for Apollo to straighten up from the magic teleport spell he had been drawing on the floor along with Dare. “Right,” he announced, “it should be good now. Who’s ready to go see a pirate ship?”

Straightening up as well, Dare looked at me. Our gazes met, and there was a brief moment of silent communication that made it clear she wanted to talk later when we had a little privacy. Probably about the whole Persephone thing, because she couldn’t exactly give me grandmotherly advice in public without raising more questions than we or the spell wanted to deal with.

After giving her a subtle nod, I turned back to the others. “Well, I’m definitely ready. But I do have a very important question before we go through that portal. 

“Did anyone try to call Blackbeard? Because doing this without him feels like it should be against the law.”

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