Shiori Porter

Growth 18-04 And Patreon Snippets 25B (Heretical Edge 2)

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Eventually, we left Tabbris with Sariel, our dad, and Jegudiel so the four of them could talk in a private room for awhile. Athena said something about needing to send a message to Michael, and dismissed herself. 

Before long, it was time for me to go back to class for my extra afternoon make-up stuff. I’d offered to blow it off for the day with a straight face, and Dad, Tabbris, and I all shuddered at how Abigail would have reacted to that. I’d already missed plenty while on that trip. If she found out I was skipping classes while literally here on the station, let alone the extra classes I was supposed to be taking to make up for being gone on that mission, I was afraid that she might actually go nuclear, excuses be damned.

Honestly, it was more of a study hall/tutoring session anyway. All of us who had been on that mission, as well as some others who were busy with other things, were in an unused classroom with an old Crossroads teacher who had left with the rest of us. His name was Bentley Carver, and he had been the Development instructor for the seniors/fourth years. He was an elderly guy who looked kind of like Einstein, but with bright blond hair, bushy eyebrows, and an even bushier mustache. I’d met him briefly the year before when he’d stepped in to help save me from being interrogated by a bunch of other students about what happened with Doxer. And he was sure excited to see us today, making sure we knew that if we needed any help going over any of the extra worksheets that our teachers had provided, all we had to do was ask. 

He spent some time with an older student who was apparently having some trouble with his quantum mechanics work, which was fine with me. I sat with Avalon, Shiori, Jazz, Doug, Columbus, Sands, and Scout. Gordon was out with his dad still. Even Abigail didn’t expect him to be back at school already. Everyone was quietly focused, and I ignored all the thoughts of what Tabbris was doing with Jegudiel right then, trying to busy myself with my own stuff. I spent a good twenty minutes flipping between the worksheet and textbook for what had been a two-week course on how enners (the coins used to contain magical energy to use as currency) were created. Well, they called it a textbook. It was more of a hand-written journal that had been magically copied a bunch of times. But the guy who had written it had good handwriting, at least.

And he had a lot of interesting things to say about how people used to trade magical energy. Apparently at one point, a lot of people had actually literally touched each other to send the power into them. Which was dangerous for a variety of reasons, not to mention inconvenient. So they started putting it in random objects that were enchanted to hold the power. Unfortunately, that wasn’t great either, particularly because sometimes those objects disappeared for whatever reason. They would end up in the Bystander world and the magic that was put in them would ‘go funny,’ affecting the world around them. That was a big reason behind the Bystander stories about cursed artifacts, dolls that moved on their own, that sort of thing. One guy would put magic in a doll because he happened to have it lying around, then he’d lose track of it and it would end up in the Bystander world where the stored magic would act up and make it do funny (or terrifying) things. All in all it just wasn’t a very good idea, especially because it was so hard to know what had been given magic to store if you happened to forget. Or never knew in the first place. 

Which was why they came up with the Enner system. And, lo and behold, it wasn’t Heretics who created it at all. The original system that Crossroads and Eden’s Garden ended up ‘borrowing’ had actually been created back in Ancient Egypt, though the coins themselves looked different, and weren’t called enners. It had spread out from there, and when Crossroads was first established, began to be taught amongst their classes. Of course, they didn’t exactly credit the original source. 

I was filling in the worksheet where it was asking about the different shapes of older enners when Professor Carver stepped over to help Doug with his own worksheet. I could hear them murmuring in low voices about energy flow levels for the first primitive enners. Which brought Jazz in, as she had apparently been having her own issues with how that worked.  

When he was done helping them get back on track, the man turned my way, his voice low as he glanced between Avalon, Shiori, and me. “Everything okay over here? Looks like you’re trucking along. Ah, Miss Sinclaire, would you mind giving this to Dries when you see him?” He set a glass figurine of a ballet dancer, about six inches tall, on her desk. “We were having a small discussion the other day about an old dancer whom we both adored from the origins of ballet itself. I remembered a student of mine provided this likeness of her quite some time ago, and I would like him to have it. I dare say he was even more enamored of her than I, given she was his sister.”

That made Avalon do a double-take, eyes darting from the glass figurine of the dancer to the man himself. “Dries’ sister was a ballet dancer?” 

“One of the very first,” Carver confirmed. “Dries was incredibly proud of her, of course. Unfortunately, she was killed when they were both still in their teens. Long before he even met Liesje or Hieronymus. But he still holds her close to his heart. I am certain that he would be more than willing to talk to you about her, if you ask him when you pass the figurine along.” 

Yeah, something told me he could just as easily have given the thing to Dries himself, but had wanted to give Avalon an opening to talk to her ancestor about his past.

After that, he looked at me. “Miss Chambers, I recall teaching your mother during her second year. I ahhh, I am ashamed to say that we didn’t get along for some time. I considered her too stubborn to learn new things, and believed that she would get herself killed by not listening to her instructors. I am quite glad that I was wrong about that.” Even as he said that, the man’s brow furrowed. “Except, perhaps I shouldn’t have said that. Telling a girl that you expected her mother to get herself killed through stubbornness was… yes, I probably shouldn’t have said that.” 

Coughing a bit, I shook my head. “I get it. At least you’re on the same side now? Err, were you part of the Rebellion back–” 

“Not… precisely,” he answered with a slight grimace. “Not at first, anyway. I’m also ashamed to say that it was not until shortly before your mother’s… imprisonment that I found myself truly questioning what I had always taken as simple facts. The inherent evil of non-humans, that is. To be frank, it was not until I learned that my own son had joined the Rebellion. After that, actually. My initial response was to drag him back where I felt he belonged. When I found him, we fought. He was young, but quite… skilled. Enough that he was able to talk to me a bit before I could subdue him. The things he said, the words he used… maybe it was simply that it came from someone I cared a great deal about, but I listened. I didn’t want to, but I did. I listened to enough to actually hear the words that your mother and others had already been saying. So, I gave him a chance to show me these Alter societies. I spent a little time with them. Which, of course, made my previously-held convictions fall just about as quickly as the shame for my actions rose.” He offered us a somewhat sad smile then. “I resolved to do what I could to direct potentially sympathetic students toward the Rebellion, even after your mother was imprisoned. At least, until my memory of all of that was erased some decades later.” 

Looking like he was a bit lost in those recently-restored memories, Carver frowned before shaking himself. His gaze focused on me once more, and he smiled while tapping his knuckles lightly on the desk. “In any case, you let me know if you need any help. All of you.” That was added with a glance to the others before he headed off to respond to another student with their hand raised. 

Leaning closer to Avalon’s desk, Shiori examined the glass figurine there. “Wow, there’s a lot of detail on this thing. She’s really pretty.” Her eyes glanced up to the other girl. “Actually, she kinda looks like you a little bit.” 

I leaned closer as well and squinted at it before blinking a couple times. “Hey, yeah, she does look like you, Valley. Her face is practically the same.” 

Flushing a little bit, Avalon shrugged. “Well, I’m definitely not a ballet dancer. So there’s a pretty big difference. And even if I wanted to be, I don’t have the body type for it. They’re thin and… thin.” Her face was pink, and she reached out to pick up the figurine. “I’ll take it to Dries later. Come on, we need to get back to work.” 

Shiori and I exchanged glances, before I nodded. “Right, yeah, of course. Back to work.” With that, I settled in my seat once more and turned my gaze back to the book. Still, I couldn’t help but think about Dries. His sister had died while he was still a teenager. Then he had fallen in love with Liesje and that whole thing had… yeah. That poor guy. 

Of course, that whole thing also made me think about my own little sister. How was Tabbris doing with her birth-father? He seemed nice enough for the moment, but I was still unsure how that whole thing was going to go. I was worried about her, and had to resist the urge to reach out through our connection to check on her. She deserved time with him without me snooping or bothering her, no matter how curious and worried I was. 

So, with some effort, I shoved those thoughts aside and forced myself to focus on the book in front of me. I would find out how that whole thing had gone later. But one thing was for sure. 

Wings or no wings, Jegudiel was going to find himself in a world of hurt from a lot of people if he ever made Tabbris sad. 

********

Tabbris was fine, of course. Well, pretty much fine. There was obviously a lot she had to work through when it came to the idea of her birth father visiting. On the plus side, she also seemed at least a bit happy about getting to meet him when I talked to her later that day. She was overwhelmed by the whole thing and would need time to process, but it definitely could have gone a lot worse. Apparently she had requested that Vanessa, Tristan, Spark, and Jehoel all go in as well to meet the man, and Jegudiel had given every single one of them a hug. Yeah, a literal hug. Hybrid human-Seosten, SPS Seosten projected as a hologram, and experimented-on kid who turned into younger versions of the person he was touching instead of possessing them, none of that mattered. He embraced all four. I was kind of sad that I had missed that.

Apparently he’d also thanked Dad for taking care of Tabbris for so long, and actually called her our daughter. Actually, given the way loyalist Seosten normally–it seemed a little odd that he was so quickly willing to not only accept Dad like that, but also treat the other four so well. But maybe that was just me being overly suspicious again. Just because this guy was loyal to the Seosten government and all that didn’t mean he was incapable of being decent. After all, there were plenty of them who truly believed that if the Seosten didn’t rigorously control… enslave all these populations, then the Fomorians would wipe out everyone. Seosten, human, and every other species in the universe would be utterly destroyed. Plus, from what I had heard, this guy spent most of his time on the front lines of the war. He literally watched the Fomorians try (or succeed) to genocide entire worlds over and over again. So maybe his perspective was a little different than people who only saw the Seosten forcing other species to work on equipment and resources to send to that frontline. Perspective was pretty important, after all. At least, that was what I kept telling it myself. 

I was thinking about that among other things (my brain was pretty full), as I took a walk through the station later that evening. It wasn’t quite dinner time yet and I was trying to clear my head, considering Jegudiel was supposed to be there to eat with us. Which… yeah, clearing my head was a good thing. 

I rounded a corner, lost in my own thoughts, only to very nearly run right into Roxa coming the other way. The power that made her untrackable unless you were looking right at her affected my item sense as well. Which I knew, but still didn’t help me avoid jumping backward with a fairly undignified yelp. 

“Hey, Flick,” Roxa casually announced while watching me collect myself with a very tiny smile. “Sorry, I probably should’ve said something before. Guess I wanted to see if you’d notice, or just how distracted you were.” Her teasing tone softened as she added, “How’s Tabbris doing?” 

“You heard about that, huh?” I asked while glancing past her to Pace, as the Latina girl approached. 

“Basically everyone has,” Roxa confirmed. “I mean, one of the archangels shows up and starts walking around the station? And it’s one of the archangels who isn’t Michael? It’s news.” 

“Big news,” Pace added, stopping next to the other girl. “Even bigger than the whole Dracula thing.” 

She said that while looking past me, and I turned to look back down the hall. Sure enough, Theia was there, along with April and June. Or rather, the man who had once been called June. Yeah, coming back here to find out that one of the Calendar people was actually Dracula himself, and had decided to start hanging out here on the station was… something. Especially when I found out why he had decided to be around now. 

Speaking of which, the man had spotted us by then and was approaching with April and Theia trailing behind. He met my gaze with an expression that was half-smile, half-smirk. “Felicity Chambers, a pleasure to see you once again. And you, Roxanne and Pace. I hope the three of you are well. And assume you haven’t been visited by any more Seosten ghosts today.” 

“I haven’t seen Kushiel,” I confirmed. That was why he was here, why he had decided to start staying on the station. Apparently he had a thing about Kushiel and now that she was back as a ghost, wanted to make sure something was done about her. I had no idea what their whole history was, but he wanted her dead, and that was good enough for most people around here. Enemy of my enemy, and all that. But I was still concerned about what his intentions beyond that were. Something about the guy just rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe it was that he was so cavalier about killing a lot of people. Or that he made no secret of the fact that he wasn’t here because he believed in our cause or anything, but rather because he thought we could help get rid of Kushiel for good. 

Unfortunately, he also apparently knew a lot about her resources and secret places here on Earth. So the adults had decided not to cast him out immediately. The way they put it, dealing with someone like Kushiel in the best-case scenario required doing things you might not want to. Now that she was some sort of super ghost, we needed every advantage we could get. Even when that advantage was this guy. He didn’t care about our cause and he didn’t care about any of us. Well, that wasn’t true. He cared about the other members of the Calendar. At least Abigail said he did, and some of the stuff I had seen seemed to lend credence to it. He cared about Theia too. Other SPS Seosten, he cared about them. He was almost tender with them at times. Seeing him interact with them was the only time I didn’t think he was putting on a show of being nice. And that was specifically Seosten with that condition, not his entire species. I was pretty sure he lumped everyone into two categories: SPS Seosten, whom he cared about, and everyone else, whom he didn’t. He reminded me a bit of Magneto, from the X-Men. He wanted to protect his people, no matter what happened to anyone he didn’t consider one of his.

The smile he gave me then didn’t reach his eyes. “Well, you know, just let me know. Let everyone know. Trust me, you don’t want to face her alone.” 

“She won’t,” Roxa put in, stepping beside me. “Anyone comes at Flick, they’ve got to deal with a lot of other problems.” 

“Kushiel found that out the first time,” Pace added while stepping up on my other side. “Right, Theia?” 

Rubbing a hand over the cap that Doug had given her, Theia gave a little nod and straightened. “Yes,” she agreed quietly. “My mother took too many of my friends away. I could not allow her to take you.” Her eyes moved back and forth between Pace and me. “Either of you.” 

Drake (he said we should call him that, given he didn’t want to go by June anymore and thought Dracula might sound a little silly) smiled sidelong at the Seosten girl. “And I’m so very glad you did. Even if it didn’t quite stick. The next time we kill her, it will.” He showed his teeth then, his canines somehow extended like the fangs of his namesake. I still wasn’t sure how he did that, given he wasn’t actually a vampire. 

“I wish my mother’s spirit to be banished as well,” Theia agreed before looking at April, who was staying back a bit. “But I remain certain she will not show herself here any time soon. Particularly not before we collect December for the ice–” 

“Icecreamicecreamicecream!” Speak of the dev–well, superfast little girl, December herself came zooming down the hall from the way the others had come. April calmly stepped out of the way and put her hand down just in time to catch the girl by the top of her head, halting her in place. The kid was literally bouncing up and down. “Ifinishedthehomework, sowecango geticecreamnow?” She waved to everyone in turn in a rush of motion that was practically a blur, greeting each of us. “HeyPacehiFlickheyRoxa…… Hiya, Ju–Drake.” She had to correct herself, her words so slow at that point that it actually sounded like she was speaking normally. 

“Hey there, kid.” Drake gave another genuine, gentle smile that way. “You’re going to go get ice cream, huh? I’d tag along, but I haven’t had dinner yet–hold on, you’re not spoiling your appetite are you? Are they letting you have ice cream for supper?” He adopted a teasingly authoritative tone. 

Giggling, December shook her head. “Nowehad… dinnerafew… minutesago! Wehaditearly…cuzwedidn’tgo… tolunchcuzwe… werebusyreportingin.” 

“Ah, and how is the old–” In mid-sentence, Drake caught a look from April and cleared his throat. “How is Cahethal?”

“She’s very curious about you, that’s for sure,” April informed him in a flat voice. “You know she wants to have a discussion.” 

“And the very moment I have literally any interest in that, I’ll get right on it,” Drake replied casually, clearly unconcerned. “But in the meantime, if you’re all going to talk about ice cream, I suppose I’ll head out. Don’t want to be tempted to be bad about my diet, after all.” He winked, then started to walk away, calling back toward me, “Remember, Miss Chambers, the instant you see any sign of Kushiel, let me know.” 

Waiting until he was gone, I looked toward the others. “How’s it been going with searching the addresses he’s been giving? Any luck? Any sign that he’s actually on the up and up?” 

Theia answered immediately. “He has given valuable information. True information.” 

“She’s right,” Pace confirmed. “Kushiel hasn’t been at any of the places they went to check, but it was obvious that she had people keeping them up for her. You know, from before she died. Err…” She frowned then. “This whole situation is weird. She died, she should stay that way. This isn’t Dragonball Z.” 

“Don’t forget, she is still dead,” I reminded her. “This is just her… leftover we’re dealing with. Her ghost. Her echo or whatever.” 

“She’s a pain in the ass, that’s what she is,” Roxa announced. 

“You’re not wrong about that,” I agreed, frowning a bit in thought before looking at the others. “And I’m worried that we haven’t heard from her in so long. She made a big show about being back, then just… disappeared for over a month? That just tells me she’s up to something big. 

“And we are definitely gonna regret finding out what.”  

********

Patreon Snippets 25B

Two of Joselyn’s old teammates back when she attended Crossroads were Seamus and Roger Dornan, cousins. They’ve been seen a few times in the story (including in the recent rescue mission), and the first time they were seen as adults (taking place right after Flick gave everyone their memories of the Rebellion back) was in one of the ninth Patreon Snippets right here. In that snippet, it was established that despite their memories of the Rebellion being erased, they had semi-recently turned against Crossroads entirely on their own and began helping Alters. According to that snippet, they decided to turn against Crossroads and stopped believing that all Strangers were evil after encountering innocent children while on a hunt. The following is that specific scene

Six And A Half Years Ago

“Hey, hold up there.” 

As the nine-year-old girl started to turn off the sidewalk to head into the nearby alley, a fairly short, red-haired man wearing construction clothes with a reflective vest stepped in the way with one hand up to block her. “Sorry, Miss, we’re doing some work down there. Can’t use the shortcut today.” 

The girl wasn’t very happy about that, given not using the shortcut would add a full ten minutes to her route home. But she finally moved on down the street, trudging a little bit with the knowledge that she was going to miss the first minutes of the show she liked to get home for. On the way, the kid absently tossed the brown paper bag lunch sack she was carrying into a trash can before breaking into a run. Maybe she wouldn’t miss too much. 

Watching her go, Seamus Dornan spoke without looking over his shoulder. “We set up?” 

“Damn straight we are.” Behind the man, his cousin Roger brushed a hand through light blond hair that fell to his shoulders. Standing an inch shorter than Seamus and also wearing construction clothes along with an expression of barely constrained anger at the moment, he added, “And the things that keep stalking that kid through this alley every day should be here any minute, so let’s get in position.” 

At the mention of the reason they were here and had steered the kid away, Seamus grimaced. They had seen some signs that there were Strangers in this area, and had taken the past week to track down the source. Learning that those things, whatever they were, were waiting in the alley for that poor kid to go past every day made him shudder to think about what could have happened. Why they were waiting so long to make their move, he couldn’t say. Maybe they liked to make a game of it. Maybe they were waiting for her to get a little bigger, or for the moon to be in the right phase, or… whatever. Who knew what went through the minds of monsters? As far as he was concerned, however, that was over. Whatever those things were up to, they wouldn’t be hurting this little girl. Not while he and Roger were here. 

To that end, the two of them stepped fully into the alley. Roger had set up a couple of ‘notice-me-not’ circles, one about halfway down the alley next to a dumpster and the other a bit further on, closer to the exit but up on the lowest landing of the fire escape. That latter one was where Seamus would set himself. The two of them took their positions and waited. 

They weren’t waiting very long before catching the sound of something–no, several somethings approaching from the far end. Several small figures came into view, moving directly under Seamus. They wore heavy hooded jackets that made it hard to make out any details, even if he had been down on the ground rather than above them. He could see Roger watching them from the protection of his own magic circle next to the dumpster, pistol raised as he waited to take these nasty things by surprise. 

Gripping a construction mace in his own hand, Seamus made himself wait. They had to be sure that there were no more of these things lingering behind. This had to be a full wipe if he was going to feel like that poor kid was safe. 

The trio of small figures moved to the dumpster itself, their movements slow and cautious. The nearest one reached up into the wide metal slot that the garbage truck would use to pick up the dumpster eventually. There was a brief pause, then a whispered, “It’s not here.” The voice sounded stressed, worried, and something more. “Did she–” 

Roger, who had always been more impulsive and less patient, stepped from his circle, gun raised. “Looking for someone?”  

Muttering something about waiting for a signal, Seamus leapt from his perch to land behind the trio. A gesture with his mace made a solid wall right behind him to block them up from that direction. And they sure as hell wouldn’t be getting past Roger to go the other way, whatever they were. 

As soon as they saw the Heretic in front of them, the trio… screamed. They spun to retreat, only to spot Seamus and the wall rising into place. Two of the figures fell to the ground right there, a sound of… a sound of… was that…

Were they crying? 

The hoods had fallen off the two who had fallen down by that point, leaving Roger and Seamus staring at what looked like a cat-like Rakshasa and wolf-like, red-furred Lupera. A juvenile Rakshasa and Lupera. Kids. Two tiny, terrified Lupera and Rakshasa children, lying there on the ground with tears in their eyes, shielding their faces with their arms.

Meanwhile, the still-standing figure shouted, “Get away!” The words came with a voice that shook, cracking with audible terror. Their own hood fell as well, when they snapped their head back and forth to look at Roger and Seamus while putting one hand down in front of the other two, as though shielding them. This third one was also a child, a reptilian figure who looked like they might be a couple years older than the first two. 

The two on the ground, if they had been human, might’ve been five or six from the look of them. The one standing in front of them, arms out to block the Heretics from the two cowering figures, was maybe eight years old. They hissed a little, frills on the side of their neck standing out as though to make themselves look bigger. “G-go away!” they repeated, though it was more of a desperate wish than a demand. Their voice sounded… broken. Empty. Lost. They sounded like a person who was already dead. They… both the kids on the ground and the one standing in front of them, all sounded like they had nothing left. No hope. They were just… they were…

“Roger,” Seamus started, making his own cousin gasp slightly as he was startled out of his own long, silent stare, “watch them. Don’t… don’t.” He left it at that while walking past the trio. They shrank back even more as he moved, the reptilian figure physically pushing their two companions back against the dumpster as though it would protect them. 

Walking back to the front of the alley, where he’d turned the girl away, Seamus left for a moment. He was back shortly, carrying the small paper sack she had thrown into the trash can down the street. Moving purposefully, he opened the bag, emptying it out on the ground in front of the huddled trio. Out fell a sandwich wrapped in a plastic baggie, an orange, a carton of juice, and a bag of chips. 

“This?” he started, his own voice cracking very slightly. “This is why you’ve been following that girl?” 

The lizard girl said nothing, looking more confused and wary than anything. The younger Lupera girl spoke up with a tiny, frightened, “Sh-she doesn’t eat her lunch, she never eats her lunch.” 

“She throws it away so her mom won’t get mad,” the Rakshasa boy added. “P-please, please, we’ll go away. We won’t take her food anymore, ple–” 

“Don’t bother, Teumni,” the reptilian whispered, sounding just as hollow and resigned, yet still refusing to move from their spot in front of their younger companions. “They won’t listen. They never listen.” They met Seamus’s gaze, eyes wide with terror. They were so afraid they could barely string the words together, so lost in despair and dread that they would have fallen over. They would have cowered. Yet they didn’t. They stood in front of their younger companions because they were all they had. They stood because there were no others to stand for them. 

They were, at once, the most terrified and most brave being Seamus had ever seen in his life. 

Swallowing, Seamus moved his gaze away from the three and toward Roger. Their eyes locked, a long, silent moment passing between them. He stooped very slowly, his movements making the three Strangers cower in against one another, the reptilian more determinedly holding their arms out to cover the other two. But Seamus didn’t reach for them. He picked the wrapped sandwich up from the ground, unwrapping it carefully before taking a sniff. “Peanut butter,” he murmured. “It’s a peanut butter sandwich.” His words were soft, incredulous over this whole situation. 

Again, he looked toward Roger. They both stared silently at one another, before the other man gave a very slight nod of agreement. Seamus, in turn, slowly raised the unwrapped sandwich, holding it out that way. 

The reptilian child stared at the offered sandwich, a whimper escaping them at what they perceived as a taunt. “What… what do you want?” they brokenly asked. 

“What do I want?” Seamus echoed, staring at the sandwich in his outstretched hand as though it held the answer. “What I want…” The truth came to him as he sank to one knee, the mace falling from his other hand to clatter against the ground. “What I want is for no one to ever look at me the way you are right now.” He was speaking mostly to himself, as surprised by the sound of his own voice as he was by the content of it. 

Someone finally took the sandwich away, but it wasn’t any of the three Stranger children. It was Roger, who looked at the food in his hand, then tossed it aside before going down on one knee as well, next to his cousin. “Yeah, I’m not really a fan of it either,” he murmured before focusing on the kids. “Listen, we… we’re not gonna hurt you.” 

“Y… you’re not?” That was the Lupera girl, her snout twitching a little. 

“No,” Seamus agreed. It was the first thing he had been completely certain of since he’d dropped into the alley. “We’re not.”

“Where are your parents?” Roger asked. 

There was no immediate answer, as the three looked at one another before the reptilian answered in a quiet, flat, “Your people killed them.” 

That landed hard, like a jab to the stomach. Seamus felt it, his body wincing inward slightly as though it had been a physical blow. Words came to mind, but none were sufficient. And yet, the fact that he felt the impulse to say them, the fact that he felt any… guilt about what they said, the fact that the children themselves were so affected, the fact that… that any of this was happening…

“Come on,” he finally announced while pushing himself to his feet. In that moment, he had come to a decision. Beside him, Roger stood as well, the two in silent agreement despite not doing anything to communicate with each other.  

“Wha-what?” The reptilian stammered, terror palpable in their voice as they stared at him while keeping their arms resolutely in front of the other two. “Y-you said–” 

“We’re not going to hurt you,” he interrupted, assuring them of that in as firm a voice as he could manage. “But since my cousin threw your sandwich away, we owe you some food, and there’s a McDonald’s right around the corner. So what do you say we get some lunch, and do something I’m starting to think we should have done a long time ago. 

“Talk.” 

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Interlude 17B – Asenath, Jiao, and Tiras (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The non-canons for both stories were posted over the weekend. You can find the one for this story right here and the one for Summus Proelium right here

With her hands pressed tightly together in what some might have mistaken for a prayer motion, Asenath knelt by her father’s side. Her eyes stared at his face, taking in every detail with the scrutiny of a child attempting an old ‘find the difference between two pictures’ game. Of course, it was not two pictures she was comparing, but the image in front of her and that in her childhood memory. After so many years apart, she had expected to barely recognize him, and yet he hardly seemed to have changed at all. There was more stubble on his face, and he seemed slightly more pallid compared to the man from all those years ago, but still. He was incredibly handsome, his skin tone and hair dark enough to pass for Native American. Which he had done for many years back when they had lived on the frontier. Most who had met the small family back then believed that Tiras was a member of the nearby Cherokee tribe. A Cherokee man, his Chinese wife, and their mixed-race daughter. Along with Seth, the white man who spent so much time around the house and treated Tiras as a father-figure. 

They had been, to put it mildly, not the most normal of families, particularly as far as any visitors were concerned. And they had to run into their fair share of problems, especially considering Jiao’s (and Seth’s whenever he was around) inability to leave the house during the daytime. Stories were passed around, some true though most not, about that area and their house. More than one hunter, of both the human and Heretic variety, had thought to come around and cause trouble. But Tiras and the others dealt with them, and Asenath barely knew about those troubles, aside from being taught to tell her parents if anyone ever came around. For the most part, her life was simple back then. 

Despite living in the middle of nowhere, despite having enemies who would kill them without a second thought if they had a chance, despite half their number being trapped for a good portion of the day away from a sun that would burn them to ashes if they set foot in it, they were a family. And they were happy. 

But then Tiras had left. He’d had no choice, as he had told Senny and the others then. He’d had no other choice but to leave for a time in order to stop the Vestil, the people who had cursed the Akharu in the first place, from finishing the job. Their efforts, those who were still psychotically devoted to eliminating the entire Akharu species, would also have affected every being with their blood, including his wife and child. And the human-turned-vampire boy who had become like a son to him. Not only himself, but all the people he cared about, would have died. No matter how much he wished to stay with his family, if the Vestil fanatics were allowed to continue their work, there would be no family for him to be with. There would be nothing. He and his entire family would be gone. 

So, it was with a very heavy heart that he had left them. And yet, even knowing how important and hard his mission would be, the man had never expected it to take him away from them for this long. He had told Asenath then that he couldn’t say how long it would take, but his words to both Seth and Jiao had guessed that it would be a few years at the most. An eternity for a mortal human, particularly one with a family waiting for him. But for them it would have been barely a blink in the long scheme of things. It should have been barely a blink. Yet a year had turned into two, then five, then more. They had already abandoned the old farm, finding it too dangerous to wait around in one place where their enemies could track them down. Instead, they moved around, leaving secret messages for Tiras so he could find them when the time came, or at least leave messages of his own whenever they went back to those places. 

Finally, Jiao had given their daughter Tiras’s carefully stored blood as she entered the end of her teens, at the girl’s insistence. They could have waited longer, but the threats they were facing through their travels were becoming worse all the time. She was a vulnerability. A strength too in some ways, given her ability to act in the sunlight, but still a vulnerability in the long run. She was weak and slow in comparison to Jiao and Seth. They taught her to fight, but even as a vampeel (a child of two vampire parents, or one vampire and one Akharu), there was still only so much she could do against the problems they regularly ran into. She was stronger and faster than an ordinary human, particularly for her age, but it wasn’t enough. She could be killed far easier than either of them, and that vulnerability had almost cost them more than once. 

So, after much discussion, her mother had given her the blood. Senny took it and became a full vampire, with all the benefits and penalties therein. She had taken her father’s blood to become stronger, to become (relatively) immortal, to gain the power she needed to truly help protect her family until her father could finally return. 

Senny had become a vampire in 1813, when she was eighteen years old. By the time she was thirty, she and her mother began separating now and then. Seth had already been overcome by his own wanderlust and need for solitude and left them years earlier, though he did meet up with the pair now and then. Over time, Senny and Jiao separated more and more. Not because they didn’t get along. They were mother and daughter and always would be. But they had their own lives, and Jiao wanted her daughter to grow into her own person, immortal vampire or not. 

Yet, as first years, then decades, and finally a couple of centuries passed, they always met up, and communicated through letters or telegrams, and eventually phone calls. They maintained contact and both knew they could always count on the other. Seth too, could be relied upon even as he and Asenath had their ups and downs as any near-siblings would. In the long run, they were a family, and they would all be there for one another when it came down to it. 

Now, in early 2019, she had been a vampire for two hundred and six years, and had been apart from her father for two hundred and sixteen. Over two full centuries and nearly a quarter of the way into a third since she had seen her father in the flesh. A part of her had expected to look on him like a stranger, but he was almost entirely the same now as he had been in her memory. Seeing him like that transported the girl back to her childhood self, all those decades ago. She could see the rope she had clung to as her father pushed her back and forth on it, could feel the breeze against her face as she closed her eyes and embraced those memories. Even the snap of the branch and her sudden panic as she was sent sailing through the air on the last day that he had been a part of her life was a happy memory, as that had led to her father catching her, and holding her in his arms. 

She had looked back on those last moments, those last few days with her father, often over the years. They were a cherished memory, and some part of her had always wondered if it would be the very last time she saw him. 

But it wasn’t. He was here now. They, with the help of their new friends, had found and saved him. They still didn’t know why he had been gone for so long, or what happened all those years ago. Those answers would come soon enough. For now, he was here. He was alive. They just needed him to wake up. But Asenath could wait for that, as could her mother. They have been waiting all this time, all those years. Waiting a bit longer for him to awaken on his own was nothing. Even if a part of her desperately wanted to shake the man until he snapped out of this long, coma-like sleep. They knew he was alive, and that he was recovering. But the question of how long it would take him to recover enough to open his eyes was impossible to answer. 

She heard her mother move, but remained still, her own eyes closed as she thought back to those days so long before. As Jiao knelt beside her, Asenath separated her hands and accepted her mother’s grasp with one, squeezing firmly. Her other hand moved to very gently touch her father’s shoulder. Here. He was here with them. After all that time, they could be a family again. 

“My family.” 

The words came not from Asenath or her mother. Nor from anyone else surrounding the truck. They came from directly in front of them, from the man they had gone through so much to save. With a soft gasp, Senny opened her eyes, her gaze finding her father’s. He was looking at her. His face looked weak and his voice shook slightly, but he was conscious. “My family.” 

“Papa.” The single word escaped Asenath in a near-sob, before she abruptly embraced him. She clung to her father tightly, feeling her mother throw herself over the man to embrace his other side. The two of them practically dropped on top of him. They had contained themselves throughout his entire sleep, but could not any longer. They hugged him tightly, as literal centuries-worth of tension and emotion washed out of them. He was here. He was awake. They had their husband and father back, respectively. He was safe. After everything they had been through, after all that time spent apart, he was finally back with them. 

“It’s okay,” Asenath assured him through a shaking voice. She leaned back, staring down at the man with eyes that couldn’t soak in the appearance of her father awake and healthy fast enough. “It’s all right, we got you out of there. You’re safe now.”  

Still visibly weak, Tiras took a moment. He seemed dazed, even somewhat lost. His eyes closed briefly before opening as he slowly shook his head while repeating, “My family.” It was the third time he had said those words, yet hearing them still sent a shiver through Asenath. Her papa. He was here. He was really here. 

“We are here, Tiras, you are not dreaming,” Jiao gently told him. Her hand moved to cup the side of his face. “We are truly here.” 

Another moment of silence passed as Tiras closed his eyes and breathed out. Then they opened again, as he focused on them. He looked from Asenath to Jiao, then back again before very slowly shaking his head. “No… where… is my family? 

“And who are you?” 

******

Two Days Later

“Was Sariel able to help?” Flick anxiously asked, sitting in a small room on the Starstation just down from the transport station where they had left the truck. It was an office for debriefings most of the time, but right now Flick, Shiori, and Asenath were using it to talk privately. 

“No,” came the flat response. Asenath was standing by the closed door that she had just come through, her gaze fixed on the opposite corner. “Something’s been done to his memory, something… powerful. She said that the memories aren’t suppressed, they’ve been completely removed. Which would take a powerful spell. He doesn’t remember any of his time with us, any of the time with my mother. He has a completely different family. He… he had another family for years, after leaving us. It’s like he went on his mission, something happened to erase every memory he had of being on Earth before, then came back and… and had a whole other life. He had a new wife, new children, new… new everything. He spent decades with them, and we never knew. We never knew he came back, or that… or that he was happy. He was…” Her eyes closed as she spoke in a barely audible whisper. “He was here all that time.” 

Wincing, Shiori gave Flick a look before moving over to her sister to embrace her. “It wasn’t his fault. If he lost his memories like that, he– he couldn’t remember anything. He couldn’t–” 

“I know,” Asenath assured her, voice cracking slightly. “I know it’s not his fault. I’m not angry at him. I’m just—he didn’t know me. He doesn’t know me. He doesn’t know my mother. He didn’t even know Seth. He doesn’t know any of us. He has no idea who we are. We told him, we told him his memories were taken and he believes us. He knows we’re telling the truth, but there’s just… nothing there. I know he feels bad about it. But it’s like hearing about someone else’s loss and sympathizing with them. He can’t remember us. He doesn’t have the emotions there, not real ones. Academically, he feels bad about what we told him, but it’s like he’s reading a story. It’s not his feelings. He doesn’t remember, so he can’t feel what–he can’t be…” She stopped then, exhaling heavily. “He’s worried about the family he does remember. He doesn’t know what happened to them after he was taken.” A pause, then, “Forty years. He was taken forty years ago. So when he was taken to Desmoterion, that prison in Texas, it was… it was just after he was captured. He was back on Earth for all those years before that and we never knew. We never saw him. We never…” She trailed off, swallowing a lump in her throat. 

“Earth is big,” Flick hesitantly reminded her, standing up from her seat to walk over and embrace Senny as well, next to Shiori. “It’s really big.” 

There was a momentary pause before Asenath returned both of their embraces. “I know,” she murmured once more. “It’s very big. A whole planet worth of big. But it’s still hard to believe that we missed him for that long, that no one we talked to ever met him. It’s just–” She sighed. “I want to hit someone. I want to hit someone so bad. Preferably whoever took his memories.” 

Glancing toward Shiori briefly as she released the vampire to step back, Flick asked, “Do you guys have any idea who that would be? It wasn’t the same people who had him this time, right? Because he was back on Earth for all that time before they took him. It… it had to be the Vestil people he went to stop.” 

Senny gave a short nod. “That’s the only answer that makes sense. He went to stop them and they’re very good at magic. As I said, it would have taken an incredibly powerful spell to remove those memories like that. Sariel can’t find any sign of them. He’s him. He’s my father. We proved that with a blood test. Both my mother and I are linked to him by the blood that turned us into vampires. And me for being his daughter too. If Seth was alive, he would’ve been linked the same way. He is Tiras, my papa. But he can’t remember us. Those memories are gone, and they could only have been taken by someone very good with magic. The Vestil fanatics who were trying to kill all of us is the only real answer.” A slight snarl escaped her, hands tightening into fists. “They have to be the ones who took his memories, who took–who took everything.” 

“He had to have succeeded though, right?” That was Shiori, speaking pensively with a glance between both other girls. “I mean, obviously you’re not dead. All the Akharu aren’t dead, which was their entire plan. So your dad and his friends must’ve succeeded at stopping them. They won.” 

“Maybe that’s why they took his memories,” Flick murmured. “Maybe they were pissed about their scheme being ruined, so they erased his memories or something. Wait, what about his memories of actually fighting them that time, of going on that mission to begin with? Or anything from that time and how he helped stop it?”  

“Those were gone too,” Senny confirmed. “As far as my father’s memories are concerned, he left home and wandered for a long time before ending up on Earth back in 1814.” She paused, eyes closing briefly before another sigh escaped her. “1814. That was only one year after I became a vampire. Eleven years after he left. He was only away from Earth for eleven years. All this time he’s been around. All this time he’s been out there, right there living another life and none of us had any idea.” She pivoted, slamming both fists into the wall with a loud snapped curse. The two blows were enough to create a pair of matching dents, but she hardly noticed. 

Putting a hand against her sister’s back, Shiori rubbed gently before speaking in a soft voice. “He’s still your dad, even if he doesn’t remember right now. You know that, right?” 

“Yes.” Lowering her forehead to rest against the wall, Asenath closed her eyes once more while exhaling heavily. “He is still my father. He always will be. He doesn’t have to remember us for that to be true. And I know he’s a good person. I know he’s not trying to hurt us. He didn’t stay away because he was running. He was just–his memories were gone. He had no idea. He didn’t know what he was… what he left behind.” The way she said that made it clear that she had been repeating the words silently to herself for some time, telling herself not to be angry with her father for forgetting his first family. Or with his new one. 

They were all quiet for a moment before Flick asked, “Sorry, but… what about the others? The family he does remember, I mean. That–they’d be your siblings too, right? And… do–you said he was asking about them.” 

“They don’t live in that area anymore,” Asenath informed her. “My mother checked while we were waiting for Sariel to finish with him. As far as she could tell, they moved on right after he disappeared. So we don’t know where they are, or if they’re alive, or–or anything. Not yet. That–that’s going to take time.”

Flick and Shiori exchanged glances. They could tell just how horrible this was for the other girl. She had been waiting for so long to find her father, and now that she had, he didn’t know who she was. He had his own other family that he was worried about, people he had apparently lived with even longer than he’d lived with Asenath and Jiao. It wasn’t just that he had another life, it was that the other life had been going on for so much longer. Almost the entire time that he had been missing from their lives, he had been living another one with a different family. 

It wasn’t his fault, it wasn’t Asenath and Jiao’s fault, and it wasn’t this other family’s fault. But they were the ones who were hurt by it. All of them, really. Despite the fact that they didn’t know anything about Tiras’s second family, all three girls were pretty sure they would be shocked to learn what had happened to him before. 

Grimacing, Flick quietly asked. “You’re going to go look for them, aren’t you?” 

Senny didn’t even hesitate, her head giving a short nod. “Of course. I–he’s my father, I want him to be happy. And finding people is one of the things I’m good at. I… I can give him that, at least.” Her face twisted a bit before she added, “And I’m going to find out what the hell happened to his memories.” 

“Do you have any idea of where to start?” Shiori tentatively asked. 

There was the slightest pause before Asenath exhaled. “I do have one thing. Sariel was able to find a single memory, the name of another Akharu. She thinks he was with my father when all of that happened. He might know more about the situation.” 

“Right.” Flick straightened up, giving the other girl a thumbs up. “Then we find this other Akharu to get answers. Uh, do we have any idea how to do that, exactly?” 

“That will take some time too,” Asenath admitted. “All I have at the moment is a name. Not even his real name, the one he uses here on Earth. In fact, you might’ve heard of him. 

“Grigori Rasputin.” 

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By Blood 17-13 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Despite the fact that we had succeeded in rescuing the prisoners, the mood as we prepared to get the hell off this planet was somber, to say the least. My peers and I might not have known Tribald Kine that well, but I had still liked him. Hell, he was the one who had originally sent me to check out the photograph in the Crossroads hallway that gave away the fact that my mother had once attended there. He set me on this whole path, in a way. And the others… Deveron, Klassin Roe, and the Dornans had all gone to school with him. He was one of their oldest friends (and teammate, in some cases). Kohaku and Tangle had both known him as a child. They taught him. They–god damn it. Now he was dead, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

I couldn’t even summon his ghost. I tried, wanting to bring him with us. But there was no response. I even had the others boost me, and the adults made a small portal back to the prison camp. It was too tiny for anyone to get through, and in an out-of-the-way spot, just enough that I could find a connection to his ghost if it was back there. But it wasn’t. It should have been, but it just…. wasn’t there. Nor were any other ghosts, despite the fact that I knew for a fact others had died. It was like someone else had gotten there first, which…

The point was, I couldn’t summon him, which made this entire thing even worse. I felt like a failure as we carefully wrapped his body up and put it in one of the separate magical storage bags. He would stay safe there until we got back home so he could be buried properly. 

No. No, he wouldn’t be safe. He was dead. The correction blared in my mind as I closed my eyes tightly and turned away from the sight of the Dornans carefully putting the bag in the truck. On the other side of the clearing, I could see Tangle and Kohaku talking to the conscious prisoners, getting them organized to get on the truck so we could leave before the Eden’s Garden people showed up and turned this into a brawl again. I was done fighting for the moment. Hopefully for a long moment. There had been more than enough of that already. 

Avalon stood beside me, quietly speaking up. “I thought we made it without losing anyone.” 

“So did I.” As my voice murmured that, I found her hand and squeezed it. “We were close. And he would have been happy that we got the prisoners out.” Even as I said that, the words felt hollow and empty. Of course he would have liked that. But he also would have liked it to get out of there with his own life. And now I couldn’t even summon his ghost? This sucked. This whole thing was just–I wanted to leave. I really, desperately wanted to leave and never see this planet again. Between Heretics enslaving innocent people, fighting for my life repeatedly, and giant monsters fueled by blood sacrifices or whatever the fuck, if I ever saw this planet again once we left, it would be too soon. 

And yet, even as I had that thought, something made my head turn to look into the nearby trees. Nothing. There was no one there. If the Eden’s Garden people had found us, all the adults here would have reacted. They weren’t that distracted. But they just kept going about their business, getting ready to leave. 

“What?” Avalon asked, her gaze shifting between me and the woods where I was staring. I could feel her tense a bit beside me, clearly getting ready to call out a warning. 

“Nothing,” I started, before correcting myself. “I mean, I don’t think it’s anything. Just the same feeling as when we were going through the woods earlier. Like someone or something is watching. You don’t feel that?” 

There was a brief pause as the other girl considered before her head shook slowly. “No. I felt it before, but nothing right now. You still feel it?” 

A slight grimace found its way to my face before I sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m just making it up in my head because I’m paranoid at the moment. Maybe part of me just wants there to be something else to fight so I can stab something. I just–” Swallowing the thick lump in my throat, I set myself before starting to walk. “Come on, let’s check it out. Don’t worry, we’re not going to disappear into the forest, I just want a closer look.”

The twins joined us as we moved that way, and a quick consultation revealed that Sands didn’t feel anything, but Sarah did. Although she was just as unsure as I was about whether this was a real thing or just paranoia. The four of us got closer to the trees while I tried to determine where the feeling of being watched was coming from. A glance toward Sarah was met with a helpless shrug. She had no idea either. And yet, we could both still feel eyes on us. It was a creepy feeling, to say the least. Especially considering the other two didn’t feel it. Between that and the fact that we still didn’t know if it was real or just a product of our imagination… yeah. Walking toward those trees wasn’t the most fun time I’d had. I felt my stomach twisting a little the closer we got. It made my breathing instinctively get faster and deeper, like when I used to sneak peeks at scary movies as a kid when I wasn’t supposed to. The hair on the back of my neck kept standing up, and it felt like every step could result in the ground falling out from under me. I could almost hear the agitated violins in the soundtrack growing closer and closer to a terrible screech. Everything else had disappeared. I couldn’t think about the rescued prisoners, poor Tribald, or even about the fact that we had to leave before the Garden people counterattacked. I was barely cognizant of the others walking with me. The only thing that mattered, the only thing that existed, was whatever it was in that forest that happened to be staring at me. 

A hand caught my arm, stopping me in place. Only then did I consciously realize that Avalon had been repeating something for the past few seconds. I had somehow completely tuned out her voice. Now, she yanked me around, speaking louder. “Flick. What are you doing?” 

“Huh?” Blinking a few times, I looked around. We were much closer to the trees than I had planned on getting. Nearby, Sands was holding Sarah quite similar to the way Avalon was holding me. It looked like the other girl was snapping out of whatever she had been under too. 

“I–” Swallowing once more, I shook my head. “I don’t know. It just felt like I had to keep going. I wasn’t paying attention. I wasn’t–” Cutting myself off, I gave an uneasy look over my shoulder toward the trees. The feeling of being watched was still there, but it had lessened. Now it was more like idle curiosity. Which was still enough to make me shiver a bit. “Come on, let’s get back over there. We need to get the hell off this planet.” The words ‘while we still can’ tried to emerge, but I forced them back down. No way was I going to curse us like that. 

The four of us made our way back over to the others, where Deveron was waiting. The man clearly had a lot to deal with. I could see the emotions in his eyes even as he pushed them back to focus on the matter at hand, asking what happened. So, we explained the whole thing, starting with the fact that we had felt something watching us as we walked through the forest on our way to the prison, and now what had just happened to Sarah and me. 

Taking that in, Deveron frowned and looked past us toward the woods. His eyes scanned it as though he was trying to determine if there was anything dangerous, before the man sighed. “I don’t know. I don’t see anything, but–we need to leave.” 

“That’s what I said,” I murmured before adding, “I wonder if what we are feeling has anything to do with that monster in the prison cave.” 

Deveron blinked at me, frowning. “What monster in the prison cave? Wait, Jasmine and the others were talking about some big fight down there. What was that?”

Wincing, I gestured. “It’s kind of a long story, and we don’t have a lot of time, do we?” 

“I have no idea how much time we have, but let’s err on the side of caution,” he replied before giving a sharp whistle, raising his voice to be heard through the clearing. “Everyone on the truck, we’re getting out of here! We’ll sort out details once we’ve got some distance between us and this damn place.” Even as he said that, the man was already walking that way, waving for the rest of us to follow. 

Before going anywhere, I gave the woods one last glance. Whatever was in there that had been watching us, whether it had something to do with the monster we had killed or not, I wasn’t willing to just dismiss the whole thing as a figment of our imaginations. We had definitely felt something. But it seemed like a mystery that would go unsolved, given we weren’t going to be sticking around any longer. And I, for one, wasn’t quite so obsessed with learning the truth that I would be willing to change that. If there really was something in those woods that kept watching us, it could just go ahead and stay there. 

So, we all loaded onto the truck. There wasn’t quite enough room for all of us plus the conscious prisoners in the living area, given it hadn’t been intended to hold this many people. But we were able to shift the supplies in the main area around and drop a few crates. The supplies were intended to provide water and food for the whole prison for a few weeks, So we weren’t losing much by leaving a little bit behind. It allowed us to get more room in there for everyone, which became a bit more comfortable once we took some blankets and pillows out of the cupboards and laid them down over the floor. 

Two of the prisoners who were awake and moving around were trolls, so they took up a large portion of the space we cleared out. They looked bewildered by everything that was going on, but tentatively friendly enough. They also didn’t seem to speak much English or Latin, but followed instructions cheerfully enough when they were accompanied with hand gestures. One of the other conscious prisoners, an orc who introduced himself as Teragn (terrain), said that the Heretics had simply referred to the trolls as three-oh-oh-two and three-oh-oh-three. Or just Two and Three for short. Whether they had any actual names or not nobody knew, but they responded to those names for the moment. And, again, we really didn’t have time to get into details just yet. We mostly just pantomimed at the two trolls for them to sit, and gave them a large ball of cheese and a ham from one of the boxes. They really loved that and immediately proceeded to start making ham and cheese sandwiches. Which, in their case, meant using ham as the bread and cheese in the middle. 

Soon, we had all of them on the truck. Including the still-unconscious Eden’s Garden Heretic who had apparently turned traitor. Kohaku had gone over the man with a fine-toothed comb to find any tracking spells or devices, but came up short. Still, they were keeping him secured with those cuffs and magically asleep, lying on a cot in the living area so we could talk to him later. 

Once everyone was onboard, Deveron hauled the heavy doors shut. He gave a quick glance to the clearly still terrified and confused prisoners sitting around, before speaking as gently as possible. “It’s okay. I know you don’t have much reason to believe this, but you’re safe with us. We’re going back to Earth, then you can do whatever you want from there. We’ll… we’ll talk about it on the way. Right now–” 

“They’re on us.” That came from Kohaku, who was looking at what looked like an ordinary smartphone. There was a slight grimace on her face. “No more time for explanations, we need to jump now.”  

With a muttered curse, the man immediately darted to the control board on the wall. You could also initiate the jump from the cab of the truck, but this was quicker right now. Opening the panel revealed a keypad where the coordinates were supposed to be put in, and a lever to activate it. That was how it looked normally. But now there were eight glowing little gemstones attached to the console as well. The stones were essentially magical batteries, storing a bunch of power we’d brought with us from home. And now they were plugged into the teleportation system.

The truck abruptly started to jerk backward, as if a large hand had grabbed onto it. Several people cried out, but Deveron simply shook his head. “Not today,” he muttered before yanking on the lever. 

And with that, we were gone. Whatever hand or power had been trying to pull the truck was left behind as we instantly transported off the planet. In my imagination, I could almost hear the Eden’s Garden people screaming as the truck vanished right in front of their eyes.

Instead of letting go of the lever when the jump happened, Deveron shoved it up into the default position, gave us all a look, and then yanked it down a second time. We jumped again. Of course, we weren’t dumb enough to make a single jump and allow them to track us. Each time the truck transported, two of those initial eight gemstones went dark. It allowed us to make four rapid jumps, each one bringing us slightly closer to Earth. 

By the time the fourth jump happened, the truck was shuddering and making unhappy noises. Plus the transport console was giving off a little smoke. I’d asked why we couldn’t just make every jump we needed to go straight back home instead of only going slightly over halfway, and this was the answer I’d been given. The truck could only stand up to so many transports at one time, even with extra power. Four was apparently pushing it, and no one wanted to see what happened if we went for five. It wouldn’t do us any good to push so hard to get home, only to blow up or materialize in the middle of empty space with a broken transport system. 

We also weren’t going to their normal jump points. Instead, Athena had given us a list of habitable moons along the way, and those were the coordinates we used. Just for fun, those first three jumps had been to a desert moon, an ice moon, and a forest moon. Just so those chasing us could have the full original trilogy Star Wars experience. 

Once the truck settled a bit and we were all certain it wasn’t going to catch fire on us, Deveron breathed out and nodded to Tangle, who was standing by the main door. At his nod, she unlatched it and hauled the door up, to reveal… rocks. Lots of enormous boulders all around us. 

“Look, Herbie,” I announced while hopping down onto the gravel-covered ground. I had the heroic stone in question in my palm already, turning in a circle so he could see. “It’s your homeworld.”   

As planned, the place we had landed looked like a large quarry. And in this case, large meant the size of a full city back on Earth. The rocks varied in size from pebbles all the way up to boulders the size of skyscrapers. According to Athena, there was some sort of special material within the rocks that would help block scanners if our pursuers actually made it this far. Which was doubtful to begin with, but being extra careful didn’t hurt anything.  

Tangle and the Dornans stayed with the conscious prisoners back there to tell them exactly what was going on, and who we were. Meanwhile, Asenath, Twister, Shiori, Jazz, Gordon, and Doug worked with Klassin to check on the unconscious prisoners and try to see what we could do for them. 

Which left Avalon, Sands, Sarah, and me to talk to Kohaku and Deveron about exactly what we had seen down in that cave. The six of us walked a little bit away from the truck, standing near a rock that was a good thirty feet tall and almost as wide. There, we carefully went through the whole story. We told them about the carvings we had seen and about the big hole in the floor that had clearly been covered with a forcefield at one point. And, of course, we told them about the way those tubes had clearly been draining blood from the prisoners into the hole. 

When we got to the part about the giant monster and began to describe it, I could see a flash of what looked like recognition on both their faces, before they smothered it and told us to go on. They clearly knew something, but weren’t willing to get into it just yet. Not until we told them the whole story. 

The others obviously noticed too, because when we finished, Sands folded her arms and focused on them. “You guys know something about that thing, don’t you? Come on, we killed it, you can at least tell us what the fuck it was.” 

With a heavy sigh, Kohaku shook her head. “That’s the problem, you probably didn’t actually kill the main thing. Just one of its… extensions.” 

“Extensions?” I echoed that, frowning. “You mean like the whole Nuckelavee thing? Like how they’re extensions or… or creations of that Lotan monster under the ocean?”

“Something like that,” Deveron confirmed. “Deep-Walker is just one of the names it has. No one knows very much about it, but from what I’ve heard, the thing basically… infects worlds. You know how Seosten possess people? This thing possesses planets. It produces monsters a lot like that thing you fought, and killing one of them doesn’t hurt the Deep-Walker any more than killing a Nuckelavee hurts Lotan. And… and they’re usually even stronger than that. I think you managed to get what amounts to a baby.” 

“If that was a baby,” Sands managed weakly, “I really don’t want to run into the adult version.” 

“No,” Kohaku agreed firmly, “you don’t. Nobody does. Which probably means that was what was watching us in the woods. The Deep-Walker infests planets and then controls every aspect of them. Well, eventually anyway. It takes time for it to get control.” 

“But what was it–I mean what were they–” Cutting myself off, I made a noise deep in the back of my throat. “Were they feeding it?” 

Sarah spoke up then. “Taming it.” 

Deveron cursed several times loudly, before nodding. “You know, I think that’s exactly what that stupid son of a bitch was doing. Kyril Shamon had that mountain mined out specifically to find those tunnels and then built that place to feed blood into the–he’s trying to tame and control that fucking–it’s a world-ender and he’s trying to make it his fucking pet!” 

He and Kohaku stepped aside for a minute, conversing quietly with each other. Which left Avalon, Sands, Sarah, and me by ourselves. I looked at Sands. “Do uh, do you have any idea what you got from that thing?” 

She didn’t. Fortunately, I had a Tabbris on-call. As I used our connection to let my little sister know that we had successfully escaped with the prisoners, and about our single casualty, she projected herself to me. Not a full recall. We didn’t want to pull her away from the station for that long, not when she had her newly-arrived siblings to spend time with. But she could at least temporarily project to me. 

Sorry about Mr. Kine, her voice spoke hesitantly in my mind. 

Me too, I agreed. Can you tell the others back there so they… so they know? Is my mom– 

She’s not back from her thing yet, came the response. But somebody will tell her, I… maybe Abigail? 

I nodded a bit. That’s not a bad idea. Or Deveron when he calls to check in. I think–anyway, we made it. And we’re bringing his body back. With that, I gave her a quick rundown of what had happened, with the other girl reading my mind to fill in some of the blanks. Then I asked, Sands doesn’t know what she has, so… 

She agreed to help, and I asked Sands for permission to possess her. Once she had given it, I took her offered hand and disappeared. It only took a minute for Tabbris to reach through her connection to me and scour what Sands was capable of, then report back to me.

Oh, she announced once I stepped out of the other girl, um, I think Spark needs some help. 

Go, I urged, shaking my head at how guilty she sounded. It’s okay. Thanks for the help. We’re safe now. We’re out of there, and we’ll be home in a few days. I’ll check in later too. 

If… if you’d really needed me back there, with that monster, you would’ve let me know, right? Tabbris sounded hesitant, like part of her still felt guilty for not coming along in the first place. 

Of course, I assured her. That’s the fun part of having the whole recall thing, right? Now go have fun. Or whatever. Help your other sister. 

Her presence faded from my mind before I looked back over to the expectantly-waiting Sands. “Well?” she pressed, practically bouncing on her toes. 

“Well,” I echoed, before leaning in to whisper in her ear. 

Taking in everything I said, Sands gave a double-take. “Are you serious?” When I nodded, she flashed a short grin before gesturing. “Back up. Everyone back up.” 

The three of us did, with Avalon and Sarah giving me a curious look. Once we were out of the way, Sands cracked her neck. She had to focus for a few seconds, finding the right… trigger or whatever. Even though I’d told her what she could do, it still took a bit of time to figure out how to do it. In the meantime, I called a warning over to Deveron and Kohaku, who turned to watch.

But, after a few seconds, she found it. Instantly, Sands grew in size until she stood a solid thirty feet tall. She was gigantic and could apparently take an absurd amount of damage, even considering the size. Not quite as much as the monster in the tunnel, but still a lot. 

Okay!” Sands spoke, voice booming out. “I think I can get used to this.” 

“Better not get too used to it!” I shouted up at her. “I’m pretty sure you won’t fit in the truck like that!” 

Fitting in the truck was definitely something she had to do. We might’ve had to stop to let things recharge, and there were the prisoners to deal with, both of the conscious and unconscious variety. Not to mention the fact that we had to keep an eye out for pursuers. There was plenty of work to be done. But what mattered right now was that we… most of us anyway, had gone into that prison, saved the people we went there for, and got out. Now it was time to go home. 

And for Asenath and Gordon to officially be reunited with their fathers.

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By Blood 17-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Thankfully, I wasn’t out for long. When I came to a short time later, Doug was sitting over me, using one of the enchanted stones we’d all received from the adults to give me a bit of energy. Sort of like smelling salts mixed with strong coffee. My eyes blinked away the blurriness until I managed to focus on him, then started to sit up. 

“It’s okay,” he assured me. “Fight’s over. They’re… trying to figure out how to open the tubes and get everyone out without hurting anyone.” He looked over his shoulder, and I followed the boy’s gaze to where everyone else was, sure enough, working on that. Even Sands was up and moving around, talking animatedly to her sister as they crouched behind one of the tubes.

“Checking for traps?” I asked, my gaze turning toward the dead body of the giant monster. It was still there, and still just as horrifying. Okay, maybe slightly less horrifying dead than it had been when it was alive. But I still wasn’t going to get anywhere near it. Still, I took a second to stare at the thing, feeling a sense of awe and satisfaction both about the fact that we had managed to kill it, and that all those people who had been sacrificed to bring it to life had had a part in taking the the damn thing down. I’d felt their own intense relief just before they passed on.  

Doug confirmed that before hesitating. “I think I should use my question, but I’m not sure. What if we need it later for getting out of here? I’ve only got the one.”  

I knew what he was talking about, it was that thing where he could ask a question once per day and get either the answer or be directed toward the answer. It was the same thing that had pointed his team toward me when he’d asked how they could find out what was really going on with Roxa. And now he could either use it to ask how to get the prisoners out of those tubes, or save it in case we needed an answer to a more dire and immediate problem later. It had to be a hard choice to make every time he made it out in the field like this. How was he supposed to know if using his single question at any given point was the right time? It was a lot of pressure. I didn’t even like using limited quantity items in video games, let alone something like this. 

Still, I only hesitated for a moment in this case before giving a short nod. “Use it. The sooner we get them out of there and moving, the sooner everyone gets off this planet. That’s gotta be worth it.” 

Letting out an audible breath, Doug hesitated to think before starting. “Okay, well here goes nothing. How do we safely get the prisoners right there out of the tubes without harming any of them or setting off any traps?” His voice turned somewhat eerie through that, gaining a slight echoey quality to it. 

While waiting for him to get an answer to that, I looked over to where Asenath and Shiori were standing together in front of the tube that Tiras was in. His daughter had a hand against the side, clearly overwhelmed by the fact that she was seeing him in person for the first time since she was a child. Even now I couldn’t make him out very well, but she knew him. And for Asenath, ‘since she was a child’ had been a very long time indeed. I couldn’t even imagine the emotions that were going through her mind at that moment. Especially considering she was that close to him, but still couldn’t talk to him yet.  All those years and all that distance, and now the only thing between them was this tube, but she couldn’t get through it. Not yet, anyway. 

Gordon had found his father too. Standing at the far end of the line of tubes, the boy had his arms folded across his chest while he stared silently at the figure within. As always, it was hard to judge his emotions solely from the flat expression on his face but I had a feeling there were a lot swirling inside him.  

With a slight gasp, Doug started and gave a sharp shake of his head. He glanced toward me briefly before starting that way at a jog. “Hang on,” the boy called, “I know how to get them out! But uhh, they’re gonna be out of it for awhile. They won’t wake up even after we get them out of the tubes, so we’re gonna have to carry them or…” Trailing off, he frowned while taking in the amount of prisoners. Three rows of ten. Thirty prisoners. We didn’t have nearly enough people down here to carry that many. 

Fortunately, we had come prepared for that, just in case the people we were rescuing weren’t in any condition to move on their own. Granted, we were anticipating injuries or something like that, not some sort of stasis coma. 

“We’ll have to use the blankets,” Avalon murmured. “Get them out, guys.” To Doug, she added, “How do we open them up?”  

Sands, Sarah, Shiori, Jazz, and I started to pull ‘the ‘blankets’ out. They were the same sort of magical storage blankets that Kohaku had used to store the body of that Heretic up in the lighthouse. When they were placed over someone, the blanket would shift them into a special pocket dimension (one with oxygen, of course). Each blanket could be used multiple times to store up to ten people. So we had plenty for this. 

Of course, that raised another thought in my mind. We had seen prisoners walking around outside when we first arrived, doing work for these people. Where were they now? We hadn’t run into them on the way down here, so I hoped they were taking cover in one of the buildings so we could find them before we left. Or maybe Kohaku and the others already had. Either way, we just had to deal with these ones. 

By the time we got the blankets ready to go, Doug had already taken Avalon, Gordon, Shiori, and Asenath over to what at first looked like just an ordinary boulder near the wall. But when he ran his hand over it, the hologram vanished, revealing a console. He quickly started typing in a complicated sequence on the keypad there, and as he did so, each of the tubes gave an affirmative beep. Then the liquid in them started to drain out. Where it went I wasn’t sure, but it was gradually disappearing, leaving the bodies within to slump down. Then the ‘glass’ of the tubes rose upward, leaving an opening while the still-unconscious prisoners simply fell limply against the floor of their containment units. Not the most graceful way of getting them out, but at least it worked. We didn’t exactly have time to worry about treating them like they were at a five star resort right at the moment, and I doubted the prisoners would care. 

Quickly, we all started to move in pairs, Avalon and I working together, to lay each prisoner out and put one of the blankets over them. The things were made to stretch a lot and shape themselves around the person being put under it, so it wasn’t that hard. Nearby, I could see Shiori and Asenath doing that with Tiras, while Jazz helped Gordon with his father. The whole time, I just kept imagining a clock ticking down. We had no idea if the Eden’s Garden people had even managed to get any sort of message out let alone how long it would take help to arrive. It was like being in a room where there could be a bomb, but we didn’t know if it existed or how much time was on it. Not to mention, whether there were reinforcements coming or not, the adults were still out there fighting against a numerically superior force, and the element of surprise had to have worn off by now. So, we had no idea if the Victor was on his way, or how Deveron’s group was doing out there, and the longer we took with this, the worse off the situation could be. Especially after we had already taken all that time to get down here and fight that fucking monster. Stressful, to say the least. Every second we took getting these unconscious figures under the blankets to store them safely felt like an hour. 

Finally, we had all of them put away. It had obviously been hard for Asenath and Gordon to be literally touching their fathers after all this time, only to shove them out of sight again. At least it was incredibly temporary, and they knew that. We just had to get the hell out of here. 

“Okay,” Senny announced while rising with the blanket that had her father and several others stored within slung over her shoulder, “someone let them know it’s time to bug out of here.” Her voice caught just a little in the middle of that, betraying a tiny bit of the intense emotions she had to be feeling. 

I already had the coin in my hand by the time she finished saying that. Rubbing my thumb over it, I murmured the words to trigger the spell. It grew warm in my palm before letting out a loud chiming sound. In that moment, the identical coins in the pockets of Deveron, Kohaku, and all the others out there would be going off. It was the signal to let them know we had the prisoners and were on our way out, so they needed to be ready. 

Collectively, our group exchanged glances. We were exhausted from the fight, some of us even more so from multiple fights. But we had to keep going. This was almost over. We were this close to being done and gone. So, we steeled ourselves, took a breath, and then turned to run back up the tunnel we had come down. I ignored how exhausted I felt after empowering all those ghosts to hold the beast down. I ignored everything, my fear of what would happen if Victor Kyril Shamon showed up, the joy at seeing Asenath and Gordon manage to get to their fathers, my anger at what the Heretics here had been doing–wait, no, scratch that. I held onto that. I used that anger and focused on it as I ran with the others, keeping pace with them so we could all remain in a group just in case there were any bad surprises waiting for us. 

Fortunately, there didn’t seem to be anything in our way. I supposed that anyone who was still up and moving was probably thoroughly distracted by the huge fight going on outside. They didn’t exactly have time to set up a trap for the rest of us. No matter how long the paranoid part of my brain kept screaming that this was taking, it was all still pretty quick in the grand scheme of things. 

Shortly before we reached the entrance, as we passed through familiar parts of the tunnel, Sarah produced a second coin with near-identical runes as the one I had used before we started running. Its spell was activated, alerting the others that we were about to emerge. The first coin told them we were on our way, this one told them we were right there and they should tell us if it was safe to come out or if we should wait. 

At first there was no response and we slowed slightly while exchanging looks. Did we keep going if they didn’t respond? Or did we hold off and try to find out what was–

There. Thank God, that wasn’t a decision we had to make. Just as I was starting to think that something terrible had happened, a glowing green arrow appeared in the air in front of us. That was the signal. We were good to go. The fighting wasn’t completely over, or the symbol would have been a thumbs up. A green arrow meant it was safe to go and fairly clear, but there were still threats out there so we should keep our eyes open. A raised red hand would have meant stop, and a yellow question mark would mean there were threats right in front of the entrance that we would need to engage with. This wasn’t the absolute best response, but still. 

So, we kept going, sprinting straight out of the tunnel, through the spot where the forcefield had been before Columbus took it down. Right there, at the mouth of the cave inside the hollowed-out portion of the mountain, the Dornan cousins stood using a wave of blue-white fire from their hands to block several separate incoming blasts of energy. The Eden’s Garden people were still attacking, but Seamus and Roger were shielding the area. Tangle, looking a bit worse for wear and bloodied, was standing to one side, clearly watching for us. As we emerged, she shouted something to the other two, then beckoned for us to hurry. 

We didn’t see anyone else. They must’ve been fighting elsewhere, however, because I could hear shouting and explosions and… more going on in the distance. This place was a complete warzone, and something told me it was just going to get worse as the defenders warmed up. Let alone if they actually managed to summon reinforcements. 

Shoving that out of our minds, we ran straight toward Tangle. As we approached, the woman threw something toward the ground. It sprang up to form a door. A literal door standing right in the open, like the one I had taken to get to Crossroads. It was closed at first, but she shoved it open to reveal a clearing with black-gray trees and orange dirt on the other side. Still a place on this world, but away from the immediate fighting. A place to regroup so we could leave. 

Bobbi went through the door first, then Doug, Twister, Shiori, and the rest of us followed right behind. I was last, pausing just long enough to shout toward Tangle, “Everyone else?!” 

“Heading out right after you!” She glanced to me while shouting that. “Go!” 

Even as she said that, I could see the blue-white flame shield that Seamus and Roger were projecting start to flicker as more and more attacks hit it. Clearly, it wasn’t going to hold for much longer. Especially as the Heretics on the far side noticed the flickering and renewed their efforts. The blasts they were hitting it with were like artillery shells exploding against a forcefield of fire. It was going to fail any second now. And then, well, then we would really be in trouble. 

So, I went through the door, stumbling a bit in my rush. Then I was in that clearing with the others, who were already catching their breaths. Shiori quickly grabbed me in a hug that also pulled me away from the door just as Tangle came through. She was followed by Roger, then Seamus. Past the two of them, as I looked that way while still clutched by Shiori, I could see six Heretics coming straight toward us. They had spotted the door and were racing our way. One of them turned into a blur of motion, speeding straight at us so quickly he would’ve reached the door before anyone could react. 

At least, before I or any of my peers could react. Tangle’s hand snapped up as she turned back that way right after she and the cousins reached the clearing. A jet of water shot from her palm and between Roger and Seamus before expanding into a massive tidal wave the moment it passed the doorway. That tidal wave slammed into the approaching Heretic. I caught a brief glimpse of him attempting to fight his way through it and continue his forward momentum before the wave managed to shove him away from the door. 

That wasn’t the end of it, however. A circular blade shot through the doorway from that side, nearly embedding itself in Tangle’s throat before Roger snapped his hand out so that it embedded itself in his palm instead, making the man grunt. Meanwhile, Seamus grabbed the door to shove it closed, taking what had to be at least three or four blasts of energy against his arm and side, one of which destroyed half his shirt and left a truly nasty-looking burn across the lower half of his torso. It looked painful as fuck, to say the least. But the man showed no reaction other than to give a grunt similar to Roger’s when the blade had embedded itself in his hand.

In the next second, he had the door shut. The instant the latch clicked, the whole thing vanished. We were–okay, not safe. Not in the least. But assuming they had set this up the way we planned, we were now hundreds of miles from the prison. It would take them time to find us. Time we could use to get out of here on the– I looked around. There. The truck was waiting about a hundred feet away, just as pristine as it had been when we left it to make our scouting and sabotage trip. 

“What about the others?” Avalon was asking, panting a bit from everything. “And the rest of the prisoners? There were some out and standing, but the ones we found–” 

“Deveron and the rest have them,” Roger informed us. He was pulling the blade out of his hand. Grimacing at it, the man focused until the blade turned to dust. His wound was already starting to heal. “That’s why we had to split up. They had a bunch of slaves holed up in a corner of the compound. One of their people tried to send a bunch of fire that way to kill them off for retribution or whatever, but another guard was shielding them.” 

“Wait,” I spoke up. “You mean one of the Eden’s Garden Heretics was shielding the prisoners from getting hurt? Someone sympathetic to our side?” 

Seamus, gingerly touching his burn with a wince, shrugged. “I think they called him Coppe. Just someone who didn’t think their prisoners deserved to die like that, I guess. Can’t make him very popular with the rest of his people, though.” 

“No, probably not,” Tangle confirmed before focusing on us. “But what happened down–” 

In the midst of that clearly very important question, another door opened up nearby. We all spun that way, weapons raised. But it opened to reveal Klassin Roe, who stumbled through looking about as good as any of the other adults here. One of his arms was literally missing, and he had a hard shell of half-broken ice across half his torso, as well as a deep burn across his forehead. Clearly barely keeping himself upright, the man held the door as Kohaku appeared, followed by Jiao. The moment they were through, the trio moved away from the door, allowing a line of neon-red jumpsuit-wearing prisoners, of all colors, shapes, and sizes to pass through. A couple of them were too big for the door as it was, but it rose and changed shape to accommodate them. Soon, in addition to the thirty unconscious slaves we had taken from the tubes, there were a dozen or so more standing around. They looked bewildered, anxious, afraid, clearly unconvinced that this was a real rescue. Which I couldn’t blame them for. Not after everything they had been through, especially if they had the slightest idea what had been done to their fellow prisoners down in the caves. 

Either way, the second the last prisoner was through, another man appeared. I didn’t recognize him, but he wasn’t in prisoner clothes. He was a guard, another Heretic. Tall and blond. As soon as he was there, Roger and Seamus caught him by the arm and yanked the man out of the way. They had a pair of cuffs on him almost immediately, and Tangle used a field-engraver to put a spell on the man’s arm. She said something to him, he gave a short nod, and then she said another word and he collapsed. Roger and Seamus stopped him from collapsing, gently lowering him to the ground.

The traitor, I had already realized. It was that Coppe guy, the guard who had shielded their prisoners against his fellow Heretics’ retribution. That’s why he was here with us, but they weren’t taking any chances. He was being secured and knocked out until we could figure out what to do. 

Meanwhile, Deveron had appeared. He was dragging something with him, kicking the door shut while explosions continued on the far side. I could hear someone scream his name with rage that sent a chill through me. It was the sort of anger that promised retribution. This wasn’t over. We still had to get off the planet before they tracked us down. 

But wait. Where was–

Then I saw what Deveron had been dragging, as he carefully laid it down on the grass. No, not it. Him. Tribald Kine. Motionless, his eyes staring sightlessly toward the sky. 

We had escaped with the prisoners, for the moment. But not without cost. 

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By Blood 17-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Right, so this giant spider-crocodile-man thing wasn’t just really big and scary-looking. It was also very angry and incredibly violent, both of which were demonstrated as it let out a loud, piercing scream and brought two of those massive legs up before slamming them down toward the spot where we were all standing. Sands threw up a stone wall with her mace, Bobbi created a forcefield, and Gordon an ice-wall. All three defenses were layered together, and the creature’s legs punched through all of them like they weren’t even there. Thankfully, we were all already diving out of the way, but still. Seeing those deadly legs just punch through the walls of ice, stone, and light that easily from the corner of my eye as I was throwing myself to the side gave some small idea of how dangerous this thing was. Definitely not something to take lightly. Really, it seemed like the smartest choice was to turn around and get the fuck out of here. And yet, we couldn’t run away. Not now. We had to deal with it, if we were going to get those guys out of their prison tubes. And there was absolutely no way that Gordon or Asenath would leave without their fathers. Not when they were this close. 

So, we had to fight this thing. And we had to do it quickly, before the Eden’s Garden people managed to summon reinforcements. But at least there were twelve of us, right? We could bring this thing down pretty quick with all of us working together. At least, I hoped we could. 

Using a quick burst from my staff to lift myself back to my feet the instant I hit the ground, I spun toward the spot where those two enormous spider-like legs had just slammed into the rocks and dirt, spraying both in all directions. The creature was still screaming, but I shouted over it. “Get it away from the tubes!” Even as those words escaped me, I was already running to one side while converting my staff to its bow form. An instant later, I sent an energy arrow flying up to slam into the side of the thing’s monstrous humanoid head. The concussive blast barely seemed to register. The three eyes visible on its left side glared down at me, before the thing brought another of those ten legs out in a contemptuous swat, like I would when slapping a particularly annoying and persistent fly out of my face. 

Another quick kinetic burst from my staff launched me up and over the bus-sized leg. But while I was still in mid-air, a small opening appeared on the side of the creature’s neck, like a blowhole or something. But this didn’t suck in air. Instead, it shot this blob of sticky webbing that slammed into me. The next thing I knew, I was hitting the floor with this stuff wrapped tightly around me and holding me down. I couldn’t move, encased as I was in this sticky webbing. And it smelled awful, like rancid milk. Worse, it was starting to burn. Not like fire. Like acid or something. It felt like that, anyway. 

Thankfully, I wasn’t trapped that way for long. Even as my body had started to register the pain, Doug was right there. His hand rose, projecting what looked like a welding torch flame from his palm while he touched the webbing with his other hand. The flame cut right through the web, but didn’t hurt me at all, even though it should have been going straight into my side. As soon as I was free, he turned the blowtorch power to his own hand, cutting the webbing off that as well. 

The monster was starting to follow up already, lifting one of those legs. But before it could bring the leg down, Avalon screamed fire at it. Literally. She opened her mouth and flames shot that way. Flames which turned into a bird and flew right up into the side of the monster’s head.  She actually seemed more surprised than it was, mouth still open as she stood there frozen briefly. 

I and several others shouted a warning as the monster swung its leg back that way, abandoning its attack on Doug and me to instead swat at the source of that fire bird. At the last second, I saw metal armor encase Avalon, just before she took the blow from the leg. It launched her up and backwards against the rock wall, but she landed on her feet. 

Right, so we knew two of the powers she’d gotten from the guy in the tower. 

Meanwhile, everyone else was fighting too. Bobbi’s speed-blurred form raced up an energy-construct track she had created before driving a blade into the side of the thing’s head. Asenath was right behind her with a knife, stabbing into one of its eyes. Gordon had hold of one of the legs and was freezing it solid. Recovering from her fall, Avalon (still encased in armor) drove one of her gauntlet energy blades into the leg that had smacked her, while Shiori sent both of her electricity-covered discs flying up into another pair of eyes on the far side. Jazz had conjured her gravity orbs near another of its legs, trying to yank it off balance that way while Avalon and Gordon attacked its legs on this side. Twister turned into a bird, flying up to land on its back before transforming into a lion to bite into the base of the thing’s neck. Sarah had her rifle up, shooting multiple times into other eyes from several directions at once. Sands turned into her shadow-form, sliding up one of the thing’s legs to its back behind Twister before bringing her mace up toward the roof of the cave. With a grunt, she slammed it downward, bringing a sharp pillar of stone out of the ceiling to stab into the creature’s back. Finally, Columbus sent a blast of energy from his goggles into the creature’s long, exposed throat. 

And none of it seemed to accomplish anything. Columbus’s blast hit the neck with no apparent reaction. Everyone stabbing or shooting into the thing’s eyes had their attacks bounce off as if the eyes themselves were made of steel. Twister’s teeth couldn’t puncture its neck, and the stone pillar that Sands had conjured crumbled as it struck the thing’s back. Even Avalon, Gordon, and Jazz had no luck. The energy blade did nothing to one leg, the ice had barely settled on the second before the creature simply snapped it outward to send shards flying everywhere, and if it noticed the pull from the gravity orbs, it didn’t give any indication. 

But no matter how easily it had shrugged off every attack, the creature was still very angry. Not that it showed that through the scream. In fact, the scream itself had completely stopped. Instead, the monster made a dark, violent noise, like a growl. Its head turned a bit, as though it was considering us. Then a smile came across its face, showing those rows of deadly teeth. It saw us, evaluated us, and found us to be no real threat. And yet, threat or not, it was still going to kill us. 

“Flick, can you possess it?!” Columbus shouted across the cavern at me. 

Grimacing, I created a portal in front of my hand. I hadn’t really done a lot of possessing animals (if that was even what this thing was), but if it would stop it from being a threat… I shoved my hand through to grab the side of the monster’s leg, making physical contact before using my stolen Seosten power. 

I was in the creature. And yet, I was not in control. I felt bottomless, unfathomable rage. I felt destruction. I felt the unfathomable, unrelenting fury of a full legion of monsters stuck within the body of one. A hundred, a thousand voices in that head, each of them crying out for more death, more violence, for blood to be spilt upon the altar of their endless thirst. It was as though every dark impulse, every drive toward savagery and cruelty, had been drawn from thousands of beings and shoved into this single mind. If it could even be called that. This creature, this monster, had the violent desires of all those different minds, each clamoring for more destruction. I couldn’t control or direct it any more than I could tell a planet where to move. 

For a moment, I thought I would lose myself within that horrific tide of sadistic barbarity. But at the last possible second, I remembered to eject myself. And eject I did, flying through the air to land hard on the ground almost directly next to where I’d been a moment earlier. Crashing down, I managed a weak, “Don’t.. do that. Bad. Very bad.” 

“Then we do it the hard way,” Avalon announced, after giving me a quick glance to make sure I was okay. When I struggled upward, she snapped her attention back to the creature. “Don’t spread out your attacks!” she shouted while backpedaling a bit. “Focus on one eye and one leg at a time! Make a hole and punch through it! Chambers, Porters, Lucases, and Asenath on the eyes! The rest of us on the legs! One target at a time til you do some damage!” 

Even as she said those words, the creature was sending several shots of webbing from multiple holes in its long neck, forcing everyone to dive out of the way. I barely managed to avoid being hit that time. Which was good, because I had absolutely no desire to end up trapped by that shit again.  

Giving a quick nod and mutter of good luck toward Doug, I ignored the nausea that had swam up in me at the memory of what possessing that thing had felt like and shoved myself into a sprint, gripping my weapon tightly as I shifted it back into its staff form. Bobbi leapt down toward me, coming my way so fast she was almost still a blur. Without missing a beat, I held my staff up for her to grab onto it before pivoting in place to hurl the smaller girl in the direction of one of the legs so she could maintain her speed. In mid-flight, she produced a glowing red energy sword before slamming it into one of the joints. Still no damage. 

But I couldn’t think about that, other than to hope that one of their attacks eventually got through. My sprint, by that point, had carried me close enough to the monster that I was able to leap and summon my new rocket-burst power to carry myself all the way up to its scaled back, landing almost exactly where Columbus had been a moment earlier. 

Sands was still there, pivoting around to put herself next to me. Even as she did that, I was already pointing my staff toward the thing’s ring of eyes. “It’s cool, I’ve got this!” With those words, I sent my super-heated cloud of sand right there. Screwing with vision using my sand was sort of my thing, I could–

And then the creature sent what seemed to be high-powered blasts of wind out of its fucking tear ducts to blow the sand away from its face. The wind was too strong for me to get the sand close. 

“Okay,” I amended, “I don’t got this.” So I was zero for two in trying to end this thing instantly. Stellar track record, Flick. And on top of everything else, I could still feel that weird, silent voice at the back of my mind. Only now it was worse, like something was desperately trying to shove its way out, or dig its way in. I couldn’t tell. Either way, this was a bad place to be in. We needed to get the fuck out of here. But we couldn’t, not until we dealt with this thing and saved those prisoners. 

Sands and I exchanged a quick glance and shrug before moving onto Plan B (or whatever letter this was). Namely, we looked up toward that ring of enormous eyes once more, far above us at the end of that long neck. Then we both jumped. Our strength had been enhanced enough by that point that, even without a boost, we could get some decent vertical distance. And I added to that by catching hold of the other girl while triggering the rocket burst once more. It carried us the rest of the way up there, as we both lashed out with our weapons. My bladed staff and her mace both slammed into the eye one after the other with as much force as we could muster. Which, considering Sands was capable of lifting a good four thousand pounds even without the boosted strength from standing still, and killing the Heretic back on Earth had pushed me up to just over that, was a lot of force. 

But again, our blows did nothing. The creature barely blinked under the pair of attacks. I was pretty sure the most we managed to do was annoy it, considering the way it screeched. 

Nor did Columbus’s follow-up blast of concussive energy, Shiori’s lightning breath, or Asenath’s own blast of lightning breath (she had borrowed some blood from Shiori to gain her powers for this whole thing) manage to do much better. I had no idea how the others on the ground were doing with the leg, but I hoped they were getting further than we were. 

By that point, Sands and I had almost collided with the ceiling, flipping ourselves over as the other girl made a quick wall for us to bounce off of. Which was just in time, as the creature opened its mouth to send a long, sharp tongue at the spot where we would have been an instant earlier. The tongue was more like a rope, with a blade on the end that probably would have pierced straight through us considering how easily it punched right up into the stone ceiling. 

Right, so unbelievably tough to the point of taking half a dozen blows against one eye without even blinking, strong enough to basically pulverize any of us with those massive legs, a bunch of blowholes around its neck that each could shoot acidic, almost-inescapable webbing, and now the thing had a long, prehensile tongue with a blade on the end that could go through stone. Were there any other powers or advantages this thing wanted to pull out to show how drastically outclassed we were? 

Fuck, I really shouldn’t have asked. 

Sure enough, the monster seemed to read my mind. Because the instant that Sands and I landed next to the others, it immediately began to produce a thick cloud of dark purple smoke from the same tear ducts it had produced the wind from. Which was weird, unfair, and very clearly poisonous. I didn’t even need my power to smell poison to kick in (which it did) before I realized that. Before the gas could reach us, I blurted, “Don’t breathe it!” 

“Worse than that!” Columbus snapped. Bringing up Amethyst in her shield form, he fired four of her spell-quills outward. In mid-air, the spells activated at a word from him, each creating their own sustained blast of wind to send the gas out away from us in various directions. “It’s acidic and hallucinogenic.” His hand tapped the side of his goggles in explanation. “It’ll melt your face off while giving you a psychotic trip of your worst nightmares, like the Scarecrow in Batman!”

Okay, that was just… not good. Quickly, before those wind spells could wear off (I was pretty sure he didn’t have an unlimited supply of them) I spat a wad of that thick resin stuff over the nearest tear duct to stop the gas from that one. 

Thankfully, Sands was already acting too. From her hands, she shot two different lines of spider-like webbing over a couple more gas-producing tear ducts. Meanwhile, Sarah chambered a round in her rifle, snapped it up once more, and fired a shot. But instead of being a normal bullet, that one exploded into thick putty when it hit the tear duct on that particular eye, before solidifying. 

Of course, the monster wasn’t just going to sit still and let us do that. The whole time we were dealing with the terror-gas, it kept jerking itself violently back and forth in an attempt to throw us off its back. It was all we could do to stay on, and I was pretty sure we wouldn’t even have managed that much if this thing wasn’t also busy dealing with the others attacking its legs. 

Worse, it was simultaneously sending more shots of that nasty webbing of its own at us through the holes in its neck. But we still had Shiori and Asenath, who kept blasting the incoming webbing with directed sonic-attack screams from the Cù-Sith that Shiori had killed way back during the whole business with tracking down Fahsteth last year. The screams were a bit loud for us, but the power was focused enough that the bulk of the sonic energy was directed in a straight line toward the incoming webbing, breaking it apart and scattering it before the stuff could reach us. 

At that moment, just as we finished blocking the thing’s gas-producing tear ducts that could reach us, the entire monster abruptly lurched to one side with a horrifying scream of rage. It was the others. Through sustained, directed attacks that entire time, they’d managed to get one of its legs off. And boy was our new friend pissed about that. It staggered that way, very nearly throwing the rest of us off its back. Still, it had nine legs left, three of which were violently stabbing down at the others down there. They definitely had its attention. 

And hey, the good news right then was that the tear ducts were blocked, so I could use my sand again. Unfortunately, the bad news was that this thing had no intention of letting me get that far. The group below may have pissed it off, but it hadn’t forgotten we were there. As evidenced by the fact that several of those eyes were glaring straight at those of us on its back. Yeah, it definitely hadn’t forgotten we were there. And it was going to do something about that, before we could take advantage of its ‘vulnerable’ eyes. 

In this case, that ‘something’ turned out to be ‘hold itself up on two of its remaining nine legs (one on each side), continue to stab at the people down there with three of the seven free ones, and twist the other four around to stab upward at us. Like someone reaching their arm around to scratch their own back. Only, well, much worse. Four bus-sized sharp spider-feet slamming down toward us from all sides. 

We got out of there, barely. The six of us bailed in different directions just in time, launching ourselves off the thing before it could pulverize any of us. Unfortunately, now we were falling from pretty high. Not far enough to kill us, given our strength boosts. But still not great. Fortunately, I was ready for that. With a thought, I summoned some of my volunteer ghost friends, one for each of us. The six ghosts manifested, catching us under our arms as they turned solid just long enough to lower us to the ground so we could land on our feet. 

Immediately, I fell to my knees with a gasp, pitching forward before catching myself with my hands. A short distance away, I could half-see the giant monster flailing violently. Its leg shot out toward Doug, but he managed to manifest those metal coils from his hands to shove himself up and out of the way. The deadly tongue nearly tore through Gordon, but he summoned a pillar of ice under his feet to lift himself up while shooting the monster’s face repeatedly with his own tommy gun. On the far side from Doug, another leg nearly took Sands’ head off but she froze, making herself all-but completely invulnerable for that instant so the leg actually bounced off her. 

It flailed, shot out more webs, screamed, threw those deadly legs around in every direction, and more. Yet I simply knelt there, staring at the ground. Above my head, Shiori and Avalon appeared as though by magic, working together to stop a set of webbing that had been coming my way. 

“Flick!” Shiori blurted, “are you–” 

Shoving myself to my feet in a single, smooth motion, I brought my staff up. “Everyone get ready to hit it with everything you’ve got!” I shouted as loud as I could. “And I wish someone had a camera.

“Cuz this is gonna be epic.” 

With those words, I grasped my staff high over my head with both hands, and reached out with my power. With my necromancy. Because in the moment that I had summoned those few ghosts to catch us as we fell, I had realized what that feeling in the back of my head the entire time we’d been coming down into this cave was. I’d realized what was trying to get my attention, what had been clamoring for a bit of power, a bit of strength. With a scream that tore its way out of my throat like a force of nature as I slammed my staff into the ground, I gave them that power.

People had died in this cave. Not a few. Not a dozen. Not a hundred. Three thousand, four hundred, and eighty-five. All of them different ages, genders, and species. They had died here, as what amounted to blood sacrifices to create, empower, and feed this creature. In their terrible, traumatic deaths, ghosts had been left behind. At that moment, as I slammed my staff into the ground, I shoved every bit of power I could into those ghosts. I boosted myself for even more power, and I gave it all to them. Even then it probably wouldn’t have been enough to control that many ghosts with my particular skill level. But there was no controlling to be done here. I didn’t have to ask for them to do it. They were ready and waiting, desperate for a chance. 

Hey ugly!” I screamed as loud as I could, already wavering on my feet as the thing focused on me. My entire body was trembling from effort, sweat pouring down my brow. I could barely speak. “You got some friends…. who wanna say hi.” 

My staff collided with the floor of the cave, and in that instant, all three thousand, four hundred, and eighty-five ghosts launched themselves upward out of the cave floor, all around the monster. They caught its legs, its extended tongue, its neck, they fell upon its back. They drove it to the floor and they held it there through sheer weight of numbers. It flailed, it screamed, it struggled, but it could do nothing. It was held down, trapped, pinned by the ghosts of the very same people who had been sacrificed to create it. 

Just like that, the monster’s neck was exposed, and everyone hit it in those brief seconds. Everyone but me, at least. Every attack they had, every power, everything they could hit it with was directed to one spot on the thing’s neck. They blasted it, cut it, shot it, burned it, they hit that single, small spot together. And under that assault, they broke through. They cracked the thing’s scales, they made a hole. A hole that someone could take advantage of. 

Sands was that someone. Rearing back, the girl hurled something small that way, like a pitcher on the mound letting loose with a fastball. But this wasn’t a leather-covered cork orb. It was a piece of wood, with runes along the side. And as Sands let it go, sending the wood flying at the single exposed hole in the monster’s neck, she triggered the magic on that wood. 

She summoned her theriangelos, the massive red and pink rhinoceros. And that three thousand pound rhino went flying, as fast as a girl who could lift four thousand pounds could hurl a small block that weighed about five ounces, straight at the single weak point that everyone had created. 

The rhino utterly annihilated that weak point, tearing through the monster’s neck and out the other side. Sands had severed the monster’s head from its body, and as she collapsed with a cry of pleasure, I released the ghosts I had summoned. I felt their own relief, their gratitude, as they vanished forever. 

“See,” I managed blearily, swaying a bit on my feet, “told you it was gonna be ep–” 

And then I passed out.  

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

By Blood 17-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

The timing for our plan was incredibly crucial. We had to wait for enough of the guards to be thoroughly distracted by Deveron and the Dornans so the rest of us could jump them from behind. And if this whole thing worked the way it was supposed to, we would be doing that more than once. We just had to hit them just right. 

To that end, Kohaku and Tangle had the rest of us touch them and wait until enough of the guards had made their way to the gate on the far side of the complex below. Finally, it was time. There were still a few stragglers up on the buildings or coming out of side doors, but we couldn’t wait any longer. We needed enough of the guards to be over by the gate, yet if they got too far out, this wouldn’t work. So, with a word of warning, the two Heretic adults teleported all of us down to the roof of the building almost directly below us. There was a single guard there who had been taking aim with a rifle that looked a lot like Sarah’s. But even as he spun upon our arrival, Kohaku was driving her fist, abruptly shape-shifted into a glowing blade, into his gut. She cut him all the way up to his neck and then ripped her fist out. He was flailing and gasping until she transformed her hand back and caught both sides of his head so she could literally rip it from his body. It was brutal, efficient, and made my eyes widen as a noise of disbelief escaped me. The man had been gutted and then had his head torn from his shoulders before he even knew what was going on. Seeing it from this side was incredibly dark.

Meanwhile, Tangle wasn’t exactly slouching. There had been another Heretic coming out the door of the building we were standing on, and the former Crossroads teacher was already conjuring some sort of energy rope, which she threw around his neck like a noose before yanking him up to our level. He was choking and flailing even as she held the rope with one hand, produced some sort of knife with the other, and drove it into the top of his head. 

Both women acted together, and the whole thing took less than five seconds before the two guards were dead. I saw Kohaku and Tangle’s individual auras both flare, but if they noticed the rush of pleasure, neither reacted. Their attention was focused out on the yard itself, where we could see more Heretic guards racing around the fake smoldering remains of the transport truck on their way to deal with where they thought the main threat was coming from. 

Our main advantage throughout this whole thing, besides the element of surprise, was the fact that there weren’t incredibly powerful Heretics stationed here. At least relatively speaking. Honestly I thought the guy in the radio tower was powerful enough to be a problem. But the truth was that most of the people here were basically average. The strongest Eden’s Garden Heretics wouldn’t be guarding a backwater prison work camp with a few Alters digging out a mountain. They weren’t pushovers, by any means, but we weren’t dealing with the cream of the crop. And that was basically the only reason we had any chance of getting away with our small group performing a rescue mission. Especially now that we had cut off their ability to communicate easily with reinforcements. 

To the right, we could see another man come running out of the building there, shouting something about ‘the tower’ being down. Sure enough, he was pointing up toward the tower we had just come from, calling over his shoulder toward someone else inside the building. I could see him bracing himself for what was probably going to be a teleport up that way so he could figure out what was wrong with their radio. But then he caught sight of us on the roof of the other building, his attention snapping our way just in time for Tangle to hold her hand up. A strange set of dancing lights appeared in her palm. The man stopped short, staring at those rapidly moving glowing symbols with a slack-jawed expression. It only lasted for a brief moment, two seconds at most. But that was enough for Kohaku to appear behind him. And to the left of him. And to the right of him. While still standing right here with us. The two duplicate Kohakus on either side of the man caught hold of him, while the third pointed her hand into the back of his head and used the finger-laser I’d seen before. It took three or four shots, but the man went down. Which was just in time for a burst of flame from inside the building to engulf all three Kohaku clones and incinerate them. 

The regular Kohaku grimaced, then vanished from where she was standing, only to appear down there on the rear side of the building. As we watched, she raised her hands and then slammed them together. With that motion, the building crumpled in on itself, turning into a metal ball that was collapsed around the Heretic within. Unfortunately, he simply phased out of it, appearing in a ghost-like form with his gaze focused on Kohaku. 

Which meant he never noticed Tangle pointing a hand at him as she summoned a blast of electricity like the freaking emperor from Star Wars. The blast tore into his intangible form, seeming to hurt him even more than it would otherwise. With a scream, the man basically disintegrated. 

In what had to be less than thirty seconds, four Heretics were dead thanks to Kohaku and Tangle. Yes, we were taking them by surprise, and they were focused on other things. But still. 

That seemed to be all of the people who were right here, so we could move again. Our group hopped to the ground to join Kohaku, who was looking across the chaotic prison grounds. Her voice was terse. “Hit them now, hard as you can.” 

‘Them,’ in this case, were the Heretic guards on their way past the fake truck remains. They were in mid-sprint and hadn’t noticed the burst of violence behind them. We had to get their attention on us for this to work. So, Sarah brought her rifle to her shoulder and fired a shot, I transformed my staff into its bow-form to send an energy arrow that way, Avalon pointed one of her gauntlets to launch what looked like a bolt of energy similar to her constructs, and Sands drove her mace into the ground, sending a low, foot-high wall racing along the ground until it grew up and outward into a rock spike that slammed into one of the men. 

Between all those attacks and what Kohaku and Tangle sent that way as well, we definitely had some of the guards’ attention. They spun back toward us, bringing up their own weapons and powers. Which, for an instant, made this whole getting their attention thing feel like a bad idea. 

But, of course, there was a reason we wanted them to look at us. And that reason showed itself before they could launch their counterattack. From the fake rubble where they had been hiding, our companions abruptly appeared. Columbus rose, using his goggles to fire a blast of energy into one man’s side. Though strong enough to punch through rock like it was paper, the blast barely made that guy stagger a bit. He looked toward Columbus, just before Shiori launched herself at him from the side, her fist slamming into his face. Which didn’t do a lot on its own, but then six or seven glowing energy-like duplicate Shioris copied the same motion. That was enough to make him reel a bit, which was when Columbus brought both his hands together and shoved hard, sending a blast of kinetic force into the man that was hard enough to knock him a good twenty feet. And before he could crash to the ground, Bobbi was there in a blur of motion, catching the guy in the back as he was falling with a glowing energy construct of a fist the size of a small car. 

Shiori, Columbus, and Bobbi all hit that guy, while Jazz, Douglas, and Gordon hit another one, Tribald Kine and Klassin Roe hit a third, and Jiao and Asenath jumped a fourth. This was how we were hitting them, how our plan worked out to triple-ambush the prison guards. First Deveron and the Dornans unexpectedly attacked them from one side. Then, as they were running to deal with that, Tangle, Kohaku, and the rest of our group hit them from behind. And as the guards we hit were turning to deal with us, the others rose from their places hidden in the supposed wrecked remains of the truck to attack both the ones who kept going toward the gate and the ones who turned to deal with us. No matter which way they turned, the Eden’s Garden people were getting hit from behind by someone. 

Suffice to say, they were all having a bad day. And it was only going to get worse for them. They were stuck reacting to something that they hadn’t known anything about practically a minute ago. Up to that point, this had been a perfectly ordinary, mundane evening for them. And now they were under direct assault from what had to feel like all sides. They didn’t have time to adjust to what was happening, whereas our group had been planning this literally for weeks. We knew what we were doing, and we certainly weren’t going to give them time to recover. 

To that end, the second we had their attention and caught the guards between all our groups, Kohaku pointed toward the hole in the mountain. Specifically, to the cave entrance leading into what still remained of the mountain that hadn’t already been dug out. “You know your parts. Stay together, be careful.” 

That was all she had to say. Without missing a beat, Avalon, Sands, Sarah, and I were already running to the side. Twister jumped from my shoulder, transforming into a cheetah to run ahead of us. Part of me felt bad about leaving Kohaku and Tangle by themselves. But on the other hand, they could handle it. We had to do our part and get into the prison. 

Not that we would be getting in there alone. Even as we approached the cave entrance where the mountain had been hollowed out, the five of us were joined by Columbus, Shiori, Asenath, Gordon, Jazz, Douglas, and Bobbi. 

Yes, that left Jiao, Tribald Kine, and Klassin Roe in the middle of the Heretic guards, Deveron and the Dornan cousins in front of them, and Kohaku and Tangle at the back. They were all adults. Their job was to draw attention and keep the guards focused on them. Meanwhile, the rest of us had to make our way through the deeper prison complex, staying together to handle whatever and whoever might still be down there until we reached the prisoners themselves. We had to get in there and let them out so everyone could teleport the fuck out of this place before the Eden’s Garden people managed to recover too much. Again, the plan relied a lot on timing, on hitting these guys so hard and so fast and from so many sides they never had the chance to retaliate too much before we were already gone. And there were still so many ways it could fall apart. All I could think of, even as our groups ran through the hollowed-out portion of the mountain, was that we had to hurry. 

This place was weird, to say the least. It was like a huge bite had been taken out of the hill itself, leaving just under a third of its lower portion present. There were several large digging-like machines that sat motionless and unused for the moment scattered around the massive open cavern-like space, but nothing seemed to be holding up the hundreds of tons of rocks and dirt high above our heads. I had no idea how they were stopping the upper section from crashing in, and hopefully we wouldn’t be here long enough for that to become relevant. What we were interested in was a hole in the inner wall, which led to the lower tunnels where the prisoners were supposed to be kept. At the moment, a glowing blue forcefield was stretched across that hole, blocking entrance to those tunnels, but that wouldn’t be an obstacle for long. . 

“Didn’t take all the excitement for yourselves, I see,” Jazz noted once we all came to a (very temporary) stop at that forcefield. She was panting a bit, holding her falchion in one hand, its projected flames dancing around the blade. 

“Thought about it,” I retorted, “but we figured you’d complain if you came all this way just to be bored.” 

Even as we said that, Columbus had vanished from where we were standing. He appeared on the far side of the forcefield, standing inside the enclosed, previously empty security station there. We could barely see the boy through the narrow window where the guards were supposed to stand to control the forcefield whenever people needed to move in and out. 

Thankfully, it didn’t take the boy long to figure out the controls in there. Soon, the forcefield was down, and he rejoined us as we started running together once more. Now we were inside the cavern. The entrance tunnel, carved into black and gray rock, was about twenty feet wide and equally as high. So we weren’t exactly cramped, even with a group as relatively large as this was. The tunnel sloped downward, leading deeper underground and into the darkness. So, after producing flashlights, that was the way we went, keeping our eyes and other senses open as we raced deeper into the man-made (or at least living person-made) cave. 

I didn’t sense anyone, but I did sense… something. It was weird, a feeling pressing down on me from all sides, like… I wasn’t sure. It was at the back of my mind with every step, making the hair on my neck stand up. I felt something, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t good. But there was nothing I could do about it. We had to keep going. 

“Did we ever figure out what the hell they were trying to do down here?” Columbus asked, while we continued downward, spreading out a bit to avoid making ourselves a single target. “I mean, this is a weird way to mine, isn’t it? How much effort are they spending just to keep the top of the mountain from falling in? They’ve dug out so much of this place, for what? Minerals? The hell are they looking for and why are they taking out so much of the mountain to do it without taking the top?” 

“Those are all very good questions,” Gordon agreed simply while not breaking stride. “Maybe the prisoners will know more when we find them.” 

Yeah, he couldn’t have been any more clear. What he was focused on was finding his father. Everything else, as far as he was concerned, could take a back seat, including questions about what the Eden’s Garden people were trying to do with this place. Which was fair, given I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be interested in those sorts of details if I was in his boat. Still, Columbus had a point. We had spent the past couple weeks, including the trip here, trying to work out why the mountain would have been mined out this way, without any luck. Now we were here and seeing it in person, and it seemed to make even less sense. Between that, the weird feeling of being watched that some of us had experienced coming through the forest, and now the feeling was I was getting as we descended, this planet in general was giving me the creeps. 

All of which was just more proof that we needed to get all these prisoners and leave as soon as possible. As if we’d needed any additional motivation for that.  

We were rounding a bend in the tunnel when Doug called out for everyone to wait. His flashlight was pointed toward the inner wall, where we could see what looked like words carved into it. Words that had been broken and chipped away by time or erosion or whatever. It looked like at one point there had been a full message carved there, but there were only bits and pieces of it now, words here or there. 

“Uh, can anyone read that?” I asked. It looked like gobbledygook to me. The ‘letters’ were meaningless shapes to the point that I couldn’t even tell which ones were complete and which had been broken.

We needed to hurry, obviously. But something about this made everyone stop to look at it. The message, if that’s what it was, gave me a weird feeling. I felt like we needed to know what it said. So, Bobbi produced a bit more light, a couple glowing balls to illuminate the whole thing. It took up a good ten feet of space, and had obviously been an extensive bit of writing when it was complete. Now more than three-quarters of it had been broken. 

Avalon spoke quietly. “I think I can. That… guy back in the tower, he must’ve had some sort of language deciphering power.” She lifted a hand to point. “This little bit here, it says ‘blood taken’ or maybe ‘blood given.’ And here, it says ‘legs of the world.’ Or maybe ‘legs stretched across the world.’ Down here, it says ‘deep-walker.’ and in this last bit, it says, ‘powers of blood.’ 

“Well that’s all nice and creepy,” Shiori muttered. “Wait, what about this?” Her light had found another bit near the bottom right that we had missed. This seemed somewhat more intact, several complete sentences carved near the floor. 

Crouching down, Avalon examined it, grimacing slightly. “It says, ‘Before being taken, activate disintegration.’” 

“Before being taken, activate disintegration?” I stared at the other girl. “What does that mean?” 

Her head shook. “I don’t know, but I think the bit that comes after it was instructions for the disintegration they were talking about. Maybe a spell or something.” Her finger traced along the broken bit of wall next to it. “But from the look of this whole message, the tunnel was here already. It looks like it was just buried and these guys uncovered it.” 

Asenath spoke firmly. “Whatever it’s about, we need to get to the prisoners. Everyone outside is… they can’t hold out forever.” 

Nervous as we were about whatever that message was talking about, she had a point. We had to press on quickly, or all of this would be for nothing. 

The tunnel opened up wider and wider the deeper we got. There were several more of those messages along the way, although all of them were even more damaged than the first and didn’t give any more information. At least not in the brief glimpses we gave them, and we weren’t going to stop again for a closer inspection. The longer we spent doing this, the more likely it was that we would end up being interrupted by Eden’s Garden reinforcements. So we pushed the bad feelings we were having down and kept descending through the ever-widening tunnel. 

Finally, after what felt like far too long, the tunnel opened into a truly massive underground cavern. Seriously, this place was impressive. And we were able to understand just how impressive it was right from the start thanks to the fact that the whole place was lit up by powerful stadium-like lights hooked up all along the walls. Clearly those had been recently added. The far side of the cavern from where we were standing had to be at least two football fields away, and it was almost that wide. There was a huge hole in the center of the cavern that took up about a third of the floorspace. Meanwhile, to the right was a series of what looked like tubes similar to the ones Sariel, Larees, and the other Seosten prisoners had been kept in when Kushiel was trying to transport them off that lab. They were arranged in three rows of ten, all varying sizes to accommodate a single prisoner held within. Pipes were attached to the bottom of the tubes, all leading out to a single larger pipe that ran straight to that large hole in the floor. 

Asenath sniffed once. “Blood,” she murmured. “The pipes are full of blood.” 

Oh yeah, and that feeling in the back of my head was worse. It was like… voices, almost. Not whispers, and definitely not the Whispers. It wasn’t really voices, or even thoughts. But it was like… trying to be thoughts? I couldn’t explain it, even to myself. It was almost like when you saw someone shouting through a soundproof window, so you couldn’t hear them but you knew they were talking. It was like that, except in my head. 

Yeah, it made no sense at all. And I still didn’t know whether I was imagining it or not. 

“Okay, now I’m really freaked out,” Jazz announced. “The hell were they doing here? There was that warning back there, and now they’ve got all these prisoners in these tubes having their blood drained out to go into that hole? This is a horror movie. We have come into a–” 

“Papa!” Asenath blurted the word, lunging toward one of the tubes. Sure enough, there was a man floating in some semi-clear liquid there. It was hard to make out details, but if she said it was her father, I was willing to take her word for it. 

At nearly the same time, Gordon called out from where he had found his father as well. He was in one of the other tubes. Everyone started looking around, trying to figure out the best way to open those things up to let them out. 

“Um, Flick.” That was Columbus, calling me over to one side. “You see those antennae things sticking down out of the ceiling?” 

I looked. He was right, there were a dozen of the large metal ‘antennae things’ sticking down. “Uh huh.” 

“I’ve seen those before,” he informed me. “I mean, in Charmeine’s memories. They’re supposed to be producing a forcefield in the direction they’re pointing. Which would be over that hole in the floor, where those tubes were taking the blood.” 

“And now there’s no forcefield there,” I murmured. “So do you think–” 

That was when it appeared. In the midst of everyone else trying to figure out how to let the prisoners out of their tubes, a thing launched itself out of the hole. All I could see in that instant was a massive form moving very quickly. Then it landed in front of us, and we all had a good look at it. 

The thing stood on ten towering legs that were spread out around its lower body like a spider’s eight limbs, each as wide around as a school bus and at least twice as long. The body itself was more like a gigantic, very fat crocodile with those thick protective scales. A long neck like that of a giraffe, though also layered with heavy scales rather than fur, extended outward from the body, with an almost humanoid head attached to it. Almost humanoid that was, aside from the scales protecting it, and the fact that instead of two eyes, there was a ring of them all the way around it, so the creature could see in all directions. It opened its mouth, revealing a line of deadly shark-like teeth, and gave a dangerous hiss. 

“I uhh…” My voice came out soft, barely audible, a mouse-like squeak. 

“I think we just found out what they were giving blood to.” 

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By Blood 17-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The next several days felt increasingly odd, to say the least. Not because there was anything specifically wrong, but because there was basically nothing to do. Nothing important, anyway. Our days basically consisted of using the truck to make a single jump in the morning to the next moon or asteroid that was used as a recharge point, and then waiting around twenty-four hours until the truck was ready for the next jump. Of course, we could have used extra power to recharge the jump system faster. But the people at the prison camp knew how long the trip was supposed to take. Plus they had a system showing them when each recharge point was used. If we suddenly started coming much faster or making longer jumps, they would know that something was going on. And the last thing we wanted to do was give them a reason to call in for help or be on guard when we got there. We needed them to be as bored and convinced that this was a routine trip as possible. 

So, we did it the slow way, and spent hours just sort of hanging out and talking, playing games, or training. A lot of training, especially whenever Avalon got to choose. She made sure we trained as much as we could in the various alien environments we ended up waiting around in. There was one small moon that had this greenish-gray stuff all over its surface that alternated between being very sticky or slippery seemingly at random. Avalon had a field day getting me and the rest of the people our age (Shiori, Columbus, Sarah, Sands, Jazz, Douglas, and Gordon) to run exercises and drills across that stuff. Hell, it was even a good way of testing that rocket-burst power that the Eden’s Garden Heretic I killed back at the truck station had had, the one that projected flames from her feet and back to launch herself forward. And I wasn’t just limited to boosting myself that way. I could use the power on anything I was holding to make it swing faster and harder than I was capable of swinging it by myself. That was one of several new ones I’d picked up from her. I’d gotten a list from Tabbris when she did a partial recall to touch base with me, and used some of the downtime to practice with them a bit. Suffice to say, I would have a couple new tricks up my sleeve when the time came. 

In any case, as far as training on that weird surface went, Asenath and Twister played along too. They even got Bobbi to run some drills with us. Jiao didn’t participate with either our training or the other adults when they tried it out, but she watched all of us with quiet interest. 

In any case, Avalon really liked that stuff, even though we could never figure out exactly what made it shift from sticky to slippery or if there was any sort of pattern. She even managed to convince Deveron to dig up some of it and put it away in a sealed extra-space container so we could use it later. I’m pretty sure she was hoping to find a way to duplicate it so she could put the stuff in a real training room or even a combat arena. It was cute watching her be so excited about it. She got all science-technical about figuring it out. 

We trained, we watched movies on the televisions they had set up in the truck, played some card games, told stories (though that one was mostly us listening to stories the older people told), and in general just did whatever we could to kill time. At least the others were able to sleep more. I, of course, was awake through ninety percent of the day. Or rather, what would be the day on the planet we were heading toward. The relative time at each base didn’t really matter much. The point was, we slept during the prison’s daytime to stay on Asenath and Jiao’s schedules, and because we wanted to hit the camp in the middle of the night. But thankfully all of the adults in the group, including Deveron, Seamus and Roger Dornan, Klassin Roe, Professors Kohaku and Tangle, and Tribald Kine, had enough stamina powers of their own that they barely needed sleep either. Actually, in Kohaku’s case, I was pretty sure she didn’t sleep at all. Not even for a few minutes. I’d never seen it, anyway. So, I basically sat around with them and listened to the stories they told. It meant that I heard a lot about the first rebellion from Mom’s old teammates, and a good bit about Mom herself. Especially about when she was a student. Klassin talked about when he had still been Jonathan Ruthers, the spoiled, entitled asshole son of the one and only Gabriel Ruthers. He and Mom had really not gotten along, to the point of her punching him. Which is probably what initially led to then-Headmaster Ruthers not liking my mother very much. At least the first thing.  

I spent the week hearing all sorts of stories about all that and more. It was fun. It was… different. And yet it still didn’t detract from the utterly strange feeling that came with the fact that there was nothing important to do aside from wait to get there. We were, with any luck, going to take these prison guards by surprise. It just meant taking this long, boring, careful route to do it. 

Maybe the issue was that I felt like I had been on the opposite side of this situation. Not being a prison guard watching over a bunch of slaves doing hard labor, of course. But doing normal things while other people plotted sneak attacks against me and the people I cared about. I had been in the position these guards were about to be in, being hit by surprise in an area that was supposed to be safe. Maybe that was what made me feel odd about it. 

But then again, these people were guarding slaves, so maybe I wouldn’t spend too much time comparing myself to them. Aside from hoping that they wouldn’t be nearly as lucky as we had been when it came to reacting to being taken by surprise, of course.

The week seemed to be magical in and of itself, because it passed simultaneously agonizingly slowly and blindingly quickly. I had absolutely no idea how it could manage something like that, what sort of time magic was involved in twisting reality that way, but there it was. It took entirely too long for that single blink of an eye to pass, or something. The quick eternal week was gone before I even knew what was happening and after I spent what felt like months silently pleading for it to be over. Yes, those were utterly opposing concepts, and yet…

To be completely accurate, we weren’t at the prison camp yet. We were at the last jump point before we would get there. The jump points themselves mostly amounted to wide garages just large enough to accommodate the truck, with what looked like enormous silos to one side. There were storage rooms full of food and drinks that were kept stocked by a different truck that went through every once in awhile. None of them had living guards, but there was some sort of alarm system that was supposed to summon reinforcements to protect the station if anything happened to it. The biggest defense they had was basically being in the middle of nowhere in deep space. The odds of anyone accidentally tripping over them were literally astronomically low. And apparently there were sensors set up to detect anyone approaching them aside from those on the approved list. Like the truck we were using, for example. 

So, we were at the last station before the prison. We were all out of the truck at the moment and had been walking around the open garage area stretching our legs a bit. I was watching Shiori and Asenath talking a short distance away, when I felt Professor Kohaku approach me from behind. 

“Are you ready for this, Felicity?” the Asian woman asked, stopping a few feet back. 

Turning that way, I offered her a somewhat weak smile. “You mean am I ready for our extra little field trip? Boy, I sure hope so. Otherwise, this is gonna be a pretty short and disappointing rescue mission. Okay, it’s already not short.” Shrugging, I added, “I think I’m ready. I mean, we’re not gonna get another chance at taking these guys by surprise, so we’ve gotta do this.” 

The ‘extra little field trip’ I was referring to was an advanced jump that I and several others needed to do. The prison may have been expecting our truck, but it also had special scanners that would have detected that the wrong people were driving it. Our forward scouting group had the fun job of sneaking in ahead of time and disabling both those scanners (in a way that wouldn’t instantly alert everyone in the camp), and the communications tower. We were pretty sure that they would eventually find a way to call for help anyway, but taking out the tower would make that a lot harder and give us time to operate. And then, assuming we pulled that off without setting off a bunch of alarms and warning everyone there, we would be ready to hit the prison from a second angle the moment everyone who arrived in the truck did their thing. 

Kohaku, who was one of the people who would be going in with me (though to be entirely accurate, I was one of the people going with her), chuckled softly. “I suppose you are right about that. We don’t have much in the way of do-overs. A lot of power between all of us, yet nothing like that. Still, you have been through much worse with less. As long as we are careful, stick to the plan, and don’t… rush things, I believe we will make it through. And we will leave there with the prisoners.” A faint smile touched her face before she added, “I believe there are a few who are more nervous about this rescue than you.” As she said that, the woman was already turning to look in the direction of Shiori and Asenath, before her gaze shifted to the front of the truck where Gordon was standing by himself. 

“Yeah, getting the prisoners out of that place would definitely be nice,” I agreed. “And you’re right, they are more nervous than me. They’ve got a lot more to lose.” Once again, the thought of being like Senny and losing one of my parents for hundreds of years flashed through my mind. It made me shudder a bit. We had to find her dad, and Gordon’s dad, in that place. They had both waited more than long enough. 

Before Kohaku could say anything else, we were joined by Professor Tangle, along with Sarah and Sands. The five of us, along with Twister and Avalon, would be the forward scouting group responsible for dealing with that communications tower and the scanners that would alert the people inside the prison that we weren’t on the up and up. Asenath and Gordon both wanted to be included in that group, of course. As did Jiao. And they all would have been useful. But both Kohaku and Deveron, as the leaders of this expedition, had decided that they should stay with the main group. With their missing loved ones so close at that point, there was some fear that their judgment might be a bit impaired. Which was a point that none of them could really argue too much against, considering how important this was to them. 

Besides, they wouldn’t get to the prisoners any quicker by going with the scouting group then they would by staying here. They might be physically closer, but they wouldn’t be able to actually get to their fathers until the main assault happened anyway. Being that close and still having to wait would probably be worse than if they were back with the truck. Probably. 

“So,” Sands started, “Are we ready to head out there and play Neunrei or what?” 

Blinking at her, I held up a finger. “Uh. I think we’re ready to do something, but I’m not sure if Noon Ray is the right term for it. Actually I’m not even sure what that means. It’s definitely not noon. Or I mean, it won’t be when we go there. At least if we’ve worked out the planning on that right. I think it’s supposed to be barely–” 

Sands and Sarah were both snickering. The latter spoke up quietly. “Not Noon Ray. Neunrei.” She spelled it for me, making it clear it was one word. 

“Alexis Neunrei was a Heretic,” Tangle informed me. “He was known for being very sneaky and laying traps, for sabotaging enemy defenses. He designed some of the trap spells that we still use today. Like the one Crossroads has around the Pathmaker.” The black woman, who was in much better shape these days than when I’d first met her (once she was conscious), nodded toward the twins. “Some of the kids call it ‘playing Neunrei’ when they run around in the forest laying traps and ambushes for each other. I believe the Bystanders call it ‘going commando.’ 

My eyes widened and I quickly blurted, “Playing commando. Playing commando. Not going–just–” Coughing, I shook my head. “Just trust me, stick with playing commando.” 

The others were giving me weird looks, but before they could say anything, Twister darted over in rabbit form before shifting back to her normal self. Which meant she had that long fluffy tail that a part of me still wanted to pet, even without Tabbris’s influence. Her voice was cheerful. “So, is the Cool Kids Club ready to head out?” She paused, considering. “We need a better name than that. I’ll workshop a few and get back to you.” 

“I’m pretty sure we’re the Neunreis,” I informed her primly before looking back to the others while she was busy trying to figure that out. “And yeah, I think we’re about ready. Right, guys?” 

With a murmur of agreement, Kohaku looked over toward where Deveron was talking to Tribald Kine. She must have been using some sort of silent communication, because he immediately held a hand up to stop the other man before looking over at her. They looked at one another for a few seconds, clearly having a silent discussion. Then he nodded and whistled loudly to get everyone’s attention. Once he had that, his finger twirled in a circle over his head, as he called for everyone to gather up. It was time to go over the whole plan one more time. Then the others could wish our little group luck before we headed out. 

As everyone was gathering, Asenath caught my arm and stepped back a bit. Her voice was soft. “I know I said this before, but thank you, Flick. You know, for… well everything. I guess what I should really thank you for is listening to me that first night.” 

“If you hadn’t been there, my father would be dead,” I pointed out. “And I… well, I don’t know what I’d be. I still don’t know what Ammon was hoping to accomplish there. But… but the point is, if I hadn’t listened to you, everything would be a lot worse for both of us. So let’s just be glad you were there and that I’m stubborn enough not to be totally indoctrinated after a month or so.” 

She chuckled, but I could tell that most of her attention wasn’t on what I was saying. She was focused on what was going to happen a few hours from now, on how close she was to finally seeing her father again.

“How’s your mom doing?” I asked, glancing over to the corner of the room, where the woman in question was standing by herself. Jiao was friendly enough to everyone, but she didn’t really participate in the group stuff very much. She just stayed out of the way and did her own thing. I was pretty sure she wasn’t accustomed to working with a group. 

Asenath glanced that way as well. Her mother didn’t react, but I felt confident she could hear what we were saying. “She wants to see him even more than I do. Which is saying a lot.” Those words came dryly as she gave me a brief look. “I’m not sure what I’m looking forward to more, just getting to see and touch him again, or getting answers about what the hell happened. Has he been locked up all this time? Did he go back to his homeworld? Did–” She cut herself off, head shaking while her lips pressed together tightly to contain herself. Finally, she finished with, “Let’s just say I have a lot of questions for him.” She glanced to her mother once more. “We both do.” 

“Well, don’t worry,” I informed the vampire girl while putting a hand on her shoulder. “Or, you know, do worry a little bit, because that’s healthy. I mean don’t worry too mu–never mind. We’ll handle it.” 

“She’s right,” Shiori agreed, moving up on Asenath’s other side while giving me a quick smile. “Flick’s here, your mom’s here, and I’m here. We’re gonna get your dad back.” 

They stepped away to join the group by Deveron, and I turned my attention to Gordon. The quiet boy was watching me with his arms folded. There was a grim expression on his face, but then again, that was normal. When our eyes met, he spoke flatly. “You remember the picture.” 

His father. He’d shown me a picture of his dad during the trip, so I would know what he looked like. Immediately, I nodded. “I’ll let you know if we see him, but we’re probably not going to get a look at the prisoners any faster than you do.” 

“I know,” he replied, shifting his weight very slowly from his left foot to his right. It was only that single motion, but as far as Gordon went, it was basically fidgeting. He was nervous, and if it was enough to make him visibly show it even that much, I knew it had to be pretty bad inside. 

If I had seen most people like that, I would have embraced them, or at least squeezed their hand, or… something. But Gordon wasn’t that sort of person. Even now that we knew why he didn’t like being touched, with the whole ice thing, it wasn’t like he had suddenly become physically open. It just wasn’t who he was. So, I gave him a thumbs up instead. “We’ll keep an eye out. If they’ve got the prisoners beyond the boundary for work, or whatever, we… if we see him, if I see him, we’ll make sure he’s safe. I promise.” 

For a few seconds, it looked like Gordon wasn’t sure how to respond to that. He very slowly moved his weight back from his right foot to his left before giving a single nod. “Thank you.”

“Hey,” I replied, “just be ready to come charging in with guns and ice giant powers blazing. We hit these guys hard and fast and get out with all their prisoners, right?” 

“Right,” he confirmed. I could see just a little bit of emotion behind his eyes with that word. He was as ready to get his father back as I had been to get my mother back. 

The two of us nodded one another, just as Deveron started to speak. Turning my attention that way, I stepped up beside the others. My stomach was already trying to twist itself into knots. Despite all the ridiculous situations and the amount of training I had been through already, to say nothing of all the planning we were putting into this, I was still nervous about the whole thing. I wanted my friends to get their dads back. I wanted to free all those prisoners. 

And in just a few short hours, I’d either get what I wanted, or we would end up in a hell of a lot of trouble.

******

A short time later, our little group emerged through the portal. A little group, in this case, consisting of Tangle, Kohaku, Sands, Sarah, Avalon, Twister and me. According to the adults, the portal was far enough away from the prison camp (and shielded enough) that we wouldn’t set off their alarms. One of the reasons we had to go in a smaller group right now was specifically because sending any more people through would have raised the risk of being detected. We were pushing it a little bit as it was. Which was another reason why we’d set the portal so far away. Avoiding much magic or power use, it would take hours for us to hike to where we needed to be. And that was assuming we didn’t run into too many problems along the way. 

We had a little bit of leeway, at least. Deveron’s main group wouldn’t make the last jump until we sent the signal that their communications and scanners were down. But they could only stall so long before the prison people would get suspicious. So we kinda had to keep moving. 

Still, we had a moment to get the lay of the land. In this case, that land was a deep orange color. The dirt, that was. We had arrived in what looked like a shallow crater from an impact of some kind. It was a good three hundred feet across, though only a couple feet deep. That orange dirt was basically a fine powder, almost like sand. Behind us to the west I could see a sheer cliff face leading up and up several miles. To the south (our right), there was a deep, somehow unnaturally blue river, wide enough to need a boat to cross normally. Straight ahead to the east was a steep dropoff. And to our left, north, a dark, foreboding forest of thirty foot tall dark black and gray trees, too-deep shadows, and probably about a bazillion things ready and waiting to kill and eat us.

Yeah, we were going into the evil-looking forest, naturally. 

“We’re here, and there’s no sign of any alert,” Kohaku finally announced after taking a few seconds to assess the situation. “Let’s move.” 

“Well, okay,” I replied a bit reluctantly while my gaze turned to that forest. I could swear the trees were suddenly grinning. “But I’m telling you guys this straight up.

“If we run into a gingerbread house, I am done.”  

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By Blood 17-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A loud clang filled the air as my staff snapped up just in time to catch the descending blade of a sword. The owner of that sword, a woman a couple inches taller than me, with long red hair tied into a braid, snarled darkly at me. “I know you. You’re that little girl who helped start this whole Rebellion up again. You really think you’re some sort of hero for helping these monsters?” Even as she asked that, the woman was spinning away from me, hand rising as she made a dozen pebbles from the ground around us float into the air. They also became ultra-hot judging from the way they immediately turned bright-red, before she sent them flying at me. 

Our attack against the transport was proceeding, well, about as expected. We knew it wouldn’t be super-easy, but we had to make it quick, before anyone who might have been paying attention noticed the delay. We were using jammers of our own this time, so they couldn’t call out for help, and we’d arranged this little attack to come right when they were just finishing up loading the semi truck with supplies. That was what this transport was meant for. They were at a warehouse on the edge of some random city in the southern United States, cramming the truck full of various foodstuffs, tools, and whatnot. Then they would be making the long journey to that prison colony. At least, that was their plan. We had sort of interrupted that with our attack. 

Some of us were stopping the drivers, or the loaders, or protecting the jammers, or attacking various Heretic guards. That last bit was where I came in. My job, at the moment, was to deal with this particular guard. But there were two problems with that. First, the person I was assigned to was supposed to be a student, someone closer to my age and all that. But this was definitely an adult Heretic. And the second problem was that it turned out she wasn’t really in the mood to be dealt with. She was much more in the mood to try to stab me repeatedly with her sword. 

The two of us were out near one of the corners of the warehouse, and I could hear more fighting going on behind me. But I couldn’t spare the time to glance that way. All I could do was hope that everything was going okay back there, while using a burst of energy from my staff to launch myself up and over the incoming burning pebbles. Flipping over in the air, I converted my staff into its bow form, and sent a shot past the woman. The energy arrow exploded a second later, sending a concussive force wave that… well, it was supposed to knock my opponent forward so that my foot could collide with her face as I came down. Unfortunately, she apparently wasn’t affected by it. No, scratch that, the concussive force seemed to empower her. She absorbed it, grinning at me as my foot whiffed through the air where I had expected her to be. Worse, her eyes were glowing. Glowing very–

At the last possible second, I focused on my energy absorption power, just as the other Heretic shot a laser beam out of her eyes at me. Apparently she could absorb kinetic energy and turn it into eye lasers. Which was probably a good thing to know before I went and smacked her with my staff. 

Shoving all that power I had just absorbed (wait, did that mean I had essentially absorbed the power from my staff, with this chick as an intermediary?), I threw it into my boost while lunging back that way. At the same time, I made both of my rings grow large in front of me, boosting my speed even further as I hopped through them. Now I was using my full Seosten boost, charged by the power I had just absorbed, and then boosted further by those rings. I was moving faster in that moment than I ever had, at least under my own power.

And yet, my opponent was fast enough to keep up. Her sword slashed out, nearly taking my head off as I got near. I barely managed to snap myself out of the way, my hand smacking against her shoulder to–not possess her. It was weird, I could feel her arm, but I couldn’t–

Forcefield. She had a skin-tight forcefield all around herself. I caught a glimpse of it then, flickering over her face. It wasn’t over her clothes, but it was definitely under them, and seemed to extend over her whole body, if a glance toward her very faintly glowing hands was any indication. Yeah, she definitely had a forcefield over herself, just under her clothes. Whether it was specifically to protect herself from being possessed, or simply a bit of added defense I wasn’t sure. But it was there. 

Also there in that instant? Her sword. But I managed to duck out of the way just in time before spinning into a sideways kick. She took it, absorbing the kinetic impact from the super-strong kick to give herself a quick burst of eye lasers. But that time she didn’t shoot at my chest. No, she sent a bright burst toward my eyes, briefly blinding me. Then she quickly followed that up by pivoting to one side before driving her sword toward my stomach. Clearly trying to take advantage of my momentary blindness. 

Fortunately, I still had my item sense. I knew exactly where she was, and managed to make my staff grow just enough to intercept her sword. The end of the staff slammed into the ground, and I used that as a pivot to come around, my foot colliding with her shoulder. 

Once more, she absorbed the impact and my vision cleared just in time to see her sending another shot my way. That time, I created a quick portal in front of my raised hand, redirecting the laser blast into her opposite shoulder. 

Apparently she felt that one, because a curse escaped the woman while she flipped her sword around and glared at me. “Your traitor mother failed before, and she’ll fail this time too. You and all those like you will either be killed or mind-wiped again so things can go back to normal. We won’t let you endanger all of humanity with your naive bullshit.” 

“Killed or mind-wiped for disagreeing with slavery and genocide,” I pointed out flatly. “And you still think you’re the good guys? I’d ask how you live with yourself, but I get the impression it involves a lot of not thinking about it, combined with a dash of murder. And anyway, debating with you is obviously a waste of breath, so I have only two words to say to you. Shark punch.”

Even as I said that, my fist was lashing out as I summoned Princess Cuddles in one of those forcefield bubble things. The woman might’ve been tough, but very few people could stand unaffected with an enormous great white shark coming straight at their face, mouth open. She flinched sideways, just a little. Her focus was centered on the incoming bubble-encased shark. Which was enough for me to literally spit a glob of that quick-drying resin stuff right onto her face. At the same time, I dismissed Princess Cuddles. She was tough, but I really didn’t think she was up to taking a full blow from a pissed off Heretic. 

And boy was she pissed off. The hardened resin was only covering her face for a few seconds before she literally screamed so loud the stuff basically disintegrated. And without missing a beat, she made several large chunks of concrete rise into the air, literally ripping them out of the ground with her mind. Soon, a half-dozen thick slabs were floating around her, all of them burning hot. “You wanna play games now, traitor?” she demanded while making the burning concrete slabs spin wildly around us. “Let’s see how your mother likes getting you back after you’ve been pounded into a thick paste and then burned until there’s nothing left.” 

Part of me wanted to point out that my mother wouldn’t be getting anything back if this woman burned my remains until there was nothing left. But I didn’t think she’d appreciate the correction. Besides, I really had to focus in that instant. She was already sending all six of those large slabs of concrete flying at me from every direction, with varying angles and speeds. It was nearly impossible to find a safe route through them. But only nearly. With a combination of my enhanced speed from a renewed boost (sadly not enhanced by absorbed energy anymore), my item sense, and the enhanced werewolf agility, I… still couldn’t have gotten through them. Not the way they were closing in around me. Fortunately, those weren’t the only gifts I had. I had those new rings too. They snapped up into place in front of two of the slabs, positioned to slow them down as they passed through. At the same time, I focused on the third one, stopping it completely with my power to halt objects for a few seconds. 

The result of slowing two of the slabs down and stopping a third completely left just enough space for me to launch myself up and out of there just before the burning concrete pieces slammed into the spot where I had just been. In mid-air, I sent my grapple outward and up to catch hold of a piece of the warehouse roof, yanking myself that way to land on the very edge of it. 

Snarling as she glared up at me with those concrete slabs (even more of them now that they had broken apart into several separate pieces) floating around her, the Eden’s Garden Heretic snapped, “You really think you can start this fight and then run away like a little coward?” With those words, she was already launching herself upwards after me. As she did so, a couple flame-like energy bursts appeared under her feet and the small of her back, carrying her upward almost like rocket boots or something. 

As soon as she started to lunge, I had the rings at full size in front of her. She just gave me a dark look while bringing two of those concrete slabs under her feet to boost herself even faster. The flames that had also been boosting her appeared under the pieces of concrete. Now she was lifting herself with both the rocket burst power and by telekinetically (or whatever) lifting the concrete under her feet.  

Unfortunately, she had made a couple of mistakes. First, the rings weren’t set to slow her down. They were set to speed her up. So, whatever boost she was getting from the combination of the concrete and the rocket burst, going through the rings doubled it. Suddenly, she was going much faster than she expected. At the same time, just as the woman realized something was wrong, I made it even worse. Back when I had kicked her a few moments earlier, it wasn’t just a kick. I had used my instant-inscription power to put a very simple spell against her jacket. The first spell I’d ever learned, actually. It was the flash-bang spell, though a stronger one than I had been capable of before. And in that instant, just as she was flying up toward me much faster than she expected, I triggered that spell. There was a sudden boom and flash of light, leaving the woman blind and deaf at the worst possible second. The worst for her, that was. Because I was already diving out of the way while leaving a rock where I had been standing. A rock which instantly grew up to the size of a large boulder with my growth power, while simultaneously freezing in the air thanks to my item-stop power. 

It was a case of an unstoppable object, the blind and deaf super-fast Heretic, versus an immobile one, the frozen rock. In this case, the Heretic won—sort of. The boulder shattered as she slammed into it, but it was a very close call. She hit the roof on the other side, coming down in a heap while coughing weakly. I could see several bones sticking out, her foot was twisted around the wrong way, and there were cuts and bruises all over her body. She’d hit the boulder hard, shattering both it and her forcefield, and doing a hell of a lot of damage to herself in the process. 

“You–” She snarled, catching herself against the roof on her hands and knees. 

“Me,” I agreed, while driving the blade of my staff down through her back as hard as I could. I was boosting with everything I had, and between that and my own enhanced strength, I still barely managed to get the blade to go through her, even without her forcefield. She was incredibly tough. But it made it. My staff went all the way through and out the other end, speared through the woman from behind. 

Even that wasn’t quite enough. I could still see those chunks of burning concrete as they came flying toward me. But before they could get there, I abandoned my staff and dove into a backward roll, going just under them. 

The woman shoved herself upward, staff still shoved through her. Blood was pouring from her mouth and the wound, but she refused to go down. Her sword was long gone, somewhere off on the other side of the roof. Yet she ignored that as much as she was ignoring the huge weapon through her chest, snarling hatefully while starting to throw herself at me, hands outstretched. 

“Gus, go!” I shouted. Immediately, the grapple shot forward, launching itself past me to embed in the nearby chimney, before beginning to pull the staff after it. And that hauled the injured woman along for the ride, drawing a strangled scream from her as she was yanked off the ground and sent flying toward me. 

Spinning aside, I snapped my hand out and summoned my silver knife. It cut through the woman’s throat on her way past. Even with the speed she was traveling at, even with my own strength, even with the enhanced sharpness of my silver knife, it still barely managed to cut her. I felt blood from her throat, but it didn’t take her head off or do nearly as much damage as it should have. Still, in the same motion, I recalled the staff back to my other hand, finished pivoting as she sailed past me, and then hurled it as hard as I could into her back once more. 

That was enough. Between slamming through the frozen boulder, taking a bladed staff through her back once, getting her throat cut, and then taking the bladed staff through her back again, the woman was done. She hit the ground frozen, motionless. 

And then I felt it. A rush of pleasure that made me fall to my knees with a gasp, staff and knife both dropping from my hands. It was a blinding, overwhelming rush. Not quite like when I had killed Fossor. It didn’t knock me out or anything, but damn was it close. 

By the time I managed to come back to myself, Asenath and Avalon were standing over me up there on the roof. They both stared down while I lifted my gaze, looking back and forth between them. It took me a moment to find my voice, managing a somewhat weak, “Did umm, did we win?” I felt almost delirious in that moment, still riding high off the rush from that.. that kill. Eesh.

“Yeah,” Avalon informed me while holding out a hand. “We won. You know you weren’t supposed to go after a full Heretic by yourself, right?” 

Taking the hand, I let her pull me up while shrugging. “We didn’t expect a fully-trained adult Heretic to be one of the perimeter guards. Weren’t they supposed to be down to using more trainees for that with this whole war thing going on?” Brushing myself off, I added in a slightly more serious tone. “Tell me this doesn’t mean they had some sort of warning.” 

Asenath spoke quietly. “They didn’t have any warning. Looks like you just happened to get unlucky with that guard. Maybe she was filling in for someone else, or working on training. Either way, they had no idea we were coming.” 

A bird flying overhead came down close, transforming in mid-flight into Twister before landing smoothly. She straightened up, voice flat. “Yeah, and they didn’t get a warning out either. Those jammers blocked everything they had on them, and you guys hit them hard and fast enough that they couldn’t pull anything more elaborate together. It’s all good.” Her gaze found me then before she slyly added, “And those moves back there…” She whistled low. “Kinda know why this one and the one down there have the hots for you.” Her hand gestured toward Avalon and down presumably in the direction of Shiori. 

Flushing just a little, I shook my head. “Just trying to survive and stop the other person from surviving. I didn’t–” Pausing, I took a breath. Now that the rush of battle was over, the truth about just how easily I could have died back there was starting to wash over me. It made me feel… a little giddy. Was that weird? Hell, was it weird that this particular fight was affecting me more than so many others? Was it just because I had been going up against a full Heretic who very easily could (and would) have snapped me in half? Of course I’d fought Heretics before, particularly over the summer, but not… not like that. Or was it because of what she’d said about my mother, making it more personal? I needed some time to think about all that. 

Fortunately, I would have all the time I needed for that on this trip. But we couldn’t wait around too much right now. So, I shook off those thoughts and focused. “I didn’t do all that just so we could lose our advantage by letting Shamon’s people figure out something’s wrong before we want them to know.” 

The others agreed, and we rejoined the others on the ground. Deveron gave me a quick look, waiting for me to nod that I was okay before he spoke up. “Okay, the lot’s secure. We’ve got the bodies, and prisoners, already sent back to the station. Except the one on the roof.” Again, he glanced my way. “I’ll grab her. The rest of you, finish loading those crates onto the back of the truck. We have no idea how much of those supplies we might end up needing. Especially if we get out of that prison camp with everyone we’re going in there for.” 

So, that was what we did, grabbing the crates to carry over to what would be our Trojan horse. The truck itself looked like an ordinary semi from the outside. But once the back doors were opened, it revealed a much larger interior. Like, three times normal size, including a pretty large space for the people who weren’t driving to comfortably stay in. Essentially it was a large RV-type space on one side (complete with cots, couches, televisions, a full-sized stove and fridge, and more) and a storage compartment for all these crates on the other, with a metal wall dividing them. Say what you would about Shamon, but he let his people travel in comfort… when they were transporting supplies to his slave camp. Huh. 

Looking over toward Sands and Sarah as the twins walked with me from the warehouse to the truck, I hefted the large crate in my arms before asking, “Is it weird that we’re taking a truck to go to another planet? I feel like that’s probably weird.” 

“Um!” Bobbi, zooming up from behind us while floating a couple crates of her own in a pair of energy-construct bubbles, raised a hand. “Yeah, I had a question about that. Huh?” She considered briefly before giving a nod of satisfaction. “That’s the question.” 

“Yeah, ‘huh’ sums it up for me too.” That was Columbus, as he hopped down from the truck after carrying his own heavy crate into it. “I mean, does the truck transform into a spaceship? I was really picturing a spaceship when we were planning this whole thing.” He gave the truck a look as though it had personally betrayed him by not being a sleek starcruiser, perhaps equipped with heavy laser cannons and missiles. 

“Don’t worry, kid, I was disappointed about the lack of a cool spaceship too.” Seamus Dornan, one of my mother’s (and Deveron’s) old friends and teammates, spoke up. He was a red-haired man who was only a few inches taller than me, and pretty slender overall. “Feels like a gyp.” 

“Shouldn’t say that word, man.” That was Seamus’s cousin, Roger. He was an inch shorter than even Seamus, with light blond hair rather than red, though his went all the way to his shoulders. “It’s offensive. Like a slur against the Romani people. You know, making a whole word based on what they used to be called mean ‘to rip someone off’? Pretty fucking bad, dude.” To the rest of us, he added, “And he thinks he’s the responsible one.” 

“Remind me,” Seamus shot back, “how much money do you owe on drinks at our bar?” 

“I’m sorry, say that again.” Roger scoffed audibly. “Our bar. You don’t have to buy drinks at your own bar. That’s like, the main benefit of owning one.” 

“Actually,” Seamus informed him, “the benefit of owning a bar is making money off of said bar. Which is hard to do when your business partner throws away half your stock between his own drinking and giving out rounds on the house.” 

To the rest of us, Roger stage-whispered, “He’s really cranky about this whole ‘not a spaceship’ thing.” 

“It might not be a spaceship,” Tribald Kine put in as the tall, incredibly thin man approached, “but it’s still going to take us to other worlds.” As the others looked to him, he explained, “The truck is equipped with a portal-generator. But it doesn’t have the power to go straight from here to our destination. That’s too far. They’ve got seven different jump points on small, shielded asteroids or moons between here and there. The truck makes a jump to one spot, then needs about twenty-four hours to recharge for the next one.” 

“Right,” Deveron confirmed while approaching after apparently having taken care of the body up on the roof, “Which is why this is going to take us a week to get there and a week to get back. We’ve got some… extra plans for the return trip, but we’ll see about that when we come to it. For now, everyone aboard the truck. Time to play delivery people.

“And in this case, we’ll owe a lot more than a free pizza if we’re late.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

By Blood 17-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

“I’ll give you this much, you make a much better teacher than you do a mentor.” 

After I spoke those words, Deveron looked up from the desk he was sitting at while raising an eyebrow. “I think I’ll take that as a compliment, even if that is a very low bar.” His face twisted into a slight grimace then before he added, “It’s vaguely possible that I should have gone a different route when it came to finding a way to avoid letting anyone at Crossroads know who I really was and what I was doing there.” He paused briefly to consider. “Then again, I do make a rather compelling lazy asshole.” 

“Like you were born for the job,” I shot back with a grin. 

It had been a couple of weeks since the arrival of the Olympus, and things had once more settled into something of a routine. At least, as much as a routine as they ever really got in this life. Puriel and the others were… well, not exactly settling in yet, but working on it. It was going to take a lot for most of the people around here to be at all comfortable with the man who had been Zeus being on the station, and probably even longer for him to be comfortable being around the rest of us. He was mostly keeping to himself, in the private apartments that he had been given to stay in. According to Tabbris, Sariel was spending a lot of time in there too, the two of them talking about… stuff. We weren’t sure exactly what was going on there, only that she was one of the few people he saw regularly beyond that Aletheia lady, Spark, the newly-dubbed Jehoel (formerly Omni), the rest of the Seosten children, and his own daughter, Theia. 

And my grandparents. I couldn’t forget about that. Any time that they didn’t spend with my dad and the rest of our family, they were with Puriel. Apparently they had gotten pretty close over the time that they had been  out there, which was just another layer of crazy for me. My grandparents were best friends with Hercules and pretty close to Zeus. I just–what was my life? 

As those thoughts worked their way through my mind, Deveron spoke up. “So you think I’m doing a passable job at this gig, huh? Better than the guy back at Crossroads?” His words were clearly teasing, and he was already rising from the desk while shuffling some papers together. 

I pretended to consider for a moment. “Well, the last guy was Sands’ and Sarah’s dad, sooo I’d say you’ve got a few legs up on him as far as personality goes. Don’t get me wrong, he was a pretty good English Lit teacher, really got us into some cool books. But there’s something about the way he completely betrayed you and my mom, and turned the whole rebellion into an open war that ended up killing probably thousands of people that just… I dunno, rubs me the wrong way. Maybe I’m overly-sensitive.”

Snorting audibly, Deveron shook his head. I saw a brief flash of the genuine anger he felt toward his old friend cross his face before he smothered it. “Yeah, I think he rubs me the wrong way too.” With that, he finished gathering those papers and gestured. “Your mom wanted me to make sure you eat something before we do this thing tonight. And you know she’ll ask, so let’s go. How’s your stomach? You nervous?” 

Shaking my head, I walked with him out of the classroom. “I mean, yes and no. If we’re lucky, we’re actually gonna find Senny’s dad, maybe even Gordon’s. That’s huge. And, you know, it’s dangerous, especially if we can’t get out of there before that Kyril Shamon guy shows up. Then it’ll get really bad. But I think we can do it. I think we can jump in there, deal with the guards, and get out with the prisoners. We’ve been doing that sort of thing all year, saving Alters from Loyalists. This is just… on one of their home turfs. But they have no idea we’re coming, and–” I cut myself off, grimacing. “Yeah, I keep going back and forth. But we’re ready for it. We planned it out, we’ve got the numbers, we’ve got–we’ve got this.” 

Deveron watched me briefly as we walked down the corridor, passing several other groups of people. He hesitated, clearly considering his next words before carefully asking, “Do you feel bad that your mother’s not going to be there after all?” 

Yeah, that was a thing. We had originally planned on Mom being part of this whole rescue. But a couple of days ago, a handful of very injured Alters had arrived and begged for her help. Their little haven in South America (Peru, specifically) was under assault by a group of Loyalist Eden’s Garden people, who were staging repeated attacks to weaken their defenses. Apparently some of the people there were old friends of Mom’s, people who had helped her back during the first war. She couldn’t abandon them. So she and Lillian Patters, Rebecca’s grandmother/Mom’s old roommate and best friend, had gone down there with a few others to help. Including Dare, who managed to get herself invited to help somehow without actually risking explaining just why she cared so much. 

In any case, Mom had hoped to have it taken care of by now, but it was taking too long. So she had asked Deveron to accompany us instead. Which really told me a lot about how much she trusted him, as if I didn’t already know. More to the point, I think it said a lot about how much she trusted me that she didn’t try to insist that I sit it out. 

It made sense, of course. I had been doing this stuff for quite a while before Mom was ever freed. Still, it meant a lot that she didn’t try to push the issue or protect me from everything. She trusted me to handle myself. Well, with Deveron for help, but still. I just hoped I was up to earning that trust. Which was probably a big part of why my confidence for this whole trip kept fluctuating. Was it weird that kept I thinking about how I didn’t want to disappoint my mother while going on this mission to literally save a bunch of slaves, including Senny’s dad? Just… strange priorities. 

Still, I hesitated only for a moment before shrugging. “Probably not as bad as she feels about not being there. But she’s doing important stuff too. It’s a umm, a big world, you know? Hell, where we’re going isn’t even on this world. I just mean, there’s a lot of people to take care of. Mom… they depend on her. Now that she’s back, she’s got a lot of… responsibilities.” Biting my lip briefly, I added, “All these people care about her too. And they need her.” 

Deveron’s hand settled on my shoulder, stopping me from walking. He met my gaze and gave a short nod. “You’re right, they do. That’s something I had to get used to a long time ago too. Sharing someone you love, someone as special as your mom, with the rest of the world isn’t the easiest thing. It hurts sometimes, and whenever you feel bad about it, that makes it worse. As if… as if you’re doing something wrong by being jealous, even if you don’t act on it. Even if you shove it down deep and try to ignore it. Even if it’s just a tiny little flicker of a feeling, you still feel like you did something wrong. Like you’re a horrible person for wanting her to be with you.”

Taking a breath before letting it out, I put my own hand over his on my shoulder. “I guess that’s just the way it goes when you have someone as special as Mom. You have to share her. Other people need her too. I…” My throat closed up briefly before I swallowed hard. “I want to make her proud. I want her to know that she can leave us alone to take care of this other stuff and focus on the things she needs to do.” 

Deveron offered me a faint smile at that, his hand squeezing firmly. “Yeah. Well, then we’ll just have to do a good job with this thing. And like I said, part of that involves making sure you fuel up.” He pointed toward the nearby cafeteria. “So let’s get on with that. 

“Then we can meet up with everyone else, and get this show on the road.” 

*****

So, I ate food. It was pretty great, or at least I assumed it was. I wasn’t really tasting much of it. I needed it, but it was mostly just fifteen minutes of mechanical chewing and swallowing while my mind went over everything that we still needed to do, everything that we had planned. This wasn’t a fly-by-night operation by any means. Thanks to Childs and Fu Hao, we had the general layout of the camp we would be attacking. It wasn’t perfect, as there were parts they didn’t know about or didn’t have the full details of, and they couldn’t tell us the entire guard compliment or… certain other things. But it was something to work off of. We had that, and had spent these past couple weeks developing an actual plan beyond just ‘charge and pray.’ Sure, in the end, our overall goals were ‘run in, grab the prisoners, and get out again before the Victor comes to play,’ but we’d still put some more actual thought into it than that. 

That was another reason for Deveron to come along. We had made this plan thinking that Mom would be there, so he had to take her place. We needed someone the people there would recognize as a major figure in the old rebellion. And while Deveron wasn’t the huge leader that my mother was, he had definitely been prominent. After all, he was part of her original team and had been around from the very start. Anyone who knew the Rebellion knew that about Deveron. Well, now that the spell that had removed his identity from their minds had been undone by the spell that Gaia and I had done that brought back everyone’s memories of all that. I hadn’t been sure how that all worked, but according to Deveron himself, everyone else immediately remembered who he was and what he looked like as soon as we had done that. Just one of those side effects, apparently. Not that he minded, of course. By then, there had really been no point to keeping his true identity secret. 

So, Deveron was known, and we could use that to draw the attention of the guards out there. They would immediately recognize him and react. Which would give the rest of us a chance to get in there, deal with whatever guards were still left with the prisoners, and hopefully set things up to escape. 

Of course, we weren’t leaving Deveron alone to face everything he would be calling down on himself by playing distraction. Nor would he be the only distraction. Professors Tangle and Kohaku, along with Klassin Roe were going to be there too. And while Lillian wasn’t here, their other three teammates were. The cousins, Seamus and Roger Dornan, would be with Deveron while Tribald Kine came along with our group.  

Our group, which, beyond Tribald, consisted of myself, Shiori, Columbus, Avalon, Sarah, Sands, Jazz, Douglas, Gordon, Asenath, Twister, and Bobbi. Oh and Senny’s mother, Jiao. She was going along too, since she had something of a vested interest in rescuing her husband. Yeah, that obviously seemed like a lot of people. But we had no idea how much trouble we were going to run into there. And beyond that, there was the fact that the more people we had to get the prisoners together and ready to transport, the better. We needed to deal with guards in the way, take out any transport spell-blocking effects they had (and we knew there were some), and get the prisoners ready to go. 

So that was why we had so many going. Everyone in our group had their own jobs to do once we got past the initial push through whatever guards weren’t distracted by Deveron, Tangle, Kohaku, Roe, and the Dornans. Even if we were hoping the actual rescue part of this mission would be a quick in-and-out, it still required a lot of preparation and moving parts. And there were contingency plans just in case various things went wrong. 

Besides, before we could do the actual rescue part of the mission, we had to actually get to the prison. And that was… well, that was going to take awhile. 

In any case, we had drilled our way through the rescue part a few times and were… well, not exactly totally confident, but about as good as we could be. Things weren’t going to get any better, and if we waited much longer, Shamon might end up moving Tiras. Or Gordon’s father, if he was there. Besides, this was when that transport was supposed to be going there, and using the transport was incredibly important to our plans. No way did we want to wait to find another one. So even without Mom, even without having everything be perfect or having another week to run through drills, this was our time. We had to do it today. Or at least start it. The trip out to this colony world would take more than one day. We were going to have to hit the transport, get ourselves onboard, then settle in for a long journey. Yeah, we could have gotten there faster, but the transport the people there were expecting couldn’t (at least, not without expending a lot more power than they tended to), and we couldn’t give ourselves away that quickly. At least at first, we needed these prison people to think everything was totally normal. All their sensors and spells would tell them the transport was coming, and they had to think it was business as usual.

But first, we had to get the actual transport without letting them get a call off to warn anyone. This whole thing would completely fall apart if the people in the prison had any idea what was going on, or that anything was wrong. This first part might not have been as dangerous as the prison rescue itself, but we could still end up losing everything if we weren’t careful. 

“You nervous?” Jazz asked me, interrupting my thoughts as we were all milling around the portal room waiting to make the trip to intercept the supply transport. Everyone was talking in pairs or small groups, anxiousness showing even as we tried to distract one another and avoid dwelling too much on the what-ifs. 

“Me, nervous?” I tried to inject my voice with a casual air before coughing. “Yeah, I’d say I’m pretty nervous. How about you?” 

“Utterly fucking terrified,” Jazz cheerfully informed me. “Which is kind of weird, cuz we’ve done this sort of thing before, you know?” 

“Not like this,” I pointed out. “Raiding the private slave prison of one of the Eden’s Garden Victors on another colony world is a little different than a quick little in and out assault to protect some Alters somewhere here on Earth.” 

“Plus you’re nervous about helping Asenath’s dad,” Jazz pointed out before blanching a little. “Just like I’m nervous about finally finding Gordon’s.”

I nodded in agreement. “That too. I know how long Senny and Jiao have been trying to find him. I mean, I lost my mom around the same age they lost him, and I got her back like ten years later. Tiras has been missing for over two hundred years. They deserve to get him back, you know? Plus, like you said, Gordon needs his dad too. So this whole thing is super-important. To them, to Shiori, to me, to… everyone. But it’s also dangerous. There’s a lot that could go wrong.” 

“Sure is,” the other girl agreed. “But that’s part of why your little sister isn’t coming with us on the trip, isn’t it?” 

Yeah, Tabbris wasn’t going to be along for the ride. Not exactly. She was staying back here so that if anything went wrong, and our communications were cut off, she could still reach me and let the people back here know they needed to mount (another) rescue. It was one of our contingency plans. There had to be several of them because, well, again, a Victor’s prison colony on another planet. A hell of a lot of things could go wrong. We were trying to stay ahead of at least all the possibilities we could think of. It was impossible to plan for everything, but we were doing our best. 

“Sure,” I confirmed. “She… didn’t like the idea at first, but you know, it’s important. I think she thought we were just trying to keep her out of danger at first. But she understands. Besides, she deserves the chance to spend more time with her family. With the rest of her family,” I amended quietly. It had only been a couple weeks since Tabbris got her siblings back, after all. They needed to be together, that whole family. Bringing her along on this trip, which would take at least a week each direction, wouldn’t be fair. And I knew Tabbris felt torn between wanting to help me and not wanting to be away from her new siblings for that long. So, the whole ‘stay here and be ready to call in the cavalry if we need you’ was a good, valid reason to stop her from agonizing over making that decision. 

Besides, if I really needed her, she could always jump to me. 

Meanwhile, Persephone was staying back here too. She and the other Olympians around the station were working on a whole thing that had to do with the Seosten ghosts, their old crewmates. She had offered to come along, but I thought it was better that she spend time with them. She had spent so long not really being accepted by the crew of the Olympus that this chance to actually work with them was… it was important. Besides, I wanted her to know that she could be her own person with her own life, her own friends, her own… everything. She didn’t have to always be helping me or doing what I wanted her to do. 

By that point, Gordon had stepped over to join us. As always, the black boy’s face was serious and collected. But I had known the boy long enough that I could see through that. He was nervous, his eyes flicking around occasionally, while his mouth was pressed tight to stop himself from biting his lip. It was clearly all he could do to keep up appearances. And who could blame him? This was his dad we were talking about. Yeah, there was no guarantee that he was actually there, but this was undoubtedly the closest Gordon had ever gotten to finding him. 

Still, when he spoke, the boy managed to keep his voice about as flat as ever. “It’s almost time.” 

Meeting his gaze, I tentatively asked, “Think we’re ready for this?” 

He gave a single, short nod. “As ready as we’ll ever be without taking more time than we actually have.” There was a brief pause before he added, “Half of me wishes we had more time and the other half wishes it was over already.” 

I very nearly put a hand on his shoulder, but stopped myself. Gordon didn’t like to be touched.  So, instead I simply replied, “Yeah, don’t worry, I know what you mean. But no matter what happens with this, you’re gonna be closer to getting your dad back. Either he’ll be there, or someone there will know more about where he is. Even if we have to tear that whole place apart and ransack the brains of everyone there, we’ll find him.”  

Gordon looked at me in contemplative silence for a moment before replying, “I know you’re being encouraging. Thank you. But you know as well as I do that we don’t have a lot of time there. We need to get in and out before reinforcements show up. We don’t have the firepower to deal with the Victor himself.”  

“Yeah, we’ll have to work fast,” I agreed. “But we can do that. We’ve got the people, we’ve got surprise on our side, and we’re ready.” 

“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Professor Kohaku announced from behind me as she and Klassin Roe approached. 

Her voice made everyone else look over and quiet down as well. Avalon came up to one side of me, and I could see Shiori meet my gaze from where she was standing next to Asenath, Bobbi, and the ghost of Seth. Yeah, he wasn’t going to be left out of this. 

“It’s time?” Gordon asked, his own voice filling the silence that had briefly settled over the room. 

Deveron, joining Kohaku and Klassin, confirmed, “Yeah, it’s time. We’re not gonna get a better chance than this. You all know your parts. You know where we’re going, how we’re hitting that transport, and how we’re gonna make sure they can’t call for help. We’ve been over it, you’re ready.

“So no more planning. No more training. Let’s load up and get out there.” 

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By Blood 17-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“You mean nobody recognized him? Not even Athena?” 

It was a couple of days later, after all the partying and recovery had basically run their course. I was jogging along the exterior of the housing area, with Shiori on one side of me and Jazz on the other, as the three of us got a bit of morning exercise in while chatting. We’d started out talking in the kitchen at breakfast, but when Jazz had mentioned needing to stretch her legs, it quickly turned into this. 

“Nope,” I confirmed in response to Shiori’s words. “Sariel took a copy of my memory of the mystery guy back on the ship, but nobody she’s shown it to has had any idea who he is. Which, I mean, he could be in disguise or something. Shapeshifting magic isn’t exactly super-rare. But that seems weird. Actually, the whole thing is weird. How come I could see him that nobody else did? And why didn’t I sense him with any other power besides just seeing him? Was he just projecting his way into my head or something? I wish Tabbris had been there right then so we could see if she got anything else from seeing him in real time. And so we could see for sure if he was in my mind or in my eyes.” 

Jazz spoke up as we went around the next corner. “It’s pretty obvious that he’s the one who took care of the traps that Whisper bitch was talking about, right? It sure wasn’t any of you guys, and you said she was surprised you made it so fast. So he was on your side. Our side. Whatever. He helped save the universe from those evil fucks.” 

Grimacing, I shook my head. “The thing is, I’m not sure. Just because he was against them doesn’t mean he’s for us. He might’ve just wanted to stop them from letting out those monsters, you know? Not wanting the universe to be destroyed doesn’t make someone a fantastic person. It just means they live here and would prefer to keep living here. There’s levels to that whole thing. Hell, he might still want to destroy the universe but on his terms.” Having said that, I sighed. “I just wish we knew more about him. Being able to hide himself from everyone who was there, that’s… uh, kind of intimidating.” Boy was that an understatement. Just the thought that this guy could eliminate all the traps the Whispers had placed while being invisible to everyone else, including the Whispers themselves, was just… terrifying, honestly. We had to find out more about him. Or rather, anything about him. Because right now, we had absolutely nothing. 

Jazz thought about that for a second as we continued to jog before nodding. “Sure, I get it. The enemy of our enemy isn’t necessarily our friend. Especially when you get into how big the universe is and how many assholes are out there with their own agendas. Still, it’s a good thing he was there right then.” 

“Good thing,” I echoed in agreement, picking up the pace a little bit. “And it’ll be an even better thing if we can find someone who actually knows who he is, so we can talk to him and find out what he really wants. I’d rather not get blindsided by some brand new threat. You know, again.” 

“That does have a tendency to happen,” Shiori murmured, shaking her head. “But hey, at least you guys made it out of there with everyone. You saved your grandparents and the others and stopped the whole universe from being overrun by giant monsters. Yay Team Continued Survival.” She gave a heavy sigh then. “I can’t believe I slept through the whole thing in Senny’s apartment.” 

“Sorry,” I replied with a wince. “We were sort of on the clock, and–” Cutting myself off, I hesitated before settling on a simple, “Trust me, you’ve been there plenty of times. And you’ll be there in the future.” My eyes darted to Jazz. “Both of you will.” 

“Got that damn straight,” Jazz immediately confirmed. “If those Whisper things show up again, Doug’s gonna want to be involved. And if he’s involved, so am I.” She reached over, punching me lightly in the shoulder. “You’re not leaving us out of that, you hear? Or you’ll regret it.” She squinted then. “I guess I sort of just threatened you with–never mind. The point is, give us a chance to help.”  

“I’ll do my best,” I promised. “But hey, if it comes down to it, maybe you’ll be the ones who have to call me in, you know? Let’s just promise we’ll keep each other involved.” After a brief hesitation, I added, “And you’re right about Doug. The second he heard what was going on, he uhh, he was ready to go. More than ready. I’m pretty sure he’s been practicing those anti-Whisper runes since I left his room. Someone might have to go check on him and make sure he eats something.” 

Jazz snorted. “Gordon and me are on top of it.” Right after she said that, there was a brief moment where she visibly flinched. Probably because it struck home yet again just what had happened to her whole team the year before. Rudolph and Paul were dead, Isaac… well, he was dead and an evil murdering piece of shit. And Roxa split her time between being up here on the station and with her werewolf pack. 

The point was, they really had gone through a lot in the past year and a half. We all had, but not all of us had lost half our team for various reasons. So it was no wonder that Jazz, Doug, Gordon, and even Roxa felt a pretty tight bond. I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like if half of my teammates had died or turned out to be psychopaths. What if we had lost… what if we’d lost anyone like that? As it was, the closest we’ve gotten to losing someone from the team was Sean, and he was still alive, at least. I couldn’t even think about how I would react to someone like Columbus or Sands dying. It would rip everyone apart. I– god damn it, I had to stop thinking so morbidly. 

Shoving all of that out of my head, I glanced around, realizing we had continued to jog. Now we were approaching the park where I had sat with Senny the night before. Seeing that brought the other situation to mind, so I spoke up with, “Speaking of Gordon, you guys think you’re up for this rescue thing we’re supposed to get involved in?” 

“Name the time and place, dude,” Jazz shot back without a second of hesitation. “If there’s a chance of finding Gordon’s dad, or even just getting an idea of where he might be, we’re there.” 

“Yeah, it’d be nice to kill two birds with one stone like that,” Shiori agreed, her voice bright and cheerful at the very thought. “Man, can you imagine if we save Gordon’s dad and Senny’s at the same camp? Wouldn’t that be awesome?” 

“The awesomest,” I murmured thoughtfully, slowing as we passed the park before coming to a stop. Taking the water bottle from my belt, I gulped some down, then tossed it to Jazz. “And yeah, even if we don’t find Sindri, I bet someone there will have heard of him. They might know where he is, where to look next, what–they might know something.” 

“It’ll be a start, anyway,” Jazz announced after gulping some of the water. “And speaking of a start, you guys realize it’s almost January, right? We’re over halfway through the one year truce. Do you think we’re actually going to be able to finish this situation with the loyalists so the Seosten don’t invade the planet en masse? Cuz I don’t know about you guys, but going from quiet infiltration and manipulation to an all-out war doesn’t strike me as an upgrade. There’s this guy in my trig class who was talking about these old books where some kids turned into animals to fight alien brain-slugs or something, and they were trying to avoid a full invasion too. Actually, come to think of it, there’s a lot of similarities between our whole situation and those books. Except our body-snatchers aren’t slugs. Except in spirit, sometimes.”

“I’ll have to read them sometime and find out how they end,” I replied with a very slight smile as my gaze glanced toward Shiori. “But as far as the truce goes, we don’t actually have to finish this war before it’s over.” 

That made both other girls blink, Shiori hesitantly speaking up. “We don’t?” 

My head shook. “I mean, sure, it’d be a nice bonus. But I don’t think it’s strictly necessary. We just have to convince the Seosten that it’s better to work with us than against us. And pulling off Liesje’s spell is a pretty good step in that direction.” 

Giving a double-take at that, Jazz tossed the water bottle to Shiori. “Wait, you think making that spell work so they can’t possess any of us is actually gonna make them more likely to work with us? I mean, instead of just invading the whole planet and putting a stop to the situation before we can spread it to everyone. Could you, uhh, explain that?” She sounded understandably dubious. 

“They could invade because of it,” I agreed tentatively before continuing. “But yeah, I think it’s more likely that they work with us. One of their big things is their whole population problem, right? They lose so many babies because they accidentally recall into the parent and just… vanish before they’re old enough to not be accidentally brain-crushed.” Saying it out loud and matter-of-fact like that made me grimace. It was such a horrific concept. No wonder the Seosten had parenting issues, considering how long that had been going on. Still, I pushed forward. “But right now, any Seosten who was pregnant could come here and get the protection spell put on them if they wanted. I mean, both parents and maybe any other close relatives that the kid could–it’d be a whole thing, sure. It probably wouldn’t help stop absolutely every situation unless we managed to put the entire species under the spell. And that would take more power than I think any of us have ever heard of. But it could cut down on the amount of children they lose that way just by blocking possession of the mother and father. That could revolutionize their entire reproductive situation, you know? And if there can be a lot more Seosten, they might have a better chance against the Fomorians. That was one of the biggest things holding them back before.” 

Thinking about that for a moment, Jazz slowly nodded. “Sure, I guess I see what you mean. But, you know, the problem is convincing them of that. Or at least convincing enough of the right ones. It doesn’t seem like they’re really quick to change their minds about stuff. Actually, kind of the opposite. They’re reeeeeeeally slow about changing their minds.”

“Yeah, humans and Seosten have that in common, at least,” I muttered while shaking my head. “But we’ve got time anyway. Hopefully we can settle at least a couple more of these other situations before that comes up.” 

“At least you don’t have Fossor hanging over your head anymore,” Shiori pointed out with a bright smile, hand reaching over to grab mine. “And I don’t think he’ll be coming back as a ghost.” 

The mere suggestion made me grimace, bile rising in my throat even as I squeezed her hand and tugged the other girl closer. Having her right there helped put thoughts of Fossor out of my mind. “God, don’t even say that. Don’t give the universe any ideas. It’s already got plenty of them and doesn’t need any extra help.”

Wincing, Shiori murmured an apology, just before leaning up to kiss me. Then she gave a slight smile. “Don’t worry, we’ll be here to help deal with anyone who thinks coming after you is a good idea. Right, Jazz?” 

“Sure,” the other girl confirmed. “I mean, not quite as close as you are, but I’ll definitely be there.” Her eyes glanced to me before she added, “And in the meantime, we made the full circuit around this whole place. You know what that means.” 

Shiori brightened, pulling back a bit to wink at me. “You did promise.” 

Glancing between both of them, I played up exhaling while waving both hands. As I did so, the two rings shot off my wrists and grew up to their full size, just large enough to hop through. “Sure, sure. Let’s take it again, all the way around. 

“And this time, we’ll use the speed boost rings.” 

******

A couple hours later, the loud and distinct sound of my staff clacking against another filled the air. Sweat poured down my face as I quickly snapped my weapon up to intercept a falling blow. It struck my staff with enough force to nearly make my legs buckle, even as a hearty laugh erupted from my opponent. “Good!” Uncle Al called while spinning the staff over his head lazily as he stepped back to give me a second to catch my breath. “You kept your feet under you. Maybe next time I’ll use a little more oomph.” 

His words made me squint. The two of us were standing in one of the training rooms. To one side, some other people were working out on the machines, but I could tell more of their attention was on us. Or rather, on him. After all, who wouldn’t want to watch the one-and-only Hercules, even if he was practicing against some tiny blonde nobody? 

Okay, practicing was probably a bit generous. He clearly wasn’t getting anything out of this. He just wanted to see what I was capable of, and I was hoping that it wouldn’t disappoint him too much. I had been putting enough effort into it that I was panting and sweating despite my incredibly-enhanced endurance. And yet he barely looked like he’d been doing anything at all. I was pretty sure a normal person would have been more winded by a light jog across the street than my Uncle Al was by ten minutes of me throwing everything I could at him. 

After catching my breath enough to actually speak, I demanded, “Exactly what percentage of your strength were you using right then? Please tell me it was more than an average person would use to stop a toddler from waving their hand around.”  

Al, however, simply smiled a bit at me. “That’s not really important. What is important is that you’re one tough little cookie. Trust me, you’re pretty far along considering how recently you started doing this. You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of, kid. But uhh, I recognize some of those moves. You’ve been learning from Sariel and Athena, haven’t you?” 

Coughing, I gestured. “Among others. They all wanted me to know how to take care of myself. It uhh, I’ve been doing my best to keep up with training. Avalon helps with that a lot too.” 

Showing his teeth with a sly grin, Al gave a short nod. “In that case, I wouldn’t mind jumping onto that list myself. Considering the sort of trouble I’ve heard you keep getting into, you could use all the extra training you can get.” 

Swallowing hard at that, I stared at him. “I am definitely not gonna object to Hercules training me. Heracles, Alcaeus, whatever.” 

“Uncle Al’s just fine,” he assured me. “But if you agree to this, don’t think I’ll take it easy on you just because we’re practically family. I’ll be working you to the bone.” 

“Oh, well in that case I better invite Avalon and the others,” I replied. “I mean, if Avalon finds out you’re putting me through real training and I didn’t invite her, she might never forgive me.” After a brief hesitation, I added, “If that’s okay, that is.” 

“The more the merrier!” Uncle Al informed me with a cheerful grin. “It’s been a long time since I had the chance to whip a few young upstarts into shape. You’ve put some good work into it, I’ll give you that. Solid base to work off of so we don’t have to start from scratch. But you give me some real time with you all and we’ll find out what you’re actually capable of.” After a brief pause, he added, “As long as it doesn’t make you ignore your other training. Give me a few hours a day, but you work on that whole necromancy thing too, you hear me? Especially with these Whisper things and the Seosten ghosts making themselves an issue, we’re gonna need you to be on top of that.” 

My head bobbed quickly. “Oh, don’t worry, I’m still getting lessons from Brom Bones, plus Rahanvael and Persephone both said they could teach me some more stuff too. We’re definitely not gonna slack on that. Not that it’ll be an instant help or anything.” That last bit came in a mutter as I sighed. “I’m still not going to be strong enough to just snap my fingers and make them go away.” 

Uncle Al’s hand settled on my shoulder and squeezed firmly. “You listen to me. No one who matters expects you to be able to do that. Just do the best you can. Help buy everyone else time, so we can kick those ghost-asses, alright? You don’t have to handle the whole situation by yourself. And believe me, I know how that sounds coming from me. I’m not exactly the poster boy for working nicely with others. But you don’t need to be like me. You’ve got all these other people, and you haven’t fucked up your relationship with them. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Learn how to use your power to help deal with the ghosts. Emphasis on help.” 

Reaching up, I put my hand over his and offered the much-older man a hesitant smile. “Thanks, Uncle Al. I guess having so many people who can teach me how to do this stuff is my repayment for the fact that I have so much shit to deal with in the first place. Lots of problems, but lots of solutions too.” 

With a chuckle, he cuffed the side of my head lightly. “Now that makes sense to me. You’ve got a lot of shit being flung at you, but uhh, lots of people who can teach you how to dodge that shit too.” He grimaced then. “That metaphor sort of crashed and burned before it even got off the ground. Anyway, the point is, just keep learning and training, kid. You’ll get there. You’ve got all the resources you need. Just gotta use them. I know how easy it can be to feel… overwhelmed, trust me on that. But you’ll be okay. You’ve got these people behind you, and you’re one tough kid as it is.” 

“People like you behind me?” I offered with a raised eyebrow. 

That broad grin came back as he yanked me closer, put me in a headlock, and gave me a noogie. “Damn straight, people like me. You just point me at anyone giving you shit and I’ll redirect a river to drown them.” 

Snorting despite myself, I replied, “Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind the next time I run into any assholes who happen to be near a convenient river.” 

“Or lake, or ocean, or reservoir,” Al put in. “I’m not picky on the exact body of water I use to drown assholes. Might even get creative and use a tank of maple syrup, like this one time that–” Cutting himself off, he reconsidered. “You know what, maybe I’ll tell you that story later.” With that, he stepped back, pointing his staff at me. “First, let’s see you go another round.” 

“What–you mean I have to throw myself at you again before you’ll tell me the syrup story?” I demanded, huffing a little. 

“That’s right,” he confirmed, showing me his teeth once more. “I mean, come on, I’ve gotta hold some good things back. Just trust me, it’s a fantastic story. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of syrup, me, and a whole bunch of these five foot tall gremlin things.” Having said that, the man snapped his fingers. “Oh, and your old pal Hisao was there too.” 

My eyes widened a bit. “Hisao as in Professor Dare’s boyfriend?” 

“Well sure, he’s probably one of the few men alive who might be stronger than me,” Al pointed out. “Without cheating and stacking a bunch of other powers, that is.” 

“Hisao might be stronger than–” I cut myself off and exhaled. “Okay, now I really have to hear the rest of this story.” 

“Well, you know how to do it,” came the casual response as Al slapped the end of his staff into his palm hard enough to make the loud pop fill the room around us. “Bring it. 

“Show me what you can really do.” 

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