Sophronia Leven

Patreon Snippets 19 Including Fomorian Origin Story (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 19th edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers.

Months Ago, During The Night Of The Rebellion Being Reformed

There were three incredibly important things that one had to know about Malcolm Harkess’s father, Shane, if one was going to understand his son. First, the man was very rich. He had inherited a decent amount (seven figures) of money as an eighteen-year-old orphan. Second, despite inheriting such cash, Shane Harkess was still incredibly driven to earn his own way. He went into the US Marines and served his country for ten years on three different continents before retiring as a first sergeant. From there, he used the money he had originally inherited as well as the contacts he made in the service to start-up an armed private security company. 

Those were two of the three important things to know about Shane Harkess. The third, even more vital piece of information, was that he was also incredibly paranoid. Shane had been convinced since the time that he was a child that some sort of very dangerous and devastating war was coming. A war which would begin with most technology in the world being wiped out or eliminated. Which, of course, would make supplies quite hard to come across. Thus, he trained the men in his security company not only how to fight using their fancy guns and equipment, but also in much more archaic forms of combat. He had trained in medieval weapons construction, upkeep, and fighting, hand-to-hand, various survival and concealment techniques, and so on since before he had even entered the military itself. The Marines, of course, had taken these skills to the next level. And he passed that level to everyone who ended up working for him. 

But it wasn’t only his men that he taught. Shane Harkess passed everything he knew, everything he had trained himself to do, on to his son. Malcolm, from the time he had been barely old enough to walk, had been taught how to fight and survive by his father, as well as his father’s military buddies and security subordinates. He learned how to clean, maintain, and fire every type of gun imaginable, as well as how to fight without such an advantage. He learned to survive in the woods with nothing but a knife, and eventually with less than that. 

All that training had been instilled so thoroughly in Malcolm that he was incredibly competitive. That competitive streak had accompanied him here, to Crossroads. Yet no matter how hard he tried, no matter how much he worked, he could never manage to beat Avalon Sinclaire. And he so desperately wanted to. Not because he particularly disliked the girl or anything. Not even because she was a girl, that was stupid. He knew too many really strong females to think something idiotic like that. 

No, Malcolm wanted to beat Avalon simply because she was better than he was. And if he beat her, he’d know he was improving. It was nothing personal. But he could never do it. Which led to him pushing himself harder and harder, training more, to the point that he received special permission to train in the middle of the night when he couldn’t sleep. 

And that was why he was standing in the middle of the gym that night, when everything went down and that blaring music began to play. Malcolm had had no idea what was going on, only that he was locked in the gym by a passing security guard who told him to stay put. From there, he stared through the doors and out the various windows, trying to figure out what had happened. 

Then it came. The sudden rush of understanding that left Malcolm staggering backward. The rebellion, Flick’s mom, everything that had been done to shut them down. She–that chick did something to fill everyone’s heads with all that information. All that–and now they were leaving. They were going to take off. He could see the large group down by the ocean, through the window. Something was going on down there, and he had to get the hell out of–

“It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?” 

The voice came from behind Malcolm, and he spun to find a completely unexpected figure standing there. 

“Counselor Leven?!” It was her. Zeke’s mother and member of the Crossroads Committee. “What–what’re you doing? Shouldn’t you be down… uhh, down there?” He gestured toward the scene going on in the distance through the window.

“Hello, Malcolm,” the beautiful, auburn-haired woman greeted him. “And no, I believe what happens there will happen regardless of my presence, or lack thereof. I’m more interested in what you plan to do now.” 

“I–uhh…” The tall, muscular boy hesitated, feeling uneasily intimidated by the smaller, yet profoundly more powerful woman. “That stuff, the memories or whatever, is it true?” 

There was a short pause from Sophronia before she gave a very slight nod. “You want to go with them?” 

The pause from Malcolm, in turn, was much longer than hers. Finally, he carefully replied, “I’m not sure how to answer that, ma’am.” 

“Fair enough,” she agreed. “Then allow me to tell you what I would like. You are the closest friend my son has, Malcolm Harkess. Which, given his typical dismissal of Bystander matters, is quite remarkable in and of itself.” 

Offering him a very faint smile, she continued. “Zeke will not leave this place now, it’s not… it’s not who he is, yet. I believe he can be better, I have to. But I also believe that your leaving will sour him against the subject permanently. He will view his best friend joining the rebellion as a betrayal, rather than an informative moment.” 

Malcolm stared at her briefly before slowly asking, “You saying you want me to stay here because it’ll piss your son off if I leave?” 

“What I am saying,” she informed him, “is that if you choose to leave I will not stand in your way. I will even aid you in reaching those who are fleeing. But I ask… not as a Heretic, not as a member of the Committee, as a mother. As a mother, I ask that you stay and try to help my son. If you leave, he will be alone save for those who wish to make him even more of a fanatic.” 

“What about you?” the boy demanded. “You’re his mom.” 

“And there is some I can do, yet not enough,” Sophronia replied. “I am his mother, and also a member of the Committee. What I do, particularly around my son, is watched more than what you do. You are his friend, someone he has chosen to open up to despite his own prejudices. I believe that, with time and effort, it may be possible to reach him. If we do so gradually and give him more reasons to doubt his own beliefs.” 

Reaching out, she put one hand on his shoulder. “Say the word, and I will take you to the newly-budding rebellion. Or choose to stay. Not for me. For my son. I want him to be better, but it’s something he has to choose for himself. I would prefer he have a better chance of doing so by being connected to a good influence. Your influence.” 

Once more, Malcolm was silent, glancing to her hand and then to the window where people were retreating. Where the new rebellion was escaping. His expression was indecisive. Finally, he exhaled long and low. “Fine. 

“I’ll stick around for Zeke.” 

*****

Puriel And Company

With a slight squeak of metal, a two-foot wide, square panel was pried away from a wall. Doing so revealed an intricate network of tubes and wires surrounding brightly colored lights. Some of the tubes seemed to carry liquid of one kind or another, while others appeared empty. The lights blinked in various patterns that surely meant something to… someone. 

“Welp,” announced Arthur Chambers, who was not one of those someones, “Have you checked the oil?” 

Slowly, the man standing beside him, Puriel, turned his head to look that way. “Have we what?” As he spoke, the man was setting the metal panel against the nearby wall with a very soft ting. 

The two of them were in one of the Olympus’s many vast corridors. The hall was only lit by the dimmest of lighting, as most of the ship remained on extremely low power for the time being. It was an effect which left both men barely visible to one another. And most of that was thanks to the colored lights from the newly-opened panel. 

“Sorry,” Arthur murmured with a shrug, having turned his attention back to what they had revealed. “Usually the first thing you’re supposed to ask when someone’s checking for engine trouble. But ahhh, this might be slightly beyond anything I’ve ever worked with.” Glancing back that way, he added, “Not diesel, is it?”  

There had been a time when Puriel would have scoffed at that, when he would have treated the human as a useless primitive, barely capable of speech. Now, he paused before snorting softly. “No, Mr…” He hesitated before amending. “… Arthur. I don’t believe it’s diesel. Though as far as my people are concerned, most of this ship is little more than a quaint antique. Top of the line in her day, yet… yet she has fallen behind.” Despite his words, there was a clear fondness in his voice, while the man gently ran one hand along the wall. For a moment, he was lost in memories. 

“You think the kid can really bring her up to snuff?” Arthur asked after giving the other man a few seconds to reminisce. “That Spark, she’s like a real genius at this stuff. That’s not normal for your people, is it? Sorry, I mean it’s not usual.”

“Indeed.” The answer came not from Puriel himself, but from Aletheia. The small, black Seosten woman approached through the winding corridor, accompanied by Arthur’s wife, Maria, as well as the enormous figure of Alcaeus. “Spark is very much an unusual level of genius,” Aletheia continued to confirm, once they had all arrived. “Happily for us.” 

“How are they doing?” Puriel asked, his question directed toward Maria. He could easily tell for himself, of course. Spark was still connected to him, after all. She was simply using the projection spell to put an image of herself elsewhere. All he really had to do was stop actively shunting his attention away from the spell she was using to see through that hologram. But he preferred to give the girl as much privacy as their unique situation allowed. 

Maria, in turn, offered a grandmotherly smile. “Spark is assisting her brother and the rest of the children with sandwich preparations. Kutattca is with them. You don’t exactly have peanut butter and jelly here, but I believe Grandpa Kutty and I managed to piece together effective substitutes from the new supplies.” She looked toward Aletheia then, adding, “Your friend here is very good at acquiring things.” 

“Always has been.” That was Al, grunting the words before stepping up to join the men in staring at the flashing lights, wires, and coils. “So like Artie here said, between all of us and the kid’s super-genius, can we really get this ship into good enough condition to make it to Earth?” 

“With some luck and a lot of work from the rest of us, yes,” Puriel confirmed. “At least, I believe so. This ship was intended to operate under a much larger and… no offense intended, much better trained crew. But between general improvements, automation spells we can set up, and Spark’s own inspired upgrades, we should be able to pull it off, eventually.”

There was a brief exchange of looks then, before Maria cleared her throat. “Oh, honestly, would you all just spit it out.” To Puriel, she flatly continued with, “Everyone wants to know if that genius kid of yours got her spiffy tech skills from whoever her father might be. You know, since you said those superpowers could be passed on after all.” 

“You’re asking if Spark’s father is Radueriel,” Puriel finished for her. He paused, waiting for the collection of nods before giving a very slight shake of his head. “No. I have been through all of my late wife’s records. Spark’s father was an unremarkable volunteer from the front lines of the war, who wished to have some chance at passing on his genetics. He was unaware of the extent of what was happening at the lab, only believing that some of our scientists were working on creating children through… artificial means.”

The others absorbed that, before Arthur asked, “Does that mean she’s just… naturally coming up with this stuff? No offense, just seems like it’s about the same as a twelve-year-old on our world with no training randomly inventing… well… one of these.” He gestured at the ship around them. 

After a moment of silence, Puriel nodded once. “As far as we can tell, yes. There is nothing in her genealogical history that would account for some special Tartarus-derived power to explain her skills in design. Her mother’s ability is nothing like that, and her biological father has no such power, nor any particular skill in technology. From all of the very extensive research I have done, Spark’s genius is simply that. Her genius.”

Taking that in, the others exchanged looks once more before Arthur eventually spoke once more. “I suppose if Spark’s father is some random guy, so is Omni’s.” 

“Oh, no, not at all,” Puriel corrected. “Omni’s father is very much someone we know. 

“His name is Abaddon.” 

*****

Fomorian Origins

A/N – Sariel first told Larissa the Seosten understanding of the origins of Cronus and the Fomorians back in Mini-Interlude 37, right here for those who would like to compare.

Throughout the vast, unfathomable reaches of space, trillions of worlds existed. Some dark, dormant, and cold, others bright shining beacons. Some were small, churning balls of hot gases that would melt and twist steel within seconds, while others were goliaths of frozen liquids and mountains that towered into the sort of immeasurable size that would make the Earth itself vanish within a single cavern of such a world. 

Such incalculable cosmic phenomena existed within the bounds of only one universe, let alone several interconnected realities, that it was beyond the capabilities of even the most celebrated Seosten scientist to document even a decent fraction of them. Despite their own ten thousand year average lifespan and infallible memories, space was simply too large to be accurately understood and charted.

If it was beyond even the Seosten’s ability to fully detail the worlds within their own area of space, then those that lay beyond the battlelines of their war with the Fomorians were as mysterious and unknown as the land of Earth’s moon would have been to primitive, pre-fire humans. And like those ancient, aboriginal societies, many stories had been made up and spread throughout the Seosten Empire of what the Fomorian-controlled worlds were like. Or what Fomorian society itself, if it even truly existed, might have been. The Seosten scientists who detailed these ideas of their enemy’s society based them on millennia of observation and evidence that had been collected by their peers, or pieced-together witness reports from a few scattered survivors. They put together as clear of a picture of the Fomorian ‘society’ as they could. 

And they were, in almost every countable way, entirely wrong. Personal prejudices, misunderstood or even deliberately falsified evidence, survivors whose stories were exaggerated or whose memories had been tampered with by either side, and more problems made it entirely impossible for anyone to have anything even remotely close to an accurate view of what the Fomorians were like away from the front lines of their war. Or what the origin of their species had truly been. Their own worlds, the center of their society, were entirely cut off from any outsiders. Not one single non-Fomorian had laid living eyes upon those original worlds since before the great war between the genetic monstrosities and the Seosten Empire had begun, hundreds of thousands of years earlier. None who were not Fomorian themselves had ever stood upon the soil of their capital world and seen the truth of who and what these creatures were. 

Most importantly, none had ever laid eyes upon the world where all Fomorians were born.

There were many reasons for this, from the vastness of their owned space, to the ferocity with which they defended (and constantly expanded) their borders, to the atrocities committed by their people on those who wandered anywhere near the edges of their territory, let alone getting close to the center. But above all, there was one primary reason for why no living, non-Fomorian being had ever seen the planet all of them were born on, the seat of their civilization. Because the Fomorians, as the universe knew them, were not born on any world. 

They were born on a ship. 

——–

Under a veil of darkness, one pair of eyes opened. Those eyes, bred and enhanced through hundreds of generations, were capable of viewing the world around them through any of a dozen different vision modes. They could see perfectly within pitch-black night, would have been capable of counting the hairs on the leg of a common Earth housefly from a mile away, could stare directly into a star for hours without harmful effect, and could even view ultraviolet and infrared waves, as well as literal magical energy itself. Nothing that was capable of being seen by a living being (and many things that technically weren’t) could be hidden from this single pair of eyes. 

And yet, at that particular moment, the eyes saw nothing. The area around them was not simply dark, it was obscured, physically covered by something. The being attached to the eyes floated within what amounted to very thick, almost pudding-like nutrient liquid of pure black coloration, their body held rigid and motionless by four muscular tentacles coiled around their arms and legs (two of each). Those tentacles were attached to the inner walls of the cocoon or egg-like structure the being had awoken within. A cocoon which entirely encased the being and produced the nutrient paste their body had used to grow to its full size, while its attached tentacles held the being by the arms and legs. 

For many years, the body within this cocoon had been nurtured and maintained. Now, as the eyes of the body within opened and the body began to twist a bit, its job was done. The tentacles holding the being’s limbs retracted at the very instant that the occupant began to struggle in earnest, while the cocoon itself began to dissolve. The hard outer shell, capable up until that point of standing against even a full barrage from a capital starship, melted into the same pudding-like gel that had filled its interior. The tentacles followed suit, the resulting pool of thick liquid dripping through a thin, yet incredibly tough membrane that made up the floor below it.

As the cocoon dissolved and dripped through the floor, the being that had been held within was left crouching, naked on a small platform in the middle of a cavernous structure surrounded by dozens more eggs just like the one they had just emerged from. The walls of the cavern were flesh, with visible rib-like bones across the domed ‘ceiling’, and an overall general structure that looked like the inside of a mostly-hollowed out whale. 

After what would have been considered several Earth-minutes, the crouched, naked being straightened. Their gaze slowly turned to take in the area around them, absorbing the sight of those other cocoons before lowering their eyes to take in the sight of their own raised hands. Gray-green hands, thin yet unbelievably strong. Powerful, tough, incredibly dexterous, and… wrong. 

“No,” the being murmured under their breath, their head starting to shake. “No, this is wrong.” The words that emerged from their strange, unfamiliar mouth were what people of Earth would consider Latin. The Seosten language, though the exact words and pronunciation were quite different in many ways than what most would understand. Different, because they were many, many centuries out of date. 

“This isn’t me!” The being was shouting out loud by that point, their bellows filling the egg-filled cavern. “What is this?! Hey, what in the void is going on here?! Hey!” They pivoted, moving toward the nearest cocoon. If they had been trapped inside, maybe others they knew were trapped within the rest. 

Stop.” The loud, booming voice came from everywhere, yet nowhere. It seemed to emerge from the walls themselves, echoing throughout the biological cavern. It was a voice which, despite the confused and frantic newly-emerged being’s desperation, made them follow that single order and halt instinctively before slowly looking around as though searching for the source. 

“Where–where are you? Where am I? What is this? Come out, now!” The shouted command was a mix of fearful and angry, the being’s confusion warring with their rising emotions about where they had found themselves, and in what state. “I swear, if you don’t show yourself right now–” 

“Apologies.” The voice came from behind the confused new hatchling, and they spun to find a figure standing between two other eggs. Unlike their own awkward, unfamiliar gray-green body, the person who had now revealed themselves had pale skin, long brown hair, a slightly muscled physique, and soft green eyes. He wore nothing more than loose brown pants, and appeared completely out of place here in this cocoon-filled flesh cavern specifically because he looked entirely human. Entirely human, or–

“Seosten!” the hatched figure blurted abruptly, their surprise and relief audible. “You’re Seosten! Like me, like…” Trailing off, they looked down at their hands. “Like I’m… supposed to be. What did they do to me? What–I’m not–” Looking up again, voice and bulbous, too-large eyes pleading, they continued. “What is this? Wh-what happened to me? Is this… is this aliens?” Their voice had turned tentative, fearful as they took a step that way, reaching out to desperately grasp at the arm of the Seosten man. “Where are we?” 

After a very brief pause, the pale, shirtless man offered a slight smile before taking one of the confused, frightened figure’s hands. Squeezing reassuringly, he turned and began to walk. “Come, I’ll show you exactly what has happened. It’s alright, you have nothing to be afraid of. Please, what’s your name?” 

“I… I’m Lailah,” came the hesitant answer. “And I’m not-not this thing.” Their hands gestured toward the strange, unfamiliar body. “I’m a Seosten like you! I mean, a female Seosten. Not this, I’m not–I’m not this thing! What happened to me?! Please, just–just tell me what happened? Was it an accident in the lab? Was it–” 

“Shh, please, it’s alright.” Gently soothing her with his voice, the shirtless Seosten man continued to lead her through the large cavern as he asked, “I promise, we’ll get to the bottom of this, and you will be okay. Just try to calm down a little bit. Can you tell me the last thing you remember before waking up here?” 

“The last thing I remember?” Lailah echoed uncertainly. She had to think about it. And thinking was rather hard right then, though something about the man’s voice made it easier than it should have been to follow his instructions. He asked her to calm down, and part of her did, despite the insanity and terror of waking up in a strange body. “There was some kind of accident in the lab I was working at. We were investigating experimental treatments for diseases, like the one Caelus Euven–he’s my boss–the one his son has.” 

There was a brief pause while her guide stopped walking. He glanced away and seemed to think about her words before curiously asking, “Cron?” 

“You know him?” Blinking that way with more than a little surprise, Lailah nodded. “Yes, he’s been in our lab for a few months now. His father’s desperate to find a cure. I’m afraid… I’m afraid he’s been cutting a few safety corners. He has this strange idea that he can create a secondary… wait a minute.” As she trailed off, those large, alien eyes widened. “He wanted to make a new body and transfer his son from the sick one to the healthy one. Did–did he do this?” She had stopped walking again, raising those strange greenish hands up in front of her face to stare at them in horror. “Was I–was I his test subject? Wait, those other cocoons. Those other–the rest of–” 

Turning to face her, the still normal-looking Seosten man held his own pale hands out. “Easy–” 

“Easy?!” she echoed, blurting the word in disbelief and anger. “Have you looked at me?! What am I! What did he do to me?! What did that monster do?!” 

Immediately, the man closed the distance between them. Fury blazed in his eyes as he raised a hand, shaking from emotion. “He is not a monster. It wasn’t his fault. He was trying to save me!”   

“Trying to save…” Once more, the woman trailed off. She stared at him, placing the face as a very soft gasp escaped her. “Cron–no. You’re young–barely more than a child. How are you–years. Whatever happened, whatever this is… I’ve been out for years.” 

“Years?” A faint note of amusement entered the voice of her guide, Cron. “Oh, Lailah. It’s been a bit longer than that. Though, I suppose it really depends on how you count, to be honest. By your personal measure, it’s been a very, very long time. By mine, we had this conversation a few months ago. And a few years before that. And perhaps a decade earlier–your model is very prone to arrogance. It gets you in trouble.” 

“My–my model?” She took a step away from him, mouth working a bit as a wordless sound of confusion escaped her. “What are you talking about? What–what’s happening?” 

“It’s more about what already happened,” came the casual response. “And what happened is that my father succeeded–in a manner of speaking. He created a new body for me, with the help of you and your colleagues, of course. He also gave me the ability to create a connection to the new body, so I could transfer myself into it. Unfortunately, that new body he transferred me into wasn’t some empty, blank slate. 

“You see, it turns out there was a mind in there already, because one of your other colleagues had a brother who got into an accident and brain-damaged. This other doctor, he thought he could use my father’s work temporarily, just enough to transfer his damaged brother’s mind into the new body to have one last conversation. To say goodbye. He did the same thing to his injured brother that my father did to me, performed alterations to his DNA so that he could match it to the new body. He even managed to make that connection. He managed to transfer his almost brain-dead brother to the new body. But my father interrupted, and wouldn’t listen before he started the procedure for me. So when I was transferred, there was already a mind inside what should have been an empty body. A mind that was terrified and confused. He lashed out. I fought back. We struggled, and then my father tried to hug me. He didn’t understand what was happening. He didn’t know there was a problem. A problem which got worse, because the method he used to allow me to transfer myself into the new body extended to taking him into the body as well. We absorbed him, my father.” 

“I…” Lailah was gazing off into the distance as screams and orders echoed through her mind. “I remember. I think I remember, anyway. We tried to stop it. We tried to get the situation under control. We were trying to sedate the body, but it didn’t work. He–you–it fought back. It… I was… you picked me up.” She stared at him, voice shaking. “You threw me across the room. I hit a table and… and then the wall. You were standing over me. You reached down, and I… and I was gone. Then I woke up here. Why–” She stopped, clearly trying to understand something. “Why can’t I be angry with you? Why can’t I–I want to yell at you. I want to hit you. I want to scream and run away. I can’t. Why can’t I do that? Why can’t I do any of that?” 

Sounding unconcerned, the man pivoted and began to walk once more through the flesh and bone tunnel. “Come, you’ll understand eventually. Or not, but it hardly matters. I suppose there was a time when I would have tried harder to make you understand. And knowing how these things fluctuate, there will come a time when I try harder again.” 

As they walked, he explained, all-too-casually, what had happened to the Seosten after her memories faded out. He told her about how the combined form of Caelus and Cron, now called Cronus, kept absorbing more and more people in an increasingly desperate attempt to possess enough mental power to solve their problem and save themselves. He told her about how that was quickly twisted, their original goal forgotten as they sought only to absorb more Seosten for no particular reason, and how the genetic alterations to their body mutated, spreading out from them in virus-form to infect even those they didn’t absorb. He told her about how that mutation rapidly propagated through the remaining Seosten population, granting them the ability to possess and control others, and about how the subsequent war between Cronus and the rest of the Seosten population devastated their planet to the point of reshaping the world itself by turning what had been a singular massive continent into a much smaller one surrounded by thousands of islands. He was fairly candid about the lengths he–or Cronus–went to in their mad attempt to absorb as many people as possible. Thousands upon thousands of minds, hundreds of thousands, even. A million or more. All of them taken into one body, and all contributing to make him less and less sane. 

Finally, Cronus had left their homeworld. He–or they– abandoned Elohim using the experimental spaceship the Seosten had been working on, and set out to find a new home where they could sort through what was, by that point, hundreds of thousands of voices from all of the people they had absorbed.

Entranced by his story, Lailah only belatedly noticed that they had reached the end of the biological tunnel, and were now standing in what appeared to be the cockpit of that same, just-mentioned spaceship. Though there were various… additions to the space. Mostly consisting of several tentacles spread across the metal walls and over the controls. Tentacles with living, beating/pulsing organs attached to them, like those of a living creature that had been directly connected into the technology. 

“What… what is this?” Lailah tried to demand, yet her voice came out as a soft, uncertain question. 

“What is it?” her guide echoed before pointing toward the main screen in the center of the fairly cramped (particularly with the organ-covered tentacles running through it) cockpit. “Look, and see where we are. See the heart of what we have achieved. Or perhaps a better term would be, the womb.” 

As he spoke, the view on the screen flickered, before abruptly showing the outside of the ship itself from up close. They could see the cockpit window, could see themselves watching the screen. Seeing that, Lailah glanced that way, but the window was mirrored from this side, making it impossible to see anything beyond. 

Turning her attention back to the monitor, she watched as whatever was out there transmitting the signal began to pull back. She saw more of the ship. It was essentially a thick silver-white oval, like a semi-flattened egg. Larger tentacles, like the ones within the cockpit running through all the controls, were wrapped around it. They looked like the roots of a giant tree that had grown to envelop the ship, leading back to… to…

The best way Lailah’s mind could describe it was a gigantic snail, complete with (a soft, pulsing) shell. It was over a thousand miles from one end to the other. The opening of the ‘shell,’ where the snail’s head would emerge, instead had hundreds of various-sized tentacles. Some were as small as ordinary tree vines, while others were miles across. One singular tentacle-like tube attached the moon-sized soft-looking shell to the ship they were now standing on. That was the organic tunnel they had walked through to get here, and the cocoon-filled chamber was but one of what had to be hundreds within the shell itself. 

“We traveled for decades on this ship,” her guide murmured. “Years upon years where we spent most of the time hardly cognizant of our surroundings. We found that our body didn’t need nutrients. It took what it needed from the people we absorbed, storing the energy from their bodies and keeping it for later. Many thousands of our people, converted to the nourishment our combined self required. For decades, the ship traveled through space while we drifted within our own minds. Close to a million minds and personalities, all fighting and struggling to be heard, to be released, to be noticed. Many living out entire fantasy dream scenarios. It was impossible to think, impossible to focus through the noise. We lost ourselves for a long time. Years upon years passed while those minds within us fought for attention, or simply played out their imagined lives. We lived every life of every person we had taken, our focus and attention drifting from one to the next, aimless and chaotic. 

“Finally, we could go no further. Our ship reached this point, this empty area of space, and would proceed no more. We had fixed it before, but there was no fixing this. It was done, our physical, outward journey over. Yet our mental path, the dreams of nearly a million minds longed to have showed no signs of ending. For another dozen years after our ship had stopped, we lay here on the floor just where you stand, our body incapable of moving because of so many minds arguing over which direction it would go. Perhaps we would have stayed there forever, until the energy we had absorbed from all those bodies finally faded, and we simply died there. Perhaps, save for a single, chance encounter.” 

For a few long seconds, he simply stood there, staring off at nothing as though lost in those memories. Finally, the man slowly turned his gaze to her, their eyes meeting before he continued. “An alien ship found us. A ship full of refugees and explorers, who sent a team aboard. They found our body lying there, and they made perhaps the worst mistake they ever could have. They tried to save us by taking our body back to their ship, to their medical center. There, our body continued to lay while their doctors did what they could to determine what was physically wrong with us. They even installed a translator device allowing us to understand them.

“The main doctor had a child with them, a young boy who sat with us for hours that night, telling us stories of his world. He wanted to help us. His father told him that we could hear, because their instruments showed a mental reaction to his words. So he told those stories. Some were amusing, some were adventures, but many were horror. The boy liked those, the scary, disgusting stories the most. They were all nice to hear. We enjoyed them. We couldn’t show it, couldn’t find the way of guiding every mind within us to thank the boy for his stories.” 

“Did you kill him?” Lailah’s voice was quiet, though tinted with emotion. “Did you kill the alien boy and everyone else on that ship just like you killed all of us?”

He didn’t respond at first, instead simply meeting her gaze in silence before carefully answering with a firm, “No. The mistake those people made was not in taking us aboard and trying to help. It was in stopping to do so. They did not want to go any further until they understood what had happened to us, lest it be something that could affect them. So they waited. They stayed here in this spot where our ship had stopped. And that was their undoing. The monsters they fled from, soldiers from their own world who served a genocidal dictator, tracked them down to this spot. Their ship was overrun, and they were all slaughtered. Thousands of them, killed without mercy. The boy who told us stories was one of the last. He was here, hiding, when they came. He pleaded for help. His words, his voice… he begged for us to save him. We heard, and saw, as they gleefully murdered the boy. 

“And that was when our souls became united in one single, solitary goal. For the first time in decades, every mind we had absorbed had one thought: to kill those monsters. Our confusion lifted, burned away by white-hot rage. We moved. For the first time in so long, we moved of our own volition, and tore into those things. We avenged the deaths of those who had tried to help us. We killed every single invader who boarded the ship. Unfortunately, a few escaped back to their own vessel and fled.” 

Reaching out to gently stroke one of the nearby tentacles thoughtfully, the man continued after another moment. “We were alone again. Alone with a million minds trapped within us. But we did not fall back into our motionless coma, because we had a goal. Some of those monsters had escaped. And the dictator who led them, the one their victims had fled from in the first place, was still safe and sound back on their world. He would continue to thrive after his men butchered the people who had been kind to us. That was something we could not allow to stand. Our fury remained, the rage that gave us the focus we needed to be united. 

“But we knew that we could not accomplish true revenge in our current state. Powerful as we were, there was but one of us. One body. We had been defeated and chased away from our own home by our people because of that, because we were outnumbered by so much. That was our weakness. A weakness we had to do something about. And now, we had the materials to work with.” 

Swallowing hard, Lailah quietly put in, “the corpses who were left behind, the bodies of those who tried to save you, and of the ones you killed in retaliation.”   

“Precisely,” he confirmed. “Our rage gave us what we needed mentally. It united us, gave us a purpose to move toward. The purpose of vengeance. With that unity, we took the minds we had absorbed and put them all toward one goal: fixing the corpses left behind on that ship to create new bodies for all of the people who were inside us. We would overcome our singular weakness of being a legion trapped within one body, by creating a legion. We put the bodies back together, upgraded them, used materials from those too broken to be useful in order to add to others.” 

Slowly, Lailah held up her own green-gray arms. “These? This is what the aliens looked like. This is what their bodies were.”

With a slight nod, the man continued. “It took months of work. But we put the bodies back together. Hundreds of them, then over a thousand. They could support life again, yet had no minds within them. That was when the truly hard work began. Over more months, twice as long as it took to put the physical bodies back together, we learned to project those we had absorbed into those bodies. The first few attempts were… failures. We pushed too many minds, or broke the mind irreparably in the process of the transfer. Yours was one of those injured. We managed to put it back together, but your memories were damaged in the process. Now you and others who were similarly damaged in the process of our testing must be told the truth of things whenever you reawaken.” 

Lailah was about to jump on the many questions she had about that, but he had already pushed on. “With trial and error, and far too many losses, we finally managed to perfect the process of transfer. Over a thousand bodies now had minds within them, and we were alone no longer. And with our new bodies, we set to work repairing the damage to the alien ship that had been done during the invasion. When it was ready to travel once more, we used their computer to send the ship back where it had come from, back to their home planet.” 

From there, while Lailah watched and listened with rapidly increasing unease, the man detailed how their new army had flown back to the alien planet and began to attack them. They spread like a virus across the other world. For every member of the other species they killed, Cronus was able to put the body back into working order and inject one of his stolen Seosten minds into it. With that, their numbers expanded exponentially, and they began to use the biological expertise, which had been cultivated and boosted in order to make repairing the bodies possible in the first place, to enhance the bodies they were given. They didn’t have the original Cronus’s ability to absorb anyone they touched, yet their biological enhancements meant they remained a terrifyingly effective invasion force. 

The Seosten’s own homeworld had barely survived the attacks from Cronus specifically because he’d only had one body. With an exponentially growing army, that weakness was removed. The aliens didn’t stand a chance, particularly when they failed to recognize the true extent of the threat early on. Soon, there were enough dead aliens to give a (soon enhanced and improved) body to every stolen Seosten mind. Yet they were not themselves anymore. Decades of being part of a single body and connected to the corrupted mind of Cronus had twisted them beyond all recognition. One and all, the former-Seosten obeyed their master, the one called Cronus. 

There were, of course, far more dead bodies than they had minds to inject into them. At most, there were under a million Seosten minds, and billions of dead aliens. Not wanting to let such resources go to waste, and still needing more troops in order to continue spreading their war across the planet, Cronus and his former-Seosten began to use those bodies, and those of random animals they came across, to create even more troops. These had no real minds, no real sapience. They were simply predators, monsters who were twisted, improved, and turned against the world’s inhabitants as shock troopers. Soon, the despotic leader who had been responsible for sending his army to track down and murder the original refugees was dead, along with all of those who had supported him. 

“But you didn’t stop–we didn’t stop,” Lailah quietly murmured. “Why? You–we… killed the dictator and his men, but you kept going. You spread over the entire world, you killed all of them. Every single person on the world. Why didn’t we spare the innocents?” 

“The innocents?” her companion snarled in disbelief, shaking that off. “There were no innocents left on that planet. The innocents were those who fled and tried to help us. Anyone left behind was complicit with their leader. They all got the justice they deserved for aligning themselves with the monster. You may not remember the pleading of the child who told us stories, but we do. We hear his voice. We hear his screams, his terror. And we enacted his revenge.”

For years, then decades, and then centuries after that, Cronus and his altered people continued to grow and enhance themselves. They used the resources of the world they had taken over to make their bodies stronger, spending hundreds of years perfecting their skills of biological manipulation and enhancements. As they were no longer truly Seosten, they took the name of the species they had so thoroughly destroyed and whom they now resembled (save for the enhancements each member performed on themselves), the Fomorians. 

During the original fighting, it had been found that any of the former-Seosten whose new body was destroyed would instantly find their mind back within the body of Cronus himself. They were, in effect, immortal. Dying simply meant being sent back to Cronus and then injected into a new body. And over those centuries, they developed a new system. Rather than being put back within Cronus upon the ‘death’ of their physical body, their minds were sent to a ‘hive’, where new bodies based on the original Fomorian prototype were created within egg-like structures before they were released once more. This hive, the center of the Fomorian life, was created in where their original ship had shut down, built around the precise spot where the refugee ship had been. 

“Yet it wasn’t enough,” Cronus quietly noted. “Our guilt, over our failure to protect the child, over the loss of our original identity as a species, over everything…” 

“Everything we did,” Lailah put in. “We felt guilty because we were monsters. You turned us into monsters. You twisted us, made us… wrong. We were supposed to be Seosten and you made us something far worse. We spent decades with our minds trapped inside your body, our thoughts, loyalties, and personalities manipulated and corrupted. Then you put us in these strange, unfamiliar bodies. We were breaking down, our… our minds were falling apart.”

“And I fixed it,” the man informed her. “I removed the guilt, the confusion, the fear. Every new body your minds inhabit includes enhancements which ensure you feel none of that. You feel loyalty to me, and a desire to expand our people. Nothing more than that. You feel no sadness or guilt for what must be done. You do not feel the horrific remorse over everything that has been done to us, or that we have done. You feel none of it. You are incapable of feeling such things. That is my gift to all of you. One of them. The other is the promise that we will rewrite this universe–all universes. We will make everything like us. Connected, beautiful, and perfect. There will be no more random disease that ravages an innocent child, killing him in his bed while his father stands helpless and ashamed of his own failures. Everything in this universe will be connected to us. It will work. It will make sense, because we will create it to make sense.” 

That was the truth of the Fomorians. Almost one million former Seosten, their minds twisted in every conceivable way, with their new bodies intentionally engineered to render them incapable of feeling things like regret, guilt, compassion, or even empathy. They felt nothing, save for love of their own species and a desire to spread what they were across the universe. They saw every other living creature, everything not created and manipulated by them, as the enemy. And felt no pity for them. The only thing they truly felt was a hatred of everything different, everything  that was not Fomorian. 

“When you die as a Fomorian,” Cronus informed her, “your mind is reset to what it was before. Some of you are cast back to earlier times, some later. Either way, your memories return to your former selves, temporarily. But in time, anywhere from seconds to hours, the improvements I’ve included in your bodies do their work, and you become my people once more.”

There was no response at first. The figure he was speaking to stood silently, gazing off at nothing as though they didn’t hear him at all. Finally, after almost a minute of that, the figure straightened and looked to him. And in that gaze, he knew it was over. There was nothing of Lailah’s original mind left at that moment. The Fomorian body had done its job in suppressing her personality entirely. 

“Ahh, apologies, Lord Cronus. I appear to have experienced some… setbacks. There were humans there, on the Meregan world. More Heretics there to… rescue the one we were attempting to capture. And they were with Seosten.”

“Tell me more,” Cronus ordered, turning his back to the view of the birthing hive in order to focus all of his attention on his newly-reborn subject. “You say there were humans and Seosten working together. Elaborate. I want to know everything about them.

“This sounds… interesting.”

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Interlude 10B – Committee Meeting (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N: For those who do not read Summus Proelium to have already gotten this notice, the non-canon chapter for Heretical Edge was released over the weekend and can be found right here. Wanna see Haiden end up in the world of superheroes? Feel free to check it out!

Deep within an ancient forest, whose trees had stood since before humanity had truly understood the concept of civilization (though that understanding had yet to come for many), a small clearing held twelve figures, who stood in a perfectly formed circle facing one another. Each remained equidistant apart by several feet, far enough that they could all stretch their arms in every direction without coming close to touching one another. The figures stood in pitch darkness. Not even the moon or stars penetrated this clearing despite their existence and the clear sky. Yet despite the lack of any actual illumination, each of the twelve gathered there together could see one another as perfectly as though they had been standing in broad daylight. 

“You should have called the rest of us in.” At the eleven o’clock position, Litonya’s voice spoke up, holding traces of disgust and admonition. “Defeating the Necromancer was a triumph. Yet allowing the traitors to do the bulk of the work, then gathering them up once the deed was done? That would have been a master stroke. Ending both threats in one fell swoop.” 

Directly across from the ancient Native American woman, at the five o’clock position, Edward Teach spoke up. “Why does it not surprise me that the concept of honor entirely eludes you?” 

Geta, who stood to Litonya’s left in the exact twelve spot, gave a low and humorless chuckle that filled the pitch-black space around them. “Are we to be lectured on honor by the old pirate? What’s next, shall we look to Calafia for an explanation of the Bystander staryacht program?” 

Calafia herself, who stood at the six o’clock spot straight across from the old Roman Emperor, spoke in a dark voice of her own. “Perhaps your jibes would strike home more if you knew they referred to such things as spaceships, not staryachts.” She gave a slight smile, teeth visible to all around her. “Just a suggestion. Knowing less than I do about such a subject does tend to detract from your overall point.” Pausing pointedly, she added in a curious tone, “Which was?” 

One of their two newest members, the gigantic (he topped out at a full seven feet) bear of a man called Antaeus, with his thick dark mustache, long dark hair peppered with gray, and piercing gaze, spoke up from his position to Geta’s left at one on the clock. “His point,” he rumbled in a voice that was boiling over with derision and impatience, “was that we don’t need to hear about honor and loyalty and whatever the fuck from some old pirate bastard. What we need to do is talk about why this whole rebellion thing is still a problem after we could’ve put a stop to it.” 

His words were met by a scoff from Percival. The former knight was standing to Calafia’s left, at seven o’clock and across from Antaeus. “So you people are suggesting that we respond to the Rebellion’s aid in defeating one of the most evil, monstrous threats that has ever faced humanity, by betraying and descending upon them in an ambush once they were exhausted. What a remarkably brilliant way to demonstrate our virtues as the true saviors of our people.” 

Sigmund, the enormous ancient Norseman, made a disgusted sound in the back of his throat, spitting at his own feet from where he stood at three o’clock. “Betray? You wanna talk about betrayals, nobleman? Those fucking rebels are the gods damned traitors, and they deserve anything they get.” He jabbed a finger that way, his voice darkening even more. “Let’s be clear. This ain’t Camelot. And I don’t see any King Arthur around anymore. We’re here to protect humanity, not get praise and play shining beacons of light and goodness. You see the monsters out there. You know what we’re dealing with. You know what those things are gonna do when they see the opportunity these traitors are handing them. They’ll help tear our entire society apart, break us, and turn humanity into their feasting grounds. You wanna make sure that doesn’t happen? Then we have to stop the traitors soon. Whatever it takes. Even if that means doing the dirty shit that makes us look like the bad guys. We end it, period.” 

From the eight o’clock position to Percival’s left, Sophronia cleared her throat. “And in so-doing, undoubtedly drive even more of our own people away as they see the depths to which we are willing to stoop. Do you not see how the simple factual information of how we acted to end the previous rebellion has driven even more potential allies to be our enemies? You cannot end this sort of situation with a hammer. You cannot force every person to be too afraid of rebelling, and still count on them to stand against true evil. You cannot put a whip to the backs of those we are supposed to stand shoulder to shoulder with. It will not work. It cannot work.”

“You’re right.” That was Ruthers, who stood to Litonya’s right at ten o’clock. “The worse we can be perceived as acting, the more it will push others to join the Rebellion. Especially with their… allied Strangers playing nice. If those on the fence between our two sides see Strangers behaving honorably for the Rebellion while we act as monsters, it will tear our society apart even more than it already has been.” 

To his right (and Sophronia’s left), Davis Neal, who was dressed in a modern black suit rather than his usual lumberjack outfit (he’d even shaved his beard, making the man look almost unrecognizable), raised an eyebrow toward the man beside him while speaking in an even voice. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were almost sympathizing with them, Gabriel.” 

His words were met by a sharp glare from the man in question. “Hardly, Davis. I am not sympathizing with traitors. But nor am I blind to the mistakes of the past. I see how those among us have reacted to the flood of information given to them by Sinclaire’s spell.”

“Speaking of which.” The next pointed words came from the handsome Asian woman known as Jue, who stood at the two o’clock spot to Antaeus’s left. Once everyone’s attention was on her, she continued. “It occurs to me that our entire purpose behind recruiting and promoting our other newest member was to handle that particular situation.”

“Yes,” Davis agreed, looking across the circle to the sole remaining figure, who had yet to speak. “That’s what we got her for, and as far as I can tell, there has been no actual movement on that point. Or am I mistaken? Perhaps she can address that?”

The question was met with a moment of silence, as all attention moved that way to follow her gaze. Finally, the single newest member of the Committee straightened. The crimson hood with gold trim that had covered their head to leave their face in even deeper (supernatural) shadows than the already extant darkness fell back to reveal an olive-skinned figure of dark, curled hair and mismatched eyes, one green and the other blue. It was impossible, whether through a glance or extended evaluation, to entirely discern the sex of the person. They were either a quite handsome woman or a beautiful man, a fairly androgynous figure, all told. 

The newcomer spoke toward Davis in a voice that possessed a remarkably dream-like, echoey quality. “I am not he, nor she, but they. On this, I insist no sway.” 

“But there’s still only one of you, right?” Antaeus put in as the Committee’s other newest admission. “You’re not keeping some kind of rabbit in your pants or something, magician? Sorry, I just don’t know how to keep up with all this new shit.”

Regarding their fellow newcomer coolly, the cloaked figure replied, “You are no older than I, and what I am has always been. There are those who pretend we don’t exist, whether now or way back when.” 

Davis cleared his throat, shooting a glance toward the larger man before speaking. “Let’s try to focus on the matter at hand, huh? Jue’s right, we did recruit and promote our newest friend here for a specific purpose. One which… they are supposed to be quite adept at. Perhaps they can explain the situation?” 

Beside the androgynous figure, Teach spoke calmly. “They wanna know why you haven’t given us the keys to mind-fuck our entire population, Hecate. Cuz that worked out so well the last time.”

Litonya sharply interrupted, “No one is suggesting any… mind-fuckery.” She over-enunciated the last word, making her distaste for the tone apparent. “In fact, we specifically involved her–them,” she corrected belatedly, “to prevent the mental manipulation that Sinclaire has already engaged in.” 

Geta spoke in agreement, “That was the point, wasn’t it? We needed help erasing the spell that Sinclaire put on the Edge so we don’t get any more nasty surprises.” 

That had been an unpleasant realization, to find that not only had Gaia’s spell filled the minds of every living Crossroads or Eden’s Garden Heretic with her assorted collection of propaganda about the Rebellion and everything the loyalists had done to stop them, but it also did the exact same thing for all new recruits. Every time a person either went through the Lighthouse or ate one of Garden’s apples, their heads were flooded with that same rush of information. It was cheating, is what it was. Gaia Sinclaire, despite literally being magically frozen and utterly incapable of interacting with the outside world, was still managing to twist the minds of Crossroads students. If some of them hadn’t been so frustrated with the woman, they would have admired her for that. And some admired her anyway. 

Hecate spoke again, their voice still retaining its echoey/distant sound that made those who heard it feel as though they were listening through a dream. “Your requests have been clear. You seek a return to yesteryear. A wish to see Morgan’s magic revoked. A pity, such effect may not be retroact?” 

Shaking his head with a grunt, Geta flatly retorted, “We want you to use that mental magic you’re such an expert at to turn off Gaia’s spell. Stop it from interfering with our new recruits. They don’t need to get… all of that shoved into their heads right from the start, before we can even ease them into things. They are students. Don’t know why people keep romanticising how much the old traitor actually cares about the kids when she’s shoving magical propaganda in their heads. Seems to me if she actually cared about them she’d leave the kids out of it.” 

Ruthers cleared his throat, arms folded across his chest as he pointedly put in, “Her reasoning is immaterial. The point is, we need the spell either removed or modified. And you’ve now had weeks to examine it with the power boost being a member of the Committee provides. Tell us, is that something you can do? Can you erase the spell Gaia created so we can create new Heretics without shoving all that propaganda in their heads at the same time?” 

After a brief moment of silence, Hecate inclined their head before answering. “Such is perhaps possible. Yet it is your people who are suasible. Such efforts may spare the innocence of newer recruits, but the words are out there, and erasure never refutes.” 

“In other words,” Teach translated, “erasing the information isn’t going to make it magically better. Maybe you can stop them from having all the information about the Rebellion shoved into their heads the moment you put them through the lighthouse, but then what? You think they won’t find out about the Rebellion another way? Older students will talk. Other adults will talk. You think we don’t have Rebel sympathizers within the school right now, people who agree with them to one level or another but didn’t leave for whatever reason? Because if you do, you’re a fool.” 

Litonya started to respond to that, but Ruthers spoke up first. “I believe we’re all well-aware that this is a losing prospect. We need to get ahead of the curve and tell the students the story from our point of view, not allow Gaia’s words to get to them directly. We need to tell them that there are those who think… who believe differently, but they’re being manipulated.” 

“I’m sure that’ll go well,” Percival retorted in a dry voice. Shaking his head in obvious distaste, he sighed before turning to their newest member once more. “You said you can stop Gaia’s spell, turn it off? How long is that going to take? And what do you need to pull it off?” 

Hecate answered simply, their voice rising just a bit so that the ever-present echo grew to surround the assembled group throughout the clearing. “What is needed is time and much work. Fortunately, such ought not to irk. The spell’s damage for these students is wrought. Now a year to have a solution be sought.”  

“Yeah, you’ve got some time,” Sigmund confirmed with a grunt. “Personally, I’d prefer to get it dealt with sooner rather than later. But whatever. Do your job. What about the other business?” 

“There’s still no sign of Elisabet,” Sophronia announced. “And no indication of how or why she disappeared. She’s been entirely cut out of the Committee link. Whether that means she’s dead or not, I don’t know. But she was alive when the link was severed, we’ve put that much together. Beyond that, we have nothing, still. Months of investigation, and we have nought to show for it.” 

The heavy sigh in response to her words seemed to come from all of them at once, though it was Calafia who spoke. “She hasn’t left to join the Rebellion, we’d know about that by now. And they haven’t killed her. We would… know about that as well.” 

“What, then?” Jue demanded. “Some other player has stepped onto the board, only to remove one of our members with us having no clues of the who or how?” 

“The bodysnatchers, perhaps,” Geta put in. “It’s possible Elisabet found out more about them than they expected. Maybe they tried to take her and it went wrong, so they had to eliminate whatever was left.” His words were matter-of-fact, ignoring the looks he drew from a few of the others. 

“If she is alive, she will be found,” Litonya put in, sounding impatient that they were even bringing it up. “Continue putting resources toward locating her. In the meantime, there is still the pressing issue of the Rebellion. Which, it must be stated again, could have been ended by now had our people been alerted in time. I have heard that there were already those among the few who were brought there who were ready and willing to do so, yet were stopped.” Her eyes were on Ruthers to her right. 

With a sigh, the man shook his head. “I will not stand here and defend my choices again and again, Litonya. It would have been wrong to taint the victory over the necromancer with a betrayal. They are our own people. If we want to change their minds, we need to change them, not wait for them to be worn down fighting a battle against a greater evil and then take advantage. We will fight this war properly. If they engage us, we will defend ourselves. We will continue to hunt the monsters, and if the rebellion gets in the way, we will deal with them. But I will not be party to that sort of underhanded tactics against our own people.” 

“Is this a good time to bring up that we still have the option of the blood curse?” Sigmund started. “It would–” 

“No.” That was Ruthers, the single word snapped. “We are not going to use magic to enslave our own people.” 

Before responding to that, Sigmund and Litonya exchanged glances. The man moved his gaze around the circle to see the reactions of everyone present. Hecate remained impossible to read and a nearly complete unknown. But of the others, it appeared that the only ones who were for such a measure were himself, Litonya, Antaeus, and Geta. The last had been against the blood curse during the previous war, but apparently something had changed. 

Regardless, it wasn’t enough. Ruthers had shifted his opinion, and a total of four being in favor of using the curse would never pass. Even if they tried to explain it as a temporary measure… better to drop the issue. 

“Of course not,” he settled on replying smoothly after taking in the temperature of the group. “Best to ensure we’re all on the same page, that’s all. But if we’re reduced to arguing about what we could have done differently after the necromancer’s death, and have no further real information on Elisabet, I think we’re about done here for now.” 

There was a murmur of agreement, a few last exchanged words, and then the group broke apart. Litonya, Geta, Antaeus, Ruthers, Davis, Jue, Sigmund, and Hecate moved off together before splitting into smaller groups to begin leaving. 

Which left Sophronia, Percival, Calafia, and Teach standing alone, watching the group go. 

“We’re outnumbered,” Percival noted after ensuring they weren’t being spied upon. 

“At least they don’t have enough to push for the curse,” Teach pointed out. “Not sure what we’d have to do then.” He looked over to Calafia, adding, “What about your half-siblings? Any word from them?” 

The dark-skinned woman, in turn, offered him a slight smile. “According to Alexander and Cleopatra, the rebel Gardeners are still attempting to make their liberated vines work properly. There was an… issue with our friend deep under the sea.” 

That drew a collection of grimaces from all four, just as the approach of another drew their attention that way. After a moment, the approaching figure emerged from the surrounding trees to reveal themselves. 

“Hecate,” Sophronia greeted the newest Committee member in a faintly cautious tone. “You’ve returned. Done speaking to the others so quickly? Let me guess, they want you to use your mind magic to find out where the rest of us stand. And what we might be doing.”

There was a brief pause before the androgynous figure offered a simple nod. Their voice was dry. “They spoke, of course, only hypothetically.” The tone of their words in that last bit was tinged with amusement, a clear quote from the others. “And, in their eyes, always empathetically.” 

Clearing his throat, Percival spoke up carefully. “You’ve had time now, what do you think?” 

Hecate met his gaze, their own mismatched eyes studying him briefly before casually responding, “You were right, to allow your rivals to recruit me. They have given their trust absolutely. To their eyes I am working to erase Morgan’s magic. So sad, their assumptions prove tragic. This thing you ask will, in time, come to pass.”  

Teach let out a sigh of relief then. “You can really do it? I mean, I know you’re good, but it’s asking a lot.” 

“Morgan has opened the route,” came the response, “with the spell she brought about. Her magic touched the minds of all connected to that power, all of which I am now told to scour. The work I do to end the effect will do far more than they suspect. It will cease the feeling of fear and rage, stuff such manipulations in a cage. I will mute the urge to kill, to hunt. But not, perhaps, to be affront.” 

“They’re saying what I believe they’re saying, right?” Sophronia carefully asked, her voice quiet. 

“Yes,” Percival confirmed. “The others think Hecate’s working with the Edge to undo Gaia’s spell. They’re really using the opening to pass another effect through it. One to dampen the sensation all our people get when they see an Alter. If it works, Bosch Heretics won’t get the Stranger sense anymore, and Alters won’t get a sense when they see us either. 

“And maybe, just maybe, if we don’t have a fucking soundless voice screaming in our heads about what a threat the thing we’re looking at is, some of us might just have to start talking to each other.”

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Patreon Snippets 18 (Heretical Edge 2)

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For those who read Summus Proelium who might have missed it, there was a commissioned interlude for that story posted yesterday. You can find it by clicking right here

The following is the 18th edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers.

Gabriel Ruthers 

The Necromancer was dead. After more than a dozen mortal lifetimes, after an untold number of victims and atrocities, the monster who had shown Gabriel Ruthers what the beings who lurked in the shadows were truly capable of was gone. He was dead and he would never threaten another person’s life, would never corrupt and torture another innocent soul. 

It should have been a time of joy, a time of relief and celebration. And it was, for some. For many, really. A large portion of the Crossroads population who had any clue who the man named Fossor had been were currently engaged in parties that stretched across just about every major holding their society had. There was talk amongst others in the Committee of making the day Fossor fell into a literal holiday, perhaps even working in a way to make it one amongst the Bystanders as well somehow. They were giddy with relief and joy, most not caring anything about who had struck the final blow, only that it was done and that Fossor was dead. 

But of course, it wasn’t that simple. Such things hardly ever were. Particularly these days.  

As for Ruthers himself, the man stood not at any of those parties. Nor was he celebrating more quietly, as others were, in various bars or private restaurants. No. Instead, he stood on a hill a few short kilometers north of Collobrières, in France. With one hand resting against a tree, Ruthers stared at a nearby spot between two fallen logs. To most, it would seem the same as any other patch of dirt in any other forest. Looking there, they would see nothing important, nothing special. 

Nothing that had changed the entire course of human history. 

But, of course, it was far more than that. When Ruthers looked to that spot, he saw himself, young and so naive. He saw Fossor, expertly manipulating him. The two of them had stood there, in that very spot, to finalize the ‘deal’ that was supposed to involve Ruthers and the other Heretics he had gathered together giving Fossor the power he needed to use a spell that would have eliminated the grave threat they had all faced. 

Fossor had presented himself as a friend, one they could trust. Others hadn’t believed him. Ruthers had vouched for the man. He had traveled with Fossor for months, had fought alongside him, had saved his life (or so he thought) and vice versa. For those months, Fossor had worked to convince Gabriel that he was trustworthy and honest, someone who only wanted to help. 

And Gabriel, fool that he was, had believed it. He had well and truly believed that this Fossor, though not human, was someone who could help them. He’d argued with their other allies, had nearly come to blows with them, had staked everything he was that the man at his side was one they could count on. 

It was his words, his urging, that convinced the others to take a chance. They helped contribute the power Fossor had asked for. Desperate as they were to stop the threat that had been looming in front of them, they gave the Necromancer everything wanted, everything they could give. 

Only later did Ruthers find out the truth, that Fossor’s magic on this world had been weak, thanks to the efforts of some other entity. He was–not quite cut off in the same way as the curse for stepping on Earth soil (that had been accomplished later), but his efforts to draw power here to Earth were weakened. But by convincing Gabriel and the others to give him so much power, Fossor managed to break that limitation. And, in the process, he had nearly wiped out all humanity. Killing millions of innocent people, a solid chunk of the entire population of the world at the time, and turning the slow trickle of his power on this world into the full geyser it was supposed to be, all in the same move. Which of those was his primary goal would forever be a mystery. Perhaps both. Perhaps it didn’t matter. 

What mattered was results. And the result was that because of his own naivety, Ruthers had convinced others to give Fossor everything he needed to nearly wipe out the human race and become a threat to the Earth for centuries following. Every person who had died from that disease, every person Fossor had killed since then, was because of what Ruthers had done. They were dead because he had trusted the Necromancer when everyone else had said he shouldn’t. If he had listened to them, if he just hadn’t been so stupid and naive… 

It was a mistake he would never make again. Humans. His loyalty was to humanity. After what he’d done, after what he’d helped cause, Gabriel Ruthers would never forget that. Whatever happened, he would always put humanity first. He would protect them from everything he could, no matter what. The horror and guilt he felt whenever he thought about this moment, the moment all those centuries ago when he had stood in this forest and agreed to convince his companions to trust Fossor, would never leave. After all this time, it was only stronger. 

And when he saw Joselyn, when he saw the young woman with so much charisma and power falling into that same trap, not understanding that the evil things that wanted to destroy the human race were patient enough to play nice for months and even years at a time, he wanted to scream. He wanted to grab the woman and shake her, shout in her face about what Fossor had done to him. Fossor had played him, just as those creatures were doing to her. 

His mistake had nearly resulted in the complete annihilation of the human species. Hers could be worse, if someone didn’t make her stop. She was too charismatic, too capable of convincing other people to join her. Joselyn and her daughter. The two of them together could drag humanity to destruction or complete servitude, all with the best of intentions. Because they wouldn’t listen, because they refused to understand. 

The smell of ash filled Ruthers’ nose, and he turned a bit to find the tree he had been touching had been disintegrated. Lost in his memories and thoughts as he had been as he stared at that single spot where he and Fossor had stood, his hand had subconsciously heated up to the point of burning the entire tree down to nothing. Without even thinking about it, without any conscious thought, he had destroyed a living thing that had been standing for two hundred and seventeen years. He knew that, because he had seen the tree sprout the first time. He knew every plant in this area, every rock, every creature that called it home or passed through. 

He knew this place as well as he knew his own room. Or even more, because it was far more important.  

For a moment, the man grimaced at the sight, pausing a bit before looking over to a nearby tree that was still standing. Holding out his hand, he waited until a seed from that tree flew through the air to his palm. Then he crouched as a perfectly circular hole appeared in the ground to drop the seed in. Using both hands, he pushed the dirt in on top of it, patted the ground flat, and stood. A thought made the seed begin to sprout and grow at a rapid pace, until a young but sturdy sapling stood where the previous tree had been. 

Satisfied, Ruthers stepped away from the sapling, leaving it to grow the rest of the way on its own as he moved to stand in the spot he had stood all those centuries ago. He heard his own voice, his own words agreeing to Fossor’s supposed plan. He heard the stupidity in them, the childish belief and trust. He heard everything in his own voice that he now heard whenever Joselyn or Felicity spoke. Or any of their people. 

He heard their words and he heard his own. He saw his consequences, and saw what theirs could be if someone didn’t stop them. If they were being played, if even one person in their little collection of monsters had the same intentions that Fossor had had…

He couldn’t let that happen. Fossor was dead and gone, and good riddance. Ruthers hadn’t been the one to kill him, but he truly didn’t care about that. All that mattered was that the Necromancer was dead. But if his legacy continued, if one like him managed to carry on where he had failed, because Joselyn kept the fucking door open for it…

Pivoting away from the spot with a grunt of disgust, the man began to stride away from it purposefully as a portal appeared to take him back to Crossroads. Let others celebrate. They deserved it. As for him, he had to get back to work. 

Joselyn and her people had to be stopped. They all had to be stopped. That was all there was to it. Ruthers would make absolutely certain of it. Whatever it took, whatever had to happen, he would make sure nothing like Fossor ever happened again. 

Or he would die trying. 

*******

Zeke Leven 

That Felicity Chambers chick was a pain in the ass. 

The thought, along with other similarly uncharitable ones directed toward his former classmate and her entire family, filled Zeke Leven’s mind as he repeatedly hit a punching bag that had been set up in one of the Crossroads Academy gyms. The bag was enchanted to take a lot of damage. Which was a good thing, considering the boy had gained enough power over the past year and change to pick up and hurl a decent sized Bystander car. Every punch he subjected that bag to would have turned an ordinary, mundane one into dust and shattered cloth. And he hit the thing rapidly, twenty, thirty full-force punches in the course of ten seconds. 

Sandoval was out there, along with her sister. Both of them had bought into the cuddly, friendly, oh-so-misunderstood Strangers bullshit. How? How was that possible, after everything they had seen? Scout especially should have known better. After everything she’d been through, after what their mother had–

But their mother had bought into it too. Or had she? Was the woman who had shown up really their mother, or one of those bodysnatchers that had been talked about? What kind of woman would really drag her daughters into that bullshit rebellion against humanity when they themselves were humans? It didn’t make any sense. It was bullshit. It was wrong. 

“Zeke,” a quiet voice spoke from nearby, drawing the boy’s attention. He turned, to see a familiar woman. 

“Mother,” the boy said simply, blinking a bit as her appearance threw him. “What are you doing here?” 

Sophoronia, in turn, replied, “Is it so strange for me to check on my son?” She paused, eyes flicking toward the severely punished heavy bag before they moved back to him. “How are you? I assume you’ve heard the news of Fossor’s death.”

“Heard? Yeah, I heard,” Zeke retorted, gesturing off toward the grounds. “That’s what all the screaming and partying going on out there is about. Newest excuse anyway. Not like people need much of one.” 

“Yet, you’re not celebrating with them,” his mother noted carefully, watching him.  

Zeke shrugged, folding his arms over his stomach. “We didn’t do much, did we? I mean, it was the traitors who actually killed the motherfucker.” 

“Language, Zeke,” Sophronia gently chastised before reconsidering. “On second thought, use whatever bad language you like when it comes to that creature. But please, leave that specific phrase out of things. It’s a bit too… on the nose.”

Ignoring that, the boy looked to his mother. “What are you people going to do about the traitors? They’re turning innocent people to their side now. And since they killed Fossor, I heard some people talking about how maybe they’re right. Especially since they had Strangers helping them.” 

Sophronia met her son’s gaze. “Do you know who specifically has been saying that?” 

For a few silent seconds, Zeke stared back at his mother as a handful of thoughts swirled through his head. He considered every possible answer before simply looking away with a muttered, “Just some mutters. Nobody specific. But that’s not the point. The point is people are starting to look up to them, Mother. This whole thing is going to be worse, because you guys won’t stop them and put those traitors where they belong.”

“It’s not quite that simple,” his mother quietly informed him, seeming to consider her words then before continuing. “Would you have us put everyone who has left Crossroads under this belief in prison? Including the Mason twins and others?” 

“No,” Zeke snapped quickly. “They’re just–they’ve been tricked. They’re…” He trailed off, trying to find the right words. 

“As I said,” Sophronia gently put in, “it’s complicated. And even if such a decision could be made lightly, they’re quite strong. Going to full-scale war against them could leave the Earth itself vulnerable to other threats. We have to be careful.” 

With a sigh, Zeke turned away to face the heavy bag once more. “Yeah, whatever.” 

For a moment, his mother said nothing. Then she moved closer, putting both hands on his shoulders. “I’m sorry, Zeke. The work I’ve done, the things I’ve been busy with, they… I haven’t spent as much time with you as I should have.” 

“What?” He blinked, turning to look over his shoulder. “What does that have to do with anything?” 

It looked, just for a second, like his mother was going to say one thing. Then she clearly changed her mind and shook her head. “Nothing. I just… I haven’t been able to be there for you as much as I should have.” Carefully, she turned the boy around, pulling him closer into an embrace. “I just want you to make good choices. But they have to be your choices.”

Zeke, of course, had no idea what that was supposed to mean. Nor why his mother was acting so strangely. Maybe it was just the fact that Fossor, a long-time enemy, was finally dead. Maybe it made her feel nostalgic or something. 

He did know two things for a fact, however. First, the traitors were going to have a field day recruiting people after this victory that had made Crossroads look like idiots. 

And second, Felicity Chambers was definitely a pain in the ass. 

******

Sariel and Haiden 

“You know, shotgun weddings have their benefits,” Haiden Holt noted as he stood near the window of the Vegas hotel room, “but downsides too.” The man, wearing a provided bathrobe, was gazing out over the brightly lit Vegas strip far below, watching the line of cars and starry-eyed tourists. How would they react if they had the slightest idea of who the actual people who ran this city were? A trio of Strang–Alter families, vampire, Vestil, and Oni all in an uneasy truce to keep Heretics (or most of them, anyway) out. 

Come to think of it, given the mix of Bystander rumors and truth about the powers behind Vegas over the decades, maybe people wouldn’t blink too much at the truth after all. 

“Are you saying you don’t want to get married?” Sariel teased from the bathroom where she was drying off and dressing after their shower together. 

Eyeing the reflection in the window where he could barely make out the beautiful woman’s form, Haiden retorted, “Did I say anything of the sort? I just think it’s too bad that neither of us have friends we could invite. Okay, no friends that we’ve known longer than the few months we’ve known each other, anyway.” Abandoning everyone he’d ever known, as Sariel herself had on her side, had taken a lot. But the two of them had each other. And soon, once they were married, the bond between them would be a far more formal and permanent one. 

Sariel stepped out into the room, not bothering to dress as she moved up behind the man and wrapped her arms around him. “It would be nice,” she murmured, “but there’s no way it could work.” 

“You thinking about specific people you’d like to be here?” Haiden asked, as it took everything in him to focus on their conversation and not on the fact that the woman he loved was naked and clinging to him. She really was cheating. 

“Are you?” Sariel returned, before adding, “I’d like my… Apollo to be there. And a few others. My mother…” She trailed off, shaking her head. “That’s impossible for a lot more reasons. Not just because she’d probably want to kill you for being human and corrupting her daughter. But also… all that.” 

Of course, because of ‘all that.’ Haiden knew about the woman called Korsmea, how she was in some kind of Seosten mental hospital because of the curse. A curse that made her constantly forget when she was in her own personal timeline. Every time the woman woke up, or even multiple times a day, she would think she was at some different point in the several thousand years she had been alive before the curse. 

Thousands of years of memories, all being randomly relived with no way of focusing on the present. It sounded horrific, and in some ways even worse for a young child like Sariel had been to live through. 

No wonder she wanted this Apollo guy to be there. The Seosten who had been her partner, her brother of sorts, for so long. He’d tried to get Sariel to tell him more about the guy, so he could reach out to him (the man had left the Seosten after all), but she refused. She was, as far as Haiden could tell, ashamed that she hadn’t left with Apollo in the first place. Which seemed like a dumb reason not to reach out to him now, but he wasn’t going to push that. Not yet. 

“Vanessa,” he murmured, answering her earlier question in a quiet voice. “I’d like Vanessa to be here.” Which was even more impossible, given his sister had died many years earlier. She’d been killed in training back at Eden’s Garden, even before the two had graduated to full Heretics. 

With a visible wince even in the reflection, Sariel held him more tightly. “I’m sorry,” she murmured while gently kissing his shoulder. “I wish your sister could be here too. I wish everyone we cared about could be here. I wish… a lot of things.”

Turning from the window to face her, Haiden shook his head. “It’s okay. We’ll find new people we can trust and love and open up to.” Arching an eyebrow, he pointedly looked down, then back up again. “And I can’t say I’m exactly suffering right now.” 

It was fun seeing the way he could make a woman as ancient as the original Artemis blush. A wave of pink spread over her face as she punched him in the shoulder while rolling her eyes. “I should get dressed. And you should think if there’s anyone else you wish you could invite.” Poking him in the same spot she had punched, the woman turned and started to walk away. Again, a view he didn’t exactly object to. 

Turning back to the window once she started to dress, Haiden idly remarked, “I suppose I could try to reach out to see if Lucy’s interested in showing up. I mean, after everything that guy did for me before we met, and–” 

Suddenly, Sariel was there. Her hands caught Haiden by the arm, turning him to face her. “What?” she demanded, eyes wide. “Who did you say helped you?” 

Haiden was left blinking a little, confused. “Lucy–no big deal. He was the guy, the Heretic I mentioned who helped point me to a few problems. Like the one where I found you.” 

“You never mentioned his name before,” Sariel pointed out, her grip on his shoulders still tight. 

With a confused shrug, Haiden offered, “Yeah, he had a big thing for secrecy. Has, I guess. He was huge for being anonymous, I guess I was just respecting that. He was–umm, are you okay?” He’d noticed the odd look in his fiance’s gaze. 

Sariel didn’t answer at first. She turned away, arms folding across her stomach as she stared at the floor and shivered a little. She was lost in thoughts, in memories, in doubts. 

“Hey, what–” Haiden hesitated before putting his hands on her shoulders, gently turning the woman to face him. “What’s wrong? Is this–you know this Lucy guy, don’t you? He pointed me at you for a reason.” In that moment, seeing the way the woman he loved reacted to the name, he was trying to decide if that was a good thing or if Lucy had somehow been fucking with them both. If this was a guy who hated Sariel, if they were–

“Apollo,” the woman finally spoke up, her voice cracking just a little. “It was Apollo.” She looked to him, swallowing hard. “His original name was Lucifer. They–my people made him the… yeah. Lucifer. Lucy. It was him.” 

That was a… a lot. For a moment, Haiden just stared at his fiance as he digested that. “Your brother–Apollo, the one you call Apollo, he’s Lucifer. Your people turned him into the embodiment of all evil in the Bystander Christian mythology, and he… he was the guy who sent me to you.” 

He’d known that he’d been intentionally sent to meet Sariel, of course. He’d known that there was someone who had purposefully pointed him toward her, likely with the intention of just what had happened. Except he’d never considered it being Lucy, because the man named Lucy had always presented himself as the go-between. He had simply passed along a message from the man named Nicholas. It was Nicholas, whoever he was, whom Haiden had assumed was responsible for making sure he and Sariel met. 

Except was there even an actual Nicholas to begin with? Or was that just a way for this Lucifer/Apollo to hide in plain sight? 

Focusing on Sariel, he quietly asked, “Are you okay?” She had to be reeling even more than he was, after the long and incredibly complicated relationship she’d had with the man. He knew there was more to the story, but from what he had heard, this Apollo or Lucifer had basically been the most important person in her life for… for a really long time. 

For her part, Sariel was quiet at first. She seemed to be digesting the information, her gaze moving past him to stare out the window. He saw flashes of guilt in her expression, but also wonder, relief, fear, and happiness. It was a clearly a confusing rush of emotions, before she finally looked back to him, visibly swallowing. In a very small voice, she whispered, “He sent you to me.” There were tears in her eyes, which she blinked away rapidly before repeating in an even more tender voice, “He sent you to me.” 

Before Haiden could respond, Sariel’s hands were on either side of his face, and he was pulled down. Her lips found his, in a kiss that seemed to eclipse all they had shared before that moment. 

She said nothing else after that, not for some time. Nor did he. Because nothing else needed to be said about how they each felt about each other and their relationship. 

Not with words, anyway. 

********

Guinevere and Arthur

Two teenage figures, one male and one female, stood atop a hill facing one another. In the distance, a small village could be glimpsed with smoke rising from several fireplaces. The sound of merriment for the local festival to celebrate the harvest could be heard, but neither of the teens paid attention. Their sole focus was on one another, and what they were doing. 

“So,” Guinevere began while squinting at the boy across from her, “how does this work? And if you start talking about needing some kind of kiss or something to make your power work, I shall make certain you regret it.” 

An embarrassed blush crossed the dark-haired boy’s face at her words. Which, Guinevere decided, made him look even more attractive. Not that she’d ever tell him that. 

Well, not soon, anyway. 

“I, ahh, I’m not completely sure,” Arthur confessed. “I’ve never really done this before. But Nimue says it’ll be instinct. She says dragons were always supposed to enhance the abilities of the rest of the armies they were at the head of, so I should just… um, be able to do it by thinking about it.” 

For another moment, the two just stared at each other. As it began to feel a little awkward, Guinevere offered, “Perhaps we should hold hands. As long as you don’t get any ideas.” She added the last bit primly, mostly just to see his reaction. 

And it was a fun reaction indeed. The blush that she had decided was cute spread even more, as Arthur shook his head quickly. “No, no ideas. I mean, ideas for this, but not–I mean. Here.” Quickly, he grabbed both of her hands and held them. His eyes closed briefly, but then drifted open as he stared at her. 

At first, Guinevere met his gaze only for the purpose of teasing him about staring at her. But the words faltered in her throat as their gazes locked. She stared into Arthur’s eyes, feeling her own heartbeat, hearing her breath gradually slow along with his. The two gazed at one another, as a feeling of warmth built through her. It began in her hands, clasped within his, spreading through her arms and into her core. That feeling of warmth, of acceptance, of… of power built in her. She lost herself in his gaze, tumbling endlessly and yet felt perfectly safe. 

With a sudden gasp, both Arthur and Guinevere stumbled away from one another, releasing their hands as they almost fell. 

Catching herself, Guinevere blurted, “Gods! You–that was–you just…” The feeling, it was so strong. She felt–she felt so… amazing. Turning, the girl looked toward the village and focused. The moment she did, a gasp escaped her once more. “It worked!” 

“It did?” Arthur blinked, stepping that way. “How can you–” 

“I can see a long way,” she informed him, not looking away from the village. “The griffin I was bonded to, it let me see things from a far distance. But now I can see even further. I couldn’t see the sign by the pub before. Now I can. I can count the number of coins on the bar through the window.”

That said, the girl turned away from the village, drawing a knife from its sheath at her leg. Holding the weapon up, she eyed it. At a thought, the blade bent all the way to the left, then to the right, while her smile grew. “It’s easier to control metal too. It responds faster. This is–Arthur, you made me stronger!” 

Quickly, the boy pointed out, “Nimue says that boost was growing since I was bonded. It’ll take longer to do more boosts like that. Or they’ll be smaller. And more spread out.” 

“I don’t care,” Guinevere informed him, “this is amazing.” 

After a momentary hesitation, Arthur asked, “You can fly too, right? Do… do you think you’re faster now?” 

The question made a sly smile cross the girl’s face. “Do I think I’m faster? Faster than I was, or faster than you?” She watched his reaction, giggling despite herself before reaching out to poke his nose with her finger. “I guess there’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?” 

With that, and with no further warning, the girl abruptly erupted from the ground. In an instant, she was a distant speck far off in the sky. 

Gazing after her, Arthur gave a slow smile of his own as he watched the figure doing loops through the air as though taunting him to catch up. 

And then he was gone too, launching himself into the sky to give chase. 

********

Joselyn and Abigail

Long after the main party celebrating the defeat of Fossor had died down, people still spoke in small, isolated groups or pairs. One of those pairs, standing on the porch behind the cabin where others of the family were resting, was Joselyn and Abigail. Mother and daughter, separated for so many decades to the point that they were entirely strangers, stood side-by-side, looking out at the forest as they bonded over the single shared experience they had: motherhood. 

“Once,” Abigail was saying, “when Koren was around eleven, she decided she really wanted a dog. I told her only if she was responsible for it, so she said she’d start feeding and walking some neighbor’s dogs to prove it. Good so far, right? Well, little did I know, my little angel wasn’t about to wait for as long as proving herself would take.

“Turns out, she had already been given a dog by one of her friends. Long story there. But she kept him out in the shed in the backyard. We thought one of the neighbor dogs was just barking a lot. She kept him out there, and when she fed the neighborhood dogs, she just kept a little bit from each in a baggy and brought it all home to put in a pan for her dog. She took him for a walk the same way she took the other dogs for walks, just pretending it was one of the neighbor’s. She played with the dog, walked the dog, fed the dog, all right in front of us while we thought it was yet another neighborhood dog she was taking care of. That kid must’ve fed, walked, and played with ten different dogs over those few weeks just to hide the fact that she already had her own dog she was taking care of.” 

With a smile, Joselyn asked her own grown daughter, “Did you let her keep him?” 

“Well at that point, what else could we do?” Abigail snorted. “I told her to prove she could take care of one, and she took care of him and nine others.” She exhaled, looking away. “We had Thumper for about three years after that, until he went missing. Koren was heartbroken. I…” She trailed off, shaking her head. “She really loved that dog.” 

For a minute or so, both women were quiet. Then Joselyn spoke up. “Felicity was in kindergarten. She was doing really well, but then she started getting in trouble. Not bad trouble, just enough to get in timeout. She refused to share, took someone else’s crayons, talked back to the teacher, little things that made them put her in the corner. All week long, every day, she did just enough to get put in timeout. The teachers couldn’t understand why, and we couldn’t either. Until I figured it out.” 

“What was she doing?” Abigail asked, curious about what her much-younger sister had been up to. 

With a chuckle, Joselyn explained, “See, I was working at the high school that week, helping with the career day events and a few other things. I thought Felicity was jealous or something, upset that I was at the high school and wasn’t visiting her school, because they were right next to each other. But when I went to visit her teacher to have a talk, I realized something. The timeout chair in the corner, it was right by a small window. And through that window, she could see the parking lot in the high school where I’d been working all week.” 

Abigial gave a double-take, staring at her. “Oh my God. You mean she was intentionally getting in trouble so they’d put her in time-out, just so she could watch you from across the parking lots?” 

A fond, tender smile touched Joselyn’s face as she nodded. “That’s right. She just wanted those few extra minutes every day to watch me, even if it meant getting in trouble to do it.” 

“Being a mom, it’s worth it,” Abigail quietly announced without taking her eyes off her own mother.

Joselyn, in turn, met her gaze while slowly lifting a hand to touch the other woman’s face. “Yes,” she agreed. 

“It absolutely is.” 

******

The Olympus

With a snap of his heels and a quick salute, the incredibly young Seosten (he couldn’t have been older than sixty or so) military guard jumped to abrupt attention at the unexpected appearance of a surprising guest. “Trierarch!” he blurted aloud, voice betraying his surprise, “Apologies, sir, if you were expected I wasn’t informed.” Belatedly after saying that, he seemed to want to correct himself to avoid potentially throwing any of his close superiors under the bus.

Puriel, however, shook his head. “Ease, peditatus. It’s okay. I know it’s early, but I ahh, just thought I’d come take a look at the old girl while the place was closed.” Meeting the other man’s gaze, he added with a very small smile, “I’d rather avoid crowds and fuss.” 

“O-of course, sir.” Quickly, the young Seosten turned toward the heavy metal door he had been half-dozing in front of before this unexpected arrival. Taking the field-engraver from its slot on his belt, he carefully touched all four points of the alarm spell, disengaging it and unlocking the door. It hissed open a moment later, as he gestured. “Right this way, Trierarch.” 

With that, he started forward through the airlock, leaving Puriel to follow. The two of them entered a long, clear tube. The Seosten homeworld of Elohim lay far below. They weren’t quite in space, being ‘only’ around thirty thousand feet up. This was the navy museum, where dozens of old, decommissioned military vessels were kept. The facility itself consisted of a maze of these clear corridors connected to various box-like structures where classes and presentations about ships (both those kept here and others that had been used throughout the long conflict with the Fomorians) were held. The ships that were actually kept here at the museum were attached to the open spaces between the main structures, able to be viewed from all sides through the maze of clear tube corridors. The entire facility was kept aloft through powerful engines at all four corners that allowed it to remain in the same relative position above the Seosten capital city.

Stepping out into that particular tube, Puriel took a look at the ship that had been his home for so long, his pride and joy, his… his true achievement. The ship that had truly meant more than he ever could have understood until long after he’d lost it. 

The Olympus. The ship itself consisted, at its base, of an orb five hundred meters in diameter. The main science and living facilities of the ship were kept there, along with the primary bridge directly in the center. Attached to that primary orb were three long gunships that were about a third of the width of the core and vaguely curved in order to attach/overlap it. The gunships were each attached equidistant around the orb, extending twenty meters behind the orb and a hundred meters in front of it, with two on what was considered the ‘bottom’ and one on the ‘top.’ It essentially looked like a long, thick metal pipe with three large cracks between where gunships were between the two and three o’clock positions, the six o’clock position, and the nine to ten o’clock positions, all surrounding a large ball trapped inside said pipe.

Not that the gunships had to stay connected. At any point, one or all of the three cylinder pieces could detach from the main orb and operate separately to provide fire support. The Olympus was essentially four vessels in one, a science orb protected by three powerful gunships. 

For a few long seconds, Puriel said nothing. He simply stood, staring silently at the sight in front of him. A myriad of thoughts, emotional, very complicated thoughts, ran through him. The memories that came when he saw that ship were… almost more than he could bear. He could feel himself start to slip away, start to lose himself the way he had done for so long after that broken banishment orb had all-but destroyed his mind. 

Spark pulled him back. He felt her presence, felt her gently catch his drifting thoughts and point him back to what he was doing, before he could entirely lose himself. 

“Sir?” It was the Seosten who had unlocked the door to let him in here so he could see the old ship. “Are you okay? Should I get someone to–” 

“No,” Puriel interrupted. “No, it’s alright. Thank you, peditatus, I–what’s your name?” 

“Eilerien, sir,” came the response. 

“Eilerien,” Puriel repeated. “Good. Would you mind giving me a few minutes here? I need to… I’d like to reminisce without feeling self-conscious.” 

The other man gave a hurried nod, clearly glad for the excuse to avoid the embarrassment of standing around while an old, retired captain stared at his ship. “Yes, Trierarch, of course. I’ll be right outside if you need anything.” He quickly moved back through the doors, shutting them behind himself to provide some privacy. 

After a moment of silence, Puriel spoke quietly, “It’s safe. We’re alone and no one’s watching.” 

Instantly, Spark appeared beside him, manifesting herself in a visible form by harnessing his own energy powers to bend the light into what amounted to a hologram. As always, she presented herself as having long hair pulled in a braid, half of it dark to match his hair and half blonde to match her mother’s. 

“It’s bigger than you imagine it,” she pointed out. 

“It feels smaller when I think about how many people we had,” he informed her. “It was home. A dysfunctional, often dangerous home, but still home. Seeing it empty… that’s what makes it seem bigger now.” 

For a few long seconds, neither of them said anything else. Spark simply stared through the clear corridor, watching the ship where her mother had served for so long. Finally, she spoke quietly, “Can you really do it?” 

Puriel didn’t answer at first. He simply stared at the ship, considering before giving a short nod. “Yes. I just need some time.” 

With that, his eyes closed, as the man reached out with his own Tartarus-granted power. The ability to control and manipulate vast amounts of energy to almost limitless ends, including magical energy. He could, in effect, create almost any spell effect he knew of simply by willing ambient magical energy to shape itself properly. Even if he didn’t know how to cast the actual spell itself, he could force the energy to follow his will. 

The ‘some time’ he had asked for turned out to be nearly an hour. A few times, he felt the guard outside the room take a glance in to make sure everything was still fine. But the man, of course, never saw anything untoward. As far as he was concerned, Puriel was simply standing there, one hand on the clear tube, as he stared at the ship and lost himself in memories. 

It would’ve been easy to actually lose himself that way, to be fair. But Spark helped keep him on-task and focused. For that hour, he worked his own power over the ship in the distance, pulling energy from the air and shaping it into the spells he needed. 

Finally, it was done. The Olympus, with a suddenness that was almost jarring despite the fact he was ready for it, vanished as though it had never been there. 

Almost immediately, alarms began to blare. The door slammed open, and Eilerien burst through, eyes wide. “Trierarch?! What happened, what–” 

He was stopped in mid-sentence, as Puriel produced a small, clear-colored orb and touched it to the man’s forehead. The memory modification spell he’d previously attached to it had already set to work, shaping itself to follow his words. But it would do more than that. The orb wouldn’t simply rewrite the man’s memory, it would also alter the holographic recordings to match. 

“I was never here. You were attacked by a band of pirates who infiltrated the facility. You managed to kill three of them at great risk to your own life, but they proved too much. Their intended target was the military vessel Aeternum, but your valiant efforts forced them to retreat to take the Olympus instead, as a secondary target. You’re proud of yourself for standing your ground and driving them away from their main target. Now, sleep.” 

With that, the guard collapsed to the ground. Stepping away from him, Puriel waved a hand to summon a portal. As it appeared, he spoke to Spark, whose holographic form stood nearby. “It’s time. 

“Let’s go take a closer look at the ship that’s going to take us to Earth.”

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Patreon Snippets 17 (Heretical Edge)

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And here is the next edition of Patreon Snippets for Heretical Edge! Thanks to all $10+ donators for choosing/adding words to what they wanted to see.

Ruthers and Antaeus

Loud country music played through the smoke-filled bar, its crooning singer and strumming guitar leaving many of its occupants idly tapping their feet or bobbing their heads as they sipped at cold drinks. Behind the bar itself, the tender pointed the remote at the television in the corner, changing the channel from news to a football game that had been requested. Two men in front of the nearby jukebox were debating which song to put in next, while their dates watched them from a table with a mixture of amusement and exasperation at the fact that they couldn’t agree.

And in the back of the room, sitting alone at a table with a half-empty beer bottle and a small bowl of peanuts in front of him, was an enormous figure. At his full height, the man would stand seven feet tall. He appeared old enough that his long, formerly jet-black hair and thick mustache were streaked through with bits of white and gray. His dark eyes regarded the bottle in front of him for a moment before he pursed his lips and blew a small stream of ice-cold breath, restoring the chill to the beer. 

“You ruin it that way, Antaeus.” The voice came from directly beside the table, where no one had been a moment earlier. Now, Gabriel Ruthers stood there. In many situations, Ruthers himself would have been an imposing figure. Yet, even standing while the other man was sitting, he still appeared much smaller in this particular case. Both men were tall for humans, but the man with the beer was in an entirely different league.  

Antaeus, far from showing any surprise at all when the other man appeared beside the table, simply took a long and slow pull from his newly icy beer. “Ruin it, Gabriel? Have a seat.” 

Instead of doing so, Ruthers simply stood where he was while replying, “Good beer’s not supposed to be practically frozen. You’ve got English ale. It should be a bit cool, not ice cold.”   

“Heh.” Antaeus chuckled humorlessly once before shaking his head. “I like it the way I like it. Helps me forget the desert. What do you want? Thought I made it clear I was busy.” 

“I told you I wanted to talk about what happened,” Ruthers reminded him. As a waitress stopped by to ask if he wanted anything, he gave a shake of his head and sent the woman on her way before turning his attention back to the table. 

“And like I said,” came the flat response as soon as the waitress was gone, “I’m busy. Not in the mood to repeat myself.” Taking another long pull from his drink, Antaeus added, “Don’t think you can order me around either, Gabriel. Last I checked, you and me are peers now.” Finally, he turned a bit, looking over to the other man. “After all, we’re both members of the Committee and all that.” A very slight smile appeared, showing hints of his teeth. “Equal footing.” 

For a brief moment, Gabriel returned the smile. “Equal footing,” he echoed easily before adding in a pointed, deceptively calm-sounding voice, “If you don’t get up and walk out with me now, I’m going to hit you hard enough to make even someone as thick as you feel it.”  

The threat made the other man’s eyes narrow. “Don’t threaten me, Gabriel,” he half-snarled. “We may have to play nice in front of the others thanks to the rules. But if you start something, I’ll finish it and say we were sparring. And I’ve changed my mind. You’re not invited to sit with me. Get out.” 

Two things happened then. First, the air around the pair wavered until they were in a forest rather than a bar. And, just as Antaeus realized there was no longer a seat under him, Ruthers’ fist slammed into his face with enough force to send a violent shockwave through the forest itself, literally knocking over several nearby trees while the loud boom echoed like a gunshot. 

Antaeus hit the ground for a brief instant before he was abruptly and immediately back on his feet. Standing, he towered over the other man, staring intently down at him. “You always start your fights with cheap shots?” 

“Is it a cheap shot when I told you exactly what was going to happen?” Ruthers countered, not the least bit deterred. “We need to talk about what you did with Maria and Arthur Chambers.” 

“Them?” Antaeus gave a disbelieving look before shaking his head. He touched his readied fist against the front of his face where the other man’s blow had landed. There was no visible sign of any damage at all. Only his pride was stung. “I reported what happened. What more do you want? And talk fast, cuz in a second, I’m gonna show you why you shouldn’t start something you can’t finish.” 

“Gentlemen.” The voice came from the side, as Litonya, the elderly Native American Committee member, leaned a bit on a cane while watching them. “Is there some sort of problem here?” 

Antaeus jerked his head that way. “This guy wants to know about Grandma and Grandpa Chambers. Why don’t you tell him. It was your idea for me to go find them.”

“Your idea?” Ruthers turned his attention to Litonya. “I thought I made it clear that Felicity’s grandparents were to be left alone. They’re human, they have nothing to do with any of this.” 

For her part, the old woman regarded him passively for a few seconds before pointing out in the tone of a scolding schoolteacher from the days of switches and paddles, “People who have nothing to do with ‘this’, as you put it, would not have had Heracles himself protecting them. And even absent that evidence, they were involved through virtue of their son and granddaughter. Bringing them in was the correct move. The only fault was in its failure.” That last bit was added with a sharp look toward Antaeus himself. 

“Hey,” the old wrestler snapped, “I told you what happened. I would’ve handled Alcaeus, but that magic kicked in and took all of them away. I was ready to deal with him, not that. You didn’t say anything about that kind of power.” 

“Indeed,” Litonya agreed. “That is what we should be discussing.” She squinted toward Ruthers. “Steps were taken to ensure that prepared spells could not be used to remove the elderly Chambers. Those protections were entirely useless against the magic that teleported them. I shouldn’t need to remind you of how difficult that should have been. Whoever prepared the spell that took them away was powerful enough to entirely dismiss the strength of three Committee-level casters.” 

Three. Ruthers squinted. Antaeus and Litonya were two. That meant one other member of their group had been in on this attempt to abduct Maria and Arthur Chambers. “We have absolutely no indication that Alcaeus had any connection to the current rebellion. Whatever the reason for his presence, it doesn’t change the fact that neither of the Chambers should have been approached, let alone threatened. They are ordinary humans, Bystanders. They were to be left alone.” He repeated the last point firmly, eyes narrowing. “You know if you had brought this plan up with the others, you would have been outvoted. That’s why you went behind our backs.” 

“Yes,” Litonya agreed without reservation. “In some respects, you can be as weak and foolish as the rebellion sympathizers, Gabriel. You refuse to focus on what must be done to maintain or restore order. Like it or not, Felicity’s grandparents are involved in this war. As I said, removing them from play was the right move to make. If we held them right now, we could have used that to force their granddaughter to make a choice to either surrender them or face the consequences of refusal.” 

“Consequences of refusal?” Ruthers echoed in disbelief tinted with anger. He took a few steps that way. “If you’re actually implying–” 

“I imply only what would be for the betterment of this world as a whole,” came the sharp retort. Litonya met his gaze, unmoved by his obvious anger. “I would think you, of all people, would understand that. It would not be the first time you allowed innocents to be threatened in order to prevent further conflict and bloodshed.” 

You intended to have the children killed,” Ruthers reminded her in a sharp voice whose tone showed that he had not forgotten just how far she had been willing to go. “You thought having Joselyn’s children murdered would break her spirit.” 

“And you had them taken instead,” Litonya retorted. “You could have returned them, but you kept them. You kept them and used their lives to force Joselyn into compliance. Then, you understood that the ends justify the means. Why are you so squeamish about that fact now? This is no different from that.” 

For a moment, Ruthers was silent. A mixture of emotions played very faintly over his face. Subtle as they were, the fact that they could be seen at all spoke volumes as to what he was feeling. It was quite brief, yet telling. 

“You’re wrong,” the man finally replied in a quiet voice. “It is different.” Letting that hang in the air briefly, he added gravely, “What I did was worse.” That said, Ruthers straightened, his eyes glancing between his two fellow Committee members. “I used two innocent children as hostages to force their mother’s cooperation. Whatever my intentions, regardless of the fact that I never intended them to actually be hurt, it wasn’t right.” The admission, both to himself and aloud, was so soft it was almost inaudible. “I thought saving them from your assassin was enough and that keeping them to ensure Joselyn’s compliance was justified in the name of ending the war. I was wrong.”  

“Wrong?” Litonya stared at him in clear disbelief, her heavily-lined face showing her incredulousness. “You removed Joselyn from the rebellion. Do you have any idea how much more damage she could have done to this world and our society if she had remained free through all that time? Holding two infant children for a time, when they were never in any actual danger? How could that be wrong when measured against the lives that were saved?”

Ruthers knew what she was really saying. Litonya had murdered her own brother, a man she had loved through their incredibly long lives, after he expressed a belief in Joselyn’s mission. She would never accept that anything was wrong when it came to stopping the rebellion. If she could kill her own flesh and blood, the brother who had been a part of her life for over fifteen hundred years, she would never believe that any measures taken to stop the rebellion were too far. 

And yet, he still gave a short nod. “I took Joselyn off the board. I could have given her children back, and didn’t, just to make her surrender. You’re right. And yes, it worked. But to what end? The rebellion continued even without her. And now, her new daughter has brought it back. We have done nothing to address the root of the problem, only swept it away for a time.” 

“Which,” Litonya retorted, “is precisely why you should have allowed my assassin to do his job. If Joselyn’s children were eliminated, she never would have allowed herself to live long enough to make any of this a concern. Her emotions would have driven her to a suicidal attack, and we could have worked together to remove her entirely and permanently.” 

For a few long seconds, Ruthers was silent. He stared at the woman, barely paying attention to Antaeus, who stood in the background glaring at him. Finally, he found his voice. “Arthur and Maria Chambers are not to be harmed. Whatever happened, they are not to be put in danger. They will not be used as hostages. Period. When we find them, they are to be returned safely to their home and then… whatever they choose to do is up to them. That is something I will put to the rest of the Committee. And I promise you, it will not go your way.” 

Litonya and Ruthers stared one another down for several long, very tense seconds. Finally, the old woman exhaled. “It shall be as you say, and the consequences will be on your head. But perhaps, if you are finished with such posturing, you would like to know more about the magic that took them away to begin with.”

“What is there to know?” Ruthers countered. “You just underestimated the amount of power that the Rebellion put into their protection spells. Does it surprise you that they would take those kinds of measures after what we did to Joselyn’s children?” 

“Perhaps not,” came the simple, knowing response. “But that is not the intriguing part. You see, from the traces we’ve performed, the spell that took them away did not deliver the Chambers and their bodyguard anywhere on Earth. 

“It took them somewhere very… very far away.” 

********

Arthur Chambers

“More security at the border?” As he voiced that question, Arthur Chambers glanced toward the gray-bearded man who stood beside him on the balcony overlooking the small island. It was the same island, on the same world, where he, his wife, and their long-time friend Al (recently revealed to be Alcaeus/Heracles) had been magically transported after being attacked in Alaska.

“Yes.” Puriel murmured. His blue eyes remained centered off in the distance. Out on the grass, the two men could see Maria with the assortment of Seosten children. She had them all sitting on the grass around the large easel-like hologram projector that had been set up. It functioned a lot like a chalk/whiteboard in schools, projecting a flat glowing surface that could be written on using a special metal pencil-like tool. 

At the moment, Maria was teaching the children some basic science (at least as much as she could), but she also taught other things. Particularly with help from Aletheia for math, and from the old Native American Heretic Kutattca for History and English. They had an actual room for lessons, but Maria preferred to teach the children outside in the fresh air as much as possible after they had been kept imprisoned in that sterile lab for so much of their lives. 

Puriel’s attention was centered on the small girl with the black and blonde hair. Spark. From what Arthur understood, she was one of the Seosten whose possession power malfunctioned. Puriel had forced her to possess him in order to save the girl from his wife, and now she only manifested in this ghost-like form using the man’s own energy manipulation powers. Here at Puriel’s home, far away from any prying eyes, it was safe for her to manifest anywhere on the island. Yet, it still seemed hard for the man to let her out of his sight for long, despite the fact that she was technically always connected to him. They were safe on this island, and would have plenty of advance warning if anyone dangerous approached. Logically, there was no reason to worry. 

But logic often didn’t factor into things when you were worried about someone you saw as your child. That much Arthur understood, even if a lot of this was still incredibly alien… literally, to him.

“There was an incident,” Puriel continued after that moment of silence. His voice held a slight hint of curiosity. It was clear he hadn’t been told as much as he would have preferred. “Some sort of pirate ship raided one of the border stations that prevent transport to Earth. They managed to do enough damage to make a temporary hole and pass through.” 

Arthur opened his mouth, only to stop and consider the entire situation. He was discussing an alien spaceship raiding some sort of magic starbase with an alien who was actually Zeus. Zeus. The mythological god. Would Arthur ever stop being awed by that? How did his son and granddaughter even function if they regularly interacted with people and… and situations like this? How did they avoid being completely overwhelmed to the point of being gibbering wrecks? It seemed as though every time he started to talk, the sheer scale and enormity of all this left him incapable of even thinking straight, let alone contributing in any meaningful way. 

Finally, he managed to sort himself out enough to speak. “Seems like that’s not an easy thing to do.” 

“No, it’s not.” The response came not from Puriel himself, but from Aletheia. The slender, dark-skinned woman came through the doorway behind them. “It should have been impossible for a single pirate ship to accomplish something like that. At least not as quickly as they did. They were through and gone before reinforcements could arrive. For a group that small and relatively weak to do such a thing…” 

“They had assistance,” Puriel murmured. “Either a mole within the station itself who could prevent or slow down certain security measures, or someone far stronger than the rest of the pirates on the ship with them. Someone who was using the pirates as transport.” Pausing, he allowed, “Perhaps both.” 

“Whatever happened,” Aletheia replied after stepping over to stand on the opposite side of Arthur, “security has been drastically raised. They won’t allow anyone through now. It won’t be possible to get to Rysthael–Earth, until things calm down there. Not even for someone like you,” she added with a look toward Puriel. “They have Raduriel working on some new protective measure.” 

“He had ideas about that for some time,” Puriel noted. “But the Seraphim wouldn’t provide the resources he wanted for it. They said the border was secure enough without such an expenditure.” 

“They changed their minds,” Aletheia murmured quietly, eyes on the children and Maria in the distance. “Now they’re giving him everything he wants. Apparently part of his argument was that if his creation works, it could be used in other places to guard against Fomorian intrusion as well.” 

Reminding himself that these two beings had been alive for literally longer than recorded human history, Arthur felt like a very small child as he spoke up. “This ahhh… Radueriel, you said he’s the inventor, the uhhh… Hephaestus.” 

“That is how your people know him, yes,” Puriel confirmed before looking that way. “He is also very dangerous. He and his husband, Abaddon. The one you know as Ares.” 

“Right, you mentioned…” Trailing off thoughtfully, Arthur exhaled. “Which means he’s really good at his job. Between that and the fact that there’s a lot of attention on the border… we’re not going back home anytime soon.” 

“I told you that I would find a way to get you there,” Puriel reminded him. “Just as I promised Spark that I would get her to her mother. That has not changed. Somehow, I will keep my word.”

“Kutattca has thoughts on that subject,” Aletheia informed them. “He believes his sister could be the key.” 

“His sister?” Arthur echoed. “You mean the same one who tried to kill him and is currently part of the group that wants to turn my daughter-in-law, son, and granddaughter into a bunch of red paste? That one?”

Aletheia gave a single nod of confirmation. “Indeed, one and the same. Kutattca believes there may be a way of using both their close blood relation and the fact that she is a powerful Heretic to create a link that can be used similarly to the way Puriel brought you here to begin with.” 

Arthur glanced between them. “You couldn’t do the same thing to send us back because you already had the spell created on Earth, so the link between Al and you was established while you were there, and sort of… pulled through the border with you when you left. Like a string that just kept stretching, right?” 

“Yes.” Puriel glanced to Aletheia, then back to Arthur. “I believe what Kutattca is suggesting is that we create a bond with him, and somehow transfer it to his blood relation through the connection both have to the Reaper that gives Bosch Heretics their power. He and his sister are both connected to this Heretical Edge, and if we could use that link…” Trailing off, the man nodded. “This will require some thought. And a lot of work.” 

“Well, whatever Maria and I can do to help,” Arthur offered. “Which isn’t much, I know. But–” 

“You may be able to do more than you think,” Puriel pointed out quietly. 

“Oh?” Arthur blinked that way. 

“Yes,” came the slow reply. 

“I have a few thoughts.” 

*********

Tabbris, December, Theia, and Doug, sometime during Flick’s disappearance but before Tabbris’s wings were revealed. 

“You guys really didn’t have to come with me, you know,” Doug Frey informed his three Seosten companions as the group walked through an enormous room filled with dozens of large marble-like monuments. Each was roughly eight feet in height and twelve feet wide, with thousands of different names inscribed upon all four sides. “I’m just saying hi.” 

Tabbris, Theia, and December exchanged glances. As usual, it was the latter who spoke first. “Ohit’sokay… Wedidn’thavealot… todootherthanhelpTabbris… worryaboutFlick… andshedoesn’tneedhelpwiththat.” 

Flushing visibly, Tabbris folded her arms against her stomach while changing the subject. “You remember where Paul and Rudolph’s names are?” 

Doug nodded, starting toward the monument in question. “Yeah, it’s this one over here.” Finding the name of his murdered teammates, he reached out to gently run a finger along both engraved names, side by side. “They umm, they asked us which one we thought they’d want their names to be on. We… we thought they’d like to be next to each other. Paul and Rudolph… damn it, this sucks.”

“Would you prefer a larger monument? Or a private one?” Theia put in curiously. “Did they spell the names wrong? They spelled the names wrong, didn’t they?” 

“What?” Doug blinked that way before shaking his head. “No, I just… I just meant that them being dead sucks. It just…” Trailing off, he stared at Doug and Rudolph’s names before quietly asking, “Do you guys–sorry, I mean the Seosten. Do the Seosten believe in any kind of paradise after death or… or reincarnation or anything?” 

December was, once more, the one who spoke first. “There’sthecusp…butwedon’tgettogothere.” 

“What?” Tabbris blinked at her friend. “I… I’ve heard a little about the Cusp. It’s sort of like an afterlife, isn’t it?” 

“Cusp, Rim, Edge, it has a lot of names,” Theia put in a bit absently, her own attention mostly on staring at the memorial in front of them. Realizing belatedly that the others were watching and waiting for her to continue, she straightened, offering an awkward smile before she continued. “Seosten think beings split into three parts when they die. Magic, life, and self.”

“Magic is like ghosts, right?” Doug noted. “That whole thing where ghosts are a person’s magic shaped and sort of… formed into an echo of them.” 

Theia’s head bobbed quickly. “Yes! That’s one. The life part is someone’s… life. Their health, their living energy. That part goes back into the universe and gets…” Her face screwed up a bit thoughtfully. “… recycled? It’s recycled, like cans and paper and bottles. The life force is recycled back into the universe and used to make more living things.” 

Doug thought about that briefly. “So Seosten believe that the energy of a living being is split in three parts when they die. The magical energy goes to make ghosts… sometimes, and the life energy gets put back into the universe as fuel for future lives. But what’s the third part?” 

“Self,” Theia reminded him. “Self is the part that goes to the Cusp. Or Rim, or Edge, or whatever you want to call it. The Cusp is where a person’s mind or personality goes. They stay in the Cusp, watching over everyone they want to, in any world. They can’t affect anything, but they can watch.” Pausing at that for a moment, she quietly added, “Does that sound creepy?” 

“A little,” Doug acknowledged, “but it’s not really different from other ideas of an afterlife, I suppose. Lots of people think the dead stay in some form of heaven or whatever forever.” 

“Oh, not forever.” Theia corrected him. “That’s why it’s called the Cusp. You only stay there for awhile, before your Self falls into the Void and disappears forever. You stop existing then.” 

“Youcanstayforalongtime,” December quickly put in. “Centuriesandcenturiesormore. Aslongaspeoplerememberyou.” 

Theia’s head bobbed in agreement with the younger girl. “Yup. You stay in the Cusp and keep watching over everyone you want to as long as enough people remember you, as long as they know about you. The more people remember you and the more they know about you, the longer you can stay in the Cusp without falling into the Void.” 

Doug took that in, murmuring, “Which… I guess that means a lot of your people want the Olympians, like Sariel and Apollo, to remember them. I mean, they’re supposed to be immortal, right? As long as they don’t get killed. They won’t die naturally. So as long as they remember someone, and with the perfect memory your people have, they will, anyone they know who died will stay in the Cusp.” 

“Yes,” Theia confirmed. “And even the Olympians who are killed will be in the Cusp forever, because no one will ever forget them. At least not for a longer time than the Seosten have existed so far.” 

“Seepeoplearegonnaknowyouforalongtime,” December informed Tabbris. “Evenifyoudieyou’llstayintheCusp. I’lltrytowaveonthewaytotheVoid.” 

“We’re not gonna die,” Tabbris curtly retorted. “Not for a long time anyway. And not–if we do, we’ll hang out in the Cusp together. We’ll watch people.”

December, however, shook her head. “That’snothowitworks. Liesdon’tgettostayintheCusp.” 

“Hey, don’t call yourself that,” Tabbris quickly blurted. “And what do you mean, you don’t get to stay in the Cusp?” 

It was Theia who answered. “That is why Lies don’t have names. Our people do not want Lies to be a part of the Cusp, where they could infect generations-to-come. We are not given names, so that, at death, we will fall directly into the Void.” 

For a long moment after that, Tabbris and Doug both stared at Theia and December. Doug was the one who finally found his voice. “Just when I think I can’t possibly loathe your people any worse for how they treat those like you, we break through into whole new levels of hatred. They deliberately–they don’t give you names because they want your soul to disappear for eternity as fast as possible so you don’t infect their descendents?! That–you–that–” His face twisted as the boy tried and failed to put words to his fury and disgust. Finally, he blinked toward Theia. “Wait, you–when Principal Fellows gave you a name, she was… she was actually giving you… she was… oh. Oh damn.” 

“You need a name!” Tabbris blurted, suddenly throwing herself at December to hug the girl tightly. “You need a real name, a name that’s just you, not a title! Everyone’s gonna remember you forever and ever!” 

“ButIamDecember,” the other girl pointed out in a voice tinted by confusion, not only at Tabbris’s words, but still at least partially at the fact that the girl actually willingly touched her. “I’mpartoftheCalendar. Youcan’ttakemeawayfromthat. TheCalendararemyfriends. Ican’tabandonthem. WearetheCalendar.” 

“You won’t abandon them,” Tabbris solemnly promised, still not releasing her tight grip. “We’re gonna name all of you. Real names that are just for you! You’re not gonna fall into the Void.

“Even if we have to find every Seosten we can and stamp your names directly onto their skulls so they don’t have any choice but to remember you.” 

********

Sophronia and Gaia

“Did it help?” Sophronia Leven spoke aloud while standing in front of the tube that held Gaia frozen in stasis. Her hand was pressed against the metal plate allowing the link to the woman. “Do you think he listened?” 

He, in this case, was Liam Mason. The man had just left after his own discussion with the former Crossroads Headmistress, before Sophronia herself entered to have this conversation. 

Somehow, despite only being able to communicate mentally, Gaia managed to convey a heavy sigh. I do not know. Liam is very stubborn, and lost in a way that may be unreachable. The choices he has made… if he is ever to change, it will only be by his own decision. 

“It would mean accepting a lot of mistakes,” Sophronia quietly noted, her gaze meeting Gaia’s frozen, motionless eyes. “More than most people could. Given what he’s already allowed those mistakes to cost him, repeatedly…”

It is not impossible for him to change, Gaia insisted. Speaking as someone who made more than my share of ‘mistakes’, often born from my own stubbornness and emotions. Heretics live a very long time. He can become a new person, if he wishes to. 

“If he wishes to,” Sophronia agreed pointedly. Then she changed the subject. “Ruthers, Litonya, and Antaeus had a confrontation over the disappearance of the elderly Chambers. You were right, Ruthers didn’t order it. And he was pretty unhappy.” 

Gabriel believes in leaving humans out of any such conflict, Gaia noted. He would never have agreed to send Antaeus, or anyone else, to abduct Felicity’s grandparents. This is something else. 

After a brief, pointed pause, Sophronia carefully asked, “And you’re absolutely certain it wasn’t you? Something you set up and wouldn’t want anyone to know about, no matter how much you trusted them, because of compartmentalization?” 

Gaia managed a mental chuckle. I assure you, this was not me. I do not believe it was the Atherbys either. 

“I know it wasn’t them,” the other woman confirmed. “I have… friends who keep me informed about certain things on that side. They don’t have any idea who took the Chambers or where they are. Do… do you think it was Fossor? He might have taken the grandparents to use in some kind of spell related to bringing Felicity back from the future and enforcing obedience.”

There was a brief pause as Gaia considered that. No, she finally answered. I don’t believe Fossor is connected to this. It’s too convenient that they disappeared with Alcaeus right when they were in danger. You said they appeared to be transported offworld?” 

Sophornia gave a short, pointless nod. “Yes. We can’t trace the spell all the way to the source, only that it’s very far away. Too far to track. It–wait. You think it was those Seosten. But why would the Seosten take Felicity’s grandparents?” 

I’m not certain, came the response. But I wonder if we are not coming at this from the wrong angle. We have been assuming that whoever was responsible abducted the Chambers and accidentally took Alcaeus as well. What if it was the other way around? 

“You mean the Seosten took old Heracles and Felicity’s grandparents were just caught in it by accident?” Sophronia considered that. “But why? Why would they go through the effort of using the kind of power it would take to transport him and two others, the latter by accident, all the way across the universe?” 

Again, Gaia was silent (even mentally) for a few long moments. I do not know, she finally admitted. There is a very large piece of this puzzle that is missing. It would be nice to have some answers before Felicity returns. 

“You think she’ll make it back to this time then?” 

I know she will. Felicity Chambers will find her way back to this time. When she does, I believe it will spark the final, direct conflict between her and Fossor. 

A conflict only one of them will walk away from. 

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Interlude 8B – Liam Mason (Heretical Edge 2)

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The first time he lost his wife had been the second-worst day in Liam Mason’s long life. Second-worst, because at the time, he’d still had his little girls. As traumatized as little Scout had been, as much as it had killed him that he couldn’t erase what she had experienced, she was at least there. He could hold her, he could comfort her. She and her sister were there as reminders of the woman he loved. He’d had that, at least. They’d had each other. 

The second time he lost his wife had been the worst day in Liam Mason’s long life. Because he hadn’t only lost Larissa again. This time, he’d lost his girls too. Scout and Sands. He lost all three of them. And not to some monster or a magic spell. No. He lost them to themselves. They willingly left, chose to leave, out of some misguided belief that the monsters who wanted to enslave, kill, and devour humanity itself were some kind of… innocent little fluffy puppies. 

He’d lost his wife and children, his entire family, within months of actually getting them all back in the first place. They chose to walk away, chose to abandon their father, to side with… with… those things. 

Just like Joselyn. Just like Deveron, Lillian, Roger, Seamus, and Tribald. All of them were supposed to be his friends, back in the day. All of them had gone off on this… absurd belief that the creatures who tore human bones from their bodies, devoured their hearts, and used the remains for blood rituals were actually just misunderstood. The creatures they fought were monsters. Jos, Deveron, the rest of them just didn’t understand. Liam had thought that getting the adults involved would put an end to the whole situation, but it had only made things worse. Instead of being talked down out of their insanity, Joselyn and the others had blamed him for exposing their little group, and everything blew up into a full-scale war. A war that had ended with Joselyn’s identity, as well as almost everyone’s memory of that war, being erased so that things could go back to the way they should have been. 

Now the war was back. It was unerased, thanks to Joselyn’s daughter. And while Joselyn had taken his friends away when she started her version of the war. Felicity Chambers took away his wife and children. 

Felicity Chambers was an idealistic child who had no doubt been manipulated by those much stronger and more malicious than she was. Creatures, likely the same or related to those who had first manipulated Joselyn into believing this insanity, had gotten to her. Whether it was before she ever joined Crossroads or after, Liam wasn’t sure. Only that they used her as a weak point, twisting her mind until she believed the same evil lies as Joselyn had. 

Was it the bodysnatchers who had been exposed earlier in the year? It had to be them, right? That was what made the most sense. If they could possess people, it wouldn’t have been hard to bring some onto the school grounds to say the right things to twist Flick and those around her. 

And Gaia. She was fooled by all this too. Fooled or puppeted or… or… Gods, who knew. It was all such a mess. The war was going again, his family was gone, Gaia was locked up for being part of it, and now Liam had been put in charge of Crossroads as its new headmaster. 

Headmaster. He was the new headmaster of Crossroads, and what happened during the first hunt they’d put together, even with all the precautions? One of their students disappeared. Erin Redcliffe had literally vanished in the middle of the hunt. Despite all the extra guards they had, despite the trackers that were supposed to make sure the students could always be found, despite everything, Erin was just…. gone. 

He needed advice. Liam needed to talk to someone about this, someone who had been in the position of leadership over the school before. Someone who might actually understand what was going on and what he might be able to do. 

Which was what brought him here, standing outside of a wooden door as he exhaled a long, slow breath. The man inside had already called for him to enter, but Liam took another moment before pushing the door open and stepping through. 

It was a war room. Or at least it looked like one, with a large table projecting a hologram of the Earth with various marks indicating where sightings of certain people had been, weapons lining all of the walls, a heavy oak desk at the back covered in reports and a handful of recording devices, and shelves behind the desk lined with various enchanted objects. There were no decorations, nothing to indicate any kind of personal life or entertainment for the occupant. It was all entirely built and designed around function. 

Gabriel Ruthers stood at the back of the room, looking at the shelf with magic items. His hand casually toyed with one of the metal orbs there, rolling it between two fingers as he spoke in a quiet, somewhat weary voice. “It’s been a long year, hasn’t it, Liam?” 

“Are we counting since three hundred and sixty-five days ago, January, or the beginning of this school year?” Liam asked. Pausing then, he grimaced. “I guess it doesn’t matter. The answer is yes.” 

“It’s going to get longer,” came the gruff response. With that, Ruthers turned and moved closer. “You’re here about the Redcliffes. What’s going on with her father?” 

“We haven’t told Nolan yet,” Liam informed him simply, folding his arms across his chest while he watched the man. “But he’ll figure it out eventually, when we don’t let him talk to her. You know what a shitshow that’s gonna be? The only reason he’s still here and hasn’t gone off to join the idealists is because he thinks we still have his daughter here.” 

A short pause followed that statement, before Liam dropped his gaze to stare at the floor, his entire frame seeming to deflate a bit. “You know what that sounds like when I say it out loud?” 

“I know what it sounds like,” Ruthers confirmed quietly, his hand finding its way to Liam’s shoulder. “But you have to be strong. Sometimes doing the right thing doesn’t feel or sound right. Sometimes it’s hard. When it comes to saving humanity, to protecting our world and our people, we don’t always have the luxury of playing nice. Sometimes you have to be the bad guy to make sure even more people don’t suffer. Liam, you know what we’re up against, don’t you?” 

“Idealists manipulated by evil,” Liam murmured, frowning a bit before looking back up to the other man. “There’s already students talking about Erin’s disappearance, and I know there’s a few trying to decide if there’s a way for them to pull the same disappearing act. They play it cool around their teachers, but I just… I know they’re planning something. I can’t just throw them all in holding cells because I suspect they want to defect. I’ve cancelled future hunts for the time being until we find out what happened with Erin, but what… what else are we supposed to do? We can only keep them trapped at school for so long.” 

“It’s a tropical island with a magnificent beach and a jungle,” Ruthers dryly retorted, “they’re not exactly suffering.” Sobering a bit, he added, “They’ll be fine, Liam. Tell them the truth, that we’re protecting them. Tell them that their friends and family have been tricked, but we’re working to bring them back. Tell them about the bodysnatchers. If it scares them… good, maybe it’ll convince them not to trust people they don’t know, and to be critical of anyone they do know showing up with strange new ideas and opinions.” 

“You want me to make my students paranoid about everyone they talk to?” Liam’s voice was flat as he stared at the man he had looked up to and trusted for so long. 

Ruthers, in turn, stared right back at him. “I want you to teach them to be critical and wary of people who might be trying to lead them astray, be that strangers or… strangers wearing the faces of people they think they know. Teach them that people who suddenly change their minds about every truth we’ve known for so long might not be themselves anymore. Whether they’ve been fooled or… or taken over, those are the people we need to lock down if we’re going to get this under control. I want you to use the authority you’ve been given to keep a lid on our students so we don’t lose any more of them to this absurd insurrection. Can you do that?”

Liam was silent for a few long seconds, letting the words sink in before he straightened a bit, meeting the other man’s gaze. “Yes, Counselor. 

“I can do that.” 

*******

He needed advice. Liam needed to talk to someone about this, someone who had been in the position of leadership over the school before. Someone who might actually understand what was going on and what he might be able to do. 

Which was what brought him here, standing in front of a heavy, metal door lined with magical runes and radiating power beyond anything even he could actually comprehend. The spells on the door were stronger than he could possibly have deciphered in several years, let alone done anything about. A single one of the multiple incantations could have been studied for decades to get a full understanding of. They had been prepared by the strongest mages in Crossroads. 

“I can’t let you in here for long, you understand?” Sophronia Leven, the beautiful, auburn-haired Crossroads Committee member whose human story was told in the epic poem Jerusalem Delivered, reminded him as she stood by the door. “There are rules that all of us have to follow, no matter how… much we may disagree with them. Lines that we have no choice but to toe.” 

Before he answered, Liam gave the woman a brief, curious look. It sounded more as though she was annoyed about something else when she spoke of lines they had to toe. Belatedly, when she squinted at him, he gave a quick nod. “Of course, Counselor. I don’t need long.”

At least, he hoped he didn’t. Even coming here in the first place felt like a betrayal of Ruthers and everything he was supposed to stand for. But then, Liam was well-versed in betrayal. 

Finally nodding with what was apparently satisfaction, Sophronia touched several parts of the door, speaking an incantation. As a few runes lit up, she gestured and the door swung open entirely soundlessly. “Go. Do what you must,” she instructed. “I will warn you before your time is up. Do not linger when I do so, or the security measures will take their own precautions.” 

With a single, somewhat distracted nod, Liam stepped through the doorway and into a small, dark room. He could sense the walls around him, the space only slightly larger than one of those Bystander portable toilets or a closet. More magical runes covered each of them, all lighting up as the door closed behind him. For a full minute, he was scanned and various queries were sent to three separate people in different locations to ensure that he was allowed to be where he was. Only once all three of those had come back positive did the magic unlock, and he felt a quick rush of power as the small room transported him to his actual destination. 

Now, he was standing on a platform in a large, brightly lit room with no doors or windows. The walls, floor, and ceiling were white and lined with even more spells than the previous door and small room had been. There was more magical power on a single wall of this room than Liam could produce on his own, even if given a full century to do so. 

The room itself was empty, aside from a large glass tube directly in the middle. Within the tube floated the reason for all the security measures, the woman he’d come to see. Gaia Sinclaire. She wasn’t actually floating in water, or any other liquid. Instead, the red-haired woman had been frozen in an ongoing stasis field that was projected from the tube and powered by a few of the spells on the surrounding walls. The rest of those spells were meant to make it impossible to find this place, to have any contact with Gaia herself, to keep Gaia contained if she broke from the stasis, and so on. 

For a moment, Liam froze, staring at the tube. A rush of thoughts and memories passed through his mind, before he exhaled and stepped that way. There was a single metal plate in the middle of the tube, and he put his hand against it firmly before speaking aloud. “Headmistress?” 

You don’t need to call me that, Liam, came the response directly into his mind through the mental link that the metal plate established. Not anymore. 

Yes, Gaia’s body may have been frozen, but it was possible, through the spells that kept her that way, to contact her mind. From what Liam knew, the Committee had been using that in an attempt to get any information from her about the bodysnatchers, the rebellion, the Atherbys, anything useful at all. 

“Gaia,” he amended, cursing himself inwardly for the slip. Of course she didn’t have that title anymore. He had her position. She was a prisoner, a traitor. So why had his first instinct been to show deference and respect? 

Shaking that off, Liam pushed on. “I need–I mean… Erin Redcliffe disappeared.” Over the next few minutes, he explained the situation, how the girl had vanished from the middle of a hunt and their thoughts that either she had somehow planned it out and run away to join her roommate and friends in the rebellion, or that they themselves had taken her. 

When he was done, Gaia was silent. Well, she was always silent. She gave no mental response for a few long seconds. Just as he was about to ask if the spell had malfunctioned somehow, the woman finally ‘spoke.’ Let me tell you a story. 

“A story?” Liam echoed. “Is this really the right time?” 

There is no better time than this, she insisted before continuing. Once, very long ago, a man lived happily with his wife and two children, a boy and a girl. They weren’t rich, but neither were they poor. They were content. One day, while the wife and children were off, a traveling salesman came to the man’s door and showed him a grand mirror, six feet in height and three feet wide. The mirror was a sight to behold, set into a stand of wood that had been intricately carved to look like two beautiful, androgynous figures holding the glass. 

‘This will protect your family, good sir,’ the salesman informed him. ‘Because there are monsters in this world, and the mirror will reveal them to you.’ 

“It was a mirror enchanted to break the Bystander Effect?” Liam asked, curiously. 

So it would seem, was her response. With some hesitation, but an eagerness to protect his family from any threats, the man bought the mirror and placed it in his home. As he stood admiring it, his wife returned, and the man brought her to the mirror. However, to his horror, the reflection showed not the woman he knew, but a foul beast. He saw, in the reflection of his wife, a creature with dark scales, pointed horns, and a wide mouth with many fangs. In a panic, the man killed the beast, before hearing the approach of his son. 

Quickly, he hid the body, resolving to explain the truth to the boy before forcing him to see his mother’s body. But, as the boy entered, the man saw his son’s reflection in the mirror. Again, it was that of a demonic being, a snarling beast that drove a shiver through the man’s heart. In despair, he killed the boy, unable to stand the sight of that creature in the mirror. 

Once more, he heard someone approach. His daughter. Terrified and thoroughly suspicious, the man hid the body of his son and waited. Sure enough, when the girl entered the room looking for her family, the man saw the reflection of a most terrible beast, the worst of all. With a heart laden with sorrow and regret, he killed his daughter. 

“I don’t understand the point of this story,” Liam interrupted. “Is it that evil can be everywhere, even where we least expect it? Because–”

He was cut off as Gaia pushed on as though he hadn’t spoken at all. The man was certain the enchantment hiding his wife and children’s true forms would wear off upon their deaths. But it didn’t. They looked the same as they always had to his naked eye. Worse, when he displayed them before the mirror again, their reflections were as normal as his own. Grieving, he took the bodies behind the house to bury, when the salesman returned. 

‘You!’ the man shouted. ‘You lied to me! You told me the mirror would reveal the monsters in this world!’

‘And so it has,’ the salesman informed him. ‘Can you tell me of anyone more monstrous than he who would kill his wife and children?’ 

“I should’ve known that coming here was a mistake,” Liam muttered. “What is that supposed to mean? What does it have to do with saving Erin?” 

Again, there was a brief pause before Gaia responded. Its meaning is for you to determine, Liam. I cannot tell you that. As for Erin, I believe she is fine. My intention was not to protect her, but to save another of my students. One whom I will never give up on, no matter what mistakes they may make. 

“Who?” he snapped, unthinkingly. 

You, Liam.  

I want to save you

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Convalescence 38-03

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As Professor Dare led me through the hallways to the elevator, I asked, “Are necromancer powers really that rare? I mean, if Percival felt like he needed to warn me about their reaction…”

There was a brief pause before the woman answered, “No, they’re not exactly unheard of or anything. But Crossroads Heretics don’t really use them. They have something of a negative connotation. And given the experience that so many of those who started Crossroads had with Fossor, let’s just say that necromancy in general is pretty much avoided as much as possible.”

“Well that’s stupid,” I blurted bluntly. “Avoiding something just because a bad guy uses it is kind of idiotic. I mean I get the whole not using dead people thing. Trust me, I totally get that. But staying away from it and hiding from it just because one necromancer screwed them over so badly? Wouldn’t actually investigating it and practicing with it be a better way of dealing with things? I mean, if nothing else, it would let you learn how to counter it more effectively.”

Was it weird that I had been one hundred percent against the idea of using the necromancy I had inherited right up until the second that I’d found out that Ruthers didn’t want me to use it? And now suddenly I had an argument about why it shouldn’t be avoided. That was probably weird.

Pausing there in the hallway, Professor Dare reached out to take my shoulder. “You’re right, people can be very irrational when it comes to emotional events. And the Black Death was a very emotional event.” She hesitated before continuing. “And there are others who felt like that. They pursue necromantic powers to learn more about how to counter them. Or even just to use them for good. But people like Ruthers don’t accept that. He, well, he gets kind of angry when it’s brought up.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered, “because what I really needed was for Ruthers to have even more reason to hate me. Hey, maybe if he gets ticked off enough every time he sees my face, he’ll be so angry he’ll forget how to talk.”

Squeezing my shoulder once more, the woman assured me, “You won’t be alone in there. Percival and the others won’t let it get too out of hand. Just tell them as much of the truth as you can. And if they try to trap you on something, just say that you’re tired. God knows you’ve been up long enough. Just tell them that it’s been a long night and you’re not thinking straight. If it happens enough, Gaia will pull you out. Okay?”

I nodded, and we continued into the elevator. Silently, we headed up. When the doors opened, I saw two familiar faces waiting for us: Patrick and October. The two of them looked a bit tired after everything that had happened (and like they had been in the middle of some pretty intense fighting themselves), but they were definitely alert. And they even looked a little bit happy to see me there for some reason.

“Miss Chambers,” Patrick started, “I am glad that you’re…” He paused, clearly considering his words before going with a quiet, “Well, let’s just say I’m glad you’re not in any worse shape.”

I coughed at that. “Thanks for being tactful and honest at the same time.”

With October on one side of me, Patrick on the other, and Dare bringing up the rear, I was escorted back to the office where everything had happened. The two men stopped outside of it and gave me a pair of encouraging nods while taking up station on either side of the door. Professor Dare, however, followed me all the way in.

And then we were there. We were in the same penthouse office where the confrontation with Manakel had happened. They’d cleaned things up, of course. But still. We were where Avalon— where all of us had nearly died. Where we had first seen Rudolph’s body. My throat caught a little bit before I even looked at anyone, and I felt Professor Dare’s hand on my back bracingly. It helped a bit, but I still didn’t really want to be here. Which sounded kind of dumb put like that, yet I couldn’t help the feeling.

Taking a breath, I finally looked up to see who else was there. Ruthers, of course, along with Percival and Calafia as I had already known. Gaia was there too. Then there was Davis, Sigmund, Litonya, Teach, Oliver, Sophronia, and Jue. In other words, everyone except Elisabet and Geta. Which, considering the former was the one in charge of security for all of Crossroads, I was pretty sure that her not being here during the current situation didn’t exactly look good. I wondered what her excuse was going to be.

Davis was the first to speak, clearing his throat before starting with, “Miss Chambers, thank you for joining us here. We understand that it has been a very long night and that you have been through a lot. So we’ll do our best to make this as quick as possible. We just need a few answers while the situation is clear in your head. And, hopefully the things we have to say will help put your mind at ease.”

Teach spoke then before I could question what the man meant by that. “Some of us even understand that this might be the wrong place to do this. So if you want to go somewhere else, anywhere else, you just go ahead and say so. Back to the school or to some neutral place, we can do that.”

My mouth opened, but before I could say anything, Ruthers interrupted. “Stop coddling her,” he snapped with a brief glare at the others. “She’s not a child.” To me, he spoke bluntly. “They say that you were the one who raised the body of Rudolph Parsons.” As expected, the man’s gaze was hard, his expression openly suspicious. As I had known and been warned of, my demonstrating any necromantic power only made the man distrust me even more.

Pushing down about a dozen sarcastic answers with some effort, I gave a single nod. “Yes,” I announced simply. “Apparently I inherited the same necromantic power that the man who killed him had. I didn’t ask for it. Because you guys, of all people, should know, if there was a way to ask for what power you wanted to get, this stuff wouldn’t be nearly as random. Not to mention the fact that we’d be better at knowing what we got without tripping over it.”

I saw Oliver, of all people, smother a smile with his hand before nodding. “Indeed,” the portly man agreed. “but there is something different about these particular necromancer abilities which makes them somewhat more worrying than usual.”

Sophronia nodded. “Specifically, when a couple of our people attempted to halt Mr. Parsons’ body, he simply turned intangible and passed through them.”

“That,” Litonya snapped, “is impossible. Strangers and Heretics are alike in that fact. They do not retain their powers after death. Their strength as zombies is in their numbers, and sometimes skill, but never powers. It doesn’t happen.”

Somehow I restrained myself from pointing out how stupid it was for her to say that, considering she had just seen it happen with Rudolph. As tempting as it was, I had a feeling it wouldn’t help my case.

I also could have informed her and the rest of the Committee that there were also a lot of other ways that Heretics and Alters were alike, but I figured this was also the wrong time for that.

Instead, I shrugged a little bit while slowly looking around the room to meet all of their intense gazes. “Yeah, maybe now you guys understand why he was so dangerous, why all of his people are so dangerous. Look at what they did with this place.” I gestured around the room. “Look at this whole hospital. They took over this whole hospital. They are using it as their own personal base, their own place to snatch whoever they wanted. Who knows how many people you thought died and ended up with them instead? I didn’t have anything to do with that. That’s obviously been going on for decades, at least. There were hundreds of dead bodies in here hidden away for him to play with.”

Gaia finally spoke up then. “Miss Chambers is, of course, correct. You know as well as I do that some of the bodies found when the necromancer was killed have been dead or missing for well over eighty years. They were preserved somehow, and hidden away. I do hope you’re not suggesting that she could possibly have had anything to do with that. She is quite good for her age, we are all well aware of that, but time travel?”

Sigmund shook his head, grunting out an annoyed, “Of course not. We’re just trying to find out everything she does know. Sometimes people know more than they think they do. You just have to ask the right questions to tease it out. Not that it matters that much now, but still.”

Or people knew more than they were willing to say. I knew that was the unspoken part of his statement, and the other thing that they were doing. And what the hell did he mean it didn’t matter much now?

Taking a breath, I started with, “I have a couple questions myself. Starting with, isn’t there supposed to be more of you?” I gestured to the empty spot near Litonya. “Where is, um, was it Elisabet? And that Geta guy.”

Yeah, I already knew where the former was, better than these guys did. But it made sense for me to ask. Plus, I was still curious about what her excuse was.

All of them exchange glances, and from the look on some of their faces, they weren’t exactly accustomed to someone openly questioning them in a situation like this. They were far more used to someone ducking their head and answering everything they asked.

In the end, it was Teach who answered. “Unfortunately, Miss Elisabet and Geta have been unavoidably detained with another matter. They’ll, ahhh, be here as soon as possible.”

I probably shouldn’t have said the next thing. I definitely shouldn’t have said it. But I did. Straightening up a little, I nodded. “Okay, so where were the rest of you while this was going on? I mean, this was your main hospital being completely taken over. That’s got to be a big deal, right? But you only sent two of you to deal with it? What else was going on?”

“Miss Chambers,“ Ruthers snapped, “we do not explain our actions or reasoning to you. You are—”

It look like he was winding himself up into a very impressive rant, but Sophronia interrupted.

“Enough, Gabriel. The girl has earned straight answers.” To me, she explained, “There were other attacks. Heretic-on-Heretic attacks. At least fifteen counts of long-time Heretics attacking their allies, their friends. And then going on sprees attacking everything in sight. Destroying long-held Heretic structures, burning down supplies, doing as much damage as they could.”

My eyes widened at that. “Now that they know that you know they can possess people and that they’re organized, they’re not hiding it as much. They’re showing you what they can do. And they were distracting you away from this place.”

Sigmund gave a low chuckle. “Yes, they’ve shown what they are capable of. And we have contained the situation. They took their shot, and it wasn’t enough. That is what we were doing tonight: ending this threat. We hunted down every last compromised Heretic. When cornered, the creatures inside tried to flee before being destroyed, down to the last of them. We’ve stopped them.”

Before I could stop myself, the words blurted their way out of me, “Don’t be an idiot.”

As soon as I said, my eyes widened and my heart seemed to stop. I saw similar surprised looks on everyone’s face, especially Sigmund himself. The man looked as though I had just spontaneously transformed into a unicorn singing show tunes with his mother’s voice. “Excuse me?”

“Sorry, I’m sorry.” I quickly held up both hands in surrender. “It’s just been a long night, a long… well, everything. What I’m saying is that obviously wasn’t their best shot. They wouldn’t blow it like that. That was a tiny hint of what they’re capable of. It was a distraction, not a full assault.“

Jue spoke then, her voice brittle. “Given what you have been through, your fear of them is completely understandable, as is your outburst. It will not be forgiven so easily a second time, mind, but one strike should be overlooked at this point.”

She continued before I could say anything. “That said, we assure you, the threat posed by this group has been largely dismantled now. We have spent most of this evening interrogating those involved and investigating the bases that they directed us to. We found the arena where you and the others were being held.”

Well, that took me aback. I blinked twice before stammering, “You did?”

Ruthers nodded. “It was exactly as you described it, actually. We found several prisoners still there. None of your fellow students, unfortunately. Not just yet. But we did find imprisoned Heretics who confirmed your story. They even remember seeing you there.“

My mouth opened and shut, and I felt my head spin. Was I in the twilight zone? How could the Committee find an arena that didn’t exist? How could they find witnesses to corroborate our story when our story was bogus? At least those specifics of it. How…

“Correct.” The voice came from the doorway and I saw Elisabet and Geta there. The woman herself gave me a brief look before continuing. “Apologies, following the leads provided by your former fellow prisoners took longer than expected.”

“Indeed,” Geta confirmed. “But we can safely say that we have dealt with the largest part of the conspiracy and infiltration. The necromancer was clearly their leader, and without the head, the rest fell apart. They tried to enact their primary attack, but they weren’t ready yet. It fell apart too soon. They did a lot of damage, and far too many people died because of our failing. But it’s been contained.”

That was it, I realized. That was how the Seosten were going to spin this, how they were going to deal with the news about their existence getting out. That was why they hadn’t bothered to keep things quiet in the hospital and why they’d had a bunch of their assets reveal themselves in those seemingly pointless and failed attacks. Because they wanted it to look like they’d been flushed out. They couldn’t make the whole Committee forget everything they knew (not easily anyway), so they went the other way: open and eventually failed attack. That way, the Committee would do exactly what they were doing now (with a little helpful nudge from Elisabet, of course): decide that the main threat was over. It was a feint, of sorts, just enough of an attack to make Crossroads think that they had successfully repelled a major invasion and put a stop to the conspiracy they had uncovered.

The Seosten had probably rewritten several Heretics’ memories, faked the deaths of some of their people, probably even allowed the deaths of as many non-Seosten as they could spare. I imagined some of those Seosten who had ‘been destroyed’ had really played up their death scenes to make it look good. Maybe they’d even gone as far as supplying some real Seosten bodies or something to make it look even more real. I didn’t know, but they probably had plenty given all the fighting they did. Elisabet had even managed to convince Geta of what he was seeing. Or they had just possessed him with someone else, though I wasn’t sure on that point since possessing a ready and alert Committee member should have been pretty damn hard to pull off.

Either way, the point was, they’d released a few of their prisoners with rewritten memories to match the story that I had told. The Seosten had actually used the story that we made up to explain our absence as a way of taking the heat off themselves with a fake failed assault. An assault that was apparently big enough to require the Committee to intervene, which of course would convince them that it was authentic. But in the end, it had been designed to fail.

The Seosten sacrificed a relatively small force (though the non-Jophiel ones clearly hadn’t been expecting to lose Manakel) in exchange for making Crossroads think that they’d successfully driven out the infiltrators. And they did it using the story that we had made up. And worse, the Committee was never going to believe if I tried to tell them that they were wrong. They’d just think that I was paranoid after everything I’d been through. Because of course they would. They’d even think that they were doing the right thing by calming me down.

Plus, there was the fact that I couldn’t really argue with them, because this was a plan that Jophiel had obviously had something to do with and she was right there. She wouldn’t want me to go against the plan she’d set up to put the Seosten back under cover.

I suddenly wanted to punch something.

“For that matter,” Davis put in, “we even found and took care of the monsters who took the infants from the nursery here. The children have all been rescued and are being reunited with their families as we speak. Along with most of the actual patients. Those who survived, anyway. These… creatures were trying to smuggle them in a train. Our people spotted them, alerted us, and we dealt with the situation. Exactly as planned.”

Oh, it was exactly as planned, alright. I agreed with that wholeheartedly. The disagreement came in our respective ideas of whose plan it was.

While coming to terms with all that, I saw Dare start to speak up, only to stop just as suddenly. Her eyes glanced toward Gaia. The headmistress hadn’t moved or made any indication of communication, but I was certain that she’d somehow told Dare (probably telepathically) not to challenge the story. She either wanted the Committee to believe that they’d dealt with the threat, or didn’t think challenging it was worth the trouble it would cause.

By that point, Elisabet and Geta had moved to join the rest of the Committee. The latter cleared his throat before speaking. “Now then, I suppose that since Miss Chambers’ story has been proven correct, some of us should probably apologize for doubting her.”

That was the other side of Jophiel and Elisabet’s plan with all this, I realized. Making me look like I was telling the truth didn’t just take the heat off of the Seosten. It also worked to convince at least more of the Committee to get off my case, leaving them breathing room to work with me, with us. In one move, they had sacrificed a few pawns in order to keep the full extent of Seosten power a secret and keep me in a position beneficial to them.

Ruthers looked like someone made him swallow a frog. Grimacing, he grunted out, “Let’s see how the rest of this story holds up before we go handing out pats on the back.” To me, he demanded, “Let’s hear the whole story, Chambers. Tell us what happened tonight, everything that led up to you taking on the powers of a necromancer whose raised zombies, against everything we know, retain their abilities.”

I saw Elisabet pause briefly, only for an instant. I was positive that she already knew that Manakel was dead, of course. But the fact that I had inherited his necromancy powers did seem to somewhat surprise her. Which clearly meant that it surprised both her and Jophiel. Her eyes moved from Ruthers to me, a thoughtful look touching her gaze. “Mmm, it seems we may have missed more than we thought, Geta.”

“Indeed,” the man agreed. “Suddenly I’m far more interested in hearing this story.”

“Right,” I murmured quietly before straightening as I reached into my pocket. “Okay, well, it’s a long story. But I guess the gist of it is that Herbie saved the day.”

Yeah, I immediately had to backtrack and give the actual explanation. But honestly, after what I’d just had to listen to, I didn’t care. It was worth it just to see the look on their faces as I stood there proudly holding up my rock for their collective bewildered inspection.

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Homecoming 35-02

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Gaia’s voice was the first to break the brief silence that followed Ruthers’ announcement. “Why Gabriel,” she began in a flat voice, “I am pleased to see that you take the disappearance of several students so seriously, but I am a bit surprised to see it taken quite this seriously. A couple of those students reappear and half of the Committee is suddenly involved? Are you very certain that none of you had anything more important to attend to?”

Meanwhile, I was busy glancing over every Committee member that was there, and noting that Elisabet wasn’t among them. Because, of course, she was a billion light years away, dealing with all that. I did wonder where these guys all thought she was. But there really didn’t seem to be any way to bring it up naturally, like, ‘Hey, where’s that Spanish woman? I really liked her. She’s so on top of things, it’s like there’s two of her.’ Yeah, real subtle.

Litonya, the Native-American woman with the face lined with some serious wrinkles spoke then. “It is about far more than a few disappearances, Sinclaire, as you are well aware. It is about the fact that the same people who abducted Miss Chambers and her peers were able to mount a country-wide assault, and even attack the school itself, as a distraction to allow that abduction.”

Geta, the black guy who had been some kind of Roman emperor, gave a firm nod. “Not only that,” he rumbled in a deep voice, “but they also somehow took two more students weeks later.” His head nodded toward Vanessa and Tristan. “And took them straight from the school grounds itself without security being able to detect it happening.”

Teach, old Blackbeard himself, added, “The point is, it’s a pretty big deal. Probably not quite big enough for all six of us, but, you know, we were curious.”

Reading between the lines there, I was pretty sure that Ruthers had been coming out here with just people that he could trust to be on his side of things, but Teach had come to make sure that things stayed fair. And I was incredibly grateful for that. After everything we had been through, the last thing that we needed was for things to go nuclear right now.

Ruthers spoke then. “Either way, we are here now. And there is a far more important subject then the question of why we chose to come.” He looked toward Tristan and me then, and I could have sworn that his bulldog expression actually softened just a little bit. “Miss Chambers,” he started, “Mr. Moon, are you all right? What is wrong with Miss Moon?”

”Uh,” Tristan started while glancing down at his sister in his arms, “she’s fine. She’s just exhausted. It’s been a long trip.”

It was Sophronia, Zeke’s mother, who jumped on that. “What exactly was this trip, as you say? Where have you all been, and how did you escape? Where are the others? Are they still alive? As you can see,” she finished with a slightly thoughtful look, “we have a great many questions.”

Before anyone else could say anything, I finally managed to get a word in. “We were taken by a bunch of bad guys who wanted to find a way to use Heretic students against Crossroads. That’s why they went through all that effort to make a distraction. They wanted to get us young because we’d be easier to handle. They’ve been training us, making us fight in this arena thing since they took us. They thought they could turn us into their soldiers.”

Yeah, I may have done a little thinking ahead of time about how to explain our disappearance. And this would help to cover the fact that we had new powers and skills that we shouldn’t have had it all we were doing was sitting in a cell or something. It wasn’t perfect, of course. But we didn’t need perfect. We just needed something believable enough.

Ruthers was watching me, his hard expression also curious. “And the others,” he began, “are they dead?”

He’s worried, Tabbris piped up with obvious surprise. He’s worried about the others. He’s afraid that they really are dead. He cares about them.

It wasn’t quite a complete surprise. After all, I had been telling the truth back when I told the man that I could sympathize with the position he had been in before. The man could be an asshole, and I blamed him for a lot of things. Kidnapping my older brother and sister was at the top of the unforgivable list. But I also didn’t think that he was a completely irredeemable bastard with absolutely no good points. I could believe that he thought he was doing the right thing, even if it made him come off as a piece of shit. And I definitely believed that he could be worried about the fate of several students, since he had run the school for many years before moving up to the Committee.

I shook my head at that. “No,” I answered, “they’re not dead. At least…” I swallowed hard, the lump in my throat suddenly quite real. This part I hadn’t even had time to tell Gaia, Dare, and Deveron.

Speaking of the latter, he had been standing somewhat behind me with his hand on the back of my shoulder. Every time Ruthers spoke, I felt his nails digging into the muscle of my back a little bit, as if he was very, very close to throwing himself at the man, damn the consequences. Which, of course, would have been a very bad idea.

Dare had noticed my expression. “What? What happened?”

Right, this was hard. I took a breath and let it out again before starting. “It’s Professor Katarin. H-he… he’s…” Again, I had to swallow. “He’s… gone. He’s dead.” My voice sounded hollow to my own ears. Saying the words that flatly, with that kind of finality, it brought back the same feelings that I’ve had right after it had happened. I felt sick, like I wanted to throw up again. There was a cold, empty pit in my stomach. And it only got worse when I saw the shock in Professor Dare’s eyes. Of all the things that she had been expecting me to say, that was probably pretty low on the list.

Gaia too seemed taken aback, her eyes widening just a little bit before she spoke a single word, ”How?”

“Yes,” Ruthers, who looked just as surprised, agreed. “How? Are you… quite sure?”

Biting my lip almost hard enough to make it bleed, I gave a slight nod at that. It was so hard to talk through the lump in my throat. But I forced myself to. “He was… betrayed. He didn’t see it coming. But he… he died a hero. He died protecting innocent people. There was a chance. He… he could have survived. But a bunch of other people would have died, so he stayed. And because he stayed, because he chose to stay, he couldn’t protect himself. So he died.” The words sounded empty, and I didn’t really recognize my own voice. But I said them anyway. They needed to know. Later, I would tell Gaia and the others the full story. But right now, even the Committee needed to know that Ulysses Katarin had died a hero.

“What monster was responsible for it?” The flat question came from Sophronia, as the auburn-haired woman met my gaze. I didn’t know how, but I had the feeling that the she suspected that the answer was more complicated than it just being a normal Stranger.

So, I answered. “It was Isaac.” My voice was as flat and hard as I could make it with those words. Maybe I couldn’t tell the whole truth about what had happened out there, not yet anyway. But I could at least make sure that everyone knew about what a complete piece of shit that son of a bitch was. I could make sure that they all knew he was an utter psychopath.

“What?” That was Geta, frowning heavily. “You mean Ulysses died saving Isaac Acosta?”

Resisting the urge to snarl my answer, I shook my head. “No, I mean Isaac killed him.” In response to the surprised looks, I explained, “He was a traitor. He’s the one that sold us out and helped those people abduct the rest of us. He killed Paul Calburn before all that happened, probably weeks earlier, and helped them replace him with that Fetch. He probably helped them abduct Professor Katarin back when he first disappeared too. Katarin tried to help us, and Isaac took advantage of that. He used one of their cannons. If Katarin had moved, it would have killed a lot more people. But he took the hit himself instead. That’s why he’s dead. Because he let himself get hit so that other people wouldn’t.” By the end, despite my attempt to sound as clinical and detached as possible, there were tears in my eyes and I could barely speak.   

In the background, I could see Deveron and Professor Dare reacting. Both looked like they had been punched hard. Dare’s mouth opened and shut, the horrible agony barely hidden behind her eyes making me desperately wish that I could have told them in private. Even Gaia still looked hurt.

Litonya was the first to find her voice. “Is it possible that you misunderstood, and that the boy was actually replaced as well? If there was one Fetch, or another of those… creatures that is capable of taking over and controlling the body of–”

“No,” I quickly snapped despite myself. I didn’t want Isaac getting off from something like that. “Believe me, it was him. I don’t know how they turned him, or what they did. But he’s a traitor.”

“If they… these people who abducted you, managed to go as far as to turn a human against his own…” Ruthers looked like he wanted to believe that I was lying, but couldn’t quite bring himself to. “If they could do that, they must be a hell of a lot more advanced than most of the Strangers on this planet. This is a coordinated, planned effort.”

“Of course it was coordinated.” The words came from Calafia, who had already moved to stand over some of the dead soldiers. The woman, whose rescue of my father from the werewolves (to say nothing of her efforts in removing the Bystander Effect from him) I still didn’t fully understand, frowned while looking down at them. “These are very advanced armor and weapons,” the woman noted. “And very uniform. This is not a ragtag force. This looks like a proper military. So yes, we are dealing with a coordinated threat, a genuine assault on our world. And it is probably one that has been in the makings for quite some time.”

“You.” Geta was looking at Tristan. “How did you and your sister get wrapped up into things? You didn’t disappear with the others. You disappeared later, and from the school itself, no less.”

Tristan’s answer came without a second thought. “Nessa and me, we were trying to figure out what happened to our friends. So we ended up looking through all their rooms, just in case there was something to find. Anyway, eventually we got to Isaac’s. There was this kind of… roundish metal thing under his bed that opened and closed. You know, sorta like a clamshell? Anyway, it must’ve been some kind of teleporter, because we opened it and the next thing we knew, we were surrounded by a bunch of those soldier guys on some random moon. And they were not happy to see us, I can tell you that. They took us down to where Flick and the others were.”

Wow. Okay, apparently Tristan had been working out what to tell people too. That or he had come up with that off the top of his head. Either way, it was pretty impressive.

The Committee members all exchanged brief glances with one another, seeming to communicate silently before looking back to us. Ruthers was the one who spoke once more. “How, precisely, did you escape from these people? And where are the others?” His eyes drop down a little bit to the girl in Tristan’s arms. “And what exactly is wrong with Miss Moon?”

“N-nothing.” That was Vanessa herself. She shifted a little, opening her eyes. “I… I’m okay.”

“She was–” Tristan started, while carefully letting the girl down onto her own feet.

“Miss Moon?” Litonya interrupted, clearly wanting to see what Vanessa would say without prompting or help from her brother about what had already been said. “What happened?”

Fortunately, if the Committee thought they were going to catch us in a lie, they would have to try harder. Because Vanessa simply answered, “The three of us were supposed to fight in one of those arenas again. But we saw one of those clamshell teleporters on a table. I saw them use the thing before, and I remembered what they did. So… we went for it. We managed to lock the door and I used it. I… guess it took a lot out of me though. I—” She gave a long, loud yawn before shuddering. “It was hard.”

Either she had been awake for a lot longer than we thought she was, or maybe one of the others like Deveron had telepathically fed the answers to her. I wasn’t sure which. Either way, the answer fit everything that Tristan and I had said so far. But I couldn’t tell if Ruthers was happy or annoyed about that fact. His face was fairly unreadable.

Geta, however, openly scowled while indicating the dead bodies on the ground. “And how did these get here?” he demanded. “Are we to assume that you killed them when they followed you here?”

“No.” That was a Professor Dare. “We did.” She nodded to the rest of us. “When the tracking spell that Headmistress Sinclaire placed on Miss Chambers after her previous… experiences let us know that she was back, we came immediately and arrived just in time to stop these… soldiers from taking the children back.”

“Unfortunately,” Gaia herself added then, “there were a few who escaped. And they seem to have taken the teleportation devices with them.”  

“And,” Teach noted, “as all of these men are dead, we won’t be getting any answers out of them.”

Calafia shook her head. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Even corpses can hold a wealth of information. My people can autopsy them, and find out more than you would think.”

“Fair enough,” Teach agreed. “And my people can take the armor and weapons and see what we can find out about how it was made. Maybe there’s a recall function, or a map in one of their pants.”

“Keep me updated on what you find out,” Geta instructed. “I’ll talk to Oliver, compare notes with him about all the worlds we know about.” To Vanessa, Tristan, and I, he added, “We’re going to need you to describe everything you can about this… moon that you were on. We’ll compare it to our records, and see if we can work out where you were.”

That was right. From what I remembered, Geta was the Committee member in charge of colonizing and exploring newly discovered worlds, while Oliver was the one who worked with colonies that were already established. The two of them worked together a lot.

“Unless,” Litonya put in then, “you believe that the others would have been killed already, after your escape.” The old woman’s gaze met mine intensely, like she was trying to see right through me. “I can’t imagine what kind of guilt that thought might make you feel.”

I met her hard gaze without blinking. “They’re alive,” I replied flatly. “Those guys went through a lot of effort to catch us. And they put even more effort into training us to fight for them. They’re not gonna just throw all that away, especially when they don’t think that we can tell you anything important. They’re arrogant pieces of shit. Believe me, they will never believe that we could find them again.”

“Well,” Ruthers announced, “we’ll just have to teach those creatures how wrong they are.” He looked to the three of us then. “But right now, you look exhausted.” Belatedly, the man added, “And your classmates would probably like to know that you are well. I know that Liam would like an update about his daughter. Unless…” His eyes narrowed a little. “… there’s anything else you’d like to tell us right now?”

I knew what he was doing. Ruthers had probably been all-but convinced that my mother had had something to do with us disappearing. He probably thought that I had recruited the others or something. But now that we were here with a bunch of heavily armored soldiers that looked like they had come from some sci fi movie, I wasn’t sure what he was thinking. Or how he was somehow justifying it to still be Mom’s fault. Maybe he thought she’d been spending all these years raising an actual military or something. It wouldn’t surprise me. Either way, he was very obviously trying to see what he could get out of me.

“Honestly, it’s a jumble right now,” I replied. “I still can’t believe we actually got away, and that you guys all got here so fast. I’ll probably think of something else to tell you in an hour, or a day, or a week. It’s all just… it’s a mess in my head right now.”

Calafia was already nodding to that. “Perfectly understandable. I will send my Runners to speak with you soon. Try to sort out your thoughts. Anything that you can tell us, anything at all, might lead to the other students. Particularly if it can be put together with anything that’s found during the autopsies or the inspection of their equipment.”

Tristan nodded quickly along with me, while Vanessa responded. “Don’t worry, we want to find our friends as much as you want to find the people who did this.”

“And with that,” Gaia cut in before any of the Committee members could say anything, “I believe it is time to take Miss Chambers and the Moons back to the school.”

“We will be in touch,” Ruthers assured us, while I heard Calafia in the background calling in a squad to pick up the bodies. “One way or another.”  

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I said nothing. Gaia gestured, creating a portal for us to move through. As I started to follow the others, however, Ruthers stepped over to take my arm. “Oh, Miss Chambers…”

For just a second, I thought Deveron was going to take a swing at him. I heard him grunt behind me, his entire body tensing before he stopped. Mostly because Professor Dare had put her hand on his opposite arm.

Looking at Ruthers’ hand, then his face, I schooled my expression to be as even as possible. “Yes, Counselor?”

Those eyes tried to bore straight into my soul. “If there is anything else that you think about, anything you want to tell me… I will listen.”

“Thank you, sir,” I carefully replied, restraining every smartass remark that popped into my head right then. “I will.” Then I added, “And my father, sir? I was told you guys would try to find him.”

His gaze narrowed just a little bit, though I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. “I’m afraid we have no more information than we did before.”

“Oh.” Swallowing hard, while pretending to be upset (it wasn’t hard to pretend, since I had plenty of other things to be upset about), I nodded slightly. “If you do find anything…”

“We will tell you,” he promised.

Thanking him in a mumble, I pulled away and joined the others in moving through the portal to go back to Crossroads.

Except we weren’t at Crossroads. Instead, the portal had taken us to a clearing in some kind of forest somewhere. It looked pretty, with the setting sun just visible through the branches above, which made the multi-colored leaves glow beautifully.

“Where–” I started, looking back to the others, just in time to find myself hauled up into a tight hug by Wyatt. The man was stronger than he looked, strong enough to make me gasp.

“It’s alright,” Gaia announced with a tiny smile as Sariel stepped out of her. The two women exchanged brief glances, and I was absolutely certain that they’d had a long, private conversation while all that had been going on. I wasn’t sure how much the Seosten had been able to tell Gaia, but it was probably quite a bit.

Though not enough, apparently, as the headmistress looked to us, to me. “Now we have some privacy and time so that you may explain exactly what happened while you were away. I know that you are eager to see your friends, and we will make that happen as soon as possible. But we also need to know what we are dealing with, before there are any other interruptions.

“So please, start at the beginning, and tell us what happened out there.”

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Interlude 20B – Blackbeard

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Early March, 1718

Smoke, shouts, and the terrifying boom of cannonfire filled the salty sea air as the man colloquially known as the pirate captain Blackbeard stood on the very edge of his ship. The Queen Anne’s Revenge shook under the force of another round of cannon shots as several struck home. Almost simultaneously, a shout went up from the opposite end of the ship, where a second opponent had come close enough for its soldiers to toss their grapple-lines over and began pulling themselves aboard.

“Boarded, Cap’n!” one of the crew shouted near his captain’s ear. “The Bastion’s got men coming aboard. We’d best be breaking off pursuit, yeah? Let the prize go for another day.”

In response, the man they called Blackbeard turned and pulled one of five different pistols he wore strapped across his broad chest that were already cocked and primed. Pointing it at the man, he ordered, “Break off pursuit, and I break your dear mother from having a living son. Keep on!” The last words he thundered loudly above the sound of gunfire and swordplay. “If the Steady Swallow escapes,” he named the merchant vessel that they had been attacking when the Bastion arrived to interrupt, “I’ll personally make sure all you lot dance the hempen jig! Stay on that ship!”

A second crewman, since the first was too cowardly to actually speak up a second time, blurted, “But Cap’n, the Bastion’s right on top of us! They’ve got lines across. We can’t catch up with the Swallow, not when we’re towing a whole other ship behind us!”

Grinning dangerously (and some would say a bit maniacally), Blackbeard replied, “You let me worry about the Bastion and those lines. Just stay on the cannons and sails. Give me full pursuit. Stay on the Swallow, it doesn’t escape or it’s all your heads. All your heads!”

With that said, the man raised a hand to wave under his expansive beard. At the gesture, the beard literally turned to fire. A moment later, the rest of his hair did the same. His head was engulfed by flames, leaving his face only partially exposed.

It was a trick that the vast majority who saw attributed to fuses and tiny candles tied into his hair. Despite the fact that every hair on his head and face had actually turned into fire, they never saw it that way. What they saw, what they remembered, was still terrifying, yet explainable.

From where he stood, Blackbeard took three steps forward before launching himself into a leap that carried him clear over the heads of his crew and to the far end of the ship. What they saw him doing, what their brains thought it was, he didn’t know. Maybe they saw him holding a rope to swing. Whatever the lie their minds made up to explain the unexplainable, he didn’t care.

Landing at the aft end of the ship, he brought one gun up and fired off a shot that took one of the soldiers clambering aboard straight in the center of his forehead. The man pitched backward off the ship, crashing into one of his companions as he plummeted to take the other soldier with him.

Without bothering to drop the pistol, he turned to take aim at the next man that dared to climb aboard his ship. When he pulled the trigger, it should, by all rights, have done nothing.

For Blackbeard, however, the pistol was little more than a prop. It was a way of allowing those who saw him to explain away the unexplainable. And as he pulled the trigger of the empty pistol, a white-hot ball of flame summoned by the man himself shot from the end of the barrel to take the second man in the throat. He was killed instantly, a gaping hole left where his neck had been.

At the same time, another man who had already managed to clamber aboard lunged for the dreaded pirate captain, sword coming down in a wild swing that was accompanied by an equally wild scream. The thought of being the man to claim the reward by killing the one known as Blackbeard was too much to pass up. He could obviously already see himself accepting the accolades that would come with such a feat.

It was, however, a feat he would never claim. Without looking at the man, Blackbeard took a step forward and stuck his foot back while dropping the pistol he was holding. The foot caught the charging man across the ankle, sending him crashing to the deck while the pirate captain himself turned quickly to strip his cutlass away smoothly.

Before the fallen man could pick himself up, Blackbeard pivoted. From his own belt, he drew one of the two swords that he himself wore, flipping it around in his hand to drive down through the man’s back, pinning him to the deck. A quick flick of his wrist brought the sword up through the man’s neck, separating his head from his body.

Simultaneously, he gave the soldier’s own blade what looked like a careless toss, sending it flying through the air to collide with the chest of the next threat who thought to charge straight at the most infamous pirate on the seas.

It had all taken only a few seconds. Landing. Shot to the forehead of one man to kill him. Shot to the throat of a second man to kill him. Spinning to trip the incoming third man before skewering and beheading him. Toss of the third man’s sword through the chest of the fourth man. Through it all, less than six full seconds had passed.

Finally turning back to face the grapple lines that had been thrown onto his ship, he raised a hand. At his simple gesture, a wave pulled itself free of the ocean, crashing straight between the two linked ships in order to tear the lines (as well as the men clambering across them) away.

Fire and water; the man currently known as Blackbeard controlled both. His men and those who faced him in battle attributed the former to pistols and strategically-placed candles or gunpowder, and the latter to the seas smiling upon him. Freak storms carried his ships where they needed to be much faster than should have been possible, or slowed and sank pursuers. Yet even the men who witnessed the most unnatural of those events with their own eyes believed there was a truly rational explanation. Their eyes saw it, but by the time the sight reached their minds, it had become something else. They never truly comprehended just what their captain was capable of.

With the lines torn down by the ‘freak wave’, the Queen Anne’s Revenge was free. Pivoting back to the front, Blackbeard shouted orders to bring up the sails to catch the wind. Even then, however, he barely waited for his men to hop to follow instruction before focusing on the water itself once more. Summoning another wave, this one far more controlled, he used it to shove the ship forward in a boost that gave them a head-start at catching up with the fleeing merchant vessel. Then the sails caught the wind, and they were off.

It was a tense thirty minutes, with the Steady Swallow ahead of them trying desperately to stay ahead, while the Bastion fought to catch up. Yet between his skilled crew and the pirate captain’s own semi-subtle manipulation of the ocean itself, they steadily pulled away from their pursuers and caught up with their prey.

“Bring her alongside the lily-livered milk maids!” Blackbeard boomed, already standing atop the railing while using one hand to hold himself steady with a nearby rope. In his other hand, he held one of his pistols. “Tear right into her, the old girl’ll take it for certain!”

Following his order, the crew took the ship straight up alongside the merchant vessel. They came so close that the two ships actually collided, scraping along their sides. Most of his men were shaken to the deck, falling into one another. But Blackbeard himself remained steady, bracing himself before leaping out to land on the deck of the Swallow.

Even as he landed, the man was already pointing his pistol. Again, his finger pulled the trigger of the empty, unprimed weapon as he summoned one of those tiny, white-hot balls of heat. As the unfortunate target had his sword halfway pulled, the heat-ball tore straight through his chest. The way it seared the body in the process might have made some think that it would never be passed off as an actual gunshot wound. Yet somehow, that would be what witnesses described it as.

Beard and hair burning wildly, drawing everyone’s attention to his demonic-seeming presence, the dreaded pirate legend drew his sword and bellowed, “I be searching for one man! Owen Patrick Lock. Lock be my target. Stand aside and live for all your days, or stay in place and burn beside the coward himself!”

Dramatic, yes. But it was one way to convince those that weren’t loyal to the man named Lock to retreat, and hopefully force Owen himself into the open so that he could be dealt with before the Bastion caught up and made this entire thing far more complicated than it already was.

A sudden commotion toward the rear of the deck drew his attention that way. The sight of the man who was shoving his way past two of his mates to escape up the short set of stairs there drew a smile to the old pirate’s flame-framed face. “Ahoy, if it ain’t be the man o’the hour!”

He began to stalk that way, his heavy footsteps clomping against the wet wooden deck. The other men, terrified of his visage, scrambled to get out of the way. By that point, the target had reach the top of the short flight of stairs and was trying to rush toward the aft end up the ship in order to throw himself off. Though before he could take more than a couple steps, the pirate made a subtle gesture to summon a new wave, which rocked the ship. Unprepared, the fleeing man was knocked to the deck with a grunt.

Clomping his way to a stop by the fallen man, Blackbeard reached down to grab the back of his neck before hauling the man up so that the two of them were face to face.

There it was. The man’s face was wrong. His skin was a pale green, with hard reptilian scales, while his amber eyes were slitted vertically like a snake or a lizard. The ordinary humans in the ship’s crew couldn’t see it, didn’t recognize it for what it was. But Blackbeard recognized it. He knew what it meant, just as he’d known since before he’d begun to chase the Steady Swallow.

“Heretic,” Owen Patrick Lock hissed, showing his thin snake-like tongue as it briefly flicked through the air to taste it. “You think this changes anything? You think it’ll bring those girls back?”

“I imagine,” Blackbeard began in a low, dangerous tone that rolled like distant thunder back over the ship, “that wherever their spirits be resting, they’ll have to content themselves with knowing that your damned soul burns for an eternity for what you done to them.”

“Burn–” the reptilian-creature started, before Blackbeard simply drew his saber and ran the not-man through the chest. Super-heating the blade until it literally cooked the figure’s insides, he drew it down and out before easily heaving the dead body over the deck.

There, the man–the creature who had so brutalized and destroyed those girls in port was gone. They had their justice, for what it was worth.

Turning back, he saw the rest of the ship’s crew staring at him. Fear was live in their eyes. Yet, after taking a brief moment to scan the people, he was assured that no more hidden monsters lurked among them. The rest were innocent.

Yet, even then, he couldn’t be sure that it was safe to leave them. Not yet. They had to pass one more test.

From his belt, the man withdrew a wineskin. Giving it a shake, he tossed the thing to the nearest sailor. “Take a sip,” he instructed, “And then be passing it around. All of ya drink up, steady yer nerves.”

It wasn’t the real reason he wanted them to drink, but the excuse worked well enough. Especially after he doused the flames in his hair and beard enough that only glowing embers remained. It left him a frightening sight still, yet not quite the full-blown terror that his flame-engulfed head normally invoked.

Still, he was frightening enough that none of the men dared argue. The wineskin was passed around, each man taking a gulp from it until all had drank some.

He watched, his careful eyes studying each of them for a reaction. The truth was that there were necromancers and other sorcerers among both the New World lands and those of the Old World. Some of those foul magical creatures were attempting to send their diseases and curses to the other continent or neighboring lands to spread their power. They did so by infecting various sailors, hoping that one would make it through and begin spreading the malady to new people.

That was the truth of why the dreaded pirate Blackbeard sometimes killed entire crews while other times letting them go. When he found a ship infected by one of the curses or magical diseases, the only option was destroying the entire crew to ensure that their infection didn’t spread. Killing the crew of a ship was better than seeing one of those creatures manage to spread their power to a new population.

That was the duty that the one now known as Blackbeard had assigned himself. He stalked the seas, searching for the non-human monsters who preyed upon the weak. And for curse-afflicted crews who were being used to spread disease to an unsuspecting populace.

In this case however, none of the crew showed a reaction to the magic-laced wine. Satisfied that they were safe enough, the pirate captain bid them a good journey and returned to his ship. Not, however, before sending his men aboard to loot the hold of half its contents.

After all, the only way he could maintain the crew that he needed to continue these operations was by ensuring that they were well-fed and given enough loot to keep them happy.

Stepping aboard his own ship once more, he paused before slowly turning. His eyes found the figure standing at the back.

“Yer not one of mine,” he rumbled in a low voice. “If ya were, the crew’d be a lot happier.”

The pale, auburn-haired beauty stepped forward with a soft smile. “Correct,” she announced. “But I had to come and see your deeds for myself before we extended our invitation.”

“I don’t need no invitation,” the man dismissed her words flatly. “And I don’t need you or whoever you represent.”

“Perhaps, and perhaps not,” the woman allowed. “Yet I believe we can all help one another. My name is Sophronia. And I represent… a collection of people not unlike yourself. We see monsters as you do. And we have worked to contain them, just as you have.”

“That right?” the heavily bearded figure replied slowly after giving the beautiful woman another brief look. How had his men not seen her? “What do you want?”

“What we want,” the one called Sophronia began patiently, “is for you to join us.”

His rough, coarse chuckle filled the air. “I ain’t been much for the joining type, of late.”

Her smile returned, brightening just a little. “Of course. We are very aware that you’ve spent… shall we say, many years laying low and not exposing yourself. You were content to live a quiet life for so long since your… initial adventures. The adventures which resulted in your…” She coughed. “… abilities.”

Lifting his chin, the man stared at her with dark eyes. “You are well-informed,” he allowed while giving her another examination. “You’re right. I found a sea monster, some volcanic beast that controlled water and fire. It killed a dozen men before I put it to the blade. Not that the blade did much before it skewered me. Suppose it left me to die then. But when I woke up, I was… like this. I had the same power it had. And I put that power to use.”

“Its blood mixed with yours,” Sophronia explained softly. “You awakened as a Heretic because its blood and yours were mixed and you survived the process.”

“Heretic,” the man repeated thoughtfully. “That’s what the monsters call me, aye.” His eyes continued to squint at her. “But the question is, how do you know so much about me? No one else does.”

She chuckled softly at that. “You’re right, they don’t. You’ve done a good job of hiding your lack of a true past. The Standers-By have no idea just how old you actually are.”

Frowning, Blackbeard looked at his crew on the other ship for a moment before turning back. “Standers-By?”

“What we call humans who don’t see as we do,” Sophronia explained patiently. “The innocents that we fight to protect, just as you do. They know nothing of your true past. The last I heard, they believe you were born in the year 1680.”

He laughed aloud at that, his large form shaking a bit. “Aye, they be off slightly in their estimates.”

“By about three thousand years,” the woman replied quietly.

“About that, aye,” the pirate captain confirmed after taking a moment to consider. His head shook. “Don’t seem like it’s been that long.”

Lifting her chin, Sophronia continued. “As I said, you were content to live a quiet life for so long after the end of your previous adventures. Why suddenly show yourself once more? Why build yourself into such a legendary figure when you showed no desire to do anything more than live your long life for the past several millennia?”

After giving the woman a long, careful look, the bearded man shrugged. “I’ve done more than you think. Sometimes I get involved, sometimes I don’t. Figure I get bored after enough time living alone. A man needs some adventure. But yer right, mostly I just… keep to myself. I earned my retirement.” Pausing then, he heaved a sigh. “But I suppose the real reason I’m out doing this now is that damned necromancer.”

“Fossor.” Sophronia spoke the name in a low, hateful voice. “I assure you, we have been doing all we can to oppose him.”

Curling his lips in a snarl, the one called Blackbeard shook his head. “I had a run-in with the monster. Found out he was one of the ones trying to send his damned blood curses into other parts of the world, spreading them over these ships. So I involved myself. But to do that, I needed a ship. I needed a crew. I needed a reputation.”

“So you built one,” the woman finished for him.

“So I built one,” he confirmed. Looking back to her, he started slowly, “If the people you represent are truly going after that necromancer, you can count on my aid. But I’ll be wanting to know more about it.”

Sophronia nodded. “Anything you want to know, of course. But first, what do I call you? Blackbeard seems a little… dramatic. The Standers-By believe your name is Edward Teach.”

“Teach, Thatch, suppose I couldn’t make up my mind when I was telling ‘em who I was to start with,” the man replied dismissively. “Teach is good enough. It’s a fine name. Edward Teach.”

“I suppose that means you don’t wish to be known by your birth name?” the woman asked with a raised eyebrow.

His head shook then. “Nay. It’s been far too long since I was that man.” Pausing then, he gave her another look. “But you don’t ask for my convenience. You ask because you don’t know which one I am. Not for sure.”

She nodded then, echoing his words. “Not for sure. We know that you’re one of them, just not which one precisely. Are you–”

“It doesn’t matter,” he interrupted. “They’re all gone now. I’m the only one left. The only one who survived.

“I am the last of the Argonauts.”

*****

Present Day

“You seem distracted, Edward.” Sophronia Leven stood beside the man she had helped to recruit so long ago. The two of them were alone (for the moment) in the Committee’s meeting room. “Are you thinking about the past, or the future?”

He paused, gazing out the window for a moment before replying, “A bit of both, I suppose. Remembering the past, dreading the future.” Turning slightly, he eyed her while adding, “We can’t stop this vote, you realize. They’re going to push it through.”

“Maniacs,” she retorted, her expression cross before the woman sighed. “But you’re right. They’ll be here any minute. The vote itself is a formality. The warmongers have the numbers.”

Head shaking, Teach asked, “I don’t suppose the Garden people might acquiesce.”

Snorting in disbelief, Sophronia replied, “No, they won’t. They’re not going to give up just like that. They’ll go to war first.”

The man made an annoyed growling sound deep in his throat. “That’s gonna complicate… everything.”

“They’re all stubborn asses,” Sophronia confirmed. “Every last one of them, on both sides. Some of them wanted this excuse, any reason to lay out a demand. Gaia pulling in that Garden Heretic to teach classes just made the hardliners think they had to do something to make this confrontation happen.”

“They voted to allow that,” Teach pointed out with an annoyed growl. “We voted on it, majority ruled in favor of letting Gaia hire him.”

Sophronia nodded. “But you saw how close the vote was. Some of our… colleagues think that with Hisao here, Eden’s Garden can be… bullied more easily.” Pausing, she amended, “Maybe bullied is too harsh. They believe that with a closer connection, we have to establish ourselves as the dominant party, not an equal partnership. So, they want to use this excuse of Ruthers’ to make the demand and hope that Garden blinks first.”

Her expression darkened then. “Of course, there’s others who were afraid we were all starting to get along too much. Can’t have that, so they have to manufacture a new reason to fight.”

Pressing his hand against the window, Teach breathed in long and slow before letting it out. “They’ve got their excuse now, flimsy as it is.”

“Maybe we can delay them,” the woman suggested. “Try to make them give Garden more time to comply. Or give someone more time to find a way to stop this whole thing.”

Shrugging then, Teach replied, “We can delay as much as we want. But eventually,  Ruthers and the others are gonna decide the only way to get what they want is to get nasty.”

Sophronia sighed once more. “How are they going to explain why she’s important?”

Head shaking, the man lowered his gaze while muttering, “They’ll make something up. They’re good at that. But whatever they tell people, the fact remains, Ruthers has convinced enough of the others that it’s too dangerous to leave her out there, out of our custody.

“So if Eden’s Garden doesn’t hand over Abigail Fellows, there’s gonna be a war.”

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