Tabbris

Fusion 1-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter

Yup, Rahanvael, Fossor’s sister… apparently. She was a ghost, as in a real honest to God ghost. She’d first contacted me almost two months back, basically right after we saved Sean from the Crossroads prison. I’d been standing alone, lamenting that we had no real advantage over Fossor when she had simply… shown up out of the blue. Which, yeah, was a tad convenient. Too convenient, really, aside from the fact that I had been deeply wishing for some kind of advantage. According to the ghost-girl herself, my inherited necromancy had responded to that, pulling at anything dead that was connected to Fossor. She’d felt it and appeared. 

But again, that was all really convenient. I’d basically figured the whole thing had ‘Fossor trap’ written all over it. Especially given how pissed off he had to be about Sariel taking his two hostages. It seemed just like him to pull something like sending some ghost claiming to be his sister just so he could fuck with me. Hell, it could even be the start of his play to grab me later. 

So yeah, the whole trap/trick thing definitely occurred to me. In fact, I was basically assuming it at first. I was just waiting for her to try to tell me how I had to keep her a secret so no one found out she was helping, conveniently isolating me from my friends and all that. She’d tempt me with promises about being able to save my mom if I kept her a secret for an advantage or whatever. 

And then she told me to get people who were stronger than me, people who knew magic better than I did. Necromancers if possible. She said I shouldn’t listen to anything she said until I brought someone, preferably multiple someones, who I trusted completely that could test her. She told me she wouldn’t say another word until I brought people who knew how to test ghosts for various things, such as to find out who was controlling them or if they were lying or not. 

Yeah. That uhh, that had definitely thrown me for a loop. But I’d done as she asked, getting Professor Dare, Wyatt, and Sariel. Between the three of them, I figured if there was any chance this was a fake or a trick or whatever, they’d be able to figure it out. And then Sariel had (with my permission) brought Apollo in on it too. Four. I’d even wanted to bring in Brom Bones, but he wasn’t anywhere near the camp at the time. But still, four of the strongest people I knew were checking out this ‘Rahanvael’, running her through every test they could figure out. 

And they’d come up with nothing. As far as all four of them working together could determine, the ghost wasn’t connected to Fossor, or to anyone else aside from the tether she had with me. My energy was supporting her appearance here. She wasn’t being controlled by anyone. Further, when she said she was Fossor’s sister, every truth spell or power they’d used had come up clean. She let Apollo talk to her long enough for his power to work (he said it had worked on ghosts before plenty of times), and telling her to tell the truth hadn’t changed anything. Magic, powers, whatever they used, the story stayed the same. She was Fossor’s sister. She wanted to help take him down. As far as we could tell, it was all true. 

Unfortunately, no sooner had Dare, Wyatt, Apollo, and Sariel convinced themselves that the ghost-girl wasn’t some creature summoned by Fossor to fuck with me, than she’d started to disappear. All she’d had time to say was that it was incredibly hard to manifest and that she would reach out to me again as soon as she could, and that if I sent out a sort of… necromantic beacon to her, she’d try to grab onto it again and come back. 

So, we had taken the time to be as certain as we could that it wasn’t some Fossor trap (and Wyatt was still at least half-convinced that it was even if he couldn’t explain how), only to run out of time to actually talk to her. But I wouldn’t have changed what I did. Better to be sure (or as sure as possible) than to start taking information or advice from something Fossor had thrown together to fuck with me. She’d be back, and maybe then I could actually get the whole story out of her. 

But that had been a couple months ago. And the most I’d managed so far while ‘throwing out a necromantic tether’ was to pull in several unrelated ghosts. Some of them were fun to talk to, or at least pleasant about the whole situation. Others… weren’t. I’d had a few turn violent. Most of those I could simply dispel, shoving away from me back to where they’d come from. One had been too strong for my still-budding power, and I’d had to use the spell on my staff that let me hit ghosts. That left a bit of a mess, and I’d held off a bit on trying to summon Rahanvael again. 

I’d also talked about ghosts a bit with Brom Bones once I actually had the chance to.

According to Brom, ghosts weren’t actually the full person. It wasn’t like you died, you became a ghost, and then you were stuck like that forever. A ghost wasn’t a person’s spirit, it was their magic. Yeah. Basically, when a person died, their magic was supposed to fizzle out and dissipate. But sometimes (particularly with rituals or necromancers involved, or suitably traumatic experiences), the magic instead took on the form of the person it had belonged to. They were instilled with the person’s memories and personality and whatnot, but they weren’t actually that person. So this Rahanvael wasn’t actually Fossor’s sister, she was what remained of her magical energy when the girl had died. Her memories and personality instilled in a sort of… core of magic. And when I summoned her, that same magical core was brought to me and filled in by the energy around her. Essentially, the core was like a… pattern of the person, and they manifested by pulling in ambient (or projected) magical energy to fill in the rest of their form in that shape. 

When Fossor summoned his ghosts to step on their ashes here on Earth, what they were doing was transporting the ashes of their bodies.  Which was something they could do, apparently. Ghosts were linked to their remains, but could also be linked to other things. That was where the idea of ghosts being connected to heirlooms or cursed objects or whatever had come from.  

As far as Rahanvael went, Brom said it made sense that she couldn’t manifest very easily. Her core would be very old by that point, not to mention far away from Earth. The energy and time it would take for her to project herself all the way here, without attracting the attention of her super-necromancer brother, would be extraordinary. Even with my own power reaching out to her like a hand and beacon all rolled into one, it probably took a hell of a lot of effort. 

So I understood why it was taking so long for her to come back. I was just hoping we’d have a chance to talk again before my birthday rolled around. Which was why I kept trying. That and Brom had told me that the more I reached out to her, the easier it would be for her to eventually find her way back. I just had to keep, as he said, turning on the lighthouse for her to navigate to. 

In any case, I’d be trying that again later tonight. For the moment, after making sure all of our stuff was safe in the room (and sending a text to Dare about which room we were in for Tabs to get her bed), we headed out together to look around the rest of the house some more. 

As the two of us came out, Kersel was standing in his open doorway on the opposite end of the attic. I took that second to really look at him. Other Relukuns I had known, like Karees, the one we’d helped escape from that Seosten slave camp with Jokai, were old, ancient and twisted in form. But Kersel was young. He was about five feet tall, so a few inches shorter than me. Other than that, he looked like a human covered in bark. In his case, the bark was white with some black spots, like a birch tree. But I’d seen Relukun with much darker bark-skin. They had the same number of legs and limbs as a human, like a tree literally given a humanoid form. His hair was like vines covered in dark leaves, falling to his shoulders. His eyes (Relukun had two of them as well, just like humans) appeared to be made of glass, or something similar. They were like very high end doll eyes inside a wooden figurine. 

When I waved, Kersel hesitated before raising his hand briefly. Then he just turned around, stepped into his room, and closed the door once more, all without saying anything. 

“He’s so chatty,” I remarked to Tabbris, “how are we supposed to get a word in edgewise?” 

She snickered a little before sobering as we reached the stairs. “Do you think he’s mad because he knows you have the wood-traveling power? You use it enough, it probably gets out.” 

Pausing, I considered. “Maybe. I don’t know how mad he is, but at least distant. If he knows about the wood power, he has to know that I’ve killed one of his people. That might be why he’s keeping us at arms length. Or maybe he’s just rightfully nervous about Heretics.” 

“Or both,” Tabbris pointed out, as we descended the stairs, stepping onto the second floor. 

“Pounce!” With that declaration, Shiori suddenly popped up. I found myself pinned against the wall, an altogether not exactly unpleasant situation, considering who was doing the pinning. “Or both what?” she asked, holding me there while batting her eyelashes rapidly. “Something fun?” 

Swallowing at the way she made me feel, I wrapped both arms around the other girl’s neck, shaking my head. “Just trying to work out why Kersel is so standoffish. You know, besides the fact that Heretics have been hunting and killing his people for thousands of years. Come to think of it, maybe we don’t have to come up with any other ideas. He’s got plenty of reason.”

“You know, we tend to call all you guys Boschers.” That remark came from Jason, who was just coming out of the nearby living room. He leaned against the archway while adding a casual, “Since ‘Heretic’ kinda lumps us Naturals in with you, and we don’t exactly like that.” 

“Oh, like Hieronymous, got it,” I realized. “Boschers. Yeah, I guess I can see that. Makes sense that Natural Heretics would have another word for us so they didn’t lump themselves in with all the psycho genocide and shit.” My arms were still around Shiori, though she had turned around to face the boy so that her back was to me, and I squeezed her a bit. “Can’t blame them.” 

“Hey, umm…” I hesitated a little, unsure of how this was supposed to go. “I’m sorry if this is rude or whatever, but I’ve never met a Prevenkuat Heretic. I know you can–I mean we can get enhanced hearing from them, but what do you… I mean, what can you…” 

He offered me a smile that showed his human teeth… which subsequently elongated into canines. It was like in the movies when a vampire makes their fangs appear, only with every tooth. “These chompers can bite through a lot of things,” he explained. “Short of like… steel. Wood, brick, plastic, rocks, I can bite through it. Plus, whatever I bite I get a sort of… sense of. I can follow it within a certain distance, and if it’s a person, I can kind of get impressions of what they’re about to do before they do it. That’s if I’m close enough, and it’s only a second or two lead.” 

“Must help in a fight though,” Shiori noted, her own voice just as curious as I felt. 

He nodded. “Not super reliable, but it’s come in handy before.” With a shrug, the boy added, “Beyond that, I’ve got really good hearing, sight, and smell. Plus a little bit of extra strength. And I’m quick. Not Wally West quick, but I can run a good hundred klicks per hour. But just to answer the question you’re definitely wondering, no, I don’t have a second head. I do have a second brain. Well, sort of. One brain, but I can focus on two completely different things at once. Like read a book while thinking about something totally different. And I’m ambidextrous, so I can write two completely different things on two different pieces of paper at the same time. That’s pretty cool. Also helps me fight and think about homework at the same time. Which I’ve definitely done before. You’d be surprised how many Bystander teachers don’t take ‘I was fighting a troll last night’ as an excuse for not having your homework done.” Pausing, he shrugged. “Guess that’s less of a problem now, huh?” 

“Bystander teachers?” That was Columbus, coming in from the kitchen. “You went to normal school?” 

The Asian boy glanced that way while confirming, “Yeah, see, a lot of us Naturals don’t exactly have the structure the Boschers do. There are places for it, but it’s more… casual. We get mentors if we’re lucky. That is, the ones who don’t get killed by either real monsters, or the regular Alters who think they’re just defending themselves because they see a human who can recognize them and think that we’re Boschers who are immune to their Heretic sense.” 

“Oh, that’s right,” I piped up. “Naturals don’t set off their danger sense because it’s the Reaper bit that does that.” So some Alters who saw Natural Heretics just assumed they were like… well, me, and didn’t give off the danger sense until they used their power. Or, I supposed, thought they were using a spell to muffle the sense. Either way. 

He gave me a brief nod. “Yup. So they think we’re about to kill them and act first. It’s a real treat, lemme tell you.” 

Wincing, I started to say something to that. But Triss spoke first, on her way down the stairs from the second floor. “Heretics kill you fast. If you don’t act faster, you’re dead.” She paused on the last step, glancing toward Shiori and me, then to Columbus before adding, “Most of your people don’t stop to ask questions. They see us, they kill us.” Her ears flattened then. “They’re good at killing.” 

“That’s why we’re here.” Those words came from Avalon, who was descending the stairs behind Triss while reminding her, “To change that. It’s the entire point of this school.” 

“Yes,” the cat-girl replied, ears flicking that way as she shot a quick glance to Avalon before descending the rest of the way and turning to put the wall to her back (and all of us within her line of sight). “That is why I am here. I wish to see this for myself.” 

Tabbris, who had moved over by Columbus, spoke up. “Um, I’m sorry if this is really rude, but…you’re not a Rakshasa, right?”

“Why?” Triss asked with what sounded and looked like equal parts defensiveness and curiosity. “You hate Rakshasa or something?” 

Tabbris’s head shook quickly. “Oh, no! Nuh uh, I was just curious cuz I didn’t recognize you. I–like I said, I’m sorry if–”

“No, it is okay.” It sounded like Triss was making the effort to calm her initial suspicion. “You are allowed to ask. There will be… questions, I know.” The more she spoke, the more I heard that faint Russian accent. Or maybe it was her nerves bringing it out more prominently. “No, I’m not a Rakshasa. My people are called Nekomata.” 

Tilting her head that way, Shiori asked, “I thought Nekomata had two tails, though.” 

Now Triss looked more embarrassed than anything. “We… we do, when we are fully grown. My second tail has not… come yet.” Defensively, she added, “But I am still capable!” 

Quickly, I assured her, “Oh, don’t worry, we’re sure you are. Besides, that just means you’ve got something to grow into. But still, Nekomata, I know I’ve heard that before.” 

“They make ghost-fire,” Avalon reminded me in a quiet voice. “The flames that can hurt ghosts or intangible things.” 

“Oh, wow.” Looking back to Triss, I asked, “So your people make ghost-fire?” 

In answer, she held up her paws (wait, were they hands if they had the full human-like fingers and thumb and were just covered in fur? I wasn’t sure how that worked). As we watched, her claws extended, and sparks of blue-white flame appeared around them. “I can’t make very much,” Triss admitted with clear embarrassment. “Only the little bit like this. It is just enough to make my claws damage the ghosts. Full-grown two-tailed Nekomata can make and throw it as… balls of fire. And more.” 

“Like Flick said,” Columbus put in, “it’s something to grow into. And hey, being able to hit ghosts with your claws is pretty cool by itself.” 

With a nod, I agreed, “He’s right, it’s damn cool.” 

The look on Triss’s face was interesting… and a little sad. First she perked up like she was happy that we thought her power was cool. Then her expression turned a bit more suspicious, as if she was suddenly worried about what Bosch Heretics liking her power could mean. She had almost relaxed, but that moment of suspicion and uncertainty made her withdraw a bit again. “Yes, well… you have advantages of your own.” 

“True,” Columbus agreed with a look over toward Avalon. “And speaking of advantages, what’s going on with you-know-who, anyway?” 

Jason’s mouth opened, but Valley spoke first. “He means my ancestor. Dries Aken, the man who killed his own father-in-law, Hieronymus Bosch.” 

“Wait, so that’s true?” Jason asked curiously. “You’re really descended from the monster and the hero?” 

Blinking, I raised a hand. “Why do I feel like you’re reversing the order of those two from the way Crossroads does when they tell the story?” 

“Bosch is the monster,” Jason confirmed. “Dries is the hero who tried to stop him from creating his regime of genocidal maniacs and paid for it.” He did a double-take. “Wait, what does he mean ‘what’s going on with?’ I– hang on, is he alive?!” His eyes were wide and eager, like he’d just found out that he had a chance to meet one of his childhood heroes. 

Muttering something under her breath before clearing her throat, Avalon gave him a short nod. “He’s alive, but he’s not great with outsiders. And Hieronymus wasn’t a monster, or at least we don’t think he was. He was possessed, by the Seosten called Radueriel. They made him make the Heretical Edge. And that whole possessing thing is what Dries… and others are working on fixing.” 

“They’ve been working on that spell for months now,” I mused. “Are they almost ready to use it?” 

With a glance to me, the other girl replied, “They would’ve been done before now, but they decided to make it bigger. They started with making it so Heretics couldn’t be possessed without permission, linking it to the Heretical Edge for power. But, you know, we can’t exactly reach the Edge right now. So they started looking for something else and… well, then we ended up setting up school right in the middle of a gigantic power source.” 

“The sun?” Jason blinked at that, looking around. “They’re using the sun as a magic power source?” 

Her head bobbed once. “Yeah. And since they had so much power to work with, they figured why not go the extra mile. Instead of linking the Seosten-protection spell to Heretics, they’ll link it to everyone who joins us. Bosch Heretics, Naturals, Alters, whatever. They’ll all be immune to non-voluntary possession, as long as they come back up here every once in awhile and renew it at the source.” 

“Well,” I murmured, “that sounds convenient.” 

“Should be,” Avalon agreed. “But it’s taking awhile to make it work. Hopefully they’ll be done soon.” 

“No kidding,” Columbus replied with a brief dark look, clearly looking back at his own memories of being enslaved by Charmiene. 

Swallowing, I pushed on. “Right, well, what do you guys say we go out, meet the neighbors, and look around a little. And make sure we work up our appetites. 

“Because if I know anything about Chef Gisby, dinner tonight is gonna be ridiculous.”

Previous Chapter

Fusion 1-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Note: check the first comment after the chapter for some fantastic new character art by Coshiua. 

We rode the elevator (well, I called it an elevator, it was more like a mobile forcefield with glowing walls that surrounded us) down toward the living areas in groups of about ten or so. The people who would be living together in each house. In this case, our group consisted of Avalon, Shiori, Rebecca, Miranda, Columbus, Doug, and me along with that Jason/Danuja guy (the Natural Prevenkuat Heretic), the Relekun Kersel, and the cat-girl Triss. Not to mention Salten and Choo.

Tabbris was here too. She’d be living with us, while going to school in her own group. It was a deal we’d come up with. Our dad and a few others thought that Tabbris should have a chance to be with people closer to her own age some more. But they also knew that separating us would be a bad idea. So we came to an arrangement that she would live with us and also attend some of our classes and training (as well as participating in missions she could help with), but attend most of her classes with the younger groups. She was basically far beyond what they would be learning, of course, but Abigail and Dad both said she could benefit from being around people her own age at least for a semester. After the semester, if she really didn’t like it, they’d revisit the situation. 

Staring down through the forcefield floor, Rebecca murmured, “Holy crap. There’s a whole town down there. Look at all those houses. And… wait, are those other places over there more living areas?” 

“It’s like the spokes of a wheel,” I explained, watching as we descended toward the hill in the middle of the area gradually (I was pretty sure the elevator had been purposefully slowed down to give each group a chance to see where they would be living). “Each spoke is a different general city type. See those cliff dwellings over there to the left of the human area with the giant… uhh, bug people flying around?” I indicated the mosquito-like beings with humanoid faces. “They’re called the Teun. They helped build this whole place. They’re like… really good at architecture and design. And to the right, that place that looks like the volcano area of a video game with the red canine-people? Those are the… umm… Tabs?” 

“Lupera,” she reminded me. “They’re miners from the same world the Akharu and Vestil come from.” 

Right, the Akharu (the original source of vampires, like Senny’s dad), Vestil, and Lupera all came from the same world, along with one more sapient race. There was something about a war on their world between all of them, the Akharu won some kind of ‘throne’ or something that made them unbelievably powerful, but then the Vestil cursed them so they had to replace all their blood constantly or they’d freeze up and become paralyzed. It was a whole thing. 

The elevator was almost down by then, and I quickly pointed before it was too late. “Anyway, we’ve got the modern Earth neighborhood right over there. See, each block is rectangular. Sixteen houses per block. Two next to each at either end for four on the ends. Then six more down each side, back to back, with a little walking park or garden area in the middle. There’s six blocks, all arranged in a hexagon, with the streets along both sides and a bigger park in the middle. See that big building right in the center of the park area? There’s a gym there, and a theater for watching movies and stuff.”

Six blocks with sixteen houses per block. Ninety-six houses. Roughly ten people per house, equalled nine hundred and sixty people in this school. Well, that many that were considered old enough to live in separate housing rather than the younger student dorms. And it was closer to a thousand. A thousand college-aged students, divided between Alters, Natural Heretics, and Crossroads or Garden students. This was… gonna be a trip and a half. 

By then, we were down. As we all stepped away from the elevator, Triss spoke up. “Wow, did you live here before or something?” There was a faint Russian accent to her voice. When I looked that way, her ears flattened a bit against her head and she took what seemed to be a reflexive step backward. She didn’t pop her claws or anything like that, but I had a feeling it wouldn’t take all that much. Whatever had gone on in her past, she was incredibly wary of Heretics. Which I didn’t blame her for, even if it made me wonder exactly why she had agreed to come and live with us. Maybe it was just part of getting past those fears or finding out if we were serious about making things right? I wasn’t sure. 

I did, however, know that I needed to be careful about how I acted around her. And around Kersel too, for that matter. The Relukun boy was watching me just as suspiciously. So, I simply nodded. “Yeah, I ahh, spent some time out in Seosten space. A few weeks or so. It’s a long story, believe me.” 

Raising an eyebrow, Jason asked, “Wait, so you just… lived in Seosten space for awhile? You weren’t a…” He looked me up and down, clearly trying to come up with the best word for it. 

“A slave?” I shook my head. “No. No, it wasn’t like that. Like I said, it’s a long story. The short version is that me and some others ended up out in Seosten space, then Tabbris and I got separated from them, Athena found us, and we stayed here while waiting for the rest of our group out there. Eventually, we made it back here to Earth.” 

Shiori piped up, “And by eventually, she means after years and years and years–” 

“Or a couple months,” I corrected with a little smile, taking the other girl’s hand briefly. “Months that felt like years.” 

“Felt like centuries,” she retorted, giving me a look that made me blush. 

“I… ahhh…” I coughed, trying to collect myself. Glancing to the smirking Avalon didn’t help. Nor did the sound that Salten made, which sounded awfully suspiciously like an outright snicker. “Um. Anyway, Tabs was there too.” Gently nudging the smaller blonde girl at my side, I prompted, “She’s the one with the perfect memory, if you ever need to know where anything is.” 

Bouncing a bit beside me, Tabbris bobbed her head up and down quickly. “Uh huh, it’s a really big space station. We have to take that elevator up to go to class every day. And for food, if you don’t make it in the house. Chef Gisby is a super good cook. He’ll make anything you want.”

“She’s right,” I confirmed. “Gisby likes it when you make things a challenge. His memory is just as good as a Seosten, and he’s put basically all of it toward memorizing every recipe in the universe. If he doesn’t know what you’re talking about, just describe it and he can get close.” 

With a chuckle, Jason spoke up. “Sounds like a Natural Gordon Ramsay Heretic. Wait, is he…” 

“He’s–” I started before pausing. “I don’t know what species he is. But he’s definitely not human. Don’t worry, you’ll see him pretty soon. Probably for dinner tonight, I’m sure he’s got his people busy getting ready for that.”  

“He does, indeed,” Professor Dare agreed. She had teleported down ahead of us rather than use the elevator, and now approached with a raised hand. “Alright, boys and girls, let’s go see your new house and get you settled in while the next group comes down.” 

That was another reason for the elevator to be moving slowly. Not only did it give the group aboard a chance to see what they were coming down into, it also gave the group that had just arrived time to be taken to their house and shown where to go. Dare wasn’t the only one showing us around (there were a couple other elevators full of students that were also being escorted by staff), but it spread out the arrivals just enough. 

Glancing up as we started to watch, I saw the next forcefield lift start to descend. Sands and Scout would be on that one. Err, Sands and Sarah. Yeah, she was trying to go by Sarah more nowadays, even if it was hard to remember. She preferred Sarah in a normal, casual setting and Scout on missions or in official training, but still answered to either whenever. Mostly it was interchangeable, which was still a pretty big step for her from the way she’d been when we first met… a year ago (Jeez that still felt weird to think). I was trying to remember to think of her as Sarah whenever possible, because that was what she wanted to go by. And I understood that. 

Not only was Scout going by Sarah, but both the twins and their mother weren’t going by Mason anymore either. They were using Larissa’s maiden name of Lucas. Yeah. Scout Mason was now Sarah Lucas. Weird, I know. Sands, of course, was still Sands. I was pretty sure nothing in this universe would make her start going by Sandoval more often. 

Either way, Sands and Sarah were in the group behind us and would be taking the house right next door. Vanessa and Tristan were living there too, for two sets of twins, along with Koren, Aylen, Gordon, Jazz, and Harper’s old teammate Eiji. The tenth member of their group was a boy called Ruckus, an Alter who seemed to be made entirely of hundreds of metal coils, like a… like a Slinky. Or several of them. Yeah. His legs were a pair of big slinkies, along with his arms, with a slinky in the middle for his body and a head that was basically a slinky set onto its side with the ends connecting. His eyes were two glowing red orbs that seemed to peek out from between the vertical coils of his head. 

Jokai was there too, making their house one of the ones that had eleven people. Mostly because Jazz wasn’t going to live anywhere without him.  

As for our group, we followed Professor Dare through the street, passing a couple other houses where students who had already been brought down were looking over their new places and getting settled in. A few looked over as we passed, calling out greetings or just watching. But most of them were busy moving in or just getting to know each other. I could see Alters and humans alike staring at one another. Some were more comfortable than others, but it was even more clear that this whole thing was going to be a big… adjustment for everyone. 

Eventually, we reached the house we would be staying in. It was the third house down from the corner on the second block. The place was a two-story Colonial-style house, painted white with a dark red front door. There was a wide, spacious front porch lined by a knee-high white railing, set between taller pillars both at the corners and on either side of the front door to leave an opening. The same was duplicated above on another porch that wrapped around the second floor, though there was no opening in the railing there. There were four large bay windows in the front, two on the first floor on either side of the house, and two right above them. The roof was slanted, with several spots that stuck out from it with rectangular windows. The attic. 

Dare was already walking up to the front door, waving for it to open. As we trooped up the steps to the porch after her, she explained. “Four bedrooms on the first floor. See the two big windows there? There’s the same thing in the back. Two bedrooms in the front, two bedrooms in the back. That goes for the upstairs too. If you come in here…”

We followed her in (Choo and Salten waited outside along with most of our bags that we left sitting there), and found ourselves all standing in an entrance hall. The floor was wood, the walls pleasant but simple white, with a couple of nondescript paintings. To the left and right were doors to the front bedrooms. The corridor itself continued on past two more doors on either side. Those doors were open, and looking in as we passed revealed bathrooms. Big ones. 

“As with the bedrooms,” Dare explained, “the two bathrooms are repeated upstairs. Four total.”

Then we reached two open archways on either side rather than doors. The left archway led into a large living area with TV and game stuff. The right archway lead to a pleasant-looking kitchen and dining room with a window overlooking a small garden and the house next door. 

Just past the two archways was a set of stairs leading up to the second floor, with a door next to them. According to Dare, that led to the basement, where a laundry room and small gym were. 

“On the second floor,” she explained, “there is a library of sorts above the living room, and a magic testing room above the kitchen. It’s heavily protected, but it is still only to be used for relatively minor magic practice. Anything bigger or more extensive must be done in the designated training area upstairs. And by upstairs, I mean through the elevator into the rest of the station.”

Finally, we reached the doors leading to the back bedrooms on either side, and the rear door. It led to the rear side of the porch, just above a fenced off back yard. 

With an uncertain voice, Triss raised a hand. “I don’t understand. There are ten of us, but you have only pointed out eight bedrooms. I mean, I’m not the best at math, but eight is fewer than ten.”

Dare nodded. “Yes, there are two more bedrooms in the attic. The living space up there is slightly more limited, but with only two bedrooms, they’re about the same size as the ones down here.”

Doug raised his hand. “So, are you guys assigning bedrooms, or what?”

With a smile, Dare gave a slight shake of her head. “Nope, figuring that all out is part of your first job as housemates. We’ll step in if we need to at any point that people in a house can’t agree, but let’s try to work it out amongst yourselves. Similarly, we will not be patrolling who stays in what bed. You’re all either over eighteen or very close to it.” Her eyes flicked briefly to me with a certain tenseness before she pushed on. “You are all essentially adults, and we will treat you as such so long as you do not give us reason not to. Everyone gets a bedroom. What you do with that bedroom is up to you.

“Now, I believe you all have some exploring to do to can stake out what rooms you want. I need to go get the next group. If you have any questions, let us know. Otherwise, there is food in the kitchen for lunch and we’ll see you at dinner. Good luck.”

With that, she left, and the eleven of us stood there in the corridor looking at each other for a few long, quiet seconds. No one really seemed to know what to say first. Which was weird, considering most of us knew each other pretty well, except for Jason, Triss, and Kersel. 

Finally, Miranda clapped her hands. “Right, okay. So, unless anyone else has any better idea, I was thinking we’d write everyone’s name down on a piece of paper and put them in a hat or something. Then we can walk by each room and take out a name. That person gets that room.”

Kersel lifted his wooden head a bit. “Sure you don’t have some kind of paper manipulating power to get anything you want?” It sounded like one of those jokes that wasn’t really a joke at all, but more of a challenge. Yeah, this was going to be interesting. 

Before Miranda could say anything to that, Rebecca quickly spoke up. “The rooms are all the same, no one’s going to care enough to start cheating or anything. We’re just dividing them up faster.”

With a broad smile, Jason put a hand on the Relukun boy’s back. “Yeah, buddy. Don’t worry. It’ll all be fair. So let’s do this, I’d kinda like to stow my stuff.”

We did. Following Miranda’s suggestion, we pulled names from a pot that we found in the kitchen, matching everyone to a bedroom. In the end, the four downstairs bedrooms went to Rebecca and Shiori in the front, and Columbus and Miranda in the back. Upstairs were Avalon and Jason in the front, and Triss and Doug in the back. Kersel and I were in the attic. 

The stairs leading up to the attic were in the middle of the second floor corridor, basically right as you came off the stairs from the first floor. You just kept walking up the next set. The attic had a large open area at the top of the stairs, with only two spots set out for bedrooms, one at the front and one at the back. They were apparently more narrow than the other bedrooms, but wider, taking up the whole front or back wall respectively. There was also a single bathroom directly between the two rooms, but other than that, it was all empty. I wasn’t sure what this large open space in the rest of the attic was for, considering it was big enough to have a whole dance competition in. Maybe we were supposed to figure out what to do with it ourselves, or something.

Either way, Tabbris and I nodded to Kersel, who gave a polite, yet clearly dismissive bow of his head before heading into his own room. Which left the two of us standing there. 

“Well,” I started, “let’s go in and check out our new room, huh?”

I opened the bedroom door and stepped inside what turned out to indeed be a pretty spacious room, though one that was, again, much wider than it was deep. There was just enough room from the entrance to the wall for the large bed to be set in (with the head against the wall and the foot facing the door) while leaving space to walk past it to reach either side. On the other hand, as promised, there was plenty of width to the room to make up for the lack of depth. To the left of the bed was a dresser and a desk with a computer already waiting, along with a smaller dresser to the right. There was room on that right-hand side for Tabbris’s bed, once we let Dare know where she was staying. So, she’d have furniture of her own. And I was going to see about getting a couple of those privacy screens installed like they had at Crossroads so we could both have our own me-time. I wanted Tabbris to know this was her room too, as much as mine, and that she had every right to her own privacy. 

“Huh, not bad, huh?” I asked while stepping over to look out one of the three windows spaced along the width of the room. We were in the back, so the view looked out over the yard, and leaning over a bit allowed me to see next door. Eiji’s cyber-rhino was already there, making noises at Salten and Choo, who were investigating him through the fence. 

Tabs bobbed her head quickly. “Uh huh, it’s really cool. And umm… tonight, we try the thing again?”

“Yeah,” I confirmed, “tonight we try again. 

“And this time, hopefully I can keep Fossor’s sister here long enough to get something useful out of her.”

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Fusion 1-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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We appeared at the back of what looked like an ordinary auditorium or theater. Rows upon rows of seats stretched out on either side of the narrow aisle we were in, leading down toward a large stage. Our seating area was the fourth from the left wall, with one more section to the right. In those other sections were more people of varying age groups, younger to the left and older to the right. Everyone was being directed to find seats. 

“Well, hello again.” The voice came from a man stepping in front of our little group, a familiar figure, with a scruffy, unshaven face, unkempt blond hair, and a pinstripe suit.

“Mr. Reinswield!” Tabbris blurted, quickly jumping that way to embrace the man. “Hiya!”

Sure enough, it was the former Eden’s Garden Heretic-turned-teacher we had met during our last stay here. The man looked surprised, but returned the embrace, murmuring, “You seem a bit more comfortable in your own skin, puella.” 

“We found Mama,” Tabbris declared with a bright smile. 

The man returned her smile, squeezing her again. “Well, that is very good news. But come, we can catch up later. Let’s find some seats for you before this assembly gets started.”

He guided us to a row of empty chairs, and everyone began filing in to sit down. I stayed back, however, waving for the others to go on. My gaze was centered on the man, as I swallowed hard. “Sir,” I started quietly, “I’m really sorry. I… I asked my friend from Eden’s Garden if she knew anything about a Sonya Eulcid, your… your old student, but she didn’t have a chance to ask around before… before she had to leave.” My head shook guiltily. This was the girl he had gotten himself banished to Seosten space by trying to stop her being being turned into a Heretic and losing her innocence when he was posing as a Bystander teacher. No excuse for still not finding out what happened to her felt good enough. “And things have been so busy all this time that–” 

He held up a hand to stop me. “I understand, Flick. Trust me, I do. And now we’ve made it back to Earth. We’re here. If Sonya is alive… I will find her.” His gaze met mine with a wince. “Though it has been so long since I have been here that… some help in that regard might be useful. I’m afraid I don’t know anything about Earth in the decades since my disappearance.” 

My head bobbed rapidly. “Of course. Anything. I’ll help you find her. So will Miranda, I know. We talked about it, we just… there wasn’t a way to…” Shaking that off, I waved a hand while pushing on. “We’ll find her. Seller can probably help, he’s my ancestor and knows a lot about–” 

“The sellsword?” Mr. Rienswield raised an eyebrow. “He is your… interesting.” For a second, it looked like he was about to say something else. But in the end, the man just raised a hand to gesture to the seats where the others were. “Yes, we’ll talk about it soon. I may even be able to find answers among my new colleagues here. But for now, I know your sister is quite eager to ensure this presentation comes off without a hitch.” He offered me a wink.  “Let’s not add to her nerves by throwing hitches onto the stage before anything even starts, hmm?” 

It was hard for me to imagine Abigail ever being nervous. At least, not in a situation like this. In a fight maybe, or worried about her daughter or me… yeah. But nervous about talking to a bunch of students? Still, I nodded and squeezed in to find my seat by Avalon. Tabbris took the seat on the other side of me, with Shiori by her. There was enough space in front of us to put our bags down, most likely to accommodate various-sized species. Plus, when I actually sat, the chair itself adjusted to fit me perfectly. Looking around, I saw larger beings, Alters who were bigger than an average human, on seats that had grown to match. Giving a quick look around, I could see just how… eclectic of a population we had in this auditorium. True, it was about three-quarters human or human-passing, a mix of Bosch/Natural Heretics and Alters who didn’t stand out. But it was also one quarter Alters who could not have passed as human without the Bystander Effect. Beings of all different shapes and sizes scattered in groups throughout the room. They bunched up together, some clearly making a point of staying away from Bosch Heretics. And, of course, there were plenty of Heretics who were staying away from Alters. Even though we’d all chosen this side, that didn’t mean everyone was instantly comfortable with each other. Crossroads and Eden’s Garden Heretics were the boogeymen for entire generations worth of Alters. And Alters had been the ‘evil monsters out to destroy humanity’ for Bosch Heretics for hundreds of years too. This was… definitely going to take time. But that was a big part of what the whole school thing was for, to get us interacting in a… closer to casual environment. In between all the violent life and death stuff happening back on Earth. 

Reaching down to my bag, I opened up the side pocket, taking out Jaq and Gus before setting them on my shoulders so they could look around. Then I produced Herbie, letting him sit on the armrest. Once he was arranged and comfortable, I looked over to Avalon. She had Porthos out, though he was down on the floor having what appeared to be an intense conversation with Choo, who by that point was as large as a normal warthog. His growth was also supposed to accelerate even more around now, apparently. In another month or so, he’d be as tall as I was. It was hard to imagine the tiny sneezing electric-pig as this big, dangerous figure. And also weird to think that there were several more smaller Choos stacked up inside of him, nesting doll-style.

Just another example of the fact that things had changed. And were still changing.I didn’t know what was going to happen this year. But if it was anything even remotely like last year… yeah, I would have to enjoy the relative calm while I had the chance.  

“Everything okay?” Shiori asked in a whisper, leaning over to rub Herbie gently. 

I nodded. “Yeah, I just… that’s Mr. Reinswield, the guy I told you about. And I never found out what happened to Sonya Eulcid, that girl he wanted us to look for.” 

Overhearing that, Miranda, who was seated on the far side of Avalon, leaned forward and looked down at me. “I can ask around, find out if she’s part of the group that rebelled. I probably should’ve done that already, it’s just–” 

“We’ve been busy, yeah.” Grimacing, I nodded. “Can you just check next chance you get? She’d be way too old to be part of this whole school thing, but maybe she’s still out there and has a kid or something here.”

The other girl agreed, just as the lights on the stage came up, while the ones over the audience dimmed a fair bit. Apparently the introduction and orientation speeches were about to start. 

Focusing on the stage, I saw some teachers from Crossroads. Not just the ones from the first year, but a few from higher years too. And there was Hisao, standing by a few other Heretics he was quietly talking to. I was guessing they, like him, were the ones from Eden’s Garden.

Of course, there were also Alter teachers, both ones that had been here already and a couple who had been recruited from on-world, thanks to both Wonderland and Prosser’s people. 

Basically, we had a lot of different teachers from a lot of different groups, to go with all the different students. 

Oh, and Abigail, of course. She stood there on the stage, deep in private conversation with Professor Dare, Miss Handsy (the school administrator lady whose body consisted of a green flesh ball with a bunch of tentacles stretching out in every direction to act as both arms and legs, with a smaller ball for her head connected to the larger one), and one of the Eden’s Garden teachers. With the lights down over the audience, all the attention was on that stage. Abigail glanced our way, said something else to the others, and then stepped up to the front. Her mouth opened, before she stopped herself and reached into her pocket to produce a small light blue rock, which she spoke a word into. The spell on it glowed briefly before fading. 

“Good morning,” Abigail started again, her voice magically magnified to fill the room. “Err, wow. Wow, that’s pretty cool, isn’t it? Good morning–orning–ning…” Making her own echo while a few people snickered and others just stared, she shook her head. “Magic. It uhh, it still takes me by surprise sometimes. Mostly because I only found out it existed a… less than a year ago. It’s still very new to me. All of this is. I’m still a beginner in… every sense of the word.” 

There were some audible murmurs to that, which Abigail allowed for a few seconds before speaking up again. “Then why am I the one standing here talking as though I have any authority? Why am I talking to you instead of any of these people behind me who all know a lot more than I do about all of this?” 

Watching the general agreement with her questions, my big sister added, “For that matter, you all already have so much to grow into here. You’re sitting in this room alongside people you would have run from, hunted, fought, even killed just a few months ago. Many of you have been told your whole lives that the people sitting ten feet away from you right now were monsters. Some of you have lived in fear of being hunted and killed since the day you were born. And now in these past few months, you’ve been told that we, together, are going to try a different way. You Heretics have been told that your entire society, everything you are, has been manipulated; that while you have done a lot of good, others used and manipulated you to make you into the very monsters that you were trying to protect the innocents from. You’ve all been told that everything you know, everything that has been fact for you since before the United States even existed, is changing. 

“In just these short few months, you have all been trying to understand this, trying to come to terms with it. And now you’re here, expected to live and learn and even fight alongside people who have been your enemies for generations. That is so much to ask of any of you. But you’re here. You came to try. But now you get here, you’re among these people, many of whom make you uncomfortable, or even afraid. And you look up here, and you see the person talking to you has barely even known anything of your society, of your existence, for less than a year? Why am I here? What could I possibly present to you that wouldn’t be better coming from someone who has understood you for so much longer? After all, I’m barely even a Heretic. I don’t fight. I barely have any power at all. I’m one step removed from a total Bystander.”

From where he was sitting a bit further down the line, Jason whispered, “Is she trying to talk herself out of this job, or something?”

Smiling a little to myself, I quietly replied, “Just wait for it.”

Abigail let whispers like that go on for another few seconds before she spoke again. “But here’s the thing. That’s exactly why I’m here. Because I didn’t grow up in this society, in this world. I am not here in spite of the fact that I am a terrible Heretic, I am here because I’m a terrible Heretic. I don’t know much about fighting. Almost nothing, really. To the chagrin of my colleagues, I assure you. But I know about learning. I know about injustice, about righting it, and about making others understand it. You do not need the person in charge of this school to be a warrior. You don’t. As I said, that’s what all these people behind me are for. Your principal does not need to be a demigod. She needs to be a principal. That’s headmistress for those of you who might be confused right now. But please don’t call me that, because it makes me feel uncomfortably like I’ve stepped into a Harry Potter fan fiction. And let’s be honest, this entire thing is kind of teetering on the edge of that as it is. 

“I am Principal Fellows. I’m here to organize your teachers, to be the person who talks without any previous personal history in your society. I’m here to teach you, to learn from you, and to listen to you. I’m here to ensure fairness and justice for everyone, Alter, Bosch, or Natural.”

Visibly considering that for a moment, Abigail shrugged. “Besides, considering everything I just said about this being new to everyone, I guess it just fits the theme to have someone who is new to all of it anyway. You all have history. Learn from it, grow from it, but do not allow it to dictate your future. There’s a lot of dirt in everyone’s pasts here. You can use that dirt to bury this whole thing that we’re trying to do. Or you can use it to grow the seed we’ve got into something truly beautiful. It’s up to each of you.” 

Asenath appeared then, stepping across the stage to whisper something in Abigail’s ear. The other woman looked to her, nodded, then turned back to us. “And now that I have… hopefully successfully talked myself out of and then back into this job, we’ll discuss a few particulars. 

“First, you are all being initially grouped by general age level. If you are of a species that matures slower or faster than humans, we have attempted through discussions with you and others of your kind to put you into the appropriate group. Those who are more experienced than their age group generally is may test into higher groups. But do not attempt this lightly, because you will be judged by several critical eyes, in subjects including your physical, magical, and mental faculties.” 

Tabbris nudged me at that, and I smiled a bit before nodding. We’d already gone through arranging for her to live with me, though she was going to be visiting and learning with the younger groups too, just to have time with people her own age. 

Abigail was still explaining. “Our groups begin at age twelve, and each covers two years, up through twenty and twenty-one year olds. Five age groups, which is how you’re sitting right now. If you are in the first two sections here, those who will be twelve and thirteen by December thirty-first, and those who will be fourteen and fifteen, please stand up.” Abigail waited for those first two sections to rise, before explaining, “You are part of our trainee program. For now, please follow Miss Senny here to your dorms, where more will be explained and you can drop off your bags and get settled in. Staff members will be happy to answer more questions throughout the day, and we will all discuss this more at supper this evening.” She indicated Asenath, who descended the stage to lead the first couple groups out. 

Once they were gone, Abigail focused on the third section. “Next, our students who will be sixteen and seventeen years old this year. You will also live in dorms, but separate from the younger groups, as your training and education requirements are different. You may also, if you wish, participate in certain low-danger missions for–” At that point, she had to stop talking for a moment because of the whoops and cheers going up from that middle section. A few quiet words from the staff members in the aisles there quieted the students, and Abigail continued. “That is, if you wish and if your staff mentors sign off on you. These will be missions of mercy, helping those who need us.

“Now, please follow Hisao, the nice gentleman standing right there, to your dorms, where you will be given more information. As I said, use the rest of the day to get settled in and direct any questions you might have to your staff advisers. We will meet again for dinner, and classes will begin tomorrow.” 

She started to move on, but one of the students from that section raised a hand and blurted in a loud voice that carried really well, “What about those of us that are still human and were supposed to get to visit the Edge this year? Are we just boned?” 

A small smile touched Abigail’s face then before she shook her head. “No, you’re not ‘boned’. We have plans to assist all interested human students with potential Natural bonding. Ideally, this will happen when you are younger in order to allow a longer bonding process. But it will work here as well. As I said, there will be details when you reach your dorm. You’ll be able to sign up to match with Alters who have volunteered to help bond with others like you.” 

With that, Hisao led that group out, leaving two more. Ours and the twenty and twenty-one-year-olds. Once it was just us, Abigial focused our way. “And finally, our adults. Or those who will be adults within the next couple of months.” She smiled just a little, a goofy gesture that vanished a moment later. “Instead of dorms, you will live in houses in one of this station’s… neighborhoods. You will be assigned your house to live in, but if you and another person would like to change places, you may do so if both of you agree. Generally, each house will have ten people living in it. These will be a mixture of Alters and Heretics. If there are problems that simply cannot be settled, we will assign people to new homes. But do try to remember that our entire goal here is for everyone to learn to live in harmony together.

“As with the group before, you will be allowed to participate in voluntary aid missions, as well as combat missions for those who have passed a certain level of training and psychological certifications, both of which will be tested and renewed once per month and also at the discretion of faculty. But beyond simply passing your training and psychological evaluations, you must also keep up with your schoolwork. Yes, school even for you, though not quite as long. Generally, your school days will last from nine in the morning until lunch, one hour for each of the three classes you will have each day. Then you will have lunch, followed by training and any missions that have been requested or volunteered for. Again, your participation in these missions is not required in any way, shape, or form. They are not mandatory and never will be. And you may opt out of any. But if you do wish to participate, you must keep up your schoolwork, and pass your evaluations.” 

Raising both hands to forestall all the hands (and tentacles and claws and hooves and… more) that were going up, Abigail assured everyone, “I know, I know, you all have questions. We’ll get to them, I promise. Let’s try to get everyone to your houses so you can put your stuff away and get settled in, like the younger groups. Professor Dare and Kaev here will lead you out.” For the latter name (which was pronounced Cave), she indicated a green gelatinous figure who looked a lot like a full adult-sized version of the Flubber figure from that old Robin Williams movie. 

Dare and that Kaev (I wasn’t sure if they were male or female, or if it mattered) left the stage, walking up the aisles. Well, Dare walked. Kaev sorta… bounced. It was like he or… she or… they were on one of those toys where you sit on the ball and hop with it. Complete with an audible ‘boing’ after each motion. 

Looking over to Tabbris and the others, I shrugged. “Well, I guess we should go see our new home, huh? 

“Let’s hope we don’t end up going to war against this one too.”

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Patreon Snippets 10 (Heretical Edge)

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The following is the tenth volume of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request 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. 

 

A few thousand years ago

The Phej were a tall, roughly humanoid species, standing just over two and a half meters in height, with dark blue, almost purple skin that grew darker at their heads, feet, and hands. They had four eyes spaced evenly around their face in a square pattern, with two vertical slit mouths parallel to one another in the middle. They smelled through organs within the mouths themselves. One mouth produced half the sounds their people were capable of, while the other, connected to entirely differently shaped vocal chords, produced the other half. The two worked in concert. 

At the moment, six of the Phej were striding purposefully through the corridor of their most powerful command ship. Four wore the uniforms of security personnel, while the remaining two were officers, the equivalent of a lieutenant and admiral (mnent and tauta respectively in their own language). They walked confidently, but quickly. Particularly when the ship shuddered under what was obviously an attack, the lights briefly dimming before returning to their steady blue emergency glow. 

The doors ahead of of the group swooshed open smoothly, admitting the six into a dimly lit, circular chamber that was just large enough for all of them with the control console and holographic display arranged in the middle of it. 

“Mnent,” the ship’s commander (and commander of the fleet itself) spoke, addressing his fellow (though much lower-ranked) officer. “Bring up the sitview.” 

Mnent Faa did so, pressing three quick holographic buttons on the console. In response, a display of the area surrounding their ship appeared. The Phej home planet lay relatively ‘below’ them to the left, with their own ship and a dozen others spread out to face the enemy fleet. Too many enemy ships, not enough Phej. But that was okay. Because they had a secret weapon, one that they had been working on for many decades for just such an occasion. 

“Are you sure it’s ready, Tauta Krin?” Faa asked a bit tensely. “If we take this shot and miss, we won’t get another one.” 

“It’s ready, Faa,” Krin assured the other man. “And if we wait any longer, there won’t be a point to using it. Bring up the targeting data for their ships. All of them.” He waited while the mnent did that, watching as white targeting reticles appeared on each of the twenty-seven enemy vessels. So many of their own ships had been destroyed by that fleet. That ended now. 

The reticles went from white, to green, and finally to the hard blue. With a low snarl through his twin mouths, he began to give the order to fire. 

In that instant, two of the security officers who had accompanied them abruptly drew their sidearms and fired. The shots instantly killed the other two guards. As Faa spun that way, hand groping for his own weapon, a shot took him in the face. 

With a bellowed curse of defiance, Krin dove for the control. But the glowing energy figure emerging from one of the ‘traitor’ guards caught him first, as the blonde Seosten dove into him. His hand stopped right next to the button. 

Head snapping to the side sharply with the distinct sound of a neck breaking, the remaining guard fell, revealing a dark-skinned Seosten woman, who grinned and pumped her fist. “Whoo! How great was that? We were right on top of them and they didn’t have a clue.” Charmiene turned then, spitting on one of the dead. “Think we’re just gonna let you blow up our people, assholes? Think again. We gave you a chance to surrender.” 

Her attention turned back to the possessed leader, pressing, “Come on, Brainiac, you said you knew how to work this system, right? So are we good or what?”

Perusing it briefly, Sariel finally spoke through the man. “Yes. Just a moment.” Her fingers danced over the controls, as she ignored the mixed pleas and threats from her host. “There.” 

On the holographic screen, the reticles over the Seosten fleet disappeared, replaced by more over each and every Phej ship. In addition, several targeting markers appeared on the planet itself. 

“What are those?” Charmiene asked, pointing to the latter. 

“Military bases, supply depots, places this man knew about that would make good targets,” Sariel replied with his voice. “One shot from this weapon of theirs, and we not only take out what’s left of their entire fleet, we cripple any potential resistance on the ground and their entire system of government.” 

Her words were met with a feral grin from the other woman. “So let’s do it and call Puriel to tell him how awesome we are. What are we waiting for?” 

Hand lingering over the button while her host desperately begged her to have mercy, to let them surrender, to spare his people, Sariel watched the holographic battle. 

“Nothing,” she finally replied. 

And then she pushed the button. 

*******

Immediately after the prison escape

 

As the Atherby camp and their allies celebrated their success in retrieving not only Sean Gerardo, but a good number of other prisoners, as well as powerful Crossroads weapons from the depot, and the destruction of several important Crossroads satellite stations, a single pale figure stood far away from all of it. With her back to the proceedings, Larees leaned against a tree and watched the sky while taking a long, lazy pull from her trusty flask. 

“You gonna come talk sometime tonight, kid?” she drawled casually, “or just stand back there and lurk some more?” 

Behind her, Theia slowly emerged from the darkness and approached. She paused while coming parallel with the woman, glanced that way, and then walked on past. Moving to another nearby tree in front of Larees, she positioned herself there before noting, “You are not celebrating.” 

“Ah, correction,” Larees countered while raising her flask to indicate it. “I’m not at the celebration. I am most definitely celebrating. In my way.” 

“Your way of celebrating does not look different from any other day,” Theia pointed out. 

Snorting, Larees replied, “Maybe I’m just celebrating all the time.” Raising the flask to her lips, she gulped a mouthful of the smooth, burning liquid before adding, “You’re not at the party either.” 

There was a moment of silence from Theia before she quietly said, “I make some of them uncomfortable. I didn’t want to do that to them all night long.” 

Instead of responding to that right away, Larees just watched her in silence for a few long seconds. When she did speak, it was a quietly muttered, “Your mother was a real piece of shit, you know that?” 

“I did not kill her simply because she forgot my birthday,” Theia pointed out, head tilting. “But what does she have to do with this?” 

“Sorry,” Larees muttered, head shaking as she pushed away thoughts of the children she had been forced to bear before they were taken from her, one by one. “It’s nothing. I was just…fuck. Never mind. You want a drink?” She held the flask up, nodding to it. 

Eyes centering on the offering, Theia pointed out, “Most of our people would never be comfortable sharing that with a Lie.” 

“You’re right,” the older Seosten agreed, glancing to the flask briefly as she considered. Then she tossed it that way. “Careful, it kicks pretty hard. Take it slow.” 

Catching it with one hand, Theia stared briefly at the woman, before gradually putting it to her lips. She took a sip, then another, before coughing loudly and repeatedly. 

A laugh escaped Larees. “Told you. It kicks.” 

Theia forced herself to take another drink just to prove she could, before clearing her throat. She glanced to her, hesitating before offering, “Do… you believe you’ll ever find your children? The ones that…” She trailed off, watching the woman’s face. “Is this one of those things I shouldn’t have said?” 

Larees opened her mouth, then hesitated before swallowing hard. She stepped over, took the flask back, and had a long drink from it before answering. “No, it’s–no, I don’t think I will. It’s a big universe and… and they could be anywhere. I’m pretty sure I’ll never see them. If any of them are even alive.” 

Theia’s voice was quiet. “I’m sorry about what my mother did to you.” 

For a moment, Larees didn’t respond. Then she held the flask back out once more for the girl to take again. “I’m sorry about what your mother did to you.” 

Trying the harsh drink once more, Theia still coughed, though she was more prepared that time. Her gaze found the other woman’s. “She was a… real… piece of shit?” 

“Yeah, kid,” Larees agreed. “But you know what, she did do at least one good thing in her miserable life.” 

Uncertain, the younger Seosten tilted her head. “What?” 

“Simple, kid,” her companion replied, taking the flask back for a long pull. 

“She made you.” 

******

Shortly Under A Year Ago

 

“Dude, you’re like… a king or something.” The words came in an awed voice as the young boy named Tristan Moon stared at the man in front of him. The two of them were alone in a side room, where Tristan had been ushered in order to meet his ancestor. “My great-whatever grandpa’s a king! That’s ffffffuuuuureaking awesome.” 

Nicholas Petan, a dark-haired, handsome man with just enough gray to be distinguished offered the boy a slight chuckle while shaking his head. “Not hardly a king, I’m afraid.” He paused then before offering a wink. “Maybe a baron.” 

A stunningly bright smile leapt to the boy’s face. “But you’re like this badass knight commander guy! That’s so cool! I bet you–wait, but… but your guys hurt my friends.” He frowned at that thought, clearly at a loss about whether he could still be excited or not. 

With a low sigh, Nicholas stepped over and took a knee in front of his descendant. “That… whole thing was a very tragic and… unexpected oversight. A mistake. I made a mistake when I passed orders to my subordinates. My phrasing when I asked them to retrieve you could have been better.” He glanced to the side, features briefly marred by a frown before a glance back to the charming blond-haired boy in front of him made it melt away. “But we will deal with that later, I promise. I’ll show you what we do to maintain the loyalty of our troops. Both magically and otherwise. You don’t want to rely entirely on magic. But I will teach you all of that on our way.” 

“You mean…” Tristan hesitated before asking, “You mean I can go with you? Wait, where are we going?”  

“Go with me?” Nicholas put a hand out to rest on his shoulder. “Greats-grandson, we are going many places. Most importantly, we are going to find your family. I have some… leads on that front.” 

That disarmingly brilliant smile returned for a moment, then Tristan hesitated. “I… what about the spell that keeps bouncing me back here? And… and… my new friends?” 

“The Heretics you will see again,” Nicholas assured him. “They have their own things to do, but your paths will cross soon enough. As for the Meregan, I’ve spoken a bit to their leader and… while a few will stay here, we will be working together. Some will come with us.” 

He exhaled then. “And the banishment spell, I have some ideas about that. It’s weaker than it should be, so we should be able to stop it from booting you back here unless you actually go back to Earth. That’s what it’s banishing you from. I can keep you with me, and we’ll work on finding a way to disable the spell entirely.” 

“And find my family?” the boy asked, hopefully.

“Yes,” Nicholas assured him, “and find your family. Most certainly that. That is… if you are… okay with the idea of living aboard a starfaring vessel traveling the universe searching out danger. If you– Tristan?” He blinked, waving a hand in front of the boy’s face as his descendant stared at him with eyes as wide as saucers, mouth open. 

Gradually, a sound similar to a tea kettle’s whistle emerged from Tristan, before he literally threw himself at Nicholas with a joyful shout, clinging to him while babbling something about someone named Picard. 

“I… ahhh… shall take that as agreement.” 

*******

Sometime over the summer

 

Feet pounding against the ground, Tabbris raced through the forest, chancing a glance now and then over her shoulder. Her heart beat faster with each desperate step, her breath hard and ragged. She fled blindly, dodging around one tree before leaping over a raised section of roots. Coming down, the young Seosten nearly lost her footing and sprawled, but caught herself at the last instant before pushing off once more. Behind her, she heard her pursuer getting closer with each step, the sound of their feet snapping twigs and branches growing louder by the second. 

She had nearly reached the next large tree, eyes focused ahead with the desperate certainty that at any second, a hand would grab her shoulder, when a figure emerged from that very tree. Her pursuer jumped into view, arms outstretched. She came within a bare instant of being caught, but triggered her boost just in time. The world slowed, and Tabbris dropped into a slide through the dirt that carried her under those open, anticipatory arms. 

Her pursuer spun, reaching down to grab for the back of her shirt. But she managed to throw herself forward from her slide, rolling to her feet before springing up. She didn’t want to waste her boost, but kept it going a moment longer. Just enough to let her leap from a standing position to the lowest branch in the tree. 

It was risky. The one chasing her could travel through the tree, like Flick did. Every step Tabbris took was another step where they could catch her. But she had to try. Running along the outstretched branch, she heard the figure jump into the tree. They would reach her any second… any…

She leapt from the branch just barely ahead of the arm that extended from the branch to grab for her. Tabbris flew from the tree, arms and legs windmilling wildly as she let out a loud squeal just before landing on her backside at the very edge of a steep slope that the edge of the branch had been hanging over. Aimed perfectly as she was, the girl slid on her back down the slope, half-falling all the way to the bottom before rolling to a stop. She lay there on her back, panting hard. 

“Hey!” A voice called from up above, prompting the girl to open her eyes. She saw her pursuer, a male Relukun (or wood-person) maybe a year older than she was. “No fair, you used your boost!” 

Staying on her back, Tabbris stuck her tongue out at him. Then she wondered if he could actually see it from up there. “You used your tree-walking power, Pickle!” she shot back. “Fair’s fair! You didn’t tag me, and I can still make it to base!” 

His name wasn’t really pickle, but the boy liked them so much, that’s what he became known as. Now, the tree-boy shook a wooden fist at her. “You’ll never make it, vile beast!” 

“Wanna bet?!” Tabbris retorted. She watched as he started to scramble down the hill after her, before laughing while scrambling back to her feet. A head start. She could make it to the boulder they’d picked out as home base, especially now that she’d had a chance to lay down for a few seconds and breathe. 

Then it would be her turn to chase Pickle, and she already had a plan. 

******

Shortly after the prison attack

 

Standing in the Committee headquarters, directly in front of the door leading into Counselor Litonya’s office, Liam Mason raised his hand to knock. Before he’d even gone halfway through the motion, the door opened and a voice within beckoned, “Come.” 

Thank God, he’d been losing his mind out here. After the day that had just happened, and everything he’d heard about how the traitors had attacked them, Liam needed to hear that things would be okay. More importantly, he needed to hear, from someone who had been there, how his family was doing. And who better to look to for reassurance on both fronts than one of the Crossroads Committee? 

The man stepped over the threshold, hearing the door click closed behind him. He was in a sparse room that looked quite similar to a Japanese dojo. The walls were lined with weapons, with a couple small tables of various food, drink, and other objects, while the floor was some kind of training mat. It was empty, save for a single figure who sat cross-legged in the middle. A figure who stood when he arrived, turning to face him. 

For a brief moment, Liam couldn’t comprehend what he was looking at. Counselor Litonya stood in front of him, but not… not all of her. She stood there with one entire arm missing, along with her other hand. It was… it couldn’t… that wasn’t…

“You requested this meeting for a reason other than gawking, I hope,” Litonya reminded him in the voice of a stern old school marm. As she spoke, the woman stepped over to a nearby table. A glowing blue semi-translucent image of an arm and hand appeared as she reached for the pot of tea, manifesting a similar hand on her other side to move a cup closer. 

“I–” Part of Liam wanted to ask if she was okay. But that was absurd. It was like asking a star if it was okay. The star was–it was a star. Barring age, of course it was okay.  It was–you didn’t ask a Committee member if they were–

But one had been killed earlier that year. They could be killed, he knew that. It had happened before. Hell, another of the Committee was currently missing. Yet somehow… somehow being killed or out of contact didn’t strike him as… as vulnerable as seeing one of the Committee members… maimed. Maimed. The very word was ridiculous. They were–if they–

“Mr. Mason,” Litonya urged him while looking that way as she took a sip. “Speak, or leave.” 

Swallowing, he forced himself to speak. “I just–I was… told that you saw one of my daughters earlier.” 

“I did,” she confirmed. “Unfortunately, we did not have the opportunity to speak much.” Her smile was thin. “She did call me an evil bitch, if you were curious.” 

Making a sound of shocked disbelief, Liam shook his head rapidly. “I’m sorry, I–it’s… it’s that girl. She’s–and Larissa is… that Felicity girl. She’s… they’re twisting everything around. It’s still–they’re still dancing to Gaia’s tune, Gods damn it! I don’t care that she’s locked up, she planned all of this, all of it, and she’s been manipulating them and they don’t know where to–” 

“Liam,” Litonya spoke sharply. “We are all well aware of how the creatures Sinclaire allied herself with have manipulated our people. Rambling accomplishes nothing.” 

“Who… who did… what happened to you?” He tried to stop himself from asking, but it came out anyway. “Why don’t you just… heal?” 

There was a low chuckle, like the sound of dry leaves being crushed. “Miss Chambers herself. Or rather, the creature she allowed to possess her.” Reading his wide eyes and open mouth, she interrupted his question. “It is a question I don’t wish to get into. Suffice to say, they possess the sword of the old King, and the wounds it causes take a very long time to heal.” 

“A… I don’t–” How could someone actually hurt you, even if it was with Arthur’s sword?! “What about… prosthetics?” 

“Believe it or not,” the woman’s sharp tone retorted, “you are not the first to suggest such a thing. Unfortunately, the reason the wounds take so long to heal is that the sword leaves lingering minor magical energy which slowly disintegrates anything it touches. Anything that comes into contact with… the wounds is gradually destroyed or at least damaged to the point of being structurally compromised. This–” She indicated her summoned solid-energy limbs. “–will have to do. Now, is there anything else? As you might imagine, I am rather occupied.” 

Hesitating briefly, Liam swallowed before asking, “That other thing that I asked about before. The one about the Chambers girl claiming her mother was taken by Fossor. Have you–” 

“She is with the necromancer,” Litonya confirmed. “That much we know. It was unfortunately rather brutally confirmed by the scouts who were sent to confirm Joselyn’s presence in a mall earlier today. Yet another part of the traitors’ plans, no doubt, meant to divide and conquer.” 

“Jos, she’s… she’s working with Fossor, willingly?” Liam murmured, shock touching his features almost as much as seeing Litonya’s injuries had. 

“That appears to be the case,” the woman informed him. “She has now taken to luring our people into traps in order to gain power by ambushing and murdering them. Now, if you will excuse me, I have pressing matters elsewhere. The Committee must choose three new members to count among our number.” 

“Wha–three? You’re choosing three new Counselors?” he blurted with surprise. That didn’t happen. 

“Pressing times call for pressing measures,” Litonya replied simply. “Our enemy has outmaneuvered us for far too long, has taken far too many of our people and assets. Don’t worry, Mr. Mason. We have just the people in mind for these positions. 

“And when confrontation comes again, it is the traitors who will find themselves at a disadvantage.” 

*****

Sometime over the summer. 

 

It was a short, very stocky man who stood in front of an unlabeled heavy metal door somewhere in Pittsburgh. He wore an olive green overcoat and a heavy beard. An old mangy cat of no possible discernible breed sat at his feet and licked his paws while the man reached up with one gloved hand to bang on the door. 

A moment later, a slot in the door slid open, allowing three eyes to peer out. “Whatayawant?”

In response, the man held up a leather bag, shaking it a bit to create a jingling sound. “Entrant’s fee,” he muttered in a deep, gravelly voice. 

The eyes disappeared, replaced by a single thin hand with too many fingers. The man put the bag in the palm, and it was withdrawn. There was another pause, before several locks were disengaged and the door was pulled open. The three-eyed man with too many fingers on his hands stood there watching him with a shotgun. “Name.”

Bowing his head a bit, the man in the olive coat replied, “Dark. John Dark.”

For a moment, the two stared at one another, the three-eyed man clearly sizing him up before finally offering him a broad smile as he stepped back and raised his arm to indicate past himself. “Well, John Dark, you just bought yourself into the auction. Congratulations, and don’t go blowing all your coin on the first decent beast you see.”

Returning the man’s smile with a nod of appreciation, Dark walked past him through the narrow corridor. The cat followed at his heels, offering a quiet meow. 

The corridor lead to a large circular room, big enough to be a concert hall. Throughout the room were dozens of beings of all shapes and sizes. And cages. Cages that were staggered randomly throughout the room, holding even more wildly varied beings. They were prisoners, slaves to be auctioned off for those who bought them, the people who were now examining their potential merchandise. 

The din of conversation continued for another few minutes before a new figure in a garish bright red coat and top hat swept his way into the middle of the room with a raised hand. Under the top hat, he had dark blue skin and hair like a mythical gorgons, full of living snakes. 

“Ladies and gentlemen!” he called loudly to draw all attention to him. “Welcome to our humble auction! We’ll get things started right away, but first—“

“One silver.”

John Dark spoke up loudly, interrupting the auctioneer with that single word. It drew everyone’s attention to him, and the snake-haired man frowned, his serpents hissing. “I am afraid we haven’t started the auction yet, good sir. And when we do, you shall have to pay a lot more than one silver if you wish to take any of our fine, quality merchandise home.”

John Dark spoke again, before the man could redirect everyone’s attention. “You’re wrong about two things there. First, I wasn’t offering one silver for one of your slaves. I offered one silver for all of them. One silver on top of whatever you value your lives at. I assume, quite a lot. You can claim that reward by leaving this place now, and never looking back.”

Dozens of weapons were drawn at his words, along with magic and other powers being readied. Around the room, security guards appeared, levying their own weapons at this simple-looking stranger. 

If he was put off by the display of force, the man gave no indication. He simply continued. “As for the second thing you were wrong about… I am no sir.”

With that, the ‘man’ swept off the coat to reveal a lithe, feminine figure beneath. Also hidden beneath the coat had been a heavy shield and spear, mounted to her back. 

Pulling both to her hands, the woman held the shield up as every non-slave in the room unleashed on her. Bullets, lasers, fire, wild attacks of every kind erupted through the room, centered on the spot where she stood. A spot where a glowing gold light had flared up. 

After almost thirty full seconds of non-stop attack, the slavers and their customers finally relented. They had poured enough fire power into that spot to kill nearly anything. 

Nearly. 

The woman still stood. Her false beard was gone, revealing a face that many could, and had, called beautiful, with a distinct resemblance to the classic actress, Audrey Hepburn. Her shield glowed brightly, almost blindingly so, extending its energy in a field that encased and surrounded her body like a second skin. 

“My name,” she began through the baffled silence, “is Jeanne d’Arc. And you are wretched, evil beasts. You enslave and sell the innocent as your chattel. You are a plague upon this land, and your judgment has come due.”

With those words, the woman known more commonly as Joan of Arc raised her spear. It began to glow with the same energy as her shield. It was the energy gifted to her through ritual by the angel… the Seosten… Michael. Only a small portion of his gift, yet enough to keep her alive all these years after he had saved her from the fire. A sliver of his energy which healed her wounds, ceased her aging, and allowed her to channel it through her shield to create an impenetrable barrier around herself or others, and through her spear to allow it to cut through near anything in existence. 

Many had wondered over the years what sort of Heretic Jeanne was. In truth, she was no Heretic at all, merely a human gifted incredible power through ritual magic. 

Incredible power which she put to use now, as the slavers opened fire once more. Joan went to work. 

Before long, it was over. The slavers and their customers were dead, and the prisoners were being escorted to safety by several people Jeanne had let into the building after dealing with the three-eyed man at the front. As she stood out of the way, a small, green-furred figure approached tentatively. “Err… what… what is this?” he asked with obvious confusion. “Are you with that… that new Heretic rebellion?”

A taller, gray-skinned figure spoke up then. “H-hey, yeah, that rebellion’s going again. I heard that… that Atherby woman came back.” His own voice was hopeful, wide eyes staring at their rescuer. “Are–do you know her? Is she really back? Is she–” 

“I’m sorry,” Jeanne gently interrupted, raising a hand to quiet the man in a soft voice. “I am with Wonderland, not the Rebellion, though we are connected. And I’m afraid that Chevalière Atherby is not… she has not returned.” For a moment, she thought of what she knew of the woman’s daughter, the girl who had brought back the rebellion. Jeane knew enough of her, both thanks to friends within the Atherby camp and Crossroads itself, and thanks to her own curiosity in the past. Not to mention the words of her off-and-on lover, the vampire Seth. His death had brought Jeanne to Wonderland to pay her respects, where she had agreed to take his place as their Tiebreaker for the time being. 

She and Seth had had their ups and downs, but they had loved one another for most of their time together. Even if that love turned to heated arguments now and then. She had mourned his loss, cursed the fact that she had not been anywhere near to aid him, and vowed to find the creature who had murdered him. This Seosten, the one called Abaddon. She would find and kill every body he manifested until she reached the last one. This she had sworn upon Seth’s grave. 

In any case, Seth knew Felicity. Or Flick, as she preferred to go by. He’d initially been curious about her when he found out she was dating the girl who was… essentially his step-sister, in a lot of ways. He’d asked Jeanne look into her, to see what kind of person she was beyond simply being her mother’s daughter. She, in turn, had told him that she didn’t need to look into the girl then, because she already had rather thoroughly in the past, and that he had nothing to worry about. Over time, Seth had actually gotten to know the girl a bit more for himself, and confirmed her assessment. It was no surprise to Jeanne whatsoever that the girl had brought back her mother’s rebellion. Not after being her teacher for most of a semester back in junior high.  

Seeing the look of disappointment on the two men’s faces after telling them that she wasn’t with that particular group, Jeanne assured them, “Her children are part of that rebellion. Her youngest daughter brought it back.” 

“Her youngest daughter?” one of the men breathed. “Who is she, do you know her? Did you know her mother?” 

A fond smile touched the woman’s face. “Joselyn… yes, you might say our paths have crossed. As for her daughter, she does not know it, but we have met. And eventually, we will meet again.” She offered them a slight shrug then. “As I said, Wonderland may not technically be part of them, but we have contact. Do you… have friends there?” 

“I don’t know,” the short, furry man lamented. “Maybe. Everything was so… so confusing in the escape from those tunnels, my people said they knew where to go to find them, but I don’t know if they did.” 

“Come then,” she urged, turning to gesture ahead. “Let us go see if your people are there. And if they are not, I will help you find them. 

The taller, gray man blinked. “You… you’d do that? But you don’t even know us.” 

Meeting his gaze, Jeanne replied simply, “My hands have no eyes, no ears. They need not know a man to bring him up, to offer him food, shelter, or aid. My oath is to help those who need it, not only those whom I have called friend. Now come, we will find your family and friends.” 

“If they’re not with the rebellion,” the green-furred man lamented, “they may have fallen in with other evil men, like these.” His small hand indicated the bodies around them. 

“If that is the case,” Jeanne informed him, “and your people have been taken by more evil men, 

“Then more evil men will die.”

Previous Chapter

Fusion 1-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Quick note – Some of you were told that today’s chapter would be the next Patreon snippets. I have, however, decided that interrupting the new year/book immediately after it starts like that is not a great idea. Don’t worry though, Patreon Snippets will be coming out tomorrow as an extra, off-schedule release. Thanks! 

Yup, school. As in classes and learning and everything else. Although it really wasn’t anything like what would be considered a normal school, even by Heretic standards. Especially by Heretic standards, come to think of it. There was, well, definitely a lot more to it.

At the moment, it was the morning after our little adventure at the theater. I was awoken, after getting the two hours of sleep I still needed, by a very small figure clambering onto the bed and falling onto me with a gleeful, “Fick!”

“Oof.” Opening my bleary eyes, I squinted at the tiny, grinning figure laying half-on me. “Hi, Savvy,” I murmured, reaching out to affectionately rub the Seosten toddler’s black hair.

“Fick!” She raised one dark-skinned hand to press against my face. “Fick up now. Bakefast.”

Chuckling despite myself, I sat up a bit and pulled the girl into a hug. “Yeah, I’m up now, so we can have breakfast.” Tickling her nose to make her smile, I asked, “Did Uncle Linc send you in here?” At her eager nod, I tickled her stomach, drawing a squeal from the girl. “I figured.”

Uncle Linc, of course, was my dad. Lincoln. Linc was easier for her to say, and Dad liked it.

With a yawn, I got up and moved over to grab some clothes. I had showered the night before, so I dressed quickly before reaching down to pick up the giggling toddler. Holding her, I headed out of my room and into the main part of my father’s cabin. I’d been living there all summer with Dad and (about half the time) Tabbris, though that would be changing somewhat as of this morning.

Tabbris and our father were both sitting at the table, watching as I came in with Savvy. Dad gave the little girl a thumbs up. “See, I knew you could get the sleepyhead up faster than I could.”

“Sleepyhead?” I retorted, “Yeah, right, sure. That’s me, totally sleeping almost three hours sometimes. The horror of such laziness.” Setting Savvy in the booster seat that Dad had put up for all the times she visited, I pulled out another chair beside Tabbris. “And not even that much with all the extra training everyone keeps demanding I do.” Between Avalon, Jophiel, Athena, and… well, more, a huge part of the last month or so of my summer ‘vacation’ (such as it was) had been taken up by near-constant training and exercises. Not that I could blame them, considering things were very unlikely to slow down any time soon. Especially with my birthday rapidly approaching. They wanted me to be as prepared as I possibly could. And so did I.

“So,” I continued while starting to fill a plate with a small pancake and some bits of sausage that I cut up, “did you ask Zadriek to borrow Savvy this morning specifically to get me up, or are you playing babysitter totally by coincidence?” With the food sufficiently cut up, I put some butter and syrup onto it, then set the plate over in front of the tiny girl in question, who squealed happily before immediately grabbing onto the stickiest bit of pancake to shove into her mouth.

Beside me, Tabbris snickered. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” She took a bite of her own breakfast before adding, “D’ya think they’re ready for us?” Though she was trying to seem calm and casual, I could hear the excitement in her voice, and her eyes were shining with anticipation.

There was a lot for Tabbris to anticipate. Not just the school thing, but it was also almost time for her and Dad to… bond. Okay, they’d been bonding over the entire summer. That was the point. They spent time together to build up the chance of a strong Bonding with a capital B. Dad was going to become a Natural Seosten Heretic. Or, more specifically, a Natural Tabbris Heretic. They’d spent the summer getting to know each other more fully. The closer their connection, the better chance the Bonding would take correctly.

Grinning, I rubbed her head. “I think between what Athena and Abigail will do if they’re not, they better be. Those two have been spending more time up there than they have in the camp.”

“Hey,” Dad objected. “Let’s not talk about that right now. I still have you girls for at least the rest of breakfast.” He made a show out of sniffing. “You’d think you couldn’t wait to get away from me… again.”

Reaching out with my foot to poke his leg, I pointed out, “Oh, stop, we’re coming back a lot.”

“Staying here every weekend,” he insisted with a nod. “And visiting more than that.”

My head bobbed. “Uh huh, for sure. And… you know… speaking of being close…”

He smiled faintly, glancing toward Tabbris. “Yup, we’re doing it two weeks from now, right, kid?”

As she quickly nodded with a bright smile, I raised an eyebrow. “Really? You’re gonna do the Heretic thing in two weeks? You think you’re ready?”

“Absolutely,” he confirmed, using his fork to point at me. “Now eat your breakfast. We’ve got about an hour before you’ve gotta head out with the others, and I mean to make the most of it.

“And just so you know, Kaste and Rain promised to show me how to create some really obnoxious nagging spells. Don’t visit every few days, and you’ll pay for it.”

I nudged Tabbris, “See how much things have changed? Dad’s threatening us with magic.”

Her answering smile was dazzling, seeming to light up the room. “Uh huh, things have changed. I get to go to school with you instead of… you know… inside you.”

From the other side of me, Sahveniah piped up a bit hopefully. “I go school?”

Reaching out, I gave the kid a tight hug around her booster seat. “Oh, don’t worry, you’ll be going to school right here in the camp. I hear Aunt Sariel’s got some kid classes lined up. And before you know it, you’ll be old enough to go to the big school.” I said it with a wink and smile that made her giggle happily, but inwardly I was hoping things would be a lot different by the time Savvy was actually old enough to even think about going to the other school. I really hoped that when she was my age, she’d never have to deal with any of this.

But somehow, I was afraid this whole thing would go on much… much longer than that.

*******

After breakfast and a little time spent with Dad (and Savvy), Tabbris and I grabbed a couple of modified backpacks that we’d already prepared (Herbie, Jaq, and Gus had their little home nestled in the bottom of mine), and left the cabin to join Miranda and Koren. They were waiting on the front porch for us. My not-so-young niece was practicing with one of the powers she had received from killing that old Heretic back during the prison assault. Specifically, she was creating a glowing bubble between her hands. Within the bubble, a small, roughly eight-inch long figure of a crocodile had appeared. It was still forming as Tabbris and I approached, the shape of it becoming more distinct over those couple of seconds.

The power, as I understood it, basically allowed Koren to create small facsimiles of any creature she could think of. They weren’t real or anything, amounting mostly to glorified solid holograms. The longer she took to form the creatures within the bubble before releasing them from it, the more detailed and stronger they could be. Also, the bigger they were, the longer it took to make them. Something like this eight inch crocodile took like fifteen seconds and would last a minute or so. If she wanted something big enough to ride that would last longer than a few seconds, she had to take much longer with them. Still, being able to spend about ten minutes to make a horse that would last about an hour was pretty freaking cool. Plus, she could make more than a horse. The other day, I’d seen her take fifteen minutes to make this giant rabbit with wings.

The tiny crocodile popped out of its bubble and roared like a lion, making me raise an eyebrow. “I uhh, think your little friend there is a bit confused about what he’s supposed to be, Koren.”

In response, she sniffed at me. “He’s more intimidating this way. Besides, you’re just jealous.”

“Jealous of your roaring crocodile?” I considered before grinning a little sheepishly. “Yeah, maybe a little.” As the summoned form vanished with another disconcertingly loud roar, I snickered despite myself. “At least you didn’t make the flying bunny roar like that.”

“No, but that’s an excellent idea,” she retorted before looking to Miranda. “She’s good at that.”

With a broad smile, my long-time best friend gave me a thumbs up. “She always has been. The only real difference now is in how feasible her random thoughts are.” To Tabbris and me, she added, “So, you guys actually ready for this whole new school thing?”

I shrugged, glancing to the girl beside me. “Not sure, but I guess we’ll find out. Have they already started taking people up there?” As I spoke, I was leaning up on my toes to look out toward the lake. Sure enough, there was a crowd of people there, despite the early hour.

Miranda nodded. “Yeah, some of the others already went up. They said they’d meet us there.” With a tiny smirk, the girl added, “I kinda can’t wait to see how some of the Garden people handle it. They’ve got a portal set up over there too. Actually, I think they started an hour ago.”

The Eden’s Garden rebels weren’t making this their official school or anything. But they had sent staff to it, and were allowing students to go if they wanted to. Basically, they knew that if they were going to have any chance of surviving and even winning this civil war (not to mention getting their vines to grow), they needed help, and alliances. Thus working with this school and sending some of their people.

“It’ll be different, that’s for sure,” I agreed. “But a lot of them are already open to this kind of thing, considering they… you know, rebelled against the status quo and all that.”

“Difference between feeling or believing something and actually experiencing it,” Koren pointed out, already turning to head off the porch. “But come on, I promised Mom we wouldn’t take forever. She wants us to get up there and see what they’ve been working on all month.”

We stepped off the porch, just in time to meet up with Columbus and Shiori, who came jogging over. The former had his familiar backpack full of tools and random odds and ends, having basically gone everywhere with it over the past month while he focused almost all of his attention on practicing what he was learning from that Harrison Fredericks guy.

“Hey, Flick!” Shiori chirped before jumping in to hug me tightly. “Guess what.”

With a smile, I returned the embrace, taking a moment to kiss her briefly before leaning back. “Guess what?” I echoed thoughtfully. “Hmmm… Well, shit, I was going to come up with something completely outrageous, but after last year, nothing sounds out of the question.”

Her eyes rolled a bit. “Tell me about it. But seriously, it’s great news. Senny’s gonna be there.”

Blinking at that, I asked, “Really? Asenath’s going to be at the school?”

She bobbed her head quickly, grinning. “Uh huh, she just told me last night. She’s gonna be a teacher. Apparently they knew about it all summer, but she wanted to keep it secret.”

I snorted. “Yeah, sounds like her. But that’s great, Shy, you guys can hang out a lot more.”

Her smile made my heart flip over a few times. “Uh huh, and Mom’s gonna visit too. Since, you know, she actually can.” Even as she mentioned her mom visiting, I saw the sudden look of guilt materialize in the girl’s expression, clearly thinking about the fact that my mother was still gone.

But that was silly. And dumb. She shouldn’t feel guilty about being glad that her own mother could spend time with her. So, I quickly hugged her even tighter than before. “That’s great, Shy! Come on, let’s find the others so we can get up there sometime before lunch.”  With that, I pointedly took her hand, nodded to the others, and headed for the lake with them.

On the way, Columbus spoke up. “So is it really… you know, where they say it is?”

Winking at him, I replied, “Let’s just say, it’s gonna be an interesting school year. And uhh… speaking of interesting school year, how’s… um, Sean doing with all this?”

He grimaced a little. “Oh, you know… about as well as can be expected. They tried to say that he’s free to attend classes with us, but he just said he went through eight years of being stuck in homeschooling and he’s not in any hurry to sit in a classroom anytime soon.”

“You know,” I murmured, “that’s totally fair. I just hope he’ll be okay.”

“His uncle and brother are keeping him busy,” Columbus assured me. “And Roxa, of course. Apparently they’re taking the pack to Brazil next. He made me promise to call him tonight to tell him how today goes.”

“I want in on that,” I informed the boy. “Lemme know when you’re gonna call him.”

Despite the crowd that was surrounding the lake, things were actually pretty organized. Due in no small part, I was sure, to the appearance of both Gabriel Prosser and Athena. The two of them were standing by several doors that had been summoned to stand in front of the lake, and had put people into lines based on where they were actually going. There were a few other adults, including Deveron, Nevada, and Professor Kohaku, who were going through the crowd, organizing them into the right lines.

It also wasn’t just former Crossroads students (of all four grades) lining up here. There were Alters too, as well as Natural Heretics from the Atherby camp who wanted to participate in this. The whole thing had originally sprung out of Abigail insisting that there still be school despite the war going on, that our education not completely disappear. She’d had to make a lot of adjustments to her initial idea, but with the help of Athena, Dare, and some others, it came together. And now here we were, heading out for… somehow, a school even more strange and unique than Crossroads had been. This… was definitely going to be interesting.

Avalon, with Salten walking alongside her, joined us. As I released Shiori for the moment and moved to kiss my other girlfriend (I was actually starting to get accustomed to that idea), she returned it with a fond murmur. Then she pulled back, announcing, “Don’t think you’re off the hook on training just because we’re busy this morning. We’ll find time later to make up for it.”

“I had no doubt,” I murmured with a quiet giggle, deliberately not thinking about the fact that she had been training us so hard to avoid thinking about the still-imprisoned Gaia. “After all, if you didn’t push training, I’d figure you were a doppelganger. Or a shapeshifter, or–huh. We have very strange lives, you know?”

The others agreed, just as Deveron approached. Boy, it was still odd to see him as an adult after the past year. Which just really fed into what I’d just said about the whole ‘strange lives’ thing.

“Hey guys, lookie there, I don’t have to go drag you out of bed after all,” he teased. “Without Avalon to browbeat you into sunrise training, I thought we might have some issues.”

“I still had a Savvy-shaped alarm clock,” I informed him primly. “And weren’t you the one sleeping in a lot this summer? I swear I remember something about you missing a couple training times because of that.”

“I earned it,” he insisted, winking before turning to gesture. “Okay, you guys want this line over here. No pushing, no shoving, and definitely no flinging powers around to get ahead. I know what troublemakers you people are.”

“Only when you’re the mentor,” Columbus retorted. “You’re a terrible influence.”

“Terrible, or amazing?” Deveron shot right back before giving me a brief embrace. “Head on up.”

We went to join the line there, standing just behind Rebecca, Tristan, and Vanessa. They were standing with a couple obvious Alter teenagers (one a tree-like Relukun boy and the other a white and gray female cat-girl who both set my Stranger-sense off), and a Natural Prevenkuat (the two-headed Hyena-type people who were really fast) Heretic boy whose name I thought was either Dai or Denji.

“You’re Flick, right?” Maybe-Dai-or-Denji, a dark-haired Asian boy with close-cut hair and a scar across his right cheek asked. He extended a hand to me. “I’m Jason.”

Wow. Boy, was I ever off. Where the hell did I get Dai or Denji from? Blushing a little, I took his hand. “Jason?”

He winked. “You were expecting maybe something like Haruto?” With a shrug, the boy explained, “My dad still lives in Japan. He calls me Danuja, and so do a few people around here. But I’ve lived in San Francisco my whole life… errr… or I did, before… stuff happened and I ended up here. Anyway, I’ve gone by Jason here in the states forever. Either works though. Jason, Danuja, hey you. It’s all good.”

“Then yeah, I’m definitely Flick,” I confirmed before looking to the other two unfamiliar figures alongside Tristan and Vanessa. “Sorry, I don’t think we’ve met.”

The cat-girl, a white and brown-furred figure with suspicious eyes, hesitantly replied, “Triss.”

“And Kersel,” the male Relukun flatly informed me. He and Triss both watched me, and the others, carefully.

Tristan spoke up brightly then, putting one arm around Triss’s shoulders. “Now isn’t this great? We all know each other.”

Despite her suspicion about me, the cat-girl (seriously, I needed to figure out what Alter she was, because referring to her as cat-girl was probably really bad) seemed more at ease with Tristan. Maybe it was the whole hybrid thing, because she wasn’t directing any kind of look toward Shiori or Vanessa either.

“Triss and Kersel, cool.” I gave them both a thumbs up. “Good to meet you guys. I guess we’ll be spending a lot of time together up there, huh?”

The two exchanged glances, a silent bit of conversation clearly passing between them before Kersel nodded. “Yes, it seems that way. We just… hope that things run smoothly.”

“We all do,” I assured him. “But even if they don’t, we’ll deal with it. We’re all in this together.”

Vanessa, who had been whispering something to Tabbris when the other girl went to greet her older siblings, spoke up. “Flick’s right. Whatever problems come up, we’ll deal with them.”

Behind us, Salten made a huff of agreement, the Peryton stepping up to my side before using a wing to nudge me until I reached out to scratch his neck. Again, the two Alters looked at each other. I had the feeling they’d been through a lot to get to this point. Between them and the stuff that Jason had hinted at about his own life, there was clearly plenty of history here I didn’t know.

But hey, there was a whole school year ahead of us. It would come up.

Together, we reached the waiting door by the beach a couple minutes later. Staring at it, I shook my head. “You know, I can’t believe I’m starting another school year by going through a magic door attached to nothing.”

“Of course, Miss Chambers,” Professor Dare announced while stepping up behind me, “perhaps this time you can go through without sending a rock in first.”

“And deny Herbie the chance to have a brother?” I gasped as though scandalized, putting a protective hand against the pocket of my backpack where the rock and my cyberform mice’s house was before snickering at the look on her face. “Okay, okay. We’ll just go.”

Rebecca poked me. “It’s not really… you know… is it?”

Just like I had with Columbus, I winked. “What do you think?” With that, added. “Come on, let’s do this.” Cracking my neck, I waved to Professor Dare for the moment, then moved up to the door.

The door, which would take me to the place that would be our temporary home and school while we weren’t here at the camp or out on missions to help the rebellion. Because we were still doing that. Abigail had basically made a deal to set up a school for us to spend about half our weekdays at, so we were still getting an education. The other half of our days would be spent helping to save Alters, building and training an army to stop Crossroads and Eden’s Garden from killing everyone, and… well, plenty of other things, I was sure. We were still students, but we were also more than that. We had to be.

Taking a breath, I stepped through the door… and onto the Aelaestiam space station, the base that belonged to Athena, which Tabbris and I had spent several weeks on back in Seosten space. It had made it to Earth, apparently thanks in no small part to Chayyiel, who had been busy doing a lot more while she was here than just piloting me through the biggest fight of my life. In any case, the station was now located within Earth’s sun, and had been prepared over the past month or so to take on a lot more students than they’d had before. Students from Crossroads, Eden’s Garden, Natural Heretics, and Alters, with teachers from all three of those groups as well.

Yeah, this was definitely going to be an interesting school year.

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Denouement 12 – Life And Death (Heretical Edge)

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“You… you saw her?” Flick’s tentative, quiet voice quivered just a little as she stared at Sariel while Tabbris stood a bit out of the way. The three of them were otherwise alone in one of the Atherby cabins at this point, almost immediately after the escape from the Crossroads prison. The girl had been immediately pulled aside by Mercury and taken to where Sariel waited while everyone else was still sorting themselves out. 

With a single nod, the Seosten woman carefully replied, “Yes. She’s okay, Felicity. Or she was when I… when we left.” Her face fell a bit as she added, “I’m sorry that I couldn’t bring her out. There was no way to do it, not with the spell Fossor had on her. If I possessed her, or took her away from there, it… there wouldn’t have been time to save her. There just wasn’t time, and I didn’t want to play that kind of game with her life. I didn’t want to take that risk.” 

Flick was quiet for a few long seconds, mind lost in considering everything that could have been. So close and yet so far from being reunited with her mother. “And if you did bring her, we don’t know how much it would have helped,” she murmured quietly, clearly trying to convince herself. “She’s still under his control, still sworn to follow his commands. He probably has her under orders to come back to him the instant she’s taken away. There’s not–we don’t know what would’ve happened.” Despite her words, it was clear that Flick desperately wished that a miracle had happened. 

In the end, it was Tabbris who came forward and put a hand gently on her sister’s arm. “Flick?” she began slowly. “A… a lot of good things happened today too. We pulled off a lot of really hard things.” 

With a small smile, Flick took the girl’s hand and squeezed it. “You’re right. A lot of really hard things happened today. A… a lot of really hard things happened this whole year. Impossible things. Starting the rebellion up again, escaping Crossroads, meeting Guinevere, getting the Seosten to back off for a year, everything that…” She swallowed. “Everything that happened with us being out in space. Finding out about you…” Her free hand fondly brushed Tabbris’s hair back. “I can’t believe it hasn’t even been a year since that day on the bus. I haven’t known about all this stuff for even a year yet. I’ve said it before, but it… it feels like a lot longer. A hell of a lot longer.” 

Gazing off into the distance for a few seconds, Flick finally shook that off before focusing on Sariel. “If you think I’m going to blame you for not getting my mother out of there, you’re wrong. You did the best you could. You… you got her friends, her old teammates out. That should’ve been impossible. I know what Fossor does, how he… how he likes to be in control. I don’t know exactly what you did, but I know that if you got both of those hostages away from him, it must’ve been one of the most amazing things in a world full of amazing things. I know you must have risked a lot to save them. You could have left. You could have recalled out of there. You had to fight my mom with Fossor right there, and you stayed? You stayed and you got my mom’s friends out. You saved them. If your guilt complex thinks I’m going to be mad at you because didn’t manage to throw the game-winning touchdown through a neighboring basketball hoop to pull out that game at the same time, you’re crazy. Yeah, I wish my mom was here. I really wish we could’ve added her to the list of rescued parents this year like that. But I’m not mad because it didn’t happen. This whole thing isn’t over yet. Nowhere near it. You didn’t fail to bring her back, you succeeded at stopping him from using my mother’s friends to torture her even more. You took them away from him.” 

Through the resulting long silence as Flick finished talking, she and Sariel stared at one another. Finally, Tabbris leaned that way and stage-whispered. “See, Mama? I told you Flick’s great.” 

The words made both of the others laugh a bit despite themselves, before the girl in question cleared her throat a bit awkwardly. “Um, you said you brought Roger and Seamus out of there?” 

“Yes,” Sariel confirmed. “But they are… well, they’re still being tended to. We’re having them checked thoroughly for any traps or tricks. You can see them as soon as we’re absolutely certain nothing… bad will happen. I don’t believe Fossor intended them to be rescued, but we’ve already found several trap spells on the two that he clearly left just in case. We’re making sure those were the only ones before letting them anywhere near you or any of Joselyn’s family.” 

“That makes sense,” Flick muttered darkly. “I’m pretty sure Fossor doesn’t like his toys being taken away. Of course he’d have contingency measures for even ones like them. And… and my mother… he’s had her a lot longer.” Her voice shook, eyes widening with thoughts of what kind of measures the necromancer might have taken to ensure her mother would be with him forever as she clutched a hand against her suddenly queasy stomach. 

Sariel stepped that way to embrace Felicity. “I will promise you every day until it happens, we will get your mother away from that monster. Whatever we have to do, he is not going to keep her.” 

Flick, a bit surprised by the hug but going with it, swallowed hard. “I… I know. It just feels like we’ve had to ignore him for so long this year. We’ve ignored him and look what he’s done. He killed one of the Committee members and blamed Gaia for it. He stole the Hangman rope for… for whatever horrible thing he’s planning to use that for. When I met him, I had one year before he came for me. Now I have a few months. That’s it. A few months, then whatever plan he’s got for me, whatever he’s been working on this whole time, it’ll be time for it.” 

“Whatever it is,” Sariel firmly assured her. “I can’t promise we’ll be ready for it. But I can promise that we will do everything possible to make sure you’re not alone.” She released the girl, stepping back to look at her. “As long as you don’t go off on your own. You understand? I know you want to save your mother. And he will probably promise any number of things. He might tell you that if you come to him, he’ll take you instead and release her. He might even magically swear to it. Do not listen to him, Felicity. I don’t care what he promises, what he threatens. If you go to him, he will win. Your mother–” 

“Mom would kill herself before she let me trade myself for her,” Flick murmured, glancing away. It was clear the thought had occurred to her before. Particularly with the way she and Tabbris exchanged very brief glances before the older girl’s gaze found the floor. “Or she’d just kill herself trying to get me away from him. I wouldn’t be saving her, I’d be condemning her to die one way or another. Either from doing something stupid to get me out of there, or just… or just being killed by him when he didn’t need her anymore. Or because he sacrifices her for whatever plan he has. I know. I know all that. I get it. I’ve thought about it for months now, all the time.” 

“You thought about offering to trade yourself for her already,” Sariel gently noted, watching her. 

A slow nod came. “I thought about it. I even worked out how it might go, how I could maybe make sure he had to follow through.” Then she shrugged, her voice hollow. “It wouldn’t work. It would be dumb, and… I’d be betraying everyone here. My friends, my dad, the rest of my family… you guys. I’d be hurting everyone just to feel for a second like I was being proactive. It would make me feel less useless for a second or two, that’s it.” 

Smiling very faintly, Sariel noted, “The fact that you recognize that puts you quite a bit ahead of many others I could mention.” Her voice softened a little more, as she added, “You are like your mother in many ways, Felicity Chambers. Almost supernaturally surprising at times.” 

Finally glancing up, Flick met her gaze, voice hard. “Whatever happens when my birthday comes, let’s just hope that necromantic bastard gets to be surprised too. I really want him to realize he’s made a huge fucking mistake about two seconds before his head comes off and we get to play soccer with it.” 

Raising a hand, Tabbris offered, “Maybe Chayyiel could possess you again. I’m pretty sure Litonya was really freaking surprised by that.” 

The words made Sariel begin to chuckle. “Yes, I’m sure that would–” She stopped then, blinking at her daughter, then to Flick, then back again while her mouth opened and shut. “Wait…

“Chayyiel did what?!” 

*******

From the dark cabin where several of the strongest mages the combined Atherby, rebel Seosten, and former Crossroads groups could field had gone over him with a fine-toothed comb to ensure there were no spells or other magical tricks, Sean Gerardo emerged. He stepped out, feet making the porch creak heavily as he moved down onto the grass. Down into the sunlight. 

He stood there, eyes closed for a moment while he slowly tilted his head up toward the sky. There, he stayed motionless, simply breathing in the new, non-recycled air. The real, true outside. Freedom. He breathed in freedom after eight years of imprisonment. He breathed it in. 

And he cried. Hands clenched at his sides, face upturned toward the sun in this moment of what should have been pure, unadulterated joy at his own freedom, Sean cried. Tears fell freely as he let go of everything he’d been holding in for so long. The unfairness, the unjust treatment, the insanity of his parents agreeing to it. He let all of it free, allowing it to fall right along with his tears. He was lost, adrift on his own chaotic maelstrom of fears, joys, loss, and triumph. 

He was free. Yet how much had he lost? Eight years. He had been there for eight years. Eight times longer than he had even known Flick. Those people had completely lost their minds. They were insane. His parents and the rest of them, they… they had to be stopped. He understood that more than he ever had before this. He understood just how far they would go to maintain their delusions, just how obsessed they were and how willing they were to break everything to avoid admitting they were wrong. This wasn’t a case of simply misinformed people. They truly, fanatically believed that if the entirety of humanity would be erased if they didn’t do what they were doing. They believed that every single species in the universe would gleefully eradicate every human being if given half a chance, that they were the lone defending force against total human extinction. And against that kind of pressure, against the extermination of all humanity, there were no measures that were off limits, nothing some of them wouldn’t do. 

This was going to be a war, in every sense of the word. More than anything else, he had learned that over his time imprisoned. The levels they were willing to go to… This wouldn’t be some simple matter of just telling them the truth. Many would never accept it. And those… he knew what would have to be done. He didn’t like it. But it was coming. To change society, to really change it… they would have to do harsh things. 

“Hey.” 

The word caught his attention, and Sean turned a bit to see his brother there. Ian stood a few yards away, just as bloodied and dirty as he’d been back on that battlefield. It looked like he’d gone through hell. 

“Gross, dude,” Sean murmured after looking him up and down. “Ever heard of a shower?” 

A snort escaped the other man before Ian crossed the distance between them. His hand moved to take his brother’s before stopping himself. “I–sorry. That… I guess you’re probably not used to people touching you, huh?” 

Glancing away, Sean squeezed Ian’s hand a bit testingly. “It’s kind of a new experience, especially doing it for real instead of in my head.” Exhaling, he turned his gaze back to the other man’s. “And that sounded really creepy.” 

“I’m sorry, man.” Ian’s voice was quiet, his hand still holding his little–now not so little–brother’s. “I’m sorry I haven’t been there for you. Not just through this… this prison shit. Ever. I’m sorry I’ve been a shit brother for so long even before that.” 

Sean shook his head. “Part of me feels like I should make a crack about how you’re just sad that you can’t give me noogies anymore. But… but maybe that’s just because this whole thing is really awkward.” He focused once more, meeting Ian’s gaze. “Everyone keeps saying they’re sorry, as if this is their fault. But I know whose fault it is. And they’ll get theirs.” 

“Our family’s kind of fucked up, isn’t it?” Ian muttered the words under his breath before muttering several curses in Colombian Spanish. “You’re right, they’ll get theirs. Mom… Dad… and all the rest of them.” 

Before Sean could say anything to that, Sebastian came into view from the side of the cabin. “It’s not going to be easy, you know,” the man announced. “Physically or emotionally. It’s not just your parents. It’s your old classmates, your friends. It’s other people’s family, people they care about. All these people here in this camp? All the Heretics who came here, they’ve all got people they love or want to protect who stayed at Crossroads. This whole thing is going to be one big joda.” He gestured then. “Now, you two gonna hug so I can get my own out of my favorite nephew, or what?” 

“Oh, he’s your favorite nephew now?” Ian started before Sean gave him a little yank by the hand. The two embraced briefly, hands clapping each other’s backs before they stepped aside.

“Now?” Sebastian retorted while taking his turn to embrace Sean tightly. “He was always my favorite.” He leaned back then, looking up at the boy… man in question. “Even if he did get too damn tall like the rest of you.” 

With a dry chuckle, Sean replied, “Not our fault you stopped growing at sixteen, Tío Sebastian.” It was such an easy thing to say, springing straight to his lips. Then he thought about the fact that, from their point of view, he hadn’t been that much older than sixteen very recently. It was enough to cast a dark cloud over their reunion, but he pushed on anyway. Just because you couldn’t stop dark clouds from showing up didn’t mean you had to lay down in the puddles they made. “What are you doing here anyway? I thought you retired.” 

Giving him a long, thorough tongue lashing in Spanish at the very suggestion that he would sit on the sidelines while his nephew was in trouble, Sebastian settled with, “And I’m not sitting out any more. Not this. Not now. This war is going to take everyone. Especially if we’re going to get anywhere with it before this whole Seosten time limit thing is up next year.” 

“That and you don’t want Mateo running off by himself,” Ian noted mildly. 

“Mateo would never be off by himself,” Sebastian informed him. “He’s got his pack. And… speaking of which.” With a brief glance over Sean’s shoulder, he took Ian by the arm. “Come on then, let’s not monopolize the boy.” He met his just-freed nephew’s gaze pointedly. “Whatever happens with your parents, Sean, you’ve still got family. Don’t you forget that.” 

Ian started to say something else, before he too looked past Sean. Raising an eyebrow, he murmured, “Muy bueno, hermano.” Then he allowed himself to be pulled away. 

With a very small smile as he shook his head, Sean spoke up. “Hey, Roxa.” 

There was a brief pause before the girl’s voice flatly asked, “Did your brother just call me ‘very good?’” 

Snorting, Sean turned to face the girl. When he saw her, bloodied, covered in mud and dirt, clothes torn, he made a noise in the back of his throat. “Oh… God. He wasn’t wrong. You… look…” Stopping himself, he winced while shaking his head. “I’m sorry. Shit. I know we had this whole thing going on and to you it was like… a couple months ago. So you really didn’t sign up for… for this. I spent eight years building you up in my head. Eight years thinking about what you looked like, making this perfect picture of you in my own imagination, some… crazy version idealized of you that couldn’t hope to match up to reality. I spent eight years building the perfect image of you in my head. 

“So how in the hell is the real you even more beautiful than I ever imagined?” 

In a rush of motion, Roxa was in front of him. Her arms went around his neck, and she hopped, legs wrapping around his waist as her mouth sought and found his. 

He kissed her. He held her. His arms clutched the now-much younger girl tight against himself, and he didn’t let go. Not for a very long time. 

His girl. 

His wolf. 

*******

“You know, if you were really that tired of being identical, there were easier ways to take care of it.” 

The words came from Sands, as she stood in the camp medical center with her hands on her hips, staring at her twin sister. Scout was sitting on the edge of a hospital bed. Or rather, most of her was. Her left arm had been removed entirely, all the way up to the shoulder. In its place was a thin rounded metal cylinder about eight inches long and three inches thick. 

In response to her sister’s worried teasing, Scout poked her in the stomach with her remaining hand, offering her a smile before simply saying, “Upgrade.” 

“Yes, yes, upgrade.” Instead of Sands, it was a short, red-skinned man with a bright shock of wild white hair who spoke then. He stood barely an inch taller than the twins, approaching with a couple fancy-looking tools in two of his four hands (he only had two arms, each splitting around the elbow into two forearms) as he offered them both a smile. “It is an upgrade. But as I said, if you would prefer to take the time to let the arm regenerate more… naturally, even with magical assistance, that is an option. With your kind of power and what was done to your arm, it will take a month or so, but it’s there.” 

“Are you sure about this, Scout?”  Larissa asked from where she was sitting, tensely watching her girls. “You don’t have to go with the tech replacement if you don’t want to.” 

Head shaking at that, Scout softly replied, “Advantages are good.” 

“Alright,” the doctor, an Alter by the name of Bhenquiet (he went by Dr. Ben) announced while using his tools to make a couple last minute adjustments to the implanted metal cylinder. “Remember, anytime you want to take it out and allow the arm to grow normally, let me know. Do not try to do it yourself. I don’t want you hurting yourself or my work. Here.” He stepped back, gesturing for Sands to do the same. “Let’s see it. Just like I told you.” 

Closing her eyes, Scout focused. It took a few long seconds before there was a flicker of an image from the cylinder. It flashed in and out a couple times, then reappeared and solidified. It was her arm. Or rather, a solid holographic projection of her arm that looked identical to the real thing.

“It’ll be stronger than your old arm was, though not as strong as you could get it to be through… powers,” Dr. Ben informed her with only a slight bit of awkwardness around the idea of her killing others to make her real arm stronger. “Right now I’ve got it programmed for the arm, a sword, a shield, and a few other basic things. You can go through them and add more. I’ll show you how, or you can get a programmer to do it. There’s some other details, about what kind of magic you can use with it, that kind of thing. Oh, and don’t forget, you can’t activate magic that requires touch with this hand. It’s not real. If you’ve gotta touch a spell to activate it, you’ve gotta use your real hand. Understand?” 

Scout nodded, before asking, “Doug and Jazz?” 

“The girl’s just fine, just a little beat up.” The answer came not from Dr. Ben, but from Donald Therasis, Rudolph’s many-greats grandfather. The older man came into the medical cabin carrying a clipboard in one hand and a leather bag in the other. He set both down on the nearby table before adding, “Douglas chose to have his own eye replaced similar to Scout’s arm, though I’ll let him share the specifics with you. I wouldn’t dream of taking that kind of surprise away from him.” 

With that, he embraced Larissa. “I’m glad you all made it out. It sounds like things were… intense.” There was a certain sadness behind the old man’s eyes. Long as he had lived, he still felt great pain at the loss of those he cared about, and he had truly cared for Rudolph.  

But he did, at least, now understand what had happened to the boy. He had the whole story, and had made the choice to come here to the Atherby camp to help in any way that he could. 

With a small smile, Larissa squeezed the man tightly. “We’re all glad you’re here, Donald. I’m pretty sure we’re going to keep you, Dr. Ben here, and a lot of other people pretty busy this year.” 

“Not too busy,” Donald replied easily, “I’ve still got a tennis game to keep up on. And speaking of tennis, how’s the girl’s new arm working out?” 

With a thought, Scout made the holographic projection of her arm turn to a sword, then back again. “Good.” 

“So she says,” her mother murmured, stepping over to put a hand on it. “Feels pretty close to the real thing, at least.” She smiled then, though it was a worried smile. “My brave girls. My Sandoval. My Scout.” 

“No,” the girl corrected, head shaking. “Not Scout. Sarah. 

“Just Sarah.” 

*******

“Joselyn should be here.” 

It was late that night, the celebrations (punctuated by careful tests for any kind of trickery or traps) having gone on throughout the day and evening. There was still a lot to do, even just counting dealing with the prisoners they had pulled out of the Crossroads prison and figuring out who could be trusted. There was more work to be done than anyone could name. But for now, for this moment, they were celebrating. 

This particular celebration, somber as it might have been, revolved around the seven figures who sat around a small campfire on the edge of the lake. Five had been former teammates. Deveron, Lillian, Seamus, Roger, and Tribald. The other two were Felicity Chambers and her father, Lincoln. As the flames crackled, the group listened to the music, shouting, laughter, and general merriment coming from the rest of the camp. 

Roger, who had just spoken, continued. “She should be here. Not… not with that psycho.” 

“She started this,” Tribald murmured quietly, the incredibly tall, disconcertingly lanky man’s knees drawn up almost awkwardly as he poked at the fire with a stick. “She should be here now that it’s back.” 

Deveron cleared his throat a little, glancing toward Lincoln and Flick. “We just have to bring her back. Even… especially if it means prying her out of that necromancer fuck’s cold dead hands.”

“I like that plan,” Lincoln put in before laying a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “I mean, I didn’t grow up with Joselyn the way you all did. I don’t know her as well. But–” 

“Yes, you do.” That was Deveron, his voice quiet, yet firm. “You might not know the Heretic, Lincoln. But you know the woman. You know Joselyn. Everything important, everything that’s her, you know.” 

The two men met each other’s gazes for a moment, a deep understanding passing between them before Lillian spoke up. “Dev’s right. You know who Joselyn is, the kind of person she’s always been. For details… we can provide those. Until she’s here to do it herself.” 

“Speaking of details,” Seamus began, reaching over with his foot to bump Deveron’s, “are you planning on looking like that for the rest of your life, or would you like to join the rest of the adults?” 

Giving him a wry smirk, Deveron gestured. “Okay, okay. I guess part of me was just waiting for the best time. But this is as good as any.” His hand reached up, producing a knife from nowhere. Drawing a thin cut across his arm, he held it out over the fire. As the blood dripped into the flame, the man murmured a spell under his breath. He grimaced then, while the blood continued to drip until a small onyx marble appeared, drawn out of his arm. The marble fell into the fire as well, breaking apart into a cloud of black smoke. 

Over the next few seconds, Deveron’s appearance changed. He grew older, appearing much like himself, but in his late twenties. While the others watched, he stretched out a bit, cracking his neck and then his knuckles. “Ahhh… there. Good to be me again.”

“Pffft.” Dismissively waving a hand, Flick informed him, “Sean already beat you to the whole ‘suddenly appearing older than he was’ trick. Now it just looks like you’re copying him.” 

“Oh good,” Lincoln muttered in the wake of that, “now I can stop feeling quite as awkward about my wife having children with a guy who looks too young to vote.” 

“Gross,” Flick informed them both before pushing herself up. As Lincoln made as though to stand up as well, she waved him off. “Stay. You guys… talk. I just need to stretch my legs. I’ll be right back.” 

With that, she looked around the fire at the group of her mother’s old friends before stepping away. Silently, the blonde girl walked away from the camp a short distance. She climbed the nearby hill, thoughts kept only to herself, as Tabbris was with her own mother and other siblings.  

At the top of the hill, Flick stood there and looked out at the camp. She watched all the people. Some were Atherby regulars. Some were Crossroads rebels. Still others were Seosten former prisoners, freed from the hell created and maintained by Kushiel. 

Finally, she raised her gaze to the sky. “Well, Mom, we’re doing it. We’re gonna keep this whole rebellion thing going. You know, until you can be here yourself to show us all how to do it right. Then you can tell us all about how bad we are at it and fix everything.” 

Smiling a little to herself, Flick repeated those words more quietly. “Fix everything. I guess that’s gonna be a lot harder than I ever thought, huh?” She sighed, long and low. “There’s so much going on, so many bad… evil… horrible people. Sometimes it feels like it’s too much. I suppose… when it comes down to it, no matter how many things you have to do, no matter how… overwhelming it feels, all you can do is take one step at a time. It might be a lot of steps. But I’ve seen the video of you teaching me how to walk. I started… running almost before I even had walking down. Okay, it was a goofy run and I nearly killed myself a few times, but still. I’ve been crossing steps faster than I was supposed to basically my whole life. Old habits die hard.  

“I love you, Mom. We’re coming for you. No matter what happens, I swear, we’re coming for you. We are. I just…” She sighed, long and heavy. “I wish… I keep wishing we had something, anything that… that was an advantage. Something to… something to hold over him, or to trick him with, or… I don’t know. It just feels like he’s always ahead. Sariel got one over on him today, but I don’t think something like that’ll work again. And I just… wish we had… anything that could–”

“Hello.” 

The greeting, coming from behind Flick, cut her off. She turned, expecting to see one of the camp people, or maybe one of the new Crossroads rebels. Instead, she found herself facing a blueish-green figure, partially transparent. The figure was a teenage girl, pretty even in that state, with short hair and a mischievous look. 

“What–who… you…” Flick stared in confusion. “You’re a… a ghost, right? You’re a ghost. Did… I call you or something? I’m not very good at this necromancer thing yet. It’s kind of a whole issue.” 

“Yes, I am a ghost,” the impish girl confirmed. “And I’m here because of your power. But also because I want to help you.” 

“Help?” Flick echoed. “How–I don’t understand. What can you help with? Who are you?” 

There was a brief silence as the ghost girl hesitated. Then she met Flick’s gaze. “My name is Rahanvael. My brother is the one you know as Fossor. 

“And I can help you beat him.” 

TO BE CONTINUED IN YEAR 2. 

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Denouement 4 – Chicanery (Heretical Edge)

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Hand pressed against the red circle on the wall of his living room to activate the intercom linking his prison house to the guards, Sean Gerardo’s mouth opened as he called, “Hey, Cristof! You still out there?” 

There was a momentary pause before Cristof Manders appeared in a brief flash of light. The man was three inches shorter than Sean’s own six foot four, and much thinner. Sean may have been stuck in this prison for eight years (from his point of view), but over time he had convinced his jailers to provide a few extra amenities, including an entire, well-equipped gym to replace his own makeshift one. He spent hours each day in that gym, and it showed in his form. 

But while Cristof may have looked smaller than Sean, the power discrepancy had always been far lopsided in the other direction. Cristof was a full Heretic and had been for over forty years. Which could be said for any of the man’s coworkers as well. Sean’s personal training and workout regime meant nothing next to the powers that any of his jailers could employ. 

Squinting at Sean suspiciously, Cristof asked flatly, “What do you want, Gerardo? Your parents aren’t scheduled to visit for another–” He paused, clearly considering the time differences. “–another two days by your clock. And you’ve already had your groceries delivered this week.”

Sean’s head bobbed up and down. “Right, yeah. But I figured you might want to play another game.” He gestured toward the table where he’d set up the chess board. “If you’re not busy.” 

Again, the other man paused. His head tilted as though listening to something that Sean couldn’t hear, before he lifted his chin. “I don’t know if you’ve somehow figured out what’s going on, or if this is all part of a contingency plan for anyone who ended up like you, but it’s not working.” 

Doing an admirable job of looking confused, Sean’s eyes widened fractionally. “Uhh, what?” 

“The people you’ve got outside,” Cristof snapped. “They’re not getting in here. And you know what? Even if they do, you’re still not getting away. Because the instant they breach the prison is the instant we teleport you out of here. I mean hell, that’s not even something we have to do manually. It’s built into the prison defenses, Gerardo. The instant anyone who isn’t allowed in this prison sets foot in it, you and every other prisoner are immediately transported to a back-up facility on the other side of the ocean. So this whole attack? It’s completely pointless.” 

“Okay, well, I don’t know anything about an attack.” Sean’s shoulders shrugged. “Not sure how I could, unless you guys are a lot worse at security than you’re supposed to be. But if there’s something going on out there, do you need to go out and help?” 

The man gave him a dangerous smile. “Nah. They don’t need me out there to deal with this. Trust me, we were ready. I’m here to play backup for the backup. On the off-chance your old friends manage to bypass the automated security, I’ll take you to your new prison myself.” 

With an easy nod, Sean’s mouth opened to ask, “Well, it’d probably be easier to protect those automated security spells if you were in the room with them instead of here, wouldn’t it?” 

“And leave you alone in here?” Cristof snorted. “Nah, you’re up to something. I can tell.” 

“Sure, okay.” Sean’s voice was agreeable and personable. “Well, I suppose the easiest thing to do would be to take me with you then, right?” His shoulders shrugged once more. “I mean, if my friends out there are coming here to get me out, my not being here would thwart that pretty effectively. You could keep an eye on me and the emergency security spells at the same time. Then if anything did happen to them, you could probably see it in time to fix it.” 

For a few long seconds, the man just stared at him. “Take you out of your prison cell?” 

“You have to admit,” Sean’s voice pointed out, “no one out there would expect it. They come bursting in, using all their plans and effort just getting to this cell and… whoops, I’m not here. I’m out there with you, in a secure room where they don’t have the slightest prayer of finding me. You’d be saving the day. Saving the whole prison, really. Hell, you could leave a trap here so that anyone who jumps in to save me gets caught in it.” 

“A trap…” Cristof echoed slowly, clearly considering it. “Yeah. Hey, you get over here.” He pointed to the front door. “Stand right there and don’t move, you got me? Do not move.” He waited until Sean had moved to stand there, then quickly scrawled a few quick runes around the walls, activating several prepared spells before backing up to join his prisoner. “Right. First one of your friends out there that manage to come here are going to get a real big surprise.” 

Sean’s head bowed. “I feel sorry for whoever ends up in here.” His mouth turned up in a very slight smile then as he looked at his jailer. “But hey, they did pretty much ask for it.” 

“Yeah… yeah, they did. Now come on.” Cristof grabbed him by the shoulder. “You try to pull anything right now and I swear, you won’t wake up from the coma for a month. Got it?” When Sean’s head bobbed in a nod, he grabbed the door, activating the spell on it to transport both of them out of the cell that the boy-turned-man had been trapped in for so long. 

They appeared together in a narrow corridor with metal walls lined with various glowing spell glyphs. Behind them was a vault door, apparently what Sean’s cell entrance had looked like from the other side. “You pull away from me,” Cristof warned him, “and those spells on the walls will put you on your ass so fast you’ll think you time-traveled.” He then yanked his charge along down the corridor. They passed several more metal vault-like doors. Other prisons. 

“I thought there’d be more guards out here.” Sean’s voice was contemplative, as they reached a short flight of stairs at the end of the narrow corridor. “You know, normal patrols just in case.” 

“There are,” his jailer snapped, grip tightening on his shoulder while all-but dragging him up those stairs. “Most of them are busy dealing with your friends outside. But don’t get cocky, I can deal with you myself, and I’m not the only one here. You’re not going anywhere, Gerardo.” 

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Sean’s voice was smooth and quiet, a reassuring timbre that eased Cristof’s suspicion while the man pulled him along in a tight, inescapable grip. 

“Hold it!” The new voice interrupted just as they reached the top of the stairs, where a pair of double doors waited at the end of a circular landing. There was another Heretic there, a guard Sean knew by the name of Julien. He had a three-bladed spear in one hand, his face a mixture of apprehension and disbelief. “What the hell, Cristof? You brought Gerardo out of–explain this! Do you have any idea what’s going on out there? We’re under siege and you choose now to-” 

“Yeah,” Cristof snapped, “I know what’s going on. And I know that if those guys actually make it in here, the first place they’ll go is this guy’s cell. So better for him to not be there, get it? This room is the most protected one in the prison. I’m taking him in there. Anyone tries to get past you, I’ll teleport him the hell out of here and they’ll get absolutely nothing.” 

“It–are you sure that…” With a frown, Julien slowly asked, “Is that really something that we–” 

“You’re right.” Sean’s hand rose for attention, drawing the men’s gazes. “It’s not a perfect plan. But you know what would make it better? You keeping guard right here.” His head nodded toward the floor in front of the room. “Believe me, I know my friends and you should be ready to deal with them if they get this far. Don’t let yourself get distracted, because they’ll take advantage. You should be here, ready for them.” 

“I… right, yeah. Go inside.” Julien stepped away from the double doors, already watching the way they had come from. “Get him in there, lock the place down. I’ll make sure no one gets through.” He gave a sharp look toward Sean. “Your friends are about to fail, you know. Then you’ll have plenty of company in here. Hell, maybe we’ll arrange some play dates so you can all talk about how dumb this rescue attempt was.” 

“Hey, that’s enough,” Cristof snapped. “Yeah, the kid–err… guy’s not going anywhere. But you don’t have to be a dick about it. These people are just doing what they think is right. They’re wrong, but we don’t convince them of that by being assholes. They’re misguided, not some kind of… Strangers. Just protect the entrance, let me handle Gerardo.” 

With that, the man opened the door and pulled Sean in after him before letting it close. They were now in a circular room about thirty feet in diameter. The walls were lined with consoles, computer monitors showing various parts of the prison inside and outside, and lots of flashing warning lights. On the screens for the exterior of the prison, they could see dozens of figures fighting, spells and powers sending bright flashes of light here and there as the intruders fought against the prisons defenders. It was total chaos, impossible to easily follow over the monitors. 

“Nice place,” Sean’s voice murmured as he slowly looked around the room, taking in the security screens with barely a glance before focusing his attention back on Cristof. “I can see why you’d bring me here. I mean, if you’ve gotta hold out somewhere, this is the place to do it. Hell, you could probably stick the controls for every security measure in this prison here.” His head shook. “But they didn’t do that, did they? They didn’t put every security measure in this room.” 

“Hell no,” Cristof retorted. “We’ve got spells to stop anyone not authorized from teleporting in or out of this place. Not just here. Two redundancies in opposite parts of the prison. Three layers of security, counting the one in here,” he bragged with a confident smile. “And if one goes down, the other two activate emergency evacuation in seconds. Like I said, your friends out there don’t have a chance. We know what we’re doing here. They’re wasting their time.”

“They’re pretty good at that.” Sean’s voice was a murmured agreement before he added, “But I hope you guys didn’t put those redundant spells too close together. They’re not like, next door or anything like that, right?” 

With a snort, Cristof snapped, “How stupid do you think we are? Look, right there.” He pointed to a map of the facility on a nearby wall. “See these two rooms? That’s where the redundancies are. Like I said, completely opposite sides of the prison, and far from this room. We’re safe.” 

Sean’s head bobbed in a quick nod. “Wow. Yeah, you guys really thought of everything. Seems like it’s all handled.” There was a brief pause before he murmured a thoughtful, “Unless…” 

Frowning with equal parts anticipation and suspicion, Cristof demanded, “Unless what?” 

The prisoner shrugged. “I dunno. I just… I mean, I certainly didn’t tell anyone about this place, right? And you know you didn’t. Seems to me like the only way my friends out there could know where this place was and how to get to it would be if somebody told them. But if it wasn’t me, because I’ve been stuck here the whole time, and it wasn’t you, then… it kind of had to be…” 

“Someone else,” Cristof finished, staring at him with wide eyes. “You think someone in this place told your friends about it. You think someone–one of the other guards– is a traitor.” 

With a cough, Sean’s gaze moved to watch the security monitors, his voice idle, as though it hardly mattered. “It’s kinda the only thing that makes sense. No other way for them to find this place. Lots of traitors going around, no way of knowing who might’ve changed their mind about the rebellion lately. And you know, if there’s a traitor in here, someone who told those guys how to get to this place, they could’ve done more than that.” 

Cristof’s weapon, a sword with two parallel blades that could each shift between various elements and metals, was in his hand. “More than that?” he demanded with a look at the door.

“Sure.” Sean’s head nodded toward the control consoles. “You know that security spell you were talking about, the one that’s supposed to teleport all the prisoners out of here the second an intruder sets foot in this place? Whoever that traitor is, he would’ve told my friends about it, right? No way he wouldn’t. So why are they trying so hard to get in here? Unless…” 

Eyes widening, Cristof’s gaze snapped from the door to one console in particular. “Unless it’s compromised,” he finished for the other man, already starting to step that way. 

“Yup.” Sean’s own voice was a conspiratorial whisper. “I bet they changed it. They made it so the spells will transport you and the rest of the guards out of here instead. You’ll be teleported so far away you’ll never make it back in time. And they’re just waiting to activate it, any… second…” 

“Not this time!” Cristof retorted, shooting Sean a hard glare before his hands danced over the controls. It was a mixture of spells and actual technology. One hand dismissed a rune intricately drawn across the console, while his other hand punched in a code on the physical keypad. His voice was triumphant as he spun from the console with a laugh. “Sorry, Gerardo, your friends’ little tricks aren’t gonna work today. I just disabled that security spell, so let’s see them try–” 

“What the hell did you just do?!” The demand came from the figure who appeared with a snap of power in the middle of the room. Another Heretic, this one a dark-skinned woman carrying a bladed shotgun, had teleported in, already whirling to face Sean while snapping her free hand up, a ball of semi-invisible force appearing at the ends of her fingers. 

At the same time, the door slid open, as Julien came rushing through as well to see what had just happened. His spear was raised and ready to throw. 

With a flash of light, a bright, glowing figure stepped from Sean’s body. Apollo stood there, hand raised. Two of the rings on his hand flared with power. The first summoned a forcefield, intercepting the ball of energy the Heretic woman had just flung toward Sean. The other sent a burst of electricity back that way, flinging her into the far wall where she crashed through one of the screens there with a spray of glass and sparks. 

Simultaneously with that, another figure shot out of the back of Apollo. Felicity Chambers was there, hand already raised. As Julien’s spear flew toward Sean, she summoned a small portal. The spear sailed through it before reappearing behind Julien to slam into the man’s leg. An instant later, Flick’s kinetic-empowered staff slammed into the staggering man’s face, knocking him into the opposite wall. She followed that up with another blow before he could recover, even as two blades, hurled by Apollo, embedded themselves in the wall to either side of Julien. 

Cristof, by that point, had jerked around, two-bladed sword coming up. But before he could do anything, Sean slapped a hand against his arm. A napkin, pulled from his pocket, was there. The napkin he had spent hours subtly drawing a spell on under the tutelage of Apollo. With a single word, Sean activated that spell, and the napkin exploded into a sudden spray of liquid metal that enveloped Cristof before instantly hardening into a cocoon. A second later, the cocoon was filled with a potent knockout gas. Even as the cocoon fell to the ground and began to melt away into a puddle, the man inside lay completely unconscious. 

Meanwhile, the two daggers Apollo had hurled produced figures of their own. Sands and Avalon both appeared while Julien was raising a hand toward Flick. He had just summoned a bolt of power that would punch through the girl’s body, when her newly emerged teammates each struck the man from either side. Sands’ mace and a glowing warhammer conjured from one of Avalon’s gauntlets each slammed into him. That time, he collapsed and didn’t rise again. 

Quickly, Flick and the others took the man’s spear from his leg before using one of the enchanted rocks Wyatt had provided. This one wouldn’t teleport the man anywhere (that was impossible from in here until the security defenses were taken down), but it would ensure that he stayed unconscious for a few hours.

That done, the trio looked over first to where Cristof was, finding the man completely in hand. The woman who had appeared was down as well, Apollo tugging her limp form over to lie next to Cristof. 

Another glowing figure emerged, this time from Flick. Tabbris appeared, before she in turn produced Larissa, who produced Haiden. Athena emerged from him, Tristan from her, and Vanessa from him. Soon, the whole group was there in that room. 

“Sean!” Flick blurted the instant the initial threat was over and they were all present. With that, she threw herself that way, even as Sean reflexively opened his arms. The two embraced tightly, as Flick’s head shook. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry it took so long. Oh my God. I’m sorry.” 

Shaking his head, Sean tried to say that it wasn’t her fault, that it wasn’t any of their fault. The words stuck in his throat, and he just clung tighter. They’d interacted before during all this, in his virtual reality space whenever Apollo brought her in. But that was different from this. He hadn’t even let Flick or the others see how old he was getting in comparison to them, preferring to project himself in his mind as the boy he’d been back then. This was the first time they had really seen him as he was now. 

“Holy shit, dude,” Tristan managed, staring at him. “You’re… you’re… fucking buff.” 

A hiss of disbelief that turned into a coughing-laugh emerged from Sean, as he shook his head. “I’m… a lot of things,” he muttered. “Mostly glad to see you, man.” The two boys embraced firmly. “Really god damn glad to see you.” 

Tabbris took her turn for a hug then, followed by Sands, Vanessa, and the others. Even Avalon took his hand for a moment, squeezing before leaning in for a brief hug as she whispered in his ear about being glad to see him. But before that went on too long, Athena spoke up. “Very good. But we have to keep moving. There are still two redundant defenses to take down. Thanks to Apollo and his Tartarus gift, we know exactly where they are.” Her hand gestured to the spots on the map that Cristof had so helpfully pointed out. 

“We split into groups. One group stays here to defend this room. Two more go to each of these places, and we shut down their security simultaneously.

“This isn’t over yet.”

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