Tabbris

Growth 18-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Dinner that evening was really something, to say the least. We didn’t eat out in the main cafeteria, figuring this was something we would want to keep a little more private. It would’ve been pretty hard to focus on things with a couple hundred pairs of eyes from everyone else in the room constantly staring our way if we had eaten in public with someone like Jegudiel. He was the sort of guy who tended to attract attention even without the whole archangel thing. With that added in? Forget it, we never would’ve had any privacy at all. And having all those people watching our every move would have made the whole situation even more uncomfortable.  

In the end, it was still a fairly large group of us at the dinner, all lined up along either side of a long table that had been set up in the Moon’s apartment. Along one side of the table was my dad, both of my grandparents, Wyatt, Abigail, Koren, and me. Along the other side were Haiden and Sariel, Vanessa and Tristan, Jehoel, Spark, Puriel, and Tabbris. Jegudiel was at the end, with Tabbris next to him to his right (her mother on her other side) while I was next to him on the other side, across from my little sister. 

The entire table was laden with dozens of heavy platters of food. Seeing all of it, Jegudiel  clapped his hands together once very loudly, the sound echoing through the room. “Now this is a meal!” he boomed, a broad smile spreading across his face. “You make sure to eat as much as you can, little teuslin,” he teased with a look at Tabbris. “We’ve got to make sure you grow up nice and big so you can squish the heads of your enemies like geppins.” 

Blanching a little bit, the girl squirmed in her seat. “I’m not really sure I’m gonna be up to, um, you know, squishing.” 

“Oh don’t you worry,” Jegudiel informed her, “I used to be a pint-sized little thing like you too. Believe it or not, I was even smaller when I was your age. And even if you eat all you can and still turn out to be a tiny one, it doesn’t really matter. You’re big where it counts.” He offered the girl a wink as she stared at him. “Hell, from what I’ve heard, you being kind of small right now is the only thing that’s keeping you from taking on the entire Fomorian Empire by yourself!” His words right then were accompanied by a hearty laugh. 

Smiling a little despite myself, I watched the girl’s reaction while speaking up. “She’s impressive, that’s for sure. I’d be pretty dead, or worse, right now if it wasn’t for her.” 

Grandmaria took a sip of her water before speaking. “And we’re all certainly glad that didn’t happen.” She smiled my way while adding, “Plus, I can’t say I object to having another grandchild to spoil. Not to mention how much Arthur appreciates being able to buy more of those little video games and pretend they’re actually for one of them.” 

Popser made a huffing sound deep in his throat. “You know I can’t just hand those over without making sure they’re appropriate. Besides, when they put them in the system, what if they have questions about how it all works? I need to have a thorough understanding of all that.” 

From where he was sitting next to his own father, Dad leaned over and whispered something in his ear. Popser listened, then gave a short nod before adding, “And working with them gives me a chance to practice with these technology power whoozits.” 

For a moment, it looked like Jegudiel was going to say something about that, his expression curious. But Haiden spoke up first. “I’ve got a question of my own for you, big guy.” His gaze was focused down the table to the archangel. “How do you think the people on the front line of that war would feel about the idea of working with humans instead of using us as flesh-and-bone mecha to pilot around? You know, letting us have a say in what happens. Is it like people around here talking about asking their trucks for permission to drive them?” 

Obviously, he wasn’t the only one wondering that, but I was still surprised that anyone had asked so directly during the very first meal with this guy. And judging by a few of the looks he was getting from some of the others, they might’ve thought that he had gone too far. 

Jegudiel, however, observed him curiously before giving a short chuckle. “I wouldn’t have expected any other question from the one they called the Bane. You did an awful lot of damage while you were out there, you know.” He actually sounded admiring in that moment rather than reprimanding. “Kept a lot of them on their toes, so they didn’t get soft back away from the front lines.” Pausing briefly to consider, he amended, “Well, not as soft, anyway. You did some fine work. A lot of bad work too, but considering the situation… ehh, can’t say as I blame you too much. 

“Anyway, as for what you were asking about, I don’t really know, to be honest. I don’t use a host unless it’s for some quick tactical advantage, making them think I’m not there or something like that. And in those cases, it doesn’t tend to last very long. If there’s some big discussion going on about that, I haven’t heard it.” He shrugged. “But then, I’m usually too busy kicking Fomorian teeth down their throats and then ripping their spleens out to get the teeth back to actually listen to stuff like that. Tell you what, I’ll have one of my people who’s actually more into that subtle talking stercus ask around to see what the general feeling is. That good enough?” 

Haiden seemed to think about that briefly before nodding. I had the feeling he was surprised to get an actual thought-out response, let alone an offer like that. “Yeah, I’d say that’s good enough.” Another pause came before he added, “Thanks.” 

From there, Wyatt asked something about a bit of Seosten magical security he had been working on taking apart, looking for advice from Jegudiel. The thing was, I happened to know for a fact that he had already long-since solved the problem he was asking about. Clearly, this was a test of some sort. He wanted to know if the man would send him down the wrong path. Whether he did or not, I wasn’t sure. Because even with the advanced lessons I had been getting, I absolutely could not follow Jegudiel’s response. And Wyatt’s next words sounded even more like total gibberish. From the way Sariel reacted, I could tell they weren’t actually just fucking with us and were actually saying real things. But damned if I could follow any of it. 

Still, at the very least, I was able to sit back in my seat and watch them go through this whole impossible-to-understand discussion. Then I looked back and forth along the table, seeing everyone watching as well. My grandparents, my dad, the Moons, we were all sitting here with Tabbris’s archangel father while he and Wyatt discussed security spells. This was all so surreal. Even in a world that had already been so impossible, a world where I had once foolishly thought I was completely beyond being surprised, this was… something. 

Sometimes, I had to take a metaphorical step back and really look at what my life had become over the past year and a half. Honestly, I had no idea how I had gotten here. 

And I certainly had no idea where I would be once another year and a half had passed. 

******

I may not have known where I would be in eighteen months, but the next morning I was attending Xenozoology class, where we learned about Alter animals. Lillian wasn’t there to help teach this time, of course. She was still with Mom in Peru, working on taking care of that whole situation. But we did have Scratch, the short guy from Eden’s Garden who I had met at the beginning of the year working with these animals. 

Obviously, he didn’t look any different now. The man still had the same long, dark gray hair tied into that same ponytail, and that crescent moon-shaped scar still marked his very tan face from just under his right eye down to his cheek. Even after all of this time, I still had no idea what had caused his scar. Nor did I know any other name he went by besides Scratch. But then, from what Miranda and Seller had said, no one else seemed to know any other name either. He simply was, and apparently always had been, Scratch. 

At the moment, the man in question was standing next to a cage that has been covered with a tarp. He was watching me and the rest of the class, his gaze making it clear that he was considering just how to start this lesson. Or possibly wondering if we were ready to hear it. Finally, he exhaled, the sound of his soft sigh stopping the whispering that was going on. Not that there had been a lot of it, but still. Everything went completely silent at the mere prospect that he was about to say something. 

“No yelling,” the man started flatly, in the same simple, soft voice I had come to expect from him. He wasn’t the type to raise his voice or act outwardly excited. He always carried himself calmly. Which was probably why he was so good with the animals. Or maybe the fact that he spent so much time with animals was why he talked like that. I wasn’t sure which came first in that particular egg and chicken situation. “No raising your voices or blurting things out if you’re not called on. I don’t want any of you scaring the poor guy, or making him think he’s in trouble. When you want to say something, raise your hand until I say your name. When I do, you talk in a normal, quiet, civilized tone. Does everyone understand?” 

He waited until we had agreed before putting his hand on the tarp. Once more, he looked over at us, his eyes inquisitive. “How many of you can tell me what this is?” With that, the man pulled the tarp away from the cage, not so much ripping it off as giving a simple gradual tug so it came up smoothly and steadily. Probably to avoid startling the creature inside. 

And what a creature it was. Now that we had a chance to look at it, I could see what looked like an ordinary wolf at very first glance. Except it was bigger in the shoulders and had paws that were more like a bear, with long claws. Which I was given a decent view of as the thing reared up on its hind legs once the tarp came off. It didn’t just briefly rear up either, it stood and stayed that way, its wolf-like head snapping first one way, then another as it took all of us in. The thing pressed its paws against the glass of the cage, deadly claws extending. Yet I didn’t get the impression that it was trying to break out, or even threaten us. It seemed more like it was showing the claws to let us know that it wasn’t helpless, and that if we tried to hurt it, there would be a fight. 

So it was a wolf with bear paws that could stand on its hind legs, but that wasn’t the only thing different about this thing. It wasn’t simply a bear-wolf hybrid. That much became clear as the large bat-like wings unfurled from its back and spread out. Probably to make itself look even bigger, to ward off any potential threats. The thing was spreading those bat-wings out from one end of the cage to the other, its eyes looking over every one of us in rapid succession to assess if we were going to try to attack. 

“No sudden movements,” Scratch reminded us in his soft tone, drawing the creature’s attention briefly before it went back to looking at the rest of us. “Don’t startle him. Just let him take it all in. He’s usually in a bigger enclosure, so he might be a little grumpy right now. But he’ll be okay. Especially once we get him some food. He’s been doing presentations with me for awhile now. Like I said, how many of you can tell me what he is?” 

Vanessa wasn’t in this class, or I was certain that her hand would have rocketed straight into the air. Instead, it was Jason Furuya, the Natural Prevenkuat Heretic, who raised his hand. The Asian guy, who had a scar of his own over his cheek (though not as pronounced as Scratch’s, waited until the teacher said his name before speaking. “He’s a Kludde, right?” It sounded sort of like ‘could’ but with the added L sound right after the kuh sound. Kludde. Like if you mixed up could and cloud and tried to say them both at the same time, or something. 

Scratch smiled faintly, giving a short nod. “That’s right, top marks, Furuya. What else can you tell me about the Kludde?” 

“Uh.” Jason hesitated. “They originated–I mean, here on Earth that is– around the Netherlands and Belgium, right? People thought they were werewolves at first. Uh, werewolves with wings, I guess.” 

“Werewolves with wings, or even the Christian devil,” Scratch confirmed. For a moment, he looked a little amused. Probably because he was thinking about the fact that even his own moniker used to be a nickname for the same devil. Old Scratch, that was. Or maybe he was thinking about the fact that we literally had Lucifer himself, now Apollo, living with us. Either way, he took a moment to smile about something before continuing. “People thought a lot of things about them, some true, some not. Who knows why they’re called Kludde?” 

Even as he asked that, the creature opened its mouth and gave a sharp barking sound. Which sounded an awful lot like its actual name. It barked again, and it sounded even more like it was saying ‘kludde.’ 

“Now that’s just cheating,” Scratch informed the creature with a sidelong look. “You’re not supposed to give them the answers, Montgomery.” 

Rebecca started to say something, a noise escaping her before she caught herself and raised her hand. When the man said her name, she asked, “Montgomery? His name is really Montgomery?” 

“That’s right,” Scratch replied with a simple nod. “Montgomery here is the nicest of his pack. There’s also Edna, Waylon, Ned, Maude, Luann and Seymour. Maybe once you all have a little more experience, I’ll let you see the rest of them. But for now, let’s stick with Montgomery. Who knows something else about the Kludde? Anything at all, I’m sure you’ve heard of them now and then.”

One of the other students, a tiny pixie with long green hair and polka dot clothes, flew up and down in the air to attract attention with her arm raised. Seeing that, Scratch pointed. “Jeckselprea?” 

“Just Jeck is fine, sir!” the pixie chirped. She sounded like Namythiet, and I found myself briefly wondering how the other pixie was doing. “And is it true that if you kill one of them, seven more appear?” 

Scratch shook his head. “No, that was either people getting them mixed up with Jekerns, or just seeing babies crawling out from under the mother’s body and thinking they magically spawned.” He paused before muttering, “People can be really stupid sometimes.” He shook that off before focusing. “If you kill a Kludde, you just end up with a dead Kludde.” 

“Are they shapeshifters?” Koren asked once she was called on. “I think I remember something about how they can change into a lot of different animals.” 

“That they can do,” Scratch confirmed. “Kludde are very powerful animal shapeshifters, almost as good as Pooka. Even stronger, in some cases. They can become plants too. Makes it a little complicated to keep track of them when they keep turning into trees and bushes in their enclosure.” He added that bit with a small smile, clearly amused by a memory of just such a situation. “Some say they can become human, but it’s rare. And even when they do, they don’t talk. They might mimic things they’ve seen humans do, just to try to blend in. Or hunt.” He added that bit with a small smirk. “Anyone else? They’re shapeshifters, they can fly with those wings even in this form, and they do not spawn seven babies when they die.” 

Ruckus, the guy who looked like an assortment of slinkies, raised one of his metal coils until Scratch acknowledged him. “They’rereallyfastright? Imeanlike… theycangetfrom… oneendofthisroom… totheother… sofastit’s… likethey’reteleporting.” 

Oh yeah, Ruckus talked like December. Except somehow, he seemed to get words out even faster. Thankfully, someone seemed to have had the same talk with him about slowing down slightly so he put some intentional pauses in his sentences. Not exactly between every word, but enough that it wasn’t completely impossible to follow what he was saying. Just difficult sometimes. It made me wonder if all of his people were like that, or if that was just a Ruckus thing. 

Scratch nodded. “Yeah, they’re pretty quick, whatever shape they’re in. I’ve clocked Montgomery here doing two hundred and ten miles per hour in a sprint. Not quite blinding speed, but you try telling a Bystander in the seventeen hundreds that what he called ‘incalculable’ speed is actually slower than the airplanes they’ll use in a couple hundred years.” He chuckled softly before sobering. “So yes, they’re very quick, even faster when they fly, and they can shapeshift. All of that makes them pretty dangerous when they want to be. Which brings me to the next question, who can tell me what they like to eat?” 

No one had any answer at first, until Shiloh raised her hand and hesitantly offered, “Um, liars?” She sounded uncertain, like she thought she might just be repeating a silly rumor. 

Scratch, however, beamed a bit. “Yes, actually. That’s pretty much right, believe it or not. The Kludde have the ability to sense when someone is lying. Not just a little white lie, but the malicious kind. They can tell when someone is keeping deep, dark secrets. Evil secrets. And the worse those secrets are, the more… evil the person is hiding inside, the tastier they are to the Kludde.” He paused then, clearly letting that sink in before dryly adding, “As you might expect, a lot of the people in positions of authority and power didn’t really like having them around. So, even before the whole… Bystander Effect came to full power, they started spreading rumors about the Kludde eating babies, literally being Satan or just a demon in general, spawning from the cremated bodies of dead witches, that sort of thing. Anything to stop people from paying attention to what–or rather who the Kludde were actually trying to eat. And, as a side note, that’s also where we get the concept of hellhounds. Well, that and the whole Cerberus thing, of course.” He gave me a brief look before continuing. “They went all-in on making these guys look as evil as possible, just so they’d be hunted to extinction. And they nearly succeeded. Montgomery and his pack are one of only a few left here on Earth. Well, somewhat close to Earth, anyway.”  

Offering us all a slight smile, the man continued. “I’m going to let my buddy here come out of the cage in a minute. Everyone just stay calm and steady. Spread out so there’s several feet between each of you. I’ll lead him to one person at a time. Let him sniff you and then put his head down. When he does that, you can touch him. Just scratch behind his ears or under his chin. And if any of you aren’t comfortable with doing that, go ahead and take a few steps back that way. No one’s going to give you a hard time. 

“And if they do, let me know. I have plenty of other fun things that could eat them.” 

******

So, I made it through the rest of that class, as well as the next couple. Eventually, I was on my way to lunch, wondering if I would see Tabbris there or if she was still busy with Jegudiel. On the way, however, I was interrupted by the sound of someone calling my name. Turning, I saw Miranda sprinting down the hall. She came to a sliding stop, blurting, “We gotta go down to the Eden’s Garden rebels, down by the ocean, the hotel, down there. We gotta check it out.” 

“What?” I blinked a few times, head shaking. “What’s going on? Is something wrong?” 

“Wrong?” she echoed, grinning. “No, nothing’s wrong. It’s right. Dakota, she did it. She finally got them working.” 

“Dakota–the vines?” I realized belatedly. “She managed to make the vines grow?” 

Miranda’s head was bobbing rapidly. “Not just grow, she managed to get a few of them to bloom. New apples. She made the vines give off new apples. 

“We can make new Heretics!”  

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Growth 18-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Needless to say, this was a bit of a surprise. As soon as the man called Tabbris his daughter,  my eyes looked that way, mouth falling open. My expression matched hers, as the other girl gaped while making a sound of confusion in the back of her throat. She tried to say something, but the only thing that came out was a weak croaking sound, like a very sick frog. 

The man, Jegudiel apparently, gave a broad laugh and stepped forward before anyone could find their voice. “That’s right, my filia, my daughter!” He stooped, going down to one knee. Yet even like that, he still towered over her. “How’re you doing, kid? You know who I am? They told you, right?” 

Glancing around, I saw everyone watching this interaction. The whole cafeteria had stopped every conversation to focus over here. Probably because his arrival hadn’t exactly been subtle, to say the least. But then again, despite only knowing this guy for a few seconds, I was already pretty sure that nothing he did could ever be called subtle. He was the type of person who drew attention no matter where he went, and not only because of his height and muscle. Though that was certainly a factor too. Yeah, this guy was basically a hurricane given flesh and blood. I just hoped he wouldn’t end up causing as much destruction around here as one of those could. 

No, I had to shove that out of my mind. This guy hadn’t done anything wrong to us yet. It wasn’t his fault that Kushiel had used his donated material to impregnate Sariel, any more than it was Tabbris’s fault. I had to give him a chance, not be jealous of him on my father’s behalf. This whole situation was already complicated enough as it was, there was no reason for me to make that worse. 

For her part, Tabbris only hesitated briefly before giving a slight nod. Her voice was quiet, yet she didn’t look away from him, meeting his intense gaze while answering. “You’re Jegudiel, one of the Dyeusai, the archangels.” 

That smile of his only broadened at that, the man showing his teeth in what was clearly delight. “Yes. Yes, I am. And I’ve heard many things about you too. You gave some people a pretty hard time, from the sound of it.” Yet he didn’t sound annoyed or upset about that, even though he was talking about Tabbris having caused problems for his own people. If anything, the man sounded incredibly proud, his smile growing even more. “Made one hell of a nuisance of yourself, didn’t you?” 

“Uh.” Tabbris squirmed a bit on her feet, glancing to me, then to her other siblings, then to Athena before finally focusing on the man once more. “I had to protect… my sister.” Her voice rose a bit at the end there, hand reaching out to grab mine. 

For the first time, the man focused on me, his eyes looking me up and down curiously. “Oh, of course. You’re the Chambers girl, Felicity. I’ve heard of you too. But you prefer Flick, don’t you?” 

His words made me blink. “You know that already?” Somehow, the fact that he had so much information about me that he knew my name preferences kind of freaked me out a little bit. 

Jegudiel laughed broadly. “Well of course I do. You didn’t think I’d come all the way here without taking the time to do some research about who my daughter’s spending so much time with, did you? I know all about you. Well, the stuff my people know about, anyway. Even the classified material. But I’m gonna–what was that Earth phrase I looked up before? Go out on a rock?” 

“Limb,” Athena corrected him from behind. “As in the limb of a tree.” 

“Ahh! That makes a lot more sense!” The man laughed again before nodding. “Yes, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that my people don’t know everything you’ve gotten up to. But the stuff I did read about, well, that’s pretty impressive. You’re a good influence on my–” He stopped, seeming to consider his words before amending, “On Tabbris.” Looking that way, he added a bit slyly, “Or is that more of you being an influence on her?” 

“We… help each other.” That was her hesitant response, as she squeezed my hand. “Um, so you’re really not angry about all that? I mean, about everything that happened?” 

“Angry? Hah!” That loud laugh came again, and the man shook his head. “Far as I’m concerned, as long as you don’t go signing up with the Fomorian monsters that want to raze this whole universe to the ground and kill everything in it, you can be on whatever side you like.” He paused as though considering before a grimace found its way to his face. “Okay, I guess there are some others besides the Fomorians that I’d be disappointed to see you with, but something tells me I don’t have to worry about that. From everything I’ve heard about you, kid, you’ve got a good head on your shoulders. I just hope you keep it there.” He reached out as though to squeeze that very head, before pausing with his hand in mid-air. “Ahh, sorry, you sensitive about being touched? I’ve had a bit of trouble with that before, took time to get it through my thick skull.” That was said with a soft, self-deprecating chuckle as he rapped his knuckles against his own head through the luxurious black mane. “But I got it eventually. Mostly.” 

Tabbris bit her lip, a very slight smile forming though she was clearly still nervous and uncertain about the whole thing. “Um, it’s okay, you can… touch me.” 

With that approval, Jegudiel finished reaching out. His hand dwarfed her head as he basically palmed it. “Yeah,” the man murmured after testingly rubbing it, “definitely a good head here. If you gave the other Seosten a hard time, they probably had it coming. Our people often do.” He added that with a wink. “Even me now and then. But I do try to learn from my past, even if I don’t always get it right.” 

 “Speaking of learning,” Athena took the chance to put in, “perhaps we should take a walk somewhere a little more private for this?” She made a point of glancing toward all the onlookers, most of whom quickly glanced back to their meals or to one another. 

“You know, a walk sounds pretty good, sure.” Jegudiel rose to his feet, utterly towering over the rest of us once more. “If you’re up for that, kid?” Once again, he sounded like he was doing his level best to not dominate the entire interaction or demand things. Which seemed a bit at odds with what I’d heard about the man in battle, where he was… intense, from what others had said. 

“Can Flick come with?” Tabbris immediately asked, before quickly leaning over to whisper something to Jehoel and Spark. I heard something about waiting for their mother. Both of them whispered something back, and she gave a quick, decisive nod back to the man. “Can she?” 

“Well of course she can!” Jegudiel answered without any hesitation, giving me a broad grin. “After all the time she spent with you, it’d be pretty dumb for me to try to shut her out if I want to learn anything about you, wouldn’t it?” His hand moved as though to clap me on the back, but again he stopped himself and squinted. “Ah, are you–” 

“It’s okay,” I informed him with a slight shrug as I shifted my shoulder that way, “I’m fine with being touched.” 

Immediately, his hand slapped my back so hard I almost fell over even with my not-inconsequential strength boosts. “Now that’s good to know!” Pivoting with a cheerful laugh, he gave a nod toward Athena. “Lead the way, if you don’t mind.” 

“Not at all,” she agreed, giving Tabbris and me a brief glance before turning to walk to the nearby door. She paused just long enough to say something to a guy standing there, sending him off to do something. Probably to let Sariel know where we were going when she got the message about the man being here and came running.  

Tabbris, Jegudiel, and I followed, leaving the cafeteria and all those clearly incredibly curious people behind. I was almost certain there would be a lot of speculation and conversation as soon as we were out the door. Not that Tabbris being related to one of the archangels had exactly been a huge secret, after the way her wings had manifested during Dad’s bonding ritual. But still, this was the first time her birth-father had been confirmed outside our little circle. That was bound to cause some rumors to start flying around. 

Speaking of Dad, he was suddenly right there. Practically manifesting in front of the doors as we passed through, he looked a bit out of breath. “Hey, what–” His gaze found the enormous Seosten man immediately. 

“Aha!” Jegudiel grinned. “It’s my daughter’s–ahh, other father. Her papa.” He reached out, offering a hand that way. “A genuine pleasure to meet you, Lincoln Chambers. I am Jegudiel. I want to thank you for being the kind of man you are and accepting Tabbris here as soon as you found out about her.” 

Dad hesitated slightly, glancing to Tabbris herself, then to me before his gaze found the larger man’s hand. Then he accepted, shaking it firmly. “Yeah, well, there wasn’t really any question about that. She’s my daughter.” 

“Yes, she is,” the Seosten Archangel confirmed before releasing Dad’s hand. “She’s been your daughter this long, no one’s gonna change that.” To Athena, he added, “We’ve still got an audience behind us, maybe we should keep going.”  

Once we were walking through the corridor, Jegudiel stepped aside a bit so he could look over and down at the two of us. Well, mostly Tabbris. He was smiling the whole time, practically radiating cheer. “They said you were still young, but damn. You really were running circles around our people almost from the time you were an infant, weren’t you?” 

“I, umm…” Tabbris flushed a little, hand squeezing mine even more tightly. “I had to help protect Flick.” 

“Of course you did,” the man agreed, giving a nod toward me. “She was–sorry, she is your family. And your mater sent you to help. Just wish I could’ve seen you last year when you were beating old Manakel and the others. Including your nephew.” 

Tabbris started to respond to that, before giving an almost identical double-take to the one I was giving. But it was Dad, trailing slightly behind, who spoke. “Wait, nephew? What?” 

“You didn’t tell ‘em?” Jegudiel squinted over to Athena before focusing on us, stopping there in the hall. “I mean, more of what you’d call a great-great-great… great nephew, but yeah, I heard you had a run-in or two with one of my descendants.” 

My mouth opened and shut before I blurted, “Abaddon? You mean Abaddon is–” 

“That’s right,” he confirmed, grinning once more. “You can see the family resemblance now, can’t you?” 

Okay, well that was a thing. While Tabbris made another uncertain noise deep in her throat, I looked back and forth between her and Jegudiel. “You mean Tabbris is really–she’s Abaddon’s aunt? I mean, great-whatever aunt, but–but…” It was my turn to make that noise before finally managing to push out a weak, “Wow.” 

“Wow is certainly the correct word,” Athena agreed. “And I did not say something because I wasn’t aware of it. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, was anyone else on the Olympus.” 

“Hah, guess he kept his word,” Jegudiel mused. Then he explained, “I take all my descendants through some training excursions of my own. Try to get ‘em hooked up with some good assignments where they can learn a lot too. Did the same with Abaddon. He liked the training part, but told me no when I offered to get him assigned to a nice ship. Said he was gonna make a name for himself without my help. When he got assigned to the Summus Proelium project, I had to swear to him up and down on magical oath that I didn’t make it happen. I ahh, guess that went as far as not telling his crew who his ancestor was.” He frowned just a little at that, but shook it off.    

There was an awful lot to unpack there, but one thing stood out that we could actually get into at the moment. Giving a glance toward Tabbris, who was still just standing there staring at her biological father, I hesitated before turning back to the man. “Did you say you take your descendants on training excursions?”

The man’s grin was dazzling, and a little intimidating. “That’s right! I’ve got a whole moon set up for camping, exercise, wrestling, target practice, some academics so their brains don’t wither away, the works. You’re ahh-you’re both welcome to come check it out anytime you want. You know, assuming I’m not in the middle of a battle. But then again…” His smile turned somewhat feral as he narrowed his eyes pointedly. “No fight tends to last very long when I’m around.” 

“Wa-wait, Flick too?” Tabbris abruptly piped up, finding her voice again for that. She sounded a bit uncertain. “You mean you’d let Flick go to your umm, family training camp place?” 

Dad stepped up then, moving directly behind us. “Yeah, you would?” 

“Well, yeah!” The man bellowed those words, making all three of us flinch just a little. He clapped me on the shoulder, once more nearly knocking me over in the process. My knees buckled a little bit. “She’s basically a sister to you, isn’t she? Hell, ain’t no basically about it. She’s your sister, blood be damned. So I’m not about to go and try to separate you. Far as I’m concerned, if she’s a sister to you, she ahh…” He paused before lifting his gaze to meet Dad’s. “She and you both, your whole family are welcome at any of our family gatherings. Which we do have now and then, you know. You should come to one of those. You all should. The look on Abbi’s face would be amazing.” 

Abbi. He called Abaddon Abbi. I just… wow. That was basically the only thing I could think right then. Wow. This was a lot. 

“Wait, but… you do all that for all your descendants?” Tabbris was squirming uncertainly. “The whole training camp and still having reunions and stuff? I thought–I mean, they don’t… have the same wings as you, right?” Even as she said those words, the girl was blanching a little, as though the thought of what she was implying made her sick. Her hand slipped backward to find Dad’s, squeezing it tightly. 

If he was offended, the man didn’t show it. “What, you think I’d only give a Doufel’s patare about my own family if they had my wings? Now don’t get me wrong, whole reason I wanted to have as many kids as possible was to try to spread out that chance. But just because it didn’t pan out in any of my other descendants doesn’t mean I’m just gonna toss them out the airlock. You’ve seen Abaddon, right? He was a glorious terror in a fight even before the project. My family’s got some genuine tough ones in it. Some real… ahh, I think the word you use is badbuttocks.” 

“Badasses,” Athena calmly interjected. She seemed content for the moment to just let us talk while she stood out of the way to make sure no one interrupted or eavesdropped. 

“Right, that.” Jegudiel pounded his fist into the other palm. “Real badasses. But the most important thing is, I want to create a legacy. One that lives on forever. Not just me or my battles, I want my family to be remembered. Hard to do that if you just toss out every single relative that doesn’t fit one incredibly narrow specification, you understand? If I ignored every single descendant I have just because they didn’t have the Dyeus connection, that’d be…” He gave a low whistle, shaking his head. “It’d be a lot of people. My family isn’t small. Well, probably small by Earth standards over all that time, but big for our people. That’s not the sort of legacy I want to have. They might not be the absolute biggest achievement I was looking for, but they’re not failures, and I’m not the sort of piece of gekna that’d throw them out for that.”  

Dad spoke up then. “I ahh, I’m pretty sure the Earth analogy you’re looking for is that while a homerun would’ve been nice, you aren’t going to quit the game over a base hit.” 

With a broad smile, Jegudiel replied, “I have no idea what you just said, but if it makes sense to all of you, then sure.” He focused on Tabbris once more. “Here’s the main point, kid. Being a–what was–a badass isn’t about abandoning the people who need you just because they might not have everything you want exactly when you want it. It’s about protecting them, teaching them, being there. It’s about guiding them into being the, ahh, homerun. Even if that means they’re a homerun in their own way, not the way you were thinking. And being a legendary badass, that’s where you really have to step up. Me, I plan on being the sort of legend that could leave this universe and go find another one for a hundred millennia, then come back and people would still know my name.” That feral smile had returned. “And sure, you could do that by being a…” He looked toward Athena for assistance. 

“Evil bastard,” she supplied. 

“You could do that by being an evil bastard,” he finished. “Do enough horrific things and people will remember you for a pretty long time. But that’s not the sort of legacy I want. Me, my family? We’re going to do amazing things. Things that people won’t just remember forever, but cheer forever.” 

“So…” Tabbris squirmed from one foot to the other, fidgeting with one hand while holding tightly to Dad’s with the other. “You’re really not here just because you heard about the wings?” 

There was a brief pause as the man considered before meeting her gaze. “I won’t lie to you, Tabbris, I probably would not have come as quickly. I would have come, and probably wouldn’t delay too long. But the strings I pulled, the work I rescheduled, the effort I went to just so I could get here this fast was definitely influenced because I heard about the wings. The absolute truth is that if I had only just barely heard of you and no one knew much, it probably would have taken me at least another year to get here personally. But I would have sent someone. Now, just going off the things I heard you did or helped do? Even without the wings, that would have gotten me here at least within the next half-year or so. Dyeus or not, everything else I’ve heard is impressive as hell. You’re a real badass kid, even without anything extra. But no matter how little I heard about you, no matter how little you managed, I would have come here when I could. I don’t know how they do oaths here, but you have mine on that.” 

“And now that you are here,” Sariel abruptly spoke up while stepping into range of my item sense, “what do you plan to do?” 

“Mama!” Tabbris took a few quick steps that way, her hand finding her mother’s as she stood partially in front of the woman. It was almost like she was protecting her, just in case Jegudiel got any ideas. “I thought you were busy.” 

“Not too busy for this,” Sariel assured the girl. Her eyes were on Jegudiel himself. Not quite threatening, but certainly mixed between curious and wary. Bordering on the latter. 

“There she is.” If he was worried about the look Sariel was giving him, the man didn’t show it. He simply offered her the same smile he’d given all of us. “I have to say, I thought a lot about what to say to you when we met. Everything that came to mind felt a bit too… wrong. For what it’s worth, and that may not be much, I am truly sorry for what happened to you. Not for who came of it.” He added that with a glance toward Tabbris. “But sorry for the circumstances. I mean that, as genuinely as I can mean anything. You have the vow of my name, on the cusp of the Void, I did not know what my… donation was being used for.” 

Sariel was quiet, seeming to consider his words while running her free hand through Tabbris’s hair. “I believe you,” she finally replied. “And I thank you for the sympathy. But if you have come here believing that you are going to take Tabbris–” 

“No,” he interrupted easily. “I only wanted to meet her, not take her. To be quite honest, impressive as she is, I’m afraid my full-intensity training course would be a bit too much. And I don’t have the free time to be away from the war for that long. Keeping her on the frontlines with me, that’s a horrific tragedy waiting to happen. And it wouldn’t be waiting very long.” He glanced toward the girl in question then. “No offense.” 

“I’m not offended,” Tabbris quietly informed him. “I’d die really fast out there.” 

“Which would really just blow up the whole reason I want her around in the first place,” Jegudiel finished. “So no, I’m not here to take her. Just see her and talk to her for now. And invite her and her sister there to… a short trip sometime, so we can get to know each other even better. You’re welcome to come too.” His gaze turned to my dad as he added, “You too, Lincoln Chambers. And any of your friends. I’d like to spend a little time here on the station with all of you, where you’re most comfortable. Another time, maybe we can make it somewhere else.” 

Sariel looked like she was considering all of that, running it through her head several times. Finally, she exhaled and looked to Tabbris. The two of them exchanged what seemed to be a moment of silent communication, before the woman looked back at Jegudiel. “She is your daughter too. If you want to… get to know her, that is up to her. If she says no more, you respect that.” 

“I will,” he confirmed, before focusing on the girl in question. “And now that that’s all out of the way… would you mind?” The man almost sounded embarrassed from his own eagerness. Like a gigantic little kid. “I’ve waited a very long time.” 

Sariel, Dad, and I stepped out of the way when Tabbris glanced to us, before focusing. A moment later, her bright golden wings extended. 

Seeing that, Jegudiel actually looked almost stunned for a moment. His gaze swept over the wings, and he swallowed visibly. He was clearly taken aback by the sight, even though he had not only expected, but actually asked for it. “It’s true,” he whispered faintly, the persistent doubts he had obviously held vanquished by the glow of the wings in front of him. After a few seconds, his gaze moved from the wings to her face once more. “Kid, I’ll tell you one thing for sure. 

“You and me, we’re gonna be legends.” 

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Growth 18-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The next few days passed relatively uneventfully, aside from the funeral for Tribald Kine. A funeral which made me feel even worse for the fact that I hadn’t been able to bring his ghost along with us. I still couldn’t understand that. I had felt other dead people there, so why couldn’t I feel him? My only speculation was still that his ghost had been taken or left before I could get to him, which… 

In any case, Mom showed up for that, taking time away from her mission to say goodbye to her friend. She spent a little time with me as well, apologizing for not being there. I could tell just how torn up she was. The guilt at the fact that she hadn’t been there to help her old friend… yeah, it was bad. And if she felt bad about not being there, I couldn’t even imagine how bad Deveron felt considering he had been there and still couldn’t save him. 

With that thought in mind, I made sure that Mom spent most of the time she had here with him, as well as the Dornans. They were the ones who needed her at the moment. Tribald had been their friend for a long time. They needed each other. Dad understood that too, and left them alone after having just a little bit of reunion time with Mom as well. We were both there for the funeral, but other than that, we let Mom, Deveron, and the others from that time mostly just be with one another. They could reminisce, focus on the good times they’d had with their friend. It wasn’t exactly fun, but it felt like remembering why they cared about him was more important than focusing on the fact that he was gone. And as my mother put it, this was not the first long-time friend they had lost. 

In any case, she stayed as long as she could before the situation in Peru forced her to go back there. Lillian too. Both of them apologized for not being able to stay longer. Yet when they left, they had company. Deveron and the Dornans were going with them, apparently against both Mom and Lillian’s objections. But the guys insisted that they needed to keep themselves busy.  

So they were busy with all that. Meanwhile, I spent the rest of the weekend resting and doing a bit of studying for classes so my parents and Abigail wouldn’t completely freak out about me missing out on school. It was kind of nice not having anything immediately demanding my attention. Not that there wasn’t plenty of stuff to worry about, between the regular Alter-rescuing missions, fights against Loyalists, and so on. Hell, that wasn’t even counting the big things like trying to find Tiras’s second family, figuring out what was going on with that prisoner camp and the monster they had been feeding, and everything to do with the Whispers. Yes, there were a lot of things I could be focused on. But between the things I couldn’t do anything about right then and the ones I had been specifically told to leave alone for the moment, I had no choice but to relax and focus on school. Honestly, I wasn’t going to complain too much. Taking a little break felt like the right thing, after that whole thing we had just been through. Which, sure, a large portion of the time had been spent sitting in that truck not really doing anything, but it was far from relaxing. Not when we could have been discovered and attacked at any point, on the way there and back. To say nothing of the actual fighting we had done once we arrived. 

The point was, being able to sit around for a few days without much in the way of responsibility or terrifying panic was good. Especially considering I could spend a lot of it with Shiori and Avalon. Even Valley toned down the obsessive need to train a little bit. Not completely, of course. She was still herself. But that whole mission had taken a lot out of her too. 

Between those two and spending time with my dad, Tabbris, and my grandparents, that was basically how my weekend went. I even had Monday off because it was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Which didn’t mean all that much to anyone who had grown up in other countries, let alone other worlds (like all of Athena’s people), but they certainly understood the concept of celebrating the life of a man who had wanted everyone to get along and have the same rights. So I had a three-day weekend, which was pretty well-timed given how much I needed it.

By the time Tuesday rolled around, I felt ready to sit in class just quietly listen to the teacher. Who, in this case, was Rovon Reinswield, the guy I’d met the first time I’d visited this station way out in Seosten space, who had once been a loyal Eden’s Garden Heretic before he’d objected to the recruitment of an innocent little girl and had thus been thrown out onto the frontlines of the Fomorian war as a flesh-suit for a Seosten. Athena and her people eventually rescued him, and he had been helping teach the children they brought in ever since. 

Seeing the man sitting there at the desk after I walked into history class, I paused and tilted my head. “Don’t you usually teach the younger classes?” I knew for a fact that Tabbris enjoyed  every lesson she had with him. 

Giving me a somewhat distracted smile, the scruffy-looking man with short blond hair and round glasses nodded once. “Normally, yes. Unfortunately, your ordinary teacher for this class is a bit indisposed at the moment. As is his substitute. The sad reality of having teachers who double up as soldiers in this war. So, I volunteered to step in for the day. With any luck, I’ll avoid passing out in the middle of the lesson.” Reaching out, he picked up his mug of coffee and gestured with it. “Well, luck and a little bit of magical help.” That said, he took a sip of it and murmured appreciatively. “Mmm, abracadabra.” 

By that point, others had to started to file in, and I wished the man luck before going to find a seat next to Koren and just in front of Shiloh, the girl who had been on Harper/Gwen’s team last year, and whom I had gone through that underwater mission in Sinbad’s class with a little while back, where we had searched for treasure on that sunken spaceship. 

As I sat down, the girl behind me spoke up. “Hey, you guys found a bunch of Alters who were trapped in that prison place, right?” Brushing shaggy brown hair out of her eyes, she watched until I nodded before pressing on. “I was just wondering if you found any trolls while you were there. Two trolls, specifically. Brother and sister.” 

“I uhh, I don’t know if they’re brother and sister, or even what sex either of them are,” I admitted. “But yeah, we found a couple of trolls. They call them Two and Three, but I’m pretty sure that’s not their actual names. I think they’re still going through intake with Athena’s people so they can explain the situation. Which is uhh, taking a bit because the trolls don’t speak English or Latin. Why?”   

“We’ve got some people looking for them,” Koren put in. “From one of the rescue missions we went on a few months ago, while you were… you know.” 

Yeah, I knew. While I was trapped with Fossor. The memory made me grimace before giving a slight nod. “You rescued some people who were looking for a couple missing trolls?”  

“They heard about your mission,” Shiloh explained, shifting a little in her seat. “So they came to find us and said they had a couple troll friends who were taken to some Eden’s Garden work camp that sounded, you know, similar. I’m pretty sure they said their friends only spoke Troll and umm, what was the other one?” 

“Akkadian,” Koren answered, giving a nod my way. “They speak Troll and Akkadian. You know, from ancient Mesopotamia. If Athena’s people have anyone who can understand either of those.” 

“I’m pretty sure they can drag somebody up,” I agreed with a small smile. “Last I heard, they were having Buddy System from Wonderland talk to them. But if these people who were asking about them are around, having them up there would probably help a lot too. Especially if they’re friends. From what I could understand, I think those two have been… eager to help. They’re really friendly. Can’t understand a word I’m saying, or vice versa, but still really friendly. They smile a lot, and wave. They like waving. Shiori taught them to do a thumbs up if they like something or a thumbs down if they don’t. They like doing that a lot.” 

We talked a little bit more about that, and the other two promised to go find the people who had been asking about the trolls, so they could take them up to meet the pair and find out if they were the right ones. Shiloh sent a message to them through her wrist computer. Which literally involved her typing on the screen until a small glowing envelope appeared in the air like a hologram before it flew off. Apparently the thing would go straight to the nearest of the people they had talked to, and when that person touched it, the message to meet after our classes were over for the day would appear in the air in front of them. Which was a pretty neat trick, to be honest. Shiloh’s wrist computer seemed cooler every time I saw what she could do with it.  

Other than that, we focused on class. Despite his words about being tired, Mr. Reinswield seemed to have plenty of energy once we actually got started. Apparently the coffee had reinvigorated him, because he paced throughout the entire class, gesturing a lot while he told a story about the ancient Mayans fighting off an invasion of off-world sapient bear creatures with the help of magic and these flying snake things (not Rattlejacks). Between that and the fact that the alien bears apparently used mechs, the whole story really should’ve been made into a movie. I definitely would’ve paid money to see it, at least. And judging by the way everyone else was staring in rapt silence through the entire story, I was pretty sure the rest of the class would have too. 

Eventually, however, that class was over and I made my way to the next one for the day. Specifically, the very same Calculus class I had been studying for with Vanessa and Tristan. Between working with them and the studying I’d done during the trip, I at least felt like I hadn’t been completely left behind. Still, the teacher had me take a little ungraded quiz through the first fifteen minutes to see if I was still good to stay with the class or if I needed some extra help. Apparently I did well enough, because she gestured for me to take my normal seat before getting back to the lesson. So I was definitely going to have to let Vanessa and Tristan know that their help had paid off. 

Eventually, however, that class ended as well. As did the third and final class of the day. Well, final for everyone else. I still had some make-up to do in the afternoon, along with the others who had gone on that mission. For the moment, however, I headed for the cafeteria to meet up with Tabbris and her newly-reunited siblings so we could have lunch together. 

It only took me a moment of looking around at the entrance before I saw the girl in question standing up on her chair to wave at me from a corner of the room. As I waved back and made my way through the crowd, I eventually found the trio sitting around a table that was heavily-laden with bits of machinery, tools, and what looked like blueprints. 

“Boy,” I remarked, “doesn’t this all look positively scrumptious?” I made a show of rubbing my hands together while looking over all that stuff. “I hardly know where to start. Hmm. Oooh, I heard socket wrenches are always a good way to start off a balanced meal.” With that, I started to reach out for the tool in question as it lay on the edge of the table. 

Omni–no, he was mostly going by Jehoel now, his real name. The pale boy with shaggy brown hair quickly gave a laugh while reaching out to cover the wrench with both hands. “You can’t eat that!” he blurted, only to immediately flush guiltily, instinctively moving his hands as he withdrew as though a snake had hissed at him. “I–I mean… I mean…” It was obvious that he’d had a flash of memory about how bad it was for him to tell anyone they couldn’t do something. Let alone actually reach out to physically stop them.  

Tabbris looked like she was going to say something, but held off as I spoke up instead. “It’s okay, Jehoel. You’re right, we’re not supposed to eat tools like that. Especially not tools that belong to other people.” Offering him a little smile, I held my hand out. I didn’t just take his hand, given how important it was to convince the boy, and the other Seosten like him, that it was not only okay to touch other people, but also okay to not want to be touched as well. It was up to them to decide what they were comfortable with.

After a brief hesitation, the boy accepted my hand and squeezed it a little while giving me a hesitant smile in return. He had been working hard on being able to touch people without accidentally turning into a younger version of them. It still ended up happening sometimes when he got overly-excited about something, but he was getting a lot better about that. Still, it felt funny whenever I ended up facing the eight-year-old version of myself. But not nearly as funny as it had been to see the child version of my father. Yeah, that was a real trip. 

“So it looks like you guys have been pretty busy,” I noted as I looked over the table once more. “You mind if I ask what all this stuff is? You know, considering I’m not allowed to eat it.” I added that bit with a wink toward Jehoel, making the boy giggle once more. 

Spark was sitting on the far side of the table. Well, she appeared to be sitting there, anyway. The holographic projection of herself was here, while the real girl was still trapped inside Puriel. Sariel was good, but she wasn’t quite good enough to solve that entire situation in a month. It was going to take a bit more time for them to figure out how to extract the girl without hurting Puriel himself. But if anyone could do it, I was sure Sariel could. Especially when you added in Puriel’s power and the level of resources they were able to throw at the problem. There was no doubt in my mind that Spark would eventually be separated from Puriel. 

Regardless, the black-and-blonde haired girl was sitting next to some sort of radio-looking device with a tiny screwdriver in one hand, adjusting something on the machine. When I asked what they were working on, she sat up a bit, put the tool down, and focused on me. “It’s a secret project to help trap the Whispers when they show up again. A cage.” 

Tabbris gave a quick, eager nod. “Uh huh, uh huh. I asked Spark if she had any ideas, and she didn’t at first, but then Jehoel said something about throwing a net over them.” 

“It happened in Scooby-Doo,” the boy put in, his own face brightening as he mentioned what had apparently become his favorite thing to watch as soon as Popser had introduced it to him. Actually, I remembered my grandfather introducing me to Scooby as well, back when I was even younger than Jehoel. The image of the boy sitting on my grandfather’s lap watching the antics of Mystery Incorporated had been enough to bring a flood of nostalgic memories from those days. I was really glad Popser had someone else to share that with. And that judging by the way he had been smiling the entire time, he was too. 

“Oh, it has the Scooby seal of approval, huh?” Grinning, I gave the boy a thumbs up. “In that case, we’re in good hands.” 

“Especially with Spark designing it,” Tabbris added, practically bouncing in her seat. “She’s got a lot of good ideas now.” 

“I… am better with designing buildings and ships,” the girl in question insisted with a look of embarrassment as she squirmed. “But I think I can do something with this. It’s just the programming work that is… intimidating.” 

“Well, I know a few people who would love to help out,” I replied while taking a seat. “Actually, I was just talking to this girl Shiloh earlier, And I’m pretty sure programming is one of her big things. She was in the Development course last year. Uses a wrist computer and everything. If you’d like, I could ask if she’d come talk it over with you.” 

For her part, Spark only hesitated for a moment before nodding. “That would be nice, thank you. I didn’t want to interrupt our mother’s work to ask for her help with something else. She is… very busy.”

“I’m pretty sure she’d never be too busy to help out with anything you asked for,” I assured her, with a glance toward the other two. “Or anything any of you asked for. But yeah, let’s let her keep working on that. I’ll see if Shiloh’s interested in helping out with this Whisper cage.” 

They agreed, and we cleaned off the table before ordering actual food. For the next twenty minutes, I ate with my sister and her siblings. Well, Spark didn’t actually eat per se. But she did create a sort of holographic meal and act like she was eating just so she wouldn’t be completely left out. Which, judging from the looks that the other two were giving when they thought she wasn’t looking, I was pretty sure made them feel even more determined to help the girl separate from Puriel and get her own body back. Something told me nobody in that family was going to fully rest until that situation was taken care of. Which obviously only involved changing something that had been a thing for hundreds of thousands of years. Clearly no big deal. 

Actually, as it turned out, Sariel wasn’t even on the station at the moment. Apparently, she’d gotten a lead about some spell or something that might have a clue about dealing with the Puriel-Spark situation. So she was out chasing that down. It wasn’t the first lead she’d gotten, and it almost certainly wouldn’t be the last. According to the kids, some of those leads paid off and others didn’t. None held the full answer, of course. If it was that easy, someone would have handled the whole thing by now. It wasn’t like the Seosten didn’t have people working on it. Most of them much better at the science part of things than Kushiel had been. As far as I knew, solving that whole thing was one of their most important projects, alongside their general population problem. Which, come to think of it, was another thing that Kushiel had failed at solving. It seemed like the real takeaway here was that that psycho bitch never should have been put in charge of any project. She shouldn’t have been given authority over a science fair potato clock, let alone that whole thing. 

We were almost done with our meals when a disturbance near the entrance made me turn in my chair to look that way. There were people standing up, a large crowd forming there. I couldn’t see what they were looking at, but obviously something was going on. Everyone was talking at once, too fast and too scattered for me to pick out much in the way of specifics other than how big someone was. 

Frowning a bit, I rose from my seat while murmuring, “What in the…” It looked like people in the crowd were parting, getting out of the way. Or being pushed, I wasn’t sure which. They pulled apart closer and closer to where we were sitting. Tabbris had already moved to stand at my side, with Spark and Jehoel right behind her. 

I caught a glimpse of long black hair through the crowd, barely visible over the heads of a couple tall juvenile orcs. Then Athena appeared, sliding out of the other side of the crowd to put herself in the way. Her voice was a bit exasperated. “I asked you to wait in the other room until we could contact Sariel.” 

“I did wait,” came the heavy, deep male retort. “Then I got bored.”

He was already pushing his way forward, and as the pair of orcs slid to either side, an enormous Seosten man appeared. He was just over seven feet in height, and wore no shirt at all. The man looked like a barbarian, with black hair that went clear to the middle of his back, muscles upon muscles upon muscles, and a sword tattoo across the entire front of his torso, from his navel all the way up nearly to his throat. “Besides,” he continued in that deep voice, “how long am I supposed to sit around before I get to meet…” His eyes fell on Tabbris as she stood next to me, and a broad smile leapt to his face. 

“My daughter!” 

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By Blood 17-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Christmas morning was, to say the least, a bit of a blur. It seemed weird to immediately think of it in the sense of a montage, and yet that was what it felt like even while it was happening. I had my grandparents back, and that was a whole thing. I spent hours just sitting on the couch with my parents in their apartment on the station, listening to Grandmaria and Grandpartie tell stories about what they had been through since they were transported to the Seosten homeworld. My grandfather, of course, compared everything to various adventures in Star Trek. That was a whole thing, especially since my father’s favorite captain was Picard and Popser’s was Sisko. My grandmother and mom, meanwhile, liked Kirk the best. All of which begat an entire conversation about various episodes and what-if situations. And apparently whenever Uncle Al showed up (he was giving our immediate family time to reunite), he would have his own very strong opinions to share. 

Personally, I didn’t really pay that much attention to that entire franchise, but it was still nice to just sit there and listen to them go back and forth about it. Though, to be fair, given the people involved I would have quite willingly listened to them go on about nearly anything. All that mattered was the fact that they were here now. They were all here, together on Christmas morning after we had been separated for so long. Hell, even the fact that it was Christmas was basically immaterial when you got right down to it. My grandparents had arrived. It could’ve been Arbor Day, and it would still be one of the most amazing and wonderful times of my life.

There was also the fact that through that, I found out that my grandmother had become a Puriel-Heretic. Seriously, she was bonded to him and it had stuck. She actually had his power, even if she was only a tiny fraction as powerful with it as he was at the moment. But she was learning. Baby steps, just like the way I was with my incredibly powerful Necromancy. Except even more, because it was goddamn Puriel

Which, of course, fled to a sudden moment of fear about what would have happened if the Whispers had decided to go after her instead. Whether their lack of attempt had more to do with not knowing about that, or her not being powerful enough for their purposes yet, I was just glad they had mostly left her alone. 

And she wasn’t the only potentially-absurdly powerful grandparent I had, either. Well, she already wasn’t because of Dare, but still. She wasn’t the only potentially-absurdly powerful paternal grandparent I had. Grandpartie had been bonded to the same sort of thing Gaia and Seller had been bonded to. He had picked up the technology control powers, like the former headmistress. Because of course he had. This was my grandfather we were talking about. He loved new technology. Given the chance to mentally control it? I was willing to bet that he had quite literally jumped at the chance. Possibly to the point of banging his head on the ceiling.

So, both of my paternal grandparents were bonded to incredibly powerful beings, and had their own absurd gifts that they were slowly learning how to harness. Which was… yeah, that was a thing. 

Not only did we sit there listening to Grandmaria and Popser tell their stories, but we also got to tell them our own. Well, mostly me. I ended up talking a lot that morning, from quite early, essentially re-telling the whole story about what had happened since I took the bus that morning a year and half earlier. A year and a half. God, it felt like so much longer. Most of a lifetime, actually. When I tried to think about what life was like before that day, through the first full sixteen years of my life, I almost couldn’t picture it. The whole thing basically felt like a story I had read somewhere, rather than what amounted to almost ninety percent of my life. 

In any case, telling the story (or many stories) about what I had been through up to this point eventually led to my grandmother insisting we make cookies and take them with us when we visited the others. She felt distraught that she hadn’t had time on Earth to actually buy presents, and assured us all that they would be doing that eventually. No amount of protests that it wasn’t necessary would dissuade her. She was going to get presents for everyone, no question about it. We would just have some sort of late/extra Christmas when the time came. 

That, of course, added to the ‘montage’ feel. I helped her bake cookies, while also taking the time to help my parents put the finishing touches on the gifts we were taking over to the others. Which was supposed to have been done the night before, but we’d been a bit occupied. 

We weren’t too far through that before Tabbris arrived. She had been spending time with her other family, and popped up to meet our grandparents for the first time in an actual peaceful, quiet situation. Or at least, that was the idea. Except as soon as she arrived and saw them in the kitchen, Tabbris immediately hid behind me with her hands on my shirt. She was clinging to me while peeking out that way, making a very uncertain noise in the back of her throat. Apparently it was one thing to meet them in the heat of the moment back on the ship with everything that had been going on, and quite another to do so right now on Christmas morning with no other distractions or anything. 

Brushing her apron off, Grandmaria took one look our way and seemed to understand. She immediately reached out, plucking one of the just-finished cookies from the tray. Her voice was chipper as she took a couple steps our way. “Now, if there’s one thing I know about my Flick, it’s that she loves my coconut chocolate chip cookies. She doesn’t share them with anyone she doesn’t really care about. She especially wouldn’t break one in half except for the most special sort of person.” 

Having said that, she extended a hand with the warm, delicious, oh-so-incredible cookie in her palm, offering it to me. In the background, I saw Popser and Dad having a quiet conversation in a corner of the kitchen while occasionally glancing our way, and Mom was pretending to be busy with the mixing bowl, all of them giving us time to get through this.

Taking the cookie, I went down to one knee and looked toward Tabbris. My hands smoothly broke the treat in half before I spoke quietly. “She’s right, you know. I don’t share my grandmother’s special coconut chocolate chip cookies with just anyone. They have to be my top most favorite people in the world. And splitting just one?” I gave a low whistle before raising my half of the cookie to take a bite. Immediately, my eyes rolled back a bit as I gave a murmur of appreciation. Then I lifted the second half and offered it to the other girl while continuing softly. “That sort of thing is only for someone I love very much.” 

There was a brief pause before Tabbris, face pink, slowly took the offered cookie half and bit into it. Immediately, she visibly shivered and gave a very quick nod. Her voice was a whisper. “I wouldn’t wanna share a whole cookie either.” Having said that, she quickly shoved the rest of the cookie in her mouth and murmured appreciatively. Then her eyes blinked open once more to focus on our grandmother, offering a tentative smile. “Um, hi… hi.”

Gesturing back and forth, I introduced them officially. “Tabbris, this is our grandmother. Grandmaria, this is Tabbris, my sister.” 

“Why, hello, Tabbris.” Grandmaria stepped over closer. She didn’t go down to one knee the way I had, instead reaching out to take the girl’s raised hand as she started to wave. “Do you know what my very favorite sorts of heroes are?” 

“Um, no?” Tabbris offered a bit uncertainly while letting the older woman take her hand (her other one was busy checking for any crumbs from that cookie). 

With a kind, gentle smile, our grandmother explained, “I have three favorites. My first favorite heroes are the very sneaky ones who do all this work to help people without getting a lot of credit for it. My second favorite are the people who help my friends and family. And my third favorite are my own family themselves. So, you know, by all that, I would say that you might just be my very most top favorite person right now. I’m not sure yet though, we need one more test, just to check.”

Eyes darting briefly to me, still kneeling beside her, and then back again, Tabbris hesitantly echoed, “One more test?”  

Still giving the same tender, welcoming and yet somehow conspiratorial smile that I recognized from so many years past, Grandmaria gently replied, “Well, yes, before I decide if someone fits the family member sort of favorite person, I have to see how good they are at hugs.” 

A giggle escaped the girl beside me, before she managed to retort with a somewhat-straight face, “I dunno, that puts a lot of pressure on a first hug.” 

With a laugh at that, our grandmother tugged her over by the hand and the two embraced. It was somewhat tentative at first on Tabbris’s part, as she was obviously still a bit nervous about the whole thing. But that quickly vanished as she felt just how intently Grandmaria was hugging her, and she ended up latching on just as tightly. 

Watching that while smiling, I straightened and glanced to my parents. They were both watching as well, and Dad gave me a thumbs up. Then he leaned over to whisper something to his own father before both of them chuckled softly. 

By the time Tabbris and Grandmaria separated, Popser was right there. He reached down, taking the little girl by both hands and squeezing them. On a ‘one, two, three, hup,’ he hoisted her off the floor and into his arms for a tight hug of his own. 

It didn’t end there either. They both passed Tabbris back and forth for several more hugs before being satisfied for the moment. Then we got back to talking while finishing the last batch of cookies as I (with help from Tabbris, Dad, and Mom) finished getting them caught up on what they had missed. Or at least as much as we could think of right then. I was sure there would be a lot more specific details we have to get into later. But they had at least the broad strokes. And it also gave me a chance to let Tabbris know about just what our grandparents had been bonded to, so I could see if the look on her face was as great as the one on mine had probably been. So, of course, she had to hear all about that. And they both had to demonstrate, which was fun. Especially when Popser got Tabbris to ‘pull his finger’ and turned every television, radio, light, etcetera in the apartment on, including setting off a couple alarm clocks. And yes, that made Tabbris fall over giggling.   

Eventually, the cookies were ready and we packed them up along with all the presents, before heading out to go see Abigail, Koren, and Wyatt. They were waiting for us in Abigail’s apartment, and we all exchanged more hugs and greetings. Grandmaria and Grandpartie were both immediately taken with all three of the others, and stories were soon flying back and forth. Wyatt wasn’t exactly shy (awkward sure, but not shy), yet even he seemed to take to our grandparents incredibly quickly. Before long, he and Popser were sitting at a corner of the room, going over some sort of security device designs that Wyatt had scrawled on the back of a napkin. They sounded like little kids conspiring to build a tree house or something. It was pretty great, even if I was a bit nervous about what they would end up with. 

Koren, standing beside me as we watched everyone interacting and laughing like that, leaned over to whisper, “Did you ever think we’d be standing here like this back at school last year?” 

The thought made me snort at first, before shaking my head. A lump had formed in my throat. Looking at everyone, I stopped to think about how lucky I was in that moment. Sure, plenty of bad stuff had happened. And plenty of other bad stuff would happen in the future. But right then, I was celebrating Christmas with my father, mother, Grandmaria, Grandpartie, Koren, Wyatt, Abigail, and Tabbris. They all knew the truth, they were all on the same page, and we were together. What would the me from the year before even do if I had told her this was what the next Christmas would be like? I honestly had absolutely no idea. 

Of course, that led to the question of what next Christmas would be like, but I wasn’t going to focus on that right now. This was a day that I wanted to savor every last minute of. 

Finally, I found my voice. “Nope. I think I can safely say that I never expected to be in a situation like this.” Then I glanced toward the other girl and added, “Especially not when we first met.” 

Koren, in turn, snorted while giving a vigorous nod. “Especially not when we met.” After a brief grimace, she offered a small shrug. “I guess that just goes to show how much things can change, huh?” She glanced over toward Wyatt before adding, “Really, really change.” 

“Here,” I raised my hand with a treat in it. “Try one of Grandmaria’s cookies. Believe me, you wanna talk about change you’ll look back on? 

“After this, everything in your life will be ‘before cookie’ and ‘after cookie.’”

*******

So, that was how Christmas went. Well, that was how Christmas with the family went. We exchanged presents and all that. Uncle Al did eventually show up, which started a whole other round of stories, especially when who he really was got pointed out. And yes, they all made me change into my werelion form to pose with him. It wasn’t exactly the same as a real Nemean Lion (I was entirely too tiny), but the others got a kick out of it anyway. 

All in all, it was fun. And I also spent time with others, besides family. It was an entire day of that stuff. Not to mention the fact that everyone else was still deep in partying mode after that whole protection spell thing. Which they had gotten Puriel and everyone else linked into, so hopefully they would be safe from Whisper counterattacks. And beyond that, they were apparently working on security updates on the station to keep them out or monitor for them. I’d tried to get more information, but Abigail basically gave me a hard stare and told me to enjoy Christmas. I sort of heard an unspoken ‘or else’ behind her words, so I left it alone for the moment. Abigail could be pretty scary in her own right when she wanted to be. 

Late that night, after almost everyone else had already gone to bed, I was sitting in the park part of our housing area, watching a few people on the forcefield elevators as they came down. I had both of the rings that I had inherited from that Seosten ghost hovering close to the ground in front of me, as Jaq and Gus played by hopping back and forth through them from both sides so they could be faster or slower. They were clearly amusing themselves quite a bit, and I couldn’t help but smile every time I glanced that way. 

“Well, it’s nice to see they’re having fun.” Asenath, seated beside me, noted. “Who gave them the Christmas hats?” 

Yeah, both cyberform mice were wearing little red Santa hats that had been attached to their equally-little heads. There were even tiny bells on the end that jingled softly whenever they did their hops back and forth. 

“Shiori,” I informed the other girl, as a fond smile found its way to my face at the thought. “I told them they didn’t have to wear the hats past the party, but you should have seen the look they gave me. I’m starting to think I’m going to have to get that girl to make a whole bunch of little hats for them to wear. Otherwise I’ll never get those ones off them.” 

With a very low chuckle, Senny took a small piece of metal about the size of the top of a soda can from her pocket and tossed it down for the pair to immediately start munching on from either side. “Well, I can’t exactly blame them. They are very stylish.” 

“That’s for sure,” I agreed, before looking toward her. “It must be weird for you. I mean, you grew up before the whole Santa myth was even–” 

“Myth?” She glanced to me and raised an eyebrow. “After all this time, you really find the story of Santa completely impossible to believe?” 

Her words made me squint at the girl. “You are not about to tell me that Santa Claus is real. I’m sorry, but if you say those words, I’m just going to get up and walk away.” 

She, in turn, gave a low laugh. “Okay, the answer is no, he’s not real. And yet he is. Sort of.” To my confused look, Senny waved a hand. “It’s the elves that are real. Or rather, the LVS.” When I didn’t get it, she spelled it out. “The L-V-S.” 

From there, she told me the story about the tiny creatures who had arrived on Earth with no memory of their past, and their only clues being a badly damaged ship with the letters L V S visible. Letters the collective amnesiac creatures had taken as their name. LVS or ‘elves.’ Apparently they had been helped a lot by the actual Saint Nicholas way back in the days that he had actually lived. Once he died, they spread his legend and basically helped create and push the whole Santa Claus thing. And they tried to give gifts as much as they could. Clearly, they couldn’t do the whole world or anything like that, but they did do what was possible. And any parents that happened to see brand new gifts under the tree with no explanation, well, that was covered by the Bystander Effect. If they even got that far. According to Asenath, a lot of people just assumed either the other parent or some relative left the gift. They ignored it. 

Hearing all that kind of made me want to meet these LVS, but apparently they were pretty notoriously secretive. Asenath herself had only met them one time, a few decades back. Still, I’d met enough important people in the past year and a half that I wasn’t going to rule out the possibility. 

Before I could say anything else about that, the phone in my pocket buzzed. I plucked it out and took a look before blinking. “Uh, maybe it’s a good thing you’re here,” I murmured. “It’s Jack Childs.” The Eden’s Garden Victor was calling me, and I could only think of one reason for that. 

“Hello?” I answered, hitting the speaker button. “It’s Flick, and Asenath is here too.” 

“Ah, good to hear,” came the response. “Heard a lot about you, Asenath. Good things, for the most part. And plenty of bad from the right sort of people.” 

“I do enjoy hearing that the right people have bad things to say about me,” Senny noted. 

We both heard the man chuckle. “Ain’t that the truth. Anyway, a happy Christmas to you both. But I think you know why I’m calling.” 

“You have a lead on Kyril Shamon’s secret prison,” I immediately replied. “I mean, where he might be keeping… Tiras.” As I said that, my eyes darted toward Asenath. She had gone a bit still, staring intently down at the phone. 

There was a very brief pause (which seemed to be a lot longer than it actually was) before Childs confirmed. “That’s right, we’ve got a lead on it. But even better, we have a lead on a transport that’s taking place. If you can take a group, subtly intercept that transport, and show up there, you’ll be able to get your entire group inside before they know anything’s wrong and when it all goes down, Shamon will think the Rebellion simply chased it down that way.” 

“So whatever resources you used to find out where it is won’t be burned,” I murmured thoughtfully. A part of me wanted to note that they also wouldn’t have to get their hands dirty, but I knew better than that. This was about more than Senny’s dad. As important as he was to her, and to Shiori and me by extension, there was a whole war for the world and beyond to deal with. The rebel Victors couldn’t blow every resource they had to help save one guy. Or even a full prison camp. 

“Yes,” came the response. “The transport isn’t for a couple weeks, but if you’re interested, you should start putting together a group to deal with it. Be ready to get into the camp, find the prisoners, and get out before Shamon finds out and sends reinforcements.” 

“Oh, we’re definitely interested,” I replied, smiling dangerously toward Senny. 

“Just give us the details. We’ll take care of the rest.” 

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Interlude 16A – Reunions 1 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The Olympus was docked with the Star Station. With the shields from the station extended over the old ship, it was protected in the middle of the sun, safe from any detection. Normally, it would have taken a lot more effort to set the ship up in a way to accept the Star Station’s shields like that, but her temporary crew had been working hard to create a few modular systems that allowed the Olympus to seamlessly plug itself into the station and accept that protection. 

They had all built the system in the time the Olympus had been traveling. But only one of them had designed it. One of them had developed the plans necessary to protect the ship like that. 

Spark. At least, that was what she was called now. She was the daughter who had been taken away from Sariel so long ago. She was the one whose brilliance had helped put the ship back together, the one who designed the system which helped the Olympus get past the Seosten barrier, as well as the one that allowed the ship to safely dock here at the Sun Station. She was the one who had designed the prototype teleporting ship whose existence had saved Puriel from being taken over by the Whispers, thus saving everyone else on that ship. And, by extension, most likely the rest of the universe.  

She was the one who had done all of that. She was the one whom Sariel herself was staring at from the doorway into a small meeting room just off the side of the Olympus’s primary cargo bay. The ship was docked, others were taking care of important things as far as dealing with finding out what the Whispers were attempting to do. Which left Sariel standing in that doorway, looking at the daughter she had lost so long ago. 

And she wasn’t alone. Sitting beside his sister was the other child who had been ripped away from Sariel. The one who was called Omni. Where Spark had long hair fashioned in a tight braid with alternating blonde and black hair, Omni had shaggy brown hair. He was the youngest here, a year younger than Tabbris, where Spark was a year older. Neither of them were looking toward their mother. They held hands, gazes locked onto the floor.  

Puriel was there too, sitting in a far corner of the room without moving. Like the children, he made no move to look at Sariel when she entered, despite all of them clearly knowing she was here and who she was. He was instead staring at a holographic screen that had been projected in front of him, reading up on something. 

For a few long moments, the woman stood there in the doorway, gaze passing over the group. So many thoughts went through her mind in those moments that she had no idea what to say or do. She felt frozen in place, realizing belatedly that Puriel was intentionally keeping himself out of the way and ‘distracted’ to give her the opportunity to make the first move, the first decision. He had been their leader for so long, and had tried to control everything she did, that sitting there doing nothing was the best way he had to show her that he would not try to control things anymore. He wasn’t approaching her, wasn’t loudly greeting the woman and introducing her to the children, her own children. He was giving her the opportunity to decide how this whole thing would go. 

After those first few frozen moments, Sariel pushed herself out of the doorway. Silently, she approached the pair of children sitting in the middle of the room. Once she was directly in front of the two, Sariel slowly took a knee. Without speaking just yet, she reached out to put her own hand on top of the two they were holding clasped together. One hand from each of them, brother, sister, and mother. Still, none of them spoke. They stayed like that for a minute, as Sariel absorbed the pure, wondrous joy she felt at the simple fact that she was there with them. A shudder of emotion ran through her, and she slowly lifted her other hand, reaching out to very tentatively brush her fingers through her son’s hair. A soft whimper escaped the woman at the feel of it, her fingers trailing down his cheek as the boy squirmed uncertainly. The lump in her throat grew thicker as she moved her hand over to the girl sitting beside him. Or at least the image of the girl. Sariel knew that what she was seeing there was a solid hologram, projected from Puriel’s power. But that didn’t matter. None of that mattered. For all intents and purposes, Sariel’s daughter was right there. Yes, her skin and hair felt a little too solid and warm, but it was her. It was her mind, her thoughts, her soul. She was there. They were both there

It was that thought which finally broke through the lump in Sariel’s throat, bringing forth her first words to them. “My babies.” There were tears in her eyes. “My… you…” Her eyes closed tightly and she gave a heavy shudder as the emotions from this reunion became too much to handle in that moment. These two had been ripped away from her during such traumatic times, and she had been convinced for so long that they were either dead or… or so far gone she would never see them again. To be right here with them now was more than she ever thought she would get. That joy mixed with the heavy emotions that came from thinking about losing them in the first place became too much to handle. Her eyes were tightly shut as she held one hand against the slightly too-warm face of her missing daughter. Tears escaped to fall slowly down her face. 

Then she felt it, a small hand touching the side of her face to gently brush tears away. As her eyes opened, Sariel saw her son sitting there with his hand extended. His gaze met hers, voice small and vulnerable. “We can leave if it makes you sad, Mother.” 

“Oh Void. Oh no.” That was enough. Sariel reached up to take her son’s hand, squeezing it while shaking her head. “No baby, you don’t make me sad.” Her voice cracked through the words. “You don’t make me sad at all. Losing you is what made me sad. Seeing you right now, you are so–you’re my little boy. You’re my boy. And I just–I just think about all the time I missed with you, because I couldn’t protect you.” 

With that, she moved her other hand over to cup the side of Spark’s face. Her touch made the girl start a little bit, reluctantly raising her gaze to meet her mother’s. The two of them locked eyes for a moment before Sariel found her voice once more. “I am so sorry, my sweet, incredible babies. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there for you.” As she spoke, her fingers moved back to brush through that holographic hair. “You are so brave, so brilliant, so… incredible. Both of you.” Her eyes moved back and forth between them. “I love you, both of you. You are both so… amazing.”

“I am not what you want,” Spark spoke, her own voice cracking just a bit as she met her mother’s gaze somewhat reluctantly. “I am Mendacia. I am not what you would hope for.” 

“No,” Sariel informed her in a quiet, yet firm voice. “You are so much more than I could ever have hoped for. You are everything I ever wanted you to be and more. So much more. You are a brilliant, brave girl who does the right thing. You try. You take care of the people you love. That’s what matters to me. That’s what you are, what you will always be, my child.” 

There was a very brief pause then before she thought of the next most important thing for her daughter to hear. “Your name… your name is what you want it to be. Your name has been Spark, and that is who you are. I will use any name you like. That is your choice. But I want you to know… to know the name I gave you.” 

A confused frown found its way to the girl’s face as she shook her head. “You knew I was Mendacia. You would have given me no name.”   

“Yes, she would have.” That was Puriel, speaking up without looking that way. His voice was rough, cracking a little. “Your mother would have given you a name before you were taken.” 

Sariel, gaze passing over the man as a rush of very conflicting emotions ran through her, turned her attention back to her daughter. “Your name is Spark. It is a brilliant name for a brilliant girl. But you are also Korsmea. My… my mother’s name. I gave it to you as soon as I knew about your condition. Because I love you both, and I always will. No condition is going to change that. Not my mother’s memory problems, and not… anything that might change how your possession power works. You are my daughter. I love you. Whatever you call yourself, whoever you are attached to, wherever you go and whatever you do, I love you. You are Spark. You are Korsmea. You are my daughter. I love everything you are.” 

Even as she finished saying that, Sariel was tugging the girl off her seat and pulling her into a firm embrace, crushing her against herself. She hugged her daughter tightly, before looking toward the boy. “And you are Omni. You are everything. You can be anything you want to be. But you should also know the name I gave you. You are Omni, and you are also Jehoel. That is the name of Apollo’s father, the man who took me in as a child and cared for me when nothing forced him to do so. I named Spark Korsmea in honor of the woman who could not always be my mother. And I named you Jehoel in honor of the man who took it upon himself to be as much of a father to me as he could.” 

Her eyes moved back and forth between the two with deep, tender affection. “You are Spark and Omni.” Her arm moved to pull the boy up as well, tugging him right up against herself to crush both of them in as tight of a hug as she could manage. “You are Korsmea and Jehoel. I love you both no matter what you call yourselves. I love you more than I could ever tell you. 

“You are my children, and nothing will ever change that.” 

******

Ten minutes later, Tabbris stood outside the room. She wasn’t quite in the doorway, huddled in on herself with her arms folded around her special fish bowl. When she had run to the house to get it, all Tabbris had been able to think about was sharing a look at her fish friends with her new siblings. But now, standing here in this moment, she couldn’t shake the feeling that it was dumb. What if they hated fish? What if  they thought it was silly? Why did she run all that way to bring the fish bowl back instead of just focusing on meeting them in person for the first time? What if they thought she was showing off? Dumb, dumb, it was dumb. She shouldn’t have brought it. Maybe she should run back and put it away, or find someone who could hold the bowl for her. Or–

“Hey, Tabs, you okay?” 

It was Tristan, standing there with Vanessa. As her older siblings, the ones she already knew quite well, stood in the hall next to her, Tabbris swallowed hard. Her voice was a whisper as she hesitantly admitted, “I don’t know if I should take this in.” 

Tristan exchanged a glance with his twin before taking a knee next to Tabbris. “Well, the fish are your friends, right?” 

“And you want them to meet your friends,” Vanessa continued, taking a knee as well. 

Gulping, Tabbris gave a slow nod, taking a moment to find her voice. “But what if they don’t like them?” 

Another brief, silent glance passed between the twins before Tristan spoke with a shrug. “Vanessa doesn’t like everything I do. And I don’t like everything she does. Cuz we’re different people.” 

“Very different,” Vanessa confirmed. “But no matter how many things he likes that I don’t, he’s always going to be my brother. And I’m always going to love him. Even when he ticks me off.” She gave him a quick look at that, squinting briefly before turning back to the younger girl. “Maybe they’ll like your fish and maybe they won’t. But the point is, liking those fish is who you are. And you shouldn’t hide that. Because they’ll love you, just like we do.” 

Tristan nodded, reaching out to touch her shoulder. “Tabs, siblings don’t always get along or like the same things. But you’ll always be siblings. That’s what matters. Trust us on that.” 

Before Tabbris could say anything else, or even think much about what her older siblings had said, a voice called from within the room. “Kids, you can come in now.” 

Hearing her mother’s words, the young girl froze up briefly. She blinked down into the magic fish bowl, seeing several of her little aquatic friends swimming around in the much-larger pool within. “Sorry, guys,” she whispered to them, “if this is dumb, it’s my fault, not yours.” 

With that, she took a deep breath, held the bowl closer to herself, and nodded to Vanessa and Tristan. Together, the three of them stepped through the doorway. 

Immediately, they saw their mother and two new siblings sitting in the middle of the room. A moment of quite emotional silence passed before the trio began to walk once more. They crossed the distance quickly, despite walking slowly to take in the sight of the other two for as long as possible. Before they knew it, all five were arranged in a circle with their mother standing a bit to the side, watching them silently. 

Of all of them, it was Sariel’s youngest son who spoke first. “Hi,” he started in a quiet voice. “I… I’m..” He glanced at their mother as though searching for her strength, then turned back to them and straightened up a bit. “I don’t want to be everything. It’s… too much. I’m–I want to be Jehoel. I mean, I am Jehoel.” 

“I’m Spark,” the blonde-black-haired girl declared. Immediately after spitting that out, she gave their mother a quick glance. “I mean, I can be Korsmea too. Spark Korsmea. I’m okay with that. I can be both. But I want to stay Spark. I can’t forget that. I won’t.” 

“You don’t have to,” Sariel assured her, voice soft as she reached out to touch the girl’s solid-light shoulder. “No one is ever going to make you forget where you came from or what you’ve been through. You are whatever you want to be, now and forever.” 

From there, the other three introduced themselves to their new siblings. Tristan boasted about how cool it was to finally have a brother to help him with all the girls, before immediately launching into a discussion about the pranks he had pulled on Vanessa. Despite the protests from his twin about not corrupting their new brother, the two boys were almost immediately whispering and snickering into each other’s ears. 

That, of course, led Vanessa to start whispering to her two sisters. Soon, they were all teasing one another with those whispers, some speaking just loudly enough to be overheard by the others in order to prompt aghast protests. Eventually, Spark asked what Tabbris was holding, and the girl tentatively, nervously introduced her fish, holding up the bowl. 

Spark and Jehoel were immediately interested, the latter more so. The boy kept asking what the different fish were named, and what type they were. He asked what they liked to eat, where she had gotten them, where they liked to live, anything and everything. Tabbris, of course, had answers for every question, and had soon gotten over her nervousness to proudly talk about her aquatic friends. 

And through it all, Sariel stood back to watch. Her hand covered her mouth to contain the vocal reaction that came as she stared at her children interacting with one another. She didn’t want to say anything, she couldn’t say anything. Not without disturbing them and breaking the spell that had come over the room as soon as the five siblings began to truly interact for the first time in their lives. Five of her children were there. All save for… all save for the one she had created without knowing what she was doing. The child who had never been intended as one, yet was suddenly so important. 

Someday, somehow, she would bring the orb she had created back to this world, and let all of her children be together. It was impossible to do now without endangering the universe that her other child had created. 

And that in and of itself was more than Sariel could even try to comprehend. The spell she had created had become sapient and was even now in that other universe, searching for her. But if she went to her immediately, the result would be catastrophic. No matter how much she wanted to find this incredible… magic daughter, they had to be incredibly careful about it, or risk accidentally destroying everything that magic daughter had built. 

But she wouldn’t forget her. Even standing here, watching her five incredible children finally meet, Sariel promised herself that she would never forget there was one more out there. And someday, somehow, she would bring her back too. No matter how she had first come about, she was still her child. And Sariel would never give up until she had finally put her family together. All of them. 

From there, with that thought in mind, the woman turned her head. Her gaze found its way to the man who sat silently in the corner, who had been sitting there the whole time and had only spoken up once. All without ever looking that way. 

For a moment, Sariel simply stood there, watching the man while listening to the sound of her children talking. A rush of thoughts and feelings worked their way through her, as she gave a little shudder before managing to focus. One more thing mattered right then, one very important thing that had to happen. 

She took a step, only to find herself facing Spark as she transported her holographic body directly in front of her. Hands raised, the girl met her mother’s gaze while speaking firmly. “Mother, he saved me. I know he did bad things. I know he hurt you, and… and the others.” She glanced back toward her siblings, who were all watching. “But he saved me. I am only here because of him. I was… nothing.” 

Swallowing hard, Sariel reached out, hand cupping the girl’s face. “No matter what Kushiel may have called you, I promise, you were never nothing.” She paused then, meeting the girl’s gaze before giving a very slight nod. “But you’re right, he saved you. I won’t forget that.” Leaning in, Sariel gently kissed her holographic forehead, voice tender. “Give me a minute, okay? It will be okay, I promise.” 

After a brief hesitation, Spark glanced to Puriel and then back to Sariel before giving a nod. Once more, she vanished, reappearing by her siblings. 

Which left Sariel standing there, watching the man who had affected her family so much, for both good and ill. Taking a breath, she took several more steps, putting herself directly in front of where he was sitting. 

Finally, Puriel raised his eyes to meet her gaze. Visibly swallowing, he spoke very softly. “Hello, Sariel.” 

She didn’t respond, not at first in any case. Instead, the woman stood, watching him as she fought to sort through her feelings. Several long, silent seconds passed before she finally spoke. “Hello, Puriel.” Another long pause filled the air, then, “You didn’t listen.” 

“No,” Puriel agreed as his voice cracked slightly. “I did not listen to you, or to others. I…” The words caught in his throat, before he managed to force them out. “I owe you a greater apology than I could ever give. I owe–”

“No,” Sariel interrupted immediately, her own voice cracking as well as she cut in. “You–the things I… the things that happened were-” She stopped, eyes closing briefly. So many emotions were running through the woman that she could barely hold herself together, could barely stand there. “You helped tear my family apart. I can never forget that.” 

As Puriel’s gaze fell, Sariel reached out, her hand catching his in a firm, almost too-tight grip. “But–” Her voice broke, forcing the woman to take a moment before she could speak again. “But you also helped put it back together. You saved my daughter, and my son. And for that, even if I can’t forget what you did… I can forgive it.” 

She gave a tug, pulling the man to his feet to stand in front of her while speaking in a soft whisper. “I forgive you, Puriel.” 

It took the man several tries to find his voice, eyes flooding with tears as he stared at her as though incapable of finding the right words. Finally, all he could manage was a weak, “Thank you.” 

“Thank you,” she returned, “for my children. But… I think you have your own daughter to go see right now. 

“And she has been waiting to speak with you for quite some time.”  

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At Last 16-13 (Heretical Edge 2)

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To say that the Whisper-Ghosts reacted badly to their Get Into Tartarus ticket being taken away would be a bit of an understatement. In the moment after the prototype ship vanished with Puriel and the kids on-board, a near-deafening scream went up throughout the room. It came not only from the Whispers who were possessing ghost ‘bodies,’ but from all of them. Dozens of the things, most nearly entirely invisible aside from distortion in the air, expressed their fury from all along the outskirts of the room. The discordant howl of rage sent an almost painful shiver through me. There was power there. Which wasn’t surprising, given how much their voices could affect people when they whispered. An outright scream like this, coming from that many of them? No wonder it felt like the magical equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. Even with our protection, hearing it made me want to gouge my own ears out. 

And that was the point, I immediately realized. The scream was an attempt to push through all our protection and force us to harm ourselves. It even almost managed it, despite everything. At the moment I had that thought, the next that leapt to mind was, ‘Grandmaria and Grandpartie aren’t protected.’ Yet even as I spun that way, hand outstretched to stop them from being made to do anything drastic, I could see that the situation was already well in-hand. Both of my grandparents, Uncle Al, and that Native American guy, were all unconscious on the floor with Mom, Sariel, and Athena standing over them. Apparently they didn’t want to take any chances. Which, given how powerful the Whispers clearly were, made sense. 

Thankfully, the Whisper-scream (yeah) didn’t last for long. Which was the good part. Unfortunately, the bad part was that as soon as it stopped, the assortment of possessed Olympian ghosts and air distortions closed in on the rest of us from all sides. Invidia was, as usual, at the front as their leader. Her gaze was centered on me, and I was pretty sure that the hatred in her eyes was coming from both her and Charmeine. With that little move back there, I had just made myself the Whispers’ personal enemy. Which was just fantastic, because I didn’t have enough of those anymore. Definitely needed to add a few more to the list. 

“You,” Invidia snarled, that single word containing about a decade’s recommended allotment of spite. “You are–” 

In mid-sentence, she abruptly vanished from that spot just as my mother appeared there, sword slashing through the space she had just been in. Mom’s own voice was hard. “Stay the fuck away from her.” The tip of the sword was pointed at the spot where Invidia had reappeared, a bit further back. “You already lost. Get over it.”

“Did we?” Invidia snapped back, as the other possessed Olympian ghosts gathered around her. They were all staring past my mother to meet my gaze, and it was very clear that the animosity I had sensed was coming equally from all of them. I hadn’t just made Invidia hate me, they all did. Their whole group, if not their whole… species or whatever. Which might be a new record even for me, given how recently we’d met. 

It was actually Theia who spoke next. The Seosten girl was standing on the spot where Puriel had been when he was thrown into the other ship. “You failed to take my father, so you failed to open the rift.” Her voice was as flat and matter-of-fact as ever, yet I could sense an underlying hint of emotion there. Theia, quite understandably, probably had complicated feelings about her father. Yet these creatures had been trying to take him away from her right when she had been about to be reunited with him for the first time since she… well, since she had changed so much. They had both changed a lot, and these Whispers had very nearly snatched Puriel away from her before she ever had the chance to have a real face-to-face with him. No wonder I could hear anger in her voice. 

Although to be fair, I was pretty sure everyone in this room was angry at the moment. 

“She’s right,” Athena put in. The woman had all-but materialized on the other side of my mother, with Dare right next to her. “Your efforts were focused on using Puriel to open a new way into Tartarus. He’s gone now, and no amount of bellowing is going to change that.” 

Invidia made Charmeine’s eyes narrow, her voice low and dangerous as she stared intently through everyone else to meet my gaze. “Perhaps not, but we may still extract a high price for such a delay.” 

“Extract a high price,” Dare informed her in a voice that somehow managed to convey even more of an open threat than her actual words did, “and pay an even higher one.”

Invidia’s eyes finally turned away from mine to look to her, a snarl finding its way into her retort. “Is that so? Because it seems to me we have you outnumbered. And we gain an even better understanding of our physical capabilities with each confrontation. You cannot hold out for long. Your resources are far from infinite, this far from any reinforcements.”

“Are we far from reinforcements?” I pointed out after taking a breath. “I mean, you just saw our extra ship jump in and then out of here instantly. You really think you can finish us off before Andromeda drops off Puriel and the kids then comes back with some help?” 

“Perhaps,” Invidia snapped in my direction, though she didn’t exactly sound confident. I was pretty sure she was running the numbers in her head and didn’t like what it was coming out to. “We can handle you, at least, annoying one.” 

“You’d have to go through all of us to do it,” Avalon retorted, putting herself slightly in front of me with her arm raised, projecting a blade from her gauntlet. Miranda silently joined her, even as my mother moved closer as well.  

Beside me, Cerberus gave a low growl through each of his heads. Persephone piped up, “Felicity has many friends you would have to go through. Including us. And we just got here. We can keep playing for awhile.”

She was right, of course. First, she and Cerberus had only just gotten started, which was the whole reason I’d kept them in reserve as backup even after the Whispers first showed themselves. It didn’t make sense to blow that surprise the very moment we saw some bad guys. I’d hoped that if Kushiel was here, we could have surprised her with them if things ever got really bad. And second, because the two of them were a Revenant and robot dog respectively. They didn’t really get tired. At least, not like that. I was pretty sure Cerberus could run down enough to need to recharge or whatever, but that wouldn’t be for quite some time. His makers didn’t want to have to go find a thousand double a batteries or whatever in the middle of fighting Manakel. 

Invidia was staring that way, her gaze locked onto Persephone. “And what precisely are you even doing? You should be aiding us, not hindering our efforts. You are a puppeteer of dead things, Revenant. You worm and slide your way into the dead and control it from within. You are nothing without the dead. We are all-but family, practically your siblings. You have far more in common with us than these creatures. And even if there were no similarities between us at all, you should want what we want. Unleashing this… Tartarus as they call it will bring even more of the power you are so fond of.” Her eyes darted briefly to me as she added, “You think this child, already about to fall in on herself after so minor an exertion, can offer even a small fraction of the necromantic energy that Tartarus being fully unleashed would bring into this universe? You latched yourself to that power’s previous custodian, and now to the child for no merit of her own. You aid her for the power she controls, and yet the source of that power could be in the palm of your hand. You bow to the one who holds a flashlight, while ignoring those offering you the power of the sun itself. All you need to do is stand with us, and you shall never be in the dark again. We know you better than they ever could. This girl will never see you as a romantic partner. She’s only using you for the strength you provide.” 

The others were staring our way, and it was all I could do not to turn and look at Persephone myself. But something told me that one of the worst things I could do in that moment was show any doubt in her. No matter how worried the paranoid part of me wanted to be, I had to trust her. More than that, I had to show that I trusted her. 

To that end, I stepped forward and over slightly, putting myself not quite directly in front of Persephone, but slightly to the side and ahead. I moved to a spot that put my back to her both literally and symbolically, while simultaneously being physically closer. My voice was sharp. “You know what’s funny? You’re trying to say that you can give Percy what she wants better than any of us, but you don’t even know what she wants. You don’t know what she likes. If you did, you’d know there’s no way in hell that she’d ever want to release a bunch of universe-destroying monsters. You know, because she lives here. Percy?”

“Yes, Felicity?” she chirped a bit from behind me, sounding curious. 

“What’s your favorite thing to do at two-fifteen on Saturday and Sunday morning?” I asked without looking away from Invidia and the other Whispers. Immediately after answering the question, I spoke the answer right alongside the Revenant. 

“Sit in the fluffy blue recliner with a hot, wet towel over my feet and a bowl of popcorn, half cheese and half caramel, in my lap watching the excellent Home Shopping Network and making up stories about what the people who buy the items are like.” 

We both finished saying that, word-for-word, before I added, “How do I know that? Because I talk to her. Because I’ve asked her that four times and she’s given the same answer every time. Because I like knowing things about her. And it’s kinda hard to have a shopping network, a TV, popcorn, a towel, or a recliner if there are a bunch of monsters destroying the universe.” 

Stepping back a bit, I reached a hand behind myself to find Persephone’s and squeezed it, all still without breaking eye contact with Invidia. “You think you know her? You don’t know a damn thing about her. You think you can talk her into betraying me because you tell her I don’t have romantic feelings for her? I never lied about that, not once. I have been completely up-front about that. But me not feeling anything romantic for Persephone doesn’t mean I don’t care about her. She is my friend. And if you open your mouth to try to manipulate her again, I will come over there, rip you out of that ghost body, then twist and fold your incorporeal ass into a shape that’s so geometrically impossible you’ll end up breaking the fabric of space-time and traveling back to inspire M.C. Escher. Leave my friend alone.” 

Speaking brightly, Persephone chirped, “Thank you, Friend Felicity. But I am more than capable of speaking up for myself.” She paused briefly before giving a short nod as she focused on Invidia and the other, increasingly angry Whisper-Ghosts. “As she said, you are not my friend. She is.” Her head tilted then. “Perhaps you should not have cultivated such a strong reputation for manipulation. Nothing you say is believable.”

“Yeah, well, they’re accustomed to having the power to back it up,” Apollo noted. “When you get too dependent on using a power that lets your voice manipulate and control people, well… let’s say I know what that can be like.” 

“You are nothing to us,” Invidia snapped in his direction, clearly offended by the insinuation that there was any similarity between what they did and his own Olympian power. 

Apollo, for his part, simply shrugged as though that didn’t bother him. “Maybe not, but your thing hasn’t worked so far. Actually, you’ve kind of failed at everything you’ve been trying to do this whole time.” 

“Everything?” There was amusement mixed in with the anger in Invidia’s voice. “Is that what you think? Because from where we are standing, we are in a much better position with these… bodies than we have been before.” She gestured around at the other Whisper-possessed ghosts. “Your annoying efforts to prevent us from opening the way to Tartarus notwithstanding, our efforts here have not been wasted. Whether you survive this encounter or not remains to be seen, but we will emerge stronger than we have been in many millennia.” 

“Sure,” Apollo agreed in a tone that made it sound like that didn’t even matter. “Not to mention Tartarus clearly isn’t going anywhere. It’s a whole universe out there. Not like it’s just gonna disappear.” 

“Of course not,” the Whisper retorted, her eyes narrowing at him. “Tartarus has existed since before the creation of this universe, and it will continue to exist long after every star which warms your worlds has burned itself out. It is infinite. And we have patience to match. Your efforts here are nothing more than a brief delay.”

“Not even a particularly good one,” Apollo noted. “You have plenty of other options for opening a rift into the place. You don’t even need any of us.” 

“No,” came the response, “we do not need you.” 

“We’re not worth your time.” 

“You’re not worth our time.” 

“You should just leave right now.” 

“We should just–wait–” The very slightly glazed look that had crossed Invidia’s face started to clear as she focused. “You–you are not–” 

Apollo spoke once more, his voice firm as it filled the whole area around us as though he was speaking through a microphone that didn’t exist. “You should leave right now and go as far away as you can.” 

That was what it took. An instant after he finished those words, Invidia and the rest of the Whisper-Ghosts vanished. As soon as they did, the blond man staggered a bit, giving a heavy wheeze. “Ohhhkay, that took a lot more than I thought it would. They’re strong.” He glanced to the rest of us. “I wanted to ask for more information about what they are, but it… they were too strong. I could feel it. I would’ve had to keep talking for another ten minutes to get anything, and she was already starting to work it out. Had to go with the quick fix instead of the long term answers. Sorry.” His last word came as a mutter, the man clearly annoyed that he hadn’t been able to get anything else out of them. 

“Dude,” Miranda started while shaking her head, “you managed to voice-manipulate a bunch of alien creatures whose entire thing is voice-manipulating people. Even if you didn’t get everything you wanted out of it, that’s nothing to sneeze at.” 

“She’s right,” Dare agreed, brushing her sleeves off a bit before focusing that way. “We should focus on the fact that we managed to get out of that situation without losing anyone. Particularly Puriel. He is safe now, and they don’t have what they need to open a way to Tartarus yet.” 

“But they still got away with new ghost bo–” I started before abruptly spinning to focus on the group who had been standing slightly away, staring at all of us through that. “Grandmaria, Popser!” The words had barely escaped me before I was dashing that way. 

“There she is!” my grandfather cheerfully called while reaching down to haul me up from the floor as soon as I was close enough. He hugged me to his chest, even as my grandmother stepped in to join the embrace as well. Soon all three of us were embracing in a big group right there. I was basically squished in the middle, but I didn’t care. My grandparents were here, they were safe. Everything else could wait for the moment. 

Actually, no, not everything. In the midst of that, I started to think about Tabbris and my father, only to hear the latter’s voice. “Mom… Dad.” 

He was there, with Tabbris right at his side. The two of them looked pretty worn, and it was obvious they’d been through a lot down there keeping the Whispers away from the Slide-Drive. But they made it, just like the rest of us. We might’ve all been exhausted, but we were alive. And, well, the universe wasn’t about to be overrun by giant monsters, which was a good thing.

Opening their arms without taking their grip off me, Grandmaria and Grandpartie beckoned for their son to come right in. He did, and then there were four of us. Which quickly became five as my grandmother reached out toward Tabbris, taking the suddenly-shy girl by the hand to pull her in close. I could see the shudder that ran through my little sister before she let herself embrace her new grandparents tightly, one after the other. And they hugged her right back. There was no hesitation, they both pulled her right in close and tight as smoothly and immediately as if they’d known her for years. Probably because they understood just how much this would mean to Tabbris, how important it was. 

Speaking of important, no matter how good this hug might’ve been, it was missing one person. Dad and I both met each other’s gazes before nodding. We knew. Turning slightly while keeping one hand on my grandfather’s arm, I looked over that way with a simple, “Mom.” 

There she was, standing just to the side as she watched what was going on with that sword still held tight (maybe a little too tight) in her grip. At the sound of my voice, Mom started a bit before sheathing the blade. Her mouth opened and then shut as she fought to find the right words. 

She might not have known what to say, but my grandmother did. Extracting herself, Grandmaria took a few steps over there. She raised both hands, voice quiet. “I owe you such an apology, Joselyn. For… for the things that–” 

“No,” Mom interrupted, shaking her head. “Maria, you don’t owe anything. If I saw what you–if I…” She took a breath before letting it out, clearly trembling just a little despite herself. “I would have said even worse things than I’m sure you did. I would have done worse things.” 

“Oh,” Grandmaria half-drawled with a note of embarrassment, “I don’t know about the first bit. I said some pretty awful things.” A self-deprecating smile found its way to her face before she stepped that way, reaching out to take both of my mother’s hands. Her voice was even quieter, yet stronger. “You did what you had to do to protect your family. I–we could not be more proud of you, dear. And… knowing what we know now, I understand it may feel very silly for someone so much younger than you are to express that sort of sentiment. It may mean very little–” 

“No,” Mom interrupted, voice catching a bit. “Believe me, it… it means more than you know.” 

“Joselyn,” Dad spoke a bit tenderly, reaching out that way. He didn’t say anything else, just stood there with his hand stretched toward her. 

Grandmaria, meanwhile, looked back and forth between them before taking my mother’s hand. She squeezed it, offering a faint smile before giving her a tug. And just like that, she pulled Mom over to join the embrace. And now we were finally all right there, hugging one another tightly for the next few moments. There were a lot of things to worry about, of course. But this… this was important. It was worth taking a second to enjoy. 

Soon enough (all too soon, really), we had to separate. There would be more later, but for the moment, there was still too much to do. After all, we were still out here in the middle of nowhere. And there was no telling how long it would be before the Whispers found their way back. We had to get out of here while we had the chance. 

To that end, the others hadn’t just been standing around doing nothing, apparently. Athena had already sent Mercury and Sariel back down to the bridge to get the ship moving again, while Persephone had gone with Cerberus and Apollo to bring the slide-drive back online now that the Whispers were gone and we had control of the ship. 

Of course, there was still one more person who needed a hug. My eyes found him immediately after separating from the others. “Uncle Al,” I found myself murmuring while stepping over that way. 

“Hey there, kid,” he greeted me with a broad smile. “Can I get your autograph?” 

“Only if you give me yours, Uncle Hercules,” I shot right back before embracing him tightly. In this case, I didn’t hold back any strength. He could take it, and a hell of a lot more. 

From there, a whole lot of introductions started to be passed back and forth, and I gave a double-take when they introduced the Native American guy who had been quiet up to this point. “Kutattca? As in–wait.” 

The elderly man gave a simple nod, head bowing. “Yes, actually. My sister is Litonya. If you’d like, I can apologize for her. I have been doing so for quite some time.” 

“Okay…” My mouth opened, before I stopped, realizing I had no idea exactly where to go from there. “I have so many questions. But right now, I’m pretty sure we should focus on getting back to the station so we can meet up with Puriel and those kids again and make sure everyone’s okay.” 

“Yes,” Theia spoke up in agreement. “I would very much like to speak with my father when he is not… distracted. We have a great deal to talk about.” 

“One thing, Felicity,” Athena started, with a slow, deliberate glance my way.

“Are those Elemiah’s rings you have?” 

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At Last 16-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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On the heels of Invidia’s announcement, Athena was already moving. In fact, she had been moving even before the evil creature finished talking, lunging that way with her sword slashing upward. Yet Invidia met the incoming blade with her own, its ghost-like wispy form somehow still blocking the other sword as though totally solid. She gave Athena a smirk, raising both eyebrows before the two began to exchange blows with blinding speed.

In the next instant, the rest of the Whisper-Ghosts fell in on us from all sides. Or, rather, they would have. But I had already snapped both hands up and out, summoning all the power I could to force the Olympian ghosts to stay back. Strong as they were, aided by the Tartarus energy and the fact that they were being controlled by these other creatures, it took absolutely everything I had just to make them stop moving forward. Controlling them or pushing them back was completely out of the question. I stopped them several feet away from us, and that was the extreme limit of my capability. Even that was almost too much, as I could feel them pushing against my control. 

“If one of you guys could do something to stop these fuckers right about now,” I managed through gritted teeth while struggling to maintain any sort of grip, “that’d be super-great!” 

Because it sure didn’t look like Athena was going to be done with Invidia any time soon. Just like her fight with my mother, the pair seemed perfectly matched. I had a feeling that the Whisper possessing Charmeine’s ghost was getting stronger and better with each passing moment, more attuned to working with the ‘body’ she had taken over. Every time she fought with it, she got more capable at using it. Worse, I was pretty sure that whole thing went for all these guys. All the Whispers were controlling incredibly powerful and skilled Olympian Seosten, even if they weren’t bridge crew. The longer this went on, the better they were going to get at actually using those powers and skills. We had to end this before we were totally overwhelmed. 

Oh yeah, and before they managed to take over Puriel and force him to open a portal to unleash a bunch of universe-destroying monsters. That would be nice too. 

To one side, even as I spoke those words about asking someone to do something, Sariel was drawing back her bow. But she wasn’t focused on any of the Whisper-Ghosts who were still trying to lunge at us. Instead, her gaze was on Puriel himself. In that moment, I had the sudden realization of how angry she must still be deep down for everything that had happened to her and her family. Not to mention the simple fact that her missing daughter was trapped inside Puriel himself, and as far as anyone knew, the only way to free her was for Puriel to die. 

“Sariel!” Apollo called, his hand reaching out that way, though he didn’t actually touch her. “If he dies–” 

“I know,” she interrupted, voice flat. “If he dies, they can possess him.” Still, she loosed the arrow anyway. It shot through the air, flying right between two of the Whisper-Ghosts, over the head of one of the cowering children, and struck Puriel right in the–no. At the very last instant, just before the arrow would have gone clean through the thoroughly-distracted man’s throat, it broke apart. The shaft fell away, while the arrowhead exploded into a… a cocoon of glowing reddish energy that surrounded the man. A forcefield. Sariel had put a forcefield around him. 

A sudden rush of motion just as the woman had loosed that arrow made my gaze snap over to where Theia had almost launched herself in the air after the shot. Seeing what happened, the girl froze in mid-motion. From the look on her face, I was pretty sure she was more surprised by her own reaction than she was about what the arrow had actually done. In the instant where she had thought that her father was in danger, she had very nearly thrown herself in the path of the arrow. Sure, her power meant it wouldn’t be a problem, but what she was feeling in that moment had clearly left the girl reeling. 

And speaking of reeling, I couldn’t keep this up. My control over keeping the ghosts away was already starting to falter. Honestly, the fact that I’d kept it up this long against so many of them was almost a miracle. Especially when I didn’t have Tabbris with me to provide any extra boost.  

“Everyone get to Puriel,” Sariel announced firmly while drawing another arrow and giving me a quick, somewhat reassuring glance that said she knew just how close I was to losing it. “There are already Anti-Whisper Runes all along the floor around him, but they’re running out of power. Those things have him too distracted to recharge them. We have to get over there and do it ourselves.” 

She was right, I realized. That was our best shot at stopping these things. If we could recharge the runes to drive the Whispers away from Puriel long enough for the man to catch his breath and orient himself, maybe he could deal with them for good.  

“Flick!” Miranda was right next to me, shield held up protectively. “This feels like a rainy day situation, you know? I think it might be time to use th–” 

She was abruptly cut off. Not by me losing control of the ghosts I had been shoving away from us, but from something reaching up from underneath me. It grabbed my foot, and I barely heard Miranda, Avalon, and my mother all shout my name before I was suddenly yanked down through the floor, a yelp of surprise escaping me. 

At least I wasn’t being physically slammed through solid metal. My body had turned almost ghost-like itself as soon as whatever it was grabbed me. I had no control, however, as I was pulled completely helplessly downward. 

I didn’t just get yanked through one deck either. Three full decks passed me by in a quick blur before I landed hard on the floor of the fourth one. Only then, lying on my back, did I see the glowing tentacle wrapped around my ankle. A tentacle that was attached to the outstretched arm of yet another clearly-possessed Seosten ghost. He wasn’t an especially large man, standing only a few inches taller than me. His skin–or what was supposed to have been his skin if he had been alive, was black, with intensely green eyes and a very aristocratic face. He looked almost more beautiful than handsome. Well, aside from the fact that one of his arms had transformed into a tentacle that had stretched up through four full decks to grab my ankle, turn me intangible, and yank me away from everyone up there who needed me. 

“Okay,” I grunted while jerking my leg free. As soon as I did, my form solidified once more, and I rolled backward to my feet. “I’m getting really sick of you people, and sick of getting dragged away from my family and friends. That’s double-sick, so if I was you, I’d get the fuck out of my way.” 

Unfortunately, the Whisper-Ghost wasn’t impressed by my words. He gave me a simple smirk while transforming the tentacle back into a regular arm, head cocking to the side a little. “You’re the Necromancer,” he drawled. “We have a few things in common, you and my people. We’re all quite good at controlling dead things.” 

“Is this gonna be the ‘join us and rule the universe at our side’ spiel?” I spat back at him. “Because it’s kind of surprising how seldom I’ve gotten that, considering everything I’ve been through.” Even as I said the words, I was calculating the best way to get around him and back to where I needed to be. Was it time to use the–no. No, I could wait for that. I couldn’t use it just to deal with one guy. Not when I still didn’t know for sure just how bad this whole situation was going to get.

So, I instead held my staff out to one side, activating the next ghost-fire spell so I would actually be able to hurt this piece of shit. “If so, save your breath. I’ve got much better options for that if I wanted to rule the universe alongside actual competent megalomaniacs.” 

A deep, rumbling chuckle escaped the ghost figure. “If you are so dismissive and in such a rush, why not force me to move? Surely a strong, capable dead-puppeteer like you could manage such a thing.” His teeth gleamed as he smiled. “After all, it’s just you and me.” 

I wasn’t stupid. This was bad. This whole thing was bad. I had no idea what was going on up there, how the others were doing, if they had managed to save Puriel yet or if he was–well, clearly we weren’t at the place where these guys wanted to open the rift, because the ship was still moving. But we were still on our way there. Dad and Tabbris hadn’t managed to stop the ship. I had to get through this guy and go help the others. And yet, the way he was talking…

Fuck it, I couldn’t wait around and what-if myself all day long. Since he had literally asked for it, I snapped my free hand out, forcing all the strength I could into grabbing control of the ghost the Whisper was possessing. I was throwing everything I had into making damn sure I–wait. 

At the very last possible instant, I realized my mistake. Just as my power was latching onto him, I was already releasing it, spinning around while lashing out with my staff. 

It struck home, slicing right through three different ghosts who had been silently rushing up behind me. They used the fact that the guy in front of me had grabbed my attention, letting him manipulate me into throwing everything I had into grabbing hold of him, which would leave me vulnerable to attack from behind. And it had very nearly worked. It had worked, right up until the last possible instant. 

The good news was that my wild swing caught the ghosts who were right behind me before they could carry out their sneak attack. The bad news was that they weren’t the only ones. I had just enough time to catch a glimpse of something coming toward me from the side, before it smacked into the side of my head with enough force to knock me sidelong so that I stumbled a few steps over to the nearby wall. It made me see stars briefly even without having a nearby viewport. 

Shoving myself away from the wall and spinning back that way, I found myself surrounded on all sides. The guy with the tentacles had been joined by half a dozen friends. All of them spread out, making it clear that they had no intention of allowing me to get past them. 

Then I saw what had hit me that hard. It was… a ball, like one that a kid would play with. Actually, it probably had been played with by a kid before now, one of the Seosten children who were on the ship. But the way it had hit me, the force…

Hula hoops. That was my first impression when I saw the two rings floating in the air a few feet apart. Both black on the side facing me and gold on the side facing away. They really were about the size of hula hoops, hovering roughly midway between me and a Ghost-Whisper who was standing with her hand outstretched. She was fairly tall, just over six feet, and quite thin, with narrow silvery-blue eyes and short dark hair at odds with her pale skin. I was gonna guess that she was the one who had thrown that ball. 

Even as I had that thought, she smirked at me before hurling another ball. It passed through the hoops and–fuck! The moment it passed through the first hoop, the ball’s speed doubled, before doubling a second time as it passed through the second hoop. The ball hit me before I could even hope to dodge it. The best I could do, even seeing her throw it, was twist aside enough that it slammed into my shoulder. 

The hoops flew back through the air to her, as the Whisper-Ghost laughed and caught one on each arm, spinning them. They shrank rapidly, turning into bracelets on each wrist. As they did. she punched the air a few times, her arms moving about twice as fast as they should. 

Right. This… this was gonna be a problem. Maybe I could have done something to these guys, at least enough to shove them aside so I could run past, before exhausting myself upstairs keeping all the others away from everyone. But I didn’t have that in me right now. Not when these ghosts were both powered by Tartarus and possessed by the powerful Whisper creatures. I just couldn’t muster up the strength to shove enough of them aside. Not without taking a break. And there wasn’t time for that. 

“What’s the matter?” the Whisper-Ghost who had dragged me down here in the first place taunted, already transforming his arms back into tentacles. “Feeling a bit weak? Maybe you should take a little nap.” 

“You know,” I retorted, “that’s not a bad idea. Right now, I think we’ll just kick your asses and go upstairs.” 

His eyebrow rose, while the rest of his companions slowly began to move in closer, tightening the noose they believed they had caught me in. But it was the one with the hula hoops-turned-bracelets who spoke. “We? You are alone, child. You do not even have your usual companion riding… what is the term, copilot? Your friends and family are quite occupied, and even she is no longer with you. We all know the truth. You have no one standing behind you.” 

“Behind me?” I took a breath and then shoved everything I could into pushing all the ghosts back away from me. It wasn’t a lot, and it wouldn’t hold them for long. But it gave me the time I needed to speak. “Nah, I’ve got no one behind me. But you guys might want to look behind you.” 

Most of them saw that as a very obvious and pathetic trick. But two turned, looking that way. At first, they saw nothing. Then their eyes found the small metal ball I had summoned to my hand and tossed just before getting punched in the face to knock me over to where I now stood. It was about the size of a baseball, with intricate runes all over it and a single button on top. A single button that Gus, my cyberform mouse, was holding both paws against. As soon as they saw him, he gave a single, defiant squeak, then pushed the button. 

Instantly, the ball blew apart in a blast of blinding energy. When it faded, two figures were standing there. A beautiful white-haired woman with very tanned skin and a deep blue bodysuit, standing next to a three-headed mechanical dog bigger than she was. 

A three-headed mechanical dog whose entire purpose had been to hunt and kill undead things. 

“Cerberus!” Persephone called, voice echoing through the corridor, “ghosthunt!” 

The moment she said that word, each of Cerberus’s three heads rose a bit, showing their teeth as they growled. Blue-white ghostfire played over those teeth. Simultaneously, five holes appeared along each side of the robot dog’s back, allowing ten metal coils to emerge. Each had a small camera and laser cannon attached to it, wildly pointing in every direction as though checking for threats from all sides. 

Ghost-fire filled the air, produced through every metal tooth in all three heads. Nearly two hundred teeth all-told, each a small dagger that was now capable of driving its way into intangible forms. Such as the forms of the seven Whisper-Ghosts arrayed in front of him, as Cerberus glared and growled low. The laser-holding coils, mistaken as snakes millennia ago, turned as one to focus on their targets. 

At the moment they had appeared, as he caught sight of the ghosts in front of them, Cerberus’s brand new addition had started up. It was not a weapon. Not exactly. No, what he’d had added right at the front of his body, where his three heads joined, was a speaker system. A speaker system which had begun to play the opening notes of “Welcome To The Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses, filling the air as the assortment of Whisper-Ghosts stared in shock and tried to comprehend what had just happened. And in the very moment about thirty seconds in, just before the first word of ‘Jump’ came, Persephone spoke the next command. 

“Sic ‘em, boy.” 

He was on them an instant later, ghost-fire powered teeth tearing through one of the ghosts while a paw slapped at another and actually managed to knock him backwards. At the same time, those laser cannons opened up, driving even more of them in either direction away from him. And into Persephone and me, a fact they realized just as my empowered staff slammed into one, and her ghost-fire covered fist ripped through another. 

Yeah, those guys didn’t stand a chance. Even if they had been able to stand against a giant metal dog specifically built to destroy everything Manakel could have thrown at him, between him, Persephone, and me, they were dead before they knew what hit them. Or redead. Or–they weren’t a problem for the moment. We tore through their ghost forms and scattered them. They tried to reform, but we hit them hard enough to basically turn them into dust. It would take time for the Whispers to regroup and gather that much ghost energy once more. 

Soon, only the hula hoop ghost was left. She was already retreating, but Cerberus got there first, lunging in the way while breathing out a line of ghost-fire that made her recoil. Persephone, in turn, actually grabbed onto her, shoving the intangible figure to her knees while calling to me, “Felicity, picture a hard candy shell around her, squeezing very tight with your gift!” 

Ooookay then. Focusing hard on my Necromancy power, I imagined it creating a… well, hard candy shell around the ghost while she struggled. Honestly, if it wasn’t for both Persephone and Cerberus keeping her there, I wouldn’t have had time to focus on that, given it took several full seconds of concentration where I couldn’t do anything else. I was picturing more of a net, or saran wrap, totally covering the figure from head to toe. As I did, her movements grew slower and more subdued. 

“Now, Felicity, the blade!” Persephone urged. 

So, I drove the blade of my staff right through the motionless ghost form. That time, as I did, she screamed out loud. The Whisper appeared as an air ripple in front of my face before vanishing an instant later. 

Not that I noticed really, because I was too busy doubling over from the rush of… of pleasure that went through me. Pleasure that made me gasp and stumble, eyes widening. “What–what– I just–that just–” 

“It is possible to eliminate the ghosts so that they cannot recover,” Persephone calmly and flatly informed me. “You must simply trap them within a layer of your own ghost energy so that they cannot push their own outside of it. I would not suggest attempting to do so in open combat until you are far more experienced.” 

“I… uh huh…” Breathing hard, I stared at the spot where the ghost had been. Then I looked to one side and focused for a second. Sure enough, those two gold and black hula hoops appeared, hovering in the air. 

“Her name was Elemiah,” Persephone helpfully announced. “Her gift created those two rings, which she could control the size of down to fitting on her wrists and up to about twice what you see. She was able to mentally manipulate them, and anything passing through from the gold side would be doubled in speed for a few seconds, with the effect stacking if both rings were passed through in rapid succession. Anything passing through from the black side would be slowed to half its speed, or stopped briefly if that effect was doubled.” 

Okay… okay that was pretty… A thought made the hoops jump to my wrists before shrinking down to bracelets. Quickly, I punched the air just as the Seosten ghost had. And just like when she had done it, my fist moved about twice as fast as it should have. This I could get used to. 

Except I was going to have to get used to it later, because it was really time to go. Even as that thought occurred to me, I was already pivoting to face the white-haired woman with a blurted, “Nearest elevator! We need to get back to the sealed cargo hold, the one the Seosten don’t let anyone else into!” 

In response, Persephone immediately turned, beginning to move down the corridor. “It is this way, Felicity!” As we ran, with Cerberus bringing up the rear, she added, “I am glad that I was able to assist you, as promised. But I did not see Kushiel there.” 

“Yeah, I guess she’s not involved in this bit,” I murmured. “So keeping you hidden until she showed herself wasn’t really gonna work anymore. But don’t worry, there’s plenty of other Seosten ghosts for you and our friend there to deal with. We have to–” Abruptly, the ship jerked around us, enough to make me stumble. 

“The slide-drive has been de–” Persephone started. 

We did it! That was Tabbris, in my head once more. I could tell she wasn’t actually fully here, just partially recalled. We shut it down! But–but the bad guys are still trying to restart it. We have to drive them off. We can’t leave. I can’t– 

Stay there, I put in. Stay with Dad. We’ll take care of the rest of this. Just make sure they can’t start those engines again. 

That said, I looked back to Persephone and gave her a quick summary of what we were dealing with. “And now we have to get up there and stop them from taking over Puriel, before they open a portal into Tartarus and let out a bunch of monsters to destroy everything in the universe.” 

Giving a short nod, the woman replied, “Andromeda says that if you like, she can transfer herself from the other ship to this one and assist in resisting the Whisper’s control of its systems.” 

I started to nod, before catching myself. “Wait, you’re still in contact with Andromeda?” 

With a bright smile, Persephone confirmed, “Uh huh, our connection is very special. She is still in the other ship, remaining at a distance just as you requested.” 

“In the other ship…” I opened my mouth, then shut it. My eyes widened. “No. Tell her to stay there. Don’t transfer over here. 

“I have a better idea.” 

******

A short time later, the three of us burst through the doors back into the cargo hold I had been so unceremoniously dragged out of. A quick glance around showed that the situation had not exactly improved that much. But by the same token, at least it hadn’t gotten worse. Everyone was still fighting, and the Whispers had not yet taken control of Puriel. I could see where the others had boosted the runes protecting him, yet it wasn’t enough to keep them away for good. It was a delaying action at best. What we really needed to do was bring the man under the protection of Liesje’s spell. That combined with his own strength would probably be enough to keep them out of his head. But we couldn’t do that from here. He had to be back at the Star Station for it. For now, we had to do something to end the stalemate. And I was pretty sure I knew what that something was.

Cerberus was already going to town, clearing a path through the Whisper-Ghosts (and yes, he had started the song once more) as I raced alongside Persephone right back to where everyone had formed a ring around Puriel and the children. Grandmaria and Popser were there too, being protected by Avalon and a couple Mirandas. 

Two of the Whisper-Ghosts tried to move into my path, but I thrust my arms out, willing the two bracelet-sized rings to fly forward and turned so that their gold side was toward me. As soon as they were in position and just large enough, I hurled my staff, blade out. It passed through the two rings, quadrupling in speed so that it cut into the two ghosts before they had any idea what had happened. An instant later, a thought recalled the staff back to my hand. 

Another ghost was trying to come at me from the side as I passed the rings, but I made them grow to their full size and pivot in the air to put the black side toward the intangible figure. He passed through them and froze instantly, the double-black rings halting his movement entirely for a moment.

Between that and my Persephone and Cerberus escort, it was enough to clear my path. “Boost the runes!” I shouted while running up to join the others. The rings had come spinning back, shrinking down once more to take their spots on my wrists.

My reward for the words was a simultaneous look of disbelief from basically everyone there. Theia was the one who found her voice first, speaking plainly. “We have already been taking turns doing so. It has been our entire strate–” 

“No, everyone!” I blurted. “Everyone boost the runes right now with everything you’ve got! Shove the Whispers back as far as we can, just for a few seconds!” I focused on my mother, eyes meeting hers. “Trust me, we only need one quick boost!” 

Mom gave a short nod, turning to look at Athena. “Do what she says.” 

Athena, in turn, spoke up. “Everyone do it. Touch the runes and put everything you have into them, one more time.” 

So, we did. With the Whispers regrouping and coming straight at us, everyone crouched to touch one of the runes. And in that moment, we shoved every bit of energy we could muster, supercharging the spells to fill the room, driving the Whispers backward to the far corners. As expected, it would only last for a few seconds. That was as long as it needed to.

“Felicity,” Mom was saying, “any plan you’ve got, you need to–”

“Everyone get down!” I shouted, grabbing Avalon on one side and the nearest Miranda before hurling us forward and to the floor. Thankfully, the others followed suit immediately, everyone hitting the deck quite literally. 

It was just in time, as something filled the space we had just been in a moment later. Something large, long, and roughly tube-shaped. Like a shuttle. Or like–

“The prototype ship?!” Miranda blurted from behind me as I rolled over to look that way. Sure enough, the ship was right there, its back doors open and facing not us, but Puriel and the children. Because that was the ship I’d asked Andromeda to take and follow us with, just in case.

“Mom!” I shouted, pointing. 

She got the point instantly, trusting her hands outward. An invisible force hit the kids and Puriel, throwing them onto the ship as it perched there. 

“Andromeda, go!” My voice filled the air, even as the Whispers regrouped and began to descend once more, screeching in fury. 

She didn’t have to be told twice. The doors of the prototype ship snapped shut, and with a flash of energy, it was gone. It had jumped not only out of the Olympus, but all the way back to the Star Station. Far from any Whispers. It had worked. Puriel was safe. He was gone. Now there was no way for those fuckers to open the portal to Tartarus. 

Now all we had to do now was find a way to survive their reaction to that fact, and take back the Olympus for good. 

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At Last 16-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Things were even worse, if that was possible. It turned out there were protection spells that the Whisper-possessed Seosten ghosts had put up around the Slide-Drive core. Which, of course, we didn’t have time to break through so we could disable the jamming. Not with Puriel already about to be taken over by those bastards. Every second we spent down here was too long. 

In the end, we only had one choice. My dad, despite his worry about his parents, agreed to stay behind and use the spells that he knew (and what Apollo and Aletheia showed him) to break through that protection so he could disable the jamming. It wasn’t perfect, but he had Mercury’s power. Which meant he could both speed up his own magic and make the protection spells run through their own duration much faster. He just had to do so carefully to avoid setting off any bad reactions. 

Tabbris was staying with him too. That was harder, but I convinced her that if I couldn’t stay and protect our dad from any of those Whispers that might come back, she needed to. She had her wings and knew all the ghost control magic I did, even if she didn’t have the same Necromancy power. I was trusting her to keep our father safe right now, and once they were done getting through the protections and were able to shut down the jamming, she would be able to recall back to me. 

Obviously, she felt guilty about leaving me ‘on my own,’ but I was able to convince her that it was for the best. We embraced briefly before separating so the rest of us could start running. 

Through my connection to Grover, I was able to describe exactly where Puriel and the others were both in appearance and in relation to our current location. Using that, Apollo and Aletheia figured out that they were in one of the special cargo holds. It was separate from the regular hold, intended to keep sensitive cargo that the Seosten didn’t want just anyone on the ship to have access to. The place was sealed behind high-level protections, which would have been a real problem if we hadn’t run into Aletheia already. Because she had actually been traveling on the Olympus already, and was trusted implicitly by Puriel, the Seosten woman already had access to the place. If it wasn’t for her, we probably would have had to spend way too much time finding a way to get through the security defenses. More time than we had right then, judging from how many of the Whispers I had seen doing their level best to get into Puriel’s head. 

As we raced back through the engine deck toward the elevator, Avalon complained, “This Puriel guy is supposed to be one of the strongest Seosten out there. I believe the exact words were ‘master of all energy, including magic.’ Shouldn’t he be able to wave his hand and blow these things away? It should be him saving us.” 

Aletheia’s voice was flat. “Ever since the… incident with the banishment orb, his mind has not been the same. Between that and the trauma he experienced at the orphanage when the Fomorians attacked, he has moments where he zones out and is incapable of reacting to the outside world. Spark is normally good at pulling him back from those moments, or simply taking over. But it seems that these Whispers are interfering with that.”

I gave a quick nod. “That’s what it looked like to me. I mean, from the outside.” Grimacing a bit, I added, “Whatever the reason, I’m pretty sure we don’t have much time. Things were looking pretty desperate up there.”

Thankfully, we wouldn’t be alone once we got there. Hopefully, at least. First, Miranda had already jumped back to her original body (it was with Athena and Dare) and was going to give them a detailed explanation straight up. As for the other two groups, I sent several of my ghosts back out to let them know what was going on as well. Between all that, it would hopefully make them meet us on the right deck so we could all do this together. That was the plan, anyway. 

By that point, we had reached the elevator, and I scrambled on before shifting my focus so I could look through Grover’s eyes once more to check what was going on. Things aren’t any better. It looked like Uncle Al, a Native American man, and my grandparents were all surrounding Puriel and the kids, protecting them from the ghosts that the Whispers kept summoning. Worse, I could see Invidia there, already in a duel with Uncle Al. Needless to say, he was holding his own. After all, he was Hercules. 

Even my grandparents were… doing something useful. It looked like Grandpartie was using a console to direct internal security weapons to fire on the ghosts, which were actually doing some damage to them. Probably shouldn’t have been surprising, considering how much experience Seosten would have with ghosts and other intangible beings, but still. And Grandmaria was… uhh, as best as I could tell at a glance, using magic to create a forcefield to hold the majority of the Whispers and ghosts off. 

I wasn’t sure which was more surprising and impressive to me, my grandfather being able to manipulate the ship controls like that, or my grandmother having a strong enough grasp over magic to create that forcefield. Or–wait, was she using magic or some power? Had she bonded to something? And come to think of it, Popser was barely touching the controls. It was more like his hands were resting on it, fingers twitching now and then. What–

Shaking that off, I focused on what was important right then. Namely, the fact that they were sort of holding off the attack. But still, things weren’t great. More Whispers kept getting through to add to the pile that were doing their level best to get into Puriel’s head, and the man himself still wasn’t moving or reacting to anything. He was just standing there with his head cocked to the side. There was clearly an internal struggle going on, and if we didn’t hurry up and get there, we were going to end up having to fight a Whisper-controlled Puriel. Which basically sounded like the exact opposite of anything approaching a good time. None of us were ready to deal with something like that. Hell, we weren’t enough even if we all joined together. This was Zeus, for fucks sake. We had nothing that could challenge him if he went after us. Especially on his own ship. Between that and all the other Whispers, including the Whisper-Possessed Charmeine, we would be completely fucked, in no uncertain terms.

Instructing Grover to tell my grandparents that we were on the way, I jumped back into my own mind in time to feel the elevator rising. It was going pretty quick too, and I could see Apollo messing with an open computer panel to one side. Apparently he had disabled the safeties or something and sped the thing up. Now we were flying toward the right deck. I just hoped we would make it in time. And, of course, cursed the fact that the Whispers’ jamming included blocking transportation powers. We had to do this whole thing the long way rather than just teleporting up there. Because, of course, this had to be as hard as possible. 

One day for a party to celebrate a victory. That was all I’d asked for. But did we get that? Of course not. And we still didn’t understand why the Whispers were here trying to pilot the ship into Tartarus to begin with. What did they think they could gain from that? Hell, what even were they? There were so many questions around this entire situation, and the only creatures with answers didn’t seem inclined to explain. But hey, maybe we could beat it out of them. 

Or maybe I was just looking forward to beating them in general. It was possible that I was slightly annoyed by this entire situation. Terrified too, of course. But also annoyed. 

The elevator finally stopped at the right deck, and the rest of us exchanged quick glances before stepping off together. The room beyond was shaped like a half-circle, with a line of elevators, including the one we had been on, along the flat line part. To the left and right were corridors, with several open doors along the curve part of the half-circle ahead of us. The main doors, straight across, apparently led to the primary cargo bay. But that wasn’t where we were supposed to go. Our destination lay to the left, down that hall. 

We were cautious, even as we stepped out of the elevator, weapons at the ready considering we had no idea what sort of traps or problems the Whispers might have left to slow us down so they would have time to take over Puriel. There could be anything waiting for us up here. 

And yet, despite having that thought, I still wasn’t prepared for what I immediately saw. Coming off the elevator, my eyes immediately fell on a single, lone figure standing with their back to us, staring through the doorway toward the main cargo hold. They showed no reaction to our arrival, and I took a quick second to size them up. They were solid, not a ghost, and seemed either human or Seosten from this angle. Probably the latter. A man, several inches under six feet, though pretty well-built. His brown hair fell to just above his shoulders, and he wore gray cloth pants and a simple white shirt, his feet bare. 

Even as I took that in, the man turned to look at me. Now I could see his face. He had a neatly trimmed beard and his eyes were a brownish-green. He looked, on paper, like a completely average guy of no particular power or importance. And yet, when I met his gaze, I felt myself shrink back reflexively. A lump had formed in my throat, as an inexplicable sense of danger and power filled me. He had made no threatening move, said no threatening words, had done nothing other than turn to look at me, but I still felt his power like a crushing weight. 

Abruptly, Apollo spoke up. “I’m not picking up any surprises.” He was holding a stone in one hand, enchanted to detect traps. “Doesn’t seem right.” 

“No surprises?” I found myself blurting. “What about–” Then my eyes flicked from Apollo, back to the strangely terrifying man by the cargo bay. But he wasn’t there. In that time, in that brief instant where my eyes had moved off him, he had vanished. “Wha–what?” I stammered, completely thrown off. I shouldn’t have been, given all the incredible powers I had seen. Yet something about that guy, something about… yeah. It threw me off, to say the least.

The others were all looking at me uncertainly, and I raised a hand to point to where the man had been, quickly explaining what I had seen. But none of them had caught a glimpse of the man. Even though he had been standing in plain view as far as I was concerned, they had not seen anything. A quick check with Seth and Rahanvael, each standing beside me, revealed the same answer. I was the only person who had seen him, or sensed anything at all. None of Mom’s powers, and none of Aletheia or Apollo’s magic, had picked up the man’s presence. 

And, come to think of it, I had not sensed him with my item-detection power either. He had definitely been in range of it, but I hadn’t sensed his clothes or anything. He had looked completely solid, but wasn’t detected by anything. Except by my own eyes, and only my eyes. No one else had picked up any sense of him at all. This was… weird. And it certainly wasn’t doing anything to make me feel better about the situation we were walking into. 

Mom and the two Seosten spent a tense moment focusing on that spot, but even after I pointed out exactly where the man had been, they couldn’t pick up anything at all. It was like he’d never been there in the first place. Which, again, was more than a little worrying. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to focus on any implications of that. Not with the problems we already had to deal with. We still had to get into the other room before the Whispers got through to Puriel, so any thoughts and worries about the man I had seen were just going to have to wait. All I could really do in that moment was hope that it wasn’t something that would come back and bite us in the ass before we were done with this specific problem. Hell, for all I knew, that figure was working with the Whispers. 

On the plus side, there didn’t seem to be any defenses here blocking our way. Which in and of itself was a bit surprising, but we weren’t going to dwell on that too much either. Especially not when two of the nearby elevators arrived in the next moment, with Larissa, Haiden, and Mercury emerging from one, and Sariel, Theia, and Pace from the other. With their respective Mirandas, of course. The ghosts I had sent to get them rejoined me, fading from view for the moment (though ready to be summoned back as soon as I needed them). 

“You guys okay?” I asked, thoughts of the man I had seen fresh in my mind. Much as I tried to set that aside, I couldn’t entirely dismiss his face. The way he had stared right through me, the power I had felt, it was too much to ignore. 

Theia waved. “We killed ghosts. And fuzzy-ghosts.” 

“Whispers, she means,” Pace put in, voice tense as she glanced around as though expecting to be ambushed at any second. “And we didn’t kill them so much as… make them go away for the moment.” 

“Yeah, and I’m pretty sure we know where they went to,” Avalon muttered, eyes on the left-hand corridor leading toward the special, extra-secure cargo hold. “They’re throwing everything they have into taking control of Puriel. Or at least turning him against the rest of us. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t fancy our odds if that happens.”

“Which is why we need to get in there right now.” That was Athena, speaking as she and Dare came off another elevator. Her attention was laser-focused ahead, a silvery-gold sword in one hand that was still glowing from ghost-fire. “Worry about specifics later,” she instructed while still walking. “Right now, all that matters is driving these creatures away and giving Puriel time to collect himself.” After a brief verbal pause, she added, “And hope that Lincoln and Tabbris break those protection spells so they can stop this ship before it’s too late to matter.” 

Oh, right, of course. We had that problem to worry about too. Even if we did manage to get the Whispers away from Puriel and the others before they turned him into a monster who would annihilate us all, it would all be for naught if this damn ship managed to take us straight into Tartarus. But, you know, it wasn’t like we were under any pressure or anything. 

Pushing aside those thoughts we started to move, I told Athena and the others what I had seen, and the fact that no one else had sensed anything. She and Sariel exchanged brief glances, before the latter spoke. “When this is over, if it is alright with you, I would like to take a look at that memory and see this man for myself. It would be better than a description.” 

I agreed easily, hoping it would lead to an actual answer. Then I pushed the thought as far from my mind as possible, focusing on the here and now. As we ran, Dare gave me a quick look, silently asking if I was all right. I gave her a thumbs up, but made it waiver a little. Between that and the look on my face, I was pretty sure she understood just how uncertain I was about the whole thing. She, in turn, took a moment to touch my shoulder in mid-run, squeezing it firmly to let me know she was there. Which was nice, but also reminded me yet again that she still couldn’t tell my mother, her own daughter, who she really was and why she cared so much.   

It was just another thing I had to push out of my head so I could focus on the problem at hand. A problem that was right in front of us, as we reached the door leading to the special cargo bay. Aletheia had already input the code, the door sliding open to reveal the same room I had seen through Grover’s eyes. And a situation that had not gotten any better in the time since I had last checked. The kids were still huddled into an even tighter circle, though Spark wasn’t visible. My guess was that she was inside Puriel, trying to keep as much control as possible away from the Whispers, who were basically flooding over his body so much that there were constant distortion waves all around him. The rest of the Whispers, and the ghosts, were being desperately held back by Uncle Al, my grandparents, and that Native American man. But they were, unfortunately, fighting a losing battle, constantly having to pull back closer to the others as the attackers continued to flood into the room. There were so many Whispers. Obviously there weren’t as many ghosts for them to control, given–well, there weren’t an unlimited number of Seosten on the Olympus who had died, even counting ‘ordinary’ crew members. Still, they were all here, and they were making a huge push. Probably because this was as much a do-or-die moment for them as it was for us. 

Seeing us enter, Grandmaria raised a hand, the other held out to reinforce the shield she had erected around them. “Good to see you, kiddo! Wish I had time to have cookies ready.” 

“Later, Maria,” Uncle Al cheerfully replied even as his fist slammed into a ghost. It shouldn’t have done anything, yet the incorporeal figure still blew apart from that single blow. “There’ll be time for cookies once we remind these bastards they’re supposed to stay gone when they die!” 

“Hurtful,” Seth remarked beside me. “But considering the situation, fair.” 

Before I could respond to that, Sariel had taken a step that way, her eyes on the huddled children trying to make themselves even smaller. Specifically, on a small boy who was peeking up to stare right back at her. Omni. He was right there. 

Unfortunately, that single step was as much as she was able to take, before a familiar form coalesced right in front of us. Charmeine. No, Invidia. Her colored-in ghost form appeared, already smirking. “Oh, you people got through those traps even faster than we thought you would. That’s surprising. And annoying. But I think that’s about far enough.” Pausing, her head tilted before she raised both eyebrows. “Ah. It seems my host here has complicated feelings about seeing you, Artemis. How interesting.” 

Traps? What traps was she talking about? There hadn’t been any traps. Huh? A moment of confusion passed through me, as I exchanged a quick glance with the others. They looked just as uncertain. 

Sariel, on the other hand, manifested her bow and drew back an energy arrow before pointing it that way. Her voice was tight. “You and the rest of your kind need to get out of here right now. Why do you even want to take this ship into Tartarus in the first place? What could you possibly hope to get out of that?” 

“A fine question,” Athena put in, stepping beside the other Seosten woman, sword at the ready. 

Invidia, in turn, glanced between them before giving a slow, audible chuckle. “Taking this ship into Tartarus?” She echoed the words as though they were the silliest thing she had ever heard, shaking her head. “Oh dear. I believe you’ve made a very dangerous assumption. We have no intention of taking this ship, or anyone on it, into Tartarus. You see, in moments we will have control of one of the most powerful and instinctive magic users in this entire universe. But even more importantly, he has a direct connection to Tartarus itself. After all, it is the source of his power.

“Once we have him in hand, we will use that power to open the portal into Tartarus. Of that, you are correct. But we will not be going inside. No, quite the opposite. When the portal is open, we will be releasing the creatures which dwell within that universe into this one. Then our people will fulfill our destiny by taking the creatures for our own use. 

“And together, we will erase everything in existence.” 

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At Last 16-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Invidia was fast. Or maybe that was just Charmeine. Either way, she was practically on top of my mother the moment those words had left her mouth. Before any of us could move, she pivoted under the raised sword and lashed out with a fist. No, there was a dagger there, I realized at the last instant. A ghost-dagger which turned solid in mid-strike. 

But Mom was pretty fast too. The sword that the ghost-woman had ducked under was suddenly in her other hand, transferred instantly before she brought it up to block the incoming blade. With her other hand, she summoned… what looked like a ball of ghost-fire around her fist before punching through Invidia’s face. Or rather, where her face had been, because the ghost-woman dodged it with a loud, cheerful laugh. Yeah, a laugh, as though this was a game. Because just like she’d said a moment earlier, this was fun for her. For them. 

As for me? Well, a lot of words immediately sprang to mind when it came to the idea of fighting Whisper-possessed Olympian Seosten ghosts. But none of them were ‘fun.’ Or any word that could be found under its entry in the thesaurus. Especially not when we still didn’t know exactly where my grandparents or the others were. I just had to hope that my ghosts were getting the message across to the other searchers. Who, of course, might be dealing with their own problems already. Because somehow I really doubted we were looking at all the Whispers on the ship. Or even all the Seosten ghosts. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to focus on that. Or even time to go to my mother’s aid, because the rest of those ghosts seemed to have taken Invidia’s laugh after that first, blindingly-quick exchange as an invitation, as all of them attacked at once. And yeah, they were laughing too. 

The nearest Whisper-Ghost throwing himself at me was a tall figure. Well, sort of tall. A few inches over six feet, with black and red hair worn long, and incredibly fit. Not to mention clearly angry, and focused on killing me in particular. Not that anyone would know just from listening to him. He was laughing cheerfully, like a kid at the carnival or something. Which was juxtaposed against a look of such vile hatred that I seriously took a reflexive step back. The mix of cheerful laughter with looks of utter disgust and bitter animus was disturbing.

But I had my own ghost. Rahanvael was right there, interposing herself between us. The moment I saw her block the Seosten, I focused on shoving power into her so she could do more than simply be visible. In this case, she used that power to catch the Seosten’s arm as he reached for me, driving her knee hard into his stomach before flying straight up while dragging him up after her. Then she sort of inverted in the air, essentially giving him a shoulder throw. Except instead of tossing him toward the floor, she heaved the other ghost up toward (and through) the ceiling. Then she followed him up and out of sight.  

That gave me time to grab for the piece of pencil-sized wood Sariel had provided. As instructed, I snapped it with my thumb before giving it a toss toward the nearest Whisper-Ghost just as he was coming for me. As the spell activated, a half-visible greenish cage appeared around the form before falling to the ground with the ghost contained within. 

Around me, I could see the others doing the same. Some managed to catch their targets while a couple missed. But it still helped, immediately taking out about four or five of the things. 

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a perfect solution. I saw the familiar distortion in the air as the Whispers who had been possessing those particular Seostens escaped, and several new ghosts appeared. Like–like they had summoned brand new ‘bodies’ to possess. We had trapped some of their ghost options, but they still had more to choose from. 

In other words, things were still bad. As evidenced when I caught sight of another of the things… not coming straight at me. Instead, she was standing back a bit, hands raised. Just as my attention snapped that way, I saw a slight distortion in the air. Something that looked a bit like a diamond-shaped icicle flew straight at my face, so fast that even with my reflex-enhancements, I barely managed to snap my head out of the way in time to avoid most of it. I felt the thing slice across my cheek, drawing blood on its way. Worse, there were three more coming right at me, moving just as quickly. 

Instantly, I hurled myself into a sideways flip, allowing the first of the three icicles to pass inches away from my stomach. A thought brought my staff to one hand while I was still in mid-flip, and I snapped it outward to knock the second icicle out of the air while simultaneously hitting the button to shoot a burst of kinetic force out the other end, which took care of the third icicle. 

Landing on my feet, I brought the staff up and out, snapping, “Time to fight!” The words summoned Jaq and Gus, who assumed their positions as blade and grapple. But that was for later. First, I hit the button on my staff to make a cloud of sand shoot out one end to form a thick cloud. 

It was just in time too, because there were suddenly seven of those deadly icicle things flying at me. All of them spaced perfectly in an attempt to hit me with at least one of them no matter how much dodging or staff-swinging I did. 

Thankfully, I wasn’t planning on doing any. Instead, I focused on the sand I had summoned. It immediately turned red-hot, even as I spread it out and sent the cloud flying forward to catch the icicles. They melted, turning to steam. Which itself might’ve been a problem, as it was still spraying forward toward me. But I was ready for that too. Or rather, Tabbris was. She had taken control of one of my hands, summoning a small stone to the palm before tossing it forward while triggering the power that made it grow to the size of a much larger boulder. In mid-flip, it caught the incoming super-heated spray, shielding us. 

Before the Whisper-Ghost could send any more of those things at me, I made my super-heated sand fill the air around her, specifically spreading it out a bit to make it as hard as possible for her to actually form the damn things. From what I had seen in those few seconds, she made them right in front of her hands before launching them. Now, she couldn’t do that. Because every time the icicle started to form, my sand instantly melted it.  

She hasn’t played enough Pokemon, Tabbris noted in my head. Everyone knows ice is weak against fire, fighting, and rock. Her power loses three different ways. 

Yeah, I replied, and you know what ghost is weak against? Other ghosts. 

Abruptly, Rahanvael appeared behind the ice-creating ghost, as I sent more power into her. Enough power that she was able to shove the Whisper-Ghost hard, making the figure stumble forward just as I hit my boost and threw myself that way. My thumb found the spell I had there to summon ghost-fire, surrounding the staff in that glow just before it collided hard with the side of her head, snapping it back. Before she could recover, I spun the staff around, driving the blade through her chest. 

The ghost vanished, though I knew she wasn’t gone for good. I could still sort of feel her essence around. I had just disrupted her for now. Or them. All these Seosten ghosts were actually possessed by Whispers, I had to remind myself. It was just… weird. 

At that moment, I barely had time to glance around to see how the others were doing. From the corner of one eye, I caught a glimpse of Avalon rapidly parrying with blades formed from her gauntlets as a Whisper-Ghost went after her with what appeared to be a pair of swords made out of electricity. Avalon was back-pedaling, but Miranda was right there, shield raised to block one of the incoming swords, giving Valley an opening to turn her energy blade into a large fist. And apparently the energy constructs from those gauntlets had been upgraded to actually affect ghosts, because it slammed into their opponent, making him stagger, form flickering a bit from the effort of maintaining cohesion. 

Further away, I could see Apollo and Aletheia standing together against two more of the Whisper-Ghosts. They seemed to be handling themselves well enough, unsurprisingly. It looked like Apollo was doing some sort of containment spell, while Aletheia held her hand out and used what had to be her own power, which was… disrupting them or something. I wasn’t sure, but every time she used it, the ghosts who were trying to attack them sort of… flickered a bit. It threw them off, whatever it was. Slowed them down, delayed their reactions, made them sort of dazed or whatever. Enough that Apollo was able to finish his spell, tossing a playing card from his palm, which hit one of the ghosts and literally sucked it inside. Yeah, he threw a card and sucked one of the ghosts into it. 

I really needed to get him to teach me that spell. 

And yet, just like the others had with the first containment spells, the Whisper who had been captured simply escaped the ghost it had been possessing and summoned a new one to control. Which put Apollo and Aletheia, not quite back to square one, because they had still taken one of the Seosten ghosts out of the equation and made the Whisper bring out another (and there wasn’t an endless supply of those), but still. Not great. 

Meanwhile, apparently a couple of the ghosts had gotten the idea that my dad might be an easy target. It was a mistake they quickly came to regret as, at that particular moment, the Seosten Dad had Chimera-bonded with while attempting to recall to Grandmaria was Mercury. The Seosten man’s Olympian power allowed him to extend, shorten, or delay effects on himself. Which also allowed him to boost for minutes at a time rather than seconds, and with even more effectiveness. That was where Mercury had gotten the reputation for having super speed from. And Dad was using that in the moment to speed himself up so he could create and empower specific anti-ghost magical enchantments on the blank coins he’d brought with him. In the short time that I spent glancing that way, I saw my father’s blurred form rush through scrawling a spell onto his latest coin, before tossing it at the floor right in front of the ghost who was coming for him. A burst of purple electricity shot from the coin, making the ghost blow apart (though it left that distinctive distortion in the air that meant the Whisper itself was still around). 

Then there was my mother. She was still going toe-to-toe with Invidia, both moving too quickly for me to keep track of very well. The Whisper-Ghost still had her daggers, and was a blindingly-fast dervish, attacking my mother from all sides. Mom, meanwhile, continued to block or evade every strike, lashing out with several of her own. Yet no matter how quick she was or what extra powers she threw into the mix, Invidia evaded all of it. It was clear they were pretty evenly matched. And I still had no idea how much of that was the Whisper herself (or itself), and how much was Charmeine’s skill and power. 

That was as much as I was able to take in with that quick glance around. We weren’t falling, but we weren’t exactly winning either. There were more of these things jumping into the fight already, and the ones we did manage to hit hard enough to disrupt simply reformed shortly afterward. Or summoned new ghost bodies to use.

Oh, and on top of all of that, all of these ghosts were still laughing. They were just having a grand old time with this whole thing. Laughing while giving those hateful, threatening glares and trying to murder us. It was really sending mixed messages. 

Behind me, Rahanvael intercepted the return of the ghost she had followed through the ceiling. I gave her a quick boost of power before pivoting to snap my staff up, intercepting an enormous ghost-like hook on the end of a pole that had been coming toward me from behind. The Whisper-Ghost there was a lanky woman with short blueish hair and light skin. Well, light even for the whole ghost thing. Which, again, the fact that ghosts possessed by Whispers had pretty much their normal color tone was just… weird. Her polearm had that large hook at the end, now caught against my staff. 

“Kinda hard for a ghost to sneak up on a Necromancer,” I informed her a bit tersely. “Just FYI.” Worry about everyone else kept any amusement out of my voice. The words were dark. I wanted these ghosts to back the fuck off, and the fact that I couldn’t affect them (at least, not very easily) even with my own Necromancy power was incredibly annoying. I wanted to find my grandparents, damn it! 

If this particular Whisper-Ghost cared about my anger, she didn’t show it. Instead, she just glared at me even more hatefully, while simultaneously giving a delighted squeal of laughter, like a small child going down a water slide. 

“Yeah,” I grunted, “haha to you too.” And without another word, I knocked her hooked polearm away from my staff and pivoted, bringing the weapon around toward her head. She recoiled to make it miss her by about six inches. Or rather, it would have missed by about six inches, except in that moment, I focused on the ‘make things grow’ power once more. That time, instead of turning a small stone into a boulder, I extended my staff several more inches so that Jaq, in his blade form and glowing bright from ghost-fire empowerment, cut straight through her throat. The form dissipated violently, that condensed magical energy blowing apart. And yet, she never stopped laughing. Well, until the form had completely vanished. Even then, I was pretty sure the Whisper left behind hadn’t stopped. I just couldn’t hear her thanks to Liesje’s spell. 

At the same time, while that had been going on, Tabbris was busy keeping another of the ghosts, a guy who looked like he could have passed for a particularly buff Indian man on Earth, busy by directing the superheated sand into his face. Which didn’t actually hurt him, of course. But it did obscure his vision enough that he didn’t see as she also directed my finger to hit the button that would launch the ghost-fire empowered grapple right into his chest. Or… it would have, except that just before the grapple reached him, he abruptly appeared in like six different places at once, scattered all around within about a twenty foot area. There were six versions of him for a second, then five of them disappeared. Including the one the grapple had been shooting toward. 

Wait, I knew that guy. Or rather, I knew of him. Apollo had mentioned him one day when we were talking to Miranda about her duplication. His name was… Enyalius, that was it. Apparently he had been a big disciple of Abaddon. His power had allowed him to–well, do exactly what I had just seen, make anywhere from five to ten duplicates of himself within an area that stretched to about fifty feet wide. He had little-to-no control over where all of them ended up appearing, and had to pick one to keep before the rest disappeared within a couple seconds of being created. 

Oh shit, which meant– with the realization and my own senses screaming at me, I spun around, snapping the staff up to knock aside the ghost-figure’s reaching hand. No, hands. My staff knocked two hands and a knife away. As expected, he had duplicated himself again, and several of the ten clones he had created had been close enough to lunge at me. I deflected their attacks, barely, and they vanished an instant later. He just chose to keep one of the clones that had appeared further away. 

This was his game, it was how he fought. He would create a bunch of short-lived duplicates, attack with as many as were close enough to reach the target (or targets) in the couple seconds of life they had, then simply allow them to disappear while choosing to keep one who was far enough back to be safe from immediate retaliation. 

All of which meant that fighting this guy was a pain in the ass. Soon, he was pressing the attack. He just kept creating more duplicates, coming after me with whoever was close enough, and then allowing them to vanish a second later. There was no point to actually trying to hit any of them, because they were just going to vanish almost immediately anyway. And I couldn’t take him out, because he could just pick any of them at random to make his new self. 

I might have been overwhelmed pretty quickly, except I did have a couple of advantages to help out. Namely, I had Tabbris copiloting to help deal with defense, and Rahanvael had returned to cover my back. Even then, however, keeping up with the guy who could mass-spam these two second duplicates all around me was pretty much a losing battle. It was just a matter of time. He could just keep pressing and waiting for us to make a mistake. Worse, the Whisper-Ghosts I had already dealt with were reforming. This could get bad very quickly. 

But the thing was, I wasn’t limited to only having one ghost for help. Through those frantic few seconds, I let Tabbris partially take over so I could put some focus toward calling back some of the spirits I had sent out to search the ship. I made the call pretty simple, if they hadn’t found anything yet or had already delivered their message, they were to come back to where I was. 

Just as the next wave of duplicate attacks came, Seth appeared to one side of me. His hand caught the nearest Whisper-Ghost-Clone’s wrist and yanked hard before throwing a punch at his face. Only for that one to poof out of existence. Seth, in turn, blinked at his own fist and muttered something about not knowing his own strength. 

The rest of the ghosts aside from Grover appeared shortly afterward. And now it was a much more fair fight. I had five ghosts on my side, counting Rahanvael, so it was a lot harder for Enyalius to find a blind spot to hit me from. And having all these ghosts with me to cover my back meant I could press my own attack. No matter which duplicate he chose to stay in, I had someone nearby ready to hit him. And my ghosts could actually touch his. 

All of which meant that it wasn’t long before the blade of my staff found his main body (or ‘body’) and made it burst apart in another spray of ghost… energy or whatever. Not that the threat was over, not by a long shot. He wasn’t gone for good, either him or the Whisper who had been piloting him. Not to mention the rest of these damn things. But I did feel a burst of satisfaction in the moment.

But it wasn’t enough. Again, no matter what we did, we couldn’t get rid of them for good. Tabs, I think we might need to do the super-wing boosted ghost shove. And later come up with a better word for it. 

But we can’t hit all of them! Her voice was plaintive. Last time it was all we could do to shove Kushiel away, even with the wing-boost. 

These guys aren’t Kushiel, I reminded her. But you’re right, we need a better idea than the shove. And I just got one. 

She already knew what it was, of course, as soon as it had occurred to me. Immediately, the two of us began to coordinate moving closer to where Apollo and Aletheia were. Everyone else was fighting, keeping the Whisper-Ghosts back without actually stopping them, while Mom and Invidia’s fight continued without either gaining any real advantage. 

“Apollo!” I shouted as soon as I was close enough to be heard. “Let us in!”  

Thankfully, he understood immediately, and extended his hand. I used a portal to reach the distance between us, grabbing on before possessing the man with his permission. Then I was inside him, and he knew my plan in an instant. Immediately, he drew another of the spell cards with the ghost-trap enchantment on it. But this time, just as he went to power it, Tabbris manifested her wings through him. They flared to life, extending out behind the man while the power they provided was shoved into the spell. 

Most of the Whisper-Ghosts had no idea what hit them. The ghost trap spell filled the entire room. Knowing it was coming, I had already ordered my ghosts to disappear. But our opponents didn’t get the message. Almost every single Seosten ghost in the room was sucked into the card. 

Almost every single one. Invidia resisted it, though she did snap her head around to snarl in our direction. Mom attempted to take advantage of that, but the woman vanished from where she had been standing. Only to reappear right where the card newly-full of ghosts had fallen. 

We didn’t have a chance to grab her, or it. Apollo was staggering from the effort of putting everything he had into that spell. Aletheia made an attempt to blast the ghost-woman with her power, but she grabbed the card and vanished. 

“Wha-what just happened?” Miranda demanded, looking around the suddenly empty battlefield. 

Stepping out of Apollo, I replied, “They’re uhh, they’re gone for now?” 

Apollo nodded, his face a bit grim. “It’ll take her a little bit to get her pals out of the card, but I’m not sure how long. We need to move. Come on, the jamming spell should be right in the core here, they probably have it drawing power from that.”

Appearing beside me, Seth spoke up. “So your pals on the bridge know what’s up. And from what the others said, they warned the rest of them too. Just in time too.” 

“So there are other Whisper-Ghosts. Are they okay? Sariel and the others, I mean.” 

“Sounds like it,” he confirmed. 

I started to say something else, but felt a tug at my consciousness. Grover. The last ghost who hadn’t shown up for the fight. Reaching out to him, I looked through his eyes to see what was up. And what I saw only took a few seconds to compute before I immediately withdrew and blurted, “Guys, we need to move, right now!” 

“What’s going on?” Mom asked, quickly turning to me. 

“I know where Popser and the others are,” I replied, using the name for my grandfather that I had used for such a long time while I was a little kid. It was always Popser or Grandpartie. “And they’re in trouble. Puriel’s like–not responding to anyone, not doing anything, and there’s a lot of Whispers all around. The others are trying to hold them off, but… but the Whispers are doing everything they can to get into Puriel’s head. 

“And if they take him over, we’re all fucked.” 

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At Last 16-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – there was a non-canon posted for this story which is now available for everyone to read on Patreon right here

Mom was the first to find her voice, unsurprisingly. With the black-bladed sword held out protectively as she scanned the room to watch all those other doors as though expecting something to rush through them at any moment, she spoke up in a quiet, tense voice. “What do you mean, pilot the ship to Tartarus? Why–and how would these Whisper things do that?” 

Aletheia, in turn, regarded her briefly. She seemed curious, but didn’t want to bring up anything that wasn’t directly related to the situation at hand. “The former requires speculation. As to the latter, there are, as it turns out, certain locations within this universe with very minor… links to Tartarus itself. Similar to the portal whose study led to the original Summus Proelium project. Except rather than a portal, per se, these spots are closer akin to windows. Or, for a more suitable comparison, the connection used all those millennia ago was a direct hole between our universe and that one. Whereas these windows still have some material between them, thin as it is.” 

From the corner where he was standing, Seth muttered something about how much more complicated everything got once you left Earth, and how he missed having good solid ground under his good solid feet. 

Meanwhile, Aletheia turned that same curious look from before my way, the expression making it clear that she wanted to talk about certain things later, when there was more time. But for now, the woman simply finished with, “Call them potential portals between this universe and Tartarus.” 

“Let me guess,” Apollo put in. “Our Whisper friends have ways to, ahh, realize that potential.” 

“But why would they do that?” Avalon demanded. “You said it required speculation?”

“Yes,” the Seosten woman confirmed. “Speculation which… I am unprepared to make right now without further investigation. Suffice to say, the Whispers have arrived on this ship and are attempting to pilot it toward the nearest of these windows so that they may send it, and all of us, through to Tartarus itself. I do not believe I am the only one here who would prefer to avoid that.” After a brief pause, she added in a slightly more quiet voice, “One thoroughly chaperoned and tethered trip into that place was more than enough.” 

“You’re telling me,” Apollo agreed. “And I didn’t have nearly the chaperoning or tethering you did.” To the rest of us, he added, “We need to get everyone off this ship or take control of it back and kick the Whispers off before they reach that window and open it. You do not want to be in that place. No sane person does, and I’m not teleporting off and leaving the people still on the ship stuck here. Not a chance in… uh, well, not a chance in Tartarus.”

Finally unable to take it anymore, Tabbris hopped out of me, her attention solely focused on Aletheia. “Where’s my brother and sister? Where’s our grandparents? Where’s Puriel? What happened?” 

“What she said,” I agreed, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Where are the others? Also, how do we stop the Whispers from piloting us straight into hell? I suppose that’s two missions. First, take back control of the ship. Second, find everyone. And then teleport the hell out of here with them if we can’t manage the first one.” 

Aletheia, by that point, had stepped out of her little magic circle protection thing and took a knee in front of Tabbris. She offered the girl a faint smile. “It is good to finally meet you in person. I have heard a great many… and many great… things. You remind me of your mother. And your siblings.”  

“You’re Savvy’s mom,” Tabbris pointed out solemnly, before adding, “she wants to meet you.” 

“And I her,” the woman murmured before her eyes flicked back and forth between us. “Your family members are going to be very pleased to see you, when we find them.” She straightened up then, clearly addressing everyone. “I do not know where they are on this ship. I was attending to other things in preparation for our arrival when Puriel sent a message warning me of the Whispers’ presence. I attempted to return to the bridge, but detoured down here to investigate what the Whispers were doing. On the way, I left a few protective runes, which I learned from Chayyiel, in an attempt to contain or slow these creatures down. Unfortunately, upon arriving in this area, I found myself overwhelmed and was forced to create the protective circle you see there in order to prevent the Whispers from influencing me. They are… as you have no doubt seen, quite powerful and dangerous in large groups like this.” 

“You said you found out they were down here and came to see why?” Dad asked curiously. “Did you find out anything else before they, ahh, surrounded you?” 

Practically sliding along the floor to where I was standing, Seth spoke up. “They did try to keep all of you out of this area. And I doubt it was just to isolate her.” 

He had a point. The resources it must’ve taken the Whispers, whatever they were, to stop my mother and Apollo in particular from realizing that we were all walking in circles had to be considerable. It felt like there was a bigger, better reason for that than as merely a way of keeping us from finding Aletheia. And if she had detected them down here to start with… yeah, there was something else. 

“Mercury said that communication jamming was coming from down here,” Avalon pointed out. “The source of the interference is somewhere on this deck.” 

Aletheia nodded once. “Yes, I detected that as well. I believe I was on my way to it when… well, they truly did not wish for me to progress any further.” 

“Which means progressing further is exactly what we need to do,” I pointed out. “These Whisper things don’t want us to see what they’re up to down here, so it’ll probably help stop them. But… we need to let the others know what’s going on too.” 

“I’ve tried to get through again,” Apollo noted with a grimace. “No luck, ever since we had that brief conversation with Mercury. It’s like the Whispers turned up their jammer, or closed the frequency, or… something like that. Both tech and magical communications are blocked.”

“Too bad you guys aren’t using that ‘magically connect all your people who are out on missions together so they can permanently communicate no matter how far apart they are’ spell,” I pointed out. “It screwed us over enough last year, getting it to work in our favor would be nice. Oh hey, I can use ghosts.” 

Everyone was staring at me for just completely changing my own subject practically in the middle of a thought, and I flushed a little bit before gesturing. “I meant I can send ghosts out to look for the others and–hold on, Seth, were you able to see those Whispers when they were in here, beyond the ripple in the air?” 

“One, yes but they were still pretty indistinct. Just a little clearer than ‘ripples in the air.’ And two, did you just flip between three entirely different thoughts in the span of a couple sentences?” he demanded while staring at me. “Is that what just happened?” 

“Seth,” I insisted while waving off his words, “we seriously don’t have time. I mean, I assume we don’t have time. Wherever this–hey Aletheia, how do you know they’re taking us to one of these Tartarus window things anyway?” 

“Four!” Seth blurted in the background while I turned back to the woman in question. 

She, in turn, met my gaze while explaining. “The protection spells I used prevented the Whispers from gaining control of me, but I could still hear some of what they were saying. In summary, they were attempting to convince me that going to this window and opening it to get back to Tartarus was a good thing, for all the power it could offer. There was… much talk of how useful having stronger abilities would be, and how many things I could accomplish with such a boost. Their words did not have the magical coercion effect they are capable of, and yet… and yet I did hear them. Some of them, at least. Enough to understand what they are attempting to do.” 

Right, that made sense. I exchanged a glance with my mother, who nodded and spoke up pointedly. “You said something about sending ghosts to communicate with the others?” There was a tenseness to her voice, despite her clear attempt to sound calm. She knew just how dangerous this was, just how much we really needed to stop the ship, or grab the others and get off of it, before these Whispers piloted it into Tartarus.

“Yeah.” Focusing on that, I continued. “I can summon ghosts and send them through the ship to find the others and tell them what we found out. The bridge should be easy, we know that’s where Mercury, Haiden, and Larissa are. And uhh, well, I figure I can send the ghosts off and let them search for the others. You know–” I looked to Miranda. “So you don’t have to sacrifice your… uhh, the version of you that’s right here just to tell them what’s going on. Actually, even that would only inform the original you, who is…?” 

“With Haiden and them,” she answered with a small grimace. “In other words, the one you can find most easily without my help. So, you know, I’m being incredibly useful right now.” 

“Hey, I’d rather have a version of you helping every group by being there, than waste your individual existences by letting you turn yourselves off just to send information,” I pointed out, offering her a faint, hopefully reassuring smile. “Besides, like I said, I can summon ghosts.”

“Grab that Grover kid while you’re at it,” Seth put in. “If I’m not back there enjoying the Haunted Party, he might as well get dragged into this too.” After a brief pause, he coughed and amended, “I mean, I’m sure he wants to help.” 

“Uh huh.” Rolling my eyes a bit despite myself, I looked to the others. “I can summon the ghosts and send them out, but we shouldn’t wait here for as long as it takes me to do that.” Extending a hand toward Tabbris, I added, “Hop in, drive me along with the rest of the group, and I’ll send those messages with some ghosts.” Pausing then, I played back everything I had just said in my own mind before tilting my head. “I uhh, we have very strange lives.” 

You say that,” Dad muttered with a grimace. “Imagine that whole thing from my perspective.” 

“I would say it gets better,” Mom informed him while putting a hand on his back. “But mostly you just get better at rolling with it.” 

“And manipulating it, from time to time,” Apollo added, before turning back and leaning over to whisper something quietly to Aletheia. From the couple of words I picked up, I was pretty sure he was asking about how Puriel was doing and whether she trusted him right now. 

In any case, I asked Seth to take that trip back to the bridge to tell Mercury and the others about what was going on, then come back to us. As he set off for that, Tabbris took my hand and jumped back into me. Then I focused on summoning a few more ghosts while she, uh, drove my body to keep following the others in searching the engine deck for the source of the jamming. And whatever else we could find that the Whispers very clearly wanted to keep us away from. 

We really were a long way from the station now. A long way from the mansion where I had left all my ghosts so they could party on their own terms, specifically because I didn’t think anything would be going on today. Or at least that I wouldn’t be going anywhere. You’d think I would have learned by now, but here we were.

With that distance, it took me a bit of time to reach out to the ghosts. I could still feel my connection to them but it was definitely a stretch to make full contact. Even more than it had been when I pulled Seth over, likely because the ship had been moving that whole time. We were getting further away with every passing moment. Not for the first time, I thought about the fact that Fossor had been able to reach all the way back to his home planet, and realized just how much work I still had to do if I was ever going to be more than an insect compared to what he had been capable of. 

Not that I wanted to be capable of–yeah. I needed more training and practice, that was the point.

Finally, after what felt like hours but was more like a couple minutes, I gently convinced several ghosts to accept the pull, then guided them my way. Grover was there, as Seth had requested, along with a few other ghosts from Fossor’s old collection who had not been released yet. Including Rahanvael, whose presence I had been surprised to feel. Ever since the death of her brother, she had been mostly dormant, just waiting to go back to her home world and… disappear. 

They didn’t exactly appear around us (I checked in on the outside world just long enough to see that we were searching along a massive engine thing), but they were definitely here. I could feel their invisible presence, their curiosity, their… well, let’s just say they weren’t surprised that I had found a way to get into trouble again. I was pretty sure a couple of them had won a bet. 

Quickly and silently, I passed along a detailed idea of what was happening and what I needed. It was a bit like how I communicated in my head with Tabbris, but more… if talking to Tabbris in my head was like a normal conversation, this was the equivalent of sending an e-mail. I composed every thought I had and then pushed it out to them. They, in turn, sent back their own fully detailed e-mails of thoughts.

Thankfully, they understood the urgency and quickly spread out to set off. I made sure to stress just how much they needed to hurry, and that if they encountered anything odd they should let me know immediately. I also made them go on a buddy system, since I had pulled more ghosts than there were groups to search for, just to cover the ship more thoroughly and efficiently. They went in pairs, Even to the point of sending Grover to find Seth, because I didn’t want my ghosts being alone out there with these Whispers around.

Rahanvael, meanwhile, stayed with me. She made it clear that she would keep an eye out and be ready to jump in if we ran into Whispers, or any other ghostly thing (like Kushiel) along the way. Apparently she didn’t trust me to stay out of trouble on that front. Which, well, fair. She could also give advice on the Necromancy front, given how long she had been connected to Fossor and watched over his shoulder. 

Finally, with that done, I focused on the outside world, sliding back into control while asking Tabbris what was going on. She, in turn, let me know that we hadn’t found anything yet, aside from Apollo managing to detect a faint trace of the jamming source, which we were all following. There had been another attempt to throw us off like before, but now Mom and Apollo were ready for it, so we pushed right on through. Which was good, but it made me wonder what the Whispers were going to do when we got closer. I doubted they’d give up, or that that was their only trick. 

Which also made me wonder just how many of these things there were, or how strong they were. From what I had heard from Doug, those protective runes had been enough to keep them out of his head entirely just by having a set of them on a hat. Yet these Whispers were only somewhat held back and limited by them. And it wasn’t a lack of power thing, because I was pretty sure Aletheia was as good at magic as Doug’s uncle. 

Looking around, I took in the sight of the room we were moving through. It was much larger than the corridor where we had started, with huge machinery all around us. We were deep in the engines, with Apollo leading the way while holding some glowing stone in front of himself. The thing he was using to track the source of the jamming. Aletheia was just behind him, using a flashlight to illuminate all the dimly lit corners behind and under the machines. Mom and Dad were near the back of the group, whispering together while keeping an eye that way. Meanwhile, Tabbris and I were in the middle, with Avalon to the left checking that area and Miranda to the right. Everyone was keeping their eyes peeled. 

“How close are we?” I spoke up in a whisper. 

Aletheia glanced back to me. Now I could see more of the anti-Whisper runes that had been drawn all over her outfit. She’d gotten a spellpower boost from all the adults for that while I was distracted, which would hopefully be enough to keep those things at bay. At least while we were down here. 

“The tracing spell indicates that the source should be directly ahead,” she informed me quietly. “Which… judging from where we are, would put it on the heart of the Slide Drive’s power core.” 

Grimacing, I nodded. “Not surprising, I guess. Hang on, I’ll send Rahanvael to scout ahead.”

So, everyone stopped and settled in a group, watching warily while the ghost figure appeared beside me. Rahanvael, for her part, gave them a nod and a whispered promise to hurry, before heading out. I shifted my senses to see through her eyes, while reaching out to grab Avalon’s hand to one side and Miranda’s to the other. They both squeezed back. 

Watching through Rahanvael’s eyes, I saw the room passing by quickly. She was searching that way, not really waiting to look around. Her focus was ahead. I supposed it made sense that she would know what the Slide Drive core looked like and that it wasn’t any of the things around her. 

There, that had to be it. Well, the entrance to it anyway. I could see a fifteen foot tall, ball-shaped structure ahead with a hatch on it that had a bunch of security consoles nearby. That was the way into the core. 

Unfortunately, getting in there wasn’t going to be simple. Not even for a ghost. Because the whole area around it was swarming with… distortions in the air. Whispers. I recognized them from a few minutes earlier when they had been trying to get through Aletheia’s protection circle. But there were a lot more here. That much was clear just from how visible the distortions were, like waves of heat coming off the hot desert sand. There had to be at least a few dozen of them, if not more. All bunched up around each other like… well, swarming really was the best word I could think of. They were protecting the core, ready to stop us from getting anywhere near it by any means possible. 

And they had all stopped to look at Rahanvael. I wasn’t sure exactly how I knew they were looking at her, given I couldn’t actually see them. But it was definitely the impression I got. They were staring at her, while she stared back at the, well, distortions they made in the air. 

“They won’t allow her to go any closer. They won’t allow any of you to go closer.” 

The all-too-familiar voice came not from where Rahanvael was, but from nearby me. Opening my eyes, I turned it to look along with all the others. We saw the figure coming into view from behind us, a ghostly form approaching with a deceptively casual motion. 

“Charmeine?” Avalon blurted. And yes, it was her. Or at least her ghost. Her dark skin and short white hair was immediately recognizable. Which in and of itself was a bit weird. Though she had the ghostly semi-transparency going on, and I could feel that she was one, she was full-color. She looked like herself instead of having a tint to her like basically every other ghost did. 

Reflexively, I reached out to stop her with my power, only to have it slide off just like it had when I was facing Kushiel back at the Auberge. The Tartarus connection still made them next to impossible to control. 

“Oh, she does not like you,” Charmeine noted, with a glance toward Avalon. “Or any of you, really. Not even you two.” That was added toward Apollo and Aletheia. Stopping there, about ten feet away from us, she added, “And to answer the question, no, this is not Charmeine. Weeeelll, sort of. It’s what you would call her spirit, what remained after her death. But me? I’m just giving it a little test drive.” 

“You’re one of the Whispers,” Mom noted, sword held out protectively. 

Charmeine’s eyes turned that way, a small smile playing at her lips. “Is that what you call us? Interesting. I suppose it’s as good a name as any. Yes, I am.” 

“Let me get this straight,” Miranda put in. “That Seosten chick is a ghost, but you, a completely different creature, are… uhh, essentially possessing her? You’re a Whisper possessing a Seosten ghost.”

“Very good,” the… creature confirmed. “But to differentiate between your Charmeine and what I am, why don’t you just call me Invidia? It’s another of her names, after all.” 

“It’s a distraction,” Avalon snapped. “We need to get to the core and shut down the jamming and the slide drive itself.” 

“Oh, I wouldn’t try to do that if I was you,” Invidia drawled lazily, her eyes scanning over all of us. 

“Why is that?” Dad carefully asked, stepping a bit to the side as though to draw her attention that way to give Mom an opening. “Are you going to stop us?” 

“Little old me?” Invidia smiled again. “Wouldn’t dream of it. After all, you’re such strong fighters. Even with Charmeine’s gift, I probably couldn’t take all of you by myself. But then, I’m not exactly by myself. You see, there were many Seosten who died on or connected to this ship.” 

As she said that, more figures began to appear all around us. Seosten ghosts, all of them with Tartarus-links and thus hard for me to do anything about. 

Invidia chuckled low, as a dozen or more Whisper-possessed Tartarus-powered Seosten ghosts surrounded us. “It has been quite some time since we were able to express ourselves physically

“This should be fun.”

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