Tabbris

Kairos 9-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Eight geysers of blood blew their way out of the ground, each like a firehose of red-stained water turned on full blast. Those eight sanguine jets hardened immediately into long, deadly spikes and rushed toward Shiori, Avalon, Asenath, and me. Two for each of us, and they came in the blink of an eye, faster than most people would have been able to even think, let alone dodge. 

But we weren’t most people. Even as my pair of red-tinted spikes were about to shove themselves through my stomach and chest, I was already pivoting while lashing out with my staff. A quick kinetic blast blew the sharpened ends off, making those ends shift back into liquid form to spray off to the side. 

Meanwhile, just to my left, Shiori slipped directly between her own incoming spears, catching hold of one before flipping herself up onto it. She then opened her mouth and used the Cù-Sith’s sonic scream, projecting a blast of sound that was so loud and so focused on a very small area, that it literally shattered part of the red spikes a bit closer to the point where they had popped out of the ground, making both fall apart. Shiori, of course, ended up covered in blood as her temporary perch went from solid to liquid. 

Avalon and Asenath were dealing with theirs too, but they were behind me, so I had no idea what they did. Only that they were alive and still moving, according to my item sense. 

Unfortunately, no sooner had we broken Fossor’s blood spikes and made them turn back into liquid, than they were suddenly solid again. And this time, they weren’t spikes. Instead, dozens of snakes, spiders, and scorpions, all made of solid-formed blood, erupted from those puddles and were set upon us. They were everywhere, dozens of them biting and stinging while we tried to smack them away. But whenever we tried to hit them, they turned back into liquid and just reformed an instant later. It was like trying to punch water. It was all we could do to survive those few precious seconds. Alone, even the four of us probably would have been overwhelmed. 

But we weren’t alone. And not only because of my mother and her team fighting Fossor on the other side in a fast-pitched battle I couldn’t even hope to keep track of while in the midst of my own. Virginia Dare was with us too, a fact she made sure to remind the son of a bitch of by appearing directly in between our group, a quick teleport. She had her spell-loaded sword in one hand, already shouting a command word while she drove the blade through one of the blood-formed snakes that had been trying to lunge at me. As the blade passed through the crimson serpent, it turned liquid once more. But then it also turned into powder and dust, blowing apart. An instant later, the rest of the blood-creatures did the same as the spell apparently passed to them. We were clear, for a brief moment anyway. 

In that moment, I caught a glimpse of my mother fighting alongside her oldest friends (and first husband). The magical energy blade she summoned extended itself out to be ten feet long for a single swing, cutting through a giant skeletal hand that had been ripping its way out of the ground toward them. Even as the bones fell, Tribald Kine clapped his own hands together, creating some kind of wind-ball that flew out from him, caught the shattered bones, and sent them flying away. Meanwhile, Deveron and Lillian were both dealing with a small army of giant zombified vulture-creatures, and the two Dornan men had a dozen ghosts captured in some sort of energy net. 

That was all I was able to see in that brief glimpse, before a backhanded, almost contemptuous gesture from Fossor sent a brand new threat our way. This one came in the form of a deep, incredibly heavy fog. Suddenly, it was all-but impossible to see more than a foot or so in front of our faces. Worse, the fog was cold. So cold I felt ice immediately start to form around and on me. It was an oppressive, magic sort of cold. It made me want to just…. stop, just lie down and stay completely… just… take a little nap, a quick one. It wouldn’t hurt that much in the long run, would it? I could close my eyes, curl in on myself, and then go right back to the important business of… of whatever I was doing. Yeah, it couldn’t be that–

FLICK! 

It was Tabbris, screaming in my head as she took over my body to trigger the boost from the staff, launching us upward. We flew out of the magic fog, and I felt the supernatural cold fade, along with the overwhelming tiredness and confusion. I could see Mom and the others on her side fighting Fossor head-on. They hit him repeatedly, but of course nothing stuck. He just passed off everything that could possibly hurt him to any of his billions of magical hostages. It was taking everything they had just to stop him from progressing. They couldn’t actually hurt him. And in a fight like that, it didn’t matter how powerful or skilled they were. Fossor would win through sheer attrition. Eventually they would slip up, no matter how good they were.  

Worse, I couldn’t see Dare or any of the other three through that thick fog. I’d only managed to avoid falling to it thanks to my partner. The others didn’t have that bit of help. I had to do something to clear it out. But what? 

All of that, taking in what my mother’s group was doing, along with the rush of thoughts about Avalon and the others, came even as I started to fall back into the fog. The blast had only taken me up so far. But I compensated by using the Lemevwik’s power on the feet part of my Seosten bodysuit, freezing their descent. Again, it would only last for a few seconds. But for those seconds, the feet of my suit, and thus my whole body, stopped falling. It was like standing on solid ground. 

A few seconds. I had a few seconds to figure out how to get rid of that magic fog. But how? How?! I didn’t have the power to just blow it away, and there wasn’t–

Wait. There. One second into my frantic rush of thoughts, I saw a small hole in the ground just beyond the fog. It would have been impossible to notice from below, but from this angle it was visible. The hole was only a few inches across, and the fog was being projected from it. That was the source. 

Without wasting another instant, I shifted my staff back into its bow form. Even as the Lemevwik’s power faded and my body started falling once more, I managed to send a kinetic-energy arrow right at that hole. It struck home, blowing a spray of dirt and rock in every direction and destroying the spell rune that Fossor had apparently placed there ahead of time, no doubt when he was prepping this place for an event like this. And I had no doubt there were more surprises like that all over. After all, the man was annoyingly good at being prepared. A place where he was setting up his final, apocalyptic spell to kill and take over all Bosch Heretics and subsequently all of Earth? After his regular home had been attacked? Yeah, he would have tricks and traps like that all over the place, just ready to be triggered. 

This one, however, was dealt with. The instant I blew apart the bit of ground where the spell rune had been, the magic freezing fog vanished like it had never been there. I landed in a crouch, just beside Avalon even as the other girl straightened from where she had been hunched in on herself. 

“Flick,” she managed, in a voice that cracked from emotion. 

“I know,” I managed, though there was so much more I desperately wanted to say. “Later. This first. This now. We stop Fossor. It’s all that matters.” 

She gave a very short nod, a bare acknowledgment. She knew. We all knew. Nothing mattered except for putting Fossor in the fucking ground for good. Ending him before he ended us. That was all there was to it. Nothing else, not my love for Avalon and Shiori, not my desperate need to reunite with my mother, not my relief to have Tabbris back with me, not my worry about Dare being my actual grandmother, none of that held a candle to stopping Fossor right now

Without another word exchanged between us, Avalon and I ran together toward the monster himself. Within two steps, Shiori was on my other side, joined by Asenath. 

An army of undead rose into our path. Hundreds of rotting corpses tore their way out of the ground, forcing themselves between us and our target. I couldn’t control that many, not even close. And fighting them would slow us down. It was too much, this fucker never ran out of troops! 

A deafening roar filled the air, and I saw an Amarok–Dare. It was Dare, in her full Amarok form. The giant wolf, bigger than a city bus, lunged over our heads and landed right in the middle of the largest concentration of zombies. She spun, taking half a dozen into her mouth and pitching them away even as her tail and legs knocked more flying. A path, she was clearing a path. 

The four of us raced right between the giant wolf’s legs, sprinting together into the semi-open space she was creating. 

Semi-open, because there were still zombies around, still undead tearing their way out of the ground and toward us. Dare-Wolf was doing everything she could to clear space for us to move, but we still had to deal with plenty of them ourselves. 

Avalon pivoted toward me, Porthos (her lizard-cyberform) in his pistol form clutched in one hand as she fired three quick shots. They came so close that one brushed through my hair, each hitting a different zombie behind me in the head. At the same time, her other arm stabbed to her left, gauntlet manifesting a buzzsaw blade that took the head off a fourth zombie that was coming toward Shiori before the buzzsaw immediately transformed into two horizontal blades faced in opposite directions that extended outward to spear through the heads of two more enemies. 

Shiori, at the same time, was hurling her electrified discs through the foreheads of a couple different zombies while simultaneously lashing out with a kick against a third into its chest. That third zombie was sent stumbling backward, just as a second Shiori appeared. But it wasn’t actually a second Shiori. Not in the same way that Miranda duplicated herself. Instead, this version seemed more ghost-like, only partially visible, like a flickering image. It only appeared long enough to duplicate the exact same move Shiori had just done a moment earlier, kicking the zombie further away. Then it vanished and a third Shiori appeared, this one even more indistinct and flickering, kicking the zombie yet again in the exact same way. That continued through a total of five increasingly flickering and gradually almost invisible duplicates, all doing the exact same thing until the zombie was positioned directly under Dare-Wolf’s giant foot just as it came down hard, smashing the undead thing. 

Meanwhile, as Avalon fired those three shots past my head and Shiori’s repeated semi-tangible duplicates kicked the zombie into position for Dare, I drove the blade of my staff down through a portal I had created. The other end of the portal opened up behind Valley, sending the blade into the head of the zombie that had been moving up behind her even as she focused on watching the backs of Shiori and me. Just as quickly, I yanked the staff out of the portal, shouting her name as I threw myself that way. 

Avalon reacted instantly, ducking down and bending forward to present her back to me, which I used by planting one hand on it to vault over her while lashing out with my staff. The bladed end cut through two zombies that were coming up on that side, while I simultaneously launched the grapple-end into the face of another one, retracting it to rip the head off entirely. 

Behind me, Avalon had straightened in time to switch Porthos to his lizard form, tossing him onto the shoulder of another incoming zombie. Porthos, in turn, pulled his tail free, using it as his sword to stab into the neck of the undead creature he was perched on. With a rush of chittering nonsense words that sounded like his own version of some epic declaration, the tiny cyberform stabbed the zombie repeatedly in the neck, severing the head and riding the body to the ground. 

Just beyond Avalon’s lizard, as I shifted my staff to its bow form and fired a shot into a group that was moving to cut us off, Asenath had flipped up and over a zombie that was lunging for her, hurling two daggers into the foreheads of a couple others who were coming toward her. As she landed, the girl produced a third dagger, driving it backwards through the back of the first zombie’s head. Then she pivoted, lashing out with a roundhouse kick that hit the hilt of that last knife so hard, it was projected all the way through the zombie’s head and out the other side to fly into the throat of yet another one. 

The zombies kept coming, making us pay in drastic violence for every single inch of ground we gained. Even with Dare-Wolf above us, dealing with the largest concentration of them (and she was doing a hell of a lot more than biting them, actually involving a lot of lightning, fire, and wind in the process to blow them away), there were still a fair number who made it through. 

And yet, we pressed on. I took two steps, then ducked and spat a glob of quick-hardening resin against the feet of two zombies who were in mid-lunge. They were stopped short in their tracks, just before Shiori’s hurled discs tore through their necks, leaving the heads to fall to either side. But before the two bodies could drop, Avalon was there. She grabbed both by the chests, disintegrating them into dust the way I’d seen her do earlier. Her hands snapped outward then, sending the disintegrated zombie dust flying onto another pair before it ignited in green flames once more. The zombies were melted by the intense heat. 

A skeletal form tore its way up from the ground to grab Avalon’s ankles and bite into her leg, but I was already there. I’d felt the thing arriving, and my hand snapped up, forcing the undead creature to stop in mid-lunge. It released her, and with a quick gesture from both hands, I made it scramble its way out of the hole before sending it running into another of its own kind. They collided violently and collapsed together, leaving a tangled heap of bones on the ground from the impressive tackle. 

While I was doing that, Tabbris took control of my right hand, creating a quick portal before stabbing the blade of the staff through it to punch into the side of another zombie’s head just before it could grab Shiori. That girl, in turn, had been in the midst of catching a skeleton’s incoming swinging arm against both of her discs, before she gave a sharp whistle and made the thing’s head blow apart into bone-dust. 

A quick burst from my staff sent me flying that way, just in time to put my foot through the chest of a zombie that had been right between my girls. And that was literally through the chest of the zombie. It was gooey. 

Even as that one was falling, Avalon blurted my name while seemingly punching right at my face. I ducked, letting her extend the blade to take the head off the thing that had been coming up behind me. 

At the same time, Shiori extended her own hand, snapping, “Gun!” Which was all it took for Valley to backhand toss Porthos to her before the other girl snapped him up in his pistol form and fired three rapid shots that took yet another trio of zombies out that had been coming up from behind Avalon. 

Kill, punch, stab, dodge, kick, power. It went on and on. Dozens and dozens of the things fell, and yet dozens and dozens remained. There was no limit to them, none. We were closer to Fossor, but he was also closer to the altar, gradually forcing my mother and her team back inch by inch. And we weren’t closing the gap fast enough. It was all Dare could do to keep things as clear as they were so that we weren’t completely overwhelmed. Not to mention everyone else who was here fighting in the quarry. Fossor had billions of forces at his disposal. Even if he could only bring over so many at a time, our small group would have been completely destroyed without literally everyone else who had our backs. 

But it wasn’t enough. There were still… fuck, way too many zombies in our way. Fossor had flooded the area between us with another hundred or so, and there wasn’t time to deal with all of them. There just wasn’t time! 

Flick! Tabbris’s voice in my head blurted. Tell Shiori to electrocute you, absorb it all, then on the count of three, boost with everything you’ve got. All of it! 

I didn’t question it. I had questions, for sure. But I trusted my sister. “Shiori!” I snapped. “Shock me, now!” 

To her credit, she didn’t question it either. I felt her slam both her discs against my back, flooding me with electricity while I focused on absorbing everything I could. In the back of my mind, I heard Tabbris counting. On three, I shoved everything I’d absorbed into my boost. I felt Tabbris doing the same, adding her own boost to mine. 

The world slowed down dramatically. I saw the incoming horde blocking our way. I saw every detail of their rotting faces. I saw my mother and her people on the far side of Fossor, fighting to stop him from getting any closer to his target. I saw all of it. 

My staff hit the ground, slammed down by Tabbris as she triggered the kinetic blast while simultaneously leaping with our feet. We hurled up into the air, just barely missing colliding with Dare as the giant wolf moved aside. The horde of zombies stretched out below us, while more flying versions were already incoming. But for this single moment, we had an opening. 

And boy did Tabbris use that opening. As we were briefly suspended there in mid-air, I felt… power unlike any I had ever felt before. Wings made of golden light erupted from my back, extending outward to either side to flare like a literal fucking angel. 

Then… annihilation. The wings fired a massive laser, empowered by our combined super-charged boosts, which tore through the line of zombies below and utterly decimated them. There was nothing left but a crater full of random assorted body parts. Nothing. 

A second later, we landed in a crouch right in front of Shiori, Avalon, and Asenath, with Dare already reverting to her human form right behind all of us. 

I… had questions. God damn did I have questions. But there wasn’t time. All that mattered was getting to Fossor. And right now, the way was open. 

But it wasn’t open for long. While the five of us raced that way, more of those undead troops were rising to plug the gap that Tabbris had created. They fell in behind and around us like a flood of water rushing to fill in a brief hole. Even as we ran, they kept coming. Dare pivoted, using a forcefield to block a rush from behind us. With one hand, she tossed something to me. It was a round piece of metal with a rune inscribed on it. 

“Get it to your mother! She can use it to break the altar!” 

With the enchanted bit of metal in one hand, I sprinted. Avalon shouted for me to keep going, focusing her own efforts to the left side to keep those ones down. Shiori and Asenath turned to the right, repeating Valley’s words. 

And me? I ran straight on. Fossor was there, face to face with my mother. Most of the others were caught up, dealing with other things he had summoned. But Mom still stood in his way, albeit barely. They were only a few feet from the altar, and she was faltering a bit. Nothing she did actually stuck. She could kill this fucker a dozen times over or more and it wouldn’t matter. 

Then she saw me, and steely resolve returned to her gaze. Her sword snapped up, actually cutting through the one that Fossor had summoned, before she lashed out with a kick that sent him stumbling backward toward me. As she did so, I used a quick portal, shoving my hand through to drop Dare’s magic bit of metal into Mom’s grasp. I felt her fingers against mine ever-so-briefly.

Then my hand pulled back as the portal disappeared. Mom had the thing in her grasp. Our gazes met. We locked eyes. And then my mother did the one thing Fossor never could have expected. 

She turned her back to him and focused on the altar itself. 

In that moment, at that very instant, my mother… trusted me to handle Fossor for the few seconds it would take. She didn’t rush to protect me. She didn’t focus on keeping him away from me. She trusted me. And she put my fate in that trust, while she herself dealt with the threat to the actual world. 

Fossor, taken aback, screamed a threat while Mom raised the enchanted metal disc above the altar. He saw what she was doing, and it was apparently a real threat, because suddenly he was very focused on killing her. 

But I wouldn’t let that happen. With my own scream, I launched myself at him. His free hand lashed out to contemptuously smack me away… except I wasn’t there. Instead of blindly flinging my body at him, I had used a short burst from my staff to arrest my motion in mid-leap. Dropping to a crouch just as Fossor’s hand passed right over my head, I triggered the grapple, launching it full-force into the hand that he was pointing at my mother. The grapple itself passed right over his arm, but the energy rope part caught him, yanking his extended hand to the side just before he could finish whatever he had been intending to do to stop her. 

And then it was too late. Mom’s hand with that disc came slamming down as she blurted a single command word. With a brilliant, blinding burst of energy and light, the altar literally disintegrated before our eyes. Every bit of magic that Fossor had put into it just… fell apart. 

As for the man himself, he… wasn’t happy. To say the least. A deafening scream of rage erupted from him, and he was suddenly moving at me. I brought up my staff to defend myself, but he smacked it aside easily. “You take what I want?!” he bellowed at my mother, while a flickering green forcefield sprang up around us, cutting her off even as she lunged to save me. 

The world spun as Fossor easily manhandled me, throwing me against the ground so hard it took my breath away. His foot stomped down on my chest, making that whole breathing thing worse. Then he stomped hard on my arm, snapping it. Pain filled me as I cried out, only for the man to stomp down on my wrist that time. That broke too, renewing my cry. It would heal, pretty fast considering everything I’d gotten regeneration from. But not quick enough for me to defend myself. Beyond the forcefield, Mom was shouting at him. 

Fossor didn’t care. A snarl filled his voice. “You take what I want?” he repeated, “I will take what you want. But first, I will… break!” With that word, he stomped on my hand, and I felt something snap there. “Every!” Another stomp, and two more fingers broke. “Bone!” He stomped yet again. My hand felt like he was crushing it. Agony filled my every thought. 

Well, almost every thought. I did have one more…

“In!” Fossor continued, his foot coming down once more. Except… this time he didn’t hit my hand. His foot collided with something solid. And as he did, a thunderclap, loud enough to rock the heavens, filled the quarry. A level of power I had never experienced, not even when Fossor had sent me to the future, suddenly washed through the air like a shockwave going in every direction. 

He knew something was wrong. He felt it immediately. Doubling over with a gasp of genuine shock, Fossor snapped, “What–what… my world… my world, I can’t–what did…” 

Yeah, Fossor’s connection to his own world was gone. He’d triggered the curse that said setting foot on Earth ground without stepping on ashes from his people would sever his connection to his homeworld and all those people. Suddenly, he wasn’t a necromancer who controlled billions. All he had was what was already here on Earth. No more unlimited reinforcements. No more passing off every bit of damage that was done to him to literally billions of hostages. 

He was vulnerable. 

In his shock as to how that was possible, Fossor lifted his foot, the one he had been using to stomp my hand into dust. Clenched there in my palm, right where he had technically ‘stepped’, was a small… entirely Earth-bound stone. An Earth-bound stone wearing a hat and holding a tiny sword. 

“That’s right, you piece of shit,” I managed through gritted teeth. 

“Herbie says hi.”

Previous Chapter

Kairos 9-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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In that moment, it would’ve been easy to think that we outnumbered our opponent. But, of course, we didn’t. Not in the least. Fossor, after all, commanded and controlled more than an entire world’s worth of slaves he could kill and bring to his aid at a moment’s notice. From what I’d been told, he was at least limited from bringing over literally billions of ghosts with a snap of his fingers, because even he was only so powerful. Particularly when it came to transporting his troops intergalactic distances. 

But while he couldn’t easily bring over enough billions, or even millions of his cannon-fodder, there was nothing stopping him from bringing over thousands. Which he did, in that exact moment. With no warning, none at all, the quarry was suddenly overrun. Thousands of ghosts, zombies, skeletons, everything dead that Fossor could push his control into, manifested and attacked. They tore their way out of the ground, descended from the air, or simply appeared around us, tearing their way into apparent existence as though ripping through the fabric of space itself. 

In my case, it started as the huge fist of a (dead) Meregan male punched its way out of the dirt. It came so unexpectedly that I took the blow head-on and was sent crashing to the ground, even as the ten-foot-tall figure clambered out of the dirt. The giant zombie roared, slamming both fists down toward me just before Tabbris took control and threw us into a backward roll. 

Mom was fighting her own Meregan giant, along with a handful of fire-manipulating ghosts that seemed intent on trapping her. No, intent on cutting us off from each other. More and more of Fossor’s newly summoned troops were flooding the area between us. 

It was the same all around me. Everyone who had come to help, my old team, my mentors, my friends, my family, everyone was being swarmed. While pushing myself up, from the corner of my eye, I saw Avalon, beautiful amazon that she was, take the heads off of three zombies with a single swipe of a glowing energy blade projected from her gauntlet. In the next second, her hand snapped out to touch one of the collapsing bodies. Under her grip, the zombie disintegrated into a cloud of dust. That dust, at a quick gesture from Avalon, flew into an incoming ghost before suddenly igniting into green flames. Those flames, in turn, destroyed the ghost, making it blow apart with a scream. 

Others, there were others. Shiori of course. God, Shiori. And not only them, not only my girls. But Sands, Koren, Sarah, Sean, Columbus–everyone. I wanted to see them. I wanted to check on them, wanted to help them. But I couldn’t. That fleeting glance was the best I could manage, before my own giant Meregan opponent hurled himself at me. 

But Fossor had taught me a lot. More than I wanted to know really. Particularly about controlling zombies and Meregan in particular. My right hand snapped up, stopping the charging giant in his tracks. He literally froze, just for a moment. I could feel Fossor’s power warring against mine. It would win out in the end. But I only needed a moment. In that time, I snapped my hand down and out, making both of his much larger hands follow suit, slamming into a few smaller skeletal-creatures who had been rushing past him to reach me. 

Meanwhile, completely on her own, Tabbris had taken control of my left hand, the one with the staff. She triggered the cloud of sand to shoot out, superheating it in the process before sending the sand through three zombies that had been coming at us from behind. At the same time, even as the sand was burning through them, she used my mouth to trigger a renewed ghost-fire spell on the staff itself, as the other one had run out. With the staff newly-empowered, Tabbris hurled it through a ghost that was coming up from our other side, before recalling it. 

All of that simply in the time it took me to take control of the Meregan and have him smash those skeletons. We were working together, cooperating and multitasking the way Elisabet and Jophiel had been helping teach us to. In this moment, as we fell instantly back into sync, it was like we’d never been separated. Both of us using my body, my powers, to attack multiple enemies at the same time in entirely different ways. 

And yet, even with that, there were still so many enemies around us. Prosser by himself had been set on by wave after wave of the strongest undead I’d ever seen. Even he, powerful as he was, couldn’t easily swat them aside. He, Gwen, Sariel, Athena, all of them were being attacked by so fucking many of the empowered necromantic creatures. The entire quarry was swarmed, covered, engulfed by these monsters. They came from everywhere, tearing, slashing, clawing, even biting at everyone who sought to stop their master. If Mom and I had been on our own against that kind of onslaught, we never would have lasted as long as we had. It wouldn’t even have been close. 

But, of course, Fossor hadn’t been trying with us as much as he was now. It was patently obvious that, even while he was angry and fighting my mother and me, he’d been dramatically holding back. He still wanted to pull off his spell, after all, and had been saving power for that. That and he was just so accustomed to two people, especially the two of us, not being any real threat, that he didn’t need to go all-out. But now? Now he’d been backed into a corner. He was surrounded by an army of super-powered, pissed off people who wanted him dead. So there were no more half-measures. He was showing us, and everyone else, why he was such a threat. Even in the face of so many absurdly powerful beings, Fossor still had the advantage. Because, powerful as all these people were, cutting through literally billions of hostages in order to actually hurt the son of a bitch himself would take too long. Especially when he could send tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands given enough time, of those same hostages to actively attack. 

But none of that mattered. Not in the long run. It was all noise, distractions from the main point, the main problem: Fossor himself. Because the necromancer hadn’t given up on his plan. Even as a warzone raged around him, even as thousands of his troops were repeatedly summoned and destroyed by some of the most powerful beings on the planet, he was still moving to that altar. He’d been knocked back a couple hundred feet by Gabriel’s shovel-blow. But he was making up the difference, heading right for the altar while using his minions as cover. Strong as everyone here was, even they could only work so fast. Fossor didn’t need to win this fight, he didn’t need his undead minions to actually succeed at beating all of us. He only needed them to play distraction long enough for him to reach that altar and finish his spell. 

I couldn’t let that happen. We couldn’t. With a quick thought, I shoved all the knowledge of what was going on and the risks of just how bad it could be into Tabbris so she would know how important this was. At the same time, I made my commandeered Meregan zombie pivot back that way and sent him running to tackle another of his own (dead) people. I’d worry about the horrors of what I was doing in that moment later. Right now, the only thing that mattered, the only thing, was stopping Fossor. Whatever it took. 

Even as I started to throw myself into a sprint that way, Tabbris was absorbing what I’d ‘told’ her. She gave no verbal response, because one wasn’t needed. Instead, I felt her take control of the burning sand once more, using it to help clear the path and leaving me to focus on actually getting to Fossor in time. The white-hot cloud flew ahead of us, burning through the legs of two zombies so they would fall and allow me to jump over them. Just as quickly, even as I was still in mid-air from that jump, she used my hands to convert the staff into its bow form and sent a shot off to the side to hit three skeletons who were tearing their way out of the ground. 

So many. Fuck, there were so fucking many of these things! Too many to find a way to portal through. They were everywhere, so many I couldn’t even actually see Fossor himself anymore after that brief glimpse. Everywhere I glanced there were hundreds of them, swarming in out of nowhere. He was dumping dozens on top of us with every passing second, filling up every inch of space. For every undead minion that one of us killed, ten more appeared. Between the noise, the screams, the clash of weapons, gunshots, the fwoom and crash of powers, it was utter insanity. No one could keep any of this straight. No one could be expected to focus through all of that. Which, of course, was what Fossor was counting on. Chaos was where he thrived, in this moment. All he had to do was keep everyone busy for these crucial seconds. After that it would all be over, in every way that mattered. 

I only managed two more steps past the legless zombies before a ghost appeared in front of me. This one looked like some kind of reptilian crocodile-humanoid, about nine feet tall and covered in some kind of crackling electricity. Electricity that the semi-translucent figure sent flying at me with a snarl of rage that I was pretty sure actually came from Fossor himself. 

The electricity never reached me. Before I could even move, a sudden wall of stone emerged from the ground to catch the attack. A second later, stairs rose as well, giving me a way over it.

“Go!” Sands blurted, even as she spun to slam her ghost-fire enchanted mace into the side of the spectral-reptilian’s head with so much force he was blown apart in a spray of ectoplasm. “We’ll cover you, we’ve got you, just go!”

As if in response to her words, three zombie heads suddenly exploded, as a shot from Sarah’s rifle blew through them in a line. An instant later, a ghost that had appeared behind Sands was disintegrated by a second quick shot. 

I wasn’t alone anymore. Not in any way. With a quick, blurted thanks, I raced up the stairs that Sands had created. Once I reached the top, the other girl made a sharp gesture with her mace, extending a bridge out from the wall that I could run along. 

She couldn’t get me all the way there, of course. And even from that height, there were still so many ghosts flying through the air that getting a good look at Fossor or the altar was impossible. I still couldn’t just launch or portal myself there. There were too many threats in the way, too many minions that would stop me. 

But the bridge that Sands had created at least got me closer. I was able to run a good twenty feet along it, over the heads and grasping hands of the zombies below. On the way, Tabbris focused on keeping the various dead things from scrambling their way up with us, using burning sand and the staff to either blast them with stored kinetic force directly or to create mines that blew them away from us. A couple managed to climb onto the path ahead of us, but I just leapt up and over them without breaking stride. With my copilot, my little sister, on board once more, I didn’t have to worry about watching my back. She did that. She helped keep the damn things off us so I could focus on moving forward. Without her, I would’ve had to slow down. Without her, I never would have caught up with the piece of shit who was trying to kill and enslave everyone I cared about. 

Reaching the end of the bridge, I was met by an enormous ghost with four arms and some kind of rhino-like horn, hovering there. The ghost gave a wide (too-wide) smile with its large, gaping mouth before that horn started to glow even brighter than the rest of it. 

In the next instant, before I even had a chance to avoid whatever rhino-ghost wanted to do, a blonde figure leapt between us. Nevada. She had that chainsaw-sword of hers, and it was apparently enchanted to hurt ghosts as well, because my would-be attacker gave a violent scream as the buzzing, rapidly-rotating chain sword was shoved into and through him. As the ghost blew apart, Nevada lashed out with her free hand to send a small red ball into a group of skeleton-creatures nearby. The ball exploded into a blast of energy that blew the skeletons apart into pieces of bone, then sort of… reformed and sucked the remains into it. Seriously, it basically hoovered the pieces of bone all back inside it after blowing apart, then returned to Nevada’s hand. 

Meanwhile, I kept moving. Even as the ball returned to its creator’s hand, Nevada pivoted and pointed with the hand that still held her sword. A ring on one of her fingers glowed, sending out a solid-light extension of the stone bridge that reached about thirty feet closer. As I passed her, she turned back to keep my pursuers away. 

Even with her help, Tabbris and I weren’t alone on this bridge. We had to fight our way through every inch of space, as more and more creatures were sent after us. Some kind of flying zombie, a rotting thing with bat-wings and a head that was as large as its body, flew down to grab me by the shoulders while both of us were focused on other threats. 

But it didn’t hold on for long. A beam of concussive force passed right over my head, blowing the flying zombie’s head off before it could so much as screech. 

Columbus. He’d teleported onto the bridge and was already using another couple quick blasts from his goggles to blow away two more of those flying zombies who had been trying to swoop in. He’d also brought Sean with him, who turned back the other way with Vulcan in his minigun form, opening up a devastating hail of bullets that tore through all the creatures who had been blocking our path, opening it up. 

“Better get going, Flickster!” Sean called, still sweeping Vulcan back and forth to pick off those who were still moving. Hundreds of bullets tore through the things. “These hijueputas ain’t gonna stop coming!” 

There was so much I wanted to say right then. But I couldn’t. There wasn’t time. There just… wasn’t time. So, I kept moving, sprinting between the two while praying that there would be a ‘later’ to actually say all the things I wanted to. 

At the end of this second bridge, I was met not by a threat, but a friend. My oldest friend, actually. Miranda was there, using her shield to block several sprays of what looked like acid spit from far below before raising one hand. A distortion in the air, like an almost-invisible tennis ball made of violently twisting and spinning air, appeared in her grasp. With a grunt, she threw it right into the midst of the creatures who were attacking from below, and I arrived just in time to see the tightly-contained winds within it blow apart, sending the creatures violently flying in every direction. 

Even as I reached her, Miranda split off a duplicate, both of them giving me quick, wild grins. “You made it!” one blurted, before the other added, “Wish we could talk, but–” 

“I know,” I interrupted. “Gotta stop him!” With that, I snapped my staff down, using the kinetic force it had charged up to launch myself up and away from them. Fossor. I had to get to Fossor. 

Two more of those flying zombies tried to intercept me in mid-flight. But they were both literally smashed into pieces by two pillars of dirt and rock that tore their way out of the ground to slam into one another, catching the winged-monsters between them. Koren. The girl was below, using one hand to form the arch she’d created out of the two pillars into a raised platform for me. Meanwhile, one of those solid-energy animals she could make, a full-sized wolf in this case, was tearing apart a skeletal figure that had tried to attack the girl. 

I landed on that platform, using it to get a look below. Fossor. There. There he was, getting closer to the altar with each step while the cataclysmic battle raged around him. With a grunt, I launched myself that way, using a blast from my staff to send myself right toward the bastard. 

More undead tried to stop me, only to be caught by the people who cared about me. 

A screaming, banshee-like spirit was captured in a forcefield-like cage by Risa Kohaku, before the cage shrank itself into a tiny ball, destroying its prisoner in the process. 

A four-legged bull-like zombie thing ripped up from the ground and opened its mouth to send a disgusting, horrifyingly long tongue up to grab me. But the tongue and the bull-zombie itself were literally frozen into a solid ice statue by Gordon Kuhn, who stood behind the thing and grabbed it. 

A giant, almost-entirely rotted humanoid corpse, so large it made the Meregan look small, tried to snatch me out of the air. But Hisao was there. Though he only came up to the undead creature’s knee, he punched the thing so hard in that knee that its leg snapped. As it fell, Hisao caught the body, pivoting to slam the thing into the ground so hard the Earth itself seemed to shake. Then I was down. I was on the ground, already running. Everyone behind and around me was still fighting for their lives. And for the lives of everyone else. No matter where I looked, I could see people I cared about being set upon by dozens of undead creatures. Roxa, Carfried, Haiden, Rebecca, Jazz, Doug, everyone and anyone. They were all doing literally everything they could to deal with the literal legion of monstrosities that Fossor had summoned. It was an army of everyone I cared about versus an army of the undead. 

As for the piece of shit himself, he’d… stopped. I realized that even as I came rushing up behind him. The man was a good thirty feet from his altar, but there was someone in his way. 

No, someones. My mother was there, but she wasn’t alone. Deveron was there too. And so were Lillian, Roger and Seamus Dornan, and Tribald Kine. Her old team. Her friends. They were right alongside her, blocking Fossor’s path. 

From the sound of his growl, the man wasn’t exactly in a good mood. I wondered why. He glanced over his shoulder at me, eyes narrowing. “It seems our girl has decided to join us all by herself,” he noted in a dark, threatening voice. 

“No, she hasn’t.” That was Avalon. Valley. She was there, right beside me. “She’s not by herself.” 

“She never is.” Shiori, appearing on my other side, put in. Both of them, both my girls, standing right there on either side of me. Both glaring at Fossor. Not only that, but Asenath was by Shiori as well, standing with her sister. 

Before the man could retort, another voice spoke up from behind the four of us. “They’re right about that, Fossor.” Dare. It was Dare, standing with her sword out to one side as her own gaze narrowed at the man who had unknowingly hurt her family so much. “Felicity will never be alone. Not in the way that you will always be.” 

“Always.” That was Rahanvael, appearing slightly in front of me. Her voice was solem. “You will always be alone, Fossor.” She was clearly making a point by using that name rather than the one belonging to her brother. “You have lived alone. And you will die alone.” 

Fossor, in turn, actually growled a little bit. He looked toward my mother and her people, then back toward me and mine. “You think so?” His words were a snarl through gritted teeth. “Come then.

“Let us see who dies today.”

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Patreon Snippets 17 (Heretical Edge)

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

Ruthers and Antaeus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

Arthur Chambers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh?” Arthur blinked that way. 

“Yes,” came the slow reply. 

“I have a few thoughts.” 

*********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

Sophronia and Gaia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A conflict only one of them will walk away from. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Interlude 7B – Michael and Tabbris (Heretical Edge 2)

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With a bright flare of energy in the shape of a pair of crossed angelic wings, a slim man with narrow shoulders and gray hair appeared in the middle of the forest. To most, he wouldn’t have looked all that different than any average accountant or bank teller. He wore thin, wire-rim glasses along with a dark suit and tie. In one hand, the man carried a leather satchel which was held shut by a gold clasp that, like the portal that had brought him here, was shaped like angel wings.

Standing silently in the shadows of the heavily wooded forest for a few long seconds, Michael, the Seosten who had once founded the city and subsequent civilization of Rome, inhaled the fresh air before giving a small smile. Without turning, he casually addressed the seemingly empty foliage behind him. “I taught you better concealment spells than that, Duckling.” 

There was a brief pause, before the figure that had been hidden there emerged. The invisibility spell faded away with a shimmering effect, as though she was stepping through a waterfall. “Perhaps it wasn’t you I was hiding from, Father.” With those words, she stepped that way, embracing the man who had adopted her when she was still no more than a babe. “I had to be sure you weren’t followed, after all.” She teased him with an added, “You are getting old and slow.” Despite her words, Gwen held him as tightly as she could, knowing he could take it. 

Take it he did, returning his daughter’s hug just as firmly for those few precious seconds before each mutually released the other. “Old and slow, am I?” he shot back pointedly once they let go. “Take up your swords and we’ll see just how slow I am, little girl.” His finger moved to push against her forehead. “You know the standing invitation. You win, you get the villa in Positano.” 

“That was a really tempting offer a long time ago,” Gwen retorted. “But you do know I have my own places over there now, right? You’re going to have to up the offer if you really want to spar.” 

The old Seosten winked at her, a flash of white teeth showing from his grin. “Well, that just proves you’re a wimp who doesn’t want to risk her old man knocking her on her butt again.” 

For another couple minutes or so, the two bantered about that and other things. They had lived very long lives (extremely long, in Michael’s case), including many years with one another. There were inside references, jokes, and discussions that could be picked up at random from decades or even centuries in the past. Much in the way a Bystander family could reference something that happened nine or ten years in the past during a conversation, Michael and Guinevere were able to easily bring up and discuss such things from over a millennium earlier.  

Finally, however, Michael cleared his throat. “Ahem, if you aren’t going to let your dear papa have a nice bout with someone who can almost keep up with him on a very good day when the sun is in his eyes and she gets really lucky, I would like to see the girl.” 

With a snort, Gwen remarked, “Just had to squeeze that in there, huh?” Her head shook, and she gestured before starting to walk back through the forest. “Yeah, they’re waiting for us back at camp. And they’re pretty interested in what you might say about the whole thing.” 

Leading the man that way, she waited for a moment before quietly bringing up, “Speaking of the things they’re going to ask you about, do you know if…” 

“I don’t know if the girl is related to me or not,” Michael gently answered. “They had all of us give enough genetic samples back when they were trying to duplicate the results of the project, so it’s possible any of those samples could have made their way to Kushiel’s lab for this.” 

“I didn’t know the wings were capable of being passed on,” Gwen put in while gently brushing the low-hanging branch of a tree out of the way, holding it back for her father. 

“They’re not supposed to be,” Michael replied, shaking his head while slipping past the branch. “I mean, they haven’t been before. Trust me, the Seraphim were very… enthusiastic about those tests. They tried to create more by having us mate together and with other Seosten. Back when we first found humans and realized what they could do, there was even a separate project to bond them to one of the Dyeusai.” 

Dyeus, seen by Bystanders as the sun god of ancient Proto-Indo-European mythology, was actually the name of both the project that had created Michael and his six companion ‘archangels’, as well as what the Seosten referred to them as. An individual was a Dyeus, while as a group they were the Dyeusai. 

“Didn’t work, I take it,” Gwen remarked, stepping out of the woods and into the camp itself. The day was still early enough that there were people bustling around doing their work. One of the on-duty guards took a glance toward Gwen and Michael before doing a double-take. He’d been warned about who was coming, of course, but that was different from actually seeing the man in the flesh and suddenly realizing who this small, unassuming figure really was. 

Raising his hand in greeting to the stunned Atherby guard, Michael shook his head. “No. The Dyeus core doesn’t… pass along like that. At least it hasn’t before. I’ll explain that in a minute, when we get to the others. But the point is, they tried to make Natural Heretics and offspring from us, and never could. It was supposed to be the seven of us and no one else, ever. Until now.” His voice was quiet, but couldn’t hide his continued surprise and interest (not to mention a bit of worry) in that fact. “I’d ask if you were absolutely certain of what you said, but you wouldn’t have said it if you weren’t.” 

By that point, they had reached the door of one of the cabins, where Lincoln Chambers and Athena stood. The latter gave a look toward Michael, actually flushing just a little bit before she stepped that way. Her hand rose in a fist with her index and middle fingers extended, tapping the remaining three closed fingers of the fist against her chest in an old salute/greeting. “Michael.” She used the old form of his name, pronounced ‘Mick-Ai-El.’ “Thank you for coming so soon. I know you’ve been… busy.” She trailed off a bit at the end before adding, “Gwen tells us that you’ve met with Raphael.” 

“We had a conversation, yes,” he confirmed, leaving it at that. “And this seemed somewhat important.” His voice was dry with those words, before he offered a hand to the much taller man next to her. “Michael. You must be Lincoln Chambers. Have to say, I read your article about Wallace Prim a few years ago. Pretty glad he’s not a senator anymore. And I’m even more glad he’s not alive anymore either.” 

“I… really should stop being starstruck by meeting you people,” Lincoln managed to mumble before accepting the hand. “Or by the fact that you’ve actually read anything I’ve written. You–you’re the… they said you were the one who… Rome.” 

Chuckling, Michael nodded. “Yeah, it’s been a busy life. But let’s see your little girl, hmm? First I spend months hearing about how special she is, and now she’s got wings too? I’m already jealous of you all getting to spend so much time with her.”

Offering a very faint smile that quickly faded, Lincoln spoke in a more subdued tone. “This makes her a target, doesn’t it? If your people find out what she–what she can do, they’ll want her.” 

Sobering, Michael reached out and up to squeeze the other man’s shoulder. “Yes,” he confirmed, not mincing words. He owed Lincoln and the others that much, at least. “My people have wanted to create more of me for a long time. If–when they find out what Tabbris can do, what she is? They will target her. They will want to bring her back to the ‘safety’ of their labs, to find out exactly how this happened. They’ll try to be diplomatic at first, to keep within the bounds of the truce, but there will be… let’s call it very strong pressure to at least have her visit so they can run tests. As I was telling Gwen, they’ve tried to create offspring of the Dyeusai before, but it never worked.” 

“He said their core doesn’t pass on through Naturals or children,” Gwen noted. “Which raises the question of how it happened in this case.” 

Athena, arms folded, gave a slight nod. A faint, thoughtful frown touched upon her face. “That’s why they’ll want to see her, up close and personal. Because they’ll be asking themselves the same question. That, and about whether they can duplicate it or not.”

“Yeah, pretty sure they can’t,” Michael noted. “At least, not the way they’d want to. I need to get a look at the star herself first, to double-check a couple things.”

“They can’t check her father,” Athena noted. “They’ve used the signature spell to see who it is, but that part seems… inaccurate. All Seosten know the glyphs of the Dyeusai, and none of them are what shows up in the portion of the signature that is supposed to indicate who the father is. I don’t even know who the Seosten that particular glyph belongs to is.” 

“He probably doesn’t exist,” Michael noted with a wink. “Security feature built into our aura signatures. Our own energy fuels the spell that creates a fake result. It was supposed to protect any of our families from being targeted by giving a false answer instead of showing one of our glyphs. If someone used the signature spell to find out who someone’s parents were, they wouldn’t find out we were related.” Belatedly, he added, “I can take care of it. One of us can always signature spell the others.” 

“In that case,” Lincoln started while turning to open the door. “Let’s go in and see her.” 

They moved into the cabin together, entering a kitchen area where Sariel and Tabbris sat at a table, looking over some photographs of Vanessa and Tristan as toddlers. As soon as the group joined them, the two stood, Sariel raising her hand in the same salute Athena had given. “Michael,” she said simply, that single word betraying very little of what she was thinking. 

Tabbris, meanwhile, tightly gripped the back of her chair to stop herself from shifting over behind her mother. Her eyes darted that way, but she stood firm. “H–” Her voice caught. “Hello, Mr. Michael.” 

The unassuming-looking man smiled faintly, stepping over to offer a hand to Sariel while responding to her daughter. “Please, just Michael is fine. It’s a pleasure to see both of you. All of you, in fact.” His eyes glanced around the cabin as he added, “Everything you’ve done recently is… very impressive. Not to mention fascinating.” 

“Flick did it.” That was Tabbris, piping up firmly while stepping out from behind the chair. “Flick and Gaia. And now… now Gaia’s imprisoned and Flick is…” Her eyes darted away as her voice dropped a bit. “She’s trapped in the future.” Abruptly, she snapped her gaze back up, voice rising. “But we’re getting her back. We’re gonna pull her back here.” 

“I definitely wouldn’t bet against you,” Michael easily agreed. “Not after the things I’ve heard. And if it turns out what you need is more raw power to pull it off, just a bit more fuel for your spell, you go ahead and have Gwen give me a call. It’d be a shame to lose years of that sister of yours pissing off the right people. So yeah, I’ll give a hand if it comes down to throwing in some extra power. Though from what I hear, you might have an unexpected source of that yourself.” 

“Oh.” Face turning slightly pink, the young Seosten straightened up. It had been less than a full day since the bonding she’d experienced with Lincoln, since… it happened. “You mean these.” Her eyes closed, face scrunching up with deep, intense concentration for several tense, silent seconds. Then they appeared. Two bright, glowing white wings made of pure energy emerged from her back before extending out a bit. Just enough for one of the wings to slice through the back of the chair she’d been sitting in, sending the wood clattering to the floor. 

Gasping out loud, Tabbris quickly made the wings disappear before blurting frantic apologies. Her parents both moved as though to help her, but the girl shied away from them both, terrified of what would happen if the wings came out on their own because she was too emotional.

Holding up a hand to stop the others, Michael took a step over that way before easing himself down to one knee. “Hey.” His voice was gruff, and firm enough that the girl reflexively looked to him before he continued. “Would you like me to teach you how to switch those things into safe mode so they’re no more dangerous than a flashlight?” 

Eyes widening a bit, Tabbris stammered. “You can do that?” Belatedly, she seemed to realize it was a silly question, and turned a little more red. 

Michael, for his part, simply nodded. “I can teach you a lot of things about it. But first, would you like to know who your…” He trailed off, turning his head to glance behind him. His eyes found Lincoln first, then Gwen, his own adopted daughter. Turning back, he corrected, “You know who your father is.” 

That earned a single, firm nod. “Yes, sir. I already know who my dad is.” Pausing, she hesitantly added, “It would be nice to know who helped make me though.” 

“Then we’ll do that,” Michael agreed, rising to step over toward the table. As Tabbris and the others watched, he produced a field-engraver, waiting for the young girl to hesitantly extend her arm. Once she did so, after an encouraging nod from both parents, Michael gently held her wrist while writing in the runes for the signature spell. At the end of it, he added a small bit that wouldn’t normally be there, explaining aloud that the addition would make the spell pull his own energy out and use that to unlock the obfuscation that was producing a false result. 

With a snap of his fingers, Michael activated the spell. As he did so, three holographic shapes appeared in the air. The first looked like a circle that was broken in half, each side pulled slightly away from the other. Between the two halves was an infinity symbol, and a thick line ran over the top of the entire thing from one point of the broken circle to the other. That was Sariel’s symbol, those gathered knew. The infinity sign was attached to all Olympians, merged with their original marker. 

The third symbol in the signature, the one marking Tabbris herself, also had an infinity sign mixed into it. The symbol itself looked like a wide V with the lines stretched down to be nearly flat, with only a very slight curve. Almost like the lines drawn on a landscape painting to indicate seagulls in the distance. An equally flat M sat atop the wide V, slightly smaller so that either end of it matched with the ends of the V. Finally, the vertical infinity symbol sat atop the whole thing. 

Then there was the second symbol, the one everyone was focused on so intently. That was what would show who Tabbris’s true father was. And, of course, it was the last to fully manifest, given the way the signature spell had to first use Michael’s energy to unlock the obfuscation. 

But, after a brief moment of uncertain swirling energy, the symbol solidified. It looked like an upside down Y, with an equals sign directly behind the point where the two legs split off, and two small, backwards, somewhat slanted C’s faced in opposite directions on either side of the top of the upside down Y. The entire symbol seemed to glow brighter and bolder than the rest of the signature.

“Well, that makes sense,” Michael murmured, staring at the symbol. 

Tabbris started to ask what it meant, or rather, who it meant. But her mother spoke first, in a hushed voice. “Jegudiel.” 

“Jegudiel is the most… gung-ho warrior of our seven Dyeusai,” Michael informed those who didn’t know. “He is almost always on the front lines of the war against the Fomorians, the one most committed to what he considers the honor of battle and glory. He believes in the war beyond a fanatical degree. But even more than that, he was the one of us most disappointed by the fact that our children could not…” He glanced sidelong to Tabbris before amending, “Ahem, supposedly could not inherit our gifts. He had some idea of building a dynasty of sorts.” 

“So what you’re saying is,” Athena put in, “if he finds out about her, he’s going to… be interested.” 

“He can be as interested as he wants,” Lincoln snapped, stepping over to reach down, picking up Tabbris. “It doesn’t change anything.” 

Sariel agreed, her hand moving to cup her daughter’s face as she added toward Michael, “You said you could teach her to use them.” 

“I can,” he confirmed. “I will. Soon as you’re ready, let’s go for a walk, kid.”

******

A short time later, Michael and Tabbris were moving away from the cabin together. The girl spoke quietly. “Mr–err… Michael, why is it so hard to make more of you? How come it’s supposed to be impossible for children to inherit the wings, or for Natural Heretics to work?” 

“Because offspring and Heretics don’t have a Dyeus core.” The answer came not from Michael himself, but from a short-haired brunette woman (who bore a very close resemblance to a young Audrey Hepburn). She stood at the edge of one of the cabins, where she had clearly been waiting. 

“Tabbris,” Michael introduced with a wave of his hand back and forth, “Jeanne d’Arc. Jeanne, Tabbris.” 

Eyes widening, the young Seosten blurted, “You’re the one who uses some of Michael’s power! Wait, but that means he… he did pass some of it to you.” A frown touched her forehead. “But…” 

Michael explained, “I used a ritual spell to allow Jeanne to access a small portion of my power. It keeps her young, heals her wounds, and allows her to channel that energy through her weapons. Essentially, it links her to my Dyeus core.”

“What… what is a Dyeus core?” Tabbris stammered uncertainly. 

Glancing to the man to see if he minded her answering, Jeanne waited for a nod before speaking again. “You know about the Suelesk?” 

Tabbris bobbed her head up and down quickly. “Uh huh. The Suelesk were the species who existed a long, long, long time ago. Like over a million years. They created dragons to try to fight the four giant monsters who almost wiped out the entire universe, and went through some kind of portal to another universe to get away from them. Seosten umm… found one of their crashed ships and built the first of our space technology off that.” 

“Oui,” Jeanne confirmed. “That is precisely correct. You also know of the dragons, and how they, as eggs, are placed deep in the middle of stars, where they spend many, many millennia absorbing the energy they need to eventually hatch. Except, as it turns out, the dragons were not the first effort the Suelesk made toward harnessing the power of the stars to destroy the creatures who threatened all existence. They had attempted to create a different biological superweapon, powered by energy from multiple captured stars, that would destroy anything it targeted. A living creature capable of projecting enough firepower to casually disintegrate entire planets. Something strong enough to kill the creatures who were ending all life in the universe.” 

Tabbris stared at her, belatedly realizing she had stopped walking. “M-multiple stars? Powered by more than one?” 

Michael nodded. “Yes. The Suelesk encased entire stars in what humans refer to, hypothetically, as Dyson spheres. The enchanted metal superstructure entirely surrounded the star, drawing all of its power.” 

“Wait, wait…” Tabbris stammered, “what you call a Dyeus core is a Dyson sphere?”

“Exactly.” Jeanne offered her a faint smile. “The Suelesk never finished their superweapon. They couldn’t get it to work. Their intention was to draw the power of multiple Dyson sphere-encased stars through the body of a single creature linked to the spheres through magic. That single creature would be capable of pulverizing whole worlds, powered by a dozen entire stars.” 

Michael took up the explanation once more then. “They failed to make their experiment work in time, before the facility working on it was destroyed. Yet they did manage to complete enough work to encase a number of stars within those Dyson spheres, and started some of the work on the spells needed to link them to a biological body. When the Seosten found that research, they–we took some time to finish the uncompleted spells. Our people found that what the Suelesk wanted, channeling all that power through a single body, was impossible. But, with some effort, it was possible to channel a single star’s power using an upgraded version of the spell, one that had to be written into us at the genetic level. A spell written into our DNA that would link each of us to one of the completed Dyson spheres. That is what provides the power source we use. It allows us to create our wings, and provides the boost to our magic, our regeneration, everything. Unfortunately, our people only found enough Suelesk records to point to seven encased stars. Seven stars, seven Dyeusai. They tried linking more than one person to the same star, but it didn’t work. The way the linking spell functions, it can only be used once. It activates, links that star to that being, and that’s it.” 

 “But…” Tabbris slowly managed, “why would they think it was possible to pass that on in the first place, if you have to be connected to one of those stars? Wait, how did it get passed on to me?” She blurted the last bit with wide eyes. 

“Like he said,” Jeanne pointed out, “it was written into their DNA. The idea was that there is plenty of power in each star, far more than one person would ever use. The linking spell could only be used once, but the Seosten thought that with a genetic relation, the spell might just consider them both the same person enough to allow more than one to connect to that star. They hoped it would just see them as the same person in multiple locations. As for Heretics, they hoped the bonding would perhaps link the human to the star as well.”

“But it didn’t,” Michael noted, eying the young girl. “Until now, at least. Somehow, you were connected to Jegudiel’s star.” 

“Couldn’t they make a new Dyson sphere around a new sun and just copy the same spells to make another one of you?” Tabbris put in, looking at him curiously. “I mean, I know they’re spending a lot on the war, but they’ve gotta have the resources. And if they can just look at the Dyson spheres that the Suelesk used…” 

“That latter bit is one problem,” Michael informed her. “Our people don’t know where the stars are, so they can’t examine exactly what was done to make them work. The spells are linked to them, but the Suelesk made a point of keeping the location of their encased stars very secret, and anything that actually explained their location wasn’t… among the resources that were discovered.” 

For a moment, Tabbris just stared. “We–they–they’re using planetary destruction-level superweapons–wait, no, they’re jury-rigging planetary destruction-level superweapons and they don’t even know where the batteries the stupid things are actually pulling energy from are?!” 

“Well, when you put it like that…” Michael grimaced before nodding. “Yeah, that about sums it up. Our people were desperate for an advantage. This was even before the Summus Proelium project. They came across the remains of the Suelesk research station that was working on the weapons, managed to decipher what was going on there, and adjusted the spells to link a Seosten being to one star rather than one constructed mega-creature to all of them.” Pausing, he asked, “And speaking of linking to the stars, would you mind if I run a brief test? I promise, it won’t hurt.” 

Tabbris hesitantly agreed, and the man set out to do just that. It took him almost ten minutes of magical tests before he straightened. “Hm. I’m still not sure why it worked with you when it never worked with any of the other children. But I do see what’s happening, even if I’m unclear as to why. You are… draining Jegudiel’s own connection.” 

That made the girl give a quick double-take. “Dr-draining it? What do you mean?” 

Michael exchanged a glance with Jeanne before carefully replying, “From what I can tell, the power of the star is gradually being shifted over to you. You only possess a small portion of it right now, but over time you will become more powerful, while Jegudiel’s own link to the star wanes.”

Opening and shutting her mouth a few times, the young girl protested, “I–I didn’t mean to. I mean–I mean I didn’t–that’s–” 

Taking the girl’s hand, Michael nodded. “It’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong. And your family’s not going to let anything happen to you. Now come, I promised I’d teach you to use those wings properly.” Winking, he added, “What about flying?” 

“Flying?” Tabbris echoed before her eyes widened, a squeak of surprise escaping before she covered her mouth and mumbled through her hand, “They let you fly?” 

With a soft chuckle, Michael nodded. “Absolutely. Trust me, kid, those wings are going to let you do more than you ever thought possible. Especially when it comes to protecting the people you care about. If you want to learn.” 

“I do.” Tabbris quickly nodded. “I want to learn, please.” 

“You’re a good kid,” Jeanne quietly remarked. “Still can’t believe I didn’t know you were inside Flick Chambers. All that time and I never guessed it.” 

“All that time?” Tabbris echoed blankly, staring at her. “But we just met.” 

“Technically,” the woman agreed, “yes. But I spent a semester as one of Flick’s teachers in seventh grade, back when I was looking into what happened to her mother, and learning more about the girl for myself. An entire semester posing as Mr. Rawlings and I never had a clue she was possessed. I–” She stopped, blinking at the young girl’s wide eyes of realization. “Is something wrong?” 

Quickly, Tabbris shook her head. “N-no, ma’am. Nothing’s wrong. I’m ready to learn.” 

She couldn’t tell them. She couldn’t betray Flick’s trust when it came to personal details like that, not even for something so incredibly minor. But now Tabbris really couldn’t wait for her sister to return. Because she really wanted to see the look on the older girl’s face when Tabbris told her that the ‘man’ she had spent months crushing on back when she was thirteen was actually the woman Jeanne d’Arc. Joan of Arc. Flick had spent a large portion of seventh grade thinking she was crushing on a man when she was actually into Joan of Arc posing as a man. 

Actually, come to think of it, that kind of explained a lot.

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Patreon Snippets 16 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following are the Heretical Edge edition of the next requested Patreon Snippets from our $10+ donators. In this case, there are only two snippets, but one is 4500 words long, so… less snippet and more ‘about a chapter and a half.’ Hope you all enjoy them, and thanks for everything!

 

Denuvus and Trice

“How is our new guest settling into his quarters?” Denuvus casually asked her young assistant. The two of them stood in a fairly dark room, with a holographic globe of the Earth hovering in the air to take up most of the space within, serving as the only source of illumination. Her fingers played over part of the globe, turning it idly while she watched a line of energy that drew itself up and away, off into what would be open space.  

“The bogeyman is fed and watered,” Trice retorted. The green-haired young Heretic folded his arms while adding, “You gonna tell Miles and his buddies that we’ve got his dad?” They had used the distraction of the assault on Fossor’s compound to snatch up the man. 

“Not just yet,” came the quiet, distracted answer as Denuvus leaned in close to examine the glowing line. “We’ll keep him safe and taken care of for now. Miles and his friends could still be of some use very soon. When the time comes, we’ll give them a target and allow them to rescue Caleb while taking care of a… situation for me. No sense in throwing away perfectly good weapons before making use of them, after all.”

“That guy finds out you’ve had his father and didn’t tell him, he’s gonna be pissed,” Trice noted. 

Denuvus’s response was a dry, “The quiver of my fear at the prospect of such a thing shall shake the foundations of the Earth. Yet I soldier on through grim determination.”

With that, the dark-haired woman raised a hand to point. “Come here and look at this, see what we’re about to do.” 

Frowning, Trice stepped that way, staring at the line. “What the hell am I looking at?” 

“This,” the woman informed him, “is the trail of the magic that our friend Fossor used to send Miss Chambers away from this world and into the future. But by the nature of time travel magic, it can be… twisted, if one acts quickly enough at the exact moment of its casting.” 

Trice gave her a look. “Is that what you were doing while I had to drag the bogeyman dude out of there? Messing with the time travel spell?” 

“I want Miss Chambers to end up where and when I need her,” came the casual reply. “Not where and when Fossor wants her to be. I simply gave the spell a slight… wait.” The calm, confident reply turned faintly, yet noticeably uncertain that last word. 

“Wait?” Trice echoed, glancing at her. “What?” 

“This,” Denuvus informed him while indicating one flickering part of the line, “is where I interfered to send the Chambers girl where I want her.” Slowly, her finger moved up to a different flickering point further along. “This is someone else.” 

“Someone else?” Trice blinked that way. “What do you mean ‘someone else?’ I thought you said you’d have to interfere with the time travel spell at practically the exact moment it was cast.” 

“Yes,” the woman confirmed, “you would. You would also have to be an incredibly gifted and powerful mage to adjust a time spell that had already been adjusted once.” 

Trice looked to the line, then back to her. “So what does that mean?” 

For once, Denuvus looked slightly annoyed, and not entirely in control of the situation. “It means,” she managed through somewhat gritted teeth, “that someone else took control of the spell to move Miss Chambers beyond where Fossor or myself wanted her.” 

“But who the hell could do that?” Trice demanded. “Who was strong enough and knew to do it at that exact time?” 

“That,” came the slow, deliberate response, “is a very good question.” 

 

***********

 

Tabbris and Lincoln

 

“Are you certain this is something you want to do right now?” Sariel Moon asked quietly as she and Lincoln Chambers watched one another in a dimly lit room, the two of them only barely visible to one another through a couple of faintly flickering candles positioned at opposite ends of the table that sat between the pair. “Unlocking your Chimera gift is something you can’t ever do again. Not like this. If you would rather wait until your older daughter is here…”  

“I need to help.” The man’s voice was rough. He’d been through a lot in a short time. They had been so close to getting both Felicity and Joselyn back, and then that was snatched away. Not to mention his discovery that both of his own parents had disappeared, with no one having any idea where they were. There’d been worry for a time that Crossroads or Eden’s Garden had grabbed them, but neither of those groups had made a peep about it. The entire point of taking them would have been as leverage against Felicity and Joselyn, and yet there was nothing. And none of the whispers that the Atherby clan and rebellion at large had heard from those sympathetic to their cause within the Heretic organizations had heard anything about it. 

Maria and Arthur Chambers had simply vanished. Which, given the kind of things Lincoln now knew were out there, made him very anxious about what had prompted such a disappearance. Between that and the thing with Felicity and Joselyn, he hadn’t been getting much sleep. 

With a low sigh, he continued. “I can’t just sit around. I need to help. Felicity–she has a way of getting in trouble. Between her and Jos, and my parents going missing, I can’t just sit here. I’ve been learning a lot about–” He coughed, forcing the word out, “–magic, and believe me, that’s still a thing I can’t believe I’m talking about seriously. I’ve been learning a lot about that, but it’s not enough. I can’t become a normal Heretic–which is also a phrase I can’t believe I’m using– because of my… whatever, my blood, my mutation. I can’t become a Natural Heretic like any of these other humans. I can’t just pick someone to bond to and naturally grow their… gifts.” 

Sariel nodded once. Lincoln was a Chimera-blood, so any bonding he underwent would be temporary. He’d have their gifts, quicker than a normal Natural Heretic would. Yet unlike a normal Natural Heretic, he would go back to normal in a few hours or days, depending on how much genetic material was used to bond him in the first place. 

“As I said,” she quietly reminded the man, “once you unlock your Chimera gift the first time, you will be able to temporarily form a bond with any Alter whose bodily fluids you come into contact with, even through your own skin. Simply touching the blood or saliva of an Alter will create the temporary bonding.” There was a brief pause before the Seosten woman added, “I’m told that the Atherby clan has their own… traditions around the bonding process. A ritual, of sorts, that they have performed for generations. I believe they would greatly appreciate your participation.”

“These people are Joselyn’s family,” Lincoln murmured quietly, watching one of the flickering candles briefly before turning his attention back to the woman. “And they’ve taken care of Felicity and me for a long time now. There’s no way I’d refuse their traditions. Not after everything they’ve done, everything they’ve risked… everything they are. So yes, I’m up for it.” Again, there was a scratchiness to his voice, emotion lurking just under the surface of his words. The Atherbys had done more for his family and the people he loved than Lincoln himself would ever understand. He knew that. And he would be damned before he refused any invitation to participate in their traditions. They were Joselyn’s people, her family, even if that fact had been stripped out of her memory when he’d known her. They were important to her, so they were important to him. The things they did and cared about were important to him. 

Sariel offered him a faint smile that was barely visible, as the shadows and candlelight dueled with one another across her face. “I’m glad our daughter has you for a father, Lincoln Chambers. Which reminds me… as far as your first bonding goes, Tabbris will be very upset if you don’t choose her.” 

“It was always going to be her,” Lincoln assured the woman. “Like you said, she’s our daughter. The kid slept with me at night before I even knew she existed, and she’s been protecting her sister since… since she came to Earth, since before she could even talk. How could I choose anyone else? 

“Besides, between you and me, pissing that kid off feels like a bad idea.” 

*******

The next evening, shortly before sundown, Gabriel Prosser stood at the edge of the lake with his hand outstretched over the water. His eyes were closed as he murmured a quiet yet long spell. The sense of power that came off of the man, power that seemed to infuse itself into the lake, was intense enough to make the hair on the back of any onlooker’s neck stand up. And there were a lot of onlookers. Every single one of the Atherby camp inhabitants who weren’t very young children, up at the Fusion school, or off on one mission or another had shown up. There were dozens of them, all standing in a group as they watched their leader work a spell that most of them knew by heart, given how important it had always been to their people. Some were even murmuring the words to the spell under their breath along with the man, almost akin to a prayer.

Between Prosser and the other Atherby people stood three figures. Sariel, Lincoln and Tabbris. The latter two wore white robes with gold trim, the hoods raised over their heads. Across the back of the robes, also in gold, was the design of a sword held high in a clenched hand. A sword that many of the clan still recognized as the blade of their original king, Arthur Pendragon. 

At Tabbris’ feet sat what looked like an ordinary, small goldfish bowl with a thin glowing forcefield across the top. It was far more than that, however. The interior of the bowl was as large as a decent sized bedroom, and was full of hundreds of bright, colorful fish of all kinds. There was an entire habitat inside that deceptively small-looking fishbowl, and Tabbris could adjust both the sides and top to look at any part of it at any time. They were her fish, the bowl a gift from her mother and its occupants gifts from… well, everyone. 

If Tabbris couldn’t have Flick here for this moment, she’d damn sure wanted her fish friends to be there. 

As he finished speaking the words of the spell, Gabriel grew silent. The rest of the clan followed suit. For a few precious seconds, the only audible sound was that of the waves gently lapping against the pebble-covered beach. There was stillness, a sort of magical peace. The sun had begun to set by that point, sending its red-orange glow across the water. Still, no one broke the silence. 

Finally, the tall dark-skinned man spoke while still facing the lake, his voice filling the air. “In the times of the king, those who were chosen as his knights, his select warriors, were gifted with a strength beyond their own. They were gifted with augmented strengths and powers, raising them above what they could achieve on their own. Arthur’s Dragon gifts allowed him to make others stronger. The man himself, our founder, did not simply protect his people. He enabled them to protect themselves. Our forebears, the people of Camelot, stood against the tyranny and darkness that have threatened this world for millennia. And their cause has not been forgotten. Their beliefs, their strengths, their ideals have not been forgotten. 

He turned then, facing the others while the lake behind him was lit by the fading sun. “In the absence of Arthur, we lack the ability to pass on the enhancement that he was capable of. Yet we are not without strengths of our own. As is the tradition of our people, those humans who join us are bonded to their Natural partner not only once, but twice.” 

Lincoln, of course, had been told about this ahead of time. As had Tabbris. They wouldn’t have ambushed the pair with such a revelation. Still, hearing it out loud like this made the man blink, his hand reaching down to touch the shoulder of his younger daughter. She leaned into it, and the two returned their attention to the man who was still speaking. 

“Our second-bonding,” Gabriel continued, “must be with the same species as the first, but need not be the same individual. A Natural Heretic who is bonded a second time this way will find their gifts growing faster and stronger than before. It is not the same as Arthur’s Dragon-boost, but it is our method of preserving that same idea. A way of giving our people any advantage we can, against the forces assembled against us.” 

As those words trailed off, the man focused on the trio directly in front of him. A slight smile touched his face. “Here we have Lincoln Chambers, husband of our true and rightful leader, Joselyn.” 

He spoke the name simply. Yet the moment the name of Lincoln’s wife left Gabriel’s mouth, every member of the Atherby clan spoke three words together. “True and free!” The words came instantly, filling the air with the force of thunder. True and free, it was a motto that had existed in one form or another since as long as almost any involved with the clan could remember. Yet that meaning had been greatly expanded, embraced, and exhibited by Joselyn herself in her time as the leader of the rebellion that the Atherby clan had been attached to. True and free. Their lives, their goals, their struggles, could be summed up, in large part, by those words. They fought for the truth and they fought for freedom. Freedom to live. Freedom to exist. 

“True and free,” Gabriel echoed in quiet agreement. It was a motto that had remained dormant for a long time, since the loss of Joselyn and her children. Invoking it now, at the moment when one of her husbands was about to go through the bonding process, felt right. It was hope, despite all the setbacks. More than that, it was a statement of determination, a declaration that Joselyn herself, and her youngest daughter, would both be free. 

Once those words had echoed across the lake, the man continued. “Lincoln is special, not only because of his family, but because he himself is quite the accomplished journalist. He is a man who seeks truth, and delivers it to others. Could any of us who know Joselyn be surprised that she would find a man like him?” He was smiling faintly, head shaking a little before adding, “And Lincoln here is also of the Chimera-blood.” That pronouncement made a few people’s eyes widen in surprise, as Gabriel went on. “The bonding process, first or second, will not be permanent. Yet it will unlock his gift to bond with any Alter much more easily. And Lincoln has agreed to undergo the second bonding as well, in keeping with our traditions. For that, we will now prepare.” 

As soon as those words were spoken, the group of Atherby clanspeople began to move. They passed Lincoln, Sariel, and Tabbris, a few offering quiet words of encouragement and gratitude. Over the next few minutes, the people spread out around the edge of the lake, putting enough distance between themselves that would reach all the way around and come back around the other side. 

“What happens now?” The question came not from any of the trio who stood there waiting, but from Abigail Fellows. Joselyn’s eldest daughter stood beside her twin brother and her father, the three having just been revealed when the rest of the clan moved to position themselves around the lake. They would not have missed this for anything. Not considering how important Lincoln was to Joselyn. 

Deveron straightened to his full height. The fact that he now looked like he was in his twenties rather than his teens still sometimes threw everyone who primarily knew him from his two years of deception at Crossroads, but they were gradually growing accustomed to it. “Now,” he answered in a soft voice, “they take the walk.” 

Wyatt, his eyes heavy and dark given the effort he was going through to find a way of bringing his younger sister back from the future, managed to mutter, “Traditions are a bad idea. People take advantage of traditions. Poison the ritual, invoke obscure rules to their benefit, create an ambush. Traditions are routines. Routines are stupid.” 

Deveron glanced to his son, casually replying, “See those birds out there?” Raising his hand, he pointed to a flock of dark crows that were gliding across the trees in a slow circle around the lake. “A few of our Seosten friends are using them to keep an eye on things. We also have guards in the woods, a few emergency teleports set up just in case, and I put a few whispers out that the Atherbys were doing something special for Lincoln near Laramie Falls, just in case.” 

There was a brief pause from Wyatt, before the gangly man gave a somewhat reluctant nod. “That’ll have to do, I suppose.” He knew himself. He knew he was anxious because of Flick, angry that he hadn’t been able to find her in time and now couldn’t drag her backwards through time to bring her back. He was running himself ragged and barely listened to anyone’s attempts to get him to rest at all. Intellectually, Wyatt knew there were few places on the planet safer for this than the Atherby camp. But that didn’t stop his imagination from running wild with all the possibilities of what could go wrong.

Meanwhile, Gabriel had turned to face Lincoln and the other two now that the rest of the clan had assumed their positions. He offered all three of them a smile, as well as his hand. In it was a small, ornate-looking dagger with a red hilt and intricate runes along the slightly curved blade. 

Seeing the blade, Sariel promptly asked, “Are you sure that’s not too big? It’s–” 

“Mama,” Tabbris interrupted while picking up her fishbowl. She held for her mother to take. “It’s okay. I can do it.” With her pets safely held by her mom, she turned back to Gabriel, her small hand rising to take the offered handle. Holding the dagger tightly, she recited the words she had been taught earlier that day. “Sire of Atherby, I am to share with one.”

“Do you share by your own will and choice?” Gabriel recited. 

Her head gave a short nod as she lowered the dagger to hold at her side. “It is a gift, given of choice.” 

“Who holds your left, and who your right?” The man’s next question came. “Who receives your left and right?” 

In some situations, a donating Alter would be attended by two, such as both parents, or siblings. In this case, only Sariel spoke. “I hold her left. I hold her right.” Tradition, of course, meant that she did not say that she held her left and right, but rather, that she spoke the words exactly as they would have been spoken had there been two people. 

Lincoln took his cue to speak then. “I receive her left and right. I accept and welcome the gift as it is offered, by one I trust with my all.” 

“Begin the walk,” Gabriel intoned, stepping back and raising a hand to indicate that they should move to the left. “And when you complete the circle, know that you will both return to this camp as more than you are now. Your bond will never be broken, however far you may part. Leave as halves, and return as whole.” 

As he finished speaking, Sariel took up the next part. “I wait to receive you both, as one.” 

With those words, Lincoln moved forward while taking Tabbris by the hand. Together, they passed Gabriel, stepping right out onto the water. As they did so, the spell that the Atherby leader had cast took effect, turning the liquid firm, yet slightly springy under their feet. 

Turning left, the two began to walk together. Tabbris’ voice was quiet. “I miss Flick.” 

Eyes closing briefly, Lincoln gave a short nod as he squeezed the young girl’s hand. “Me too, Cookie Bear.” He took a breath, forcing himself to continue. “But you know her. You know how she is, who she is. She’ll be okay and we’ll pull her back here. Or she’ll find someone in the future to… to send her back here. But we have to make sure here is as good as possible. And be ready the next time she needs help. Right?” He managed the last word through a tight throat. Keeping it together for Tabbris’s sake was actually helping Lincoln not fall apart entirely. His parents, his wife, his eldest daughter, all of them missing with no idea where or how they were doing. But he had his younger daughter here, and he would be damned before he lost it in front of her. 

By that point, the two had reached the first of the assembled figures who lined the entire length of the lake. Standing on the beach while Lincoln and Tabbris stayed atop the water, Misty (the young Natural Ogre Heretic) extended a hand with a wooden bowl held in her palm. “What do you give? What do you accept?” 

“I give of myself to this clan,” Tabbris recited, her voice cracking just a little bit as she was obviously still thinking of Flick. “I accept this bond.” 

Lincoln, squeezing the girl’s hand slightly before releasing it, spoke the next words. “I give of myself to this clan. I accept this bond.” 

“I, Misty Proell, accept this bond,” came the response, before she murmured a single word of a spell and offered the bowl forward. The bit of magic she had instilled into it made a few runes on the side of the bowl glow briefly. 

Tabbris, taking a breath, carefully raised the dagger and touched it against her forehead, then to her lips, then raised her free arm. A small opening in white robe revealed the pale skin of her arm beneath, where she touched the edge of the blade and drew a very slight cut. Blood lined the blade, before it glowed briefly and the wound healed. There was no hiss or any other reaction from the Seosten girl, given the way the dagger had been enchanted. It immediately healed any damage it did and caused no pain. Fairly useless as a weapon. But then, it wasn’t meant as one.

With a very slightly shaking hand, Tabbris touched the blade to the offered bowl. Immediately, that very small amount of blood was magically pulled from the dagger. Once she did, the bowl vanished from Misty’s hand, even as she nodded for them to continue. 

Next was Misty’s older brother Duncan, who controlled metal using his Natural Ullmis Heretic gifts. He held the bowl that his sister had held moments earlier, as it passed magically down the line to him. In a grave, serious voice, he spoke the same words she had, and they gave the same responses, and he spoke the one-word spell to add a bit of his own power to the bowl. At the proper time, when the bond was accepted, Tabbris touched the blade to her arm once more, drawing another painless, rapidly-healed cut to take another small bit of blood.

The bowl vanished from Duncan’s hand, and they moved on down the line. One by one, working their way around to the midway point on the far side of the lake from where they had started, Tabbris put more of her blood into the bowl. It was only a small amount each time, a few drops. But it added up gradually, as each member of the clan voiced their acceptance of this bonding.

Finally, they reached that halfway point as the sun finished setting, leaving the lake fairly dark. A woman stood there, clad in blue and black form-fitting armor with the white emblem of a griffin in flight across the chest. Guinevere of Camelot held the bowl, which had been about a quarter filled by that point. Rather than repeating the same thing the others up to that point had, however, she instead intoned, “In the name of the King of Kings, your bond is accepted. Your alliance is your strength, as it is all of Camelot and those who have descended from it, still holding those ideals. Let it bring forth your power, so you in turn may stand against those who would see freedom broken.” With those words, the woman spoke the same empowering spell the others had, followed by another two words. Those words triggered the power in the bowl that had been built up by everyone thus far, sending an electric crackle through the blood before she held it out to Tabbris. 

The young Seosten took the bowl, staring at the empowered blood within it. Blood that had been in her, and was now charged by magic from each of the people along the first half of the lake. Empowered so that it would be far more likely to ‘take’ and create a Natural Heretic on the first try. 

“My blood,” she announced quietly before holding the bowl out with both hands toward Lincoln. “I give it freely.” 

“I accept it freely,” Lincoln confirmed, taking the bowl gently before breathing out. They had assured him that the bowl would enchant the blood so that it tasted like nothing, but it still took some effort to get past the thought of what he was doing. Finally, the man raised the bowl to his lips and drank it down as quickly as possible. Once the bowl was empty, he bowed his head and returned it to Tabbris, who in turn returned it to Guinevere. 

Gwen, in turn, took the bowl and spoke once more. “Your gifts are received. And as you make your way back to where you began, they will be strengthened. Go, and see your bond reach beyond what you imagined.” 

For his part, Lincoln felt… stronger. He felt as though years had lifted from his body. He’d been in decent shape anyway, but his age was getting to him here and there through various dull aches. Yet all those had disappeared so suddenly their absence was immediately obvious. He abruptly felt like he was twenty years old again, though there were no physical changes. He was lighter on his feet, his hearing was better, sharper. His eyesight too, had been improved. Taking on, even temporarily, the Seosten powerset had essentially made him the best possible physical version of himself. And that was just the passive enhancements. Was this what it felt like to be a Seosten all the time? 

Turning, he and Tabbris moved to the next person along the shore of the lake. Vanessa. The blonde half-Seosten smiled at her younger sister as the wooden bowl appeared in her hands. “Your bond is unbroken,” she spoke carefully, “Let it serve those in need. Let it protect you, yours, and those who stand before evil. Let it reach from sea to stars.” With those last words, Vanessa first crouched to touch the bowl to the water, then stood and raised it toward the dark sky, as though offering it to the very stars she had just mentioned. Finally, she lowered it, extending the bowl not toward Tabbris, but to Lincoln while speaking a word of empowering magic. 

He, in turn, took the blade that Tabbris offered him, cutting a bit of his own exposed arm before allowing the blood to drip into the bowl. Then they moved on. There were no words for Tabbris and Lincoln to speak at this point. Their duty was to remain solemn and quiet, hearing the words being spoken to them. 

Tristan was next, followed by Haiden. Each spoke the same words Vanessa had, performing the same actions, touching the bowl to the water, then raising it to the sky before offering the bowl to them as they spoke the word to add their power to the spell on the bowl. Throughout that, Lincoln and Tabbris took turns cutting themselves, each mixing their blood in the bowl until they returned to the spot where they had begun. 

Finally, they stood in front of Gabriel once more. The man himself held the bowl with their mixed blood, offering them a soft smile. “Your journey has begun,” he informed the pair. “You have been bonded once, and will soon be twice. You will never be truly apart, despite any distance between you. You are forever linked through these bonds. Bonds that do not hold you, but instead free you. The clan of Atherby, descendants of Arthur’s Camelot, welcome you to our fold. We are as one.” 

With that, he spoke the words that triggered the bonding spell, sending another electric crackle through the blood before offering it to the man across from him. 

Again, Lincoln drank from the bowl. Not all of it, only about half. Then he lowered the bowl and held it to his younger daughter. “We are as one.” 

Tabbris, in turn, drank from the bowl to finish the contents before quietly echoing, “We are as one.” 

She and Lincoln both turned to face one another then, linking hands together while Gabriel put one hand on each of them (on Lincoln’s back and Tabbris’s head). The Atherby leader spoke out loud, while the rest of the clan approached from their positions, walking across the enchanted lake. “We are as one. You are bonded, linked for all of your days.” 

Together, Gabriel and all of those who had gathered to witness the event spoke seven intricate words. They were Mayan in origin, the spell a gift from those people. As the spell was triggered, the blood that had been in the bowl (and was now in both Lincoln and Tabbris) triggered. Both felt a rush of power, a burst of nearly electric shock that made them jump. The second bonding, meant to strengthen the first and give the Natural Heretic a boost to their gifts, had been successful. 

Several long seconds of silence followed, before Tabbris hesitantly and quietly asked, “Dad… are you okay?” 

Lincoln, in turn, nodded. “Yeah,” he murmured before looking back up. “It feels pretty… Tabbris?” 

“What?” Only belatedly did the young girl realize that the man wasn’t the only one staring at her. So were Gabriel, the other assorted clanspeople, her mother, siblings, everyone. “What? What? I don’t–” In mid-sentence, Tabbris turned to look to the side, only to stop short. A single brightly glowing wing made of solid-light energy was there. A glance to her right revealed the same on that side. A pair of energy wings had sprouted from her back at the moment the second bonding boost had been triggered. 

“Your father…” Sariel managed. 

“He’s one of the archangels.”

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Interlude 5C – Tabbris, Virginia, and Joselyn (Heretical Edge 2)

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The beam of a flashlight swept across the beach of the ocean located deep within the star-station housing the Fusion School. It flickered across a few small waves lapping gently against the shore before eventually coming to a stop as the beam illuminated a small figure out in the water. The figure was blonde, laying on something that floated just under the lake’s surface. 

As the light found her, Tabbris murmured something to Princess Cuddles, the Great White shark she was laying on, and sat up to look that way. Her eyes looked bloodshot within the glare from the flashlight, stained with tears that didn’t have time to fade before more joined them. She was soaked through to the bone, her entire body drenched from drifting in the man-made ocean.  

Lincoln Chambers stepped into the water, walking out until it was up a little past his waist. Without saying anything, the man extended a hand that way. Without any particular order being given, Princess Cuddles (and the other sharks, who had been drifting around) came close enough for Tabbris to be within arms reach. But for a moment, the small Seosten girl simply sat there, trembling and shivering as she stared at the man. Her mouth opened to say something, but all that came out was a helpless whimper, words utterly failing her. 

So, Lincoln took the last two steps that way. Reaching out with one arm, he scooped the girl off the shark and brought her up to his chest before turning on his heel to walk up out of the water. He brought the arm with the flashlight in to keep her tight against him, until they were finally on the beach. There, he dropped to his knees while setting the girl down, letting the flashlight fall to the side so that it illuminated both of them as well as part of the water. 

Through those first few long seconds, Tabbris stood in front of him, her head down and shoulders hunched. Her hands were clenched together, one squeezing the other so tightly she was hurting her own knuckles. Her eyes were squeezed almost all the way shut, staring through the blurry slits that remained at the ground, too ashamed to even look at the man. Her shivering was a mix of being cold from the water that she had spent far too long in, and her clear and evident terror about the reaction of the man who knelt right in front of her. 

Lincoln, for that moment, just watched her. His face betrayed a rush of emotions before he reached up with one hand. It found the side of the young girl’s face, tilting her head up a bit to look at him. She did so reluctantly, bloodshot eyes barely able to focus on the man. The shame, already well-written across her entire face and through her body, came through clearly in her broken voice. “I… I’m… sorry, Mr… Chambers,” she barely managed, almost inaudibly. “I’m…. I’m… s….” The last word wouldn’t come out again, the girl unable to force it out past the thick knot in her throat. 

“Tabbris,” Lincoln began in a quiet, but firm voice. His hand cupped the side of her face, fingers brushing through her hair. As his thumb gently slid down the girl’s cheek to take up the tears there, the man reminded her, “Not Mr. Chambers. Not to you. You know what I am. You know who you are to me.” 

That overwhelming shame told Tabbris to flinch away from the hand on her face. She didn’t deserve it. Didn’t deserve that kind of comfort at all, let alone from… from Flick’s… Yet despite her shame, she leaned into it desperately, disgust at her own weakness twisting her expression as well as her stomach. “But… but… F-Flick… “ Her voice cracked. “I didn’t–I let her–I w-wasn’t…” 

In answer, Lincoln reached in. His arms wrapped around the girl and he lifted her from the ground while standing up. He felt her legs wrap around him as well as her arms, while he held her tightly. “Listen to me, Tabbris. We are getting her back. You hear me? And you have nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing. Nothing. None of us stopped that–none of us stopped him from taking her. We were all… everyone was… it wasn’t you. It was not you.” His hand rubbed her hair, pressing her face against his shoulder as he insisted, “None of that was your fault, Tabbris. He took everyone by surprise. Athena, your mother, all those people. They’re older, stronger, bigger, they were all surprised. This wasn’t your fault. You listen to me. I don’t blame you. I will never blame you. Now, if you were missing, would Flick give up on you?” 

Without hesitation, Tabbris shook her head, sniffling a little before managing a weak, “No…” 

“Damn right, she wouldn’t,” Lincoln confirmed. “She’d never give up on you. And we’re not giving up on her. You hear me? Whatever it takes, we’re getting her back.” He betrayed none of his own terror and grief in that moment, needing to be the rock for her. “Felicity and Joselyn. We’ll get them both back. Say it for me, Tabbris. What are we going to do?”

Swallowing hard, the girl hesitated, clinging to him before taking in a breath. “… Save Flick. We… we’re going to save Flick.” She said it one more time, voice still cracking, but a bit stronger. “We’re going to save Flick. And Mrs. Chambers.” 

Turning his head a bit to kiss her hair, Lincoln quietly whispered, “We are. We’ll get her back. Come on, let’s get you some dry clothes. I told your mom I’d bring you up. She thought you were asleep, you know.” 

“I woke up,” the little girl murmured a bit plaintively. Her body shook once more. “The sharks, I didn’t w-want them to be lonely. I didn’t–” She stopped, squeezing her eyes shut helplessly as she dropped her head against his shoulder and let out a weak little sob. 

Holding her close, Lincoln promised, “We’ll take care of the sharks too. I promise. Come on, you need to get dry.” He started to walk off the beach and toward the elevator. 

On the way, Tabbris managed a barely audible, “You don’t… hate me…?” 

Immediately, Lincoln squeezed her tighter, hugging the girl firmly to him. “Never. Never, my hidden girl. I’ll never hate you. Not in a million years. You’re my girl. No matter what happens, you’ll always be my daughter. Listen to me. I didn’t call you my daughter because of Felicity. I called you my daughter because of you. I am proud of you every time I see you. You are my daughter. Nothing is going to change that, ever.” 

“I’m sorry,” came the whispered response. “I’m really sorry.” 

All Lincoln said to that, the only thing he could say, was, “I love you, Tabbris.” 

“I… I love you, Dad.” 

*******

Losing people was a way of life for the woman known as Virginia Dare. Born as the first English child on the American continent, cursed from birth by a mysterious and unnamed great evil that was convinced her blood would end the world, Virginia had experienced loss after loss throughout her life. Her family had died, her colony had been destroyed, she had abandoned her mentor and father-figure, the Akharu named Tiras, to save his life from the monsters who continued to chase after her. Again and again, people she cared about had to be left behind or simply died. 

Eventually, she fell in love with Joshua Atherby, and the two of them had a daughter, Joselyn. And the three had been happy, until the Fomorians came. Until the Fomorians presented such a monstrous, world-ending threat that the only choice to stop them had been for Virginia’s family to make the ultimate sacrifice. Joshua had given his life, while Virginia had given everyone’s memories of her. She had been forced to sacrifice her ability to be a mother to her daughter. She lost her husband’s life, and the memories of everyone who could have been there for her, who could have helped her, were wiped away. She couldn’t be with her friends. She couldn’t be with her daughter, the child she had made with the man she loved. There was no way at that time for her to be in Joselyn’s life. Being there, being around those people, was too much of a risk. For the sake of the world, for the safety of the spell that kept the Fomorians blocked from Earth, she had to stay away from them. Away from everyone who cared about her, everyone who could have helped her deal with her loss. 

She was forced to deal with her grief alone, entirely and completely alone. 

Until Gaia had come to find her. Even with her specific memories about those events erased, Gaia had still wondered about the whereabouts of her student and essentially adopted daughter enough to come looking for her. And, eventually, she had put the rest of it together. 

Joselyn ran her rebellion, had children, was captured, imprisoned, and eventually erased from all memories. Just as Virginia had been, save for the fact that her own memory was erased as well. And through all of that, Virginia could not comfort her daughter. For the sake of the entire world, she could not be there for her the way she wanted to be. She could not be there for her when that evil bastard took her. And the only person in that world whom she could talk to about any of it was Gaia. 

But now Gaia was gone. Which meant that Virginia had next to no one who knew what Felicity being taken by the same monster who had taken Joselyn meant to her. Almost no one who would have any idea what she was feeling. With Gaia imprisoned and Felicity taken by Fossor, only one other person in the world knew who Virginia really was. 

“Professor?” Even as Virginia had that thought, Koren Fellows spoke up from behind her. She’d known the girl was coming, had sensed her approach while she came to the house that Virginia was using as her own and used a wood-manipulation power to open the door for her. Then she’d followed the girl’s approach through the house as Koren sought her out before finding her here on the rear balcony overlooking the rest of the staff housing area. 

“It’s alright, Koren,” Virginia assured her, finally turning away from the railing to see the young woman. “There are a dozen privacy enchantments here. No one can hear us. Or see us,” she added after a brief consideration.  

Once she said that, Koren took a step that way to embrace her tightly. She didn’t say anything, but Virginia could sense the… anger in her. The tension held tight in her arms and shoulders, the way she held herself and set her jaw. Many of the people close to Flick were sad, devastated, morose, determined… and more. But Koren… She put a hand on the back of the girl’s head and brushed fingers through her hair. “It’s okay to be mad.” 

Drawing back after squeezing even more firmly for a moment, Koren took a step away and turned to face the railing, gripping it tightly while shaking her head. “No… no it’s not. Because I’m not just mad at Fossor. I should be! I should be, I know, I just… it’s not…” 

“You feel as though you’re angry with Felicity too,” Virginia calmly noted. 

“I don’t want to be!” Koren blurted plaintively, her voice clearly louder than she intended. Sighing then, she gripped the railing even more tightly, turning her knuckles white while dropping her head and slumping her shoulders. “I don’t… want to be. I know it’s not her fault. I know it’s not her fault!” 

Stepping over that way, Virginia put a hand on the girl’s back. “Do you really think it’s her you’re angry at?” she asked gently, watching the reaction. 

“Yes, but I don’t–I mean… I…” Stopping after her initial reaction, Koren hesitated, mouth opening and shutting a couple times. “I… no. I mean, I’m not… Flick’s just… gone. Flick’s gone and I don’t–I can’t do anything about it. I can’t help her. Fossor is… Fossor. Look at him. You guys, all you adults couldn’t stop him. They did this whole huge spell to banish him from Earth and all it did was make him walk on ashes. And piss him off. You all couldn’t really stop him, so what the hell am I gonna do? What could I even… you know… I don’t have a chance. I might as well throw rocks at a mountain trying to make it fall down. And Mom won’t let me go anywhere now. She thinks Fossor’s gonna try to grab me next, so I can’t even leave the station. I can’t really beat Fossor, I can’t help save Flick, and now I can’t even go on any missions to try to help people I’m capable of helping!” The last bit came out in a blurted shout before she sighed. “I’m not really mad at Flick. But I am mad at Flick.” 

Smiling faintly, Virginia squeezed the girl’s back, rubbing her hand in circles. “You’re mad that she was taken. You’re angry and you feel helpless to direct that anger anywhere useful. Which makes you even more angry.” 

Sighing, Koren turned her head to look that way. “Man, how mad are you? I mean, everyone’s paying attention to Mom, Uncle Wyatt, and me, but not… you. No one knows to pay attention to you. No one…” She flinched, turning fully to embrace Virginia once more. “I’m sorry, Great-Grandma.” Belatedly, the girl added, “I know we’re not supposed to risk saying that out loud very much, but… but right now, I don’t care.” 

“It’s okay,” Virginia assured her, returning the embrace. 

“Right now, I don’t particularly care either.” 

*******

For over ten years, Joselyn had dreaded this day. Throughout the decade between the moment she had left her beloved husband and daughter to come live with the… monster who had restored her memories, she had lived in fear. Fear of his abuses, yes. Fear of the things he made her do, the people he made her hurt. Fear of what he was turning her into. But above all, fear of the day that he would set his gaze firmly on her daughter. The terror and helplessness she felt when it came to that psychopath’s intentions for Felicity were worse than every single thing he had done or could have done to Joselyn herself throughout all those years. The fear, the unknowing dread, the… certainty that he would work to twist her daughter the way he had their son…

Ammon. He had destroyed that sweet, sensitive, wonderful little boy, had twisted him into the ugly, evil creature that he wanted. Not for any purpose other than to serve as an experiment. Fossor had barely cared when the boy was… when he was killed. He had been annoyed about something that belonged to him being taken away, of course. But not–he had not truly cared about Ammon. He had never cared about Ammon the way a father should. And the thought of Felicity having that kind of… of treatment turned to her, the thought of Fossor putting his filthy, evil hands to work hurting her, twisting her…

Joselyn would rather die. If given the choice, she would have died before allowing that to happen. But she had no choice. Fossor wanted her alive and he wanted Felicity. What he wanted them both for, what… evil, psychotic plan he was cooking up–had been cooking up for at least the past ten years, she didn’t know. But it was bad, that much she was certain of. 

But Joselyn had done more than live in fear of this day. She had done more than simply long for things to be different. Because wishing things were different wasn’t something she did. That wasn’t who she was. She didn’t wish they were different, she made them different. And despite the situation she was in, despite everything she’d been forced to do, she was still that person. 

She couldn’t do much, and not quickly. Everything she ever did had to be painstakingly slow and careful. An inch at a time. But an inch at a time over ten years could be quite a distance indeed. 

First, of course, she had needed privacy. It took years for Fossor to lower his guard even a little bit around her. But eventually, it came. He had other things to focus on. And Joselyn, despite being stripped of all the Committee’s powers, retained the magic she had learned throughout her time in the rebellion. Part of that included the sort of privacy spell that allowed their people to act right under the noses of Crossroads and Eden’s Garden. Or at least allowed them to know if they were being spied on. She had those spells on her constantly. She knew when she was being observed. And she knew that her rooms were mostly left alone. Which allowed her to make her own preparations, slight as they might have been.

So long as she obeyed Fossor’s given orders, he didn’t particularly care what she did in her own time. Even his order that she be naked in her own rooms was about controlling her, not about… anything else. The man barely had anything resembling those kinds of urges. He had wanted to have a child with her, so he had a child with her. Ammon had been an experiment, nothing more. 

As long as he believed he was in control, he left Joselyn alone a decent amount of the time. She was an old toy that he didn’t like to constantly play with anymore, but would occasionally take out with him. Mostly, he made sure she was still fighting, still killing, still getting powers from his arena. Fossor wanted her to be strong. What… exactly for, she didn’t know. But it was nothing good. Nothing that she wanted herself or Felicity to be involved with. 

But she didn’t feel lost or broken when Fossor announced what he had done, when he revealed his ‘surprise’ about bringing Felicity here through a time travel spell. She didn’t feel despair, because she had felt despair a decade ago. She had felt all of that, and worked through it. Despair didn’t accomplish anything useful. It wouldn’t save herself or her daughter. It wouldn’t stop Fossor. 

Yes, she was afraid of what the future would bring. Yes, she was worried about Felicity and herself. She was afraid of what Fossor wanted. And, of course, sad that he had accomplished his goal of bringing her daughter here. But she would not allow that fear or sadness to rule her. She would not fall into the trap of wishing things were different, of regretting what was to the point of fantasizing about a better life and a better world. She would work to make those things a reality. 

She would protect her daughter as best as she could. She would keep Felicity alive, and the two of them would find a way out of this. Fossor had won a battle, not the war. And as long as his goals included keeping herself and Felicity alive, the war itself would continue. 

That was what Joselyn intended to win. Let the man have his victory for now. Let him revel in winning the battle, in dragging Felicity into this. 

Because what Fossor had never understood, even as he capitalized on that fact, was that Joselyn would do anything for her children. She had surrendered herself to the Committee and been imprisoned for decades to save her twins. She’d had her memories erased, her powers removed, her very identity taken away. She’d given herself to this monster to save Felicity. She would do anything for her children. Fossor understood that enough to know that she would swear an oath to obey him to protect Felicity. But he still thought that bringing Felicity here would break Joselyn, that it would rip her soul to see her daughter brought here after all she had done to protect her from this. 

Rising from the bed where she had been sitting, contemplating all of that, Joselyn turned to the mirror. She saw herself and stared for a moment at the tears that had soaked her face. Her eyes closed, and she took a deep breath, straightening up. The cowed hunch that had come as she had sat on that bed and folded in on herself left her figure, the haunted look left her gaze. The tears dried up. Then she opened her eyes once more and saw herself as Felicity had to, if she was going to spare her daughter any feelings of guilt. 

Because the thing that Fossor had never truly understood was that Joselyn’s true strength came from those she cared about, those she was determined to protect. In bringing Felicity here, in putting Joselyn’s daughter right in front of her, he wasn’t breaking her. He was giving her strength back. He was reminding Joselyn of exactly who she was. 

“Okay,” she announced into the mirror. 

“It’s time to work.”

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Causality And Casualty 5-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The death of Kwur’s special tree had an immediate effect. Or rather, a lot of immediate effects. First, the branches and roots that had been pinning me to the wall dissolved into ash, letting me stumble a bit before catching myself. Turning quickly to look back the way I had come, I saw all the plants throughout the subway tunnel falling apart into more clumps of ash that faded into nothing after a few seconds. I wasn’t sure… why exactly, but it clearly had something to do with Kwur’s connection to the plants. We’d killed the largest concentration of his consciousness here in Vegas, and what was left wasn’t able to maintain the jungle he’d created. I hoped the fact that all of this was dissolving meant that the plant back in Gehenna was his only body now. 

Okay, I didn’t really believe the universe was that lucky. But I could at least hope that any other bodies he had were well away from Earth and too weak to pose much of a threat for awhile. 

But I still had to check on the others. We assumed that killing this part of Kwur would free those he had put under his control (that’s what Prelate had told us anyway), but I had to be sure. With a grunt, I pushed myself that way, starting to run toward the opening when I felt Tabbris’s presence as the girl did a partial recall to me, just enough to communicate. Which she did, by blurting an excited, We did it! We broke the evil Plant Man! Did you see the way he exploded?!  

Her excitement was contagious. Or maybe I was just really giddy after that whole thing. My head bobbed with an easy smile, as I passed through the subway platform and looked around at all the plants disintegrating into ash. I definitely saw, I replied. That was a really good shot, Ace. 

December did it too! She informed me. We pushed the button together! After Larees made sure the targeting was right. And then the stupid evil plant guy went fwooom! I could hear the grin in her voice. He was so surprised! 

By that point, I could see Columbus and Bobbi greeting Miranda, Sands, Sarah, Shiori, and Asenath as they emerged from the other tunnel. At first, my heart sank a little bit, a heavy stone of worry sinking into my stomach briefly. But then I saw Jiao. She was behind them, helping that Julius Harn guy walk. He looked a little roughed up, but not too bad considering the situation I’d left all of them in. Scattered around the platform were a bunch of injured and unconscious figures, or people just sitting there looking confused about the whole situation.

Bobbi raced quickly to Asenath, hugging the vampire. I heard her say something about how great it was that they’d found Jiao. Columbus, meanwhile, took his turn to embrace Shiori, the two adopted siblings holding each other for a moment. 

“Flick!” Shiori blurted, racing toward me after being released by her brother. I caught her, and we embraced tightly while the other girl murmured against my ear, “You did it. You did it, you killed him, you freed my mom.” There were tears in her voice as she clung tightly to me. I could feel the incredible stress and tension she’d been holding in throughout the time that her mother had been missing (and especially once we’d found her here under Kwur’s control) melting away as she shuddered emotionally. 

Holding the other girl close, I murmured reassuring words while silently telling Tabbris that I would see her soon and that she should get back to December, Larees, and the others on the ship. We would all be meeting up together to go over what had happened, and to see that the Gehenna people knew exactly what the situation with the bit of Kwur that had been out here was. And to make sure the whole thing was really over. Which… come to think of it… 

“Hey, what about that Azlee Ren guy?” I suddenly blurted, frowning as Shiori and I released each other to look to the rest of the group down here. “He’s the one who basically started this whole thing. So where is he?” My gaze found Julius Harn, who was already looking at me. He seemed really tired, barely able to stand. His heavy, beachball-like body was slumped over, using the wall to keep himself up rather than leaning against Jiao any more. “What’s going on?” 

The man breathed hard a couple times, inhaling and exhaling in slightly shuddering gasps before he managed to speak. “Never… saw a man called… Azlee. He wasn’t… down here.” 

Okay, that definitely didn’t make any sense. We knew for a fact that Azlee Ren was the guy who was behind this. Or rather, the Gehenna prison guard who had been Azlee Ren and was probably being controlled by Kwur. Why wouldn’t this Harn guy know anything about him? Something was wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what it could possibly be. There was just… something off. If Azlee wasn’t down here, if Harn had never seen him, what… what? 

“Maybe his memory was changed,” Sarah offered with a helpless shrug. “Like Vanessa’s.” She was leaning on her rifle, breathing almost as hard as Harn was. Now that I looked around a bit, I could see that everyone looked pretty worn out. They were barely able to keep standing, for the most part. Whatever had happened while I was gone, it looked like it hadn’t been restful, to say the least. They’d been to hell and back just fighting to keep Jiao and Harn from doing anything they wouldn’t be able to take back. It could’ve been really, unbelievably bad. The thought of Jiao coming back to herself after killing either of her daughters, or anything like… no. No, I wasn’t going to think about that. We beat Kwur, and none of us died. We won. 

Even if the pressing worry about just where the hell Azlee was kept burning like a match at the back of my mind. 

Before anyone else could say anything to Sarah’s suggestion, we heard more people approaching. Turning, we all saw Sariel, Haiden, Vanessa, and Tristan coming our way. They looked as worn out as the rest of us, but otherwise unharmed. 

Seeing Harn, Vanessa stopped short, staring at him. He, in turn, looked back to her, offering a slight, tired smile. “I wouldn’t… wish the circumstances on anyone,” he managed a bit weakly, “but it is still good to see you again, Miss Moon.” 

While Vanessa shook her head and stared at him helplessly, Sariel stepped in. “You do know my daughter then? You remember helping her? You remember her introducing you to Dakota?”

The man frowned in confusion. His eyes glanced from Sariel to Vanessa and back again, looking uncertain. “I… well, yes, of course I remember that. I worked with Vane–wait, are you… You’re her mother, aren’t you? And you–” He seemed to notice Haiden and Tristan for the first time, a delighted smile crossing his face. “Vanessa! You got your family back! That’s wonderful!” 

“I…” Vanessa bit her lip, wincing a little as she admitted, “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t remember you. I should, but apparently somebody… somebody altered my memory. They took you and Dakota out.” 

It looked like Harn was going to say something to that, but Haiden spoke up first. “We should really talk about this somewhere else. I don’t feel comfortable down here in Kwur’s tunnels, even if he is dead.” Offering a shrug, he added, “This place gives me the creeps.”   

He definitely had a point. I didn’t feel like staying down here any longer than we had to either. So, we started out of the tunnels. It was a lot different down here without all the plants, that was for sure. I could see a group of the previously mind-controlled people standing in a clump, with that ogre-like Luiena woman from the Oni and Eldridge from the Akharu talking to them.

As we approached, Eldridge excused himself and came trotting over. “Well, hey there!” He was grinning, clearly in a good mood. “Looks like calling in some help from the Heretic Rebellion was the right move after all.” His expression sombered just a little bit then, as he added, “Seriously, thanks, guys. Thank you so much. It looks like we’ll be able to wrap things up here without everything falling into open war after all.” 

“What about the rest of the missing kids who were taken with Jiao?” I asked. “And the princess, umm… Rowan, what about her?” 

Haiden answered, “Dare, Triss, Felix, and I found them. We… dealt with the people they had guarding them. They’re with the kids now, so it’s okay.” 

Eldridge nodded easily. “That’s right, and our people are already there too. The princess and her friends are safe, it seems everyone here has made it relatively intact. This was a success.” 

“But we still don’t know where that Azlee guy is,” Miranda pointed out. 

“And something tells me that’s gonna bite us in the ass at some point.” 

*******

Rowan was a cute kid. Half-Akharu and half-Vestil, she took more after the former, having a full physical body instead of the gas form. But apparently that was only the outside. Inside her body was primarily made of that gas cloud rather than any organs. Instead of having regular eyes, the space where they should be was filled with that rapidly color-changing gas. She was half and half, an exterior humanoid (or Akharu) body with a mostly energy/liquid/gas-like interior. 

In any case, the biggest point was that she was safe. And talkative. She and her friends who had also been rescued chatted up a storm with everyone who would indulge them. Which included Tabbris and December, of course. The other two came down from the ship to meet up with everyone, and we all reunited at the Vestil casino to exchange explanations and stories. 

Barnyard the troll, Pars the werewolf, and the rest of that group were there too. I made sure they were allowed to show up so we could thank them for helping to take care of our bodies as much as they had before our positions were swapped with our Theriangelos. From what I’d seen, they had done a lot of fighting to keep more of Kwur’s forces off of us when they could have walked away. We owed them for sticking it out at the risk of their lives, even if Pars insisted they were only making up for attacking us in the first place. He was a pretty cool guy, and so was Barny. I made sure to tell Pars he should look up Mateo’s pack if he had a chance, and that Barnyard might like to see Buddy System in Wonderland. 

We also got to see the parents of the missing kids meet up with them, including Rowan’s. There were a lot of tears, hugs, and overall joyful reunions. It was actually really nice to watch, even if I didn’t know these kids at all. I was glad we’d been able to save them. Or rather, that Dare, Haiden, and the cat-girls had, come to think of it like that. 

Anyway, the point was that it was really good to see these kids actually reunited with their families after everything that had happened to them. They had to all be checked for influence by Kwur, of course. But they came up clean. They were fine, and they were back with their parents. 

Then things got even better, as we stood in one of the private lounge areas of the casino watching all of this go on. Better, in this case, because one of the nearby doors opened and Avalon entered, accompanied by Sean, Theia, and Roxa. The latter two went to greet some of the others, but Sean and Avalon came to where I was standing with Shiori, Columbus, Asenath, and Jiao. 

Sean got to me first, and we embraced. “Hey, big guy,” I murmured. And big he was. It was still so strange to see Sean as a man in his twenties, after we’d… after we’d failed to rescue him for so long. He’d spent what to him was years in that prison. I honestly had no idea how he was holding up, aside from the fact that he spent a lot of time with his uncle, brother, and Roxa. I’d heard that he mostly coped by keeping himself busy, and that he did a lot of camping outside, under the stars. And yeah, I definitely couldn’t blame him for that last part. Apparently he hated being cooped up inside, hated staying in one place for very long at all, actually. He had a thing about never sleeping in the same place more than a couple times in a row if he could help it. Which, I supposed, made him pretty well-suited to traveling with a pack of werewolves who weren’t staying in the same place longer than a day or two if they could help it. 

“Hey yourself, Flickster,” Sean murmured, releasing me from the hug. “You’ve been busy. Out blowing up trees with ship-mounted cannons, huh?” 

“Eh,” I replied, “that tree had it coming.” 

It was Avalon’s turn then, and I quickly latched on, hugging the other girl as tightly as I could. Feeling her there, holding her after everything that had happened… it really affected me. I might’ve held on longer than strictly necessary, but it didn’t seem like she was objecting very much. The two of us clung to each other, before I leaned back and smiled. A joke of some kind found its way to my lips, but Avalon’s were there before I could say it. She kissed me, and I whimpered a little. Wow, yeah, it really did affect me. For a moment, I lost myself in that kiss. 

Eventually, we pulled back, and I took a moment to catch my breath before managing to focus on the smirking girl in front of me. I felt a bit giddy. And other things beyond giddy. “Umm… hi.” Coughing as the blush stretched across my face at the look she gave me, I managed a weak, “I guess you finished the errand you were on? How did umm…” I coughed again. “How’d that go?” 

“It’s finished,” she informed me, actually smiling genuinely. It was the smile of accomplishment, of finally finishing the project that her ancestor had worked on so hard. “Close enough, anyway,” she amended. “Dries and the others are putting the last touches on it. The spell should be ready to go within the day. We found what we needed.” 

Grinning, I hugged her again. “That’s great! See, we’ve both been busy little beavers lately.” 

“Yeah,” Shiori put in. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m ready to go back to boring old normal classes for a little bit.” Pausing, she amended, “Okay, our classes are never actually boring. But still. You know what I mean.” 

I nodded. “I definitely know what you mean. Believe me, we’re all ready for a good long break. But for now, hey, let’s just enjoy the celebration. The Gehenna people should be here any minute to give us a quick debriefing about the current Kwur situation.” As I said it, I gave Deveron a little wave over where he was talking to one of the Vegas people. 

“What about Azlee?” Columbus put in. He and Sean had been having their own little reunion. “We still don’t know where he is.” 

I started to say that that was going to be a job for the Gehenna people to track down their missing guy. We’d done our part. But before I could get it out, Dare approached with a simple, “They’ve found him.” 

“What?” I blinked that way. “They found Azlee Ren?” 

She gave a short nod. “Yes. Well, it turns out Larees did. She was determined to finish the job, given her… connection to Gehenna. She tracked him down in a motel on the edge of the strip. She’s bringing him back now, and the Gehenna people are on their way to pick him up.” 

Sure enough, it wasn’t long from then before Larees came in, accompanied by a figure who looked pretty similar to Prelate, actually. He had the same reptilian blue skin, vertically-pupiled yellow eyes, and so on. This had to be Azlee Ren. 

And… there was something… almost familiar about him? At first I thought it was just because he looked somewhat similar to Prelate. But that wasn’t it. The more I looked at him, as Larees led his shackled form across the room toward us, the more something niggled at the back of my mind. Wait… wait a minute…

Without really knowing what I was doing, I moved away from the others and stepped that way. They followed, and I heard Shiori ask if I was okay. But I didn’t answer. Instead, I held my hand out and said, “Stop.” 

Azlee stopped. He stood there, staring at me. Larees stopped too, looking from him to me. Her mouth opened, but I spoke again. “Sit down.” 

Azlee sat down. 

“Flick?” Shiori asked from nearby. “What… what are you… how are you doing that? Wait, are you controlling him? Because you could only do that if–” 

Spinning on my heel, my mouth opened as I blurted, “He’s a zom–” 

That was as far as I got, before Azlee exploded. His entire body blew apart in a blast of white light. I caught a glimpse of Dare in mid-leap, my name on her lips. Avalon and Shiori were there too, just behind her. Everything seemed frozen, as that white energy sought out me specifically. I felt the heat from it envelop my body, covering me from head to toe. It stung a little bit, just this side of being painful. Then I felt it cover me. I felt my body being yanked backward. I saw Dare, Shiori, Avalon, and all of the others grow smaller, their forms fainter as I was dragged from them. The world spun. My stomach heaved. Everything was upside down and inside out. 

A stone floor came up and smacked me, almost knocking the wind from my body as I fell with a yelp. Groaning, I lifted my head and looked around. I was… I was in a room I’d never seen before, a stone room covered in still-glowing runic symbols and devoid of any furniture or decorations. It was mostly dark, save for the small pool of light that I was lying in and the faint glow from the spellwork. 

Then I saw the figure who stood nearby, watching me. I saw the flickering light illuminate his slow, satisfied, triumphant smile. 

Fossor.

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Causality And Casualty 5-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Before we’d even managed to explain more than a few words to the collection of now-freed Alters (all of whom looked very freaked out about the whole situation), Miranda, April, and Jason showed up. They came in at a run, but slowed when they saw our group there simply talking. 

“Explain it to them,” I blurted toward Sands and Scout before turning away to grab my phone. Quickly, I typed out a message to Tabbris and sent it to her. After that, I only had to wait a couple seconds before hearing her voice in my head as she projected her consciousness to me. Flick! Mr. Haiden found flowers too! 

Rather than explain, she simply dumped the information into my head. Haiden’s group, as well as the others, had all found various hiding places for the plants. They weren’t just in the tunnels, they were in random buildings too. This was even worse than we thought. But according to Sariel (through Tabbris), what we really needed to do was find the part of the plants that had the strongest consciousness in it. Not his core, that was still back in the prison. But if we found the main part that was out of it, the biggest collection of Kwur’s mind that was here in Vegas, we would be able to actually do something about him and that would affect the rest of it. 

Thanks, Tabs. You and December stay ready, huh? We’ve got it here. I tried to sound encouraging, and not like this was all spiraling very quickly out of control the way a nagging part of my mind kept insisting. This whole thing was like having gasoline spread throughout an entire building. These plants were everywhere. If someone lit the match and a war started… it would get really damn hot around here. 

So, we had to find the main plant. To that end, after quickly passing the information to the others, I closed my eyes and focused on seeing through Marian’s eyes. I’d left my little fox-friend crouched at the bottom of those subway (seriously, what the fuck was one of those doing here in Las Vegas?) stairs, huddled in a corner where she would hopefully be out of sight unless someone walked right past her. 

Thankfully, it seemed we’d indeed gotten lucky on that point. There was no one in sight as my little fox opened her eyes and looked around. I could still see that forest-worth of plants and small trees all over the subway platform, but there were no actual people. As far as I could tell, no one had seen Marian huddled in that corner. Which might give me a chance right now to get a closer look at this whole thing before they reacted to us disabling the small army they’d sent. 

The other good part of exploring this place with my Theriangelos, of course, was the fact that I didn’t have to worry about being affected by the plant bastard’s emotional manipulation powers. I sent Marian scurrying quickly across the platform, starting to move between clumps of flowers and grass. On the way, I belatedly wondered just how much awareness Kwur had around him in this state. I knew his primary consciousness wasn’t here, but how much could the part of him that was in these plants… see or hear or whatever? Was he actually able to notice the fox? More to the point, could he communicate that fact to his minions? That seemed important right now, for some reason. 

Sending Marian down onto the grass-covered tracks behind one of the trees, I hesitated before scampering up the tree. Yeah, it was even more dangerous, but really, in for a penny, in for a pound. If plant dude was aware of the fox and knew what it meant, I’d find out really quick. Hitting the tallest branch, I made the fox look one way, then the other. The tunnels stretched out in both directions and were totally full of plants. Seriously, the garden here wasn’t so ‘little’ after all. It went on as far as I could see. I’d thought it looked like a small underground forest, but there was nothing small about it. The plants took up the entire subway system. A subway system that, as far as any of us knew, wasn’t supposed to exist

A hand settled on my shoulder back with my real body. Quickly, I shifted my attention more that way, opening my eyes to see Miranda there, looking at me with concern while Sands and Sarah continued talking to April, Jason, and the people we had just been fighting a few moments earlier. Her voice was quiet. “What’s going on, Flick? What do you see down there?” 

As she asked that, the others started paying attention. The werewolf guy, Pars, spoke up, sounding guilty. “Kid, are you okay? Barnyard and I, we didn’t mean to hurt you or anything.”

“Barnyard?” I echoed uncertainly before remembering. He’d been calling the troll Barny. 

Sure enough, Barny/Barnyard the troll gave a quick, frantic nod. He looked ashamed of himself, shifting on both feet while looking at the ground and fidgeting with his hands. “Barnyard is very sorry, Miss Yellow-Hair. Barnyard did not really want to smash with friend-hammer. Barnyard was very angry before. But Barnyard does not know why. Barnyard will be very good now. Please do not be mad at Barnyard.” 

Feeling bad, I shook my head with a glance toward the others. “It’s okay, it wasn’t your fault. I–they explained the whole flower thing and what’s going on there?” I asked, looking at Pars. 

“Oh, they did, they did.” It wasn’t the werewolf who answered, but the many-tentacled figure from Miss Handsy’s race. He too looked ashamed, shuffling forward while keeping his long limbs back behind himself. I had the feeling he was doing that to look less threatening, keeping his hands out of the way so I wouldn’t think he was trying to attack me or something. He came a bit closer, still fidgeting while adding, “I… we did not cause too much harm, I hope?” 

Sands nodded from where she was standing, offering a flat. “It’s okay, we’re all in one piece.” I saw her glance toward one of the other Alters in the crowd, adding a bit more weakly, “Mostly.” 

“It’s okay!” that guy (a dark green figure with white spots over his skin and a vertical mouth) called, holding up his arm where I saw he was missing a hand. “It’ll grow back!” He sounded fairly casual about the whole thing, which was better than holding a grudge, I supposed. 

Coughing, I rubbed the back of my head. “The point is, this isn’t any of your faults.” 

“Still,” the tentacles-guy insisted, “it wasn’t… good. But you could have killed us. You didn’t. You’re Heretics. You are, aren’t you? You don’t set off the… bad sense for some reason… but you have to be Heretics with all those powers you were using. You’re Heretics, and you risked your lives to free us, to knock us out. That’s…” He hesitated, then offered me one tentacle, very carefully. “I am called, by your people, Cake.” 

“Cake?” I echoed, taking a second before getting it as I accepted his hand. “Oh, Patty Cake.” 

“Yes, that,” he agreed. “I thought perhaps Patty, but that is apparently a female’s name. So I chose Cake.” After a brief hesitation, Cake added, “We… are all very sorry for what happened.” 

“Eh, some of us are more sorry than others.” That was one of the humanoid-looking Alters, who stood at the back with his arms folded tightly. “You are Heretics in Vegas, aren’t ya? What’re you doing here?” His voice was darkly suspicious, though I had the feeling he was just as embarrassed and ashamed of losing control as the others were and hiding it through this. 

One of the other Alters elbowed him hard, leaning in to mutter something in his ear. I caught the word ‘rebellion’ before my attention was drawn by Pars once more. The werewolf spoke tersely. “Look, all of us here were, most of us don’t know each other. Last thing we remember, we were at a restaurant having lunch and the waitress brought out those leis for some kind of Hawaiian theme or some shit.” He offered a shrug. “Next thing we know, we’re totally blinded by rage and just have to kill something. It’s… that whole thing is just really blurry. All we knew was that we were in the middle of some wild fucking fight with a couple kid Heretics. Now these girls here say there’s some evil plant piece of shit that turns people fucking evil or something? What the fuck?” 

Before I could respond to that, Jason suddenly moved up next to me, drawing everyone’s attention that way as he asked. “You guys know what’s going on with the royals around here?” 

One of the other Alters replied, “Their kids got nabbed or something, right? They’re pretty pissed off about it.” His voice darkened, sounding somewhat bitter. “My buddy’s church got raided just cuz he put out some newsletters about how they’ve got too much power like a year ago.” 

There were a few other agreements with that, and I realized once more just how bad this was going to get if we didn’t stop it. The Vegas leadership was already pissing people off with their reactions to the missing kids (understandable as their emotions were), and with Kwur’s plants around to make things worse and fan those flames… yeah, this could get very bad very fast. 

And speaking of getting very bad very fast, I looked to the others, speaking quickly. “I’ve gotta use Marian to explore. You guys explain what’s going on and try to get Sariel and the others.” 

With that, I poured my attention straight back toward my Theriangelos. She was still in the tree. At this point, however, there was someone else nearby. Turning her head, I looked down. Orcs. There were three orcs and a single human (or at least one that looked human and didn’t set off my Heretic-Sense) pacing by right beneath me. It looked like they were hunting for something? 

Me, I realized belatedly. They were looking for me. Which told me that either Kwur could communicate that there was an invader of some kind but couldn’t explain where I was exactly, or they just had some other way of knowing there was something around without specifics. 

Okay, so it didn’t tell me much at all. Still, they knew something was in the area. That much was made even more clear as one of the orcs shook a rusty old sword through a tall bush and bellowed, “Where you are?! Come face bad now or bad get badly worse!” 

A truly poetic argument toward me revealing myself, for sure. Somehow, I resisted the urge to comply, making Marian shrink back against the tree while shifting her fur to match the bark. From there, I crouched and watched the group below. At the same time, I shifted a bit of my attention back to my real body, whispering (for no real reason other than instinct), “Okay, guys, we might have to go with something more obvious. These guys know I’m there.” 

Sands and Miranda said something about being on it, but my focus was quickly drawn back to Marian, as the quartet below were joined by half a dozen more figures of various types. One of them was a lizard figure like the ones we’d fought on the roof of the casino while chasing Sarez. That one seemed to be the leader, looking around suspiciously before speaking, “Bring the others in. Spread out. Find the intruder. Send a group to check on our rabble rousers in sector Three-F. They haven’t hit the next checkpoint yet. And bring more fertilizer and water for the Potentate.”

Well, I’d heard of leaders wanting to be given nothing but bullshit, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t usually this literal. But seriously, this was bad. I shifted my attention, speaking to the others. “They’ve got more than one group like these guys. They’re calling them rabble rousers, probably because you were all supposed to start fights in the city. And they’re coming to check on you. Which I guess means they don’t know everything that’s going on with the people he’s controlling. I think his… control is limited right now? Still, they’re coming.”

By that point, I was looking around, only to see Sands, Sarah, and Miranda standing nearby with their heads down and eyes closed. They were focusing on Theriangelos of their own. 

“We’ll protect you.” That was Pars, his voice firm as he looked around the rest of the group, getting nods in agreement. He focused on me then. “We owe you that much for… for not killing us when you could’ve. Whatever you’re doing down in those tunnels, do it. We’ll keep the rest of those bastards off you if they come sniffing around.” 

“He’s right,” Jason confirmed, standing by April. He had a sword in one hand and a pistol in the other, his expression solemn. “Do what you’ve gotta do down there. We’ll keep you safe here. And, you know, let you know if we can’t. Point is, we got this. Do your thing.” 

Right, so it was up to those of us who could safely move through this underground forest with the Theriangelos to figure out where the main plant was. We could do that, I hoped. 

Once more, I shifted my full attention to Marian. I’d been semi-watching what was going on before, splitting my focus just enough to know that I hadn’t been found already. Now I could see that there were about a dozen figures spread out across the whole platform, including that lizard guy who seemed to be in charge of this group. They were all searching the bushes intently. Yeah, they knew I was in here somewhere, but not exactly where. Not yet, anyway. 

There was also a heavily-armed group heading for the stairs. But before they managed to get out of sight, the whole group suddenly stopped short. I heard one shout out a warning, just before something slammed into him from above, knocking the figure to the ground. 

It was Sarah. Or, more to the point, her Theriangelo. Which was a crocodile. Specifically, a fifteen-foot long pink and red Nile Crocodile, slamming right into the guy before biting his arm with a quick, hard chomp that left him screaming and flailing. The others at the bottom of the stairs turned to help, but immediately had problems of their own in the form of Sands’ red and pink rhino careening down the stairs to slam into them. A raven, Miranda’s Theriangelos, was perched on the rhino’s back, with something around its neck that glittered in the dim light. 

The reptile guy was already shouting orders, but I quickly jumped down on top of his head and bit into his neck while using one of the fox’s claws to tear at his right eye. While he was reeling, I put one fox paw on the man’s shirt and focused. It took a lot of practice to use Heretic abilities through the Theriangelos. Plus, you had to practice with each individual power. Luckily, I had that practice thanks to Shyel. Not enough to use every power I had, but… well, I could use some. 

In that moment, I focused on my image-inscription spell. It created a rune on the man’s shirt, which I activated by saying (in my normal body, as distance apparently didn’t matter as long as part of me, the fox in this case, was there) the command word. Instantly, a shock of electricity went through the man as I jumped off him, leaving the poor guy to spasm, yelp, and hit the ground as if he’d been hit by a taser. 

The rest of the fight after that didn’t last long. These guys were basically taken by surprise, particularly when I ambushed their leader. Still, we couldn’t just kill them. There was no way to know how in control they were. Sure, none of the people here had actual flower necklaces on, but we still didn’t know how much of this was their fault. They could just be infected more permanently, or think that they were acting on Gehenna’s orders, or… anything else. 

So, we played… sort of nice. We hurt them, but we didn’t kill them. We knocked them out where we could, injured them, rounded them up into a group, and herded them into a side room before I used another quick-inscription spell to seal the door shut. They’d be able to break out of it eventually, but it would at least give us a little time down here. 

Still, we had to hurry. Thankfully, Sands had taught all of us the Theriangelos upgrade spell from Athena that allowed us to communicate what amounted to telepathically. True, we could’ve done it by talking in our normal bodies as we were right next to each other. But this was still faster and easier than constantly swapping our attention back and forth. 

Why don’t we just set fire to all this shit while we’re here? Sands demanded, her big rhino head looking back and forth as the four of us gathered near one of the trees. If this is all part of that evil plant fucker, let’s just be done with it

Sarah was the one who replied. Because we’re down here. And still looking.

Exactly, I agreed, hopping up to a nearby branch. We need to find the main part of him in the city before we start burning things. If we set fires down here right now, it’ll be harder to search these tunnels. 

From where her raven was perched on the branch just above me, Miranda added, That’s why I brought this. Her beak popped down to tap what I could now see was the enchanted green stone tied with a shoelace around her. It was glowing. I asked Sariel, she said the stronger the consciousness in these plants, the more it’ll glow. 

Right, Sands replied, so we find the spot where that thing glows the most, then burn this whole place down to make sure we got the evil motherfucker. 

And we have to do it before he starts the war that he seems to be like… ten seconds from doing right now, I added. Without most of our powers, because we don’t dare bring our physical bodies down here. But you know, no pressure or stress or anything. I’m just saying though…

If we pull this off, we better get some pretty impressive attaboys from the prison guys who were supposed to keep this asshole contained to begin with. 

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Causality And Casualty 5-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“You know, I can’t believe that after everything we’ve been through and everything we’ve seen, all the magic, the aliens, traveling clear across the universe… I’ve still barely ever driven a car.”

Making that announcement while walking along a hard pavement in the middle of the hot Nevada sun, I looked over toward my two companions. “I’m almost eighteen and I’ve only legally driven like… once in the past year. Is that weird? That seems weird. Come to think of it, if I do turn eighteen and manage to not be horrifically murdered or enslaved by an evil necromancer, how do I get a new adult license? I don’t exactly live in Laramie Falls anymore.” 

The pair I was walking with were Sands and Sarah. As promised, the two of them had joined our little expedition group to try to fix what was going on with the whole Vegas kidnapped children situation. Mostly because adding more people to the search was the only real chance we had to track down where this Kwur guy’s spores were (and thus hopefully find this Azlee guy) before things escalated to the point of open warfare. Because Vegas going to war would just make Kwur stronger, and if he got strong enough to make one of his spores out here his primary body… things would get very bad. 

So yeah, we’d all met up again, bringing in a few reinforcements like the twins here. With the spore-detection enchantments finished, we split up into smaller groups and were essentially walking around hoping to find what we were looking for. Canvassing random streets wasn’t exactly the most elegant or quickest solution, but it was the best we had to work with right then. 

It was important enough that we weren’t even forced to be escorted by the Vegas people. We were checking in occasionally, but right now, we needed as many groups as possible combing the city to find any trace of Kwur’s influence before it was too late. So we divided Vegas up into a grid pattern and went out, mostly in trios and quads, to pound the pavement for hours.

Just in case someone around here happened to maybe recognize me from the chase through the city a couple days earlier, I was using my shifting power to disguise myself with black hair, slightly darker skin, and wider, lighter eyes. That should be enough for me to stay anonymous.

Sands was shrugging my way. “It’s not hard to get a license that’ll fool any Bystander system. Just–” Pausing, she thought about it for a second. “Actually, huh. I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do now that we’re… now that we left Crossroads.” Her face twisted a little, looking briefly annoyed at the entire situation before she sighed. “Still, shouldn’t be a big deal. I bet our mom could help us handle that. And hey, maybe you can give us lessons. Growing up on a small island doesn’t really leave much point to driving. But now there’s gotta be times when driving would be useful, right?”

Beside her, Sarah gave a short nod. She was looking away, glancing at a couple of homeless people staggering down the street across from us. They looked drunk, given the hard time they were having staying upright. “Can’t always portal everywhere,” the girl murmured absently. 

“Especially when we don’t know how to do that spell,” I agreed. Glancing at the small green stone I was holding in one hand, I watched as it flickered slightly with a very dim glow now and then, like a mostly dead flashlight straining mightily to keep going. 

“Still not solid?” Sands asked. “So it’s still just getting traces. What was the distance for a good lock, again? It’s supposed to be obvious when we’re close enough.” 

“According to Sariel,” I replied, “it should lock on if we’re anywhere within about a block of one of them. But the range could be shorter if it’s only a small spore or if they’re shielded somehow. And yeah, it should be obvious. It’s supposed to get brighter the closer we are, and turn red as soon as we get the thing right up within spitting distance or so of the main plant that the bulk of Kwur’s… you know, consciousness or whatever is in beyond the one Gehenna’s got.” Pausing, I added, “The point is, we’ll definitely notice when it goes off.” 

Unfortunately, up to this point, all we’d managed to get was this very slight flickering. Which, according to the others, meant the stone was picking up faint traces of the plant guy. But it was so faint that it could just be from an infected person passing by sometime within the past day or so. Plus, the others had picked up similar faint signs. We were trying to follow ours in a very slow and difficult hot-and-cold game. It was hard when the slight flickering came so slowly and sporadically. The trace here was just… too faint. Hopefully, one of our groups would find something stronger soon. 

Sands started to say something else, when the communication badges we wore abruptly activated. Tristan’s voice came through. He was with Vanessa and their mother at the Vestil Casino where they had been waiting to get information about that painting. “Okay, so we’re talking to these guys and they said the guy in the painting is Julius Harn. Apparently he’s some dude who used to live in the city and contributed a whole bunch of magic, money, and time to the Separation War. You know, the battle to force Heretics out of Vegas and keep them out. He was pretty big in the city up until the eighties, even served on their ruling council for a long time and helped establish a lot of their rules. Then he sorta became a recluse and ended up disappearing entirely about twenty years ago. No one around here’s seen him since then. They checked his house and it was cleaned out. No word, no notice, nothing like that. Guy just started showing up less and less before poof, totally gone.”  

“Not totally gone,” Miranda’s voice pointed out from wherever she currently was with April and Jason in their part of this search. “Since he apparently spent a lot of time in that hospital Vanessa and that Dakota girl were at, pretending to be this Doctor Folgers. Or maybe he really was a doctor and changed his identity. Whatever, that was just a few years ago, right? So he didn’t die or anything. He showed up there and helped Dakota seal off the plant at her house.”

Shiori spoke up then. She, Asenath, Columbus, and Bobbi were in their own group. “Maybe he had to take on another identity because of someone here in Vegas, one of the powerful players.” 

“We’ll ask him if we find him,” Haiden assured us. While the rest of his family was at the casino, Haiden was with Dare, Triss, and Felix. “All we know for sure is that he’s connected to Kwur through Dakota. How he connects to this Azlee Ren guy, who knows. We’re still missing things.” 

Thinking about that for a second, I touched the badge that was hooked against the pocket of my red button-down tee-shirt before speaking. “What if Folgers-errr, I mean Julius Harn wasn’t completely safe when he locked away that plant in Dakota’s house? What if Kwur’s spore was able to worm its way into him and that’s what brought Kwur’s attention to Vegas as a good target? If Harn was such a big player for so long setting this place up, he’d know a lot about the people here, even if he was out for a couple decades. You know, cuz if Kwur’s spore was able to grow and eventually twist this guy to his own ends over the past couple years, that might explain why Vegas was targeted to begin with as soon as they had Azlee’s help to pull it off.”

Sariel agreed, her voice thoughtful as it came through the badge. “I believe you may be right. We need to find Kwur or Harn to verify, but it fits what we know. If Harn was infected at the time, even faintly, Kwur’s spore could have laid in waiting for the right time. You said that the Gehenna people told you they transfer Kwur around a lot. Perhaps this is the first time he’s been here on Earth at a time when the spore had enough control over Harn to push this ploy.”  

“So nothing’s changed, right?” That was Asenath. “We trace the spores until we find Harn, Azlee, or whoever else they lead to. Then we get answers out of them about where Mom and those kids are. And we do it before these guys manage to start this war they want so badly.” 

“Yeah, keep looking,” Sariel confirmed. “We’ll check a little bit more around here in case anyone has unofficially seen Harn since he disappeared. Then we’ll hit the streets if we don’t find anything useful. Keep checking in and let everyone know the moment any of you get a hit.” 

We agreed before signing off. Then I looked back to the twins. “Well, I guess we just keep moving then? What do you say we head over to that apartment building on the corner and take a ride up and down the elevator just for the hell of it? Maybe the traces this thing’s picking up comes from someone on one of those floors.” 

“Yeah,” Sands agreed with a long, low sigh. “And if that doesn’t work, the map says there’s a mall right down the street that might be a–” She paused then, glancing over to her sister with a frown. “Sarah? You okay?” 

In answer, Sarah looked back to us and gave a slight shake of her head. Her voice was low. Belatedly, I noticed that she had activated one of the privacy coins and held it low. “Those guys over there aren’t actually drunk,” she informed us softly. “Don’t look at them right now.” 

Thankfully, I’d already managed to stop myself from reflexively glancing that way, instead focusing on the girl herself with a confused frown as I slowly asked, “The homeless guys who were wandering around across the street? What do you mean, they’re not actually drunk?” 

Sands, who had caught herself in mid-turn and used the motion to instead scratch the back of her neck idly, nodded. “Yeah, how do you know? They looked pretty drunk to me.” 

“One at a time,” Sarah informed us. “They… stagger one at a time. One staggers and almost falls over, but the other catches him, balances him. Then they switch. They’re play-drunk.” 

Raising a hand, I pointed to the apartment building I’d mentioned before, pretending to be suggesting we go there. With my other hand, I activated the badge. “Could someone check with our hosts to find out if they have a couple watchdogs pretending to be homeless drunks keeping an eye on us? I don’t want to go anywhere with this if it turns out they’re just secret babysitters.” 

It took a moment, through which Sarah, Sands, and I pretended to debate about which way we should go next. I used the time to get a look at the men in question once more through the corner of my eye. They’d settled in an alley across the street and a little bit up from where we were, and were currently passing a bottle back and forth as they took turns swigging from it. 

Finally, Sariel’s voice came back. “They’re not official watchers. Someone back up the girls.” 

Do you need help? Tabbris’s voice came through my mind through our connection as she used the partial recall without actually coming all the way to me. I could–

No, it’s okay, Tabs, I assured her. You and December stay where you are. What you’re doing is a lot more important than a couple of maybe bad guys. Plus, we wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise. 

Sands was saying much the same to Sariel. “It’s two guys. We can at least check them out. We’ve got this.” 

While Sariel and Haiden both warned us to be careful, and Miranda checked in to say her group would head our way to play back-up, I thought about it. Then I nodded while starting to move to that apartment. “Come on, I’ve got an idea. Act like we’re going this way. Can you cover me?” 

The twins did so, both stepping up to position themselves so that the guys across the street wouldn’t see exactly what I was doing. I used that to summon a small, prepared bit of wood to one hand. With my other hand, I created a quick portal that was blocked from view by Sands’ body, activated the spell on the wood, and quickly tossed it through the portal before letting it close. The other end of the portal was on the far side of the street, near a couple mailboxes.

“You’re gonna have to guide me,” I warned the other two before focusing my attention on the spell I’d just activated. It was my Theriangelos, of course. The fox. Or Marian, as Tabbris called her. Seeing through her eyes in addition to my own, I closed mine, taking the hand that Scout offered so she could guide me while I focused mostly on controlling my little summoned friend.

Right, the fox was crouched by the garbage cans, staring at a wall with random graffiti on it. Quickly, I made her turn around and peek out from behind them. Ahead, I saw the two ‘drunk’ guys watching our group walking away from them. Their act had disappeared as soon as it became clear that we were leaving and (apparently) not paying attention. I saw one of the guys saying something, but couldn’t hear what it was even with Marian’s keen sense of hearing. She was still too far away. But I did notice that the other guy didn’t respond at all. Yet a few seconds later, the first guy nodded and said something else. He wasn’t talking to his partner. He was speaking through some kind of communication device or spell, like we had been. Either to whoever they were working for, or maybe to other partners they had to catch up with us. Whichever it was, neither seemed to be in a hurry to follow. Instead, they turned and walked back into that alley. 

After checking to make sure the coast seemed clear and that no one was watching, I sent Marian after them. The tiny fox went running silently along the sidewalk, sticking near the edge of the nearby building to be as invisible as possible. The fact that it was red brick and the fox was also reddish-brown helped with that. 

Actually, wait a second. Thinking about it, I wondered if I could channel my shifting powers through the Theriangelos. Some Heretic-gained powers seemed to work easily, others took a lot more practice or didn’t work at all. Focusing on the brick I could see next to the fox, I thought about shifting her fur to more fully match. After a moment of that, while still trotting along, I had her glance down. Sure enough, she was more… brick-colored. Huh, that was cool. Chameleon-fox. 

By then, Marian had reached the edge of the alley. There was a dumpster there, and I quickly sent her under it so she could peer out from relative safety. It wasn’t hard to spot our two watchers. They were nearing the far end of the alley, where there was seemingly nowhere else to go. But one of the men simply reached out, pressing his hand into one of the bricks there. It pushed inward, before there was a slow grinding noise as a doorway-section of bricks moved out of the way, admitting the two men. 

“Diagon Alleying!” I blurted through my own mouth. “They’re Diagon Alleying!” While Sands asked what the fuck that meant, I quickly directed Marian to follow. She darted out, running quickly along the ground before slipping into the doorway just before the bricks could slide back into place. Passing through the opening, the little fox emerged into what was actually a dingy, very dimly-lit concrete stairwell. But it was wide, not narrow, with a metal handrail in the middle. Ahead, the stairs led down. It was dark that way, but I could hear the footsteps of the men who had been watching us. Actually, the whole place reminded me of…

“Subway,” I said aloud. “Brick wall with a hidden door leads to some old subway entrance. But… uhhh that sounds wrong. Unless I’m really behind, Vegas doesn’t have a subway service. Hold on, let me see…”

With that, I sent Marian scampering down the stairs. On the way, I matched her fur to the color of the concrete in an attempt to blend in a bit more. The fox’s night vision was pretty good, which helped as things got even darker away from the entrance. Ahead, I could hear the men still descending, talking to each other in low voices. Before long, I was actually able to make out what they were saying. 

“—get so close in the first place?” one voice asked with obvious annoyance. 

“Some kind of detector,” the second, more patient one replied. “A spell or tech from Gehenna. Whatever it is, they’re picking up traces of the Potentate.” 

Potentate. I knew that word, it was like… king or ruler or whatever. A monarch. Were they talking about Kwur? He was (apparently) just one of that evil Dragon-Heretic guy’s minions. But that was probably good enough to be a king to most people. And I had to figure that anyone nasty enough to be one of the most dangerous and evil prisoners in the universe almost had to have the kind of ego that would make his minions call him their king, or some version of that. 

“Will they track him here?” the first voice asked while the sound of the footsteps on stairs quickened a bit. I sent Marian scampering faster, hopping from step to step to catch up. 

“No,” came the response. “Whatever means of detection they have won’t penetrate our hiding spells. The Potentate will be safe.”

A moment later, Marian reached the bottom of the stairs. Sure enough, it opened up into what looked… well, like a subway station. Seriously, there was a wide platform, a spot for the train itself straight ahead, and the entrance into the tunnel at either end. It was a subway. It looked like any other subway I’d seen in movies and stuff. Except for one thing… the plants. 

Yeah, plants. They were everywhere. I saw vines covering the walls, flowers and bushes along the floor, a couple small trees growing out of the railway tracks, and more. It was a miniature garden down here. Actually, not-so-miniature. 

“Guys, we’ve got it,” I said aloud. “We’ve got the bad guy.” 

“Flick,” Sarah’s voice cut in, sounding urgent. 

So, I opened my eyes and looked around. We were behind that apartment building from before. And we weren’t alone. A small army of heavily armed figures stood around us. They were a mix of humanoid and very, very not. All of them looked very pissed off. Which seemed at odds with the flower leis they wore, unless you knew what Kwur’s whole deal was. Yeah. These people were clearly all under his thrall, and we were surrounded by them.

“Got news for you,” Sands informed me. 

“We’ve got more than one bad guy.”

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Causality And Casualty 5-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Needless to say, we were all very confused. Sands, Sarah, Felix, Triss, Tabbris, December, Dare, and I all stared at one another in wordless bafflement while Vanessa was clung to by the little girl who apparently knew her well enough to go for an immediate hug despite all her very understandable trauma. A girl she herself couldn’t remember at all. Which really should have been practically impossible given her memory powers, so what in the living hell?

Eventually, Dare stepped more fully into the room. “Dakota,” she started carefully. “How do you know Vanessa, exactly?” As she asked that, the woman glanced at the girl in question with an expression that clearly asked for her to wait until Dakota actually answered before speaking up.

For her part, Dakota stepped back, suddenly looking a lot more uncertain when she realized how many people were watching her. She actually half-hid behind Vanessa, which just made it more clear how much she trusted and looked up to the other girl. “Um. She visited the hospital where I was. She visited a lot of the kids, but she… she…” Biting her lip, Dakota glanced to the blonde girl. “She believed me,” the girl murmured in a quiet, hesitant voice. “When I told her what happened, she believed I wasn’t crazy. She… she’s the one who sent the doctor to me.”

Vanessa still looked pretty clueless. Considering that for a moment, she slowly nodded. “I did visit the hospital a few times to see people that I knew from before… but…” Focusing on Dakota, she continued. “What doctor are you talking about? Because…” She seemed to be considering her words very carefully to avoid upsetting the girl or dismissing her. “I think something happened to my memory. I don’t remember talking to you, and I really should.”

For a second, it was clear that the dark-haired girl felt reflexively hurt by not being remembered. But she pushed that down, shifting a bit on her feet before slowly asking, “Does… does that mean someone used magic on you? But you said you never forget anything. You said you’d always remember me because you have a magic memory. How can someone take that away?”

“There are always checks and balances,” Dare spoke up, drawing the attention of both girls. “Nothing is one hundred percent perfect and foolproof. Even a memory as protected as a full Seosten’s… or someone with that same gift, such as Vanessa, can be tampered with given enough power or skill. Remember, even Sariel’s memory was affected by the Seosten banishment orb. The real question right now is who changed her memory. And why.”

Yeah, she wasn’t wrong. That was definitely the most important question at the moment. But before we went further with that, something else seemed important too. And that something was introductions. So, I looked to the poor, clearly very skittish girl. “Hi, Dakota. I’m Flick. This is Tabbris.” I gently pulled my little sister up in front of myself, as she gave a short wave.

“Hi!” Tabbris piped up, her own hand moving to grab December (who still seemed surprised that anyone would willingly touch her), pulling the girl up beside us. “This is December! She’s cool.”

December’s mouth opened, then she stopped short. Turning to the girl beside her, she quickly asked, “Waitasec. Wasthatapun? YouknowcuzcoolandDecember. December’swinterandcold.”

Tabbris, in response, simply grinned and giggled a little bit. She said something very quick in Latin. I’d been learning a lot, but I wasn’t perfect yet. Plus, she said it at December speed.

So, instead of trying to follow that, I glanced to the others and asked, “Could the person who erased Vanessa’s memory have been the… you know, plant guy himself? Or one of the minions he took over, trying to isolate her from anyone who could help?” Belatedly, I added, “Or who could bring help.” Cool as she was, of course, I really doubted pre-Heretic Vanessa would have been much of an issue for someone like Kwur. Or any of those people, really.

Sarah spoke up then, taking a step closer with a look that made it clear that she was very much sympathizing with the girl who had witnessed (and been a part of) such horrific trauma as a child. Trauma that she couldn’t talk about very much. “Maybe the doctor Vanessa asked about?”

Before anyone else could say anything, Dakota shook her head quickly. “Nuh uh. Doctor Folgers is really nice and really cool and he helped seal the bad plant so no one could find it. Vanessa said she’d send someone who could help me and Doctor Folgers came and helped.”

“Doctor Folgers,” Dare echoed, looking over to Vanessa. “How about it, you remember them?”

A slight frown touched the other girl’s face, as she squinted off into the distance while murmuring, “Folgers. I…” Now she looked even more troubled while her head shook. “I don’t remember. No, I don’t remember hearing that name before.” Even as she said it, there was a slight hitch to her voice. It was obvious that she was very close to freaking out. Which I couldn’t blame her for, given how she’d relied on her perfect memory through literally her entire life. The idea that someone had actually messed with it after all had to be hitting pretty hard right then.

Dare seemed to consider for a moment before asking, “Dakota, what can you tell us about this Doctor Folgers? How did he meet with you, what did he look like? How long has it been since you’ve seen him? Did he tell you anything specific about how he sealed up that basement?”

“Why didn’t he take the plant or destroy it?” Sands quickly put in. “That seems pretty important.”

“Hey, yeah,” Triss put in from a bit further back where she and her own sister were standing (Felix was being pretty quiet at the moment). “How come this helpful magic doctor guy didn’t just destroy the stupid evil plant if he believed what you said and knew how dangerous it was?”

“He couldn’t!” Dakota put in quickly and a bit defensively before flushing a little as everyone looked at her. Once more, she seemed to instinctively shrink behind Vanessa for protection. Her voice was a bit quieter. “He said he tried to destroy it, but he could sense the… the voice trying to get to him. So he sealed it off. He said he was going to research more ways to safely get rid of it. He said he had some friends who knew magic better than he did and they could help.”

Reading something in her voice, I hesitated before asking, “You never saw him again, did you?”

“No,” the young girl confirmed quietly and with obvious sadness, shrinking in on herself a bit. “He never came back after that. I asked about him and they said there wasn’t a doctor by that name. I asked about Vanessa, and they said she was too busy to come see me anymore.”

Flinching noticeably, Vanessa went down to one knee and embraced the girl tightly. “I’m sorry,” she murmured while holding her. “I’m sorry I… I’m sorry something happened and I couldn’t remember you. We’re going to help you now, I swear. We’ll figure out what happened and make sure it never happens again. You’re safe here, Dakota. Can… can you answer Professor Dare’s question about what Doctor Folgers looked like? Maybe that will help me remember him.” She sounded doubtful about that, but was clearly ready to try just about anything that might work.

So, Dakota described the man. Apparently he was rather rotund, shaped basically like a large beach ball. She said he was maybe about my height, and wore a doctor coat over a ruffled lime green shirt with some flowers on it. His stethoscope was purple, and he was always chewing a lot of bubblegum. Oh, and he apparently had very dark green, almost black eyes, along with a very friendly smile that made her feel safe when he talked to her.

The more the girl talked about him, the more obvious it became that she really missed him. He’d obviously made a very strong impression on her for the limited time they’d interacted. It made me feel even worse about the thought that she’d been alone for so long after something as traumatizing and soul-crushing as what she’d been through. This kid needed a lot of help.

Unfortunately, getting the description didn’t seem to help Vanessa at all. She squinted, clearly focusing very hard on trying to remember before sighing almost explosively. “Not remembering something is awful,” she declared. “Is this what everyone else feels like all the time when they can’t remember? Gotta say, not a fan.”

“Yeah, pretty much,” I confirmed. “Maybe someone shapeshifted into you to talk to her because you went to the hospital and could be someone she trusted? But… why? And who?” My head shook. Too much speculation. “If your memory was messed with, maybe your mom can help? She’s basically the best expert we have at that kind of thing, isn’t she?”

As Vanessa nodded, Dare was already moving. “I’ll see if we can bring her down. You guys talk to Dakota a bit. Maybe she remembers some other things that could be useful.” To the girl in question, she asked, “Are you going to be okay here?”

Dakota gave a short nod, though she was staying very close to Vanessa. “I’m… yes, I’m okay.”

“Don’t worry, kid,” Felix declared. “We’re in a space station in the middle of the sun. Definitely don’t have to worry about that psycho monster plant dude finding you up here.”

“She’s right,” I agreed. “Plus you’re surrounded by people who would kick his ass.” Offering her a small smile, I added, “Do you mind if we take a few samples from you for the spell so we can go back out there and find this plant guy before he hurts more people? I swear it won’t hurt.”

“I don’t care if it does,” Dakota informed me solemnly. “You can hurt me to find him. I deserve it.” She said it so matter-of-factly, like… like it was a universal certainty that she deserved pain. That, more than anything I’d heard so far, showed me just how messed up this kid really was.

Vanessa, thankfully, was right there. Still on one knee, she shook her head while putting both hands on Dakota’s shoulders. But she didn’t say ‘you’re wrong’ or anything like that. Instead, she asked in a very calm, collected voice, “Why do you feel like you deserve to be hurt?”

Dakota stared at her, mouth opening before she swallowed hard and looked away. An expression of deep, lingering shame crossed her face. When she spoke, it was in a broken, halting voice while tears filled her eyes. “I did bad things.” For such a simple statement, there was a lot behind those few words. She didn’t need to say anything more than that. I… I didn’t want to hear more details. My own imagination was plenty bad enough as far as thinking about what had happened that terrible day. The last thing I wanted was to know for certain.

“Did you want to do those bad things?” Vanessa asked her simply, watching the girl’s eyes while still holding her by the shoulders. “Did they make you happy?”

Lip trembling for a few seconds, Dakota’s entire face crumpled in, tears falling freely. “No. No.” She repeated that a couple times, head shaking. Crying openly by that point, she stammered in a horrible, broken voice that hitched and cracked between almost every word. “No, I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to. I’m sorry. I want my Mommy and Daddy. I’m sorry. I didn’t wanna do that. I don’t want it. I don’t want to be here. I want my Mommy and Daddy and everyone. I want to go back. Please, please, I don’t want this, I don’t want this, I don’t want this.”

That was about as much as she could say, collapsing against Vanessa, who held her tight. The older girl’s voice was quiet and soothing. “You didn’t do it,” she assured her. “It’s not your fault. You didn’t choose it. You’d never hurt your family. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Dakota. Your mom and dad knew it wasn’t your fault. Your brothers and sisters knew that too. You’re okay.”

The two stayed like that for a couple minutes, Vanessa simply holding her close and soothing her the way I was pretty sure Vanessa herself had needed for quite some time as a child. Finally, Dakota looked up to her, sniffling a little. “You have to find the plant man and make him stop before he makes someone else kill people,” she said in a weak voice. “Please.”

“We will,” Vanessa promised her firmly. “We’re going to find him and stop him. We just have to take a few samples from you so we can do that, okay? It’ll be really easy and really quick.”

The girl agreed once more, and then Vanessa and Tabbris set out taking hair, skin, saliva, and blood samples from her. The last bit was the ‘hardest’, but even that wasn’t bad. All they did was set an enchanted vial against her arm and let it slowly fill up by essentially teleporting her blood the very short distance from her arm into the vial. There wasn’t even any penetration involved.

While they were busy with that, I focused on the others. “What do you guys think? Does this Doctor Folgers sound familiar to anyone?” To December, Triss, and Felix, I added, “You guys have more experience with the non-Heretic side of the world. Maybe he rings a bell?”

Unfortunately, they all shook their heads. As did Sands and Sarah. Triss spoke up with a hesitant, “I don’t think we know anyone who looks like that. I mean, he kind… maybe sounds a little bit like that one guy who used to be part of the Crossroads Committee before he died.”

“Brockett,” Sands put in. “Oliver Brockett. But it’s definitely not him. He wouldn’t need to go get help to deal with this guy. Or at least he wouldn’t admit it. And if the Committee knew that thing was there, they would’ve either destroyed it or blocked the whole house off a lot more than just putting an illusion over the basement. And he was still around until a few months ago. It can’t be him.”

“She’s probably right,” I murmured before offering, “Maybe we can go to the hospital where Dakota was and find the security footage from the last time she saw him? If we got an actual look at him, that might help identify the guy.”

“Not a bad idea, Felicity.” That was Sariel, coming into the room alongside Dare. As she entered, Tabbris and Vanessa both moved to embrace her, and she returned their hugs fondly. Then she looked at me, continuing her thought. “But there are easier ways to share the image of this doctor with you, without going to the hospital. First, however…” She focused on her Vanessa, frowning thoughtfully as she brushed the girl’s hair back and stared into her eyes with the look of a doctor examining a patient.

The rest of us exchanged uncertain looks and waited, while Sariel checked over her eldest daughter with a few prepared spells. Through it all, Vanessa remained quiet, clearly uncomfortable with the idea that her memory had possibly been altered.

“Something is definitely missing,” Sariel finally declared, straightening a bit. Her voice was tense. “Whoever did it was an expert, a surgeon of memory adjustment. They removed specific memories and carefully connected the remaining pieces so you wouldn’t notice. For example, say you were sitting in a chair in the waiting room, reading a magazine when someone came up and interrupted. The two of you have a ten minute conversation, then get up and walk into an examination room to talk to a doctor together before leaving to ride the elevator back down to the lobby before you finally part ways. Whoever went into your mind erased your memory of the other person entirely. They cut out the entire private conversation, then edited the person out of your memory of speaking with the doctor. Think of it as adjusting your memory of everything the doctor said to the second person as being said to you, with the other person’s questions being moved to you and even adjusted to sound more like something you’d say.”

Vanessa stared at her mother, mouth open. “That… that… who–why–” Her hands covered her mouth and she looked stricken at the thought. And for her part, Sariel didn’t look any happier. If anything, she was clearly even more upset and holding back most of it.

“I don’t know,” the Seosten woman replied in a quiet voice. “But we’ll find out, I promise you that much. Whoever did this was skilled enough that they didn’t leave much in the way of traces. We need to find the person themselves if we want to replace the memories.”

“Finding out who this doctor guy is might help with that,” I put in. “You said you could do something about that without having to go to the hospital to look through security footage?”

“Yes,” Sariel confirmed, clearly taking a second to focus on the issue at hand instead of her daughter’s altered memory. “We only need someone who does remember him.”

“Memory transfer?” Vanessa guessed, looking to Dakota before reaching out to take the nervous girl’s hand reassuringly as she spoke directly to her. “If it’s okay with you, we could project your memories of the guy so everyone can see him. Would you be okay with that?”

Yeah, it was clear that, memory or no memory, Vanessa was very protective of this girl. Maybe that was just her own personality and all. Or maybe some part of her actually did remember her, even if she couldn’t actively recall those memories. Whatever it was, she definitely felt something.

“Okay,” the girl agreed quietly. “Whatever you have to take, I don’t care. Just find him and stop him.”

Sariel moved that way, taking a knee alongside her daughter before gently grasping the traumatized little girl’s hands. “Dakota, my name is Sariel. I’m going to use a spell that’s going to draw out one specific memory and project it for everyone to see. That’s all. It will take the memory you’re thinking about, so I need you to focus on when you saw Doctor Folgers. Think about talking to him, about what he looks like and hold that in your head, okay?”

The girl quickly agreed, and Sariel produced a small pink crystal. Promising that it wouldn’t hurt, she held the crystal up to Dakota’s forehead before murmuring the activation word for the spell. Immediately, the crystal began to glow and give off a soft hum. I heard Dakota gasp, but clearly Sariel had been right about it not hurting. At most, it seemed to tickle her a little bit.

Then the crystal glowed a bit more brightly, a light projecting off of it to reach the middle of the room before resolving into a hologram. As we all stared, the image resolved into a man. Just as Dakota had described, he was about my height, very rotund, with that outlandish outfit. And just as I’d thought, he didn’t look familiar at all. Aside from surface-level description, he didn’t look like Counselor Brockett.

“Ummm….” Slowly, I shook my head. “Nope, I’ve still got nothing. You guys?”

“Oh!” That was Tabbris, whose eyes widened. “We’ve seen him, we have seen him! Or a–I mean a picture, a–Mama, do me before the crystal runs out!”

With a shrug, Sariel did so, moving the crystal over to her daughter’s head. It took another few seconds, then projected another image. This one wasn’t of a person. It was of a hallway. Belatedly, I recognized it as the hallway within the casino in Vegas. It was taken from the moment I was thrown across the corridor and up against the wall by Sarez’s defensive spell, the one that left me stunned for a few seconds while Tabbris took over and made me run after him. In that moment, the image froze, showing a single painting on the wall.

It was a painting of the man we had just seen from Dakota’s memories. A very detailed one too. It looked important, like… like the man himself was important.

“Oh.” Tilting my head as I stared at the image, I said, “that’s from the Vestil casino. I guess we’re going back to Vegas then.”

“We were going back there anyway,” Vanessa pointed out. “Now that we have what we need to make the tracking spells so we can find Kwur.”

“Indeed,” Dare agreed, her own gaze intent on the image hanging in the air. “And I believe it’s time you all had a little more aid in ending this situation.” She looked to the rest of us. “Not all together. We can split into smaller groups and search the city for any trace of these plants. The tracking spells should signal if anyone gets close to them.”

Sands piped up quickly, “Hey, yeah. This time, you guys are totally not leaving without us.”

“I will have a discussion with these… Vestil about who the man in the painting is,” Sariel murmured. “That may lead to who…” It sounded like she was going to say something else, before settling on, “… manipulated my daughter’s memory.”

“I’m going with you,” Vanessa declared flatly.

Looking to Sands and Sarah, I asked, “You guys wanna wander Vegas together?” As they quickly agreed, I glanced back to the image from Dakota’s memories once more. Why was the doctor who had helped that girl and had apparently also been erased from Vanessa’s memory in a painting hung on the wall of the Vestil casino? Did that have anything to do with why Vegas was being targeted now? Unfortunately, my morbid guess was that this guy, whoever he was, had made Vegas a target by getting involved in the situation. But who was he? What exactly was going on?

And at some point in the course of all this, would I end up with an actual answer instead of yet another handful of questions?

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