Tad Cooper

Patreon Snippets 13A (Heretical Edge 2)

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Aylen with Grandpa Reaper

Listening to Professor Dare extol the evils of non-humans as well as the virtues of Heretics and the creation of the Heretical Edge thanks to the incredible genius of the clearly charming and handsome Hieronymous Bosch made Aylen Tamaya want to stab herself in the ears. At least then she wouldn’t have to listen to the bullshit until her hearing came back. Though, on the other hand, doing something like that might possibly attract some curiosity from the teacher who was, at this moment, going on about how Heretics were the lone defense against the hordes of evil that would wipe out civilization and so on and so forth. Frankly, Aylen didn’t think the woman’s heart was really in her explanation. It kind of felt like she was saying the right words without totally feeling it. 

But then, Aylen was probably just projecting her own feelings onto a woman who had given this same or similar speeches for decades. The lack of true fire behind the words probably had more to do with how often she’d explained all this rather than any lack of conviction. The worst thing Aylen could do here, right in the camp of the enemy, was start thinking that any of them could be trusted. While the majority clearly believed they were doing the right thing rather than being actively malicious, that was no consolation. They’d been raised to be fanatics, and she had no doubt they would take that fanaticism far enough to kill her if they knew what she really was. 

This was dangerous. It was so dangerous. Being here, talking to these people, letting them think she was one of them… it could go wrong in so many ways. But she had to. This was the best–only chance that her family had to free Mother’s father, Aylen’s Reaper grandfather. That was confusing, given the Grandfather she had grown up with. She needed another name.  

Lost in thought as she was (not to mention the fact that she was intentionally ignoring the ‘everything else is evil, humanity fuck yeah speech), she almost missed the fact that Professor Dare was activating the lever. Light suddenly filled the room, drawing everyone’s eyes while the woman called for them to gaze into it and to not look away. With the dramatic declaration that this was the Heretical Edge, the light grew blindingly bright, taking away all other vision as the students around her were all swept away into the Edge Visions that would turn them into Bosch Heretics. 

But Aylen was different. She was already part-Reaper. Everything the Bosch Heretics could do, she was already capable of. That and more, given Grandfather’s tinkering. There was nothing for the Edge to do to her. And yet, the light still blinded her. And as her vision cleared a few moments later, Aylen still found herself elsewhere, just as her fellow students would have. 

Specifically, she was standing in her own living room–no. No, this wasn’t their most recent living room. It was the living room of the house they had lived in when Aylen was still only seven years old. That was the first time she remembered hearing enough of the story about where Mother’s father was and what Heretics were to actually understand it. It was the room Aylen had been sitting in, with Mother and Mama, when she first resolved to somehow, someday, save Mother’s papa. The thought that her beloved mother had been without her own father through her entire life had left the young Aylen stricken, and she’d promised that she would someday help free him. Neither of her mothers had taken it entirely seriously at the time, but she was determined.

And now, here she was. Years later, facing the Heretical Edge, Aylen was here in this room again. 

“Interesting.” 

That single word came from behind Aylen, and she spun to find herself facing a figure she had previously only seen in drawings and in magic projections. It was a tall man, with sharply, almost achingly pretty features that reminded her of the elves in the Lord of the Rings movies. His skin was bone-pale, his hair as blue as the sky. Eyes that were deep violet stared at her, seeming to take in every feature with an intense curiosity. He gazed into her, reading things even Aylen wasn’t aware of. The power and authority radiating from his form made her reflexively gasp. She felt, in that moment, the way ancient, primitive man gazing up into the wonder of the sun must have felt. An apt comparison, for the power in this man compared to her own was that of the sun to a primitive human. He was more than she had ever truly expected him to be. 

“Grand…. father… “ Aylen whispered, staring at him as her mouth fell open. Everything she had planned out to say, everything she wanted to explain, was washed away in that moment. She knew nothing, she thought nothing. She could only stare. 

He had only said that single word, before falling silent when she turned to him and spoke her own single word. For the several long seconds, neither said anything else. Aylen could see, could practically feel, the old Reaper taking in everything about her. His gaze, once it was done taking her in, slowly panned around the living room. He looked to the pictures and paintings on the wall, to the television where DVD’s of her favorite childhood movies were stacked up, and to the baby blanket neatly folded on the nearby chair. A blanket she still had to this day. Through it all, Aylen remained silent. Something told her not to interrupt, to let this go at his pace, not her own. 

Finally, those intense eyes returned to her own gaze. And in that moment, they softened. The dark, almost black purple turned a more gentle violet as he spoke three words in a voice that was so small, so vulnerable and hesitant that Aylen thought there was no conceivable way it could have come from the blindingly powerful figure in front of her. 

“She is alive?” 

Those three words, that single question from the being who served as the linchpin of the entire Bosch Heretic society and empowered literally thousands of beings, came wrapped in the emotion of a man who had lost his child eons ago. It was the emotion of a man who had forgotten what it was like to hope that such a child had survived, whose heart had long-since abandoned those thoughts. 

The words came from a man who had entered this room and had that hope rekindled in the form of the girl standing before him. Those long-extinguished flames had begun to smolder once more. 

Somehow, Aylen found her voice. “My… my mother. My mother is your daughter.” 

The man said nothing, not aloud anyway. But his eyes. When she looked into his eyes, Aylen saw a rush of emotion. Those embers of hope she felt before had flickered into a small, yet fierce flame with a heat that drove away what had clearly been cold certainty of his daughter’s loss. 

“Tell me. 

“Tell me everything.” 

So, she did. Walking through the house of her memories, Aylen spoke with her mother’s father for what felt like hours. She had no idea how these visions worked for the actual Heretics, but she seemed to be there for much longer than was actually possible. She told him of her mothers, of her own birth, of her other grandfather. She told him of her mission here. 

“I’m going to get you out of this place,” she promised him. By that point, the two were back in the living room. Through all of that, neither had touched the other. She didn’t feel right making that sort of assumption, and he had not extended his own hand through their discussion. “I don’t know how yet, but that’s why I’m here. It’s the whole reason I came to this place. I promise, no matter what, I–” 

In mid-sentence, the phone on the nearby wall interrupted Aylen by ringing. Her gaze snapped toward it with confusion, but her grandfather simply looked at it without moving. A moment later, it stopped. She was about to ask why the phone would ring in her vision, when he spoke instead. “You… you said your name was Aylen?” When she nodded, he continued. “Aylen, I believed my daughter, my only living heir, was dead since before I was trapped in this place. I have spent millennia believing the only child I would ever have was gone forever. Listen now. In telling me that she lives, in telling me that my… my child has survived all this time… you have already freed me from far darker a prison than this could ever be.  

“You, Aylen, are my granddaughter. You are my proof that my child is not dead, my proof that she has lived a life, that she has known happiness. Even if I could not be there, you are my proof that she has stood, learned, lived, and loved. You say you have come to free me? Your existence is my freedom.”

After saying those words, the old Reaper raised a hand. Only then did he finally touch Aylen. His palm pressed against her cheek, as he exhaled slowly. “Granddaughter. When your grandmother spoke of children, grandchildren, and on, I… I did not understand the concept. It took such time for her to explain the–” He stopped talking then, looking away as the phone rang once more. Again, the man made no move to answer it, instead staring until the ringing stopped. 

Aylen meant to ask about the phone. Instead, the words that first were, “What about Grandmother? What… happened?” 

“That is for another conversation,” he replied quietly. There was pain in his voice, a deep ache that had clearly yet to heal even all these centuries later. “I’m afraid our time here is still limited. You’ll be waking up soon. And I would rather not end our visit on such things.” 

“Grandfather, there’s… there’s more, there’s a lot more I want to say,” Aylen pleaded, though she wasn’t even sure who she was directing the plea to. He held no control over the fact that she would have to wake up and be amongst the true Heretics once more. “I don’t know how we’re going to get you out of this, but we will. I will. I’m here to find out everything I can about how the Heretics have you trapped. Once I do, Mother, Mama, the other Grandfather, we’ll all get you out. I promise. We will get you out of this. You’ll see her again. You’ll see Mother again.” 

She was embracing him. Aylen wasn’t even sure when or how that had happened. Her arms were around him, her face buried against his shoulder. She clung to the man, wanting to stay there and tell him everything about her life, everything about her mothers’ lives. That brief flicker of loss and pain she had seen when he thought of her grandmother made her want to stay forever and tell him everything he had missed. She desperately wanted to fill the emotional pit she had seen in him with everything she could. 

And then again, even as she felt herself begin to drift away from the vision, the phone rang once more. Aylen stubbornly clung to her grandfather, refusing to let go. The phone was louder. “What is it?” she demanded with confusion. “Who keeps trying to call you? I don’t–how are they calling you?” 

“It is symbolic,” he informed her in a quiet voice. “The phone you hear is a manifestation of my old power reaching out to me. If I establish contact, it will free me from this place.” 

Staring at him, aghast, Aylen blurted, “Wh-what?! Why–why wouldn’t you just answer then? If your power can free you, answer the–” 

“No.” His voice was sharp, even as Aylen realized that she had been reaching toward the phone herself. “It is the power of my darker self. The power of what the humans call a Hangman, an evil being bent entirely toward destruction and death.” 

Hand shrinking away from the phone, which had gone silent once more, Aylen murmured, “Your old power… it’s right there, and you’ve been ignoring it all this time. All you have to do is answer it, and if you did, you’d be free but… you’d be evil?” 

“Far worse than that,” her grandfather quietly replied. “I am connected to every Heretic created through the light or the apples. 

“If I become a Hangman, so will they.” 

*******

Former Crossroads Student Mentor Cameron Reid

 

“Don’t make me do this,” Cameron Reid pleaded. The black girl stood at the edge of a used car lot, beside a rusty old sedan that had been cleaned up as much as the employees could manage. She held a wicked-looking faintly curved short sword in each hand, with her favorite little friend, the blue-tongued skink named Tad Cooper (no one she talked to ever got the reference), perched on her shoulder. “Just walk away. We don’t have to do this. I don’t want to do this.” 

“You don’t?” Standing in front of her, long pike raised and pointed that way, Foster Remels snarled the two words. Foster was a light-skinned red-headed boy with the tattoo of a flaming skull on the exposed left shoulder of his sleeveless arms. “Good, does that mean you’re giving up this bullshit and not being a traitor anymore? Because that’d be pretty fucking spiffy, Cameron.” His eyes narrowed. “Otherwise, we really do have to do this. You come back, tell the Committee you’re sorry and you were just confused. They’ll understand, Cameron. Stop this. Help me kill the monsters, and we can all go home.”

At the word monsters, Cameron glanced sidelong toward the small group of blue-skinned humanoids huddled next to one of the nearby trucks. They were the owner of the car lot and his family/employees. Seeing them like that, huddled together while staring fearfully at the two squared-off Heretics, the lump in her throat at the idea of fighting one of her classmates and friends hardened. She swallowed it down, turning her attention back to Foster. “If you think not wanting to fight you is enough to make me change sides, then you don’t understand why I left in the first place.” 

“You’re right!” Foster snapped. “I don’t! We’re supposed to be the good guys, Cameron! We kill monsters and save people! We–” His burst of anger softened, the boy’s clear frustration melting into a desperate plea. “No, you’re right. I do get it. It’d be really nice to see all those creatures out there and think that we could be friends with them. I understand! I swear, I get it. And maybe someday we can! Maybe someday we can find another species to work with us! But not like this. Not by betraying our own people. Don’t you see? You and the others are doing exactly what the monsters want. They’ve been trying to create a civil war in Crossroads for all this time! They did it once before and we survived, and now they’ve done it again!”

For a moment, Cameron was silent. She thought about the students she had mentored back at Crossroads over the past year. They were all so different. Zeke, his incredible pride and hot-headedness repeatedly getting him in trouble despite his intentions. He came to her several times over the year trying to get help with his anger issues. In calm, private situations, the boy repeatedly planned out how to be ‘nicer,’ but in the heat of the moment, repeatedly fell back to the same attitude that got him in trouble. He and Malcolm Harkess, the remarkably gifted athlete and fighter despite his Bystander-kin origins who had ended up being one of Zeke’s closest friends despite their differences and constant arguments, had stayed back at Crossroads. 

Erin too. She was at Crossroads, though Cameron wasn’t sure why. She would have thought that someone like Erin would switch sides, given what she knew about the girl. And yet, here they were. 

Travis Colby, another Bystander-kin like Malcolm, had joined the rebellion. Actually, he’d followed Cameron. When she’d made the choice to follow Chambers and the others that fateful night, Travis had been behind her. She warned him about what she was doing, and he’d simply replied that if Jazz had a boyfriend who was a Stranger, then he wasn’t cool with killing all of them. 

Then there were the twins, Vanessa and Tristan. They, of course, switched sides. They were part of the switching sides. They weren’t even fully human, but hybrids. Humans mixed with a Stranger. 

Her team. The team she was responsible for mentoring, had been split in half. So why had Cameron chosen to switch sides? Why did she choose to go with the rebellion? 

“I don’t know,” she started out loud, “how many of the things out there who aren’t human are actually good. I don’t know how many of those claiming to be good for the rebellion actually are! I don’t know how many are faking it or might just go back to being monsters the second they get a chance. I don’t know! But I know one thing. I know the only way, the only real way, that someone who is bad becomes good is by being treated like they could be! If you treat people like monsters, if you hunt and kill them just for existing, you give them no choice but to act the way you’re treating them. If all you ever do is look for monsters, that’s exactly what you’ll find!

“I don’t know how much this will pay off. I don’t know if we’ll be betrayed. But we have to give it a chance. We have to try to treat them like we’d want to be treated.”

Pointing his pike past Cameron to the huddled figures, Foster declared, “They’re selling cars to humans and then selling their info to monsters who hunt down the humans in their homes.” 

“You don’t know that,” Cameron insisted. “That’s just what Crossroads told you. Why do you believe them?” 

“Because they’ve been doing this for hundreds of years!” he insisted. “Because they know better than you or me. I side with the people who protect humanity, Cameron, with the people who have always protected humanity. Maybe they’re not perfect, maybe we still have a long way to go as a group. But throwing that all away can’t be the right answer!” 

For a moment, the two squared off. Then Cameron turned her head and murmured something to Tad. The tiny lizard ran to the end of her arm, to her waiting hand. Cupped in her palm, the lizard started to glow as she used her favorite power before tossing him to the side. 

He was already growing. When he landed near the huddled family of Alters and straightened up, Tad Cooper was four feet tall and a solid twenty-feet long. He was a massive lizard, armored with scales that were as hard as steel. As he looked toward Foster, the lizard opened his mouth and sent out a rush of freezing breath that created an ice wall between them. 

“If he goes near those people, Tad,” Cameron ordered her empowered lizard, “put him on the ground.” 

Face sombering, Foster cracked his neck while lifting his pike. “So… it’s going to be like that.” 

“Yeah,” Cameron agreed, her own voice just as unhappy, yet equally resolved. “It’s going to be like that.” 

Then there was nothing more to say. The two former friends watched one another’s eyes, saw the impasse between them… and lunged to attack. 

*******

Alcaeus/Heracles

 

Of all the great, remarkable, sometimes even terrible deeds that Alcaeus, once known as Heracles, had achieved in his incredibly long life, convincing Maria and Arthur Chambers to leave their home for an extended vacation had to be one of the most impressive.  

The two were long-retired and spent every day in their California home, where they had lived for almost their entire married life. When their ‘friend Al’ had come to them with a suggestion that they join him on a tour of the world, they had been a bit… uncertain, to say the least. When he explained that he was putting together a book about various tourist destinations specifically for the retired community and that he needed their perspective on all the places he was supposed to go for the book to work as intended, they had understood a little more. Though they had still been a bit surprised that his publisher was footing the bill for three people to go on this journey. 

But even with that explanation, Maria and Arthur had been hesitant. As much as this seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see everything they had ever wanted, the two were content in their lives the way they were. Not only that, but with their son (as far as they knew) on a long undercover investigative assignment and their granddaughter away at private school, the two wanted to be close to home in case either needed them. 

Fortunately, Arthur was a bit of a tech-obsessed geek, particularly for an old man. He ended up pointing out to his wife that their cell phones would take calls from their son and granddaughter no matter where they were. And beyond that, their security system would let them know if anyone showed up at the door. If it was Felicity or Lincoln, Maria and Arthur would be able to talk to them through the doorbell camera and arrange for a flight out to meet wherever they happened to be. 

That was one of Maria’s primary conditions. She and Arthur set aside money for two separate plane tickets, enough to bring Felicity and/or Lincoln anywhere they were, no matter where that was. She insisted that if her son or granddaughter needed them, they would have the money, their own money, to fly them to DC, New York, London, Hong Kong, or anywhere else in the world. 

In the end, they did at least finally agree. Which allowed Alcaeus to get them out of their house and away from home on this globetrotting trip. It was a temporary measure, of course. But it would give him time to figure out just how serious the Seosten attempts to get at the two would end up being. It was a stop-gap, yet an important one. 

At the moment, they were in Alaska, staying in a hunting lodge. Al had taken his friends out to see all the incredible wildlife and stunning visuals that the area had to offer. They were in awe of it all, of course, and their own utterly stunned reactions to these things reminded Alcaeus of how much he took for granted. He had been on this world for so long, had seen so much, that he sometimes (often) forgot just how incredible it really was. 

They deserved to know more. They deserved the whole truth. And part of this trip, if the man was being honest with himself, was his own way of deciding if he should take that step or not. Because while they deserved the truth, they also deserved to live their lives without being dragged into the whole problems of Heretics, Seosten, and everything else. 

Yet, Al asked himself while standing on the porch of the hunting lodge with Maria and Arthur cuddling on the swing behind him, weren’t they already involved? Their granddaughter was a Heretic who had found out the truth about Seosten. Their son had somehow (assuming Al’s contacts were correct, and he believed they were) broken the Bystander Effect and figured out a lot of the truth on his own, and was even now living with the old Gabriel Prosser’s people. 

Yes, they were involved. The only real question was how involved. And Al thought he knew the answer. The only real answer was to give them the truth and let them decide for themselves. It would take some effort, there were things that needed to be collected to make the spell work. But once he did, he could temporarily remove the Bystander Effect and tell them the truth. Then he would let Arthur and Maria decide if they wanted to retain that knowledge and be a part of… of all this. Because the truth was, it wasn’t his choice. It was theirs. 

For now, however, he would simply keep them safe. And show them as much of the world as he could. To that end, he raised his hand to point. “If you’re up to it, in the morning–” 

Then it happened. In mid-sentence, a rush of memories burst forth out of nowhere, an explosion of knowledge that rocked Al backward. 

He had never been an official part of Joselyn Atherby’s rebellion. But he knew of it. And he had helped now and then, when possible. For the most part, the Alcaeus of that time simply wished to be left alone, if the threats weren’t world-ending, like the Fomorians. He had been trying to keep his ever-present temper in check, had tried to find true balance in his life between the good man he wanted to be and the embodiment of rage and destruction that he was so good at becoming. 

So, he had helped when needed, had served as a sort of… babysitter at times for those who were in danger and had nowhere else to turn. He had met Joselyn Atherby, had seen the strength in her. Strength was something he liked… a lot. And he liked her… a lot. For a man like Alcaeus, liking a woman generally meant one thing. And… well, this case was no different. The two of them had, with the blessing of her husband… Deveron, that was it, taken that liking to another level once or… twice or… 

Fuck, this was awkward. 

The rush of memories, the realization that he not only knew the woman who had supposedly abandoned Arthur and Maria’s son and granddaughter, but had actually slept with her (and quite enjoyed it, honestly), was almost more than even a man as strong as Alcaeus could handle. He stumbled back a step, gasping. Rebellion, Joselyn, the Atherbys, her daughter… Her daughter had awakened those memories, had awakened the rebellion. 

Arthur was suddenly there, a hand on Al’s arm while the other caught his back. Nearly half a foot shorter than Alcaeus despite being six-foot-five himself, he was still built sturdily enough to catch the stumbling man. “Whoa there! Hey, Al, you okay?” In the background, Maria was already insisting that her husband help him over to the swing while she called for a doctor. 

“No, no, I’m okay,” Al insisted, shaking his head. “Just got a little dizzy for a second. Long day.” 

“You come right over here and sit down,” Maria Chambers insisted, pointing to the swing. “I don’t want to hear any arguments, you understand? Get off your feet, now. You men, always pushing yourselves so far. Too damned stubborn to admit you’re getting too old for these things.” 

Letting himself be pulled by Arthur to sit down on the swing, Alcaeus mused inwardly. He’d thought that explaining the truth about this whole situation to his friends was going to be awkward before. 

Now? Now he was going to have to be good and god damned drunk before even starting. 

***************

Earth Club

 

“This… is… cowabunga!” 

As he blurted those words, the green-skinned boy known as Layuerk (or Lurk, as many called him), pumped his fists into the air and jumped up and down in front of the entrance to the most incredible, wonderful place he’d ever set foot near. Truly, the shining jewel of the vast universe.

Oak Park Mall, in Overland Park, Kansas. 

“It’s radical, dude.” Stepping beside his friend, the Reusfiel (essentially an anthropomorphic fox-bunny) named Grisson added, “Cowabunga’s something you yell, like neat or yay. Something can’t be cowabunga. Come on, we watched every Ninja Turtles movie last week for a reason. So we sound like normal teenagers and don’t stand out. We’re supposed to be under cover.” 

As he said that, they were joined by a new figure. She stood two inches over six feet, with body entirely made of metal, and arms that reached all the way to the ground despite her height. Ferrdreis, the Ullmis. Her male twin, Aerlicht, was right behind her. “We are very good at being under cover,” Ferrdreis announced, before looking at a passing elderly couple who were on their way into the mall. “Greetings, Bodacious Lady and Sir Dude! May your days be totally tubular and free from bogus.” 

The couple stared at them for a moment, clearly confused before hurrying off. Watching them go, Ferrdreis tilted her head. “Perhaps it is my accent?” 

These four, the full members of what they had always called the Earth Club back in Seosten space, were finally here. They were here on Earth after so many years of picking up random toys, games, movies, and more from the place they had become obsessed with. With the arrival of the Aelaestiam station and its conversion to the Fusion School for Heretics and Alters, these four were finally able to live their dream of actually setting foot on Earth. And they were making the most of it. 

“I still don’t get it,” Layuerk insisted. “So you can yell radical, excellent, awesome, all those things. You can say yell those and something can be those. Like a radical car or an excellent movie. And you can also yell cowabunga, but something can’t be cowabunga? No, I refuse. This building is totally cowabunga!” 

“If you think this mall’s cowabunga, you’re gonna flip if we ever go to Mall of America.” The drawled announcement came from the Earth Club’s adult escort for this little trip, Deveron Adams. The handsome, dark-haired man stepped up onto the curb, accompanied by his teenage granddaughter, Koren Fellows. 

“One step at a time, Grandpa,” Koren teased the man. “Don’t overload their circuits.” Even as she said it, the girl was wincing with a look toward the two metal figures. “Errr, that wasn’t supposed to be a robot joke or anything. Not that I think you’re robots, it’s just–I mean I wasn’t–” 

“Would you like me to interrupt and pretend you never said anything?” Deveron asked conversationally. When the flushing girl covered her mouth with both hands and nodded, he turned his attention to the quartet. “Alright, guys, you remember the rules. We stay together. We’ll look at what you want to look at. There’s plenty of time and plenty of stores to see. They’ve got an arcade, a mini-golf place, a food court… let’s work our way toward the food court. We’ve got two hours before the movie in the theater. We’ll mosey that way, pick up some food, then see the movie. And what do you do in case of emergency?” 

In answer, all five teenagers held up their arms to display the wristwatches that had been enchanted with spells to teleport them to safety if a command word was spoken. 

“Good job.” With a smile, Deveron gestured. “Right then,

“Let’s go cowabunga this mall.” 

******

Jiao

 

Stepping off the brightly lit sidewalk with a sharp pivot into a much darker alley, a frail-looking Asian woman wearing a long dark coat with a leather satchel over one shoulder strode smoothly in the shadows. Her feet announced her movement with each step that clicked against the dirty cement, until they simply… didn’t. Between one step and the next, she abruptly stopped providing any sound at all, her motions utterly silent. It was as if she had flipped a switch, no longer deliberately walking in a way to invite her pursuers into a false sense of superiority. 

It was to those pursuers that Jiao spoke, as she stopped walking a few feet from the wall marking the dead end of the alley. “If you would like to have a conversation, I have time now.” 

“A conversation?” The derisive voice came from the first of two orcs who stepped up into the opening of the alley. They were joined by a larger troll, who growled with annoyance while filling up the entire alley entrance. “Oh,” the orc continued, “we can have a really quick conversation. Just tell us where your husband is.” 

Still facing the wall rather than turning to them, Jiao tilted her head a little to gaze at the trio over her shoulder from the corner of her eye. “I would say you’ll have to narrow it down, given my apparent proclivity for wandering husbands. But I am afraid it would not be helpful, as I remain sadly unaware of the whereabouts of either.” 

The orc who had been speaking gave a dark chuckle. “You say a lot of words, but not the ones we wanna hear.” His eyes narrowed, and he produced a heavy flintlock-like enchanted pistol, pointing it at her. “We wanna know where Liang is. More to the point, our boss wants to know where he is. You can either tell us, or we’ll make you scream and see if he comes running.” 

Jiao’s response to the threat, as the second orc produced a glowing energy blade and the troll heaved a massive axe off his back, was a simple, “You are welcome to the attempt.” 

With a snarl, the orc pointed his enchanted gun and pulled the trigger, sending a concentrated blast of electrical energy (enough to put an Amarok on the ground), while the other orc dashed forward, energy-blade already lashing out to cut through the space the woman would have to dodge into. 

Or rather… the space she should have dodged into. But instead of moving that way, Jiao simply pivoted. Her left hand snapped upward, producing a small pistol of her own before firing off a single bullet, striking the hand of the lizard-like Alter who had been silently sneaking down the wall in an attempt to ambush her while she was distracted. With a yell as his hand was struck by the shot, the lizard-man plummeted off the wall and ended up falling directly into the path of the incoming ball of lightning. 

Meanwhile, Jiao’s other hand snapped backward and down, producing a pistol of its own before firing a shot into the knee of the orc who had just whiffed his laser-sword through the air where he’d thought she would be. He collapsed with a scream, before her pistol fired a second shot through the side of his head. 

Before the body could fall completely, the vampire used a very slight burst of speed to put herself on the opposite side of him just as another lightning ball from the first orc blew a hole in the wall where she had just been. Dropping both guns, Jiao hoisted the body of the second orc with one hand. A moment later, it was sent flying through the air. The first orc ducked, but the troll simply caught the incoming body with one hand. 

“That was pretty fucking stupid, bitch,” the orc snarled, already striding toward her with his magic pistol raised. “What the hell did you think that was gonna accomplish, huh?”

“What you should be asking yourself,” Jiao patiently and quietly replied, “is, if I threw him with one hand, why did I drop both guns?” 

“If you threw him with one–” As he echoed those words dismissively, the orc’s eyes suddenly widened as he saw that Jiao’s other hand wasn’t empty. Rather, it held a remote detonator. He spun back toward the troll, who was staring curiously at the dead orc in his massive hand. “Put him–” 

That was as far as he got, before the explosion blew the troll into little chunks. The force of the shockwave was enough to knock the living orc to the ground, where he lay with a groan before slowly lifting his head as the barrel of a pistol was placed calmly against it. 

“Perhaps,” Jiao began, as calmly as ever, “we can have that conversation about the gentleman who wishes to find my second husband now.”

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Mini-Interlude 47 – Tristan and Vanessa

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The following is a commissioned interlude focusing on Vanessa and Tristan introducing the latter to her team back when he first showed up. And… well, other stuff too. Remember, it takes place months ago, while Roxa is still at the school and thus Rudolph has not switched teams, etc. 

Several Months Ago

After hours in long discussions with Headmistress Sinclaire (with several different staff members going in and out throughout their talk), Vanessa and Tristan Moon were finally left alone in the school corridor once more. They’d had that short conversation with Gaia, where Vanessa had learned just how much the woman actually already knew about Alters not being evil, and about the woman’s son, and… and everything else that had made the girl need to sit down, dizzy from the revelations. Then Vanessa and Tristan had spent an hour alone in the office, just trying to process the idea that they were actually together once more.

After that, once the two felt like they couldn’t make the adults wait any longer, they had told Gaia that they were ready. She had prepared them, told them what to say, what story to tell to her own staff and anyone else who asked. She prepared them for all the questions, all the tests, all the… everything. Not that it was nearly as much as some of the adults wanted. The other teachers had wanted to run Tristan through more tests, had wanted to ask even more questions. But the headmistress had made them stop. She said that there would be time to talk about everything else later, and then let them go.

So there they were, standing out in the corridor that was devoid of anyone else for that moment. Alone, save for each other, the twins finally left to talk privately.

“I still can’t believe you’re here. I can’t believe you made it, I mean, I mean… I can’t–” Vanessa realized that she was babbling and cut herself off. Verbally, at least. She couldn’t seem to stop her hands from constantly touching her brother. She squeezed his shoulders, his arms, took his hands, moved back to his face, touched his hair. It was a dream. It was just like a dream, so similar to dreams that she’d had for the past decade. Any second now, she was going to wake up. She would wake up and her entire family would be missing once more. She’d wake up, and the entire world would think that she was crazy once more.

She couldn’t go through that again. She’d stopped telling the story early on, once her seven-year-old self had sat through several psychologists that kept telling her she was wrong, that she hadn’t seen what she thought she saw. They told her that her memory was playing tricks on her. But that was impossible. Vanessa’s memory was never wrong. Never. But between the lectures, the long discussions, and the talk of drugs, she’d pretended that they were right.

But she’d never stopped believing what she knew was right. Squashing it down in public, pretending for so long, had just made the things worse in her own subconscious mind. Accusations from her family, her mother and father, and from Tristan, had filled her dreams. They thought that she had forgotten them, that she had abandoned them. More than once, the girl had woken up in a cold sweat, sobbing into her pillow as she begged them to understand.

And now, now she was petrified that all of this was going to disappear. She was afraid Tristan would be gone, that he would vanish the next time she blinked. There was even a certain terrible fear that, after Tristan disappeared, everyone in the school would forget him as well. She was afraid that he would be gone, and that all of her teachers and classmates would have no idea who she was talking about. That fear made her keep touching him, keep all but clinging to him. If her brother did disappeared, she’d rather be taken with him than be left behind again.

“Nessa,” Tristan spoke quickly, smiling as he grabbed her hands and held them. “It’s okay. I’m here. And I ain’t going away again. I’m anchored to Flick, so I’m staying right here. Okay?”

For a single, brief moment, Vanessa felt a twinge of jealousy toward the other girl. It was dumb. She knew that. But for that handful of seconds, the fact that her brother was magically anchored to Felicity Chambers made her feel somehow left out. Again, dumb. There was absolutely no reason for it. Tristan was anchored to Flick because she had seen him on that other world, and he’d needed someone that he could remember in order for the spell to work. He and Gaia had thoroughly explained all of that over the several hour discussion that they had just come out of.

“I know,” the girl mumbled, squeezing her brother’s hands. “I know that you’re here. I just…” Her mouth opened and shut as she fought to find the right words, words that wouldn’t sound crazy.

She didn’t need to. Tristan just smiled and gave her a little nod. “I get it. I… wow. I spent so long trying to remember you, trying to remember anything about our family at all, and nothing worked. But now it’s like all those memories just came pouring back as soon as I saw you.”

Vanessa felt a slight blush touch her face then, and her smile brightened as she informed the boy, “If there’s anything you still don’t remember, I can tell you about it.”

He chuckled a little before giving her a tight hug. “Nessa and her perfect memory. I remember. I remember all of it. I’m surprised you haven’t already managed to get…” Biting his lip as he hesitated, Tristan asked hesitantly, “You really don’t have any idea where Mom and Dad are?”

She flinched, almost as if she had been physically struck. Cringing, Vanessa pleaded, “I’ve been trying. But they hide everything so much around here. There’s just… holes in all of it. Between that and all the rules, the memory manipulation, the… everything, it’s hard. I didn’t know wh-”

“Shh.” Tristan shook his head. “Hey, it’s okay. Two heads are better than one, right? We work together, Nessa. Remember how it goes? You’re the brains, I’m the brawn. We’ll find them.”

Vanessa nodded at that, her twin able to make her feel better and calm her down as easily now as he had when they were children. He was right, they complemented each other. Being without him for an entire decade had been like losing an arm and learning to work without it. She’d needed her brother. Now that he was back, they would find their parents. She knew they would.

“Come on,” she finally announced, pulling him by the hand. “I’ll show you around. You still have the key so you can get to the room that Headmistress Sinclaire said we could use, right?” Later, Tristan would have to be given his own room. But for the evening, Gaia had said they could spend the night in the same room, one of the guest suites in the upper floor of the main building. After everything that had happened, she wasn’t going to immediately separate the two of them.

“Nessa,” Tristan replied while giving her a brief look. “She handed it to me, I put it in my pocket, and we walked like… fifteen feet.” His hand dug pointedly into the pocket in question as he continued. “I mean, c’mon, how could I possibly have lost it that soo–hey, where’d it go?”

Vanessa raised her hand, showing the boy the key in her palm. “You dropped it on the floor when you were putting it in your pocket.” Even then, she couldn’t stop smiling. This. This was what she had missed. The last time they had been together, they were both still in first grade. Now, so much time had passed, so much had changed. And yet, some things were the same.

“Right, then.” Tristan grinned right back at her while taking the key, as utterly incorrigible as he had always been in her memories. “I’m glad you passed that perception test. Good job.”

“You absolutely did not do that on purpose,” the girl huffed at her brother while folding her arms.

He winked at that. “And yet, as soon as I said the words ‘passed’ and ‘test’, you got all happy.”

“I–” Vanessa opened and shut her mouth, flushing a little before turning to walk. “Come on.”

Together, the two of them walked down the hall to the stairs, and made their way out of the building. But they had barely stepped out onto the grounds before the twins found themselves facing a small group of people who had clearly been waiting for them: Vanessa’s teammates.

“Hey, Vanessa!” That was Cameron Reid, their team mentor. The black girl had been facing away from the doors, clearly saying something to the others as the twins emerged. Now, she turned to them, whipping around so fast that, in any normal situation, the ever-present blue-tongued skink that was draped over the girl’s shoulder would have gone flying off.

Yet, as always, the lizard somehow managed to retain his spot. Vanessa had seen their team mentor actually fight while keeping the little guy with her. It had something to do with a collection of reptile-based powers that Cameron had. Which, among other things, allowed her to not just communicate with reptiles but actually temporarily make them grow. With a single touch and moment of focus, the second-year student was capable of making the eighteen-inch lizard rapidly become as large as a pony and as long as a crocodile, complete with steel-like armored scales. Even more impressively, she could give them the ability to project various types of breath weapon. It had to be chosen at the time that the reptile was affected, but they could gain fire breath, lightning breath, ice breath, a corrosive acid breath, and probably others.

Essentially, with a touch and about fifteen seconds of time, their mentor could turn the eighteen-inch lizard perched on her shoulder into a four-foot tall, twenty-foot long armored dragon that could breathe fire, lightning, or whatever. It was incredibly impressive to see.     

But Vanessa still didn’t understand what kind of reference Cameron was making when she said that the lizard’s name was Tad Cooper. Something about a musical, but the girl just kept giggling when she tried to explain it.

“Um, hi, guys.” Biting her lip, Vanessa nodded to her team. “What’re, uh, you doing out here?”

“Vanessa, c’mon.” Malcolm gave her a look for that one, shaking his head. “Everyone knows you’re a genius, so don’t try to play dumb.  You gonna introduce us, or what?” His gaze turned to the boy beside her before he lifted his chin in greeting, giving a drawled, “Sup, dude?”

“And where have you been hiding him?” Erin added, her eyes wide as she looked Tristan up and down appreciatively before giving Vanessa a hurt look. “Seriously, we’re supposed to be best-roomies and you never mention that you’ve got a–a brother, right? He is your brother? Maybe a cousin, or a nephew, or even an uncle of some kind?” From the look on the girl’s face, Vanessa was quite certain that Erin had an ulterior motive for hoping that they were related.

“Easy, Erin,” Cameron was shaking her head, clearly amused. “They’re Bystander-kin, remember? They don’t tend to have uncles or nephews that are the exact same age. Usually.”

Zeke, standing a bit away from the others, muttered something under his breath that sounded like, ‘Lucky them.’ Then he looked straight to Vanessa. “So, you gonna explain or what?”

“Oh, right.” Coughing, Vanessa lifted her hand to gesture to each in turn. “Trist, these are my, uh, my teammates: Malcolm, Travis, Rudolph, Zeke, and my roommate Erin. And this is our team mentor, Cameron. Guys, this is Tristan, he’s my twin brother.” She supposed that Erin’s subsequent fistpump of victory was fairly understandable, but the little dance was pushing it.

Rudolph was the first to step that way, barely edging out Erin herself. The pale, slightly hefty boy offered his hand with a small smile. “Hey, uh, I guess we should say, welcome to Crossroads.”

“Hey, thanks, dude.” Rather than shaking Rudolph’s hand, Tristan slapped him five instead, then did it the other way with the back of his hand, before grabbing the boy’s hand to pull him into a shoulder bump. “You’re the guys that’ve been helping Nessa, huh? Thanks, man.”

To Cameron, the boy flashed a broad, endearing smile. “Hey, who’s your friend? Can he come say hi too?”

The older girl chuckled, reaching up to take the lizard off her shoulder before holding him out. “Sure, here. This is Tad. Tad, say hi to Tristan. And be nice.”

Tristan carefully took the reptile, rubbing the back of its head with obvious quick fondness. “Awesome. I always wanted a pet snake or something.”

In turn, he went through greeting each of the others. Despite the fact that Vanessa had been with the team since the beginning of the semester and Tristan had only met them a few seconds earlier, he already seemed completely at ease with them. Which was the way it had gone when they were younger too. As far back as preschool, Tristan had been the one who introduced the two of them to other kids, even to teachers. Tristan was the outgoing one, Vanessa was the bookworm, the one who was ‘weird’ because she did things like write out multiplication tables while the rest of their classmates were still learning how to color inside the lines. The teachers had wanted to move her up to higher grades, even that early. If the school staff had had their way, Vanessa would have been in third or fourth grade while Tristan was in first. But their parents had refused to split them up like that.

Someone with a darker sense of humor probably could have made a joke about how that turned out.

“Erin’s right, though,” Cameron pointed out. “You never mentioned you had a brother, let alone a twin. I thought you grew up in like, some kind of group home or something, wasn’t it?”

“Hey, yeah,” Vanessa’s roommate tore her attention away from Tristan to squint at Vanessa. “How come you never mentioned him? And why hasn’t he been here from the beginning? I mean, obviously he was like… missing or something? The way you were in the cafeteria…”

Giving a little nod, Vanessa launched into the explanation that they had given the teachers and other adults, the story that Gaia had told them to tell once she found out exactly what had happened. “Yes, it’s like I said, Tristan is my brother. But our family isn’t exactly Bystanders.”

“Our mom and dad,” Tristan put in then, “they were Heretics. But they, uh, they were kind of Garden of Eden Heretics.”

“Eden’s Garden,” Vanessa corrected with a slight nudge. “They were Eden’s Garden Heretics.”

The boy nodded. “Right, that. Either way, they retired and went off to live on their own. Awhile later, out popped the most beautiful and brilliant twin babies you’ve ever seen in your life.”

Clearing her throat pointedly, Vanessa cut in. “We didn’t know our parents were different, until monsters attacked our house. They were Strangers who had a grudge against Mom and Dad.”

“Our parents fought them,” Tristan continued with a little shrug. “But the Strangers were really… persistent. They had this portal set up and it took the three of us away. Our parents and me. But the portal got destroyed in the process and Nessa was left behind.”

Travis spoke up then. “Holy shit, dude. How–” He hesitated, wincing as he looked over to Vanessa before slowly asking, “How, uh, how old were you?”

She swallowed at the question. “Seven. I didn’t know what happened. I couldn’t remember much of it, until I got here, and had my Edge vision. That’s when I found out all the stuff about them being Heretics and retiring, and what really happened in our house that day.”  

Tristan nodded while letting Tad climb up his arm to his shoulder. “Meanwhile, when the portal got busted, it split us up. I still don’t know where Mom and Dad got sent to, but I ended up on some random world half a universe away. I would’ve been in deep shit, except some other Heretics showed up.”

“Wait,” Malcolm blurted, “other Heretics? What the hell is that supposed to mean? You said you were halfway across the universe. Are there just random Heretics hanging around other planets?”

It was Zeke who answered. “Crossroads maintains outposts on other worlds, yes. I imagine the… other place does as well.” The distaste in the boy’s voice as he obliquely mentioned Eden’s Garden was readily apparent. “What the hell do you think the Explorer track is for? You know, the one that Vanessa over there belongs to.”

Tristan gave the other boy a look. “Pretty sure his confusion was from the implication that the Heretics I met weren’t in contact with Earth, dude.” Shaking his head, he continued, “But yeah. They were from the other place. But they hadn’t been back in a long time. They got lost out there somehow. I guess when the portal showed up and dumped me out, they sensed it, so they came to find the portal to go home. Except all they found was me. But they took me in and helped raise me. Taught me pretty much everything I know while we were all looking for a way to get back here.”

“So, what happened?” Cameron asked as she took her lizard back from Tristan, feeding him a treat of some kind. “How did you end up back here now? And where are those other Heretics, did they go back to Eden’s Garden or something?”

Tristan shook his head, running a hand through his hair with a since. “Nah, uh, actually we only managed to find a thing that would send one of us back. They made me be the one to use it, said that I was still young and had a sister to get back to. I showed up back on Earth, a couple Crossroads Heretics came to investigate and ended up bringing me here since they didn’t know what else to do with me. I didn’t know Nessa was here until, well, until that bit in the cafeteria.”

“Wow.” Erin was looking back and forth between both twins. “That’s like… holy shit. Are you sure you don’t have some kind of luck power, Vanessa?”

Zeke spoke up then, his voice pointed. “She still kept secrets. She didn’t tell us any of this, even after she knew about the Heretic thing. And that’s probably why she’s been spending so much time in the library, trying to find the things that took her family.”

Erin frowned a little at that. “Good point. How come you didn’t tell us about that, Vanessa? Didn’t you trust us?” She sounded hurt.

“Hey, hey.” That was Malcolm. The tall, muscular boy shook his head. “Ease up, you guys. It takes more than a couple months to open up to complete strangers like that. You can say ‘team’ until you’re blue in the face, but that’s her family we’re talking about. She didn’t know how we’d react, or how all the teachers around here might react, for that matter. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t trust us, it means it’s her family and that was the best chance she had to find them after, what, a whole decade? Can you really blame her for playing things close to her vest?”

“Malcolm’s right,” Cameron agreed. “Come on, you guys. I’m supposed to be your mentor. If I can get over the incredible insult–” She winked at Vanessa to show that she was teasing. “–of not being included in any of this, I think everyone can. Let’s give the team brainiac a break, huh? Like he said, it was about her family.”

Blushing deeply, Vanessa mumbled a thank you to both of them. Then she hesitantly added, “Um, I was about to show Tristan around. Do… do you guys want to help?”

******

Present Day

“Don’t think about why you want to visit your father.” The steady, soothing voice came from the old Seosten-Heretic, Enguerrand. He was seated on the opposite side of the boat from where Vanessa and Tristan sat. The boat itself was floating peacefully in the middle of the lake near where Gabriel Prosser’s group had their camp.

It had been Scout’s idea that they come here, so that Vanessa could learn to use the power that she had been developing that connected her to her father deep in Seosten space. The hope was that with enough practice, she might be able to tell the man about Flick and the others.

Don’t think about it?” Vanessa echoed, biting her lip as she stole a glance at her brother before looking back to the man who was the closest thing they knew to an expert on the Seosten powers. “Shouldn’t I be thinking about why I want to visit him as… motivation?”

“Yeah, that sounds weird,” Tristan agreed. “I mean, that’s a lot of emotion right there that you’re telling her not to focus on, you know? Oh, and also, when the hell did you start talking in a modern voice instead of all that verily and prithee crap we heard you using before?”

The elderly knight chuckled a little then. “Yes, I wondered if you would notice that. I…” he breathed a long, low sigh. “I have a great deal of respect for the Seosten whose power I inherited all those years ago, whom I served for quite a long time. When I realized that you were both half-Seosten, I suppose that those old habits and… memories came back a little bit.”

“You–you served a Seosten? And liked it?” Tristan stared at the man. “Who–how–what?”

Smiling faintly, Enguerrand gestured. “Let us focus on this. Perhaps I will tell you the story some other time. Once you’ve earned it.” At the last bit, he winked. Then the man turned his attention back to Vanessa. “As to your relevant question, yes, the emotion of why you want to project yourself to your father is important. But only once you have more control. As it is, you are focusing too much on why. You wish to see your father so much, for very understandable reasons. But as it is, you are… “ He paused, considering his words. “Let’s just say, you are flooring the gas pedal without knowing how to steer. You are flooding the tank before you’ve learned how to take the automobile out of park.”

Vanessa swallowed, looking at the bottom of the boat for a moment. “I… I guess that makes sense. So, how do I steer? How do I take it out of park?”

“I will teach you that,” the man promised. “I will teach both of you, because Tristan’s own gift will come soon enough. There is more to projecting yourself to your last host than simply wishing you were there. Especially over this kind of distance. You must also think about the person you are projecting yourself to, what you know about them, what kind of person they are. Projecting to them is about… imagining that you are controlling them, putting yourself in their shoes, so to speak. You see, you are thinking about how much you want to speak with your father, but in doing so, you are focusing on you as Vanessa speaking with him. To project in the way that you wish to, you should be thinking of yourself as him. Cast yourself as your father, think like him, speak like him, do everything you can in the way that most reminds you of him. That is how you will attune yourself to him.”

For two hours, they worked on that. By the end, even though they hadn’t done anything that should have been physically demanding at all, Vanessa felt exhausted. She slumped in the boat, shaking her head. “I can’t do it. I can’t send myself to him.” The girl felt like she was on the verge of tears.

“That is quite all right, Miss Moon.” Enguerrand insisted with a soft smile as she took her hand. “These things take time. You are progressing better than I believe most would have, I assure you.”

“Yeah, Nessa, don’t sweat it,” Tristan added. “At least you can try to help. I can’t even do that much right now.”

Sighing, Vanessa nodded. “I just really wanted to…” She shook her head then, dismissing it. “I guess we can come back later?”

“Of course,” Enguerrand agreed immediately. “I would like that very much. But for now, we should go back to shore.” He raised his hand to point to a man standing there, clearly waiting for them. “I believe that Gabriel would like to speak with you.”

Prosser waited there until the boat reached the dock, then caught the rope that was tossed up and leaned down to tie it off. He reached down to help them each out of the boat, asking how they were doing as soon as they were each on solid, dry ground.

“Could’ve been better, could’ve been worse,” Tristan informed him easily.

Chuckling a little, Gabriel nodded. “I believe that’s life in a nutshell for most people.” He sobered then, holding out an envelope in one hand. “This came for you.”

Both twins blinked at it, and Vanessa frowned. “Came for us? Us, like, came here for us? How?”

Gabriel was watching them. “A group of refugees that we picked up earlier. They were ambushed by Heretics on the road until a man saved them. Apparently, he gave them this letter, told them to wait for us to show up, and said that they should give this letter to me.”

He turned it over then, showing the twins their names written on the front in elaborate, gold lettering. “It was checked for spells before we came anywhere near here. There’s nothing on it but text, written on computer paper. I don’t know what it says, but I do know that there’s nothing magical about it. Would you like to open it?”

The twins looked at each other once more before shrugging. Tristan took the offered envelope, turning the thing over in his hands briefly before quickly ripping it open. Inside, there was a single, folded piece of white paper, with five lines printed in bold, all-caps lettering right in the middle.

“Uh, why does Pitiniana sound familiar?” Tristan asked his sister.

“It was a city in Sicily, but it’s lost now,” Vanessa answered. “And it’s also the world we’re supposed to visit in a few days with the Explorers. That’s probably how you know it. Why?”

Turning the paper over, Tristan showed the contents to her, letting her read the message that the mysterious man had sent sent to them.

PITINIANA

3 DAYS. 14:30

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT YOUR PARENTS.

I’LL BRING SNACKS.  

— UNCLE SATAN.

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