The Robin System

The Storm 21-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter

So, our group walked together across the orange-red ground. It continued to crunch under our feet, more like very thin snow than the dirt it resembled. The air was almost unpleasantly hot, and filled with that sulfur scent, which threatened to make us cough uncontrollably as we got closer to the volcano. But we dealt with both using magic, specifically the fresh air spell and another one Judas knew, which basically kept the temperature around our bodies to a more tolerable level. Although he did warn us that it wouldn’t stand up to very extreme temperatures, so we shouldn’t try to go swimming in lava or anything like that. 

Jaq and Gus were riding on my shoulders, while the latter held Herbie in place on that side so he could see where we were going. I knew my little cyberform mice were worried about Mom too. She’d been giving them special treats now and then, little pieces of rare metal that was supposed to make their bodies tougher once they ingested and processed it. I wasn’t exactly sure how that worked, but apparently it was a thing for all Cyberforms. They rebuilt and repaired themselves over time using the metal they ‘ate.’ That was in addition to the way ones like Vulcan turned the ingested metal into new bullets. When they were able to get a particularly durable bit of metal, they could use that to strengthen their own form. My buddies were much tougher to squish by this point, all thanks to Mom’s help after she had been able to produce some truly rare samples. So they really wanted to find her too. 

I did think about using the speed rings to make us go faster, but as impatient as I was for this to be over, the others needed to conserve as much energy as possible. It wouldn’t do us any good to sprint all the way there, only for half of us to collapse in exhaustion right when we found ourselves in trouble. Not everyone had the near-limitless stamina I had, or were a robot like Robin.

And speaking of Robin, they were in the lead, since their senses were better than anything the rest of us could boast, even the vampires. Especially with the way the volcano was messing with that. We might’ve had the fresh air spell keeping us from choking on the fumes, but that just meant that Senny and Stasia couldn’t smell anything beyond the effect. And if we lowered it, all they’d be able to smell would be the sulfur. It affected them even more than the rest of us. 

But that was okay, because again, we had Robin. The Mevari could see and hear much further than the rest of us, even through the fog-like haze we began walking through. They made sure we didn’t stumble into any problems. Between Fossor and Denuvus, I was almost positive that there would be some sort of trap before we made it to our destination. Hell, probably more than one. For all we knew, the witch was watching us with magic right now, just waiting for us to get a little closer before–

No. No, Shiori had that power that allowed her to sense when she was being observed by someone she didn’t know about. She’d know if someone was watching us. Unless they had some way around that, of course. There was always magic and other powers to counter various abilities, including that one. And it would make sense for someone like Denuvus to have that. So really, there was nothing proving she wasn’t staring at us right now and plotting about what to do. 

Shoving that incredibly unhelpful thought out of my head, I glanced around once more. Everything still looked the same. Robin was out in front, with Judas slightly behind them. Shiori, Tabbris, and I were walking side by side a few feet behind those two. About ten feet back from us, Stasia and Asenath were walking together, having their own telepathic conversation about vampire things. And a few feet further back from them, Persephone was riding on Twister, who was in the form of a rhino. They were also having their own conversation through the magical mental connection we’d set up. I hadn’t been privy to much of it, but from what they’d said a few minutes earlier when I asked what they were talking about, it had something to do with some very minor Seosten member of the Olympus Twister had met about eighty years ago without knowing what he was. It sounded like they had got along pretty well, and she wanted to know if he had just been manipulating her for some reason or what. 

Eighty years ago would’ve been while the rebellion was still going strong. A rebellion Twister had been part of. Did her memories of meeting with this minor Olympian have something to do with that? Or was it entirely unrelated? I was going to have to ask her about that later, after we got through this whole thing. One problem at a time–okay, as few problems as physically possible at a time. 

Squeezing my hand, Tabbris spoke through that same mental conversation spell. Despite the fact that she wasn’t talking out loud, her voice still came through in a whisper. Which wasn’t really necessary, but still. Do you think the people who live here are gonna be okay? I mean, on this world. Her telepathic voice was pensive, the girl squinting off into the distance as though trying to look toward one of the cities we knew were somewhere off in that direction. There was no chance she could see it, of course. The nearest inhabited area was thousands of miles away from here. Fossor hadn’t allowed anyone to live anywhere close to his old home. I still wondered if that had more to do with him being spiteful, or because he had put something important there. Maybe a bit of both. 

Returning the squeeze, I replied, They have a much better chance of it now that he’s gone. It’ll take a long time for them to move on, but at least they’ve got the opportunity now.

Shiori nodded from my other side, speaking up equally softly through the telepathic connection. Yeah, without that evil jackass around, these people can figure out what sort of society they actually are, you know? It’s sort of like a whole new world is being born. She smiled briefly before grimacing. A world that’s been through a lot of horrific trauma.

They will heal. That was Rahanvael. The ghost girl appeared slightly ahead of us, her form coming into view as she stared at the volcano. Her mental voice was tentative, and I could tell it was all she could do to keep herself somewhat together. And yet, there was hope in her words. With my brother gone, the people of our world can move on and become something better.

I started to say something about how she had made that happen, wanting to help alleviate some of the guilt I knew she still felt. But before I could, Robin stopped up ahead and held their hand out. A small hologram projector embedded in their palm made the words, Hold here appear in the air so we could all see. They looked back at us, and I saw the dark blue eyes of Sec as the hologram changed to, There is a tunnel running below the ground. It appears to be artificial, given the metallic walls. That lasted long enough for all of us to read, before changing once more. It runs from that direction, to that direction. First he pointed off to the west, away from the volcano, then his hand moved east, to the volcano itself. We had been moving in a north-eastern direction, toward the volcano at an angle. 

Wait. Rahanvael floated that way, stopping right next to Robin. She turned, looking to the west, the way Sec said the tunnel originated from. That direction is where my brother took me that day, the day he… She trailed off, visibly frowning before turning back to the east, the way the tunnel went. And that is the direction of our old home. It is… close. Her form flickered a little, probably thanks to what had to be a wave of conflicting emotions. From here, it would only take twenty minutes to reach our old farm. Or ten minutes to reach the spot where… he took me. 

Either of those could be important to him, I agreed, stepping up next to her and Robin while reaching up to put Jaq, Gus, and Herbie away in my pockets. I guess it just depends on which one you think we should check out first.

Da, Stasia murmured as she and the others joined us. The Russian vampire stepped out a bit before crouching over the spot where the tunnel was supposed to be. It should be her choice which way we go to start. But either way, perhaps we should see if we can do so from inside. 

She had a point. Whatever we were about to find, it would be better to get there from inside the tunnel. Any defenses or traps that were set up would probably be mostly pointed toward the entrances. Not that I expected it to be completely safe going in this way, of course. We all took a minute to spread out along the apparent path of the tunnel, figuring out the best way to get inside. According to Robin, the tunnel was about ten feet wide, and equally tall. The top of it was six feet down from where we were standing. 

So, Judas started while staring at the dirt beneath our feet, what do you all think? I don’t know about you, but I didn’t bring a shovel. And even if I had, I don’t fancy spending the next couple hours doing this manually. 

Twister, who had shifted back to her normal form after Persephone dismounted, kicked the dirt. Me neither. Even if I could maybe speed it up with an animal, there’s gotta be a better way. Do you Heretics have any spiffy powers that might help? 

I–wait, maybe. Focusing on the dirt once more, I thought about my sand control power. Maybe this stuff was similar enough to that? If there was silica in it, or something that my power could pretend was silica, it might work. 

We were in luck. The dirt, or sand, or whatever we wanted to call it now, moved under my focus. I could still only move about fifty pounds at a time, but it was still faster and easier than physically digging. The others helped by pushing the loose bits back as I dug down, making sure the stuff surrounding it didn’t fall into the opening and cover it up again. Before too long, I had managed to create a hole four feet wide and six feet deep, revealing the green metal top of the tunnel.There was also some sort of energy field running along it. At first we didn’t know what it was, but the moment Rahanvael tried to float through to check the place out, she was violently hurled backward. Anti-ghost field then, apparently. 

Fossor put up an anti-ghost shield around his secret tunnel? Shiori sounded confused. Why would he do that? I mean, he was the only one who used ghosts here, right?

Rahanvael, recovering after a moment, shook her head. Our people are known for producing Necromancers. None anywhere near his level, but still. And our ghosts commonly lingered until they were sent onward by our priests. It makes sense that he would take measures to prevent any of them from reaching whatever he was hiding here.  Her telepathic voice turned a bit bitter then. Even if he did attempt to kill any who demonstrated that sort of skill. Some might have been able to hide it for a time.

Yeah, of course he would have made a point of killing any of his own people who might have posed even the tiniest bit of a threat to him, no matter how remote. That and there was the fact that he never missed a chance to be as petty as possible. 

Rahanvael continued. I think there’s a lot of that necromantic energy in the shield itself. There’d have to be, for it to react so violently and effectively against ghosts. It seems to be a mix of magic and technology. Some sort of generator he set up and fueled with-– She blanched, arms crossing over her stomach with a look of disgust. 

With more of his sacrifices, I finished for her, sighing. He’s been gone for awhile, I don’t suppose there’s any chance of it running out of energy soon?

Considering how quick he was to kill off his own people, Judas put in, I wouldn’t count on that. He’s probably got enough power in there to keep the thing running for years. You said he didn’t come back here that often anyway. The dark-haired man rubbed the back of his neck before glancing toward me with those piercing eyes that I could feel even through the sunglasses he almost always wore. And personally, I don’t really feel like sitting around waiting to see if the power goes out.

Of course. I knew Judas, Robin, Stasia, and even Asenath really wanted to focus on finding Rasputin. They were all totally willing to help with this thing, Senny especially, given how important it was to me. And, most likely, the fact that we all thought Rasputin being here probably had something to do with Denuvus as well. Sure, it was possible that they both wanted to get completely different things from this place right after Fossor was killed. But given the way things had gone so far, I was willing to bet there was some sort of connection. At the very least, it made sense for all of us to stick together and look for my mother first. Stopping her from doing whatever Denuvus had sent her to do had to be our top priority. Not only because she was my mother, but also because whatever Denuvus wanted probably wouldn’t be good for the rest of us. That and none of us liked the idea of that woman popping up out of nowhere to fuck us over while we were distracted. 

But even with all of that in mind, I couldn’t blame them for wanting to get on with this so they could find Rasputin. If he wasn’t connected to this, then they were potentially losing the chance to find him here. 

Between that and my deep-seated fear that whatever Denuvus was sending my mother to do would be very bad, it was clear that we couldn’t wait around hoping that shield went down. We had to keep moving.

Persephone straightened up after poking her finger into the dirt beside the tunnel and tasting it with a thoughtful expression. It is probable that any breach of the shield would send an alert, which this Denuvus might become aware of. If she is actually here. Or anyone else who might be nearby.

What if Flick did it? Shiori asked, turning my way. Rahanvael said the thing has a lot of Fossor’s energy in it, and you have his power. Maybe you could disable it without setting off any alarms or anything. She offered a weak shrug. I know it’s a longshot, but still. 

No, she’s right. That was Rahanvael herself, focusing on me. I think you can push the energy out of the way to create a hole. But everyone would have to create an opening in the metal quickly and go through. 

I can do that! Tabbris piped up while raising her hand. Her expression was determined. I can use my wings to cut a hole in it, I promise. I’ve been practicing. 

I knew she felt guilty about the fact that she hadn’t been able to use her wings to cut through the security door back when Mom had locked us in that asteroid station. I’d tried to tell her not to worry about it, that Mom knew about her power and had prepared for it. But I wasn’t sure it helped all that much. At the very least, she was intent on using the wings now. 

So, while the others waited, I held my hand out and closed my eyes to focus on the shield in front of me. They were right, I could feel the necromantic energy interlaced throughout it. I’d expected this to be hard and take a lot of focus, but it really wasn’t. Almost as soon as I had the thought about the energy moving, it reacted. A hole appeared in the shield right below our feet, and I blinked a bit in surprise. Uhh, go for it. I’ve got this. I really did have it too. This wasn’t difficult at all. Was that weird? Probably not, since Fossor wouldn’t have wanted to make it hard for himself to get through his own shield, and this stuff probably thought I was him. And yet, it still made me uneasy. Maybe just because of the reminder that I was using his power. I was pretty sure I’d never really get used to that. 

Tabbris, standing on the opposite side of the hole in the dirt I’d made, manifested her wings and extended them. Within a few quick thrusts, she had cut an opening in the metal ceiling wide enough for all of us to go through. And one by one, we did just that. Asenath went first, followed by Stasia, then Shiori, and the others. I went last, allowing the shield to resume its position as soon as I was through.

Soon, we were in what was essentially a long metal tube. It was lit by some sort of glowing lines along the floor in the ceiling, farther from that, it looked empty. Looking both directions, I turned back to Rahanvael and gestured. Up to you. Which way sounds best? 

She thought about it briefly before giving a decisive nod. Toward our old home. We can see what my brother hid in his secret spot after we check on what he has done with this volcano.

So, we began moving east through the tunnel, keeping our eyes open for any sort of threat. Now we had the added feeling of claustrophobia to go with paranoia, which was fun. But either way, we kept going, doing our best to ignore that feeling. 

As promised, it took about twenty minutes to reach the general area that had apparently been where Fossor had grown up as a child. We found ourselves emerging from the tunnel into a wide open underground cavern that had to be part of the volcano itself. It was a good three hundred feet wide and just as long. There were stalagmites and stalactites scattered throughout the cave, along with a small stream of crystal clear water running down the middle of it, perpendicular to where we had entered. We could also see glowing crystals embedded in the walls of various colors. Red, blue, green, white, and purple mostly, though there were a few gold and green as well. 

Uhh, what is this place? Shiori asked as we all stopped and stared. 

I have no idea, Rahavael assured us. This is… I have never seen it. She sounded confused and a bit lost, understandably. I don’t even know what those glowing crystals are. Those… are not natural. 

Biting my lip, I started to step closer to the nearest cluster of the things so I could get a better look. Just as I moved, however, the cave rumbled around us. It only lasted for a couple seconds, but it definitely got our attention. As did the hole that suddenly opened up underneath the spot where Robin and Persephone were standing together. Before any of us could react, including the Mevari and Revenant-possessed Seosten, they had fallen through the hole and were gone. The ground reappeared just as quickly. 

I dove that way, along with Judas and Stasia. But before we could do anything about it, a voice that spoke up from about a hundred feet off, far enough to be out of range of our mute spell. 

“Well how about that! I told the old lady you wouldn’t sit still on that asteroid, and lookie here.” 

It was… Trice? Fucking Trice of all people? I’d almost forgotten about him entirely, after he’d disappeared from the cell Gaia put him in so long ago. The tall, green-haired Eden’s Garden Heretic stood there next to the stream, watching us with clear amusement. He held his pike in one hand, the end of it planted on the ground like a walking stick as he stared at me. “Let me guess, you’re here to find your mom. Well, I’ve got bad news. We still need her for awhile. But don’t worry, we’ll keep you busy.” 

We? What did he mean by–

The answer came even as I had that thought. Several more figures appeared around Trice. In front was a boy, a year or two older than me, with long, shaggy dark hair and an olive complexion. His left arm was covered by a metal gauntlet. He was accompanied by a pale, red-haired girl, a slightly taller black girl, a blond caucasian guy with very piercing blue eyes, a scrawny Latino guy with short hair and a goatee, and another caucasian (though quite tanned) guy with brown hair cut into a flat top. 

At first I didn’t recognize them, but then I realized. The guy in front was Miles Cleary, the guy whose ‘bogeyman’ father had been imprisoned by Fossor. And the others were all members of his team. 

Wait, hold on. Why didn’t I… why hadn’t I talked to the guy after we found his dad? Why didn’t I… even think about him that much? The realization of just how much I had not thought about him, and how strange that was given the circumstances, had just started to fill my mind when Trice spoke again. 

“You guys heard what Denuvus said, right?” 

“Fight,” all six of the others replied together, their voices a disturbing monotone that made it clear they weren’t in control of themselves. “Hurt the intruders.” As Miles said that, the gauntlet on his arm broke apart, turning into hundreds of tiny metal cyberform bees, which quickly reshaped themselves into a sword and shield. Meanwhile, the others all produced their own weapons.  And just like that, we had seven Boscher Heretics about to launch themselves at us. Seven Boschers on their side, versus two Boschers, a tiny Seosten girl with terrifyingly powerful energy wings, two vampires, a Pooka, and a Natural Charmeine Heretic. And we had no idea what had happened to Robin and Persephone, or if they were okay.    

“Yup, that about sums it up,” Trice agreed, almost as though he’d read my mind. His eyes narrowed at me, while lifting his pike to join the other six. 

“Let’s have some fun.” 

Previous Chapter

The Storm 21-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Apparently the metals in the volcano, and possibly other things, were interfering with the sensors on the ship. We could tell there were some life signs down on that spot, probably dozens of them. But it was hard to make out specifics, and we couldn’t get a good, close visual beyond a few very static-filled images. The only solution was to land and go over there ourselves to check it out in person. We all just hoped that, whatever Mom had been sent here for, it wasn’t too late to stop Denuvus from getting it. 

And on a more personal note, I hoped that it wasn’t too late to punch Denuvus in the fucking face. Preferably repeatedly. 

Obviously, we didn’t put the ship down right where we had detected the Jitterbug. There was far too much chance of something going wrong with that, and this ship had zero defenses. It could barely actually fly, let alone get in a fight. Fortunately, at least in this case, the world didn’t seem to have any non-automated defenses. Which made sense, given Fossor wouldn’t dream of teaching his slaves how to protect themselves, or give them the equipment to do so. Given the Renaissance-level technology level we were able to pick up, it was likely that they had no idea we were here at all. We certainly didn’t pick up any activity as the ship descended toward the landing spot we had picked out, a bit of a hike away from the volcano. The cities we were able to scan seemed to be going about their days normally. Not that we had an idea of what normal was for them, either before or after Fossor’s death, but still. 

We had to take it slow going down there, considering the condition our ship was in. It wouldn’t really help us save Mom and the others if this thing burned up thousands of feet above the planet. Something told me Robin didn’t want to survive falling from orbit a second time. And the rest of us probably wouldn’t even be that lucky. So, we were heading down at what felt like a glacial pace. Even then, the ship was steadily rocking enough to make me a little nervous, though I did my best to push that out of my mind. After all, it wasn’t like I lacked other things to worry about.

Standing between the pilot and copilot seat, I reached out to indicate a few different spots on the scanner. “What are those lifesigns between the big cities? It looks like they’re moving. They’re not just animals, right? I mean, tell me those wouldn’t be the only animal lifesigns we’re picking up on the entire world, cuz…” I blanched at the horrible thought that the entire planet might have a few dozen animals out in the world. It couldn’t be that bad. Please don’t let it be that bad. 

Persephone sat up a bit, giving me a quick, encouraging smile. “They are not wild animals. The scanners are calibrated to only pick up humanoid life signs. We think those are caravans, Felicity. We have also detected large amounts of tools and food stuff being moved along with them. Probably in wagons, pulled by beasts of burden.” 

Robin gave a short nod, eyes the amber-brown of Hood as he looked over at me. “It looks like the cities nearest to one another have begun to establish a rudimentary trade network. We don’t think they have direct communication with each other yet, but there are a few smaller, faster sets of lifesigns that are probably just two people each, riding faster beasts without the supply wagons. They’re probably carrying messages, like the old Pony Express on Earth.” 

Their eyes shifted to the yellow of Sprite. “We used to ride for the Pony Express, that was fun! It was back when Sec and Brawl were the same guy. And more like a cowboy.” Her tone became a bit wistful. “I liked being a cowboy. And chasing bad guys when we were a bounty hunter. That was fun too. So was helping Eliot Ness in the 1930’s, but we didn’t get to ride horses then.” She sounded sad about that.

Ducking her head under my arm so she could see them, Tabbris piped up. “Maybe after we save Flick’s mama and the others, and get home, we can go to a ranch and see how you ride horses. I bet you’re really good at riding.” She was holding Herbie in one hand, having spent the past couple minutes getting reassurances from the brave little guy about how this whole thing was going to go. It always helped to know that, whatever happened, Herbie had our backs.

Turning away to let those two talk for a minute, I glanced to where Asenath, Shiori, and Stasia were whispering intently together. Judas was standing a bit out of the way, clearly lost in his own thoughts. He gave me a short nod before continuing to stare at the wall. It looked like he was brooding a bit. Which, given who he was and everything that happened to him, was probably understandable. On our way here, we’d asked him a bit about that, just to get his side of the story. We’d already known that he’d been possessed and used by Charmeine, of course, which helped explain why he hated her so much. But getting the details about how all of it had gone down… it was rough. He seemed relatively well adjusted now, and he was clearly glad she was dead, even if he hadn’t done the job himself. Even so, I couldn’t help but wonder how he was going to react the first time we ran into Invidia. 

I didn’t want to interrupt the conversation between the other girls, so I stepped over to stand next to him. “It’s kind of weird, isn’t it? Thinking about how you’re about to set foot on a new planet, I mean.” 

Raising an eyebrow at me, he replied, “Like we said before, it seems like this is old hat for you.” 

Snorting, I shook my head. “Believe me, it’s still weird, even after it’s happened a few times. Especially–” Cutting myself off, I swallowed hard, trying to find the right words. 

“Especially considering just what planet it is?” Finishing that for me, Judas waited until I nodded before continuing. “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about how I’d feel if we were about to land right next to Charmeine’s childhood home. It’s uhh…” He considered before simply finishing with, “Seems like you’re handling it pretty well, all things considered.” 

“You mean considering my mother has been puppeted by some crazy bitch to come to the planet of the guy who abducted, imprisoned, and tortured her for a decade and do fuck knows what?” Through that little bit, I had started to reflexively glare at the wall, before catching myself. A heavy sigh escaped me. “Sure, I’m doing my best not to freak out here. Glad it’s working at least externally.” 

Before I could say anything else, Robin turned to look away. Their eyes were the purple of Grease. “Okie dokes, gonna need y’all to strap on in real quick-like. We’re jest about tah set this puppy down, and it might be just a wee bit bumpy. And by wee bit bumpy, I mean it’ll be like tryna ride a greased hog into a chicken coop. After all, we’s barely holding together for the flying part. The landing part might be too much.”

“Have I mentioned I love Grease and want her to keep coming back when this is over?” Twister whispered my way. 

“You know they can hear you, right?” I whispered back. 

“Oh trust me, babe, I know.” Twister proceeded to give the Robin system a thumbs up. 

So, we did just that, strapping ourselves into the seats. The subtle vibrating by that point had become much more pronounced. Grease and Persephone were talking back-and-forth in what sounded almost like code and pointing to various instruments as they worked together to keep the landing as smooth as possible. Or at least keep the ship from breaking apart completely. Either way, the turbulence was getting pretty bad. I felt Tabbris take one of my hands from her place on my left side, while Shiori, sitting on my right, took the other. It was all I could do to offer them both encouraging smiles without upchucking from the way the ship was shaking. And boy wouldn’t that be a fantastic way to start off our whole mission here? 

The shaking was getting worse by the moment. Within a minute, Grease called back for us to brace ourselves. Then the whole ship lurched so much that I would’ve been thrown out of my seat without the safety harness. We spun around in several full circles, all of us trying not to cry out. There were at least three different warning alarms screaming through the cabin, accompanied by shouts from our pilots to one another about keeping the ship in one piece. I heard screeching metal, and then it was like the hand of a giant came up and swatted the entire ship. The lights went out completely, and we started plummeting really fast. Too fast, actually. Way too fast.

Thankfully, the ship slowed down abruptly, knocking us hard against our restraints. But on the plus side, we were now falling at a survivable rate. That lasted for just a couple seconds before we finally came down into what I prayed was the ground. And just like that, everything was completely motionless and silent, save for a slight creaking sound from the body of the ship that I was praying didn’t mean it was about to completely collapse in on us while we were sitting here. But hey, at least the alarms had stopped. Though I wasn’t entirely certain that was a good sign.

For a brief handful of seconds, we all just sat there in the dark. Then the emergency lighting came on. Well, it came on, then off, then on, then off, and finally back on and stayed relatively steady. I didn’t trust that to last, though. Hell, for all I knew, it was about to start an electrical fire. We all looked around at one another in the dim, somewhat flickering lighting before checking ourselves for injuries. Finally, Senny spoke up. “Something tells me we might want to get off this thing before it explodes.”

“Da,” Stasia agreed, already unstrapping herself as she added in a mutter under her breath. “And hope that we are not forced to use it again to get off this planet.“

Persephone promptly piped up with, “Oh, I have good news for that!” She beamed in the dim lighting. “This ship will probably never fly again. At least, not without months of work, and supplies that we can’t get on this world. So you’ll never have to ride it again.” 

There was a lot I wanted to say to that, but I kept my mouth shut and instead unstrapped myself. Then I had to reach down to pick Marco up off the floor. The poor beetle must’ve fallen out of my pocket while we were being jostled around so much. Together, we made our way to the exit. Robin had to shove at the door a couple times, before the whole thing completely fell off, hitting the ground beyond with a loud clang. That was punctuated by a large amount of smoke or steam filling the air in the doorway for a moment before it dissipated. Yeah, we had to get off this ship, right now. It had done a really good job of getting us to this point, but that was enough. Or at least I really hoped it was. 

Taking a deep breath while the others looked at me expectantly, I moved to that opening and looked out. They were giving me the chance to be the first of our group to stand on the planet, which I sort of appreciated. But first, I focused on Rahanvael, who had disappeared while we were descending. Looking that way as the ghost girl appeared beside me in that hatchway, I gestured with one hand. “After you.” 

She didn’t move at first, which I couldn’t blame her for at all. There had to be a lot of emotions running through the girl right now. Not only was she back on her home planet after so long, a planet that her own brother had so thoroughly devastated for millennia, but she was even back near her own actual home. Or the geographical spot where it had been, anyway. When I tried to think about how I would feel in her situation, I just… couldn’t. I couldn’t even start to comprehend what that would be like. But at the very least, I knew why she had to take a few seconds, and it seemed from the way everyone was patiently waiting, so did the others. No amount of preparing herself on the way here would have left her ready to immediately move when the time came. 

Finally, Rahanvael seemed to give herself a little nod, before floating forward. I watched as she emerged from the ship and went out several feet, clearly looking around. From the pain visible on her face when her gaze turned back my way briefly, seeing the place in person wasn’t helping. 

Looking back to the rest of the group briefly, I spoke in a soft voice. “We don’t know exactly where Mom, Denuvus, or the others are. Hell, Denuvus herself might not even be here, but let’s not count on that. You guys ready to get those spells on?” 

The others nodded, and we took out the coins we had prepared ahead of time, on our way here. There were three of them for each of us, for three separate bits of magic. The first coin had the spell that Judas had mentioned before, though modified with help from Persephone, Robin (they couldn’t cast magic but they had knowledge about a lot of it), and even Shyel. And boy had that been an interesting explanation to give. Telling the others (only Shiori and Tabbris knew before now) that I had a mental copy of Chayyiel living in my head, communicating with me while I was asleep and helping me train, had been a bit of a conversation. And had seemed to reinforce the idea of just how weird my life was. But in any case, between all of that, we’d managed to get the distance no one could talk within up from fifteen feet, all the way to about seventy-five. If we spread out when we saw Denuvus, we could make that cover a lot more ground. Which would hopefully be enough.

But if it wasn’t, we had the second spell. This one had come from Persephone originally, though like the first, we’d given it a few tweaks. If the spell picked up the words ‘My name is Den,’ it would immediately transport us to the nearest safe location at least one mile away. It shouldn’t hear that at all, given the first spell. But if, for whatever reason, that first spell failed, we had this one as a back up. It wouldn’t help us beat her, but it would remove us from the situation before she had a chance to make us do anything. That way, we could regroup. 

Finally, the third spell was specifically one that Shyel had taught me, when I told her what we were trying to do. It allowed telepathic communication amongst everyone who was using it, though only those people could send their thoughts. Others could receive them, but not send. So no matter how hard Denuvus thought her commands at us, we wouldn’t pick that up. We also wouldn’t be hearing every thought each of us had, as it only picked up what you intentionally tried to send. Now we would be able to communicate with one another even with the voice-muting spell active. 

Well, most of us would, anyway. The Robins were sort of the odd persons out on that front. Not only were they in a robot body, but that body also generated a constant field that negated active magic. The field didn’t extend any further than their body, but still. We couldn’t use any of these spells on them. Which, I still wasn’t sure how that worked with them being able to pass through portals, but maybe that was designed to be an exception or something? 

Either way, not being able to use the mute voices or instant teleportation spells on them wouldn’t really be an issue as far as Denuvus went. Her power didn’t work on machines. Which was largely why plan A for dealing with any sighting of that woman was for Robin to shut her up. We didn’t hold any illusion that it would be that easy, of course. But that didn’t stop me from smiling as I imagined the look on Denuvus’s face just before taking Robin’s fist to the face hard enough to knock her out. 

There was also the fact that the voice power wasn’t the only threat she presented. Just like Ammon, Denuvus had the same ‘kill things to gain their powers’ ability Bosch Heretics did. That’s why he’d had the ability to do that in the first place. Actually, I wasn’t sure if hers was more like ours or the stronger Natural-Reaper Heretic version. I’d never been clear on which one of those Ammon had. Either way, she obviously had a lot of powers. And we had no idea what those powers were. We had to be ready for anything.

With all that in mind, and the three spells activated, I slowly stepped through the hatch and down from the ship. My feet seemed to crunch the orange-reddish dirt, though I couldn’t hear it thanks to the silencing spell. I moved several feet away to let the others descend, while looking around. 

My first breath of air on Fossor’s planet wasn’t the best. I could smell sulfur and something else I couldn’t really identify but definitely didn’t smell good. The volcano in the distance took up almost the entire skyline. It had to be as big as the tallest mountains back home, if not more so. The whole thing was black and dark red, with imposing-looking jagged rock peaks all across it. 

Beyond the volcano and attached mountain range heading north, the ground was mostly flat and empty, with just this bare dirt. There were a few large rocks and very small hills, almost like sand dunes. Other than that, I saw no plants, no animals, nothing. 

At one point, this place had been a beautiful forest. But not anymore. Now it was barren. It was unlikely that anything could actually grow here for a very long time. Fossor had done his level best to destroy anything alive within several hundred miles of the place where he had grown up. Which seemed petty, but then again, this was Fossor. He was basically the patron saint of petty. 

Nope, nope, I didn’t like thinking of Fossor as the saint or god of anything. He was just a sick, twisted, dead piece of shit. 

Focusing on Rahanvael, I stepped that way and focused on my mental connection to her. Speaking aloud wouldn’t have accomplished anything. I know you’re not okay right now, but… I just want you to know that I’m here. And so is your world. So are your people. They survived. He’s gone. He’s dead and he’s not coming back. Your world might take a long time to get better, but now it has the chance. Your people have a chance. Thanks to you. Without you, I never would’ve survived what happened, and he… he’d still be out there. You saved your world, Rahanvael. You saved your people. Your dad would be proud of you. Your people should be proud of you. 

There was no response for a moment. She was staring off over the horizon. Finally, her gaze shifted to me, and our eyes met. Thank you, Flick, she silently sent. I think I’m ready now. 

Let’s go see my old home, and find out why Denuvus sent your mother here. 

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The Storm 21-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Our borrowed and slightly cobbled-together ship wasn’t going to win any big races, that was for sure. Not against most other ships that we could’ve been racing against, and definitely not against the Jitterbug. We were basically a guy limping along with one leg and unstable crutches, while the Jitterbug was… well, a teleporter. Mom didn’t just have a head-start, she had already won the race. The one to get to Fossor’s planet, anyway. I just had to hope that, whatever she had to do there, it would take long enough for us to finally make it and stop her. 

Stop her. Stop my mother. Fuck, god–I really did not like this Denuvus chick. I was willing to go out on a limb and say I was not a fan. Making my mother do–making anyone do something against their will made her horrible enough, but my mom? After everything she’d already been through with Fossor, and, and… and everything? Fuck that. Fuck Denuvus. If I could find her, and manage not to be completely controlled by her voice before–

Okay, thinking about the things I wanted to do to that bitch for pulling this shit with my mother wasn’t easy when I let logic slip in. She was dangerous, too dangerous for me to do anything to by myself, that was for sure. And yet, I really, really wanted to punch her. I couldn’t even picture her properly because I had no idea what she looked like, but I stmaill imagined it. 

The only advantage we really had was that we knew where my mom was going. There was really no other reason for Denuvus’s orders to kick in right now. She had to be heading for Fossor’s homeworld. We still didn’t know what the puppeteering bitch might want there, but it was the only thing that made sense. She had known that Mom was with Fossor, and almost certainly knew that he would take her to his world now and then. 

We knew where she would be, so I didn’t really have to spend any time trying to solve that particular mystery. Which meant the next few days were mostly spent doing nothing but sitting around this tiny, cramped ship, urging it to go faster with every fiber of my being. It didn’t help, of course. But I still thought about it very, very hard. 

The other thing I spent a lot of time doing, while we were all collectively sitting around rocking back and forth as though that would make the spaceship get to another planet any sooner, was talk to Rahanvael. She didn’t know what Denuvus might want there either. Not specifically anyway. She knew her brother had kept a lot of powerful items locked up in various safe locations, but it could be any of them. Or it could be something else. Hell, for all we knew, Rasputin being there and Denuvus having designs on the place (or something on it) could be related! We just had to get there and find out. 

We also checked in with the people back on Earth. Or, well, in the Sun, but still. The last person I had possessed (which was intentional) had been my dad, so I’d used the partial recall to let him know what was going on. He uhh, he wasn’t happy, to say the least. They were sending another ship out to help with this whole situation, but even with the help of some powerful transportation magic, it wouldn’t be here for awhile. Dad and I had a long conversation about that whole thing. Part of him clearly wanted to tell me to stop and wait for backup. But this was my mother, his wife. We’d just gotten her back after so long apart. There was absolutely no way I would sit around and wait to see what happened. By the time those reinforcements showed up, it could all be over. So, reluctantly, he had agreed that I needed to do this. We were the closest group to Fossor’s world. We had to stop whatever Denuvus had planned. And not just to save Mom, but also because, well, hadn’t the people of that world been through enough? We might not know what Denuvus wanted, but I was willing to bet it wouldn’t be sunshine and rainbows for anyone there who might get in the way. 

Finally, after several days of sitting in what amounted to a slightly oversized van, we were getting close to our destination. Well, somewhat closer anyway. We still had about half a day to go. Still, we were all going to be glad for the chance to get out of this thing and stretch our legs. The front of the ship had two seats, one for a pilot and one for the co-pilot, while the back had about a dozen of them arranged along the walls of the compartment. The seats could face inward, toward one another, or turn to face the front or back of the ship. They also reclined like airplane seats when in the front or back facing position, so we were able to sleep… somewhat. Still, this whole thing had been like sitting on a plane for several days in a row, and that wasn’t exactly an experience I was eager to repeat. 

“How many more do we have?” Asenath asked, while holding up the half-finished bag of blood that Shiori had passed her a minute earlier. “We should keep rationing them. We don’t know how long this’ll take, and…” She paused to consider her words. “And we don’t know what the animal situation on the world is.” 

Stasia, the other vampire in our little group, shifted in her seat while flatly putting in, “Besides which, if we cannot reacquire your special transport ship, the trip home could be very long indeed. This may have been an unpleasant few days within this ship, but an extended trip all the way back to Earth without enough blood to maintain our functions…” She trailed off before simply finishing with, “Not my idea of a good time.” 

The other thing they weren’t saying out loud, of course, was that they weren’t going to drink from the people on that world. Again, they had been through enough. Hell, for all we knew, Rasputin was there using those people as Lunchables right at this very moment. 

“Don’t worry,” Shiori quickly assured both of them. “We weren’t stupid. Athena and Wyatt were the ones who helped pack the blood reserves, and uhh…” She shifted the sack she had pulled out to show them several dozen bags of blood still inside. “They might’ve over-prepared a little bit. We could be out here for another couple months before you guys would start running out of these things, as long as you don’t gorge yourselves.” 

“Yeah,” I agreed, “for some reason Wyatt thought it might be a bad idea for us to be in a confined space all alone with a couple hungry vampires. I’m surprised he didn’t make us take a year’s worth of blood, to be honest. Maybe he couldn’t actually find that much in stock.” While saying that, I watched my new monkey-tailed beetle run back and forth along my arm, from the tips of my fingers all the way up to my shoulder and back again. I could say this much about the little guy, he definitely had a lot of energy. And he was curious. He kept crawling out of my pocket to wander around. The dude was a brave little explorer. Which was why I had decided to call him Marco, as in Marco Polo. Which worked even better considering how often I ended up calling his name while looking for him when he kept wandering off.

“How does that work, anyway?” Twister, sitting up in the copilot’s seat next to Robin (the only one of us besides Persephone knew how to pilot a ship), piped up. “I know how Senny gets blood most of the time. From people who deserve to lose a little bit of it. But how do you guys end up having hundreds of bags of blood just sitting around waiting to be part of a picnic lunch? I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, but in the Bystander world, blood for hospitals is kind of important. They’d notice if a few bags went missing, and they’d definitely notice if a hundred of them disappeared. Even if you only took a couple from a bunch of different hospitals all over the world, that’s still–” 

“Don’t worry,” I quickly informed her. “We didn’t take blood bags from any hospital. You’re right, they need everything they can get. There’s volunteers on the station who give blood for any vampires we run into, or who, uh, live there sometimes.” My head nodded toward Asenath herself. “With regeneration powers, giving blood isn’t really that big of a deal. I’m pretty sure you’ve even got some of mine in there.” 

“I thought I tasted snoopy reporter turned heroic Necromancer in one of the bags,” Stasia informed me with a very slight smirk. 

Flushing a bit despite myself, I retorted, “Yeah, well if you start experiencing an abnormal amount of being abducted away from the people who care about you by megalomaniacs who deserve to swallow all of their teeth, that’s probably a side effect of my blood. Sorry about that.” 

Her gaze met mine while she gave a single nod. “I’ll keep that in mind, but do not apologize. I never object to an excuse to make someone who deserves it swallow their teeth.” 

“That said,” Judas put in, “it’s a lot more fun to make that a group activity. So let’s try not to get separated while we’re doing this.” 

“I have become slightly… fond of working alongside you and the Robins,” the woman agreed. Then she looked back to me and sobered slightly. “But speaking of working with a group, what about your food? Asenath and I aren’t the only ones who will be in bad shape if our nourishment runs out.” 

“We’re good on that front too,” I replied, “Right, Persephone?” 

Brightening a bit, the white-haired woman gave a quick nod. “Yes, Flick. We are very good on that front.” She carefully repeated my words back to me, adding a thumbs up. It was a somewhat new gesture for her, and she seemed to like making it. At the same time, she held up the other bag of provisions we’d brought so we could see inside. As promised, there was still plenty, another product of Wyatt insisting we be overly-prepared. “I assisted Mister Rendell in making many of the sandwiches, and selecting fresh fruit. He found me choosing fruit to be amusing, because of the stories of my namesake.” 

Snorting despite myself, I nodded. “Yeah, well, Hades may not be here with us, but let’s still try not to get stuck anywhere. And uhh… did you choose any pomegranates?” 

She just smiled at me. “Do you enjoy pomegranates?” 

My mouth opened, then shut. “Ah, you know, I’ll wait and be surprised. Anyway, yeah, we’ve got enough food for awhile at least. And it’s probably easier for us to restock than you guys. I’m pretty sure we’re gonna run into and through a lot of other problems before food becomes an issue.” 

Judas nodded. “As far as that goes, can I just ask if we’ve put any more thought into how we’re going to stop this Denuvus if she’s on this world too? It was one thing when we were coming here to find Rasputin and possibly any allies he managed to recruit. But with your mother being compromised,” he added with a look toward me, “that complicates things to begin with. No offense, but she’s a pretty damn strong Heretic with a lot of experience. If Denuvus gave her orders to stop us with violence, that could get… bad. Add in the possibility of Denuvus herself, and I’m afraid it goes from bad to impossible.”  

“It’s not impossible,” I objected. “Difficult, sure. The main thing is to get to Denuvus, if she is around, and contain her before she can say anything. Which, I mean… that probably gets a little more difficult considering none of us actually know what she’ll look like. Denny described her, but I get the feeling she changes her appearance a lot. You know, cuz she’s sneaky like that. She could look male, female, or anything in between.”

Tabbris hesitantly spoke up. “So we have to look for someone your mama’s spending time with who isn’t someone we know? Or even if they are someone we think we know.” She frowned then. “Maybe just knock everyone out and sort through them after?”

“I like the way the kid thinks,” Judas put in. “And as it happens, I might have something that could help with any potential Denuvus shenanigans. It’s a spell that blocks anyone from talking inside a certain radius. I can’t get that radius out to more than about fifteen feet myself, but maybe with some help from those of you who can use magic, we can extend that.” 

My head bobbed. “Right, and we have Robin too. Does, uhh, can Denuvus actually affect you?” 

There was a brief pause before their eyes shifted to green for Med. “Perhaps not, but that is not something we would want to test the hard way. We have no desire to hurt any of you if it turns out her power does affect us.” 

With a grimace, Judas gestured. “Yeah, believe me, I’ve seen them go to town on someone before. You really don’t want to be on their bad side. Let’s operate under the assumption that they can be affected, just so we can be pleasantly surprised if the situation pops up and they’re not.” 

“Fair,” I agreed. “Let’s talk some more about this spell of yours, and see if we can come up with some sort of plan. Then we should get some rest, cuz it looks like we’ve got about ten hours before we get to the planet. 

“And something tells me we’re not gonna get a lot of sleep while we’re there.” 

******

Well, whatever Denuvus had sent Mom to do on this world, it wasn’t immediately apparent as we came into orbit. I finally had my first real look at the place, as we stared through the forward viewpoint. The image was enhanced somewhat on the dingy screen. We could see the land masses down there. It looked like there were three major ones. The largest was shaped like a potato with a thick stem sticking out the top, near the middle. It was big enough to take up just under half of the planet by itself. It looked like there were a lot of large lakes and rivers on it, but still. It was a huge continent, considering this planet was a little under twice as large as earth. 

Meanwhile, the other two continents were each shaped a bit like crescent moons. They were on the opposite side of the planet, where most of the ocean was. One was almost nestled inside the other, like two people spooning, though there were a few thousand miles worth of water between them. The slightly larger one on the outside looked like it was about as wide as the United States at its fattest point right in the middle, and about as long as the distance from the bottom of Mexico up to the stop of Canada. The second, smaller one on the inside was about two-thirds that size, and a lot more curved. It was more like a C than a crescent, come to think of it. 

From what we could see, the smaller continent there was mostly desert. The larger one on that side had a good bit of greenery, as well as snow toward the northern end. And the massive continent on the other side of the world had a bit of everything. There were forests, deserts, snow in the north and south, tropical areas, all of it. From here it all looked like what we might see on earth, mostly because it was all just colors and vague shapes. The clouds were even white, the water blue, it was just… immediately familiar. And yet, seeing it still made a shudder run through me.

That wasn’t fair, of course. This world had done nothing wrong to me or my family. Nor had any of the other people on it. They were even more the victims in all this than we were. And yet, staring down at it, part of me couldn’t help but think that this was where he had come from. I shoved the thought down hard and swallowed before turning to look over my shoulder. 

Rahanvael was there, hovering near the back of the ship, past everyone else. Our eyes met, and I gestured. “Come on, you should see this place.” 

She was a ghost, of course. But the others still moved out of the way as she came closer. I stepped aside as well, giving her a chance to stare through the screen at the world she had left behind. I heard the sound she made deep in her throat as she stared that way. It was a mixture of relief as well as regret. And, I was sure, a lot of grief.

“Home.” Her voice was quiet, as she raised a finger to point toward the south-central area of the large continent, just a little bit above the snow line. “Our home was there, in a city that doesn’t exist anymore.” She looked away, gaze dropping. “Now there’s a volcano where it was.” 

Fuck, he really was a spiteful piece of shit, wasn’t he? Absorbing that reminder, I sighed. “I wish we could just introduce ourselves to your people down there and talk to them about everything that happened.” 

“Soon.” That was Judas, stepping over next to me in the cramped space. He was peering at the image on the screen. “You’ll be able to tell those people what happened to the monster who enslaved them, and we’ll be able to find Rasputin. But first, priorities.” 

“Yeah, whatever Denuvus is up to is a pretty big priority,” I agreed in a soft mutter. “And so is my mom. We just have to find her. Them. Mom, Nevada, and Mercury. Before something bad happens. Sorry, something worse.” 

To that end, I glanced toward Robin and asked, “Do we have anything yet?” 

Their eyes were amber-brown at the moment, so Hood was the one talking. He was also the one who knew how to pilot the ship, as it happened. “I see a lot of dormant defenses all around the planet. Both on it, and on one of those two moons over there. If we hadn’t shut down those alert systems, we would’ve had a lot more trouble when we got here. Other than that, most of the planet appears to be stuck in very… near-Renaissance era Earth level of technology. Our scans didn’t detect any ships, except for one. I can’t say for sure, given how old and… ill-maintained the equipment on this thing is. But the basic shape and size does seem to fit the Jitterbug.” 

“Where is it?” Asenath immediately asked, leaning up over the back of the seat behind them. 

In response, Hood pointed to the exact same spot Rahanvael had earlier. “There. Near the base of that volcano.” 

We were all silent for a moment, until I sighed and reached up to let Marco crawl off my shoulder to my hand. “Well, of course, that’s where Fossor would keep something important. Rahanvael, I hope you’re ready for this. 

“Cuz it looks like you really are going home.” 

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The Storm 21-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Flick!” A voice shouted in my ear, drawing my attention away from seeing through Rahanvael’s eyes. Suddenly, I was back in the locked room, facing the others. Shiori’s hand was on my arm as she shouted my name, with Asenath and Twister right behind her. Tabbris was to one side, with Persephone, Stasia, Judas, and Robin a bit further back. All of them were staring at me intently, wanting answers about what the hell had just happened. 

My mouth opened, then shut, as a wave of confusion, fear, and guilt washed over me. Guilt that I hadn’t noticed anything wrong with my mother, no matter how ridiculous that was. Fear over what she was being forced to do and why. And confusion over what we were supposed to do now. Finally, I swallowed and quickly told them what I had seen. 

The revelation made them all reel backward. Stasia was the first to find her voice. “Denuvus? He is just a myth, a story!” 

“No, she’s not,” one of the Robins put in before adding that Denny’s power had come from Denuvus, by way of Ammon. 

“Yeah, she’s definitely more than a story,” Asenath murmured, frowning at the wall. “Even if she’s spent a lot of time and effort muddying the waters as far as that goes.”  

While they were explaining that, I looked back to the emergency containment wall. “We’ve gotta get out of this place. And then we’ve gotta find that ship, stop Mom from doing whatever Denuvus is trying to make her do, and–” I stopped myself. Focus. First we had to get out of here. Then I could think about the next part.

“Well, you can’t break it down.” That was Judas, speaking remarkably calmly considering the situation as he stepped up closer to examine it. “I’ve studied a lot of this stuff when I was trying to track down Charmeine, and this sort of seal is meant to hold in dangerous things.” 

“We can’t even break it with Robin?” Twister looked that way pointedly. “You guys are really strong, aren’t you?” 

“It’s not a matter of being strong enough,” Judas informed us. “It’s the fact that if you do break it down, the station goes with plan B.” 

“What’s plan B?” Shiori put in, giving me a quick, worried glance. 

“It vents all the atmosphere,” came the flat response. “And if that doesn’t do the trick, it gets rid of everything else. By which I mean it transports everything that is not marked as belonging in this structure out into the nearest star. Which, believe me, is harder to survive without one of those special stations you do your math homework on.” 

“He is correct, Flick,” Percy confirmed after reaching out to poke the metal wall. “This sort of system is designed to ensure that any dangerous thing–most dangerous things that might escape confinement are killed before they can become a threat.” 

Which, of course, meant Tabbris’s wings were out. She couldn’t destroy the wall that way. She and I exchanged a quick, meaningful glance. We’d both been thinking the same thing. 

Asenath sighed softly, fingers brushing the wall. “So we need a better way.”

“Yeah, and I have one,” I agreed, turning back that direction. “My ghosts. We can send them to find the control room and undo this lockdown. This place can’t be that big.” 

So, that’s what I did. Sitting down cross-legged on the floor, I focused on summoning up more of the ghosts I had brought with me, including pulling Rahanvael back and bringing Seth and Grover out. In total, I sent about twenty ghosts through the facility, telling them to look for anything that could control this security lockdown and to give a tug at our connection if they found something. 

Once they were all moving, I opened my eyes and focused on the others. They were staring at me again. Immediately, I glanced away before muttering, “I didn’t know she ever had any contact with Denuvus. When? Was Denuvus here on the station? Could she–” 

“No,” Asenath interrupted, taking a knee in front of me. Her gaze was gentle, yet I could still see the intensity buried behind it. She was suppressing all the emotions she was feeling right then, over yet another obstacle being thrown up between her and answers about what had happened to her father. “It had to be while she was with Fossor. Don’t you see? Whatever actually happened, the trigger was clearly her coming to his world. Denuvus had to have set that up while she was still with him, because she thought he’d take her back there.” 

“She’s right, Flick,” Shiori agreed, dropping down to sit next to me. “You said yourself that Fossor had a bunch of randos in that place watching his fights or whatever, right? She probably got in that way. It wouldn’t have taken long to talk to your mom and give her… whatever orders. Maybe she even told her to check in now and then without anyone knowing, so she could update them.” 

“But what orders?!” I found myself blurting. “Why–what does Denuvus want with Fossor’s world? Why is she taking Mercury and Nevada with her?! I don’t–I’m lost right now.” I felt like flailing, but instead folded my arms tight against my stomach. Even with the reassurances, I was still terrified about what Denuvus might be having my mother do, and what she might make her do when she was done. 

“We are all very confused.” That was Stasia, of all people. When I looked up, she met my gaze evenly. “And your fear is understandable. But fretting will not produce answers. Panicking will not produce answers.” She paused then before adding a bit more quietly. “Discussion can be helpful. Blaming yourself, or spiraling inside, is not.” 

Tabbris, crouched next to me, gave a quick nod. “We’ll find your mama, Flick. It’ll be okay. You know, cuz if Denuvus had her take Nevada and Mercury, it’s gotta be because she wants her to do something big, right? I mean, something that’s gonna take time. And we can use that time to get out of here and find a way to follow them, right?” She offered me a faint smile, hand touching my shoulder. “Denuvus does big plans, not little ones. And big plans take time.” 

“Besides,” Senny pointed out, “I doubt she would’ve allowed any leeway for your mom to leave the note telling you who it was if she intended to kill them. Murdering the founder of the Heretic Rebellion and letting everyone know who did it is… a bad idea.” 

She was right. They all were. Squeezing her hand, I looked over at Stasia. “Yeah, I’m not going to blame myself. I think I’ll focus on blaming Denuvus. Especially once we find her. But before that, we’ve gotta get out of here, then find my mom and the others before they do whatever that puppeteering bitch wants them to do.” 

Persephone spoke up then. “If this woman really set up these orders before your mother was ever rescued, it must be about something on that world that has been there for a long time. Something she could be certain wouldn’t be removed or leave before Joselyn could go there.” She paused then before adding, “Or die.” 

I blinked up at that. “You know, that’s a good point. This can’t be about a specific person there, because that piece of shit killed his own people all the time. He sacrificed thousands on a whim. There’s no way Denuvus could be sure that any particular person would still be alive by the time my mother was sent there. So it’s not about a person, and it can’t have any sort of time limit. It’s not a specific day or hour or time of year. Denuvus must’ve sent her for something that’ll always be there. Maybe some sort of artifact that Fossor found at some point and put in a treasure room or something?” I shrugged helplessly. 

We talked a little bit more, but didn’t really get anywhere important with it. We just didn’t know enough. Before long, however, one of my ghosts tugged at our connection. I focused on seeing through his eyes, and found myself looking at a small, twelve foot square room with a bunch of computer consoles around the sides of it and one chair with a few small beetle-like creatures crawling across it. Apparently even a place like this managed to have an insect problem somehow. In any case, I quickly thanked the helpful ghost and asked him to wait there. Then I relayed the information to the others before adding, “So, now what? How does my little buddy out there actually disable the security alarm?” 

It was Persephone who answered, her voice steady and… kind of calming, actually. In this moment, she seemed completely at ease. “Tell him to look for a series of four small light bulbs in a vertical line. The second one down should be slightly larger than the others. And there should be a horizontal lever somewhere close to it, probably a bit to the right. Do not touch it, but find the lights and tell us what color they all are.”

So, I passed the message along and then watched through his eyes as he scanned the consoles before finding what she was looking for. Speaking aloud, I informed the others, “Okay, the top light is sort of light blue, then the bigger one under it is red, and the other two below that are yellow. There’s that lever you were talking about about six inches to the right of the third bulb. Well, sort of in between the second and third.” 

“Good,” Persephone replied simply. “From the third bulb, moving to the left and slightly down, there should be a small toggle. It will be very difficult to see as it is quite small and the same color as the console, so he will probably have to look very carefully.” 

Once again, I relayed those instructions, and once the ghost found the toggle (brushing another bug out of the way in the process), I sent along Percy’s message to flip it. That turned one of the bottom two lights from yellow to red, but Percy insisted that was a good thing. And from there, we continued that way. She described what she needed to look for, I passed on the message and he found the bit in question. He pushed buttons, pulled levers, moved a small plug from one outlet to another, even ripped a couple wires out. According to Persephone, we didn’t have the actual code to shut down the alert manually, and it wasn’t as simple as just hitting a button. But apparently she knew the system well enough to actually override it. Essentially, we were hotwiring the damn thing. I had no idea the Revenant girl knew how to do something like this. But then again, she was full of surprises. 

Before long, even as a part of me was saying it was taking forever, Persephone passed along one last instruction, and when the ghost touched that final button, there was a loud buzzer that rang throughout the entire facility. Then, with a whooshing sound that was positively beautiful, the security door retracted. We didn’t waste another moment. As soon as it was out of the way, we were all running down the corridor. From my pocket, I produced the two tiny glowing rings from that power I had inherited from that Olympian ghost, Elemiah. Tossing them ahead of me, I made the rings flip around and grow so we could all run through the acceleration sides, picking up speed as we went. Soon we were running several times faster than usual. Obviously the vampires and Mevari could go even faster if they wanted to, but we were sticking together. 

We didn’t head for the hangar bay, however. We already knew that was empty. The ship we had arrived in had been the only one in there, and Mom had taken that. However, Grover had actually found another ship while he was searching for the security console. We weren’t sure what sort of shape it was in yet, considering how dark it was in the area where he found it, but it was our best shot.

Grover and Seth had used the time while we were getting the security lockdown lifted to carefully find a path through the corridors for us to take that didn’t involve needing to go through walls like a ghost. I followed that path now, with everyone else trailing right behind me. There was absolutely no time to waste. Whatever that woman had sent my mom to do, we had to catch up with them and make sure it couldn’t happen.

The area this other ship was in was some sort of maintenance hangar. Thanks to the investigation the other ghosts had done, we knew there was a sort of long, winding tube thing leading from here to the actual hangar bay. Or rather, the area underneath. We were pretty sure there was a lift or something that would carry the ship up into that so we could get out into open space once more. 

First things first, however, we had to get this ship up and running. I just hoped it being in the maintenance hangar didn’t mean it was completely broken. I was pretty sure we didn’t have time for all of us to become expert space mechanics or whatever. Even if we did apparently have a head start with Percy. 

As we went into the small hangar itself, Shiori, Judas, and I all set off light spells to illuminate the place so we could see what we were dealing with. And what I saw wasn’t exactly encouraging. My first impression was that I was looking at a Volkswagen bus. That was seriously what it looked like, though maybe a few feet longer than one of those. The main body was red, with a white trim. There were two ovular wing-like structures sticking out of the middle on either side, both of which were kind of an ugly off-green with spots of blue. The hatch on the side was actually missing. Well, it wasn’t actually missing, I could see it laying on the floor nearby. It just wasn’t attached. And the rear of the ship was open with several components lying around on the floor behind it. Also, there were more of those bugs crawling around, most heading for darker shadows. We all stood there and grimaced at the sight. So much for just jumping in this thing and turning it on. Which, to be fair, really wasn’t that surprising at this point, but still. Not surprising, and not frustrating were two different things. 

“Tell me you know how to fix this.” Judas was saying that while looking over at Persephone, his fingers visibly crossed. “Like you fixed the lockdown.” 

“Eh, I think we can do something about that ourselves.” Robin, whose eyes had shifted to purple, grunted the words while rubbing their hands together. They were staring at the bits of ship eagerly, as if they couldn’t wait to get started. Purple eyes… I didn’t know that one off the top of my head. 

“Grease?” That was Judas, blinking that way with what looked like surprise. “Haven’t seen you out for a while. I was starting to think you didn’t like us anymore.” Glancing to the rest of us, he added, “My old friend Grease here is a she/her facet. She runs most of their mechanical knowledge.” 

“Ain’t no reason for me to pop out willy nilly,” the purple-eyed Robin, Grease apparently, retorted. “But it looks like y’all need some help getting this puppy up and running.” She looked over toward Persephone. “That said, I wouldn’t mind a couple extra hands if’n ya got some idea of what you’re doing. Especially hands as lovely as those.” 

I swore Persephone actually blushed a little bit, reflexively looking down at her hands before giving a quick nod. “Yes, I believe I can help. But it would be good for you to take the lead. I am not an expert at putting space boats together.” 

“I know a thing or two about regular cars back on Earth,” Asenath noted. “It might not mean a lot when it comes to this sort of thing, but I can chip in.” 

“We will all help,” Stasia put in. “At the very least, to be extra pairs of hands. Just tell us what to do.” 

While they were starting to work on that, I turned to Grover, who was hovering in the background staring at the ship anxiously. When he saw me looking, the small ghost boy came closer, shaking his head. “Sorry, boss-lady. We tried to find something better, but that’s the best–” 

“Stop,” I interrupted. “It’s fine. It’s great. You did great, all of you. Seriously. This is a random defensive security station Fossor threw up. The odds that there would be anything we could use were pretty freaking low, dude. We can work with this. We’ll find my mom and the other two, and we’ll find this Denuvus bitch. And then–” 

“Stabbing?” Grover piped up, sounding hopeful. 

Smirking just a little despite myself, I nodded. “Definitely a lot of stabbing. As much as you can handle.” By that point, I could see Seth coming near, so I looked that way and met his gaze. “Hey, we’ll get to Fossor’s world, and find Rasputin so he can tell us what happened to Tiras.” 

“You’re right,” he agreed, “we will. But one thing at a time. You ready to see what we got?”

As he asked that, a dozen more ghosts appeared, all of them holding or dragging what looked like large pillowcases made of the same stuff they themselves were made of. Another thing I had learned from my studies was how to help my ghosts make these bags. It took a good bit of energy to make them solid enough to hold things, but I managed it. And they had put that to use while looking around for a ship we could use, grabbing as much of Fossor’s tucked away treasure and trinkets as possible. Anything that looked like it might be special. 

“No time right now,” I replied, tugging a real bag (this one with its own extended space inside so it could fit anything) from my pocket before tossing it that way. “Can you guys put all that stuff in here? We’ll look through it later. And… and thanks, without you we’d still be stuck in that room. We–I owe you guys.” 

While they were busy with that, I turned back to face the partially disassembled ship once more. The others were already starting to go about putting the thing together under Grease and Percy’s supervision. From the look of things, this wasn’t going to be easy. Some of the components literally fell apart as they were picked up. But Shiori had already found a crate of replacement parts, which she and I started sorting through together to find stuff that wasn’t completely busted. I pushed all my worries about my mother as far down as I could for the moment, and just focused on helping to get our ride working. 

In the end, it took us two and a half hours, and a lot of broken parts. But finally, we stepped back, covered in (lower case) grease and dirt. Asenath was alone inside the ship itself, and as Grease (upper case) called out for her to ‘hit it,’ she did so. There was an initial whine of protest, then a few stuttering coughs from the engines, followed by a thick plume of purple smoke, then nothing for about three seconds. But just as my heart started to sink, the engines caught and thrummed steadily, as the junky-looking little ship rose a few feet off the floor and hovered there. It was working. We’d done it. Step one was done. We had a ride. 

“Hang on, Mom,” I murmured while everyone celebrated. “We’re com–” In mid-step after catching a hint of movement, I stopped myself and looked down. Sure enough, another of those beetle-like bugs was there. It looked unique and kinda cool, so I gestured toward Robin. “Hey, can you like, scan this thing or whatever? Is it dangerous?” 

Robin, eyes shifting to green for Med, looked it over before shaking their head. “I detect nothing venomous or poisonous. It does look unique, however.” 

“Yeah, it does,” I agreed. Tentatively, I put my finger out. “Hey, little guy. You wanna come on a trip off this station?” When the beetle crawled up my finger, I straightened and grinned toward Shiori. “See? New friend. He’s coming with us.” 

Yes, I was trying to distract myself from my total panic when it came to what was going on with my mother. Seriously though, the beetle looked really cool, with its metallic, almost neon pink and blue shell, three antennae instead of two, and what looked like a tiny unicorn-like white horn coming off its head. But really, it was the small, yet clearly prehensile tail sticking off the back that really made this beetle unique. 

It almost looked like a monkey tail. 

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The Storm 21-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Even with the prototype ship’s (Jitterbug, apparently) special transportation ability, we couldn’t go straight to Fossor’s world. The man had set up way too many automated defenses, and simply going straight to his planet would’ve tripped all of them. He may have been dead and gone, but that didn’t mean everything he had put in to protect his planet from intruders would just disappear. And fighting off every automated defense he’d thought of over the millennia he’d been in control sounded like a pretty bad afternoon to all of us. 

So, we had to disable them. Which would’ve been almost impossible in most cases, given his defenses were set up in various satellite bases scattered throughout dozens of spots in a couple different solar systems surrounding his actual planet itself. They were basically tuned to constantly scan the entire area around that world and react violently if they detected any intruders. Thankfully, there was one person besides the very-dead Fossor who knew where they all were. Rahanvael was able to tell us where each one was located. All we had to do was jump there and disable the system one at a time. Fossor had made sure they would all react at once and immediately to any attack or intrusion on the planet itself, but they could not all react in unison to protect one another just like that. Instead, some scanned one another at various times, just to check in and make sure nothing had gone wrong. If one did its periodic scan and found a problem, then the whole system would react. But Rahanvael simply told us the best route to take through disabling each one ahead of those periodic scans, so we always hit the one that was supposed to do the next scan before it could. 

Unfortunately, my ghost friend might’ve been able to tell us where each satellite base was, but she couldn’t tell us how to easily disable them. Rather than using codes or anything useful like that for her to pass along, Fossor had simply used himself as the authorization. The systems would scan all of us and if none of us were Fossor, they would attack. 

All of which meant this whole thing basically just required we methodically jump to each defensive point in turn, break through them, and physically disable the system. As in breaking or destroying it entirely. It was better than trying to fight all of them at once right on his own world, where his people had already suffered enough without becoming collateral damage. This way was slow, but definitely worth it. 

Some of the ‘bases’ were literal satellites that we just had to blast out of space once we were close enough. Others were bigger facilities inside of asteroids or small moons. Most were hidden really well, and if we hadn’t had Rahanvael to tell us exactly where they were, we would’ve been in trouble. They were set up to hide unless we were definitely close enough to see them, or even physically inside. Then they deployed everything from drone starfighters, to robots, to turrets, even automated magic defenses that had been left up. Some of which were really nasty. Again, Rahanvael helped by telling us as much as she could about each system ahead of time. She didn’t know absolutely everything Fossor had put in place, but she knew enough that we weren’t completely blindsided. 

In any case, those attacks went down fairly easily for the most part. We jumped in, blew up the satellite or went into the base, fought our way through whatever defenses were deployed, and destroyed the main computer that was controlling that station to shut the whole thing down. We took a break in between each one, not wanting to push ourselves too much. Besides, it wasn’t like they had a living boss to report to. If Fossor had been alive, we would’ve had to worry about him showing up if we didn’t move fast enough. But now there was no need to rush, aside from being ahead of the next scheduled scan. And from wanting to get this over and done with so we could get to the planet itself. But being impatient was probably a bad idea. 

The second-to-last base had been a simple satellite which deployed two drone fighters to attack us while charging for a rather explosive magical blast (one we had been prepared for thanks to Rahanvael and had disabled in plenty of time), we were all taking a break to eat something. The final defensive base in line was a full facility, and the biggest one yet. So we needed to be ready for that. Rahanvael wasn’t completely certain exactly what was inside, only that it was dug into the side of an asteroid and was probably about three miles wide by two miles long, a maze of various corridors and rooms filled with not just protective measures, but also various treasure Fossor had decided to stash there. Why he’d done that, nobody could say. Maybe he just figured putting stuff he wanted to keep safe in a place that was already designed to keep his entire planet safe was a good idea. Or maybe he didn’t want to waste all that empty space inside. Whatever the reason, there was bound to be some interesting, and incredibly dangerous, things in there.  

Mom, Mercury, Judas, Robin, and Twister were having a conversation with Rahanvael up near the pilot’s compartment, talking about what was coming up next and what we should expect to see. Meanwhile, I was sitting with Tabbris, Shiori, Asenath, Stasia, Nevada, and Persephone. We were all chowing down, though the two vampires were drinking blood from bags we’d brought along rather than eating the same sandwiches as the rest of us. 

Setting her now-empty blood bag aside, Stasia focused on me, her gaze curious. “I have heard of you, Felicity Chambers. Though what I heard was that you were being trained by Fossor himself to take up a place at his side. That… appears to have been a false rumor.” 

Flinching a bit at the memory, I replied, “Yeah, well he gave it his best shot. But that shot came back to blow his head off. Or stabbed him in the back of the head, I guess.” 

“That must have been quite the battle,” she calmly remarked. “And from other things I have heard, a very cathartic one.” 

“Boy, can you ever say that again,” Nevada put in after devouring an enormous bite of her sandwich. “That son of a bitch got what was coming to him. Just sorry it took so long.” Her gaze found me, the woman’s usual cheerful expression completely somber. “Entirely too long.” 

Swallowing hard, I made myself shrug. “Yeah, too many people suffered and died because of that bastard. But he’s dead now. And we get to tell his people they’re free.” From what I’d heard, they probably already had the basic idea. Fossor had been far too entwined with his planet for them to have no clue he was gone. But being able to tell them that he was never coming back and that they could do whatever they wanted? I was definitely looking forward to that part. 

Shiori, perched beside me, gave a quick nod. “That’s right, he’s dust. Less than dust. He doesn’t matter anymore. So why do you guys think Rasputin went there? What would he be doing on that world?” 

Persephone piped up immediately. “Oooh, ooh, very important question. Does anybody know if he went there before or after Felicity and Joselyn killed Fossor?” 

“You mean was he there doing something for that piece of shit?” Asenath thoughtfully replied. “Or did he just take advantage of Fossor being dead to head over there and get… or do… something the bastard would’ve stopped him from doing?” 

“Well, he didn’t have to go through and destroy all these defenses, right?” I pointed out. “He’s there on-planet and these things are still in place. He had to have had permission from Fossor to be there. Or maybe he stole something that would make the defenses think he had permission. Or…” I trailed off uncertainly, offering a helpless shrug. 

Stasia’s voice was flat, though I could hear the tense emotion underlying it. “We’ll just have to make sure to include that in the list of questions we’re asking him in between each punch. Believe me, he’ll answer all of them.” 

Tabbris, who had been mostly lost in her own thoughts over the past few minutes, shifted against my other side before speaking up. “He’s an Akharu too, like Tiras, right? So he’s gotta be really strong. And if he’s been around this long, he’s probably dangerous in lots of other ways.” 

“He can be as dangerous as he wants,” Stasia retorted, “it won’t save him.” She stopped after that, however, taking a moment to collect herself before relenting. “And yet, you are correct. He will be dangerous, and we cannot underestimate him. For all the time he has spent building up the reputation as a drunkard womanizer, he is powerful. Do not allow that reputation to make you see him as an easy target.” She paused briefly once more, then added, “And I will work to ensure my anger does not blind me as well.” 

“If he’s on Fossor’s world, whether he was invited or managed to get there on his own,” I put in, “then he’s definitely a big threat. No way would some random party guy who really spent all his time over the past few decades touring bars and nightclubs along the continental United States have made it onto that planet without having some secrets. Whatever he’s doing there, however he made it, there’s gotta be more to that guy.” 

We talked a bit more about that. Unfortunately, despite how long Stasia and her group had been looking for him and how motivated they were to get answers out of the guy, they didn’t really know that much about what he was capable of. He put up a really good facade of being a layabout drunk, yet he knew a lot about magic and what he called alchemy, creating various ‘potions.’ Some were simple Bystander-type science that was simply far ahead of its time, while others were actual magic imbued into liquids. 

It seemed like every day I was finding out more and more about how limited Crossroads’ understanding and teaching of magic was. Which clearly had to be intentional. The Seosten made sure we only learned and knew about the sorts of magic they could control. And it wasn’t like the hardliners back at Crossroads and Eden’s Garden would ever stop and talk to one of those ‘evil monsters’ about what sort of magic they could cast. 

Finally, Mom turned away from her own little group and spoke up. “Everyone ready for another jump, or should we take another few minutes to rest?” 

After exchanging a quick look with the others, I shook my head. “Let’s get this over with. I kinda want to know what treasures Fossor had stashed away in that place. And the sooner we break the last of these stupid bases, the sooner we can go to the actual planet. Those people deserve to find out the truth.” My gaze glanced toward Stasia before I added, “Plus, whatever this Rasputin guy is doing, I kinda doubt we want to just leave him all the time he needs for it.” 

The others agreed, so we all got ourselves strapped back into our seats. The transport would be immediate, but we couldn’t know for sure what exactly we would be jumping into. If there were already defenses deployed because of something we’d missed, or there happened to be other ships around (unlikely as that was), or… anything. Plus, the second we arrived, the base would react. Given the size of the place in comparison to what we had hit so far, and the fact that Fossor had stored some precious artifacts there, the response would probably be… elaborate and intense sounded like a couple of the right words. 

Now that we knew how to essentially take the ship out of its parked mode, the jump was smooth. One second, we were in the middle of deep space, and the next, we were right in front of the asteroid. Mercury called out a warning before sending the ship into a sideways spin, as the station’s defenses opened up with their first volley of shots. Four different cannons had appeared near the large metal hatch leading into the station itself, and they were going a bit nuts, filling every inch of space they could with lasers while Mercury nimbly danced the ship through increasingly narrow openings. This was getting nasty, and it would only get worse, as a much larger cannon was already being deployed. This one made the others look like peashooters, but it would take a few seconds to extend into place and charge up. And those few seconds were all we needed. 

Mom was standing right behind Mercury’s pilot’s seat and had her hands out, index fingers and thumbs shaped like a rectangle in front of her as she focused on the closed hatch. Despite the way the ship was spinning and turning, she kept adjusting to maintain focus on that metal door. After a couple more seconds of that, the steel, or whatever it was, turned transparent. We were still too far away to see that, of course. At least without powers that helped. But the cameras on the ship could see that far, and projected it onto a screen just above Mercury. He was looking that way, staring intently at the area revealed beyond the now glass-like door. We could see through it and into what looked like a hangar. 

The main cannon finished charging up and started to fire. But even as that massive beam made its way toward us, Mercury hit the button to make the ship jump once more. That time, we jumped into the station, since he could see exactly where to send us thanks to Mom making the metal doors transparent. 

There were still some threats to deal with inside the station, traps and defenses that Fossor had left in place. But, working together, we dealt with them. This was just another speed bump on our way to that world. We broke those defenses, disabled his magic traps, and destroyed everything in our way to the main systems. There, another magical forcefield wall blocked our way, just like every other base we had hit. But just like all those others, it had a fatal flaw. It was intended to be disabled by a ghost, and I happened to have a few of those. Granted, the ghost was supposed to know the ten-button code that Fossor included on the control panel, but Rahanvael knew that too. So, after a very brief wait once I sent her in there, the forcefield was disabled and we were in. From there, it didn’t take long for Mercury to use the console in order to shut down the rest of the system’s defenses. Then it was just a matter of physically smashing the computer, which we may have taken a bit too much joy in.

The point was, all of this was pretty routine by this point. We knew what we were doing, and just made our way through the place almost mechanically to shut down the security. And once that was done, it was time to check out what sort of treasure Fossor had stuck in this place. That part, at least, was new. 

Following Rahanvael’s directions out of the security room and down another corridor, our group was quickly approaching a set of metal doors at the far end, which were supposed to lead into the main treasure vault. There would be a few other defenses to deal with that weren’t connected to the main system, but for the most part, we were doing just–

“Wait.” Mom had abruptly paused just a few feet from the next door and tilted her head as though listening to something. 

“What?” Stasia frowned, glancing toward Asenath. “I don’t hear anything. Do you hear anything?” 

As Senny shook her head, and the rest of us exchanged confused looks, Mom held her hand up. “There’s something else here. I’m just not sure…” She turned in a circle, eyes moving quickly to look for whatever she had heard. The rest of us waited, listening intently. 

“Rahanvael,” I started to whisper, “do you think–” 

Mom spoke up. “Mercury, Nevada, come with me. The rest of you wait here, and be ready.” 

So, we waited. My mother and the other two started moving back the way we had come. I didn’t like the idea of splitting up like this, but Mom was in charge of this trip. 

Judas and Robin were talking together, while Stasia frowned and muttered something about it being just perfect if something went wrong right now. Shiori, Tabbris, and I stood together to one side, as I watched my mother, Mercury, and Nevada moving down the corridor. Twister, Asenath, and Persephone were nearby, having their own quiet conversation. All of us were mostly focused on trying to figure out what my mother had heard. 

When I saw my mother look back at us. She pulled something from her pocket, stone or whatever. As my mouth opened to ask what she was doing, a blast of purple energy erupted from the stone. It hit Mercury and Nevada, making both of them abruptly fall to the floor, apparently unconscious. 

At the same time, her hand hit… something on the wall, and an emergency siren began to wail. An entire wall came out of nowhere to slam down in front of us, cutting us off from Mom and the other two. 

It all happened that quickly. One second I was looking at her, and the next, she had knocked out Mercury and Nevada, and sealed the rest of us into this corridor. 

I was there in an instant, hitting the wall while the others shouted behind me. “Mom! What the fuck is–Mom! Rahanvael!” 

“On it,” the ghost girl quickly blurted, moving through the wall. As she did, I focused on seeing through her eyes. The hallway beyond was already empty, but Rahavael raced through it. Behind me, back with my body, I could half-hear the others saying something about getting the wall open, asking me what the hell was going on, and more. But I ignored them. My entire focus was on seeing through Rahanvael’s eyes as she rushed all the way back to the hangar. 

There. Mom was dragging Mercury and Nevada’s unconscious forms onto the Jitterbug. Rahanvael was at the edge of the hangar when the ship’s hatch closed. Not that that would stop her. She flew onward, straight toward the ship. But it was too late. The engines started up, and the thing lifted off before flying straight out into open space, leaving us behind. 

Through Rahanvael’s eyes, I saw the ship disappear into the distance. And I saw as she lowered her gaze to look at the floor where the ship had been a moment earlier. A floor where something was written in big red letters, as if spray-painted there. 

‘I’ll Be Back. This Was Denuvus.’ 

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The Storm – 21-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Right, so we needed to go to Fossor’s world if we were going to find the guy who could tell us what had happened to Tiras’s memory. Well, that was one of the reasons. I wasn’t exactly short on them at this point. Especially considering I had been promising Rahanvael that I would take her home so she could… move on. Yeah, an awful lot had been going on to distract me, which was nothing new. But it was finally time to do this. No more excuses and no more distractions. We were going there.

We, in this case, consisted of myself, Shiori, Asenath, Twister, Nevada, and my mother. And Tabbris, naturally. Avalon wanted to go, as did plenty of others. But we wanted to keep the group small for this first excursion. Besides, Wyatt had actually managed to dig up some interesting information about where the hardliners might be holding Gaia. It wasn’t anything that would lead directly to her, but it was something that had to be followed up on quickly. So, Valley and a few others were going to check that out before the trail went cold. With any luck, they would have what we needed to actually stage a rescue when we got back. That’s what we were hoping, anyway. 

Meanwhile, Columbus and another group had to follow up with the search for where Kushiel had taken Harrison Fredericks. They had a few leads too, which had to be checked out and couldn’t wait. 

So yeah, as much as I wanted to be involved with everything and helping everyone, it couldn’t work that way. We had to split up, and there was absolutely no question about where I belonged. This was the first trip to Fossor’s world. I had to go with them. I had to take my ghosts and help them find peace if they were ready for that. Not to mention helping Shiori and Asenath. One was my girlfriend, while the other was… I couldn’t define what Senny was. A close friend. The first Alter who had taught me that they weren’t all evil? Family in a way? She was important, and if she needed something, I was going to be there. After everything she had done, like hell would I let her go off without me to find out what had happened to her father. 

Jiao was another one who could have gone with us, speaking of family. But she was staying with Tiras. They apparently had a few leads here on the planet about what might’ve happened, and the two of them were checking that out with some help from others they knew.  

In any case, the previous couple of days following the revelation of just where Rasputin was had been filled with a lot of discussions about who was going and who wasn’t, and a lot of promises to be careful. Now it was Monday, February 11th. I had spent that morning having breakfast with my dad, grandparents, and others as Mom and I swore we would be careful and let them know what was going on. And then I went around to everyone else, the rest of my friends and family, to tell them the same while extracting similar promises given the stuff they were going to be busy with. We might’ve had to split up and do our own missions, but we didn’t have to be stupid about it. 

As our group of seven made our way through the Sun Station’s corridors after giving our last-minute goodbyes and promises, we were met by the other group that were going with us. Namely, the Mevari robot Robin, the vampire Anastasia (and the fact that I barely blinked at meeting the actual Anastasia said a lot about how my life worked), and Judas Iscariot. I’d still blinked a fair bit at meeting him, so my life wasn’t completely ridicu–okay, yes it was, but still. They had been helping Asenath–or rather had been looking for Rasputin themselves for their own reasons, but those reasons didn’t conflict entirely with Asenath’s. The point was, they were coming with. 

Robin was the one I’d seen the most over the past couple days. They were spending a lot of time with the Carnival, helping them understand their now plural-state and how to share a single body. Mostly because they themselves were plural. I still wasn’t sure why, exactly, or if it was an actual Mevari thing. They didn’t think so, but a lot of their memories were scrambled from the fact that they had apparently plummeted to Earth from orbit and been buried underground for who the hell knew how long before being discovered in medieval times. Now they wanted to find Rasputin because he was supposed to know what had happened to Marian. That Marian. See? Weird fucking life. 

Anastasia, meanwhile, had spent more time with Asenath. The two of them being vampires gave them some common ground to start with. Then there was the fact that they both wanted to find Rasputin. Asenath because he had been with her father on that last mission and had to know something about what had happened to him. And Anastasia because she held the man responsible for what happened to her family. She’d promised to give Asenath a chance to get the information she needed before doing anything drastic. Apparently even in her deep-seated need for revenge, she didn’t want to take someone else’s family away. Or, in this case, take away Senny’s chance to get her father’s memory back. 

Finally, there was Judas. He… well, he was complicated. Apparently he was a Natural Seosten Heretic. And not just any Seosten. He was a Natural Charmeine Heretic. Which was kind of a lot, to say the least. Him existing, his entire history, his–all that. It was huge, and I really didn’t want to spend too much time thinking about it. So mostly I just tried not to. The point was, he was Judas and he wanted to help because Rasputin had some sort of past history with Charmeine, and he thought the guy could tell us how to find her ghost now. Because her already being dead wasn’t enough, though that did apparently make him happier. He wanted to make sure she was gone forever. 

So there they were, our three new companions for this trip. All of whom had reason to want to find Rasputin. And I… wow. Just wow. Sometimes, when I took a step back and looked at the people I interacted with and my life in general, it kind of seemed a little absurd. The robot with multiple personalities including Robin Hood, Princess Anastasia the vampire, and Judas Iscariot the Natural Seosten Heretic, were all going with us on a spaceship to another world. I… just… wow. 

Leaning closer to me after seeing my expression while Mom was talking to Judas about what was going to happen next, Shiori whispered, “It’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?” 

Snorting despite myself, I nodded. “Yeah, you could say that. Sometimes I just think this whole life is too absurd and I’m gonna wake up back in the ordinary world.” Even as I said that, my hand slipped down to catch hers, squeezing it. “Now that would be the real nightmare.” 

Returning the hand squeeze, Shiori nudged me. “So you don’t want to go back to being a normal girl?” 

Looking at her seriously, then toward my mother, and finally the others, I gave a firm shake of my head. “No, ma’am. I’m pretty sure that would be one of the worst things that could happen to me. Not knowing you, or Valley, or getting my mom back, or… or any of this. Life might be really weird, often terrifying, bizarre… and a lot of other things, but I wouldn’t change it.” Exhaling, I added, “But yeah, this is pretty high up there on the weirdness scale.” 

“Give it time.” That was actually Anastasia–or Stasia as she apparently preferred. The slim blonde vampire princess was looking at me, speaking in her clear Eastern European accent. “You are still very young. At the rate you are going, when you reach fifty, your life shall be so absurd it will make these days seem positively quaint and boring.” 

Nevada, who had been having some sort of discussion with Robin, turned our way and nodded. “She’s right. You should probably start pacing yourself with these dramatic events, or you’ll end up fighting deities or something by the time you’re half a century old.” 

“Pfft, please,” Twister put in. The young-looking black girl glanced over her shoulder at me and smirked. “I give her another fifteen years, tops, before she makes her way up to deity-level fights. Makes the rest of us look like slackers is what she does.” 

“Ahem.” Mom turned as well, gesturing. “Let’s not give my daughter any ideas about new threats to seek out, shall we? At least not until we get back from this little trip.”

We all started moving again, while I helplessly protested that it wasn’t as though I intentionally sought out fights like that. Not that it really seemed to help much, but I still felt the need to say so. Partly because it distracted me from thinking about the fact that we were about to go visit Fossor’s world. We were going to set foot on the planet he had come from, the one he had subjugated for so long. How were the people there going to react to my presence, to the knowledge that I held his power, to… to all of that? I had no idea, and thinking about it was making me even more anxious. So distractions were nice, even if it was getting harder to focus on them the closer we got to this trip actually happening.  

Oh, and there were two more people going with our group. Two people who met us at the entrance to the hangar where the prototype ship was waiting. The first was Persephone. She was leaving Cerberus here to help Andromeda, who was aiding in the search for Harrison Fredericks. But Percy herself was going with. She had a lot more experience than basically any of us did at space travel and going to new worlds, and there was the whole Necromancy thing. Between that and how much she wanted to help out, we couldn’t tell her no. And I didn’t want to. Not this time. She deserved to come with. 

The other person waiting for us was Mercury. The six-foot, one-inch tall man with long, dark-red hair that had been tied into a ponytail was leaning against the doorway, studying a handheld computer. When the rest of us approached in a group, he looked up and straightened. “Hey there, people. I guess I’m gonna be your pilot today, huh?” 

It was still weird for me to look at this guy and know that he had been possessing Carfried for all of last year at Crossroads. Though, to be fair, he hadn’t really been controlling Carfried. So the man I knew as my Introduction to Heretical Magic teacher was still the same guy. Mercury was more of a passenger for the most part, there to keep an eye on Aylen as the Merlin Key (and we still had no idea what that meant, exactly). He and Carfried had been doing a lot of talking over these past months, and were apparently now on fairly good terms. 

“And I shall be copilot!” That was Percy, who cheerfully reminded us of that before waving my way. “Hello, Felicity! How are your lessons with Manakel going?” 

Coughing, I gestured. “Ah, they’re good, thanks. I mean, he doesn’t want me to interrupt them right now, but we really need to do this and nobody’s ready for me to take him with us on this trip.” 

“Yes,” Mom agreed, “he can stay where he is. You can pick up your lessons again once we get back. Bringing him with would just make everyone too uncomfortable, here and there.” 

“That’s fair,” Mercury agreed. “This trip’s probably going to be a bit… intense as it is. But ahh, if you’re all ready, we’ll head onto the Jitterbug and get going.” 

“Err, head onto what?” Mom blinked, looking at the rest of us. “You mean the prototype ship?” 

Tabbris, lagging a bit behind me, giggled. When we looked at her, she shrugged. “Spark said she needed to name it and wanted suggestions because she’s better at designing things than naming them. I thought Jitterbug was cute.” 

“Oh, it’s definitely cute,” I agreed. “And you guys heard our pilot, it’s time to go. So let’s go get on the Jitterbug.” 

So, we did. First, of course, we let Judas, Robin, and Stasia spread out to look at the ship. They had done a lot of stuff on the planet, but this would apparently be their first trip to another world. Well, the first one Robin remembered, in their case. They had obviously been all over the universe before crashing here and damaging their memory. But for all intents and purposes, this would be all of their first times offworld. 

“You think you’ve been everywhere and done everything,” Judas remarked after running his hand along the side of the ship. “After spending a couple millennia trotting around every corner of the globe. Then you find out some teenager’s been to the far side of the universe and back again.” He glanced up, removing his sunglasses to focus on me. “Heard you took a trip to another planet within your first couple months at Crossroads.”

I had thought the man might be upset to find out that I had already killed Charmeine before he had the chance. But he wasn’t, at least, I didn’t get that impression. Mostly he’d wanted to know if I could summon her ghost with my Necromancy to tell her what he thought of her. When he found out the complication with that idea, he said he’d stick around and help deal with Invidia first, and then tell Charmeine what he thought of her, as well as make sure she wouldn’t be a threat to anyone else.

“Yeah, I guess I always liked to keep myself busy,” I murmured, before glancing toward Shiori. “But hey, she was there too.” 

“That’s true,” the other girl agreed with a shy smile my way. That had been the first time we really interacted together, the first… yeah. It happened right after I had talked to her about Asenath and how she wasn’t actually an evil monster. 

While I was thinking about that, Robin turned to look at us. Their eyes were light pink, which I remembered meant the one who liked to joke around was in charge. Quip, that was it. He–no, wait, she. Quip preferred female terms. She caught my gaze. “We also heard it took you a few trips to other worlds before you actually remembered to start taking a spaceship with you.” 

“Hey,” I retorted, “when you can just steal one from someone else once you’re there, why bother taking it with you? That way’s far more efficient.” 

Clearing her throat, Mom shook her head at me. “In this case, we are definitely taking the ship. And keeping it safe.” There was… something in her voice. I could tell she was uncomfortable with this entire thing, and part of  her probably wanted to call it off. Going to Fossor’s world, even when he was dead and gone, was a pretty big deal. It had to be hard. But we had to do it. We had to go there. His people deserved to hear the whole story, and if Rasputin was really there we had to find him. Hell, I really wanted to get him off that world if he was gonna end up bringing trouble. They’d been through enough as it was. 

“You have the ghosts who wish to accompany you?” Robin’s eyes had shifted to dark blue, meaning Sec was in charge. I had gotten the impression that in addition to being devoted to the group’s security and safety, as the name implied, Sec also handled a lot of general preparations. He even did a lot of the grocery shopping, apparently. Picturing those three walking together through a store pushing a cart loaded with food and all was fun. And distracted me, however briefly, from thinking about what we were actually doing. 

“Yeah,” I replied after a moment. “They’re all here with me, I can… feel them, basically. But they’re resting right now. Think of it like they’re sleeping. We’ve already got enough distractions as it is. When I need them, they’ll be ready.” 

“In that case,” Nevada announced, “I think we’re ready to go.” She had her crate full of weapons and supplies open in front of her, where she had been showing a couple things to Judas. Now she tapped a button on its side. The crate shrank and transformed back into its bracelet form, which she slapped around her wrist. “Unless anyone has any last second dramatic revelations before we get outta here?” 

None seemed to immediately jump out, so we all filed onto the ship while we had the chance. Or the others did, anyway. I waited by the ramp, watching as my mother seemed to stare at the doorway we had come through. When that dragged on for a few more seconds, I gestured for Tabbris to go ahead, then stepped that way. My voice was low. “Is everything okay, Mom?” There was no response, so I hesitated before repeating, “Mom?” 

Jolting slightly, Mom blinked my way as though she’d completely forgotten where she was for a moment. Then she shook it off. “Oh, yes, sorry.” Reaching out, she brushed a hand through my hair. “I was just… thinking.”

“He’s gone forever. You know that, right?” My hand moved to catch hers, interlacing our fingers. “He can’t hurt us anymore. And now we’re going to go tell everyone on his world the same thing. He can’t hurt them either.” 

Mom smiled a bit, pulling me into a brief yet tight embrace. “Yes, that’s exactly what we’re doing. Now let’s go. 

“Those people deserve to find out exactly how dead and gone that bastard is.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Interlude 20A – Robin and the Carnival (Heretical Edge 2)

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In the middle of a small, yet comfortable room, with a cozy fireplace surrounded by bookshelves, and a couple of soft, cushioned chairs that would be incredibly easy to fall asleep in, two figures sat facing one another. One was Robin, the silver-bodied robot. Their eyes were currently green, indicating that the Medical One was active. Their fingers were steepled as they observed their companion in the other chair. That companion, at the moment, looked like a very shabbily-dressed, heavily scarred, and generally unkempt version of Denise Cartland. She was known as Feisty, the werewolf aspect of the recently-born Carnival System. She was also shifting a lot in the apparently too-comfortable seat, sniffing in the air while looking around to take everything in.

“It’s a lot to get used to, isn’t it?” Med asked gently. The rest of their System had agreed that they would be the best representative to start things off. They didn’t have a lot of experience speaking with others like them, those who shared multiple minds and personalities amongst a single physical body, but they did have some. Having Quip or Chat start things off sounded good on paper, but the former could tell a joke at the wrong time, while the latter could be a bit too intense in talking people up right off the bat. Both of which felt like the wrong approach to take with someone who was still so new to all of this, and who had already been through so much as it was. If there was one thing the Carnival didn’t need, it was to be even more overwhelmed.

As soon as they had spoken, Feisty turned her attention that way. Her nostrils flared as she sniffed again before quietly responding, “What’s a lot to get used to? Knowing that monsters and magic exist, that the original versions of ourselves were horrifically murdered and we’re all melded-together aspects of the our dead selves and some part of Denise, living on a space station in the middle of the sun, sharing a single body among all of us, that the good side of the person who killed the original Denise in the first place is also in our head, or something I forgot to include in that list? Because it sure would be easy to leave something out.”

Med offered a slight smile of understanding. “Yes, there certainly is a lot. Personally, I was referring to that last part. From what we understand, you have what amounts to an internal semi-physical space where all of you interact together, rather than simply doing so mentally, as it were. Even to the point where you may pull others in to see and speak with all of you at once.” They paused, clearly considering before adding,”That does seem helpful, in some ways.”

Shifting forward to sit on the very edge of the plush seat, Feisty gave a slow nod. “I guess it is. Besides, when we’re not in charge of the body, we can all play on the rides and games.” She gave a somewhat fierce smile, adding, “I’m really good at the dart game. And the knife throwing. I think–” She stopped, glancing away with a frown. “The original version of me, the werewolf I mean, I’m pretty sure I spent some time with a circus. I keep having memory flashes of that, and  it’s definitely not from the Denise side.” A cough escaped her then before she turned back to the silver figure. “Some of us remember more of ourselves than others, you know. Do you think that’s because some of us were put together from more than one dead person? Maybe our memories have more broken pieces to sort through. Me, I’m pretty sure I’m just the one other person. At least, those circus memories are the only other ones I’m getting.”

“I’m afraid anything I say will only be a slightly educated guess,” Med carefully explained. “In our case, we weren’t created from combinations of other peoples’ memories, we simply… exist. It may be a result of our creators making us this way intentionally, sectioning off parts of our… processes into separate personalities for whatever reason. Or it could have been a result of the damage we took upon our arrival on this world. Or any number of other things. Suffice to say, we lack the specific comparison to your situation. But with that in mind, I believe it is a sound theory. If you are each drawn together from multiple similar… deceased people, it would make sense that having more source-memories to sort through would take longer.” 

Rather than respond immediately, Feisty glanced away as though engaged in internal conversation. Then she focused on him. “Hang on, Loudpound wants–” 

In mid-sentence, she shifted, growing larger as her skin turned rough and greenish into a pseudo-Orc shape. “Me, I got a bunch of different memories. Just flashes, but they’re all one of two things. Either fighting, or getting ready to fight. All the images I get are about being in the battlefield, in a barfight, in a wrestling ring, whatever. That’s all of it. So I was wondering, like…” Her hand waved a bit, face twisting into a frown as she struggled to think of the exact thing she was trying to say before shaking her head. “Fuck it, you do it. You’re better at that shit.” 

She was not addressing Med, or any of the other Robins. Instead, her body shrank and changed into the blonde figure known as Letters. She offered them an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry for the confusion, we’re still… working some things out. Tailor is getting a lot of practice though.” 

“Tailor is your shapeshifter?” Med asked, having heard a little bit about that whole situation. 

“That’s right,” Letters confirmed. “Time passes differently inside, so when the message comes that one of us needs her to make an appearance shift, she can take her time to get there but it still seems instantaneous to people on the outside.” Having explained that, she added, “And what Loudpound was trying to ask was whether you think the chicken or the egg came first. Does she only have memories of fighting and violence because she’s intended to be the Aspect who fights a lot, or does having memories of fighting and violence make her more likely to be the Aspect who fights a lot?” 

Med paused to consider, before holding up their hand. “I believe this is a question better suited for one of my other Facets.” 

With that, their eyes shifted from green to red. “Hey, well I ahh, I’m Brawl. Kinda fill the same role as your… is there a term you prefer for your relationship with one another?” 

“Headmate is fine,” Letters replied easily. “Some of us consider one another System siblings, Syslings. Others are closer to friends or roommates. Headmates. You’re the aggressive one?” 

Brawl shrugged, crimson eyes flickering a bit as though he was considering that. “I guess you could put it that way. The point is, when it comes down to it, it’s my job to make sure that whatever’s trying to hurt us or our friends, stops doing that. Sec and me, that’s Security, we sort of… you might call us twins I guess? We used to be more of a single Facet–ahh, that’s what we call ourselves, Facets. We used to be one, then it was like… there was a difference between protection and attack, so we split up. Sec’s the one that focuses on safety. Me, I hit things really hard. Not sure why or… or how we went from being one to two, exactly, but it’s what happened.” 

Letters seemed to consider that before holding up a finger. “Not to be rude, but someone else would like to speak.” 

That time, they grew only a few inches, body shifting into a male-presenting form though their hair remained long. It also darkened from blond to black with a slightly shimmering effect. The new arrival wore a bright pink suit jacket, pants, and tie, with a white silk shirt, a long cape that was black on the outside and pink on the inside, and a black and pink top hat. He immediately sprang out of the seat to stand up, voice filling the small room. “Hi, hello, how are you?!” He took a step back so he would have room to sweep into a bow. “I came with no name to my face, but I opened my mouth and they all said I was ostentatious. So here I am, Austin Tasious. Such a pleasure to meet you, we thought we’d have to wait a long time to find someone who understood.” Even as he said that, Austin was stepping that way, taking the Robins’ hand to shake firmly with both of his. “It really is such–ahh ahh, wait, what’s that behind your ear?” Reaching back slightly behind the robot’s head, Austin snapped his hand back and opened his palm to reveal a small silver egg, which immediately cracked open to allow a flock of colorful butterflies to sail out in every direction. They soared around the room before vanishing. 

Brawl, taking all that in, grunted, “You’re the magician.” 

“That’s right,” Austin confirmed while offering a faint smile that was slightly tinted with something a bit less cheerful. Worry. Despite his outward appearances and showmanship, he was worried. “Look, we’re all basically hanging all over your words in there. You said you and Sec used to be a single personality. Well I’m like… my whole thing is magic, okay? That’s who I am. I’ve got all the memories and skills of all the spells Ammon collected from the people he killed. If the Carnival needs magic, they talk to me. But now, like… are you saying that I’ll start splitting up into smaller versions of me. Not smaller, you know what I mean. Am I gonna stop being me and start turning into three, four, however many other people that aren’t quite exactly me?” 

There was a moment of silence while Brawl considered that before Robin’s eyes shifted from red to brownish as Hood took over. “Speaking as the first of us, at least as far as we can remember, one becoming several isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But we all understand what you mean, and why you’re worried about it. It can be complicated enough to share a body with others, let alone if you think you might be a…” 

Their eyes shifted to light blue for Chat to find the right word. “Placeholder. If you think you’re a placeholder for others to show up. And yeah, we get why you’re worried about that. Since, ahh, your siblings are more about being created from the memories of specific people, and you’re more drawn from a general skillset.”  

The eyes went to green for Med. “I would have phrased that differently, but yes. Sorry.” 

“It’s okay,” Austin muttered, making his cape billow a bit before adding, “Thing is, I like being me. It’s fun. I like standing out, I like my thoughts, my mind, my–me. I don’t wanna… disappear.” 

Eyes shifting to yellow for Sprite, the silver robot rose from the seat and took a step that way before quietly asking, “Uh, can we hug you?” She danced just a little from foot to foot, her reactions and apparent impatience making it clear that it had been one of the others who reminded her to ask for permission first. 

Austin agreed, and the two embraced for a moment, the Sprightly One holding relatively tightly (though not anywhere near as tight as their body was capable of) before adopting a cheerful tone. “I don’t think you’re gonna disappear, and neither does Med. You’re different from us. You were, you know, created differently. And… and even if you do change like Sec and Brawl, you’ll all still be who you are now, just with more of you, right?” 

After hesitating to consider that for a moment, Austin swallowed before giving a short nod. It was clear that not all of his worry was gone, but he did at least feel a little better. The magician boy offered a thanks before adding, “I’m glad you think I won’t just die.” 

With that, their body changed once more. The new arrival looked basically like Denny herself, but a, well, dead version of the girl. Her skin was pale, eyes sunken in, with visible scarring and rope marks around her neck. She offered a toothy smile. “He can’t be the dead one anyway, I’ve got that covered.” 

As Sprite made a squeaking noise of surprise, their eyes shifted from her yellow to the pink of the Quipping One. Quip looked the seemingly dead girl up and down before offering, “Lemme guess, you’re the one who shapeshifts into animals.” 

Then their eyes went back to green for Med, shaking his head. “More seriously, are you… Denise?” He was clearly worried that the girl was presenting herself as dead for more psychological reasons. 

The girl, however, shook her head. The rope marks on her neck vanished, while her skin remained pale but took on a slightly blueish tint. Her hair became soaking wet, dripping onto the floor. She had gone from someone who had been hanged to someone who had drowned. “Nah, that’s not how she died. And neither is this.” Her head shook demonstrably, throwing water around in the process. “I’m like Austin, except that where he’s got all the memories of the magic that all Ammon’s victims knew, I’m all their memories of dying.” Despite her somber words and appearance of a somehow animated dead girl, she offset them with a bright, cheerful smile. “I’m Bucket. As in ‘Kick The.’” Her explanation was followed by an audible giggle. “Every single person Ammon killed, I’ve got the assortment of their memories of the… you know.” She drew a finger across her throat while making a cutting sound effect with her mouth. “But then again, I also have super-powerful regeneration. There was this one time that Asenath chick threw a knife right into Ammon’s heart and he was fine right after. That’s the power I’ve got.” 

Her skin turned red and blustery, as if it had been horrifically burned, while her hair became almost non-existent, what remained sticking out in jagged strands. “Isn’t that funny? I get every memory of every death, but I can’t die. I just heal from everything. It’s like, ironic or something.” 

Med absorbed that, looking her up and down before asking, “Are you afraid you’ll disappear, or grow into multiple people?” 

“Nah,” came the casual response, “like you guys said, we’re not the same as you. Similar idea, but different. And even if we were, my whole job is to hold onto the memories of how the others all died. I mean, it’s a long list, but I don’t exactly need help doing it, you know? It’s all right up here.” Bucket tapped her forehead, even as her body shifted back to being almost normal aside from her too-pale skin and a single bullet hole right next to where she was tapping.   

“Well, if you ever do want to talk about that, or even about any… questions you have about the deaths you remember, feel free to say something.” Med extended his hand once more, as a slot opened up in his palm and a small card appeared. “That goes for all of you, of course. Our personal contact number is there.” 

Their eyes shifted to light pink, as Quip cut in, “And when he says personal contact number, he really means personal.” 

Then the eyes were dark blue, almost black. “I’m Sec. And the card links to a communication device within our own head. You will be able to reach us in virtually any circumstance.” 

As Bucket’s hand reached out to take the card, her body shifted and changed once more. The new figure was, again, slightly taller than the original Denny, though only by a couple inches. Their hair was light brown. Beyond that, the most obvious part of their outward appearance was that it was split in half. The left side of their body was clearly feminine, with longer hair that fell to their shoulder and slightly softer features (though their apparent age made that not quite as obvious as it might’ve been). The right side, meanwhile, had short hair that was somewhat messy and unkempt, with slightly more masculine features despite their young appearance. They wore a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved button-up shirt. The jeans were black, while the shirt was pink on the male side and white on the female side. 

“Hey there,” the new arrival announced in a female voice, “I’m Tick.” As she said that, a small swarm of buzzing bees appeared over her shoulder and hovered there. 

“And I’m Talk.” That time, the voice was male. “Or as they would’ve said in the Yupiltepeque region of Guatemala a century ago…” He repeated the same words, but in a language that was technically considered extinct.

“You’re showing off, Talk,” the female voice pointed out. 

“Like you’re not, Tick,” the male voice retorted before waving toward the hovering bees. “I mean, hello?” He stopped waving and focused on the nearby robot figure. “In case you’re confused…” 

“We’re twins.” Despite only one mouth speaking, both voices emerged in a perfect chorus. 

Eyes shifting to amber-brown once more, Hood lifted his chin while regarding them. “Twins, Tick and Talk. That’s pretty fun. Do… you know why you specifically are twins? Are you linked like this in the Carnival space?” 

“Nope, not usually,” came the response from Tick. “We’re separate in there. But we like to come out together.” 

“Share and share alike,” Talk agreed. “And I think we’re twins because we came from the same source. I communicate with and understand people.” 

“And I communicate with and understand insects,” Tick added. “Well, and control them. But Talk can control people too, in some ways. See, we think that’s why we’re so connected–” 

“And in sync,” their voices chorused together. 

With a faint smile, Hood nodded. “Well, that’s interesting. Wouldn’t you say?” 

His eyes shifted to green once more, as Med agreed, “It certainly is. And it’s somewhat connected to what we were talking about before. If you both originated from the same ‘communication powers’ source, simply diverging into ‘people or insects,’ perhaps that means any diverging, such as what happened with Brawl and Sec, is already done.” 

Hair shifting to blonde as her own choice of clothes (a white shirt and pants) reappeared, Letters carefully asked, “You meant what you said, about being able to call you whenever we want?” She was holding the card with the phone number. “We… we might need to do that a lot. You’re the only people we know like us. But we don’t want to bug you.” 

“Hah!” That was Quip, as the Robin System’s eyes turned pink. “Bug us. Pretty sure that’s Tick’s job.” 

“Ahem.” Their eyes shifted to green as Med took over. “Absolutely. Any of you can call us any time. We cannot promise that the one you wish to speak to won’t be… occupied in the moment, but the benefit of being what amounts to multiple artificial intelligences within the same body is that while one is physically occupied, the others are more than capable of carrying on a conversation.” 

“Which,” Chat put in, eyes shifting to light blue, “is a fancy way of saying, we’ll talk any time you want. About anything. Believe me, some of us love talking.” 

Letters nodded slowly. “Good. I mean, thanks. We could really use someone who can give us advice for… for all of this. I think… I think some people around here think it’s too strange, even for them. Or they think we’re all just Denny acting it out.” 

“They’ll learn,” Med assured her. “Or they won’t, but either way, it is not a problem with any of you. Remember, there is a difference between not understanding and wanting to learn, and not understanding because you don’t want to learn. But either way, it is not your job to educate them unless you want to.”

As Letters slowly nodded, her figure shifted again. Soon, Feisty stood there once more in her shabby clothing. “Okay, but… do you ever wonder about your memories from before you were on Earth? Do you want them back?” 

There was a brief pause, before the silver robot’s eyes shifted to amber-brown, the color for Hood. “If we’re going to talk about that, maybe we should sit down. 

“Because I have a feeling it’s going to be a long conversation.” 

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Calm Before 20-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Children? Children of Olympians?” As he said those words, Manakel started to continue before pausing. A slight grimace crossed his face. “I would ask if you were certain, but I do not believe you would have come to me with that if you were not.”

I was back in the room where the Seosten ghost man was being held, with my mother standing at the doorway watching. She had that sword that Kushiel had wanted held in one hand, her attention torn between inspecting it and keeping an eye on every move he made. 

“Yeah,” I confirmed flatly, “we’re sure. The others saw a few of them use powers. And they basically confirmed it when it was brought up. Except they said Kushiel is their mother. Apparently they seemed pretty loyal to her.” 

Manakel absorbed that, floating backwards a couple feet as though the information itself had physically rocked him. “Kushiel having access to any children at all is very bad news. Having Olympian children is much worse, especially if they are, as you say, loyal. It sounds as though she has raised fanatics.” 

I took a breath, preparing myself. “Okay, look I just have to ask. Did you know anything about this? Did you know she had offspring like that? You or your old self or whatever. Did you have any idea?”  

The man shook his head firmly. “I assure you, I may have had a good many issues by the end, but I was loyal to my people in my own way. Had I known there were living offspring from our ship, I would have had them taken away from her to be raised properly.” 

I continued to stare at him for another few seconds, trying to read if there was anything duplicitous in his face. I wasn’t sure, not entirely. But something told me he was telling the truth about this. It didn’t take much to know that allowing Kushiel to raise a group of potentially incredibly powerful fanatical teenagers was a bad idea. So, I glanced toward my mother and gave her a short nod. As I was doing that, Manakel spoke up. “When you say these children displayed powers, what were they?” 

“They didn’t have any necromancy,” I replied simply. “At least none that they saw. But apparently not all of them used any visible powers.” I thought back to what the others had described. “There was one who controlled water, another one who made the concrete turn into fists, big ones. Another made the air solid enough to walk on or hit people with. And then there was the girl, the one in charge I mean. Apparently she made explosions and teleported? They’re not sure if those were part of the same thing or what.” 

Manakel considered that, silent thoughts clearly passing through his mind as his expression twisted. “The water isn’t hard. That must be Sachael’s child. As for the concrete manipulator, my… best guess is Orifiel. He was able to control physical buildings and similar constructs. That may be an earlier manifestation of it. Or perhaps he simply wasn’t using the power to its full extent. Either way, Orifiel… passed away over fifty years ago. Kushiel must have either kept some of his genetic material herself, or acquired it from another storage facility.” 

He went silent for a few seconds, processing his thoughts. I didn’t interrupt, and he eventually spoke again. “The girl who manipulated the air would almost certainly be the offspring of Rabia. She was… killed by the Moon girl during your assault on Kushiel’s original lab. And as for the girl who teleports via explosions…” He paused before visibly sighing. “I’m afraid I have no idea. It could be a manifestation or use of an ability I didn’t witness, or… perhaps a combination of two powers from a pair of Olympian parents, which created this form… I apologize. It could also be part of one of my removed memories.” 

“Removed–” I started before realizing. “Right, Athena and Sariel talked about that. Seosten can just… remove bits of their memory and store them somewhere else to go back for later when they need them.” 

“Yes,” he confirmed. “If that is the case, all you need to do is acquire my stored memories from the homeworld.” Another grimace came then, as he lamented, “I intended those words as a mixture of a joke and praise for your probable ability to actually accomplish something like that. But I’m afraid it may have come off as taunting.” 

There was a lot I wanted to say to that, but I pushed all of that down and simply replied, “Yeah, well until we happen to get those memories, we’ll just have to go with what you said. Which, for the record, basically matches what Sariel and the others thought.” Of course we had talked to them first before asking him any questions. I want to know if he would keep anything back. 

Manakel, in turn, gave me a short nod. “Please tell me you are going to inform my people of this.” He hesitated before adding, “If you truly wish for this peace treaty to work out, telling them is a good idea. They will not react happily should they learn about it and discover that you’ve kept it from them.” 

Before I could respond, my mother spoke up. “Yes, we are going to let your people know about it. Especially Sachael. He was already willing to help us once before, and even if he hadn’t, I wouldn’t…” She glanced away before turning back, expression hard. “I wouldn’t keep a secret like that. Your people are… you have trouble creating offspring. These children… their parents deserve to know they exist. The ones who are still alive anyway.” 

The reminder made me grimace a bit. That reminded me of another potential issue. I had no idea if that air-controlling girl, Fuscus apparently, knew that Vanessa was the one who had killed her real mother. Or if she would even care. That whole situation was complicated, to say the least. And it had the potential to become even more so. 

Pushing those thoughts aside, I asked, “You were around Kushiel a lot more recently than the others here. I mean, you were on decent terms with her. Plus you uhh, you’ve had that connection to Tartarus. Do… do you have any idea why she might’ve wanted to take Harrison Fredericks? Is this a Kushiel thing, or a Tartarus thing, or–why does she want him? What is she planning to do?” We’d asked the other Seosten here on the station the same thing, of course, but they’d had no idea. 

Unfortunately, Manakel shook his head. “I’m afraid I couldn’t possibly guess why she would want to abduct the creator of cyberforms, aside from forcing him to create more for her. You said her ghost companions could possess them. Perhaps she wants to give them bodies they can use so they are not limited to ghost forms. But that is merely a guess.”  

“Yeah,” I replied, “that’s basically where we’re at too.” I hesitated before looking back to him. “If you remember or think of anything else–”  

“I will tell you,” he assured me. “Even if I was not intent on making up for past mistakes, removing those offspring from her control is vital. I will attempt to think of what they could be doing with Fredericks. Of course, I can make no promises, but I… I will do what I can. You have my word, Felicity Chambers.” 

That was basically all I could ask for, and all I would trust him to say. So, excusing myself, I left him there with his thoughts. As Mom and I stepped out, we looked at each other. “This could get really bad,” I said quietly. 

Still holding that sword, Mom gave a short nod. “Yeah, it could. But we’ll handle it. Whatever she’s planning, we’ll deal with it. Now, don’t you have something else to do?” 

I blanched a little. “Right, homework. Actually, does it count as homework if we’re living on a space station in the middle of the sun? Maybe we should call it sunwork. That makes it sound exciting.” 

Mom, for her part, chuckled while reaching out to brush my hair. “You can call it anything you want, my little Felicity. Just make sure you get it done. You know the rules.”

Snickering despite myself as I pushed worry about what Kushiel and her newly revealed entourage were up to out of my head, I replied, “Yeah, yeah, I am totally not allowed to go on any life-and-death, world-saving and horrifyingly terrifying missions to far sides of the planet and or universe until I get my homework done. Sorry, my sunwork done.” 

“That’s right,” Mom confirmed, hand brushing down the side of my cheek fondly. “Now you head on back to your room to work on that, young lady. Don’t make me get Wyatt to lock you down until it’s done.

“I’m sure he’d love the challenge.” 

*****

For the next couple of weeks, things settled down for the most part. We didn’t see any sign of Kushiel, or Invidia, or any of the other Whispers or Seosten ghosts. Besides the one we had locked up here with us, of course. We had groups out searching for Fredericks with no luck. The loyalist Heretics from Crossroads and Eden’s garden had already set up camp at his lab. Well, they set up camp outside of it. Apparently they were incapable of getting inside. Which raised the question of how Kushiel had managed to go through that and get him out of there. His defenses were too much for a joint team of Heretics to properly deal with, but she got through it as a ghost? Yeah, I had a few questions about that.

But, there was nothing to be done about that for now. Not until someone managed to track them down, or at least get a lead. For the moment, we had nothing. So, I went about my days like an ordinary student. Two weeks of ordinary school days, or at least as ordinary as they got around here. 

I had spent time helping the Carnival System explore who they were. They started attending their own classes alongside Dakota, Bobbi, and others. Fortunately, it wasn’t hard for the other students to accept them. Apparently multiple minds sharing one body wasn’t all that extraordinary or weird for them. I could only imagine what it would’ve been like in the Bystander world. 

I didn’t visit Zeke, of course. We weren’t friends, and my presence wouldn’t make his staying here any better. But from what I heard, he really wasn’t happy about the situation. They had him in a comfortable set of rooms without letting him near any of the non-Heretic students. He kept going on about being a prisoner, but what else were we supposed to do? We couldn’t trust him not to react violently the first time some innocent little Alter kid went running past him. 

Malcolm, his old friend and roommate, had left Crossroads. Actually, Sophronia brought him over. Apparently he had only stayed there to try to help Zeke in the first place, not because he still believed in them. Which made me wonder how many others were there just to be with friends and family. 

Either way, Zeke might’ve been more angry with Malcolm than he was at his mother or anyone else. He refused to see him. Which had to hurt, but Malcolm seemed to roll with it.

I did go back to visit the residents in the hidden vault. I had promised we would help them, and we were. Most chose to stay and wait for us to find their missing kids with the information we had taken from Perrsnile. Information which, unfortunately, was going to take time to pan out. After all, it wasn’t like the people he had sold those kids to had all stayed in one spot. We were working on tracking them down. Which, overall, the vault people were being pretty patient about. Especially considering what they had already been through. Some chose to leave the vault and go out on their own, or even come up to live on the station. Whatever they wanted, we helped with as much as we could. 

Beyond that, I spent time with Manakel, taking lessons from him about how to use my power properly. As promised, we started with me learning how to undo the spell that had sent Grover’s friend away. It was a slow process, and I wasn’t ready to do it just yet, but it was definitely progress. I assured Grover that as soon as I had a handle on it, we would go back to that hotel and give it a shot.

So, basically, I had a lot to work on even if there wasn’t much openly happening. I definitely wasn’t bored, to say the least.

That whole not bored thing went triple at the moment, considering I was busy frantically sparring with Avalon. She was intent on making sure I wasn’t slacking in that department. And, I was pretty sure, she was also working out various frustrations of her own. She was getting more and more worried about Gaia with every day that went by. Which I couldn’t blame her for. We had to get the woman out of there. Preferably as soon as possible, and definitely before this truce with the Seosten ran out. 

Finally, after an intense series of clashes between my staff and two of the energy blades from her gauntlets, we both took a few steps back and bent over to grab our knees while panting a bit. I shook my head. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have someone like Zeke in here to beat up on?”  

She gave me a look and snorted. “Trust me, Felicity, if there was any chance I could get away with that, I would. But I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to hold back with him nearly as much as I do with you.” 

“Yeah,” I retorted, “if this is you holding back, he’d probably end up in rough shape. I’m pretty sure Sophronia would object to us handing him back to her in more than one piece.” Sobering after that, I added, “I take it there still hasn’t been any luck trying to figure out why the Whispers want him.” 

“Nothing new,” she confirmed while cracking her neck as she straightened up. “Something to do with that colony world, but we can’t go there and check it out ourselves. Crossroads still has a presence there. Athena says they’re working on getting someone there to look around, but they have to be subtle about it.” 

“Speaking of which,” I put in, “I was talking to Wyatt earlier, and he said they’ve put together another packet of information to send to Crossroads and Garden about protections against the Whispers. Everything we know about them. I mean, there’s no proof they’ll even listen to us, but we’ve gotta try, right?” 

Avalon grimaced visibly, murmuring, “Yeah, we have to try. The last thing–one of the last things we need is for a bunch of loyalist Heretics to end up being controlled by Invidia’s pack.” 

“Sure doesn’t sound fun,” I agreed, stomach twisting a bit at the thought. “I think I’m starting to understand why you want to exhaust yourself with all this.” My hand gestured around the training room before I focused on her, voice softening. “Seriously, I know it’s a lot to deal with, but we’re getting there, you know?” 

“Are we?” she replied simply. “Because it kind of seems like we keep adding new problems we need to deal with without actually handling the stuff we already have.” 

She wasn’t wrong about that, and I had just opened my mouth to try to find something I could say when there was a chime from the door, indicating someone wanted to come in. We opened it, and found Shiori on the other side. But she wasn’t alone. Asenath was there too, along with another figure I didn’t recognize, but knew immediately. They were a silver metallic android with glowing gem-like eyes. From what I’d heard, those eyes changed color, but for the moment they were an amber-brown. 

“Hey, Flick,” Shiori chirped, stepping in to embrace me tightly. She had been busy lately, helping her sister search for answers to Tiras’s lost memories. “Hey, Avalon.” 

“Hey guys,” I greeted alongside Valley. “Looks like you brought a friend.” 

Senny nodded. “Yeah, this is Robin. Ah…” She leaned around to glance at the figure’s eyes. “Hood. Yeah, Robin Hood.” 

The robot smiled brightly. “Pleased to meet you, Felicity Chambers.”

Their eyes shifted to yellow while they added, “We’ve been waiting a long time to meet the one who stomped Fossor’s stupid butt so hard!” 

Before I could respond, the eyes turned red. “I just wish we could’ve been there to lend a hand. Cuz beating the shit out of that asshole sounds like fun.” 

I’d heard about this, of course. Shiori had explained the whole situation when she heard about Denny and the Carnival System. But we still went through official introductions. This was the Robin System. The one I’d seen first, with the brown eyes, was the original–or at least the first one who had woken up here on Earth. They were Robin Hood, or the Hooded One. The yellow-eyed one was called Sprite, or the Sprightly One. Red eyes was Brawl, or the Brawling One. Med/Medical One, Chat/Chatting One, Quip/Quipping One, and Sec/Security One all had green, light blue, pink, and dark blue eyes respectively. And each took the time to introduce themselves. 

Once that was done, I smiled easily. “I take it you’re here to see the Carnival?” There had been talk about the Robins coming up to see Denny and the others, but they had been really busy the past couple weeks. Apparently it wasn’t easy to track down the Rasputin guy, even with the special information they’d received in exchange for some sort of favor they’d done for some woman. She knew places he had been, and stuff about where he might go, but not a current physical location. 

Their eyes shifted to green as Med spoke up. “Yes. We would like to speak with them and… and help ensure they understand their situation and that they are not alone.” 

Then the eyes turned yellow for Sprite once more. “And it’s fun! We like meeting others like us. We don’t… we don’t get to do that very often.” 

“Trust me, they’re excited to talk to you too,” I assured them. “Actually, I’m pretty sure we can head up there right now.” 

“Excellent,” came the response as those eyes shifted to dark blue, for Sec. “And, of course, there is the other matter we came here for.” 

“Other matter?” I echoed, exchanging a glance with Avalon. 

“Yeah…” Shiori scratched the back of her neck. “You’re not gonna believe this, Flick. But we found out where Rasputin is right now, and why it’s been so hard to actually find him.” 

Looking back and forth between them, I slowly asked, “Something tells me this is gonna be a big answer, but… where is he?” 

“Not on Earth,” Asenath informed me, voice solemn. “He’s on Fossor’s homeworld, Flick. 

“That’s where we need to go if we’re gonna find him.” 

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Patreon Snippets 27 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 27th edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Heretical Edge-related ones). Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, andb have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

Cahethal Learns About Tabbris During Year One

For the most part, the Seosten known as Cahethal (Demeter to the previous primitive societies of Earth) was not prone toward making emotional displays, no matter what actually happened. Annoyance, anger, fear, love, all of it was kept inside where such things belonged. She had witnessed far too many of her colleagues and, dare she say, friends, completely lose perspective with what they were attempting to accomplish by allowing their emotions to overtly rule them. It was not that she did not have emotions. She simply knew that the threat they faced, that of the total annihilation of all life in the universe at the hands of the Fomorians, was far more important than those feelings. If her people failed, there would be no one left who could stand against those creatures.

So, she pushed the emotions down inside and did her job. She did what she was good at. Namely, keeping the Eden’s Garden experiment and training ground running, so that her people could have properly-prepared, combat-ready Heretics to use on the frontlines. Granted, that had become rather more complicated and difficult in recent months, given the intense push from the Seraphim for the lingering problem of the human Liesje’s anti-possession spell to finally be dealt with. The fact that the Hannah Owens-turned Avalon Sinclaire situation had still not been resolved, and the girl was running around free, was a very deep sore spot for the Seosten. They had had centuries by this point to finally put an end to the threat of that spell being used against them, and had still yet to manage it. 

Technically, finding and killing that girl was not even her job. It was Manakel’s. She was simply to provide support. Yet the question of whose responsibility her continued survival was became blurred when it came to Felicity Chambers. Chambers, the daughter of the old rebellion leader, Joselyn, was Cahethal’s responsibility. At least to an extent. It had been her job, originally, to ‘recruit’ the girl as a host. The plan had been for her to take the girl over, find out anything she knew about her mother’s disappearance, and then split her time between her current host, the Victor known as Ikita, and Felicity herself over the next few years. Felicity would be brought up and trained to be her next primary host, allowing Ikita to be retired. Some had thought she should send the powerful Eden’s Garden Heretic body to the frontlines, but Cahethal had made a deal with her host that she would be allowed to simply have her memory erased so she could retire peacefully. Some of her people might be fine with breaking such agreements, but Cahethal stuck to them. Especially when it came to a woman she had spent so much time with.

But, of course, it hadn’t ended up being that simple to deal with the Chambers girl after all. Cahethal had first thought it would be such a non-issue, that she hadn’t even gone to the house herself. She sent one of her subordinates, a Seosten who should have been able to handle the information retrieval and initial job of preparing the girl to be Cahethal’s future host. It was a nothing job, one that could not possibly have been simpler. Or so she had thought. 

Upon hearing that her subordinate couldn’t possess the Chambers girl, Cahethal had dismissed the claim as absurd and assumed the woman had made a mistake in some way. She went to the house herself, only to find that it was true. Felicity Chambers could not be possessed. The initial reaction to that, from the homeworld, had been for the girl to be killed. But Cahethal had resisted that, exercising her own prerogative to continue to investigate and see what happened. As she had told her superiors, killing the girl without having any idea why she was immune to possession wouldn’t solve the issue. 

And now, after years of wondering, after she had allowed the girl to be taken to Crossroads, after… all of that, they finally had the answer. They finally knew exactly why the Chambers girl had been immune to being possessed. The mystery that had plagued the back (and sometimes front) of Cahethal’s mind for years had finally been answered. 

She wasn’t immune to being possessed, she had already been possessed. A very small child Seosten had been possessing her that whole time. They had been fooled and beaten by a toddler. That was what it all amounted to. There was nothing overtly special about the Chambers girl, not in that respect anyway. She had simply already been possessed. 

After sitting silently for several long moments, Cahethal rose from the desk where she had been going over the reports and inspecting the offered memories for herself, a process which involved transferring the memories from the crystals that they had been copied into, over to her own mind. The small, unnaturally-green eyed woman stepped over to a window that overlooked the busy city below. From the corner of her eye, she could see her host, Ikita, slumbering on the couch next to the door. A door which remained closed, though she could hear the bustling work beyond. 

This was an anonymous office that no one in Eden’s Garden knew about. The two floors below this office were full of ordinary human employees performing various science experiments for her. Not that they knew anything about their employer. Nor were they likely to find anything new. Still, over these many years, Cahethal had come to find that humans had a knack for accidentally stumbling over interesting things. So there was always the possibility. 

The rest of this floor, meanwhile, was taken up with other species running more advanced testing. Those might end up with something new and useful. 

But for now, none of that mattered. The only thing on her mind was… the girl. Both girls, actually. Felicity Chambers, and… the Seosten child. After all this time, they finally knew precisely why Chambers could not be possessed, and it was all because of a Seosten child. 

Yes, she was not one to be prone to emotional displays. She did not indulge in open anger or fear, particularly in front of others. Yet here, with her host asleep and various walls and magics blocking her from the sight of any who might have borne witness, Cahethal allowed herself to relent somewhat. After all, this was quite the momentous revelation. She had tried for years to understand what was so special about Felicity Chambers, and had overlooked the single most obvious and basic explanation. And so, in this moment, she did express a clear outward emotion. 

It started as a smile, faint as it might have been. Looking out over the busy street, the Seosten woman smiled just a bit. The corners of her mouth curved up, gaze dropping a bit more introspectively. Her shoulders gave a very slight heave, as a quiet, “Heh” escaped her.  Slowly, Cahethal shook her head, as that single “Heh” became two. “Heh heh…” 

Her eyes closed, arms wrapped around her stomach, as she dropped her chin and lost it. There, cocooned in the office and far from anyone who might have found out about this reaction, Cahethal did the only thing she could do upon discovering the truth about the Seosten child who had fooled them all for so long. 

She laughed, as long and hard as she had ever laughed at anything in her life. 

******

What Do Average Seosten Loyalists Think Of The Truce With Earth? 

His name was Cavenrel, of the Sehkseit Choir. Born two hundred and fifty years earlier by universal reckoning, he was a fairly small man by Seosten standards, standing only five feet, eight inches tall. He was also quite lean, his body tightly corded with muscles while remaining almost scarecrow-thin by outward appearances, loose clothes hiding his true build. His black hair was cut short, with a thin green stripe running down the right-hand side, a couple inches off from being dead center. He wore red and orange fatigue-like clothing, to blend into the desert sands of this world. Sands which even then were kicking up in a storm behind him as he opened the door leading into a hole-in-the-wall bar, where an assortment of his fellow soldiers and a few civilians were holed up, waiting out the winds. 

Walking through the bar, he ignored the furtive glances from the locals. He knew there was a mix of hope and fear throughout the town. Most of the people of this planet had been evacuated, but a few remained. This town was one of the holdouts. The civilians here had to keep helping to supply the soldiers, both Seosten and the many more other troops they had brought with them, as they fought the Fomorians. There were much larger-scale battles going on up in space, both near the planet and throughout the rest of the system. But there was also plenty of fighting happening down here, in the dirt. The Fomorians were trying to swarm over the planet, while the Seosten and their assorted soldiers, drawn from all across the universe, were doing their level best to stop that from happening. 

The man moved to the table where his closest friends, four other Seosten troops of around the same age and experience, sat. He joined them while calling out toward the bartender for a drink of the house special. Then he tapped the table with two knuckles a couple times, a good luck habit his group had become accustomed to whenever they ordered a drink. No one remembered who had started it, but they were absolutely certain that not doing it right after ordering a drink would result in disaster. 

Once the proper ritual was observed, he took in his companions. Reysiel, the auburn-haired woman with a quick smile and even quicker temper, Fayaza, the tall, heavily-built man with silver-blue hair and a calming demeanor, Tarwan, the blond, intensely athletic and competitive man who stood only two inches taller than Cavenrel himself, and Murzael, Tarwan’s near-identical twin sister. 

“Caven!” Reysiel immediately blurted while slamming her fist down onto the table, “Tell these idiots that this truce with Rysthael is a mistake. We should be going over there right now to deal with this.”

Before Caven could respond, Tarwan spoke up. “Exactly. My dear sister and the big lug over there have lost their minds. They think the… what do they call themselves, Earthlings? They think the Earthlings should get a chance to ‘prove themselves.’” 

Beside her brother, Murzael cleared her throat. “What I said was, they went through a lot to even get this truce, so we should give it a chance. Obviously what we were doing wasn’t working out.” 

“Wasn’t working out?” Reysiel interrupted, voice hot as she shook her head at her friend. “How can you even say that? Do you know how vital those humans are for the war up here? Having those bodies to possess is like… it’s the only reason we’re holding out. And you want to let the humans take those away? Do you have the slightest idea how fast those monsters out there would overrun us if the supply of human bodies dries up?”

Fayaza finally spoke, his deep voice even and calm despite the way it rumbled. “No one said the supply of bodies is going to dry up.” 

“Are you kidding me?” Tarwan demanded. “You really think the humans and other Earthlings are gonna keep sending bodies out here? They’re protected from the Fomorians, remember? Their planet can’t be invaded. Not anymore. So they’re safe. What makes you think that they’ll volunteer to keep sending us the human bodies we need? The whole universe could be overrun by those Fomorian fucks and it wouldn’t affect Rysthael–sorry, Earth at all.”

Murzael shook her head while taking a sip from her own glass. “So now you think the humans will just sit back and let the Fomorians overrun the universe and kill everyone? That’s a pretty harsh judgment, Tar.”

“It’s just basic common sense,” he insisted. “Their planet is protected and safe, and…” 

“And we’ve been using them this whole time,” Reysiel finished for him. “So why wouldn’t they tell us to go blow it out our exhaust port? After everything we did to set up that supply chain of human soldiers and bodies, why wouldn’t they tell us we’re on our own the very second they get the chance?”

Finally finding the chance to speak up, Caven asked, “Assuming you’re right, what are you guys saying the solution to that is?” He kept his voice even, not wanting to give away any of his own feelings on the subject. This happened often. The five of them were all friends, but Reysiel and Tarwan tended to disagree with Fayaza and Murzael a lot. They kept it to healthy debates most of the time, save for a few occasions where blows had been exchanged. But even those were generally in good fun. Just soldiers working out aggression and such. They disagreed, but they were basically family. Literally, in the case of the twins, Mur and Tar. 

“The solution,” Rey insisted, “is that we go in there and handle it. I’m not saying we burn the place down or kill all of them or anything, I’m not a complete psychopath. But we need to take control. We need to go in, disable that Bystander spell they’ve got going, and tell the populace we’re in charge and that we’re going to protect them just like we protect the rest of the universe. But to do that, we need to recruit them.” 

“Exactly,” Tar agreed. “Do you guys have the slightest clue what we could do if we took hundreds of thousands of human soldiers, powered them up as much as we can, and slammed into the Fomorian lines with them?” 

“Most of them wouldn’t have the power you’re thinking of,” Faya pointed out in that same even tone. “Remember, we can only make a couple hundred Reaper Heretics every year, and even those won’t have any powers built up. They need time to grow and get stronger. Otherwise if we just bond them to other species, what’s the benefit of them over… that species? They’re adaptable, but the second we bond them to something, that’s it, that’s what they’re bonded to forever. Until you add in the Reaper bonding so they can get more power, but again, that takes time. The only immediate thing we’ll get out of that is more bodies to throw into the fire.” 

“That’s just more reason to start right now,” Tar insisted with a glance toward Rey, who was nodding at him. “If we want to end this war, hell, if we want to survive it, we need to go to Earth, and start building up. We need to stop being quiet and secret about it and just go in there and tell them what’s going to happen next. I guarantee if we put the effort in, we can get more than a couple hundred Heretics powered up. Throw some resources at it and boost that Reaper or something. The scientists can handle it, we just have to get them the human resources to work with.” 

Faya shook his head. “What makes you think we have the resources to spare for a prolonged campaign there? If we do let the humans know the truth and then say we’re forcibly recruiting them to go be soldiers for us, they’ll fight back. I’m not saying they’ll win, but with the rebellion that’s already there, especially Auriel’s people, it wouldn’t be as simple or as quick as you think to bring Earth under control. Wouldn’t it make more sense to work with them and come to an arrangement? If the Heretics on Earth are aware of our situation and agree to actively send people to the front, we could end up not only maintaining our current supply lines, but increasing them.” 

Rey laughed, head shaking. “Oh come on. Like we said, do you really think they’re not just going to hole up on their safe planet and let things play out? What incentive do they have to get involved?” 

Mur gestured. “They’re not idiots out there, you know? If the whole universe falls and they’re all by themselves on that planet, the Fomorians are going to turn all of their attention toward breaking that spell and getting to that planet. No spell is completely perfect. They’ll find a way through if they have to. And if there’s no one else left, they won’t stand a chance. They’ll be overrun in hours. And believe me, the people in charge there, Auriel especially, know that. It’s in their best interests to help with this war.” 

Tar opened his mouth to say something about that, before turning to the newest arrival. “Come on, Caven, what do you think?” 

“What do I think?” the man echoed, leaning back in his seat before taking a sip of the drink one of the waitresses had dropped off moments earlier. “I think we should wait and see how the humans work out their own little civil war. And in the meantime, we have that new access to Tartarus. So we’ll get our own enhanced soldiers, just like the Olympus.” 

Head shaking wistfully, Rey noted, “Can you imagine what it would be like to be selected for the new program?” 

“Well, you don’t have to imagine, if you don’t want to,” Caven informed her, and the rest of them. “See, I just came from the communications hub, and my great-great-great grandfather–well we’re not really related, it’s more of a thing where his father knew my–never mind. The Olympian Radueriel, he says he can get us a spot in their new tests. 

“So what do you say? Forget the humans, who wants to become super soldiers ourselves?”  

******

Liam Questions His Choices

“No, no, no, that can’t be right.” As he said those words, Liam Mason shook his head with a mixture of disgust and disbelief. The man, who could have been a rugby player in another life given his build, wore a dark suit that looked uncomfortable on his broad frame. His dark blond hair was tied back in a short ponytail, though he was considering cutting it. But that was a decision for later. Right now, his gaze remained riveted on the papers that were spread out over Gaia’s desk–no, his desk. It was his desk in his office. Just because it had been hers before, just because–well, her tenure here at Crossroads was over, wasn’t it? She had thrown away her reputation, her authority, everything she had in order to indulge these–

“What can’t be right, sir?” The voice came from the side of the large room, where Patrick Dinast stood. The black man wore the same incredibly crisp (it always looked as though it was freshly ironed) dark suit, black tie, and red shirt that he had worn every time Liam saw him. Which was a lot, now that the Committee had assigned their former representative to be his assistant. 

And his watcher, Liam was pretty sure. He wasn’t anywhere near Gaia’s level of skill, power, resources, or any of that. Which was no accident. After the Gaia fiasco, the Committee wanted to make sure the position of headmaster was one they could control more thoroughly. It wasn’t quite a puppet position, but it was certainly closer to that than it had been a year ago.

Gesturing to the papers, which were a mix of actual newspapers, partial clippings, computer printouts, and more, Liam answered in a flat voice. “These are all the reports I could get people to gather about unexplained deaths, disappearances, tragedies, everything that we either know were caused by Strangers, or can reasonably assume. I compared them to the past twenty years.” 

“To prove that the Rebellion has caused there to be a greater number of those events through their interference,” Patrick noted. His eyes flicked from the table to Liam as he lifted his chin fractionally, interpreting the man’s reaction. “But you’ve run into a snag.” 

“A snag,” Liam echoed, snorting audibly. “You could say that.” Cracking his knuckles, he turned away from the desk to face his ‘aide’ fully. “The numbers are down. Not drastically. Not even really substantially. But they’re not up, not so far. I compared the same time periods. From July through January in every year for the past couple decades. The best I can say is that it hasn’t had a tangible effect.” 

“And, with any luck, they won’t,” Patrick replied smoothly. “It takes longer than a few months for changes such as that to be visible, Headmaster Mason. Particularly as, lest we forget, they are still actively fighting those they deem to be… evil.” He said that last word in a tone that made it clear that it made him feel childish. “Between that and our own heightened patrols, it is not as though the monsters of this world suddenly have free rein. Those who would take advantage are, I believe, assessing the situation and how best to utilize this situation. The death of Fossor would have contributed to that as well. It has left a power vacuum which an assortment of dangerous individuals are likely debating and or fighting amongst themselves to fill. There could be any number of small wars happening within that underworld that we know nothing about.”

Liam absorbed that, thinking silently for a moment before meeting the other man’s gaze. “I suppose that’s one problem we have. We lack intelligence. I mean, we don’t know anything about that world. When we see the monsters, we kill them. We don’t talk to them. We have no idea how organized they are, whether they have any sort of leadership, what–” 

“Are you saying you wish we took the time to get to know the creatures?” Patrick’s voice wasn’t dangerous or reprimanding. It likely never would be, when directed toward Liam. But the implication was clear. 

“Not in the least,” Liam retorted sharply. “You know where I stand on that. And so does the Committee. I’ve made my position clear repeatedly… and lost friends and family because of it.” Somehow, his voice managed to make it through that without cracking. “I just…” 

Patrick immediately understood. “You thought that gathering evidence to present to your family might convince them to change their minds, and return. And now the suggestion that you may have to wait much longer for the data you’re anticipating to appear has upset you.”

Liam started to deny that he was upset before pausing. He glanced away, working through a myriad of thoughts before replying. “Yeah, I’m not happy about it. I miss my girls. I miss my wife–hell, I missed her for years, years and then she shows up and she just… leaves again? How could she do that? How could she come back and then take the girls and leave? I don’t–” He cut himself off, realizing he was dangerously close to treating Patrick like a therapist. “Never mind. You can head out now. I won’t have anything for you until tomorrow.” 

A few seconds of silence passed while Patrick was clearly deciding how he should respond, before giving a short nod. “You have my number if anything changes.” With that, he pivoted and headed for the door, pausing just long enough to say, “Teenagers rebel, and these two haven’t seen their mother for a long time. Give them a little time, a little growth, maybe some hard lessons, and they’ll come back.” 

Liam wasn’t sure he believed that. Hell, he wasn’t sure Patrick believed it. But he remained silent and simply waited until the man had left. Once the door closed behind his aide, he gestured, using a wood-control power to make the nearby chair slide out so he could slump down into it. His voice was a dark mutter. “Headmaster. Who are we kidding?” 

Not for the first time that day (let alone over the past months), his thoughts drifted back to that night, to the confrontation with Larissa and the girls. What could he have done differently? What could he have said that would have convinced them to wait, to stay, to believe him? 

Nothing. Not to Larissa, anyway. She was–the time she had spent wherever she was during the time she was gone had changed her too much. That much was obvious. Painful, but obvious. But Scout and Sands, the girls–of course they had chosen to go with their mother. Patrick was right about that much. They’d been away from her for so long. To get her back and then have the chance to leave with her and their friends… yes, of course they’d left. But if he’d been able to say the right thing, or find the right argument, maybe he could have made them change their minds by now. 

Of course, thinking about the different things he could’ve said to convince them to stay also made the man think about something else. It was a thought he would only indulge here alone, without anyone around to see his expression or guess what he was thinking. It was a thought he only rarely allowed even then. What if he had gone with them? What if he had just… 

No, no he couldn’t have done that. It was unconscionable, utterly absurd. He couldn’t set aside his morality to keep his wife and daughters happy any more than he could have set it aside to keep Joselyn and the others happy back in the old days. These creatures were monsters. They enslaved and killed people, and he couldn’t pretend they didn’t just to keep his family together. Staring down at the newspaper clippings told him that much. Even if the number of attacks had yet to notably rise, they still existed. How could Larissa and their girls look at what these monsters did and think that they could be civilized and reasoned with? Just the other day, he had accompanied a group of students on a hunt that had ended up exposing a nest of creatures beneath the nursery of a hospital. They were taking the infants for food

If he lived another ten thousand years, Liam was pretty sure he would never understand how anyone could see something like that and think these monsters should be left alive. The very thought that Larissa was allowing things like that to be around their children made his fists clinch. With a muttered curse, he swept a hand out. A small tornado appeared in the middle of the table and sent the papers flying in every direction. They were worthless. Larissa wouldn’t listen to them anymore than she would listen to anything else. She just wouldn’t listen. 

If he had gone with them, if he had pretended to listen to their ridiculous arguments… no, no he wouldn’t have been trusted. For a moment Liam thought he might have been able to show his family how terrible this whole concept was from the inside, but the others never would have allowed him that sort of time. The second he started trying to gently point out the flaws in the Rebellion’s thinking, he would’ve been out of there. 

Damn it! Why wouldn’t they listen?! The thought filled his head as he put both hands against his forehead and slumped down to the floor with his back to the desk. He was the headmaster of Crossroads, and none of it mattered. His family wasn’t here. His wife, his children, the friends he’d had for so long back when he was a student, they were all… they were all gone, in one way or another. They were gone, and he was here, amongst people who were on his side, but whom he had no particular friendship with. There was no one he felt drawn to, no one he could sit with and reveal these thoughts to. They either saw him as the unapproachable headmaster, or as a convenient mouthpiece for the Committee. The respect that Gaia had commanded with the position… he would never have that. Not when he couldn’t even keep his family together. 

Deeper, even more hidden thoughts emerged then, no matter how much he tried to keep them away. What if he didn’t simply pretend to believe the lies about these monsters? How different would his life have been if he actually believed them? What if he had gone with Joselyn back in the day? Or what if he had gone with his family over the summer? They were wrong, of course. There was no question about that. And yet, what if he had allowed himself to believe those lies just to keep his family together? What if he chose to stay with them because he actually thought they were right? 

His first thought was that more people would have died, more innocents. And yet… would they? At least in the short run, it was obvious that there weren’t that many more victims. Not over this past year. So how much of a difference was he really making by staying in this place? He wasn’t a terribly effective headmaster, his presence wasn’t changing the course of the war, or the education of these students. He did his best, but he was under no delusions about being irreplaceable. If he himself was not here, there would be someone else in this office. 

So, what if he wasn’t here? What if he had gone with his family, just to… just to prioritize them? Would that have been so bad? Would it have been impossible for him to live with himself if he just believed their claims and stayed with Larissa and the girls? His family would be together then, at least. Maybe they could have been happy like that. Maybe he could have…

No. Even as the thought came to his mind, Liam pushed it aside. No, he had responsibilities here. Shoving himself back to his feet, the man made a sound of disgust at his own weakness, at his own selfish desires. Putting aside his morals, ignoring what he knew to be true just to keep his family together? How could he ever do that without looking at every single victim of one of those monsters and wondering if he could have saved them? Or taught someone who would have saved them. It was wrong. They were wrong, and he couldn’t indulge it. 

No matter what it cost him, no matter what he lost, Liam Mason knew what was right. And he could never turn away from that. 

******

A Look At What Casey Is Up To 

It really shouldn’t have surprised Casey that the moment she wanted to talk to Dakota Coalbright, the girl went completely MIA. Well, MIA probably wasn’t the right term. From what she had been able to put together by eavesdropping on others, or just asking questions, they had always known where Dakota was. Or at least, in general terms. And she hadn’t been in immediate danger, aside from being locked in an extra-dimensional vault with a killer. 

Okay, it was just possible that her standards for what constituted immediate danger had changed somewhat over the years. But either way, the other girl had been incommunicado for a bit. First because of that whole vault thing, and then while she was being debriefed up in the Fusion school. Which Casey didn’t attend or live in specifically because she had requested to stay down here on Earth. Mostly because to do the things she needed to do in order to track down Jones, she needed to be able to actually go places. And she was pretty sure asking for field trips every weekend without actually explaining what she was doing wouldn’t go over that well with those people. It was hard enough to slip away and do her stuff when she was already here on Earth. Doing it from the Fusion school would’ve been impossible. 

That said, it was probably a little ironic that after deliberately avoiding that place in order to carry out her plan, she now needed to go up there in order to finish it. She had to talk to Dakota, had to convince the girl to help her with this last part. And had to convince her not to tell anyone else about it. Yes, they were pro-Alter, but Casey wasn’t sure how they would react if she told them she was trying to track down and talk to a Reaper. She wasn’t sure how they’d react to anyone saying that, let alone someone they would see as a little kid. 

She could explain the truth to them, could tell them everything… but that was another problem. If she told them about being a full Natural Reaper Heretic, that she gained every power and every memory from everyone and everything she killed… they would treat her differently. There was no way they would let her run around doing her own thing anymore. They’d lock her up. Not as a prisoner, but as someone they had to protect, even more than they did a normal girl her age. She would never be able to go out and do her own thing, and she was pretty sure they wouldn’t let her find Jones. They probably wouldn’t understand that she was different. They’d believe Casey had just been a little girl when she met her and didn’t know what she was talking about now. Or… or any number of things. 

The point was, telling them would complicate everything, both in Casey’s life in general and in trying to find Jones. She couldn’t let that happen. 

Which meant she had to go up to that station, find Dakota, explain what she needed, and convince her to keep quiet about it all without actually letting anyone else know what she was really up to or what she was capable of. She had to be an ordinary little Eden’s Garden Heretic trainee. 

Thankfully, it wasn’t that hard to ask to go up and look around the place. The principal of the Fusion School really wanted as many to join as possible, especially younger students. So she basically had an open invitation. Which did mean that Casey had to go through a whole tour and spiel of what they did–okay, calling it a spiel was far more dismissive than she actually felt about the situation. It was a school on a space station! In the sun! That was freaking awesome. She wanted to attend. But… but it would make everything else too hard. 

Maybe after she found Jones, depending on… depending on how that went. One way or another, a lot of things were going to change once that happened. 

Once the tour was over, Casey and several other Eden’s Garden students who had come up with her were allowed to look around on their own, within the areas where Fusion students were able to go. They were encouraged to find others in their age group and talk to them about what it was like up here. Casey played the part of being unsure what she was going to do, but very enthused about looking around. Which, again, she definitely wasn’t faking. In fact, she had to remind herself that she was here on a mission. It was way too easy for her to get distracted thinking about what it would be like if she was actually a student up here. 

With effort, she managed to push those thoughts out of her mind and asked around about Dakota. Unfortunately, nobody she asked knew where the girl was. A few pointed one way or another, but nobody’s directions panned out, and Casey didn’t want to push the issue too much. That would lead to attention, and to questions, both things she wanted to avoid. 

But that was okay, she had another plan. After giving up on asking around about the other girl, Casey moved to a restroom. She hadn’t been able to do this before coming up here because the spell she had in mind was short-lived, and wouldn’t have lasted all the way through the tour. Stepping into a stall, she locked it, then dug through her pockets, coming out with several small pouches before finding the one she was looking for. Untying the cord, the thirteen-year-old blonde girl emptied the contents into her palm. Three tiny crystals, two coins with intricate runes inscribed on them, and the most important part, several small hairs that had been taken from Dakota’s brush back in her motel room where she had been staying while working to make those vines give off fruit again. 

A moment and a couple words later, and the spell was activated. The hairs disintegrated, and Casey looked around before seeing a glowing cloudy haze somewhere upstairs and to the left. Good, Dakota was on the station and within range. She had been afraid she’d have to wander around for awhile before getting close enough.

For the next half an hour, nearly the entire length of the spell, Casey carefully made her way through the station while doing her best to look like an ordinary tourist, an overwhelmed teenage girl just trying to see everything she could. But in the end, she finally got to the right apartment. It only took a moment and a couple more powers to assure herself that Dakota was alone in there, at least for now. Which was an opening she took advantage of by ringing the buzzer. 

As she opened the door, Dakota blinked that way. “Uhh…Casey? You came up?” The two of them had been paired together a few times down at the Eden’s Garden rebel area, by sheer virtue of being the same age. 

Adopting a cheerful smile, Casey nodded. “Yup, up here on a tour. You know, just checking the place out and…” She trailed off, abandoning her casual voice now that she had double-checked that Dakota was alone. “Can we talk inside?” 

“Uhh… okay.” Shrugging, the dark-haired girl, who was basically the same age as Casey, stepped back and gestured for her to enter. “I’m sort of just hanging out until Carnival gets back from therapy right now. I… sorry, did you wanna talk about something?” 

“Oh, uhh, I just wanna ask two things,” Casey replied. “First, who’s your favorite Ninja Turtle?” 

Blinking uncertainly, Dakota offered a hesitant, “Um, Donatello, I guess? Why? Wait, you didn’t come all the way up here just to ask me that, did you?”

“Nope,” Casey replied, “but it was important. Especially if you would’ve said you don’t like the Turtles, then I would’ve known I couldn’t trust you.” She dug through her pockets once more before coming out with a small Donatello action figure. “But see, I made one out of each of them, and one for Splinter too, just in case.” 

“Hang on, is there writing on that thing?” Dakota asked, leaning closer to squint at the figure, which did indeed have red runic symbols drawn over it. 

Casey nodded. “Yeah, that leads to my second question. See, this thing is a secret spell. If you promise not to tell a secret and then activate the spell, the other person will know if you break the promise and tell anyone. I have to tell you something very important, Dakota, and I… I need your help. It’s really important. But I don’t want you to tell anybody. I promise it’s nothing evil or bad and you won’t have to hurt anybody. The spell won’t make you do anything you don’t want to do, and it won’t stop you from saying no you don’t want to help me. I just… I need your help to find my friend, and I know that for you to do that, you need to know stuff I don’t want anybody else to know about me. So if you do tell people, I want to have a head start so I can leave, because… because they’ll treat me differently if they know the truth. Truth I haven’t told anybody before. But… but I need your help. I can’t do it without you, I don’t think. Which… which means I have to tell you about it.

“So, can you keep a secret?” 

*******

Check In With Robin/Judas/Stasia/Asenath/Shiori 

(The following takes place partway through the current arc, after an upcoming two week time skip) 

The side door of a bar slammed open, as a blue-skinned man went running out of it. He bounced off the brick wall of the building next door before pivoting to race toward the exit. Before he had gone more than three steps, however, a silver robot figure stepped into view, blocking that direction. Seeing them, the blue man spun back to run toward the back of the alley instead. He passed the door where he had come out of, but as he approached the chain-link fence at the rear of the alley, a figure hopped over it, not even touching the fence itself before landing smoothly and silently in front of him. It was a middle-eastern man with dark, spiky hair, an expensive-looking dark turtleneck and slacks, and a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses. 

Seeing that avenue cut off as well, the blue man spun yet again to head back through the door he had come out of. But that direction was blocked by a pair of Asian girls, similar enough in appearance that their relation seemed apparent. Before the man could react, the smaller of the two snapped both hands out, sending a pair of spinning metal discs flying that way. They embedded themselves in the wall to either side of the man, sending staccato bursts of electricity toward him. 

The man leapt. His blue legs seemed to sink down halfway into the ground before extending sharply, like a spring that had been pushed in and then released. He was launched halfway up the side of the building before bouncing off there toward the roof of the opposite building. He would land there, then jump–

A fist came out of nowhere as he sailed toward the other roof and safety. It slammed into his face, making his head flatten out and extend to either side in a distinctly cartoonish fashion. The blow arrested his momentum entirely,  knocking him out of the air before sending him sailing back toward the pavement below. With a loud splat, he hit the ground on his back, flattening like a pancake, or like a ball of silly putty being thrown hard. 

With a groan, the blue man opened his eyes and looked around to see all five figures standing over him. The silver robot, the well-dressed man, the two Asian girls, and the slim, dark-blonde woman who had been on the roof waiting for him. 

“Hello, Tawty,” that woman announced in a distinct Russian accent. “We have been looking for you.” 

“Yes, we have,” the robot agreed, their eyes shifting from amber-brown to light pink. “Hope we weren’t interrupting anything. Looked like you were getting ready to go for a jog.” 

The eyes turned red. “We could give you a reason to get your steps in, if you want.” 

“Ohhh hehe… hey it’s you guys,” Tawty slowly managed after pulling himself together. He still laid there on the pavement, not daring to move. “I wasn’t expecting to see you until tomorrow night.” 

“Is that why you booked a bus ticket for tomorrow morning?” the other Asian girl, the one who hadn’t thrown those electricity-discs at him, asked. “Sorry, Tawty was it? We haven’t met. I’m Asenath. This is my sister, Shiori.” 

“Heretic,” Tawty pointed out, his eyes on the other girl. 

“Don’t worry, I don’t like to kill people unless they make me,” Shiori cheerfully informed him. She put her hands out, and the discs snapped off the wall before flying back to her. “And I don’t think you’re gonna make me.” 

“That right, Tawty?” the well-dressed man, Judas, asked. “We heard you were leaving early tomorrow, so we figured you just forgot about our meeting. We didn’t want you to be all the way on the bus and then remember us. It would’ve just made everything so awkward. So we thought we’d track you down tonight and get that information you promised. You know, the info you told Inanna you’d have?” 

“We hope you still have it,” the still red-eyed Robin–Brawl in this form, noted with a hard stare. “Inanna won’t be happy if you make her go back on her word about finding Rasputin for us.”

“That’s right,” Judas agreed, his own voice casual. “She’s been trying pretty hard to keep up her end of our deal. And that means you have to keep up your end. Here.” Reaching down, he took the blue man’s hand and helped him to his feet. “The location, Tawty. Where is he?” 

Looking around helplessly and finding no exit, the blue man finally heaved a long sigh. “Okay, look, I’ll tell you where Rasputin went, but you’ve gotta let me hide out in that hidden school of yours.” His eyes were on Shiori. “There are people who aren’t gonna be happy about me telling you anything, and I need promises. I gotta be safe. Hell, you aren’t gonna like hearing about where he is right now.” 

“You’ll be safe, I promise,” Asenath assured him, eyes not leaving the man. “You made a deal, now honor it. Where is Grigori Rasputin?” 

Tawty hemmed and hawed just a little more, but in the end, he told them what he knew. And it was an answer that made everyone present rock back on their heels. Stasia cursed loudly, while Robin and Judas exchanged glances. 

Asenath and Shiori looked at each other as well, for similar yet different reasons. “We have to tell her,” Shiori announced quietly. 

“We have to tell Flick.” 

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