Theia

Growth 18-04 And Patreon Snippets 25B (Heretical Edge 2)

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Eventually, we left Tabbris with Sariel, our dad, and Jegudiel so the four of them could talk in a private room for awhile. Athena said something about needing to send a message to Michael, and dismissed herself. 

Before long, it was time for me to go back to class for my extra afternoon make-up stuff. I’d offered to blow it off for the day with a straight face, and Dad, Tabbris, and I all shuddered at how Abigail would have reacted to that. I’d already missed plenty while on that trip. If she found out I was skipping classes while literally here on the station, let alone the extra classes I was supposed to be taking to make up for being gone on that mission, I was afraid that she might actually go nuclear, excuses be damned.

Honestly, it was more of a study hall/tutoring session anyway. All of us who had been on that mission, as well as some others who were busy with other things, were in an unused classroom with an old Crossroads teacher who had left with the rest of us. His name was Bentley Carver, and he had been the Development instructor for the seniors/fourth years. He was an elderly guy who looked kind of like Einstein, but with bright blond hair, bushy eyebrows, and an even bushier mustache. I’d met him briefly the year before when he’d stepped in to help save me from being interrogated by a bunch of other students about what happened with Doxer. And he was sure excited to see us today, making sure we knew that if we needed any help going over any of the extra worksheets that our teachers had provided, all we had to do was ask. 

He spent some time with an older student who was apparently having some trouble with his quantum mechanics work, which was fine with me. I sat with Avalon, Shiori, Jazz, Doug, Columbus, Sands, and Scout. Gordon was out with his dad still. Even Abigail didn’t expect him to be back at school already. Everyone was quietly focused, and I ignored all the thoughts of what Tabbris was doing with Jegudiel right then, trying to busy myself with my own stuff. I spent a good twenty minutes flipping between the worksheet and textbook for what had been a two-week course on how enners (the coins used to contain magical energy to use as currency) were created. Well, they called it a textbook. It was more of a hand-written journal that had been magically copied a bunch of times. But the guy who had written it had good handwriting, at least.

And he had a lot of interesting things to say about how people used to trade magical energy. Apparently at one point, a lot of people had actually literally touched each other to send the power into them. Which was dangerous for a variety of reasons, not to mention inconvenient. So they started putting it in random objects that were enchanted to hold the power. Unfortunately, that wasn’t great either, particularly because sometimes those objects disappeared for whatever reason. They would end up in the Bystander world and the magic that was put in them would ‘go funny,’ affecting the world around them. That was a big reason behind the Bystander stories about cursed artifacts, dolls that moved on their own, that sort of thing. One guy would put magic in a doll because he happened to have it lying around, then he’d lose track of it and it would end up in the Bystander world where the stored magic would act up and make it do funny (or terrifying) things. All in all it just wasn’t a very good idea, especially because it was so hard to know what had been given magic to store if you happened to forget. Or never knew in the first place. 

Which was why they came up with the Enner system. And, lo and behold, it wasn’t Heretics who created it at all. The original system that Crossroads and Eden’s Garden ended up ‘borrowing’ had actually been created back in Ancient Egypt, though the coins themselves looked different, and weren’t called enners. It had spread out from there, and when Crossroads was first established, began to be taught amongst their classes. Of course, they didn’t exactly credit the original source. 

I was filling in the worksheet where it was asking about the different shapes of older enners when Professor Carver stepped over to help Doug with his own worksheet. I could hear them murmuring in low voices about energy flow levels for the first primitive enners. Which brought Jazz in, as she had apparently been having her own issues with how that worked.  

When he was done helping them get back on track, the man turned my way, his voice low as he glanced between Avalon, Shiori, and me. “Everything okay over here? Looks like you’re trucking along. Ah, Miss Sinclaire, would you mind giving this to Dries when you see him?” He set a glass figurine of a ballet dancer, about six inches tall, on her desk. “We were having a small discussion the other day about an old dancer whom we both adored from the origins of ballet itself. I remembered a student of mine provided this likeness of her quite some time ago, and I would like him to have it. I dare say he was even more enamored of her than I, given she was his sister.”

That made Avalon do a double-take, eyes darting from the glass figurine of the dancer to the man himself. “Dries’ sister was a ballet dancer?” 

“One of the very first,” Carver confirmed. “Dries was incredibly proud of her, of course. Unfortunately, she was killed when they were both still in their teens. Long before he even met Liesje or Hieronymus. But he still holds her close to his heart. I am certain that he would be more than willing to talk to you about her, if you ask him when you pass the figurine along.” 

Yeah, something told me he could just as easily have given the thing to Dries himself, but had wanted to give Avalon an opening to talk to her ancestor about his past.

After that, he looked at me. “Miss Chambers, I recall teaching your mother during her second year. I ahhh, I am ashamed to say that we didn’t get along for some time. I considered her too stubborn to learn new things, and believed that she would get herself killed by not listening to her instructors. I am quite glad that I was wrong about that.” Even as he said that, the man’s brow furrowed. “Except, perhaps I shouldn’t have said that. Telling a girl that you expected her mother to get herself killed through stubbornness was… yes, I probably shouldn’t have said that.” 

Coughing a bit, I shook my head. “I get it. At least you’re on the same side now? Err, were you part of the Rebellion back–” 

“Not… precisely,” he answered with a slight grimace. “Not at first, anyway. I’m also ashamed to say that it was not until shortly before your mother’s… imprisonment that I found myself truly questioning what I had always taken as simple facts. The inherent evil of non-humans, that is. To be frank, it was not until I learned that my own son had joined the Rebellion. After that, actually. My initial response was to drag him back where I felt he belonged. When I found him, we fought. He was young, but quite… skilled. Enough that he was able to talk to me a bit before I could subdue him. The things he said, the words he used… maybe it was simply that it came from someone I cared a great deal about, but I listened. I didn’t want to, but I did. I listened to enough to actually hear the words that your mother and others had already been saying. So, I gave him a chance to show me these Alter societies. I spent a little time with them. Which, of course, made my previously-held convictions fall just about as quickly as the shame for my actions rose.” He offered us a somewhat sad smile then. “I resolved to do what I could to direct potentially sympathetic students toward the Rebellion, even after your mother was imprisoned. At least, until my memory of all of that was erased some decades later.” 

Looking like he was a bit lost in those recently-restored memories, Carver frowned before shaking himself. His gaze focused on me once more, and he smiled while tapping his knuckles lightly on the desk. “In any case, you let me know if you need any help. All of you.” That was added with a glance to the others before he headed off to respond to another student with their hand raised. 

Leaning closer to Avalon’s desk, Shiori examined the glass figurine there. “Wow, there’s a lot of detail on this thing. She’s really pretty.” Her eyes glanced up to the other girl. “Actually, she kinda looks like you a little bit.” 

I leaned closer as well and squinted at it before blinking a couple times. “Hey, yeah, she does look like you, Valley. Her face is practically the same.” 

Flushing a little bit, Avalon shrugged. “Well, I’m definitely not a ballet dancer. So there’s a pretty big difference. And even if I wanted to be, I don’t have the body type for it. They’re thin and… thin.” Her face was pink, and she reached out to pick up the figurine. “I’ll take it to Dries later. Come on, we need to get back to work.” 

Shiori and I exchanged glances, before I nodded. “Right, yeah, of course. Back to work.” With that, I settled in my seat once more and turned my gaze back to the book. Still, I couldn’t help but think about Dries. His sister had died while he was still a teenager. Then he had fallen in love with Liesje and that whole thing had… yeah. That poor guy. 

Of course, that whole thing also made me think about my own little sister. How was Tabbris doing with her birth-father? He seemed nice enough for the moment, but I was still unsure how that whole thing was going to go. I was worried about her, and had to resist the urge to reach out through our connection to check on her. She deserved time with him without me snooping or bothering her, no matter how curious and worried I was. 

So, with some effort, I shoved those thoughts aside and forced myself to focus on the book in front of me. I would find out how that whole thing had gone later. But one thing was for sure. 

Wings or no wings, Jegudiel was going to find himself in a world of hurt from a lot of people if he ever made Tabbris sad. 

********

Tabbris was fine, of course. Well, pretty much fine. There was obviously a lot she had to work through when it came to the idea of her birth father visiting. On the plus side, she also seemed at least a bit happy about getting to meet him when I talked to her later that day. She was overwhelmed by the whole thing and would need time to process, but it definitely could have gone a lot worse. Apparently she had requested that Vanessa, Tristan, Spark, and Jehoel all go in as well to meet the man, and Jegudiel had given every single one of them a hug. Yeah, a literal hug. Hybrid human-Seosten, SPS Seosten projected as a hologram, and experimented-on kid who turned into younger versions of the person he was touching instead of possessing them, none of that mattered. He embraced all four. I was kind of sad that I had missed that.

Apparently he’d also thanked Dad for taking care of Tabbris for so long, and actually called her our daughter. Actually, given the way loyalist Seosten normally–it seemed a little odd that he was so quickly willing to not only accept Dad like that, but also treat the other four so well. But maybe that was just me being overly suspicious again. Just because this guy was loyal to the Seosten government and all that didn’t mean he was incapable of being decent. After all, there were plenty of them who truly believed that if the Seosten didn’t rigorously control… enslave all these populations, then the Fomorians would wipe out everyone. Seosten, human, and every other species in the universe would be utterly destroyed. Plus, from what I had heard, this guy spent most of his time on the front lines of the war. He literally watched the Fomorians try (or succeed) to genocide entire worlds over and over again. So maybe his perspective was a little different than people who only saw the Seosten forcing other species to work on equipment and resources to send to that frontline. Perspective was pretty important, after all. At least, that was what I kept telling it myself. 

I was thinking about that among other things (my brain was pretty full), as I took a walk through the station later that evening. It wasn’t quite dinner time yet and I was trying to clear my head, considering Jegudiel was supposed to be there to eat with us. Which… yeah, clearing my head was a good thing. 

I rounded a corner, lost in my own thoughts, only to very nearly run right into Roxa coming the other way. The power that made her untrackable unless you were looking right at her affected my item sense as well. Which I knew, but still didn’t help me avoid jumping backward with a fairly undignified yelp. 

“Hey, Flick,” Roxa casually announced while watching me collect myself with a very tiny smile. “Sorry, I probably should’ve said something before. Guess I wanted to see if you’d notice, or just how distracted you were.” Her teasing tone softened as she added, “How’s Tabbris doing?” 

“You heard about that, huh?” I asked while glancing past her to Pace, as the Latina girl approached. 

“Basically everyone has,” Roxa confirmed. “I mean, one of the archangels shows up and starts walking around the station? And it’s one of the archangels who isn’t Michael? It’s news.” 

“Big news,” Pace added, stopping next to the other girl. “Even bigger than the whole Dracula thing.” 

She said that while looking past me, and I turned to look back down the hall. Sure enough, Theia was there, along with April and June. Or rather, the man who had once been called June. Yeah, coming back here to find out that one of the Calendar people was actually Dracula himself, and had decided to start hanging out here on the station was… something. Especially when I found out why he had decided to be around now. 

Speaking of which, the man had spotted us by then and was approaching with April and Theia trailing behind. He met my gaze with an expression that was half-smile, half-smirk. “Felicity Chambers, a pleasure to see you once again. And you, Roxanne and Pace. I hope the three of you are well. And assume you haven’t been visited by any more Seosten ghosts today.” 

“I haven’t seen Kushiel,” I confirmed. That was why he was here, why he had decided to start staying on the station. Apparently he had a thing about Kushiel and now that she was back as a ghost, wanted to make sure something was done about her. I had no idea what their whole history was, but he wanted her dead, and that was good enough for most people around here. Enemy of my enemy, and all that. But I was still concerned about what his intentions beyond that were. Something about the guy just rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe it was that he was so cavalier about killing a lot of people. Or that he made no secret of the fact that he wasn’t here because he believed in our cause or anything, but rather because he thought we could help get rid of Kushiel for good. 

Unfortunately, he also apparently knew a lot about her resources and secret places here on Earth. So the adults had decided not to cast him out immediately. The way they put it, dealing with someone like Kushiel in the best-case scenario required doing things you might not want to. Now that she was some sort of super ghost, we needed every advantage we could get. Even when that advantage was this guy. He didn’t care about our cause and he didn’t care about any of us. Well, that wasn’t true. He cared about the other members of the Calendar. At least Abigail said he did, and some of the stuff I had seen seemed to lend credence to it. He cared about Theia too. Other SPS Seosten, he cared about them. He was almost tender with them at times. Seeing him interact with them was the only time I didn’t think he was putting on a show of being nice. And that was specifically Seosten with that condition, not his entire species. I was pretty sure he lumped everyone into two categories: SPS Seosten, whom he cared about, and everyone else, whom he didn’t. He reminded me a bit of Magneto, from the X-Men. He wanted to protect his people, no matter what happened to anyone he didn’t consider one of his.

The smile he gave me then didn’t reach his eyes. “Well, you know, just let me know. Let everyone know. Trust me, you don’t want to face her alone.” 

“She won’t,” Roxa put in, stepping beside me. “Anyone comes at Flick, they’ve got to deal with a lot of other problems.” 

“Kushiel found that out the first time,” Pace added while stepping up on my other side. “Right, Theia?” 

Rubbing a hand over the cap that Doug had given her, Theia gave a little nod and straightened. “Yes,” she agreed quietly. “My mother took too many of my friends away. I could not allow her to take you.” Her eyes moved back and forth between Pace and me. “Either of you.” 

Drake (he said we should call him that, given he didn’t want to go by June anymore and thought Dracula might sound a little silly) smiled sidelong at the Seosten girl. “And I’m so very glad you did. Even if it didn’t quite stick. The next time we kill her, it will.” He showed his teeth then, his canines somehow extended like the fangs of his namesake. I still wasn’t sure how he did that, given he wasn’t actually a vampire. 

“I wish my mother’s spirit to be banished as well,” Theia agreed before looking at April, who was staying back a bit. “But I remain certain she will not show herself here any time soon. Particularly not before we collect December for the ice–” 

“Icecreamicecreamicecream!” Speak of the dev–well, superfast little girl, December herself came zooming down the hall from the way the others had come. April calmly stepped out of the way and put her hand down just in time to catch the girl by the top of her head, halting her in place. The kid was literally bouncing up and down. “Ifinishedthehomework, sowecango geticecreamnow?” She waved to everyone in turn in a rush of motion that was practically a blur, greeting each of us. “HeyPacehiFlickheyRoxa…… Hiya, Ju–Drake.” She had to correct herself, her words so slow at that point that it actually sounded like she was speaking normally. 

“Hey there, kid.” Drake gave another genuine, gentle smile that way. “You’re going to go get ice cream, huh? I’d tag along, but I haven’t had dinner yet–hold on, you’re not spoiling your appetite are you? Are they letting you have ice cream for supper?” He adopted a teasingly authoritative tone. 

Giggling, December shook her head. “Nowehad… dinnerafew… minutesago! Wehaditearly…cuzwedidn’tgo… tolunchcuzwe… werebusyreportingin.” 

“Ah, and how is the old–” In mid-sentence, Drake caught a look from April and cleared his throat. “How is Cahethal?”

“She’s very curious about you, that’s for sure,” April informed him in a flat voice. “You know she wants to have a discussion.” 

“And the very moment I have literally any interest in that, I’ll get right on it,” Drake replied casually, clearly unconcerned. “But in the meantime, if you’re all going to talk about ice cream, I suppose I’ll head out. Don’t want to be tempted to be bad about my diet, after all.” He winked, then started to walk away, calling back toward me, “Remember, Miss Chambers, the instant you see any sign of Kushiel, let me know.” 

Waiting until he was gone, I looked toward the others. “How’s it been going with searching the addresses he’s been giving? Any luck? Any sign that he’s actually on the up and up?” 

Theia answered immediately. “He has given valuable information. True information.” 

“She’s right,” Pace confirmed. “Kushiel hasn’t been at any of the places they went to check, but it was obvious that she had people keeping them up for her. You know, from before she died. Err…” She frowned then. “This whole situation is weird. She died, she should stay that way. This isn’t Dragonball Z.” 

“Don’t forget, she is still dead,” I reminded her. “This is just her… leftover we’re dealing with. Her ghost. Her echo or whatever.” 

“She’s a pain in the ass, that’s what she is,” Roxa announced. 

“You’re not wrong about that,” I agreed, frowning a bit in thought before looking at the others. “And I’m worried that we haven’t heard from her in so long. She made a big show about being back, then just… disappeared for over a month? That just tells me she’s up to something big. 

“And we are definitely gonna regret finding out what.”  

********

Patreon Snippets 25B

Two of Joselyn’s old teammates back when she attended Crossroads were Seamus and Roger Dornan, cousins. They’ve been seen a few times in the story (including in the recent rescue mission), and the first time they were seen as adults (taking place right after Flick gave everyone their memories of the Rebellion back) was in one of the ninth Patreon Snippets right here. In that snippet, it was established that despite their memories of the Rebellion being erased, they had semi-recently turned against Crossroads entirely on their own and began helping Alters. According to that snippet, they decided to turn against Crossroads and stopped believing that all Strangers were evil after encountering innocent children while on a hunt. The following is that specific scene

Six And A Half Years Ago

“Hey, hold up there.” 

As the nine-year-old girl started to turn off the sidewalk to head into the nearby alley, a fairly short, red-haired man wearing construction clothes with a reflective vest stepped in the way with one hand up to block her. “Sorry, Miss, we’re doing some work down there. Can’t use the shortcut today.” 

The girl wasn’t very happy about that, given not using the shortcut would add a full ten minutes to her route home. But she finally moved on down the street, trudging a little bit with the knowledge that she was going to miss the first minutes of the show she liked to get home for. On the way, the kid absently tossed the brown paper bag lunch sack she was carrying into a trash can before breaking into a run. Maybe she wouldn’t miss too much. 

Watching her go, Seamus Dornan spoke without looking over his shoulder. “We set up?” 

“Damn straight we are.” Behind the man, his cousin Roger brushed a hand through light blond hair that fell to his shoulders. Standing an inch shorter than Seamus and also wearing construction clothes along with an expression of barely constrained anger at the moment, he added, “And the things that keep stalking that kid through this alley every day should be here any minute, so let’s get in position.” 

At the mention of the reason they were here and had steered the kid away, Seamus grimaced. They had seen some signs that there were Strangers in this area, and had taken the past week to track down the source. Learning that those things, whatever they were, were waiting in the alley for that poor kid to go past every day made him shudder to think about what could have happened. Why they were waiting so long to make their move, he couldn’t say. Maybe they liked to make a game of it. Maybe they were waiting for her to get a little bigger, or for the moon to be in the right phase, or… whatever. Who knew what went through the minds of monsters? As far as he was concerned, however, that was over. Whatever those things were up to, they wouldn’t be hurting this little girl. Not while he and Roger were here. 

To that end, the two of them stepped fully into the alley. Roger had set up a couple of ‘notice-me-not’ circles, one about halfway down the alley next to a dumpster and the other a bit further on, closer to the exit but up on the lowest landing of the fire escape. That latter one was where Seamus would set himself. The two of them took their positions and waited. 

They weren’t waiting very long before catching the sound of something–no, several somethings approaching from the far end. Several small figures came into view, moving directly under Seamus. They wore heavy hooded jackets that made it hard to make out any details, even if he had been down on the ground rather than above them. He could see Roger watching them from the protection of his own magic circle next to the dumpster, pistol raised as he waited to take these nasty things by surprise. 

Gripping a construction mace in his own hand, Seamus made himself wait. They had to be sure that there were no more of these things lingering behind. This had to be a full wipe if he was going to feel like that poor kid was safe. 

The trio of small figures moved to the dumpster itself, their movements slow and cautious. The nearest one reached up into the wide metal slot that the garbage truck would use to pick up the dumpster eventually. There was a brief pause, then a whispered, “It’s not here.” The voice sounded stressed, worried, and something more. “Did she–” 

Roger, who had always been more impulsive and less patient, stepped from his circle, gun raised. “Looking for someone?”  

Muttering something about waiting for a signal, Seamus leapt from his perch to land behind the trio. A gesture with his mace made a solid wall right behind him to block them up from that direction. And they sure as hell wouldn’t be getting past Roger to go the other way, whatever they were. 

As soon as they saw the Heretic in front of them, the trio… screamed. They spun to retreat, only to spot Seamus and the wall rising into place. Two of the figures fell to the ground right there, a sound of… a sound of… was that…

Were they crying? 

The hoods had fallen off the two who had fallen down by that point, leaving Roger and Seamus staring at what looked like a cat-like Rakshasa and wolf-like, red-furred Lupera. A juvenile Rakshasa and Lupera. Kids. Two tiny, terrified Lupera and Rakshasa children, lying there on the ground with tears in their eyes, shielding their faces with their arms.

Meanwhile, the still-standing figure shouted, “Get away!” The words came with a voice that shook, cracking with audible terror. Their own hood fell as well, when they snapped their head back and forth to look at Roger and Seamus while putting one hand down in front of the other two, as though shielding them. This third one was also a child, a reptilian figure who looked like they might be a couple years older than the first two. 

The two on the ground, if they had been human, might’ve been five or six from the look of them. The one standing in front of them, arms out to block the Heretics from the two cowering figures, was maybe eight years old. They hissed a little, frills on the side of their neck standing out as though to make themselves look bigger. “G-go away!” they repeated, though it was more of a desperate wish than a demand. Their voice sounded… broken. Empty. Lost. They sounded like a person who was already dead. They… both the kids on the ground and the one standing in front of them, all sounded like they had nothing left. No hope. They were just… they were…

“Roger,” Seamus started, making his own cousin gasp slightly as he was startled out of his own long, silent stare, “watch them. Don’t… don’t.” He left it at that while walking past the trio. They shrank back even more as he moved, the reptilian figure physically pushing their two companions back against the dumpster as though it would protect them. 

Walking back to the front of the alley, where he’d turned the girl away, Seamus left for a moment. He was back shortly, carrying the small paper sack she had thrown into the trash can down the street. Moving purposefully, he opened the bag, emptying it out on the ground in front of the huddled trio. Out fell a sandwich wrapped in a plastic baggie, an orange, a carton of juice, and a bag of chips. 

“This?” he started, his own voice cracking very slightly. “This is why you’ve been following that girl?” 

The lizard girl said nothing, looking more confused and wary than anything. The younger Lupera girl spoke up with a tiny, frightened, “Sh-she doesn’t eat her lunch, she never eats her lunch.” 

“She throws it away so her mom won’t get mad,” the Rakshasa boy added. “P-please, please, we’ll go away. We won’t take her food anymore, ple–” 

“Don’t bother, Teumni,” the reptilian whispered, sounding just as hollow and resigned, yet still refusing to move from their spot in front of their younger companions. “They won’t listen. They never listen.” They met Seamus’s gaze, eyes wide with terror. They were so afraid they could barely string the words together, so lost in despair and dread that they would have fallen over. They would have cowered. Yet they didn’t. They stood in front of their younger companions because they were all they had. They stood because there were no others to stand for them. 

They were, at once, the most terrified and most brave being Seamus had ever seen in his life. 

Swallowing, Seamus moved his gaze away from the three and toward Roger. Their eyes locked, a long, silent moment passing between them. He stooped very slowly, his movements making the three Strangers cower in against one another, the reptilian more determinedly holding their arms out to cover the other two. But Seamus didn’t reach for them. He picked the wrapped sandwich up from the ground, unwrapping it carefully before taking a sniff. “Peanut butter,” he murmured. “It’s a peanut butter sandwich.” His words were soft, incredulous over this whole situation. 

Again, he looked toward Roger. They both stared silently at one another, before the other man gave a very slight nod of agreement. Seamus, in turn, slowly raised the unwrapped sandwich, holding it out that way. 

The reptilian child stared at the offered sandwich, a whimper escaping them at what they perceived as a taunt. “What… what do you want?” they brokenly asked. 

“What do I want?” Seamus echoed, staring at the sandwich in his outstretched hand as though it held the answer. “What I want…” The truth came to him as he sank to one knee, the mace falling from his other hand to clatter against the ground. “What I want is for no one to ever look at me the way you are right now.” He was speaking mostly to himself, as surprised by the sound of his own voice as he was by the content of it. 

Someone finally took the sandwich away, but it wasn’t any of the three Stranger children. It was Roger, who looked at the food in his hand, then tossed it aside before going down on one knee as well, next to his cousin. “Yeah, I’m not really a fan of it either,” he murmured before focusing on the kids. “Listen, we… we’re not gonna hurt you.” 

“Y… you’re not?” That was the Lupera girl, her snout twitching a little. 

“No,” Seamus agreed. It was the first thing he had been completely certain of since he’d dropped into the alley. “We’re not.”

“Where are your parents?” Roger asked. 

There was no immediate answer, as the three looked at one another before the reptilian answered in a quiet, flat, “Your people killed them.” 

That landed hard, like a jab to the stomach. Seamus felt it, his body wincing inward slightly as though it had been a physical blow. Words came to mind, but none were sufficient. And yet, the fact that he felt the impulse to say them, the fact that he felt any… guilt about what they said, the fact that the children themselves were so affected, the fact that… that any of this was happening…

“Come on,” he finally announced while pushing himself to his feet. In that moment, he had come to a decision. Beside him, Roger stood as well, the two in silent agreement despite not doing anything to communicate with each other.  

“Wha-what?” The reptilian stammered, terror palpable in their voice as they stared at him while keeping their arms resolutely in front of the other two. “Y-you said–” 

“We’re not going to hurt you,” he interrupted, assuring them of that in as firm a voice as he could manage. “But since my cousin threw your sandwich away, we owe you some food, and there’s a McDonald’s right around the corner. So what do you say we get some lunch, and do something I’m starting to think we should have done a long time ago. 

“Talk.” 

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Patreon Snippets 24 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 24th 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, and have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

Avalon and Gwen (The following takes place sometime after the previous chapter 17-01 and before the next chapter 17-02

“This place has the best sushi you will ever eat. Bar none.” 

With that small aside, Gwen pulled the nozzle out of the corvette’s gas tank, slid it back onto the pump, hit the screen twice with her thumb to decline a receipt, and started up toward the rundown, dingy-looking building advertising one dollar hot dogs and seventy-nine cent large fountain drinks. “Don’t just stand there, this is the best time of day for the fresh stuff.” 

Avalon, standing by the rear of the car, stared after the blonde (with pink tips) woman while silently echoing, ‘fresh stuff.’ Her head shook as she quickly pushed herself into motion, walking that way. “Wait, this is a gas station.” 

“Uh huh,” Gwen agreed, already reaching out for the door after giving a quick nod to the distracted man who passed them while talking on his phone. 

“A gas station in the middle of Nebraska,” Avalon continued, stepping in once the other woman gestured for her to go ahead. “Which, just to be clear, is literally the most landlocked state in the entire US. I double-checked just to be sure. It’s the only state that is triple-landlocked. You have to go through at least three states, or two states and a big Canadian province, to get to the ocean no matter which way you go. We’re talking over a thousand miles to the nearest ocean.” 

Stepping into the store before letting the door close after her, Gwen airily replied, “That’s right.” She turned a bit then, eyes surveying the empty shop aside from a single employee who was silently reading a magazine while keeping half an eye on them. The man looked Latino, with long hair pulled into a ponytail, a heavyset body, and a tee-shirt advertising a boxing match that had been over for going on twenty-five years. 

Satisfied that there was no one else in the convenience store, Gwen called out toward the man sitting there. Only she spoke in what sounded like rapid Japanese, and all Avalon got out of it was that her tone sounded questioning. Plus she was pretty sure there was a greeting in there somewhere. 

By the time Gwen was half-way through her question, the man behind the counter was already scrambling off his stool. It fell with a crash while he darted around the side and approached, speaking in his own rapid Japanese the moment the woman had finished. Again, Avalon couldn’t follow the actual words, but she could tell he was apologizing. He also kept bowing repeatedly, fumbling for something in his pocket. 

“Kaili,” Gwen interrupted, her hand moving to touch his arm. “It’s alright. We haven’t seen each other in awhile, and I looked different then. But please, my… niece here doesn’t speak your language.” 

“Niece?” The man’s gaze snapped from Gwen to Avalon, eyes widening. “You are the princess of Avalon?!” He was already bowing to her rapidly, babbling in his own language once more in what sounded like even more apologies. 

“Wait, no, I’m not–I mean it’s not princess anything, it’s just Ava–” Cutting herself off in mid-objection (which she was pretty sure the man himself wasn’t even hearing in the midst of his own apology), Avalon looked toward Gwen, voice flat. “Gaia knew what she was doing.” 

Giving her a tiny smirk, Gwen nodded easily. “Of course she did. Good or bad, that woman rarely did anything by accident.” With that, she turned back to Kaili and spoke up with a gentle, yet firm voice. “It’s alright, we aren’t here for any of that. We came for the sushi. If it’s ready?” 

Clearly snapped out of his rambling apology for not somehow intuiting who Avalon and Gwen were the moment they stepped inside, Kaili stopped short, glancing toward an unlabeled door in the back while tugging a set of keys from his pocket. “Oh yes, yes, of course. Our normal customers have not arrived yet, you shall be the first. And ahh, have first choice, naturally.” Even as he said that, the man was already hurrying toward that rear door, using no-less than four keys on separate locks before he finally pulled it open. As he was starting to give a grand gesture for the two to go through, a man in a trucker’s cap began to come in the main door from the lot outside. But before he could get more than a step inside, Kaili snapped, “We’re closed!” At his words, the customer was pushed back out the door by an invisible force and the door shut firmly in his face before the sound of a lock clicking filled the air. Outside, the man voiced confusion, pulled at the door twice, then shook his head and walked away muttering. 

“Ahem,” Kaili turned his attention back to the two women, arm rising to motion them inward as he held the door politely. “Please, please, after you, your majesties.” 

Avalon started to object, then simply gave a heavy sigh before walking through the door, with Gwen following just behind her. There was a set of stairs on the other side, leading down into an open basement room that was much larger than the building upstairs. Along the walls on either side were several enormous aquarium tanks, filled with fish of all sizes, shapes, and colors. Many of which didn’t look like they belonged on Earth. The tanks continued down under their feet, as Avalon, Gwen, and their escort walked across a glass floor, toward several tables that had been set up in the middle of the room, spaced far enough apart that the occupants could have a private conversation. 

Handing the two of them menus, Kaili bowed once more before announcing that he would return right away. Then he moved to a door at the back of the room, which seemed to lead to a kitchen area. 

With her menu in one hand, Avalon glanced around, taking in the colorful fish on all sides of her. Glancing up, she saw a literal glass ceiling with even more fish visible there. “This is… different.” 

“Not what you expected, hmm?” Gwen teased lightly. “It’s something wonderful hiding under the guise of something plain. I think that’s why I like it so much.” Pausing briefly, she added, “Well, that and the fact that the food truly is utterly delightful. I, ah, wanted to share something nice with you. I know we haven’t… really had much time to talk about…” She gestured back and forth between herself and the other girl. “Our situation.” 

“You mean my situation as your, ah, niece?” Avalon tried out the word, face twisting a little before she shook her head. “You don’t have to call me that. I know you didn’t get along with Gaia, and she just adopted–” 

“Stop,” Gwen interrupted. “You’re right, I have had my issues with… Gaia. When we get her back, she and I are going to have a very long, very intense conversation about a lot of things. But she has more than proven that she is not the same person I knew back then. And she has absolutely proven that she loves you. Believe me when I say, I watched her all last year. The way she is with you, the way she watches you when you aren’t looking, the way–” Cutting herself off, she simply finished with, “She does not see you as a responsibility, she sees you as her daughter. I hope you know that.” 

“I’m… still coming to terms with it,” Avalon murmured while shifting in her seat. “I need–I want–we have to get her out of there. I have to tell her, I mean… I have to tell her everything I wanted to tell her before.” 

“We will,” Gwen assured her. “But that’s my point. You love her and she loves you. She is your family. Which means you are my family. Believe me, Arthur will make that abundantly clear when we get him back. Which we are also doing.” 

“Arthur… literal King Arthur,” Avalon breathed out the words even as her head shook in disbelief. It took a moment to organize her thoughts. “You know, I thought that with Liesje’s spell finally cast, my whole ridiculous important family thing would be over. But I’m sitting here with Queen Guinevere, wife to King Arthur, whose sister is the, ahem, formerly evil witch Morgan Le Fay, who is my adopted mother.” 

“Yeeeah, your life is never gonna be boring,” Gwen confirmed with a light, casual chuckle. “But at least you’ve got some interesting relatives out of it.” 

Grimacing, Avalon muttered a dark, “Better than my dad, that’s for sure.” She paused to consider briefly before meeting the woman’s gaze. “It is pretty weird though. I mean, having Harper as my aunt.” 

With an audible snicker, Gwen offered, “It could be worse. At least you’re not related to Litonya.” 

Silently mouthing, ‘oh my God’ at the very thought, Avalon gave a full-body shudder. “Is this your way of making up for not being able to mentally torture me for all the years I was growing up, by putting that thought in my head?” 

“Figured that out, did ya?” With those teasing words, Gwen sobered a bit, her voice softening. “Wherever you came from, however it happened and whatever the reasoning, you are Gaia’s daughter. Which means you are my niece. That means something to me. And it’ll mean something to Arthur. Not to mention the people who are still loyal to him. You are, for all intents and purposes, a princess. Granted, one with no lands or real responsibilities… yet. But a princess nonetheless.” 

Awkwardly rubbing the back of her neck, Avalon made a face. “I’m not–I mean… I’m not, though. Not–I just want to… I’m not that type of person. When I was a kid, I was a wimp. At the Garden, I learned how to be tough, how to fight and protect myself. Then that fell apart, and Flick… Flick, Gaia, and the others taught me how to open up a little bit and not be so hard. But I’ll never be…” She took a deep breath. “I’ll never be a princess-type princess.” 

A snort escaped Gwen, which turned into a laugh. “I’m sorry, have you taken a look at me? Listen, Avalon–” Stopping abruptly, she shook her head. “I’m starting to think Gaia named you that to mess with me too. Anyway, I was raised to be a fighter. I was raised by Michael. I never–being queen was never on my to-do list either. Neither was falling in love with Arthur. So believe me, I know where you’re coming from. I know how uncomfortable it can be to find out that people are looking up to you, that you’re actually responsible for more than just yourself and the few people around you. That’s why I’m here now, with you. Because I want to help you be ready for when that responsibility actually shows up. You and me, we’ve got a lot in common. I wish I had a me to be there for me when I was me back–” She stopped, face twisting a little. “And now I’ve lost myself.” 

Smiling just a little, Avalon quietly replied, “That’s why we’re here, so you can start talking to me about all these things?” 

“Well no, we’re together so I can start talking to you about all these things,” Gwen corrected. “We’re here because like I said, their sushi is goddamn amazing. Now look at the menu and figure out what you want. And don’t worry, if you want to sneak a little wine, I won’t tell anyone. 

“After all, I am the cool aunt. And being queen has its privileges.” 

*********

The Calendar (The following takes place sometime shortly after the upcoming 17-03)

“Why are we here?” The skinny man who asked that question had short, dirty-blond hair that was mussed up, and wore a pair of jeans with a flannel shirt tucked into them. His words were addressed to the eclectic group standing around him, all of them waiting in a large shed at the rear end of an old farm. 

“You know why we’re here, November.” That crisp reply came from a tall, blonde woman in a red evening gown that looked quite out of place in the dingy shed. “We were invited.” 

Clearing his throat, a black man with shoulder-length dark hair wearing a pristine white suit pointed out, “Now January, I believe what November was asking was why were we invited?”

“Feb’s got a point,” Julie (July) agreed. Like the man she was referring to, Julie was black and appeared to be what humans would consider twenty-two or so. She preferred to wear a tan trench coat, like various Earth detective stories they had seen, over black pants and a white shirt. “They already have three of us up there. Why would they want any more?” 

“Unless it’s a trap.” That supposition came from October, or rather, Otto. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties (making him several thousand in actuality), and his own style of clothing went toward loud Hawaiian shirts covered by a white lab coat. He also wore glasses that possessed an array of special abilities. “Perhaps Athena’s alliance believes that they can remove a resource from an enemy in one stroke by taking her entire Calendar off the board.” 

“If you believed that,” the eldest of their group, a gray-haired man in a multi-thousand dollar suit, put in, “you would not have agreed to come here.” August’s eyes narrowed that way. “Not unless you had some plan of your own.” 

The two members of the group who had been silent up to that point were both rather large men, each standing well over six feet. One would have been considered Latino if he had been human, and wore clothes that were rather drab and heavily patched. They had been worn for a long time. The other, equally as tall, had green crewcut hair and also wore simple clothing. Tember (September) and March respectively. 

It was Tember who spoke up then, his attention on Otto. “Come on, man, tell us you didn’t bring some sort of bomb or weapon that’s gonna start the war up all over again.” 

March, who rarely spoke at all given his intense dislike of attention, made a noise in the back of his throat that showed just how much he didn’t like that idea either. 

With the attention of all seven other members of the immediate group on him, Otto waved both hands. “I didn’t bring a bomb or a weapon. I mean, no more weapons than the rest of you are carrying. Trust me, I got the speech. Multiple times. I’m just saying, if they wanted to get rid of all of us, it makes the most sense to do it all at once. If they ‘lost’ the other three, it would look suspicious to ask for replacements. This way, we can all have an accident together.” 

“Now I’m regretting even bringing it up,” November muttered before shaking his head. “I wasn’t trying to say it’s a trap. I’m just asking why they want us up there. There has to be a reason, but I can’t figure out what they get out of it.”

August, who had been gazing out the nearby open door for a moment, turned his attention back to the others while speaking flatly. “When it comes down to it, we are not worth such effort. It would be trivially simple for Cahethal to replace all twelve of us should the need arise. Never forget that the courtesy she extends us in allowing our autonomy and individuality is not due to any specific unique achievements on our part. There is a long list of those like us who would quite easily take our place.” 

“She hasn’t replaced June yet,” Julie pointed out in a quiet voice. “Why do you think that is? I mean, she replaced December faster than this. And others.” That last bit served to remind the others that she was one of the longest-lasting members of the current Calendar. To the point that she had slightly adapted the provided name of July to Julie, making it more of her own. 

“That is a good question,” January agreed thoughtfully. “I suppose she could still be holding out for Kushiel’s daughter, despite May and April’s strong doubts on that front.” 

For a brief moment, all of them exchanged silent looks. In the end, it was Feb who broke that silence. “She has an Olympian power. If she said the word, Cahethal would replace any one of us with her. She doesn’t have to keep a position open. She would create an opening if she had to.” 

None of the others disagreed with that, though they were glad not to be the one who brought up the reality that they simply were not truly that important in the grand scheme of things. 

Tember finally let out an audible sigh. “Everyone calm down. No one is being replaced. Kushiel’s daughter–” He stopped, considering briefly before amending his words. “Theia has no interest in joining us. May and April made that clear. Whatever Cahethal’s reason for not replacing June yet, I don’t think it has anything to do with her. We’ll find out when she wants us to know.” 

“Okay, so that takes us back to why does that group want us up there?” Julie pointed out. “Athena is not stupid enough to think she could get real information out of us. And even if she did, they already have the other three. What is the tactical advantage of having all of us there the same time?” 

Otto, voice thoughtful, put in, “Maybe they’ve got some new tracking spell or something and want to put it on all of us while we’re there so they’ll always know if we start spying on them.” 

January opened her mouth, then paused to consider. “That… if they had such a spell, it would be enormously valuable. At least as much as their new protection magic. The ability to mark us in a way that allows them to track us even through other possessions, and to always know precisely where we are… that would be one of the biggest anti-Seosten weapons in existence.” 

“And if anyone could and would develop it,” Otto pointed out, “it’s Athena’s organization right here at Rysthael.” 

August raised his hand to stop them. “I’m afraid we are getting far too deep into the weeds of wild supposition here. I do not know why we have been invited to visit this place any better than any of you, but I do not believe the intention is nefarious. Ignoring the fact that our friends would have warned us if they suspected any such efforts, it is simply unnecessary. Not only do they have April, May, and December as it is, they also have plenty of other Seosten with them who would quite willingly submit to the testing of such a spell. Our presence would be entirely superfluous.” 

“Unless they just wanted to cast it on us to make sure we can’t ever actually spy on them,” Otto started to point out before blanching as the entire group stared at him. “I get it, I get it, paranoid. It’s not likely, yeah. But I still don’t–” 

At that point, his words were interrupted by the sudden appearance of the portal they had all been waiting for. It grew to full size in front of them, just before several figures stepped through. The group immediately recognized April, May, and December, even as the latter blurted January’s name and embraced her tightly. Then she began to make her way around the circle, giving each of them hugs of their own. 

By that point, April and May had stepped aside to give room for three more figures to join them. The first was Theia herself, while the second was Mercury, his gaze passing quickly over everyone as though assessing them for any threat. Finally, the third was a woman who would have been entirely unfamiliar to them if they had not read the detailed dossier about her. 

“Principal Abigail Fellows?” January couldn’t keep the surprise from her voice. “We didn’t expect to see you here.” 

The woman in question offered her a small smile. “I suppose it is a bit of a surprise. And I know how surprises can be disconcerting. Sorry for that. I wanted to come greet you myself and extend our invitation to visit the school, if you are all still interested.” 

December immediately began to launch into a long spiel about how much they had to come, before May gently covered the girl’s mouth and spoke up herself. “Perhaps official introductions.” She and April went down the line, giving each Calendar member’s name. 

And with each introduction, Abigail insisted on shaking their hands. Which was quite disconcerting for all of them, even knowing about the protection spell. 

“Well,” Mercury finally announced, “shall we go back through? We have–” 

Before he could say anything else, the man abruptly pivoted, hand coming up with a pistol, which he pointed past the others toward the doorway. The doorway where another figure, simultaneously incredibly familiar to the Calendar, and utterly astonishing, had appeared. 

“June!” December blurted out loud, lunging that way. “What’reyoudoinghere?! Ithoughtyouweredeadtheysaidyouweredead! Howcomeeveryonethinksyou’redead?!” 

The man in question, a Seosten who appeared to be around twenty, with short black hair, wore the same dark clothes and white jacket they had always seen him in. But he also wore something else, a sly, cocky smirk that seemed out of place on one of their kind. 

“Well hey there, pals,” he greeted them while ruffling December’s hair. “You weren’t about to go on this tour without me, were you?” 

“Cahethal said you were dead, June.” January’s gaze was laser-focused on the man. 

“Well in a way, I suppose June is,” the man replied lazily. “I got tired of him. And tired of working with that old stuffy bitch. Decided to go back to my old self. Or one of my old selves anyway. Thought maybe I could collect some long-owed royalties.

“After all, these humans have been profiting off the name Dracula for a very long time.” 

A/N: Dracula was previously seen (and established to be an SPS Seosten) in a historical figures snippet found as the last entry in the chapter right here. And yes, he has somewhat changed his appearance since then.

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Interlude 16B – Reunions 2 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – There is some important information in the author comment after the end of this chapter concerning updates to Patreon bonuses and goals. If you do support these stories or have any interest whatsoever in doing so to help ensure they are as good as they can possibly be (and help get every reader even more of those stories), it would be fantastic if you could read that comment after you finish the chapter. Thanks so much to all of you!

The sound of a ball repeatedly bouncing between wall and racket grew faster and louder with each passing moment. Soon, the figure darting back and forth across the small court became little more than a barely-visible blur as she activated her inborn boost ability. It wasn’t quite as fast as the girl had been capable of moving while possessing Pace with her superspeed, but still quite a feat. More than the average Seosten was capable of, that much was certain. And she held it, if not as long as many of the eldest and most powerful of her people, at least substantially longer than most her own still relatively-young age. 

Finally, after boosting herself as high and as long as possible as she turned the ball into a nearly-solid line of back-and-forth bounces between the wall and her racket, Theia abruptly pivoted a hundred and sixty degrees on one foot without any warning. The hand holding her racket dropped limply to her side while her other hand snapped upward to catch the ball that was still coming her way, snatching it out of midair an inch from the back of her head. And just like that, she stood facing the figure who had stood in the doorway for the past minute. 

“Hello, Father.” 

Puriel, his eyes focused on hers, stood silently for another moment before stepping the rest of the way into the enclosed racquetball court. His footsteps echoed a bit as he took several steps and then stopped. The door fell shut with a somewhat final-sounding thud, and still the man had not spoken. Nor had Theia moved other than to lower the hand that held the ball. For a handful of seconds, which seemed much longer than that to both involved, they stood facing one another in complete silence. A pin dropped to the floor could have imitated the sound of a grenade in those brief moments. 

In that time, he took in the girl’s appearance. She wore a pair of tennis shoes that had been painted bright orange, with several white lightning bolts added to them, and a pair of mismatched purple and green socks. Her baggy jean shorts fell to her knees, with a rainbow-colored belt. Beyond that, she wore an open orange windbreaker with its own lightning bolts, matching her shoes, over a rainbow striped shirt to match the belt. And, atop her head, the New York Rangers cap. 

Finally, Puriel spoke his first words since entering the room. His first words since opening the door to see her. The first words he had spoken to her since he had taken her away from Kushiel’s experiments and sent her to be trained the way others with her condition were. The first words he had spoken to her since she became a person with a name. His first words not to the person she had been, but to the person she had become. 

“Hello, my daughter.” 

Three words. Each by themselves simple and unimpressive. Yet, as with all things, far greater when put together. Words held power. Not only of the enchantment sort, but true power, of the sort that would shape reality with no particular magic involved. The proper words, spoken at the proper time and by the proper person, could decide the course of an entire empire. As could the wrong ones, spoken at the wrong time, by the wrong person. 

These words might not have determined the fate of so many (though that in itself remained to be seen, as lesser moments had caused great change), but neither of those affected by them missed their significance. 

Another thump broke the brief silence that had followed those words, as Puriel dropped to one knee in front of the brown-haired girl. His hands rose almost to her face, before he stopped himself and stayed there with his hands shaking very slightly, mere inches from her skin. 

When she saw that he had stopped, the girl closed her eyes and began to let out a low, quiet sigh despite herself. Yet before all of the air could escape her, Puriel spoke once more. 

“May I touch you?” 

Eyes snapping open as the breath she had been slowly letting out became an audible (if barely) gasp, the girl met her father’s eyes in stunned silence. Silence which stretched on for several more seconds, as their gazes locked. And somehow, standing there in front of the man, she knew that he would not be the one to break that silence. If it took a lifetime, he would not move or speak again until she did. He had given her something precious, something far more powerful than any who had never been without it would comprehend. 

No, even that wasn’t correct. He had not given her anything. Acknowledging her right to choose whether to accept his touch was not a gift to be granted. Such a small thing which, in a just society, would have been entirely mundane. It would–should have been the absolute rule. 

It should not have mattered so much. And for that, the girl felt something she had thought impossible for her in the moments leading up to this reunion. 

She felt a single tear, before her eyes blinked it away. Setting her chin, she gave a very slight nod. Her voice was very soft, almost inaudible. “Yes, Father.” 

Granted the permission he sought, Puriel finally moved his hands those last few inches. A gasp of his own escaped the man as he cupped her face. His expression was, at first, unreadable. He slowly moved his thumbs along her cheeks and under her eyes with the gaze of a man who was truly seeing and touching his own child for the first time. An unconscious, entirely unbidden smile rose to his face. It was a smile of pride, of delight, of… pure wonder.  

“Theia.” The name came in a hushed, reverent tone, as he slid both hands along her face and through her hair, then down to her shoulders to squeeze. “Theia, my… my…” Where only a single tear had appeared on her face in response to that simple-yet-crucial request, his own fell freely. And then his arms wrapped around her, as the man pulled the girl to him. He was saying something, yet the words were muffled as he all-but crushed her to his chest. 

And then he repeated it, drawing back just enough that she would hear and understand. 

“I am sorry. I am so very sorry, my daughter. My daughter. My child. I’m sorry.” 

For several long moments, they stayed there like that. Puriel’s voice had fallen silent as he simply kept his arms locked around her. He held on as though afraid that to let go would be to lose her for good. His hand brushed up through the girl’s hair once more, then down her back. He held and touched his daughter in the way of a brand new parent only just experiencing their child for the first time. He touched her as though she was a newborn, and he a father who was just experiencing the true miracle of what he had made. 

Finally, the man pulled back slightly, meeting her gaze once more. Before he could say anything else, however, Theia spoke first while letting the ball and racket drop from her hands with a clatter. “You know what I did to Mother.” It was a statement of fact, an acknowledgment of reality. And yet, more than that. It was an acceptance, her voice making it clear that she expected anger, if not more.

Puriel, however, was silent for a few seconds. He said nothing, did nothing, made no move. His eyes continued to meet hers, his steady gaze the only proof that he had not once more fallen into lost memories. No, his silence in this moment was born entirely of shame rather than a damaged mind. When he spoke at last, it was with a voice that was rough, cracking slightly with each word. “I failed you in more ways than I could ever truly count. But by far the worst was to leave you with… with your mother for so long. I allowed my own prejudices, my own fears, my…” He stopped, glancing away briefly before returning his gaze to her while swallowing hard. “I failed you, Theia. I failed to give you a name. I failed to protect you from what I knew was a terrible environment, from a… a damaged woman. I failed to protect and guide you. I failed in every conceivable way.” Slowly, he moved his hand back to her cheek, gently resting it there. “I failed you when I could have helped. And yet, you have made your way through all of it.” His voice still held pain and regret, yet there was more pride in those words. 

Theia, mouth opening then shutting briefly, made a noise in the back of her throat. It took the girl a couple of tries before she found the right words. “You do not… seek justice for her?” 

It was then that Puriel realized why they were here alone, in this out-of-the-way room, why she had told others to let them meet here without any onlookers. She expected some form of punishment. She expected anger, retribution for the death of his wife, her mother. And she had sent everyone away who could have intervened. Hearing that in her voice, seeing it in her eyes, the realization made him start just a little. 

This was what she expected, because it was what Kushiel (and he to a lesser extent in his inaction) had cultivated into her. She expected her parents to hurt her. 

Processing all of that, realizing what his own daughter thought would happen here even after their initial reunion, Puriel closed his eyes. A low shudder ran through the man as he fought through all of the feelings and thoughts that came with her expectation. It seemed impossible to find the right words to respond to such a thing. Through distant memories, he thought of how desperately he and Kushiel had tried to conceive a child, how terrible each failure had been and how delighted they felt when it had finally happened. He thought of his wife’s face when she proudly told him that the pregnancy was sticking, how it had felt in his own soul every time she reported in to tell him that she still had the baby. He thought of how wondrous it had been to touch her stomach shortly before the birth, and know that he would soon have his own child. 

And then he thought of every failure that had come following the girl’s arrival and the revelation of her condition. He thought of every change he could have made and didn’t. He thought of everything his entire society did to punish people like his daughter for the crime of being born. And most of all, he thought of what her mother had done in her deranged, deluded attempts to ‘fix’ the girl. 

“There is justice to come,” he finally found himself saying. “But it is justice for you, not toward you. It is justice for all… all like you.” Swallowing hard, he slowly stood up while sliding his hands down to take both of hers and squeeze them. “Kushiel made her choices. I do not fault you for protecting yourself and those you care about. I fault her for the choices she made, her father for forcing those choices onto her, and our society for creating… the situation in the first place. I do not blame you.” 

His voice softened, gaze meeting hers as he quietly added, “I blame myself for not doing more when I could have, before you were forced into such a choice. You deserved better. You always deserved better. A better family, and better people.” Head tilting slightly, the man added, “And it sounds as though you finally found it.” 

“I have… an Abigail,” the girl informed him. “And a Pace. And a Douglas. They are not Kushiel. They are better.” Even after saying that, she looked uncertain if it was the right thing, almost fearful of his reaction. But then she steadied herself and gave a nod of certainty. “They are better.” 

“I have heard of–well, the first two,” Puriel confirmed. “They sound quite impressive. As for the last… what is a Douglas?” 

“He is a friend. He gave me this hat.” Raising her hand, Theia touched the object in question, before amending, “It is covered in the enchantments which block out the Whispers and partially affect our people when possessing someone. He gave it to Pace so that she could help move the body we shared. When we were… separated, I attempted to return the hat, but he was… he wanted me to keep it. So I have.” 

Puriel absorbed that for a moment before choosing to focus on something else. Something far more important. “The name. Your… your name. I must know. How did– how did that come about?” The odds of her happening to choose a name so close to that of the woman whose closeness to him had so infuriated Kushiel couldn’t be a coincidence, could it? 

And yet, it did seem to be just that. Theia informed him that Abigail had, independently of any actual knowledge of the situation, come up with the name Aletheia as a reference to the mythological goddess of truth (originally born of Apollo’s work, of course), which his daughter had shortened to Theia. 

Somehow, it didn’t surprise him that Kushiel had failed to tell their daughter about the real Aletheia. If his wife had ever had any inclination that there could be any relationship between the woman she had decided was her enemy (one of many), and her child, she would have… He grimaced at the thought before focusing on the girl in front of him. His voice was soft. “It is a good name. It is–” He stopped, considering his next words carefully. “It is the right name. But–but I should have named you. I am glad that you have one. It is yours. And yet, I am–it was a mistake to send you away. I had three… three opportunities to name you. First, when you were born. Second, when I sent you away from your–away from Kushiel to the training camp. And third, when I sent you to Manakel. I–I should have named you. I should have followed up, should have seen how you were–” Stopping once more, the man took a breath and let it out. “There are many things I should have done, but did not. I have made a great many mistakes. Those I cannot change.”

He was silent for a moment, his eyes gazing past her before slowly moving back with visible effort, holding himself then and there. He would not lose himself in memories. “Living in the past is–it’s something I find myself doing far too often, in ways I cannot control. When it comes to–to what I can control, I would prefer to focus on the present and future. You are Theia. You are my daughter. If… if you will allow me to, I would like…” The man straightened to his full height. “I would like to get to know you.” 

Blinking several times rapidly, Theia took a moment to find her own voice, though it came in a soft whisper. “And I would like to know my father.” 

Those simple words, that she wanted to know him, sent a rush of feelings through the man. He found himself smiling very faintly. His hand rose to gently brush two fingers along her forehead. His daughter. His child. It was so–it was overwhelming. It shouldn’t have been. He’d had decades to comprehend that, and yet somehow, right now standing in front of her, it was different. She had grown, and so had he. Things were… better. 

“You have your mother’s hair, and eyes,” he murmured quietly, before adding, “And her gift.”

“She is not happy about that,” Theia noted. “The hair, eyes, or gift. She does not like me.” A thoughtful look crossed her face. “Perhaps because I killed her.” 

“Yes, well…” Puriel grimaced once more, memories playing through his head along with an assortment of emotions. “She was always good at holding a grudge.” His next words were a half-muttered, “I expected that to end with her death, but perhaps I should have known better.” 

“You loved her,” the girl quietly noted, her eyes watching his intently. 

“Yes,” he confirmed immediately. “A part of me still does. I know what she is. I know what she did to you, and to others. I know that her death was for the best, and I do not blame you for it. I even… I believe it would have been better had she not come back in any way. I know that. I feel that. I believe it. And yet, there is a part of me that will always see the Kushiel I knew, the one she was when it was only the two of us, when she was…” His eyes closed, as he forced himself through great effort not to fall into that memory. He would not allow his wife to take him away from their daughter. Not this time. 

Finally opening his eyes once more after several long seconds of focus, the man spoke again. “A part of me will always love the person she once was, as well as the person she could have been. But it is a part that does not control me. As I said, living in the past is something I have done far too much. When she died, she was not the person I loved. She made her choices. Now I make mine.” 

“You sent me away,” Theia noted. Her voice was not quite accusation or relief. She wasn’t certain how to feel about the simple fact she was stating. “Twice. You sent me away to the… to others like me. And then you had me sent here, to Earth, to Manakel. You knew that–that she was wrong. But you did not tell me that. You did not… tell me anything. You sent me away.”

“I believed doing so would protect you,” Puriel admitted. “I believed that had I shown you much affection or… or spoken up more than I did in simply taking you away from Kushiel, she would have reacted poorly. She was quite jealous of my affections. And I did not trust that I could always be there to protect you should she react poorly. I believed the best way of protecting you was to make it seem as though I simply wanted you out of the house, as though I was tired of her… work with you. I believed that following up would draw her ire toward you once more.” 

“And when you told them to send me to Manakel?” Theia prompted, her hand tightening a little bit on the racket as she thought about how that had gone. 

“I thought he would give you–I thought he would help you.” Puriel took in a breath before letting it out. “It seems that failing to notice how much my old friend had changed was another to add onto the list of all the many mistakes I have made over the centuries. I heard of the problems you were having integrating with the other–with those like you. I thought that… sending you on a mission, sending you here to work alongside the man who was one of my closest friends once, would be good for you. I thought it would help.” 

A cough escaped him then, as he gestured around the room. “In the end, it seems to have done just that, though not in a way I ever could have expected.” 

“I did not imagine it either,” Theia admitted, before adding, “But I would not change it. Not if it meant not meeting Abigail and Pace.” A brief pause followed, then, “And Douglas.” 

“Yes,” Puriel murmured, “as much pain as there is in our past, it has led to some good. And people whose presence I would not wish to live without.” 

“One in particular?” Theia prompted knowingly, raising herself up on her toes while waggling her eyebrows at him. “Who happens to live in your head and invent things like teleporting spaceships? One who is basically my–my…” She trailed off uncertainly. 

“She is Sariel’s child,” Puriel murmured, before adding, “But she is also more than that. She has been a daughter to me. I–does that make you sad?” 

“Because you spent time with her that you did not spend with me?” Theia bluntly asked, before her head shook. “Abigail says that learning from our mistakes is a good thing. She says that doing the wrong thing to one person and the right thing to another because you came to understand what you did wrong the first time is… is how it is supposed to work.

“Besides, that all makes her a little sister to me. And I have always wanted a little sister. When do I get to meet her? I’m told noogies and fighting over telephone time are to be expected. I do not have a boyfriend, but I believe she is supposed to have a crush on whoever it ends up being. I hope she calls me an ugly pig and then apologizes so we can hug and promise that boys aren’t important while the names appear on the screen.” 

For a moment, Puriel just stared at her, processing all of that before giving a slight shake of his head. “I–you will meet her soon. She deserves time with Sariel and her other siblings for now. And… and I wanted this time to be just the two of us. This is about you, Theia. I want to know more about you. 

“Starting with this Douglas. Tell me more about the boy who gave you that hat.” 

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At Last 16-13 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re not worth your time.” 

“You’re not worth our time.” 

“You should just leave right now.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are those Elemiah’s rings you have?” 

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At Last 16-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sic ‘em, boy.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I have a better idea.” 

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mom!” I shouted, pointing. 

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

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

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

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

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At Last 16-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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At Last 16-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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I really shouldn’t have been surprised at all. We had finally managed to get the anti-possession  spell put in place, so of course something else had to go wrong. So many thoughts about what possibly could have happened to make my grandparents and the others fail to respond to messages even though the Olympus was here, let alone what could be blocking my father from recalling to Grandmaria, kept filling my mind. I couldn’t stop imagining all the possible terrible things that could be going on over there. Sometimes, my imagination was the worst. Especially when it had so many real-life examples to pull from. 

The ‘we’ that were going over there included my parents, Dare, Sariel, Apollo, Athena, Mercury, Larissa, Haiden, Theia, Pace, Avalon, Miranda, and me. With Tabbris, of course, though she would be inside me. Which was a fair number of people. But then, it was also a fairly large ship. Not the biggest out there, of course. Nowhere near. But still a bit too big to easily explore with only a few people. Besides, we had no idea what would be waiting for us over there, or how quickly we needed to find Puriel and the others. We would be splitting up to look around, each group keeping one of the actual Olympian Seosten so they could help us find our way through the, again, pretty large ship.  

Mom had wanted my father to stay back here on the station until we established that it was safe on that ship, but he was having none of it. Not this time, anyway. They were both incredibly stubborn, and he had the edge given his parents were involved. In the end, she finally agreed as long as he promised to be careful and stay with her. And all of us had to carry emergency teleport things that would bring us back here if things went wrong. Somehow, I restrained myself from asking what would happen if the thing that was blocking recall and stopping Puriel from communicating also affected those emergency teleports. I had the feeling that a question like that wouldn’t help matters, relevant as it might have been. 

Athena was going over last minute instructions about how to activate the extra emergency beacons that would draw the others to our locations if we needed them quickly. Along with a few words about how stupid it would be to try to handle anything we saw without calling for help. She made us all promise to call for assistance the second we saw absolutely anything out of the ordinary. This, as she put it, was not the time to try to solve anything on our own. 

“Apollo,” she added pointedly with a look that way, “You’re absolutely sure that none of your… friends have said anything about this?” She was referring, of course, to the myriad future-seers, fortune tellers, and the like who owed various favors and help to the man. He had used their assistance many times in the past, including directing Haiden to Sariel in the first place. Yeah, apparently that had been a whole conversation. I wasn’t privy to the exact details, but it had obviously all worked out. Especially considering just what Haiden meeting Sariel had led to. 

In this case, the man gave a quick shake of his head. “Sorry, I’ve got nothing from anyone. Could be because it’s not that important, or because it’s being blocked, or they just missed it. Or… the list goes on.” With a slight grimace, he quietly added, “That’s really the problem with relying too much on people to tell you the future. When they don’t, it leaves you feeling half-blind. And they’re never perfectly accurate or detailed anyway. It’s an aid, a bit of help now and then, not something to base too many decisions on.” 

“Fair enough,” Athena murmured before focusing on the rest of us. “With that in mind, let’s get over there before something else goes wrong. I don’t want to pull too many people away from the celebration until we know exactly what’s going on. If this is something we can handle, we will. If not… well, we will cross that bridge if we come to it, as I believe the saying goes.”

“Perhaps my mother has found the ship first,” Theia mused thoughtfully. “I am not aware of any skill she might have in stopping my father from communicating, or blocking recall from this close. But then, I was also not aware that she had the skill to come back from the dead and turn herself into a super-ghost. So, perhaps she has other surprises as well.” 

Before anyone else could respond to that, Pace put her hand on the other girl’s shoulder, voice flat. “Whether it’s your mom or anyone else, we’ll deal with it. And if it is her, we’ll deal with it extra-hard.” 

Clearing her throat, Sariel spoke up. “Yes, well, in case it is her, everyone take these.” She extended an open wooden box full of pieces of wood about the size and shape of a pencil, with intricate runes carved into them. “If you see Kushiel, or any ghost, snap the wood. That will release a containment field that… well, should trap the nearest ghost. In Kushiel’s case, it might simply slow her down. Either way, snap the wood and then call for help. Or do both at the same time.” 

“She means everyone snap your wood and call for help,” Mercury put in. “If you see Kushiel, don’t just assume someone else will deal with her. The more of these things she gets hit with, the better off you’ll be. Which isn’t saying much, given how bad being around her is. But still.” 

“Mercury is correct,” Athena agreed. “The more of these spells she, or any other ghosts, have to work their way through, the better off we are all likely to be. Focusing my way, she added, “And I shouldn’t have to add this, but those of you who are skilled in Necromancy–” 

“Don’t worry,” I assured her, “I’ll snap the stick just like everyone else. Trust me, I already saw just how strong she is when I tried to stop her last time. And she’ll be more ready for Tabbris to boost me now. Doesn’t mean I won’t try. Every little bit helps. But I won’t rely on it.” 

Mom nodded, her hand reaching out to gently squeeze mine. “You know to be careful. Not only when it comes to Kushiel, but anything we might find over there. Whatever it is, we’re all better off handling it together.” 

With that, they triggered the portal. Sariel and Mercury had done most of the work with that, judging exactly where the Olympus was, how much it was drifting, and comparing that to their own memories of the ship’s interior. Assuming their calculations were right, the portal would lead us to the bridge of the ship. It felt like the best place to start. If we were incredibly lucky, we would find everyone right there and having this whole group ready to search would end up being pointless. I didn’t expect that, of course. Again, I had seen too much to be that naive. But still, it was nice to dream sometimes. And that was certainly one thing I’d love to be wrong about. 

In my head, Tabbris spoke up. We’re gonna see Mama’s ship! Belatedly, she added with a sense of guilt. I mean, I’m sure your grandparents are okay. And my new brother and sister! She added the last bit with a tone that made it clear she was still surprised by that thought. We’re gonna find them! 

Your grandparents too, I reminded her. And it’s okay to be excited about seeing the ship your Mom was on for so long. You’ve been waiting a long time for this. I’m sure she told you all sorts of stories. 

There was a brief, yet firm mental hug from my little sister before she spoke again. And when we find… Grandmaria and Grandpartie, they can tell us stories about their trip. So can Spark and Omni. They’ll tell us all sorts of stories. After a brief pause, she added hesitantly, Do you really think they’re okay?

That was the real truth, I realized. She was trying to focus more on being excited about visiting the ship, even though doing so made her feel guilty, because otherwise she would be obsessing over worrying about her new siblings, grandparents, and the others. And yet doing so made her feel guilty about not worrying about them. She was stuck in a loop like that. 

We’ll find them, I assured her. They have Puriel with them, remember? I mean, I know we both basically always saw him as a giant asshole in all the stories, but he’s… uhh, better now? Whatever, he likes them, right? So he’ll definitely be protecting them. And whatever’s going on, I doubt it can hurt Puriel before we get there. Don’t worry, it… it’s gonna be okay. Of course, I didn’t know that for sure, but I needed to say it about as much as Tabbris needed to hear it. 

We all passed through the portal a couple at a time, and I found myself feeling like I had walked into Star Trek even more than I already had, given the fact that we lived on a literal space station and I had visited multiple other worlds. Looking around this fancy bridge, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Data, Picard, or Sisko standing at one of the stations. 

But, there was no sign of Star Trek characters. Worse, there was no sign of anyone else either. My brief hope that we would find my grandparents and the others waiting for us was immediately dashed. Again, it wasn’t surprising at all, but I still gave a very soft sigh.

Beside me, Avalon took my hand and whispered, “I know, I was hoping they’d be here too.” She gave me a brief, understanding look and I felt a little bit better. At least whatever we were going to have to deal with here, I would have Avalon with me. Not to mention both of my parents. Having Dad with me through all this made me feel a little funny. But he deserved to be here as much as anyone. They were his parents, after all. 

Even as I was coming to terms with the fact that this mission wasn’t going to be incredibly easy after all, Mercury was already starting over to one of the consoles. He moved his hands quickly over the holographic controls for a few seconds before pivoting to look toward Athena, who was watching him expectantly. “Looks like the system is locked down. I can get into it so we can access the records and ship controls, but it’s going to take a little while.” 

After considering that briefly, the woman gave a short nod. “Stay here and work on that. Haiden, Larissa?” 

“We’ll cover him,” Larissa agreed. She and Haiden both moved to either side of the main doors leading out to the rest of the ship, taking up position to wait in case anyone who wasn’t one of us came through.

“There are three lifts just beyond the door, down that corridor,” Athena informed the rest of us. Well, those of us who hadn’t already spent many years on this ship. “The first two go through the rest of the Olympus. The last one goes up to bridge officer quarters. Apollo, take Joselyn, Lincoln, Avalon, and Felicity on the first lift and head for the engine compartment, then work your way around to the cafeteria. Sariel, take Theia and Pace on the second lift to the main crew quarters, work your way through those to the botanical gardens and then down to meet the others in the cafeteria to compare notes. Virginia and I will check the officer’s quarters with the third lift.” Finally, she looked to the last remaining person there. “And Miranda…”  

“Yup!” Miranda chirped understandingly before abruptly creating a couple duplicates. “I get it. Technically, I can stay with every group.”

One of the new Mirandas nodded. “And if something happens with one of the other groups, we can give a little tug and jump over to the original to let her know.” 

“Good,” Athena confirmed. “It’s always best to have multiple backup systems just in case something goes wrong.” Giving the group a brief once-over, she grimaced slightly. “I’m sorry, we really should have more people to search a ship this size. I am… hoping this is something we can solve ourselves. But if not, consider this a scouting mission. Remember, the moment you see anything out of the ordinary, contact everyone else. And if you need to retreat, do it. We need information, not martyrs. We find out what has been happening over here, and then decide how to handle it. Do not split up into smaller groups than this. I do not care what your reasoning is. All of you stay together, no matter what.” 

Only after getting an audible agreement from everyone did Athena gesture and urge us to move through the door. Sariel went first, with Apollo just behind her. The rest of us followed suit, as I felt Tabbris mentally school herself to calm down and focus on why we were here. Again, I couldn’t blame her for being excited. Hell, I was still excited about being on the actual literal Olympus. Seriously, there was of course that worry about my grandparents and the others. But still. I just had to promise myself that I would be giddy about actually being here later, once we knew for certain that everyone was safe. When that happened, I was going to come back here with Tabbris and get someone from this ship to give us a full guided tour. Hell, maybe Puriel himself would do it, if he was all… nicer and all now. 

Okay, maybe not him. I still wasn’t sure how that whole situation was going to go. But someone. 

The room beyond the bridge was shaped a bit like a triangle with the top cut off. The door we had come through was around the middle of the left side of the triangle. To our right, where the ‘bottom/wider’ part of the triangle was, two elevator doors were roughly equal distance apart. Those were clearly the ones that went to the rest of the ship. Meanwhile, to the left, at the cut-off ‘top’ part of the triangle, was a single elevator door with an obvious security panel next to it. That, I was willing to bet, was the one that led to the officers quarters. I also saw a door straight ahead which Athena walked straight to and opened by putting her hand against a glowing button there. Beyond was what looked like a conference room. Probably where the officers met to discuss plans or briefings or whatever. Either way, there didn’t appear to be anyone or anything inside, judging by the way Athena glanced in and then turned away with a shake of her head. “Let’s keep moving.” 

So, we split up as planned. I went with Avalon, my parents, and one of the Mirandas and followed Apollo to the first elevator, where we crowded onto it and headed down. From what I understood, the bridge area was around the center of the main orb of the ship, while the engine compartments were right near the bottom, and the main crew quarters, where Sariel’s group was going, were near the top. Using Athena’s instructions, our two groups were basically going to hit the top and bottom of the main orb, then work our way around and inward to meet on this same deck where we were starting, but over where the main cafeteria was. On the other hand, she made it sound simple, but the Olympus was pretty big. Five hundred meters in diameter, just counting the main, central body. One thousand, six hundred and forty feet. Meanwhile, the longest aircraft carriers in the Bystander world were just under one thousand one hundred feet. Not to mention the fact that this was an orb, so it was as long from top to bottom as it was from one side to the other. One thousand, six hundred and forty feet tall. I’d looked it up before, and the Empire State Building was one thousand two hundred and fifty feet from ground to roof. Three hundred and eighty meters versus the Olympus’s five hundred. We were basically looking through something that was as tall as the Empire State Building, and as wide as that laying on its side. And then some. It was an orb so that size shrank the further out you went, to an extent. Still, it was very large. 

Too large for just a few people to search. And that was before we even added in searching the attached gunships. Each of those was several hundred meters long by themselves. If we had to start searching them, this was going to be an even bigger project. 

But before we started worrying about that, we had to focus on this search. As we waited for the elevator to take us down to the engines, I looked over at Apollo. “So, how weird does this feel?” 

He offered me a rueful smile before nodding once. “Definitely feels weird, I’ll tell you that much. It’s ahh, been a long time since I was here. But the place doesn’t look like it’s changed at all.” Pausing, he nodded toward the wall opposite me. “That’s pretty new though.” 

Turning, I squinted at a mark that seemed to be etched into the metal. No, not a mark. Letters. A & M. A and M. Arthur and Maria. Seeing that, I smiled and reached out to tug Dad’s arm so he would look at it. Of course, he realized what it meant immediately, reaching out to touch the etching with a soft gasp. Both of us exchanged knowing looks. My grandfather had etched that there. He’d left his mark on the Olympus, just like carving their initials into a tree. Somehow, knowing my grandfather the way that I did, that didn’t surprise me at all. God, I hoped he was okay. 

We’ll find them, Tabbris quickly assured me. They’ll be alright. We just have to figure out where they are and… and then take them back to the party. They’re just making a dramatic entrance, right? 

As I gave her a firm mental agreement, Miranda spoke up. “It’s them, isn’t it?” She was pointing to the initials, squinting uncertainly. “It must be, cuz I’m pretty sure it’s not talking about the university from Texas.” 

Chuckling despite myself, I opened my mouth to reply. Before I could, however, the elevator stopped, doors sliding open to reveal a pristine white corridor that looped out toward the left before reaching a T-junction, with several doors along either side along the way. A steady humming sound could be heard, just barely audible. This was the main engine floor, and each of those doors led to a different section of them. If I understood things right, the engines themselves ran throughout this entire floor, while the corridor and attached doors led to the specific parts that people would need to get to for maintenance, repair, and such. You had to find the right door to get to the right area of the engine you wanted to work on, because trying to crawl, climb, hop, and whatever else your way through the actual engine itself to find your area would be incredibly dangerous and time consuming. You followed the guide in moving through the maze of corridors to the right door. Or, if you were a Seosten who was supposed to be there, you simply followed your own perfect memory. 

Mom stepped out of the elevator first, already drawing Mordred’s sword. She was supposed to be using it for awhile until it, like, acclimated to her or something so it would show us where Mordred’s body was. I wasn’t exactly sure how that worked, but they insisted it was right, so we were going with it. Mom just had to use the sword until something happened, I supposed. 

“Check every door,” Apollo was saying. “On both sides of the corridor. We’ll walk the main route, opening doors as we go and looking in to see if anything looks out of place. You should be able to see the whole space you need to check from the doorway without going inside. And trust me, if you don’t want to end up getting lost for days in there, do not leave the doorway. You may think you’re only going a few feet, but it’s really easy to get turned around and completely lost. Just open the door, look inside, then move on. If there’s something wrong, you’ll see it.” 

My mouth opened to agree, just as that steady humming we had been hearing abruptly grew louder. The floor vibrated a bit under our feet, and I heard a high-pitched whine from down the corridor, somewhere else in the engine floor. 

“Uh, what just happened?” Miranda demanded.

Avalon nodded, looking around quickly. “Yeah, what the hell is going on? That doesn’t seem normal.”

“Oh, it’s normal,” Apollo flatly replied. “At least, it’s normal if the ship you’re on has just activated its slide-drive.” 

“Wait,” Dad put in. “Are you saying–” 

Apollo gave a short nod, his face grim. “I’m saying, this ship is moving. 

“And I’m pretty sure none of us are in control.” 

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At Last 16-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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And celebrate we did. Throughout the entire rest of the day and far into the night, actually. The party spread over the entire station as we all moved from room to room pretty much randomly. There were even portals set up in very safe areas of each main camp (the station, Wonderland, the Garden rebels, etc) so that people could intermingle as much as they wanted. There were various concerts and games going on, impromptu contests of various types, and more. Hell, all my ghosts back in the Haunted Mansion were having a party of their own to celebrate the whole thing. They had signs set up outside directing people to come in and hang out with them, and the last I had seen, plenty were taking them up on that. Seriously, everyone was clearly using this as an excuse to let off a lot of tension and fully embrace letting loose. It was wild, chaotic, and totally amazing. 

It was yet another chance for me to be grateful for the level of stamina that I had, because it meant that I could keep going and see as much as possible long after many others had tapped out. Not that they were out for long. Many of them simply took a little nap for a couple hours here or there before jumping right back into it. But I saw basically everything. I made my way through all the rooms and camps, interacted with everyone, and just… really enjoyed myself. 

At the moment, I was on my way down the corridor to find the portal that would lead me to the Eden’s Garden motel. Or at least, the main one they had taken over. There were some people down there I wanted to talk to. It was almost three in the morning, but that didn’t matter at all. Given the way this party was going on, I was starting to doubt that it would die down entirely anytime throughout the rest of the day. Especially considering it was now officially Christmas Eve. Yeah, something told me people would be taking breaks now and then, but this whole celebration was just going to keep going, at one level or another, for quite a while longer. Which was understandable, considering how long most of these people had been living under the threat of having themselves or their loved ones enslaved by the Seosten. Literally for their entire lives, actually. No matter how long they had lived. Now they could be assured that they were safe from at least the whole being possessed part. Their choices would stay their own. Of course, whether we avoided outright physical war with the Seosten or not remained to be seen. But whatever came of that, at least we had this. They couldn’t take over our bodies and turn us against our loved ones. And that was well-worth spending all of Christmas Eve celebrating. 

Before I could get to the room where the portal was, a different familiar figure came into view from the opposite end of the corridor. Pausing as I saw him, I raised my hand. “Dries?” 

It was him, though the man looked quite a bit different than he had when I first met him the year before. He was still blond, but his hair had been straightened up. Still long, yet more evenly trimmed. As was his beard. He also wasn’t so bone-thin that it looked like he would snap apart in a stiff breeze anymore. He had filled out somewhat, and no longer wore ancient rags. He actually looked healthy after all this time. Though I was pretty sure it would take much longer for the haunted expression to leave his face, if it ever did. 

Seeing me when I called out, the man paused before offering me a tentative smile. He still didn’t really do well with crowds, but he could handle one-on-one conversations okay enough. Especially with people he actually knew. And I had spent time with him over the summer alongside Avalon as she got to know her ancestor a little better. 

“Felicity,” he greeted me in a slightly rattly voice that made me feel like he had a lot of emotions running through him. “Ah-are you well?” He didn’t stutter as much as he had back when we had first met, but that was something else that I was pretty sure would be a thing for a long time coming.  

My head bobbed a little. “I’m great. This whole thing is great. But, um, are you okay? I guess I just thought you would have gone back to your room right now. All these people are… a lot to deal with.” 

Giving a quick glance around as though making sure that a large crowd hadn’t snuck up on him from behind, the man quietly replied, “It is a… lot to duh-deal with. But I’m very glad that people are… ahh, are happy. It mah-makes it easier to handle. Harder when they are angry or upset. Sometimes it’s still pretty hard even if they’re ahh, happy. It’s a… a lot of emotion. A lot of noise. It’s a lot of everything. But I ahh, I cah-can handle it. I want to. I want to see this. It’s–it’s important.” 

Of course it was. This would mean even more to him, after all that he and his family had been through, than it did to most. I could hardly blame him for wanting to push himself past his comfort level to experience everyone celebrating the spell that was only possible because of him and his wife. I really couldn’t imagine the things that had to be going through his mind. 

“Liesje would’ve been proud of you, and of Avalon. Of her whole family,” I finally managed. Part of me wanted to embrace the man, yet I knew that was pushing things too far. He may have improved over these intervening months, but still. Just being out here like this and staying on the fringes of all the celebration was probably about as much as he could handle. 

So, I didn’t touch him. Instead, I simply gave the man a smile before adding, “And I know Avalon’s proud to have you as an ancestor. Getting to know you, it’s been one of her favorite things about all these months. She never really thought she’d get to know anything about her family. And uhh, now she does. Thanks to you.” 

I could see the slight blush, slightly hidden by the man’s neatly-trimmed beard, as he cleared his throat and clearly fought to find the right words. “I ahh, well, I’m glad to know her as well. I ahh, yes. It has been…” He blinked rapidly, clearly pushing back tears. “It has been a very lah-long road to get here. But I am glad for the ahh, the destination.” 

“And we’re all glad you made it here,” I quietly assured him. “This whole victory, it’s yours.” 

“It is Liesje’s,” he corrected me, biting his lip hard as a flood of emotion ran through his eyes before straightening somewhat. “It’s everyone’s. Ev–even them. Even the Say–Seosten.” I could see how hard it was for him to say that. “Many–many of them won’t think so. But it is good for them. It will force them to… to do something new, to try something else.” 

Slowly nodding, I replied, “I’m pretty sure the definition of insanity isn’t really doing the same thing and expecting different results like people say, but still, doing it for a few hundred thousand years does seem pretty… excessive. They’ve been stuck in their ways. And, you know, afraid that if they do try something totally new, it’ll backfire. Their way hasn’t won the war against the Fomorians, but it hasn’t lost it either. And when you’re dealing with monsters like that, you probably get pretty afraid of what’ll happen if you change the wrong thing and start losing instead of just tying.” 

We talked a bit more for a couple minutes, but I didn’t want to push him too hard. This whole situation was already a lot. So, eventually, I promised I would see him later and gave him directions for where I had last seen Avalon. Then I headed for the Eden’s Garden portal once more. 

There were even people celebrating inside the portal room. Granted, there were also heavily armed and prepared guards, just in case the wrong person happened to somehow make it through the heavily armed and prepared guards on the other side of the portal. But there were also tables laden down with food, and music played, albeit at a lower level than in most of the other rooms. It looked as though some of the people here had come to join one of the celebrations on the station, and then just ended up setting up right where they had arrived. Or maybe it was from people heading out of the station to somewhere else. Either way, the guards weren’t being left out. And I was pretty sure the same could be said of all the other portal rooms too. Some part of me worried about what would happen if someone did manage to attack while everyone was celebrating like this, but then I reminded myself that having more people in the room was technically better defense, not worse. At least, when so many of those people were as dangerous as everyone here could be. And had magic to immediately sober up if it came down to it. 

Yeah, anyone stupid enough to mount an assault with everyone up and aware like this would undoubtedly come to regret it. But it would still sour the mood, so I silently hoped nothing bad happened. After everything that people had been through, we deserved this party, damn it.

Some of the people in here I recognized, many I didn’t. Regardless, most of them came up to say something to me, either because of who my mother was, or because of who Avalon was. Or because they wanted to pat me on the back over Fossor finally being dead. Basically, there were a lot of reasons they wanted to talk to me. Which, honestly, was still a bit overwhelming.  But I rolled with it as much as I could and chatted for a few minutes. They told me some stories and jokes, not all of which I actually understood given how drunk some of them were, but I still laughed right along with them. 

Eventually, I excused myself from them as well, and made my way to the portal itself. After clarifying that this was the right one, I passed through it. As stable as the portal was, and as expertly as it had been created, I barely felt any twisting of my stomach. It was hardly worse than basically stepping down two stairs at once. One moment I was on the station, and in the next, I was standing in the back lot behind the motel that the Eden’s Garden people had taken over. 

Yeah, there was a party going on here too. Actually, come to think of it, I was pretty sure that the whole party was really on both sides of the portal at once. People were just sort of willy-nilly moving back and forth. There was a table here with drinks on it that hadn’t been back in the other room on the station, even though I keenly remembered seeing drinks in people’s hands back there. The magic and wonder of having stable portals. Maybe allowing people to pick up drinks on Earth, take two steps and then enjoy that drink on a space station inside the sun wasn’t the most amazing use of transportation magic, but it was still pretty damn nifty. 

Just like a moment ago up on the station, people around here wanted to talk to me too. Again, I lingered and chatted as much as I could before excusing myself and heading off toward the main building. It was already late enough that I didn’t know if everyone I wanted to talk to down here would still be awake anyway, and I didn’t want to push it even more. 

To that end, I started with the room where Dakota had been staying while she helped work on the vines. Hesitating just long enough to make sure I could hear sound coming from in the room, I knocked and then stepped back a bit. 

There was a pause before the door opened and I saw the girl herself. She was just as small and frail-looking as I remembered her, with pale skin and black hair. She looked like Sharon/Alessa from that old Silent Hill movie. Except now she had a band of flowers in her hair, and vines (the smaller, normal kind rather than the giant ones related to the Eden’s Garden tree) wrapped around one of her arms. Just over her shoulder, I could see that the room was completely full of plants of all different shapes, sizes, and colors. It sure seemed like the girl had embraced her connection to them, despite what had happened with Kwur. 

“Uh, Flick?” She blinked at me. “Sorry, if you’re looking for Asenath, she was only here for a few minutes.” 

“Yeah!” Bobbi, popping up behind her, chirped. “She wanted to go make sure Seth’s ghost isn’t terrorizing people that go over to visit the Haunted Mansion too much. Or just harass him.” She offered me a small smile. “I think she missed him a lot.” 

“I think she did too,” I agreed before adding, “Did she have Denny with her?” 

“I’m here,” came a response from further in the room. The other two stepped aside, and I saw Denny herself, sitting in a chair in the corner with her legs drawn to her chest. There was a table next to her with several plates of half-finished pizza, and some sort of board game they had been playing together. 

“Oh, hey, Denny.” After taking a second to make sure I wasn’t intruding too much, I took a step into the room. There was actually grass on the floor instead of carpet, which was kind of neat. Moving over to where the other girl was sitting, I asked, “I–I’m really sorry to bring it up. Especially right now. But, have the dreams gotten worse?” 

She didn’t answer for a moment, staring down at the table. Finally, she looked up at me and swallowed. “It’s not just nightdreams. It’s daydreams too. The things he wants me to do, I mean.” She gave a little shudder before focusing once more. “Knowing the truth about what’s going on and who he is, it kind of helps a little bit. At least I know I’m not crazy. But he still wants me to do bad things, and it’s… my… my mom and dad.” Her eyes closed tightly and she hugged herself tighter, then looked back at me. “I miss my mom and dad. And–and I think his memories or whatever are using that to make me even more angry.” 

Wincing a little, I pulled a chair around to sit next to her. “I kind of thought that might happen. So I asked Sariel and she gave me these.” Reaching into my pocket, I produced a bottle of what looked like ordinary little white pills. “They’re a mix of medicine and enchantment, sort of like the Bystander Effect-breaking pills. She says if you take one of these before you go to bed, it’ll help you sleep and make sure you don’t have any bad dreams. It should keep Ammon’s thoughts away from you so you can actually rest.”

Taking the bottle, Denny thanked me quietly before clutching it in both hands. Even though she had supposedly been sleeping most of the day before, it didn’t seem like it had been a very restful sleep. She desperately needed a break from the… voice in her head. 

“I’m sorry, Denny,” I whispered, not trusting my own voice not to crack. “I’m so sorry we didn’t–that we weren’t–” Sighing, I shook my head. “I’m sorry. You keep getting hurt and it’s not your fault.” 

“I didn’t give her the sword,” the girl reminded me. “She said she was going to hurt other people, that she would kill people if I didn’t give it to her. But I still didn’t. And… and it’s worse.” 

Frowning a bit at that, I tentatively reached out to put a hand on her shoulder. “What do you mean, it’s worse? What’s worse?” 

“Me,” she replied in a hoarse voice. “I’m worse. I’m–I let my mom and dad die.”

“What?” My head shook. “Denny, you didn’t let them die. You didn’t–” 

She interrupted before I could continue. “You don’t understand. I mean, if I knew what–if I knew–if–” She stopped talking, clamping her mouth shut while a full shudder ran through her. 

Dakota stepped over to join us, her voice quiet. “She means if she knew that not giving Kushiel  the sword would mean her parents died, she still wouldn’t give it to her.” 

There was something in the girl’s voice that made me glance that way, realizing just how hard this had to be for her as well. After all, Kwur had forced her to help kill her own family. This whole thing had to be bringing up incredibly painful memories for her. 

Denny’s head was nodding quickly. She met my gaze, clearly holding back tears. “I would. I know… I know the bad things that Kushiel would do if she had the sword. I mean, I don’t know exactly what they are, but… but I know they’d be really bad.” Those tears forced their way out. “So even if I knew–even if I knew she would have killed my mom and dad, I wouldn’t–I wouldn’t give it to her.” 

Reaching out, I pulled the girl by the arm and lifted her into my lap before embracing her. I didn’t tell her that it was the right choice. I didn’t put any judgment on it at all. Because it wasn’t my place to do that, and my opinion was beside the point. She already knew she had made the right choice, and that not giving Kushiel the sword would always be the right choice. 

Instead, I held her close and rocked back and forth a little, letting the girl rest her head against my shoulder as she cried for the next several minutes. Letting her get those emotions out without trying to tell her which ones were right or wrong, or define anything for her, felt like the right thing to do. 

Finally, Denny straightened a bit. She looked a little sheepish, but shook that off before focusing on me. “Flick, could you… play the game with us for a little bit?” 

I nodded immediately. “Sure, I’ve got nothing but time. After all, it’s not like it’s a school night.” 

So, for the next hour or so, I sat with them and played the board game. We could all hear the parties going on outside, especially when the people shot off fireworks, which happened more than once. But we ignored all that, and I simply sat in that room with Bobbi, Dakota, and Denny, and played the game until all of them were so tired they were practically falling asleep in their chairs. With just a little bit of prompting, I got them to go to bed (all three of them were sharing one that night), shut out the lights (except for the one in the bathroom, which Denny requested be left on after gulping down one of those sleeping pills), then stepped outside and closed the door to the room behind me. 

I was planning on heading over to see Seller next. But before I could move away from the door, I felt the familiar touch of Tabbris poking me through our connection. Flick, uh, they need you right now back on the station. Your mom and some others. Can you get Theia while you’re down there too? 

A rush of confusion went through me. Why did they need–what was wrong with–no. I pushed away those thoughts and promised to be right there. Then I took a quick loop around the motel until I located Theia and Pace. The latter came along as well, as we headed back through the portal and followed Tabbris’s directions to where we were supposed to go. 

It was a relatively small office area. As promised, Mom was in there, along with my father, Athena, Dare, Apollo, Sariel, and Mercury. Seeing all of them, I immediately asked, “Is something wrong with the–” 

“The spell is fine,” Athena assured me. “It is working as intended and expected. No… the situation we have right now is that.” She pointed to a nearby wall, where I saw a holo-image of a ship in space. A familiar ship, given the pictures I had been shown. It was a large orb as a core, partially-encased by three elongated gunships attached to it. 

“The Olympus?” I blurted. “It’s here? Wait, it’s here?” 

“Close,” Apollo explained. “Close enough for communications. But… we haven’t had any of those.” 

“It’s drifting,” Mom informed me, her eyes on the ship. “There’s been no response to any attempts to contact them, and the ship itself just… stopped all their engines.” 

“Dad? Why don’t you just… borrow some Seosten powers, then hop over to Grandmaria and see what’s going on?” 

His head shook without looking away from the ship where his parents were. “I tried that. I can… feel her. I know she’s alive and all. But I can’t reach her. It feels like something’s blocking it.” 

My eyes widened. “What–how is that possible? I mean–sure anything’s possible, but… but why–what’s going on?” 

“I don’t know,” Mom murmured. 

“But we’re going to go over there and find out.” 

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Patreon Snippets 22 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 22nd edition of Patreon Snippets. 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, and have discounts for commissions.

Finally leaving the chaotic rush of yet another school day behind her, Abigail Fellows said goodnight to Miss Handsy before heading out of the office, satchel full of files over one shoulder and a cup of steaming hot coffee in the other hand. She was walking briskly down the hall when a voice spoke up from behind, calling her name. Abigail slowed and turned to see the dark-haired Athena approaching. Waiting for the Seosten woman, she asked, “Didn’t you have something going on over with the… what was the name of that group again? The ones who want to build an elevator to the moon.” 

“The Kalsteren,” Athena reminded her. “And not yet. They want me there for a special holiday, but it doesn’t start for two more days. They’re still setting things up. Also, the elevator thing is a bit of a misnomer. What they actually want is a stable, permanent portal to the moon. Which is a phenomenally bad idea, given… well, you know. But try telling them that.” Pausing, she murmured, “Right, I’m going to have to actually try to tell them that. We’ll see how it goes.” 

Curious, Abigail asked, “Actually, I don’t know. Why would a portal to the moon be a bad idea, exactly?” 

Athena’s mouth opened to answer, but they were interrupted as a new voice called out, “Abigail!” It was Theia, popping out of a nearby doorway. She was giving the wide smile that only ever seemed to appear that genuinely when she was talking to very few people, including Douglas Frey, Pace, Koren, Miranda, and most of all Abigail herself. 

“Hello, Theia,” Abigail greeted the girl with a smile of her own. “What can we do for you?” She didn’t outright chide her for not acknowledging Athena at all, simply choosing to point the other woman out by very slightly stressing the ‘we’ part of the sentence.

“Oh, hello, Athena,” Theia promptly greeted the other woman, voice making it clear that she hadn’t actually noticed her at all. That done, she promptly turned her attention right back to Abigail once more. “I found this.” Raising her hand, she showed both women the large, blue-and-violet seashell that took up most of her palm. “It’s lucky. You should have it on your desk.” 

“Aww, why thank you, Theia.” Accepting the seashell, Abigail nodded. “It’s very pretty.”

“It’s lucky,” the Seosten girl reiterated. “You can’t lose it. It has to go on your desk. You have to keep it safe.” Her voice was oddly urgent as she stared at the woman intently, as though expecting her to walk right back with it at that very moment. 

And that was exactly what Abigail did. With a glance toward the woman next to her, she gave a short nod. “Well then, I wouldn’t want it to accidentally get put somewhere else. Why don’t you show me the best place for it? Athena, you’re good with tactics, perhaps you’ll have a thought or two.” She gestured, inviting both of them to follow as she pivoted and walked right back to the other room, passing Miss Handsy once more with a pleasant greeting. 

Theia followed, of course, with Athena behind. Though the Olympian gave no real input on the placement of the shell, she did watch with curiosity while the other two positioned it just so. Only once she was satisfied that the shell was in its proper place, did Theia nod with satisfaction. “Good, you will have luck now,” she announced. “You need it. The job you have taken on is very difficult, and you will probably fail without a lot of luck.” With that blunt pronouncement, she offered another smile. “And now you have it, so I will leave.” Abruptly, she spun on her heel and began to walk away. 

“Oh, Theia, you’ll be over for dinner tonight?” Abigail quickly put in. “Koren wanted your help with some sort of vegetable dish she looked up. Apparently she thinks you’re better with a knife then she is.” 

“It’s true,” Theia agreed, “I have cut many things. And many people. And many things off many people.” With a bright, cheerful smile, she added, “I will be there to help cut more things.” 

And just like that, she was gone again, exiting through the door with only a belated, “Goodbye, Athena!” 

Only once she was sure the girl had left through the outer office, did Athena close the door and step over to where Abigail was. “Do you have any idea what you’re going to do about that?” she asked while nodding toward the sea shell. 

Abigail, in turn, blinked. “The shell? Well, unless you’re about to tell me that it’s actually a monster that will eat me the first chance it gets, I was planning on leaving it right there. I mean, she’s not wrong about us needing luck to pull this whole thing off without ending up in a full-scale war against your people. Though I like to think our odds aren’t quite that bad.” 

Shaking her head, Athena looked to the shell briefly before turning back to Abigail. “That is the shell of a Kaula Mehyian. They are an incredibly rare creature, whose shell only turns that color once the animal itself has passed away of old age. Which only happens after ten thousand years. The same general life span as a normal Seosten. It’s part of why our people came to see them as lucky. The shell itself is proof that the Kaula Mehyian lived a full life and died naturally. If the shell is taken early, it doesn’t turn that color. Once the animal dies, the shell falls away and changes to what you see there. For Theia to have one means she either paid… an enormous fortune for it, or experienced what for almost anyone would be a once-in-a-lifetime find, and was able to pick up one of those shells on her own. That shell by itself would be considered…” She shook her head, trying to find some sort of comparison. “Your people have your four-leaf-clovers and horseshoes and such. But you have nothing like this. There is nothing even remotely similar. A Seosten with a Kaula Mehyian shell would never give it away, save for a true fortune, or… to someone incredibly important to them.” 

“Someone incredibly important…” Abigail echoed, glancing toward the shell itself once more with new understanding. 

“Yes,” Athena confirmed. “That’s what it means. Do you see the way she smiles at you? She does not smile at others that way. When she smiles at most people, it’s… awkward. Something closer to predatory. It doesn’t look quite right. And yet, with you, she’s perfectly natural about it. And one other thing, did you notice that she left without saying goodbye to you? Twice, in fact. First she announced that she was leaving and began to walk out. The second time, she specifically said goodbye to me. Not once did she say it to you.” 

“Well, I wasn’t going to bring it up,” Abigail murmured, “but I assumed she was just in a hurry. Or didn’t think it was worth saying, considering she’ll be around to help with dinner in just another hour or so. Hardly worth reprimanding her for, or even talking about, really.” 

“That’s not my point,” Athena informed her. “She isn’t saying goodbye because she doesn’t want that level of separation. It’s a… subconscious thing. If she never says goodbye to you, then you’ll never be apart from her.” She paused, then gestured with a sigh. “Sit down, please, Abigail. I think we should talk a bit more about this.” 

Her words made the school principal pause before nodding as she sat down. “You’re not about to tell me not to get so close to one of your people, are you?” Her tone was mostly light, but there was something more behind it. She would not have reacted well if the other woman actually pulled anything like that, no matter how unlikely it was. Theia meant too much to her. 

Taking the seat across from the desk, Athena shook her head. “No, Abigail, of course not. What I want is to ask you precisely how close you’re planning on being. You know how badly that girl’s mother treated her, how… rejected she was. Now I’m fairly certain she has latched onto you as… a replacement. You named her. You treated her like a real person. You… you are much more than a friend for her, and if that’s not… if that’s something you don’t want, we should find a way to take care of it before it goes too far.” 

Abigail leaned back a bit in her seat, watching the woman intently. “You mean if I don’t want Theia to see me as a mother, we should stop being so close.” 

“What I mean,” Athena clarified, “is that I think it would do her a lot of good if she didn’t have to tiptoe around the situation because part of her is afraid you will reject her if she brings it up any more directly than she already has. She needs to be accepted, fully accepted, if she’s going to move completely beyond the person her mother and our society turned her into. I think you can help with that–I think you have helped with it, more than anyone could have asked. But here I am, asking you for more. I know that’s incredibly unfair.” 

“What’s unfair,” Abigail retorted, “is what that girl went through for so long.” She exhaled, dropping her gaze to look at an unrelated folder on the desk while various thoughts ran through her mind. “She deserves a stable home, and people she can count on to be there for her. She’s had that, around here, to an extent. But you’re right, she needs more. She deserves more.” 

Both women went quiet for a moment then before Athena spoke. “As I said, I believe she has come to see you as a mother. But that leaves the question of whether you can see her as a daughter. But I think I had my answer to that when I watched your expression when you thought there was even a chance that I was going to say you shouldn’t be so close to her.” 

With a small, self-deprecating smile, Abigail admitted, “If you did try to tell me to stay away from her, I might have been thinking of throwing myself over this desk at you. You know, as effective as that would have been.” 

“Hey, you certainly would have had the element of surprise,” Athena pointed out with a smile before chuckling softly. She glanced away for a moment, seeming to think about what was next before turning back to the other woman. “My point is that what Theia needs is something more official. Something that can feel… firm to her. Something tangible, so she doesn’t need to wonder anymore about just how far your acceptance goes.” 

“Kushiel.” Abigail spoke the name with a harsh, spitting tone before shaking her head. “That woman treated her daughter like…” She trailed off, exhaling long and slow as she collected herself. “Whenever I think about how Theia was treated, it just… I want to… It makes me want to hurt people the way I’ve only ever wanted to hurt them when my… when Koren was hurt. I want… I want to be everything Theia needs. I want to be a better everything for her than her… than Kushiel was. I suppose I was just afraid that pushing on that too hard would make her think I was trying to replace her actual mother.” 

“Good,” Athena pointed out. “Kushiel should be replaced. An overfull lint trap would be a better mother than she was to that girl. The sort of upgrade you would be is just…” She coughed. “Abigail, she needs you to make it official. She needs you to be her mother. That means more than just hanging out. That means treating her the way you would Koren. It means making her part of your family, in every way. But only if you’re up for that. You can’t go halfway on it. Not with this, not with that girl. If you accept her, you have to accept all of her. Which means you’ll have to be ready to help her through some tough times. She’s been through more than either of us know, and I think there’s a fair bit she still has bottled up from the time she spent under Kushiel’s experiments.”

“And I want to be there to help her through that,” Abigail confirmed, in a soft, yet certain tone. “I want… I want to give her everything she never had the chance to have when she was with your people.” Pausing, she gave a very slight grimace. “I’d say no offense, but you know.” 

“You wouldn’t mean it,” Athena replied. “And it’s deserved. My people have a long way to go on a great many things.” With another sigh, she straightened, extending a hand. “I know there’s no real… court system for adoption up here. But I think it should be more than randomly telling her how you feel. She deserves something bigger than that.” 

Abigail accepted the hand, rising from her own seat. “Oh, don’t you worry, one word to Koren and she’ll help plan a party the likes of which you have never seen. And as for the official part, I think I can make up some papers and a certificate just fine. After all, I was a lawyer in a previous life.” 

“Well, here’s to previous lives,” Athena noted with a thoughtful gaze. 

“And the lessons we take from them.” 

*********

“You remember when we took Lincoln on that road trip across the country?” Arthur Chambers asked his wife while the two of them stood atop a hill overlooking a wide valley between a pair of silvery-red mountains whose peaks rose clear out of sight into the purple-clouded sky. The grass beneath their feet was a faint orange color, tinged with white on the tips. Before the pair, the field itself was full of enormous herd animals that looked like a cross between elephants and giraffes, with incredibly long, thick necks, tusks, and big floppy ears. They stood ten feet tall at the shoulders, the necks extending the heights of their head at full extension to nearly double that. It allowed them to reach their favorite food as it grew within crevices in the surrounding mountains. Their tusks were used to break open smaller holes to reach the moss that filled intricate cave networks throughout those mountains. And the sound whenever one of those creatures reared its head back and slammed forward to break into those caves, or simply to break apart boulders to get at the moss growing within, echoed like thunder across the field. 

“You’re thinking about the buffalo, aren’t you?” Maria replied. Her own gaze was focused on the Seosten children, who were running through the field, laughing and playing with one another. She could see Omni, pulling his sister’s hard-light form right along with them. From what Puriel had said, the two had quickly become close as soon as they met. And by now, they were all-but inseparable. 

“I’m thinking about the buffalo,” Arthur confirmed with a small chuckle at the memory. “Do you think he’d chase these big fellas?” 

“I think he learned his lesson with the buffalo,” Maria murmured before glancing that way. “You always did like going on trips. This whole thing must be your dream come true.” 

Arthur, in turn, offered a slight nod. “Hey, in more ways than one.” Tugging his wife closer by the hand, he squeezed it before putting his arm around her. “Having you here for my Star Trek adventure makes it so much better than my boyhood dreams. If Linc and Felicity were here, that’d make everything perfect.” Belatedly, he added, “And Joselyn.” That was still new, getting accustomed to the fact that the woman who had apparently broken his son’s heart and abandoned her family wasn’t the horrible person she had appeared to be. He owed that woman a lot of apologies for the thoughts he’d had over the years. 

“And Joselyn,” Maria confirmed, clearly having the same thought. Reaching out then, she pointed toward the spot where the children were running in circles. A moment of focus created a small, red ball of energy in the middle of them. The ball floated there until they had all noticed it, before abruptly zipping away from them. With a collection of squeals, the children suddenly started to chase the ball, laughing with delight as it led them on a run through the field. 

From behind the pair, Puriel spoke up as he approached. “I notice your little game there happened to lead them away from that nursing Ceurth.” He nodded toward a pair of the large animals lying together near where the kids had been moving their game. 

“No reason to interrupt a busy mother,” Maria noted without looking at him. Her attention remained on making the glowing ball lead the children on a chase. “How are the others doing with the hunting?” Alcaeus and Kutattca had gone off to get food to restock the ship’s stores. That being the main reason for this stop, aside from allowing everyone to stretch their legs. They were all down here except for Aletheia, who was still up on the ship itself as it waited for them in orbit around this unoccupied moon. 

“You think this’ll be the last stop we need to make before Earth?” Arthur added. They were far past the barrier by that point, in an area of space where livable worlds were even fewer and farther between than usual. It was Aletheia who had remembered this particular moon and ensured it would be part of their trip. 

Puriel stepped up beside the pair, watching the children below. “Yes,” he confirmed. “This is the last one. Soon, we’ll be at your home. And you can rejoin your family.” Belatedly, he added, “You are becoming quite proficient with your gift, Maria.” 

A small smile played over the elderly woman’s face as she made the ball fly straight up in the air, then down again. “It’s nothing compared to the sort of things you can do with it. Making a glowing ball of energy isn’t exactly helpful in a fight.” 

“You can be far more helpful than you realize,” Puriel informed her. “And not everything needs to be about being useful in war.”

Maria and Arthur exchanged glances then, before the latter spoke up. “From everything we’ve learned about your people, they’d really take that as a sign that you’ve lost your mind.” 

Puriel was silent for a few long moments, his gaze staring down at the children while his mind was elsewhere. “Yes, well, perhaps I have, at that.” 

Arthur cleared his throat. “He’s right about one thing, you are getting better. Almost makes me jealous that you took that gift.” 

“Don’t you start,” Maria teasingly chided. “You made your choice and have your own powers. And, the last time I checked, you were having a grand old time playing with the children with them.”  

“Yes,” Puriel agreed, “and yours have been quite useful already, even if they are still in their infancy stages. You will get better with them. But we will need to pay careful attention to that growth, and ensure there are no unwanted side effects. The DNA of that particular creature has always been a bit… unique in many ways.

“I, for one, am very interested to know whether the Djehuti gift will remain, as it is now, solely the same manipulation of technology as the woman who calls herself Gaia, or if you will eventually also manifest the same biological expertise as the man who now calls himself Seller.”

******

The house where Vanessa and Tristan lived with Sands, Sarah, and several others was dark as the blonde twins approached with Theia between them. The three were chatting about ways that they could potentially find out more about the Whispers and that whole situation, if Cahethal refused to play ball. Theia, of course, had her own ideas about good sources of information, and was just in the middle of explaining a plan that involved rigorous use of Flick’s ability to summon dead people and talk to them, when they reached the front entrance. 

As he unlocked the door, Tristan pointed out, “Hey, at least we don’t have to worry about being quiet. Even if everyone’s asleep in here, they’d all be in their soundproof roo–” 

That was as far as the boy got. Because in that moment, as he turned the knob and pushed the door open, his words were interrupted by a loud squeal. Or rather, several loud squeals, as a handful of party horns were blown all at once, to varying effectiveness. On top of that, the entryway just beyond the door was filled with people, all of them shouting something. 

Theia reacted instantly. Shoving the other two off to either side, she threw herself through the doorway and caught hold of the nearest ‘attacker’ by the arms. Her head slammed forward to crash into the person’s face, turning what had been a shout into a yelp of pain. In the next moment, she pivoted, hurling the dazed figure past the group before snatching two knives from her belt. One flew in the direction of the person she had headbutted and shoved, even as she pivoted to choose her next target with the other. 

All of that took place in what would have been a blink for most people. At her full boost, in fight or flight mode, Theia had done all of that before the average person could have even started to react. 

Which also meant it was only then that she actually took the time to see what she had thrown herself into. The people here were… Sands, Sarah, Koren, Ejji, Felix and her sister Triss, Columbus, and several more people from their classes. None were holding the weapons she had expected to see. Instead, they held balloons, whistles, and other party favors. 

“… what?” Theia finally managed, stopping short just before she would have thrown herself at the next person, blade in hand. 

“Hey!” Vanessa, poking her head in from one side of the door where she had been shoved, blurted. “What’s going on?” 

“Yeah.” Tristan joined his sister, head poking in from the other side of the door. “What gives?” 

“Uhhhhh…” The groan came from a low, wheeled table that had been brought into the hall behind the group. Jazz lay there, one hand holding her face where Theia had headbutted her. In her other hand was the blade that had been thrown, snatched out of the air before it could do any damage. Less spared, unfortunately, was the large cake that had been sitting on that table. A cake that was entirely destroyed by Jazz landing in it. 

“Happy birthday, you two?” the cake-covered, groaning girl managed, focusing somewhat bleary eyes on the twins in question. 

“And whoever’s job it was to tell Theia about the surprise, I’m gonna kick your ass.” 

********

“Fick, Fick!” The excited cries from the tiny, four-year-old Sahveniah filled the hallway. Within an instant of laying eyes on the older blonde girl, the dark-skinned blur raced across the distance separating them and hurled herself that way. 

Reacting quickly, Flick caught the girl in mid-leap and straightened, pulling her into a hug. “Hey, Savvy. Long time no see.” 

Holding on as tight as her little form was capable of (which was a surprising amount, given how quickly Seosten developed their physical prowess), Savvy didn’t respond at first. She simply clung to the older girl for several long moments before finally murmuring, “You were gone for a long time. They said you had to fight the bad guys. But you shouldna gone by yourself. You coulda beat the bad guys more easy if you wasn’t all alone.”  

Swallowing hard, Flick held the girl tighter against herself. “You’re right,” she murmured, “I shouldn’t have gone by myself. I’ll remember that. But hey, I brought my mom back.” 

“Yay!” After that initial cheer, Savvy leaned back to squint at the girl. Held up in this position, they were eye to eye. “I didna know you had a mama.” 

Flick gave a small chuckle at that before lowering herself down. She set Savvy on the floor in front of her while taking a knee right there in the Starstation corridor. “Oh yes, I definitely have a mama. You should meet her. I think she’ll like you.” 

“I’m a pirate,” Sahveniah informed her solemnly. “Does your mama like pirates?” 

“I think she’ll like one as adorable–” Flick started before amending, “Ahem, I mean as fierce and adventurous as you.” 

Her words made the younger girl give a brilliant smile, the entire hall around them seeming to light up. “When I get bigger, I’mma go on a ship, an’ take the ship, an’ go fight the bad guys, an’ steal all the bad guys’ booty. Fick? What’s a booty?” 

Coughing, Flick leaned back to sit on the floor with her back to the nearby wall, tugging the girl over. “Ah, in this case, it means their treasure.” 

Savvy cooed happily while climbing into her lap, nuzzling up against her shoulder. “What about other booties? Is there other kinds o’ booty?” 

Flick, in turn, simply hugged the girl tighter to herself. “Oh, don’t worry. You’ll find out all about every kind of booty. I’m sure you’ll grow up to be the most successful and dangerous pirate queen the universe has ever seen. Entire worlds will quake at the sound of your name.” 

“Only the bad guys,” Savvy insisted pointedly. 

“Only the bad guy worlds,” Flick agreed, moving her hand to gently stroke the girl’s hair. “You’ll steal all their treasure and make them walk the airlock. And your crew will sing all sorts of songs about the dreaded and beautiful pirate captain Savvy.” 

Giggling, Sahveniah gave a nod of confirmation, still leaning against her shoulder while making soft noises of contentment in her position. Eventually, she murmured, “Fick? I missed you.” 

“I missed you too, Savvy,” came the soft, gentle response. 

“I missed all of you.” 

*******

“Alright, all of you line up!” The order came from Larian Mondo, a two-hundred year old Heretic who had been brought in to take up the position at Crossroads that Virginia Dare had so loudly vacated when she left with the rest of the traitors. He was a deceptively small-looking man, barely five-foot-seven, with wire-rimmed sunglasses and long dark hair. He wore a dark blue suit, and carried a construction mace in one hand similar to the one used by Sands Mason. 

Sands. Thinking of the girl, Zeke Leven felt a sharp pang run through him. Fuck. He liked that girl. He’d liked her for years. Then that Chambers bitch had to show up and totally screw their whole society over, and confuse Sands and her sister so much they and their mother ran off with her. Just because her mom was a crazy, deranged traitor. 

And now here Zeke was, on another student hunt just a few days before Christmas, because almost nobody was allowed to leave the school to go on holidays thanks to this war draining all their resources. 

There were two teams assembled in front of Larian in this narrow alley in the outside world. Zeke, of course, along with Malcolm Harkess, Summer Banning, Freya Sullivan, and Laila Kassab (their sixth member, Erin Redcliffe, had disappeared during their previous hunt) for one team, and Gavin Rish, Stephen Kinder, Russell Bailey, a tall Latino boy named Martin Gutierrez, and two girls named Noelle Starson (a dark-haired, light-skinned girl with light green eyes and a wide mouth) and Tracy Faulk (a deeply-tanned blonde who was almost always laughing at inappropriate jokes) for the other.

The eleven students stood in front of Larian, while three other adult Heretics were lined up behind them, along with both team’s older student mentors. Crossroads was taking no more chances with their student hunts. Not after Erin’s disappearance. The two teams would each be accompanied by two of the adults and their student mentor.

Larian looked the group over. “Okay. Behind me and through that alley, there’s a hotel. Our info says it’s infested with some real nasty pieces of shit. The leader’s a Marakeya, so don’t let him get his hands on you or you’ll regret it. We’ll be right there with you. We start at the bottom and work our way up. One team at the front entrance, one at the back. They’re all monsters in there, so don’t let anyone escape.” He paused before adding, “And yeah, I know you’d all rather be hanging out for the holidays. Three days before Christmas and all. So thanks for coming along on this. Sometimes saving humanity means not getting a full vacation.” 

With that, he split the groups up with a few muttered words and waved hands, then pivoted, taking Zeke’s team along with their mentor (the Native American girl Namid) toward the front. One of the other Heretic adults brought up the rear, while the remaining two would escort the other team to the back of the hotel.  

Unfortunately, even as the group approached the hotel, they found their way blocked by a figure standing at the end of the alley. A figure who, by that point, was familiar to everyone. To Zeke, especially, despite never seeing her in person. He had the memory of her appearance seared into his brain from the research he’d done to find out exactly who was responsible for the society he had grown up in being torn apart not once, but twice. Seeing her, he felt a sudden rush of anger. Worse than what he felt whenever he thought of Chambers herself. 

“Joselyn Atherby,” Larian snapped, snapping his mace down before giving it a flicking motion that made a handful of steel spikes rise out of the ground, angled that way. 

The other Heretic adult abruptly disappeared from behind the group and reappeared next to Larian. Where he had disappeared from, a water-shaped version of himself was left behind before splashing to the ground, and where he appeared, a burst of flame shaped like him filled the air, then dissolved into the man’s physical form. He was holding his own weapon, a long claymore sword that could shift into a musket-like gun. “You shouldn’t be here, Atherby.” 

“Someday, I’ll tell enough of you that my last name is Chambers now, that it’ll actually stick.” After muttering those words, the blonde woman focused. “I need you to back off for a few minutes. We’re… busy. A girl’s life depends on it.”

Larian snorted, shaking his head. “I knew you were stupid enough to defend these monsters, but I thought you had some standards. Defending the things in that hotel, that’s a new low, even for you. But hey, why don’t you try your lies on someone else, like say…” He trailed off, pausing before his eyes narrowed. “You’re blocking communication back to Crossroads.”  

Joselyn, in turn, flatly informed him. “Of course I am. I’ve done this rebellion thing before, remember? And I’m not defending any of the people who willingly live in that hotel. But as I said, we’re in the middle of something. The life of a girl who is not in that hotel depends on us getting information out of the ones who are. So back off for a few minutes, then we can both… go about our jobs.” 

Larian and his partner seemed to consider that for a moment, before the first man’s eyes narrowed. “No. You know what? I think you’re stalling for something. Giving them time to get out.” With that, he waved a hand back toward the students. “Get in there, wipe out everything in your path. We’ll deal with her ourselves.” 

The next thing Zeke and the others knew, they were enveloped in a rush of energy, before finding themselves deposited in one of the side parking lots with the hotel itself visible in the distance. 

“What–what do we do?” Freya demanded. The tall, red-haired girl was looking around in confusion while holding her warhammer in one hand and shield in the other. She turned toward Namid for help. 

Rather than wait for their mentor to speak, however, Zeke was already pivoting, stalking toward the hotel. “We do what the man said. Get in there and kill everything in our way.” 

“Gonna need you to stop right there, dude.” The new voice came from a figure who rose from behind a nearby car and moved to block their path. 

“Koren?” Summer blurted. The black girl was staring that way, mouth agape. “Wha-what the hell are you guys doing? You can’t seriously think this is right. Those are bad guys in there!” 

Rebecca Jameson, moving up beside Koren, gave a short nod. “Yeah, you’re right. Those are bad guys. But we’re trying to help a girl who isn’t a bad guy. And the only way to do that is to find her in there before you guys kill them all or make them run away. Or at least find out where they took her. Mrs. Chambers told your teacher guy that, but he wouldn’t listen.” 

Malcolm, enormous sledgehammer in hand, took a step closer while tapping the head of the weapon against the ground a couple times. “You guys really need a better excuse. Now either get out of the way and let us do our jobs, or we’ll go through you. Neither of you could match me in training last year, you really think you can do it together? Let alone all six of us.”  

Heaving a heavy sigh, Namid finally spoke up. “He’s right, you two need to get out of the way. Believe me, I really don’t want to hurt either of you. This whole situation is fucked beyond belief, but we’ve got a job to do. So move.” 

The two girls exchanged glances, before turning back to the six Crossroads students. Koren spoke first. “Sorry. We can’t do that.” 

Rebecca added, “I guess you’ll just have to go through us.” 

There was a brief pause before Namid gestured. “No killing, just make them stay down.” 

Immediately, Malcolm lunged that way, already swinging his hammer. He moved so quickly, his form was a blur. Koren, however, smoothly twisted aside, pivoting on one foot like a ballet dancer as the hammer swung past her to slam into the ground. As soon as the head of the weapon hit the cement, three blunt concrete ‘spikes’ erupted from the ground right where the girl was. But Koren had already flipped up and over, landing behind the boy. She lashed out with a kick, which collided with his back, knocking him forward into the concrete slabs he had raised. Except they weren’t concrete anymore. In that moment, with a quick look, she had transformed them into a gooey, sticky, tar-like substance that gripped the boy tightly. 

Malcolm immediately used his hammer’s ability to send himself back to any of the last ten spots he had hit with it in order to teleport to where he had been standing a moment earlier. But he was still covered in tar. Tar that was rapidly solidifying, even as he blurted, “The hell is this?!” 

“Just get rid of it and focus!” Zeke snapped. The boy was already going at Koren from the side, lashing out to bash her with his shield while simultaneously creating three glass-like balls behind her, which exploded with concussive force meant to throw the girl forward into his swinging shield. 

Koren, however, wasn’t there. She had already tossed one of her Hunga Munga throwing axes into the air, teleporting herself up to it before pivoting in midair to face the boy below. A moment of focus made a wave of concussive force slam into the back of Zeke’s legs, knocking him slightly off-balance. 

He, of course, reacted by snapping his gaze up to where she was. The front of his shield shifted, producing two gun-like barrels from the middle, which fired twin bolts of electricity, powerful enough to put a bear on the ground. 

But Koren wasn’t there anymore either. Just before teleporting herself up to the first Hunga Munga, she had dropped the other one. In the instant where Zeke was shooting his electricity at her, she teleported herself down to that one, appearing in a kneeling position right next to the boy while he was facing upward. Before he could adjust, Koren lashed out with her fist, which collided with the boy’s stomach with enough force to double him over. 

Malcolm, by that point, had gotten enough of the tar off himself to come lunging to help his friend. But Koren had already torn the shield from Zeke’s grasp and pivoted, Captain America-ing the shield that way to take the charging boy’s legs out from under him. He turned the fall into a roll, coming up nearby while swinging his hammer. 

At the same time, Zeke had recovered from the punch, and swung around to clap his hands together, creating a focused sonic blast that would have burst the girl’s eardrums, staggering her just long enough for Malcolm’s attack to put her on the ground.

Would have, that was, if Koren hadn’t already made a wall of earth rise out of the ground behind herself in a semicircle. The wall caught the sonic blast, shielding her from its effects. Which allowed the girl to thrust both hands forward, hitting the charging Malcolm with a telekinetic shove that halted his forward momentum and sent him flying backward to crash into a nearby wall. 

Zeke, stumbling backward from the wall, shot a look toward Malcolm, then over to where Summer, Freya, and Laila were clearly having their own problems with the tiny waif Rebecca. “The fuck?!” He blurted the words in confusion. “You two weren’t this good last year.” 

“Things change,” Koren informed him flatly, flipping her Hunga Munga around in both hands before facing him. “You’ve been in class. We’ve been in a war. So, you guys gonna walk away?” 

In answer, Zeke made a growling noise deep in his throat, glaring at her. “You know what?” he snarled, already readying himself. “I think it’s time to shut you up.” 

“By all means,” Koren replied. 

“You’re welcome to try.” 

Wanna see more of this conflict and how it all resolves? Check out the end of arc interlude coming up in a few more chapters!

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Patreon Snippets 21 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 21st edition of Patreon Snippets. 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.

Virginia Dare

1943

The sound of a woman’s terrified scream filled the night air, cutting through the quiet noise of various nocturnal animals. It was a night brightly lit by a full moon and millions of twinkling stars, which shone over the narrow dirt road. It ran between two enormous fields of corn that seemed to stretch on for miles in either direction. Down that dirt road ran the woman in question, the source of the scream. Her face was covered in dirt and spots of blood from various scratches she had picked up by running through the nearby woods that had led to the road itself. The woman was barely out of her teens, a small, frail-looking thing with dark brown hair worn in a long braid. Her name was Vera Anderlie, and she was dressed in overalls and a checkered shirt, with muddy boots. 

Although Vera’s scream was loud, it was nothing compared to the deafening cacophony of half a dozen wolves howling. Large wolves, who at that very moment were tearing up the dirt slightly behind the fleeing woman. She heard them, not only the howls, but the pants, the yips, the excited, horrifyingly eager snarls. Right behind her, they were right behind her, barely a few steps back. Close enough to pounce if they had so chosen. As they had been throughout this entire chase, ever since she made the mistake of trying to walk through the woods at night. 

That was almost the worst of it, really. They were playing with her, torturing Vera by making her think she could escape while still staying right on her tail. They could jump her any time, take her to the ground and rip her throat out on this step, or the next one, or the next. Just one wolf by itself could have caught and killed her long before she even got this far, let alone all six. It was a game to them, a game with her own life. They loved hearing her whimpers, smelling her terror, the tears running down her face, the sound of her heart pounding out of her chest. 

Soon, they would end it. Any moment now, they would tire of the game. Then they would bring her to the ground with a single leap, and she would feel their teeth tearing into her. It would be the last thing she felt. The last feeling she ever had would be horrific agony, the last thought would be a desperate wish that she could go back and choose not to take a walk that night. Her last moments would be filled with nothing but terror, regret, and agony. Any second now, any step, any breath, any beat of her heart, and they would finish this the only way it could end. 

Then, a different sound pierced the air, one born not of the woman, nor her pursuers. It was a sharp, almost painfully loud whistle. Both Vera herself, and the wolves hot on her heels, stumbled to a stop and looked toward the source. 

A figure, another woman, stepped into view from where she had been hidden in the shadows of the corn. An aristocratically beautiful, blonde figure who appeared to be in her early to mid-thirties, with long blonde hair worn in a single braid similar to the girl who had been chased this far, though her own was dark compared to this woman’s quite-light locks. She wore black suit pants with a crisp white shirt that was tucked in, her entire outfit and look making the woman appear to be more at home working in an office. That was, if women could ever do such a thing without being laughed out of the building. It looked as though she had taken her husband’s work-attire and dressed in it for fun, yet the clothes fit her perfectly. 

And, of course, there was the sword hanging from a sheathe at her hip. 

“Having fun?” the blonde woman asked with a raised eyebrow. “Truly, you have my apologies. Had I but known the desperate plight of your pack, I would have extended a hand of help sooner.” Her head shook as she lamented, “To be so hard-up for food that you must hunt humans, and so pathetically weak to choose such a small, helpless woman as your target, your pack must be truly pitiful. I would suggest hunting the rats in the field behind me, but I would not wish to subject your people to such terror.”

Her words earned a low, dangerous growl from the wolves themselves. They… they understood her, Vera realized, eyes darting back and forth between the assembled monsters and the woman who stood there so casually. The wolves seemed to have forgotten her for the moment, but Vera didn’t dare move and draw their attention once more. They were slowly spreading out to arrange themselves in a half-circle around the newcomer, snarling dangerously. Clearly, they had both understood the insult, and taken offense to it. 

If she was worried by their reaction and threatening posture, the blonde didn’t show it. She simply stood there, not even so much as reaching for the sword at her hip. As the wolves gave their threatening snarls and bared their teeth, she offered them a very faint, humorless smile while making absolutely no move to prepare any sort of defense. “I would offer food of my own, but perhaps it would be better to remove a few of the mouths who need it.” 

They understood the threat just as well as they had understood the insult. As soon as the woman said that, the wolves braced themselves to lunge that way and tear her apart. However, at the last possible second, the blonde called out, “You’re some pretty big wolves, aren’t you? 

“Do you want to see a bigger one?” 

*******

The werewolves were dead. They wouldn’t bother anyone else again. Certainly not Vera Anderlie, who had fainted shortly after Virginia had grown to her full-sized gigantic amarok form. Virginia had woken the woman up once it was over and she had disposed of the corpses, telling her that she had apparently been taking a hike and passed out from dehydration. She made sure the woman got back to her farmhouse before checking the woods around the area to be absolutely certain there were no remaining members of that pack hiding around. 

Now, she was leaving the woods surrounding the farmhouse behind and heading back to the dirt road. In mid-step, she paused, head tilting a little before she spoke up. “How long have you been watching?” 

Gaia Sinclaire stepped into view, curiously asking, “In general, or tonight?” 

Seeing her mentor standing there, the woman who had been a mother to her for so long, brought a rush of very powerful feelings to Virginia. Everything she had given up and walked away from in order to protect the world from the Fomorians had always been in the back of her mind throughout the intervening decades. But now it all came flooding to the forefront, almost making her physically stagger. Seeing Gaia reminded her of her husband… and her daughter. Her daughter, Joselyn…  It took everything she had not to visibly react. 

“Is something wrong?” she finally managed to get out, keeping her voice as steady as possible. Why was Gaia here? Staying away from everyone had already been hard enough as it was, but standing here face-to-face with the woman she cared about so much? It made things exponentially worse. Everything, all of those feelings of loss, separation, the terror and horrific guilt of walking away from her only child right after the death of her husband, it… it was too much. She couldn’t do this, couldn’t be here, couldn’t see Gaia right now. She couldn’t–

And then Gaia was there. Not only in sight, but right in front of her. The woman’s arms closed around Virginia, holding her close as the blonde felt all the strength leave her. She slumped against the woman who had been so important to her for so long. It was wrong. She couldn’t do this. She had to leave, had to walk away. Please, she needed an excuse to leave right now, before–

“Yes,” Gaia was saying quietly, her grip around the other woman tightening very slightly. “Something is certainly wrong. Sadly, I don’t know what that is. You see, I had thought for quite some time that keeping you away from me was for the best, so that your reputation among our people would not be drawn into the gutters after my decision to… sacrifice Desoto. There was no reason for you to bear any measure of the reactions from those who believe they know better, who believe they could have done better. I believed that leaving you out of my life in these years was for your own good.” 

There was a brief, poignant pause then. A pause during which everything inside Virginia screamed for her to make an excuse and flee. That would be for the best, the way to protect her secret and thus protect the world. She couldn’t risk Gaia realizing the truth, couldn’t… shouldn’t… And yet, no matter what her brain told her body, her heart had taken over and refused to relinquish control. For decades, she had been alone, wandering the same world she had sacrificed everything to protect. Right now, after all those years of being apart from anyone who knew her, the idea of walking away from Gaia was too much. She was just… tired. She was so very tired. 

Gaia’s voice continued softly while she held Virginia close. “And yet, the other day, an odd fact came to mind. You have not joined this new rebellion. You certainly have not worked against it. I know that there have been offers from both sides, people attempting to recruit you. But you refuse to be involved in any of it. I know you, Virginia. I know your opinions, and I certainly know that you would be at the forefront of such a conflict. Be it on the side of Crossroads if you believed their propaganda, or on the side of the rebellion if they were who you sympathized with. But staying out of it entirely? That is not the Virginia I know. And it gave me the realization that I was not staying away from you for your protection. You have been staying away from me, from everyone. That is the mystery I have been trying to solve. Why is my student, my girl, my… Virginia staying away from everyone who could possibly care about her?” 

No. No, no, she couldn’t… Voice cracking, Virginia managed a weak, “You need to walk away, Gaia. You need to go back to Crossroads and… help them. You need to go.” 

“Virginia,” came Gaia’s quiet yet firm response, “you know me better than that. Just as I know you. The only thing that could possibly make either of us walk away from…” She trailed off. 

Oh no. Oh no, no, no, Virginia couldn’t let this happen. She had to leave, had to disappear before–

“You.” Gaia’s voice was filled with sudden realization. “It was you. Of course. How could it be anyone else? The magic made it so hard to make that connection, but–” 

Her words were interrupted by a sound. A sound that nearly tore Virginia Dare’s heart from her chest. It was the sound of an earthquake, yet not anything that simple. It was far more than simply the ground shaking. The air itself practically tore itself apart as the banishment spell surrounding the planet, the spell that kept the Earth safe from Fomorian invasion, was shaken at its very foundation. Virginia sacrificing her identity, her connections to her family, was one of the main pillars keeping that spell going. And now, with Gaia’s realization, that pillar was being violently jostled. If it fell, if that pillar collapsed and the protective spell was broken…

Both Virginia and Gaia felt the spell wavering, like a stack of plates that had been jostled and was teetering back and forth. Looking up, they could see the night sky turn a deep, blood-like red, with thick clouds that were more solid than they should be. Yellow-orange lightning lanced through those thick clouds, as something began to reach through… 

And then it was gone. The sky went back to normal, and the air around them stopped trying to crack itself apart. The magic had been damaged, but held firm. Dangerous and terrifying as that had been, the spell wasn’t broken. 

Gaia, who had released Virginia through that, turned to face her once more. “That…” she said quietly, “was quite close.” 

Swallowing hard, the pain of what she was about to say nearly making it impossible to speak, Virginia replied, “Now you know why I have to walk away again. Please, don’t make this even harder, Gaia. You have to understand why I can’t be around anyone.” 

To her surprise, however, Gaia shook her head. “Don’t you see, my dear? You may have been right at one point. But now? The damage has been done. I know the truth, and the spell has stood firm. Be that a matter of luck or not, the fact remains that it is still holding steady. I know you the most, dearest Virginia. Of those who are here in the world now, I know you better than any. And others know that. They know that you have been my student. That much was not erased. Which do you truly believe would keep those others from putting too much thought to where you are and what you have been doing all these years, being entirely on your own, apart from everyone as a hermit in the wild who interacts with none of our people… or working for your old teacher, in a school where she was recently promoted to the position of headmistress and finally given the authority to hire any staff she prefers?” 

That brought Virginia’s gaze around to stare at the other woman. “You want me to come to Crossroads? You want me to help–I can’t–my daughter. My daughter is running a reb–” 

“I know,” Gaia gently assured her. “And yet, you cannot go to her. Horrible and painful as it may be, we both know that you cannot join that rebellion. Being that close to Joselyn is too much of a risk. But you can join me at Crossroads, and start to more… subtly help those who need it. There are students who are ready to switch sides, who are the right people to point toward Joselyn’s camp. But I need help to identify them. You cannot help your daughter directly, Virginia. This is something you can do. If you choose. Come in from the cold. Hide in plain sight.” 

There was a brief pause as everything that could possibly go wrong with this idea raced through Virginia’s head. It was dangerous, wrong, she had to flee, she had to walk away and be on her own again. She had to… had to… Tired. Gods, she was so tired of being alone. So tired of having no one to confide in, no one to talk about her beautiful daughter and lost husband with. So… utterly exhausted and lonely. 

Her eyes closed, and Virginia let out a long breath, pushing all those doubts and worries out. What else might come from this… they would deal with. Because at this moment, for the first time in decades… she wasn’t alone anymore. Finally, her eyes opened and she met Gaia’s gaze once more. 

“What sort of job is it?” 

*******

Shortly after the Calendar Trio first arrived at the Fusion School 

“We know you. You’re Kushiel and Puriel’s child.” 

The announcement came from May, as she, April, and December sat together on a couch in a small waiting room outside the Fusion School principal’s office. The three were perched side by side, exactly where they had been told to wait while Abigail Fellows disappeared into the office to have had what had appeared to be the start of an intense conversation with the Olympian Athena and several others. They had been waiting for ten minutes before they were joined in the waiting room by a new, clearly familiar figure. One they had met before. 

“Theia,” the brunette girl informed them while folding her arms. Her gaze moved over the three with a look of intense scrutiny. “My name is Theia.” 

The three of them exchanged glances before looking back. December had already popped to her feet, unable to hold herself back any more. “Theywererightyoudohaveanamelikearealnamethat’sseriouslycoolhowdidyougetanameanddidyoureallykillKushielcuzsomeonesaidyoudidbutthenothersaidthat–” 

“December,” April gently interrupted, rising to put a hand on the girl’s shoulder without taking her gaze off of the subject of her wild rush of words. “She wants to know if you–” 

“I heard,” came the casual reply. “I’m a good listener.” Her eyes remained narrowed at them. “And an even better watcher. I watch and listen for bad things.” Taking a small step closer then, she added, “I like to watch and listen for bad things that might hurt my friends.” 

“We’renotgonnahurtanyonecuzwegettostayandseewhatthisplaceis–” 

May stepped forward, putting her hand on December’s other shoulder while speaking up. “She’s right. We’re not here to hurt anyone. There’s a truce, as you know. We’re just here to observe this school and inform Cahethal about how the work here is proceeding so that she can decide if she believes it should continue when the time comes.” 

Meeting her gaze, Theia retorted, “That is not up for her to decide.” 

“And yet,” April carefully put in before May could say anything, “the Seraphs will look to her for an opinion and advice when the time comes. That is what we are here to help provide, simply by informing her of what we see. That is all. We have no ill-intent, and have been up-front with our intentions. Even with the fact that we are here in the first place.” 

“You’ve changed.” That was May, her gaze scrutinizing Theia. “Last year, you didn’t have a name. You thought it was strange that we didn’t use the L word amongst ourselves, that we used other names. And now you have your own. And you killed your mother.” The last bit, though it could have been an accusation, came off more… curious, as though she still couldn’t believe that part was real. 

“Yes,” Theia confirmed. “I killed my mother, because she tried to hurt my friends. She tried to kill my friends. She…” Her gaze dropped to the floor briefly as the girl took a breath before looking up once more. “She did very bad things and did not deserve to live.” 

Her attention moved back to May, their gazes locking before she added, “And yes, I have changed. Many things have changed. Most of them, for me, because of Abigail Fellows. She is… important. So, whatever your eventual intentions, remember what you just said. I killed my mother, Kushiel. I killed her because she was a threat to my friends. Remember that, as you follow any instructions Cahethal gives you.” 

“We will remember,” April carefully agreed. “As we said, we have no ill-intentions. And we do not believe Cahethal will request any of us. Not with the amount of attention, including your own, that will be on us here.” 

A long, silent moment passed as Theia seemed to examine them each thoroughly before she abruptly straightened and smiled. “Good. Then I will tell Abigail that you should be allowed to stay.” Her voice lowered a bit conspiratorially. “She asked me to come talk to you and tell her what I thought.” 

“You truly have changed… Theia,” May noted, clearly thinking about their previous meeting. 

“Yes, I have,” came the chirped response. “And do you know what? 

“I think you will too.” 

********

Approximately Present Day

Being on the bridge of the Olympus brought back so many memories for Puriel. Some good, some very much not. But all of them, the positive and the negative, were incredibly strong and powerful memories, even after all these years. Some of that was due to the Seosten inability to forget anything without magical assistance. But most of it was far more… emotional than that. 

He stood at what had been his original station, the captain’s chair, staring through the forward viewport as his mind was cast back through images from far off centuries. Lost in those thoughts, he didn’t notice as the rest of his motley assortment of… ‘crew’ (in a manner of speaking) filed into the room and waited for him. 

Eventually, he felt a gentle, yet firm poke in the back of his mind by Spark, and looked up to see them all lined up there. Spark herself had appeared in her hardlight form, next to her brother Omni and the other seven Seosten children who had been rescued from the research facility. Behind that group stood Maria and Arthur Chambers, beside their old friend (and Puriel’s protege) Alcaeus, Kutattca, and Aletheia, the woman whom Puriel had shared nearly as much with as his wife. 

This was his crew for this ship. The old Puriel would have been horrified by that fact. Now… now the only horror he felt was at the thought of anything happening to these people. Any of them. 

But getting them back to Earth was how he would make sure that didn’t happen. And the next step of that was happening today, right now. 

“Thank you all for coming here,” he abruptly spoke, pushing all those thoughts and memories aside. “This is important enough that we felt that we should have everyone present on the bridge to witness the first test. After all, each of you helped build the system. If it works, it will be thanks to everyone here.” His gaze moved to the assortment of Seosten children who had helped carry things back and forth through long, winding corridors as he firmly reiterated, “Everyone.” 

Maria spoke up then. “This is the doohickey that’s supposed to get this spaceship past the defenses your people use to stop people from getting close to Earth, yes? The Berlin Wall of space.” 

Pausing as he realized that he truly had no idea what she was speaking of, Puriel coughed. “Ah, I assume that is an accurate comparison, yes. Ideally, we would have used the instantaneous transport system Spark designed over a year ago, but the materials needed for that are… out of our reach. Bringing the prototype vessel that is already on Earth is also not a good idea, considering we believe our people may have developed the ability to track its movements within our space, and its arrival would create… issues. Not to mention we would either be forced to abandon the Olympus or spend days or even weeks transferring the jump system and modifying it to work on a much larger scale. Neither of those options is appropriate. Thus, we find ourselves needing another way of bypassing those defenses. One that does not involve starting a war.” 

“Much as I’d like a good scrap,” Alcaeus noted, “that’s probably a good idea. So we’ve been putting this whole thing together, but I’m still not sure… exactly what it is.” 

“Brilliant,” Aletheia put in, her gaze locked on the magical holographic image of Spark. “That is what it is. Utterly brilliant.” 

“It is certainly that,” Puriel agreed, “but as for details, perhaps it would be best if Spark herself showed everyone with this test.” 

The girl in question hesitated, looking a bit uncomfortable with the attention from everyone. In the end, however, she stepped out of the group and moved over to where the pilot and navigator stations were. Her gaze passed over their seats and controls briefly before she pivoted to face everyone else. “Um… so… many ships have the ability to cloak, to turn invisible both magically and through technology. But the Seosten know how to detect that, and have lined their border with those detectors. One of their uhh, main defenses against that are what you might think of as motion detectors. They blanket an area with an extremely low-level magic field, almost imperceptible. Like a sheet of paper so thin you can see through it. Thin, but present. The moment anything disturbs that magical field, it alerts their system and the intrusion is identified. The field exists both in real-space and the pocket universe our slide-drives use.” 

“Well, that sounds like it’d be hard to get past,” Arthur noted before raising an eyebrow. “So how are we getting past it?” 

“Like this,” Spark announced before turning to touch a finger against one of the controls there. As she did so, the ship abruptly began to shudder. It rocked back and forth a few times, while an alert began to sound. That was accompanied by a distinct and prolonged sinking sensation that made everyone’s stomachs seem to rise up toward their throats. 

The others jolted a bit and looked nervous, but Puriel stayed calm and raised a hand for them to be at ease. He could sense the power through the ship, and knew things were proceeding properly. Well, as properly as a first full-scale test could, at least. If anything had gone wrong, he was fully prepared to take the energy away from the system so it wouldn’t hurt anyone. But things were going, if not perfectly, at least within reason. 

Then it was done. The alert stopped, and the sinking sensation went away. As soon as it did, Spark gave a broad smile, raising both hands above her head. “It worked!” 

“Uhh… what worked?” Arthur asked, looking around. “What happened?” 

“Computer,” Puriel announced, “bring up the view of the exterior of the ship and surrounding space, then begin panning out.” 

The computer did just that, as a hologram appeared in the middle of the room. It showed the Olympus itself as they expected to see, with its main orb surrounded by three thruster-like gunships. As soon as they recognized that, the view pulled back. Immediately, everyone saw something… unexpected. An enormous metal thing, like another ship, a much larger one.  The whole thing was twice the size of the Olympus, and they had no idea how it could possibly have gotten that close. It was shaped like two crisscrossing blades spread slightly apart, leading back to a pair of slightly thicker, circular structures at the far end that were orange rather than the gleaming silver metal. Those parts could have been the living part of the ship or station.

Then the confusing shape slowly drifted in their view, allowing them to see a word printed across the top of one of the metal blade-like parts. 

“Fiskars?” Maria blurted, eyes widening. “Are those my fabric scissors?! Did you gigantasize my fabric scissors?!” 

“The opposite,” Alcaeus realized. “The ship shrank. They shrank us down so much your scissors are twice as big as this ship.” 

Puriel gave a short nod. “Precisely. And ahh, have no fear, Maria. We will retrieve your tool. You have my word. I merely required something you would be familiar with as a demonstration.” Clearing his throat a bit uncomfortably as she squinted at him for daring to endanger something as important as those scissors, he pressed on. “As we said, whenever something passes through the field blocking off entrance to your world, it is identified. However, there are many small asteroids and comets which repeatedly pass through the field. These are identified and heavily scanned every time they pass through, looking for people attempting to hide within them. But with the ship in this small state, we can simply stop it within one of the smaller asteroids just before it passes through the field, and we will be too small to pick up in their scans. They will detect the materials of the ship, but their system will register those as microscopic amounts, not worth pursuing. Trace minerals within the asteroid itself.” 

“Well, that sounds… terrifying,” Maria noted. “But if it works and gets us back to Earth and the rest of my family, that’s good enough for me. How soon can we do that?” 

“We need to thoroughly test the system,” Spark quickly announced. “Just to make sure it won’t suddenly fail in the middle of the trip. And then wait for the right asteroid to be close. There is a good candidate about three weeks out. We… we will have to work hard to make sure everything is ready before then.” 

Arthur gave a firm nod. “Then that’s exactly what we’ll do. You tell us how to make sure this system of yours is ship-shape. Put us to work. But uhh, can we go back to being full-sized again? This is making me nervous.” 

“Being this small?” Puriel asked. 

“No,” the man replied, “having Maria’s fabric scissors floating out there in space. We need to go back to full size and pull them in. 

“If anything happened to those things, I think she’d finish manifesting your Olympian powers from the bond you made with her and kill us all.” 

******* 

Millions of years ago

“It’s coming! It’s coming, we have to hurry!” Accompanying the frantic voice was the almost deafening sound of the planet seeming to shake itself apart. Buildings were crashing throughout the city, the cacophonous screams of the dying forming a terrible chorus alongside the unending quakes and explosions triggered by untold damage to vehicles and power sources. 

The long corridor filled by the shout was triangular, rising to a point fifteen feet in height. Which made it plenty high enough for the assortment of ten-foot-tall beings who were rushing through it at that very moment. They were of humanoid-avian appearance, though with two full sets of wings attached to their backs, one at the shoulders and one around the lower-middle of their backs. The higher wing-set tucked downward, while the lower tucked upward so that both sets interlocked with one another when not in use. When extended, the lower wings would invert themselves to point downward. They possessed two lightly feathered arms, separate from the wings, a beak-like mouth, and three eyes equidistant across the front of their face, two toward the sides and capable of turning to look in opposite directions, while the third was centered. They were capable of seeing and processing the view from three entirely separate directions at once. The six beings all possessed feathers of different colors, normally one solid shade across most of the body, fading into a different color toward the head, the hands, and the ends of the wings. Their taloned feet were black, though that was impossible to see as the avian-figures were clad in gleaming metallic blue armor, which included heavy boots. Each carried a grayish-green box about a foot across.  

The beings were known as the Kelensians, and there was a very good reason these six in particular were in such a rush. Even more so than everyone else in this rapidly shattering city, as the sounds of destruction, heralding the very real end of the world, grew louder with each passing second. 

Five of the beings continued to run toward a waiting elevator, but one had stopped. His main body and feathers were a dark, burgundy red, fading to a bright, gleaming white at his fingers, across his head, and at the tips of his wings. He froze in mid-step, looking through a nearby window at the world-ending monster who was approaching. He could see very little of it from this small window, only an indistinct shape as tall as a building. One of four different creatures who had appeared in the universe decades earlier and proceeded to wreak havoc, destroying and killing everything in their paths on every world they found. And now one of them was here, in this city. It would destroy the capital, and then move on to kill the rest of the Kelsensia across the world.

“Zien!” one of the other Kelensians shouted, shifting the weight of the box she carried. “Move your tail feathers! We didn’t do all this for the past year just to fuck up now, come on!” 

“I… I…” Zien stammered, staring through the window. “What if it doesn’t work? What if–what if–” 

Cursing him, a different Kelensian stormed that way. “Forget it, you know we can’t count on him. He’s a coward. Good old Coward Zien.” Reaching out, he snatched the box away from Zien and held that along with his own before turning to rush toward the elevator once more while snapping for the others to follow. They gave one last look back toward their companion, still-petrified from terror, before regretfully leaving him there. 

They were right, he… he had to keep moving. He had to help them. It was the only chance their people had of surviving this attack. If the stranger who had come to their world was telling the truth, the spell that Zien and almost a thousand others had spent the past year inscribing all across the planet, a world-wide rune, would banish the monsters who had carved such a path of destruction across the universe. 

But if it didn’t work, they would be at the very top of the tallest structure in the city, with no time to escape. Survival right now wasn’t likely at any stretch. But if he ran away, if he fled out of the building and hid in the forests, there was the slightest chance the monster might move to a new world before finishing with this one. It had happened before, on other planets. He might survive. He might escape and hide. But if he went up to the tower with the others and the stranger’s plan didn’t work, he would be dead the moment the monster reached them. 

But… but the others, his friends. If they… he couldn’t just… They were right, he was a coward. For almost five minutes, he stood there, frozen by indecision while the monster drew closer and closer. He could run. He could escape. He could try to survive. 

Before he knew it, Zien was moving toward the elevator. Frightened as he was, he couldn’t abandon his friends. He reached the shaft, only to find it unresponsive. The forcefield that should have lifted him toward the next floor had been shut down. So, he spread both sets of wings as much as he could and flapped down hard to send himself soaring upward. It was a long, arduous, and terrifying flight, trying to rise as rapidly as he could from the bottom of the building, all the way to the tip of the tower thousands of feet up. 

Finally, he made it, landing at the entrance to the tower control room where the spell was meant to be triggered. The doors were closed, so he had to pry them open. Eventually, Zien managed to squeeze through the space, emerging into the control room. He expected to see his friends all waiting to chide him for taking so long. 

Instead, what Zien walked into at that moment was a nightmare beyond any he could have imagined. 

His companions, his friends, were dead. But more than that, they had each been nailed to the walls by all four wings, with a series of eight-inch-wide metal spikes. Their faces had been burned so thoroughly that all three eyes in their heads had burst. Their throats had been slit, and their blood used to scrawl more spell runes across the floor and walls. Worse, their torsos had been cut across the middle, allowing several organs to be removed and deliberately set at various parts of the intricate spell lines. 

And standing in the middle of all that, just as he finished carefully arranging one of the hearts, was the stranger who had come to the Kelensian homeworld and claimed he could save them, the man Zien and the others had helped for the past year. 

The man who had just finished murdering all of Zien’s friends, and arranging their blood and organs across his spell.

Now, the man looked up to stare at Zien. He looked far different than any Kelensian. He was several feet shorter, at only seven feet. He had no feathers, his skin gray and tough, with black spots and lines scattered across it. His form was very sturdily built, like a boulder, and he had four arms, two eyes in the center of his head, and a thin mouth rather than a beak. That mouth was stretched wide in a smile. “Zien, so glad you came after all.” He spoke in his own language, words that he had used magic to teach the Kelansians he interacted with the meaning of. 

Reeling from shock, Zien felt both of his stomachs twist in on themselves. A scream tore its way through his beak as he used both wings to launch himself at the monster. The one in the room, rather than the one tearing its way closer and closer to this tower with every second that passed. He wasn’t thinking about that, wasn’t thinking about the fact that he would die any second now. No, he was only thinking of tearing apart the man who had massacred his friends. 

And yet, in mid-lunge, the stranger simply spoke a word and Zien found himself bodily yanked to the ground. An invisible force held him there, while the man spoke casually. “I’m surprised you bothered trying something like that instead of just running away. After all, what was it your friends called you? Coward Zien? What was that in your words? Coward, Gala? Coward Zien. Gala Zien, that was it.” 

An inarticulate scream of anger, frustration, terror, and grief ripped its way out of Zien as he struggled helplessly against the force pinning him to the ground. 

“Sure, good luck with that, Gala Zien,” the stranger idly remarked. “I’m sure you’ll summon up the twenty tons of force needed to break that hold any second now. In the meantime, I’m just going to finish becoming immortal, if you don’t mind.” 

Head snapping that way as much as possible, Zien blurted, “Th-that will kill you!” His eyes were focused on the window where they could hear the creature steadily approaching. 

“That?” the stranger laughed. “That won’t be a problem for much longer. Why else would I come to this… primitive, backwater hole and convince all you sad, pathetic beings to create a sacrifice spell across your entire planet? You see, all spells require power. The strongest ones require a lot of power. Becoming immortal, truly immortal? That requires more power than you can even begin to imagine. The sort of power that sacrificing millions can’t come close to getting. But billions? Hell, trillions once we get into every living being on this world who isn’t actually a Kelansian. Every insect, every bird, every mammal, every living creature. Now that kind of sacrifice could fuel one hell of a spell.” 

Even as he said that, the tower violently shook. In mere seconds, the creature outside would be on top of them. So, the stranger grimaced. “Ah, sounds like The Next is almost here. Yeah, that’s what the civilized universe calls that thing. Now if you don’t mind… I need to finish this.” He reached toward a spot on the wall with just enough space between runes for his hand, already chanting words in some strange language. That spot began to glow brightly, and the man let out a cheerful, triumphant laugh while his hand reached for it. 

Then it happened. The tower shook violently once more, and a small chunk of debris from the ceiling fell. It collided with the stranger’s wrist, making him recoil with a yelp and curse. And in that instant, Zien felt the power holding him fade. He took immediate advantage, lunging to his feet and throwing himself that way. The stranger saw him coming and turned, but it was too late. Zien may not have been much of a fighter, but he had three feet on his opponent and a lot of anger fueling him. He collided with the man with enough force to throw him back against the wall, the sound of several bones cracking filling the room. 

“Won’t… take.. my… destiny!” the stranger bellowed, twisting to slap his hand out toward the still-glowing spot on the wall. 

Still bellowing mindlessly, Zien lunged to grab his hand, refusing to let him complete this spell. If he was going to die, if his world was going to die, so was this monster. However, he missed the man’s wrist. Instead, his flailing hand slapped against the glowing spot, while the stranger gave his own enraged scream. 

And then? Then there was silence. Silence, darkness, and a white-hot, agonizing pain that burned Zien up from the inside. 

It lasted for an instant.

It lasted for an eternity. 

And when it was over… he was remade. 

*******

Earth – Fifteen Years Ago

“Well, that’s certainly an ambitious story so far,” the publishing agent by the name of Edwin Marls noted as he looked up from the papers he had been reading through. “And you say that’s only the start of the book, Miss…” 

“Holt,” the dark-haired young woman reminded him as she sat cross-legged in the guest chair across the desk from him. “Vanessa Holt. And yes, that is… definitely only the start.” 

“But what happens next?” Edwin demanded to know. “Is this… alien really immortal? What about the Godzilla thing that was tearing apart the city?” 

“Oh yes,” Vanessa Holt confirmed. “He truly is immortal, in every sense of the word. Nothing can kill him. And as it turns out, the ‘Godzilla thing’ was… well, you see, when the stranger created the spell to sacrifice everything on the planet aside from the person touching that glowing spot, somehow it… actually included the monster itself. Well, not enough to actually kill it. But it did enough damage to make the thing retreat back to where it came from. Which dragged the other three monsters with it, from wherever they were. The universe was saved. Sort of, whatever was left of it. And our dear Zien, he had so much power welling up inside him, power taken from every living being on that planet, plus enough from the monster to make it retreat.” 

“And then?” Edwin prompted. “You said at the start that this… guy in your story was supposed to be some sort of intergalactic warlord, a conquering monster trying to break into our reality and destroy or enslave all of us. Something like that.”  

Vanessa offered the man a smile. “Actually, what I said was that people see him that way. They think he’s a monster. The truth… that’s a lot more complicated. 

“And if you really want to know the whole story, you’re gonna have to buy the book.”

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