Theia

Patreon Snippets 22 (Heretical Edge 2)

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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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Reception 13-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Note, there was a Commissioned Interlude focusing on Chayyiel and Raphael posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might want to click the previous chapter button above.

An hour later, we met back up with Apollo and Dare in one of the ship’s enormous crew cafeterias. It was eerily empty of anything but tables and (randomly sized) chairs. But at least it was clean. Sparkling clean, actually, which totally went against the mental image I’d had of a place where space pirates would eat. I was pretty sure the whole place was pristine enough to perform surgery in. Seriously, we were the dirtiest things in that entire cavernous room.

Persephone was in a corner of the gigantic place, barely visible as she had some kind of conversation with both Cerberus and Andromeda while playing fetch with the former. She was throwing this large metal ball that was as big as her head, then watching as the robo-dog chased after it, his three heads taking turns (well, mostly taking turns, there was a little snarling involved now and then) to grab the thing before he brought it back to be thrown again. 

“Well,” Dare herself started after giving a curious look around the room that told me she was thinking the same thing about it being weirdly clean as I was, “Miss Chambers and Mr. Frey, why don’t you and the others start things off by telling us how your side of this investigation went? I take it you successfully summoned the captain’s ghost?” 

Glancing to the others for a moment, I nodded. “Yeah, with a lot of help to make it work without taking a lot longer.” My head shook then as I snorted, “Did you ever think you’d ask something like that back when I was still in your investigation track? You know, seventeen and a half years ago.” 

Her response was a raised eyebrow before the woman dryly replied, “I assure you, I learned quite early on in your time at Crossroads never to make assumptions about what sort of questions I would eventually be asking you. Among other things.” Her gaze moved to take in everyone around us, then the room we were in before admitting, “Though I will say that this situation is… perhaps a bit more than what I would have seen as my wildest imaginings.”

“Yeah,” Shiori cheerfully agreed while giving me a side-long look from nearby, “Flick does have a way of taking crazy situations and making them exponentially crazier.” The way she said it made it clear that she couldn’t have been happier about that. “But at least you’re never bored.” 

Theia, of course, piped up then with an equally cheerful, “Oh yes. Even while I still wanted to kill her, I never thought she was boring. Fighting her was a lot of fun. Actually, so was fighting you. Remember when the three of us were at Wonderland with the werewolves and you both had–”

“Okay!” I quickly put in, raising both hands before that could go any further. “I think that’s enough of a trip down memory lane for now. How about we focus on this whole Whispers thing, huh?” 

“Yeah.” Doug’s voice was a little tight as he gave a single nod. “I think that’s a good idea.” This Whispers thing was definitely getting to him. I couldn’t even imagine what it had been like to be in his situation. He and Sulan had accidentally released the creatures that killed… so many people back on the colony world where he’d grown up. And now he found out that this ship had those same anti-Whisper spells on it, implying that… what, that they had been here too? The idea that those things, whatever they were, could be somewhere else in the universe, that they could be anywhere and could possibly show up sometime, really wasn’t exactly doing wonders for him. 

Apollo, who had been standing up and pacing a bit back and forth at the far end of the table, apparently lost in his own thoughts and musings, pivoted on one foot to face us. “What did you find out from the captain’s ghost?” His voice was serious, one of the few times I had seen him without a broad smile or even a knowing smirk. This Whispers thing was important to him too. Probably because he was still trying to figure out what the connection between them and the Seosten was, given the way those spells affected his own people vaguely similarly. Plus, while the Whispers didn’t exactly possess people, they simply… well, whispered in their ears and drove them crazy violent. Seosten possessed and controlled their victims like slaves. Whispers were invisible creatures who drove their victims to do horrific things by constantly whispering to them. Maybe it was just coincidence that the same spells that blocked the Whispers from doing their thing to someone would also allow a possessed person to retain partial control of their body, but it all seemed a bit too coincidental. So yeah, no wonder Apollo wanted to figure it out. Sometimes I forgot that he had been a scientist for his people too. Being an incredible researcher was the whole way he and Sariel had even gotten started on this entire life, after all. 

After those thoughts passed through my mind, I realized everyone was waiting for me to do the explaining part. Avalon even nudged me gently while murmuring, “He was your ghost, you tell it.” 

“He wasn’t my–” Flushing slightly, I shook my head. “Never mind. Yeah, well, first the guy told us the same thing that Gala lady did. They limped their old ship in on its last legs and just stole this one from a refueling depot before leaving the survivors there. Well, most of the survivors.” 

That made Dare squint my way, her tone curious. “Most of them?” she echoed while casting a brief glance toward Apollo. He looked just as interested in that, but remained expectantly silent.

“Yeah,” I confirmed. “Most. I guess no one else knew about it, not even First Mate Gala. But there was one guy, a troll with these like… mix of cybernetic and magical intelligent enhancements or something. Motzer said his name was Occillo.” That was Latin for ‘smash’, but I didn’t need to tell them that. “He was supposed to be like… super-intelligent thanks to those enhancements. Not just for a troll, but anyone. Motzer said this guy was the smartest person he ever met.” 

“Sounds like someone I’d like to meet,” Apollo murmured thoughtfully before focusing. “But I can’t say as I’ve ever heard of a troll like that. I take it this Occillo wasn’t left behind with the others.” 

“No,” I confirmed. “Like I said, no one else knew about it, but he convinced Motzer to take him with and drop him off at another station on the way. He stayed in the captain’s cabin for the next week or so and got smuggled out in one of the resupply crates at some space mall or whatever. It was a big trading hub. The pirates dropped the remains of their old ship off and sold it for scrap, and while they were doing that, Motzer made sure Occillo got out safely and secretly.” 

Dare was frowning. “What did he trade for the passage that Motzer didn’t want the rest of his crew to know about? That seems like the only reason the two of them would go through so much trouble to keep his presence on the ship secret, even letting him stay in the captain’s quarters.” 

Doug and I both exchanged brief looks before I nodded for him to go ahead. After all, this whole thing was more his situation than anyone else’s. So, he turned back to Dare and Apollo. “Yeah, turns out Occillo was never part of the old crew of this ship in the first place. He just booked passage because he was trying to get to that trading hub. So he offered Motzer the same thing he offered the first captain, information about where something called the Pale Ship was.” 

Well, Apollo definitely had a reaction to that. I saw his eyes widen as he actually sat back a bit as if he’d been physically shoved. Suddenly, he was staring intently at us, his gaze switching from Doug to me and then back again. “He said that?” There was an intensity to his voice that hadn’t been there before. He’d been serious about this Whisper situation the whole time, but this was something even more than that. “With those exact words. He called it the Pale Ship?” 

“He used the Latin version,” I pointed out. “But basically, yeah. Why, is it something important? Motzer said we should ask you about it, because he didn’t feel like getting into the details. And Theia said she’s heard the term before, but never actually found out what it meant.” 

“To be fair,” the girl herself put in brightly, “I didn’t care at the time. It was something my mother was talking about to one of her subordinates who came to the house. I was supposed to be focusing on inscribing prototype spells on my bones to help me stop possessing people.” Sagely, she added, “It did not work the way she wanted it to. But I can do this!” Holding out her arm, she pulled the sleeve up and touched one finger to the space just past her elbow on the inner side. As she did so, a pair of half-moon and plus sign runes began to glow with a faint blue light right next to that spot. “It’s not actually useful right now, but if I ever find a way to possess an inanimate object, this’ll help me get unstuck.” In a stage-whisper, she added, “It only actually works on things that aren’t alive, and I can already get out of dead things just fine.”  

For a second, Apollo looked like he might pursue that whole prototype spell thing, mouth opening. Then he shook that off and focused. “Yeah, the Pale Ship. It was–” He cut himself off, considering briefly before asking, “You all know the story of Tabbris. The original Tabbris.” 

Blinking at that, I exchanged a look with the others before slowly nodding. “Yeah, Athena told Tabbris and me about it. He was the Seraphim guy who fought for better treatment of non-Seosten. When he couldn’t convince the other leaders, he bought an entire planet, surrounded it with every weapon and anti-Seosten defense he could buy, borrow, or steal, and let anyone who wanted to live there safely. And when that wasn’t enough, he gathered a bunch of magical energy from all the other Seraphim using traces from their own signatures so he could use their own power to make that entire planet disappear. Like, no one has any idea where it is, and they’ve never found it, even though it happened like a hundred thousand years ago. He literally erased its location from the mind of every person in the universe who knew about it and wasn’t living there. And from all the records and all that. His spell made all of that go poof.” 

That prompted a bit of conversation back and forth with the others about how exactly that worked, and I explained about Seosten putting bits of magic into their legal signatures and how Tabbris the Elder spent a Seosten decade (eighteen years of Earth time) attaching siphon spells to those signatures to gather everything he needed from the other Seraphim so he could make the entire Seosten leadership look like idiots, and protect everyone on his planet at the same time. And now he was basically a legend amongst the Seosten, while being seen as a fool by the leadership at the same time for ‘wasting all that effort’ to protect a bunch of non-Seosten. 

Finally, once I had explained all of that, I focused on Apollo once more. “And now that everyone is caught up, what exactly does all that have to do with some kind of ‘Pale Ship?’ Is the ship connected to this original Tabbris guy somehow? And why do they call it ‘Pale,’ anyway?”

The man rocked back on his heels, taking a breath before he started to explain. “Well, see, there was a ship–no one knows its name anymore for what will be obvious reasons– right on the edge of the area affected by that big spell. It wasn’t supposed to be there. He timed his spell specifically to put everyone he trusted inside the effects. But this ship, it was on its way out of the planetary system and they were running a few hours late. That put them right on the very boundary of where the spell was. They were sort of half-in the effect and half-out of it. It turned the ship and everyone on it into… well, sort of like ghosts. First of all, they were partially remembered. People knew the ship existed, and there were vague records about it, but no specifics. No one knew any names of the ship or the crew, only very general information.  And it wasn’t just facts either. The ship and crew were affected physically. Everyone who met them would forget them as soon as they were out of sight. They were invisible to spells and technology alike. It was as though they barely existed, and even then only when they were directly in front of someone. You could have an entire conversation with one, and the moment they were out of your immediate sight, you’d forget you ever saw them, along with everything you talked about. Even our enhanced Seosten memory couldn’t retain anything about them.”

“Hold on.” Avalon raised a hand, frowning. “If no one could ever remember actually talking to these people, how would anyone know anything about them? That doesn’t make sense. If your memories were always one-hundred percent erased, no one would know anything about it.” 

Apollo smiled faintly, giving a slight nod. “You’re right, that does seem like a bit of a contradiction, doesn’t it? See, Seosten memories are really hard to fool, and the crew of this ship were only half-affected by that spell. They’re ‘erased’ from our memories in the sense that we can’t consciously recall them, but the memories still exist. If we extract the right memories of those specific moments and examine them using magic, we can see what happened. Like…” He considered for a moment. “I know you’re a little young to have seen much in the way of human film projectors, but have you seen that thing where they take film and hold it up to the light to see individual images on each frame? It’s similar to that. When the memories are in our head, or the film is playing on the projector, we can’t retain it. But, if we take the memory out and hold it up to the light, or view it with a spell, we can see what happened. You understand?” 

“Uhh, yeah, actually.” A brief look with the others, I nodded along with them. “I think we get it. I mean, it makes sense in a magic way. So someone at some point checked their memory for whatever reason and that led to finding out about these ghost-Seosten or whatever they were.”  

“Pale,” Apollo corrected. “They were the Pale. Or rather, are. Yeah, it was a hundred thousand years ago, but we believe their descendants still exist, and are equally affected by that initial spell. They just stopped trying to interact with the regular universe and became incredibly insular. They stay on their ship, which they’ve upgraded over the millennia, travel where they want to go to collect food and supplies without anyone remembering them, and live separate from anyone else. They are, in effect, their own completely separate micro-society.” 

Dare spoke up then. “So this Occillo was supposed to know where the Pale Ship was. But you said it moves around a lot, that it’s still active.” She looked from Apollo to me. “So was he supposed to know where it used to be, or where it was going to go?”

“Supposedly he knew one of their common refueling and restocking spots,” I replied with a shrug. “According to Motzer, Occillo told him the Pale Ship used one main refueling depot whenever they could. He didn’t know exactly which one it was, but he had part of a journal from one of the crew members. And this crew member said something about marking a few specific spots in the main fuel depot the ship always used. There were descriptions about what kind of depot it was, the planets that were nearby, all that stuff. Plus the markings inside the depot. So Occillo tracked down all the possible places that would fit the descriptions and was checking out the insides looking for those markings. One of the options was the place where the pirates took this ship in the first place. That’s why Occillo was there, he hitched a ride on the ship from the first crew so he could check that place out. It just wasn’t the right one.” 

Squinting a bit, Dare shook her head. “Sounds a bit fishy, if you want to know the truth. This Occillo guy, a genius troll, finds a journal talking about how to find this long-lost mythical ship just by locating a few markings in a specific fuel depot somewhere? How could he be sure it wasn’t just some random guy making a fake journal to have a laugh at the expense of anyone who took  it seriously? What made Occillo or Motzer think there was anything credible about the thing?” 

Once more, the rest of us exchanged looks before turning back. Doug was the first to speak. “Apparently the journal pages he had came with a… what did they call it, memory marker?” 

“A spell on the page,” Apollo confirmed. “Touch it, say the right word, it puts a memory in your head.” 

“Well, this memory marker convinced Occillo and Motzer that this was the real deal,” I replied. “It was a memory of someone on that Pale Ship, looking around the bridge, then checking out the computer log and walking through some of the corridors. I guess it matched up enough with what they knew to take the whole thing seriously.” 

“We asked if that whole Pale Ship business had anything to do with the anti-Whisper runes that were all over this ship,” Shiori explained. “You know, if they were connected. Motzer said that Occillo was the one who put the runes around here, because the Whispers were looking for the Pale Ship too.” 

“He’s supposed to be some big adventurer chasing after intergalactic myths, like Space Indiana Jones or whatever,” I added. “Except Indiana Jones as a giant troll with a bunch of magical and cybernetic intelligent enhancements.” 

“In other words,” Shiori quickly piped up, “better Indiana Jones.” 

“Don’t say that around Hisao,” Dare murmured, “or you might have a fight on your hands. That man’s love of Harrison Ford, I swear to…” Shaking that off, she focused. “So he’s an explorer and adventurer who knows a lot about different myths across the universe, real and fake.” 

I nodded. “Yeah. He knew a lot of stuff about the Whispers, and said they were looking for the Pale Ship too. Apparently they also had a bone to pick with Occillo himself because of something he did a long time ago, but he wouldn’t get into it with Motzer.” 

“In any case,” Avalon finished for me. “He put the protective runes around the ship. So he’s the one we need to talk to if we want to find out anything more about the Whispers.” 

“And we do,” Doug immediately insisted. 

“And we do,” I agreed. “Unfortunately, that’s where we hit a snag.” With a sigh, I explained, “Motzer said he smuggled Occillo to some friend of his who lived on the trading hub. They were supposed to work together to track down that ship, but… that’s all he remembers. He thinks Occillo and his friend used some kind of bare-bones memory eraser that cut out details about who the friend was, what he looked like, where he lived on the station, all that. So he did all that to cut his crew out of the deal just to make himself rich, which meant that when his memory was erased no one else knew anything about it. He couldn’t tell his people about it or they’d know he was trying to rip them off. And he couldn’t explain why they had to stay longer so he could search the place top to bottom for the same reason. So they just had to leave. I mean, he asked around a bit but no one ever saw someone like Occillo there. He thinks there’s magical disguises involved, or maybe the troll just keeps to himself and plays dumb while he’s there. Easy for a troll to blend into the background pretending to be muscle for that friend of his. And that station holds millions of people. It’d be impossible to check everyone.” 

Dare summarized. “So Motzer helped this Occillo escape and smuggled him to a busy trading hub, but Occillo and a friend erased Motzer’s memory about who this friend was and where he lived, leaving our dear pirate captain with a station full of a million people to look through and no easy way to find them. I suppose that would be a problem.” 

I started to nod, then blinked. “Would be?” 

Apollo grinned. “Yeah, see, she didn’t know the whole story, but it turns out Gala paid more attention than Motzer thought. She followed them when he smuggled his new buddy off the ship. Made it all the way to the apartment and saw them go inside and meet this friend. They never saw her, so I guess they never wiped her memory. She didn’t know what it meant or why her captain was smuggling this guy around, but she made a note of it and started digging a little bit. Then all that stuff with Persephone happened before she could get anywhere with it.” 

“So… so she knows who Occillo’s friend on that station is, and where he lives?” Doug realized. 

“She does,” Apollo confirmed. “And now so do we. She shared that, along with about a dozen other possible sources of information. We didn’t know which one would be important. You guys narrowed that down, and got the answers about exactly who the guy was and why he’s important. Congratulations on that. I ahh, I’ll talk to Athena and see about having some of her people go track these guys down.”

“I want to go.” That was Doug, immediately piping up. “If these people know something about the Whispers–” 

“We’ll see what happens,” Dare informed him. “It’s not exactly a quick trip to the grocery store. Athena’s people have ways of getting past the barrier, but it’s– yeah, it’s complicated. Believe me, at the very least, we’ll talk to Sulan and get him involved. And when we find these guys, you can talk to them.”  

Doug looked like he was going to argue with that for a moment, before stopping with a soft sigh. “Yeah,” he murmured, “that’d be nice.” 

Dare’s voice was gentle. “It may take awhile to organize a group that can pass the barrier, go out to that station, find Occillo and his friend, and get actual answers. But we’ll get there, Douglas, I promise. And in the meantime, perhaps all of you can do the most shocking thing I believe any of us could possibly imagine. 

“Actually attend classes for a few weeks.” 

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Reception 13-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The monthly non-canon chapters were posted over the weekend! You can find the chapter for Heretical Edge right here

Of course, I couldn’t exactly just say a few words and magically make Motzer’s ghost appear in front of us. Well, maybe a more experienced necromancer could have, but I wasn’t quite to that level, even with the boost from having the powers from two different absurdly powerful practitioners. I had gotten better at sensing and controlling ghosts and the like, and at being much less uncomfortable doing so. But I didn’t have as much experience pulling a specific person back. I had all the power I needed, but it took more than pure oomph. You needed to direct the power correctly. Basically, if I could lock onto his ghost, I could easily pull him back. But I needed to know where and how to direct it. It didn’t matter how huge the gun you were holding was if you had no idea where to point it. 

Thankfully, we did have a few advantages on that front. First, we knew exactly where the man had died. Not to mention the fact that it had been so recent. For lack of a better term, his death energy was still very prevalent. And on top of that, we had both the instrument that had essentially killed him, and the person responsible. Theia and her knife, that was. I wasn’t exactly sure how her using the injury reflection power with the knife affected the need for the murder weapon, but it certainly couldn’t hurt to have it.

We had all those advantages. It hasn’t even been a day since he was killed, we knew the exact location, the exact method, we had his killer and the weapon used to do it, all of that. And yet, I still felt nervous about my ability to do this properly. Maybe because Doug was really depending on me to answer these questions for him. After everything the boy had helped me with and been through, I felt like I owed him this at the very least. He deserved real answers. I knew just how much the whole Whispers thing meant to him, after what happened to his family and the rest of the colony. So, I wanted to do this right.

We also had one more advantage in our corner. Specifically, the fact that Persephone was basically one of the biggest experts on Necromancy in existence. She knew exactly how to do what we wanted to do, and how to help me. 

So, playing dual roles of both teacher and cheerleader, the Revenant talked me through what needed to be done. First, however, we let the adults know what was going on and then made our way back to the bridge, where I carefully inscribed all of the runes exactly the way Persephone explained, with more than a little help from the others.

Andromeda was helpful too, providing her own advice. As I was putting minute feather details on one of the spell pieces, she explained through the nearby console, “Think of these runes as a sort of… I believe your people would call them training wheels. A more experienced necromancer with your level of power would not need them. They help guide and direct the aim of your power. With enough practice, you will learn to do that yourself, and to differentiate different peoples’ life energy correctly.”

Persephone bobbed her head excitedly. “Exactly, all you need is practice. You’re really strong, but you can’t neglect your training.” She said that sternly, giving a firm look my way. 

Sounding slightly amused, Avalon mused, “You know, I think I’m going to like her being around.”

Snorting unthinkingly, I retorted. “You would, someone else to help you crack the whip.”

Persephone, of course, brightened. “You play with whips? I didn’t expect—”

Red-faced as I pointedly ignored Doug in the corner covering his mouth trying to contain his snickers, I blurted, “Nope! Nope, nope, no. We are not talking about that. Something completely different. Never mind, just erase it, it never happened. No one said anything and I swear to god if you guys don’t completely erase it from your memories, I’ll hurt you.”

“Ah,” Theia noted, “so she’s the one with the whip.”

Covering my face while everyone snickered, I let out a long, heavy sigh before pushing on. “Anyway, practice. Yeah, that’s what Brom Bones always says.”

To my surprise, Persephone audibly gasped and faced me. “You know Brom Bones? The head-adjacent one?”

“I, uhh, I think he goes by headless one,” I pointed out. “But yeah, he’s sort of my Necromancy teacher back at the Fusion school. Why, do you know him?” 

Huffing a bit, the white-haired woman objected, “Well headless hardly makes sense. He has his head, it’s just not on his shoulders. If I put a knife in my pocket, I wouldn’t be a knifeless one.” Shaking her head at the strangeness of that, she added, “And of course I know him. My Mannikuns sent me to talk to him to find out what he knew about the woman who did that to him. It wasn’t very much. But he was fun, and we had some adventures while I was learning from him. We even went on a boat together.” She announced that last part proudly. “A boat on the water. It was fun. Especially when the sailors got really excited after they saw him hold his head in his hands. They played gangplank with us. It’s sort of like airlock, only you end up in the water instead of in space. Then we got to swim and find another ship. That was fun too, except they shot things at us, so we had to make them stop. They took us back to land after we asked them, though. We just had to promise to give their guns back. But, I guess that was fair. The guns did belong to them, after all.”

Yeah, I was definitely going to have to ask Brom himself for his version of all that. Shaking my head, I managed, “Well, it sounds like you had an interesting time. Maybe he’ll want to see you again once we go back to the station.”

Persephone was smiling brightly at that suggestion. “Oh, I hope so. He was so much fun. We played a game with his head where you had to make it go in a fruit basket. We showed it to that Naismith man, and he really liked it. Except for the head part. He said they’d have to use something else. I guess it’s hard to find durable heads that can bounce like that.”

From where she was standing, Shiori blurted, “Naismith, the guy who invented… oh. Ohhhh. Boy am I gonna kill at sports trivia night.”

There was so much to unpack with that whole thing, I didn’t even know where to start. So, I didn’t. Instead, I focused on getting the rest of the spell set up. It took another ten minutes, with everyone working together. At one point, Dare checked in through a communication spell to ask if we were doing okay, and I let her know we were close to getting some answers. She said not to push it too much, and to be careful. I promised we would, before turning my attention back to the others. “Well, how does it look?” While saying that, I turned in a circle to take in the full appearance of the part of the bridge where the man had died. There were intricate runes in an expanding circular design spreading out from that spot and taking up about a quarter of the actual bridge itself. The spells essentially amounted to a combination of channeling/directing death energy to a specific spot, and funneling out anything that wasn’t the actual life we needed. I needed to focus pretty intently on exactly which energy to pull, and which to discard. Which meant standing in the middle of that spell and sensing the most recent death. And that was bound to be a fun time. 

“I’m pretty sure it’s ready,” Doug noted, brushing off his hands as he stepped away from the rune on one of the consoles he had just finished drawing under the scrutiny of Andromeda, who had been watching through the bridge cameras and offering advice. 

“Indeed,” the AI herself agreed. “The physical components of the spell are as good as they are ever going to get without far more time and effort than is either necessary or advised.”

Avalon put her hand on my shoulder. “I think what she’s saying is that it’s up to you now.”

Coughing, I shrugged both shoulders. “Thanks, I guess.” With that, I took a deep breath before moving to the center of the runes. I was standing on the exact spot where the man had died only a short time earlier. Which wasn’t at all creepy, no sir. I was doing just fine.

“You can do it, Flick!” Persephone had turned back into cheerleader mode, clapping as she bounced up and down excitedly. “Everyone watch, this is going to be really fun. Do we have any peanuts? I quite like the Earth peanuts.”

My mouth opened to say that she was out of luck, but to my surprise, Shiori reached into a small bag at her waist. It was obviously bigger on the inside, because half her arm disappeared into it while the girl rooted around for a moment before she came back out with a bag of roasted peanuts. She didn’t say anything at all, simply opening the bag and offering the end to Persephone, who took a handful and began to shell and eat them enthusiastically. 

Shaking that off, I closed my eyes and tried to focus on what I was actually supposed to be doing. Namely, summoning the spirit of the dead pirate captain, who could hopefully tell us something about why there were magic anti-Whisper/Seosten runes all over this random ship. 

Keeping that thought in mind, I closed my eyes and put both hands out. My fingers found two specific runes that had been drawn for this purpose, as I focused on feeling my own power, my own magical energy. It was a lot like channeling energy into any other spell, it was just that mine could be used for Necromantic spells without needing to be converted into Necromantic energy first, like most other people had to before they could use it that way. 

Slowly, I began to push my own power into the spell to power it. I could feel the runes beginning to warm up, giving off a… it was hard to describe in any way other than ‘cold heat’, but that’s what it was. It was cold, yet hot at the same time in a way that only magic could manage. Which may have been a bit confusing, but then, so was the entire situation. In any case, the runes began to warm up/cool down as I pushed more and more power into them. I had to be careful, filling the right runes at the right moment, without getting ahead of myself or rushing things. Every part of the spell had to have the right amount of energy at the right time, in order for the whole thing to help me get Motzer back here while avoiding any other spirit. And, given this was a pirate ship that had been stolen, I was pretty sure there were a lot of potential angry spirits waiting to be pulled back here. And quite frankly, playing the game of ‘grab the wrong one, shove it back and grab another’ didn’t sound very fun. 

So, I focused on doing what Persephone (and Brom Bones whenever he’d mentioned this sort of thing) had explained. I put the image of Motzer in my head. I focused on what his voice had sounded like, what he smelled like, what sort of words he used, everything I could remember that had anything to do with the man. I put everything about him right at the front of my mind and focused on that to the point of obsession. With my hands still touching those two runes, I channeled power through the spell while actively putting Captain Motzer in my mind. I was even repeatedly thinking his name, calling out to him mentally.  I focused everything I had on what I could remember about this one man I had only met for a few minutes.

Gradually, it started to work. I could feel the power that I was putting out start to take a distinct shape. It was, as far as it has been explained to me, essentially manipulating my own Necromantic magical energy to be a fairly close approximation of Motzer’s own life energy. Doing so correctly would essentially pull the actual remnants of his energy back and allow it to form a ghost. Again, a ghost was not actually the person’s spirit. It was the impression their magical signature, personality, and mind left within the universe after their death. Sort of like a permanent mold of who they were or whatever. When a person died, they left an impression that could be filled in using the right magical energy. Basically, when you got right down to it, I was very carefully finding the exact edges of where that personality impression was, strengthening it a bit, and giving it the energy it needed to allow his ‘ghost’ to manifest. Yeah, it was pretty complicated. 

Eventually, I was supposed to be able to do all of this without all the prep work or help. An experienced Necromancer could just point and find these signatures before filling them up with a thought. They knew exactly how much energy to fill the spirit ‘balloons’ with and could make them appear just like that. Fossor, of course, had been capable of doing entire swarms of ghosts at once, simply snapping his fingers to conjure and pull together thousands upon thousands of spirits to do his bidding. Obviously, I wasn’t anywhere near that good yet. I had the raw power and plenty of other head starts, but it took more skill.

In this case, even with the help I had, it took me about ten minutes before I got real results. Granted, part of that was because I was being very cautious to make sure I was shaping the correct ghost. Not to mention trying not to break the ‘shell’ of energy I was creating for it. It was basically the necromancy equivalent of trying to walk very carefully with a full bucket of water to avoid spilling it. 

Finally, I felt the ghost start to form on its own. I had guided it as much as needed, and the thing began to take shape without my help. Just like that, within thirty seconds, there was a soft popping sound and the ghostly figure of the old captain suddenly appeared right in front of me. He was between where I stood and where the others were. He was somewhat translucent, so I could see everyone jump a bit as my eyes opened to look that way. Whoops. He’d appeared before I could warn anyone that it was about to happen. I wasn’t prepared for just how fast it had happened once I got over the metaphorical hump. Like pushing a heavy wagon up a hill and then losing control of it as it careened down the other side. Suddenly, he was just right there. 

“What–where–huh?” Motzer’s ghost jerked, twisting around in a circle before cursing, “Why in the seven darkfells did you people drag me in here? Now you suddenly need something? How long has it even been since you killed me, a month?” 

Speaking cheerfully, Theia replied, “Maybe three hours? Has it been three hours? I don’t have a watch. I have a hat!” She pointed to it with both hands. “But it doesn’t tell time.”  

“Her–you bring her back?!” Motzer was not happy. He gestured that way, his voice a snarl. “You couldn’t even tell the bitch that killed me to stay out of the room while you came begging for help? What kind of pleglin shit is this? And what exactly did she mean it’s only been three hours? Are you seriously telling me that you killed me and then came back to ask for help with something in less time than it takes my kids to put together a daensneal puzzle? I don’t know whether to taunt you all about being incompetent, or weep that you were the ones who killed me. And I swear to everything that dwells in the web of empty faith, If you really did just bring me back here to toy with, I will find a way to poltergeist every last one of you, so help me.” 

Aside from that one bit from Theia, everyone else was being quiet and letting me handle the situation. Even Persephone simply stood there eating peanuts while looking back and forth between Motzer and me. She clearly wanted to see what I would do. And, presumably, how it differed from Manakel. Avalon gave me a simple nod, but remained as silent as the others.  

So, taking a breath, I spoke while reaching out with the power I could still feel connecting me to the ghost. “Hey, how about you take a… okay, not a breath. But cool it for a minute and we’ll tell you why we brought you here. And maybe you’ll even get something out of it.” 

His large figure pivoted to face me. Alive, he had been intimidating. He should have been even more so as a ghost, but considering I was the one keeping him present, his size lost a lot of its oomph. He was absolutely no threat to me in any way. It was like a man trying to intimidate you while hanging off the edge of a cliff with you as the only thing stopping him from falling. If I didn’t want him to be here, a single thought would make him disappear. 

“Get something out of it?” the man echoed in a rumbling, dangerous voice. I could feel him stretching just a little bit against my power. It didn’t really feel like he was trying to break it or hurt anyone. I had the feeling he knew as well as I did that there was no point of that. Without the tether I was holding onto, he would essentially turn into a balloon with a hole in it and go spraying out all over the room before popping out of existence. No, he definitely wasn’t trying to break my hold. He was simply testing it a bit, probably reflexively. I could feel the anger rolling off of him, anger and something like regret. But the latter was buried deep. 

“Don’t you dare try to sell me with some claim that you can bring me back,” he snarled at me. “I’ve been around the universe a lot longer than you and all your friends here put together have been alive, little girl. Believe it or not, I know how this shit goes. You don’t have anything that could stick me back in a living body. You can’t toy with me like that. It doesn’t work that way. Never has, never will.” 

My head shook. “You’re right, it doesn’t work that way. And that’s not what I was going to say. I can’t undo what happened. I can’t bring you back to life. But I think I can at least take your spirit and release it wherever you like. If you have a home planet, or even just a favorite place. And… and you said you have children. I can take you to your family and let you say whatever you need to say to them before you disappear. I can give you and them closure. All you have to do is answer some questions.” 

For a long few seconds, the man just stared at me. It felt as though he was trying to look through me, trying to gauge just how serious and real I was being about all that, or if I was messing with him somehow. Through it all, I continued to meet his gaze.  

Finally, he heaved a sigh. “Yeah, I’ve got what your people would call a family plot on a new moon, near an old cabin where my brood grew up. They’ve all moved on now, got their own broods and most of them are grown, or damn near it. But it’s still the best… closest thing to something linked to good times. You swear you’ll take my spirit there and release it, and tell my people what I want them to hear, then I’ll answer whatever questions you got.” 

I gave him my word, and I felt him once again stretching his own energy out toward me. He seemed to be deciding just how much he could trust what I was saying. In the end, he agreed. “Okay,” the man half-growled in a way that made it clear he still wasn’t exactly happy with any of us, “tell me what you wanna know.” 

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Reception 13-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Apparently the pirate ship we were transporting over to was called the Quietus. Persephone showed us a hologram of it just before we went through the portal, and the thing basically looked like a huge metal sperm whale. According to a quick note from Andromeda, the ship was two miles long, with most of the space intended to be used for hauling cargo. But when the pirates took over, they had converted a large portion of it into living space, creating encampments throughout the ship. 

There were supposed to be specific areas to teleport onto when you did something like this, according to Apollo. But we didn’t exactly follow that. Instead, the portal took us straight over to the bridge. Normally a big violation, but considering Persephone essentially owned this ship, and all the pirates were locked in their quarters, we weren’t really worried about it. 

All the pirates, that was, save for the captain. Dare had asked that he be waiting for us to answer questions when we got there. So, he was the first thing we saw as our group came through the portal. Not only because he was the only living being there, but also because he would have attracted attention anyway. He was nine feet tall, covered with incredibly silky metallic blue fur, and had four arms. Oh, and he had more than two legs. More than four, even. The man had a total of eight furry, insect-like legs spread in an even circle all around his waist. Sort of like a spider centaur. That whole nine-foot-tall thing came from the legs being at average rest. If he had extended them fully, he would have been a fair bit bigger. 

Once I’d taken in the sight of the captain waiting there, my gaze moved over the rest of the bridge. It was essentially a large, slightly rounded triangle with two levels. The half with the pointed end was lower, and seemed to be where the pilot and normal crew would work. We were on the rear upper half, where the captain and executive officers did their thing. 

Speaking of the captain, he lowered himself very slightly at the sight of us. Or rather, at the sight of Apollo. His voice was surprised as he managed, “Loxias.” Then he spoke a bit more in Latin. I’d gotten better at that with all the work I put into it, enough that I could tell he was saying he didn’t know that Apollo (or Loxias) would be coming. 

Without looking at the Seosten man, Dare asked, “You know this guy?”

“We had a run-in or two before,” Apollo confirmed before gesturing. “So, are you going to introduce yourself like a gentleman, or make me do it for you? Because I guarantee, you’ll like your introduction better. And say it so the Earth kids can understand.”

There was a low chuckle from the eight legged, blue-furred man. Then he dipped himself into what looked like a bow. “At your command. I am Captain Motzer. This ship is mine by right of combat, conquest, and survival. Or, it was, until…” His eyes moved over to where Persephone stood. “Until the immortal dead one showed up. And here I’m just hoping that you’ll be taking her off our hands so we can get back to doing what we do best.”

Was I hearing that Barbossa guy from Pirates of the Caribbean in his voice just because I sort of expected it, or did he really sound similar? Shaking off that thought, I looked over just as Theia piped up. “Are you related to one of your kind named Streckth?”

There was a brief pause while Motzer took in that question before giving a slight shake of his head. “Can’t say as it’s familiar, no.”

“Oh good,” the Seosten girl sighed with relief, “he was one of my friends.“

Clearly even more confused by that, the captain couldn’t help but ask, “And me knowing him would be a bad thing?”

“Uh huh,” came the response. “My mother killed all my friends. I didn’t want to have to tell you if you were his next of kin.” She paused a bit thoughtfully then, adding in a murmur, “I should probably start that sometime, it’s going to take a while.”

Clearing her throat, Dare spoke up. “Always good to have a reminder of why no one misses that evil cunt. But in the meantime, we should probably focus on why we are actually here.”

Doug, who had been standing silently out of the way, stepped over and leaned to whisper something into Theia’s ear. Whatever he said made her giggle before whispering something back to him. 

“You’re a very curious group,” Motzer noted. “Which, I guess, makes you the perfect fit for our very strange little not-quite-dead girl here. In fact, which one of you is Felicity Chambers?” 

I felt Avalon touch the center of my back, clearly about to whisper something. But before she could, and before anyone else could say anything, Persephone suddenly hopped over to me. Her hands found my shoulders and squeezed. “This is my honeybunny! Sorry, potential honeybunny. We’re… taking things slow and getting to know each other before we do anything else as far as any potential relationship goes.” Even if I hadn’t literally seen and heard my mother say those exact words to her, it would have been obvious she was reciting them. In fact, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see her reading off the back of her hand. 

“Uhhhh huh.” Motzer considered. “Well, you’re here now and free to do whatever with all that. So, you’re welcome for the ride, but don’t you think it’s time that me and the boys got back to our lives with our ship?”

“You mean, the ship you obviously stole from other people?” That was Avalon, idly making that point while stepping away from the console she had been curiously looking at. “You’re pirates. I really doubt you paid for this thing. How many people do you think you killed to take it?”

Giving another bow, the pirate captain too-casually retorted, “Far be it from me to ask for morality lessons from a Heretic. That’s what your people call themselves, isn’t it? Yeah, I’ve had friends and even family that learned just how much your people value the sanctity of life.”

Dare spoke flatly while moving in front of the captain. ”We’re trying to change things. But, to do that, we need resources. Especially if…” she trailed off, glancing over to me and then back again. 

“Especially,” Apollo finished for her, “if my people decide to pull the invasion card once the truce is over.”

Brightening, Theia nodded quickly. “Oooh, yeah. With a ship like this, we could evacuate a whole bunch of people and go find a new planet before they even get halfway through enslaving the rest of—”

She was interrupted as Doug touched her arm and leaned over to whisper. Blinking at that, she looked at him and asked, “Are you sure? That seems kinda dumb. I mean, do you even know how many ships—” Doug whispered again, and she finally shrugged. “Or, you know, we can use it to fight them. Somehow. Which is not at all idiotic or crazy or doomed to total and complete failure.” 

“That unending optimism is exactly why we keep this girl around,” Doug announced while putting his arm around Theia’s shoulders. 

“She’s not wrong,” I put in. “Err, of course, we do need to be ready to try. But it’s definitely going to be pretty bad if it comes down to that. Which is why we need every single advantage we can get. And this thing right here might not totally change anything. But it’s an advantage. It’s one more arrow in our quiver, or whatever poetic reasoning you want to use.”

Motzer was shaking his head. I could tell he really wasn’t happy about any of this talk. But there wasn’t a lot he could do about it. Persephone had taken over his ship against his entire crew, and now she was here with several Heretics and an Olympian. Through gritted teeth, he demanded, “You steal a ship from pirates, what do you think that makes you?”

Shiori, who had been quiet through all that, piped up with, “I’m pretty sure that makes us better pirates.”

Dare, however, shook her head. “What we are is representatives from the closest thing this planet has to an authority capable of interacting and dealing with interplanetary criminals. You know, like pirates. So, we’ll commandeer the ship and put it to better use.”

“And what of my crew and I, huh?” Motzer demanded. “Will you be killing us yourselves, or just marooning us down on that hell hole of a planet and letting the less ‘civilized’ members of your old groups do the dirty work for you? On the one hand, if you kill us yourselves, you can take our strengths. It would involve killing helpless prisoners, but hey, every possible advantage, isn’t that right? On the other hand, if you just strand us on that planet, you get to pretend your hands are clean.”

Apollo snorted. “Don’t be so dramatic. We’re not going to kill you. And we’re not stranding you on Earth either.”

Running a finger through her hair, Dare put in, “If nothing else, I don’t particularly want to be responsible for all the people you and your crew would kill carving out a place for yourselves down there. Believe me when I say, none of us are dumb enough to think that any of you are helpless.”

Changing tack a bit, the captain asked, “Do you really think you have enough people who can keep this ship flying without help? Especially if you’re right and things go bad. How many people do you have who could even find their way to battle stations?”

“You’d be surprised,” Apollo replied. He didn’t point out that we had a lot of people like that who were part of Athena‘s group and could step in. There was no reason to volunteer that sort of information. 

Instead, Andromeda spoke up, her voice rising from one of the nearby consoles. “I am more than capable of maintaining this vessel for the time being, and instructing others in its operation.”

“She’s a really great teacher,” Persephone excitedly informed us. “She showed me how to make a welcome us to Earth cake and it only took fourteen tries before it was good. Oh, and we have thirteen not so good cakes if anyone wants them.”

Coughing, Dare pushed the subject back. “The point is, we’re not going to kill you, or let you wander around our planet.“

Motzer tilted his head curiously. “Well, that seems to put us at an impasse, doesn’t it? I can’t really think of any other options. You’re taking our ship, so either you kill us yourselves or you send us down to the planet. Just depends on how dirty you want your hands to be.”

Persephone quickly raised her hand. “Oh, I don’t mind getting my hands dirty! I did that all the time when my Mannybear or Puriel needed help.” 

A slight shudder ran through me. I really didn’t want to think about what kind of special work those two had had someone like her doing. So, I hurriedly shook my head. “That’s okay, Persephone, I don’t think we need that sort of help right now. We’ve already got something else in mind, right?” 

Apollo gave a casual nod. “Yup. See, one of those Heretic groups, the one called Eden’s Garden, a bunch of their people are part of this whole rebellion. They’ve got some colonies on other worlds and moons that they’ve been setting up for a long time. Turns out, they’ve got a little jungle moon that’s totally inhabitable, but they already pulled everyone off it to help with things back here.”

Dare added, “They’ve already agreed to let us store prisoners there. So, we’ll send you to that moon and you can stay there. You’ll have food, water, anything else to survive. But you won’t be hurting other people. Unless you all turn on yourselves, and that’s up to you.”

Motzer obviously wasn’t happy. His eyes narrowed as he glared our way, clearly trying to find a way out of this. “You think that’ll be the end of it? Well, let’s get one thing straight, whatever little games you play right now, this won’t end here. You might think you’re pretty tough, but you won’t always have the advantage like this. Someday, I—”

Abruptly, before he could even finish that sentence, Theia produced a knife from her belt and casually slit her own throat. But, of course, she rebounded the damage so that it actually struck the pirate captain. Blood erupted from his throat, and his eyes got wide. He choked and gurgled, flailing a bit before collapsing to the ground. His body twitched a few times before going still.

Recoiling as Shiori did the same beside me, I felt a rush of conflicting feelings that the others obviously shared. The man had been a prisoner, a prisoner. Yet he’d also obviously done a lot of bad things. And he’d made it clear he wouldn’t have let this go. He couldn’t even pretend to play nice long enough to get out of a single meeting without starting to swear vengeance. He obviously would have been a problem in the future. And yet, killing a prisoner like that right in front of us… I was torn. I wouldn’t have done the same thing, but now that it was done, I… yeah, it was complicated. 

Meanwhile, Theia looked up after stowing the knife to see everyone staring at her. “What? He was swearing eternal revenge, or whatever. You never let someone finish doing that and then just walk away. Haven’t any of you read the Overlord pamphlet Apollo passed out?”

“See?” Apollo himself cheerfully noted in a way that seemed almost artificial, like he was trying to lighten the mood after that, “Chayyiel and I knew somebody would read the pamphlet.” 

Pointing at the Seosten girl, Persephone announced, “I like her. She’s efficient.”

“She’s certainly that,” Dare agreed before shaking her head. “Right, well, let’s get this body cleaned up and then take that tour of this ship. 

“And we should probably find whoever his first mate was, congratulate them on their promotion, and tell them what we just told this guy.”

******

So, we took the tour to see how the ship looked. We were going to have to do a lot of work cleaning up the pirate camps spread throughout what were supposed to be the cargo bays, but that would come later, after we sent the pirates themselves to their new home.

Speaking of which, the former first mate and now captain turned out to be a rabbit-like humanoid with reddish orange fur and a very clearly cybernetic left eye. Her name was Gala, like the party. She also didn’t seem all that broken up about the death of her captain, considering she was the first mate. I wondered what kind of relationship the two of them had had. 

In any case, Gala also took the news about their impending new home in stride. Something told me that she was the type of person to bide her time and wait for an opportunity to reverse her fortunes. Which was not all that far off from what Motzer had been saying, but at least she was smart enough to be quiet about it. Besides, we couldn’t just keep killing every pirate down the line every time we thought they might be planning something.

Gala also did something that the old captain hadn’t gotten around to. Namely, negotiate what supplies her people would get. 

“It’s going to take time to establish ourselves on this colony enough to survive on what we can forage and hunt,” The rabbit-woman was pointing out while we all walked through the positively enormous main engine room (seriously, the place was about three hundred feet long and about three-quarters of that wide). “If you truly do not wish to be responsible for many deaths, we will need more than just the clothes on our backs.”

Dare’s voice was casual. “Don’t worry, I spent the first few years of my life as a colonist. And I’ve seen a lot more since then. I know just how bad it can be when you don’t have supplies.”

“Luckily,” Apollo noted, “most of that old colony is still intact. They’ve already got food planted, and some livestock that were being watched over by a couple guys they left behind. But now, those guys can come home and you’ll just take over. From pirates to farmers. Or whatever it is you end up becoming. Either way, there’s a story there…” He trailed off thoughtfully, clearly already getting ideas. 

They went on to talk a bit more about that, but I was distracted by the big dog head that was pulling at my arm. We’d picked up Cerberus along the way on this tour, and Persephone had been hanging back with him a bit, excitedly and quietly telling the mechanical animal all about everything that happened since she landed on the planet.

“Hey buddy, yeah, I remember.” Back when we’d sent Cerberus back up here, I had promised the dog that I’d let him meet my own cybernetic animals when we visited. So, I produced Gus and Jaq, holding the mice up so the three canine heads could examine them. The little guys were nervous at first, but before long, they were clambering over the different heads, jumping back-and-forth while chittering. Pretty soon, Avalon let Porthos join in. 

They were having a grand old time, and we trailed behind the adults to let them work out the specifics of this whole situation. At least, until a shout from Doug, who stood next to one of the big, completely incomprehensible pieces of machinery that filled the room. 

In an instant, everyone was right there. Doug had his hand on the side of the machine, which looked basically like three big tubes filled with liquid attached to several metal accordions they kept pumping in and out. Theia stood next to him. 

“Mr. Frey, what is it?” Dare asked, her voice tense. “What happened?”

In answer, the boy moved his hand to reveal a series of runes that were inscribed on the side of that bit of machinery. “Those are the same things that we used to keep the Whispers out of our heads, the spells Sulan and I found.”

The Whispers, of course, were those invisible beings who drove all those people back on the colony world where Doug’s family had lived violently crazy as soon as Doug and Sulan had accidentally released them, or whatever. The spells were found in the same ruins, and ended up being useful for keeping someone safe from the Whispers. And, I remembered, the spells didn’t keep a Seosten out of someone’s head, but did allow the person being possessed to retain control of their body as well. Someone possessed by a Seosten while wearing those spells could move their body at the same time as the Seosten did, and couldn’t just be knocked unconscious or suppressed.  

“Those?” Gala had cleaned in close to look for herself. “Those things are all over the ship. They were there when we… ahhh… upgraded from our old one awhile back. Never did figure out what they meant or why they were there. But like I said, they’re all over the ship.”

“Who’d you take the ship from?” I quickly asked, with a glance to the others. Doug was still staring at the runes there on the machine as though he’d seen a ghost. “And did you leave any alive that we could maybe talk to at some point?”

Gala shrugged. “Didn’t really take the time to get a lot of names and identifications. We hit them at a refueling depot. Basically limped what was left of our old ship in and boarded the whole thing. Left the survivors there. I figure they called someone to pick them up at some point. Other than that, your guess is as good as mine.”

Andromeda spoke up from a small console attached to the side of the machine. “They have done a very thorough job of erasing all specific mention of previous owners of the ship, and any logs there might’ve been. I will continue to search through everything that remains, if you like, but that will take quite a bit of time.”

“If it helps,” Gala slyly offered, “I can tell you everything about where that fueling station was, and anything else I can remember that might help you figure out why those runes are there. You know, in exchange for just a few concessions to make the transition for the crew and me as painless as possible. Things like certain crates of sweets and alcohol that we get to take with us, or pieces of entertainment. It’s in your own best interest anyway. Makes it come off as more of a vacation so you won’t get as much pushback.” 

Dare and Apollo exchanged brief glances before the latter gave a short nod and stepped away with Gala to arrange specifics. 

Shiori had stepped up to look at the engraved rune by that point, head shaking. “Why do you think the same anti-Whisper spell things are here on this ship?”

Doug had an intense look on his face. “I don’t know. But I’ll tell you one thing. I really want to talk to whoever was left back on that fuel station.”

“Why don’t you ask Captain Motzer?” Persephone asked. “He might know more about the ship he was captain of.”

“Uhhh, you were paying attention when Theia killed him, right?” Shiori asked. “She didn’t exactly half-ass that job.”

“I am very thorough,” Theia agreed. 

Persephone gave a quick nod. “Uh huh. He’s dead. But why should that stop you from talking to him?” Raising her hand, she pointed straight at me, even as the realization had just risen in my own head. 

“You have a necromancer.”

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Reception 13-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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With one quick little bound, Cerberus was right in front of Avalon, Shiori, and me. Then he–or they, I was still confused about that, started to excitedly lick us. Yeah, all of us at the same time. Three heads, three people to lick. The tongues were as metallic as the rest of them, though there was some kind of lubricating liquid that… yeah, there was fake dog slobber, and it was getting all over us. 

“Oookay, okay, hi!” Pulling my face out of range with a few coughs mixed with a giggle, I put both hands on the side of the head that had chosen to focus on me. “Nice to meet you too, I guess.” Still holding the head while it happily barked so loud at me it was almost painful, I looked toward Persephone. “So he’s your pet, huh? Wait, is it he or they? You know, three heads, one body.” 

Avalon, who had already stepped back away from the head that had been licking her, nodded. Her voice was flat. “What she said. Also, why do you have a three-headed robot dog?” After asking that, she extended her hand and gave the head in front of her a little rub under the chin that made him happy.

Answering Valley first, Persephone chirped, “Why not? Who wouldn’t want to have a three-headed robot dog?” To me, she added, “And he’s he. All three of them are he.” Taking a step that way, she brought her hand down to pat his black metal side a couple times. “One cybernetic brain, three heads. Multitasking.” 

Shiori, who was still giggling and rubbing at the head that was licking her face, turned a bit so she could talk. “He’s really friendly!” 

Smiling slightly at that sight, I turned my attention back to Persephone. “I think what Avalon was asking was where he came from. How did you get him? Who built him, and why? And how did you end up having him instead? Did he belong to Manakel like the myths?” I had more questions than that, of course. But that was a good place to start. Carefully, I reached out and followed Avalon’s lead by rubbing under the chin of the head nearest me. He seemed to like that, just like Vulcan enjoyed having his chin scratched. Both were metal, so I had no idea what they were feeling, if anything.

“Nope! Not exactly.” Shaking her head, Persephone explained, “He was built to kill my Manakel, actually. You know, metal so he couldn’t possess him. Special ghost-killing weapons so he could fight anything Manakel summoned. And–” 

“Wait,” I blurted, “What do you mean, special ghost-killing weapons?” 

“Oh, like this.” With that, Persephone ordered, “Cerberus, ghosthunt!” 

As soon as she said that, all three dog heads bared their teeth and growled. Their fangs lit up with glowing blue-white flames. A moment later, ten different small holes appeared along his back, five on each side. From each of those holes, metal coils emerged with a laser cannon and camera attached. The coils were flexible, able to point in any direction.

“Snakes,” Avalon muttered softly from beside me as we watched the weapons snap from position to position to check for threats. “They said Cerberus had snakes growing out of his back. I guess venomous snakes are easier to explain than cannons attached to tentacles.”

“That’s ghost-fire, isn’t it?” Shiori spoke up, gesturing to the flames billowing around the dog’s mouths. 

“Sorta!” Persephone confirmed. “It’s an artificial recreation his creators made. Does the same thing, lets him bite through spirits and intangible things. And his laser cannons help destroy a lot of zombies really fast.” 

“Because he was made to kill Manakel,” I murmured, shaking my head before pausing. A long, heavy sigh escaped me. “You know who a giant dog that could use three different heads to eat ghosts and rip through zombies with a bunch of independently aimed laser cannons would’ve been super-fucking useful to use against?” After getting a couple emphatic nods from the others, I added, “But who managed to make something like this specifically to target Manakel? And how did he end up switching sides?” 

Andromeda spoke up from my phone. Her voice, now that I had listened to it a little bit, was somewhat clipped and short, yet polite. It sounded almost like someone doing the accent of a proper English woman, but not quite the same. She would pause almost imperceptibly every few words. “That would be my doing, actually. I held no particular affection toward the man myself, but Percy was fond of him. So, I fixed the issue. My ability allows me to control technology. It required a bit of effort and rolled up sleeves, but was well worth it in the end. Cerberus is very loyal to his mistress and her friends. He makes for a quite effective guard. And a not-terrible companion during the times when Percy must be off on her own adventures.”

I still had a lot of questions about, well, all of that. But a different pressing one came to mind as I stared at this three-headed dog, with tentacle laser cannons, that was about as tall at the shoulder as I was. “You said this was his small form? First, how exactly does he have two forms? And second, how big is the other one?”

That time, it was Persephone who answered, sounding excited. “He has two different bodies! The one he’s not using gets transferred inside a dimensional pocket while he shifts into the other one. And the second body is… you know Amaroks?”

Coughing, I confirmed, “We’re familiar, yeah. So, you’re saying he’s as big as—”

“They look like his puppies!” Persephone interrupted. “You have to see him when he’s big. He gives even better licks!” Even as she said that, the white-haired woman was launching herself that way to hug the mechanical canine around the side. One of his heads turned that way to sniff at her, and she giggled. 

Shiori had moved next to me by then and whispered, “Can you picture her spending time with Manakel?”

Before I could respond, Andromeda’s voice emerged once again from my phone. “They were quite the odd couple, that is for certain. But, I do believe that she will be better off around more positive influences.”

“Okay, seriously,” Avalon put in, “Who are you, exactly? You said you have the power to control technology and you were being imprisoned until Persephone saved you? Oh, and Sachael was annoyed about that.”

“He tried to stop it, yes. And he failed. There was some drama around that fact.” Pausing briefly then, Andromeda’s voice took on a quiet tone. “I was locked in a Seosten lab and treated as a science experiment, as you would say, for a long time. I owe my freedom to Percy. As for who I am, I am Andromeda. You would consider me an artificial intelligence, but there is as much magic as technology in my existence.”

That made me do a double-take, staring down at my phone. “You’re an AI?”

After a brief pause, she confirmed, “Yes, of a sort. But, I have been consuming your media about those like me, and I assure you that I have no desire to either build an army of terminator machines, nor put all biological beings into little pods to use as batteries. And if so, I certainly wouldn’t do anything as energy-inefficient as providing elaborate virtual reality simulations.”

“Uhhh, great, I guess.” Unsure of what to say to something like that, I focused on Persephone briefly. “Hey, when you showed up and, uhh, splattered that thing, you fell out of the sky. And there was that whole thing about Cerberus being sent down. So, umm, where did you both come down from, exactly?”

Pivoting on her heel to face me, Persephone brightly answered, “From the pirate ship, of course!”

My mouth opened and shut a couple times before I managed a weak, “From the pirate ship, yeah, why didn’t I think of that? It’s so obvio—what pirate ship?”

So, Persephone told us about how she had been tracking down a special object for Manakel yet again, and had found it on some pirate spaceship. Then she got the word about his death and commandeered the ship to make them bring her here to Earth, so she could meet me. Apparently, they were still up there somewhere, using an invisibility field to stay hidden. It was the same thing the pirates used to ambush passing ships.

“Oh,” she added, “and we stopped long enough to pick up Cerberus and Andromeda, of course! I couldn’t meet my new wife without my best friend and my puppy!”

I felt like I needed to sit down for a minute, but equally knew that wouldn’t help. So, I pushed on. “What you’re saying is that there is a whole ship full of pirates, wait, space pirates, up there right now? Are you sure nothing’s going to go wrong?”

The answer came from Andromeda. “I am controlling every part of their ship, from its propulsion, to its weapons, doors, life support, and food heating appliances. If they manage to cause trouble anyway, they will have earned it. At the moment, they are sequestered in their quarters or the crew villages they have established, and I have sent an assortment of Earth entertainment videos for them to peruse. That should keep them occupied for the time being.”

Okay, clearly the world wasn’t done sending weird things at me today. Now, all of a sudden, there was a cloaked pirate ship in orbit, full of probably bloodthirsty buccaneers who were being distracted by what amounted to Netflix or YouTube by a friendly Artificial Intelligence, who in turn owed a life-debt to a Revenant-Possessed dead Seosten who thought she was married to me. I just… I couldn’t… I… yeah. Wow. My life had been a lot for a long time, but seriously. Not for the first time, I wondered how I would have handled all the stuff being thrown at me over the past year without the ridiculous stamina boost that I had gotten from the Amarok. It really was one of my most useful powers when you got right down to it. 

Physically shaking all that off, I focused on looking at Cerberus and Persephone. “Okay, we should probably get someone to go up with us to check out this ship and do something about those pirates. I don’t know if they’re good or bad, or if they’re vicious killers or…  yeah, we need to go through them and figure out what to do with all that.” 

Shiori, of course, pumped both fists in the air. “We’re going on another spaceship! I don’t care how much it happens, I’ll never get tired of that! And meeting space pirates? Dude, being around you so much is the best.” With that, she latched on to hug me tightly. 

I returned it and sniffed her hair briefly before glancing over to where Persephone was watching. She didn’t seem jealous or anything, just curious. It actually made me wonder how much open affection she had ever gotten from Manakel. Somehow, he didn’t strike me as the type. But, of course, I could’ve been wrong. After all, I hadn’t exactly seen him in casual situations. 

Finally, using one hand to stroke Shiori’s hair, I announced, “Right, I guess we’re doing that now.

“Let’s see who wants to go tour a pirate spaceship with us.” 

*********

Eventually, the group that ended up going to this pirate ship amounted to myself, Shiori, Avalon, Apollo, Doug, Theia, and Dare. My mother had a thing with some of the Atherby clan people that I didn’t want to interrupt. Not after they’d lost her for so much longer than even I had. 

We were back up on the Starstation by that point, waiting for Persephone and Andromeda (Cerberus had been sent back to the pirate ship already) to talk Dare and Apollo through setting up a transport portal over to the ship. 

Of course, technically, we could have had the thing dock here on the station. It just would have required creating a portal in one of the gigantic docking bays that was large enough for the ship to pass through. But not only would that require a hell of a lot of magical power on short notice, the adults also didn’t want to bring that ship in until they saw for themselves that it was safe. Which meant looking the whole thing over, and going through all of the pirate crew to find out just how bad they really were. 

While waiting for them to work with all that, I had stepped aside and sent a message to Tabbris saying I needed to tell her something important. So, a moment later, I felt her presence. She wasn’t fully recalling, just linking herself to me. Her voice was curious in the back of my mind. Heya, Flick. What’s goi–I left you alone for five minutes and you’re married?!?

Yeah, she had definitely read my surface thoughts. Wincing, I quickly opened up my mind to let her know everything that was actually going on and how exactly it had happened. I take it your mom hasn’t talked to you yet? 

After taking all that in, Tabbris’s voice sounded a bit sheepish. I uhh, I’m working on something secret, with Columbus and Nevada. I guess I’ve been really busy. I’m so–

Don’t you dare apologize, I interrupted. It’s okay. It’s great. It’s fantastic. You’ve got your own things. 

Weeeelll, technically it’s something for you, came the response. It’s a present. And a surprise! You don’t get to know what it is yet! You don’t get to know anything about it yet! I shouldn’t have said anything. Forget I said anything. You have to be surprised. 

With a small, inward smile, I assured her, I promise I will be surprised, whatever it is. And you’re getting help from Columbus and Nevada, huh? Well, color me intrigued. 

She responded with a sort of mental kick. Are you sure you’re going to be okay going to that ship? What if there’s a monster over there? What if the whole thing is a trap? What if there’s a malfunction and it jumps to another universe? Maybe I should tell these guys to wait, and come over.

My head physically shook in the real world, pointless as that was. Tabs, it’s okay. I’ll be fine, really. You do your thing and I’ll see the surprise when it’s done. And once we’re sure the pirate ship is safe, you and I can look it over. And you can meet Persephone in person. 

I can’t believe you didn’t even invite me to be a flower girl at the wedding, Tabbris teased. Or the ring bearer! Wait, Marian should be the ring bearer. The ring foxer. 

Flushing deeply, I gave her a mental swat and reminded her again that I wasn’t actually married. Not that that was going to stop her or anyone else from giving me shit about it until the end of time, of course. The two of us silently talked a little bit more, the other girl making sure I really was doing okay with everything, despite the teasing. Finally, she said that Columbus and Nevada needed her, but made me promise again to let her see the pirate ship and meet Persephone later. And Cerberus. She made it very clear that she wanted to meet Cerberus. 

Then she withdrew from my mind, and I glanced over to see Theia and Persephone looking each other up and down with obvious curiosity. The Seosten girl was still wearing Doug’s New York Rangers hat. I was pretty sure she rarely took it off ever since he told her she could keep it even after she and Pace were separated. The two of them had become pretty good friends over the summer. And apparently that had continued throughout the time that I was gone. 

Still staring intently at Persephone, Theia asked, “You knew Manakel before he was so grumpy?” 

“Oh, he was always a little grumpy,” came the cheerful response. “But he definitely got a lot grumpier in the past couple centuries…” Trailing off thoughtfully, the woman finally added, “He was mad at me for a while at first because I took over this body and he was sad that he couldn’t save her. But then I helped and he liked me a little more. He kept sending me away, but when I was there, he was pretty nice to me. He taught me stuff about medicine and his family. I think he got sad again when I was there too much, because he’d send me away. But he always called me back and let me in when I found him again. I just had to give him some breaks.”

“So hang on,” Doug spoke up, rubbing a hand over the Seattle Mariners cap he was wearing. I was pretty sure it was also enchanted, just like the Rangers hat. “You said Manakel started being nicer to you or whatever for a while, but in the past couple centuries he got mean again?”

Persephone gave a little shrug. “He sent me away a lot more, and he didn’t tell me stories anymore. Before, when I was there and he wasn’t sad, he would tell me about all sorts of things from his past. He liked telling those stories. Or he used to. But in the last couple centuries, he didn’t do that anymore. Even when I was there and he wasn’t sending me away, he barely talked to me. And before, he made reasons for me to go do other things when he got too sad, but then it was more like he was making up excuses. He wasn’t sad, he was… anxious. Like he wanted to do stuff but couldn’t because I was there. Which was silly, because I’d never stop him from doing anything he wanted to do.”

Well, that was curious. And maybe a little suspicious. But then again, it was also possible that he’d just become more short-tempered in his old age and decided he didn’t want to play nice with her anymore.

While I was considering that, Theia gave a slow nod. “My father took me away from my mother’s tests. He said she wouldn’t kill any more of my friends, and that he was going to send me to his friend. He said I could learn a lot from him. But Manakel didn’t really want to teach me very much. He just told me what to do. My father said that Manakel liked to tell lots of stories. But he didn’t tell me stories.”

Yeah, that was definitely a whole complicated thing. Maybe something had been up with Manakel. After all, we did know for a fact that there was an incredibly powerful figure out there corrupting and controlling Seosten. Maybe Godfather had gotten to him? But to what end? I had no idea, and there wasn’t enough evidence to say one way or another. Just because he’d been different over the past couple centuries and didn’t like to share stories anymore wasn’t exactly proof positive. Still, it was something to think about. 

Avalon and I exchanged glances that made it clear we were both thinking the same thing. Then she turned that way to ask Theia, “Your father really said Manakel would teach you? When he said that, was he being nice or subtly menacing?”

Theia, of course, just blinked at her. “I think he was being nice. But then again, subtly menacing was nice compared to Mother’s total revulsion and loathing.”

Sometimes I definitely needed the reminder that I’d had a really good life compared to a lot of people. When I thought of the things someone like Theia had been put through just based on the fact that she was born with a disability, it made me want to bring Kushiel’s ghost back just so she could see how much better her daughter was doing without her. Not to mention taking a detour to show her how much Sariel was enjoying being with her entire family, including the girl she had snuck out of Kushiel’s facility right from under her nose. 

Yeah, there were definitely about a million things wrong with that thought. At least. Still, it came up now and then before I pushed it away. I wasn’t going to reach out for any ghosts of my dead enemies just to gloat at them. I wasn’t quite that dumb.

In this case, I dismissed the thought just in time for Apollo to straighten up from the magic teleport spell he had been drawing on the floor along with Dare. “Right,” he announced, “it should be good now. Who’s ready to go see a pirate ship?”

Straightening up as well, Dare looked at me. Our gazes met, and there was a brief moment of silent communication that made it clear she wanted to talk later when we had a little privacy. Probably about the whole Persephone thing, because she couldn’t exactly give me grandmotherly advice in public without raising more questions than we or the spell wanted to deal with.

After giving her a subtle nod, I turned back to the others. “Well, I’m definitely ready. But I do have a very important question before we go through that portal. 

“Did anyone try to call Blackbeard? Because doing this without him feels like it should be against the law.”

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Promise And Peril 11-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – There was a commissioned interlude for Summus Proelium posted yesterday. If you read that story but missed that chapter, you can find it right here

Fortunately, I wasn’t out for long. Unfortunately, the reason I wasn’t out for long was that the sound of screeching and tearing metal snapped my eyes open. Blinking past the lingering bleary spots in my vision, I stared upward just as a spot of sunlight appeared. Sunlight through the hole that was being torn in the side of the ship as something literally drove its claws through it and ripped upward. Something that was snarling and growling nastily as it continued its work. 

Before I could focus my vision enough to tell what the thing looked like, a laser shot upward from nearby, hitting the invading creature and making it recoil with an angry, pained squeal. Kohaku was there, hand raised with her thumb raised and index and middle fingers pointed like a gun. That was where the laser had come from. A second later, after giving me a quick glance, she launched herself upward toward the hole and disappeared through it. I heard two more quick shots, followed by what sounded like a roaring fireball or something similar. Either there were more Fomorian-crafted creatures out there, or the one was pretty tough.

Or both. Probably both. Either way, I had to get up. This was really no time to lay here. My gaze snapped over to Mom. She was awake. Then it moved to Tabbris. Also awake, sitting next to December and May as the three gazed up at the hole the monster had created. From the looks on their faces, I was pretty sure they had gotten a much better look at the thing than I had. And they weren’t exactly bursting with joy about that fact, so I doubted it was a pleasant creature. 

Avalon and Shiori were up already, standing nearby as they looked to me, the latter pulling Columbus to his feet from where he had been sprawled. I gave them both a thumbs up. 

“Sound off!” Athena was up by then, calling out those two words as she gave a quick look toward the main control panel where smoke was steadily rising, along with a few sparks.

“Risa’s outside,” Haiden quickly snapped. “Covering her.” With that, after making sure Larissa and his family were conscious, the man disappeared. I heard him join the fray out there, my worry about just how many of those things were descending on the ship rising by the second. 

Quickly, the rest of us started calling out to say we were conscious and mostly unhurt. Mom was right by me, her hand on my arm (whether she was reassuring me or herself I wasn’t certain) as she seemed to be scrawling a spell of some kind on a blank stone with a field-engraver. She was drawing too quickly and murmuring too quietly for me to know what it was. One by one, the rest of the Seosten and my friends reported in as we heard the fighting continuing. There was too much of it. This obviously wasn’t a few scouting monsters. It was a full-scale attack.

“Elisabet.” That, of course, was Jophiel. She was up too, her hand outstretched toward the prepared transport circles. But a moment later, the woman hissed, “Blocked. Something’s blocking transports.” Rather than dwell on that, she pivoted, already moving to the hole. 

“Jo, wait.” That was Sariel, speaking up obviously hard for her as she had already stopped her kids from chasing after their dad when he took off to keep the monsters away from the ship. 

“I’m through waiting!” Jophiel snapped, whirling on her. “You have your family back, Sariel. Elisabet is my family. She’s been my family for a hell of a lot longer than you’ve had yours. She’s been in this hellhole for months. I’m going to get her, and if you think you can stop me–”

Sariel raised a hand, speaking up over the other woman. “You’re right. But don’t go alone. You don’t know what condition they’re in, if they’ve been–just don’t go alone. Come on. I’ll go with you.” She’d obviously been about to point out that the Fomorians had attacked us the second we got close to Elisabet and Dexamene, but stopped herself and simply implied it instead.

“Mom!” Tristan blurted, scrambling that way with Vanessa right behind him. He was clearly all geared up to protest that they couldn’t be left behind, that Dexamene was his friend, and so on.

Sariel, however, simply said, “You two, with us. Tabbris, stay with Flick. We’ll be back.” 

“The rest of us will secure the… landing site,” Athena announced carefully. “Clear space around it, then we’ll see what repairs need to be made, and get to work. Be quick, but thorough. I don’t think there was any severe damage, we just need to make it last for a jump out of here.” 

Even as she said that, Sariel, Vanessa, and Tristan were already leaving with Jophiel. As they went, I called to Vanessa, figuring she was in the best head space for it, “Remember what I said back at camp about getting help!” 

The blonde girl gave me a quick thumbs up. Then she was gone with the rest. I hoped… okay, I hoped a lot of things, but in that particular moment, I was mostly hoping that Dexamene and Elisabet were actually safe and that this hadn’t been an intentional trap.  

“December and May will stay with me,” Athena continued. “You’ve both worked on ship systems before, as I understand it. You have experience. Help me assess the damage and determine repairs.” She looked to the two, who seemed surprised that she was asking a couple of SPS Seosten to do such an important job. In response to their staring, the woman snapped sharply, as though she had no time for foolish time-wasting, “Am I wrong?” 

“No,” May immediately replied, head shaking. “We’ve done maintenance on ships. It is… it is one of the most important things our type are allowed to do.” 

“Itwasmyfirstjob!” December piped up in a rush. “CuzI’mlittleandIfitinthepipes!” She said it proudly, even as the implication of someone her age being put in dangerous maintenance situations on live spaceships made a rush of anger rise in me before I pushed it back down. Now really wasn’t the time to start getting offended about the way the Seosten treated people. There would be plenty of time for that later, assuming we all survived this. 

“Good,” came the response. “Then get busy. The repair spells we brought are in the compartment there. Find the right spots to employ them.” 

With that, she looked to Sachael. “Something brought us down. It’s one hundred yards west and about twenty feet below the ground.” 

The man said nothing to that. He simply nodded, then leapt through the same hole as the others, vanishing from view as he moved off to deal with the thing that broke the ship. All by himself, apparently.  

To the rest of us, Athena added, “Help the others clear those things out. Stay together, stay near the ship, don’t let them draw you away. Watch each other’s backs. You clear space while we assess the damage and fix it.” She was clearly reiterating her order to make certain we understood. “We’re not here to kill a bunch of Fomorians. We’re here to grab those two, fix the ship enough to escape, and get out. Go.” With that, she pressed the button to open the rear doors, extending the ramp rather than making us rely on going through the hole in the roof. 

Apollo, Deveron, Pace, and Theia were the first group to go through, joining Kohaku and Haiden outside. Immediately, the sound of fighting got even louder. Things clearly weren’t settling down. Any hope I’d had that the space battle going on above would distract the Fomorians too much to be a threat down here was rapidly evaporating. Then again, Fomorians had a way of doing that with any hope. For a brief moment, my thoughts jumped back to Dare and all the sacrifices she had made just to kick these monsters off Earth. What was she thinking right now, stuck back there while we were off fighting the very creatures she’d lost so much to? How would I feel at this moment if I was in her position? Especially if most of the people putting themselves out here had no idea why I cared about them so much. 

Mom’s hand was still on my arm. There was obviously a lot she wanted to say. Instead, she held the stone out to me. “If we’re separated, use that. It’ll bring you to me.” She hesitated then, looking not only at me, but also to the others. “Be careful. Please.” From the strained sound of her voice, it was taking everything she had not to tell us to wait here. Not that we would’ve listened, and she knew that. 

Still, I took the stone, tucking it away while murmuring, “I love you, Mom.” My hand caught hers, squeezing very tightly for a moment as our gazes locked. It was only for a brief second, not nearly long enough. But then, ‘not nearly long enough’ seemed to describe our entire history with each other, and Mom’s history with her children in general. 

Fuck, that sounded dark and unfair. Which, again, suited Mom’s relationship with–fuck it.

Sands, Sarah, Avalon, Shiori, Columbus, Roxa, and I went together, with Mom and Lillian right behind. On the way, I glanced over to where Tabbris stood and called over the sounds of battle that had gotten so much louder ever since the ramp was opened. “You staying with December?!”  

There was a very brief pause, before her head shook. She disappeared, and I heard her voice in my head as she spoke a single word. Partners

Partners, I replied firmly, managing a very slight smile before wiping it away. Time to do this. 

With that, I shoved down all the doubts that tried to creep into my thoughts, all the fear of facing more of those Fomorian abominations, and pushed myself into running down the ramp while drawing my staff. Avalon and Shiori were on either side of me, the others all around us. 

Reaching solid ground (or as solid as the sand under my feet could be), I looked quickly to the left and right, my gaze taking in everything that was going on. And as I did so, any last lingering optimism I’d had that we could easily deal with this situation was gone. I’d already realized that this wasn’t a scouting party, but it was even worse than I’d imagined. The entire area around our crashed ship was flooded with monsters of all shapes and sizes. It was a horror show beyond anything I could have imagined. Hundreds of the creatures all swarming around all sides. It was impossible to tell where one monster ended and another began. Some had multiple heads, some had none that were discernible. There were claws, tails, tentacles, fangs, bloated sacks of venom or acid, snakes with shark-like heads, an enormous antelope thing with shoulders twelve feet high and a dozen legs, something that looked like a giant pterodactyl with a fat body and hundreds of tiny baby-like hands all along its front from neck to tail, flailing and grasping at the air. All that and more, so much more. Monsters beyond description were in every direction. 

Haiden, Kohaku, Mom, Theia, and all the others were doing their best to deal with the things, but it was all they could do just to stop the beasts from completely overrunning our small group. They were a flood of nightmares that kept swarming higher and higher, like a rising wave threatening to capsize a ship. Only in this case, our ship had already crashed. The longer we were here, the more of these things that would show up. And it was already right up at the tipping point. We didn’t have any backup or rescue coming. We were the rescue. If we didn’t hold them off right here and now, that was it. 

But we didn’t have to last long. That was our only saving grace. If we could hold off the swarm long enough for Sariel, the twins, and Jophiel to grab Elisabet and Dexamene, we could escape. Well, assuming Athena and Calendar girls (still didn’t like that term) could fix the ship. 

The point was, we only had to hold out for a short time. Please, please let us last that long. 

To my right, Avalon was already using three quick shots from Porthos in his gun form to make a flock of bat-like creatures with steel-tipped wings abort their dive-attack. The bat-things regrouped, shrieking as they launched tiny, needle-like blades from their wings, which Avalon caught against a glowing energy shield that was suddenly projected from one of her gauntlets.

Meanwhile, Shiori had intercepted a four-foot tall stone-skinned ape thing with four legs and three arms. She launched herself that way, fist slamming into its face before a sudden, momentary duplicate appeared just long enough to copy her motion to hit it a second time. It tried to grab the real Shiori as the duplicate disappeared, but she turned to sand, letting the thing fall through her before reforming behind it, mouth open to shoot a burst of lightning into its back. 

They were both handling things. Which was good, because I didn’t exactly have time to help either of them. Ahead of me, there was a fifteen-foot long squid thing with its own tentacles lashing out, and as my eyes snapped that way, the front of the squid’s body opened up right along the middle to reveal a naked humanoid male shape attached within a nutrient sac. The humanoid was maybe four feet tall, with fully-formed genitals and an oversized head that lolled to the side within the gel-like liquid. It had no eyes, and only three fingers on each hand. All six of those fingers rose to point toward me, and I heard an utterly horrific wailing as it opened its mouth. It was a wail that seemed to make my very bones creak, sending an awful chill down my spine as it vibrated in my skull.

The squid-thing that served as the naked, immature humanoid’s main body boosted itself up on two tentacles while sending three more straight at me. The screaming continued unabated. If anything, it actually got louder, the sound seeming to drive itself deep into my brain, taking all of my focus. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t–

And then it was gone. The would-be distracting pain from the thing’s scream vanished, and the sound itself was heavily muffled. I could still somewhat hear it, but it was barely there. My eyes focused just in time to launch myself up in a leap over the nearest tentacle, staff lashing out to stab the already-prepared bladed end into the second tentacle. That drew a new scream from the humanoid, but this was a wail of pain rather than an attack. 

Thanks, I blurted quickly to Tabbris for shutting down my senses to save me from the thing’s scream. At the same time, I was already landing on the third tentacle, which instantly flung me toward two more tentacles that were already lashing my way, trying to snap my body in half by crushing me between them. But I was faster, launching myself into a backward flip that carried me just barely through the narrow space between the two incoming tentacles. On the way, I spat a wad of resin, which caught all three tentacles (the two that had been coming toward me as well as the one that had flung me), trapping the trio together like a wad of super-strong rubber cement. Which gave me an opening, as I dropped toward the ground, to create a quick portal in front of me. With a grunt, I boosted my strength while shoving the blade of my staff through the portal and out the other end, which was located right in front of the humanoid’s face. The amniotic sac or whatever the thing was encased within was tough, but it shattered under the strength of my empowered blow, and the blade went right through the thing’s face while it screamed. 

Then I hit the ground, landing in a crouch as the squid-humanoid fetus thing collapsed lifelessly. To my right, Sands and Sarah were working together with Avalon to deal with an incursion from that side. To my left, I caught a quick glimpse of Roxa, Pace, and Theia bringing down the big antelope thing. Meanwhile, Shiori was racing straight at me, shouting something about a boost. Instantly I saw what she meant, crouching to catch the other girl’s raised foot as she leapt. Activating my boost once more, I heaved as hard as I could, throwing her upward just high enough to catch the swooping pterodactyl thing with all the tiny hands. The second she was there, all those hands tried to grab her. But once more, Shiori did the ‘shift to sand, let the thing pass through her, then reform again’ trick. That time, it put her on the flying monster’s back. 

In that instant, I had two more creatures coming after me. The first was essentially a three-foot diameter ball with a humanoid face on the front that popped hands out anywhere it needed to. It flew through the air at me just ahead of a fat, five-foot tall reptilian figure with nine-foot long arms. 

Laser? Tabbris pressed, seeing the line of monsters behind those ones. 

My head shook, even as I closed the gap. Save it until we need it. Last ditch thing. 

In the background, I could see Shiori throw something out ahead of the flying monster she was riding. It was a small silver ball, which popped open to release Choo. In mid-air, the horse-sized warthog creature unleashed a blast of electricity straight into the flying monster just as Shiori flung herself off it and shot an identical blast into the thing from behind. The twin lightning bolts hit the Fomorian creation, sending it sputtering lifelessly to the ground. 

By that point, I’d reached the ball-creature. A plus-sign shape appeared along the front of the thing before it split open along those four sections to reveal what looked like a miniature blackhole. It was some kind of super-gravity field that instantly yanked me toward the thing. But I caught myself with a burst of energy from my staff, arresting my momentum just in time before the bigger monster’s long arm swept through the space where I would’ve been without that help. 

A sudden shot from Porthos hit the ball-creature, which exploded into a spray of goo that I threw myself forward and rolled under to escape from. I wasn’t absolutely sure being hit by the goo would be a bad thing, but it was a fair guess. 

By that point, even as I smacked the long-armed creature’s hand out of the way with my staff, I could see Shiori and Choo out of the corner of my eye. She was actually riding him, having landed on her pet’s back before he, in turn, landed on the back of one of the giant snake-serpent monsters. The Jekern was charging ahead, shooting lightning from his mouth while Shiori urged him onward, riding her pig-mount as they took the snake thing right to the ground. 

In that moment, just as the blade of my staff was driven through the long-armed reptilian’s stomach as I half-lay at its feet, one of Avalon’s energy blades cut through it from the back. The thing was basically cut in half, falling apart while the beautiful dark-haired girl caught my hand to haul me back to my feet. “No time to nap, Chambers!” she blurted, turning to put her back to mine as even more of the monsters appeared. There was no end in sight, as more and more of the things emerged. Nothing we did was enough. I saw kill after kill, but there were just so many of them. 

If Jophiel and the others didn’t get back with Elisabet and Dexamene, if we couldn’t get this ship back off the ground and get out of here really soon, we were going to miss our chance. We would be overrun. Even with my mother, Haiden, Risa, and the others, it wasn’t enough. There were too ma–

Abruptly, I sensed a sudden change behind me. But before my item-sense power could thoroughly process it, there was a high-pitched whine, and a burst of bright, blinding light as a laser passed just over my shoulder. And a bit to my left. And far off to the right. And in a dozen or more different directions. 

Half of the Fomorian army that had been descending upon us completely vanished, blown apart from lasers fired by…. by… 

I pivoted back toward the ship. Except it wasn’t the same ship anymore. Before, the thing had looked like a tube with a flat bottom. Like a metal twinkie, basically. Now, the main body of the twinkie had grown by about a third of its original length, as sections of it had split apart down the length and extended almost like an accordion. Every few feet, a series of panels slid apart. Doing so uncovered a series of glowing reddish discs. Those red discs were where the lasers that had torn through half of the Fomorian pack had originated. 

“Hey!” we all heard May’s voice call through some kind of ship-mounted intercom. “Starting the repairs on the ship made it shift into some kind of combat mode!” 

There was the slightest of pauses, before Athena’s voice carried through the same intercom. “Made it do what?!

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Promise And Peril 11-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Our original idea had been that we would fly in, locate Elisabet and Dexamene, then get close enough to teleport them onto the ship and flee before the Fomorians had time to scramble too many of their defenses. Obviously that plan had been completely incinerated thanks to the fact that the fuckers were already in the middle of a pitched battle against… some unknown force. 

That unknown force wasn’t the Seosten, yet was strong enough to send a whole fleet after the Fomorians here on the Meregan world. Why? Who? How? Every possible question was swirling through my head as I simply stared open-mouthed at the screens that showed the battle going on ahead of us. For that moment, I couldn’t think, let alone speak. I had no idea what to do. And from the looks on the faces of Vanessa, Tristan, and the other students around me, neither did they. We’d thought we were ready for just about anything we could’ve run into. We were wrong.

Thankfully, we weren’t the only people here. And the others we had with us were a hell of a lot more experienced than we were. Taken by surprise or not, the real adults around us had been through more than we had (crazy as that might seem), had seen far more surprises and learned to react faster to them. Particularly the Seosten given their lifespans, but Mom and the others too. My friends and I had been through a hell of a lot in a year, but they had been through so much more for so much longer. 

Athena was the first to react, after what had to be barely a second since she had admitted that she had no idea who the other ships belonged to. “Helm, full power on sub-engines, boost forty percent from weapons and reserves split evenly. Take everything you need to do your thing. Guns aren’t going to get us through this today. Navs plot Ah and Bay courses through sector quattuor-sex-septem and feed to Helm, bracing for on-fly adjustments. Jophiel on exterior spellwatch, Haiden and Larissa back her up, you’ve done this before. December and May on secondary spellwatch. Something gets through Jophiel, call it out and intercept with counters. Sachael is on power-watch. Feed energy where it’s needed. Joselyn, Risa, back him up. If he raises a hand, he needs you to feed magic energy to him so he can shift it to the ship’s systems when needed. Helms has full control, feed everything she needs to her and let her work.”

She rattled off those instructions so effortlessly, and everyone immediately moved to follow them. Sariel was apparently Helm, while Apollo was Navs, both of them springing to action as their hands danced across the consoles, blurting words to one another in a rapid series of what had to be half-code and half-intuition from the sheer length of time they’d known each other. No wonder people had considered the two of them to be twins, because they sure communicated like they were right here and now. They were barely speaking English, just blurting sentence fragments or strings of numbers and letters, often finishing one another’s… whatever. 

Meanwhile, the others jumped right to action too. Mom and Kohaku slid closer to Sachael, who had lifted one hand to press against the wall of the ship while his other hand steadied a console and turned it closer to him, his fingers flying over the holographic buttons to make it send reports on the ship’s systems. At the same time, Jophiel (whose magical meditative-state had vanished the instant she was needed) sank in her seat a little while producing two small metal discs, one in each hand. Her eyes drifted half-closed as she began slowly moving the discs around seemingly randomly. They glowed very faintly now and then, and when they did, she would move the discs back to the spot where it had happened and murmur something. My guess was that the discs detected magic that might affect our ship or the people in it and she was ready to block such attempts. With the help of Haiden and Larissa, who had already produced what had to be counterspell-enchanted coins, ready to use them at whatever spot the Seosten woman indicated. 

May did the same as Jophiel, though her movements weren’t quite as smooth. She had December backing her up, one hand on the other Calendar member’s side as though ready to feed energy into her while her other hand held a counterspell coin of her own. 

The rest of us weren’t totally left out of things, obviously. The moment the ship took off, heading what seemed like straight for the battle, Athena turned slightly to call back, “Felicity, be ready to track the moment we’re within the atmosphere. The rest of you, prepare the transport circles just as I showed you!” 

Trying to ignore the fact that we were flying straight into the crossfire between two fleets of warring ships and had no idea whether the people fighting the Fomorians would give a shit about killing us along with them, I reached deep into my pocket, unzipping it. After digging around a bit, I came out with a small vial. A thick, pale blue liquid was visible through it as I clutched the vial tight. It was protected against damage, of course. But still, the contents were entirely too precious to risk losing. Not after we’d come all this way. 

All around me, Avalon and the others were already crouching in the bit of open space where the base of the transport circles had been started before we ever left, drawn in by Athena and Sariel the night before. Vanessa, Tristan, Roxa, and Avalon worked on one while Sands, Sarah, Columbus, and Shiori worked the other. Tabbris helped by moving between both, suggesting improvements or corrections here and there. They couldn’t finish the enchantments because the details had to be saved for when we were actually here. But my friends were quickly sketching in what was needed with a few glances toward a nearby console to get specific coordinate details. Even then, they wouldn’t be able to finish just yet. Not until we had an exact location. And that part was up to me. 

Trying not to think about what would happen if the world-shattering forces around us actually started to pay our relatively little ship too much attention, I focused on staring intently at the planet ahead while gripping the vial tight. I wanted to help the others, I wanted to do anything other than sit there. But I had to be ready. I couldn’t be distracted. Besides, as much as I wanted to contribute, they had enough people drawing in the transport spells. And I sure as hell had no idea what I was doing when it came to actually helping with the ship defense. My need to help wasn’t an excuse to get in the way. 

But, valid as that point was, it didn’t really help me feel any better. I couldn’t contribute right now. All I could do was sit there, tensely watching the battle going on ahead and all around us. Lasers, missiles, random spells, tentacles, fang-filled monstrosities, and more exploded, shot, and swarmed everywhere I looked. Our ship barrelled right on through, spinning, diving, and rolling just to get a little bit closer to the planet with each passing second. Several spells came close, but Jophiel and May, with help from the others near them, dispelled and countered them before they could do too much. Meanwhile, Athena was snapping orders back and forth between Sachael, Sariel, and Apollo. She was clearly using a mix of watching the screens and her own power to keep track of any immediate dangers, telling them where to go and when to transfer power between the shields and engines just for that little bit of a boost at the exact right time.

There was no way we could’ve made it through with this array of forces against us, on either side. The plan, again, had been to get to the planet and out before they could assemble everything we were already seeing. This ship was a prototype, intended to test the transport system, not to win (or even survive) a battle like this. And here we were, flying directly into the middle of a fight between two incredibly powerful fleets who were intent on utterly destroying one another. We were a very small bird flying through a hailstorm of lasers, missiles, and worse. 

The fact was, we probably still would’ve been destroyed if we didn’t have Athena, Sachael, Jophiel, Sariel, and Apollo. They knew what they were doing, and had fallen right back into working together as if no time had passed since they were part of the same crew. It was kind of amazing to behold, terrified as I was about the whole situation. 

And yet, above and beyond all the others, it was Sariel who got us through it. I watched her at the controls as she seemed to sit in total relaxation. She wasn’t stiff, wasn’t hunched over in her seat. Instead, she sat back, breathing calmly in and out while carefully yet coolly putting her hands up against the holographic display. Then? Then she went to work. 

When it came down to it, flying this ship through this battlefield amounted to driving a dump truck through a field full of tanks, artillery, and racecars armed with machine guns. But impossible had apparently never met Sariel’s piloting. 

A very slight touch with one hand sent the ship spinning upside down (well, relative to how we were before), while her other hand slowed our speed fractionally and touched the nose of the craft downward by maybe a meter. In that same instant, while the ship was in mid-spin, two massive laser-blasts passed through the space where it had just been. They came in at an upward angle, spaced apart just enough they passed above and below the ship itself. The fact that it was already spinning and thus at a diagonal angle was the only reason the shots missed. And, given the ship was basically a tube aside from having a flat bottom and rounded top meant the shots came really close indeed. 

No sooner had those two shots skimmed past us than we were fully upside-down, and in that instant, a flailing Fomorian tentacle passed just barely above the now-upward facing belly of the ship, while some kind of glowing ball of… something bad went sailing just above the nose of the ship that Sariel had nudged down enough to avoid that very thing. 

That was just the first half-second. Three different attacks, all avoided with a single maneuver. And then? Then it got really nuts. Sariel flew that ship like it was an extension of her own body. I’d seen her in physical action, I’d heard and seen how her power amounted to more than just being able to hit things really well. It gave her perfect accuracy. Anything whose path and motion she was capable of controlling, including herself and things she drove or piloted, she did with that same perfect accuracy. She threw and shot things like a goddess, true. But she also moved and piloted like one. If she controlled where and how something moved, it did so utterly flawlessly. 

It should have been impossible to make it through the battlefield before us. Yet Sariel made it look easy. Every motion of her hands, every control she touched, every slight adjustment of the ship’s trajectory, speed, and more made dozens of attacks miss. Some of them (mostly from the Fomorian side) were intended for us, some were just attacks we happened to pass through on our way. But between Sariel’s piloting and the magic defenses from Jophiel, December, and May we avoided all of them. This little, flimsy, dump truck of a shuttle danced through the entire battlefield like it was nothing. 

Through it all, with each passing minute, we drew closer and closer to the planet. Yet it didn’t seem to be enough. No matter how close we got, the world seemed eternally far away. It was like staring at a pot of water while you were trying to make food, willing it to start boiling and all it would do was steam forever. Except in this case, instead of a few hunger pangs there were blindingly bright, six-meter-wide laser blasts that would have obliterated our entire ship and everyone on it if they got too close. And all I could do, the only thing I was capable of in that moment, was rocking my body back and forth in the seat, silently willing us to please go just a little bit faster. Which was about as helpful as… well, about as helpful as rocking back and forth on a spaceship to make it go faster. With the vial clutched tight in one hand, I swallowed hard past the lump in my throat. Please. Please get there. Please let us make it in time. We were so close. After everything that had happened, if Elisabet and Dexamene ended up dying anyway, or worse, I wasn’t sure how I would live with myself. To say nothing of what would happen if I managed to get myself and everyone on this ship killed by dragging them into this in the first place. 

We had just beaten Fossor. He was dead. And now I had to pull basically half the people I cared about in the world into a situation like this? Yet, what choice did I have? I owed Dexamene and Elisabet everything, everything. I owed them my life, my freedom, the lives and freedom of basically everyone I knew, everyone in the entire world if Fossor had had his way. 

We had to get there. We had to save them. 

An explosion of blue light and what appeared to be a rapidly expanding mushroom (not a mushroom cloud, a literal mushroom in the middle of space) appeared just to our left, while a beam of energy wide enough to encompass an entire football field blasted through the space to the right. But Athena had been ahead of things, snapping orders two seconds earlier that made Sariel twist the ship to fly right through the relatively narrow space between the two attacks. Immediately, the woman called out another order to Sachael to shove all the power he could to engines for the boost, and the ship sped up to narrowly avoid some kind of gravitational anomaly spell that burst to life right where we had just been. The engines strained against the force of its pull, but with the added power were barely able to pull us through. 

It went on like that, chaotic and insane. Anything Sariel herself couldn’t avoid with her expertise and power, Athena was on top of with her own. Sitting where I was, unable to actually help, I saw all of it while most of the others only seemed to be able to focus on the one thing they were trying to do. Lucky them. I sat, eyes snapping from person to person, from near-hit to near-total-destruction. I saw Apollo calculating the best approach through the dazzling array of attacks passing back and forth between the two fleets, saw my mother and Kohaku next to Sachael, feeding power to him so he could keep the ship’s systems running properly, saw my friends frantically yet carefully trying to finish the transport spells. All of this, everything around me, was happening all at the same time, throughout this chaotic battle. And through all of it, I could do nothing to actually help. I had to sit there, waiting and hoping we would get close soon. Tempting as it might have been to try to aid my friends, not only was getting in the way a bad idea, but if I ended up getting distracted with that and missed the fact that we were in the atmosphere I’d end up making the whole situation worse by dragging everything out. 

So, I waited, tensely watching throughout the fight. If it hadn’t been so terrifying and the situation so critical, I might’ve enjoyed the show. Between all the lasers, the monsters literally swimming through space with their tentacles waving out to grab passing ships, the way various spell effects triggered here and there, it was the sort of spectacle that would take a hundred million or so to make a movie of. 

Gripping the vial tight in one hand, I stared as the fighters and smaller vessels swooped here and there, or looming above and below like enormous whales in the case of the capital ships. I could hear my own breathing over the sound of everyone else calling back and forth, and forced myself to breathe. Calm. Listen. Watch. If it came down to it, knowing everything possible about these people who were fighting the Fomorians might end up being really important. So I took in everything I could, just in case. I didn’t understand much of it, to say the least. But I took it in.

Ten minutes. It took ten minutes of this, one of the longest ten minutes of my life, and our ship was a bit singed, the shields heavily damaged from a couple near-misses. But we made it. We finally penetrated the atmosphere, dropping quickly toward the world below while Athena called out for me to do my part. 

Immediately, I popped the top off the vial and poured some of the contents out into my hand. The pale blue liquid pooled in my palm. It was blood. Specifically, Dexamene’s. Yeah, we weren’t just blindly hoping I’d be able to find her when the time came. I had my harpy blood-tracking power from the last time I’d been here, fighting against Nicholas’s forces. It clearly required we be at least somewhat nearby, but I could use it as the ship skimmed through the atmosphere and point out when we were close, getting us to them through a game of hot and cold. At least, that was the idea. 

The real question was, would the fact that there was an all-out war going on just above help or hinder us? The Fomorians were already out in force rather than having to scramble the way we’d expected, but they were also busy at the moment. I supposed it really depended on how well the unknown forces did at keeping them occupied. 

But seriously, how the hell was there an entire fleet powerful enough to stand up against the Fomorians this way and none of the several very well-informed Seosten here had any idea who they were? How was that even possible? Was it just a case of space being really fucking big and therefore the Seosten simply didn’t know every force that was out there? That seemed too simple, and yet I couldn’t think of any other explanation. Especially if these people were relatively new to the scene. That made sense, sort of. I’d just spent the past year being conditioned to believe the Seosten knew basically everything about the universe, so it was a weird awakening. 

In any case, wondering about all of that could come later. Right now, I was going to hope that, whoever they were, they managed to keep the Fomorians off us. Meanwhile, I closed my eyes, focusing on the blood pooling in my palm. Dexamene… Dexamene… where was she? Please. God, please, I had to find her. I wasn’t positive of how far away I could be and still use the Harpy’s power. Hopefully not too far, or this could take a long time. 

Now it was everyone else’s turn to anxiously watch me. There were a few tense words about staying low and keeping an eye on any incoming threats, but for the most part the other people onboard simply stared and waited. I could feel their eyes on me, clearly silently urging the power to trigger just as much as I was. Please… Dexamene… please… How much time had passed? How many minutes? How much longer could we stay here? How long would it–

“There!” Without warning, and while barely consciously realizing what I was doing, my hand snapped out toward the right. “A hundred miles that way!” It was right on the edge of my senses, barely a blip, yet I was absolutely certain it was her. 

The ship instantly turned, heading the way I pointed out. As we got closer, I was able to guide them more specifically, all while praying that what I was leading us to was a living, free Dexamene and not a body. Nearby, I could see Tristan clasp his hands, staring ahead anxiously while Sarah put a hand on his shoulder. Jophiel, on the other hand, had her gaze fixated solidly on me as she waited tensely. We were close, so close. Within a few seconds of my pointing out where to go, the distance had dropped from a hundred miles to practically nothing. 

Then we were there. My power said Dexamene was directly below, and the ‘window’ at the front of the ship adjusted to show a view of what was down there. 

“Yes!” Tristan suddenly thrust his fists in the air. And I didn’t blame him, because they were there. Dexamene and Elisabet both. The two stood below, staring up at the ship. We’d made it. They were safe, they were–

Brace!” Athena abruptly shouted, an instant before… something hit us. I had no idea what it was. All I knew was that there was a bright flash, a loud bang, and the ship suddenly started spinning wildly. The view went wild, the ground coming up far too quickly. 

Then we hit, and my vision went black.

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Promise And Peril 11-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Athena was right, of course. It was a bumpy trip. The moment the prototype ship’s jump was triggered, it started shaking violently. Almost like it was trying to tear itself apart. It was like sitting on top of an overloaded washing machine or something. Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, and I had been through it before. So had Sariel, though she had been in stasis at the time. For everyone else, this was new. And apparently not the most pleasant first experience. Worse, it would start shaking violently, then stop and be still for a few seconds, then start again and repeat that. 

“Is it supposed to be doing this?!” Sands called out a bit nervously while gripping her seat armrests. She, like the rest of us, was strapped in tightly. The seats in this thing were lined facing one another along both walls, like one of those military transport jets or something. “Cuz I don’t think I like the experimental ship running an experimental jump drive shaking like this! It feels like a bad thing!” 

Tristan was the one who answered from his own spot a few seats away, “Hey, it’s not so bad! Just be glad we actually get to be strapped in this time instead of fighting a telekinetic asshole!” 

“Trying to fight,” Vanessa murmured in correction, her own voice barely audible over the rapidly rising sound of the ship jerking back and forth. “We didn’t exactly do a very good job at it.”

Theia, meanwhile, just raised her arms above her head like she was on a rollercoaster with a loud, “Wheeee!” With Roxa and Pace sitting on either side of her, she even lifted one of each of their hands up with her own. Then the ship would stop shaking, and she would pout, lowering their arms. “Aww.” It started up again, and her arms shot back into the air, carrying the other two with them. “Wheeee! Awww… Wheee! Awww… Wheee!” The fact that she was still wearing Doug’s New York Rangers hat (as far as I knew, she basically never took it off) helped add to the impression of her being on a casual day out at the amusement park.

For their part, Roxa and Pace each half-raised their other hand to go along with Theia, exchanging looks with one another. 

While all that was going on, everyone clearly trying to distract themselves from the fear of what would happen if this jump went wrong, I found myself looking over to where Sachael was. The white-bearded Seosten was watching me with a neutral expression. If the repeatedly violently shaking ship was bothering him, he didn’t show it at all. As our gazes met, he offered me a single, simple nod without speaking. 

What was he thinking? What kind of person was he? All I knew about the man was that he was still loyal to his people, but willing to bend the rules in his off-hours. From what Sariel and Athena had said, Sachael was really devoted to the idea of separating his work life from his private life. When he didn’t consider himself to be on-the-clock, he was a lot more chill. 

As for what his opinion about me was, I had no idea. And it didn’t seem like he was eager to speak up about it. After that simple nod, the man turned his gaze to look toward Sariel. Again, his expression remained completely unreadable. I had no idea what he was thinking. 

“I-it’s longer this time!” Tabbris piped up, drawing my attention to where she sat beside me, with Tristan on the other side. “It didn’t take this long before, even though we had to go further!” 

She was right. And it wasn’t just taking longer, the shaking was noticeably worse too. The ship seriously felt like it was about to tear itself apart and send pieces flying in every direction. 

Athena, at the front of the ship near the console that controlled everything, simply called back, “Everything is fine! The ship was prepared to go to Earth before, it had a smooth path plotted out. This time it doesn’t. It will be a rough ride, but the ship will hold together. Give it a moment.” 

She sounded distracted while explaining that, and I belatedly realized she was using her power. That scattershot precognition that allowed her to see the results of actions she took several seconds in advance. She was using that to make sure the ship wasn’t about to fall apart. Which made me feel a bit better about the whole thing. But still, I really hoped this would be over soon. 

Mom, who was sitting on my other side, put one hand on my shoulder. Her voice was firm. “Whatever happens, if we see a real Fomorian, you don’t fight it.” She squeezed firmly, looking up to Vanessa, Tristan, Sands, and the others to make sure they were listening. “That goes for all of you. I don’t care if you outnumber it twelve to one. If you see a real Fomorian, you run away from it. You can fight their creatures, but if there’s an actual Fomorian, all of you run away. You fight to get clear and you run. You don’t jump in to help, you get away. Is that understood?” 

Kohaku spoke up then. “Joselyn is correct. None of you, not even together, are prepared to face a full, battle-ready Fomorian in combat. And none of us are prepared to extract you should you be captured. If you try to jump in to help, you’ll be nothing more than a distraction. That isn’t intended as an insult,” she added quickly. “You are all amazing students. You truly are. You’ve advanced far faster and further than any of us could have anticipated, and all of us are more proud of you than we can say. But this is something beyond that. If you see a full Fomorian, you retreat immediately. No macho bullshit. Run away and leave them for us to deal with.” 

The rest of the adults voiced their own agreement with that. They all wanted to make sure we weren’t going to try to go toe-to-toe with a Fomorian. But before any of us could respond, Athena abruptly called back, “Brace!” 

Her warning came just in time. As all of us grabbed our armrests, the ship’s shaking suddenly jumped into overdrive. Seriously, it made the previous shaking feel like nothing. My stomach was twisting itself into knots, as the sound of metal screaming in protest filled the air. 

Another sound filled the air too. It was Theia again, arms still held high above her head (with Pace and Roxa’s lifted too) like she was on a rollercoaster, calling out an enthusiastic, “Whoooooo!” Yeah, she was still having a grand old time. I was pretty sure if this actually was an actual ride in a park, she’d jump right back in line for it. 

Meanwhile, I was almost afraid the ship really was about to blow apart and take all of us along with it. Which would have been a pretty bad way for this whole rescue mission thing to turn out. 

But it didn’t blow apart, of course. Just as the ship’s horrific shaking hit its peak, it just as abruptly stopped entirely. Seriously, one second it felt like we were about to explode in slow motion, and in the next second everything was completely still. Like someone had flipped a switch. 

“What…” Columbus started, looking around the moment everything stopped. “Did we break it?” 

Theia, however, shook her head. She still looked exuberant, though her voice was completely matter-of-fact. “We are here, of course. If we broke it, we would all be dead.” 

“She’s right,” Avalon agreed, eyes glancing around the interior of the ship as though making sure everything was still completely sealed. “It stopped shaking because we made it.” 

Athena spoke then. “Yes. We are here.” With those words, she hit a few buttons on the console, and screens appeared around us to act like windows, showing the exterior of the ship. Not that there was much to see. We were, as planned, in the middle of nowhere. I could see stars all around us, of course. Brilliantly bright now that we were away from Earth. But there were no planets nearby or anything. It was the middle of empty space. Like drifting on a raft in the middle of the ocean. Only about a million times more dangerous if anything actually went wrong.

And this was the easy part, I had to remind myself. Before too long, we’d be where the real monsters were. I just hoped we were actually ready for that. 

Apollo, who had been silently checking over a different console through all of that, finally spoke up. “We’re on target. We hit the exact coordinates. Whoever designed this thing knew what they were doing.” 

“I mean, it was Radueriel, right?” Shiori piped up. “It had to be Radueriel.” 

“No.” That was Pace, actually. The Latina girl, who had switched her green-dyed hair to a full rainbow after cutting it quite short, was shaking her head. “If it was his, he’d already be trying to get it back. Think about it, he had to know you guys took it from Kushiel’s place, a toy like this? And he has no interest in grabbing it? Not even in negotiations? If he made it, wouldn’t he want his prototype back? That’s… that’s the impression I got of him from when… from everything I learned with Theia.” 

The Olympians onboard all exchanged looks, before focusing on Sachael. He, in turn, offered a simple shrug. His voice was even. “Sorry to say, I don’t know who designed this thing. But the girl there is right. Useful as it is, I would think that someone as protective of his designs as Radueriel is would have insisted on having it back as part of the truce agreement.” 

Yeah, that was pretty close to the same thing I had thought before. It made sense. Or rather, it didn’t make sense for this to be Radueriel’s design with as little interest as he had shown in it. But again, if it wasn’t his, then who? Should we be worried about someone else in the Seosten Empire who could design a ship like this that could jump anywhere almost instantly? How many more of these things had they already made? Was there a fleet of instant-jump ships just waiting for the truce to end so they could appear over Earth before we had any warning they were coming? Was I paranoid for even thinking that was a possibility? Well, yes, maybe it was paranoia. But was it unfounded paranoia? I didn’t think so. Not after everything I’d seen. 

“Okay, so the jump was on-target.” That was Lillian, who had been staring out one of the ‘windows’ for the past few seconds. “Can this thing actually get us to the Meregan world now?”  From the sound of her voice, the small woman had her doubts on that subject. Which was fair, after we’d just spent the past few minutes feeling the thing shake itself apart around us. 

“It can,” Sariel confirmed, her fingers moving over one of the control panels that had slid around in front of her seat, sort of like a tray table thing in an airplane. “The slide-drive isn’t exactly top-of-the-line. It’s barebones and barely adequate. But it is working. We should get there in one hour.” Before anyone else could speak up about how long that would take, she added, “We’ll be taking a few separate slides just to throw off any investigation once we’re done. We won’t be coming back to this spot after we grab Elisabet and Dexamene anyway, but the Fomorians could still potentially trace our entrance point back to here. We don’t want that. So we’ll take the long route around and throw them off with those extra slides.” 

“That’s the plan, anyway,” Apollo put in. “Which means we’ve got about fifty-seven minutes now for everyone to relax and breathe, then sixty seconds to psych yourselves up, thirty seconds for that to turn into blind panic, and then another thirty seconds to calm down again. Ready? Go.”

“You remain as inspiring and helpful as ever, Apollo,” Athena quietly noted before glancing at Sachael. She paused then, looking briefly as though she was carefully choosing her words. 

Actually, wait, was she using her power to judge what the best approach would be? That felt–well not exactly manipulative, but… huh. Was it bad? That was a tough question. And the fact that she’d paused long enough to be noticeable, how many options was she playing through, if that was the case? 

Either way, cheating or not, the woman finally addressed her Seosten-loyalist former crewmate. “Which does make it feel a bit like old times, doesn’t it?” 

Seeing Sariel, Athena, Apollo, and Sachael like that, I wondered what it had actually been like back on the Olympus. With Kushiel and certain others around, it definitely hadn’t been a picnic. And yet, there had certainly been good times. They’d been together fifty years or so even before coming to Earth. Which, I knew for them was seriously a drop in the bucket. And yet so many of them defined basically everything they were around either that, or their ‘god’ identities back on Earth. Athena used her Earth-goddess name rather than Auriel because she loathed the person she had been. Apollo didn’t go by Lucifer because he saw himself as more connected to Earth than the Seosten since he had left them. Mercury still used that name because it was the first one that the SPS-afflicted man had seen as his own after taking over the original Amitiel.

But Sariel didn’t. Sariel used her Seosten name consistently. Actually, I’d almost never heard her use the name Artemis. For a moment, I wondered why that was. Did she not like the identity? Was being Sariel more important for her than holding onto their old names was for the others? Was I just reading way too much into it? 

My gaze drifted over toward Jophiel. The Seosten woman had been silent through all of this since entering the ship, her gaze unfocused as she looked off into the distance. I had no idea what she was doing, other than worrying about Elisabet, but she seemed more… passive than I would’ve expected.

“Meditation spell.” That was Lillian, whispering toward me when she saw the direction of my gaze. “Way of keeping calm and clearing your mind before something important. Think of it as a magical tranquilizer that instantly wears off when it needs to.” 

Realizing I’d missed whatever Sachael had said in response to Athena, I glanced over to my mother, grabbing her hand to squeeze it. Really, I was hiding the fact that I’d palmed one of the privacy coins and was using it to make sure only her, Tabbris, Shiori, and Avalon could actually hear what I was about to say. Though the only person I really didn’t want to hear was Sachael. “I don’t suppose Bob’s linked you back into the Committee now that you’re free?” I was joking, mostly. “That’d be pretty useful.” 

Mom blinked at me briefly. “Bob?” she echoed blankly, clearly trying to think of someone with that name who would be the least bit relevant to what I was talking about. 

Oh, right, she wouldn’t know about that. Belatedly, I explained that we’d named the Reaper in the lighthouse Bob, thanks to Koren. 

Once she understood, Mom chuckled a little under her breath. “Ah, I used to call him Pops. He always felt like a… grandfather to me, of sorts.”

“That’s funny,” I replied with a chuckle despite myself, “Aylen sees him the same way.” Then I saw the way Mom blinked at me, clearly unknowing, and realized she had no idea what I was talking about. Right, maybe I hadn’t been able to tell her everything that had happened over the previous year. Bringing up the whole ‘friendly Fomorian’ thing had felt like something that could wait until we were free. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to bring it up right now. 

“Never mind,” I murmured. “I’ll tell you later. But you definitely don’t feel Committee-energized?” 

From the look on her face, Mom was tempted to pursue the previous subject. But she let it go with a shake of her head. “No, I haven’t felt anything like that. I don’t know if he even knows that I’ve been–that my memories have been restored, let alone that I’m no longer with Fossor.” 

“If he doesn’t, we’ll have to find a way to give him an update,” I assured her, squeezing my mother’s hand a bit more before quietly adding, “Not just because of the power thing. But because he misses you. He–I…” Hesitating, I explained how Bob had helped me before, by instantly teleporting my friends and I so we could fight Lemuel’s were-pack and eventually get the choker that allowed us to identify who had been possessed. Avalon, Shiori, and Tabbris piped up now and then too, helping to explain that whole situation. 

By the time we were done, Mom was shaking her head. “You mentioned most of that before, but not the detail about Pops. He–he really stepped up.” She sounded sad, and I realized he was yet another person (yes, person goddamnit) my mother cared about who had been taken away from her for a long time. “I’m glad you talked to him. He… needs more people to talk to him.” 

There was more to that, I realized. It sounded like Mom wanted to say something else about Bob-Pops needing people to talk to him. But she visibly put it aside, exhaling before settling on simply adding, “He deserves better.” 

We talked a bit more over the remaining time. Not all with the privacy spells, of course. I didn’t want to be that rude or obvious about it. I’d just figured that, whatever else he’d said about not reporting everything that happened to his superiors, it was still best not to let Sachael (or the Calendar duo) know too much about Bob and the fact that he was (sort of) communicating. 

Either way, pretty soon all of that was irrelevant. Because we were getting closer to the Meregan world, as all of our conversations kind of petered out. We were thinking about what was about to happen, about what we were going to see and potentially have to do basically as soon as we got there. 

We were nervous. All of us, even the Olympians. A glance around showed me that much pretty plainly. It was immediately clear that none of us wanted to be here right now. No one wanted to go running into a Fomorian-infested planet. We were all thinking about all the ways this could go wrong, about how bad it could potentially be. And I was pretty sure that no matter how detailed our imaginations might be, reality could probably get even worse. 

Finally, Apollo counted down while we all braced ourselves for what we were about to see. “In three… two… one…” 

We came out of the slide, all of us telling ourselves that we were prepared for the worst. And yet, nothing we had braced ourselves for could have prepared us for what we saw. 

There was a battle going on. An insane space battle the likes of which I’d never seen outside of movies. It was even more intense than the battle between Athena’s fleet and Kushiel’s research station defenses back when we had been rescuing Sariel. We were just beyond the outer edges of it, with the planet dead ahead. But between us and the world were dozens of enormous ships. Half were the biological sort the Fomorians used, while the other half were definitely technological. Lasers, missiles, various spell effects, tentacles, explosions of gore and acid, gigantic whale-like monsters that swam through space with their mouths open, all of it was laid out in front of us. We’d arrived in the middle of a massive warzone. 

“What–the Seosten are here?!” Lillian blurted, her gaze snapping toward Sachael. 

“No,” Athena immediately replied, her gaze riveted to the sight before us. “Those aren’t Seosten ships.” 

“Then who the hell are they?” Haiden demanded, leaning forward to stare at the screen at the front of the ship. 

Athena’s answer filled the small space around us. 

“I have no idea.”

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Promise And Peril 11-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – There was a commissioned chapter focusing on Lincoln posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen that yet, you can read it by clicking the previous chapter button above.

Something else had happened while I was busy with the whole Jophiel thing the night before. Not to mention having some time with my family. Apparently that Dakota girl had had an encounter with a monster from the ocean called a Nuckelavee. An encounter that had resulted in the death of an older Garden student before one of the Victors stepped in. 

At least Dakota was alive. Even more traumatized than she already had been, but still alive. And, according to Avalon, she and Miranda had also had an… interesting conversation when they went to see the girl. A conversation with Gaia’s former lover… about one of Gaia’s other former lovers. Yeah, relationships among people who lived for centuries were really complicated. 

Uh, not that I had much room to talk. 

Anyway, they met Accolon, who told them that the man who was the father of her biological son (Mordred) was ready to step in and help save her. Oh, and one other tiny detail, the guy in question was Oberon, the King of Canada. Yeah. Why hadn’t he mentioned that he was so close to Gaia before, so close that they’d had a fucking son together? I had no idea. Again, relationships were weird. Coupled (hah) with people as powerful and old as Gaia and Oberon? Yeah, it was a whole thing. 

The point was, he was ready to offer aid now. Which was good, because we were going to need help if we were going to get Gaia away from the Crossroads loyalists. There was no way getting to her would be as easy (relatively speaking) as rescuing Sean had been. Wherever she was, the Committee would have her locked down tighter than basically anything else in the world. And thanks to certain binding contract spells, we couldn’t even count on getting help from the people on the Committee who were actually on our side. They couldn’t so much as tell us where to look without exposing the fact that they’d done so, allowing the loyalists to move Gaia. 

“Hey.” Avalon’s voice suddenly interrupted my musing, making my attention focus on her as the two of us sat at a table in the Atherby Camp dining cabin where we were eating breakfast. Her eyebrows were raised. “Look, knock it off. I know that look, you’re obsessing about everything that you can’t do anything about right now. Focus on the thing in front of you. We’ll get Gaia back, but we can’t do anything about that right now. That Accolon guy said Oberon was going to put some resources into finding out where the prison is, and they’ll get back to us. Nothing else we can do right this second, okay?” 

Porthos, her lizard-cyberform, was sitting next to her on the table eating his own breakfast of metal beads. He gave me a firm shake of his fist as if to punctuate Avalon’s words. 

Blinking a couple times at that, I offered her a small smile. “You’re the one giving me a pep talk, even though she’s your mother.” 

“I know Gaia,” she replied quietly, yet firmly. “She’ll be okay. When we find her, she’ll be okay. But she’s just in prison right now. The… the not-psycho Committee members won’t let the others do anything that bad. She’ll be safe. Safe enough, anyway. We’ve got a more immediate situation.” 

“Elisabet and Dexamene,” I agreed with a grimace. “Yeah, being on a planet full of Fomorians is a pretty immediate problem.” Sighing, I added, “I know it’s a lot to ask for you to focus on something other than your mom, I–” 

“Stop.” Avalon’s voice was sharp, her fist hitting my shoulder from across the table. “Don’t be an idiot, Felicity. After everything we–” She cut herself off, shaking her head pointedly. “Just don’t be an idiot. I’m with you. Of course I’m with you. When we get more about Gaia, you’ll be there.” 

I gave a short nod, moving my hand to catch hers and squeeze it. “I’ll be there,” I confirmed. 

“And I’ll be here now,” she informed me. “Besides, like I said, we can’t do anything about Gaia right this second, so I need something else to kill. A bunch of Fomorian minions sounds like just what the doctor ordered.” The smile she gave me then was basically feral. “I do have a lot of aggression to get out.” 

Snorting at her, I brought her hand in to gently kiss the fingers without breaking eye contact. “Even after that whole thing with Fossor’s zombies? I would’ve thought you’d be done fighting for awhile.” 

Lifting her chin, Avalon retorted, “Like I said, a lot of aggression.” Adding a wink, she noted, “Though I guess there are other ways to work out energy like that.” 

Oh boy. My face was suddenly hotter than my food, as I choked a bit while the other girl snickered at me. “Not fair,” I managed to croak, “definitely not fair.” 

“What’s not fair?” That was Roxa, taking a seat next to me with a plate of her own before she blinked with realization. “Oh, right, you guys are being gross. Got it.” 

“Gross isn’t the word I’d use,” I informed the other blonde while giving her a poke in the arm with my fork. “A little bird told me you were angling to come on this rescue mission.” 

Casually spearing a huge hunk of steak with her fork before lifting it to her mouth to tear a bite out of it with her teeth, Roxa replied, “Yeah, well, sounds like an insanely dangerous trip that’s gonna end up with a lot of screaming and violence. So, you know, I’m there.” 

“Hopefully not too much screaming and violence,” I murmured, looking back and forth between her and Avalon. “You guys do understand that the goal here is to fly in, grab those two, and get out without too much fighting, riiiiaaand I realize even as I say that how stupid it sounds.” 

“At least she got there on her own,” Roxa noted with a smirk, taking another bite of her huge steak, chewing ravenously before adding, “When shit goes wrong and everyone’s fighting for their lives, I wanna be there.” Her expression sobered a bit then as she met my gaze. “Seriously, I can help. I want to help. I need to do something.” 

“You’ve done plenty,” I insisted. “Roxa, everything you–yeah. You were there yesterday. You and the rest of your pack. But if you really want to be there for this, I’m not gonna say no.” 

“Good,” she shot back, “I’d hate to have to kick your ass until you change your mind.” 

“I see wolf-instincts make one delusional too,” I teased despite everything. “Good to know.” 

That prompted a lot of back and forth between the three of us, before Shiori and Columbus showed up, along with Choo. The Jekern was insistent on attention, so I stepped up and wrapped both arms around him. He was huge now, big enough for Shiori to ride on. Which was a pretty big change from the tiny thing he’d been when we first met. 

“Hey, big guy,” I murmured while hugging the warthog-like creature tight. “Thanks for taking care of our girl while I was gone.” 

Choo, in turn, huffed and made a flicker of electricity tickle my face. From his snorts, I was pretty sure he was trying to tell me off for being gone so long and making his owner sad. 

“Believe me,” I informed him, “I feel the same way.” 

Rising, I exchanged a long, tender kiss with Shiori herself, ignoring everyone else for a moment. Then I embraced the other girl tightly before announcing, “So, both my girls here and nothing’s currently on fire except for all the things that are currently on fire.” Squinting at myself, I shook my head. “That made more sense before I said it.” 

“Pretty sure it didn’t,” Columbus put in mildly, scratching under Amethyst’s chin as the cyberform lay across his shoulder. “But I think we can give you a pass, all things considered. So, what’s going on with the whole rescue mission thing?” 

Groaning, I shook my head. “Guys, everyone can’t go. It’s supposed to be a quick in-and-out and yes I know the odds of that, but seriously.” 

“Ship’s big enough,” the boy pointed out. “If we don’t get into a fight, great. But don’t think you’re gonna be able to run out into Fomorian space without a hell of a lot of back-up. Shiori won’t let you go without her, right?” He looked to his sister, who gave a firm nod. “Right, and she’s not going without me.” 

Exhaling, I nodded. “I get it, believe me. I’m not about to run off without you guys. Let’s just… hope that this is a quick little jump across universes to grab those two and get out again. Hope for it, but plan for the worst.” Giving them all a thumbs up, I added, “And then maybe everyone can take a real vacation. And by real vacation, I mean go back to normal school for awhile. Actual school with classes and everything. How fucking weird would that be?”

“You’ve got a point there,” Shiori agreed. 

“With you, the only possible totally unexpected thing is a completely normal day.” 

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

That night, the ship was ready. Or at least as ready as it was going to get without weeks more work, and no way were Jophiel and Tristan going to wait weeks to start this rescue mission. We were lucky the two of them had waited this long. As it was, it took a lot to keep the two of them calm enough to stick with the plan so they didn’t run off to try to rescue Dex and Elisabet alone. 

Okay, it wasn’t that bad. The two of them already understood, and they weren’t idiots. Still, I felt like we had to keep an eye on Tristan especially. Not that the boy had a way of getting to the Meregan world himself, but I wouldn’t entirely put it past him to try to find someone who could

So, we mostly focused on killing time by establishing who was actually going to go on this rescue mission. As we’d said before, the hope was that we’d barely have to fight at all. But in anything, and especially where the Fomorians were concerned, hoping for the best and planning for the worst seemed to be the best way to go. We had to have enough people to fight. 

Jophiel was going, as were Sariel, Athena, Apollo, and this Sachael guy. That was five Olympians. We also had my mother, Deveron, Lillian, Haiden, Larissa, and apparently Kohaku. 

I’d had a private conversation with Dare about that whole situation, and she said that she wasn’t exactly sure what would happen if the Fomorians had too much interaction with her, so it was for the best that she stay behind. But boy did she not like it. Five minutes after getting Mom and me back in her life (even if Mom by necessity couldn’t know the truth about all that) and she already had to watch us go right back into life-threatening danger against the very species she had basically given up her entire life for. Yeah, she wasn’t exactly enjoying that idea, to say the least.

She did give me a few emergency enchantments she’d prepared, telling me to stow them away just in case. And she made me promise about a million times that I wouldn’t do anything that stupid and insane. Oh, and the hugs. She hugged me basically as hard as I’d ever been hugged, even with my mother’s return. This whole situation was hitting her pretty badly. 

As for the rest of us, I was going of course. So were Vanessa, Tristan, Sands, Sarah, Columbus, Avalon, and Shiori. Oh, and Roxa too. And she was bringing Theia and Pace along. Finally, May and December had hopped aboard the plan. 

Of course, May and December coming along brought up another point. Sachael already knew about the situation between Elisabet and Jophiel, of course, and had agreed not to make an official report about it until she officially reported it herself. But with those two, it was a bit more complicated. We knew they were reporting things back to Cahethal, and she wasn’t nearly as likely to keep quiet about this situation. But, as it turned out, we had a secret weapon in the form of Tabbris. 

Actually, ‘we had a secret weapon in the form of Tabbris’ came up a lot, now that I thought about it. At a certain point you’d think it’d stop being a secret, but there we were. 

Anyway, the point was, we had Tabbris. And she had become basically best friends with December. She asked the other girl to please keep a certain something a secret, promised it wasn’t a direct threat to the Calendar or to Cahethal, and the three of them agreed to take oath spells to not reveal that little secret. Pretty similar to the spells that Tristan, Vanessa, Tabbris, and I had been put under by Jophiel and Elisabet in the first place, actually.  

So that was our, ahhh, ‘crew’ for this mission. We could’ve had more, obviously. But we didn’t want to involve too many people. It was already a big enough group as it was, considering Elisabet and Jophiel had been keeping their whole thing secret for so long. Though I had a feeling it would be coming out sooner than they had planned, regardless of our precautions. 

Finally, it was time to head out. Athena had brought everyone who was going to Gaia’s secret cave where the ship was being kept. They’d put some more last minute work on it to make sure it was as ready to go as possible, and now we were all standing in front of the thing. 

Even now, I still didn’t think the thing looked much like a spaceship. It was just a long, jetliner-sized tube with a ramp leading up into it. Its weapons, engines, everything was well hidden. When it was closed up, it just looked like a semi-sleek metal cylinder. Whoever had designed this ship had focused entirely on function and not at all on form. Probably because it was a prototype. It wasn’t meant to be pretty or even heavily armed as far as ships went. It was meant to test that instant-jump system. 

Which made me wonder, not for the first time, who had designed it. Because it sure wasn’t Kushiel. It had to be Radueriel, right? That was the answer that made the most sense. Though it did raise the question of why he hadn’t done more to try to get his prototype back. Yeah, there was a truce, but you’d think he’d at least ask for it. Yet he hadn’t brought it up at all. Which seemed a little odd to me, given how special the prototype ship was. 

Athena was talking. “You all know the plan. Given optimum conditions, no one will have to lift a finger. That said, assume everything is going to fall apart. Watch each other’s backs, stay together as much as you can. Don’t let anyone get pulled away and separated. Do not let the Fomorians lead you into a trap. Don’t go anywhere alone, don’t chase them even if they look weak. If they start to retreat, let them. You have no idea how many of our people have been killed because they fell for the Fomorians pretending to be routed and then falling on them from all sides, even from what were supposed to be corpses.” 

For a moment, it looked like Athena might say something else, but decided against it. Instead, she simply continued, “If things fall apart, stay with each other and watch your backs. We’ll come to you. You all have emergency beacons and teleportation stones. The green ones will try to take you back to the ship. If those fail, the red ones will pick an unoccupied space on the planet as far from Fomorian detection as possible and send an alert to the rest of us. Use them if you need to. And… and you all have the X-stones.” 

Yeah, we did. The X-stones were just what they sounded like, rocks in the shape of an x. They were intentionally made to be impossible to mix up with any other enchanted object. As for what they did, they were essentially magical cyanide pills. Yeah. If this all went wrong, we had the opportunity to end ourselves rather than risk being experimented on by the Fomorians if we chose to.  

Wasn’t this just a super-awesome happy optimistic mission we were going on? Just what I had been looking forward to once Fossor was dealt with, a nice, quiet break to just relax. 

I would get that once the other two were safe. After everything they’d done, I couldn’t relax until they were back where they belonged. Once that happened, then I’d demand a vacation. 

Mom spoke up then. “Whatever happens, the job isn’t to kill Fomorians. Remember that, we cannot beat them. They’re too numerous, too powerful, and they’ll have reinforcements on the way the moment they detect us. The job is to get in, find Elisabet and Dexamene, and get out again. We kill what’s directly in our way and then leave. That’s all. The Fomorians have already taken over the planet. We can’t stop that and we can’t save that world. Not now.” Her voice was a bit strained as she said it, reminding me of the history she had with the Meregan. It had to be killing her not to even try to save those people. 

Once everyone agreed to what they were saying, Mom and Athena exchanged looks and some kind of silent communication. Then the Olympian woman turned to start walking up the ramp. “Right then. Let’s go see what we can do. Everyone find a seat and strap yourselves in.

“This is going to be a bumpy flight.”  

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