Triss

Causality And Casualty 5-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Causality And Casualty 5-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Please note that the Heretical Edge edition of Patreon Snippets will be posted on Friday for Patrons and Saturday for the public. This is to avoid making everyone wait even longer to get back to the plot while not making my wonderful $10+ Patrons wait too long to get their own snippets as well. 

The girl’s name was Dakota Coalbright. Apparently, four years ago, when she was nine years old, her father brought home some kind of plant from Canada. The plant turned everyone in her family, including the girl herself, into murdering psychopaths. Her whole family was killed (by each other), leaving only Dakota. Exactly how many of those deaths she was… well, responsible for was the wrong word, given the situation. Exactly how many of the deaths she had been forced to participate in was not something the girl was talking about, according to Sands. For all we knew, she might not even remember exactly how it went. Actually, I was… kind of hoping she didn’t, honestly. 

How terrible would that have been? By that point in my life, I’d only had my dad. How would I have felt if some plant, or any other effect, made me kill him? It would have destroyed me. I was seriously unsure if I ever would have recovered from something like that. I had no idea what kind of horrific sights, sounds, even smells were locked in this girl’s memory. But it had to be really bad. 

For four years, the girl had been in some mental hospital somewhere, as everyone believed that she had killed her entire family all by herself. I had to believe that had something to do with the Bystander Effect making them believe that a nine year old girl could kill an entire family like that. Not just psychologically, of course. There were plenty of fucked up people out there. But physically. I kind of doubted it was physically possible for her to do some of the things involved in those killings. But the Bystander Effect knew that magic was involved, so it made them think this was possible. Or something. Or maybe they just didn’t want to look too closely into it.

Either way, the point was that the kid (well, now thirteen-year-old) broke out of her prison/hospital when she heard some voice in her head, the same voice that apparently had convinced her and her family to kill each other before. Realizing that it meant the monster was back and loose, she broke out to get home. My best guess was that she wanted to save whoever was in her old house. But it didn’t work. Apparently when she got there, the people didn’t listen to her. They heard the voice and left, rather than kill each other. Probably because the voice in their heads (Kwur, obviously) had actual instructions for them beyond violence. 

But Dakota herself had been left to deal with the ghosts of her dead family members, which led to her hiding in the same basement area the murder plant had previously been left in, when Sands, Sarah, Triss, Felix, and Kohaku found her and heard the whole story. Hearing about ‘Canada’ made them call us. Or try to. Apparently no calls had been able to reach us while we were talking to Prelate at the Gehenna outpost. They’d tried a few times, only getting through once we were out and back to the bus. Finally, Sands was able to get through and we found out the rest of the story. 

It was… kind of convenient, really, that Sands and the others managed to get hold of someone who had been infected by Kwur’s spores or whatever right when we needed someone like that. I wondered, honestly, if that had been some kind of trap or something. But I couldn’t figure out what the point would be. This Kwur guy (if guy was the right word for him) couldn’t know that Kohaku would investigate some random ghost sightings. And even if he did, there didn’t seem to be a point to it. No, I had no idea if this was anything more than coincidence. But if it was, it didn’t seem to be something that Kwur set up. That said, I still wanted to keep my eyes open.

In any case, the girl had very clearly been infected by those Kwur spores, which meant she could help us track down other infested people, or even the main part of Kwur that was out of the prison. As Vanessa and Tabbris had explained, it wouldn’t be an instant locator spell or anything. At most, it would let us know if we were anywhere near someone like that. But it was something. And something was more than we’d had before.

Still, the girl didn’t want to go to Canada. Which, given her history with just one plant from that place, I couldn’t blame her for. And we didn’t want to send her into Vegas, given it was apparently rapidly deteriorating into a warzone. The best place for the kid was up in the star station. So, Vanessa, Tabbris, December, and I were going to go up there. We’d talk to the kid, see if we could find out anything else specific from her (like if she recognized the name Kwur at all), and get the samples we needed for the tracking spell. Meanwhile, the others would go back to Vegas itself, try to calm things down if they could, and look around for any hint of the evil plant. Maybe someone had given a flower gift somewhere in one of the casinos? Yeah, cuz that would be incredibly easy to narrow down. 

Either way, they were trying. We just had to hope that this Dakota girl’s contribution would be enough to find that piece of Kwur before things got a lot worse than they already were. 

Coming through the portal that Haiden had set up, the four of us emerged into one of the transport rooms. As soon as we appeared, I saw Abigail and Dare, standing with one of the other male adults whose name I couldn’t place. He was a thin, fairly short Latino guy who appeared to be in his fifties. I was pretty sure he was one of the former Garden Heretics who was teaching some classes here now. 

The three adults were deep in conversation, but when we appeared, it stopped. The Garden guy leaned in to say something to Abigail more quietly, while Dare stepped forward to meet us. I saw her eyes flick briefly to me before she addressed the group. “Long couple days, huh?” 

Groaning, I bobbed my head up and down. “You could say that. And they’re not over yet.” 

“Butit’sreallyinteresting,” December piped up from where she was standing next to Tabbris and just behind Vanessa and me. “It’salotmorefunthan… justrunningboringsurveillence… allthetime.”

Exchanging a brief look with me, Vanessa asked, “What about the stuff up here? Are they almost finished with the spell yet?” We’d been told before we left the first time that Dries and the others were just about finished adjusting the anti-possession spell so that it would block any of our people from being possessed as long as they returned to the station periodically for a refresh. That was the whole reason Avalon stayed behind instead of going on this trip to begin with, because they needed her to be close for the last bit before the spell would be ready. 

Dare grimaced slightly. “There were a couple of hiccups on that front. Turns out to make the spell work properly, they needed a… let’s call it a rare crystal. And by rare I mean we only knew of a few of them on Earth. The good news is, one of the crystals we knew about is in Brazil.” 

I blinked, starting to ask why that was a good thing. But Tabbris quickly blurted, “That’s where Hasty and the other werewolves went.” When I glanced at her, she blushed before explaining in a somewhat quieter voice, “She told me where they were going cuz we’re supposed to watch the new Fallstrider season on DVD but she made me promise to wait until they got back.” 

Yeah, apparently over the past couple months, Tabbris and the werewolf known as Hasty from Mateo’s pack had bonded a bit over a shared interest that Fallstrider anime. Now, whenever the pack was around, those two would find a quiet place to pop in the show. Which, honestly, was pretty awesome. I’d been interested in seeing what the fuss was about, but I’d look into it on my own. I didn’t want to butt in on what was clearly something Tabbris liked having with someone else. She deserved that.

December, in that moment, looked a little confused. “Waityouhaveafriend…namedHastyand…. it’snotme? Butbeinghasty… iskindamything.” 

Tabbris giggled, head shaking. “Hasty’s her nickname. I think you’d like her. And you can watch the show with us when she’s back. Oh! I’ll have to show you the rest of it first.” 

“Youcanshowme…” December informed her, “Butifit’satvshow… itwon’tdomuchgood.” 

Tilting her head, Tabbris hesitantly asked, “Do you not like TV? Is it because you have to sit down?” 

“IcansitdownifIwantto,” December sniffed before shaking her head. “ButIcan’twatchtv… cuzthere’snomagic… inthescreen… soIcan’tseeit.” 

Frowning uncertainly at Tabbris, who was frowning back at me, my mouth opened. But Vanessa beat me to it. “December, are you blind?” 

Defensively, the girl insisted, “Ihearandsmellandtasteandfeelreallygood. AndIseemagic. Iseemagicevenbehindme. Allaroundme. ItbouncesoffthingssoIknowwheretheyare. Ievenknowwhattheylooklike…. cuzthemagicsenseisreallysensitive. Anddifferentcolorsfeeldifferent. Iseemagic… andsoundwaves… andheatandelectricityandstuff. But… I can’t… see… normal not-magic screens… andstufflikethat.” She offered a shrug, clearly still self-conscious. “Icanseewithanimals!” 

“No, no, it’s okay,” I quickly put in. “We just…” December was like that Daredevil guy back in Seosten space that I’d fought? What she was describing was the same thing Apollo had talked about back then. He’d said it was a rare mutation that was the result of various experiments the Seosten had done to cure their pregnancy problem. So this kid had both that and SPS? Geez. 

“You can see electricity and soundwaves and magic and stuff?” Tabbris had jumped straight to that, her eyes shining with delight as she started. “What does that stuff look like? What does anything look like? Do you–” Realizing they were holding things up, she shot a quick, apologetic look toward Dare before stepping back as she pulled December with her. The two lowered their voices to talk.

With a shake of her head and a small smile, Dare nodded to Vanessa and me. “In any case, yes, the pack was in Brazil. So Avalon, Rebecca, and Aylen went with Deveron and Lillian to see what they could do about getting that crystal they need. They just left right after classes this morning.” 

Grimacing at the revelation that I’d missed Avalon, I exhaled. “Makes sense, they’ve gotta get that spell up.” Pausing, I looked toward December briefly before adding, “I wish we had time to help them…”  

Giving me a look that said she knew exactly how I was feeling, Dare gently replied, “I think they’ve got it handled for now. You’ve got your own situation to deal with, it sounds like.” 

“Situation to deal with… yeah, that’s one way of putting it,” I muttered before looking back to her. “Seriously, monster alien plant thing, gonna try to break out the evil version of Arthur if we don’t put a lid on his bullshit. And part of said bullshit is starting a war in Las Vegas. So, ya know.” 

“We really need to talk to this Dakota,” Vanessa finished for me, voice slightly calmer than mine. 

Abigail spoke up then. “Yes, you will. She’s in one of the guest rooms with Sands and Sarah. They’re taking care of her. But…” She paused, clearly considering her words. “Be… careful, girls. I’ve barely spoken to her, but she’s obviously fragile right now. I know this is important, but don’t push her too hard. Making her think about what happened back then, it’s… it’s not a good idea.” It sounded like she was having a hard time even letting us go talk to this girl about the source of her trauma. Which was completely understandable, especially for someone like Abigail. Still, we didn’t have a choice. Not with Kwur (or at least a piece of him) out there ready to put a lot more trauma on a lot more people. She was our best, maybe only, chance to find him before things got so much worse for everyone. 

“It’s okay, Abigail,” I assured her, meeting my older sister’s distraught and conflicted gaze. “We won’t push her any more than we absolutely have to. We just need to get the samples from her and ask if there’s anything she knows that might help find this plant thing.” Offering her a small, hopefully somewhat reassuring smile, I added, “We’ll deal with this and then get right back to doing the school thing.” 

Returning my smile somewhat, she retorted, “You better. Don’t think you can blow off as many classes as you want just because we’re related. I’ll throw your butt in extra detention just to make an example out of you.” 

Making a show of shuddering at the idea of what extra detention would be like, I replied, “Well, we better get to it then. Guys?” I glanced over to Tabbris and December. “Ready to go?” 

They were. Dare escorted us out of the room, leaving Abigail and the other guy, who belatedly and briefly greeted us before returning to his conversation with my older sister. It sounded like they were talking about some kind of situation with the rebel Garden people who weren’t up here. I hoped they were okay. We kind of needed all the allies we could get. 

“What’s Mr. Echolls talking to Principal Fellows about?” Vanessa asked Dare curiously as we moved down the station corridor at a pace slightly faster than normal walking, but not quite jogging. “It sounded important,” she noted, glancing back that way with a thoughtful frown.

Without looking that way or breaking stride at all, Dare replied, “The Garden people have been having a bit of a problem with a group of Blemmye and their Manticore pets hitting a couple of their supply lines while they were in the middle of a fight with their own loyalists. They couldn’t spare the resources to deal with it without being hit hard on that other front. Nevada and Hisao took a few older students with Gordon, Douglas, Jazz, and Koren to help clean out that little problem. Abigail asked to be kept up to date with that, given… her daughter.”   

Right, the Blemmyes. Those were the humanoids with no heads but faces on their torsos that I’d seen (and fought against) when we were at Eden’s Garden looking for Roxa all those months earlier. Almost a year, come to think of it, considering it happened right at Thanksgiving. Damn. 

I also knew that the only reason Dare wasn’t out there with Hisao and Koren herself was likely because she wanted to know what happened with me being in Canada. Hell, the fact that Hisao was there was probably the only reason she wasn’t there with Koren. I wondered if she was having him keep her just as informed about what was going on as Abigail with that Garden teacher. It wouldn’t have surprised me if she had a spell ready to jump straight there if need be. 

Rather than address that, of course, I just shook my head. “Lots of things going on right now. It feels weird to know that… you know, Koren and Jazz and the others are out fighting one thing, Valley, Rebecca, and Aylen are dealing with something else, and Sands and Scout went out earlier and ended up bringing back this Dakota girl.”

“You mean it feels weird that they’re out doing all that and you’re not there?” Dare asked with a raised eyebrow before pointing out, “It’s not as though you’re sitting on your laurels, Felicity.” 

Flushing a bit, I nodded. “I know, I get it. They probably feel the same way about me being in Vegas, then Canada and all that. I guess you get used to feeling helpless like that and just having to wait to see how it goes.” 

“If you do grow accustomed to it,” my secret grandmother informed me in a soft voice, “it hasn’t quite happened for me yet. But you do learn to tolerate it. Just be there when you can.” She gave me a brief, yet meaningful look, offering a small smile of reassurance. “That’s what matters.”

Before long, the five of us reached the area with the guest rooms. Or at least these ones. I was fairly confident that there were a lot more, considering the size of this place. Felix and Triss were outside in the corridor, apparently having a conversation about some band they both liked. When the two saw us coming, Felix’s eyes lit up and the Nekomata Hybrid grinned. “Well hey, looks like neither of you bet enough to lose your shirts in Vegas.” At a sideways kick to the leg from her half-sister, she coughed. “And that’s a good thing. Very good thing. Don’t gamble. Or something.” 

“Felix,” Dare spoke warningly, raising her voice just a little bit so that it shifted from more casual conversation to the tone of an authority figure. That was all she said, that one word. But it was enough. 

“I know, I know,” the girl conceded. “That one was a bit over the line. I heard it as soon as I said it. I might be pushing it a bit hard to avoid thinking about… other things.” The white cat ears on top of her head flattened a little as she looked to the nearby door. 

Exchanging a brief look with Vanessa to make sure we were on the same page, I spoke up. “It’s okay. What’s going on with the girl?” 

Triss replied, again with that faint Russian accent I’d noticed the first time we met, “Sarah and Sands are in there with her. They’re playing one of those Zelda games. Apparently they had it in the hospital the kid was in and she knows it backwards and forwards, inside and out. She keeps telling the twins all about the lore of the whole series. Something about multiple timelines.” 

“Sounds like something Shiori’d be able to help her with,” I noted. “Is… do you think she’s okay to talk right now?” 

Both of the sisters looked to each other before Felix nodded. “Kid’s pretty tough, considering what she went through.” 

So, we went inside. I saw Sands and Scout sitting on either side of a couch. Sure enough, they were watching the Zelda game on a large screen, while the girl in question sat between them. She was pretty tiny, looking practically malnourished, with very pale skin and dark hair that apparently refused to be tamed. When the door opened, the girl turned quickly, reacting almost like she had been shot as she stared at us. 

Then she had an… odd reaction. I saw her face light up with recognition, and she blurted, “Vanessa!” In one move, the kid flung herself over the back of the couch, landing on the floor before bolting that way to embrace the girl beside me. “Vanessa! You’re here, I didn’t know you were here!” 

“Whoa, hey,” I teased while stepping back. “Didn’t know you had history with the new girl. How come you didn’t say anything? Dakota Coalbright’s a pretty unique name.” 

Vanessa hadn’t pulled back from the embrace. She stood there, returning it while looking at me of total and complete confusion. She mouthed a silent, ‘I don’t remember her.’ 

Wait… no. That was impossible. Vanessa’s memory was perfect. She’d never forgotten anything in her life. 

So how could this Dakota girl know her so well that she instantly went for a hug, while Vanessa didn’t remember her at all? 

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Interlude 3B – Triss, Felix, Sands, and Sarah (Heretical Edge 2)

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Sometime While Flick And Company Are In Canada

“So, what’s the deal with all the twins around here?” seventeen-year-old Felix Laja, the human-Nekomata hybrid asked her six-month older half-sister (and full Nekomata), Triss. She was eyeing Sandoval and Sarah Lucas (formerly Mason) as the four of them stood in one of the transport rooms of the Fusion School space station. Or, as many had taken to calling it, the star station. “Not that I, or my dreams, are complaining, mind you. Just seems to be a lot of them.” 

For their part, Sands and Sarah looked to each other for a silent moment before stepping apart. The latter replied simply, “Heretic regeneration abilities gained from various kills increase the chance of multiple-birth pregnancies by anywhere from twenty-five percent to thirty-six percent.” 

“Whoa, really?” Felix blinked at the girl while tilting her head, the bangs of her short white-blonde hair falling into her face briefly before she blew them out. “I didn’t really think there was a–wait.” She squinted at the straight-faced Heretic for a second. “You’re screwing with me!”

Snickering, Sands gestured to Sarah. “Yeah, she is. But you had it coming. Seriously, gross.” 

“Don’t mind her,” Triss spoke up in an obviously long-suffering voice while poking her sister in the back of the head. “Between being a complete lech all the time, and her obsession with pushing people’s envelopes, sometimes Felix doesn’t know where the line actually is.” 

“I’m a cat,” the hybrid girl retorted while doing a quick casual standing backflip for no apparent reason other than boredom. “If someone tries to tell me where the line is, I push it off the table. Even if I have to drag it onto a table first. Look, the metaphor falls apart pretty easily.” 

Triss opened her mouth to retort that she was more of a cat then the other girl. But before the words could come, the door on the other side of the room opened and Risa Kohaku entered. The former head of Crossroads School Security (and former host of the Seosten Manakel) crossed the room to where they were. She held a computer pad in one hand and glanced at it before stopping briefly to tap something in. Then she looked to the group. “You girls okay with a trip?” 

“You asked for the four of us, right?” Sands piped up, her tone making it clear that she was incredibly curious. “Which, for the record, thank you. Seriously, you have no idea how boring it is just sitting around waiting for Flick, Columbus, and the others to get back from their thing. We can’t even bug Avalon cuz she’s busy with the spell stuff. And Mom’s on that trip to London.” 

Giving a slight nod of agreement, Sarah added, “Why did you ask for us specifically?”  

“Well,” the woman replied, “first, because I know the two of you–” She nodded to the twins. “–are good enough to pull this off. And because I promised your mom I’d take you on a mission if something came up that seemed to be your speed. Something about wanting you to have a chance to stretch your legs a bit. I don’t know, seems like she might trust you or something.” 

Then Risa glanced to Triss and Felix. “As for you two, well, let’s just say you’ll be very useful for what we’re going to be doing today. But before we get into that, I need all four of you to swear to me that you’re going to work together. I mean it. No running off on your own, no solo heroics, nothing like that. I don’t mean you have to be joined at the hip in a fight, but be reasonable. You all work together. If you don’t, I’m sending all four of you back here immediately.” She squinted at them to make her seriousness clear. “Do you understand?” 

There was a chorus of agreement from the group before Risa nodded. “Good. Now, as for what we’re actually doing, take a look at this.” She touched a couple buttons on her handheld computer and a hologram appeared a few feet away from her. It was about ten feet high and ten feet wide, an image of a very large farmhouse, nearly a mansion in its own right, sitting in the middle of nowhere with a rundown silo and a barn that was missing several large pieces of its walls on either side of it. There was a fenced-in paddock that looked as though it hadn’t seen use in decades. The road leading through the field up to the house was made of dirt and covered in very deep ruts from heavy vehicles moving over it repeatedly. Yet there was no sign of any such machinery at the farm. And from the looks of it, there hadn’t been for some time.

“The place is known as the Coalbright Farm,” Risa informed them. “It’s been abandoned for four years, ever since the nine-year-old daughter supposedly went crazy and killed her entire family one night. Two younger sisters, one younger brother, and one older brother, along with both parents and a grandfather.” 

“A fucking nine-year-old killed her entire family?” Sands demanded dubiously. 

“So they said,” Risa confirmed. “And so did she. They were found by neighbors the next morning with the girl sitting with the bodies. She claimed she was possessed by a demon, which forced her to do it. She was found psychologically unstable, and remanded to a mental health institution, where she stayed until one week ago, when she escaped by stabbing an orderly with a ballpoint pen and taking his keys.” 

“Seosten?” Sarah guessed immediately while making a face as she glanced toward her sister. 

Sands quickly nodded. “Yeah, maybe this kid was telling the truth about being possessed before, and she escaped when the Seosten came after her again to shut her up? Or the Seosten just possessed her again for some reason. I mean, they love secrets.”

“A fair thought,” Risa replied, “But why wait four years to do it? And why do it while there’s a truce going on? There could be an argument that it doesn’t apply to this particular situation, but still. I don’t think any of those in charge would take that kind of risk unless they absolutely had to. And whether it’s something they had to take that much of a risk on, or something unrelated, we need to know.” She paused before adding with a look to Felix and Triss, “In any case, the Seosten bit doesn’t answer the other part of this whole thing, the reason the other two are here.”   

“Let me guess,” Triss put in quickly, “ghosts. There’s ghosts at that farm from all those dead people and you want us along because we can make ghost-fire to help deal with them, right?”  

The woman nodded once more. “Of course, there’s been various reports of ghosts from the farm for the entire time, since shortly after the deaths. But in the past week, ever since the girl broke out of the hospital, those reports have skyrocketed. Eighteen people in the nearby town have talked about being woken up at night by ghostly figures outside their windows or even inside their rooms. The police searched the property several times since the girl escaped, but they found nothing, not even any sign that she’s been there at all. And yesterday morning, two teenagers who snuck into the place to show off were found dead. They supposedly hung themselves in the main room of the house, suspended together from the upstairs banister.” 

“I’m gonna hit the X for doubt button,” Felix piped up. “I mean, yeah, they totally obviously didn’t kill themselves. Duh. But what’s going on then? Someone possesses this girl or controls her somehow back when she’s gods damned nine years old to kill her whole family for no apparent reason, then four years pass where people in the town occasionally report a ghost, and now the girl breaks out of her hospital just in time for those ghost sightings to go up several thousand percent and a couple more people die? What’s the deal with all that? How’s it connected, how–ohhh, right, we’re supposed to figure that out.” Quickly, she looked to the other three. “Dudes, dibs on Daphne if we run into the Scooby gang out there. I totally called it, you all heard me.” 

Risa gave a slight shake of her head. “Yes, we did. Now, to the next point. Yes, the five of us are going to investigate the farm and figure out exactly what is really happening. But that’s not our primary goal. We’re actually looking for a group of refugee Alters who were supposed to hole up at the house to wait for extraction. We’ve used the farm a few times in the past months with no problems. This time, our people found out about the situation when a pair showed up to take the Alters to safety and found the place crawling with police dealing with the supposed suicides. That’s when we picked up the news about Dakota Coalbright escaping, and everything else.” 

She said that, and she was even pretty convincing. But Sarah knew better. Risa had been controlled by Manakel to do terrible things. It wasn’t a coincidence that she’d chosen this mission. The stated goal may have been to find the lost Alters, but it was pretty apparent that Risa Kohaku had stamped ‘and help the girl’ in bright red letters across that statement. 

“You don’t think it’s one of the Alters in the group that killed those teenagers, do you?” Sands asked, biting her lip uncertainly as she quickly added, “I mean, I know, I know, they’re not all bad. Come on, I get it by now, definitely. But there’s still some bad, just like there’s some bad humans.” 

“That’s part of why we’re investigating,” Risa confirmed. “Just in case. We need answers either way. But the fact that Dakota escaped so recently after such a long time seems like too much of a coincidence to be unrelated. It’s probable that the Alters we sent there are in just as much danger as anyone else. We’re going to find them and work out what actually happened. 

“So, everyone ready to go? Because I’m pretty sure this is going to be a long day.” 

********

With a terrifying shriek that would send cold chills through anyone’s heart, the gray-green ghostly figure of an old man with a pitchfork dove at Sands as she stood in the farmhouse kitchen. Instantly, the girl shifted into her two-dimensional shadow form and allowed the ghost to pass right over her. Then she popped back up, spinning while activating the spell she’d put on her mace that allowed it to hit intangible figures. “Hey, bitch!” she blurted while slamming the mace in the back of the ghost’s head, “You’re not the only one who can pull the ‘can’t hit me’ trick!” 

The ghost stumbled from the blow, just before two quick shots from Sarah’s sniper rifle came through an invisible portal and struck him in the chest. Like the mace, the bullets were enchanted to be able to hit him, and his form flickered while the man bellowed in a mindless rage, which literally shook the house from the force of his anger. A couple dust-covered paintings were knocked from the walls to shatter against the floor, and the lamp hanging above the table swung a bit, shuddering as it was nearly torn from the chain holding it to the ceiling. 

While her sister followed up the attack against the angry, staggering ghost, Sarah (crouched on the front porch of the house) briefly switched the view of her scope to see through a different portal. That one showed her the living room next to the kitchen, where Felix and Triss were busy fighting a couple more ghosts, those of the older brother and the mother who had been killed. Taking careful aim, she fired a shot that caught the brother and stunned him long enough for Triss to swipe a ghost-fire covered set of claws through his chest. Meanwhile, Felix launched herself backwards, bouncing off the wall and using that to propel herself forward into a flip above the mother-ghost. She ignited her hands with the same ghost-fire while dropping down on top of the figure with a loud snarl that was, in turn, drowned out by the howl from the ghost herself. 

Felix fell through the ghost after damaging her with the flaming claws. Before the ghost, in turn, could retaliate, Sarah fired a quick shot that caught her in the forehead and made her reel. That left her open for the Nekomata hybrid to spin and rake her claws through the ghost’s leg. 

Without missing a beat, Sarah shifted her scope view back to the kitchen. She saw Sands use the spider-web production power she’d gained from the Spinnevurrs the year before to catch hold of the kitchen table and yank it to herself. The table passed harmlessly through the ghost in front of her. But just as the table landed in front of her, Sands slapped a prepared spell-coin against it. At a command word from her, the table ignited with ghost-fire, making the intangible figure flinch backward with a shriek. Before he could react further, Sands lashed out with her foot and kicked the table into him. His entire form went up in flames while his horrible screech filled the air. While he was still engulfed by that powerful ghost-fire, Sands used a power she’d gained over the summer. Specifically, she extended her left hand and projected what amounted to a shotgun-like burst of power that was capable of severely disorienting conscious minds while also damaging or even unraveling spells and other magical constructs, particularly those who weren’t shielded or were caught unawares. Which, given the fact that ghosts like this were not actually the ‘spirits’ of dead people, but the remains of their magic given semi-conscious form, did a lot of damage. The burning figure was blown in half by the shotgun-like blast from Sands. 

Sarah, meanwhile, disabled her scope view. She remained where she was for a moment, before abruptly rising and spinning on one foot. As she did, the solid-hologram that had been made to look like her missing arm shifted and turned into a blade. The blade went right through the face of one of the younger sister ghosts who had been attempting to sneak up behind her. Of course, the solid-hologram did little to the ghost. But the eight-inch long metal cylinder that was projecting the hologram had been given the same ghost-fire spell enchantment, and Scout activated that with a word while the cylinder was buried in the surprised ghost’s head. The ghost became even more surprised as she burst into flames and dissipated. She wouldn’t be gone for good, of course. That would take a lot more. 

“Good job, Sarah.” That was Risa, who appeared through a conjured portal from where she had been fighting in the upstairs of the house. “That’s the last of them for now. Come on.” With that, she led the girl inside to meet up with the others, who had just gathered. “Everyone okay here?” 

“Peachy,” Triss replied while rubbing her shoulder. Her tail swished back and forth before catching against her sister’s and intertwining with it fondly. “But what do we do now? Those ghosts aren’t going to stay gone forever. They’re tied to this place, right? The house, it’s gotta be what’s keeping them here.” 

Felix bobbed her head quickly. “Yeah, sounds like the best thing is to burn the place down. Burn down the house, get rid of the ghosts. The home is their anchor, so we get rid of it, right?” 

“We do,” Risa confirmed. “But first, we check the basement.” 

The four girls exchanged confused glances before Sands asked, “What basement? We’ve been all over this place, there’s no stairs down to a basement.” 

With a wink, Risa replied, “That’s because someone hid them with magic. Which is why the police never found their missing fugitive.” With that, she turned to an apparently blank part of the wall and made a gesture with her hand. A chunk of that wall was torn away, revealing a set of stairs leading, sure enough, down into the darkness. “Stay together, girls,” she ordered, before starting to descend. 

All five descended the stairs carefully, finding themselves in a wide open, unfinished basement. A dark-haired, pale young girl who had very clearly been long-deprived of much sunlight sat in the middle of the room on the hard basement floor. She was small and thin, her hair and skin dirty and clearly uncared for through not only this past week, but for quite some time before. Even as the group approached with weapons drawn, the thirteen-year-old spoke in a trembling voice. “It’s too late. It’s too late, he came back. He came back, he came back.” There was terror and loss in her voice and she barely seemed cognizant that they were there. 

Giving the students a look for them to be quiet, Risa carefully asked, “Who came back, Dakota? What happened here? What happened four years ago?” She took a knee next to the girl. “It’s okay.” Extending a hand carefully, she used a subtle power that would calm the clearly traumatized thirteen-year-old’s wild emotions slightly. 

It didn’t help very much. She blinked up, tears streaming down her face. “There were people here this week, strange people with powers and magic. He took them. They found their way in here and he took them. They broke the magic and came in here. They weren’t supposed to come in here. They found him, and he took them.” As she spoke, Dakota raised a small hand to point across the room. The group looked that way, but all they could see was a shattered flowerpot with a bit of dirt lying around it. 

“Dad… Dad went on a trip,” the girl was explaining in a hollow voice. “He went on a trip and he… he brought back a flower for Mom. But the flower was evil. The flower was evil. It made everyone do bad things. Mom, Dad, James, even Raina and she was practically a baby. I felt it too. I felt it too. It made me so mad. Like when James used to make fun of me cuz I sucked at basketball, but… but worse. Really worse. It was like that for everybody. We attacked each other. W-we… we attacked each other and I heard his voice. I heard… I heard him laugh. I could hear him laughing. And he.. he told us to kill each other. I wanted to kill them. I wanted to kill my Mom and Dad. I wanted to kill my–we were– They wanted to kill me. I was–he made us. He made us. I’m sorry. Oh god, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” The girl shuddered heavily, slow tears falling down her face as she continued, sounding empty and lost.  “I heard his voice again. I heard it in the hospital and I knew he was back. I knew someone found the basement. The doctor who believed me said he’d hide it with magic and no one would find it, but someone found it. Those people found it. I tried to tell them but they were already affected. They heard his voice and they ran away. They left. But my family–my family was here. I couldn’t–I couldn’t–” With that, she dissolved into wretched sobbing, doubling over.

“Something in a flower… turned all these people into violent monsters,” Sands murmured softly. “It was hidden down here in the basement, but the Alters found it and were affected. That… somehow woke up this thing and now the Alters are gone? Where’d they go?” 

Risa shook her head. “I don’t know, but…Dakota, this is important.” She tenderly touched the girl’s shoulder. “We’re going to take care of you, I promise. Nothing is going to hurt you anymore. But we need to know, where did the flower come from? Where did your father get that flower?” 

The answer came in a halting, miserable voice. “Canada.

“He brought it from Canada.”

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Learning Days Daze 2-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So that class was fun. For all of Sinbad’s (yes, that Sinbad) crazy played-up sense of drama, he was also a really good teacher. He explained things well, his style made everyone want to pay attention even if he was a bit cheesy at times (and I had absolutely no room to talk on that front), and he made everything exciting. Not that he needed that much help to make sailing a boat on a gigantic lake while talking about treasure hunting and sea monsters exciting, but still. It was interesting, even though all we did was basic introductions and a few back-and-forth questions. He promised that we would be learning basic water survival and training-type scenarios here on the station in a controlled environment where they knew exactly what and who were in the water, before going to various oceans to experience real-world adventures. That’s exactly what he called them, adventures. Like his own. 

Whatever else happened, I had a feeling that class was going to be one of my favorites.

After that one was History of Africa, with two teachers. One was a Natural Kongamato Heretic. The Kongamato, apparently, were basically pterosaurs with long beaks and a seven foot wingspan. In the case of Mr. Obi, he had those large wings growing out of his back. Apparently he could retract them, but rarely did because he didn’t feel like hiding who and what he was. 

His partner in teaching the class was an Alter known as a Rompo. And he was… well, definitely one of the odder looking Alters I’d encountered. Basically, he had the legs and rump of a large bear. The middle part of his body was literally an exposed skeleton with bones and everything (though no visible organs). His arms were like badger legs and paws (though with opposable thumbs), and he had a head like that of a rabbit. With human ears. Yup. The head of a rabbit but human ears, it was just… a complete mishmash of features including the skeleton thing. 

In any case, he called himself Boris, and he had made it incredibly clear (in a similar way to how Professor Carfried had repeatedly informed us that magic was not fast the year before) that if we saw anyone who looked like him, any of his people, we were to attack or run away. Preferably the latter. He said that while the school was right to teach that not all Alters were evil, he had never met another of his own kind who weren’t amoral monsters, and that he himself had been somehow magically altered to be the way he was now. Which was absolutely a story I wanted to hear more about at some point, and I was pretty sure I wasn’t the only one. 

We had that class, which again, mostly amounted to introductions. After that hour, it was time for lunch. I was walking along the station corridor with Tristan, Vanessa, and Avalon to meet up with the others. Tristan was regaling us with how amazing he thought Sinbad was. But while he was in mid-sentence, I was distracted by a shout from down the hall, followed by a loud snarl. 

We didn’t even look at each other, we just started running that way. Coming around the corner, the four of us found two figures apparently facing off, with several more around them. One of the figures was a guy from Crossroads, a dark-haired boy from a year ahead of us wearing a muscle shirt and ripped jeans. The other was… well, a cat-girl. Yeah, I’d referred to Triss as a cat-girl, but she was more of an anthropomorphic cat. This girl, on the other hand, looked human with pale white skin and short white-blonde hair that fell just below her second set of ears. 

Yeah, second set. Because she had two pairs, the regular human ones in the usual place which was what her hair fell just under, and a pair of white cat ears atop her head. She also had a matching white cat tail. Oh, and claws that came out of her human fingers. Those claws were out now, as she literally hissed at the boy in front of her. “Shove me again,” the girl snarled, “and we’ll see which of us has more lives to give up.” 

“Stop it!” The voice came from one of the onlookers, a human (or human-looking that didn’t set off my Heretic-sense at least) girl with long black hair that had a few blue highlights. She put herself between the two. “Yonic, knock it off! Felix, it’s okay. It’s over now. It’s over.” 

Avalon gave me a brief look before stepping that way. “What happened over here?” 

“What happened,” the boy muttered without taking his eyes off the cat-girl, “is I don’t like some half-breed chick hitting on my girlfriend. How does that sound for ‘what happened?’” 

In response, the cat-girl flashed a wide smile that showed off an impressive array of teeth. “Hey, if I’m competing across an entire gender and half a species and winning, maybe you’re the problem.” 

“Damn it, Felix,” the girl between them snapped at her, “you’re not helping.” To the boy, she added, “She’s just pushing your buttons because you’re being a jerk, Yonic. Go take a walk, then we can sit down and have lunch, okay? Walk it off, before something bad happens.” 

Seeming to only really understand then that there was an audience, Yonic paused before exhaling. “Fine, yeah. Sorry. I just… new school, new everything, it’s…” He made a vague hand waving gesture before turning to walk away. His movement took him past us, and I heard him mutter under his breath about needing to punch something that he wouldn’t get in trouble for.

Before the rest of us could say anything, Triss appeared. She came from the other side, stopping short before squinting at the… other… slightly less cat-like girl. “Felix, what happened?” 

“It’s okay,” the girl who had been between the two insisted. “There was just a little disagreement. Some tempers. It happens, especially here and now. No one got hurt, aside from ruffled feathers. Um, metaphorically speaking.” 

“Yeah,” Felix agreed, folding her arms with a shrug. “No one’s hurt, no one has to go see the nurse. Unless you’re into that.” The last was added with a tilted head, as her cat-ears perked up.

The girl she clearly had been flirting with flushed a bit, head shaking. “I uhh, I better go make sure Yonic’s okay.” She hesitated, looking to the other girl with what looked like tempted curiosity, before shaking her head as she hurried after her boyfriend. 

“One day, Felix,” Triss was muttering softly, head shaking. “Can we go through one day without you getting into a fight by stealing people’s significant others?” 

Giving a languid shrug, the other girl drawled, “Last time I checked, ‘stealing’ means taking by force or deceit. If I throw the bait out there and they jump on it, is it really stealing? They can make their own decisions.”

Tristan stepped over that way, followed closely by Vanessa as he spoke up. “So you’re Felix?” 

“Yeah, what–” the girl started dismissively before giving a brief double-take as she looked over the twins. “Yes, yes I am. And I am so into whatever this is.” Her hand gestured toward them. 

In a flat, dull voice, Vanessa spoke while walking away from her brother and around the group toward the cafeteria. “I’m going to go eat something, so I can throw it up.” 

Sighing, Triss looked to the rest of us, then gestured vaguely. “This is Felix, my little half-sister.” 

“Six months younger,” the other girl cut in, cat-ears twitching a bit at the reminder. “Not even a full year. Dad got pretty busy that year.” Belatedly, she added, “And yeah, the name is really Felix. What can I say? Mommy really expected a boy and when I popped out, she panicked. Felix the cat. She thought it was going to be funny. Personally, I think it would’ve been a worse name if I actually was a boy.” 

Snorting despite myself, I stepped over by Avalon. “Well hey, Felix, I’m Flick. This is Avalon. We’re sort of roommates with your sister. Or housemates, at least.” 

“And I’m Tristan, the cute neighbor,” the blond boy put in while extending a hand to her. “You saw my sister Vanessa run off a minute ago. You wanna go get lunch with us?” 

“And bug my big sister some more? I’m into it.” Felix all-but purred while her tail moved up around the other girl’s wrist affectionately, before Triss’s own tail pushed it aside. Their tails then intertwined a bit. It was pretty cute. 

So, we went off to have lunch with the others. Our classes, at least for those of us who were considered adults by the school, were over for the day. Next would come physical training. So having food first was probably a pretty good idea. 

Because I had a feeling that Avalon was really going to put me through my paces today.

*******

Hours later, after dinner, Sarah and I had gone to meet Brom Bones in one of the magical study rooms. The room was set up as a large oval, all the walls curved and covered it with various protection runes to stop stray magic from getting out. Both the walls and the floor were heavily reinforced metal, while the ceiling was made from some kind of red gem substance that was supposed to gradually absorb any leftover spell work that wasn’t fully cleaned up properly. 

At the moment, the two of us were facing our necromancy instructor. Or,  more to the point, we were facing his head, which was sitting on his metal stand while his body did some work on the floor behind us. Brom was talking. “So, you haven’t had any luck in pulling your little visitor in after that first time, huh? That’s not that surprising, given how far away her remains must be and how long ago she died. Honestly, the fact she was able to get to you at all it is really impressive. I wonder how long she was trying to reach you…” His eyes glanced off into the distance as he got lost in thought before shaking himself. That was, the head literally shook itself, which was still a really odd sight. He couldn’t exactly shrug, but I got that impression from just looking at him. Actually, for all I knew, his body was shrugging behind us. I was restraining the urge to turn and check when I saw Sarah glance that way out of the corner of my eye. Our gazes met, and she gave a subtle nod. 

With a small smile at that, I pointed out, “We don’t exactly have a lot of time left before…” I trailed off for a few seconds, then swallowed hard and pushed on. Not saying it out loud wouldn’t make it any less true. “We don’t exactly have a lot of time left before Fossor’s going to make his play. I’ve been practicing and training for months, and I still don’t know what’s going to happen. I need some kind of help, some kind of advantage that he’s not expecting. His sister could be that advantage, but we have to get her back. Whatever it takes, I don’t have a choice. We have to.” 

Sarah put a hand on my arm, her voice quiet as she reminded me, “You won’t be alone.” 

With a little nod, I caught her hand and squeezed it gratefully. “I know that… I know all you guys are going to help as much as you can. I know. And I’m definitely not gonna do something stupid like try to face him alone. Trust me, I’m totally aware of how idiotic that would be. But… but I’m also not going to plan everything around assuming I’ll be in a nice safe bubble surrounded by friends the whole time. If there’s a way to separate me from all of you, Fossor will do it, and I’m going to plan on being able to handle it if that happens. I have to cover all the bases.

“Besides,” I added pointedly, “no matter how many people are with me, having Fossor’s sister around would be helpful if she really wants to take him down. No one’s managed to do it so far. All they’ve done is make him walk on the ashes of his own people while he’s here on Earth. Which, while a super-fitting aesthetic for a necromancer, doesn’t actually help all that much when he’s willing to kill millions just to have that ash to step on. We have to have something else, something better.” I exhaled then, squeezing my friend’s hand one more time before releasing it. “Rahanvael is our best, maybe only shot at something he won’t see coming.”

Brom’s body moved past me, picking up his head as the man spoke. “You’re right, she is probably the best chance at taking that necromantic piece of shit down. So yeah, I’ll help you figure out how to pull her in again. But I’ll need a little time to look into some rare boosting rituals that might work with your particular brand of necromancy, okay?” 

I knew what he was saying. My necromancy, inherited from Manakel, wasn’t exactly like his. It did a lot of the same stuff, just without most of the effort that others had to put into it. The way the headless–errr head-adjacent man had explained it, there were two general kinds of necromancers. First there were the ones who didn’t have an innate power for it, they just used magic to build up the power in themselves, essentially transforming their own magic temporarily into necromancy magic. Then there were the ones like Fossor or Manakel (and now me) who always had necromancy magic inside them and just had to learn to direct it properly. We just sort of skipped step one. For the bigger things, even we needed ingredients and spellwork and such, but even that would always be easier and quicker for us. Especially for someone like Fossor, who had been doing this stuff for millennia. 

“I’ve got some leads already,” Brom assured me, tucking his head up under his arm. “There are some pretty rare books out there that might have what you need. But if we do figure out where they are, it won’t be easy to get to them. Especially if you don’t want Fossor to have any idea what you’re doing.” 

Sarah spoke up then, pointing out, “He knows she got some necromancy power. Would he really be surprised that she was looking into more books to learn about it?” 

Blinking, I nodded. “She’s got a point. He knows I’ve got the power and that I want to fight him. Me looking for more necromancy secrets wouldn’t be that much of a surprise. And it’d be a pretty big leap to go from there to me having access to the sister he killed millennia ago.” 

“Right, fair,” Brom conceded with a wave of his free hand. “Okay, then I won’t worry too much about keeping it completely secret. Still, we should keep it as quiet as possible. And when we do find out where these books might be?” 

“Then we’ll go after them,” I confirmed, glancing to Sarah to see the other girl nodded firmly. “You find out where those special books are and we’ll go get them. But like I said, please try to make it as soon as possible. Because my birthday is coming up really fast. 

“And I might just be one of the only people in history not looking forward to turning eighteen.” 

******

“Then Mr. Toppers said we get to learn about the Belv period on Korgo,” Tabbris was excitedly telling me that night while we were in our room. We were both sitting up in our beds, and I was watching as my little sister regaled me with how her day at school had gone. “That’s the planet the Relukun come from. It’s like, all trees. Super big trees that are alive and the Relukun are like their seeds or saplings or something that gain sapience. Like, there’s two different kinds of saplings that come off the world trees on Korgo, the ones that grow into the big trees and the ones that get smart and become the Relukun. But the Relukun still procreate, sort of… they can take pieces of themselves off that can become new younger Relukun. And the Belv period is basically like their version of medieval Earth, where this guy called Pala like, took over three-quarters of their world and made everyone worship this god called Moz.” 

She went on like that for a bit, while I just smiled and watched. She loved her classes, and her classmates, and her teachers. There were a few that she didn’t get along with, of course. And I could tell there was stuff that she wasn’t telling me about how her day went. But overall, it seemed to have been pretty good. Which was great. I wanted my little sister, my partner, to have her own life. Even if I missed being able to talk to her in my head sometimes while I was in my own classes. This was for the best. It was the right thing. 

“Oh, um…” Pausing in mid-sentence, the other girl looked to me. “I know it’s been a couple days for all this stuff, but are you gonna see her again tonight?” 

I nodded. “Yeah, I’ll see her again.”

“Tell her I said hi.” With that, she launched right back into the same story she’d been talking about before. But eventually, even Tabbris wound down. She mumbled something about how it was okay if I left the light on, gradually passing out with her head under the blanket. Watching her for a few long seconds, I smiled to myself before exhaling. Then I shifted, lying down on my own bed as I stared up at the ceiling. 

Okay, I thought silently, I’m ready. 

My eyes closed for a moment, before opening once more. Only they didn’t really. I wasn’t opening my physical eyes. I was opening my eyes inside my own mind, in a mental construct of a pine forest. There were birds chirping in the distance, and the sound of a rushing stream somewhere nearby. 

It was all in my head, completely made up. It wasn’t real, even if it felt, tasted, sounded, and looked completely real. It was in my head. But I hadn’t made it. At least, not by myself. I had help. 

“You’re ready?” the source of that help spoke up from behind me, and I turned that way. 

“Yes,” I replied, “I know I took a couple days off to get settled into the new school, but I’m good now. Ready to go.” 

“Good,” the virtual replica of Chayyiel that the Seosten herself had left in my head back when she possessed me in the Crossroads prison announced.  

“Because I’ve got a lot more training to put you through.”

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Fusion 1-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Yup, Rahanvael, Fossor’s sister… apparently. She was a ghost, as in a real honest to God ghost. She’d first contacted me almost two months back, basically right after we saved Sean from the Crossroads prison. I’d been standing alone, lamenting that we had no real advantage over Fossor when she had simply… shown up out of the blue. Which, yeah, was a tad convenient. Too convenient, really, aside from the fact that I had been deeply wishing for some kind of advantage. According to the ghost-girl herself, my inherited necromancy had responded to that, pulling at anything dead that was connected to Fossor. She’d felt it and appeared. 

But again, that was all really convenient. I’d basically figured the whole thing had ‘Fossor trap’ written all over it. Especially given how pissed off he had to be about Sariel taking his two hostages. It seemed just like him to pull something like sending some ghost claiming to be his sister just so he could fuck with me. Hell, it could even be the start of his play to grab me later. 

So yeah, the whole trap/trick thing definitely occurred to me. In fact, I was basically assuming it at first. I was just waiting for her to try to tell me how I had to keep her a secret so no one found out she was helping, conveniently isolating me from my friends and all that. She’d tempt me with promises about being able to save my mom if I kept her a secret for an advantage or whatever. 

And then she told me to get people who were stronger than me, people who knew magic better than I did. Necromancers if possible. She said I shouldn’t listen to anything she said until I brought someone, preferably multiple someones, who I trusted completely that could test her. She told me she wouldn’t say another word until I brought people who knew how to test ghosts for various things, such as to find out who was controlling them or if they were lying or not. 

Yeah. That uhh, that had definitely thrown me for a loop. But I’d done as she asked, getting Professor Dare, Wyatt, and Sariel. Between the three of them, I figured if there was any chance this was a fake or a trick or whatever, they’d be able to figure it out. And then Sariel had (with my permission) brought Apollo in on it too. Four. I’d even wanted to bring in Brom Bones, but he wasn’t anywhere near the camp at the time. But still, four of the strongest people I knew were checking out this ‘Rahanvael’, running her through every test they could figure out. 

And they’d come up with nothing. As far as all four of them working together could determine, the ghost wasn’t connected to Fossor, or to anyone else aside from the tether she had with me. My energy was supporting her appearance here. She wasn’t being controlled by anyone. Further, when she said she was Fossor’s sister, every truth spell or power they’d used had come up clean. She let Apollo talk to her long enough for his power to work (he said it had worked on ghosts before plenty of times), and telling her to tell the truth hadn’t changed anything. Magic, powers, whatever they used, the story stayed the same. She was Fossor’s sister. She wanted to help take him down. As far as we could tell, it was all true. 

Unfortunately, no sooner had Dare, Wyatt, Apollo, and Sariel convinced themselves that the ghost-girl wasn’t some creature summoned by Fossor to fuck with me, than she’d started to disappear. All she’d had time to say was that it was incredibly hard to manifest and that she would reach out to me again as soon as she could, and that if I sent out a sort of… necromantic beacon to her, she’d try to grab onto it again and come back. 

So, we had taken the time to be as certain as we could that it wasn’t some Fossor trap (and Wyatt was still at least half-convinced that it was even if he couldn’t explain how), only to run out of time to actually talk to her. But I wouldn’t have changed what I did. Better to be sure (or as sure as possible) than to start taking information or advice from something Fossor had thrown together to fuck with me. She’d be back, and maybe then I could actually get the whole story out of her. 

But that had been a couple months ago. And the most I’d managed so far while ‘throwing out a necromantic tether’ was to pull in several unrelated ghosts. Some of them were fun to talk to, or at least pleasant about the whole situation. Others… weren’t. I’d had a few turn violent. Most of those I could simply dispel, shoving away from me back to where they’d come from. One had been too strong for my still-budding power, and I’d had to use the spell on my staff that let me hit ghosts. That left a bit of a mess, and I’d held off a bit on trying to summon Rahanvael again. 

I’d also talked about ghosts a bit with Brom Bones once I actually had the chance to.

According to Brom, ghosts weren’t actually the full person. It wasn’t like you died, you became a ghost, and then you were stuck like that forever. A ghost wasn’t a person’s spirit, it was their magic. Yeah. Basically, when a person died, their magic was supposed to fizzle out and dissipate. But sometimes (particularly with rituals or necromancers involved, or suitably traumatic experiences), the magic instead took on the form of the person it had belonged to. They were instilled with the person’s memories and personality and whatnot, but they weren’t actually that person. So this Rahanvael wasn’t actually Fossor’s sister, she was what remained of her magical energy when the girl had died. Her memories and personality instilled in a sort of… core of magic. And when I summoned her, that same magical core was brought to me and filled in by the energy around her. Essentially, the core was like a… pattern of the person, and they manifested by pulling in ambient (or projected) magical energy to fill in the rest of their form in that shape. 

When Fossor summoned his ghosts to step on their ashes here on Earth, what they were doing was transporting the ashes of their bodies.  Which was something they could do, apparently. Ghosts were linked to their remains, but could also be linked to other things. That was where the idea of ghosts being connected to heirlooms or cursed objects or whatever had come from.  

As far as Rahanvael went, Brom said it made sense that she couldn’t manifest very easily. Her core would be very old by that point, not to mention far away from Earth. The energy and time it would take for her to project herself all the way here, without attracting the attention of her super-necromancer brother, would be extraordinary. Even with my own power reaching out to her like a hand and beacon all rolled into one, it probably took a hell of a lot of effort. 

So I understood why it was taking so long for her to come back. I was just hoping we’d have a chance to talk again before my birthday rolled around. Which was why I kept trying. That and Brom had told me that the more I reached out to her, the easier it would be for her to eventually find her way back. I just had to keep, as he said, turning on the lighthouse for her to navigate to. 

In any case, I’d be trying that again later tonight. For the moment, after making sure all of our stuff was safe in the room (and sending a text to Dare about which room we were in for Tabs to get her bed), we headed out together to look around the rest of the house some more. 

As the two of us came out, Kersel was standing in his open doorway on the opposite end of the attic. I took that second to really look at him. Other Relukuns I had known, like Karees, the one we’d helped escape from that Seosten slave camp with Jokai, were old, ancient and twisted in form. But Kersel was young. He was about five feet tall, so a few inches shorter than me. Other than that, he looked like a human covered in bark. In his case, the bark was white with some black spots, like a birch tree. But I’d seen Relukun with much darker bark-skin. They had the same number of legs and limbs as a human, like a tree literally given a humanoid form. His hair was like vines covered in dark leaves, falling to his shoulders. His eyes (Relukun had two of them as well, just like humans) appeared to be made of glass, or something similar. They were like very high end doll eyes inside a wooden figurine. 

When I waved, Kersel hesitated before raising his hand briefly. Then he just turned around, stepped into his room, and closed the door once more, all without saying anything. 

“He’s so chatty,” I remarked to Tabbris, “how are we supposed to get a word in edgewise?” 

She snickered a little before sobering as we reached the stairs. “Do you think he’s mad because he knows you have the wood-traveling power? You use it enough, it probably gets out.” 

Pausing, I considered. “Maybe. I don’t know how mad he is, but at least distant. If he knows about the wood power, he has to know that I’ve killed one of his people. That might be why he’s keeping us at arms length. Or maybe he’s just rightfully nervous about Heretics.” 

“Or both,” Tabbris pointed out, as we descended the stairs, stepping onto the second floor. 

“Pounce!” With that declaration, Shiori suddenly popped up. I found myself pinned against the wall, an altogether not exactly unpleasant situation, considering who was doing the pinning. “Or both what?” she asked, holding me there while batting her eyelashes rapidly. “Something fun?” 

Swallowing at the way she made me feel, I wrapped both arms around the other girl’s neck, shaking my head. “Just trying to work out why Kersel is so standoffish. You know, besides the fact that Heretics have been hunting and killing his people for thousands of years. Come to think of it, maybe we don’t have to come up with any other ideas. He’s got plenty of reason.”

“You know, we tend to call all you guys Boschers.” That remark came from Jason, who was just coming out of the nearby living room. He leaned against the archway while adding a casual, “Since ‘Heretic’ kinda lumps us Naturals in with you, and we don’t exactly like that.” 

“Oh, like Hieronymous, got it,” I realized. “Boschers. Yeah, I guess I can see that. Makes sense that Natural Heretics would have another word for us so they didn’t lump themselves in with all the psycho genocide and shit.” My arms were still around Shiori, though she had turned around to face the boy so that her back was to me, and I squeezed her a bit. “Can’t blame them.” 

“Hey, umm…” I hesitated a little, unsure of how this was supposed to go. “I’m sorry if this is rude or whatever, but I’ve never met a Prevenkuat Heretic. I know you can–I mean we can get enhanced hearing from them, but what do you… I mean, what can you…” 

He offered me a smile that showed his human teeth… which subsequently elongated into canines. It was like in the movies when a vampire makes their fangs appear, only with every tooth. “These chompers can bite through a lot of things,” he explained. “Short of like… steel. Wood, brick, plastic, rocks, I can bite through it. Plus, whatever I bite I get a sort of… sense of. I can follow it within a certain distance, and if it’s a person, I can kind of get impressions of what they’re about to do before they do it. That’s if I’m close enough, and it’s only a second or two lead.” 

“Must help in a fight though,” Shiori noted, her own voice just as curious as I felt. 

He nodded. “Not super reliable, but it’s come in handy before.” With a shrug, the boy added, “Beyond that, I’ve got really good hearing, sight, and smell. Plus a little bit of extra strength. And I’m quick. Not Wally West quick, but I can run a good hundred klicks per hour. But just to answer the question you’re definitely wondering, no, I don’t have a second head. I do have a second brain. Well, sort of. One brain, but I can focus on two completely different things at once. Like read a book while thinking about something totally different. And I’m ambidextrous, so I can write two completely different things on two different pieces of paper at the same time. That’s pretty cool. Also helps me fight and think about homework at the same time. Which I’ve definitely done before. You’d be surprised how many Bystander teachers don’t take ‘I was fighting a troll last night’ as an excuse for not having your homework done.” Pausing, he shrugged. “Guess that’s less of a problem now, huh?” 

“Bystander teachers?” That was Columbus, coming in from the kitchen. “You went to normal school?” 

The Asian boy glanced that way while confirming, “Yeah, see, a lot of us Naturals don’t exactly have the structure the Boschers do. There are places for it, but it’s more… casual. We get mentors if we’re lucky. That is, the ones who don’t get killed by either real monsters, or the regular Alters who think they’re just defending themselves because they see a human who can recognize them and think that we’re Boschers who are immune to their Heretic sense.” 

“Oh, that’s right,” I piped up. “Naturals don’t set off their danger sense because it’s the Reaper bit that does that.” So some Alters who saw Natural Heretics just assumed they were like… well, me, and didn’t give off the danger sense until they used their power. Or, I supposed, thought they were using a spell to muffle the sense. Either way. 

He gave me a brief nod. “Yup. So they think we’re about to kill them and act first. It’s a real treat, lemme tell you.” 

Wincing, I started to say something to that. But Triss spoke first, on her way down the stairs from the second floor. “Heretics kill you fast. If you don’t act faster, you’re dead.” She paused on the last step, glancing toward Shiori and me, then to Columbus before adding, “Most of your people don’t stop to ask questions. They see us, they kill us.” Her ears flattened then. “They’re good at killing.” 

“That’s why we’re here.” Those words came from Avalon, who was descending the stairs behind Triss while reminding her, “To change that. It’s the entire point of this school.” 

“Yes,” the cat-girl replied, ears flicking that way as she shot a quick glance to Avalon before descending the rest of the way and turning to put the wall to her back (and all of us within her line of sight). “That is why I am here. I wish to see this for myself.” 

Tabbris, who had moved over by Columbus, spoke up. “Um, I’m sorry if this is really rude, but…you’re not a Rakshasa, right?”

“Why?” Triss asked with what sounded and looked like equal parts defensiveness and curiosity. “You hate Rakshasa or something?” 

Tabbris’s head shook quickly. “Oh, no! Nuh uh, I was just curious cuz I didn’t recognize you. I–like I said, I’m sorry if–”

“No, it is okay.” It sounded like Triss was making the effort to calm her initial suspicion. “You are allowed to ask. There will be… questions, I know.” The more she spoke, the more I heard that faint Russian accent. Or maybe it was her nerves bringing it out more prominently. “No, I’m not a Rakshasa. My people are called Nekomata.” 

Tilting her head that way, Shiori asked, “I thought Nekomata had two tails, though.” 

Now Triss looked more embarrassed than anything. “We… we do, when we are fully grown. My second tail has not… come yet.” Defensively, she added, “But I am still capable!” 

Quickly, I assured her, “Oh, don’t worry, we’re sure you are. Besides, that just means you’ve got something to grow into. But still, Nekomata, I know I’ve heard that before.” 

“They make ghost-fire,” Avalon reminded me in a quiet voice. “The flames that can hurt ghosts or intangible things.” 

“Oh, wow.” Looking back to Triss, I asked, “So your people make ghost-fire?” 

In answer, she held up her paws (wait, were they hands if they had the full human-like fingers and thumb and were just covered in fur? I wasn’t sure how that worked). As we watched, her claws extended, and sparks of blue-white flame appeared around them. “I can’t make very much,” Triss admitted with clear embarrassment. “Only the little bit like this. It is just enough to make my claws damage the ghosts. Full-grown two-tailed Nekomata can make and throw it as… balls of fire. And more.” 

“Like Flick said,” Columbus put in, “it’s something to grow into. And hey, being able to hit ghosts with your claws is pretty cool by itself.” 

With a nod, I agreed, “He’s right, it’s damn cool.” 

The look on Triss’s face was interesting… and a little sad. First she perked up like she was happy that we thought her power was cool. Then her expression turned a bit more suspicious, as if she was suddenly worried about what Bosch Heretics liking her power could mean. She had almost relaxed, but that moment of suspicion and uncertainty made her withdraw a bit again. “Yes, well… you have advantages of your own.” 

“True,” Columbus agreed with a look over toward Avalon. “And speaking of advantages, what’s going on with you-know-who, anyway?” 

Jason’s mouth opened, but Valley spoke first. “He means my ancestor. Dries Aken, the man who killed his own father-in-law, Hieronymus Bosch.” 

“Wait, so that’s true?” Jason asked curiously. “You’re really descended from the monster and the hero?” 

Blinking, I raised a hand. “Why do I feel like you’re reversing the order of those two from the way Crossroads does when they tell the story?” 

“Bosch is the monster,” Jason confirmed. “Dries is the hero who tried to stop him from creating his regime of genocidal maniacs and paid for it.” He did a double-take. “Wait, what does he mean ‘what’s going on with?’ I– hang on, is he alive?!” His eyes were wide and eager, like he’d just found out that he had a chance to meet one of his childhood heroes. 

Muttering something under her breath before clearing her throat, Avalon gave him a short nod. “He’s alive, but he’s not great with outsiders. And Hieronymus wasn’t a monster, or at least we don’t think he was. He was possessed, by the Seosten called Radueriel. They made him make the Heretical Edge. And that whole possessing thing is what Dries… and others are working on fixing.” 

“They’ve been working on that spell for months now,” I mused. “Are they almost ready to use it?” 

With a glance to me, the other girl replied, “They would’ve been done before now, but they decided to make it bigger. They started with making it so Heretics couldn’t be possessed without permission, linking it to the Heretical Edge for power. But, you know, we can’t exactly reach the Edge right now. So they started looking for something else and… well, then we ended up setting up school right in the middle of a gigantic power source.” 

“The sun?” Jason blinked at that, looking around. “They’re using the sun as a magic power source?” 

Her head bobbed once. “Yeah. And since they had so much power to work with, they figured why not go the extra mile. Instead of linking the Seosten-protection spell to Heretics, they’ll link it to everyone who joins us. Bosch Heretics, Naturals, Alters, whatever. They’ll all be immune to non-voluntary possession, as long as they come back up here every once in awhile and renew it at the source.” 

“Well,” I murmured, “that sounds convenient.” 

“Should be,” Avalon agreed. “But it’s taking awhile to make it work. Hopefully they’ll be done soon.” 

“No kidding,” Columbus replied with a brief dark look, clearly looking back at his own memories of being enslaved by Charmiene. 

Swallowing, I pushed on. “Right, well, what do you guys say we go out, meet the neighbors, and look around a little. And make sure we work up our appetites. 

“Because if I know anything about Chef Gisby, dinner tonight is gonna be ridiculous.”

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Fusion 1-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Note: check the first comment after the chapter for some fantastic new character art by Coshiua. 

We rode the elevator (well, I called it an elevator, it was more like a mobile forcefield with glowing walls that surrounded us) down toward the living areas in groups of about ten or so. The people who would be living together in each house. In this case, our group consisted of Avalon, Shiori, Rebecca, Miranda, Columbus, Doug, and me along with that Jason/Danuja guy (the Natural Prevenkuat Heretic), the Relekun Kersel, and the cat-girl Triss. Not to mention Salten and Choo.

Tabbris was here too. She’d be living with us, while going to school in her own group. It was a deal we’d come up with. Our dad and a few others thought that Tabbris should have a chance to be with people closer to her own age some more. But they also knew that separating us would be a bad idea. So we came to an arrangement that she would live with us and also attend some of our classes and training (as well as participating in missions she could help with), but attend most of her classes with the younger groups. She was basically far beyond what they would be learning, of course, but Abigail and Dad both said she could benefit from being around people her own age at least for a semester. After the semester, if she really didn’t like it, they’d revisit the situation. 

Staring down through the forcefield floor, Rebecca murmured, “Holy crap. There’s a whole town down there. Look at all those houses. And… wait, are those other places over there more living areas?” 

“It’s like the spokes of a wheel,” I explained, watching as we descended toward the hill in the middle of the area gradually (I was pretty sure the elevator had been purposefully slowed down to give each group a chance to see where they would be living). “Each spoke is a different general city type. See those cliff dwellings over there to the left of the human area with the giant… uhh, bug people flying around?” I indicated the mosquito-like beings with humanoid faces. “They’re called the Teun. They helped build this whole place. They’re like… really good at architecture and design. And to the right, that place that looks like the volcano area of a video game with the red canine-people? Those are the… umm… Tabs?” 

“Lupera,” she reminded me. “They’re miners from the same world the Akharu and Vestil come from.” 

Right, the Akharu (the original source of vampires, like Senny’s dad), Vestil, and Lupera all came from the same world, along with one more sapient race. There was something about a war on their world between all of them, the Akharu won some kind of ‘throne’ or something that made them unbelievably powerful, but then the Vestil cursed them so they had to replace all their blood constantly or they’d freeze up and become paralyzed. It was a whole thing. 

The elevator was almost down by then, and I quickly pointed before it was too late. “Anyway, we’ve got the modern Earth neighborhood right over there. See, each block is rectangular. Sixteen houses per block. Two next to each at either end for four on the ends. Then six more down each side, back to back, with a little walking park or garden area in the middle. There’s six blocks, all arranged in a hexagon, with the streets along both sides and a bigger park in the middle. See that big building right in the center of the park area? There’s a gym there, and a theater for watching movies and stuff.”

Six blocks with sixteen houses per block. Ninety-six houses. Roughly ten people per house, equalled nine hundred and sixty people in this school. Well, that many that were considered old enough to live in separate housing rather than the younger student dorms. And it was closer to a thousand. A thousand college-aged students, divided between Alters, Natural Heretics, and Crossroads or Garden students. This was… gonna be a trip and a half. 

By then, we were down. As we all stepped away from the elevator, Triss spoke up. “Wow, did you live here before or something?” There was a faint Russian accent to her voice. When I looked that way, her ears flattened a bit against her head and she took what seemed to be a reflexive step backward. She didn’t pop her claws or anything like that, but I had a feeling it wouldn’t take all that much. Whatever had gone on in her past, she was incredibly wary of Heretics. Which I didn’t blame her for, even if it made me wonder exactly why she had agreed to come and live with us. Maybe it was just part of getting past those fears or finding out if we were serious about making things right? I wasn’t sure. 

I did, however, know that I needed to be careful about how I acted around her. And around Kersel too, for that matter. The Relukun boy was watching me just as suspiciously. So, I simply nodded. “Yeah, I ahh, spent some time out in Seosten space. A few weeks or so. It’s a long story, believe me.” 

Raising an eyebrow, Jason asked, “Wait, so you just… lived in Seosten space for awhile? You weren’t a…” He looked me up and down, clearly trying to come up with the best word for it. 

“A slave?” I shook my head. “No. No, it wasn’t like that. Like I said, it’s a long story. The short version is that me and some others ended up out in Seosten space, then Tabbris and I got separated from them, Athena found us, and we stayed here while waiting for the rest of our group out there. Eventually, we made it back here to Earth.” 

Shiori piped up, “And by eventually, she means after years and years and years–” 

“Or a couple months,” I corrected with a little smile, taking the other girl’s hand briefly. “Months that felt like years.” 

“Felt like centuries,” she retorted, giving me a look that made me blush. 

“I… ahhh…” I coughed, trying to collect myself. Glancing to the smirking Avalon didn’t help. Nor did the sound that Salten made, which sounded awfully suspiciously like an outright snicker. “Um. Anyway, Tabs was there too.” Gently nudging the smaller blonde girl at my side, I prompted, “She’s the one with the perfect memory, if you ever need to know where anything is.” 

Bouncing a bit beside me, Tabbris bobbed her head up and down quickly. “Uh huh, it’s a really big space station. We have to take that elevator up to go to class every day. And for food, if you don’t make it in the house. Chef Gisby is a super good cook. He’ll make anything you want.”

“She’s right,” I confirmed. “Gisby likes it when you make things a challenge. His memory is just as good as a Seosten, and he’s put basically all of it toward memorizing every recipe in the universe. If he doesn’t know what you’re talking about, just describe it and he can get close.” 

With a chuckle, Jason spoke up. “Sounds like a Natural Gordon Ramsay Heretic. Wait, is he…” 

“He’s–” I started before pausing. “I don’t know what species he is. But he’s definitely not human. Don’t worry, you’ll see him pretty soon. Probably for dinner tonight, I’m sure he’s got his people busy getting ready for that.”  

“He does, indeed,” Professor Dare agreed. She had teleported down ahead of us rather than use the elevator, and now approached with a raised hand. “Alright, boys and girls, let’s go see your new house and get you settled in while the next group comes down.” 

That was another reason for the elevator to be moving slowly. Not only did it give the group aboard a chance to see what they were coming down into, it also gave the group that had just arrived time to be taken to their house and shown where to go. Dare wasn’t the only one showing us around (there were a couple other elevators full of students that were also being escorted by staff), but it spread out the arrivals just enough. 

Glancing up as we started to watch, I saw the next forcefield lift start to descend. Sands and Scout would be on that one. Err, Sands and Sarah. Yeah, she was trying to go by Sarah more nowadays, even if it was hard to remember. She preferred Sarah in a normal, casual setting and Scout on missions or in official training, but still answered to either whenever. Mostly it was interchangeable, which was still a pretty big step for her from the way she’d been when we first met… a year ago (Jeez that still felt weird to think). I was trying to remember to think of her as Sarah whenever possible, because that was what she wanted to go by. And I understood that. 

Not only was Scout going by Sarah, but both the twins and their mother weren’t going by Mason anymore either. They were using Larissa’s maiden name of Lucas. Yeah. Scout Mason was now Sarah Lucas. Weird, I know. Sands, of course, was still Sands. I was pretty sure nothing in this universe would make her start going by Sandoval more often. 

Either way, Sands and Sarah were in the group behind us and would be taking the house right next door. Vanessa and Tristan were living there too, for two sets of twins, along with Koren, Aylen, Gordon, Jazz, and Harper’s old teammate Eiji. The tenth member of their group was a boy called Ruckus, an Alter who seemed to be made entirely of hundreds of metal coils, like a… like a Slinky. Or several of them. Yeah. His legs were a pair of big slinkies, along with his arms, with a slinky in the middle for his body and a head that was basically a slinky set onto its side with the ends connecting. His eyes were two glowing red orbs that seemed to peek out from between the vertical coils of his head. 

Jokai was there too, making their house one of the ones that had eleven people. Mostly because Jazz wasn’t going to live anywhere without him.  

As for our group, we followed Professor Dare through the street, passing a couple other houses where students who had already been brought down were looking over their new places and getting settled in. A few looked over as we passed, calling out greetings or just watching. But most of them were busy moving in or just getting to know each other. I could see Alters and humans alike staring at one another. Some were more comfortable than others, but it was even more clear that this whole thing was going to be a big… adjustment for everyone. 

Eventually, we reached the house we would be staying in. It was the third house down from the corner on the second block. The place was a two-story Colonial-style house, painted white with a dark red front door. There was a wide, spacious front porch lined by a knee-high white railing, set between taller pillars both at the corners and on either side of the front door to leave an opening. The same was duplicated above on another porch that wrapped around the second floor, though there was no opening in the railing there. There were four large bay windows in the front, two on the first floor on either side of the house, and two right above them. The roof was slanted, with several spots that stuck out from it with rectangular windows. The attic. 

Dare was already walking up to the front door, waving for it to open. As we trooped up the steps to the porch after her, she explained. “Four bedrooms on the first floor. See the two big windows there? There’s the same thing in the back. Two bedrooms in the front, two bedrooms in the back. That goes for the upstairs too. If you come in here…”

We followed her in (Choo and Salten waited outside along with most of our bags that we left sitting there), and found ourselves all standing in an entrance hall. The floor was wood, the walls pleasant but simple white, with a couple of nondescript paintings. To the left and right were doors to the front bedrooms. The corridor itself continued on past two more doors on either side. Those doors were open, and looking in as we passed revealed bathrooms. Big ones. 

“As with the bedrooms,” Dare explained, “the two bathrooms are repeated upstairs. Four total.”

Then we reached two open archways on either side rather than doors. The left archway led into a large living area with TV and game stuff. The right archway lead to a pleasant-looking kitchen and dining room with a window overlooking a small garden and the house next door. 

Just past the two archways was a set of stairs leading up to the second floor, with a door next to them. According to Dare, that led to the basement, where a laundry room and small gym were. 

“On the second floor,” she explained, “there is a library of sorts above the living room, and a magic testing room above the kitchen. It’s heavily protected, but it is still only to be used for relatively minor magic practice. Anything bigger or more extensive must be done in the designated training area upstairs. And by upstairs, I mean through the elevator into the rest of the station.”

Finally, we reached the doors leading to the back bedrooms on either side, and the rear door. It led to the rear side of the porch, just above a fenced off back yard. 

With an uncertain voice, Triss raised a hand. “I don’t understand. There are ten of us, but you have only pointed out eight bedrooms. I mean, I’m not the best at math, but eight is fewer than ten.”

Dare nodded. “Yes, there are two more bedrooms in the attic. The living space up there is slightly more limited, but with only two bedrooms, they’re about the same size as the ones down here.”

Doug raised his hand. “So, are you guys assigning bedrooms, or what?”

With a smile, Dare gave a slight shake of her head. “Nope, figuring that all out is part of your first job as housemates. We’ll step in if we need to at any point that people in a house can’t agree, but let’s try to work it out amongst yourselves. Similarly, we will not be patrolling who stays in what bed. You’re all either over eighteen or very close to it.” Her eyes flicked briefly to me with a certain tenseness before she pushed on. “You are all essentially adults, and we will treat you as such so long as you do not give us reason not to. Everyone gets a bedroom. What you do with that bedroom is up to you.

“Now, I believe you all have some exploring to do to can stake out what rooms you want. I need to go get the next group. If you have any questions, let us know. Otherwise, there is food in the kitchen for lunch and we’ll see you at dinner. Good luck.”

With that, she left, and the eleven of us stood there in the corridor looking at each other for a few long, quiet seconds. No one really seemed to know what to say first. Which was weird, considering most of us knew each other pretty well, except for Jason, Triss, and Kersel. 

Finally, Miranda clapped her hands. “Right, okay. So, unless anyone else has any better idea, I was thinking we’d write everyone’s name down on a piece of paper and put them in a hat or something. Then we can walk by each room and take out a name. That person gets that room.”

Kersel lifted his wooden head a bit. “Sure you don’t have some kind of paper manipulating power to get anything you want?” It sounded like one of those jokes that wasn’t really a joke at all, but more of a challenge. Yeah, this was going to be interesting. 

Before Miranda could say anything to that, Rebecca quickly spoke up. “The rooms are all the same, no one’s going to care enough to start cheating or anything. We’re just dividing them up faster.”

With a broad smile, Jason put a hand on the Relukun boy’s back. “Yeah, buddy. Don’t worry. It’ll all be fair. So let’s do this, I’d kinda like to stow my stuff.”

We did. Following Miranda’s suggestion, we pulled names from a pot that we found in the kitchen, matching everyone to a bedroom. In the end, the four downstairs bedrooms went to Rebecca and Shiori in the front, and Columbus and Miranda in the back. Upstairs were Avalon and Jason in the front, and Triss and Doug in the back. Kersel and I were in the attic. 

The stairs leading up to the attic were in the middle of the second floor corridor, basically right as you came off the stairs from the first floor. You just kept walking up the next set. The attic had a large open area at the top of the stairs, with only two spots set out for bedrooms, one at the front and one at the back. They were apparently more narrow than the other bedrooms, but wider, taking up the whole front or back wall respectively. There was also a single bathroom directly between the two rooms, but other than that, it was all empty. I wasn’t sure what this large open space in the rest of the attic was for, considering it was big enough to have a whole dance competition in. Maybe we were supposed to figure out what to do with it ourselves, or something.

Either way, Tabbris and I nodded to Kersel, who gave a polite, yet clearly dismissive bow of his head before heading into his own room. Which left the two of us standing there. 

“Well,” I started, “let’s go in and check out our new room, huh?”

I opened the bedroom door and stepped inside what turned out to indeed be a pretty spacious room, though one that was, again, much wider than it was deep. There was just enough room from the entrance to the wall for the large bed to be set in (with the head against the wall and the foot facing the door) while leaving space to walk past it to reach either side. On the other hand, as promised, there was plenty of width to the room to make up for the lack of depth. To the left of the bed was a dresser and a desk with a computer already waiting, along with a smaller dresser to the right. There was room on that right-hand side for Tabbris’s bed, once we let Dare know where she was staying. So, she’d have furniture of her own. And I was going to see about getting a couple of those privacy screens installed like they had at Crossroads so we could both have our own me-time. I wanted Tabbris to know this was her room too, as much as mine, and that she had every right to her own privacy. 

“Huh, not bad, huh?” I asked while stepping over to look out one of the three windows spaced along the width of the room. We were in the back, so the view looked out over the yard, and leaning over a bit allowed me to see next door. Eiji’s cyber-rhino was already there, making noises at Salten and Choo, who were investigating him through the fence. 

Tabs bobbed her head quickly. “Uh huh, it’s really cool. And umm… tonight, we try the thing again?”

“Yeah,” I confirmed, “tonight we try again. 

“And this time, hopefully I can keep Fossor’s sister here long enough to get something useful out of her.”

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