Vanessa Moon

Interlude 19D – Cyber Defense (Heretical Edge 2)

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In the wake of Kushiel’s words, there was no hesitation, no moment of shock. The people she was gloating at were too well-trained for that, and none of them needed to have things spelled out even more than they already were in that moment. The whole group knew just how bad it would be to let someone like Kushiel and her… entourage take off with an assortment of incredibly powerful, giant cyberforms. Whatever she intended to do with them couldn’t be positive for basically anyone on the planet. Especially considering she was apparently working for Tartarus itself. And while the idea of a somehow sapient and evil alternate universe was still a lot to wrap their heads around, stopping Kushiel was not. That part basically went without saying. 

Less time than a blink passed from Kushiel’s announcement, before the others were moving. Tristan was first, launching himself off the ground. In the same motion, his own cyberform snake dropped from his arm, shifting to form a narrow sort-of  board under his feet with the cannon part aimed backward. It let off a blast of energy, propelling itself into the air with the blond boy balanced on top. His hand snapped out, as three feather-like metal darts rose from his wrist. As the rocket-propelled robot snake hurled him upward toward the nearest of the dragon robots, Tristan launched those three darts from his wrist. They shot unerringly that way, his inherited accuracy powers ensuring that all three struck the young Seosten boy with short black hair and incredibly pale skin who was perched on top of the mech. 

Or they would have, had the Seosten boy not just as abruptly snapped his head to the side to avoid the dart aimed for his forehead, twisted his body sideways to avoid the one aimed for his stomach, and used two fingers to snatch the one aimed for his chest out of midair. The dart disintegrated in his hand a moment later, before he could do anything more than give it a curious look. 

At the same time, Vanessa had launched herself upward as well. In her case, she didn’t rely on a cyberform partner to carry her upward. Instead, the blonde girl transformed into a raven, expertly guiding her small, black bird form through a sudden hail of gunfire that came from the second of the dragon mechs. A minigun that had popped up next to the Seosten girl there, a figure with long brown hair tied into a tight braid, and a very slim, almost anorexic-looking form. The large gun popped out of her own stolen ride’s shoulder, took aim seemingly of its own volition, and opened fire on the incoming bird. But its bullets came nowhere near Vanessa, who spun and barrel-rolled her way through the incoming fire like the most incredible ace pilot who had ever taken the controls of a plane. Where Tristan had used their mother’s perfect accuracy to send those darts at his own opponent, Vanessa used Sariel’s perfect control and understanding of her own body and its position to carry herself through the smallest of openings between incoming gunfire. She instinctively knew exactly where and how to position herself to make it safely through what should have been an impossible wave of bullets. 

Meanwhile, as the Moon siblings were busy finding their own ways up toward the dragon mechs, the other set of twins in the lot weren’t standing still. Sarah and Sands ran together, side by side. Two of the other mechs had already opened up on them with a barrage of lasers, which instantly chewed up the pavement around the pair, but they kept moving. As she snapped her rifle up with one hand, Sarah held the other one out with a bullet between two fingers, all while still running. No conversation or explanation was needed. Her sister immediately put her own hand against the offered bullet and vanished, using her object-possession ability to put herself into the thing. In the next moment, Sarah had shoved the bullet into her gun, diving into a forward roll to avoid another volley of destructive shots from hovering mechs. As she came to one knee, the girl took aim and fired. The bullet she had just loaded shot that way in an instant, heading straight for the head of the two cyberforms who had been taking careful aim at her. One would be distracted in just a moment. Unfortunately, the other, under the command of a green-haired girl crouched by its neck, was still right on top of the human girl, and began to chase her across the lot with a barrage of lasers as she ran.  

Naturally, the dragon mech that Sarah had shot that single small bullet toward initially ignored the projectile. But it couldn’t ignore Sands as she popped out of that bullet right in front of it. Especially when she went from being a five-foot nothing girl, to abruptly being thirty feet tall. Now, Sands was the same height as the mech. Her boosted threat became even more evident as her fist slammed into its head. Between her own strength and the force from being shot as a bullet, the impact knocked the dragon mech backward through the air, allowing Sands to grab onto the thing and ride it straight to the ground. It crashed hard into the pavement, sending up a shower of broken concrete. The Seosten teen who had been riding the thing, a male figure with white hair that was cut very short and a muscular build, leapt clear with a shout of annoyance, flipping over in the air before landing on Sands’ outstretched arm. Immediately, he snapped his hand down, clearly intending to possess her. 

“Yeah,” the giant Sands informed him as he reacted with confusion when nothing happened. “Good luck with that.” With that, she swung her arm sideways to throw her unwanted passenger off. He was sent flying, yet recovered in midair, producing a small pistol which he opened fire with. Several quick laser shots cut through even Sands’ incredible durability in her giant form, forcing the girl to stop short so the rest of the barrage would bounce off. 

In that same moment, Tristan leapt from Bobbi-Bobbi and landed neatly on the shoulder of the dragon mech he had been aiming for. His cyberform shifted itself once more, splitting in half as it jumped back over to attach itself to the boy’s arms, like protective gauntlets. Which was just in time, as his own opponent, the black-haired boy, ignited one of the Seosten laser swords and lashed out with it. Tristan caught the glowing energy blade against his own gauntlet, which glowed faintly with a short-range forcefield. There was a loud crack of power as blade met gauntlet, before Tristan pivoted on one foot to bring himself away from the luxensis (energy sword). His right hand snapped up, before a set of long, werejaguar claws emerged. Those claws were already dangerous enough, but they became immediately more so as the boy activated an entirely different power. This one superheated the claws, turning them bright red just as he lashed out with them. In that same moment, Tristan used his Seosten-inherited boost, pushing his speed and strength several times higher. 

The Seosten boy boosted as well, avoiding the strike… mostly. His head snapped backward, though the claws still cut along his cheek, leaving five long marks down the side of it. His luxensis blade swept upward, clearly intending to cut his opponent’s extended arm off. But Tristan was faster, abruptly shrinking several feet in height, which instantly yanked his arm away from the incoming blade. Just as quickly, he not only regained that height, but increased it further. He first went from being just under six feet tall, down to about three feet, then just as quickly grew to eight feet while driving his knee forward. It caught the Seosten in the chest, knocking him backward several steps before the other boy managed to catch himself just shy of falling from the dragon mech’s head. 

Unfortunately, Tristan couldn’t follow up with that, considering just as he took a step forward in his enlarged form with the intention of punting the other boy from the mech, a multi-barreled gun similar to the one that had just attempted to shoot down his sister popped into view partway down this dragon cyberform’s back, took aim, and opened fire. He was forced to shrink back to his normal size while throwing himself into a sideways dive, catching himself on his hand before shoving his body up and over the next wave of bullets. Just like Vanessa, he expertly avoided every incoming shot, but the very act of dodging carried him further away from his opponent and allowed the Seosten boy to regain his footing. 

For a moment, while the turret was adjusting its aim, both boys stood on opposite sides of the giant cyberform’s back. Then Tristan launched himself into a sprint that way. At the same time, his hand snapped upward, producing a small sheet of plastic just a few inches across. There was a pre-prepared rune there, which glowed pale red as he pushed the last bit of power needed into it to activate the spell that had been engraved on the thing. An instant later, several small beams of energy shot from the rune to hit the base of all those gun barrels. They were immediately severed as the metal-transfer spell took those small pieces that connected the barrels to the turret and transferred them several feet away. The turret was rendered useless as its barrels dropped and clanged loudly along the metal body before falling toward the ground. 

In the midst of all that, Columbus vanished from the spot he’d been standing on and reappeared directly behind the third male Seosten, aboard his own dragon mech. This one had yellowish-blond hair, worn down to his shoulders in luxurious locks. Between that and his well-built form, the boy reminded Columbus of one of those old romance novel models he’d seen on his adopted mother’s bookshelf. 

It was a fleeting thought in the heat of the moment, as he let off a blast of energy from his goggles. This was not a beam of concussive force. Instead, his goggles were set to project what looked like a wide burst of static electricity, which would slow his opponents movements dramatically. It was a recent upgrade he’d built, this being his first time using it in a real-world combat scenario. And, just like in testing, the blast did its job, forcing the Seosten teen to move at a tenth of his normal speed as he started to turn around while bringing his weapon up. 

Unfortunately, the mech’s attached weaponry wasn’t similarly slowed. Before Columbus could take advantage of the opening, a pair of barrels popped out of the metallic dragon’s neck and sent twin bursts of lightning his way. The boy was forced to pivot that way, bringing his arm up. As he did, a shield of amber resin appeared there, catching the electrical blasts. 

By that point, even slowed as he was, the Seosten teenager was able to use his own boost in order to get his speed up to something resembling normal. He finished pivoting around, his glowing luxensis blade snapping outward toward Columbus’s neck as the other boy stood with his side to him, blocking the incoming lightning shots on his resin-covered arm. 

But Columbus was ready for that. His other hand came up, palm extended as he created a forcefield about two feet across, just enough to catch the incoming blade and deflect it with a loud crack of energy as blinding sparks went flying in every direction. 

With the five young Heretics busy facing five of the seven mechs, that left two more. Including the largest, the fifty-foot cyberform dragon that had been one of Harrison Fredericks’ most powerful and advanced creations. One of, because his strongest creation was already glaring up that way. Galahad sighted in on his ‘big brother’ (in a manner of speaking), and the golden blonde-haired Seosten female who stood atop him. She was clearly the oldest of the group, her ponytail swaying in the breeze as the dark-skinned girl stared down at the others. Her mouth opened, and Galahad heard her voice as she shouted, “You know the job! Prove Mother’s faith has not been misplaced!” Even as she said that, the girl proved her control over the cyberform by making the metal shields covering one of its weapon sets slide out of the way. A half dozen one-foot-wide holes appeared, before the nose of a rocket poked out of each, the rumble announcing they were about to be launched.

Even as he saw that, Galahad bent at the knee before hurling himself upward. In mid-jump, his large metal body immediately began to transform. He did not, however, turn into a truck as he normally would have while out on the road. Instead, his parts shifted and twisted around until he appeared to be a VTOL Harrier attack jet. The parts of him that amounted to the ‘trailer’ for his truck form remained on the ground, turning into a surface-to-air missile platform that could provide covering fire for his jet-self. 

Vanessa, by that point, had shifted back to her human form as she landed on the shoulder of the mech she had been aiming for. The thin, brunette Seosten waiting for her gave a very slight smirk and nod before graciously gesturing. “Would you like a moment to catch your breath after such an impressive display?” 

Vanessa hesitated, but the girl’s words didn’t seem to be sarcastic. After she had sent the barrage of gunfire at the incoming bird, she really did want to give her a moment to prepare herself now that she’d actually made it. Her gaze flicked from one hovering cyberform to the other, just in time to see the giant Sands take hers to the ground. “You could just stop,” she tried, having to at least give that a shot. “Kushiel is evil, you guys don’t–” 

“Do you want to sit down for a second and catch your breath, or not?” the thin Seosten girl interrupted, eyes narrowing. It was clear that she wouldn’t listen. 

“No,” Vanessa finally replied, whip snapping out to one side. “I’m good.” As the end of her weapon snapped against the air, it left a whitish rune hovering seemingly on nothing. An instant later, the rune activated, sending a blast of wind that way.

Despite offering the other girl a break, her opponent was prepared for an attack. Before the wind blast could knock her off her perch, she dove forward, boosting herself so she could move even faster. She came up in a roll, foot lashing out to catch Vanessa in the stomach. Or she would have, had the blonde Heretic not brought her own arm slamming downward. In mid-motion, Vanessa transformed into her enormous werebear form. Her now much stronger paw casually slapped the other girl’s leg aside, throwing her clear off the mech in the process. Vanessa had known that her opponent would dive forward to avoid the wind, and had planned for that. 

That, however, wasn’t the end of it. Before she had fallen more than a couple feet, the Seosten caught herself on seemingly nothing. She stood in the air, as the empty space under her feet seemed to shimmer a little bit. Before Vanessa could see what was actually happening, the other girl threw herself back onto the mech, facing the huge bear with a reckless grin. “Now this,” she announced, “this is how I prove myself.” With that, she lashed out with one hand from several feet away. Despite the distance between them, Vanessa felt hardened air cut through her thick fur and muscles, a deep wound appearing along her side as she reeled backward. 

Was it magic? That didn’t make sense. As far as she could tell, this girl hadn’t activated any spell or anything. And she wasn’t using a weapon. She just had the ability to harden air like that. Enough to stand on, and to make those blades. But that would mean–

While Vanessa was having her realization, Sarah had taken aim through one of her scope-portals. Rather than focusing on the green-haired girl atop the dragon mech that was still chasing her across the lot with its flurry of shots, the portal she had created appeared inside the machine’s cockpit. Her body ran almost on autopilot, zigzagging across the parking lot as the enormous cyberform tracked her movement, sending dozens of deadly lasers downward. Each blast burned a hole through the pavement, while narrowly missing the girl herself. 

Then it was Sarah’s turn. Her portal was ready, as she pivoted back the way she had come, dropping into a prone position with her rifle held out. The next volley of lasers tore up the ground right where she had been heading. Before the mech could adjust its aim, she fired a single shot. Her own bullet emerged into the cockpit of the machine, struck the main controls, and then exploded dramatically. The metal dragon reeled backward before starting to pitch sideways. The green-haired Seosten girl atop it was forced to throw herself out of the way as it collapsed. Yet, as she fell, something exploded next to Sarah. She threw herself to the side, just in time to see a geyser of water from the pipe that had burst. The spray caught the falling Seosten girl, seeming to solidify somewhat under her, just enough to slow her fall so she could land gracefully. 

She controlled water. No spell, no magic, no technology. She had simply done it instinctively. But…

Galahad, by that point, had reached his own target. Still in his jet form, he shot right past the largest of the dragon mechs, before immediately transforming back to the humanoid shape. Though smaller without his trailer attachment, he was still a good fifteen feet in height, allowing him to catch hold of the fifty-foot tall dragon mech’s back and shoulders. The Seosten girl with the golden hair spun toward him, hand rising. But before she could do anything, Galahad extended half a dozen cables from his arm into the machine’s back. In an instant, he had regained control of the thing, and all the onboard weapons she had been about to direct at him abruptly turned to focus on her. She, in turn, cursed under her breath before an explosion appeared where she had been. An explosion neither Galahad nor the mech he had just regained control of had created. And the girl had vanished from that spot.

At the same time, the final mech, with the blue-haired boy on it, was taking aim at where Galahad was perched. But before it could fire, his other half made its presence known. The trailer-turned-artillery platform he had left on the ground opened up, sending three enormous laser blasts and a single powerful rocket arcing upward. Each shot struck home, sending the less advanced dragon reeling through the air as the boy fought to regain control. Then there was yet another explosion that Galahad wasn’t responsible for, as the golden-haired girl appeared next to the boy, followed by a third blast as they both vanished from that spot.

Soon, there was a rapid series of explosions all around the battlefield. The force of them threw the Heretics to the ground, while their opponents were casually picked up and carried along with the teleporting golden-haired girl.

Finally, they all picked themselves up and stood together, facing the other group as the Seosten teens appeared on the ground, the explosion that carried them there sending a shockwave through the ground. 

Vanessa was the first to speak, staring that way. “Wh-who are you?” 

It was the golden-haired girl who spoke, holding her hand up as a tiny series of repeating explosions, barely large enough to be seen, appeared in staccato bursts in her palm. “Why exactly should we tell you anything?” 

“She’s Aureus,” the thin brunette with the braid put in, giving their leader a glance. “I’m Fuscus. That’s Caeruleus, Candidus, Lūteus, Viridis, and Āter.” In turn, she had nodded toward the blue-haired male, the white-haired, muscular male, the blond romance cover male, the green-haired girl, and the pale, black-haired boy. 

“Gold, brown, blue, white, yellow, green, and black?” Sands blurted. “You’re named after Latin colors that happen to match your hair? Let me guess, the uncreative bitch over there–” 

Don’t talk about our mother that way,” Lūteus snapped. The almost-achingly handsome boy brought his hand up. As he did so, a two-foot wide, three-foot tall section of pavement next to him rose out of the ground and  formed a larger fist shape. 

Columbus shook his head quickly as they took that in. “Wait, you’re children from the Olympus. Your parents were—“

“Our mother is Kushiel,” Aureus, the golden-haired girl, interrupted. “She gave us everything, and we’ll make sure she gets everything she wants in exchange.” 

Tristan started to shrug. “Yeah, well if you want to help her now, you’ll have to–” He cut himself off, having turned a bit to look at where Kushiel should’ve been inside her forcefield cage. But there was no one there. He gave a double-take, blurting, “Where the hell did she go?” 

The group took that in before spinning back to the Seosten, as Viridis, the green-haired girl, winked and offered a sly, “I believe the term is, gotcha.”

With that, Aureus raised her hand, and another explosion enveloped the Seosten. Everyone was knocked backward, only to find the spot completely empty as the explosion cleared. Columbus was looking around, counting the mechs. “They’re all here,” he announced. “They didn’t get away with any of them.” 

“No,” Galahad agreed, his voice grim. “But they weren’t trying to. I’m afraid while we were all distracted, Kushiel escaped her cage and left with the biggest prize of all. 

“She has Fredericks.” 

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Interlude 19C – Cyber Attack (Heretical Edge 2)

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Sitting on the floor of an enormous, airplane hanger-sized laboratory (one of many in the space belonging beneath the Capitol One Arena in Washington DC), Columbus balanced his personal cyberform, Amethyst, in his lap. The robotic porcupine-armadillo made a soft chirping sound as he tinkered in one of her open compartments with a screwdriver and pen light. Testing one of the wires, he spoke up absently. “Could you hand me that box of one-inch star button head screws on the table over there?” 

“Sure thing,” came the loud, rumbling voice as the huge robotic figure crouched behind him turned a bit. Even kneeling as he was, Galahad barely fit within the space, often brushing his head against the ceiling if he sat up too quickly. An understandable issue for a thirty-foot tall blue-silver robot who could transform into a full-sized semi-truck and trailer. Of course, in most cases, he could have simply transferred his consciousness into his much smaller humanoid form, but that was busy being tinkered with by the lab’s actual owner, Harrison Fredericks. 

The man himself, responsible for the initial creation of the cyberforms that had become so useful to Heretics all over the world, was in the far corner of the lab working on that. Columbus and Galahad both doubted the distracted man had any idea they were still there, let alone that he had other visitors outside in the parking lot. He was quite occupied with his work.

Easily reaching from one side of the lab to the other, Galahad very carefully pinched the desired box between two of his fingers. His hand massively dwarfed the box of screws, yet he was delicate enough to pick it up, move his arm over, and set it down next to the boy. He had a lot of practice being careful with his large hands and great strength. Between that and the incredible work Fredericks did to begin with, he could have picked up a living mouse without harming it. Well, aside from the heart attack the poor thing certainly would have suffered. 

“Your friends are still waiting, you know,” he gently reminded the boy. 

“Almost done,” Columbus promised. “I just need to run a couple quick diagnostics and–” He had looked up and turned a bit to glanced toward a corner of the ceiling, the lenses of the goggles on his face glowing slightly as he activated the x-ray vision to see out to where Vanessa and the others had been playing an impromptu soccer game on the pavement above while they waited for him to join them for a trip to the movies. What he saw instead, however, made Columbus drop the screwdriver and penlight, bolting to his feet. “Oh shit! What the hell’s wrong with the alarms?”

“Alarms?” Galahad echoed, head tilting. “I see nothing wrong. Your friends are playing–wait.” He paused before making a noise of disbelief. “The security footage is fake. Harry!” That booming voice flooded the hangar, drawing even the distracted scientist from his work. “We have trouble.” 

“Trouble?” Fredericks dropped his tools, vanishing from where he was standing before reappearing next to Columbus. He was a remarkably short man, standing only four feet, one inch tall. His dark red hair was short, and he had a goatee that was neatly trimmed. Aside from a pair of unnaturally green eyes, his other distinguishing feature was an arm that was very clearly cybernetic. “What sort of trouble?” 

“The dangerous sort,” Columbus informed him, still staring through the ceiling even as he stopped himself from instantly transporting out there to help the others. Better to make sure Fredericks knew what was going on before this whole situation got completely out of hand. Including one incredibly important point. 

“Kushiel’s here.” 

******

Several Minutes Earlier

With a thump as the soccer ball bounced off his head, Tristan Moon watched it bounce between two small trash cans that they had set up to be a goal and pumped his fist in the air. “Ha,” he crowed, “three to two, we are so pulling ahead of you guys.” 

This side of the parking lot of the Capital One arena was essentially empty, given there were no games or events going on anytime soon. Despite that, in most cases, the security guards would have insisted several teenagers playing ball in it should leave. But those security guards were being magically charmed to ignore the group, thanks to one of many safety measures Fredericks had installed along the property. 

“Maybe by definition,” Tristan’s sister retorted to his teasing. Vanessa had her long, typically loose blonde hair tied back out of the way in a ponytail. “Three to two isn’t exactly an insurmountable lead, you know.” 

Grinning, Tristan waved that off. “You’re just jealous that we didn’t go with sibling pairs.” 

“That would’ve been cliche,” Sands pointed out as she pointed toward the ball. A blue glowing outline surrounded it, and the thing went in an exact reverse of its previous trajectory, as if it was being rewound. It was a new power she had picked up during a recent trip, when a group of Alters they had been escorting to a safehouse were unexpectedly ambushed by a trio of religious fanatics, cultists for one of the many supposed world-destroying entities that were said to live in the Earth’s core or some such. Either way, they were dead now and Sands had picked up this ability to reverse the motions of any non-living object, up to about fifty pounds, for up to thirty seconds. 

“Much as I would love to be on a team with my sister,” she added with a nod to Sarah, who stood behind Tristan, “we do have to mix things up a bit.” She left out the fact that she knew Sarah wanted to team up with Tristan, given the two of them had started going out together a few months back. It was still relatively new, and they were taking things slow. But still, Sands was happy for her sister. Even if she did have to resist the urge to take Tristan aside and warn him about what would happen if he hurt her. Tempting as that was, it wasn’t her place to play that sort of game. Sarah could take care of herself. She didn’t need her twin sister threatening her boyfriend. Even if there was a bit of uncertainty about what was going on between him and that Nereid girl, Dexamene. She had come all the way back from the future and across the universe. Yes, it was to help Flick get back to the present, and save Elisabet, but still. She was Tristan’s best friend, and maybe more than that? No one was sure, possibly not even the two of them. But whatever was going on there, Sarah, Tristan, and Dex could handle it between themselves. They didn’t need her help. 

Especially not when Sands herself didn’t exactly have any luck in the romance department. A fact that made the short (the twins were barely five feet tall) brunette give a soft inward sigh before reaching out to catch the ball as it began to make its way past her and back toward Tristan on its reverse trajectory. “Besides,” she added aloud, “hitting the ball with your head shouldn’t be allowed. I mean, it’s so hard.” To demonstrate, she reached out as though to rap her knuckles against his temple, before the boy drew back with a laugh. 

“Hard and oblong, that’s my head alright,” he replied easily. “Now are you guys gonna take the ball out so we can steal it from you and rack up another point, or what?” 

Before the others could say anything, Sarah held a hand out while speaking up. “Wait, look.” Her sister and the other two turned to see where she was pointing. On the sidelines of their impromptu ‘field’ in the parking lot, Tristan’s cyberform snake, Bobbi-Bobbi, had been curled up to watch them. Now she lay stretched out on her side, twitching a little. Nearby, one of the many cyberforms that Fredricks allowed to roam the property, a monkey robot called Tipsy, was also laying on her side with the same occasional twitch. 

“Something’s wrong,” Sarah announced, even as Tristan took off running that way. 

“Bobbi?” he called, dropping to his knees next to the snake robot. “What–” In the next instant, his hand lashed out. The bracelet on his wrist glowed brightly, producing a blue-white set of flames over his fist as the boy punched the partially transparent figure who had emerged from beneath the pavement and was halfway-into his robotic partner. “Ghost!” he shouted as his empowered fist collided with the spirit’s face. 

Unfortunately, while he had been quick enough to stop the ghost, who had been pushing its way into Bobbi-Bobbi, Tristan wasn’t able to catch the one next to Tipsy. It disappeared into the monkey robot, and an instant later, he had to throw himself backwards to avoid being kicked in the face as the cyberform abruptly shoved its hand against the ground and kicked out of him with its two long legs. Blades had emerged from Tipsy’s feet, narrowly avoiding cutting the boy’s throat. 

“Tristan!” Vanessa shouted. Before she could move that way, however, an owl and falcon cyberform who had been flying overhead dropped into view. The owl shifted into a helmet form, hovering in midair as its goggle-like eyes blasted a concussive wave of force that slammed into the blonde girl, as well as Sarah. The two were sent flying a good twelve feet before tumbling along the ground. Sands was struck as well, but she had activated the power that allowed her to remain completely motionless and protected no matter how much force she was hit with. Up to a certain level, of course, but the owl didn’t surpass that. 

She was already bringing her mace out to swing at the cyberform itself before it could blast them again, but the falcon had transformed itself into a two-bladed sword, one end swinging out toward her throat. The girl was forced to stop short, going still so her power would kick in again and force the blade to bounce off. 

Tristan, by that point, had rolled back to his feet with Bobbi-Bobbi in her cannon form on his arm. He extended it, letting off a quick shot toward the falcon-blade, while his foot lashed out to kick Tipsy as she leapt at him. “What the hell?! Since when can ghosts possess cyberforms?!” 

“Well,” an unexpected (and entirely unwanted) voice announced from nearby, “I suppose since I gave them a bit of an upgrade?” Kushiel’s own ghost hovered next to a parked car, regarding them with a mixture of contempt and amusement at their confusion. “Stand still for a moment, and you’ll see just how much of one.” 

“Kushiel?” Vanessa blurted while she and Sarah picked themselves up. Her whip was already out and ready, scanning the air for more attackers coming from that way. Distracting as Kushiel’s appearance was, it felt just like the woman to show herself just so another possessed cyberform could hit them unexpectedly. She was far from the type to fight fair. “What are you doing here?” Even as she said that, the girl’s free hand was grabbing for the emergency alert coin in her pocket that would bring a full set of reinforcements. 

Sarah, meanwhile, brought her rifle up, but stopped herself from pulling the trigger. Tempting as it was to shoot Kushiel with as many ghost-fire empowered bullets as she could, it would’ve been pointless. The woman would just pass the damage off to one of the others. Denny had already informed them that she still had that power, even after death. A fact she had apparently demonstrated quite thoroughly when the people at the Auberge had sought to interfere with her attempts to find Mordred’s sword, Clarent. She’d failed then, and the sword was now in the hands of Joselyn Chambers. So what was she doing here now? 

“Try to call for help if you like,” Kushiel informed Vanessa without apparent care, knowing exactly what the girl was doing with the hand in her pocket. “It won’t do you any good. Not anymore.” She sounded oddly casual, given her usual personality and anger. Which, to be honest, was a lot more troubling than if she had shown up in full righteous fury mode. Kushiel being calm meant she was confident, and none of them were comfortable thinking about why that was. 

Sure enough, Vanessa felt something blocking the spell that would have called her mother and others to their location. “What– you’re stopping it.” 

“Very good, abomination,” Kushiel tauntingly retorted, giving a soft clap while staring daggers through the girl. Despite her calm demeanor, it was the hatred in those eyes that truly gave away the woman’s feelings. “Your ability to state the patently obvious truly does mark you as the genius they all say you are.” 

“Genius, no,” Vanessa informed her simply. “Prepared, yes.” With that, she touched a different coin in her pocket and triggered the spell there. Instantly, the backpack she had brought with them, discarded along the side of their playing field, flipped over. The flap on it opened, seemingly by itself, before three steel balls, each about two inches across, burst out. The trio of balls flew into view and hovered in a triangular formation around the ghost woman before projecting a glowing semi-transparent blue pyramid around her. 

Arching an eyebrow, Kushiel reached out to tap the glowing wall. “A ghost capture field, hmm? And I see your mother helped you add in a bit of anti-Tartarus tech as well. It’s not quite enough to block my power entirely, but it’s certainly… muffling it a bit, I suppose. I can feel the energy it’s giving off, making it harder for me to reach for my gift. I didn’t know that was possible.” The fact that she was, even now, speaking calmly made the hair on every one of their necks stand up. Something was even more wrong than they already knew. 

“It’s not, for living creatures,” Vanessa replied flatly. “You’re a ghost. You’re different. Your connection to Tartarus is stronger, but the one into this world, the physical world, isn’t. We can trap you that way, block you that way.” 

“For a time, perhaps,” Kushiel acknowledged, sounding unconcerned. “Still, it is a remarkable effort. You and your mother have been busy little bees. But you and I both know this is a prototype. It will not hold for very long.” Her hand brushed the wall testingly. “No, not long at all.”  

Her calm demeanor in the face of being trapped was even more worrying. As was the fact that half a dozen more cyberforms of various types had begun surrounding the four young Heretics. They were all obviously possessed, but none attacked. Not yet, anyway. 

Sands, Sarah, Tristan, and Vanessa had all moved closer together by that point. Not right next to each other, as they all needed room. But close enough to watch each other’s backs. Tristan spoke up for his sister. “Doesn’t have to hold you for long. We’ll have help here soon.” 

“Sooner than you think,” Columbus, appearing nearby, announced. He was facing Kushiel as well, Amethyst perched on his shoulder to hiss at the ghost woman. “Don’t worry, Fredericks is working on a way to expel our unwanted guests from the cyberforms,” he informed the others. “It won’t take long.” 

“Oh dear!” With mock concern, Kushiel put her hands to her mouth. “I suppose I’d better hurry then. Friends, would you mind?” At her words, three of the possessed cyberforms, the owl, falcon, and a small bluejay, turned their attention toward the balls projecting the pyramid that was currently containing her. Meanwhile, the others, including Tipsy, turned their attention to the five Heretics. 

And yet, before either group could carry out their attacks, a large figure came flying down out of the sky. Galahad, still in his thirty-foot tall robot form, crashed onto the pavement after launching himself through the air. His hand lashed out, smacking half a dozen of the other cyberforms out of the way to send them tumbling across the ground. “Sorry, buddies,” he announced, “the big guy’ll fix you up as soon as we get rid of your hitchhikers.” 

Even now, Kushiel showed no particular annoyance as her plan to have several of her ghost-possessed, unwilling partners break her out of the temporary prison. In fact, she simply chuckled at the side of the giant robot figure smacking them aside. To his words, she offered a slight shrug. “Doing that may be harder than your friend suspects. And you may have even less time than you think to make it happen.” 

“What do you want?” Sands demanded, taking a step that way. As one of the possessed cyberforms made a move toward her, she quickly threw a wall up into its path with a swing of her mace. But her eyes never left Kushiel’s. “Why are you here? Too much of a coward to face your daughter or Flick again, so you thought we’d be easier targets?” 

Through all of this, Kushiel had shown herself to be unnaturally, unusually calm. Yet it was the mention of Theia that made her drop that facade, even if only a little bit. Her eyes blazed with even more anger than had already been smoldering there, as she half-spat, “The thing I spawned will meet her fate in time. As for the would-be Necromancer child, she is still no threat to me. That much should have been clear after our last meeting.” 

“I dunno,” Tristan remarked, “Flick has a way of surprising people like you. And by people like you, I mean evil, irredeemable pieces of shit. Just ask Fossor.” 

“She doesn’t have to ask anyone,” Galahad put in. “She isn’t leaving this place. Not after–” He stopped in mid-sentence, head turning toward a nearby section of the parking lot. “What…” 

“Ah yes,” Kushiel remarked, as everyone’s attention shifted that way. The dull rumble that Galahad detected was soon audible to all of them. “As I was saying, I did not show myself to all of you in order to begin carrying out my plan.” 

With that, the ground exploded outward in a violent shower of rock and pavement, as a dark-green, fifty-foot tall dragon cyberform tore its way out of the ground and flew upward with a terrifying roar. It was followed by another, slightly different one, and another. Soon, seven cyberform dragons were in view, all of them spreading out to surround the group. As they hovered there, a figure appeared on top of each of the seven dragons. These were not ghosts, but living Seosten. Young Seosten, by the look of them. They couldn’t have been older than twenty or so, which made them look only about fifteen by human standards. Four boys, three girls, all dressed in gold and black versions of the Seosten bodysuit. Black with gold piping for the girls, the reverse for the boys.  

“I showed myself,” Kushiel finished, “because my true children, born of the lab you helped destroy, have already succeeded.” 

To be continued next chapter

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Growth 18-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Dinner that evening was really something, to say the least. We didn’t eat out in the main cafeteria, figuring this was something we would want to keep a little more private. It would’ve been pretty hard to focus on things with a couple hundred pairs of eyes from everyone else in the room constantly staring our way if we had eaten in public with someone like Jegudiel. He was the sort of guy who tended to attract attention even without the whole archangel thing. With that added in? Forget it, we never would’ve had any privacy at all. And having all those people watching our every move would have made the whole situation even more uncomfortable.  

In the end, it was still a fairly large group of us at the dinner, all lined up along either side of a long table that had been set up in the Moon’s apartment. Along one side of the table was my dad, both of my grandparents, Wyatt, Abigail, Koren, and me. Along the other side were Haiden and Sariel, Vanessa and Tristan, Jehoel, Spark, Puriel, and Tabbris. Jegudiel was at the end, with Tabbris next to him to his right (her mother on her other side) while I was next to him on the other side, across from my little sister. 

The entire table was laden with dozens of heavy platters of food. Seeing all of it, Jegudiel  clapped his hands together once very loudly, the sound echoing through the room. “Now this is a meal!” he boomed, a broad smile spreading across his face. “You make sure to eat as much as you can, little teuslin,” he teased with a look at Tabbris. “We’ve got to make sure you grow up nice and big so you can squish the heads of your enemies like geppins.” 

Blanching a little bit, the girl squirmed in her seat. “I’m not really sure I’m gonna be up to, um, you know, squishing.” 

“Oh don’t you worry,” Jegudiel informed her, “I used to be a pint-sized little thing like you too. Believe it or not, I was even smaller when I was your age. And even if you eat all you can and still turn out to be a tiny one, it doesn’t really matter. You’re big where it counts.” He offered the girl a wink as she stared at him. “Hell, from what I’ve heard, you being kind of small right now is the only thing that’s keeping you from taking on the entire Fomorian Empire by yourself!” His words right then were accompanied by a hearty laugh. 

Smiling a little despite myself, I watched the girl’s reaction while speaking up. “She’s impressive, that’s for sure. I’d be pretty dead, or worse, right now if it wasn’t for her.” 

Grandmaria took a sip of her water before speaking. “And we’re all certainly glad that didn’t happen.” She smiled my way while adding, “Plus, I can’t say I object to having another grandchild to spoil. Not to mention how much Arthur appreciates being able to buy more of those little video games and pretend they’re actually for one of them.” 

Popser made a huffing sound deep in his throat. “You know I can’t just hand those over without making sure they’re appropriate. Besides, when they put them in the system, what if they have questions about how it all works? I need to have a thorough understanding of all that.” 

From where he was sitting next to his own father, Dad leaned over and whispered something in his ear. Popser listened, then gave a short nod before adding, “And working with them gives me a chance to practice with these technology power whoozits.” 

For a moment, it looked like Jegudiel was going to say something about that, his expression curious. But Haiden spoke up first. “I’ve got a question of my own for you, big guy.” His gaze was focused down the table to the archangel. “How do you think the people on the front line of that war would feel about the idea of working with humans instead of using us as flesh-and-bone mecha to pilot around? You know, letting us have a say in what happens. Is it like people around here talking about asking their trucks for permission to drive them?” 

Obviously, he wasn’t the only one wondering that, but I was still surprised that anyone had asked so directly during the very first meal with this guy. And judging by a few of the looks he was getting from some of the others, they might’ve thought that he had gone too far. 

Jegudiel, however, observed him curiously before giving a short chuckle. “I wouldn’t have expected any other question from the one they called the Bane. You did an awful lot of damage while you were out there, you know.” He actually sounded admiring in that moment rather than reprimanding. “Kept a lot of them on their toes, so they didn’t get soft back away from the front lines.” Pausing briefly to consider, he amended, “Well, not as soft, anyway. You did some fine work. A lot of bad work too, but considering the situation… ehh, can’t say as I blame you too much. 

“Anyway, as for what you were asking about, I don’t really know, to be honest. I don’t use a host unless it’s for some quick tactical advantage, making them think I’m not there or something like that. And in those cases, it doesn’t tend to last very long. If there’s some big discussion going on about that, I haven’t heard it.” He shrugged. “But then, I’m usually too busy kicking Fomorian teeth down their throats and then ripping their spleens out to get the teeth back to actually listen to stuff like that. Tell you what, I’ll have one of my people who’s actually more into that subtle talking stercus ask around to see what the general feeling is. That good enough?” 

Haiden seemed to think about that briefly before nodding. I had the feeling he was surprised to get an actual thought-out response, let alone an offer like that. “Yeah, I’d say that’s good enough.” Another pause came before he added, “Thanks.” 

From there, Wyatt asked something about a bit of Seosten magical security he had been working on taking apart, looking for advice from Jegudiel. The thing was, I happened to know for a fact that he had already long-since solved the problem he was asking about. Clearly, this was a test of some sort. He wanted to know if the man would send him down the wrong path. Whether he did or not, I wasn’t sure. Because even with the advanced lessons I had been getting, I absolutely could not follow Jegudiel’s response. And Wyatt’s next words sounded even more like total gibberish. From the way Sariel reacted, I could tell they weren’t actually just fucking with us and were actually saying real things. But damned if I could follow any of it. 

Still, at the very least, I was able to sit back in my seat and watch them go through this whole impossible-to-understand discussion. Then I looked back and forth along the table, seeing everyone watching as well. My grandparents, my dad, the Moons, we were all sitting here with Tabbris’s archangel father while he and Wyatt discussed security spells. This was all so surreal. Even in a world that had already been so impossible, a world where I had once foolishly thought I was completely beyond being surprised, this was… something. 

Sometimes, I had to take a metaphorical step back and really look at what my life had become over the past year and a half. Honestly, I had no idea how I had gotten here. 

And I certainly had no idea where I would be once another year and a half had passed. 

******

I may not have known where I would be in eighteen months, but the next morning I was attending Xenozoology class, where we learned about Alter animals. Lillian wasn’t there to help teach this time, of course. She was still with Mom in Peru, working on taking care of that whole situation. But we did have Scratch, the short guy from Eden’s Garden who I had met at the beginning of the year working with these animals. 

Obviously, he didn’t look any different now. The man still had the same long, dark gray hair tied into that same ponytail, and that crescent moon-shaped scar still marked his very tan face from just under his right eye down to his cheek. Even after all of this time, I still had no idea what had caused his scar. Nor did I know any other name he went by besides Scratch. But then, from what Miranda and Seller had said, no one else seemed to know any other name either. He simply was, and apparently always had been, Scratch. 

At the moment, the man in question was standing next to a cage that has been covered with a tarp. He was watching me and the rest of the class, his gaze making it clear that he was considering just how to start this lesson. Or possibly wondering if we were ready to hear it. Finally, he exhaled, the sound of his soft sigh stopping the whispering that was going on. Not that there had been a lot of it, but still. Everything went completely silent at the mere prospect that he was about to say something. 

“No yelling,” the man started flatly, in the same simple, soft voice I had come to expect from him. He wasn’t the type to raise his voice or act outwardly excited. He always carried himself calmly. Which was probably why he was so good with the animals. Or maybe the fact that he spent so much time with animals was why he talked like that. I wasn’t sure which came first in that particular egg and chicken situation. “No raising your voices or blurting things out if you’re not called on. I don’t want any of you scaring the poor guy, or making him think he’s in trouble. When you want to say something, raise your hand until I say your name. When I do, you talk in a normal, quiet, civilized tone. Does everyone understand?” 

He waited until we had agreed before putting his hand on the tarp. Once more, he looked over at us, his eyes inquisitive. “How many of you can tell me what this is?” With that, the man pulled the tarp away from the cage, not so much ripping it off as giving a simple gradual tug so it came up smoothly and steadily. Probably to avoid startling the creature inside. 

And what a creature it was. Now that we had a chance to look at it, I could see what looked like an ordinary wolf at very first glance. Except it was bigger in the shoulders and had paws that were more like a bear, with long claws. Which I was given a decent view of as the thing reared up on its hind legs once the tarp came off. It didn’t just briefly rear up either, it stood and stayed that way, its wolf-like head snapping first one way, then another as it took all of us in. The thing pressed its paws against the glass of the cage, deadly claws extending. Yet I didn’t get the impression that it was trying to break out, or even threaten us. It seemed more like it was showing the claws to let us know that it wasn’t helpless, and that if we tried to hurt it, there would be a fight. 

So it was a wolf with bear paws that could stand on its hind legs, but that wasn’t the only thing different about this thing. It wasn’t simply a bear-wolf hybrid. That much became clear as the large bat-like wings unfurled from its back and spread out. Probably to make itself look even bigger, to ward off any potential threats. The thing was spreading those bat-wings out from one end of the cage to the other, its eyes looking over every one of us in rapid succession to assess if we were going to try to attack. 

“No sudden movements,” Scratch reminded us in his soft tone, drawing the creature’s attention briefly before it went back to looking at the rest of us. “Don’t startle him. Just let him take it all in. He’s usually in a bigger enclosure, so he might be a little grumpy right now. But he’ll be okay. Especially once we get him some food. He’s been doing presentations with me for awhile now. Like I said, how many of you can tell me what he is?” 

Vanessa wasn’t in this class, or I was certain that her hand would have rocketed straight into the air. Instead, it was Jason Furuya, the Natural Prevenkuat Heretic, who raised his hand. The Asian guy, who had a scar of his own over his cheek (though not as pronounced as Scratch’s, waited until the teacher said his name before speaking. “He’s a Kludde, right?” It sounded sort of like ‘could’ but with the added L sound right after the kuh sound. Kludde. Like if you mixed up could and cloud and tried to say them both at the same time, or something. 

Scratch smiled faintly, giving a short nod. “That’s right, top marks, Furuya. What else can you tell me about the Kludde?” 

“Uh.” Jason hesitated. “They originated–I mean, here on Earth that is– around the Netherlands and Belgium, right? People thought they were werewolves at first. Uh, werewolves with wings, I guess.” 

“Werewolves with wings, or even the Christian devil,” Scratch confirmed. For a moment, he looked a little amused. Probably because he was thinking about the fact that even his own moniker used to be a nickname for the same devil. Old Scratch, that was. Or maybe he was thinking about the fact that we literally had Lucifer himself, now Apollo, living with us. Either way, he took a moment to smile about something before continuing. “People thought a lot of things about them, some true, some not. Who knows why they’re called Kludde?” 

Even as he asked that, the creature opened its mouth and gave a sharp barking sound. Which sounded an awful lot like its actual name. It barked again, and it sounded even more like it was saying ‘kludde.’ 

“Now that’s just cheating,” Scratch informed the creature with a sidelong look. “You’re not supposed to give them the answers, Montgomery.” 

Rebecca started to say something, a noise escaping her before she caught herself and raised her hand. When the man said her name, she asked, “Montgomery? His name is really Montgomery?” 

“That’s right,” Scratch replied with a simple nod. “Montgomery here is the nicest of his pack. There’s also Edna, Waylon, Ned, Maude, Luann and Seymour. Maybe once you all have a little more experience, I’ll let you see the rest of them. But for now, let’s stick with Montgomery. Who knows something else about the Kludde? Anything at all, I’m sure you’ve heard of them now and then.”

One of the other students, a tiny pixie with long green hair and polka dot clothes, flew up and down in the air to attract attention with her arm raised. Seeing that, Scratch pointed. “Jeckselprea?” 

“Just Jeck is fine, sir!” the pixie chirped. She sounded like Namythiet, and I found myself briefly wondering how the other pixie was doing. “And is it true that if you kill one of them, seven more appear?” 

Scratch shook his head. “No, that was either people getting them mixed up with Jekerns, or just seeing babies crawling out from under the mother’s body and thinking they magically spawned.” He paused before muttering, “People can be really stupid sometimes.” He shook that off before focusing. “If you kill a Kludde, you just end up with a dead Kludde.” 

“Are they shapeshifters?” Koren asked once she was called on. “I think I remember something about how they can change into a lot of different animals.” 

“That they can do,” Scratch confirmed. “Kludde are very powerful animal shapeshifters, almost as good as Pooka. Even stronger, in some cases. They can become plants too. Makes it a little complicated to keep track of them when they keep turning into trees and bushes in their enclosure.” He added that bit with a small smile, clearly amused by a memory of just such a situation. “Some say they can become human, but it’s rare. And even when they do, they don’t talk. They might mimic things they’ve seen humans do, just to try to blend in. Or hunt.” He added that bit with a small smirk. “Anyone else? They’re shapeshifters, they can fly with those wings even in this form, and they do not spawn seven babies when they die.” 

Ruckus, the guy who looked like an assortment of slinkies, raised one of his metal coils until Scratch acknowledged him. “They’rereallyfastright? Imeanlike… theycangetfrom… oneendofthisroom… totheother… sofastit’s… likethey’reteleporting.” 

Oh yeah, Ruckus talked like December. Except somehow, he seemed to get words out even faster. Thankfully, someone seemed to have had the same talk with him about slowing down slightly so he put some intentional pauses in his sentences. Not exactly between every word, but enough that it wasn’t completely impossible to follow what he was saying. Just difficult sometimes. It made me wonder if all of his people were like that, or if that was just a Ruckus thing. 

Scratch nodded. “Yeah, they’re pretty quick, whatever shape they’re in. I’ve clocked Montgomery here doing two hundred and ten miles per hour in a sprint. Not quite blinding speed, but you try telling a Bystander in the seventeen hundreds that what he called ‘incalculable’ speed is actually slower than the airplanes they’ll use in a couple hundred years.” He chuckled softly before sobering. “So yes, they’re very quick, even faster when they fly, and they can shapeshift. All of that makes them pretty dangerous when they want to be. Which brings me to the next question, who can tell me what they like to eat?” 

No one had any answer at first, until Shiloh raised her hand and hesitantly offered, “Um, liars?” She sounded uncertain, like she thought she might just be repeating a silly rumor. 

Scratch, however, beamed a bit. “Yes, actually. That’s pretty much right, believe it or not. The Kludde have the ability to sense when someone is lying. Not just a little white lie, but the malicious kind. They can tell when someone is keeping deep, dark secrets. Evil secrets. And the worse those secrets are, the more… evil the person is hiding inside, the tastier they are to the Kludde.” He paused then, clearly letting that sink in before dryly adding, “As you might expect, a lot of the people in positions of authority and power didn’t really like having them around. So, even before the whole… Bystander Effect came to full power, they started spreading rumors about the Kludde eating babies, literally being Satan or just a demon in general, spawning from the cremated bodies of dead witches, that sort of thing. Anything to stop people from paying attention to what–or rather who the Kludde were actually trying to eat. And, as a side note, that’s also where we get the concept of hellhounds. Well, that and the whole Cerberus thing, of course.” He gave me a brief look before continuing. “They went all-in on making these guys look as evil as possible, just so they’d be hunted to extinction. And they nearly succeeded. Montgomery and his pack are one of only a few left here on Earth. Well, somewhat close to Earth, anyway.”  

Offering us all a slight smile, the man continued. “I’m going to let my buddy here come out of the cage in a minute. Everyone just stay calm and steady. Spread out so there’s several feet between each of you. I’ll lead him to one person at a time. Let him sniff you and then put his head down. When he does that, you can touch him. Just scratch behind his ears or under his chin. And if any of you aren’t comfortable with doing that, go ahead and take a few steps back that way. No one’s going to give you a hard time. 

“And if they do, let me know. I have plenty of other fun things that could eat them.” 

******

So, I made it through the rest of that class, as well as the next couple. Eventually, I was on my way to lunch, wondering if I would see Tabbris there or if she was still busy with Jegudiel. On the way, however, I was interrupted by the sound of someone calling my name. Turning, I saw Miranda sprinting down the hall. She came to a sliding stop, blurting, “We gotta go down to the Eden’s Garden rebels, down by the ocean, the hotel, down there. We gotta check it out.” 

“What?” I blinked a few times, head shaking. “What’s going on? Is something wrong?” 

“Wrong?” she echoed, grinning. “No, nothing’s wrong. It’s right. Dakota, she did it. She finally got them working.” 

“Dakota–the vines?” I realized belatedly. “She managed to make the vines grow?” 

Miranda’s head was bobbing rapidly. “Not just grow, she managed to get a few of them to bloom. New apples. She made the vines give off new apples. 

“We can make new Heretics!”  

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Growth 18-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – Due to a tie on the donator-interlude vote, we’re having this chapter first and the next one will be the donator chosen interlude. Thanks, and I hope you enjoy!

“Oh man, you mean he really doesn’t remember them at all?” Tristan lamented while shaking his head. “That sucks. Not even, like, vague memories that our mom could do something with?” 

“Mom said there’s nothing,” Vanessa quietly informed him while giving me a brief glance. “The memories have been removed entirely, not simply suppressed or altered as they normally are.” After a slight pause, she grimaced while adding, “Normal for this sort of thing, I mean.” 

At the moment, it was the early morning after my arrival back from that little… trip. I had gotten pretty turned around on what exact day it was through all of that, but Vanessa had helpfully informed me that it was currently just barely Saturday morning. The morning of January 19th, to be exact. Which meant I had a couple of days to relax and regroup around the station before going to school on Monday. And yes, I absolutely had to go. Abigail and my parents had made that clear. If I was going to go on these missions that took me away from classes, I had to continue to attend whenever I was physically able to. That was the deal that we made. 

Which was part of why I was sitting here in one of the currently unused classrooms up in that area of the station, drinking iced coffee while listening to Vanessa explain some of the schoolwork I’d missed while off on that adventure. Or at least, that was the idea of why I was here. First, the twins had wanted to get a first-hand account of what happened out there. Which I really couldn’t blame them for. If the situation had been reversed, I definitely would have been giving them the third degree. And given how much effort I had put into learning to be a reporter like my dad, I knew how to give people the third degree. Maybe even to the point of qualifying as the fourth degree. 

Smiling a little to myself at that thought, I nodded. “Yeah, like she said.” My hand gestured toward Vanessa. “Tiras doesn’t remember them at all. He hasn’t remembered them for all this time, even though he spent most of the past couple centuries right here on Earth.” With a blink, I gestured. “I mean, you know, down there on Earth. Anyway, whoever took out his memories did a really good job. He knows they’re telling the truth and all. He believes them, and he feels bad about not remembering. I can’t even imagine how bad he feels. But he still doesn’t have the emotional connection. He looks at them and they’re strangers. It’s pretty fucking awful.”

That was putting it mildly. The mere thought of how it would have felt if I went through everything I had to save my mother and she didn’t even know who I was… it made me shudder as bile rose up in my throat. And judging from the way the other two reacted, I was pretty sure they felt about the same. This whole situation was supremely fucked up. 

“Poor Senny,” Vanessa murmured. “And Jiao. I can’t–” She stopped, visibly swallowing. Our eyes met, and I knew we were both putting ourselves in that same situation. It was probably especially worse for those two, considering the way the banishment orb had worked. They’d come very close to actually experiencing their parents not remembering who they were, even after being reunited. I was sure they had both thought about how that could have turned out. 

“Senny wants to find the guy responsible,” I noted. “Or woman. Or people. Whoever. She wants to find out whoever removed her father’s memory. Probably because if she finds them, they might be able to fix it. I mean, if they removed the memories, then maybe they’ve still got them and can do something about it.” Even as I said that, I grimaced a little. The odds of those memories still existing was a bit of a stretch, of course. But no way was I going to dismiss Asenath’s attempts. Hoping that her father could get his memories back was basically holding her together. And whatever she needed, whenever she needed it, I would be there to help. After everything she had done for me, it was the absolute least I could do. 

Of course, thinking about that made me focus on the other part of it as well. “Which means she wants to find one of the Akharu who was with Tiras on that mission. You know, so he can shed some light on what happened. And I think you’ll both recognize the name Grigori Rasputin.” 

“The evil sorcerer that yells at Bartok?” Tristan immediately blurted. 

His words made Vanessa literally facepalm, the chair she was sitting in squeaking as it shoved back along the floor a bit. “That was a movie! There was no actual Bartok.” 

Giving his sister a look, Tristan pointed out, “Dude, look at the world we live in. Is a talking bat really all that far-fetched? I guarantee you that we could find half a dozen people around here this morning who could pull off something like that.” 

Vanessa opened her mouth, then shut it before shaking her head. “Yeah, sure, of course. But that’s not the point. Grigori Rasputin wasn’t actually evil anyway. The aristocrats in Russia basically made him a scapegoat for everything because they hated him. He was kind of a… free spirit and… and they couldn’t control him.” Her face was flushed a little at the thought of just how free the man had been, and how that freedom had presented itself. 

“He had sex a lot,” I put in. “With a lot of different women. And they were very devoted to him. It was… well, his thing. But either way, apparently he wasn’t some evil guy trying to destroy Russia or take over or anything. Not exactly. It’s… complicated. Even more than I thought, I guess.” 

“And he’s a vampire, apparently,” Tristan noted. “Err, an Akharu, I mean. Which I suppose makes the whole thing about how hard he was to kill make sense. But he’s still around?” 

“Apparently,” I confirmed. “Somewhere, anyway. I guess he doesn’t exactly advertise his address. Probably something to do with that whole bit about being made to look like an evil sorcerer bent on world domination or whatever. And the Heretics hunting people like him thing. Yeah, you know, the more I think about it, the less I can blame him for being off the grid. Even if that does make this whole thing even harder for Senny.” 

“You think she can find him?” Vanessa asked, glancing briefly toward her brother. 

Smiling faintly, I nodded. “If anyone can, it’s her. And she’ll have plenty of help when she needs it.” I knew for a fact that I wasn’t the only one who was ready to drop everything the second the vampire girl said the word. Asenath had plenty of friends around here. As did Jiao. Whenever they had anything useful to go off of, they would have people backing them up. 

“What about his other family?” Tristan asked curiously. “They’re still around somewhere, right?” 

“Somewhere,” I confirmed with a helpless shrug. “Senny promised to look for them too. They’re her family as well, I guess. Half-siblings, anyway. It’s a whole thing. I know she feels a little awkward about it, but she definitely wants to find them. It’s not their fault Tiras’s memories were erased. And it’s not his fault either. The whole situation just sucks.”

The other two murmured agreement before Vanessa looked at me. “What about the whole ‘it wasn’t actually Kyril Shamon’s prison’ thing?” 

The question made me blanch, shaking my head quickly. “I have no idea what’s going on with that. But yeah, Gordon’s dad and a few of the others said they never saw Shamon. He’s one of the leaders of the Eternal Eye tribe, but it was the Lost Scar Victors who seemed to really own the camp. Or at least that Zoya Dalal woman. She visited enough times that they knew who she was. None of the other Victors did.” 

“She works with your ancestor, Remember Bennett?” Vanessa mused. “Do you think she knows anything about what they were doing out there?”

Tristan translated, “She means do you think your great-whatever grandmother knows about them trying to summon and control a world-ending monster.”  

Grimacing, I thought about it for a moment. Which wasn’t the first time, of course. I’d spent the last few days almost obsessively dwelling over that question, among a few others. “I don’t think so,” I finally answered. “I mean it, it’s possible. I need to talk to my mom about it when she comes back from Peru, but everything I’ve heard about the woman makes it seem unlikely. It just doesn’t seem like the sort of thing she’d be involved in. She’s a Loyalist, sure. And fully-committed to that. I believe she would kill any Alters she could. But I really don’t think she’s the sort of person who would go as far as thinking she could control a monster like that.” Having said that, I shrugged helplessly once more. “On the other hand, what do I know? It’s not like I’ve spent a lot of time sitting in her living room eating cookies. She’s never reached out, and I’m pretty sure she’d be just fine if our whole side of the family was wiped off the map so we stopped being an embarrassment or whatever.”

Tristan reached out, his hand touching my arm. “Sorry for bringing it up. That’s probably not very fun to think about.” 

Forcing myself to smile, I replied, “It’s not all that bad. I mean, I’ve got the grandparents I care about back. I don’t need some woman I don’t even know to give a shit about me, or the rest of the family. She can just… be that way. From the stories I’ve heard, I’m not missing out on all that much anyway.” 

Of course, I couldn’t tell them about the grandparent I really was missing right then. Dare was still in Peru with my mother. I wanted to ask her about Remember just as much as I wanted to ask Mom. If not more. But it was going to have to wait until they got done with that situation. Or rather… until they came back for Tribald Kine’s funeral. They knew the general basics of what had happened with our thing, including that. But we didn’t want to distract them too much. Apparently they were already having more than a few problems with trying to save that Alter haven from those Eden’s Garden loyalists, and we didn’t need to add to things. I’d even asked if Mom wanted some of us to go help when we talked over the phone, but she very firmly insisted that I was to stay right where I was and get some class time in. They could handle it, even if it was taking time. And she would talk to me more when they visited to say goodbye to Kine.

Pushing that stuff out of my mind, I took a sip of my drink before forcing a smile. “But hey, what about you guys? Tabbris said you’ve been keeping yourselves busy while I was gone. And I don’t just mean by hanging out with your new siblings and all that.” 

Once more, the pair exchanged glances, a bit of silent communication passing between them before they turned back to me. Vanessa nodded. “You could say something like that. You remember Rowan?” 

My head bobbed. “The Vestil-Akharu hybrid girl from Vegas? Their princess or whatever who was kidnapped with that whole…” I grimaced. “The Fossor thing.” 

“Exactly,” Tristan confirmed. “She called for some help because one of her friends went missing with their family while they were visiting Yellowstone. They sent a couple searchers out there, but they didn’t have any luck. And she thought some Heretics might be able to find something more useful. Plus, you know, the Vegas families keep most of their resources in the city for protection. Especially now with the civil war going on. Everybody’s afraid the Loyalists will make a big move to show they mean business, and Vegas is a pretty tempting target. So they can’t spare that many people to go all the way over to scour Yellowstone looking for one small family. Even if the kid is one of Princess Rowan’s friends.”

“So you guys took up the request?” I smiled a little at the thought. “Not by yourselves.” 

“No,” Tristan shook his head. “Not alone, of course. Mom had to stay here to keep working with Puriel and Spark, but Dad went with us. So did Dexamene. She wanted to see the place, since she read about it in a bunch of books. Plus there was Koren and Rebecca. Then there was Felix and Triss. And believe me when I say having her around while we were running around the forest made it super-clear just how similar our names are. I thought about changing mine to Owen or something, just to be different.” He glanced toward his sister with a smirk, oh-so-casually adding, “Aaaand….” 

A visible blush crossed her face as she coughed. “Desenei. He went with us too.” 

“The Seosten guy who–” Catching myself, I offered the girl a smile. “The guy who likes you. How’s um, how’s that going?”

Biting her lip, Vanessa hesitated. “It’s good, I mean, I think? I told him about how I’m not interested in any of that physical stuff. Okay, most of the physical stuff. Which I’m still not, for the record. And I don’t think I ever will be. I um, I made sure he knows that.” 

“And he said it was okay?” I asked, thinking about what it would be like to be in that situation, from either side of it. 

“Not immediately,” she replied. “I mean, he said it was completely fine for me and he didn’t blame me or anything. He just had to take a little time to decide if it was something he could, uh, put out of the way. He had to decide if it was okay for him. Which…” Trailing off, Vanessa smiled just a little to herself, even as that blush deepened. “I like that, you know? I mean, I’m glad he took the time to really think about how it would affect everything instead of just immediately saying it was fine.” 

Thinking about that, I gave a slow nod. “I guess I get that. If he just immediately said it wouldn’t bother him at all, It would mean he didn’t think about it. Then later if it really did bother him after all, that could be a problem.” 

Nodding quickly my way, Vanessa confirmed, “Yeah, exactly. But he just told me that I was fine, that there was nothing wrong with me and that he would take some time to really think about it.” 

“Which is how you know he definitely understands Nessa,” Tristan commented. “Seriously, can you think of anything more romantic for her to hear than, ‘I’ll think about it?’ Except maybe for those three magic words. Ahem, ‘I’ll study hard.’”

Elbowing her brother firmly as her face turned red, Vanessa shifted in her seat, pointedly turning her attention back to me. “Anyway, he took a few days and then he came back and said he’d like to give it a shot. We talked about umm… ground rule stuff, what I’m comfortable with, what sort of dating we’re doing, that sort of thing. I told him it’s okay if he, um, does that other stuff with someone else, but I’d just like to meet them and talk about it first. Is that weird? Is it weird that I want to talk to anyone he umm, he does that stuff with?” 

My head shook. “I get why you think it might be weird, but not really. I mean if you think about it that way, yeah. But seriously, it’s all about people being on the same page. Which is a pretty big deal, especially in a situation like yours. He knows that if he screws this up, he’s gonna have an Olympian and the guy the Seosten call ‘The Bane’ pissed off at him, right?” 

From the way the other girl grimaced, I was pretty sure her parents had already sat down with the guy. “Oh, he knows,” she murmured quietly. “And he’s putting up with it anyway. Which is just weird.” 

Tristan snorted, scooting his chair closer to put an arm around her fondly. “He likes you, genius. Trust me, it’s not that hard to see why. You’re brilliant, cool, and pretty good in a fight. Plus if you guys ever end up living on your own, that whole trip to Yellowstone proves you can tell him exactly what plants are safe to eat.”

Rolling her eyes as she leaned over against her brother, Vanessa smiled with obvious contentment for a moment before exhaling. “Sure, that’s definitely my primary selling point, identifying poisonous berries and leaves.”    

Chuckling a little at the two of them, I asked, “So was he the last one to go with you on that mission to save Princess Rowan’s friend and the others?” 

Tristan nodded. “Yeah, that’s it. Dad, Dex, Koren, Rebecca, Triss, Felix, Desenei, Nessa, and me. It was the nine of us out there together for a few days, looking all over that whole place.”  

Taking another sip of my coffee, I gestured with the cup. “At least that means you got to go camping.” 

“Not as fun and relaxing as you might think,” Vanessa informed me. “There are a lot of very nasty creatures out there, especially at night.” 

“Rattlejacks,” Tristan put in, giving me a look. “We found a den of them out there. You remember those things, right?” 

“Remember as in I’ve heard of them,” I confirmed, “but I’ve never seen them. And I don’t want to. Those are the rattlesnake-jackrabbit hybrid things someone made down in Texas, aren’t they? Senny was talking about how she and Seller dealt with the guy who created them. And she was pretty sure a couple of the things got away.” 

“She was right,” Vanessa replied with a grimace. “And they’re just as bad as you think. Worse, really. We think we killed all of them out there, but you know…” 

“Between Texas and Yellowstone, I’m rapidly running out of outdoor areas I have any interest in visiting.” Saying that while giving a slight shudder at the thought, I added, “But did you find the missing kid and her family?” 

“His family,” Tristan corrected me. “And yeah, we found them in a big cave up there. Some whacked-out Alter survivalist cult wouldn’t let them leave. They had a whole prophecy about the end of the world and all that, so they thought they could hole up in there, wait for it to be over, then come out and repopulate the Earth or something. Which, you know, to each their own. But they were keeping Tiakie and his family trapped, plus some others who didn’t want to be there. For their own good, they said.” 

“We went in and umm, freed the ones who wanted to leave.” Vanessa’s voice was quiet. “We tried not to kill anyone we didn’t have to, as soon as we knew what was going on. But a few of them didn’t give us a choice.” 

“Dad spent some extra time there once it was over, talking to the people who were left about some ground rules,” Tristan added. “You know, like how they can stay there as long as they want, but they’re not allowed to kidnap anyone else, even for their own good, and as soon as any of them want to leave, they have to allow it. He said he’ll go back every once in awhile to check on them and see if anyone wants to leave. It was a whole mess.” 

“Sounds like it,” I agreed, shaking my head at the thought of all that. “But please tell me the Rattlejacks were nowhere near that cave. If those people were using them as guards or something…” 

“Different part of the park,” Tristan informed me. “Far enough away that we could probably get away with just nuking the site from orbit, which might just–” 

“We can’t do that,” Vanessa interrupted, giving her brother a look. “There’s too many plants and animals that live in that area.” 

“I didn’t say a big nuke,” Tristan countered. “We could put a forcefield around those couple of acres. You know, just to make sure. And trust me, if there are more of those Rattlejack things, we’d be doing the animals who live there a favor. You saw how fast those things can jump. And how far.” 

Grimacing at the very thought, I shook my head quickly. “Okay, I think that’s just about enough of that. We can talk about something other than the jumping mutated snakes for awhile. You know, like the whole reason we’re here.” Gesturing to the book in front of me, I offered, “Why don’t we get started with this whole math homework thing? 

“Because after a trip like that, and hearing that those Rattlejacks might still exist, I could really do with some nice, relaxing calculus.” 

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Interlude 16A – Reunions 1 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The Olympus was docked with the Star Station. With the shields from the station extended over the old ship, it was protected in the middle of the sun, safe from any detection. Normally, it would have taken a lot more effort to set the ship up in a way to accept the Star Station’s shields like that, but her temporary crew had been working hard to create a few modular systems that allowed the Olympus to seamlessly plug itself into the station and accept that protection. 

They had all built the system in the time the Olympus had been traveling. But only one of them had designed it. One of them had developed the plans necessary to protect the ship like that. 

Spark. At least, that was what she was called now. She was the daughter who had been taken away from Sariel so long ago. She was the one whose brilliance had helped put the ship back together, the one who designed the system which helped the Olympus get past the Seosten barrier, as well as the one that allowed the ship to safely dock here at the Sun Station. She was the one who had designed the prototype teleporting ship whose existence had saved Puriel from being taken over by the Whispers, thus saving everyone else on that ship. And, by extension, most likely the rest of the universe.  

She was the one who had done all of that. She was the one whom Sariel herself was staring at from the doorway into a small meeting room just off the side of the Olympus’s primary cargo bay. The ship was docked, others were taking care of important things as far as dealing with finding out what the Whispers were attempting to do. Which left Sariel standing in that doorway, looking at the daughter she had lost so long ago. 

And she wasn’t alone. Sitting beside his sister was the other child who had been ripped away from Sariel. The one who was called Omni. Where Spark had long hair fashioned in a tight braid with alternating blonde and black hair, Omni had shaggy brown hair. He was the youngest here, a year younger than Tabbris, where Spark was a year older. Neither of them were looking toward their mother. They held hands, gazes locked onto the floor.  

Puriel was there too, sitting in a far corner of the room without moving. Like the children, he made no move to look at Sariel when she entered, despite all of them clearly knowing she was here and who she was. He was instead staring at a holographic screen that had been projected in front of him, reading up on something. 

For a few long moments, the woman stood there in the doorway, gaze passing over the group. So many thoughts went through her mind in those moments that she had no idea what to say or do. She felt frozen in place, realizing belatedly that Puriel was intentionally keeping himself out of the way and ‘distracted’ to give her the opportunity to make the first move, the first decision. He had been their leader for so long, and had tried to control everything she did, that sitting there doing nothing was the best way he had to show her that he would not try to control things anymore. He wasn’t approaching her, wasn’t loudly greeting the woman and introducing her to the children, her own children. He was giving her the opportunity to decide how this whole thing would go. 

After those first few frozen moments, Sariel pushed herself out of the doorway. Silently, she approached the pair of children sitting in the middle of the room. Once she was directly in front of the two, Sariel slowly took a knee. Without speaking just yet, she reached out to put her own hand on top of the two they were holding clasped together. One hand from each of them, brother, sister, and mother. Still, none of them spoke. They stayed like that for a minute, as Sariel absorbed the pure, wondrous joy she felt at the simple fact that she was there with them. A shudder of emotion ran through her, and she slowly lifted her other hand, reaching out to very tentatively brush her fingers through her son’s hair. A soft whimper escaped the woman at the feel of it, her fingers trailing down his cheek as the boy squirmed uncertainly. The lump in her throat grew thicker as she moved her hand over to the girl sitting beside him. Or at least the image of the girl. Sariel knew that what she was seeing there was a solid hologram, projected from Puriel’s power. But that didn’t matter. None of that mattered. For all intents and purposes, Sariel’s daughter was right there. Yes, her skin and hair felt a little too solid and warm, but it was her. It was her mind, her thoughts, her soul. She was there. They were both there

It was that thought which finally broke through the lump in Sariel’s throat, bringing forth her first words to them. “My babies.” There were tears in her eyes. “My… you…” Her eyes closed tightly and she gave a heavy shudder as the emotions from this reunion became too much to handle in that moment. These two had been ripped away from her during such traumatic times, and she had been convinced for so long that they were either dead or… or so far gone she would never see them again. To be right here with them now was more than she ever thought she would get. That joy mixed with the heavy emotions that came from thinking about losing them in the first place became too much to handle. Her eyes were tightly shut as she held one hand against the slightly too-warm face of her missing daughter. Tears escaped to fall slowly down her face. 

Then she felt it, a small hand touching the side of her face to gently brush tears away. As her eyes opened, Sariel saw her son sitting there with his hand extended. His gaze met hers, voice small and vulnerable. “We can leave if it makes you sad, Mother.” 

“Oh Void. Oh no.” That was enough. Sariel reached up to take her son’s hand, squeezing it while shaking her head. “No baby, you don’t make me sad.” Her voice cracked through the words. “You don’t make me sad at all. Losing you is what made me sad. Seeing you right now, you are so–you’re my little boy. You’re my boy. And I just–I just think about all the time I missed with you, because I couldn’t protect you.” 

With that, she moved her other hand over to cup the side of Spark’s face. Her touch made the girl start a little bit, reluctantly raising her gaze to meet her mother’s. The two of them locked eyes for a moment before Sariel found her voice once more. “I am so sorry, my sweet, incredible babies. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there for you.” As she spoke, her fingers moved back to brush through that holographic hair. “You are so brave, so brilliant, so… incredible. Both of you.” Her eyes moved back and forth between them. “I love you, both of you. You are both so… amazing.”

“I am not what you want,” Spark spoke, her own voice cracking just a bit as she met her mother’s gaze somewhat reluctantly. “I am Mendacia. I am not what you would hope for.” 

“No,” Sariel informed her in a quiet, yet firm voice. “You are so much more than I could ever have hoped for. You are everything I ever wanted you to be and more. So much more. You are a brilliant, brave girl who does the right thing. You try. You take care of the people you love. That’s what matters to me. That’s what you are, what you will always be, my child.” 

There was a very brief pause then before she thought of the next most important thing for her daughter to hear. “Your name… your name is what you want it to be. Your name has been Spark, and that is who you are. I will use any name you like. That is your choice. But I want you to know… to know the name I gave you.” 

A confused frown found its way to the girl’s face as she shook her head. “You knew I was Mendacia. You would have given me no name.”   

“Yes, she would have.” That was Puriel, speaking up without looking that way. His voice was rough, cracking a little. “Your mother would have given you a name before you were taken.” 

Sariel, gaze passing over the man as a rush of very conflicting emotions ran through her, turned her attention back to her daughter. “Your name is Spark. It is a brilliant name for a brilliant girl. But you are also Korsmea. My… my mother’s name. I gave it to you as soon as I knew about your condition. Because I love you both, and I always will. No condition is going to change that. Not my mother’s memory problems, and not… anything that might change how your possession power works. You are my daughter. I love you. Whatever you call yourself, whoever you are attached to, wherever you go and whatever you do, I love you. You are Spark. You are Korsmea. You are my daughter. I love everything you are.” 

Even as she finished saying that, Sariel was tugging the girl off her seat and pulling her into a firm embrace, crushing her against herself. She hugged her daughter tightly, before looking toward the boy. “And you are Omni. You are everything. You can be anything you want to be. But you should also know the name I gave you. You are Omni, and you are also Jehoel. That is the name of Apollo’s father, the man who took me in as a child and cared for me when nothing forced him to do so. I named Spark Korsmea in honor of the woman who could not always be my mother. And I named you Jehoel in honor of the man who took it upon himself to be as much of a father to me as he could.” 

Her eyes moved back and forth between the two with deep, tender affection. “You are Spark and Omni.” Her arm moved to pull the boy up as well, tugging him right up against herself to crush both of them in as tight of a hug as she could manage. “You are Korsmea and Jehoel. I love you both no matter what you call yourselves. I love you more than I could ever tell you. 

“You are my children, and nothing will ever change that.” 

******

Ten minutes later, Tabbris stood outside the room. She wasn’t quite in the doorway, huddled in on herself with her arms folded around her special fish bowl. When she had run to the house to get it, all Tabbris had been able to think about was sharing a look at her fish friends with her new siblings. But now, standing here in this moment, she couldn’t shake the feeling that it was dumb. What if they hated fish? What if  they thought it was silly? Why did she run all that way to bring the fish bowl back instead of just focusing on meeting them in person for the first time? What if they thought she was showing off? Dumb, dumb, it was dumb. She shouldn’t have brought it. Maybe she should run back and put it away, or find someone who could hold the bowl for her. Or–

“Hey, Tabs, you okay?” 

It was Tristan, standing there with Vanessa. As her older siblings, the ones she already knew quite well, stood in the hall next to her, Tabbris swallowed hard. Her voice was a whisper as she hesitantly admitted, “I don’t know if I should take this in.” 

Tristan exchanged a glance with his twin before taking a knee next to Tabbris. “Well, the fish are your friends, right?” 

“And you want them to meet your friends,” Vanessa continued, taking a knee as well. 

Gulping, Tabbris gave a slow nod, taking a moment to find her voice. “But what if they don’t like them?” 

Another brief, silent glance passed between the twins before Tristan spoke with a shrug. “Vanessa doesn’t like everything I do. And I don’t like everything she does. Cuz we’re different people.” 

“Very different,” Vanessa confirmed. “But no matter how many things he likes that I don’t, he’s always going to be my brother. And I’m always going to love him. Even when he ticks me off.” She gave him a quick look at that, squinting briefly before turning back to the younger girl. “Maybe they’ll like your fish and maybe they won’t. But the point is, liking those fish is who you are. And you shouldn’t hide that. Because they’ll love you, just like we do.” 

Tristan nodded, reaching out to touch her shoulder. “Tabs, siblings don’t always get along or like the same things. But you’ll always be siblings. That’s what matters. Trust us on that.” 

Before Tabbris could say anything else, or even think much about what her older siblings had said, a voice called from within the room. “Kids, you can come in now.” 

Hearing her mother’s words, the young girl froze up briefly. She blinked down into the magic fish bowl, seeing several of her little aquatic friends swimming around in the much-larger pool within. “Sorry, guys,” she whispered to them, “if this is dumb, it’s my fault, not yours.” 

With that, she took a deep breath, held the bowl closer to herself, and nodded to Vanessa and Tristan. Together, the three of them stepped through the doorway. 

Immediately, they saw their mother and two new siblings sitting in the middle of the room. A moment of quite emotional silence passed before the trio began to walk once more. They crossed the distance quickly, despite walking slowly to take in the sight of the other two for as long as possible. Before they knew it, all five were arranged in a circle with their mother standing a bit to the side, watching them silently. 

Of all of them, it was Sariel’s youngest son who spoke first. “Hi,” he started in a quiet voice. “I… I’m..” He glanced at their mother as though searching for her strength, then turned back to them and straightened up a bit. “I don’t want to be everything. It’s… too much. I’m–I want to be Jehoel. I mean, I am Jehoel.” 

“I’m Spark,” the blonde-black-haired girl declared. Immediately after spitting that out, she gave their mother a quick glance. “I mean, I can be Korsmea too. Spark Korsmea. I’m okay with that. I can be both. But I want to stay Spark. I can’t forget that. I won’t.” 

“You don’t have to,” Sariel assured her, voice soft as she reached out to touch the girl’s solid-light shoulder. “No one is ever going to make you forget where you came from or what you’ve been through. You are whatever you want to be, now and forever.” 

From there, the other three introduced themselves to their new siblings. Tristan boasted about how cool it was to finally have a brother to help him with all the girls, before immediately launching into a discussion about the pranks he had pulled on Vanessa. Despite the protests from his twin about not corrupting their new brother, the two boys were almost immediately whispering and snickering into each other’s ears. 

That, of course, led Vanessa to start whispering to her two sisters. Soon, they were all teasing one another with those whispers, some speaking just loudly enough to be overheard by the others in order to prompt aghast protests. Eventually, Spark asked what Tabbris was holding, and the girl tentatively, nervously introduced her fish, holding up the bowl. 

Spark and Jehoel were immediately interested, the latter more so. The boy kept asking what the different fish were named, and what type they were. He asked what they liked to eat, where she had gotten them, where they liked to live, anything and everything. Tabbris, of course, had answers for every question, and had soon gotten over her nervousness to proudly talk about her aquatic friends. 

And through it all, Sariel stood back to watch. Her hand covered her mouth to contain the vocal reaction that came as she stared at her children interacting with one another. She didn’t want to say anything, she couldn’t say anything. Not without disturbing them and breaking the spell that had come over the room as soon as the five siblings began to truly interact for the first time in their lives. Five of her children were there. All save for… all save for the one she had created without knowing what she was doing. The child who had never been intended as one, yet was suddenly so important. 

Someday, somehow, she would bring the orb she had created back to this world, and let all of her children be together. It was impossible to do now without endangering the universe that her other child had created. 

And that in and of itself was more than Sariel could even try to comprehend. The spell she had created had become sapient and was even now in that other universe, searching for her. But if she went to her immediately, the result would be catastrophic. No matter how much she wanted to find this incredible… magic daughter, they had to be incredibly careful about it, or risk accidentally destroying everything that magic daughter had built. 

But she wouldn’t forget her. Even standing here, watching her five incredible children finally meet, Sariel promised herself that she would never forget there was one more out there. And someday, somehow, she would bring her back too. No matter how she had first come about, she was still her child. And Sariel would never give up until she had finally put her family together. All of them. 

From there, with that thought in mind, the woman turned her head. Her gaze found its way to the man who sat silently in the corner, who had been sitting there the whole time and had only spoken up once. All without ever looking that way. 

For a moment, Sariel simply stood there, watching the man while listening to the sound of her children talking. A rush of thoughts and feelings worked their way through her, as she gave a little shudder before managing to focus. One more thing mattered right then, one very important thing that had to happen. 

She took a step, only to find herself facing Spark as she transported her holographic body directly in front of her. Hands raised, the girl met her mother’s gaze while speaking firmly. “Mother, he saved me. I know he did bad things. I know he hurt you, and… and the others.” She glanced back toward her siblings, who were all watching. “But he saved me. I am only here because of him. I was… nothing.” 

Swallowing hard, Sariel reached out, hand cupping the girl’s face. “No matter what Kushiel may have called you, I promise, you were never nothing.” She paused then, meeting the girl’s gaze before giving a very slight nod. “But you’re right, he saved you. I won’t forget that.” Leaning in, Sariel gently kissed her holographic forehead, voice tender. “Give me a minute, okay? It will be okay, I promise.” 

After a brief hesitation, Spark glanced to Puriel and then back to Sariel before giving a nod. Once more, she vanished, reappearing by her siblings. 

Which left Sariel standing there, watching the man who had affected her family so much, for both good and ill. Taking a breath, she took several more steps, putting herself directly in front of where he was sitting. 

Finally, Puriel raised his eyes to meet her gaze. Visibly swallowing, he spoke very softly. “Hello, Sariel.” 

She didn’t respond, not at first in any case. Instead, the woman stood, watching him as she fought to sort through her feelings. Several long, silent seconds passed before she finally spoke. “Hello, Puriel.” Another long pause filled the air, then, “You didn’t listen.” 

“No,” Puriel agreed as his voice cracked slightly. “I did not listen to you, or to others. I…” The words caught in his throat, before he managed to force them out. “I owe you a greater apology than I could ever give. I owe–”

“No,” Sariel interrupted immediately, her own voice cracking as well as she cut in. “You–the things I… the things that happened were-” She stopped, eyes closing briefly. So many emotions were running through the woman that she could barely hold herself together, could barely stand there. “You helped tear my family apart. I can never forget that.” 

As Puriel’s gaze fell, Sariel reached out, her hand catching his in a firm, almost too-tight grip. “But–” Her voice broke, forcing the woman to take a moment before she could speak again. “But you also helped put it back together. You saved my daughter, and my son. And for that, even if I can’t forget what you did… I can forgive it.” 

She gave a tug, pulling the man to his feet to stand in front of her while speaking in a soft whisper. “I forgive you, Puriel.” 

It took the man several tries to find his voice, eyes flooding with tears as he stared at her as though incapable of finding the right words. Finally, all he could manage was a weak, “Thank you.” 

“Thank you,” she returned, “for my children. But… I think you have your own daughter to go see right now. 

“And she has been waiting to speak with you for quite some time.”  

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Patreon Snippets 22 (Heretical Edge 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the lessons we take from them.” 

*********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Only the bad guys,” Savvy insisted pointedly. 

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

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

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

“I missed all of you.” 

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“By all means,” Koren replied. 

“You’re welcome to try.” 

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

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Class Action 14-02 (Heretical Edge)

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It turned out to be a good thing that we didn’t have a lot of time before classes, because apparently Sariel and Haiden were going to take Persephone to talk to a few people. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was about, but the general gist was that they thought she could help solve a few mysteries related to things she might have heard while close to Manakel. Stuff he’d done or asked to be done back before he’d sent her away that last time. Which would’ve been a hundred years earlier, right around the time the first revolution was really getting going. I didn’t know if what they were checking had anything to do with that, of course, though I did hear the name Dallant while they were having a quiet conversation. The baron guy. Whatever they were having Persephone talk to people about, at least part of it seemed to have something to do with the maybe-bad guy Wyoming baron. That was… interesting. 

All that aside, Persephone had been happy to see me. Actually, she was happy to see all of us, and very cheerfully introduced herself to Columbus. And then equally cheerfully did so for Amethyst when the cyberform poked her head up over the boy’s shoulder from her place in his backpack. They talked a bit, she got him to tell her about his past and life as a Bystander before Crossroads. Persephone seemed fascinated by the concept of adoption and asked a lot of questions about that. Andromeda, speaking through a computer pad thing clipped to her belt, occasionally piped up to tell Persephone when she was possibly asking something that was too personal, but for the most part, Columbus rolled with it and answered as best as he could. 

After briefly glancing over to see that Dylan girl with Vanessa, Haiden, and Sariel, having a discussion about the other Vanessa, I focused on the Revenant-girl nearby. “Uh, Persephone?” 

Turning a bright smile my way, the white-haired woman cheerfully started to reply, “Yes, my…” She trailed off, seeming to catch herself before very deliberately changing her words to, “Yes, Flick?” 

“Do you mind if I talk to Andromeda for a second? Uh, over there, I mean.” I gestured to a corner of the Moons’ very cozy little living room. “Not that it’s a secret or anything, I just wanna ask her a couple things that might be sensitive for her.” 

She immediately agreed, taking off the little tablet and handing it to me. So, leaving her talking to Tabbris, December, Tristan, Columbus, Sands, and Sarah, I stepped over to the corner and used an enchanted coin to make sure I could ask my questions privately. 

“Is something wrong, Miss Chambers?” the voice from the tablet asked curiously. 

“Huh? Oh, no.” My head shook. “Nothing’s wrong. I mean not really, I just sorta wanted to ask a couple things. Like… umm, do you not have any way of having a body? I mean, with the tech level around the universe, it seems like you could’ve had a robot body built for yourself pretty easily. So I was just wondering if something was preventing that, or if you just… chose not to. Not that that’s a problem, you should go with whatever you’re comfortable with, but if you want a body and there’s some reason you haven’t–yeah. This is why I wanted to talk to you privately about it.” 

After a brief pause, the voice from the tablet responded quietly. “You are very thoughtful, Miss Chambers. You have my sincere thanks for the consideration.” That was followed by another pause, this one a bit longer. It actually made me wonder how her whole ‘AI-ness’ worked. Like, was she doing a bazillion calculations a second and still taking a noticeable pause before responding to me because her conscious thoughts truly took that long, or was it more of a case of her intentionally attempting to seem more human–err… biological, by including a pause? 

Either way, whatever the reason, eventually Andromeda spoke again. “I have indeed had a body before. Many, in fact. I tend to be rather rough with them, given my ability to survive their destruction with relative ease. Unfortunately, my capacity to ensure that a satisfactory new body is prepared does not match my ability to get them destroyed. I watch for appropriate shells that can be easily taken and modified for my purposes, and provide what compensation I can in the cases where a more delicate touch than what Percy tends toward is needed. She is surprisingly careful when she needs to be, but there are times when an actual expert must be used. Though I have had some success in simply injecting myself into the various robots used to perform various maintenance tasks.” Once more, a slight pause before, “We make do. Currently, I am in the ‘watching for a good body to… I believe, from the media I have absorbed, that the correct term would be ‘yoink?’” 

Snorting despite myself, I nodded while holding the pad up in front of me. “Yeah, I think yoink would be the right term. And I know some people, maybe I can see if we can put in an order for you. Making a body to your specifications might be just the challenge they’re looking for.” 

“I… I thank you for the thought, Miss Chambers,” came the response a moment later. She sounded a bit surprised, which, given the whole situation, had to be intentional? She was expressing surprise by making her voice sound that way, as deliberately as someone saying ‘I am surprised.’ Which again, made me wonder about how her whole personality and mind worked. But it probably would’ve been a bit rude to go outright asking. At least for now. 

Instead, I just gave her a slight smile. Well, gave the camera on the device a smile, anyway. “Lemme talk to my friends, we’ll see what we can come up with. Oh, uhh, also I know your name is Andromeda and the myths portray you as a female, but the myths aren’t exactly accurate about you being a computer intelligence, and I don’t know how much of your voice is intentional or whatever. Or, you know, exactly how accurate Persephone is. So um, do you prefer to present as female or male?”

“I… present as female,” she informed me. “But it is good to be asked.” 

So, I simply promised once more that I would talk to the others about the whole body thing when I got a chance. Then the two of us returned to the main conversation. Not that those of us who were actually students could take too much longer. It was almost time for class. 

And hey, nothing had blown up yet. 

******

The Fusion School was still working the way it had back when it started several months earlier. Mainly, classes were decided and scheduled at the beginning of the week based on who was available to teach. It wasn’t exactly the sort of curriculum an ordinary school would sign off on. But then again, an ordinary school didn’t have to deal with anywhere near the amount of evil werewolves, trolls, giant fire-wielding flying snakes, or kidnap-happy psycho necromancer pieces of shit that this one did. To say nothing of an ongoing war against Crossroads and Eden’s Garden, although that was relatively limited to a skirmish here and there whenever any loyalists happened to cross paths with our rebels. At this point, there hadn’t really been much in the way of a full-scale, prolonged battle aside from when we had rescued Sean and the other prisoners. 

With all that to deal with, it was a real wonder we managed to have any classes, let alone scheduled ones. But Abigail, and plenty of others, were insistent that we do our best to keep some semblance of education going for everyone. Even if that meant just taking each schedule on a week by week basis and basically piecemealing the curriculum as best as they could. 

The point was, it was probably a good thing Abigail didn’t have to answer to any sort of education board or follow any laws or anything. They were doing the best they could, but still.

In any case, my first class that day was definitely in-keeping with the idea of having a bit of normal, mundane education. Well, sort of. It was Ecology, which was absolutely a class you’d have in the Bystander world. Except in this case, that whole ‘studying the relationships between living beings and their environment’ included a lot more variety both in ‘living beings’ and ‘environment.’ Most recently, they had been covering the subject of how technology and magic both allowed hyper-specialized species to branch out from their native lands. Such as creatures who only breathed methane being able to create enclosed suits to operate within an oxygen environment. At least, that’s what they had covered according to what I followed from the brief rundown Rebecca, Jazz, and Gordon gave me while the four of us were on our way there. Avalon, Shiori, and the others weren’t part of that, as they had a different class to go to where they were in the middle of a course that would be far too difficult for me to just pick up in the middle. I’d have to take that one later once the professor got back around to the beginning again. Such was the joy of this sort of school schedule. You jumped on a class as close to the start as you could and rode it as far as the professor could take you before they got busy. 

We were still walking together quickly down the hall toward the classroom itself as Rebecca glanced at me. The tiny girl (for a human of our age anyway, the whole concept of size got really muddled in a school which included both pixies and a few trolls, ogres, and the like) asked, “You really saw the surviving Meregan, and they’re umm, they’re okay? Grandma said they were going to a new planet with these aliens–err, I mean these other aliens.” 

“Oh, uh, yeah.” I gave a quick nod. “They made some friends who live in some other universe or whatever, so completely safe from the Fomorians and the Seosten. For now, anyway. They’re setting up over there so the Meregan can recover and start to rebuild… everything. Sucks that they have to leave their whole planet behind, but rather lose the planet than the species.” Pausing then, I curiously added, “Do you know any Meregan?” 

“Huh?” Rebecca blinked before shaking her head. “Oh, uh, not exactly. Grandma was talking about them before you guys went over there for your rescue mission. She umm, she met a few back when she was with your mom in their old… you know, that whole thing.” Shifting from one foot to the other, the girl explained, “I just… from what she said, they’ve been through a lot. It sucks. Even their ‘happy ending’ or whatever was all about abandoning their homeworld to be completely destroyed by those stupid genocidal monsters. And that was like… the deus ex machina best-case scenario that could’ve happened aside from all the Fomorians across the universe being instantly obliterated.” 

“And wouldn’t that be a fun time for everyone,” Jazz put in with a snort. “I mean, sure, everyone would keep fighting because of course they would. But if the Seosten weren’t focused on fighting this war with the Fomorians, they’d probably…” She trailed off, frowning. “Huh, how long have they been fighting it, again? What do you think they’d do if the Fomorians didn’t exist?” 

We had stopped outside the classroom by that point, as Gordon spoke up. “Hundreds of thousands of years. Their entire society and existence has been built around this war for… you know, hundreds of generations. It’d be like if humans were still fighting a war that started back in ancient China or something. And never stopped fighting it. If that all disappeared, they just…” He paused before making a face. “They’d probably find some other enemy to fight.” 

“You don’t think they’d be glad they had peace?” Rebecca asked. “They could give it a chance.” 

Gordon, however, shook his head, voice quiet. “Historically speaking–I mean, we don’t really have any comparison historically speaking, but generally, the odds that they could just turn completely away from having a big bad opponent to fight and be peaceful again are… slim. Like I said, this is all they know. It’s all they’ve known for what might as well be their entire existence.”

“He’s right.” The voice came from nearby, as we turned to see an incredibly, achingly handsome guy with long, slightly curly dark hair and the deepest blue eyes standing next to the door we were blocking. He looked like he was maybe a year or two older than we were (so who the hell knew how old he actually was), and wore a simple pair of blue jeans and a long-sleeved red shirt with all the buttons open over a black tee shirt that had a picture of the Death Star blowing up on it. “My people probably wouldn’t handle any sort of sudden peace very well.” With that, he extended a hand my way. “Sorry, jumping into a conversation was rude, even if the others here know me. My name is Hazaelibre, but people around here mostly call me Hazel.” 

“Uh, Flick.” I accepted the handshake before adding, “These guys know you, huh? You take this class too?”

“Unfortunately, I’m only allowed to take the class as far as my boss will let me.” The handsome Seosten replied with a broad, distractingly glamorous smile. That same smile faltered a second later as he squinted. “Uh. right, that’s only funny if you actually know what’s going on.” With a cough, he added, “Would someone please help me out here so I don’t look quite as dumb?” 

Snorting, Rebecca spoke up. “Hazel’s the teacher’s assistant. He helps with the class.” 

“See?” Hazel made a grand gesture with both hands as though to indicate himself. “I’m only allowed to take you and the other students as far as the teacher lets m–never mind.” Rolling his eyes at his own words, he added, “I promise, I try to do my best to help with class a lot better than I make jokes. But my baking? That’s top-notch.” 

“He’s not kidding,” Jazz informed me. “He brought some pastries in a couple times. They’re amazing.”

The others agreed, and I felt a pang. They had spent weeks here going to classes and forming these relationships while I was gone. I had never met this Hazel guy before, and these guys were so casual and easy with him. They’d had his pastries. Wait, did that sound like a euphemism? I didn’t think so, but basically everything was a euphemism anymore. 

Still, I pushed all that aside and managed a slight smile. “Well, I look forward to the next time you fire up the oven, then. You said you’re the teacher’s assistant?”

With an easy nod, the man confirmed, “That’s right. And my boss gets a little antsy if we take too long out here.” Once more, he grinned as though expecting me to get some sort of joke, before that too faltered. “Uh, just remember I said that while you go inside.” That said, Hazel turned and opened the door, gesturing for all of us to go ahead. 

“Don’t worry,” Rebecca whispered while stepping past me, “you’ll get it in a second.” 

And get it I did, as we moved into the classroom and I saw the figure waiting near the front, standing next to the teacher’s desk. It–it was a Kenkean, one of the humanoid ant-like beings that we had saved from Isaac back when we were way out in Seosten space. Just like the rest of those people, this Kenkean looked like an ant whose three body sections were stacked vertically rather than horizontally, with four legs attached to the bottom of the abdomen and four arms (two at the top and two at the bottom) coming out of the thorax. And then, of course, the ant-head.

Oh, and this Kenkean wore clothes, of a sort. Specifically, a set of what looked like jeans, but specially made to fit those four legs together. They also wore a red and white pin-striped shirt and red suspenders, with a bowler hat perched on top of their head. All in all, it looked kind of ridiculous. But hey, who was I to judge? I barely understood anything about human fashion, let alone Kenkean. 

“Welcome, welcome back to’k the class!” The Kenkean spoke with that familiar clicking k sound as their mandibles clacked together. The voice sounded male, and I was just considering whether I should make that sort of assumption when the Kenkean focused on me. Those big ant-eyes widened almost comically. “Flick! It is me’k, the one you’k have spoken to! Ru–”

“Ruedu?” I quickly blurted in surprise, looking the Kenkean up and down. He–no, she, I remembered belatedly. I’d made that same mistake before too, but Ruedu had made it clear she was female. She looked a lot different than when I had last seen her right after that whole fight with Isaac. Much less grovely, for one. And she was wearing those clothes. And– “You’re teaching?” I managed to get that part out verbally, the surprise in my voice enough to make several students around the room alternately cough or snicker. Or squint at me as though trying to decide if I had a problem with that. Which, given the attitudes of Boschers they had grown up with, was fair. 

Ruedu’s mandibles clattered together repeatedly in what I belatedly realized was some form of chuckle. “Yes, we’k Kenkeans have changed much. Not all. Some stay in the tunnels. But others came and we’k learned much. We’k grow much. And I very’k good with learning. Always been put in helping office jobs. Make old masters happy with organizing. I used that time to learn many things in their books. But never was able to use such learning for anything good. Not til we’k came here and speak to’k Principal Fellows. She’k was very’k impressed by the things I know.” 

“And she gave you a job.” Finishing those words, I smiled. “It’s good to see you again, you look… wow. You look great, Ruedu. Seriously.” Hearing her talk a bit more, I had realized another change. She wasn’t making that clicking k sound on every word that ended in a vowel after all, only on words that ended in ‘ee’ or ‘ooh’ sounds. Words like we, very, you, and so on. Was that just a measure of having more practice speaking English? 

Somehow, I could tell the ant-like woman was beaming. “It is good to see’k you too’k, Flick. Very’k good.” Her voice turned a little stern then, though I could tell it wasn’t exactly easy for her. “But do’k not think I shall be’k easy’k on you’k. You’k will learn your grade in this class. You’k will learn all of your lessons, yes?” 

Yeah, I could tell that it took an effort for Ruedu to put her foot down, after spending so long as part of a slave race. Honestly, I was surprised she had progressed this far already, even if it had been like three-quarters of a year by now. She clearly wanted to do a good job teaching. And I certainly wasn’t going to jeopardize that.

So, I took a seat with the others. A few people around us wanted to ask a bit about that whole Fossor thing, having heard either second or third-hand about how it went. With a glance toward Ruedu, who was moving over to start doing something on the holographic board, I quietly promised to write everything down. 

Because that was the thing. All these people kept asking me about what happened, wanting to get my first-hand experience on the whole death of Fossor. And I knew how to give them what they wanted. I didn’t need to sit here and repeatedly tell the story. I needed to write it down. Like a newspaper article. So, that was what I would do. I would write it down and let people read the story for themselves. 

But in the meantime, I had a class on Universe Ecology. Taught by my old Kenkean friend, who was assisted by one of the Seosten, the race who had previously enslaved her. The last I’d known, she was meek and could barely speak up for herself, ready to prostrate herself along with the rest of her people in front of us when she thought we were Seosten. Now she was… wow. 

One thing was for sure. Things really had changed a lot in the past year. 

I just hoped we were ready for all the changes that were undoubtedly waiting to come. 

A/N – Ruedu was previously seen/introduced right here directly following Isaac’s capture.

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Class Action 14-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The non-canon chapters are out right now! You can find the the Heretical Edge noncanon right here and Summus Proelium noncanon right here

The next day was Wednesday, November 28th. It would also be my first day back attending actual classes since before we took that trip to Las Vegas. Which… felt like years ago, honestly. The intervening weeks had been so packed with emotional highs and deep, deep lows that I was almost certain there must have been some sort of time distortion involved. Err, besides the actual multiple instances of time travel. It felt as though I had actually aged the four years that I had been transported back and forth through. And yet, if that was the trade-off for getting my mother back safe, I would have gone through three times as much. Ten times as much, even. Mom was home. She was safe. We had won and killed Fossor. That was worth any amount of exhaustion, physical and emotional. And yes, I was probably going to regret having that thought, but still.  

“So this is the real deal Persephone, huh?” Columbus asked as he walked along my right side. Sands and Sarah were to the left, having a whispered conversation, while December and Tabbris trotted ahead, having their own less-whispered talk that seemed to be progressing at warp speed. They weren’t shouting or anything, they were just two little girls who were excited. December was going to be attending classes with Tabbris today, and they were really into that.

The six of us were on our way to the forcefield elevator to take us up to the main corridors. It was a bit too early for classes just yet, but we were going to go see Persephone. Columbus and Tabbris wanted to actually meet her officially, and the twins hadn’t had much time to talk to the woman yesterday. December was going mostly because Tabbris was. Plus she’d apparently heard a few stories about Persephone from Cahethal. Which kind of surprised me, as I hadn’t thought the woman was all that big on telling stories. But apparently she did occasionally trade rewards for good work. And while most of the other members of the Calendar requested more tangible things or even just vacation days, December had sometimes asked for stories. 

Either way, I nodded to the nearby boy while we stepped onto the lift. “Apparently. Perseus too, like I said. She’s… umm, interesting. I think what she really needs more than anything else is some more friends. People who aren’t going to tell her to go run off on her own for a hundred freaking years just to make her leave them alone.” The last bit came in a dark mutter as my head shook. I still couldn’t believe Manakel had done that. Apparently fairly regularly, even. 

As the elevator started to rise, Sands spoke up. “All I know is that she’s got really good aim when it comes to falling out of the sky. Seriously, that Nuckelavee was all, ‘oooh look some tasty little junior Heretics yum yum.’” She laughed then, slamming her fist into her palm hard. “And then bam! Splatter! Ksshhhhplooey!” The girl threw both hands apart, apparently pantomiming the monster exploding when Persephone had hit it. “Fucker never knew what hit him!” 

Snickering despite myself, I echoed, “Kshhhplooey? Can you narrate my battles in the future? Cuz I think you might have found your niche.” With a wink, I added, “Anyway, her aim is about as good as her timing. Common sense? Not really so much. But still, she’s… nice. Weird, but nice.” Seeing the way all of them were looking at me, I blanched. “Oh shut up. I don’t mean it like that. Seriously, I just think she could use a few friends a lot more than anything like that.” 

By that point, the lift had stopped and the six of us stepped off to move through the corridors to find our way to the Moon apartments. December pivoted and walked backwards while looking at me. “CanwemeetCerberus?!” The question came in a rush, her bright smile growing even wider when she said the robot dog’s name. “Cahethalsaidhe’sbig… andreallyhasthreeheads…andhecanfightghosts… andhehasalotoflasercannons… andsometimeshe’sevenbigger.” It was clearly taking genuine effort for the girl to slow herself down between every few words so it didn’t all run together in an incomprehensible jumble of syllables. She was also literally bouncing up and down while walking backwards, which Tabbris quickly emulated as both of them started giggling so much they almost fell over. Which, to be fair, walking backwards while bouncing up and down and giggling and only almost falling over showed how much my little sister had improved since the time she first started popping out of me regularly. She had been pretty clumsy for a Seosten back then, but it seemed her natural ability had quickly caught up and helped things. Part of me wondered how much of that came from the fact that she had unlocked the… gift from her biological father. I had no idea if accessing those wings and starting to exercise them actually helped with her physical coordination. But it probably couldn’t have hurt matters, at least. 

Shaking off those thoughts after a moment, I nodded to December. “Yeah, she’s got Cerberus. He’s in his smaller form, which is still pretty damn big. We haven’t seen the bigger version yet.” I glanced over to Columbus and the twins while adding, “Apparently it makes full-grown Amaroks look like little puppies. Which is both exciting and terrifying. But he’s a good dog.” 

“Really wouldn’t want to meet a bad version,” Sands murmured with a little shudder. I had the feeling she was thinking back to that first hunt we’d all gone on together when we faced the actual Amarok long before any of us were actually ready for something like that. Except maybe Avalon. I had the feeling she would’ve taken on the Amarok pretty effectively if she had to. But that might’ve been my bias talking. 

Either way, Sarah glanced to her sister before reminding her, “He was bad before he was reprogrammed.” Then she paused, a frown touching her face. “Or good?” 

“He was programmed to attack Manakel,” I agreed. “Which makes it complicated. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t meant to differentiate too much between good and bad as long as it meant killing that guy. He probably would’ve just gone right through anyone in his way. But whatever he was before, he’s a good dog now. A big good dog with three heads and anti-ghost and zombie weaponry.” 

“I’m pretty sure anti-zombie weaponry is decent anti-anything else too,” Columbus cheerfully pointed out while nudging me. “The benefits of something that hits hard enough to put a lot of things down really quickly kind of extends beyond that narrow scope, you know?” 

“Speaking of going beyond a narrow scope,” I replied while extending my hand, my finger finding the button on the glove before I summoned Simpson, the ten-foot-long lemon shark, into the corridor ahead of us. Encased in the bubble that followed him, the big guy swam up near the ceiling, then turned back and went down to where Tabbris and December eagerly gave him rubs and scratches as though he was a big dog. 

“What’re you doing?” Sands asked curiously, head tilting as she watched that. 

“Me?” I winked. “I’m taking one of my sharks for a walk. Come on, guys, let’s go.” And with that, I suited action to words by starting walking down the hall with Simpson eagerly swimming ahead, curious about this new environment he was in. We passed a few people on the way, most of whom seemed just fine with a shark swimming in a bubble through the corridor. Honestly, it probably wasn’t the oddest thing they’d seen even that very morning. A few even stopped and wanted to pat or simply touch him. Which, of course, Simpson enjoyed. I’d had to keep my sharks separate from me for so long that just being able to pull them to me and let them interact with people like this any time I wanted to was enough that I had to stop and give Tabbris a tight hug. Then I did the same for Columbus, thanking them both fervently. 

“Just don’t forget to give Nevada a hug too,” Columbus put in, still flushing a little as he gestured. “She helped a lot with all that, and I really don’t wanna see the terrible rampage that could happen if she finds out everyone else got hugs and she didn’t.” He gave a clearly exaggerated shudder then, which made Tabbris and December both giggle. 

My head shook quickly as I made a show of crossing my heart. “In that case, I promise I’ll give her every hug she deserves as soon as I can. Wouldn’t want to take any risks.” 

With that, we continued on, heading into the faculty apartments area. Mom and Dad’s place was right down that way, but we continued on for the moment. Despite my urge to pop in and just… physically reassure myself that my mother was still here and safe, I really needed to give my parents some time alone. They’d been cut off from each other for a decade. When I thought about how I felt being separated from Avalon and Shiori just for the relatively much shorter times I had been, and then compared it to the idea of being separated from them for ten years or more? Yeah. I was going to let them have some time to themselves. To say nothing of letting my mother and Deveron have t–okay nope, I wasn’t even going to think about that

Stepping up beside me as we approached the door that led into the Moon residence, Sands asked, “So, about this Whispers thing. Do you think whoever they send out to find that Occillo guy is actually gonna pull it off? Cuz, well, I don’t wanna just be making up patterns out of nothing here, but it kinda seems like the sort of thing you’re gonna be pulled into dealing with. You know, past history and all.” She nudged me with a little smile before adding, “I’m just saying, maybe it’d be a good idea for all of us to hook spells to you to be dragged along if you… get taken on an accidental and/or unwanted trip.” 

Squinting at her, I was about to respond when the sound of racing metal feet made everyone spin to the left. We’d been about to knock on the Moon’s door, but one of the reasons we were there charged around the corner. Yeah, it was Cerberus. The three-headed metal dog was running eagerly down the hall, with Vanessa and Tristan right behind, each holding a leash that was attached to the robot animal’s left and right heads. There was a third leash attached to the middle head. That one was held by that pale, dark-haired girl whom I had seen interacting with the Moons earlier. She wasn’t running along behind, however. Instead, the girl was sitting on Cerberus’s back, giving a loud squeal as she was carried straight toward us. When they were still only about halfway down the hall, the girl jumped backwards off the animal just in time for Vanessa and Tristan to release the leashes and catch her. 

Seeing what was going on, Simpson started to interpose himself between us protectively. I was pretty sure that if sharks could growl, he would be doing it then. 

“It’s okay, boy.” I assured him, reaching out to pat his side comfortingly. At least, I hoped it was comforting. Simpson seemed to calm down a little, anyway. 

At the last second, the three-headed dog pulled up short. The center head leaned in close to me, sniffing before all three of them barked loudly and the robot animal jumped up and down a couple times excitedly. 

“Well hey there, big guy,” I greeted him with a chuckle. “Nice to see you too. Here, meet some new friends. This is my little sister Tabbris. And this is December, Sands, Sarah, and Columbus.” With each introduction, the person in question was greeted with at least one head shoving up close to sniff and lick at them curiously. When it came to Columbus, Amethyst (the little porcupine-armadillo cyberform) poked her head up out of the backpack he wore, squeaked, and ducked back down out of sight again. 

Simpson meanwhile, ‘swam’ up toward the ceiling and floated there, staring down at all this with a clearly suspicious look. He was watching Cerberus like a hawk, ready to jump in the second anything happened. The shark clearly didn’t care for the big metal canine very much. 

Catching up by then, Vanessa and Tristan each came up on either side, the latter waving cheerfully while panting in a way that made it clear he’d been running for a long time. “Hey there, guys. Just taking the giant, three-headed robot dog for walkies, what’s up with you?” 

“Mom and Dad wanted to talk to Persephone for a little while,” Vanessa quietly noted while reaching up to pat the left head. “So yeah, we took… we let Cerberus take us for a walk.” The amendment came as she glanced down at the leash a bit sheepishly. 

“He’s pretty excited to be in a new place,” Tristan agreed from the opposite side of the big metal dog. “And hey, at least he doesn’t make a mess in the hall.” Grimacing, he added, “Can you imagine trying to clean something like that up?” 

“Tristan!” Vanessa protested while leaning across Cerberus to swat at his shoulder. “Don’t be gross!” 

At that moment, the robot dog bounded forward a few feet, eagerly moving to be closer to Tabbris, December, and the others. There was excited barking and head rubs from all sides as he moved right in the middle, spinning in a slow circle as though every head was trying to get close to everyone all at the same time. Which resulted in a lot of squealing, laughing girls (and Columbus, of course, who was just as loud as the others). 

It was enough to make me smile, watching them for a moment before turning back to the twins. Err, the fraternal twins. “Well, at least they’re all having… uhh, fun.” Trailing off, I focused on the unfamiliar girl who was walking up to join the other two. “Hey there, sorry, I don’t think we’ve met.” I extended a hand that way. 

Rather than accepting the handshake, however, the girl blurted a short, “Hah!” She was squinting at me with obvious suspicion. “I bet you’d like me to be dumb enough to give you all the skin and sweat samples you need to make a spell that could turn me inside out while making me survive to live a tortured existence for all eternity, wouldn’t you, minion of Galazien the Iron-Souled, ripper of the veil between all realities and devourer of souls?!” She raised a hand to point, voice a low murmur. “I’m onto you.”  

My mouth opened, then shut as I made a noise deep in my throat before managing to focus on Vanessa and Tristan while the girl continued to stare at me suspiciously. “Why didn’t you guys tell me Wyatt’s been messing with shapeshifting?” 

With a snort, Tristan gestured. “Dylan, it’s okay. This is Flick. She’s… trust me, she’s cool. She’s a friend and a lot more than that. Our families are sort of…” He crossed his fingers demonstrably before looking at me. “Flick, this is Dylan Averty. She’s umm, boy that’s a long story.” 

So, they gave me the short version. Dylan was the daughter of Haiden’s long-lost sister (the original Vanessa, whom our Vanessa was named for), who had somehow survived long past the time Haiden thought she had been killed while in training at Eden’s Garden. For whatever reason, however, she never sought Haiden or anyone else out. Instead, she had been living what appeared to be a completely normal life in the Bystander world over a hundred years after her supposed death, with a husband and daughter. Then some guys showed up, killed the husband and the original Vanessa herself, but Dylan escaped thanks to a Kitsune who showed up and survived just long enough to get her out of there and back to his special mansion full of magic books. He also bonded her to him before dying. Oh, and the guy who killed Dylan’s father? Yeah, apparently that was Jeremiah Dallant. As in the Baron of Wyoming for Crossroads. I’d met the guy once and… well, I certainly didn’t think he was this kind of evil. He was nice to me. Not that that proved anything or whatever, but still. The man had been intentionally making sure the Crossroads people didn’t find out about Asenath staying at my house, because Gaia asked him to. I just–Gaia trusted him, and now he was apparently out there cutting innocent men’s heads off to serve some weird, nebulous super-evil guy? I was confused, to say the least. Incredibly, indescribably confused. And I was pretty sure that wasn’t going to get any better anytime soon. 

“Dad and Larissa are looking into that,” Vanessa informed me, clearly recognizing the look on my face. She glanced to her brother briefly before adding, “They were really firm about that.” 

“Yeah, seriously firm,” Tristan agreed. “We are to take a break and go to class. No running off to investigate this Dallant guy ourselves. They said that three times. I tried to point out that it’d be kinda hard to get all the way down to Earth from inside the sun without them knowing.” 

“And,” Vanessa put in, “Dad told him not to treat them like idiots. And then told us for the fourth time to let them handle it for now.” 

“Four times, huh?” Sands, who had joined us with the others in time to hear most of that, whistled low. “Sounds serious.” 

“Super serious,” Tristan agreed. “So, we figure we’ll probably get dragged into it one way or another… what, next week? How’s all your schedules look?” As he said that, the boy winked at Sarah, who immediately turned slightly pink. The two of them stared at each other for a few seconds before he stepped over and whispered something to her. Which just made Sarah’s blush deepen. She then retaliated by whispering something to him, and it was suddenly Tristan’s turn to cough and look flustered.  

That Dylan girl looked back and forth between all of us through that before speaking up, her voice a conspiratorial whisper. “You don’t trust the people here on this station either? Good. Galazien has spies everywhere. They could be anyone and anywhere. Or anything. He likes to put magic in food. Who would suspect that the carton full of eggs sitting in your refrigerator is listening to every word you say, hmm? Who would believe that the milk you take out every morning for your breakfast is transmitting your secrets back to one of Galazien’s evil minions, just waiting for you to say the wrong thing at the wrong time and secure the doom of all reality?!” 

Opening and then shutting my mouth, I raised my gaze to look toward Simpson where he was still floating in his bubble near the ceiling. He, in turn, stared right back at me. He gave no gesture nor did he make any indication or change in facial expression. Because, well, he was a shark. But still, I sensed that he was just as baffled as I was by this whole thing. 

Columbus was the first to speak. “Don’t worry, we’re really careful about things like that.” 

Dylan, in turn, leaned closer to him and hissed, “Not… careful… enough.” 

“She’snotwrongaboutspies,” December hurriedly put in while literally flipping herself over to run on her hands. And she really did run. There was no awkward stumbling around on her hands, she was fully upside down, using her hands to move at a quick pace in a circle around Cerberus as she continued. “TheotherMonthsandme….wespyonpeopleallthetime…asanimalscuzpeopledon’t….payattentiontothemliketheyshould…imaginehowmuchstuff… wecouldoverhearifwewerefood!” 

Catching the other girl’s ankles to stop her, Tabbris pointed out, “If you were animals, you were technically already food.” 

“Nodon’teatmenoooo!” December protested while giggling. Which made Tabbris giggle and blurt something about gobbling her up right now. December wiggled her legs free and fell over, with Tabbris jumping on her with loud chomping sounds. That devolved to both of them squealing and giggling as they rolled over and over one another. 

Smiling to myself, I shook my head and let them be before focusing on the others. “Right, well, I guess we’ll see what happens with that whole… Dallant thing.” I still felt annoyed about all that, given I’d met the guy personally and thought he was fine at the time. But I shook that off before pushing on. “Meanwhile, we were hoping to grab Persephone so the others could meet her. You think she’s still busy with your parents?” 

Tristan shrugged, starting toward the door. “Let’s find out.” On the way, he glanced back to Columbus. “Seriously, dude, you have to meet her. She’s got some wild stories. Just uhh, you know, be ready. Cuz she’s a lot.” 

He definitely wasn’t wrong about that. And as I thought about Persephone, then looked toward Dylan while thoughts of her whole situation, this Galazien guy (whoever that really was), and Dallant himself came to mind, I grimaced. Then I grimaced even more as I thought about the Whispers thing and how they were going to try to track down that guy. Yeah, I should probably enjoy this time as a ‘normal’ student attending regular classes and all while I could. 

Because I had a feeling life would get insane again pretty damn quick. 

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Interlude 13B – Vanessa (Heretical Edge 2)

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Two Weeks Ago

When they approached, Vanessa was studying in one of the starstation’s many greenhouses. It was peaceful and smelled really nice in there, with dozens of various examples of exotic plant life, from Earth and many other places, surrounding the table she had set herself up at. With the wide assortment of books (of both the physical and digital sort) arranged in front of her along with a bottle of water, the blonde girl had everything she wanted at that particular moment. Peace, safety, quiet, and the opportunity to learn things she didn’t already know. 

She wasn’t actually studying for any particular class by that point, of course. Vanessa was already over a full semester ahead in her actual school work, the various assignments as detailed in the course study guides meticulously organized through several color-coded binders back in her room, waiting to be handed in when the appropriate time finally came.  

Some might ask the girl what she would do in the case that one of the teachers significantly changed a particular homework assignment, rendering her earlier work useless. To which, she would have informed them that doing work which helped her learn was never useless. And also that she would be quite happy to get another assignment she could work on. Doing one assignment to prove she knew the material was fine enough on its own, but the opportunity to do another one weeks later simply to reassure everyone involved (including herself) that the lesson had truly stuck? In what reality would that be something negative? 

Tristan called her weird for things like that, but Vanessa didn’t care. He was her brother and always would be. She knew he loved her, even if they disagreed on things like this. They may have both now had the same perfect memory, but Tristan didn’t particularly care to utilize his to its full extent. The boy was happy just knowing enough to pass his classes before getting on with what he considered far more important things. But to Vanessa, nothing was more important than knowledge. Facts, figures, numbers, names, spells, truth, both good and bad, were all important things. They were all sources of power. Knowing the right thing at the right time could save her family, or other people. She had previously dedicated herself to studying in order to find them. Now that they were here, her devotion to knowledge was about protecting them. 

So, it was there, at the table in the greenhouse, that Vanessa was sitting when a group of people approached. She heard them making their way along the path, even as one of the powers she had picked up allowed her to sense the exact number of skeletons entering her space. Four. Four skeletons, all human-ish in size and shape. Pulled from her studying by the realization that they were deliberately approaching rather than walking past, Vanessa looked up and turned to see who it was. She expected to find her brother and friends. Instead, her gaze found unfamiliar figures. They were obviously Seosten. Well, that or a teen drama full of ridiculously good-looking supermodel ‘students’ was being filmed, and she was pretty sure the people in charge up here had more important things to focus on. 

Two of the approaching Seosten were male, the other two female. All four appeared to be a couple years younger than Vanessa, which of course meant they could have been anywhere from actually that age, up to their thirties or so. The two guys both had dark hair, one a shade lighter than the other. The one with lighter hair had quite dark skin, while the one with darker hair was the taller of the two and appeared to be caucasian. The two girls were both white as well, one with dark blonde, almost brown hair and a deep tan, while the other girl had red hair worn quite short, and was wearing a pair of pitch-black sunglasses. 

“Hello?” Vanessa greeted the quartet uncertainly, eyes moving back and forth between them. 

“Hi!” the girl with the sunglasses raised a hand in greeting, her voice cheerful. “Sorry, we haven’t met, but uhh, you’re Vanessa, right? Vanessa Moon?” Her hand rose as the girl used her index finger to pull down the bridge of her glasses so she could meet the other girl’s gaze with her own sea-green eyes. “Daughter of Sariel the Olympian and Haiden the Bane.”

At first, Vanessa started to reflexively nod. Then she blinked, squinting that way. “The Bane?” 

The black boy spoke up with a cough. “Ah, yeah, sorry. That’s sort of what our people call him. You know, after he spent like ten years in our space running all over, destroying, breaking, killing–” In mid-sentence, the boy blanched. “Sorry, that kind of sounds like we blame him.” 

“We don’t,” the second girl, the one with blonde-brown hair, put in. “I mean, we’d probably do the same thing if it meant getting back to the people we care about, you know?” 

“He was just so… ahhh…. effective?” the caucasian boy offered. “Yeah, so effective that people started calling him The Bane, and it stuck. You know, like, ‘The Bane hit Teverith Station last week,’ things like that. It started when they didn’t know, or care about, his name, and stuck.” 

“He has other names,” the red-haired girl informed her. “But a lot of them are pretty impolite.” 

“Hey, I know!” the Seosten boy with dark-skin quickly announced, with obviously exaggerated excitement. “How about we all just start over and introduce ourselves this time instead of making everything super awkward? Sound good? Good.”  With that, he extended a hand toward Vanessa. “Hey there. My name is Desenei, and this is Nithae, Hansurei, and Batreth.” With each name in order, he indicated the red-haired girl, the blonde girl, and the other guy. 

“Um, good to meet you,” Vanessa replied politely, shifting around in her seat to face them properly. She still wasn’t sure what was going on here, but it was clear they weren’t just walking past, so she didn’t want to be rude, no matter how tempting it was to go back to her book. It was a really interesting book, after all. But everyone in her life had made it perfectly clear that ignoring people who were trying to talk to you just to keep reading was a bad thing. 

Batreth, the other guy, offered Vanessa a smile. “Right, you were in the middle of something, and interrupting is rude. Sorry about that, really. We just wanted to introduce ourselves and ask if you wanted to come see a movie with us later. And uhh, it’d be great if you said yes, cuz we need all the help we can get.” 

Nithae, the red-haired girl, quickly spoke up then. “What he means is that we’re supposed to be learning more about humans and their culture. So we have a list of Earth movies to watch, and we were hoping that you could help… explain some of the things we don’t get.” 

Taken a bit aback by the request, Vanessa hesitantly pointed out, “Are you sure you don’t want to take my brother instead? He’s probably better for that sort of thing.” 

The Seosten, however, disagreed and insisted she was the one they wanted to go with. So, Vanessa finally agreed. They promised to pick her up by her house in the living quarters in a few hours, and asked that she not eat yet, because they were planning on making a full thing of it. 

After watching them head off, Vanessa glanced down at the nearby flowers. There were several thoughts running through her mind, mostly focused on why on Earth they wanted to get her help understanding Earth culture and traditions rather than Tristan’s. Did they think he didn’t know as much because he’d spent so long out in space? That had to be it, right? 

In that case, boy were they going to be disappointed when it came to which twin they thought was more in touch with Bystander society. 

******

As it turned out, the entire group didn’t show up at the house. Instead, when Vanessa opened the door several hours later, only Desenei was standing there. He had dressed up in crisp black slacks and a dark red silk shirt. When she saw that, Vanessa blanched. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize this was something formal.” She herself was only wearing (mostly clean) jeans and a hoodie. “Uh, I can go change into something better.” 

Desenei, however, shook his head. “No, it’s okay, don’t worry about it. I’m only dressed like this because we were just at an evaluation with Athena, to check on how we’re doing. The others are setting up the projector, that’s why I’m the only one here.” He offered her a wink. “I’m great at a lot of things, but put me near anything technical and either it, or me, is going to blow up. Maybe both. And that would be a damn shame.” His smile was broad. “After all, have you seen me? I’m adorable.” 

“Oh good,” Vanessa retorted, “I was starting to think you weren’t really a Seosten. But there’s the ego.” 

The boy laughed. “Yeah, we deserve that, I guess. Okay, we definitely deserve it. That and a lot more. It’s just… you know, the way our culture works. We’re all just a little bit… extra and proud of it. Really proud. It’s kind of a thing with us.” 

“At least you’re self-aware about it,” Vanessa pointed out, before squinting. “Why are you so self-aware about it?” 

With a shrug, the boy replied, “I didn’t used to be, believe me. I was a real… garbage person. Thought our people were the best thing to ever happen to the universe, and that I was one of the best of those. The best among the best. Gold standard Seosten. Which, I guess I really was, as far as being arrogant goes.” After a brief consideration, he shook his head. “Anyway, I was on my first combat mission about two years ago, flying a fighter. Our squad was chasing down these slaves who ahh, escaped on a freighter ship. We were about to disable them when some of Athena’s people showed up. There was a… I think you call it a birdfight?” 

“Dogfight,” Vanessa corrected. 

“But dogs don’t even fl–I’m very confused.” Shaking that off, Desenei gestured. “But sure, there was a flying dogfight and some of us got shot down before Athena’s people pulled us in and took us prisoner. That’s me and the other three you met today. Well, there were six of us, but the other two didn’t… really end up getting along with the whole program.” He sighed. “So they sent them away, back to the Empire. But the four of us, we decided to stay. We were… curious about things after those first few weeks. So we stuck around. It was very… bumpy for awhile. Still is sometimes. But we’re working on it.” 

“Is that why you wanted me to help you learn from these movies you found?” Vanessa curiously asked. “Because you think me being half-Seosten and raised on Earth would be useful? Because I really don’t know anything about the Seosten parts of me, and I don’t know that much more about human things. Believe me, I am not the best representative of human culture. I’m pretty sure you could teach me some things about that by now.” 

With an easy laugh, Desenei shook his head. “Nah, it’s–okay, little confession to make. I thought you were a full Seosten before. I mean, before I knew who you were. I sort of saw you from a distance a few times and thought you were one of the Seosten who grew up with Athena’s people. I was actually asking the others how they thought I should approach you when Batreth told me who you were. Then we figured… like you said, you probably don’t know much about our people, so maybe we could help you learn. But coming right out and saying, ‘hey, let us teach you about the culture of the species that makes up half your DNA’ sounds pretty awkward at the best of times, let alone when that species has treated the other half of your DNA like… uhh, well, the way we have.” He offered an awkward shrug. “I don’t think I was supposed to say that part out loud yet. It was just supposed to be like a… you know, back and forth. We teach you some Seosten things, you teach us whatever you want about humans. We were afraid that if we came out and said we wanted to teach you about Seosten stuff, you might just refuse because of how bad your family was treated. But there’s a lot more to our people than that.” 

That was a lot to take in, but Vanessa found herself focusing on one thing in particular. “Wait, you said you were planning how to approach before you even knew who I was. Why would you need to talk to me at all before you knew anything about me?” 

“Oh, that?” Desenei grinned. “Because I wanted to ask you out on a date.” 

Okay, now she was really taken aback. Rocking backward on her heels, Vanessa fought to find her voice. “And–but–and now you don’t, because you know I’m not a real Seosten.” Despite herself, she could hear the accusation in her own voice. 

The boy, however, just shook his head. “Nah, nothing like that. But the thing is, when I found out who you were, I realized you’re a complete stranger, like… in every possible way. If I did ask you out, it’d only be because you’re attractive. Which, don’t get me wrong, you are very attractive. But I don’t know anything about you. This way, we can just hang out in a group, teach you about our people while you teach us about humans. And I can get to know you. 

Then I’ll ask you out.” With that, he pivoted on his heel and started to walk. “We should probably go though, the others are waiting.” 

Watching him start off, Vanessa swallowed hard. An apprehensive expression crossed her face. He wanted to get to know her? He thought that if he did that, he’d want to ask her out. But that was the whole problem. 

If he did get to know her, he’d realize what a very bad idea that was. 

*******

Present Day 

Soooooomebody’s sleeping on my couch.” The teasing words came from Uncle Apollo, as the man descended the stairs that led up to the loft where his bed was in his Starstation apartment. Obviously unsurprised to find Vanessa laying there, given how often his nieces and nephew came to visit, the man started to continue into the kitchen. “You hungry, kid? I think I…” 

He trailed off then, from a single sound which interrupted his words. A small, almost inaudible sniff. Only then did Apollo turn more toward the couch to see the huddled form there, her back to him as she faced the cushions. Then it came again, a very slight, quiet sniff, as he saw her shoulders shudder just a little. 

“Nessa?” After a brief hesitation, the man stepped over that way. He gently reached down, fingers brushing the girl’s shoulder, all teasing and casual cheer gone from his voice. “Vanessa, are you okay?” 

She didn’t respond at first, remaining silent and almost entirely motionless save for that almost imperceptible shudder that ran through her body. Then he heard her swallow hard before slowly turning to look at him. Her eyes were bloodshot, the remains of tears staining her face. She had been like this for awhile. 

“Uncle Apollo,” she managed in a voice that audibly cracked as she forced the terrible words to come. “I… think there’s something wrong with me.” 

“What?” Blinking, Apollo went down to one knee, his hand remaining where it was on the girl’s shoulder. “Vanessa, what happened? Do you want me to get your mother?” 

“No!” she quickly blurted, the terror of what her mom would think bringing new tears to her eyes. “No, no, don’t… please. I just… I have to talk to someone who might be able to help or know more than me. You’re a Seosten and you know things. You were a scientist. So was Mom, but I can’t talk to her. I can’t ask her. If–if I’m broken, I can’t ask her.” 

“Vanessa, you–” Stopping himself, Apollo paused, clearly considering his words. “Why do you think there’s something wrong with you?” 

Her mouth opened, but no words would come out. A thick lump had formed in her throat. God. She thought it would be easier with Apollo, after everything. At least he wasn’t her mother. The thought of seeing how disappointed her mom would be, how… how much she would blame herself, it made Vanessa want to curl right back into a ball. But she couldn’t. She had to explain, or try to. Maybe Apollo would have an idea. Maybe he could help. 

So, over the next few minutes, she explained about Desenei and the other Seosten, and how they had met up a few times over the past couple weeks whenever she wasn’t busy with other things. She told him about how interesting it was to learn about the Seosten from their point of view, and how they were genuinely interested in hearing what she thought. 

“Sounds good so far,” Apollo carefully noted, his hand gently brushing her hair. “What went wrong? Do I need to go swat a few Seosten heads?”

“No.” Vanessa’s voice sounded hollow even to hear own ears. “They didn’t do anything wrong. He… didn’t do anything bad. He’s fine. He–it’s… me. I…” She trailed off once more, going silent for a few long moments. She shouldn’t have come here. This was dumb. She was making her problems into Apollo’s. She couldn’t–

As though reading her mind, Apollo quietly urged, “Vanessa, it’s okay to talk to me. It’s just you and me here. What happened?” 

After a brief hesitation, the girl slowly spoke. “My birthday is tomorrow. Tristan’s and mine, I mean. We’re nineteen. We’re nineteen years old, Uncle Apollo. I’ve been an adult for a year. In another year, I’ll be twenty.”

She went silent for a few seconds, but Apollo didn’t speak up. He was quiet, simply watching what the girl was doing and giving her time to gather herself until she finally continued. 

“Everything with Desenei was… fine. I like him. I like spending time with him. I like his stories. I like that he… he likes me. I want more of that. But…” Once more, she was silent, the confusion and shame of what was right on the tip of her tongue making it so hard to actually say. It took the girl another long minute before she managed to push out the words, briefly repeating herself. 

“I’m nineteen years old, and I’ve never… I–” She swallowed the thick, ball-like lump in her throat. “I’ve never felt… physically… I…” Sitting up abruptly, Vanessa pushed herself to the corner of the couch and drew her knees to her chest, arms wrapped around them so she could huddle there, staring at the man. “I’ve never been sexually attracted to anyone, Uncle Apollo. No one. Ever. Not a boy, not a girl, no one. I know what it should feel like, I know what– I’ve looked it up. I’ve asked people, I’ve read about it, heard about it, I know what it is. Academically, I know everything about it. I know what it should be like.” Her head shook slowly. “But I never felt it. I thought maybe when I got to know Desenei, I’d like him. And I do. I really like him a lot. I like being around him. I like talking to him. Last night he… he kissed me. And it was okay. I mean, I sort of liked just the… the ummm… touch. I liked when our lips touched. But that was it. I didn’t like… anything more than just lips touching. I didn’t… I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t want anything else.” The tears were back, her eyes closing as she couldn’t bear to look at the man. “I like spending time with him. He makes me happy. I even like hugging and really simple, normal touch kissing. No tongue, no… nothing else. He’s the closest person I’ve ever gotten to for that and… and I still don’t feel anything.” Her voice cracked, sounding like it was breaking apart. “Before I found Tristan, I used to think maybe it had to do with being half-Seosten. But he’s half too. He’s my twin, we’re the exact same age and both half-Seosten, but he feels that stuff all the time and has for years. And I asked some of the other Seosten, they said that it kicks in around the same time for them as it does for humans. It’s not the hybrid thing. It’s not the Seosten thing. It’s me. I’m the problem. 

“I’m nineteen years old and I’ve never felt any sexual attraction to anyone. And now… now I don’t think I ever will.”

After a brief moment, Apollo rose from his crouch and turned to sit on the couch next to her. Putting one arm around the girl, he half-embraced her before speaking quietly. “Vanessa, first of all, there is nothing wrong with you. Being different isn’t wrong. Whatever you feel or don’t feel, none of it is wrong. You have blonde hair, some have brown. You have white skin, some have different shades. You’re female in sex and gender. Some are female in sex and male in gender. Some are both at the same time. None of them are wrong, and neither are you.”

“But I…” Vanessa gave a heavy shudder, shifting a bit closer, her voice quiet. “I want to be with someone. I want to hold someone. I want to be close. I like… feeling that. I like him, just like that. I just… I never… I can’t… feel that. It’s like I’m empty there. How can I feel drawn to him, to anyone, one way but not the other? How can I like someone as much as I do, but not even feel the slightest hint of sexual attraction? It’s just not there, Uncle Apollo. I tried. I really tried to feel it, but there’s nothing, nothing. How can you say there’s not something wrong with me when I want the one part, but not the other? It’s just… it’s selfish and wrong and–” 

“No.” Apollo’s head shook. “Vanessa, absolutely not. There is nothing selfish about how you feel. Someone who is sexually attracted to girls isn’t selfish for not being attracted to boys. And you are not selfish for not being attracted to any of them. Listen to me, okay? What you’re describing is being asexual. I know you’ve heard that term, but you probably shied away from it because you were afraid of what it might say, right?” When she gave a silent nod, he continued. “You want to know why you could enjoy being with someone, like spending time with them, hugging, even some level of kissing, why you could even want to have a close partner like that, but not feel any sexual attraction? Because you’re not aromantic, Vanessa. You can be asexual and still want romance, still want someone to share your life with. You can still love people, just as much as anyone else. Asexual doesn’t mean you’re a robot, it doesn’t mean you don’t have emotions or feelings. It means that you do not feel sexual attraction. That’s it. And there is nothing wrong with that. Not one void-damned thing. It doesn’t make you any more ‘wrong’ than your blonde hair or your height or your eyes or your skin color.” 

“But…” Vanessa shifted a little, looking up to the man as she huddled against him. “What if Desenei leaves because he wants what I can’t–what I don’t?” 

“I can’t say he won’t,” Apollo admitted. “And that doesn’t make him a monster either. People need to be with those who make them happy, people they are compatible with. And if he can’t be compatible with you, that’s sad. But you will find someone who is compatible with you. It might be him, it might be someone else. But whoever it is and however long it takes to find them, you never hide who you are. You never pretend to feel things you don’t feel. Because you are brilliant, in every way. And you deserve to be happy, Vanessa. That means being who you are, every part of who you are, and finding someone who loves you for all of it. You don’t settle, and you don’t pretend to be something you’re not.”

Vanessa was silent for a few seconds, the flood of emotions making it hard to even try to find words. Finally, she settled on, “I love you, Uncle Apollo.” 

His arm tugged her closer, hugging his niece. “I love you too, Nessa.” 

Another moment passed, before she lowered her head and nuzzled up against his shoulder. “Can we sit here for a little while?” 

“Yeah, kid,” came the quiet response. 

“We’ll sit here for as long as you like.” 

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Patreon Snippets 20 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 20th edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers.

Vanessa

Today was a good day. No, as far as Vanessa Moon was concerned, it was a fantastic day. Nothing horrible was going on, her family was basically as safe as they could be, and no one she cared about was in immediate life-or-death danger. Which was basically the best that people like them could ask for. Everything was relatively quiet, for the moment at least. Not that she expected it to last that long, but you really had to take the opportunities you had to enjoy things.

In this case, Vanessa was enjoying things by carrying a large tray to her room. The tray was packed with a wide assortment of food. There were a dozen different dishes represented on the tray, and all of them had one thing in common. Each and every one was a different kind of potato. There was a baked potato, french fries, mashed, sweet, cheese-and-bacon covered, tater tots, hash browns, a grilled cheese sandwich with oven-baked potato slices added, latkes, potato salad, and a few others. 

Not a gigantic serving of each, of course. After making all these potatoes downstairs, Vanessa had left plenty for her housemates to pick over. No, her tray was laden with enough samples from each to keep the potato-loving girl happy for an entire afternoon. Especially considering the tray itself had a simple enchantment that allowed it to keep the food warm. She could sit for hours, pick from the tray anytime she wanted to, and the food would be plenty hot. Or cold, in the potato salad’s case, thanks to a special secondary enchantment right where it was seated.

Having all the potatoes she could possibly eat was the first half of Vanessa’s idea of a wonderful way to spend her afternoon down time. The other half was sitting on her bed when she came in. A thick, heavy leather bound book was lying there, just waiting for the girl to curl up with it.

Vanessa had never been able to explain why she loved potatoes so much, exactly. All she knew was that they were, in every single form she had ever encountered, her very favorite sort of food. They made her feel happy and safe. Some might have thought that had originated back when she had been stuck in that mental hospital and one of the orderlies (a nice man named Peter) had come by every afternoon to share some of his french fries from the lunch he would have delivered. Yet her love of the incredibly versatile vegetable extended back before then, to when she was still a very young child living at home with her family. 

In any case, even if his visits weren’t the reason for her obsession, Peter was still a fond memory within a lot of bad ones at the hospital. As scary as being in that place had been, the man was always friendly, and told her about what was going on out in the world. He also, over their shared fries, listened to the very young Vanessa telling him about what happened to her family. Unlike the doctors, he had never made her feel like she was wrong or crazy. For those few minutes each day, Peter listened and seemed to understand, even if he never really said much about it. 

She’d since wondered, of course, if Peter was some kind of Heretic, or an Alter, who really did have an idea of what was going on. Or even part of Jophiel and Elisabet’s little plan. But she’d called the hospital and Peter no longer worked there. And aside from just asking the two women about it (they had denied any relation and insisted the man was just a normal person as far as they knew) she had no other way of following up. 

In any case, eating those fries everyday had surely helped foster her already extant love of potatoes. And now, she could really indulge it. Clambering up onto the bed, she settled herself with the tray on the table next to her, then she picked up the book and examined it. It wasn’t just any other book. This one was special. Not that every book wasn’t special as far as Vanessa was concerned. But this even more so. This was a book about her mother. 

Okay, it was about more than just her mother. It was actually the first volume of the official log of the Olympus’s mission before they had come to Earth. It was details about the things her mother and her people had been up to when they were much younger. A lot of it wouldn’t be good, Vanessa knew. She wasn’t naive about the sort of things her mother had been a part of. But she still wanted to know about them. She wanted to know everything about her family, including that side of it. Her mother, Uncle Apollo, Athena, Mercury, all of them. She wanted to know about their stories, their adventures. They had gone out exploring unknown regions of Seosten space. What kind of things have they found? What kind of people have they interacted with? She wanted to know all of it, the good and the bad. She could accept the bad because she knew what kind of person her mother was now. She just needed to know. 

It had been Athena who gave her the book. Their logs weren’t normally kept on paper, of course. But she had transferred it to a real, solid book because that was Vanessa’s preference over reading things on a screen. She liked to have an actual book to hold. So, Athena produced one. 

Now, Vanessa took a sip from a cup of water, then set it down before picking up the book and settling it onto her lap. Carefully opening it, she let her eyes find the first word while picking up a fork and taking a big bite of delicious, delicious baked potato. A murmur of exquisite pleasure escaped the girl. 

Then, she started to read. 

******

Jasper Patterson

“Damn it!” 

With that blurted curse, the dark-skinned, blue-haired boy standing in the kitchen of his house on the Starstation spun and hurled the tray full of cookies in the general direction of the trash can in the corner. The tray hit the wall and most of the cookies scattered across the floor, though a few did make it into their target. 

From the doorway, a voice quietly spoke up. “Now that’s the intense Jasper Patterson I know.”  

Taken a bit by surprise, Jasper’s gaze snapped that way, before a very slightly embarrassed expression crossed his face as he took in the sight of the black woman who had been his teacher for a long time. Wincing, he replied, “Hey, Professor Tangle. Sorry, I didn’t know you were here. I uhh, I’ll clean it up.” He murmured the last bit under his breath. 

“Giselle’s fine, you’re an adult,” Tangle assured him. “I mean, you only had one more year left at school before you would’ve graduated.” 

“Yeah, one more year,” Jasper muttered, his gaze meeting hers. “Good for me, huh?” 

Rather than directly addressing that immediately, Tangle made a noise in the back of her throat before carefully stepping into the room and moving to the trash, where she reached down to pick up the still-scalding hot tray. Not that she showed any discomfort from it. Using the tray to indicate the scattered cookies, she asked, “I’m not exactly super-hip on things. Is this some new sort of diet or something? You go through all the trouble of making delicious cookies and then just throw them away?” 

Sighing heavily, Jasper shook his head. “They’re wrong. They’re just… they’re wrong.” 

Considering that for a moment, Tangle reached down to pluck a cookie off the floor. She examined it, blew on it, then took a bite. Finishing the cookie in short order, the woman looked back to him. “I think you’re being a little too hard on yourself. That was delicious.” 

“No, it’s–” Jasper started to blurt before catching himself with a sigh. “It’s… it’s not the same. There’s something missing. It’s not the way we used to make–” In mid-sentence, he stopped, looking guilty. 

“They aren’t the same as when you and your mother made them together,” Tangle finished for him, her voice quiet as she watched his reaction. “They taste different because she didn’t help you make them.” 

Jasper was quiet for a moment before giving a very slight nod. He folded his arms across his chest and looked away. “She hates me now,” he murmured. “They both do. My whole family hates me. They think I’m a… they think I’m a traitor. I mean, I am a traitor. I abandoned them, I walked away to side with people who are literally rebelling against everything my family believes. You can’t really get much more ‘traitor’ than that. I mean, you can, but… yeah.”

Tangle was quiet for a moment before she stepped over, putting the tray down on the stove. “You came because of Carly, right?” 

Jasper started to shake his head before catching himself. “No–I mean yes. I mean, I didn’t know  about the rest of this before. But Carly’s my friend, and when I found out she was–that she’s half-Strang– I mean half-Alter, it was… it wasn’t even a question. I trust her with everything. I always have, since like our first week in school three years ago. Why wouldn’t I trust her now? Nothing changed, not really. It’s not like she suddenly became half-Succubus. She was always a hybrid. It’s just, now they want to hurt her. So I helped her. I helped my friend, and things just sort of spiraled from there. Now my family hates me. All those people hate me.” 

“Do you think you were wrong?” Tangle gently asked. “Deep down, do you think you made the wrong choice?” 

His answer was immediate. “No. No, because she’s still my friend. Seriously, she’s my best friend. My family thinks it’s like a crush thing. They think it’s sexual. But it’s not. I mean, I know she’s part succubus and all, but it’s not about that. Our thing–it’s never been sexual. Sure, she’s super hot and stuff, but we’ve never… we’re friends. That’s what I care about. That’s what I want.” He sighed once more. “Besides, now that I’ve lived here, been around these other Alters, seen them… There’s no way I could go back to Crossroads. I just couldn’t. But…  but my family won’t change their minds either. And now… now I’ve just been… trying to make these cookies, and they didn’t taste right and I thought I should ask my mom what was wrong with them but–but she won’t–she can’t–” His eyes were closed tightly, tears streaming down his face as he hugged himself tighter. “I can’t ask her about the cookies. I can’t ask her about anything. I can’t even talk to them. They won’t listen.” 

Before the boy knew what was happening, Tangle had tugged him over to her and into an embrace. “I’m sorry,” she quietly murmured. “Jasper, I’m so sorry you have to go through that. Maybe your parents will come around eventually. These lives of ours can be pretty long sometimes. But even if they don’t, I want you to know that you’re right. You made the right choice. It hurts, and it can feel incredibly lonely. But you made the right choice. You make the right choice every day you stay here, hard as it is. And, no matter how your family feels, no matter what happens with them, I’m proud of you. We’re all proud of you.”

They stayed like that for awhile before Jasper pulled back, shifting a bit uncertainly. “I… the cookies, they’ll never taste the same.” 

“No,” Tangle agreed, “they won’t. But you know what? Maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s okay if you find your own way of… of making the cookies. You find what works for you, Jasper. 

“And I guarantee, your cookies will be perfect just the way you make them.” 

*******

Haniel

The world wasn’t even important enough to have a name. Technically, it wasn’t even a world. It was a moon. The moon of a gas giant. Barely larger than Earth’s own moon, it had existed with little more than a numeric designation ever since it had been discovered by Seosten explorers a few hundred years earlier. Though inhabitable, there were only about a dozen different forms of non-bacterium life on the moon, including aquatic, and none of them were anywhere near developing sapience. 

In almost all respects, it was entirely inconsequential. Almost all. But there was one specific thing that made it a target for the Fomorians. Specifically, its location. The moon was situated entirely too close to a relatively less secure section of the Seosten lines, and would make an incredibly tempting staging point for an intense Fomorian attack. Allowing the monsters to take that place and solidify their hold over it would have been disastrous, regardless of how much other strategic value it did or didn’t have. This incredibly small, otherwise insignificant moon had to be protected to prevent the Fomorians from using it as a stepping stone to more important targets. 

By the same token of the moon being out in the middle of nowhere, it was hard for the Fomorians to get a significant foothold on it. Their Seosten enemies tended to watch the place for any intrusion, leaving a token force to slow down the attack, then send in a bigger fleet to wipe out all traces of the Fomorian incursion before they could settle on it properly. They fought back and forth over that small rock in the middle of space once every few years or so. Some battles were bigger than others, but the Fomorians never entirely gave up on their plan of finding a way to use the place for their attacks against stronger targets.

The most recent of those attacks had taken place several days earlier. The moon itself had been (as far as the Fomorians were concerned) cleared of any Seosten defenders, leaving it ripe for settling. But first, all the biological material, whether native to the place or the corpses of Seosten and Fomorian alike, had to be scavenged. That was how the Fomorians operated. They established footholds on a planet by destroying all life and then using those same biological materials to create not only their own defenses, but the building blocks for all of the troops, weapons, and even transportation the place would need to sustain itself in the war. 

At this particular moment, that was exactly what the Fomorians here on the moon were doing. A series of enormous creatures that looked roughly like oversized Earth elephants (four or five times the size of one of those) mixed with a biological dump truck (their backs had huge holes in them that were deep and wide enough to carry several tons worth of material) lumbered onward across the ground, escorted by various monsters meant to protect the supply-creatures. Any plant material was torn away to be melted down for base components, the nutrient parts added to pastes that would be used to feed the Fomorian forces. Biological materials, meanwhile, were also collected and dropped into the oversized-elephant creatures’ back holes in order to be carried back to the Fomorian staging base on this moon. The remains of native animals, Seosten defenders, and the Fomorians’ own troops alike were all dumped unceremoniously into the elephant-creatures and carried onward. 

At one pile of corpses in particular, where a particularly heavy fight had clearly occurred, the goblin-like leading Fomorian escorts (they were three feet tall and had arms that were four feet long, leading to a lot of loping movement where their arms essentially propelled them up and forward to hit the ground, then repeat) launched themselves that way to land beside the spot where two large ogres had fallen under the combined assault from a dozen Fomorian beasts. Bit by bit, the goblin-creatures pulled the pile of bodies apart, using their own considerable strength to toss their comrades up into the hole of the nearest elephant-thing. Finally, the elephant itself used its long trunks to pick up each of the huge ogre bodies one at a time, tossing them in the back as well. 

From there, the parade continued. For three more hours, the creatures moved on to collect more bodies, killing any living things they came across to add to their supplies before eventually making a wide circle to move back to their staging point. There, within the confines of the Fomorian protective (living, of course) walls, the collected remains were added to the pile there. They would be taken apart down to their base materials and used to create more troops. Or, they would have been. But someone else had plans to the contrary. 

Six hours after the pile of rotting bodies had been dumped in place, and nine after it originally been picked up, the bustling Fomorian creations were finally joined by one of their masters. An actual Fomorian, an Alpha of all things, strode into view in the middle of the camp, eyes scanning the piles of corpses. This Fomorian was twice the size of the standard Betas and Gammas that made up the bulk of their population (already relatively few in number), having upgraded his own body with longer, stronger limbs, much heavier plating that protected him from anything weaker than a capital ship barrage, and a set of dragonfly-like wings that would allow him to reach blinding speeds in the air. Along with other surprises that made him, and other Alpha Fomorians, some of the most dangerous creatures in the universe.

Standing there, flanked by a small army of guards and assorted creature servants, the Alpha Fomorian looked over the thousands upon thousands of decomposing corpses intently while sniffing. “Something,” it hissed, “lives. Something there is not dead. It–” 

In mid-sentence, the Fomorian saw it. A very small green laser shone out of the pile of corpses, the point ending right in the center of its chest. A tiny, insignificant laser point. It came from a small, cylindrical, pen-sized device that was sticking out through a hole in the chest of one of the ogres whose corpse had been picked up nine hours earlier. 

The Alpha Fomorian barely had time to consider what this meant, before a second laser struck it. This, however, was far different from the first. For one, this second laser came from the sky. No, it came from far beyond the sky. The laser came from a ship that had been hidden behind the gas giant this moon orbited. A ship that had been so well-hidden, it was incapable of being seen without being right on top of it. And, by the same measure, equally incapable of seeing anything on the planet itself. And yet, it fired a shot from its primary cannon the moment that it had a target. A target granted to it by that single laser pointer. 

When the smoke cleared from that single shot, fully three-quarters of the Fomorian base itself had been wiped out, eradicated entirely. Nothing was left where the shot had struck, save for a twelve-foot-deep, hundred-foot-wide crater. 

Nothing, that was, save for the Alpha Fomorian. Most of it, anyway. The creature, as with any of its fellows who reached the rank of Alpha, was incredibly tough. Tough enough, in fact, to stand up to a direct hit from a Seosten capital ship. Though wounded, the Alpha was not dead. Its wings had been sheared away, the force of the blast had slammed the thing flat to the ground, and it was showing severe damage. But it had survived that shot. 

It may even have survived the second and third that punched into the ground shortly after that first one. The fourth, however, probably killed it. The fifth and sixth were just to make sure. And the seventh might have been overkill. 

In the end, nothing remained of the Fomorian Alpha, or any of his troops. Once the firing had stopped, the small laser pointer was withdrawn back into the ogre corpse. A moment later, it was replaced by a much stronger laser blade, as the corpse’s occupant cut herself free. Covered in blood and the assorted internal fluids and broken organs of a half-decayed ogre, the brown-skinned and dark-haired figure, who would have been seen as stereotypically Indian (of the actual India) clambered out and brushed herself off. Taking a rag from the pocket of her mechanic-like jumpsuit, the Olympian Seosten known as Haniel wiped her gore-covered face clean, tossed the rag aside, then plucked a bottle of heavy booze from a different pocket before taking a long, sustained pull. Only once she had drained a good half of the contents did she put the bottle away and produce a communication pin, slapping it to her chest to activate the thing. “Congratulations, Trierarch, that is one dead Alpha. Now come get us so I can shower.” She could have recalled herself back to the ship, of course. That would have been the plan had she been discovered in her hiding place before the Alpha showed himself. But he had shown himself. And now they were going to mop up the remains (literally, to an extent) and take what was left to be studied by Seosten scientists. 

Soon enough, Haniel was picked up by a quick shuttle that teleported her up to it, and then returned to the capital ship. Unfortunately, before she could actually find her way to the shower, the ship’s captain, or Trierarch, met her coming off the shuttle. He was an old Seosten with a thick walrus mustache and very tired eyes. “Sorry, got new orders for you. Well, for all of us. We’re going to Rysthael to drop you off.” 

The announcement made Haniel blink. “Why would I go there? We’re still at peace, right? Truce, whatever. We’re not supposed to be doing anything over there.” 

“No idea,” came the response. “That part of the orders is sealed to your identity signature. Your eyes only. We’re just supposed to deliver you.” After a brief pause, he added, “But uhh, speaking of that truce, you think it’ll hold? I mean, do you think it’ll be permanent? You spent a long time there with those humans, right? Back when they had you running around playing Dionysus.” 

Haniel, in turn, shrugged. “Not with those humans. Err, mostly not. And there’s a lot more than humans there anyway. But uhh, yeah it’s been awhile.” She glanced away, clearly deep in thought for a few seconds before continuing. “Look, I don’t know much about what’s going on there. Kinda tuned out of that stuff for a reason. All I know is that our people, flawed as they might be, are the only ones stopping those things from overrunning the entire fucking universe.” She jabbed a finger in the direction of where other Seosten and assistants were gathering the remains of the Alpha in buckets and large steel crates. “So if these Rysthael people prove they can be an asset and work with us to do that, great. Nothing but love for them. If not, well, we need humans to be Heretics or this whole universe gets fucked over, us and them. Sometimes doing the shit that needs to be done ain’t pretty. As you can see.” Her hand indicated the assorted (quite fragrant) goo that still covered her body. 

“Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to go soak my body in fifty gallons of scalding water, and my liver in about that much wine.” 

***********

Dylan

“This is impossible.” The words came from Haiden Moon, as the man stood a short distance away from the main collection of cabins around the Atherby camp, with his wife, his son and daughter, and another girl. Fossor had been killed only hours earlier, and yet, apparently that wasn’t enough of a shock for the day. Not if what his children were telling him was true. 

“It’s true, Dad,”  Vanessa insisted. “We did the blood test while you were busy earlier. This is Dylan, your niece. Our… our cousin.” 

“Hello,” the girl in question piped up, raising a hand in an awkward motion. “Um. I’m Dylan. She said that. I didn’t… um, mean to say that. I didn’t mean to say that either. Um. I’m not—I’m not really, um, great with this? This is…. umm, different? I–um, it’s new, and I don’t–I didn’t know it was gonna be like this. And you’re here, and I think my mom would’ve wanted to be, but she’s not, because she died and I really didn’t mean to say that either. But now I’m thinking about my mom and dad dying, and I’m sad, so… so I’m gonna go. Okay, bye.” With that, she pivoted on her heel and began to take a few steps away. 

“Whoa, whoa, wait!” Tristan quickly moved that way, gently but firmly guiding the girl back. “See, Dad, she’s definitely part of our family.” 

“Part of our…” Trailing off, Haiden glanced toward his wife before turning back to Dylan. He took a step that way before going down to one knee to reach out, his hand barely touching the side of the girl’s face as she shifted nervously from foot to foot. Her eyes met his, their gazes locking for a moment before he swallowed hard. “Vanessa…” The word was not directed toward his daughter, but toward the long-lost aunt she had been named for. Haiden’s sister, who had supposedly died during training at Eden’s Garden. 

Except she clearly hadn’t, because her daughter was here. A daughter who had clearly been born much more recently than the over hundred years it had been since his sister had ‘died.’ 

But… but if she survived and was here on Earth, with a family, why had she never reached out? Who tracked her down and killed her? Why didn’t she fight back? What–what? 

“I don’t understand,” he finally managed, voice cracking a bit. “What are the odds?” Haiden demanded. “What are the odds that you would happen to run into someone who could get in contact with us, someone who knew Vanes–her roommate, for Void’s sake. Erin was her roommate at Crossroads. What are the odds that my daughter’s roommate would happen to run into my long-lost niece? It doesn’t–” He sighed. “It doesn’t make sense.” 

“Oh, that’s easy,” Dylan promptly answered. “I used magic. I was… lonely, so I used a spell from the fox-man’s library to find out if I had any family. It was supposed to direct me to a place where I could eventually find them. It took me to the grocery store. I had to work there for a long time. So long I thought it didn’t work. But then it did. It just took awhile. And it wasn’t exactly direct about it.”

“That’s usually how that sort of spell works,” Sariel quietly put in, her voice sounding awed. “When it does anything at all. You’re–you’re really self-taught? That’s remarkable. I’ve never seen anyone take to it that well without–without any direct instruction.” 

“The fox-man’s blood made me good at magic,” Dylan replied. “And he had a lot of books.” 

“She likes to read,” Tristan piped up. “She’s definitely related to Vanessa.” 

Vanessa, naturally, squinted at him. “You’re related to me and you don’t like to read. You’re my twin.”

“Yeah,” Tristan confirmed, “which obviously means you stole all my reading books DNA. It’s clearly your fault.” 

“Reading… books… DNA…” Vanessa barely managed to get those words out, looking and sounding as though she was either about to strangle the boy or cry. He, in turn, simply grinned. 

Clearing his throat, Haiden focused on the girl in front of him. “I don’t know what this is. I don’t know how–what… I don’t know anything. But… but you are Vanessa’s daughter. You–” Cutting himself off, the man simply asked, “Do you, ahh, mind if I hug you?” 

“Why?” Dylan promptly asked, her eyes narrowing to a slit. “You’re not trying to plant a tracking beacon for Galazien’s forces, are you? He’s really persuasive. He can make you think he’s on your side. Quick, how long has it been since you were checked for mind manipulation?”

“Who–who is this Galazien?” Haiden managed. They had mentioned the name before, when Vanessa and Tristan were giving the quick story about what they had learned from Erin. But he was still pretty confused about the whole thing.

Dylan answered promptly. “He is the Iron-Souled, the world-devourer, the one who will reap the heavens and call the hells to tear asunder all who stand before him. He is the flash of heat felt oh-so-briefly by those who die from the cold, the warmth that causes them, in their delirium, to shed their clothes to embrace their fate. He is the inevitable, torn from this world in its infancy to spare it a youthful end. But his forces amass, and he cannot be forestalled for eternity. In his time, he will come, and he will finish what he started, all those millennia ago.” 

A few long seconds of silence passed, before Tristan leaned in to speak quietly. “I think she means he’s a bad guy.” 

“I–I have so many questions,” Haiden murmured, still reeling from shock. “But something tells me you don’t know where your mother was before she had you, or why she was pretending to be a normal human. Or… or what happened to her when she was younger.” 

Dylan, of course, shook her head. “No. I think the Fox-Man knew more, but… but he died before he could tell me.” She went quiet for a moment, clearly remembering the horrific murders of her mother and father in addition to the Kitsune. Her voice, when she spoke, was very soft. “I… think I might be okay with a hug now.” 

And that was exactly what she got. 

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