Vanessa Moon

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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Long Awaited 12-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Right, so there was a lot for everyone to talk about. Sariel especially was clearly reeling from the sudden knowledge that not only did she have two more children out there waiting for her, but those two were only alive and well because of Puriel of all people. Puriel, the man who had torn their family apart to begin with, had saved Sariel’s daughter, who had SPS. Even more than that, he’d saved her by allowing the girl to possess him just to get her away from his own wife. Seriously, how was Sariel supposed to process even that by itself, let alone the added fact that they had saved her son too? She had two more children who were alive and well thanks to Puriel. It was a lot to process.

Yeah, their whole family was going to have to talk about that for awhile. But at the moment, all we had time for was a quick update about what we’d found out, for the benefit of Mom and Dare. We let them know that Grandmaria and Grandpartie were actually okay after all. They weren’t being held prisoner, and in fact knew basically everything by now. Well, everything Puriel had known. 

By the time we got the basic story out, Mom was staring between Dad and me, mouth opening and shutting a few times before she managed to speak. “You’re saying that Maria and Arthur are helping Zeus, who is now a good guy because of severe mental trauma, restore the Olympus so they can come home. And the person mostly responsible for this restoration is another of Sariel’s daughters, who is also the same person who designed that prototype instant-jump ship.” 

Pausing to consider that briefly, I then gave a thumbs up. “Yup, that basically sums it up. I mean, there’s probably more, but yeah. Aren’t you glad you’re here for the insanity now?” 

Mom, of course, smiled before pulling me into an embrace. Her grip around me was tight as she murmured a quiet, “Yes, I’m very glad. Even if you do manage to find your way into quite the ridiculous situations.” With that, she teased my hair and turned to face the others while sliding her hand down to rub my back. “So, nothing we can do about all that right now, I take it?” 

Sariel, who had summoned her two older children in that time, shook her head. The woman was standing with one hand on Tabbris’s shoulder and the other on Tristan’s, while Vanessa hovered (not literally) nearby. “Nothing right now, no. As much as I want to… talk to my other children there, I don’t want to push things too hard and end up with several of us transporting all the way over there. It… it wouldn’t be a good idea.” From the way she hesitated at that part, I was pretty sure she had been seriously considering whether it would be possible or prudent for just her to transport over there so she could be with those two kids. But, of course, that would mean leaving the rest of her family here. Not exactly an easy question, either way. 

Dad seemed to sense the same thing, speaking up immediately. “We’ll go back and see them again, soon. Just let everyone rest a bit. Like we told them, we’ll check in and see how they’re doing. Mom and Dad are–I like knowing they’re okay, but I’m not leaving it at that. If they run into any roadblocks with this whole ship rebuilding thing, maybe we can help. Whatever it takes. The point is, I’m going to check in on them as much as possible. I’d uhh, I’d like your help to do that.”  

Once Sariel quietly agreed, Dare spoke up. “It sounds as though this investigation could have ended up going much worse. Lincoln’s parents are safe with this Puriel, who has had a rather severe change of heart. And Sariel has two more children who will be on their way here soon.” 

She had a point. We really could’ve found out much worse news than that. Actually, I was pretty sure nobody here in the room ever in a million years would’ve guessed that our little scouting mission would’ve turned out anywhere near that well. It was almost unbelievable. 

Still, shaking that off, I said, “It is nice to have some good news for once. And…” Trailing off, I looked over to my parents. “Speaking of having good news, I just realized you don’t have a place to live up here. I just–you don’t–what…” Boy, were there a lot of thoughts running through my head right then. With effort, I pushed most of them aside to focus on the important part. “We left to go save Elisabet before Mom really–before you even, umm… what now?” 

Both of my parents chuckled, glancing toward one another. A short, yet intense look passed between them. There was clearly a lot going on there, even as the two linked hands before turning back to me. Mom spoke first. “I’ll want to do a… there’s a lot I’ll want to do, eventually. But right now, I think I’m going to take a few days to be around my family. All of my family.” 

Dad agreed. “There’re a lot of things we need to go through, but right now, we’re just taking it day by day. Give your mother time to readjust to everything.” 

That time, Dare and I were the ones who exchanged brief glances. Yeah, there was a lot I wanted to say. Especially when it came to Mom being around ‘her entire family.’ But I couldn’t. We couldn’t say anything at all about it. Hard as it was, especially right now, we still had to keep Dare’s identity secret. Fuck, how did she do it for so long? How did she give up Mom to begin with? And then go so long, especially while my mother– her own daughter — was running a full-on rebellion? I just couldn’t imagine having to surrender my entire identity like that. And now to have her right here after all that time and have to pretend Mom barely meant anything to her? 

All of that was too much to deal with at the most normal of times. But right now, Mom had just been returned after a decade of being imprisoned by that monster and Dare had to pretend that she barely knew her. How would I feel if I was in her situation? What if my mother’s memory of who I was happened to be erased, and I had to pretend to just be some girl who had heard about her? God, how much would that destroy me? And Dare had to live like that? I had no idea how she went on. Gaia. Gaia was the answer, clearly. And now Gaia wasn’t here, so Dare had to deal with all this with only Koren and me to talk to, and I had been gone for– yeah. Ouch. 

In any case, Sariel eventually said she would be around to help whenever we needed, and that my dad should absolutely never try to mental-recall alone. Then Tabbris headed out with the Moons, my sister calling back that she’d come find us later. Yeah, I didn’t blame her one bit for needing to spend time with her other family. After what they had just found out about having two more siblings out there, no wonder she wanted to be with her mother and the twins for the moment. Besides, I was pretty sure she was equally leaving me time to be alone with my own parents. 

Which, of course, still left Dare with us once the others had stepped out. And I was trying my best not to obsess too much over the fact she was family and absolutely should be here right now. There was nothing we could do about that secret right now, so I had to just push it aside and continue to act as though she was just a teacher whom I greatly respected and trusted. 

Shaking off those thoughts for the moment just as Dare started to excuse herself, I quickly raised a hand. “Um, I need to talk to you. Uhh, later, I guess.” Exchanging a brief glance with my parents, who already knew (or thought they knew) what I wanted to talk to the woman about, I added, “You know, if you’re not busy. It’s about everything that happened at the Meregan world.”

Dare, of course, gave me a curious glance. As far as she knew, the official story about what had happened had already been reported. I felt her gaze staring into me, clearly realizing very quickly that there was a lot more to it before she gave a very short nod. “Take time with your family, Felicity. I will be available whenever you need.” Her voice was quiet, and only the two of us really knew how much more was behind her words. Then, with a very faint smile toward my parents, toward her daughter, she pivoted and headed through the door. I was pretty sure that if she hadn’t left right then, she would have shown more of a reaction than she wanted to. More than was safe. 

And there I was, standing in a room with just my mother and my father. Both of them were standing close, hand-in-hand as they watched me. Their expressions were unreadable, but there was clearly a lot going on there. For a few long seconds, the three of us just stood, silently staring at one another. How long had it been since we’d had a moment like this? How long since it has been just the three of us, not only safe in a room together, but also with no immediately pressing life and death problems? I had been a tiny child the last time. Now, so much had changed. We had all been through so much to eventually bring us to this specific moment.

Finally, I crossed the distance between us, walking those few steps before opening my arms to embrace both of my parents together. I felt them return it immediately, their strong, firm grips pulling me up close to them, hauling me against them. For a few long seconds, the three of us just stood there together, embracing in a tight, unwavering family hug. Unwanted tears were streaming down my face. God, this moment, how long had I been waiting for something like this? How many years did I spend completely dismissing it as even being a possibility, before going to Crossroads and learning the truth about my mother? I just–this whole thing was… it was a lot. It was more than I had ever allowed myself to truly think was possible. And yet, here it was. Here we were. I was with my parents. My mom and dad were both safe, free, and here. 

I wasn’t sure how long the three of us stood there like that, but eventually we separated a bit. Dad said that he wanted to take us somewhere more comfortable and with that, led Mom and me out of the room. I had no idea where he was going, but he clearly did. Over the next few minutes, my father led us through a maze of corridors. He pointed out the way down into the school area that I was more familiar with, but kept going past it. It was obvious that he’d had a pretty thorough tour of this area. And yet, there was clearly more to it. As we continued onward, moving through blank corridor after blank corridor with only a few minor signs here and there, most of which were written in a different language, I finally realized the truth and pivoted to face him. My finger rose to point. “Hey, you’ve been using the Chimera-Seosten bonding for more than possession practice. You’ve been using the Seosten bonding to memorize where to go.” 

Mom, for her part, chuckled while reaching up to squeeze my father’s shoulder. “Oh, that explains it. I knew your memory was good, Lincoln. But not this good.” 

With a chuckle, Dad gave a short nod. “The perfect memory isn’t exactly completely perfect while the blood bond isn’t active. Certain very specific details tend to fade over time when I’m not actively Seosten-Bonded. But it’s still pretty damn good. Most of it sticks. Plenty enough to remember how to go through this maze. Which has been pretty useful lately, that’s for sure.” 

Shortly after that, we reached the area he was leading us to. It turned out to be a series of staff apartments, one of which he had been granted. And this apartment wasn’t some little hole in the wall either. It was a very nice, three bedroom set-up, complete with a full, gorgeous bathroom, a giant kitchen, and an enormous family room. All of it, every room, was already decorated with all the furniture and stuff anyone would need. Clearly, Athena had gone out of her way to give my dad a nice place. 

No, she’d gone out of her way to give my family a nice place, I realized. This was for my parents. And for me. And for anyone else who stayed with them. It was a place for them to live beyond the cabin down at the Atherby camp. 

Once Dad finished showing us around and we had returned to the main family room, he pivoted to face us, arms out. His gaze was on my mother. “Okay, so I know it’s not that hard to go between the camp and this station whenever we might want to, but Athena and I were thinking that this would be a good place to live anyway. I mean, Felicity’s going to school still, and there’s Abigail being the principal, and Wyatt. You’d be close to everyone, but still have our own–” 

In mid-sentence, Dad was interrupted as my mother stepped over and embraced him tightly. Her voice was quiet, shaking a bit from emotion. “You don’t have to convince me, Lincoln. It’s beautiful. It’s amazing. It’s more… it’s more than I let myself think we’d ever have again.”

Dad went on to explain that Abigail’s own apartment was right next door to one side, while Deveron had one directly behind us. All three were linked together through doors like those motels that had joint rooms, and we could always very easily go over and visit. Even Wyatt was close, with a room on the far side of Abigail’s that would be easy to get to any time. 

And, slightly more awkwardly, Dad also added that Mom could always stay with Deveron for as long as she wanted too, given he was her first husband. Yeah, it was clearly still very strange for Dad to say, but he got through it, quietly noting that he knew Deveron had missed her as much as he had. Then he and Mom whispered to each other for a few minutes, while I stepped away and studiously ignored them, because I really didn’t want to hear any of that. They could work out whatever details they needed to without my help, thank you very much. 

Either way, we got through it, and then we did something else that all of us had been waiting a long time for. We had a meal together. I mean, sure, it was just TV dinners heated up in the oven, but it was still a meal together. We sat at the table in the family room and just… ate. Well, ate and talked. We talked a lot. The three of us sat there, enjoying dinner while we talked. Not about any life and death situations. Not about what was going to happen next. No. We talked about the years we had missed, the years Mom had missed. Dad and I told her stories about me being at school, about all the reporter stuff I’d gotten into, about everything amusing that came to mind. Dad, of course, had a much better memory for that, given how young I’d been for some of it. But no matter what the story, no matter how few or how many specific details either of us remembered, Mom was enraptured by all of it. She asked so many questions about everything, enough that Dad and I both remembered more than we would have otherwise. Which led to more stories, which led to even more questions, and so on like that. 

We sat there like that for a long time after our plates were empty. It had to be hours, where the only interruptions came when one of us needed to use the restroom or get a drink. For the most part, we all sat at that table and talked, laughed, cried, and generally just interacted. It was just the three of us, sitting there together to catch up on things. Not that we were anywhere near catching up on everything even after all that time, of course. It was going to take a hell of a lot longer. But the point was, we started. It was our first real chance to sit together as a small family like that and just talk. And honestly, I’d rarely been any happier than in that moment. 

Eventually, however, the discussion ended. I’d seen Dad yawn a couple times, before pushing myself up. “I need to talk to Professor Dare about what happened.” 

“I’ll go with–” Mom started. 

“No,” I quickly blurted, shaking my head as I looked between them. “You guys deserve alone time without me. I mean, don’t get me wrong, this right here, this has been like… one of the best nights of my life, ever. But this isn’t about just the three of us. It’s also about the two of you, and you’ve been apart for a long–” Cutting myself off, I rose. “I’ll talk to Dare. It’s okay. Mom, Dad, you just… be here, okay? Don’t run off.” 

The two of them exchanged looks, then turned back to me, Mom smiling faintly. “I think we can manage to get along for a little while without wandering away.” 

“Nope!” Raising both hands, I shook my head. “Don’t need to hear anymore. Don’t need to hear anything. I’ll just–I’ll be back later. Much later.” Pausing briefly, I amended once more, “I’ll knock.” 

Both of them started to tease me again, but I was already moving. Stepping over, I embraced my mother first, as tightly as possible. Then I hugged my father. That done, I headed for the door. 

“Sure you can find your way?” Dad called after me. 

“I’ll figure it out,” I informed him, stopping in the doorway to look back. “I’m glad you’re back, Mom. And Dad, we’ll get your parents. We’ll get Popser and Grandmaria back here. They… they’ll make it.” 

That said, I stepped out, letting the door close behind me to give my parents the privacy they deserved, the privacy that had been such a long time coming. 

“Felicity?” It was Professor Dare herself, approaching from the end of the hall, where I had the feeling she had been waiting for awhile. “Is everything alright?” 

“Yeah,” I quickly answered, glancing over my shoulder to the closed door with a slight smile before turning back to step that way. “Yeah, it’s okay. I mean, nothing immediately life-threatening or whatever. It’s about as good as it gets right now. But I’m glad you’re here. 

“We really need to talk.”

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Promise And Peril 11-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – if you happened to miss it, the Heretical Edge non-canon chapter was released over the weekend right here

“So, let me get this straight,” Sachael began several minutes later. “There are two super-Fomorians running around on Earth. Both empowered by Tartarus and split from the same original Fomorian. One of them is… considers himself ‘good’ and calls himself Grandfather. He’s the one who brought the first humans to Rysthael–Earth. And he’s just been sort-of hanging out the whole time, being zany. The other one, meanwhile, was trapped in Tartarus for another couple hundred thousand years until Zadkiel, who happens to be a Seosten archangel, ended up in there too. The two of them were fused together, somehow got out, and now he-they are on Earth calling themselves Godfather, Maestro, and who knows what the hell else. And something tells me he’s not nearly as sparkles, sunshine, and happiness as you say the first one is.” 

“Uh, yeah, that seems to just about sum it up,” I confirmed, giving my mother a brief look. She looked stunned by all that, to say the least. “But, you know, if you could keep the Grandfather part to yourself, I just–that’d be great?” Yeah, my voice was a bit weak at that point cuz eesh was that asking a lot. Not that we’d said anything about Bastet or especially Aylen, of course. We weren’t quite that stupid. We just spoke as if Grandfather himself had found and spoken to us. I’d clarify the truth with my mother later, once we were somewhere slightly more private. 

Sachael gave me a brief, clearly appraising look before pointing out, “Promises aside, I am fairly certain that if I were to tell my superiors, or… anyone about what you’ve said, and behaved in any way as though I believed it was more than incoherent gibberish from a human whose mind has been shattered by a year of unrelenting stress, I would be immediately stripped of all my own authority and put into forced retirement. At the very least.” 

“He’s got you there,” Tristan murmured under his breath before speaking up almost challengingly toward the man himself. “Does that mean you don’t believe it?” 

Sachael was quiet for a moment before sighing heavily. “No, I believe I do. That’s what scares me. But I can’t exactly tell the people in charge about it because even on the very slim chance they actually believe me, we know exactly what their first and probably only instinct will be the moment they hear ‘two super-Fomorians on Rysthael.’”

“Destroy it.” That was Athena, her voice soft. “They’ll bring everything they have to in order to level Earth until there’s nothing but dust left.” 

Gulping audibly, Vanessa piped up. “Right, so um, please don’t tell them about that part.” 

“I have to do some–” Sachael started to insist before catching himself with a low sigh. “Yes, I’m not about to go running to the Seraphs babbling about something that will get me locked up at best and your entire planet razed at worst. But I can’t just leave it alone either. If there’s really a malevolent super-Fomorian with Dyeusai powers added on and everything that Zadkiel knew about our society, command structure, security, and… and everything else? That’s something that has to be dealt with. And I think it’d go over a hell of a lot easier with the Seraphs if we could drag this hybrid thing in front of them instead of just promising that he’s out there somewhere. Presenting an apocalyptic problem goes better when you’ve already solved it.” 

“So, what you’re saying is,” I began, “you’ll keep quiet about the giant problem until you’ve got a solution to go along with it. Are you sure um, are you sure you can get away without warning your people about him–them, whatever they go by?” Of all the things I had ever thought I would need to worry about, the preferred pronouns of a merged Fomorian-Seosten super-creature as was not one of them. Like, seriously. What even was my life?

“I’m not sure of much right now, actually,” the man informed me. “But I am fairly certain that, out of a very large assortment of terrible options, keeping quiet for the time being is the least terrible. If what has been said today is true, this Maestro may be the most dangerous single enemy our combined people have ever seen. He possesses all the power and skill of one of the Fomorian Alphas, along with that of a Seosten Dyeus and the knowledge that comes from being very high up within the military structure of both. And, what’s more, he clearly knows how to be quiet. He has kept himself hidden for a long time now, choosing not to draw attention to his existence. One who knows how to have all that power and then not use it is far more dangerous than one who blunders about showing off their strength. Which leads to the question of what, exactly, is his endgame in that case? What is he trying to accomplish?” 

“It’s something to do with all the Seraphs,” Elisabet murmured, a frown crossing her face. “I’m not exactly positive, but he wants to do something to the Seraphim. At first I thought he intended to kill or destroy them, but that’s not it. I’m just not sure exactly…” Trailing off, she sighed. “I don’t know, but it’s something to do with them. That’s why that… Gemini pushed us toward arranging the meeting between them and the children.” She nodded toward Vanessa, Tabbris, Tristan, and me. “Whatever his goal is, getting them close to the Seosten leaders is part of it.” 

“Right, so we don’t go anywhere near them,” Vanessa put in. “Except I’m pretty sure it’ll come up when this whole truce year thing is over.” 

“A lot of things are going to come up once the truce year is over,” Athena muttered under her breath before sighing. “I suppose that means we’ll have to deal with this Maestro before then. Or at the very least discover what his actual plan is.”

Mom finally spoke up in a quiet, clearly constrained voice. “Is he the one who brought the Fomorians here in the first place?” 

The way she said it made me blink that way, before realizing just what she was getting at. She’d lost both of her parents as a child when she was younger than Tabbris. She had basically been Savvy’s age, and her father had sacrificed his life while her mother sacrificed her identity. All of that was to drive the Fomorians away. Now Mom was asking if the being responsible for them being there in the first place hadn’t even been affected. 

Wow. When it was put like that, I… wow. That just made the fact that I couldn’t tell her about Dare even worse. 

Elisabet seemed to pick up basically the same vibes, pausing momentarily before she replied. “I don’t think so. He may have taken advantage of the situation, but the indication I got was that he is not united with or connected to his people. To… either side of his people. Their people. Whatever his goals are, he seems to be working without the rest of the Fomorians. Perhaps because he believes he’s better than they are. Or because he believes they would be more of a hindrance than a help, or their goals are not aligned. Either way, I am fairly certain he has not been in contact with them.” 

Gazing off at nothing, I stopped listening for a moment while they kept talking. Something else had occurred to me, and I wasn’t sure I should actually say it. Part of me really didn’t want to. But Mom noticed. Her hand touched my arm, and when I glanced that way, she silently mouthed, ‘what?’

So, I swallowed back my uncertainty and spoke up. “Maybe you shouldn’t survive, Elisabet.” 

That got everyone’s attention. Not only that of the woman in question, but the entire group. They all blinked at me while I blanched before pushing on quickly. “Oh boy, could I have phrased that better or what? Sorry, I mean, you should survive, obviously. Duh. I’m glad you–I mean you’re–never mind. The point is, maybe no one else should know that you survived. Think about it, if this Maestro guy knows that you can tell us everything about him, it might push him over the edge. He’ll either come after you or accelerate his plans, and I don’t think any of us want to see what he’s got in mind right now. But if you died before you could tell us anything, it might calm him down. You said you already dealt with the implants he put in you?” 

Elisabet was watching me intently, though whatever she thought of what I was saying, she kept it to herself. Her voice was even as she answered. “I did. I cut the implants out. And believe me, they’re all gone. I also had our new… friends here run a scan just in case I’d missed anything. They’re a bit confused about human biology, but with a little education, they did a fine job. There is nothing unnatural within my body now. Nothing he could be using to spy on or control me.” 

The rest of us all exchanged looks, before Sariel spoke up. “Felicity may have a point. If this Maestro believes you have died, it may reassure him not to take any drastic measures. Particularly if he believes his plan is progressing as he desires.” She hesitated then, taking a breath before adding, “If he believes that Elisabet’s ‘death’ has spurred Jophiel to push onward with their plan of teaching the children enough to meet the Seraphim, it may be possible to take him by surprise. Which would appear to be the only possible advantage we might have.” 

I felt Mom’s grip on my arm tighten a bit for a moment, and was afraid of what she might say. But she took a second to collect herself before carefully responding. “What do you think that would accomplish, exactly?” 

She had directed the question toward Sariel, but I spoke up because I had been the one to start the whole line of thought. Also because I wasn’t sure there was anything the Seosten woman could’ve said that would sound like a good idea to my mother. “His biggest advantage–okay his top three advantages are the fuck you I win doom laser wings, his practically unparalleled ability to manipulate biology and create unholy abominations, his incredibly intricate understanding of both Fomorian and Seosten society and military structures, the centuries he’s had to perfect himself and his plan–” 

“That’s more than three,” Tristan pointed out. 

Blowing out a long breath of air, I grimaced. “The point is, somewhere in the top ten of his advantages is the fact that no one’s supposed to know about him. If he knows for sure he’s lost that, he’s more likely to act. Which could be an advantage if it means he acts rashly and makes a mistake, but I don’t think he will. Plus there’s all those other advantages he still has. Making him think his secret is still safe is the best way to give everyone the time they need to find him. We can talk to Grandfather again, find out more from him about his other half. We can–we can do a lot of things if we’re careful. But if he finds out we know about him and chooses to make his move? Then we’re on the back foot again and have to keep reacting to everything.” 

“And the best way to do that is to let him think Elisabet died during the rescue attempt,” Mom finished, heaving a sigh. “What, do we say the Fomorian poisoned her too and it killed her before she could tell us anything? I suppose we’re taking it for granted that he has ways of getting information out of our side.”

“I think that’s a foregone conclusion,” I agreed. “And there’s no way he knows what these people are capable of, what their technology can do. We say they couldn’t save her and leave it at that.” 

Jophiel, speaking carefully, asked, “Are you suggesting that lies and memory manipulation be brought into play to change what those on this mission already know?” 

“No.” That was my mother, her voice sharp and reproachful. “We’re not messing with anyone’s memory.” 

“Besides,” I quickly pointed out, “it’s pretty obvious that no one we brought with us is under his influence or whatever. If they were, we never would’ve gotten this far. Elisabet had plenty of chances to be umm… shut up, you know? Even if he had to turn them into a suicide bomber to do it, just to keep himself secret. I think it’s pretty safe to say this group is clear.” 

“So what are we supposed to do?” Tristan asked. “Tell everyone to pretty please keep Elisabet being alive secret and we’ll explain why eventually, or tell everyone here the whole truth about this Godfather guy? Because that’s an awful lot to get into right now. Plus, those girls from the Calendar are–um, they might have other priorities. I know they took the oaths not to talk about what happens on this trip, but still.” 

Athena was the one who answered. “We carefully and quietly tell everyone the truth about this Maestro person. Not about his other half, that’s not our secret to tell. We leave it only to what Elisabet knew at the start of this conversation. We explain why it must be kept secret, and perform the same privacy spells that were done to ensure Felicity, Tabbris, Vanessa, and Tristan did not tell anyone about Elisabet and Jophiel’s relationship or arrangement with them. But we make sure they know those spells are being performed. We do that for all of us, with a prepared safeword that will allow anyone to break the spell for themselves, just in case it becomes of life and death importance that they share this information. But doing so will also alert everyone else that they have broken it.” 

We talked a bit more about all that, but it was the best idea we had. We would pretend Elisabet had died so this Maestro-Godfather prick thought he was safe, then do our best to make sure we found him before the time came for the twins, Tabbris, and I to have a discussion with the Seraphs to show off how special we were, or whatever. 

It wasn’t a lot, but it was basically all we could do at the moment. Honestly, the whole situation was just pretty damn terrifying and it was freaking me out a lot. But putting that aside and letting the adults try to figure out how to track the bastard down and deal with him (or at least wait until we could get more information from Grandfather) at least meant I didn’t have to focus on it immediately. I was sure it would become a giant glaring problem soon enough. But for the moment, I was going to turn my attention to something I could affect right now. 

Namely, finding Alecra and talking to her as much as possible before she and the rest of her people went off to their new world for an incredibly well-earned break

******

So, that was exactly what I did. Well, Mom and me. And Tabbris. We let the others deal with pulling in each person individually or in pairs to explain that whole… situation, while the three of us tracked down Alecra and a few of the other Meregan (all of whom Mom knew by name) and just… talked. It was pretty nice, actually. Obviously I had to shove all the worries about the unkillable super-monster in the shadows out of my thoughts to enjoy it. But honestly? It wasn’t that hard to do so. After all, this wasn’t the first time I’d had an approaching deadline to deal with a psychotic, almost all-powerful monster with a god complex. And this one didn’t even have my mother as a hostage. 

Anyway, the point was that all that would be dealt with later. There was literally nothing we could do about him now. So we didn’t worry about it. We talked to Alecra about her surviving people, about what this new world was like, about what the Roenier themselves were like, and so on. We talked about the whole mission they’d been on, about the Meregan helping the Roenier to begin with, about other adventures they’d been on, basically everything they’d done. And, of course, she wanted more information about Fossor’s death. So we told her everything in as much detail as possible. 

Yeah, I was pretty sure she was going to be sharing that story with the rest of the Meregan. Good. They all deserved to know that he was fucking gone. Not even worm food. Not even dust. He was nothing. Just like he should have been. He was dead and I hoped that fact was written across the stars for everyone to see. 

I also did something else important with Alecra, as well as a few other Meregan. Namely, I summoned the few Meregan ghosts I had among those who had been at the final battle with Fossor. One by one, I let them introduce themselves, talk a little bit about who they were with these few living Meregan. Some actually knew each other and there were tearful (and temporary) reunions. Others simply promised that they would pass the names and last words of the passing ghosts on to any family or friends they could find.

The point was, they got to say goodbye. I almost felt like a voyeur, standing there bringing forth all these ghosts and spying on their last words. And yet, it gave me a new appreciation for my Necromancy. It had always been useful despite how I instinctively felt about it, but this… this felt good. It was still sad and terrible that they died to begin with, yes. But my power gave them the chance to say goodbye. Really say goodbye. Not some prayer to some invisible deity, a real goodbye to the people they loved. 

 When the ghosts were done, they would tell me it was time, and I let them go. Their energy dissipated, fading away. All save for a couple of the Meregan, who asked to stay with me until I visited the Roenier homeworld to see where their people ended up. I pointed out that I might not get there any time soon, if at all. But they were willing to take that risk. 

In any case, I… I helped these people. This power from Fossor, who was responsible for so much suffering and so many atrocities, actually helped give the Meregan, people who had been some of the most hurt by him, closure. 

Eventually, it was time for us to go. Because it was time for them to go. They had successfully retrieved every living member of the Meregan race from their own world, and the battle against the Fomorians had enacted enough losses that things were starting to get a bit dicey, apparently. They needed to retreat with the survivors, head back to their own world (their new world, in the Meregans’ case) and start the process of rebuilding. 

During that initial withdrawal, as the fleet was getting away from the Meregan world, Mom, Athena, and the rest of the adults all stressed just how important it was that the Roenier fleet make sure the Fomorians couldn’t track them to the wormhole. They had to take the long way, ensure their trail couldn’t be followed (they did say they had ways of doing that), and in general just… keep themselves safe. If the Fomorians could find them, they would. 

We exchanged details about how to contact each other, and I promised that someone would make sure to send information to Purin and his group of Meregan once the timeline caught up in a few years.

Then we were done. A mostly-healed Jophiel was released from the medical bay. With her in tow, everyone returned to the prototype ship, we said our final goodbyes (well, hopefully not final final), and boarded. The Roenier had helped patch the thing up as much as they could while we were waiting, and it was fairly spaceworthy again. 

So, we resumed our spots onboard, launched off the Roenier ship, then floated there in space watching as the fleet used their own version of hyperspace or warp speed or whatever (it wasn’t the same as the Seosten Slide-Drives, I knew that much) to rapidly vanish from sight. 

“Well,” Elisabet finally announced once our ship was alone there in the middle of empty space. “I suppose that means it’s time for me to die now, isn’t it?” 

“Don’t worry, it’s only temporary,” I pointed out. “Besides, being dead and having to hide will give you plenty of time to catch up on all the shows you’ve missed. Or books. Or games. How are you at JRPGs? The point is, you just spent months trapped on a Fomorian-infested desert world. So how bad could being quarantined in one place where you have all the entertainment you could possibly want be?” 

From the way she was squinting at me, the woman couldn’t figure out if I was kidding or not. Finally, she looked toward Jophiel. “I suppose you’re right. There are certainly worse fates. But please, I have waited a very long time, and survived through quite a lot to be able to say this. 

“Let’s go home.”

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Promise And Peril 11-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Right, so Jophiel and Elisabet had something incredibly important to tell Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, Sariel, Athena, Sachael, Mom, and me. For a moment as we walked through the ship corridors, I wondered what it could be. Was it about the way Jophiel had been poisoned, or–no. No, it had to be about how and why Elisabet had ended up on the Meregan world to begin with, right? It had to be about how she was cut off from the Committee. Everyone had wondered how that was even possible. That had to be what this was about. It was the only thing that made sense. Elisabet had been focused solely on making sure Jophiel made it through being poisoned, and now that the Seosten woman seemed to be pulling out of it (thanks to help from the Roenier), the time had come to finally tell us what the hell happened. 

Which was both exciting and terrifying, honestly. Because while I really wanted to know what could’ve stripped Elisabet’s Committee link and blocked Jophiel, at the same time I really didn’t. There was little chance that the answer was going to be anything even remotely positive. No, it was going to be terrifying and awful and I was going to regret finding out the truth. And yet, I couldn’t just ignore it either. That never worked out. 

Tabbris, walking right beside me, caught my hand and whispered, “Do you think it’s something new? I thought it was Fossor for awhile, but it couldn’t’ve been him that did it, right?” 

Grimacing, I shook my head while squeezing my sister’s hand. “Yeah, sorry. I don’t think we’re lucky enough to have the problem be something that we already dealt with. This is something new. Something new and bad enough to separate someone from the Committee, which…” I trailed off, not wanting to finish that sentence. It was bad, that was the point. Really bad. 

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Tristan was saying as he pivoted to walk backwards so he could face us. “We dunno what happened. It could’ve been a one-time thing, or some other kind of specialized situation. Personally, I wouldn’t put it past that Litonya bitch to be behind it. She’s been on the Committee for a long time, right? She could probably figure out how to kick someone off it if she really put her black-hearted, psychotic little vindictive mind to it.” 

“I don’t believe even she could do that,” Sariel informed her son. A moment later, she amended, “Given the chance, I believe she would do such a thing to the right people, but this seems beyond even her actual capability. Beyond which, why target Elisabet with it rather than one of the people she knows to be a rebellion sympathizer? Elisabet was acting under cover, there was no reason for Litonya to believe she would be a good target for this sort of attack, even if she was capable of it.” 

“Besides,” I put in, “I don’t think Litonya’s the type to keep quiet about what she did. Come on, she killed her own brother and people know about it. If she found out anything incriminating about Elisabet and pulled some kind of super-move to cut her out of the Committee, how quiet would she be? Especially if she could point at people like Teach and Percival and tell them to behave, or they could be next. I mean, it really seems like the sort of thing she’d use as leverage if she had it. She just–she doesn’t strike me as the type to be subtle, you know?”

“Yes,” Mom muttered under her breath in a dark tone. “Subtle is something Litonya is not.” 

Yeah, I had a feeling my mother wanted to go a few rounds with the bitch for being the one who suggested killing Abigail and Wyatt. That wasn’t going to be something she just let go. Mom obviously still had issues with Sariel, yet her whole thing hadn’t actually been intentional. She’d suggested to Ruthers that he abduct Deveron, yes. But at least Deveron was a combatant, and Sariel’s whole intention had been to stop the war from escalating to the point that her people stepped in directly before she managed to finish fixing the spell to open the Tartarus universe again. Sariel had always wanted to use that as a bargaining chip to make her people back off, or at least negotiate, and it would’ve been much harder to do that if Mom’s rebellion had gotten to the point that the Seosten were sending troops to deal with the situation. Her efforts to delay the rebellion hadn’t been intended to stop it entirely, only to manipulate it into slowing down long enough that she could put her own game-changer into play without anyone else knowing what she was doing ahead of time. 

Yes, her actions had backfired, but she’d had decent intentions at least. And Mom knew that, even if she still harbored completely understandable anger at Sariel for it, which would take her quite awhile to get over. If she ever did fully. Litonya on the other hand had no such excuse. Given the opportunity, I was almost certain that Mom would, to put it mildly, cut a bitch. 

But all those thoughts were pushed aside thoroughly as we reached the secondary medical area where Jophiel had apparently been moved once she was out of immediate danger. They were still keeping an eye on her to be certain that the poison wouldn’t get worse again, but at the moment the combination of the healing that Elisabet had done to her and the Roenier’s efforts were apparently keeping it pretty thoroughly at bay. Enough, at least, that it was okay for her to have visitors.

Our Roenier guide stayed outside, while the rest of us moved in through the doors into… well, the hospital room, I supposed. Though it was different from most I had seen. There was no visible bed. Instead, Jophiel was sort of floating in the middle of a tube-like forcefield in the middle of the room. She wore some kind of skintight hospital clothes similar to a Seosten bodysuit, but clearly fashioned on this ship given the way it had a dozen cords leading out of it, through holes in the forcefield and into various machines that appeared to be monitoring her. She was conscious though, and apparently deep in conversation with Elisabet, who stood beside the tube with one hand on it. As soon as we all stepped inside, they waited for the doors to close before the (former?) Committee woman beckoned us closer with an urgent look. “Come here, all of you,” she quickly insisted. 

Yeah, it was definitely serious. Glancing briefly toward my mother and getting a nod in return, I went with her and the others over to the tube. As soon as we were there, Elisabet began activating more privacy spells than I had ever seen in one place. It was obvious that she’d been preparing them for a long time. Just one after another. In the end, the air was practically vibrating from the overlapping bits of magic that were working together to make sure no one overheard. 

Mom was the first to speak, her voice quiet (though sort of echoey, which I assumed was also a result of all the privacy spells). “Elisabet, I’m starting to suspect you don’t want anyone to know what you’re about to say to us right now. If you cast any more of those spells, you might not hear it yourself.” 

As if seeing her for the first time when she started to respond to that, Elisabet gave a brief double-take. “Joselyn Atherby,” she breathed. “You are quite–” She cut herself off, glancing toward me and offering a very faint smile. “All other things aside, I’m glad your daughter managed to rescue you from the Necromancer. Jophiel tells me he met a rather satisfying end.” 

I was pretty sure there was a lot Mom wanted to say to that, starting with the fact that Elisabet and Jophiel had been instrumental in having her imprisoned and erased the first time, as well as everything else that had been done to stop the Rebellion from making things right. But she set all that aside, visibly swallowing them back before simply replying, “Yes, Fossor did meet his end, finally. An end that was a long-time coming. And I hear you have been busy instructing my daughter, her sister, and her other siblings in a great many things, which you believe will help in the long run?”

“Yes…” Looking thoughtful for a moment, Elisabet eventually shook that off. “But that is of lesser concern right now.” 

“Actually,” Vanessa put in, “I do have one question. When you were dying, why didn’t you just possess Elisabet and take the free healing that usually comes with it? We were all sort of lost in the moment at the time, but seriously, couldn’t you have just done that? And even if it didn’t heal you, at least it should have paused the poison’s effect on you while you were possessing her.” 

It was Elisabet who answered. “She refused, because the Fomorians… trap their poisons that affect Seosten.” 

With a nod, Sariel added in a grave voice that made me think she was speaking from experience, “When we possess other beings while poisoned, it transfers the poison to our new host and spreads that way. The result is… bad. Any poison powerful enough to incapacitate a Seosten will do horrific damage to most hosts, including humans. Particularly, while the poison primarily affects the Seosten’s body, during possession it initially targets the brain for a host.” 

“It drives the host mad,” Sachael put in. He also sounded as though he had personal experience with what they were talking about. “Irrevocably. It… creates a level of paranoia and terror that we can’t do anything to fix, making the host see all friends as nightmares and turning them homicidal. It makes them forget who they are, makes them go so far as to tear their own eyes out to avoid seeing the things the mind-poison is making them witness.” 

“Wha–but–but–that’s ridiculous!” Vanessa looked personally offended by that explanation. “How could a poison that affects the Seosten’s body also affect the mind of someone they possess?! How does the biological element even–how–what?” She continued to sputter for a moment, clearly personally offended by the idea. 

“Truly, it is a question for the ages,” Elisabet agreed. “However, at this particular moment, the thing we need to discuss is Maestro.” 

The way she said the name, with that dark intonation, made all of us look at one another as if we expected someone else to have some idea. But other than Jophiel within the forcefield, everyone seemed equally clueless. Finally, it was Sariel who spoke up. “Who, or what, is this Maestro?” 

So, over the next few minutes, Elisabet began to explain what had really happened to her. And boy was it a doozy of a story. Apparently, waaaaaay back when she and Jophiel had first been getting close, they were stranded on some lost alien ship. Jophiel had gone to get help while Elisabet was trapped there. But she wasn’t alone. There was a… a creature there with her, a being who called himself Maestro, who had chased the trapped Elisabet through the ship. She had known he was too powerful for her, and that he would fuck with her memories. So she created some kind of failsafe system to restore those memories and block out the artificial intelligence he was planning on inserting into her. Basically, she used spells on herself that were cued to go off when this Maestro guy was close to his goal and when the inserted AI was projecting itself out of her mind. And then she not only erased her own memory of having performed those spells, she erased her memory of ever knowing them in the first place just so that the implant wouldn’t have any warning at all. Not only that, but apparently whatever spell she’d used had been enough to stop Jophiel from noticing that anything was different about what magic she knew. 

No wonder the Seosten woman had been attracted to Elisabet from early on. Young Elisabet was a badass.  

Mom was shaking her head once Elisabet got that far. “But I don’t understand something. What exactly is this Maestro’s goal, and how did he get close enough to it for your spell to trigger? And what happened to make you end up trapped on Aiken’te’vel with no link to the Committee?” 

“That’s where the whole thing gets more complicated, and more terrifying,” Elisabet replied simply after she and Jophiel exchanged a brief, yet very intense look. A look that made me realize I definitely didn’t want to hear what else they were going to say. Actually, what I really wanted to do in that exact moment was turn around and walk out the door. Would it be that bad if I just left right then and let other people deal with whatever the real problem was? Seriously, hadn’t I done enough? Actually, I could grab my mom and my sister and just–

And just what, exactly? Leave Tabbris’s siblings (and my friends) and mother to solve the problem? Refuse to be involved even if it got Sariel and the twins hurt or killed? What was my endgame with that plan? Oh, and how did I expect Tabbris to go along with it and not have any opinion of her own? Or was I just going to abandon her too? 

No, much as I hated it, I had to stand here and listen to whatever horrific information was about to come out of Elisabet’s mouth. Because I couldn’t leave the people I cared about to deal with something that was bad enough to make her and Jophiel openly worry. I just couldn’t. 

Instead, I stood there and listened, knowing that this would be something we would have to deal with. But at least it was something I could deal with alongside my mother. That–that was what had made this entire rescue mission so different, honestly. My mother was there, and even when she wasn’t right beside me, I knew she was close. I was fighting near my mother, the mother who had been torn away from me (and the rest of her family) for so long. My mom was here on this mission with me, and that made all the difference in the world. I could handle whatever this was. And really, how ba–

Nope, nope, nope. Abort. Launching that thought through the torpedo tube and into the sun. You hear me, universe? I did not finish that thought. I did not finish that thought! 

Once everyone had made it clear we were as ready as we would ever be to hear what they had to say, Elisabet continued. “This Maestro, he’s a… a hybrid of sorts, but not like your children, Sariel. He’s an unnatural hybrid, an abomination. He was once two distinct beings who were fused together somehow, I don’t…” She grimaced, shaking her head. “One of his halves was one of your archangels, one of the Dyeusai.” 

That made both Sariel and Sachael do a sharp double-take, almost completely in sync. Their mouths opened, but Jophiel interrupted. “Yes, it’s who you think. It’s Zadkiel.” 

Sachael looked like he had been physically shoved, reeling backward a step. Seldom had I seen a Seosten look so thoroughly stunned. Sariel, meanwhile, also looked surprised, but recovered faster. She spoke aloud, explaining to the rest of us. “Zadkiel was the first of our people to enter Tartarus, long before the Summus Proelium project. He–his power as one of the Dyeusai meant that it was believed he would be as safe as possible, that he could handle any threat that presented itself. But he was–he was left in there. They lost contact and he was cut off.” Swallowing, she added, “They tried to find him. They did everything they could to pull him out. Believe me, I–we… Apollo and I researched everything they did back when we had to get Chayyiel out of there. We pored over everything they tried, and they tried everything. But it was like–it was like Tartarus refused to give him back. Like it had a hold of him and wouldn’t let them find him.” 

There was a brief pause as she glanced away, clearly reliving some very emotional moments from the days when they had been focused on saving Chayyiel. How could that have made them feel, to have ideas about saving her, then read through the notes to find out that their idea had already been tried and failed? Then to have that happen over and over again, knowing that there was an innocent little girl lost out there that time rather than a battle-hardened archangel? 

“It tried to do the same with Chayyiel, but we got her out,” Sariel was saying. “And now–now you’re saying Zadkiel made it?” 

“No.” That was Jophiel, head shaking. “No, he’s not Zadkiel anymore. He’s nothing like–he’s worse. Like she said, he’s been fused with another being. Probably while he was inside Tartarus. He was fused with–” 

My eyes widened, as I blurted, “A Fomorian. He was fused with a Fomorian.” 

The outburst made Jophiel, Elisabet, Sachael, and my mother twist to look at me. Not the others though. Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, and their mother had already gotten it, and were exchanging looks of their own. 

Meanwhile, I continued. “There was a damaged Fomorian there already, one that… that had been in there for a long time. For hundreds of thousands of years by then, probably. Or whatever was left of him by then. He must’ve come across this Zadkiel and that place… fused them together.” 

Elisabet, who was staring at me intently, slowly continued. “You’re right. The Fomorian that was in there was split in half. One of his halves escaped and the other was left behind, until he met Zadkiel and they fused. This twisted hybrid, he doesn’t just call himself Maestro. He goes by other names too. Names like Godfather. He likes that one because his other half, his brother–” 

“Goes by Grandfather,” I finished for her. “His other half calls himself Grandfather.” 

“Felicity,” my mother was saying, “how do you know all this?” 

Biting my lip, I glanced to Sariel and the others before exhaling. “Right. 

“I guess we really do have a lot to talk about.”

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Promise And Peril 11-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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It wasn’t long after I’d made that announcement before the alien guy who had been talking before came back on the communications network, still being translated by the computer voice. “Having troubles with connection to Friend. Fomorian attacks rendering communications difficult. Take landing in open port, will guide if follow.” 

With that, one of the fighters pulled ahead of us. It waggled back and forth a bit as though to get our attention before beginning to fly closer to the much larger Meregan ship. Now that we took a closer look at it, I could see how it was a Meregan vessel. The thing really was huge. The space between the front of the pyramid-like shape and the back was enough to fit at least thirty or so decks comfortable for the ten to twelve-foot tall Meregan. 

Which also begged the question of just how many people those command vessels for these new aliens carried. Because they were a hell of a lot bigger than the Binsayeac, and judging from the much smaller fighters that were escorting us, their people weren’t giant like the Meregan. Put in that context, those command ships really were incredible. The jellyfish structures themselves were big enough that they could have had a dozen of the Meregan ships land across the top without filling it up. Staring that direction, I realized they were further away than I’d first thought, it was just that they were so big they looked closer. The dome parts of each command ship had to be a good ten miles across, and given the shape, about three-quarters of that tall. Not counting the miles-long energy tendrils that acted as their main weapons. 

They were big ships, that was the point. And that was just the main command vessels. They had a lot more. No wonder they were capable of fighting the Fomorians head-on. Though that, of course, left a hell of a lot more questions. Like who they were, where they’d come from, why the Seosten had never heard of them, and how the Meregan had found them. Which I hoped we were about to get answers to once we landed on this ship.

As promised, the fighter escorting us led the way to an opening around the back of the Binsayeac-Two. I could see the docking bay beyond, as well as a handful of familiar giant figures. Well, generally familiar. I didn’t actually recognize faces of course. Especially not from this distance. But they were definitely Meregan, standing out of the way while waving as we approached. 

Finally, the ship landed, Sariel expertly setting it down in the middle of a pretty empty-looking docking bay (I assumed most of the ships that should have been there were out fighting). After a brief pause, Athena spoke. “Most of us should stay here. Take care of Jophiel or just be ready for whatever happens. But we need answers, and we need to see if they have a medical center that can do more for her than we can.” 

There was a bit more discussion for the next few seconds. In the end, it was decided that Tristan, Shiori, and I would go out there, since we knew the Meregan the best, along with Athena, my mother, Vanessa, and Sariel. The rest would wait back here to see what happened, and to be ready to go if we needed to take off quickly. Which was what we would do if they had nothing that could help Jophiel. She was stable enough for the moment, apparently. But she needed help as fast as we could get it. 

I expected Elisabet to have an opinion about us taking the time to stop for this, but she was too busy focusing on keeping the other woman stable. The only thing she said, as we started toward the back door, was a simple, pleading, “Hurry.” Her voice was strained and desperate.

Tristan and I exchanged brief glances, then moved quickly to the back of the ship with the others right behind us. As we approached, the door slid open and we moved down the ramp. Just as we reached the bottom, a voice called out, “Friends-Shiori and Flick! Friend-Tristan!” 

The voice made all of us look over, just in time to see a tall (naturally) Meregan woman approach with a wide smile. She also had long, dark-green hair and a very familiar face. The name jumped to my mind, my mouth opening. But Shiori beat me to it. 

“Alecra!” she called, moving that way quickly. 

Yeah, it was the Meregan woman we had met a year earlier during our first visit to their planet, the one who showed us how their special transport thing that had brought us to their world in the first place worked. Alecra had explained that we ended up in the desert above the ship because she had forgotten to shift the beacon’s transport location to account for the ship being underground at the time. 

Shiori was already hugging the woman’s leg, leading Alecra to gently pat the top of her head while looking over to Tristan and me. “Friend-Tristan! You are…” Frowning, she leaned closer. “You are being bigger than you should being.” 

“Alecra didn’t go with us on Grandpa Nick’s ship,” Tristan informed me. “She was one of the ones who stayed behind on the planet, but… but how are you here?” 

Before the large woman could respond, Sariel quickly spoke up. “I’m sorry,  but we have an emergency. Do you have a medical room we could use? And preferably someone who could help. It’s… it’s some kind of Fomorian poison.” 

Instantly sobering, Alecra gave a quick nod and gestured for two of the other Meregan who were waiting in the background. “Yes, yes, whatever any of yours are being needing. We are having not as much as we would be liking for the monsters who have been taken our world, but what we are having you are having.” 

Vanessa and Sariel quickly led the other Meregan over to the ship to let them know they could bring Jophiel down, and the next few minutes passed very quickly. Elisabet emerged with her lover on a magic stretcher, already snapping information at the Meregan about what she’d tried and what sort of condition the other woman was in. The Meregan, in turn, took down everything she said while calling ahead for their medical bay to be prepared, promising that their doctor was waiting. 

Together, we ran out of the docking bay and through a winding series of enormous rounded corridors. Like the first Meregan ship we had been on, this one was very rock-like. Instead of looking like it was made of metal, the interior appeared to be more of a cavern, carved out of stone. We had to go down an elevator (which turned out to essentially be a floating boulder held up by… something, and through two more twisting corridors before finally reaching a large open room full of various consoles where a tall (even by Meregan standards) man with a shock of dark blue hair sticking out in every direction Einstein-style stood waiting next to a slab of stone. 

The doctor Meregan didn’t bother to introduce himself, of course. He ordered that Jophiel be put up on the slab, then started to examine her while listening to everything Elisabet was saying. In between her words, the man quickly snapped more directions to his assistants in the room to bring him various instruments and tools. 

“We should being stepping out,” Alecra whispered. “Giving them time for working.” 

She had a point. Of course, Elisabet wasn’t going to leave Jophiel’s side even if an entire army tried to make her. So we didn’t. And Sariel stayed as well, to help as someone closer to the right size who wasn’t as emotionally compromised as Elisabet was. 

But Athena, Mom, Tristan, Vanessa, Shiori, and I left the room with Alecra. Once we were in the hall and a large stone slab had rolled into the way to give the doctor and others some privacy to do their jobs, I shook my head at Alecra herself. “Looks like you’ve been really busy,” I managed that unbelievable understatement in a quiet voice. 

Belatedly, Shiori, Tristan, and I introduced Athena. But when we got to my mother, who had been quiet, Alecra took a second look before we could even speak. It was the first time she had really focused on Mom since we arrived, with the whole Jophiel thing. And the moment she did, the green-haired woman’s eyes widened dramatically. “Friend-Joselyn!” she blurted out loud. Without wasting another second, she immediately reached down to pick my mother up from the floor, voice delighted as she pulled her into an embrace. “Friend-Flick has found you!” 

A noise escaped Mom that was half-gasp and half-laugh. “Yes, Alecra, it’s very good to see you too.” Her words were soft and gentle, with… with a lot of emotion behind them. She returned the embrace slightly awkwardly, held off the floor as she was. “I’m glad you’re safe.” 

That, of course, prompted a lot of questions from the Meregan woman about how Mom was here and what had happened. So, while we were waiting to find out what happened with Jophiel, we all gave an abridged version. When we got to the fact that Fossor was now dead, the large woman took a knee in front of me. Her expression was intense as she carefully put my hand up to touch the side of my face with a couple fingers. “Are you be speaking true, Friend-Flick? The monster is truly being dead forever?” 

Right, long before the Fomorians had ever gotten here, it was Fossor who first destroyed the Meregan civilization. He turned them into his slaves and basically broke their people to the point that they were vulnerable enough for everything that came after. No wonder Alecra was so invested in wanting to make sure he was actually dead. This meant a lot to her, to all of them. 

So, taking a deep breath, I nodded. My voice was quiet, yet firm as I carefully assured her, “I promise, Alecra. He’s really and truly dead. He’s never coming back and he’s never going to hurt anyone again. He’s dead. Totally and completely dead. They took his body apart and disintegrated every bit of it separately just to make absolutely sure. There’s nothing left. He’s gone.” Reaching up, I put both hands on one of her enormous arms. “Fossor is dead.” 

For a moment, there was no reaction. I saw the words penetrate, as Alecra simply met my stare. Gradually, the true realization of everything that meant appeared in her gaze. The emotion, the relief, the… release of everything Fossor had done to her people was visible right there in her face, before she ever said anything. There were tears that never physically formed in the seemingly bottomless green wells of her eyes. It was a pit of emotions that I knew well, the immeasurable relief that the evil creature was forever gone, mixed with the realization that that still didn’t fix everything he had broken. Fossor was dead and would never hurt them again, but that didn’t actually help her people, it didn’t change everything he had done to them or bring back the ones he had killed and enslaved. It was a moment to be celebrated, but it didn’t fix things. Everyone Alecra and her people had lost would stay lost. Which, of course, reminded me that there was even more loss than the woman actually knew. 

So, cringing a little, I told her about Gavant and the other Meregan who had ended up at Fossor’s fighting arena while I was there. It was hard. Especially when I saw her expression. But I pressed on. She needed to know. Mom helped, stepping in to take over when it was obvious that I couldn’t stand to say anything else. Her gentle voice filled the silence, as she told Alecra about how brave her people had been, and that there were still living members back on Earth who had survived that whole thing. 

That gave me the time to collect myself before adding that Purin and still other Meregan were still with Nicholas Petan and would still be there several years into the future. Which kind of seemed to help a little bit, I thought. But again, it didn’t fix everything. Alecra still had a heavy weight of sadness, which was fair. Her people had been destroyed so many times, had been through so much already. How could they go on after all this? And their world was still…

“Wait, what about you?” I suddenly blurted. “How are you here? Who are all these people? You–you went out and found a fleet to come back and help you fight the Fomorians here. You–” There was a thick knot in my throat that I swallowed back. “You found friends.” 

That made Shiori quickly pipe up with, “Yeah, who are all these people? Where’d this fleet come from? How did…” She trailed off, looking uncertain about how to actually ask the next part. 

Tristan took over. “How did you convince them to come help fight the Fomorians?” 

Alecra took a moment to collect herself, straightening up and stepping back. She glanced toward the boulder covering the entrance to the medical bay, seemingly lost in her own thoughts before finally speaking up. “Those who were remaining after many took left with Lord-Nicholas were be fixing the Binsayeac. It was requiring much working, much fixing. Then it was becoming much different ship. More pieces. We did be naming it Binsayeac Two. Then we did be going to do what we were be doing before. Finding friends.” 

Over the next few minutes, the woman explained that, for what turned out to be several months, the new Binsayeac had basically wandered around aimlessly. Apparently several times they were almost destroyed, found nothing but people who wanted to kill them or take the ship. Or use them as weapons, given their size and strength. Alecra and her people had almost given up. She didn’t get too into it, but I could tell from what she did say that the mood on the ship had been pretty dour, at least as far as Meregan went. They were afraid they would never find the allies they were looking for. 

Then they found it. Not another planet, not even another ship. They found a wormhole in space. A wormhole leading to some other universe entirely. And, being the insane explorers they were, the Meregan actually went through it. Yeah, they had no idea where it led or what they would find. But Alecra and her people still went through that wormhole just to see what would happen. 

Apparently what happened was that they found another ship on the far side, a science vessel that was examining the wormhole from that end. There was a bit of a miscommunication, considering this other species and the Meregan didn’t understand each other at all. So they initially fought, but when the science vessel was damaged and started to lose atmosphere, the Meregan risked their lives to save them. 

Athena, who had been silently observing this whole situation up to that point, spoke up finally. “That changed things. They knew you weren’t a threat then, once you saved their ship.” 

Alecra started to nod, but before she could respond, a different voice spoke up in that completely indecipherable alien language that was belatedly translated. “Yes, our captain knew the Meregan intended no danger to us, and that the fighting had been a mistake.” 

The voice (or voices, considering the overlapped alien words) made everyone turn. And that was when we got our first actual look at the people the Meregan had made allies with. 

My first thought was that the being in front of us looked like a humanoid scorpion mixed with a butterfly. The upper torso was definitely fairly human in basic form, though covered in a blue-green exoskeleton and with four arms rather than two. The lower half was more shaped like an ant with a thorax and abdomen that were horizontal to the ground as opposed to the torso’s vertical position. Sort of like a centaur’s human torso compared to the horse part. There was a long scorpion-like tail coiled behind him. His face, meanwhile, was also fairly insectoid, with large dark-blue compound eyes that took up most of either side of his head, and mandibles that were the source of the clicking sounds that came as his people spoke their language. 

Then there was the butterfly part. Yeah, the guy had two enormous, beautifully detailed and delicate-looking wings that were spread out behind him, attached to the horizontal part of his body rather than the torso. The wings flickered a bit, glowing briefly as he spoke before he tucked and folded them in tight. 

“Apologies for interruptions,” the alien continued. “We are known amongst our people as the…” He trailed off. “It is impossible for your language to translate, we believe. The nearest would be Roenier.” He pronounced it like row-near. “That is, we believe, close enough. I am privileged to be known as First Liason Officer Kernek.” 

“First Liason Officer Kernek,” Athena repeated before introducing herself. “I have to say, your people are incredibly generous for coming to this world to help a species–a people you’ve only just met.” 

Kernek, however, clapped his mandibles together twice and made a guttural sound, which the translator (I now saw that it was a small collar thing around his neck with a glowing gem attached to it which pulsed different colors with each word) interpreted with a vocal, “It is nothing less than what is deserved.” 

He went on to explain that the Meregan on that ship had been incredible allies with the Roenier for those few months, aiding them in over a dozen incredibly important battles to take back their own homeworld from other enemies. Over those months, the two species became–to put it simply, best friends. They were unshakeable allies, to the point that an entire section of the Roenier homeworld had been set aside for the Meregan to live on. 

“That is why we are being here now,” Alecra put in. “Friends-Roenier are being here with their fleet to help take our people.” She paused. “All who are remaining, anyway. Every Meregan will going to our new Friends-Roenier.” 

“You’re not here to fight the Fomorians to take back your planet,” Tristan realized. “You’re here to evacuate everyone who’s left and take them to a new world, a safe world.” 

Quietly, with clear sadness in her voice, Alecra explained that while it was a very hard decision, they knew that they couldn’t hold their planet anymore. After everything that had been done to it, there wasn’t enough left to save. But their people could go on. They were going to take every last Meregan they could find, from all the hiding places on their world, and get them to the safety of the Roenier’s world, where they could finally have some measure of peace. And, of course, time to recover from everything that they had been through as a species. 

“Is it being wrong?” That was Alecra, her eyes on my mother as she hesitantly spoke up. “Abandoning our home.” 

Mom, in turn, shook her head, speaking in a gentle voice. “No, Alecra. It’s not wrong. Take your people. Recover. Grow. Survive. You deserve that and so much more. Take everyone you can and be with your new friends. Build back not to what you were, but even stronger. Become more than you were, with your friends. You and the Roenier are much more together than either of you ever were apart. 

“And I, for one, can’t wait to see what you become together.”

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Promise And Peril 11-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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It wasn’t exactly a pleasant stroll to get back to the ship, even with everyone we had. The Fomorians had clearly had a long time to build up their forces on this planet, and it seemed like they were sending every fucking ground unit they had at us. Any hope I’d had that whatever was going on above us in orbit would distract the monsters enough for us to slip in and out had vanished a long time ago, of course, but still. This was pretty ridiculous. They were obsessed with taking us down. 

Worse, we still couldn’t just teleport back, thanks to whatever was blocking transportation powers. Sariel was pretty sure it had been seeded recently in the atmosphere by the Fomorians ahead of our arrival, possibly because of whoever those ships they were fighting belonged to. Whatever the reason, we had to resort to taking the long way.

We moved in a wedge formation. Mom, Deveron, and Lillian were at the front, with Kohaku and Elisabet down one side and Haiden and Larissa down the other. Jophiel was on the stretcher that had been summoned, being carried by Dexamene and Shiori so the adults could focus on fighting. Meanwhile, Avalon and I (with Tabbris riding shotgun within me once more) were backing up Kohaku and Elisabet on the left wing, as Vanessa and Tristan backed up their father and Larissa on the right. Sariel was bringing up the rear, working both to cover our retreat and help thin out the herds with her long range shots. 

Which also, I couldn’t help but notice, worked to keep Mom and Sariel as far away from each other as possible through this whole thing. I was pretty sure that wasn’t an accident. 

But in any case, despite any lingering issues they had and despite everything the Fomorian monsters threw at us, we made steady progress. We weren’t exactly sticking around to fight everything, of course. We were mostly just charging straight through, punching a hole in the Fomorian line and rushing onward. Like they’d already said, there was no way to save the Meregan world from this occupation. Much as it made me physically ill to think of these poor people getting the shaft again, there was literally nothing we could do about it, or for them. 

Instead, we just had to keep going. Jophiel was still completely out of it. She moved now and then, muttered something that took Elisabet’s attention or just groaned (which also drew brief looks from Elisabet), but nothing coherent. Whatever the Fomorian had hit her with was keeping her down and out of the fight. And, for some reason, she wasn’t just possessing Elisabet to avoid the poison effect. I just hoped that, whatever the full problem was, we could deal with it once we were somewhere safer, without a horde of incomprehensible nightmares lunging out of the sand at us. 

Not that the nightmares were all entirely against us. Elisabet had also brought what remained of her own co-opted monsters and sent them ahead to take the brunt of the damage. That was one of the things that allowed us to progress as quickly as we were. Another was the fact that every time I saw (or felt) one of the monsters die, I sent a burst of necromancer-energy into the thing with a single command to attack any other monsters around it. They didn’t tend to last long before being ripped apart, but it was a bit of a distraction. It helped slow our attackers down just a little more, and every second they wasted focusing on their already-dead companions was another second we could keep running. 

So yeah, between Elisabet and me, we helped turn some of the enemy force against itself. Between that and the fact that my mother and the rest of the adults around us were really good at killing things that got in their way, we made progress.  

In any case, those next few minutes were basically a completely incomprehensible blur. I killed a few more things and sent more dead things to kill their former allies, but mostly I just ran. There was blood and gore everywhere, all from things that tried to block us, things that tried to capture us. No one was taking the time to make this a real fight. They–we were just killing and running, killing and running. It was like throwing a bunch of animals in a woodchipper and then sprinting through the haze that filled the air. 

It was the stuff of nightmares, but I didn’t have time to think about such things. All I could do, all any of us could do, was shove it aside and try not to worry about what our dreams that night would be like. Step one was surviving long enough to have dreams. Then we’d fret about details.

There, there it was. The ship. I never thought I’d be so fucking happy to see a simple tube of metal. It was sitting there, still surrounded by monsters. But Athena and Sachael were dealing with the bulk of them. It looked like the others had already run onboard, leaving the two Olympians standing by the ramp to keep it clear enough for the rest of us. And boy were they doing a good job of that. 

I’d already seen what Athena could do, of course. When I’d first met her, she had completely destroyed a small army of Radueriel’s troops without even pulling Excalibur from its sheath. Then chased the man himself off just by putting her hand on the hilt. She was a certified badass, and calling her a war goddess had not been exaggeration on Apollo’s part whatsoever. And right now was no different. She wasn’t using Excalibur (actually, I wasn’t exactly sure who had that sword at the moment), but had one of those Seosten laser swords instead, along with some kind of enchanted shield. Not that she seemed to need Arthur’s personal weapon to slaughter everything in sight. There were so many dead creatures surrounding her that it was hard to see the woman herself. She was basically a whirling dervish of death. That woodchipper analogy I’d used earlier? Yeah, she was the real one. Nothing got within twenty feet of the ship and survived.

But then there was Sachael. I had never seen him in action, given I’d just barely met the man. He, of course, had been Poseidon. God of the oceans, named because he was one of the most powerful hydrokinetics in the universe. But we were in the middle of an enormous desert. That should have meant he was all-but useless as far as his power went, right? After all, what exactly was a man whose entire thing revolved around controlling water going to do in a desert? 

As it turned out, quite a fucking bit. Bodybuilder Santa was standing right at the bottom of the ramp. Dark clouds had filled the air high above, and rain was–well, it wasn’t quite pouring. It was barely a drizzle, probably all that even his power could summon to this place. But that wasn’t the point. No, the point wasn’t the water, it was the rest of what came with a storm. Namely, the wind and the lightning. At a gesture from the man’s left hand, a miniature tornado tore down from the sky, lifted half a dozen monsters into the air, and catapulted them off into the distance. A sharp sweep of that same hand sent three more whirlwinds to catch half the visible creatures between us and the ship, collecting all of them into one group. And once they were there, pummeled and tossed by the wind into a single location, Sachael brought his other hand down in one swift gesture. That motion brought down the biggest, loudest bolt of lightning I’d ever seen in my life. It was like the finger of a god, colliding with the stack of monstrosities with so much force that the concussive force nearly knocked me off my feet. I was briefly deafened by the thunder that echoed off of it. And as for the monsters? There was nothing but charred remains left. Charred remains which were immediately blasted to either side in order to make a path by two more gusts of wind. 

But he wasn’t done yet. Thrusting both hands forward, the powerful Seosten brought down a double line of more lightning bolts leading up toward where we were, a dozen on each side with a roughly fifteen-foot space between them. They all came down one after another, hitting like a series of bombs dropped from a passing jet. Almost thirty bolts all-told. Not as powerful as the main one he’d used a moment earlier, but still enough to utterly destroy everything they hit. 

With that opening, he created another series of whirlwinds. But these were different. I could see frost and snow collecting within them, little shards of ice being whipped around in a circle. Those ice shards within the whirlwinds were spinning fast enough that they cut through chunks of the next set of approaching monsters as the twisters were sent that way. 

And with those ice-filled tornadoes, the man dug an enormous trench all along either side of the path he had cleared for us, leaving two huge pits. Digging out all that sand served two purposes, of course. First, it left holes the monsters had to find a way over or around. And, just as importantly, the sand that was torn up into the tornadoes themselves served to block the monsters from seeing us, creating a shield wall of sorts on top of the ravines. A shield wall consisting of bone-crushing wind filled with ice shards and sand, both of which were being spun and propelled fast enough to sheer through bone. 

On top of everything else, that light rain I’d noticed had turned into a thick fog, covering the air above us and filling in the space behind as we passed through. Just to make it even harder for the things to keep track of us. 

Yeah, I… I was starting to see why Poseidon was considered to be part of the Olympian leadership alongside Hades and Zeus. Which, come to think of it, begged the question of just what sort of damage was Puriel capable of if he was the guy who had been in charge? 

Actually, considering he was still supposed to be a pretty nasty guy, I was hoping I wouldn’t find out. Not really counting on it, given my track record, but still hoping. 

Either way, the path was clear now. And we took advantage, sprinting all-out to reach the ship. There were more of the unending waves of monsters falling in toward us from all sides, but they wouldn’t get through the ice-and-sand whirlwinds in time. Waved onward by Athena while Sachael continued to cover the area all around the ship to keep them back, we ran straight up the ramp. It was long-past time to get the hell off this planet. Especially given I was pretty sure the longer we stayed, the more of their ground forces the Fomorians could point at us. This was one war of attrition we would never win. No, it was definitely time to get the fuck out of Dodge. 

The second we were aboard, Athena followed and Sachael followed us on. Out of the corner of my eye, however, I saw the man toss what looked like a canteen onto the ground. He just left it there, lying on its side in the sand as the door closed. Apollo, already in the pilot’s seat, called out to find a seat even as he was hitting the controls to lift off. So there wasn’t time to ask about it. 

Instead, I fairly dove for the nearest seat and buckled myself in. All around me, the others were doing the same. I could feel the ship shake and shudder as things hit it from either side. These things were all over us. They leapt up to the ship from the ground, and fell out of the sky to land on top of it. They were going to rip the thing apart to get to the juicy insides (us) before we could go anywhere. And we couldn’t use the special jump drive at all. Not only would it leave a trail for the monsters to potentially use to bypass the banishment spell, but with these minions literally on the ship itself, we might just take some back with us. 

“Can’t fire the weapons,” Apollo announced, “need all power for the engines, and we don’t have a lot of that to begin with.” 

Lillian was talking quickly. “We can use a magnified force spell in a three-sixty range, shove everything out of the way and–” 

She was abruptly interrupted by Athena, who simply announced, “Sachael, use your ace card.” 

“Gladly,” the man retorted. His eyes went blue then. I didn’t mean just his pupils, which were already kind of blue-gray. No, the entire eye went blue. As they did, I saw the image on one of the nearby screens suddenly shift. It showed a view from behind us, back toward the ground itself. There were dozens of monsters in view, but that wasn’t what the camera was focused on. Instead, in the center of the screen was the canteen Sachael had left behind a few moments earlier. 

We saw that, and the second we did, the canteen exploded. Not with fire, but with water. Not just some water. Not a few gallons, or even a few hundred gallons. Not a swimming pool of water. All of the water. Where the canteen had been, a lake had suddenly appeared. Seriously, it stretched out to fill a huge portion of the area we’d just been in. It wasn’t an exaggeration to say that a lake appeared, because that was exactly what happened. Filling up that portion of the desert, turning it into a beach, was what had to be literally hundreds of millions of gallons of water. It didn’t just create some small pond, it covered that section of the desert with a roughly oval-shaped lake ten miles across from end to end and thirty to forty feet deep. 

By the time we had taken all that in, Sachael  had raised his arms above his head. His hands closed into fists, and  I saw a slight smile touch his face. Then, with a grunt of effort, he brought both arms forward and down. And as he did so, that lake he’d created out of a canteen exploded upward. Yeah, all those millions of gallons of water were suddenly spraying up toward us. 

Every last drop flew upward in a violent geyser. Every creature that was on the ship, every monster around us in the air, everything the Fomorians had sent to us, was slammed into by a lake’s worth of water hitting it at speeds faster than a car could reach. Millions of gallons of water hitting these things at hundreds of miles per hour. Many of them simply exploded, bursting apart from the force. But even those that managed to survive through various enhancements were still knocked out of the way. They were all carried upward by the force of the geyser. 

Meanwhile, the ship was left entirely untouched. Not a single drop of water came any closer than a few inches from it. Sachael’s power tore everything away from the ship, sending all that water upward to utterly destroy everything surrounding us, without so much as getting the ship itself a little damp. 

All of that was amazing enough on its own, of course. But, as it turned out, the man who had been considered master of the oceans wasn’t done yet. With a slight snarl in his voice, he spoke a single word. 

“Fulmen.” 

Thunderbolt. He said thunderbo–

The lightning came. Another dozen strikes, but these were each as powerful as that single one from earlier. They tore down out of the sky and through the water that was currently carrying all of our attackers upward. Nothing survived it. They were all dead, bodies burnt to a crisp. And, with every single one dealt with, the water stopped rising. It dropped back toward the ground, taking those hundreds of corpses with it to rain across the ground below. 

Blinking twice as his eyes returned to normal, Sachael announced calmly (though I could hear a hint of exhaustion in his voice that he was clearly forcing back), “Now we can get out of here.” 

And get out of there we did, as fast as possible. Sariel took her seat back before punching the engines. We climbed rapidly, rushing out of the atmosphere and back into–

Oh… right, there was still a battle going on out here. And it didn’t look like it was any closer to ending now than it had when we first arrived. If anything, the battle was even more intense. Yet, something was different this time. Even as Sariel and Apollo were plotting the escape course, a pair of what looked like fighters approached. They definitely weren’t biological, looking a bit like gleaming silver and blue metal manta rays. 

As they approached, Sachael started to say something about defenses, only to stop as Athena interrupted. “Wait. They’re hailing.” 

Roxa and I exchanged glances, since the two of us were across from each other. I saw the other girl mouth, ‘Who?’ and shrugged back at her. 

By that time, Apollo had hit the button to answer the hail, and a voice filled the ship. The words were completely alien and incomprehensible, and came with repeated clicking sounds. But they were accompanied by a robotic voice that was clearly translating. “–say again, is the one known as Felicity Chambers aboard this ship?” 

Well, that definitely made everyone look at me. Not that I blamed them. If I could’ve taken my own eyeballs out and turned them in my own direction, I might’ve. As it was, I simply reeled a bit in confusion before unthinkingly blurting, “That’s me!” 

That could have been dumb if those guys turned out to have a grudge against me for whatever reason (and there were a lot of possibilities). I saw that on everyone’s face, even as the translated alien-speak came. “Will escort behind battlefield. Friends. Follow for safety.” 

With that, the two fighters finished swooping around us, coming in on either side in escort formation. Which left everyone still staring at me. 

“I dunno,” I managed, shrugging in confusion. “Never seen or heard of these guys before.” 

“Boss?” Apollo asked, looking toward Athena. 

For her part, the woman considered for a moment. She looked to the ongoing battle, then to the screen that showed the fighters pacing us, then to me. With her gaze locked on mine, she finally answered. “Stay with them. I believe it’ll be okay. But everyone be ready, just in case. This ship is held together with what the humans call duct tape and prayers. Even with the recently revealed secondary combat mode, we can’t afford an actual fight.” 

So, with basically everyone still looking at me while I helplessly shrugged and insisted I had no idea, we were escorted along the outskirts of the battle. Some of the Fomorians tried to give chase, but other ships fell in to block them. Before long, we were away from the central fighting. Ahead were what appeared to be the main command ships of the unknown aliens. They looked–well, they looked like metal jellyfish, really. There were gigantic dome-structures surrounding a central orb thing, with dozens of energy-coils drifting under them, which occasionally fired hundreds of lasers off into the battle to rip through various Fomorian monstrosities. 

Our escorts called back then. “Hold for connection to friend.” 

“Connection to friend? Who–Flick, who are they talking about?” Sands demanded. 

“I dunno,” I started. “I don’t–” 

“Flick.” It was Tristan. He was standing up from his seat, pointing toward one of the screens that showed the various views around us, his eyes wide. “Look.” 

Turning that way, I saw what he was looking at. It was another ship, one closer and smaller than those big command jellyfish (but still enormous). This one looked sort of like a pyramid if you cut the top third off and replaced it with an enormous opaque glass dome, then also cut the back corner of the pyramid off in order to put in the engines. 

But Tristan’s attention wasn’t on those details. They were on the name stenciled across the main body of the ship. A name that… I couldn’t read. The symbols were clearly meant to be letters, but I had no idea what they meant. 

The blond boy read the name aloud, for me and for everyone else. “Binsayeac Two.”

“Binsayeac? Wait,” Roxa blurted, “What does that mean?” 

But I knew. I remembered the name as soon as Tristan said it. “It means that guy before wasn’t saying he was going to connect us to a friend, he was going to connect us to the Friend, the name of the ship. That name, it means Friend-Finder. The… second Friend-Finder. And it means they did it after all. That’s why this fleet is here. It’s why this battle is happening. They finally did it. 

“The Meregan found friends.” 

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