Vulcan

The Runaway 15-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The non-canon chapters have started to be released. You can find the Summus Proelium non-canon available for ALL readers right here, while the first Heretical Edge non-canon is available right here. And did I say first Heretical Edge non-canon? Yeah, because of a tie, there will be a second (different) non-canon released later in the week. So look forward to that!

Okay, so we had a lot of questions and not many answers. For some reason, we were picking up hints of an Alter being at Denise’s house, but it kept flickering in and out. Which was weird to begin with. To say nothing of the words carved into the wall, proving she still had some memory of Ammon controlling her. Which had to be unbelievably traumatic for a little girl. And now we had the dented gas pump where she had been killed, along with some gangster Alter, whom Denise was capable of seeing and remembering? Someone who it seemed like Ammon might have had a history with himself, if the guy he killed while stopping by the gas station really wasn’t random. And yet, even that didn’t really fit. Why would that Alter guy–Mercer, why would Mercer just suddenly forget about the debt that he’d been so focused on before? Why did the magical signs of an Alter being around Denise’s house keep flickering in and out? Why did she remember stuff she shouldn’t? How much did she remember? And what did Mercer have to do with Denise disappearing in the first place? It definitely didn’t look good when it came to that guy. I was a bit terrified about what he could have done to that poor kid.

The point was, we needed real answers. And we were on our way to get them, using the tracking spell to follow Mercer back, hopefully to wherever he lived. Or worked. Or whatever. Where he was. We just needed to find the guy and get everything he knew out of him. 

On the way, while following behind Koren and Rebecca as those two used the tracking spell and led the way, I called my mother and let her know what was going on. She had finished the spell by that point and was able to tell us that Denise was alive and in relatively good shape. She wasn’t sick or intensely injured, or in any real physical pain as far as the spell could determine. 

“Can you figure out where she is with that?”  I knew it was a real long shot, given what I had already been told about how the spell worked. But it was worth asking. Anything that might help us actually get this girl back home where she belonged, safe with her family and away from all the horrible things that kept happening to her. As it was, I was starting to think the kid was just as cursed as my family was when it came to going through shit. That and Mom and I both felt responsible for her, given the whole Ammon situation. It was all just a huge mess. That poor kid. 

Unfortunately, Mom’s answer wasn’t good news. “I’ve tried,” she murmured. “Something is blocking any attempt to directly reach her. It might be this Mercer guy, if he’s that big in this area. Wouldn’t surprise me if he had some big-shot mage working for him. Especially if this has anything to do with some history with Fossor.” There was pain in Mom’s voice, which made my stomach clench. She clearly felt responsible for what had happened to Denise. We had to find that girl and help her. If anything unfixable happened to the kid… I didn’t know how Mom would react. She had put a lot into being able to fix one single thing that Ammon had done, and now it was falling apart. And beyond that, even more importantly, was Denise herself. No matter how Mom and I felt about Ammon, Denise was the priority. We had to find the kid and help her. 

“I’m going to meet up with you,” Mom was saying. “If this Mercer really does have Denise, or knows anything about what’s going on or where she is, we’ll get it out of him.” The tone of her voice left no doubt of just how badly she would react if the guy tried to hold out. Or if he actually had hurt that girl. I almost felt sorry for him. Almost. Mom was not in the mood to play nice.

Checking the street sign as we passed another corner, I told my mother where we were, and she said she would find us from there in a few minutes. She was just going to check a couple more things around the house. But she also made it clear that if we found our way to Mercer’s place in that time, we were not to go inside or confront him until she got there. 

Disconnecting, I looked over to Asenath. Even through the dim glow of the nearby streetlights, I could see the hard-set expression of her face. Yeah, she wasn’t doing any better with the news about Denise going missing. “We’ll find her,” I insisted, reaching out to put a hand on the vampire girl’s arm. “Whatever happened to that kid, Mom says she’s still in good physical shape. She’s okay. All we have to do is find her and bring her back home.” Pausing, I grimaced before adding, “And find out what went wrong in the first place, why she remembers… anything, how much of it she does remember, what happened to–” I cut myself off and heaved a sigh. “The point is, she’s physically okay. It sounds like she hasn’t been in any pain or anything, as far as that spell can determine. That’s a pretty good sign, right?” 

Exhaling, Senny looked over to me and gave a slight nod. “It’s a good sign. But we still have to track her down. Whoever this Mercer is, if he’s the one who took her, I…” She took a moment, clearly gathering herself as a rush of truly violent thoughts went through her mind too quickly and in too much of a jumble to work their way out of her mouth. 

“Believe me,” I put in, “Between you and my mother, I’m pretty sure there won’t be much left of this guy if he touched a single hair on that kid’s head. At the very least, we’ll definitely find out everything he knows. And I have a feeling that he won’t be running any crime around here anymore.” Even if he didn’t have Denise, which seemed increasingly unlikely (he was the best suspect we had, so where else could she have gone?), none of us were in the mood to leave this guy alone after hearing that he’d basically tormented Kalia’s dad into robbing that gas station and getting killed in the first place. He set that whole thing in motion with his obsessive fucking greed. Regardless of what he knew right now, he was still a piece of shit.    

“That’srightwe’regonnamakehimpay!” December piped up, spinning around to face us while walking backward. Seeing the way her pale eyes stared right past me was a reminder that the kid was technically blind. Of course, she could still see in many other ways beyond the usual. She saw magical energy, electrical energy, soundwaves, etcetera. I was pretty sure she could even see some level of kinetic energy. And who knew what else. The point was, ‘blind’ was a bit of a misnomer. “We’llfindhimandtrackhimdownandmakehim–” She stopped then, as Tabbris leaned over to whisper something in her ear. Which made December whisper back, while both of them continued to walk backward down the sidewalk without any issues. It was safe to say that whatever lingering clumsiness issues my little sister had had from being stuck possessing me for so long were gone by now. After almost a year of being able to get out and stretch her legs, it was starting to be a lot easier to see the kid’s relation to her Olympian mother. 

Asenath and I fell back a few steps as the other girl put her hand on my arm, waiting until December and Tabbris had gone back to their own discussion and turned back around. Then Senny looked to me, her voice very low. “Something’s bothering that kid. She’s upset.” 

“Who–December?” I asked, blinking from the girl in question to Asenath and back again. 

“Yes,” she confirmed in that same soft voice. “Believe me, I can tell. She’s really upset about something and she’s hiding it. She’s doing a pretty good job about it, but it comes out sometimes. You need to ask those two older Calendar girls what’s going on. Find out if they know what’s bothering December so much, and if it’s anything we need to worry about.” 

Right, that was something else to worry about. Letting out a breath, I gave Asenath a thumbs up. “Thanks,” I murmured. “Next chance we get, I’ll find out what’s going on.” Right after we dealt with this mess. I just hoped that whatever was wrong with December was something we could handle. Maybe it was just about going back to visit Cahethal? I knew they’d seen her recently, and the rest of the Calendar. They had gone to get information about the Whispers, the Pale Ship, and Tabbris Senior. From what I’d heard, the Seosten woman had apparently promised to gather everything she had on them, in exchange for something she was going to talk to Abigail about. Some part of me worried that whatever this favor from Abigail was might be what was bothering December. But it wasn’t exactly something I couldn’t focus on right then.

I especially couldn’t focus on it when, a moment later, we turned a corner and saw a very old hotel directly ahead of us. The place was about six stories tall, and had clearly been around for like a century or so, with very few updates or improvements. Though it had been a grand old place when it opened, that much was certain. It looked like it had hosted the rich and famous for decades before falling into disrepair. Now it was… a mess. The place looked like it wasn’t even open. There were boards across most of the windows, and the lobby was only very dimly lit. 

“That’s the place,” Rebecca announced, looking that way before turning back to face us. “The guy’s tracks go right up into that building. I mean, eventually they do.” 

“What do you mean, eventually?” Asenath asked. 

Koren answered. “They go past this place. For a really long way, it looks like. But they come back this way from the other direction and go inside. It looks like he kept walking, then worked his way back.” She shrugged. “Maybe he wanted to go for a hike.” 

Something told me there was more to it than that. But then again, come to think of it, it was kind of a little odd that a guy who was apparently as important and big in the Alter crime world around here as Mercer seemed to be would be walking anyway, wasn’t it? After all, we’d walked for awhile. And the other two had made it clear that the trail never went to a car or anything. They still could’ve followed it if it had, but no, he stayed right on the sidewalk. That was… maybe odd? Maybe not. Maybe he was just health conscious or something. Or didn’t fit in a vehicle, duh. I really needed to stop trying to make those sorts of judgments.  and yet, something kept bugging me about the fact that he walked all this way past the hotel and apparently eventually came back to it.  maybe it was the fact that he didn’t stop anywhere else? If he had been stopping at all the places where people owed him money and pushing them to pay, that would definitely be one thing. But again, from what we could tell, he just… walked straight. Yeah, it was probably nothing, but I just couldn’t entirely shut it out of my mind. 

Rather than stand right out in the open, we moved back out of sight, using the nearby parking lot of a fast food place to talk about what was going on, and wait for my mother. And Twister, whom Asenath had already gotten hold of. Both of them would be here soon. Then we could figure out how best to approach what was apparently that Mercer guy’s headquarters. 

We didn’t have to wait long for my mom to show up. She came around from the opposite side of the nearby restaurant, casually walking as though heading for her car. Yet despite the outward appearance of her stride and body language, I could see the anger on her face. Mom was definitely in the mood to, well, directly confront the man who might have been responsible for Denise’s disappearance. I had the feeling that what she really wanted to do was walk up to that hotel and blow the doors in, then deal with anyone who was stupid enough to get between her and that guy. I didn’t envy anyone who would have been that stupid, either. 

Of course, Mom had more self-control than that, so she simply stopped and gave all of us a nod before announcing, “I gave the place a once-over on the way here. There are three guards on the roof, but they aren’t paying attention. Two in the lobby, three on each floor except the top, four in the back lot messing around with a van, and one out in the pool area, doing something with the pipes out there. Those are the armed ones. There are others, unarmed, hanging around in the rooms.” Raising a finger, she added, “that’s not to say they aren’t dangerous, only that they do not have weapons on them. Don’t underestimate what sort of threat they could be. The top floor’s a little more complicated. It’s shielded from any vision powers at all. The rest of the floor’s have their own vision defenses, but that one’s a real doozy.” 

“Holy crap,” Rebecca managed while staring at her with a look of genuine awe. “You got all that from a once-over on the way over here?” 

Mom, in turn, actually smiled very faintly. It was brief, given the overriding anger at the situation, but genuine. “I have had some experience in assessing secure areas quickly, needing to move past a building without attracting attention. When you hang around too much, the wrong people can notice. Then things get complicated.” She reached out, laying a hand on the girl’s shoulder and squeezing it. “I know your grandmother as well as I know anybody, Rebecca. Believe me, you’ll be fine. You’ll develop the skills and power to do the same, probably even better than I can. Especially if you listen to her. She knows what she’s doing.”

Rebecca seemed a bit embarrassed by the attention. And also like she wanted to ask my mother something but wasn’t sure exactly how to go about it. But before she could say anything, we were distracted by the sound of other people approaching from across the lot. My item sense hadn’t picked them up yet, but we heard several distinct sets of footsteps. And metallic ones. Which confused me, until we turned to see three figures approaching. There was Twister, looking basically the same as when I’d first met her though a year older. But beside her was Sean, looking far different from when I had first met him. One year after meeting him at age seventeen and thanks to that fucking prison, he looked like he was in his mid-twenties. 

Yeah, I really wanted to punt his fucking parents into the sun, to say the least. What the fuck had they been thinking, keeping him in what amounted to solitary confinement for years? The sheer fact that he was as together as he was (and I knew he had issues still) was a testament to Apollo helping to keep him together through all that. That whole situation still pissed me off more than I could even hope to express, even after all this time. So I could barely think of how angry Sean himself, or his brother, or even Roxa (an actual werewolf) were. 

At the moment, Roxa wasn’t here. But Vulcan was, trotting alongside his master. When he saw us, the cyberform dog gave a bark of excitement, waiting for Sean to give the go-ahead before he came dashing over to get all the praise and attention the rest of us heaped on him. Especially Tabbris and December, who were delighted to play with the metal dog. Sort of like when they played with Cerberus, really. Even if Vulcan only had the one head. 

Well, sort of only had one head. It was a little more complicated than that. As illustrated when, in the midst of that, the sleek metal backpack-looking thing on the cyberform detached and hovered up into the air, a pair of wings extending from it, while a slot in the front opened up to reveal a camera lens. 

“Hey VJ,” I greeted Vulcan Junior as the drone hovered right in front of my face, clearly wanting attention as well. “Long time no see. I hope you’re keeping these guys safe, buddy.” 

“Oh, he is,” Sean assured me. “Especially since we had his forcefield upgraded.” With that, he stepped over and gave me a firm embrace, his voice a quiet mutter. “Heard you were having some trouble we could help with.” 

Twister, after exchanging fist bumps with my mother (still an odd sight to see) spoke up. “Yeah, I was about to show Seanny there how to have some real fun for his last night of freedom.” 

“Last night of freedom?” I asked, blinking between them. Behind me, the others echoed that confusion. So clearly this wasn’t just something I had missed by myself. 

Koren was already giving a quick nod, her gaze on him. “What’s she talking about? Why wouldn’t you be free after tonight? And where’s Roxa?” 

Sean, in turn, coughed and looked slightly embarrassed. “First, Roxa’s dealing with some sort of situation with the pack. Don’t worry, they don’t need help. It’s an internal thing. Uncle Mateo said it’s something they have to deal with. One of their vices got a bit out of control.” 

“Vices?” I asked, frowning a little. 

“The werecreature weakness,” Asenath put in. “Beyond the silver thing. You know the whole full moon thing?” 

“You mean where they go into a blind rage?” Rebecca asked. 

Asenath gestured that way. “Sort of, but that’s just one possibility. See, every were has their own aspect of the seven vices. Wrath or rage, sloth, gluttony, lust, envy, greed, and pride. Once a month, whichever one of those affects them becomes… basically overwhelming.” 

Sean nodded to that. “It only lasts for a couple days, but they kind of… yeah, lose themselves to it. Rage is just the most commonly known one. You could have a were that was afflicted by greed suddenly start breaking into jewelry stores and stealing everything shiny. ” 

“How did I not know about this before?” I managed with a squint. “I mean, I know werewolves.” 

“It’s a personal thing,” he informed me flatly. “The one you know the most is Roxa and–let’s just say she’d rather not talk about it.” Clearly changing the subject deliberately, he added, “Anyway, never mind what Twister said. I’ll still be free, she’s just being dramatic. It’s not like I suddenly have to sit in a single house for years with nobody but myself for company.” He paused for a beat, saw our expressions, then muttered, “Jeez, tough crowd.”

With that, he ran a hand back through his hair and let out a long breath. “Honestly, it’s no big deal. You don’t think Larees threw all her freedom away by joining up, do you?” 

Well that caught my attention, distracting me from thinking about the were thing. “What? Why would–what does Larees have to–” Then I realized, eyes widening. “Gehenna? Sean, what–” 

He gave a short nod. “Yeah. What can I say, one of their people came to have a talk a couple weeks ago. I’ve been thinking about it, we had some discussions, and I agreed yesterday. After talking it through with Roxa, obviously. I don’t have to go anywhere, I’ll be assigned right here on Earth. And if I do go on any off-world assignments, she gets to come with me.” There was a bark from nearby, where December and Tabbris were still crouched by Vulcan, and Sean gave a slight smirk. “And so does he.” 

“But–but Sean, you were… you were locked up for…” I trailed off, head shaking as I tried to find words. 

“Why would you want to join up with a group devoted to imprisoning people after you were imprisoned for so long?” Koren flatly asked. 

Because I was locked up for so long,” came the response. “I know what it’s like. I feel like I can–you know, help. I know what the people in there are going through. I can… you know, work within the system. Besides, we know they lock some really bad people up. I want to be a part of keeping them there.” 

Mom’s voice was soft. “You’ve truly thought it through?” When he nodded, she offered him a slight smile. “Good luck.” 

“Yeah, good luck. But don’t suddenly become a stranger,” I put in. 

“Hey,” he retorted with a broad grin and wink, “we fight the Strangers, remember?” 

“Quite,” Mom agreed. “And speaking of that…” She turned in the direction of the hotel, eyes narrowed. “Let’s discuss how we’re going to drag this Stranger out and get some answers.” 

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Long Awaited 12-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So, we made it back to Earth, after our totally and completely successful mission. Not that we could let everyone know the mission was successful. In fact, we had to pretend that we had failed as far as a big part of it went. And speaking of that big part, as soon as we were back near Earth, several of the adults pooled their power together to create a portal for Elisabet to take alongside Sachael. The latter had said he would get Elisabet set up in a private place so she could stay off the radar for awhile. And reiterated that he would not be informing his own people about what was going on just yet. At least not until he had a better idea of who he could trust, who hadn’t already been compromised by this Maestro or Godfather or whatever.

The point was, we sent them away before heading up to the Fusion school at the Starstation. Of course, we couldn’t exactly go through the sun, but there was a portal waiting for us near Earth. The portal took the ship up to the station itself, and we all got to give the best performances we could of a group that had failed to save Elisabet. The Oscar had to go to Jophiel, who managed to portray someone shocked by grief and outrage that had no outlet. She looked like a woman who wanted to kill everyone around her, yet was barely holding herself in check. It really looked like she was grieving, and I was pretty sure that no one who was watching could have guessed it was all fake. Especially since Sariel and Athena had worked up some kind of spell to mask and alter the emotions any of us were giving off just in case someone we encountered had that kind of power. Yeah, we were pulling out all the stops just to make this believable. 

Having to hide the truth about all this really sucked, especially since it would mean lying to people I cared about. The one exception was my father, since everyone basically agreed that it was too dangerous to try lying to him for very long. He’d sniff out the truth and possibly accidentally cause problems. So an exception was created in the secrecy spell to allow Mom and I to tell him the truth. And I negotiated a second exception for Professor Dare, insisting that she was the closest connection we had to Gaia and that, given everything that had happened, if she was compromised by Godfather we would all have been screwed a long time ago. 

I couldn’t tell them the real reason I needed to be able to tell Dare the truth about the Fomorian-Seosten hybrid monster. I really had to talk to her about that whole situation and find out how it related to her… to the spell. I would’ve liked to get Koren involved since she was the only other person who knew the truth about Dare, but there was no way in hell they’d agree to that. 

But, if I couldn’t talk to Koren about it just yet, at least I had managed to give myself a way of keeping Dare in the loop. I was going to take her aside as soon as possible to have that full discussion. Meanwhile, we all played up the bittersweet victory of having at least brought Dexamene back, while claiming that Elisabet had sacrificed herself to save the girl, being poisoned in her place. 

Mostly the other students and I left the adults to talk to Abigail (feeling bad about lying to her too, of course) and the other people who had stayed behind. The rest of us separated, making excuses about desperately needing to shower or just find our families and friends. 

Shiori and Columbus moved off to call their own parents so they could check in from their ‘totally normal boarding school’, while Avalon stepped away to take Salten back to his favorite nature enclosure on the station itself. Everyone basically split up, leaving me standing there with my mother and Tabbris while Dad stood nearby, watching us with a curious look. Yeah, he looked curious rather than sympathetic or sad about our supposed failure. I had a feeling it was a good thing we’d all agreed to keep him in the loop. Otherwise this thing would’ve unraveled pretty fast. But seriously, what kind of superpower did he have? How could he possibly tell this wasn’t the truth already? I was starting to think he’d somehow permanently Chimera-Bonded himself to a polygraph or something, cuz what the hell? 

Oh, and, of course, we’d left a loophole to tell Grandfather and his family. Including Aylen. Not that we told everyone about the extent of that particular bit, of course. They didn’t need to know about Aylen, Bastet, and Sonoma just yet. Sariel simply weaved them secretly into the spell herself while supposedly only leaving it open for Grandfather, and let me know about it through Tabbris. 

Either way, once we were separated enough from the others, Dad murmured, “I think we all need to talk about a few things, right?” His voice was quiet, and yet there was something else behind it. More than just his suspicion or understanding about this situation. He had something he wanted to talk about, that much was for certain. Though I couldn’t imagine what had happened that would make him react like that. 

On the other hand, knowing everything else that had happened in the past year and a half, I was gonna go ahead and guess that it was dramatic, shocking, and would end up driving all of us into a life-or-death battle with something that wanted to kill us. That seemed about right. 

Mom, Tabbris, and I exchanged brief looks before nodding. Then the four of us headed out of the ship landing area, moving through some winding corridors before reaching some other room. I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be (it was a huge station and I hadn’t been in even ten percent of it), but right now it was just an empty room, aside from a few chairs and a glass table. 

Once the door had automatically slid shut, Dad pivoted to face us. His voice was even. “I need to call a couple people up to talk about something else. But something tells me I better wait until we talk about what just happened in there.” 

Right, yeah, something else was definitely going on. I had no idea what it was, or who Dad wanted to call in to talk about it with us. But for the moment, he was right, we had to focus on our part before getting involved with anything else. 

So, between the three of us, Mom, Tabbris, and I told him the full story. Well, after Mom and Tabbris both put up some privacy spells just in case. We quickly but thoroughly explained everything about what really happened, about Godfather, about where Elisabet was, all of it. And about why we had to keep her survival a secret. It took awhile, but we managed to get the whole story out, including the part about Grandfather and his family. And that was when Tabs and I clarified things for Mom as well. We told her the truth about who Aylen really was, and about her mothers.

When we were done, both Mom and Dad looked a little taken aback for what I assumed were different reasons. First, Mom slowly murmured, “I suppose this Bastet having a golden aura explains a few things Ruthers and his people blamed on me while I was… imprisoned.” Head tilting curiously, she added, “I think I’d like to meet her.” 

“Yeah, pretty sure she’d like to meet you too,” I agreed before glancing the other way. “Uh, Dad?” 

He, in turn, shook his head in what looked like wonder. “Well, conveniently, Aylen is one of the people I need to call up to talk. She, Virginia, and Sean should be here shortly.” 

Well, that was confusing. I blinked. “Sean? What–what does Sean have to do with… “ Frowning, I asked, “What happened while we were gone?” 

Dad, however, insisted on waiting for the others. All he would say was that it had to do with my grandparents, and (once Mom and I both almost freaked out) that they were not dead or anything. He just said the situation was ‘complicated’, whatever that meant. He thought it would be better to get the whole story out together once the other three showed up. Which–yeah, that was confusing. What had my father gotten up to while we were gone? Didn’t he know he wasn’t supposed to go on random crazy adventures while I wasn’t around? There should’ve been some kind of law. 

So, we just talked a bit more about the Godfather situation. Dad was absorbing that whole reveal pretty well, considering. I had a feeling it would take awhile for the full ramifications to really sink in. Especially when it came to just how big of a threat this monster really was. Actually, I was pretty sure that part hadn’t fully sunk in for me yet. Not that we were exactly strangers to horrifically powerful and malevolent people targeting us, but still. This was basically a combination of the Fomorian biotech genius mixed with the Seosten archangel wings. And I had seen how powerful Tabbris’s own just-developing wings were. The idea of this guy, a Fomorian-Seosten hybrid empowered by that same type of doom wings, but ones that had had thousands of years to develop? Yeah, we hadn’t exactly downgraded in enemies after getting rid of Fossor. To say the least. 

By that point, before any of us could really find the right words to say something, Mom abruptly nodded to the door. “They’re here.” And sure enough, as the door slid open, Aylen stepped through with Sovereign perched on one shoulder. They were accompanied by Dare and Sean, with Vulcan bringing up the rear. 

First things first, I produced Jaq and Gus, letting the two mechanical mice head off to a corner of the room with Vulcan and Sovereign so the four cyberforms could confer. Or play, whatever they wanted to do. Either way, they were off on their own, along with some metal food Sean sent along in a bowl for all of them to share. Honestly, my two little friends there deserved a break just as much as I did. I hadn’t been able to do much for them, even get them decent metal to ingest to repair and energize themselves, since… for a long time. I didn’t know if cyberforms got spa days (or even really what a spa day was, given I’d never had one either), but they sure deserved it. 

Obviously, with Sean here, we couldn’t exactly get into the Godfather situation with Aylen and Dare. And I certainly wasn’t about to say, ‘well thanks so much for stopping by, buddy, but would you mind waiting outside for about fifteen minutes while we talk about some secret stuff you’re not allowed to know about?’ Yeah, that seemed like a bad (not to mention incredibly rude) idea. 

Still, that meant we could focus on whatever Dad’s news was. Which–well, straight off the bat he started by telling the three of us we should sit down in those chairs. Mom declined, but I decided to take his word for it and sat with Tabbris perched in my lap and my arms around her stomach. Watching my father briefly, I let my eyes drift over to Sean and Aylen, then to Dare before managing a confused, “Okay, what happened while we were gone? And who said you were allowed to go find more trouble? Don’t you know there’s a special form you have to fill out?” 

Of course, Dad simply shot right back, “And where can I find the filed forms with your signatures from all the dangerous situations you got yourself into?” With a raised eyebrow, he interpreted my look correctly, adding a flat, “Yeah, that’s what I thought.” 

Still, despite the teasing words back and forth, I could tell there was something worse behind everything. Dad was trying to play things off, but he was really on edge. Which Mom clearly interpreted too, quietly asking, “Lincoln, what’s going on?” 

So, with a bit of help from the others, he told us all about what had happened when they went to check on his parents, my grandparents. Grandpartie (for Grandpa Artie, like Grand Party) and Grandmaria, as I had often called them. Of course, I also called my grandfather Popser, since he’d told me to call him Pops or sir when I was little. Over time I drifted between calling him Grandpartie or Popser.

The point was, Dad told us about not having contact with his parents for a long time, then checking it out and finding half the cabin blasted away, and then about Calafia showing up there in Alaska.  

As soon as she heard that, Mom was snarling, “If this was Ruthers and those bastards try–” 

“It wasn’t them,” Dad immediately assured us. “Calafia says they–” He amended himself. “They did try something. Litonya sent that new member of theirs–” He looked to Dare. 

“Antaeus,” she provided promptly before adding, “An old enemy of Alcaeus. Who also apparently has a connection to your family.” 

“Yeah, dude.” That was Sean as he looked toward me, folding two muscular arms across his chest. “Your grandparents’ best friend is Hercules, Flick.” 

Well that made me do a double-take. “Uncle Al? Wait, Al–what? What?” Now I was just staring at him, mouth open. I had spent time with Uncle Al. Not really my uncle, obviously, but still. He was just– he was Uncle Al, Grandpartie’s friend. “That doesn’t–why would… why…” Slowly, I slumped back in my seat while Tabbris held onto me. She seemed just as surprised. And a glance toward Mom showed that she was pretty stunned too. All three of us just stared at the rest of them. 

“Yeah,” Dad murmured, “that was pretty much my reaction too. Apparently Dad’s old friend was Hercules. And if you’re wondering why I didn’t lead with that, it’s because that’s just a side-note of this whole situation. The real story…” He paused, breathing and letting it out, clearly taking a moment to get himself under control before he pushed on. “They sent that Antaeus guy, brand new member of their Committee, to take my parents. That was their goal. But apparently something interrupted before he could pack them up.”

Then he told us more of the story. According to Calafia, my grandparents and Al (who was apparently Hercules seriously what the fuck why would he and where did he and whaaaaaat?!) disappeared right in front of Antaeus. A teleportation spell that had somehow been triggered the moment they were all in danger, apparently. Someone outside that group had teleported them out of danger. 

“Now…” Dad took a deep breath. “Now is when it gets… big.” 

“Now? It wasn’t big before?” I stared at him, feeling a deep pit of uncertainty in my stomach. Which, after everything we’d been through, was not a fun experience, in the least. “Dad, where are Grandpartie and Grandmaria? What’s going on?” 

In a voice that made it perfectly clear that he was freaking out on the inside and simply doing his best to hold it in and avoid making it worse, Dad informed us that Calafia and the Committee had apparently done a test on the remnants of the transportation spell to find out if they could track it. While they couldn’t do that (for what would quickly become obvious reasons), they were able to find out how far away the spell took my grandparents and Uncle Al. And the answer was… very, very, very fucking far. Into another galaxy sort of far. Whoever magicked them away from Antaeus (to save them?) had actually sent them clear to the other side of the universe. Which… which…

“Seosten,” Dare said immediately. “That’s the best we can figure out. Why? We have no idea. But it wasn’t the Fomorians, their magic is different.” 

“Could it be Fossor?” I hesitantly put in before amending, “I mean, someone loyal to him. You know, pissed off that we killed his master so he takes my grandparents. Or just something Fossor set up just in case something happened to him. A last minute ‘fuck you, I still win.’”

“We thought about that,” Sean confirmed. “We sort of uhhh, called in an expert of our own.” 

“My mother,” Aylen said, looking hesitantly toward my own mom before clearly looking like she should explain. 

“It’s okay,” I informed her. “We sort of just had that conversation, since you were coming and all.” 

“It’s nice to meet you, Aylen,” Mom offered with a small smile. “I’d like to meet your mother sometime as well. And while we’re at it…” With that, she turned to Sean, offering a hand to him. “I don’t believe we had the chance to officially meet with everything that’s been going on in the past day. We haven’t… had a lot of time for anything, really. But thank you for helping my husband. And for being there for my daughter last year.” 

Sean suddenly seemed shy, flushing a little and mumbling something about it being no big deal. Then he quickly pressed on, explaining that they had brought Bastet in to check the teleportation remains and that she said the magic energy matched Seosten spells she had encountered. Specifically, it matched the energy given off by one Seosten in particular. 

Puriel?!” I blurted out loud when the answer came. “Puriel took my grandparents?! But–but why would–does that mean he violated the truce? But–no he–why would he save–what? The Committee was–what?” 

“That’s the question I’ve been asking myself,” Dad murmured. “And it’s one we can get an answer to. But I wanted to wait for all of you to be back, because–” 

Tabbris was the one who got it first. “You wanna bond to a Seosten and then default recall to your mom?!” 

Quickly, Dad explained that yes, that was the idea. Except not fully recall. He could simply mentally contact my grandmother (the same way Vanessa had mentally contacted her own dad all the way out in Seosten space at first) to find out what was going on. Unfortunately, there was still some risk of ‘slipping’ and being fully pulled out there. So he had apparently been practicing the mental/partial recall with Mercury, of all people. He would bond to Mercury, possess Sean, then practice partially recalling to him. They had done that for a couple hours with only a few slips early on before Dad got the hang of it. 

“But mistakes could still happen,” he reminded us. “So, I wanted to wait. Especially since ahh, apparently it’s easier to anchor yourself when there’s people you love nearby. So…” He reached out, touching Mom’s face with one hand and my shoulder with the other before allowing that hand to slip down my arm to brush Tabbris’s hair. 

Right. We’d tell Dare and Aylen about the Godfather situation later. The last thing I wanted to do put more confusion and high emotions in the air right before Dad did something like this. He needed to focus.

Apparently I hadn’t had enough stress today, because now my dad was about to project his consciousness across the universe to peek in on what Puriel was doing with my grandparents. 

It was a good thing I never bothered to think that our lives would go back to normal anymore. 

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Commissioned Interlude 11 – Lincoln (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The following is a special commissioned interlude. The regular chapter will be out tomorrow as usual.

Lincoln Chambers needed a distraction. Flick and Joselyn were gone again, off on their mission to help save those two who were stranded on that other world. And as much as he hated the idea of his wife and daughter running off into danger yet again pretty much immediately after getting away from Fossor, he also couldn’t possibly object. Not in good conscience, anyway. The only reason he even had Felicity and Joselyn back at all was because of the two they were going off to rescue. And waiting a bit longer wasn’t an option, if what he’d heard about these Fomorian creatures was anywhere near accurate. If they waited and something happened to those two in the meantime, neither his wife and daughter, or Lincoln himself, would forgive themselves. Horrible as it was, unfair as it was, they had to go right then to save those two.

And yet, as much sense as all that made, as much as it was absolutely the only option, some part of Lincoln had still wanted to object. He wanted to tell them to make someone else go. Hadn’t his family done enough to deal with all this? There was no shortage of powerful people out there who could rush to pull those two off the Meregan world. Why did his wife and daughter, who had literally just barely been rescued themselves, have to be the ones to go? 

It was a stupid question, of course. And one he would never voice, even as it insisted on bouncing around through his head. They had to go because that was who they were. Flick had been saved by those two, Elisabet and Dexamene, and she wasn’t going to sit around letting someone else pay them back for that. It wasn’t who she was. And it certainly wasn’t who Joselyn was. He could’ve said that much even before he knew about her being the leader of some Heretic Rebellion. Just as the sheriff of a small city in Wyoming, she wouldn’t have just sat back and let someone else run into danger to save another person. 

To object now, as much as he might’ve wanted to, would’ve meant objecting to who they were. It would have meant raising his protest against everything his wife and daughter stood for. Terrified as he was about what could happen right after he got them back, Lincoln couldn’t do that. Because loving them meant accepting that they would run into danger to save another. 

But even if he couldn’t object, even if he had accepted (for the most part) that the two people he loved most in the world had to go off on this horrible mission, Lincoln still couldn’t just sit around doing nothing while waiting to hear back. He’d drive himself insane just pacing around the cabin, or walking by the lake. There was nothing he could do about their trip, no way for him to help or even keep track of them. They were off on another world, in another universe. There was nothing he could do about it. 

Fortunately, Lincoln had other family members to worry about. His parents–something was wrong. And it had taken him a long time to figure that out. Mostly because right after Flick had disappeared, Lincoln sent a message to his parents to let them know that Flick had surprised him by taking a full summer load of classes, so now she was taking the semester off of that fancy school of hers. Which meant he could take her on a long camping trip off the grid. Just the two of them on an extended vacation, he’d claimed in the message. Getting away from everything.

It was stupid. But he just–with Flick gone, taken by the same piece of shit who had taken Joselyn for so many years, Lincoln couldn’t deal. He could not possibly have talked to his mother and father without spilling the whole situation, and that–even if they could use the potion to make them remember, it would’ve been too much. He couldn’t drag his parents into this whole mess and try to explain… all of it while also losing his mind over his missing daughter. 

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. But he just could not deal with trying to talk to them while all that was going on. So he’d sent the message about going off the grid, let them know to send any calls and emails to the same locations, and then shut down communication. He didn’t dare open any messages from them in that time. Hearing his mother lament about not hearing Flick’s voice on her birthday, all while knowing where his daughter actually was, might have just broken him. 

But hey, as it turned out, he needn’t have worried about messages from his parents making him feel even worse about the situation. Because there weren’t any. As in none. Checking his email and the voicemail that he’d been studiously ignoring over the past… how long had it been? Months? Time really flew when your wife and daughter were imprisoned by a violent amoral sociopath. Either way, there was nothing. No email and no voicemail. Nothing at all. 

That… was wrong. Totally wrong. The only reason his parents wouldn’t have left dozens of messages was if… if something had happened to them. And the fact that they hadn’t left anything since his own messages, not even a response to it, meant…

His parents were missing–had been missing for that whole time. It was the only explanation. The guilt of that, the sudden rush of realization as the truth dawned on the man, had nearly sent him to the floor. It had been all he could do, that day as his wife and daughter set about their business getting ready to go do their own mission, not to bring it up. 

He couldn’t tell them, couldn’t let them know there was a whole other problem. They were already going into some of the worst danger imaginable. Lincoln would not distract them with anything else. Instead, he kept it quiet and tried to solve the situation himself. Just in case he was overreacting, he tried contacting his parents directly to no avail. Several calls to their cells had gone unanswered, even when he used the emergency sos code they’d established.

They were in trouble. Fuck, they’d been in trouble and he’d been so wrapped up in being worried about his wife and daughter, he’d completely missed the danger his own parents were in!

That was a whole new flood of guilt and despair. One that he’d almost let himself succumb to after Flick and Joselyn left, before getting himself under control. There could still be a simple explanation. There could be, much as he doubted it. This… this was something far worse than just a simple downed cell phone line or them being snowed in. Yes, they were in Alaska and yes there had been some bad storms up there recently, but it just wasn’t–that wasn’t it. 

So, Lincoln had his distraction. He couldn’t do anything about what Jos and Felicity were up to, couldn’t help them or even find out what was going on until they made it back (and they would make it back, he insisted to himself repeatedly). But he could find out what was wrong with his parents. That was a problem he could focus on. Because as many possibilities as there were for what was going on with them and what had happened, at least they would be on this world. 

He wasn’t going to investigate the situation alone, of course. For one thing, as much as he liked to think he was progressing in his study of magic, he wasn’t anywhere near good enough to create a portal all the way to his parents’ last known location in Alaska. He had other help. 

“Ready to go, Mr. Chambers?” Sean Gerardo, the young man several years older than he should have been thanks to years spent in solitary confinement, asked. Sean himself was another who was worried about someone who had gone on the mission to rescue Elisabet and Dexamene. Several someones, actually. Not only had essentially his entire old team gone together, but Roxa as well. Sean would have gone, except for an injury from the fight with Fossor’s forces. It had taken most of the night to heal, and he was still limping a little bit. From what Lincoln had heard, the young man had asked Roxa to go in his stead to help his friends. Not that she took much convincing. 

Before Lincoln could respond, Vulcan trotted up beside his owner and partner with a bark. He was accompanied by the young… half-Native American and half (one-quarter?) Reaper, Aylen Tamaya. “Yes,” the girl spoke up, “I believe we are. Right, Professor?” 

“Virginia is fine, Aylen,” Dare herself, the final member of their group, announced as she joined them. “Or Miss Dare, if you prefer. But yes, if Mr. Chambers doesn’t have anything else first?” 

Lincoln, for his part, retorted, “If you’re Virginia, I think you can call me Lincoln. And yes, I just–” He stopped, pausing before pushing on. “I want to thank you three–” A low, pointed growl from Vulcan made him correct himself. “Ahem, I want to thank you five for all this.” He over-enunciated the proper number with a nod upward to where Aylen’s own cyberform hawk was gliding watchfully over them. “Booking a flight and heading up there myself was doable, but probably not nearly as effective.” He was doing his best to keep his voice light, trying not to let them see just how worried he was about the whole situation. His parents going dark for so long could maybe have an innocent explanation. After all, he told them he was going dark first. And they were in Alaska. Not even near any of the cities. From what he’d heard, they were going with Al to an old cabin that their old friend had up there. It was possible that between spotty cell service and their own distraction by the beautiful scenery that weeks had passed without them thinking about checking in. Doubtful, but possible. And it was the explanation he was hoping for. 

At least he knew they hadn’t been taken by Fossor before his death. There was no way, from everything everyone had told him about that piece of shit, that he wouldn’t have used that to torment Felicity and Joselyn. The fact that he’d never brought it up, even on the cusp of his death, proved that he didn’t know everything about it. 

So, that eliminated the psychotic (and thankfully dead) Necromancer as a potential suspect. Unfortunately, they didn’t exactly lack for others. The more he thought about it, the more worried Lincoln became about the whole thing. Which was why he was doing his best to focus on the possibility that it was all innocent and not completely lose his mind in front of the others. 

Virginia spoke first, shaking her head at his attempt to downplay things. “You are part of a much larger family now, Lincoln. Whatever is going on with your parents, be it innocent or not, we will be there to help you handle the situation.” She paused briefly before continuing. “And even if this turns out to be a simple case of losing contact, it is perhaps time to bring them into the fold.” Her eyes met his, seeming to stare straight through him as she spoke in a soft yet oddly intense voice. “Speaking truth to your family, sharing your life with them, your triumphs and trials, is a true gift. Your parents love and trust you, and you them. Never waste that, Lincoln. Bring them into the truth while you can. Keep them safe, and allow them to share in your life. All of your life.” She glanced away. “That is the most important advice I believe I could ever give you.”  

There was something… important there. Lincoln liked to think that he was far from an idiot. It was obvious that the woman was speaking from personal loss. Was it simply about the parents she had lost as a child with the attack meant to kill Virginia herself? Or the fact that she’d somewhat recently learned that the first man to take her in, the Akharu called Tiras, was still missing? Or the continued imprisonment of Gaia, whom she had also seen as a parental figure? 

All of it, most likely, of course. Every single one of those situations had clearly fueled the feelings that Virginia was showing right here. And that made perfect sense. Yet he still couldn’t shake the thought, the instinct, that there was more to it than that. And above all else, Lincoln was a man who was accustomed to following his instincts. Especially lately. 

But now wasn’t the time to poke at that, if he ever did considering the woman’s right to privacy. He had his own family situation to handle before he worried about poking at hers, so he pushed those thoughts aside for the time being.

Thankfully, Sean was already stepping in with a convenient distraction to help Lincoln turn off those instincts, holding up a small vial of grayish liquid. “This should do the trick, Mr. Chimera-Blood. Pulled it out of a Hill Troll the pack dealt with a few days ago. Been stored away, so it’s still fresh.” Pausing, he added, “You don’t have to drink it, do you?” 

“Squeamish?” Aylen idly asked, tilting her head a bit to look at the boy while Sovereign landed on her abruptly-raised arm. “I’d think you’d be fine with that, given… well, everything.” 

“Not exactly,” the young man replied before pointing out, “but there’s a difference between vampires or wolves getting blood, and an ordinary, average human dude. I meant for his sake.” 

Lincoln shook his head, with a glance toward Virginia. “No. I’ve practiced with it a bit and all it takes is skin contact.” With that, he held his hand out, palm up. “Haven’t done a troll yet.” 

Popping the top off the vial, Sean poured the blood out into Lincoln’s hand. It sat there for a moment, then gradually began to be absorbed into his skin. As always, the man felt a tingling sensation, a rush similar to static electricity washing over the skin the blood was touching and then gradually moving through the rest of his body. It made him gasp slightly, before giving a full shudder, extending his arms out to shake them sharply while cracking his neck. 

“Wow,” the man managed. “Now that’s a rush. Feel like I just drank seven cups of espresso or something. That–that’s a lot of energy.” He cracked his knuckles, giving a short nod. “Ready.” 

“Troll strength and regeneration should be the best way of keeping you safe against whatever might be out there,” Virginia reminded him. “But don’t forget that you’re not trained to fight. If something happens, play back-up and keep yourself safe. I’m not–” She paused before pointedly continuing, “I’m not going to tell your wife and daughter that I let you get hurt. Understand?”  

Lincoln gave a short nod, before the woman turned, pulling a small stone from one pocket. “I spent the past hour keying this to the area you mentioned. It should take us straight there.” With those words, she activated the spell on the stone, tossing it to the ground. A moment later, the stone itself disintegrated and a doorway had appeared in its place. It looked like an actual door, standing there in the middle of the grass lot behind Lincoln’s cabin with nothing supporting it. 

At her own insistence, Virginia opened the door and stepped through first. The open doorway revealed the Alaska scenery that Lincoln had expected. There was a lake straight to the right (almost in the exact same spot the lake here at the Atherby camp was, which felt disconcerting), a beautiful forest to the left, and the cabin he’d seen a few pictures of straight ahead. There was also, unfortunately, no sign of his parents just yet. Not that he’d expected it to be that easy, but there was always the slight hope. 

Sean and Vulcan went next, before Lincoln followed with Aylen and Sovereign bringing up the rear. Immediately, the girl sent her cyberform hawk soaring off into the sky to get a look at the surrounding area, as Sean took his metal dog to sniff around for any interesting scents. 

Lincoln, meanwhile, walked with Virginia up toward the front patio of the cabin. The two of them glanced to one another, before he raised his voice to call, “Mom? Dad? Uncle Al?” 

They’d reached the short steps leading up the patio in front of the door, but there was no response. Virginia held up a hand to stop him from proceeding, focusing her gaze on the cabin. From the way she was turning her head, he had the feeling she was seeing through the walls. 

“No one’s there,” she finally announced. “And… come here.” 

“Miss Dare, Mr. Chambers!” Aylen called, jogging up. “It’s the cabin, it–” 

“Yes,” Virginia interrupted gently. “Come, Lincoln.” With that, she guided him around the side of the cabin, one hand on his arm as though to steady him. 

Immediately, he saw why they were acting so oddly. Half of the cabin simply wasn’t there. The front half looked fine, but the back half had–it looked like it had been disintegrated, blown away along with a bunch of trees on that side. 

Seeing that, Lincoln felt himself stagger. He felt the rush of terror that he’d been successfully staving off ever since realizing that his parents had gone dark rising up to overwhelm him. He felt Virginia’s grip on his arm tighten as she literally stopped him from falling. A loud buzzing sound started to go off in the back of his head. No, no. No, please, what–why did, who was–

A sudden bark interrupted Lincoln’s panic, snapping his gaze up and around. Sean was there, with Vulcan, who gave another sharp bark beyond them to–he turned. 

“Hello, Lincoln.” 

It was Calafia, the Committee woman who had helped save Lincoln, Twister, and Asenath back at his old house. The one who had helped Gabriel Prosser find Joselyn in the first place all those years ago, and who had also helped weaken the Bystander Effect on Lincoln himself. All because she owed Joselyn ‘more than she could ever repay’, according to the woman. 

“You,” Lincoln snapped despite himself. “What did your Committee do?” He felt Virginia step very slightly in front of him, even as Aylen and Sean took up their own positions nearby. 

There was a slight pause before Calafia spoke. “You are correct, in a way. Without informing any of us, even Ruthers, Litonya sent one of our newest members, Antaeus, to… collect your parents.” 

“Antaeus,” Virginia snapped, “your hardliner members must be even more desperate than I thought.” 

“Where are they?” Lincoln immediately blurted, stepping around Virginia to start moving toward the woman. “Where are my parents? You better not think that just because–” 

“Peace,” Calafia insisted, raising a hand. “We do not have them. That is the truth. Antaeus was sent, yet…” She paused before asking, “How much do you know about that friend of theirs, who owned this cabin?” 

“Al?” Lincoln shrugged, frowning. “Albert Caeus. He’s been around forever, since I can remember. They–” 

“Caeus?” Virginia interrupted. “Your parents’ friend’s name is Al… Caeus? Alcaeus.” Seeing his blank look, she added, “Heracles. Is that–” A nod from Calafia made her exhale. “Your parents’ old friend is Hercules.” 

“Holy fuck, dude,” Sean blurted abruptly. “How connected is your family?” 

Lincoln, meanwhile, was reeling. Everything–he’d known Uncle Al his entire life, since he was old enough to even remember anything. He was there all the time. And through all of it, the man who brought him Christmas gifts, the one who–who he’d always seen as an uncle, was actually Hercules? That, even more than everything else he’d experienced over the past year, was enough that he needed to sit down. Only one thing stopped him from staggering. “Where–where are they? What happened?” 

Calafia answered simply, “Antaeus attempted to confront them. He used a blast of power to destroy the cabin as a show of force. But before he could do anything more, they… disappeared.” 

“Disappeared?” Virginia echoed, squinting. “You mean Alcaeus used an emergency teleport.” 

“We don’t believe it was him,” came the response. “Antaeus insists the man wasn’t using any spells and spoke no triggers. It could have been tied to the danger of the situation, yet… we believe there was outside involvement. Particularly considering… how far the transport sent them, according to the scans we’ve done of the energy it left behind.” 

Her words, and her tone of voice, made Lincoln frown. “What… what do you mean? How far did the transport send them? Where are they?

“Where exactly are my parents?” 

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Kairos 9-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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I had thought that the fight in this quarry was insane and chaotic before. But all of that had been nothing compared to this. Hundreds of thousands of undead creatures, all rushing in every possible direction, even up into the air, to escape. Any of them could have been Fossor in disguise, so all of them had to be stopped. They all had to be either destroyed or exposed as the Necromancer himself. We couldn’t let even a single one get out of this quarry. 

“Mom!” I blurted, even as a skeletal deer-like thing tried to sprint past me. My staff snapped that way, shoving through the bones of the thing’s neck just before I triggered a kinetic blast that blew the head into splinters and sent the rest of the bones tumbling to the ground before they broke apart into dust. “What do we do?! How’re we supposed to find the right one?!” 

My mother, for her part, had just finished catching five zombies and a ghost inside some kind of gelatinous cube thing that instantly incinerated itself and them once they were all caught inside it. “Rahanvael,” she said quickly while pointing her hand to send a single, tight-beam laser that caught three more fleeing zombies who had been making a break for it through a small opening. 

I didn’t have to voice the question. Rahanvael was already there, appearing in front of me while shaking her head quickly. “I–I don’t know! His power is everywhere, he’s obfuscating himself somehow! He knows I can find him by tracking his power, so he–he’s spread it everywhere! I can’t focus–I need… I need…” It was obvious that she was going to say she needed time. Time we didn’t have, because of all this chaos. Even in that moment, I was shifting my staff into its bow form and firing a single energy arrow that made a huge Meregan zombie stumble so that Roxa in werewolf form could leap onto its back. She was followed by several more of her wolf pack, who all took the Meregan to the ground together, tearing the already-dead body apart.  

“Time, I know!” I quickly put in, spinning back to hock a wad of that amber-like spit toward a skeleton that was trying to rush past Shiori while her back was turned as she caught one of her spinning discs. It caught the thing’s feet and the ground, pinning it there so she could finish it off. 

“You need time?” That was Avalon. She pivoted to face me from a few yards away while the gauntlet of her extended arm projected a blade that cut the head from another zombie. “We’ll cover you.” Despite everything going on around her, despite her own heavy panting as she continued killing these things, Avalon’s voice was still calm and collected. “Do what you need.” 

“Damn straight!” That was Columbus, appearing to one side. He had Amethyst, his porcupine cyberform, in her shield form with the quills pointed out. Two of those quills flew off, and when they hit this huge, winged-zombie creature in mid-flight, the ice spells on them activated, freezing the thing solid just long enough to bring it crashing back to the ground with a heavy thud as dust flew everywhere. “Focus on finding the chief asshole, we’ve got these ones!” 

Shiori, Koren, Miranda, Sands, and Sarah were right there too. All of them spread out around me, focused on keeping the fleeing undead away from me. Away from us. 

Quickly, I looked to Rahanvael. “One chance,” I said quickly. “We have to hurry, or–”

“I know.” Rahanvael said simply. There was no need for me to continue. We both knew. If we didn’t identify exactly where Fossor was before he managed to escape, this whole thing would’ve been for nothing and he would just try all this again. She looked at me intently. “I need to… to possess you, basically. I need your power, your connection to the undead to weed all the extra out.” 

I didn’t even hesitate. With all the insanity around us, as practically everyone I knew who could fight did so against hundreds of thousands of Fossor’s forces, I extended a hand to her. “Do it.”

It wasn’t the same as Seosten possession, of course. If nothing else, I already had one of those with my sister. This was ghost possession, and as Rahanvael’s hand touched mine, I could tell the difference. This was… cold, for lack of a better term. I felt a chill that seemed to run through my actual soul, as this ghost merged fully with me. I could feel her thoughts, her terror that the creature her brother had turned into would actually escape again. I could feel her determination that he not do so, that he be stopped for good here and now. I could feel everything, just as she could undoubtedly feel all of my own thoughts and feelings. 

I have to put everything into finding him, Rahanvael’s voice informed both Tabbris and me. Everything. 

She wasn’t exaggerating. The whole world went dark then. I couldn’t see or hear anything around us. I couldn’t even sense anything with my powers. It was one huge black void. All my senses were turned off, aside from… wait. Energy. I could… feel energy. Life energy–no, not life. Death. I could feel death energy around us. Literally everywhere around us. It was a hurricane of Necromantic energy. No wonder it was so impossible for Rahanvael to differentiate anything. Fossor really was hiding himself in a giant storm of power. The only chance we had was that he was cautious. He wouldn’t make the first run for an escape. He’d wait to see where an opening appeared. But he also wouldn’t wait too long, because he only had so many forces to keep our people busy with. Wherever that piece of shit was, he would make his move soon. 

We had to find him before that. It was the only choice, the only chance we had. Find him. Stop him. 

This was terrifying. I knew there was violence going on around me. I could feel the undead through their energy. But I couldn’t feel my friends. I had no idea how they were doing. I just… I just had to trust that they were safe, that they were still right there protecting Tabbris and me. I had no idea how the fight was going, if they were hurt or… or worse. My only choice was to stand here, blind and deaf, and trust that my friends could take care of themselves. 

Fuck, this was hard. 

I could feel Rahanvael taking control of my Necromancy power, could sense how she was using it to direct the death energy around us. I wasn’t yet powerful enough, even with her help, to take control of more than a few of these things at a time. But she wasn’t trying to take control of them. She was infecting them with my power, letting that power spread quickly through the army, sort of like a virus. I couldn’t actually make them do anything with that tiny amount of power, but I could see where it went, the way it mixed with Fossor’s own power. Through what felt like hours, my power spread through the undead within the quarry, just a dot of it here or there. Not enough to actually do anything with them, but enough to mark all of them. 

All of them, that was, except for one. One spot where my power couldn’t infect Fossor’s. One spot. One being who was immune to being touched by my own Necromancy. 

Him. It was him. 

We found him. 

My eyes opened as Rahanvael separated herself from me, and I saw the carnage around us. It was clear that Fossor had left his horde instructions not only to escape, but also to kill me if they could manage it. All around us were dozens upon dozens of dead (or redead) things, or just the dust and ectoplasm from skeletons and ghosts. My friends, my teammates, had been joined by others. My mother, Deveron, the rest of her own team, Asenath, Bobbi, Vanessa and Tristan, and more. It had clearly taken all of them to keep these things off me through the time that I had been indisposed. 

There wasn’t time to thank them. There wasn’t time for anything. Not when I knew where Fossor was. I could still feel him, could still sense the way his own power was so different from mine. Now that it had been so thoroughly pointed out to me, it was a difference I could never forget. The man himself was like a bright shining beacon, so different from the rest of the creatures around him now that they had all been marked by my power. 

And he was making his move. Even as I focused on my ability to sense him, I could feel the Necromancer bolting for an open spot. The fighting had spread out too far. Our forces were thin on the edges. He had the opening he wanted, the opening he needed to escape. 

Like fuck would I let that happen. 

“Got him!” I blurted, spinning toward the direction I could still feel the bastard in. Unfortunately, that just put me face to face with a veritable wall of both enemies and friends. The battle raged on ahead of me, not only on the ground but in the air too. There was no way I could get through all that in time to reach Fossor before he managed to escape. He was already making his move!

At least, there was no way I could do that alone. But I wasn’t alone. The moment they realized where I was trying to go, Shiori, Avalon, Columbus, Asenath, and all the others launched themselves that way. The wall of enemies in the way collapsed inward as my people, my friends, barrelled headlong into it. A hole, they were making a hole for me to get through. 

I took advantage without thought. I would thank them later, I would say… everything that needed to be said later. Right now, only one thing mattered, getting to Fossor and stopping him once and for all. 

It wasn’t as easy as just going through a single opening and then having a free run to where the evil piece of shit was, of course. The entire quarry was filled with these creatures, all of them in my way. Or at least, they tried to be in my way. But Avalon and the others stayed just ahead of me, tearing their way through the enemies. Here, Sands made a wall to block off one section to create an opening. There, Gordon encased himself in enormous ice armor and used one long arm to swat a group of zombies away. There, Sean and Vulcan worked with Sarah and her own gun to put down a group of fliers that were trying to swoop in from above. 

Koren and Miranda worked together to deal with a massive skeleton giant to the left. To the right, Vanessa and Tristan were stopping a cloud of angry ghosts from reaching us. Bobbi and Asenath raced ahead, each grabbing a rotting zombie barbarian creature, tearing the pair apart from each other and out of the way. 

Deveron and Lillian were there, the latter using a summoned wind storm to hurl a dozen undead into the air before the former incinerated them with a blast of white-blue fire from his pistol. The Dornans and Tribald Kine were stopping a literal giant (the thing towered at least twenty feet tall, twice the size of a Meregan) from stomping down on the spot just ahead of me. 

Everyone, everyone was helping. They were clearing the path. I was taking advantage, racing through the holes they created. I didn’t have time to slow down, didn’t have time to help. Getting to Fossor was all that mattered. They had this. I had him. 

Or rather, we had him. Because my mother was right beside me. The two of us sprinted onward, Mom right at my side. The others could barely keep up with clearing the path, not even worrying about killing everything in the way. They were purely focused on simply moving the enemies. Even then, it was only the fact that we had so many on our side, so many friends and allies right there with us, that allowed Mom and I to keep running without slowing down to engage with the minions ourselves. Neither of us spoke. Neither of us needed to. We were together right here, at this last moment. That was all that mattered, the two of us being together, side-by-side, as we made one final run to either stop Fossor from escaping, or die trying. 

A blast from Columbus’s goggles slammed into a huge, twelve-foot tall troll zombie that had been looming up in front of us, the concussive force putting the thing on its back long enough for my mother and I to leap over it. I had to boost to make the full jump, while my mother used some kind of gravity manipulation power to keep herself in the air long enough to make it from the troll’s feet all the way past its head. It was starting to recover, starting to grab for us, but we were already gone. Behind us, I heard a howl as Dare, in giant wolf form, landed on top of the thing to make sure it would never be a threat again.

I could feel him. I could still feel Fossor. He was… he was there. He was just ahead of us. But, close as he was to us, he was also close to the edge of the quarry, and thus close to escaping the spell that was keeping him trapped here. The moment he made it over that line, the very second that monster managed to edge a foot out of the magic that stopped him from teleporting, he would be gone. He would escape. He would leave and go back to being a threat for everyone in the world, a threat that would hurt and kill everyone I cared about. 

Fuck. That. 

Tabbris! I shouted inwardly, even as Mom intercepted some kind of spinning ghost armed with glowing blades that came in out of nowhere. That wing blast thing, can you do it again? I had no idea what all that was about, and there wasn’t time for details. All that mattered was whether she had another one in her or not. I’d had the impression that she couldn’t do that constantly, that it needed time to recharge. But had it been enough time yet? 

There was a brief hesitation, even as I pivoted to stab the blade of my staff through a zombie that came lunging at us from that side. He was with a horde of others, but our friends had managed to intercept the rest. I could feel Tabbris’s doubt, but it was quickly replaced by firm determination. Yes, she insisted. I can do it again. 

Good, ready? I let her take in exactly what I wanted to do, what I was planning. 

Ready! I could feel that she was afraid, afraid of her own power, afraid of this whole situation, of messing up and letting Fossor escape. She was terrified. But she was here. She was here with me, and determined to make this work. Whatever it took. 

“Mom!” I blurted out loud. “On three, hit me with the strongest energy blast you can and get us into the air. One… two… three!”

As I said that, my hands gripped my staff, triggering the boost to start my launch upward. At the same time, I felt my mother’s hands grab my shoulders as she used her gravity power to send us flying even higher than my staff could manage. On the way, her hands glowed and I felt her pouring energy into me. Energy that I focused on absorbing. 

We were in the air. More enemies came in from all sides, but between Mom and our friends below, they were dealt with. 

Most importantly, I could see him. I could see the single ‘zombie’ making a flat run for the line. Fossor had abandoned blending in by that point. No one was around him, they were all engaged with other threats and too far away. No one could stop him. 

Or so he thought. The second I saw that clear path to the monster, I blurted both inwardly and aloud, “Do it now!” 

It was like before, when we had used a powered up blast to destroy the creatures blocking me from reaching Fossor the first time. But now, we weren’t shooting an army. Nor were we shooting Fossor himself. Tabbris and I both knew the man would just shove the effect off onto any of his creatures who were still here. Then he’d keep going and escape. 

No, we didn’t shoot Fossor. We shot the ground. Those bright light wings appeared from my back and a blinding blast of power, a ten-foot-wide eruption of energy hurtled itself down out of the sky, tearing into the Earth with a deafening blast that sent dirt, dust, and rocks in every direction. 

Through that blinding, choking cloud, Mom and I fell. We landed together, and my mother used a quick gust of wind to send the dust away. 

We were in a hole. A twenty-foot-wide, twelve-foot-deep hole. About as wide as a boxing ring without the ropes. A boxing ring with a single opponent who stood facing us, hatred and disbelief twisting his features. 

“Leaving so soon?” I demanded, taking a quick step away from my mother so we wouldn’t be caught in the same attack. “And without us? I thought we were supposed to be a family and all that.” 

“Yes, brother,” Rahanvael agreed, appearing beside me. “We are family.” 

“We are family,” Mom corrected pointedly, straightening up as she focused on Fossor. “Not him.” Her hand snapped out, throwing some kind of enchanted marble into the air. As it hit the top of the hole we were all in, a glowing energy shield appeared, creating a forcefield ceiling to keep all of us, Fossor included, right here in the hole. 

This was it. No other tricks. No escapes. No new allies or friends. They were all busy, all occupied. My mother and I (with Rahanvael and Tabbris), facing the man who had done so much to tear our family apart. Just us. Just him. For the last time. 

One way or another, this was the end.

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Kairos 9-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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In that moment, it would’ve been easy to think that we outnumbered our opponent. But, of course, we didn’t. Not in the least. Fossor, after all, commanded and controlled more than an entire world’s worth of slaves he could kill and bring to his aid at a moment’s notice. From what I’d been told, he was at least limited from bringing over literally billions of ghosts with a snap of his fingers, because even he was only so powerful. Particularly when it came to transporting his troops intergalactic distances. 

But while he couldn’t easily bring over billions, or even millions of his cannon-fodder, there was nothing stopping him from bringing over thousands. Which he did, in that exact moment. With no warning, none at all, the quarry was suddenly overrun. Thousands of ghosts, zombies, skeletons, everything dead that Fossor could push his control into, manifested and attacked. They tore their way out of the ground, descended from the air, or simply appeared around us, tearing their way into apparent existence as though ripping through the fabric of space itself. 

In my case, it started as the huge fist of a (dead) Meregan male punched its way out of the dirt. It came so unexpectedly that I took the blow head-on and was sent crashing to the ground, even as the ten-foot-tall figure clambered out of the dirt. The giant zombie roared, slamming both fists down toward me just before Tabbris took control and threw us into a backward roll. 

Mom was fighting her own Meregan giant, along with a handful of fire-manipulating ghosts that seemed intent on trapping her. No, intent on cutting us off from each other. More and more of Fossor’s newly summoned troops were flooding the area between us. 

It was the same all around me. Everyone who had come to help, my old team, my mentors, my friends, my family, everyone was being swarmed. While pushing myself up, from the corner of my eye, I saw Avalon, beautiful amazon that she was, take the heads off of three zombies with a single swipe of a glowing energy blade projected from her gauntlet. In the next second, her hand snapped out to touch one of the collapsing bodies. Under her grip, the zombie disintegrated into a cloud of dust. That dust, at a quick gesture from Avalon, flew into an incoming ghost before suddenly igniting into green flames. Those flames, in turn, destroyed the ghost, making it blow apart with a scream. 

Others, there were others. Shiori of course. God, Shiori. And not only them, not only my girls. But Sands, Koren, Sarah, Sean, Columbus–everyone. I wanted to see them. I wanted to check on them, wanted to help them. But I couldn’t. That fleeting glance was the best I could manage, before my own giant Meregan opponent hurled himself at me. 

But Fossor had taught me a lot. More than I wanted to know really. Particularly about controlling zombies and Meregan in particular. My right hand snapped up, stopping the charging giant in his tracks. He literally froze, just for a moment. I could feel Fossor’s power warring against mine. It would win out in the end. But I only needed a moment. In that time, I snapped my hand down and out, making both of his much larger hands follow suit, slamming into a few smaller skeletal-creatures who had been rushing past him to reach me. 

Meanwhile, completely on her own, Tabbris had taken control of my left hand, the one with the staff. She triggered the cloud of sand to shoot out, superheating it in the process before sending the sand through three zombies that had been coming at us from behind. At the same time, even as the sand was burning through them, she used my mouth to trigger a renewed ghost-fire spell on the staff itself, as the other one had run out. With the staff newly-empowered, Tabbris hurled it through a ghost that was coming up from our other side, before recalling it. 

All of that simply in the time it took me to take control of the Meregan and have him smash those skeletons. We were working together, cooperating and multitasking the way Elisabet and Jophiel had been helping teach us to. In this moment, as we fell instantly back into sync, it was like we’d never been separated. Both of us using my body, my powers, to attack multiple enemies at the same time in entirely different ways. 

And yet, even with that, there were still so many enemies around us. Prosser by himself had been set on by wave after wave of the strongest undead I’d ever seen. Even he, powerful as he was, couldn’t easily swat them aside. He, Gwen, Sariel, Athena, all of them were being attacked by so fucking many of the empowered necromantic creatures. The entire quarry was swarmed, covered, engulfed by these monsters. They came from everywhere, tearing, slashing, clawing, even biting at everyone who sought to stop their master. If Mom and I had been on our own against that kind of onslaught, we never would have lasted as long as we had. It wouldn’t even have been close. 

But, of course, Fossor hadn’t been trying with us as much as he was now. It was patently obvious that, even while he was angry and fighting my mother and me, he’d been dramatically holding back. He still wanted to pull off his spell, after all, and had been saving power for that. That and he was just so accustomed to two people, especially the two of us, not being any real threat, that he didn’t need to go all-out. But now? Now he’d been backed into a corner. He was surrounded by an army of super-powered, pissed off people who wanted him dead. So there were no more half-measures. He was showing us, and everyone else, why he was such a threat. Even in the face of so many absurdly powerful beings, Fossor still had the advantage. Because, powerful as all these people were, cutting through literally billions of hostages in order to actually hurt the son of a bitch himself would take too long. Especially when he could send tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands given enough time, of those same hostages to actively attack. 

But none of that mattered. Not in the long run. It was all noise, distractions from the main point, the main problem: Fossor himself. Because the necromancer hadn’t given up on his plan. Even as a warzone raged around him, even as thousands of his troops were repeatedly summoned and destroyed by some of the most powerful beings on the planet, he was still moving to that altar. He’d been knocked back a couple hundred feet by Gabriel’s shovel-blow. But he was making up the difference, heading right for the altar while using his minions as cover. Strong as everyone here was, even they could only work so fast. Fossor didn’t need to win this fight, he didn’t need his undead minions to actually succeed at beating all of us. He only needed them to play distraction long enough for him to reach that altar and finish his spell. 

I couldn’t let that happen. We couldn’t. With a quick thought, I shoved all the knowledge of what was going on and the risks of just how bad it could be into Tabbris so she would know how important this was. At the same time, I made my commandeered Meregan zombie pivot back that way and sent him running to tackle another of his own (dead) people. I’d worry about the horrors of what I was doing in that moment later. Right now, the only thing that mattered, the only thing, was stopping Fossor. Whatever it took. 

Even as I started to throw myself into a sprint that way, Tabbris was absorbing what I’d ‘told’ her. She gave no verbal response, because one wasn’t needed. Instead, I felt her take control of the burning sand once more, using it to help clear the path and leaving me to focus on actually getting to Fossor in time. The white-hot cloud flew ahead of us, burning through the legs of two zombies so they would fall and allow me to jump over them. Just as quickly, even as I was still in mid-air from that jump, she used my hands to convert the staff into its bow form and sent a shot off to the side to hit three skeletons who were tearing their way out of the ground. 

So many. Fuck, there were so fucking many of these things! Too many to find a way to portal through. They were everywhere, so many I couldn’t even actually see Fossor himself anymore after that brief glimpse. Everywhere I glanced there were hundreds of them, swarming in out of nowhere. He was dumping dozens on top of us with every passing second, filling up every inch of space. For every undead minion that one of us killed, ten more appeared. Between the noise, the screams, the clash of weapons, gunshots, the fwoom and crash of powers, it was utter insanity. No one could keep any of this straight. No one could be expected to focus through all of that. Which, of course, was what Fossor was counting on. Chaos was where he thrived, in this moment. All he had to do was keep everyone busy for these crucial seconds. After that it would all be over, in every way that mattered. 

I only managed two more steps past the legless zombies before a ghost appeared in front of me. This one looked like some kind of reptilian crocodile-humanoid, about nine feet tall and covered in some kind of crackling electricity. Electricity that the semi-translucent figure sent flying at me with a snarl of rage that I was pretty sure actually came from Fossor himself. 

The electricity never reached me. Before I could even move, a sudden wall of stone emerged from the ground to catch the attack. A second later, stairs rose as well, giving me a way over it.

“Go!” Sands blurted, even as she spun to slam her ghost-fire enchanted mace into the side of the spectral-reptilian’s head with so much force he was blown apart in a spray of ectoplasm. “We’ll cover you, we’ve got you, just go!”

As if in response to her words, three zombie heads suddenly exploded, as a shot from Sarah’s rifle blew through them in a line. An instant later, a ghost that had appeared behind Sands was disintegrated by a second quick shot. 

I wasn’t alone anymore. Not in any way. With a quick, blurted thanks, I raced up the stairs that Sands had created. Once I reached the top, the other girl made a sharp gesture with her mace, extending a bridge out from the wall that I could run along. 

She couldn’t get me all the way there, of course. And even from that height, there were still so many ghosts flying through the air that getting a good look at Fossor or the altar was impossible. I still couldn’t just launch or portal myself there. There were too many threats in the way, too many minions that would stop me. 

But the bridge that Sands had created at least got me closer. I was able to run a good twenty feet along it, over the heads and grasping hands of the zombies below. On the way, Tabbris focused on keeping the various dead things from scrambling their way up with us, using burning sand and the staff to either blast them with stored kinetic force directly or to create mines that blew them away from us. A couple managed to climb onto the path ahead of us, but I just leapt up and over them without breaking stride. With my copilot, my little sister, on board once more, I didn’t have to worry about watching my back. She did that. She helped keep the damn things off us so I could focus on moving forward. Without her, I would’ve had to slow down. Without her, I never would have caught up with the piece of shit who was trying to kill and enslave everyone I cared about. 

Reaching the end of the bridge, I was met by an enormous ghost with four arms and some kind of rhino-like horn, hovering there. The ghost gave a wide (too-wide) smile with its large, gaping mouth before that horn started to glow even brighter than the rest of it. 

In the next instant, before I even had a chance to avoid whatever rhino-ghost wanted to do, a blonde figure leapt between us. Nevada. She had that chainsaw-sword of hers, and it was apparently enchanted to hurt ghosts as well, because my would-be attacker gave a violent scream as the buzzing, rapidly-rotating chain sword was shoved into and through him. As the ghost blew apart, Nevada lashed out with her free hand to send a small red ball into a group of skeleton-creatures nearby. The ball exploded into a blast of energy that blew the skeletons apart into pieces of bone, then sort of… reformed and sucked the remains into it. Seriously, it basically hoovered the pieces of bone all back inside it after blowing apart, then returned to Nevada’s hand. 

Meanwhile, I kept moving. Even as the ball returned to its creator’s hand, Nevada pivoted and pointed with the hand that still held her sword. A ring on one of her fingers glowed, sending out a solid-light extension of the stone bridge that reached about thirty feet closer. As I passed her, she turned back to keep my pursuers away. 

Even with her help, Tabbris and I weren’t alone on this bridge. We had to fight our way through every inch of space, as more and more creatures were sent after us. Some kind of flying zombie, a rotting thing with bat-wings and a head that was as large as its body, flew down to grab me by the shoulders while both of us were focused on other threats. 

But it didn’t hold on for long. A beam of concussive force passed right over my head, blowing the flying zombie’s head off before it could so much as screech. 

Columbus. He’d teleported onto the bridge and was already using another couple quick blasts from his goggles to blow away two more of those flying zombies who had been trying to swoop in. He’d also brought Sean with him, who turned back the other way with Vulcan in his minigun form, opening up a devastating hail of bullets that tore through all the creatures who had been blocking our path, opening it up. 

“Better get going, Flickster!” Sean called, still sweeping Vulcan back and forth to pick off those who were still moving. Hundreds of bullets tore through the things. “These hijueputas ain’t gonna stop coming!” 

There was so much I wanted to say right then. But I couldn’t. There wasn’t time. There just… wasn’t time. So, I kept moving, sprinting between the two while praying that there would be a ‘later’ to actually say all the things I wanted to. 

At the end of this second bridge, I was met not by a threat, but a friend. My oldest friend, actually. Miranda was there, using her shield to block several sprays of what looked like acid spit from far below before raising one hand. A distortion in the air, like an almost-invisible tennis ball made of violently twisting and spinning air, appeared in her grasp. With a grunt, she threw it right into the midst of the creatures who were attacking from below, and I arrived just in time to see the tightly-contained winds within it blow apart, sending the creatures violently flying in every direction. 

Even as I reached her, Miranda split off a duplicate, both of them giving me quick, wild grins. “You made it!” one blurted, before the other added, “Wish we could talk, but–” 

“I know,” I interrupted. “Gotta stop him!” With that, I snapped my staff down, using the kinetic force it had charged up to launch myself up and away from them. Fossor. I had to get to Fossor. 

Two more of those flying zombies tried to intercept me in mid-flight. But they were both literally smashed into pieces by two pillars of dirt and rock that tore their way out of the ground to slam into one another, catching the winged-monsters between them. Koren. The girl was below, using one hand to form the arch she’d created out of the two pillars into a raised platform for me. Meanwhile, one of those solid-energy animals she could make, a full-sized wolf in this case, was tearing apart a skeletal figure that had tried to attack the girl. 

I landed on that platform, using it to get a look below. Fossor. There. There he was, getting closer to the altar with each step while the cataclysmic battle raged around him. With a grunt, I launched myself that way, using a blast from my staff to send myself right toward the bastard. 

More undead tried to stop me, only to be caught by the people who cared about me. 

A screaming, banshee-like spirit was captured in a forcefield-like cage by Risa Kohaku, before the cage shrank itself into a tiny ball, destroying its prisoner in the process. 

A four-legged bull-like zombie thing ripped up from the ground and opened its mouth to send a disgusting, horrifyingly long tongue up to grab me. But the tongue and the bull-zombie itself were literally frozen into a solid ice statue by Gordon Kuhn, who stood behind the thing and grabbed it. 

A giant, almost-entirely rotted humanoid corpse, so large it made the Meregan look small, tried to snatch me out of the air. But Hisao was there. Though he only came up to the undead creature’s knee, he punched the thing so hard in that knee that its leg snapped. As it fell, Hisao caught the body, pivoting to slam the thing into the ground so hard the Earth itself seemed to shake. Then I was down. I was on the ground, already running. Everyone behind and around me was still fighting for their lives. And for the lives of everyone else. No matter where I looked, I could see people I cared about being set upon by dozens of undead creatures. Roxa, Carfried, Haiden, Rebecca, Jazz, Doug, everyone and anyone. They were all doing literally everything they could to deal with the literal legion of monstrosities that Fossor had summoned. It was an army of everyone I cared about versus an army of the undead. 

As for the piece of shit himself, he’d… stopped. I realized that even as I came rushing up behind him. The man was a good thirty feet from his altar, but there was someone in his way. 

No, someones. My mother was there, but she wasn’t alone. Deveron was there too. And so were Lillian, Roger and Seamus Dornan, and Tribald Kine. Her old team. Her friends. They were right alongside her, blocking Fossor’s path. 

From the sound of his growl, the man wasn’t exactly in a good mood. I wondered why. He glanced over his shoulder at me, eyes narrowing. “It seems our girl has decided to join us all by herself,” he noted in a dark, threatening voice. 

“No, she hasn’t.” That was Avalon. Valley. She was there, right beside me. “She’s not by herself.” 

“She never is.” Shiori, appearing on my other side, put in. Both of them, both my girls, standing right there on either side of me. Both glaring at Fossor. Not only that, but Asenath was by Shiori as well, standing with her sister. 

Before the man could retort, another voice spoke up from behind the four of us. “They’re right about that, Fossor.” Dare. It was Dare, standing with her sword out to one side as her own gaze narrowed at the man who had unknowingly hurt her family so much. “Felicity will never be alone. Not in the way that you will always be.” 

“Always.” That was Rahanvael, appearing slightly in front of me. Her voice was solem. “You will always be alone, Fossor.” She was clearly making a point by using that name rather than the one belonging to her brother. “You have lived alone. And you will die alone.” 

Fossor, in turn, actually growled a little bit. He looked toward my mother and her people, then back toward me and mine. “You think so?” His words were a snarl through gritted teeth. “Come then.

“Let us see who dies today.”

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Mini-Interlude 82 – Avalon’s Explanation (Heretical Edge)

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The following takes place immediately after Interlude 33D – Avalon, Scout, And The Team, when Avalon began to explain what she found out about Flick being possessed (while Flick was lost in Seosten space) from Theia. 

It was late, long after the most recent hunt for the students of Crossroads. The sky above had turned cloudy, leaving only a sliver of moonlight. Which was somehow appropriate for the group standing on the roof of the girl’s dorm. Scout, Sean (with Vulcan at his side), Columbus, and Shiori stood facing Avalon Sinclaire, each of them confused about why she had asked to meet. There was an obvious tenseness to the girl, had been all day long. But it was more than being tense. She had been tense the whole time Felicity and the others had been missing. This was something else, something more. And apparently it had to do with Flick, though all she had said so far was for them to ‘not start freaking out’ until she finished explaining. 

Looking up to the dark, cloudy sky for a moment as though collecting her thoughts after initially telling them all to let her say what she needed to, Avalon finally took a breath, lowered her gaze to the others, and announced, “Flick’s possessed by a Seosten child. She has been for a long time, maybe the whole time we’ve known her, we’re not sure. She’s possessed by the… the child, but the kid isn’t actually controlling her. Or she wasn’t, anyway. At least, we don’t–” 

“Whoa, whoa, wait!” Despite her request that they let her explain everything, Columbus couldn’t help himself. “What do you mean?” he demanded, eyes wide as he stared at her in confusion. “How the hell could Flick be possessed, she can’t be possessed! We–wait…” 

Avalon gave a short nod. “Yeah, exactly. That’s why she couldn’t be possessed, because she–” 

“No, no.” Shiori was shaking her head frantically, hair flying. “No, she’s–you’re–no, she’s not!” Her voice rose sharply. “Why would you say that?! She’s not even here, you can’t know. You–” 

“Theia,” Avalon informed them, watching the other girl’s wide, frantic eyes. She tried to keep her voice calm, tamping down on her own emotions about the whole situation considering she’d had a bit more time to process all of it.  “The… the Seosten girl possessing Pace. She said that–”  

It was apparently the night of interruptions, because Sean blurted, “Her? You’re taking her word that Flick’s possessed?” His head shook slowly as he put his hand on Vulcan’s head, who was whining. “How would she–well, okay, the choker thing. Wait, she told you she saw some Seosten possessing Flick back when she had the choker thing? How do you know… you know…” 

“How do you know she’s not making it up?” Columbus bluntly asked. “It’s not like it’d be out of the question for her to just be fucking with you, you know? What makes you think she’s telling the truth? I mean, I get that she’s… uhh, I know you said you talked to her and that she’s staying with Koren’s mom and Seller or… something, but seriously? I met that girl. I mean, I met her while I… while I was possessed. She’s not exactly the most stable person on the planet. Even if it’s not part of some evil plot, I wouldn’t put it past her to just be fucking with you.”

“With us,” Sean pointed out. “She had to know that you’d tell us. Columbus is right, this whole story could be her having some big laugh, freaking all of us out. Or even sowing distrust.” 

Shiori’s head was bobbing quickly, wide and almost frantic eyes darting from the two boys back to Avalon. “Y-yeah, that’s probably it. Why would she tell us the truth about that? What does she get out of it if she’s not just… just trying to make us think we can’t trust Flick? That’s all… it doesn’t make sense. She must’ve been trying to make you, I mean… make us freak out.” 

Avalon opened her mouth to try to cut in before that went further, but it was Scout who spoke in a quiet, yet completely certain voice. “She’s not lying.” When they all looked to her, she pointed out, “If she was messing with us, she wouldn’t say that the Seosten wasn’t controlling her.” 

“She knew we wouldn’t believe that Flick was being controlled by one of them,” Columbus objected. “She couldn’t very well know everything that happened all the way up to Flick killing that bitch and think we’d actually believe that was all just a long con by a really devoted spy.” 

Shiori’s head bobbed once more at that, an almost violent motion. “Y-yeah. So maybe she thought if she made up some story about some other Seosten, like… like, they don’t all communicate, right? There’s gotta be like… rivalries and stuff. That Charmeine woman had enemies. She had to have. So she convinces us that it’s some rival Seosten controlling Flick.” 

“A child?” Avalon pointed out as gently as she could. Her instinct was to snap at them, given everything she’d been feeling and worrying about these past couple days. But she forced that down. “Why would she make up that whole story and then tell us the Seosten is a child?” 

“Because she– I mean, if she thought we…” Shiori looked desperately to her brother, then back again when all he could offer was a hesitant shrug. “But it doesn’t make sense! Flick is Flick. We know Flick. She can’t be some Seosten kid, that doesn’t–I’m not… she’s just–I–I–” 

Flick wasn’t here. Whatever her actual condition, she wasn’t here. So, Avalon did what she would have in that moment, what someone had to. She stepped over, taking Shiori in an embrace. Holding onto the other girl while trying not to feel too uncomfortable about the whole situation (and drastically overthinking all of it), Avalon murmured, “She is Flick. It’s like I said, the Seosten wasn’t controlling her, as far as Theia saw. She was just there, possessing her.” 

“But why?” Shiori managed, her voice small and vulnerable. “Why would she… I–why would there be a Seosten kid possessing Flick all this time and just not doing anything? Where did she come from? Why’s she there? What–what’s going on?” 

“That, we…” Avalon sighed helplessly. “That, we don’t know. All Theia knew was that there was a Seosten girl possessing her, but she wasn’t controlling anything she did. She was just sort of… there.” She offered a shrug, looking around at the rest of the group once more while stepping away from Shiori. Thankfully, Columbus took her place, pulling his sister close. 

“So there’s some Seosten kid just sort of hanging out inside Flick.” Sean considered the words he had just said before rolling his eyes. “You know, just when you think you’ve got a general handle on the weirdness of this whole year, something else pops up that throws off everything else. Seriously, what the hell? Does–does anyone even know where to start with this?” 

“Does Gaia know about her?” Scout asked, watching Avalon carefully. Her expression made it clear there were a lot more thoughts and questions going on behind those deeply expressive brown eyes. She had simply settled on the most immediately relevant one for the moment. 

Avalon nodded. “Yes. She knows. So do Deveron, Koren, Miranda, Wyatt, Seller, and Abigail. And now you guys. That’s it, as far as I know. Maybe Gaia told Dare.” 

“Well, she’s out in Seosten space,” Sean pointed out. “Maybe that’s what the kid possessing her wanted. You know, a ride back home or something. Maybe she’ll hop out of her out there.” 

“Or maybe she’ll take control,” Columbus countered, his voice rising just a little bit. “Maybe she’s one of those that sits patiently until the right time, then grabs the reins and takes over.” 

“She said it was a Seosten child,” Avalon reminded him with a look. “Not a Seosten special forces operative. Child, as in someone who was probably stranded here or something.” 

“But how did a Seosten kid end up stranded here on Earth?” Sean asked pointedly. “Or, more importantly, how did that stranded Seosten kid end up in Flick? I mean, it sounded like the Seosten have been trying to figure out why they couldn’t possess Flicker for a long time, right? Like, since she was a kid. Which means…” He frowned, trying to work his way through that.  “I guess we don’t know that it’s been the same Seosten possessing her the whole time.” 

“What,” Avalon retorted, “like Flick’s had a whole conga line of stranded Seosten possessing her while they wait to go home or something?” She was less frustrated by the conversation than she was by the entire situation. She knew that, but it was still hard to keep herself in check. She was worried about Flick. She wanted to talk to her, wanted to… to be with her. And a glance toward Shiori reminded her that, at the very least, the two of them shared that much. 

Sean’s head shook quickly. “No, I–sorry, I’m just trying to spitball here and work it out. Okay, so the same Seosten. But a kid? Why would a kid be possessing Flick all this time? It doesn’t–” 

“Ohhhh shit!” Columbus suddenly blurted sharply. His eyes had widened, mouth working a few times as he muttered something under his breath while looking off into the distance. Memories came to him, and he briefly forgot where he was or that he was even around anyone else. 

The others all watched him for a minute of quiet muttering, before Avalon finally grew too impatient. Clearing her throat, she prodded, “Are you going to share what you’re thinking about with the rest of the class sometime today so we can all contribute, or would you rather make us start throwing out guesses?” Again, she tried to restrain most of her helplessness-fueled annoyance. It wasn’t Columbus’s fault Flick wasn’t here so they could figure this out with her. 

Looking surprised at her voice, as he was dragged out of his memories by it, Columbus blinked a couple times to orient himself. It was clear that he was still having issues remembering to actually control his own body and pay attention after spending months being possessed. Finally, he shook his head, trying to find the right words before settling on. “I just–Chayyiel.”     

The rest of the group exchanged brief looks, a collective shrug going up before Sean spoke for all of them. “Okay, we give up. What’s a shy heel? Some kind of code phrase or something?”

“Not shy heel,” Columbus corrected tensely. “Chayyiel. She’s–Charmeine talked about her a bit, okay? She’s some kid–but not a kid. She’s–damn it.” Tripping over his words, he took a breath to collect himself. “She was a kid, but then a bunch of them got their powers or whatever, the whole Olympian thing. Charmeine wasn’t exactly big on explaining, it was mostly taunting or whatever. They all got powers. When Chayyiel got them, she was a kid, and it froze her age where she was. So she’s actually really old, but she looks like she’s just a child.” 

Eyes widening at that, Avalon blurted, “Wait a second, you think she’s the one inside of Flick?” Oh God, that would change everything. She’d been relatively certain that whatever was going on, Flick would be okay if it was just a little kid possessing her. But if it was some ancient Seosten who just looked like a kid, that was a whole other beast. The worry that had been simmering low in her stomach was suddenly ratcheted up to full blast, as she stared at the boy. 

“Wait, wait,” Shiori put in quickly, her own voice shaking. “Now it is dangerous?” Her eyes focused on her brother as she turned to face him. “Columbus, who’s this Chayyiel?” 

“I don’t know that much about her,” the boy admitted helplessly while his arms flailed a bit. “Mostly just what I could pull out of Charmeine’s ranting and taunting. She looks like a little kid but she’s actually old, and she’s strong. Like, maybe one of the strongest Seosten in the universe. I–she said something about… something about her knowing how to kill things.” 

“Knowing how to kill things?” Sean echoed with obvious confusion, frowning at his roommate. “What does that mean, exactly? A lot of people know how to kill things. We know how to kill things. It’s kind of what this whole school is about. We all learn how to kill things, that’s not exactly a great superpower.” At his feet, Vulcan gave a soft woof of agreement. 

With a snort, Avalon gave the boy a brief, pointed look. “I’m pretty sure it’s bigger than that. You really think knowing how to kill things isn’t a big superpower? Look at all the thousands of different species in the universe. Look at all the different powers a lot of them have, all the different defenses. Look at Gaia. Look at any of the adult Heretics, the Committee members. Look at all of them. Imagine someone whose power is knowing how to kill any of them.” She looked back to Columbus. “That’s it, isn’t it? That’s why she’s so dangerous. Knowing how to kill things, it doesn’t mean ‘she’s got training’, it means she literally knows how to kill things.” 

Swallowing hard at the thoughts that ran through his own head, Columbus made himself nod. His throat felt dry, like sandpaper. All he could think about was Flick being controlled by some hyper-violent, crazy Seosten like the one who had taken him over. Only worse, one who knew how to sit quietly and wait. If she’d been hiding inside Flick all this time, maybe only subtly nudging her here and there, then… then… God. It could be really bad. “I… yeah. That’s it.” 

“But wait, wait, no, hold on.” Shiori was shaking her head quickly, though she seemed a bit more in control of herself after her initial reaction. “Look, it’s–she’s dangerous, right? This Chayyiel.” 

“Yeah,” Columbus confirmed. “Like I said, from what Charmeine said, she’s basically one of the biggest weapons the Seosten have got. Which means, if she’s inside Flick, we’re all fucked.” 

“But she’s not,” his sister insisted firmly, drawing everyone’s attention to her. “It doesn’t make sense. Okay, right, she’s super dangerous and powerful and everything, and she’s just… sitting inside Flick for years? And Charmeine doesn’t know about it? I mean, okay compartmentalized and all, but she’d have to know that this… Chayyiel would have to have been off the grid for awhile, right? Charmeine was bragging about how strong this girl–woman–whatever is, and it never came up that Chayyiel has been gone on some secret mission or whatever for a decade or so? Why?” 

Scout was nodding slowly, a slight frown of uncertainty creasing her forehead. “She couldn’t.” 

“Yeah,” Avalon murmured. “No way someone like that disappears for that long and it doesn’t come up. Space is huge, but she has to be important. She has to have responsibilities.” Her gaze moved back to Columbus for confirmation. “Someone like that, she’d be high up.”

“She’s some kind of senator or general or something,” the boy agreed, his heart starting to slow down a bit as the flaws in the assumption were pointed out. “So yeah, pretty important.” 

“Oh man,” Sean groaned. “I hate to be the buzzing fly just when we all stopped losing our shit, but what about that whole recall thing? Couldn’t she only be possessing Flick sometimes? What if there’s a… I don’t know, a spell on her or something to let her know if someone’s about to possess her, and that’s when she pops on back to make sure it doesn’t happen?” 

“It… still wouldn’t make sense for Charmeine not to know about her, or for Manakel not to,” Avalon reminded him. “Seriously, from what Columbus said, they’ve been tearing their hair out trying to to understand why they can’t possess Flick. So why would they be so confused about that if it’s just this Chayyiel? Sure, they probably all keep secrets and have their own little mission cells and all. But they had to be communicating with their leader or higher up or whatever about not being able to possess Flick. At some point, it would’ve come up that they were trying to possess someone who was another Seosten’s host, right?” 

Scout quickly put in, “And she would have said something to them.” 

“Hey, that’s right,” Shiori realized. “That’s kind of the obvious thing, isn’t it? If Chayyiel was possessing Flick, she would’ve said something to all the Seosten who kept trying to possess her themselves. You know, take over for a second, explain the situation, then wipe her mind.” 

“Yeah…” Columbus frowned at the roof before nodding as he looked up. “I guess it doesn’t really fit. I mean, the kid thing does, but nothing else. On the other hand, the whole ‘why didn’t the Seosten kid explain what she was doing when the other Seosten showed up to possess Flick’ is a hard thing to figure out no matter who she is, Chayyiel or not.” 

“Fair.” Avalon frowned as well, squinting off into the distance. “If this isn’t that Chayyiel chick on some secret undercover mission, then… who is it? A real Seosten kid? But why? How? What’s she doing here? And why the hell didn’t she ever say anything to the others?” 

“Maybe she’s a runaway,” Shiori put in. “The Seosten have to have those, right? She could be a runaway, hiding from the Seosten. Maybe she’s some lost princess or the daughter of a war criminal, if they even have those, or something.” 

“We’re speculating wildly,” Avalon pointed out. “The point is, we don’t know. We have no idea why she’s hiding in Flick or what her… her business is, and no way to find out until Flick gets back here.” 

Which would be soon, right? Avalon asked herself that very question while reflexively glancing up toward the sky. The clouds meant there was no way to see the stars. But she knew they were there, just as she knew her girlfriend was. And just as the clouds would eventually move to reveal the stars, Flick would come back to Earth. She would come back to them, and they could figure all of this out together. 

Right?

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Denouement 6 – Signa Inferre (Heretical Edge)

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Tsseewww! Tsssseeeww! Tsseeeeewww!

One after another, light green lasers filled the air, each shot blasting a hole into the dirt as the automated defense drone dove toward its target, a large grizzly bear currently ripping apart one of the Crossroads’ prison’s turrets that it had ripped out of the ground. 

The bear, Twister, pivoted around toward the incoming shots with a roar that seemed to shake the ground she was standing on. An instant before the next round of lasers would have struck her, the bear form vanished. In its place hovered a small hummingbird, just as four simultaneous shots sailed past her… striking another figure entirely, a girl who had been crouched behind Twister’s bear form, just waiting. 

“Thanks!” Bobbi Camren, clad in the blue-white, glass-like body armor created by her power, grinned as the energy from the drone’s shots coursed through her. It manifested in the form of brightly flickering lightning-like electricity dancing through her armor. 

The drone adjusted instantly. A small compartment slid open in its front, and a rocket shot forth with a sharp whistle on its way toward the pair. In the next second, the rocket would explode in a ball of fire and force powerful enough to destroy everything in a thirty foot radius around them. 

With barely a thought, Bobbi shoved all the power she had just absorbed into her speed. The world around her slowed to the point of nearly standing still. The rocket inched its way through the air, flames dancing behind it even as a second rocket very slowly began to emerge from the drone, a follow-up shot just to be sure of its kills, aimed in the direction they would likely flee. 

Bobbi cracked her neck, watching the rockets for a brief instant before shoving off her left foot. She sprinted that way, feet tearing up the ground, leaving little smoldering imprints in her rush. With a raised hand, she used a bit of her power to conjure a solid-energy ramp leading up along the first rocket’s path. Passing the rocket in a sprint, she grabbed the front of it on the way past. It turned, facing back the way it had come while continuing its oh-so-slow (from her current point of view) flight. 

From there, Bobbi leapt from her ramp. The second rocket had gained about a foot of distance in that brief time, and she threw herself at it. Her hands caught the side of the rocket, yanking it off course. A new thought summoned a small wall of energy in mid-air, which Bobbi kicked off of while holding onto the explosive weapon. Course adjusted, she let go and allowed herself to drop to the ground, landing in a roll. 

Her speed ended then, and the girl’s head jerked up just in time to see the first rocket slam into the drone it had emerged from. With a deafening explosion, the drone went up in flames, showering bits of metal debris all over. 

At the same time, the second rocket struck its new mark as well: another turret mounted on a nearby building that had popped out to begin shooting at the intruders. Both the drone and the turret were simultaneously destroyed by the former’s own adjusted rockets. 

In the next moment, a coil of stone and dirt erupted from the ground, wrapping around Bobbi and yanking her down. One of the loyal Crossroads Heretics came into view, his long, dark hair wet with sweat as he tightened his fist to make the rock coil in turn tighten. The rock was giving off some kind of… dust that went through Bobbi’s helmet and made her feel dizzy. It was hard to focus. “Stardrinker Heretic, huh?” The man’s voice was a mixture of harsh and genuinely curious. “Haven’t seen any of those for a long time, kid. Where’d you find yours?” 

“Mars,” came a snapped retort from about ten feet away, just before a blast of energy shot through the stone coil, blowing it apart into small chunks and freeing Bobbi. 

The Crossroads loyalist spun to the new attacker, already flinging his hand out to throw a dozen glowing energy blades that way. But Columbus, whose goggles had just blasted apart the man’s stone coil, vanished from sight. 

He reappeared on the opposite side of the man, already throwing both hands forward as he summoned a wave of incredibly powerful kinetic force to throw at him. Just before it struck him, however, the Crossroads man snapped his hand out behind his back, catching the force with a power of his own before converting the power into fire and flinging it back at Columbus. The fire took the form of a snake whose head was the size of a Volkswagen, mouth wide open as it flew at the boy. 

The fire-snake was blown apart into separate sparks and bits of flame in mid-lunge, as a new figure leapt through it. Aylen Tamaya, body covered in the armored shape of her own cyberform, Sovereign, landed in a crouch. The scattered remains of the fire snake turned white-hot before shooting back toward their progenitor. He, in turn, gave a sharp wave of his hand to summon a rush of wind to send them flying off into the distance. 

In the time that he was dealing with the flames, Aylen rose with a sharp whistle. The sound was answered by a heavy bark, as the cyberform dog called Vulcan all-but flew across the ground in a sprint to rush at her from behind. At the last instant before he would have collided with the girl (who showed no sign of moving), Vulcan leapt, his body splitting apart into two halves almost directly down the middle. As Aylen raised both arms to either side, the two halves of Vulcan latched onto her armor. The half on her left arm produced the minigun that gave Vulcan his name. Meanwhile, the half on her right arm produced a sharp, foot-and-a-half long blade. The bulk of the dog’s body had slid up into itself in both halves, leaving what amounted to a pair of shields all along each of the girl’s arms in addition to the weapons.

Columbus had already been putting his studies with Harrison Fredericks to good use. 

The minigun opened up, flooding the air with bullets as the Crossroads figure recovered from hurling the incoming flames away from him. Several shots took him in the chest, but did little more than stagger him before he brought a quick forcefield up to send further shots ricochetting uselessly away. 

Keeping his shield up with one hand under the assault of gunfire, the Heretic abruptly snapped his other hand down, turning just a bit to catch Columbus by the wrist just as the boy appeared beside him. Gripping tight enough to break the bone there, he began to jerk upward as though to hurl him out of the way. 

In the midst of that, however, Columbus’s free hand snapped up, throwing a cloud of sand into the man’s face. 

That sand promptly transformed into a certain small Asian girl who went by the name of Shiori, whose fist collided with the Heretic’s jaw with enough force to snap his head back with a sharp grunt of pain. Reflexively, he used Columbus as a flail, jerking the boy’s body at her while cursing out loud. 

Shiori, however, turned back into sand, allowing her brother’s form to pass right through her before reforming herself. Still in mid-lunge, she caught onto the Crossroads man’s shoulders, mouth opening. Just as Columbus collected himself enough to teleport away from his captor’s grip, Shiori unleashed a burst of lightning from her mouth that caught their opponent full in the face. 

It accomplished little, aside from briefly blinding the man as his head jerked back. Shiori, in turn, was hurled away from the man by a wave of force as he roared in annoyance while staggering a bit, eyes blinking rapidly. The Asian girl tumbled and fell, skidding along the ground with a yelp.

And in that moment, as the man recovered, he caught a brief glimpse of a crow flying directly into his face. In the next instant, that crow transformed back into Aylen. She had abandoned Sovereign and Vulcan, both still in the form of the armor with attached weapons, leaving both still there firing at the forcefield as a handy distraction. Now, back in her own body, Aylen brought both hands together in a hard slam that sent a deafening wave of sound centered solely on the man himself. To outside observers, there was simply a distortion in the air and a slight thud-like sound. To the Crossroads man, an earsplitting boom struck, sending him to one knee as blood poured from both ears.  

Still, the man was able to summon enough focus to draw a new rock-coil from the ground, wrapping around Aylen’s ankles before hurling her out of the way with a vicious slam into the ground that left her lying a bit dazed, as she lay in a slight crater that had been created there. Despite her prodigious protections and regeneration, she wouldn’t be getting up again for a moment or two. 

Disoriented as the man was by the loss of his hearing, he did not, however, detect the pounding footsteps coming up from behind him. Not even his assortment of danger senses helped, given it had been spending all its effort alerting him about the still-present gunfire from the Vulcan-Sovereign combination that whole time. The man’s only real warning was the way the ground shook around him, and he spun just before Twister, in rhino form (having just switched from the horse form she’d been using to gain as much speed as possible), crashed into him. The man went flying, bouncing end over end along the ground before ending in a tangled heap of limbs. He was still breathing, slowly trying to push himself up with a mixed mutter of curses and grunts. Despite everything, he was still ready to go, still oriented enough to fight, just as soon as he could get his feet back under himself.

Then Columbus was there, appearing beside the man just in time to press one of Wyatt’s knock-out and teleport rocks against the side of his neck. With a quick command word to activate it, the boy sent their opponent far away. He’d be pretty pissed off once he woke up, but that was something to worry about another day.

“Did… did we win?” Bobbi managed, pushing herself up as she finally shook off the effect of that rock coil. Nearby, Aylen was starting to do the same. 

“Win?” Twister echoed while shifting back into her own form. “Not yet, kid. Why, you’re not tired yet, are ya? Cuz we’ve got a long way to go, and Ol’ Assy’s gonna be pretty ticked off if we don’t hold up her end of the battle since she can’t be here with the whole sun thing.” She paused then before adding, “At least she’s keeping busy with the other thing.” 

“I’m okay,” Bobbi insisted, shaking the cobwebs out of her head as she focused. “But these guys really don’t want us to be here.” She took a quick glance across the chaotic battlefield. They were mostly along the outskirts, picking up stragglers and dealing with random defenses, while the bulk of the allied Rebel Heretics, Seosten, and Atherby Alters handled the main threats. Seeing the display of powers, weapons, and utter destruction that had overtaken the once-supposedly abandoned town was staggering. The destructive capability of an entire World War had descended into this small area. 

“Well,” Shiori muttered as she picked herself up and shook the dust out of her hair. “If they don’t want us here, they just have to do one thing. 

“Give us our people back.” 

*******

“I gotta say, Flick,” Sean called out over his shoulder as he jogged down the narrow prison corridor, “you guys still know how to make a pretty good entrance!” 

Flick, running along behind him with Avalon nearby, replied, “You like that, huh? Yeah, we would’ve been here sooner, but we really had to practice that.” There was a slight hitch to her voice, as, despite her attempt to sound casual, the very thought of joking about how long Sean had been left in this prison, from his point of view, was too much.  

Sands, just ahead of Sean, called back to the others, “Don’t… don’t forget about the part where we just could not get the welcome back cake to taste right.” She too, was trying to lighten the mood a bit after the shock of seeing Sean as an adult and realizing just how long it had been for him. And like Flick, her attempt to do so was accompanied by hesitation, and a voice that just couldn’t quite convey the casualness she was going for. 

The four teammates were accompanied by Athena, who was ahead of them by a bit to allow them to talk as they raced through the prison toward one of the defense stations. Vanessa, Tristan, and their father were heading for the other one, leaving Larissa and Apollo to guard the main room. All three groups would need to take down their respective defense consoles near-simultaneously to avoid triggering the evacuation procedures. 

Flick’s voice sobered a bit then, as she reached out to touch the back of the… now-man’s arm. “Sean,” she started. “Seriously, if–” 

“Not now.” His voice was rough, but Sean quickly tempered it, exhaling. “It’s not–it’s not your fault. I know you were trying, but… but I don’t want to talk about it right now. Later, okay? Just… later. Let’s get the hell out of here right now, before we get into the apologies, promises, and all that shit.” He knew even as he said it that it wasn’t the best response he could’ve had, but it had been quite some time since he regularly dealt with people he wasn’t openly contemptuous of aside from Apollo and the occasional visit from someone like Flick. This was different. Between that and his anxiety about being so close to escaping this hellhole, he just… couldn’t think about anything else. 

He’d thought of almost nothing more for so long than getting out of this place that had been his prison for so goddamn long. And now that the moment was here, now that it was so close he could taste it, the fear that it would all be snatched away and he would once again be trapped for endless weeks, months, and even years… it left his body shaking despite himself. 

Luckily (in a way), he didn’t have much more time to dwell on that for the moment. Because in mid-sprint, Athena abruptly spun back toward them. Excalibur leapt to her hand, already rising on an intercept course against seemingly nothing… an instant before it suddenly collided with the descending blade of the Crossroads Heretic who had just teleported into view, appearing between the Seosten woman and Sands. Simultaneously, another Heretic guard appeared ahead, that one armed with some form of shotgun, which she opened fire with. 

“Wall!” Athena snapped without looking as she threw her left hand out, a dagger flying toward the second Heretic before it exploded into a field of energy that intercepted the shotgun blast. At the same time, the woman used Excalibur to parry several quick thrusts from the first Heretic’s blade. 

Sands didn’t argue or wait for even a moment. Her mace snapped up immediately and she conjured a wall in front of herself, cutting them off from Athena for the moment so the woman could do her work without worrying about the four of them getting in the way. Where the girl Sands was at the start of the year might have tried to throw herself into the fight alongside Athena to prove something, the one she was now had already proven everything she needed to. And almost none of it was what she had set out that year to prove. 

Unfortunately, the group wasn’t exactly in the clear. While the sound of Athena dealing with the adult Heretics came through the walls (Sands had hastily erected a couple more just to be on the safe side), a new figure appeared between them. 

Sean saw the woman, a single word full of disgust and anger jumping to his lips. “Mom.” 

In the next instant, Sands and Sean were hurled backward against one wall, while Flick and Avalon were slammed into the opposite one. All four were held there telekinetically, as Andrea Gerardo brought both hands out, holding them in place. “That’s enough!” she blurted in a voice that filled the hall. “You children don’t know what you’re doing, but this is as far as you go. You’ve–” 

“Hey Sean!” Flick interrupted, drawing the woman’s attention. “I know I was late getting here, but how’d you like a–” In mid-sentence, a portal appeared in front of her hand as she was held against the wall. She stuck one finger through and out the other end of the portal behind Andrea to touch the woman’s neck. 

“–free shot?” Andrea’s mouth finished Flick’s sentence, as the girl disappeared from where she had been pinned. The others were all released, stumbling a bit. 

Sean, recovering first, didn’t hesitate. His fist lashed out, slamming into his mother’s face. Her head was knocked backward, and the woman collapsed as Flick’s glowing figure emerged and solidified. 

“Do I wanna know how much of that was you knocking her out and how much was me?” Sean asked, rubbing his bloodied fist. 

With a shrug, Flick replied, “Let’s just say she got the message.” 

There was a series of quick knocks against the walls that Sands had erected then, and the girl quickly dismissed them to reveal Athena. Stepping into view, the Seosten woman took a glance toward the collapsed figure on the floor, then looked at Sean. “Everything okay?” 

He swallowed once, staring at his mother for a moment before lifting his gaze with a slight nod. “Peachy. Let’s go. I’m not in the mood for any more family reunions.” 

“Well,” Flick informed him as they started to move once more. “Your brother’s outside, so I hope you’re okay with one more.

“Cuz he’s sure been anxious to find you.” 

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Denouement 1 – Commencement (Heretical Edge)

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On the edge of the lake in the middle of the Atherby camp, as the sun had barely begun to rise over the distant horizon, a dozen or so figures milled around the rocky beach. Two in particular, identical in outward appearance, stood a bit apart from the rest, facing one another. A bird gave its trilling morning song while flying overhead as the two of them stepped in to hug each other. 

“Be careful, Sands,” Scout whispered in her sister’s ear as the two embraced tightly. Her voice caught just a little, and there was an obvious look of fear in her eyes as she leaned back. 

Sandoval Mason forced herself to smile, trying to reassure her twin. “Hey, you better be careful too. I mean, you’re not exactly gonna be sitting here twiddling your thumbs, you know?” 

Her words brought a small smile to Scout’s face as well, before the girl gave a short nod. “But you’ll be inside. I’ll be outside.” Her words were tentative, voice making it clear just how much she wished that she could actually accompany her sister for this little trip. 

Sands held her fist up, extending it to the other girl. “One of us inside, one of us outside. That way they’ve got a Mason twin at both ends of this thing. Lucky twin charms, huh?” 

It took a moment, but Scout bumped her own fist against Sands’. “Lucky twin charms.” She hesitated before leaning closer once more to whisper, “Look out for Mom, and Uncle Haiden.” 

Reflexively, Sands glanced over toward the rest of the group. Their mother was there, along with Profe–um, Miss Kohaku, Rebecca’s grandmother Lillian, Miss Dare, Uncle Haiden, Athena, Tristan, Vanessa, and Apollo. Flick, Tabbris, Shiori, and Avalon were standing a bit away from the others, having a private conversation just like the twins were that was probably going along the same lines. Further off, Columbus stood basically in the water up to his ankles, ignoring the groups as he focused on staring out at a couple of Flick’s sharks that were swimming around. Vulcan lay on the beach a few feet away, rolling a large stone back and forth with his snout. 

Nodding to her sister, Scout stepped away to move up by Columbus. He clearly noticed her approach, but said nothing until she stopped right beside him, both of them watching the sharks. The quiet (aside from the various birds giving their morning songs and the murmur of conversation around them) stretched on for a minute or so before the boy finally spoke. “We have to get him out of that place.” His voice was firm, and he turned a bit to look at her. “Whatever it takes. He’s been in there too long. Apollo and… and Flick visiting him, I know that’s helped, but…” Slowly, he shook his head with a hard swallow. “We can’t leave him anymore.” 

Behind them, Vulcan made a noise of both agreement and worry, a soft whine that came as the cyberform rose to his feet and moved over to join them, splashing through the water a bit.

Reaching down, Scout put her hand on Vulcan’s head, patting it with a single nod. “We will,” she said simply. There was no more to say than that. Columbus was right, Sean had been locked up long enough. Too long, from his point of view. She had no idea exactly how much time had passed for the boy, other than the fact that it had been years. Years. He had been locked up in that place for literally years by that point. To Scout and the others, it was July sixteenth. To Sean? Who the hell knew how long it had been for him? 

How the living hell could anyone, anyone do that to another person and still think that they were the good guys? How could the Committee, Crossroads in general, or any of his guards see their prisoner locked in one place for literally years from his point of view and still think they were in the right? Even Bystanders knew solitary confinement was incredibly dangerous and wrong. 

It was wrong. It was evil. And it was time for that to end. Sean and… and whoever else was locked up in that place (Scout actually wasn’t sure who else was there) had to be saved. If Crossroads was doing this to other prisoners, they had to be saved too. It was just… evil. 

They would save Sean from his imprisonment. Today. 

“Alright, guys!” Haiden Moon called, pulling everyone’s attention to himself as he raised a hand. “Let’s come in a bit and get this started, huh?” Scout saw him glance toward Athena and murmur something under his breath, to which the Seosten woman gave a short nod. 

“Well,” Columbus muttered, “time to do this thing. Ready, boy?” He waited for Vulcan to give an affirmative bark before walking that way. Scout followed, meeting up with her sister as everyone gathered in a loose circle around the spot where Haiden and Athena stood waiting.

“We’ve been over how this is going to go,” Haiden was saying, his voice somewhat tense given what they were about to go into. “Does anyone have any questions?”  

When none were forthcoming, Virginia Dare spoke up. “If you’re part of the outside group, come with Risa and me. We’ll go meet up with the others and be ready to make our move.” 

Scout and Sands glanced to one another, squeezing each other’s hands one last time before separating. Sands stayed with Haiden’s group while Scout moved with Columbus and Vulcan over to join Dare, Lillian, and Kohaku. Shiori joined them, as Rebecca’s grandmother took Columbus by the shoulder gently, leaning up to whisper something. Scout caught the words ‘burn the fuckers down’ as part of it.

“Right,” Dare announced easily, giving their group a slight smile. “Let’s go meet the others.” With that, she pivoted and began to walk away, back toward the other side of the camp. Scout looked over to where Sands was, giving her sister a wave before following suit. 

*******

Sands watched her sister head off, murmuring a wish for her safety before turning her attention back to the rest of their group. “So, we gonna do this or what?”

“Actually,” Vanessa put in, “we should wait. Holding a stack like this is probably… unstable.” 

“She’s right,” Athena confirmed. “Seosten don’t have a lot of experience with this kind of thing, but we do know that the higher the stack, the more… potentially unwieldy it becomes. Better if we wait until the last minute. Let the forward groups make their assaults.” 

Forward groups, plural. Scout and Columbus were part of the group that would be attacking the prison straight on, along with Roxa and the rest of the werewolves and some others. But before they did, another group of mixed Seosten, Heretics, and Alters would be making a feint attack against one of the Crossroads secure weapons development locations. The hope was that not only would the first attack draw resources, but that it would be seen as a feint for the frontal assault on the prison, rather than both being feints for this small group. 

Avalon, standing by Flick, spoke up. “You know we can’t wait too long. From what…. Jophiel told Flick and the others, the guard area of the prison is slightly sped up too.” 

“Yeah,” Tristan put in, “not nearly as much as the cells themselves, but it’s something like five minutes for every one minute outside. Once they get word that the prison is under attack, they’ll have a lot more time to work out a response than they should. And if they decide the best response is to cut and run with their charges, or…” He trailed off for a moment before finishing with a quiet, “Or if they decide to kill them just to make sure we can’t get them out.” 

Sands couldn’t even articulate how much she wished she could tell the boy that he was being ridiculous and that even strict Crossroads would never do anything like that. But she couldn’t. Especially not considering Litonya was behind this prison, who had apparently killed her own brother in cold blood when he expressed rebellious sentiments. Yeah, nothing was out of the realm of possibility when it came to what the guards might do if they were about to lose. 

“Don’t worry,” Apollo informed them, “we’ve got that covered.” With that, he tossed a silver bracelet onto the ground, as a portal appeared in front of it. “Come on in, to my humble abode.” 

Sands and the others passed through the portal, ending up in a cave that was filled with book shelves, spell implements, weapons, and more. The walls were thoroughly covered with spellwork, runes that softly glowed and seemed to shift the more Sands looked at them. 

Once they were all through, Apollo closed the portal. “I’ve matched the time spell on my little hideaway here with the one being used by the guards at the prison. We’re moving along at the same speed as they are. As soon as the other groups start their attack, we’ll be ready. The guards there won’t have any kind of advantage as far as time goes.”

With a nod, Athena put in, “But we’ll still give them a minute to react. We want them focused on what’s going on out there before we make our move. Wait until the other group reports that they’ve reached the prison and started their assault. Then we’ll start the stack, settle in, and go. Everyone make sure you’re ready. If you have any questions, or problems, speak up now.

“Because whatever happens, we won’t get another shot at this.” 

*******

Scout and her group made their way to the edge of the camp. Roxa’s pack was there, along with Miranda, Deveron, Jazz, Gordon, and Doug, a group of Seosten, some of the Atherby people including Misty and her brother Duncan, and Gabriel Prosser along with a few Crossroads Heretics who had volunteered. Bobbi Camren and Twister were there too, though the rising sun meant that Asenath wouldn’t be able to participate in the assault. She and Namythiet were both helping elsewhere. Theia and Pace were standing a bit away from the group, and Scout found herself stopping next to them, looking that way. “You okay?” she asked softly. 

“We are,” Pace murmured with a glance to Theia before nodding the other way. “He’s impatient.” 

Scout turned at that, seeing a figure stalking back and forth by the cabin. He was at once very familiar and not. Ian Gerardo clearly resembled his younger brother in some ways. Enough to tell that they were related. The man looked like a wild animal, pacing like that. He clearly wasn’t in any mood to wait longer. 

“He’s mad,” Theia observed, leaning up onto her toes. “He didn’t want to take this long to save his brother.” 

“Better to take a long time to set it up right,” Pace replied, “than to rush and screw it up. It’s not like we can just hit the reset button on this if we lose. Right, Scout?”

Scout nodded, while Virginia Dare whistled for everyone’s attention. But it was Gabriel Prosser who spoke once the rest of the group was looking that way. “Okay, guys,” the man announced, “it’s time to make our move. The first group launched their attack about fifteen minutes ago. That should be enough time for word of it to start reaching other places and for the first set of reinforcements to be sent out. Time to do our part.” 

“Finally,” Ian snapped, though he immediately flushed a little, apparently embarrassed about having that kind of reaction to someone like the man in front of him. “Sorry,” he added quickly. “I just–” 

“No,” Gabriel interrupted, head shaking. “You have nothing to apologize for, believe me. We all want to get your brother, and any of the other prisoners being held by Crossroads, out of there.” 

“Not any of the prisoners,” Theia quickly chimed in. “There could be bad people in there, you know. Not every prisoner in there is gonna be a happy cheerful rebel ready to fight the good fight and save puppies.” 

Zadriek, the Seosten former prisoner who was the father of tiny Sahveniah, spoke up. “The…” He paused noticeably, his eyes glancing toward her. “That is… Theia… is correct. There will be those who should not be released. They could be a danger to your civilian populace of this world, even if Crossroads’ methods are wrong and abhorrent.” 

One of the Crossroads Heretics, a short, thin man named Jake Lane, muttered, “I guess we have your people to thank for teaching ours how to be monsters, don’t we?” 

“That’s enough, Jake,” Deveron admonished. “We’re all in this together. You were on the other side for the last rebellion, so let me tell you, knowing about the Seosten and having them with us this time is going to make the whole thing a hell of a lot easier. Besides, we’ve got enough problems without sniping at each other.” 

“We don’t believe that all the cells are functioning in the same time acceleration as Sean,” Dare put in, pulling the subject back around. “This seems… special for him. The other cells may have time effects, but not to that extent. The fact remains, however, that Theia and Zadriek are right. Some of the prisoners should be released. Others… shouldn’t. And if our people just go around opening all of the doors, we’re going to end up letting out someone we’ll wish we hadn’t.” 

“Athena and the others are well aware of that,” Gabriel assured them. “And I’m told they have a plan for dealing with it. We’ll trust that they know what they’re doing. Meanwhile, we focus on our jobs, to draw as much attention as possible.” His head turned a bit, as he listened to something no one else could hear before nodding once. “The first group has begun their attack. Time for us to get moving.”

Scout exchanged a brief look with Pace. The other girl offered her fist, and Scout bumped it before moving over to join Doug and the others while Pace and Theia went to the werewolf pack. Gabriel, Dare, and Kohaku had created a portal by that point, holding it open. 

Right. Time to do this. A frontal assault on the secret Crossroads prison that was simply a distraction away from the actual insertion team. Here went Nothing. 

She’d decided to name her gun Nothing. 

******

“I wish Mama was here.” The words coming out of Flick’s mouth might’ve been simultaneously confusing and totally understandable (having someone like Joselyn around would have been amazing). But as Sands glanced that way, she saw that the girl’s hair was pink. Tabbris. Tabbris was the one talking through her. 

Vanessa’s head bobbed. “Yeah. But she’s super busy helping Jophiel with all that stuff. And we can’t really wait for this. Don’t worry, we’ve got enough people.” 

Tristan leaned against his sister with a humorless smile. “Yeah, and besides, if a bunch of things all go horribly wrong at once, we’re gonna want to have some good people out there to come save us. It’ll be Mom’s turn to do a jailbreak.”

Shifting her hair back to its normal blonde, Flick (as herself this time), winced. “As awesome as I’m sure that would be, let’s find another way for your mom to show off.”  

“Yeah,” Sands agreed with a grimace. “She’ll get plenty of chances for that. Let’s just do this right.” 

“Doing it right is the plan.” The reply came from Larissa, as the woman raised her voice a bit for everyone’s attention. “And that means pulling this first part off.” She looked over to Athena, giving her a short nod. “Are we ready?” 

“We are,” Athena confirmed. “It’s time for the Choo-Maneuver.” 

“Good luck, guys,” Sands murmured before stepping back. Avalon joined her. 

The two of them watched then, as first Tristan held his hand out to his sister. Vanessa took it, then disappeared, possessing him. The order of this had been very carefully determined, given what normally happened when a Seosten attempted to possess a Hybrid. They were capable of possessing each other safely, so the twins had to be first. With his sister inside him, Tristan turned toward Athena, who stood waiting with her own hand out. He took it, before he too disappeared. Athena’s hand then found Haiden’s, and she vanished into him. The man, in turn, possessed the waiting Larissa and looked toward Flick. A moment later, there was a glow before Tabbris emerged. The young Seosten girl took Larissa’s hand, allowing the woman to possess her. She then hopped back into Flick. 

Finally, Flick in turn looked over to Apollo, before swaying a bit, almost like she was drunk. “Wow,” she murmured, “There’s a… a lot of people in here.” Shaking her head, she took Apollo’s hand and vanished a second later. 

Standing for a second as he collected himself from having so many minds (it had to be disorienting even if they were cooperating) sharing space with his, Apollo straightened and looked over toward Avalon and Sands. “Okay then. You girls ready to do this?” As he spoke, the man produced two daggers, extending them that way. 

There was a brief pause, as Sands thought about everything that could go wrong, along with everything that had changed since the beginning of the year. They were literally mounting an assault to rescue their friend and anyone else they could from a Crossroads prison

“Yes,” Avalon confirmed, her hand finding the other girl’s shoulder. “We’re ready. Right… Sands?” 

With a small smile, Sands replied, “Right, Sinclaire. Let’s do this.” 

That said, the two of them reached out, one to each knife. Their hands found the blades, and Sands projected herself into it. She might not have been able to possess people, but she and Avalon both still had the Knockengerwicht’s power to take over objects. 

Technically Avalon could have ‘borrowed’ someone else’s possession using her ability to temporarily mimic powers, but the stack of possessed people was big enough as it was. And, though she hadn’t said anything, Sands was pretty sure Avalon wasn’t ready to share head-space with that many others, even if they were friends. 

Now she just had to wait, seeing the world through the space around the knife while Apollo held both. “Okay, guys,” he spoke to everyone at once, “let’s do this.” 

With that, he recalled to Sean, and the rescue was officially underway.

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Summer Epilogue 19 (Heretical Edge)

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As it turned out, Harrison Fredericks was in the so-called dragon room. As Galahad in his humanoid robot body led Columbus and Shiori, along with Vulcan, through a set of vault-like doors in a corner of the main room, the four entered what looked like a dark cave. The floor became dirt and stone, with crystalline rock walls around them. The entrance was a tunnel that sloped downward, gradually opening into a cavern even larger than the room they had just left. Straight ahead was a giant lake with a trio of underground streams feeding into it from various tunnels, one of which dropped from above in a cascading waterfall. 

Right in front of the lake stood a dragon. Well, a clearly mechanical one, anyway. It was dark green with gold patterns weaved throughout. Sitting up on its haunches, the thing was tall enough that its head just crossed the fifty-foot mark. It had a long tail wrapped around its body with what looked like four massive mini-guns mounted to the end of it, one on each side of the tail. All along the dragon-bot’s back leading clear to its head was an ungodly enormous starship-grade cannon. 

“Holy Fin Fang Foom,” Shiori breathed out, eyes wide. She’d come to a stop and stood there, staring open-mouthed at the giant cyberform. “That’s a big gun. That’s a really big gun.”

As if reacting to the sound of her voice, the cyberform dragon’s head turned a little, focusing on them. Vulcan, meanwhile, took a step forward and lowered his ears, making a soft whining sound before barking once to show that he definitely wasn’t afraid, no sir, and that if the fifty-foot tall dragon robot wanted to hurt Columbus and Shiori, he’d have to go through Vulcan to do it.

The dragon’s mouth opened, but just as Columbus was about to grab Shiori’s arm and teleport them the hell out of the way, a man appeared there… in the dragon’s open mouth. Apparently there was space inside the giant cyberform, and the mouth was a hatch of some kind. From that distance, the two now-former Crossroads students thought there was something odd about the man who stood framed in the open mouth, but couldn’t tell what it was, exactly. 

The answer to that became obvious a moment later, as the man stepped off the edge of the mouth and dropped toward them before landing easily on the ground. 

He was short. That was what the siblings had noticed from the distance. The man stood only an inch over four feet, with dark red hair cut short, and a neatly trimmed goatee. His eyes were an unnaturally bright green, and one of his arms was very clearly cybernetic.  

For a brief moment, the man stood there, squinting at two teenagers and their robotic dog. His eyes scanned them curiously and intently, as though reading everything in their lives in those couple of seconds. Just as Columbus and Shiori were starting to get uncomfortable with his attention, he straightened and abruptly announced, “What, our guests are here already? You sure are eager to get started early this morning, aren’t you?” 

“It’s mid-afternoon, sir,” Galahad politely corrected. “You were working all day again.” 

“Was I really?” The short man looked surprised by the information, blinking that way before looking back toward the teens. “Well, in that case, you’re late. What, am I not important enough to spend more time with? Tearing you away from your computers and your Playstations?” 

With a wince, Columbus started to stammer a response, only for the man to laugh and shake his head. “I’m just messing with you, kid.” With that, he thrust his flesh and blood hand out to them. “Name’s Harrison Fredericks. You knew that, but you can call me Harry. That’s what I prefer.” 

Shiori was the first to react, introducing herself while shaking the man’s hand quickly. “And for the record,” she added while waving her phone his way, “I can play plenty of games even while we’re–holy crap!” The girl blurted the last bit after glancing to her phone screen. “Did you know you’ve got a shiny Mareep in here?!” With that, the girl stepped away, eyes focused on her phone. “Uhh, just a second.” 

Snorting at his sister, Columbus started to focus on their host once more “Hi. Sorry, she gets into that stu–uhh…” 

He trailed off upon realizing that Harrison had also yanked a phone from his pocket and was furiously tapping at the screen while blurting, “There is?! I knew it, I knew they wouldn’t let me down.” 

Columbus and Galahad glanced to one another, each offering a shrug before the latter murmured, “He’ll ahhh, be right with you, I’m sure. Sometimes Harry’s priorities are just a little skewed.” 

“Tell me about it,” the boy murmured, glancing to his sister before returning his attention to the dragon-robot nearby. Only then did he actually notice that it wasn’t the only one here in the cavern. There were several others spread out throughout the wide open space. One was clinging to the ceiling, shaped more like a traditional serpent. Another was under the water, its distorted form barely visible. A few more smaller ones were up against the cavern walls, mostly blending in through a semi-chameleon quality to their exterior. Taking all those in, the boy was sure there were more he couldn’t see. “Shit,” he murmured under his breath, “no wonder people don’t try to take this place over.”

“They have before.” That was Harry, his full attention once more on his guests. “Independents, Crossroads or Garden people that just think the rules don’t apply to them, and more. Took me adding penalties where I won’t sell to any group connected to the ones that piss me off for awhile before they wised up and started policing each other. But they seem to have gotten the message now. They leave me alone, and they get to buy my little friends.” As he finished, the man shook Columbus’s hand, adding, “Don’t look so worried. I’m not about to freak out and throw you to the wolves just because you mention what side you’re on or bring up your opinion. Some of these people just need a really firm line drawn or they’ll keep pushing.” 

“I uhh,” Columbus started before hesitating. “I can see why you’d be pretty sought after.” He nodded up to the nearest, most obvious dragon. “With things like that, it seems like the ones you sell people are toys.” 

“They basically are,” the man confirmed with a wink. “I’d be an idiot if I gave out my best work. The only reason I’m not chained up in some lab somewhere, making personal versions of Tigger over there for whatever Heretic group grabbed me first is keeping the strongest guys here. You people get the small versions because that’s the way I stay independent.” 

That said, Harry took a knee in front of Vulcan, meeting the cyberform’s gaze. “Anyway, how’re you doing, buddy? These two treating you alright?” 

He reached up, rubbing Vulcan’s head and murmuring softly for a moment before glancing to Columbus. “You’re not the one he’s bonded to, are you? Neither of you are.” 

“Not… exactly,” Columbus confirmed before hesitating. “Okay, so, what I’m about to say is totally not supposed to be breaking your rules about trying to convince you to join one side or the other. It’s just… you know, the facts. Just wanted to get that out of the way.” 

With that said, he carefully gave a quick summary of what had happened to lead Vulcan to being with him instead of Sean, and where the other boy was. He tried to keep things as matter-of-fact as possible, but couldn’t keep all the anger and frustration out of his voice. Which was not helped by the way Vulcan himself gave a soft, weak little whine whenever Sean and his current imprisonment was mentioned. Hearing that just made Columbus angrier. 

Thankfully, Shiori helped partway through, taking turns explaining the rest after sliding the phone away, back into her pocket. She stood there on Vulcan’s other side, hand rubbing the cyberform canine’s back while finishing with, “So now we’re trying to figure out how to get him out.” 

Once they finished with that, Harry looked back and forth between the two for a moment, clearly lost in thought. “I see,” he murmured, “I hope your friend ends up alright. Neutral, mind you, but still. I hope he comes out all intact. And hey, if he does and this little visit today ends up alright, maybe you can bring him over. I’d like to see Vulcan here with his partner. I don’t… ahh, get that many visitors.” He looked briefly regretful about that before turning away to walk toward the nearby dragon. “Well, in any case, come on, I’ll show you what I’ve been working on lately. Then we can talk about the reason you really wanted to come here.” 

After exchanging brief glances, the two siblings shrugged at one another and followed the man. It was very clear that he was intent on not saying more about the situation than he already had. Whatever his personal opinion on the matter, he wasn’t saying. And pushing would be bad. 

On the way over to the giant cyberform, Shiori spoke up. “Ah, Mr–I mean Harry, did you say this one’s name is Tigger? As in–” 

“The one above our heads is Winnie,” the man confirmed. “The one in the water is Piglet.” He smiled over his shoulder at them briefly. “I find it helps my creative process to have a theme.”

With that, he raised his mechanical hand and snapped the metal fingers, calling, “Tigger, entrance!” 

At those words, the massive cyberform abruptly took a step back, partway entering the water before it lay down on its stomach. The mouth opened wide, and Harry led the two students, Vulcan, and Galahad around to it. There was a door there, barely visible with the mouth opened the way it was. The door was round, with a slight indent for a handle. Beside it was a red half-globe about the size of a softball that had been cut in two. It glowed as they approached. 

“Don’t get any closer,” Harry warned the pair of teenagers and their cyberform companion. “Not until I let him know you’re alright. We wouldn’t want any… accidents.” 

With that bit of warning ringing in their ears (and a pair of vivid imaginations about just what kind of ‘accident’ there could be, Columbus and Shiori stayed very, very still. After assuring himself that they had taken heed, Harry stepped up into the mouth, then froze as the red orb projected some kind of light over him. The light scanned the man up and down twice before it, and the half-globe itself, turned green. 

“Full body scanner,” Harry informed them. “DNA through the hair and skin, retinal, fingerprints, bone structure, check for active hologram or magical shapeshifting, and more. Also scans the voice for distress.” Clearing his throat, he spoke clearly, “Everything’s fine, Tigger. These two humans and their cyberform companion are friends. State your names.” 

“Oh, uh, Columbus,” the boy quickly put in. “Columbus Porter.” He went still then, as the green light turned yellow while scanning over him from head to toe. As with Harry, it repeated twice before shifting back to green. 

It then did the same with Shiori after she gave her name. In her case, however, it stopped and began to blink yellow after the first pass. A soft warning tone chimed a few times, which brought Harry’s head around sharply. “Miss,” he began with a frown. “Is there something you haven’t–” 

“My mother’s a Vampire!” Shiori quickly blurted. “I mean, I… I’m… half-Vampire. Dhampyr. I wasn’t trying to hide it or anything, I just didn’t think it was relevant, and–” 

“Stop, stop.” Harry’s head shook. “Wait, Dhampyr-Heretic? Is that even po–” He stopped himself. “No, you’re right. It’s not all that relevant. Tigger was just anxious because I introduced you as human and you’re not… not exactly. Apologies. Tigger, it’s okay. She is a Dhampyr-Heretic… apparently. It’s safe. She’s clear.” He gave her a strange look then, but kept quiet. 

The light turned green then, before moving to quickly scan Vulcan. Finally, it was done, and the half-globe turned light purple before giving a triumphant chime. As it did, Harry reached out, caught hold of the handle of the circular hatch, and pulled it open. “Come on then,” he urged, “you’ll be the first people besides Galahad there to see this new project from an… inside perspective.” He actually giggled after saying those words, clearly amusing himself before stepping through. 

The others followed, finding themselves in what looked like the entrance of a submarine. The corridor was narrow and made entirely of metal, with a few hatchways along both walls and one at the end. That was the way Harry strode, pounding a fist against each door that they passed while explaining what was beyond. “Laundry’s through here. Kitchen and dining in this area. This here on the left is a rec room to keep up spirits. The whole thing’s bigger on the inside, but you should be used to that stuff by now.” 

“Are we in a pocket dimension or something?” Columbus asked as they reached the hatch at the end of the corridor, revealing what was obviously the bridge. It was a half-circle space with a raised platform and seat in the middle for the captain, a hologram projector screen in front that seemed to show a view of the cavern they had just left, and various control panels and comfortable chairs scattered throughout. A couple more hatches leading elsewhere in the dragon interior were against the back and far walls. 

“Hey, yeah,” Shiori realized, “are we? Because otherwise, what happens when the dragon stands up?” 

“Sort of,” Harry confirmed. “The space we’re in is stable. It’s always upright, and the body of the dragon moves around it. There’s more to it, but hey, trade secrets.” He winked before gesturing around the bridge with a bright, contagious smile. “Pretty cool though, huh?” 

It occurred to both teens at the same time that this was a man who ached to show off his toys. He genuinely wanted to share what he could make with people, but the fact that anyone he let in would almost inevitably try to take advantage of that necessitated his almost hermit-like lifestyle. They were, Columbus and Shiori realized, probably seen as ‘safe’ for him to open up to just because they presented absolutely no threat of being able to imprison Harrison or take his creations away. Because people clearly had. It made them both wonder just what had happened to make him learn that lesson and both institute and strictly enforce his neutral position. 

Shaking that thought away, Shiori smiled. “Uh huh, it’s really cool. But um, what is it? I mean… you’ve got seven seats in here, counting the… captain’s? Who’s piloting this thing? I thought you didn’t send the big ones anywhere.” 

“I don’t,” Harry replied, looking away to squint at one of the nearby consoles before offering a small shrug. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t build things that could take a group. I uhh… I like to stretch my hands and my brain like that.” Tenderly, the man ran his hand over the hologram projector, his voice wistful, “It’s just too bad that Tigger’ll never have a crew.” 

Galahad stepped past the others then, resting a metal hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Hey,” he started, “why don’t we take this thing for a spin before getting down to the important stuff?” 

A broad smile broke across Harry’s face, and he nodded before stepping up to plop himself into the captain’s seat. “Right, you two, pick somewhere to sit and we’ll get underway.” 

Shiori and Columbus moved to do just that, picking a couple of the crew positions. On the screens in front of them were a couple words floating back and forth, which they barely paid attention to… at first. Columbus, however, gave a short double-take after seeing them from the corner of his gaze, eyes widening dramatically as he absorbed the words on the screen. 

Not noticing the boy’s reaction, Harry started, “Okay then, let’s talk about where we’re going on our little joy–” 

“Excuse me,” Columbus found himself interrupting, unable to look away from the screen. He pointed with a shaking hand. “What… what is that?” 

“What’s what?” Harry asked, squinting that way while leaning up off his seat. 

“This.” Columbus leaned back, letting the man see the screen. “Why does the screen… why are those words there?” 

“Those words?” Harry looked even more confused by his reaction, which was furthered by Shiori’s own gasp as she finally focused on them herself. “It’s just Latin. It means–” 

“Summus Proelium,” Shiori read out loud. “Why did you write Summus Proelium on the computers?” 

Clearly lost about why the two were reacting that way, the short man stood and moved over. He squinted at the screen before shrugging once more. “It’s just the words from the world where I… where I took my power.” The two turned baffled looks toward him, and he explained, “It was an alternate Earth. One like ours, but different. Actually, it was the future on that world at the time. I went decades back, but it was like… two-thousand something there. Dimensional travel is weird. Anyway, my group and I went there, got separated, and I ended up fighting and… and killing one of their super-powered people.” 

“But where did you hear Summus Proelium?” Columbus pressed, trying not to grab the man. That definitely wouldn’t end well. 

 “It’s how they get their powers over there,” Harrison slowly replied. “These little orbs appear, announce… well, those words, and then transport the people into some pocket dimension where they’re empowered before being sent back. Why?” 

“The orbs… say Summus Proelium?” Columbus opened and shut his mouth, making a noise in the back of his throat. “And they transport these people to some other place to give them powers? I… that… oh.” 

“What’s going on?” Galahad spoke up sharply. “How do you two know those words?” 

“Umm…” Columbus exchanged a look with his sister before slowly replying, “I know you said you never met Arthur, so I guess you never met Nimue either. But–” 

“She’s a Seosten, I know that much,” Galahad confirmed with a brief glance toward Harrison. “He knows about them too. Part of why we’re so strictly neutral. Dunno what side’s still safe from them. But what do they have to do with this other world?” 

Hesitantly, the two siblings explained where they had heard the phrase before, and about the Seosten super-soldier project that had created the Olympians to begin with. 

“So, uhh,” Shiori finished, “the odds of little orbs that say those exact words before transporting the people from that other Earth somewhere else to give them powers not being related somehow to this are umm… small.” 

“Small indeed,” Harrison muttered under his breath before straightening to his full (still not exactly impressive) height. “Well. Maybe you should bring this Nimue or Athena or whatever she’s going by here next time, so we can figure out exactly what this means.” 

“Next time?” Columbus echoed, a note of both eagerness and caution in his voice. 

The man glanced to him. “Well yes, that’s what you were going to ask, wasn’t it? If I would teach you how to work with cyberforms and perhaps even start to build them.” As the boy fidgeted and stumbled for an answer that wouldn’t be rude, Harrison chuckled. “It’s okay to be eager, kid. I’ve been looking into your history, your school records both out of Crossroads and in, ever since Broker said you were interested in coming. Yeah. Yeah, as long as you don’t do anything stupid, I’ll… ahh, I’ll give you some pointers and we’ll see how it goes. But it means coming here four days a week for the entire summer. You got that? I’m gonna work you ragged if you wanna learn from me.” 

Quickly, Columbus nodded. “Four days a week, got it. I’ll be here. Whatever it takes. I want to learn.” 

“Oh, you’ll learn alright,” Harrison agreed. “And you’ll work. But like I said, bring this Nimue with you next time. And–” he glanced toward Galahad. “And bring that Lancelot too. They need to catch up.” Belatedly, the man amended, “That is, as long as you get through this test flight here without proving to be a completely incompetent ninny. Think you can do that?” 

“I… ahh, I’ll do my best, sir,” Columbus weakly promised, swallowing hard. 

“You do that.” Turning on his heel to move back to the captain’s seat, Harrison finished with, “Now, enough talk of Seosten, Olympians, wars, and everything else. 

“Let’s focus on seeing what this puppy can really do.” 

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Summer Epilogue 18

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As he parked the beat up old jalopy he drove in the staff lot of the Capital One Arena in D.C., the Heretic known as Broker glanced toward the boy in the passenger seat beside him. “You remember what I told you?”

Columbus nodded dutifully. “Don’t try to talk him into siding with the rebellion. Don’t try to talk him into picking any side. He’s neutral and he stays neutral. If I try to talk up our side he’ll—”

From the backseat, Shiori piped up, “Throw both of us out so fast our heads spin?”

Opening his door, Broker stepped out. “Correction, he’ll throw all of us out. And I’ll have lost any good grace I had with him. I went out on a limb to get you this meeting, kid. Don’t make me regret it.”

“We won’t,” Columbus promised, opening the other door while looking over his shoulder at the backseat. “Will we, boy?”

Giving a soft wuff of agreement, Vulcan waited for the back door to be opened before hopping down. Shiori followed suit. The metal dog cocked his head sideways as though listening for a moment before trotting over to a semi truck that was parked nearby. 

Watching the cyberform sniff for a moment, Columbus turned his attention back to Broker. “The others thought I shouldn’t meet with you. They thought it was a trap or something, because you’re still part of Crossroads.”

Shiori stepped beside her brother, adding, “Some of them were pretty adamant about it.”

The dark-skinned man chuckled, making his long, clearly dyed red braids bounce a bit as he shook his head with a flash of golden teeth as he smiled. “That’s why Prosser showed up to check things out first? Yeah, I figured it was something like that. Let’s just say maybe I inherited a little bit of my old mentor’s thing for neutrality. You seem to make a lot more money if you sell to everyone.”

Quietly, Shiori noted, “I guess we’re glad no one paid you enough to turn us in.”

To that, the man shook his head once more. “Betrayal’s bad business. It might pay off once or twice, but your customer base dries up damn quick. Fredericks taught me that too.”

Columbus, meanwhile, watched him for a moment before quietly noting, “I guess I shouldn’t try to talk you into choosing a side then either.”

Broker shrugged. “Consider it easy practice for not talking the big guy into it. Now come on, you wanna meet him or what?”

Before answering, Columbus looked around the almost completely empty lot. “Not very busy, huh? Does Fredericks still have security around here?”

“NBA and NHL are both in the off-season,” Broker pointed out. “And yeah, he has plenty of security. As your little friend there is about to find out.”

Blinking, Columbus turned to see Vulcan still curiously sniffing at one of the wheels of the silver and blue semi. His mouth opened to say something, only to stop short as the truck abruptly moved. Except it didn’t just pull forward or something simple like that. Instead, the sides of the truck cab bulged out and then extended down toward the ground. Several giant metal fingers appeared, while the back of the cab shifted and extended a pair of legs. The truck cab straightened up on those legs, a head that looked like that of a human in a full plate mail helmet appearing. 

Actually, Columbus realized, the whole thing looked like a guy in plate mail. Standing at its full impressive height of just over thirty feet, the silver and blue figure looked like an old knight combined with a…

“Transformer!?” he blurted out loud, eyes widening. For just a second, he actually forgot about everything else. “Holy shit, he made an actual Transformer?”

“Only because I asked very nicely.” The booming voice came from the upright robot itself, as he loomed over the pair. “You should’ve seen how many chores I had to agree to do.”

While Vulcan gave a single bark, Columbus opened and shut his mouth a couple times, feeling like he needed to sit down. There was a high-pitched whining sound in his head. Wait, that wasn’t just in his head. It was coming from… 

He turned, to see his sister standing there, mouth hanging open as an incredibly high-pitched squeal escaped her. The girl’s eyes practically had stars in them, and she started a full-body shake that rose up from her toes, reached her head, then extended down her arms to her hands, making her fingers all-but vibrate. 

“Is… uhhh…” The knight-robot pointed a finger to her. “Is she okay?”

“Eeeeeeeeeee!” With that glorious, delighted squeal, Shiori suddenly raised that way, arms flailing wildly before throwing herself up against the standing figure’s metal leg in a tight hug. “Ohhh my God, you are so awesome! This is the coolest thing ever! Ever! Aaaaaaahhhhh!

Tilting his head to look down, the knight-cyberform asked, “She’s not letting go anytime soon, huh?”

“Kinda doubt it,” Columbus agreed. “Maybe if you told her what your name is so she doesn’t start calling you Optimus. Wait.” He paused, frowning. “Am I talking to an actual cyberform?”

A sound that was suspiciously similar to a cough escape the giant metal figure before he reached down to gently tap Shiori with one finger. “Milady?” He opened his hand then, offering it to the girl, who gave another high-pitched squeal before climbing on so that he could lift her up, depositing her on his shoulder.  

Finally, the ‘robot’ answered. “No, I’m not a cyberform the way you know them. I used to be a… person. I was about to die and Harrison transferred me into one of his little friends.”

“Wait.” Perched on his shoulder, Shiori piped up, “He can do that? You used to be like, a human or an Alter and he just put you in a cyberform body?”

The figure was briefly quiet before replying, “I was a bit of a special case.” Looking over toward Broker then, he added, “I’ve got it from here. Harrison says he wouldn’t mind having lunch on Sunday if you’re up for it.”

Shrugging, the adult Heretic replied, “Sure, he knows my number. Assuming he didn’t lose it again.” With a wink, he pivoted to head back to his car, calling over his shoulder, “Have fun, kids.”

From her high perch, Shiori called, “Thank you for introducing us to the coolest thing ever!” Belatedly, she amended, “I mean coolest… guy?”

“I like to think of myself as still male, yeah,” the figure in question replied. “Haven’t had much luck trying to convince Harrison to make it physically official, though.”

Columbus shook his head slowly back-and-forth. “I came here to meet the father of cyberforms, and now my sister is talking about robot penises with a Transformer.”

“I know,” Shiori blurted, “isn’t it great?! Err, the Transformer part. Wait, what do we call you?  Because seriously, I am really close to the whole Optimus thing.”

“As cool as that kind of universal crossover might be,” the metal man easily replied while watching Broker’s car pull out, “you can call me Galahad.”

That made both young Heretics and Vulcan do a double take as sounds of surprise escaped all of them. Columbus blurted, “Galahad? As in the Galahad?”

There was a brief pause, before the large metal man slowly answered, “Yeah, see, I know it might be hard for you to accept if you were raised as Bystanders, but Arthur was a real person and—”

“Hard for us to accept?” Shiori blurted. “Dude, we already know that Percival guy on the Committee is one of the knights. Not to mention, ya know, Guinevere is living at the camp with us. We are already completely brought up to speed on the whole Arthur thing.”

Galahad’s gaze snapped to the girl then, head turning and shifting back so he could stare at the girl as if she had become a second head attached to his shoulder. “The who in the what is staying where?”

Snorting at his reaction, Columbus spoke up. “She’s right, Guinevere’s at the camp. She was at the school, posing as a student.”

“And she kicked Ruthers’ ass,” Shiori noted with a grin. “It was awesome. But yeah, dude, we already know all about Arthur and all that. You’re really Galahad?” 

Columbus wasn’t sure how a face that looked like the front of a plate mail helmet could look flummoxed and taken aback, but Galahad managed it. He stared at both of them, switching his attention between looking at the girl on his shoulder, then at the boy on the ground, then back again, repeating that several times before he finally spoke. “Okay, well, I definitely wasn’t expecting that reaction. She’s… she’s really at the Atherby camp? I didn’t think she’d ever join up with…” He trailed off, managing another minor miracle by looking thoughtful. 

“You were one of Arthur’s knights?” Shiori hesitantly prompted, staring at him. 

Seeming to snap out of a deep well of memories, the tall robotic figure made a noise before shaking his head slightly. “No. I mean, yes. Sort of. Yes, I was… I was part of… of that group. But I was never officially…. I started as a–I was only. I–” He stopped then, head turning toward the stadium. “Oh, uh, we should head in.” 

“Head in?” Columbus stared at him a bit doubtfully. “How are–I mean you’re pretty–wait, what do people think they’re looking at when they see you?” 

“You mean Bystanders?” Galahad shrugged the shoulder that Shiori wasn’t sitting on. “Depends. Sometimes they forget me entirely. Sometimes they act like I’m a really tall guy. I think the Bystander Effect has its work cut out for it with me in this form.” 

“In this form?” Shiori jumped on. 

He reached a hand up once more, holding it out for her to climb on before lowering her back to the ground. “That’s right. This isn’t my only body. I’ve got a handful of them scattered all over the place that I can jump between. It’s ahh… useful. Hang on, I’ll lead you in with a different one.”

His current robot body shifted back into its truck form while the two adopted siblings watched in awe and fascination. Afterward, the two of them just sort of looked at one another, then to Vulcan, who whined quietly before moving to Shiori for head pats. 

They were waiting for only about thirty seconds before a man approached. The three looked that way, a bit uncertain. The man looked perfectly ordinary, just under six feet in height, with short brown hair very slightly unkempt, slightly tanned skin, and a cleanly shaven face. He wore nondescript jeans and a brown button-up shirt. 

“Uh,” Columbus started, “hi?” Beside him, Vulcan made a curious sound, sniffing once before huffing with what sounded like amusement. 

Giving them a brief smirk, the man raised a hand to wave. “Hi, yourself,” he replied. With those words, his appearance abruptly changed. The hologram of a normal person disappeared, revealing a metal humanoid shape beneath. His body was gleaming silver, with a glowing purple line running up both legs before joining into an arrow shape on his chest. His eyes were purple as well, and glowed just as brightly. When he spoke, it came through a speaker where his mouth would be. “You guys coming or what?” 

Vulcan, for his part, trotted over that way while making a woof sound that clearly translated as, ‘Yeah, come on already.’ 

Recovering quickly, Columbus and Shiori both nodded before moving. Galahad pivoted back the way he had come and began to lead them to the stadium. As they went, Columbus spoke up. “Oh, um, this is Shiori and I’m Columbus. And that’s Vulcan. You know that already, but our parents sort of taught us that it’s rude not to introduce yourself. I’m pretty sure they meant for us to do that before we go climbing all over someone though.” He added the last bit with a squint toward his sister.

“Dude, he was a giant Transformer,” Shiori retorted defensively. “Dad would totally understand.”

“I’m with her,” Galahad put in. “I mean, if it was me, I’d understand. I mean, it was me, but it wasn’t… I mean…”

Shiori leaned close to her brother, whispering, “I honestly don’t know which is cooler, that Galahad can be a giant Transformer, or that he’s also kind of a massive dork.” 

Giving up on the semantics of what he was trying to say, the man clearly just opted to change the subject. “Right, so where was I? Oh yeah, I never actually met Arthur. I came later, after he was already… gone. My umm, my father’s people tried to kill me as a boy. Guinevere saved me. She raised me from the time I was a kid. Taught me everything I know, and… eventually knighted me.  

“So she’s kind of like a mother to you,” Shiori murmured. 

Making a soft chuckling sound, Galahad’s robot head tilted over toward the girl. “Yeah, you could say that Guinevere is like a mother to me and Lancelot is like a father. Which is kind of funny if you–” 

“Guinevere is also Lancelot,” Columbus finished for him. “She kinda gave that away too, back at the camp.” 

“Well shit, is she keeping any secrets anymore?” Galahad blurted, just as they reached a door on the side of the stadium marked for staff use only. There was a keypad there, and he reached out to hit a series of buttons until it beeped and turned green. Then he hauled the door open and gestured for them to head through. “Things must really be coming to a head if Gwen’s being open about stuff. That lady and her secrets…” 

As they walked through an ordinary looking corridor that could’ve been in any office building to a completely unlabeled door, Shiori asked, “If she meant so much to you, why did you leave?”

“Does it have to do with your, uhh condition?” Columbus added. 

Galahad opened the door and ushered them through into what appeared to be an unfinished room. “Yes, at least at first. I was… let’s just say I was magically cursed. I was going to die and there was nothing she could do about it. I didn’t want her to see me like that, and I didn’t want to see her get more and more desperate. So I left to die alone.”

Moving to the other side of the room, he reached up to the apparently blank wall and pushed something on it. There was a chime, and part of the wall slid aside to reveal an elevator. As the group stepped into the elevator, he continued. “Long story short, Harrison Fredericks found me and managed to transfer me into one of his cyberforms. He saved my life. But I wasn’t exactly… good with having robot bodies for a long time. It took a lot of effort and failure before I could control them properly.”

The elevator began to descend, as Columbus rested a hand on Vulcan’s head while speaking up. “That’s why you didn’t go back to Guinevere, at least right then?”

Galahad gave a brief nod of his metallic head. “That and I was ashamed of what I became, for awhile. Maybe it was stupid. Okay, it was definitely stupid. But I felt like I had lost who I was when I lost my body. I was a robot who couldn’t even control my arms and legs properly. It took me six months to figure out how to walk in a straight line. I didn’t want Guinevere to see me like that. After that, I just felt like I owed Harrison too much.”

As the elevator came to a stop, he added, “And by the time I felt like I could face her, I had no idea where they had moved on to. I didn’t know how to find them. She’s really good at hiding, let me tell you.”

The elevator doors opened to reveal a room whose size was truly mind-boggling. Despite the fact they had not gone down all that far, the ceiling appeared to be a good ten stories up. The room itself was circular, and the distance from one side to the other was the length of at least four football fields. Dozens of vehicles of all shapes, sizes, purposes, and conditions were scattered through the place, from bicycles to motorcycles to cars, trucks, full fighter jets, and even yachts. Various mechanical animals of literally any conceivable kind wandered or flew through the room as well, some in completely finished states, others barely more than a metal skeleton with wires and circuits hanging out. Tables piled high with equipment and tools were everywhere, along with blueprints, notes, odd ideas, and more scribbled on paper, on tables, on the side of passing cyberforms themselves (there was a half-finished cow with a sticky note on its rump about buying milk), and more. 

“Um,” Shiori started while pointing toward the far end of the room, “are those dinosaurs?” 

Sure enough, in a pen whose six foot fence seemed hilariously ill-equipped to hold them, a handful of cyberform dinosaurs, including a Triceratops, an Ankylosaurus, a Tyrannosaurus rex, and several others, wandered. 

“Yeah,” Galahad confirmed. “Harrison likes his dinosaurs. Don’t worry though, he’d never let anyone buy one of the big ones. He has a thing about keeping anything over a certain size for himself, or super-close friends. Helps maintain our neutrality.”

Stepping in front of them, he turned to spread both arms out as if to gesture around the entire facility. “Anyway, this is one of the labs. You like it? We, ahh, don’t get many visitors.”

“Wait,” Shiori realized, “one of the labs? You mean this isn’t the only one?”

Galahad chuckled. “The only one? No, there’s at least five more this same size. Some of them have more stuff than this, some of them have just one or two things that he wants to work on in private. I’m pretty sure he’s got a whale-Titanic thing in one of them. He keeps himself busy. Which is why meeting new people for once is a good thing.” Turning, he pointed toward a door on the far left side of the room, so far away it was barely visible, and only then because it was a different color than the wall. “So, you three ready to meet the man himself? Let’s go say hi.

“Oh, and if he’s in the dragon room, try not to make a lot of loud noises. They startle easily sometimes.”

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