Reception 13-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter

Once I briefly explained the situation, both of the Victors agreed to talk to me in private for a few minutes. Or rather, they agreed to talk to us. Yeah, Persephone wanted to come along. I felt a little awkward about that, naturally. But she had been a really good sport through the whole putting a binding spell on her thing, and I didn’t want to push it too much. Besides, I really did need to get to know her if I was going to figure out how to deal with this whole thing. And with the spell making certain that if she did betray us, there’d be immediate consequences, there really wasn’t a good reason to tell her no. After all, being allowed to spend time with me was the reason she’d agreed to have the spell put on her to begin with. I’d look pretty bad if I didn’t keep up my end of that bargain, even if it was awkward. Not to mention, I needed to get to know her as much as she wanted to know me. Not because I had any interest in this whole wife business, but because if she was going to be around, I needed to know more about her. 

So, strange as it felt, I agreed to have the woman come along. Mom looked a bit hesitant too, but didn’t object. She did, however, turn toward Sariel and Mercury as soon as the Victors started leading me to the door. I had the feeling she was about to demand a very in-depth explanation on absolutely everything they knew about my new… whatever Persephone was. 

We didn’t go too far after leaving the room. Fu Hao and Jack Childs simply led the two of us over to the restaurant attached to the motel, asking if we wanted something to eat. 

“Is there Earth Pizza?” the white-haired figure trotting along slightly behind me immediately piped up. “I have heard many wonderful things about it, and would like that to be the first meal I enjoy on this planet with my sweet darling.” 

Wincing inwardly, I turned, walking backwards as I faced the woman. “Look, it’s just Flick, okay? Flick is fine. You don’t need to call me darling, or wife, or beloved, or–yeah, any of that. The point is, we barely know each other. I’m not Manakel. You were married to Manakel, not me. I’m still figuring out who you are, and you’re definitely still figuring out who I am. So let’s just stick with names. It’ll be… less awkward, somewhat. Could you do that for me, please?” 

With a bright, cheerful smile that somehow reminded me of a puppy despite really having no similarities, Persephone eagerly nodded. “Of course, Flick! It will be very nice to get to know my…” She seemed to consider her words before ending with a simple, “My Flick.” 

Yeah, somehow even that was enough to make my face turn pink. My mouth opened to say I wasn’t exactly her Flick, but by that point we’d reached the restaurant, the doors opening to admit the four of us. 

The dining room was almost empty, save for a couple scattered groups at different tables spread out pretty far apart. They all looked up as we entered, but just as quickly turned back to their own conversations and studiously ignored us. It was clear that none of them wanted to look as though they were eavesdropping on a couple Victors, as if that was even possible. 

Fu Hao spoke as we all moved together toward the back corner of the room. “We have been attempting to expand our palette beyond what we had grown accustomed to in the Garden. I too have heard fine things about this so-called pizza. The concept intrigues me. How shall we have it brought? 

After a brief moment, I realized that all three of them were looking at me. Both Victors and the Revenant were staring, waiting for me to answer. Because, of course, I was the only one there with that kind of experience. I was standing next to this table with three indescribably powerful and incredibly old people on the planet, and none of them knew how to order a pizza. 

I’d gotten accustomed to a lot over the past year and a half, but sometimes the surrealness of this life still really struck me. Because this was really weird, wasn’t it? It felt really weird. 

Still, I pushed all of that aside and found myself nodding. “Oh, uhhh, yeah we can just order a pizza. Or a couple pizzas. Pretty sure when you guys taste the first one you’ll want more. Besides, we’ve gotta get a bunch of different kinds and find out what you like, there’s so many different top–right. Uhh, hold on.” Fumbling a bit to get the new phone that my dad had provided that morning out of my pocket, I brought up a list of nearby pizza places and called the one with the best reviews. I ordered six large pies, trying to get as much variety as possible so the other three (and whoever else ate them) could find something they actually liked. 

Once they confirmed the price and said it would be about forty-five minutes, I started to thank them, then I blinked at the phone in my hand and asked the guy to wait for a second before looking to the others. “Oh, right. We need money to pay for this.” Frowning, I slowly turned to the other three. “I, uhh, don’t suppose any of you carry cash. Or have credit cards. This uhh–” 

I had been about to say that this might be a problem, but Childs reached into his old dirty jeans before producing a rather clean and new-looking Visa card. “We’ve figured out it’s a bit easier to get around down here if you’ve got one of these.” 

As my hand rose to take the card, it occurred to me just how different this was from my first experiences with people this powerful the year before. Fu Hao and Jack Childs were Victors, the Garden equivalent of the Crossroads Committee. And I could still definitely sense the power coming off them. They were both strong enough to basically snap their fingers and kill me if they really wanted to. Or even if they had the vague notion to. As strong as I had become over the time since I had become a Bosch Heretic, I was still barely a bug to them. Strength-wise, at least. 

Yet, here I was holding a credit card from one of them while having a normal conversation, just like they were ordinary people. They were still powerful and potentially terrifying, but they weren’t mythical figures atop a mountain or whatever anymore. After everything that had happened, everything that I had been through, things were different. I was different. They could still scare me, quite easily in fact. But I wasn’t going to let that make me shake in shoes in front of them. 

Of course, maybe the fact that there was a millennia-old Revenant standing beside me who wanted to call me honeybuns and sweetums or whatever contributed to that. I was so busy being confused by that whole situation, that I didn’t have time to focus on how dangerous the Victors could be. They were the relatable/understandable figures in this situation by comparison. Which was really wild if you thought about it. 

The point was, it had been a very long year-and-a-half. A year-and-a-half that had been filled with so many people who were so much stronger than me that it honestly didn’t affect me as much anymore. I was still awed by the things they could do, of course. But I wasn’t like… overwhelmed as much. I could handle it. If they meant to do anything bad, I’d… well, I’d probably get squished like a little bug. But I wasn’t going to spend all my time bowing in terrified reverence, treating them like gods. They were people. Incredibly powerful people, but still people. They made mistakes, had prejudices, often ignored common sense, everything those less powerful than they happened to be did at times. They weren’t infallible. Which, in many ways made them even scarier than they already were, to be fair. 

But I’d deal with it. These guys were on my side–okay to be fair it was more that I was on their side. Either way, they didn’t leave me shaking and staring nearly as much as they would have a year earlier. I’d been through too much, with Fossor, with the Seosten, meeting literal Olympian gods like Artemis and Athena–fighting against those like Ares, Hephaestus, and Hera, meeting the King of Canada only to find out he was the Fae King Oberon, finding out silly, goofy Harper was actually literally Guinevere and Lancelot, or even that big Uncle Al was Hercules

Yeah, that list could go on. When it came down to it, I’d been through so much that sitting here ordering pizza for two of the Eden’s Garden Victors just wasn’t anywhere near the top of the list. 

So, holding the card, I read off the name and number for the pizza guy who was waiting patiently. The name literally said Jack Childs. Which made me wonder what sort of name someone like Ikita or Childs’ partner Lamorak used on things like this, or anything where they needed to put their name. Or Benedict Arnold, who was apparently one of the Victors as well, for the Remnant Guardians tribe. Yeah, that Benedict Arnold. Ironically, he was not one of those who had joined the rebellion. Actually–wait, that wasn’t ironic. Him being a loyalist was completely in-character. 

Shaking off those strange thoughts, I disconnected and gave Childs his card back before focusing on the beautiful, white-haired woman who was simply sitting on the edge of one of the tables nearby with her gaze intently locked on me. She had been staring my way the entire time I’d been ordering the food, never blinking as far as I could see. It made me feel weird, even the way she offered a broad, cheerful smile as soon as I looked at her. Her voice was chipper. “I’m glad that my first meal on this planet after so many years will be pizza with you, Felicity! I have heard that it is a very common food for first dates!” 

Oh boy. Coughing, I managed to keep my face mostly straight while replying, “It’s a really versatile food, that’s for sure. I uhh, hope you like it.” Hey, this was weird. I was being courted–wait, did it count as being courted in this particular case? I was… umm, getting to know Manakel’s widow, who was this cheerful, happy, sorta-kinda-undead woman that–yeah. Yeah, it was weird. No wonder I was barely fazed by the whole being around two Victors thing. Who had any time to focus on how powerful those two were with this girl sitting right there saying things like that? 

Still, I pushed that out of my mind as much as I could, and focused on taking a seat at the table where Jack Childs and Fu Hao had already sat down next to each other. The two of them looked fairly amused as they glanced from me to the woman who was still staring my way. Of course, I was sure this whole situation was pretty hilarious to people who didn’t have to find a way to navigate it. Someday, I was going to be the one on the outside watching someone else deal with something this absurd, and I was going to be just as amused, damn it. 

“Uh, thanks for doing this,” I managed, my attention centered on the two incredibly powerful Heretics sitting across from me. “I just umm, I guess you guys probably know at least a little bit about Asenath by now? She’s kinda been involved in a lot of this stuff.” 

From the corner of my eye, I saw Persephone produce some kind of pocket computer, mouthing ‘Asenath’ to herself as she typed the name in while kicking her legs back and forth like a little kid from her perch on the next table over. Belatedly, I realized what was going on. She was taking notes, like she was preparing for a test or whatever. She was studying my life, taking notes on people I knew or talked about. Not for anything nefarious (apparently), but just because she wanted to know everything she could about… about me. The test she was studying for was just about getting to know me. Eesh, that was an odd feeling. Then again, basically everything surrounding that woman had given me an odd feeling since the moment she showed up. Before she showed up, come to think of it. That whole sensation I had gotten before, with the hair on the back of my neck standing up, it wasn’t about the monster. I didn’t have some magic Nuckelavee detection power. But I did have a pretty strong Necromancy power, and I’d obviously felt the Revenant-possessed Olympian body rapidly approaching. 

Meanwhile, as those thoughts ran through my mind, Fu Hao had shifted slightly in her seat. The deceptively young-looking Asian woman gave a slight nod, her gaze flicking between Persephone and me curiously. “Yes, we are aware of her, thanks in large part to our discussions with Miranda and Ha… Avalon. She was the one whom Gaia Sinclaire sent to obtain the piece of rope, which was used to power the spell that reminded everyone of your mother’s rebellion.”

“That’s her,” I confirmed. “She’s been a lot of help. Not just with getting people’s memories back, but with plenty of other things too. And now she’s the one who needs help.”

Childs, leaning back in the seat a little, lifted his chin while regarding me. “I know a little bit about this vampire girl. Not much, only came close to crossing her path once before. Missed her by about thirty seconds, as I recall. Had something to do with an old ranch down in Oklahoma. When I heard she was there, looking into the same situation I was, I poked around a bit to find out what I could about her. Needed to know if she was trying to hide anything out there. From what I heard, she’s pretty capable on her own. So if you’re asking for help on her behalf, either it’s about something pretty goddamn strong, or something pretty goddamn personal.” 

“Quite,” Fu Hao agreed. “And suffice to say, we do not believe that you would be asking us to provide physical strength. You have other sources for such aid. Between that and your mention of this help involving one of our ‘old colleagues,’ I would say the girl is searching for information about someone close to her. A family member or friend, whom you believe one of the Eden’s Garden Victors has… imprisoned?” 

From a few feet to the side, Persephone piped up, “Yay! I read lots of Earth books. The ones about the private detectives are Andi’s favorites. We love the parts when the smart detective people explain how they detectived things and go through the suspects. Oooh, can I be a suspect?!”

The Victors waited for me to respond to her, naturally. Glancing that way, I hesitated (briefly wondering who Andi was) before shaking my head. “It’s not exactly that kind of situation. It’s more…” I paused to consider. “It’s the part where the detective goes to the police to find out if they know anything important that could help his case.” 

Nodding sagely at that, the white-haired woman replied in a stage-whisper while glancing toward the two indescribably powerful people sitting across from me, “Which one of them is going to turn out to be the bad guy’s secret lover and which one is going to die dramatically while they’re giving you the last clue you need to figure out his identity?” 

Before I could say anything, Fu Hao spoke up, sounding completely serious. “I would like to call–I believe the word is dibs? Dibs on the latter. I have always enjoyed acting, and a grand, dramatic death scene is quite an accomplishment.” 

Leaning sideways in his seat, Childs gave a look that way. “So you just leave me to be the traitor, hm?” After a pause, he added, “And the bad guy’s lover, come to think of it.” 

Without looking at him, Fu Hao flatly replied, “Well, you do have a mustache. I’m told that qualifies you for both.” 

Mouthing a silent, ‘wow’ toward the floor, I gave myself a firm shake before pushing on. “Yes, you’re right. Err, I mean about what she’s doing. Asenath’s looking for her father. His name is Tiras and he’s an Akharu. Apparently Kyril Shamon had him as a prisoner, at least for awhile. He gave him to that Desmoterion prison place about thirty years ago for seven or eight years, then came and took him back. That’s the last time those guys saw him. So we’re trying to find out if he, you know, still has him. Or even why he put him in that prison.”

From where she was sitting, Persephone cheerfully announced, “Sounds like he was hiding the prisoner. Did he only hide that one, or were there others?” When I looked that way, she added, “You know, that way you know if he was hiding one specific prisoner, or the fact that he had any of them.” 

“That…” Trailing off, I tilted my head, considering. “That’s a good point, actually. I don’t think they asked.”

“Yay!” Throwing both hands triumphantly in the air, the Revenant-woman declared, “I’m being helpful!” Her gaze met mine earnestly. “Would you like me to kill them for not asking the right questions?” She asked that in the same manner she might have asked if I wanted her to pick up milk or something. If getting milk had somehow become dangerous and violent enough to require someone as strong as an Revenant-Possessed Olympian. And I really didn’t want to know what sort of situation would lead to that. 

As it was, my head shook so fast I was almost afraid it might fall off. “No! You’re not killing Asenath for— why would you even ask that?!” 

“Well,” came the simple response, “That is the sort of thing my prior dearest beloved would have asked for someone who had failed him.” Pausing, she considered. “Not at first, but recently. In the past few hundred years.” She leaned closer then, putting a hand up beside her mouth to continue conspiratorially, “He got really grumpy for awhile, before you helped kill him.”

There was so much I wanted to say to that, but all of it was jumbled in my head. All I could manage was a choked noise in the back of my throat before holding up a hand. “Look, I don’t want you to kill anybody, okay? And whatever you do, unless I am in immediate mortal peril, don’t just assume I want you to kill someone at all. Ask first. Always ask first.” 

After she cheerfully agreed, I turned back to the two Garden rebel leaders. “So, do you know where Shamon might keep his slaves now? Or maybe you’ve seen this Tiras guy. Or do you know why he sent Tiras, and maybe others, to this private prison for a few years? I just–anything. We really need to find Asenath’s father. He’s been missing for a couple hundred years.”

Childs and Fu Hao exchanged glances before turning back to me. The latter spoke. “Roughly thirty years ago, the tribes of Eden’s Garden faced a unique threat on one of the colony worlds we had settled over fifty years earlier. Specifically, the invasion of alien beings who seemed drawn to humans and were uniquely suited to hunting us. They projected a sound that was debilitating to all but the strongest Heretics. The Victors agreed to a plan. Any combat-capable beings among the… slaves would be given the choice to fight these creatures and drive them from that world to save the colony. If they did and survived, they would be released. The agreement was made, and magically enforced, that should they do their best to defeat these creatures, they would be brought back to Earth safely and released to go free with no attempt to harm or track them until enough time had passed for them to safely disappear. If they were found later, that would be different. But they would be allowed to leave safely and given that single pass.” 

My mouth opened to ask what that had to do with Tiras, before I stopped myself. “Shamon didn’t want to give Tiras that chance. Let me guess, you guys all brought your combat-capable people together and asked them in a group? You gave them the choice together, and this Shamon guy didn’t want Tiras, and maybe others, to have the chance to say yes. So he snuck them out to this private prison. And that war of yours, I bet it lasted through the exact time that Tiras was in there.” 

“It ahhh, does seem to line up,” Childs agreed. 

I nodded slowly. “Right, so we know why he was in the mercenary prison. But not where he is now.” 

“Actually,” Childs corrected, “we might be able to get something else for you when it comes to that. Give us a little time, we’ll see if we can find out where he’s been keeping his prisoners lately. He tends to put them on secret projects, but we have… people who could poke around back at Garden.” 

“You’d really do that?” I asked. 

Fu Hao gave a single nod. “Of course. As you said, we owe this Asenath for everything she has done. Aiding in the retrieval of her father would be a pleasant change from what we have had to do in the past.” 

“What she’s saying,” Childs translated, “is that it’d be nice to be the good guys for once.

“Now is that pizza here yet? I’m ‘bout to eat my damn belt.” 

Previous Chapter

In Like Flynn 17-06 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

So there we were, four girls, a lizard-bear, and a lizard-eagle, all crouched and huddled behind a marble-construct wall that was being pummeled by gunshot after gunshot. I honestly had no idea how much longer it was going to be able to hold up under this kind of assault. And I really didn’t want to know what was going to happen if it crumbled and left all of us open and exposed. We had to deal with these ‘cowboy’ programs quickly, before we ended up as fish in a barrel.  

And, of course, it had to get worse. Because the ranch hands were all on horses. So they didn’t exactly have to stay where they were while firing. Already, several of them were starting to spur their mounts to take off to either side so they could get a clear line of fire around the wall. 

Yeah, this was a not-great situation that was getting worse by the moment. Not to mention the trouble I was having with my own power. I was just plain off on aiming, on knowing where things were, on everything. And I didn’t have time to sit around trying to figure it out. Yeah, there was obviously something different about the way my powers really worked and the way the machine was interpreting them. Like the way I had traveled through the dark forest, or the way Murphy and Roald had pointed out my aim at the basketball court. But I couldn’t fix that or even spend time dwelling on it. I had to work with what I had in here. Paige was counting on me to do something before it was too late and she ended up being taken over by this evil copy, not just lament about power problems. 

“We’re jumping,” Way blurted, even as the shots from the guys who were spreading out got way too close to the edge of the wall. Alloy had adapted by curving the thing inward to continue covering us, but it was getting spread pretty thin to do so, and was already shuddering under the force of the incoming bullets. Pretty soon, the wall was going to be a full circle, and I really didn’t know how long it would hold up like that. Way was right, we had to teleport out of there. 

Still, I had an idea, so I quickly put a hand up against the girl’s arm and shook my head. “Wait! I’ve got something. Alloy, dome us. Doesn’t have to last long, just cover us up, now!”  

She may have been even newer to this stuff than I was, but Peyton knew how to listen. Immediately, she shifted the circular wall into a dome to cover us entirely, even sending the silver marble out of her own suit to reinforce. Which left the girl wearing only the main purple part of her Sentai-like armor. It didn’t exactly expose her skin so much as make the rest of the violet material spread out to cover what was left, but it was obvious that the remaining armor was weaker. Even so, it did, at least, give the dome around us a bit more of a boost to survive as the hail of gunfire only seemed to intensify. The bullets were coming in from all sides constantly.

The point was, we really didn’t have much time. So I didn’t waste any, quickly blurting out my plan in a few words. The others looked at one another, but nobody had anything better. And we didn’t have the precious minutes it would take to come up with something else. So, everyone agreed, and we went to work over the next few seconds, while the dome flickered around us. Any moment now, that shield was going to fail. We knew it, and our attackers knew it. 

Moments later, the shield broke apart into its individual marbles. But, the security programs weren’t faced with a group of exposed victims like they thought. Instead, they found themselves staring down the solitary figure of a large reptilian-bear. A very large, very angry, very colorful reptilian-bear. Mars Bar had green across all four paws and ankles, purple up all four legs, and the rest of his body was entirely covered in orange, save for his head. 

As soon as he was revealed, the big colorful bear-lizard let out a terrifying roar that seemed to shake the entire world, before taking off. The green made him so fast that the fake cowboys were barely able to react before he slammed into the first of them. And with the added strength from the purple paint, the force of that collision made both the ‘man’ and his mount burst apart, shattering into light particles. In the same motion, Mars Bar lashed out toward the next nearest attacker, that simple swipe of his enormous paw literally shattered the program he hit. The security figure flickered and vanished as if it had never been there, before it could even retaliate.

Finally, the other cowboys reacted and started shooting. But with all that orange paint and the bear-lizard’s natural defense, their bullets didn’t stand a chance of stopping him before it was too late. He fell on the largest group, going through them like a wheat thresher even as they all continued to frantically concentrate all of their gunfire on the huge threat tearing them apart.

And that, of course, worked to distract the remaining cowboys from the threats that had just shown up behind them. Namely, the rest of us. That-A-Way had teleported us out of there before Alloy took down the shield to reveal Mars Bar. We ended up behind the barn, and made our way back around just in time for me to activate the paint so the big bear could do his thing. 

Now, instead of being trapped there while literally surrounded by a group of gun-toting security figures, we were behind them while they were completely focused on the threat who was tearing through the largest clump of their men. And they had no idea where we were. Not yet, anyway. Which was something we were about to take full advantage of. 

We hit them before they knew what was happening. Pack, wielding the bat she’d taken from before, popped up beside one guy’s horse and slammed her liberated weapon into the back of his head as hard as she could. At the exact same time, Way grabbed two guys and teleported a few feet to the north and a good two hundred feet into the air before releasing them. As she started to fall, she teleported another couple feet forward and right back to the ground before pivoting to face two guys who were shooting at her. Except she was facing south, so her intangibility meant the bullets just passed through her and hit a couple of the remaining cowboys on that side. 

Meanwhile, Alloy and I hit the remaining guys, whose attention had suddenly been diverted to where Pack and Way were. Peyton had brought her marbles flying back to herself, reinforcing her armor once more while creating a white and bronze sword in one hand, which cut through one of the men just as he pivoted on the horse to face her. The black and gold marbles had, at the same time, transformed into a huge floating hammer, which crashed into another guy to send him flying before he splattered apart against the wall of the barn. 

Which left me. I had saved just barely enough paint after setting up Mars Bar to put purple stripes across my arms and an orange exclamation point on my back. It wouldn’t save me from sustained fire or anything, but it gave me a little bit of a boost so I could grab the leg of one cowboy and yank him off his horse. He struggled, catching me in a tight grip, but I grabbed hold of his shirt collar and slammed my helmeted head into his face before he could do more than that. It was enough to make him let go of my collar before I spun and threw him into the next guy, who had just been taking aim at me.

Ignoring the horse, I stooped and grabbed the guy’s fallen gun off the ground. While he and the figure he had crashed into were picking themselves up, I took aim from right up close, hesitating only slightly before telling myself it was just like a video game. No matter how real it felt, these people aren’t real. They were just obstacles to stop us from getting to Paige in time. 

With that thought filling my mind, I narrowed my eyes and pulled the trigger several times. The gun kind of bucked in my hand, but not as much as the one back in the real world had when I’d been fighting those biolems. This was more of a videogame gun, naturally. The bullets hit the figures on the ground and made them blow apart into light fragments before disappearing. Quickly, I turned the weapon to any others I could see, firing several more times before the gun clicked empty. Even without the harsh recoil, I still missed with a couple shots, because as much as this was like a video game, there was still a major difference between physically holding a gun and pulling the trigger, or doing so on a screen with a controller. But hey, two of the shots hit their targets, making the ranch hand figures burst into pixels. 

Between the four of us, Mars Bar, and even Riddles (who dropped in out of the sky to cover her partner-lizard, raking at the eyes of anyone still taking shots at him), we cleaned out the rest of the guards pretty quickly. Which left us standing there alone, at least for a moment. 

“Gotta hurry,” Way was saying while we panted there together, catching our breath. “These things are just going to keep respawning and coming after us. We’ve gotta find Paige. So where is she? I–this is some farm outside town. A bunch of schools take field trips out here all the time. So why is this important? Why would Paige’s computer thingie put us out here? And how do we find her? Preferably before we end up in brawl number three with those assholes.”

She was right, we couldn’t just run around in circles hoping to accidentally trip over Paige. There had to be a reason that the scene had gone from the school to this place. This… ranch was where my first real nasty encounter with the girl had happened. That was important, right? Was Paige like… reliving things or whatever? Or just jumping between various locations where important moments of our history had happened. 

Oh boy, if that was true, we really had to get through this before the scene changed to something that would give too many hints about who I was. That was a thought that spurred my brain to start working overtime. It was time to figure this out and find Paige

Pack had already turned and started to move, with Mars Bar quickly starting to lumber after her. “The main farmhouse. It’s the best chance we’ve got, right? It’s like the main building. They’ve gotta be up there. Where else would they be?” 

Where else indeed? Yeah, the main farmhouse made sense. Except that wasn’t right. The second she made the suggestion and started moving, I knew where Paige actually was. It jumped into my head instantly. The pond. There was a pond just over the hill, where the two of us had had our first ‘fight.’ She’d kicked muddy water up onto me, and I sort of shoved her into it, then she pulled me after her and we both had to be separated. It was a whole thing. That was it. That was where this program had put her when the scene reset. It had to be. Not the farmhouse, the pond. 

But how was I supposed to get them to go over there without giving anything away? I couldn’t explain how I knew the truth, and they were already heading the wrong way. For a brief moment, I stood there, frozen by indecision. Then I simply blurted, “Hey, did you hear that?!” As they all turned toward me, I pointed toward the hill. ”It was coming from that way.” Oh boy, if I was wrong about this, it was a real fuck-up. But I was positive that I had to be right. We’d barely even gone in the farmhouse on that tour. If this was supposed to be an important place for Paige, it had to be over by the pond. 

The others were saying they didn’t hear anything, but I didn’t wait around for that. I was already turning that way and rushing while claiming I’d definitely heard something. My only chance was to fully commit to this and not give them time to object more. 

Thankfully, I was apparently convincing, because the others didn’t question it too much before simply following. Apparently I had just become that good of a liar, which was probably something I should examine later. But right now, the only thing that mattered was getting to Paige.  

Unfortunately, the direction we were going was not within Way’s super speed or teleportation range of direction. So, it would have taken a long time to make the whole trek, following the trail that I had vaguely remembered. It had been like a twenty minute hike. Fortunately, we had Alloy. She made a large, semi-circle shaped board to fly everyone that way, including Mars Bar. She was at the front, and the only one standing given her ability to lock her armor boots in with the board itself. Meanwhile, the rest of us were kneeling and holding onto handles she had created, with That-A-Way and me to one side, Pack to the other, and Mars Bar lying down in the middle. The poor lizard-bear did not seem to be happy about flying, and kept making low groaning noises of objection. I just hoped he wouldn’t lose his lunch, if that was even possible in here. Digital bear vomit was not something I wanted to think about, on top of everything else. 

It wasn’t the most stable or fast ride, given the weight involved, but it was a hell of a lot quicker than walking. With that help, it only took us a couple minutes to reach the hill and get to the top, Which meant that, at the very least, my paint had had time to regenerate completely. 

Finally, we reached the crest of the hill and could immediately see the glistening water of the pond stretched out below. At first, I saw nothing else. My eyes frantically scanned the ground around the water, searching for what I knew had to be there. Or rather, who. But I saw nothing. Oh God, oh God, was I wrong? If I had fucked this up, I’d never forgive my—

“There!” It was Alloy, pointing toward the far edge of the pond, where a large mess of reeds had grown up out of the shallow water. They stood several feet high, blocking the view of anything within. But, as my eyes focused that way, I could see two figures rolling around in there. They weren’t standing up, but rather, were scrambling on their hands and knees, grappling one another, and generally struggling together. Whatever was going on in there, it seemed nasty. From up here, it sure as hell looked like they were trying to drown one another. It was impossible to make out any details about the figures, including what they look like or who was winning. But it had to be Paige and the virus, right? There was no other real option. It was them, and from the look of things, they were really going at it. 

“Get us over there!” I blurted, eyes widening at the sight. Through the reeds and across so much distance, it was all I could do to make out that the two figures were both struggling to push one another’s heads under the water. Part of me wondered what that would accomplish inside a place like this, but maybe it was representative of a different kind of computer attack or something. Either way, we had to intervene, because I had no idea which one of them was winning. That was something we were going to have to sort out once we separated them. Hopefully without being interrupted by more security programs. We had enough to deal with. 

With a hasty nod, Allow sent the board flying down the hill. Mars Bar groaned again, before Pack reached over with one hand to rub his head comfortingly. Meanwhile, Riddles flew in a dive right beside us, clearly resisting the urge to let out a shrill bird-of-prey cry. The eagle-lizard was smart enough to know that we were trying to be quiet right then. We had to hit Paige and the virus copy before they knew what was happening, separate them, and figure out where to go from that point. There had to be a way to get rid of the virus for good. 

We were rapidly getting closer as we blew down the hill. But it wasn’t fast enough for me. I desperately wanted to launch myself that way with a shot of red paint to hit one of them, but I didn’t trust my aim in this place. There was still something wrong with my power. Closer, we had to get closer. Tightening my grip on the handles, I stared intently that way, trying not to seem too desperate. This whole situation was going to be hard enough to navigate without letting the others wonder why I was so emotionally invested in saving Paige. 

Finally, we were close enough, and I couldn’t wait any longer, secrets be damned. It was clear from this distance that one of the figures was on top of the other, pushing their head under the water. It could have been Paige winning, but I couldn’t take that chance. With a blurted thanks for the ride, I put blue paint under me to launch myself forward just ahead of the flying board. Extending both hands, I sprayed a much wider burst of red paint that I normally would have, just to make sure I hit my target. The figure on top twisted around just as the paint hit them, reacting instantly by looking that way. Before they could do anything else, I activated the paint and was immediately yanked through the air the rest of that distance. Once I was within about fifteen feet, I tried something new by focusing on reversing the pull so that the other girl was yanked toward me instead. Just as she was hauled off her feet and launched my way, I released the paint entirely, tucking myself into a ball with a green exclamation point across my chest to speed up my drop. 

It worked. I fell faster than the figure I had yanked up rose, passing just beneath her before twisting in the air to land on my feet, up to my knees in the water. An orange smiley face across my back protected me from the impact. 

Meanwhile, the figure I had yanked into the air landed about ten feet away, crashing down with a splash in the water before popping up and spinning toward me. It was Paige. 

Then the figure she had been trying very intently to drown popped up as well, just a few feet to one side. That was Paige too. 

“Cassidy!” They both blurted. Thankfully the board with the others was still too far for them to hear, but still. I flinched inwardly, shooting a burst of black silencing paint at each of them. 

“First one to try to expose my secret is obviously the fake,” I blurted immediately. “That’s the one we get rid of.” 

A moment later, while both Paiges (they each looked pretty exhausted, injured, worn-down, and generally as if they’d been fighting for a long time) reacted to that, the others reached us. Alloy dismissed the board into separate marbles while they all hopped off and looked around. That-A-Way stepped forward right next to me, looking like she was about to say something before catching herself and reconsidering. 

Both Paiges, meanwhile, were clearly reeling from the shock of all of us showing up like this inside their computer brain digital world. I could see their eyes darting from one person to the other, obviously taking everything in while they panted from their recent fight, taking the moment to recover. 

In the end, it was Pack who spoke first. Her voice was blunt as she stood next to a looming Mars Bar. “Right, so we found them. Good for us. So, how do we figure out which one is the real chick and which one’s the fake?” 

My mouth opened before I stopped. I had no idea. But, worse than that, I didn’t know what was going to happen once we finally did identify them. Right now, the thing stopping the fake Paige from giving up my identity was the fact that she was still trying to pass as Paige herself. At least while she looked for an opening. But if we figured out who the fake was, she would have no reason to keep quiet anymore. 

And once that happened, how was I going to stop her from blurting out every secret I had? 

Previous Chapter

Reception 13-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The non-canon chapters for this story and for Summus Proelium were posted over the weekend. You can find the SP chapter here and the HE chapter here

“You remember when we were little kids back in school?” Miranda’s voice oh-so-innocently asked as the girl herself sat beside me at a table. I was pretty sure she was smiling, but couldn’t tell for sure, considering my head was down against said-table. “And we all used to make jokes and–uh, well fantasies for some of them about which of us would get married first?” Yeah, she was definitely smiling. Or smirking. “I seriously never thought you’d be the one to take that pot. Congratulations, I’m pretty sure there’s like twelve bucks in change, a handful of hair scrunchies, two stuffed animals, three tubes of the good chapstick out of the Laramie Falls Junior High vending machine, and that sweet Lego watch waiting for you back home.” 

Raising my head from the table, catching a glimpse of Koren, Sands, and Sarah sitting on the other side collectively snickering in the process, I turned toward Miranda next to me and squinted at the innocently-smiling girl. “You think this whole thing is just super funny, huh?” 

Randi, of course, gave a quick nod, even adding a thumbs up. “It’s fucking hilarious, dude. Come on, this immortal Revenant girl comes out of nowhere and says she’s your wife because you killed her husband and inherited his Necromancy power, which is the real thing she made her wedding vows to? Exactly how many people would something like that happen to? This has ‘Flick’s Life’ written all over it. And for once, it’s not something horrific or sad. Yeah, it’s funny.” 

“She’s got a point, Flick,” Sands put in while reaching across the table to gently poke my shoulder. “Seriously, how often does something insane happen to you that’s just… weird and kind of hilarious instead of terrible and violent? I mean, yeah the way she showed up was violent, but she saved us from that Nuckelavee! That’s gotta put her in the positive column, right?”

“Yeah, that’s definitely positive,” I confirmed. “She showed up and took out the monster, fantastic. She says she’s friendly, double-fantastic. She also says she has no interest in getting revenge for the whole killing her husband thing, which is just extra bonus fantastic levels. But…” 

As I trailed off, Miranda asked, “Are you afraid she’s just playing the long game and is more into the whole revenge thing than she’s letting on? You know, stab when no one’s looking?” 

Koren spoke up. “From what Mercury and Sariel said, that doesn’t really sound much like her either. It kinda sounded like what you see is what you get with that chick. She’s really straightforward. If she was pissed at you, she’d say so. Which uhh, kinda goes with what we saw, you know? She doesn’t really seem like the tricks and subterfuge type.” 

My head started to shake, then I hesitated before continuing to shake it. “No–I mean, yeah, you’re right. From what those two said, that didn’t really sound like her MO. Besides, they’re checking all that.” Turning my head slightly, I looked away from the table on the playground next to the motel where we were sitting, gazing off to the main building itself. In one of those rooms was where the Seosten, along with several others (including my mother), were having a long, magically assisted chat with this Persephone chick. They’d insisted on doing a full rundown without me present, just to make sure everything really was on the up-and-up with her. 

Behind me as I was looking toward the building, Sarah spoke quietly. “Avalon and Shiori.” 

Turning back and settling once more, I nodded. “Yeah, them. I’m not sure how they’ll react or how she’ll react to them. I mean, she says she doesn’t mean me any harm and that she’s in love with the power I have and loyal to it and all. But does that extend to being nice to the girls I love? Or anyone else I care about? I just–how much is she actually going to listen to me or care about what I care about? What if she decides only she gets me and turns violent against them?” 

The other four exchanged looks for a moment before Koren spoke again. “Uncle Wyatt’s in there, and Grandma. If she’s a danger to anyone here, they’ll sniff it out. And uhh, I’m just gonna guess she won’t really mind, Flick. Seriously, I’m gonna be super-surprised if she’s the strict monogamous sort. I mean, she’s definitely not the ‘til death do we part’ sort.” 

Snorting despite myself while the others outright snickered, I waved that off. “Right, yeah, okay. Point. And yeah, they’ll probably find anything wrong in that whole interrogation thing. I just… this whole thing is weird. Better weird than usual, but still weird.” My foot was tapping nervously against the floor. “She’s… she made an oath or a vow or whatever to Manakel’s power, and now it’s my power so she thinks it extends to me. It’s like inheriting an old grandfather clock in a will, and then finding out some other person has an arranged marriage with that clock, so now you’re married.” 

With a cough, Miranda offered, “Can I give you a little advice, old best friend? Maybe don’t tell the immortal Revenant chick the comparison about her being married to a clock.” 

Blanching a little, I shook my head. “Yeah, yeah. I didn’t mean it as an insult or anything. I mean, she seems fine. She saved us, she was friendly, I just–I’m worried about where this is going. Everything Sariel and Mercury said makes her out to be super-loyal to Manakel. Or, you know, to his power. Which I guess maybe translates into being loyal to me, or something? But she also seems, I dunno, unpredictable? I guess I’m just afraid that this ‘not a problem’ is going to turn into ‘very big problem’ as soon as she finds out I’m already romantically involved. Yeah, you’re right about the whole multiple loves thing being pretty accepted and all, I just… I’m really confused. And maybe just a little pessimistic that this totally random thing won’t find some way to turn out to be terrifying after all. Especially if I stop worrying about it.”

Miranda put her hand on my back, squeezing it. “Don’t worry, we get it. Everyone here knows why you might be… uhh, pretty hesitant to believe this isn’t some huge problem, believe me.”  

Sands nodded. “Yeah, totally. But I’m pretty sure this is more like Tristan showing up out of nowhere while you were on that jungle hike with Deveron, Wyatt, and Koren, you know?” 

“And hey,” Koren quickly put in, “He fell out of the sky too, remember? So it’s totally like that.” 

A very slight smirk found its way to my face as I looked around at all four of them. “You guys are pretty good at the whole encouragement thing. Thanks, I–I guess I really needed that.” Letting out a breath then, I straightened and gave a firm nod. “Kay, I’ll try to believe that this whole thing isn’t about to blow up in all of our faces, but I reserve the right to scream I told you so if it does.” 

“Thankfully,” Miranda pointed out, “I’m pretty sure if it does turn into a problem, we’ll all be too busy to listen.” Coughing, she added a flat, “Anyway, are you sure you’re not just hoping it turns into a problem so you don’t have to tell Avalon and Shiori that you’re freaking married?” 

Face flushing deeply, I gave a quick shake of my head while the others snickered. “Oh come on, I am not married. If anything, my Necromancy power’s married. Hell, only half of that’s married, just the part I got from Manakel. Half of one power I have is married. So like, that barely even counts as anything, right?” Saying that, I found myself looking around at a group of pretty dubious-looking friends, before muttering under my breath, “Well, it makes sense to me.” 

“That’s good!” Koren teased, “get your excuses and explanations ready before Avalon finds out.” 

That prompted another round of snickers while I extended my leg to kick her under the table, my face still pink. “Yeah yeah, laugh it up. Believe me, someday you’re gonna be in a situation like this, and I will totally take advantage.” Without missing a beat, I added over my shoulder toward the person my item-sense power had just detected, “And you’re not allowed to protect her from my eventual cunning revenge, Wyatt.”  

Stepping closer, my (much) older brother sniffed while stopping at the end of the table. “You’re very capable,” he informed me primly, “but you can’t stop me from protecting my family.” 

Squinting that way, I pointed out, “I’m your family too, you know. You could’ve been here protecting me from all this awful teasing and mockery.” 

There was a very brief pause as the gangly-looking man seemed unsure of how to respond to that. It was a little awkward, as if he knew he wanted to say something teasing back, but wasn’t quite to the point of knowing exactly how to do so. Wyatt had gotten a lot better over the past year with all this family and friend interaction, but there were still times he just lost it a bit. 

However, that only lasted for those momentary seconds before Koren whispered something into her hand, then made a flicking motion toward Wyatt. I heard nothing, but the way the man reacted made it clear that she had somehow… thrown the whisper to him? New power, obviously. 

Sure enough, Wyatt gave a very short nod toward Koren before focusing on me once more. His voice was calm as he spoke the retort she’d given him. “Tough diddies.” 

“That’s not wh–oh never mind,” Koren waved it off before asking, “So how’s it looking over there? Is she a secret murder-assassin just waiting to jump Flick?”

“Or,” Sands put in, “is she just waiting to jump Flick.” That made her and Miranda snicker. 

Sarah, kindly stepping on her sister’s foot, pointedly spoke up. “They mean, is she safe?” 

It took a moment for Wyatt to answer, while he collected his thoughts. Finally, the man confirmed, “She didn’t trip any guilt spells, or make any of the threat-indicators light up, and the danger-gel I made her hold stayed completely calm. Everyone checked her and she…” The next words looked like it took a lot for him to say. “She appears to be on the up-and-up.” Looking straight to me, he added, “Our mother is making her take a binding oath spell to do no intentional harm, nor intentionally allow harm, to you or anyone you care about. It’s being prepared right now by Mom, Sariel, Mercury, and two of the Victors on our side.”  

Raising an eyebrow, I asked, “You’re not there helping?” 

Wyatt, in turn, folded his arms, looking a little annoyed at himself. “I… might have gone a little overboard with the truth and danger sensing spells. They didn’t want to wait for me to recover. They said they have enough power to make them binding as it is.” 

Right, that made sense. He’d used so much magic making sure this woman wasn’t a threat, that he didn’t have enough left at the moment to contribute to the oath-making spell. Was it weird that I found that a little adorable despite everything? My brother really cared about what happened to me. 

As I was thinking about that, Wyatt continued. “They need you to come talk to her. The oath magic works better if you’re there for it.” His tone turned serious as he reached out to touch my arm. “But if she makes any funny moves or makes you feel uncomfortable, you say the word and she’ll be buried under so many trap spells it’ll take her a month to dig her way out.” 

“Good to know,” I replied easily while pushing myself up. Thanking the others and promising to let them know what happened, I headed off with Wyatt toward the motel building. On the way, I glanced over to him and asked, “So, what do you think of this woman? I mean, I know she’s really intense and all. And potentially dangerous, obviously. But what do you really think?”  

Wyatt didn’t answer at first. He was quiet, clearly considering the question. Which did a lot to show how much he had really changed over the past year. Before, he would have ranted on for an hour about how she was obviously plotting to kill all of us, and probably wear our skins or something. But now, while he was still suspicious, he was a lot more reasonable about it. He thought things through more and was much more in control of himself. Finally, as we were about halfway to the building, he answered. “You’re right, she could be dangerous. She’s very strong and hard to stop.” His long, beak-like nose had scrunched up a bit. “But I’ve learned two things about you this year. Okay, more than two. But two specific ones now. The first is that you’re really good at making enemies. Really horrible, strong, vicious enemies I can’t always be there to help with. Even with magic. They find a way to get past it if they have to.”

My mouth opened to say something, but he waved me off and continued. “The other important thing I’ve learned is that you’re also really good at making friends. So, my instinct is to say this girl is dangerous and just get rid of her. That’s what my brain wants to do. It’s what my heart wants to do. Just throw her out and be done with it. But we wouldn’t be done with it. Either she’d be angry and turn into a threat herself, or she just wouldn’t be here to help you with a different threat. She–she’s strong, capable, terrifying. And I’d rather you make her into a real friend, than me make her into an enemy. Even if she scares me. I… I trust you to handle it.” 

We had stopped outside the motel room by that point to finish all that. I didn’t speak at first, just looking at my awkward, wonderful, gangly, incredible brother. Then I stepped over and put both arms around him to hug tightly. “You’re pretty cool, you know that?” My voice was quiet, yet still audibly choked up. “I’m lucky to have someone like you.” 

Despite all the progress he had made, Wyatt was still reflexively stiff when I hugged him. But, after a brief moment, I felt his arms move down to return the embrace. His voice was a bit thick as well. “Be careful, okay? Not–not just because she’s dangerous. But because… because I think she’s fragile too. Not– she’s different. You could really hurt her if you wanted to.” 

That… yeah, that wasn’t at all what I’d expected him to say. Still, I nodded while releasing the man and stepping back. “Trust me, I’ll keep it in mind. The last thing I want to do is traumatize the millennia-old ghost-creature possessing an immortal dead body. Yeah, immortal dead. I said it.” 

With that promise, I turned to the motel, took in a breath before letting it out, and moved to knock on the door. Before my knuckles could actually make contact, however, it opened seemingly of its own volition, with nobody nearby. So, I shrugged before stepping in. The door closed behind me, leaving Wyatt to head back to the others. 

The motel room had had all the furniture taken out of it. The floor, walls, and ceiling were covered in various magic runes that were all centered around a single figure who stood in the middle. Persephone, of course. She stood there calmly, wearing only a sleeveless version of the Seosten bodysuit, arms extended out to either side with more spell-runes drawn along them. 

Meanwhile, Mom, Sariel, and Mercury were on one side of the room, with the two Victors opposite them. They were Jack Childs, the old cowboy from Fate’s Shepherds, and Fu Hao, the Asian woman who looked very young except for her ancient-looking eyes that had clearly seen an incredible number of years. She was one of the leaders of the Vigilant Sons. Seller and Avalon’s tribe, whom I might have had a pretty big problem with given how they had treated Valley. But apparently Fu Hao had already apologized and openly admitted fault for that. Which, given how old and powerful these people were, the fact that any of them were willing to admit when they were wrong meant a lot. I still wasn’t happy with what happened, except that if they hadn’t kicked Avalon out, I wouldn’t have met her the way I did, and–god, that same thing kept coming up, didn’t it? Bad things led to good things. It was all so complicated. 

Eyes lighting up when I entered the room, Persephone called out without moving, “Hello, beloved! Did you eat something yet? Was it good? I’ve heard very nice things about something called pizza on this planet. I’m very interested in trying it once we’re finished with all this.” She spoke so casually, as if she was just waiting for something like… toast to pop up rather than being put under an intense set of spells meant to ensure she wouldn’t kill any of us. 

Before I could say anything, Mom spoke up. “Felicity, come right up in front of her. It’s okay. Put your hands on her shoulders and we’ll finish the spell. Persephone, you know how it works.” 

The white-haired woman remained completely motionless, even as she cheerfully confirmed, “Don’t move an inch or the spell gets messed up! You got it, no moving. I am a tree. Except I smell better.” Her eyes found mine as she amended, “Not that trees smell bad, but you should sniff me, Honeycakes.” After a brief pause, she noted, “I smell like honeycake.” 

Moving that way, I hesitated uncertainly before putting both hands on the woman’s shoulders. She was taller than me by a couple inches, but shorter than Avalon. Speaking… completely academically, she was also incredibly beautiful. Like any Seosten, really. She had that totally snow-white hair and tanned skin, with a slim figure that– yeah. And yes, she absolutely smelled like vanilla cake and honey. It made me blush a little. Especially when she smiled brightly at me, clearly knowing exactly how I was reacting to all that. Oh boy, because this whole thing hadn’t already been awkward enough.  

So, for the next few minutes, I stood there basically face to face with this woman who kept calling herself my wife. Which would’ve been so much easier to deal with if she wasn’t so attractive. And cool. Seriously, she flew down out of the sky and completely exploded a Nuckelavee to introduce herself. It was–no, Flick. Knock it off. Firmly telling myself to push those thoughts aside, I focused on just looking at Persephone. 

Okay, scratch that. I focused on closing my eyes and pretending I was somewhere else. Somewhere with cake and honey. 

Damn it. 

I knew why the spell was taking awhile. Even with two strong Seosten, my mother, and a couple Victors, a Revenant was incredibly hard to target with magic that would actually stick. And one like this, who had found a body as powerful and long-lasting as Persephone had, took even more effort and time. Oh, sure, they could’ve hit her with a teleportation spell or something quite easily, shifted her somewhere else. But for an ongoing effect like this, one that would give even her enough trouble if she started to turn against us, it took a lot. According to Sariel, when they were back on the Olympus, only two people had been able to tell Persephone what to do. The first was Manakel, with the very same Necromancy power that attracted her to him in the first place. And the other was Puriel, who was basically a god when it came to magic. 

But in this case, we had enough power to put the spell on her. Plus, she was willingly cooperating, which helped. She could probably break the spell, but doing so would alert basically everyone Mom was including in the spell, so Persephone going bad would result in a whole bunch of people jumping in, while the Revenant herself was buried under a heap of targeted trap spells. They wouldn’t stop her forever, but they would, with any luck, slow her down. It was the best we could do. Between that and my own ability to sort-of control or at least push her with my Necromancy (I wasn’t as good with it as Manakel had been, so I couldn’t just order her around), this whole thing was as safe as we could make it.   

Finally, with a rush of power that even I felt closing in all around us to culminate in a burst that made my ears pop, it was done. Mom stepped over, putting her hand on my arm to tug me back. “There,” she said quietly, her eyes on Persephone. “You say you want to spend time with my daughter. You can do that, but… when she tells you to back off, do it. Sariel has an extra room you can use. You live with her, not with Felicity. You give her space when she needs it.” 

“Of course, Mother!” the woman cheerfully replied, “we wouldn’t want to rush things.” 

Oh boy. Yeah, Mom had her own reaction to that. But before she could get too into it, I quickly turned to the two Victors, who were starting to leave. “Uhh, um, excuse me?” 

Fu Hao and Childs exchanged brief looks before turning to me, the Asian woman curiously asking, “May we help you with something else?” 

Pushing aside the thought that it was really weird to ask them for anything else after they’d already done this much, I nodded. “Yeah, I uhh, I sure hope so. 

“Let’s just say I have a friend who really needs some help when it comes to one of your old colleagues.”

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In Like Flynn 17-05 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – The non-canon chapters for this story and for Heretical Edge were posted over the weekend. You can find the SP chapter here and the HE chapter here

So, this was just great. Now we were being attacked by a bunch of computer program defense systems that looked like my teachers and other staff from school, all of them trying to defend Paige because they thought we were enemies. And we were going to have to tear our way through them to get to her. Yeah, I was pretty sure a therapist would have a field day with this. 

Even as the group was rushing toward us, I caught a glimpse of That-A-Way grabbing hold of Mars Bar before they both vanished, reappearing behind the mob that was ahead of us. It took the lizard-bear only a second to adjust, turn back the other way, and fall on the crowd from behind with a terrifying roar that shook all the lockers and windows around us. 

Meanwhile, Alloy was standing there, making a noise of awe as she stared between the spot where Way and Mars Bar had been, and where they were now. “Oh, man,” she muttered, “that’s so–” 

“Alloy!” I blurted toward my new partner, “help them hold those guys off!” 

“O-oh, right.” Sounding guilty, the girl quickly made the marbles that weren’t part of her armor join together to create the scoop from a bulldozer, large enough to cover the entire hallway. It slammed forward into the crowd to stop them at the same time as Mars Bar crashed into them from behind. Yeah, it sounded nasty over there. And that was even before counting the fact that those things were still letting out those horrific screams, which echoed through the hall as a sort of background accompaniment to Mars Bar’s roars.

Unfortunately, that still left the mob that had come through the doors behind us for Pack, Riddles, and me to deal with. Quickly, as they came rushing in, I shot green, purple, and orange paint at the La Casa Touched, then activated it for her before putting blue under my feet to launch myself up in a flip over their heads. I intended to land behind them, but one of the security programs (it looked like my quite elderly and quite overweight ninth grade English teacher) leapt into my path, so I slammed into her. Which seemed to hurt me more than it did her, being a program and all. 

I used to like Mrs. Moderane. She was one of my favorite teachers freshman year. But those fond memories started having a bit of trouble when she came down on top of me as we landed on the floor, then punched me in the stomach. At the last second, I managed to paint my helmet orange (still unsure of exactly how well this program ‘translated our powers into virtual reality’), but even with that, the blow was enough to make me grunt. God damn it, these things were strong.

Putting purple arrows across both arms, I grabbed both of Mrs. Moderane’s shoulders and then jerked myself backwards as hard as I could before planting my knees in her stomach while simultaneously heaving with both hands to send her flying over my head and into the wall. In the same motion, I kept rolling backwards to move into a crouched position just in time to see one of the janitors and a security guard rushing me with these big, jagged machetes. My hands snapped up to shoot red paint that way… only to miss the two entirely and send both blobs of paint past both of them to hit a couple lockers against the opposite wall. Wait, what th–

A loud bang suddenly filled the air, as Pack came out of nowhere to slam the metal door she’d ripped off a locker into the head of the security guard who was rushing at me. She hit him with enough force to bend the door in half while also basically caving in the entire backside of his head. There was very little blood, all things considered, it mostly just seemed to pop like a balloon before the entire body vanished. The janitor spun that way just in time for her to snap the bent locker door back into his face, sending him crashing to the floor in a heap. 

“Would you keep moving, Ball?!” the girl snapped at me before throwing the by-now totally crumpled hunk of metal at the legs of another charging teacher. “They’re not real, stop playing nice and just make sure they stay down! We don’t have time for this, remember?!” 

As if to punctuate her owner’s words, Riddles let out a shrill battle cry as she flew overhead, tore a bat out of the hands of another virtual teacher, and sent it flying into the face of one of the office secretaries. Which was only a distraction before the lizard-eagle was right in her face as well, tearing at the woman’s eyes with talons and beak alike. 

Okay, yeah, they were right. We didn’t have time for any of this. Paige could lose her ongoing battle against her other self any minute, and we’d already stretched this out long enough. I just–I was used to hitting things I aimed for. Missing completely when they were right in front of me was… kind of new. But I couldn’t worry about that right now. I had to focus on this. 

Giving the other girl a quick recharge of purple and orange, I launched myself upward, renewing my own purple arms before spinning toward a heavyset old man in a plaid shirt. He was wielding a chain, which he tried to swing around my throat while still giving that horrible scream that just would not stop. They were all doing that. Yeah, it was obviously an alarm to call more of them or whatever, but seriously, we got the point. Everyone got the point. Knock it off already. 

My hands managed to catch the weapon as it swung at me, forcefully tearing it out of his hands even as I reflexively blurted, “Don’t you hate it when someone yanks your chain?” 

Not only did the virtual computer simulation program not laugh at my joke, it responded by simply creating a new one in its hand, then swung it at me even harder. 

Catching the new chain against my arm as well, I quickly jerked on it to yank the figure closer while simultaneously lashing out with a kick. “Ah, you’re prob–aaaaahhh!” That last part, interrupting what was going to be a fantastic follow-up to my joke before, came as the damn thing caught my leg and spun to throw me toward the other lockers. I barely managed to flip over in the air and send a shot of blue that way, which helped me rebound off the metal doors (caving them in partway) before crashing into the guy. We both hit the ground, but I managed to wrap the chain around his throat tightly, jerking a bit on it. A purple lion face appeared on my chest for additional strength. For an instant, I hesitated. Video game. It’s just a video game, I told myself. 

With that, I jerked as hard as I could at the tightly twisted chain around the figure’s neck. There was a nasty crack, and the body under me vanished. I… killed him. It. I killed the–

Shoving that thought out of my mind, I hurled myself into a sideways roll just as a machete came down into the space where I had just been. My 10th grade social studies teacher was there, snarling and screaming (do not ask me how he managed both at the same time) with the knife buried halfway into the floor. 

Planting my hand against the floor for leverage, I used that to shove myself up, blurting, “Just a thought–” My foot lashed out, kicking hard into the man’s face. “Sneaking up on someone works better–” As his head snapped backward from the blow, the foot I’d used to kick him the first time hit the floor and I rose on that single leg while simultaneously twisting around to plant my other foot in his face as well, hard enough to send him skidding backward down the hall. “If you’re not fucking screaming the whole time!” 

“Paintball, up!” Alloy called from behind, over the sound of the continued wailing.

My gaze snapped that way, just in time to see what looked like a thin blade the width of the hallway come flying our way. With a grunt, I grabbed Pack, launching both of us toward the ceiling with one more puddle of blue under our feet. We flipped over in the air and I planted my boots (Wren had included their gravity-flipping in this, thankfully) against the ceiling while holding Pack’s hand as she dangled under me. Or above me, as far as my boots were concerned.

Below us, Alloy’s blade uhh… yeah, it cut through about half of those guys right around the waist. It went straight down the middle of the corridor, moving really quickly as soon as Pack and I were out of the way. Some of the computer programs managed to duck under or jump over it, but she cut a good number in half. Again, there was very little blood. They just vanished. 

Dropping Pack to the floor, I pushed off, flipping over to land next to her. The remaining ‘faculty’ were starting to close ranks, but before either of us could do anything, That-A-Way called out. “Come on! Let’s go!” She, Alloy, and Mars Bar had cleared the path. We could get out of here. 

So, that was exactly what we did. Spinning on our heels, Pack and I raced over to meet up with Alloy, before all three of us ran to the other two, with Riddles soaring along just above our heads.

Ahead of us, two doors on either side of the hall tried to open to admit more staff into the hall to block us. But before the doors could fully open, Alloy sent two of her marbles that way, each transforming into what amounted to a crowbar to slam into the doors with enough force to slam them shut once more. The transformed marbles stayed in place while we ran onward, giving us time to get past before flying in to join up with their owner once more. 

“Dude,” Way blurted, “those things are awesome! You are welcome to join in on these ‘do whatever insane thing Paintball drags us into’ jobs any time you want!” 

Before I could defend myself from that total slander and point out this wasn’t my fault, the four of us (six counting both lizards) reached an intersection in the school hallway. To our right was the hall leading to the library and media room. Straight ahead was a wall full of academic trophies and a couple doors that would lead into the history section of the school. And to our left was the front hallway leading to the main offices, with an open section about halfway down on the right side of that left hall that would take us to the cafeteria and the main gymnasium. A set of stairs leading to the second floor was in the corner of this intersection, near the hall to the front offices. 

“Where’re we going?” Alloy demanded, spinning in a circle. “Uhh, and can we decide pretty quick?” She was looking back the way we had come, where more of those security programs were coming fast. And I swore some of them were the same people we’d already put down. So either the computer was spawning people with the same faces, or the program itself was respawning after being put down. But really, was there a functional difference?  

Dammit, where were we supposed to go? Where would Paige be fighting her evil duplicate? How were we supposed to guess something like that? I had no idea, and time was of the essence. Worse, there were suddenly more fake faculty coming down the stairs toward us. 

No, wait. they weren’t coming down the stairs. They were standing halfway up, blocking the stairs. And suddenly, I knew which direction Paige was in. Raising a hand, I pointed that way while blurting, “We wanna go whichever way those guys don’t want us to go!” 

Several things happened in very quick succession then. Pack sent Mars Bar to slow down the guys coming up from behind us. Riddles, meanwhile, flew up to harass the guys on the stairs. And left must’ve been the direction of Way’s superspeed, because her form blurred before she was suddenly up there on the steps in time to catch hold of the arm of one guy who was swinging a bat at the lizard-hawk, pitching him over the edge to crash down to the floor below, where Pack herself took his own bat and slammed it into his face so hard the program fizzled and vanished. 

Meanwhile, I ran forward, using blue paint on my shoes to launch myself up and forward. In mid-flight, I extended both hands and sprayed a wide burst of red at the remaining guards. Then I activated it, making all six of them slam together in a tangled jumble of limbs just before I landed on the edge of the railing. At least, I meant to land on the railing, but I overshot a bit and ended up crashing into the opposite wall with a grunt. 

Okay, I was starting to think there was something wrong with me, my powers, or both in this place. It was all just… off for some reason. I didn’t feel as coordinated as I should. There was something missing. Nothing felt right. It just… my powers were all here, my paints were doing what they were supposed to, but somehow it was wrong. Something was different or missing. 

Thankfully, Alloy (who had, once more, been standing flatfooted watching this for a moment) snapped out of it and took advantage of me tangling all six guys together by hitting them with a big shovel made out of two of her marbles to knock all of them down the stairs before the paint expired. 

That-A-Way caught my arm, pulling me away from the wall I’d crashed into. Her voice was clearly concerned. “Paintball, are you okay? You seem–” 

“I’m fine,” I quickly blurted, just as Alloy’s shovel-formed marbles reshaped themselves into a board to lift her past the just-then separating heap of computer troops to reach us. “Just… orienting.” 

Ignoring the other girl’s look, I raised my voice to shout, “Pack, hitch a ride!” With that, I pointed both hands. But rather than shooting the girl herself as she stood in the middle of the intersection down there, I fired purple and green paint toward Mars Bar, who was busy smacking around several of those fake faculty members. And again, I missed with one of the shots. The purple paint blob hit a wall, and I had to quickly adjust to shoot a second blob. 

“Dude,” I heard Alloy mutter toward Way, “have you ever seen him miss?” 

Ignoring that, I quickly activated the paints on Mars Bar while shouting, “Come on!” 

Pack didn’t need me to say it twice. She gave a quick whistle, and the big bear-lizard spun around, dropping onto all fours before charging that way. That green paint on him, he really charged. He was a runaway truck, screaming its way across the polished floor. Pack barely had time to leap on, half dragging herself up and over his back before he continued in a headlong rush. The guys at the bottom of the stairs where Alloy had pushed them didn’t even know what hit them before Mars Bar barreled through with enough force to make all six explode.

These stairs weren’t specifically built for something like a giant lizard-bear, but they were built to look impressive to a bunch of spoiled rich teenagers who did ridiculous, dangerous stuff all the time. So, they held. But I was still pretty sure sticking around here for long would’ve been a bad idea even if we weren’t already in a rush for plenty of other reasons. And I wasn’t even going to wonder if the stairs here had the same structural integrity as the ones in the real world. That was just way too complicated for me to think about right then. 

Before the computer could summon more things to block our path, we all went charging up the stairs. Pack stayed on her pet’s back, while the rest of us ran. I thought about using green to speed us up, but decided it was probably best to hold off. After all, we had no idea what we were running into. Okay, I did know where we were running. At the top of these stairs would be another intersection, similar to the one we had left below us, except with a big glass window looking into the second floor of the library. 

At least, that was what we were supposed to see. But we didn’t. Instead, all of us reached the top of the stairs and emerged into a small wooden structure that smelled awful. Alloy, Way, and I stopped short in confusion just long enough for Mars Bar to crash into us from behind, sending us stumbling through the nearby doors and out into… sunlight? The fuck? 

Yeah, we were standing outside, in broad daylight just outside of a barn, which we had climbed the stairs in the school to reach. The barn sitting in the middle of this obvious farm. There were cows in a nearby pasture listlessly mooing, a silo nearby, the farmhouse itself in the distance, another paddock with horses, and so on. It was an honest to God farm. 

Wait, hold on. I knew this farm. We had taken a school trip out here in middle school. Yeah, this was the farm we’d visited on that first school trip after I met Paige. Err, re-met Paige, I supposed. She hadn’t exactly been nice up to that point, but it was here on the farm when things had really turned bad. Or rather, when she had really turned up the mean. She and her new friends had made up a whole song about me being a cowboy. Specifically, Hopalong Cassidy. Yeah. Which might sound cute, but it wasn’t. It was very much not cute. I didn’t exactly have great memories about this place. 

“Okay,” Alloy was saying while the marbles hovered around her, “for the record, there’s no more stairs in that barn. They disappeared after we all went through. And speaking of, uhhh, all this, either that rich kid school is even more absurd than I thought, or–” 

“The program shifted,” I put in, looking around quickly. “Everything changed to a new location. The–a farm, I guess?” I’d been about to say the name of the farm (which was burned into my mind, as much as I might’ve wanted to forget), but that felt like a bad idea for my secrets. Yeah, other schools might visit this place too, but still. 

“Paintball.” That was Pack, looking at me. “You sure you’re cool? You uhh, seemed like… a little off back there.” 

“I’m off?” Flushing a little, I mumbled, “Yeah, I know. I just– it’s weird in here. Doesn’t it feel weird to you guys? Like, isn’t it screwing with your powers a little bit?”

All three of them looked to one another for a silent moment before turning back to me and offering a collection of shrugs. 

“Great, so it’s just me.” I started to mutter something about that being just typical before shaking it off. Instead, I looked around, focusing on the reason we were here. I’d just have to deal with whatever was wrong with me as we went. And hope I didn’t screw things up for everyone. “Well, I don’t see that girl we’re supposed to be helping. In fact, I don’t see anyone. So how are we supposed to find her now?” 

“We could always ask those guys,” Pack dryly remarked. Her attention was centered off in the distance, where a group of ranch hands were riding closer on horses. 

“Something tells me they’re not gonna be any more helpful than the teachers back there were,” Way retorted. “Especially since–down!” That last bit came as the assortment of farm people all produced a mixture of rifles and pistols, taking aim. 

Yeah, we all hit the dirt. I sent a burst of orange from both hands to hit the other five (yes, I included Riddles and Mars Bar, of course) while putting more on myself, just before several of the bullets struck home. The paint saved us. And a second later, Alloy managed to combine her marbles into a low wall to give us cover, while more bullets ricocheted off as the hail of gunfire continued. 

“Okay!” I shouted over the unending barrage as we all huddled behind that conjured wall, “you know what?! 

“This might be jumping to conclusions a bit, but I’m really starting to feel like this computer might not want us around!” 

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Interlude 12B – Denny Again (Heretical Edge 2)

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The quiet, familiar scritching sound of a small knife blade steadily carving into wood filled the small space of the closet where Denny was crouched. She had closed the door and scrunched herself into the back behind the clothes and toys, invisible if someone simply glanced inside. Between that and the fact that it was the middle of the night with no lights on other than what came through the curtained window near her bed in the main room, the area around her was pitch-black. But that didn’t matter, not really. She wasn’t afraid of the dark. And she certainly wasn’t worried about monsters. 

Because she was a monster. And monsters belonged in the closet. 

She had told her mother that she didn’t want to see that therapist again. For some reason that she couldn’t explain, she didn’t say anything about the woman changing her name to that weird one, or any of that. Denny wasn’t sure why, she just knew it was a bad idea. First her mother had wanted her to give it another try, but then they had gotten word that ‘Megan’ was going on an extended trip and wouldn’t be available. So she had agreed to let her daughter see a different therapist, though that hadn’t actually started yet. She was supposed to have her first visit next week. Which didn’t help the girl right now, as she crouched in the closet, carving into the wall. 

It was also too dark to see exactly what she was carving. But that didn’t matter either, because she didn’t need to see it. She knew, deep in her soul, what was carved throughout every wall of the closet. Two different words, repeated over and over again. One was two letters and the other three letters. Me Him Me Him Me Him. The two words were cut into the walls obsessively. From the look of it, if someone had examined the carvings closely, it would appear as though many instances had one word carved first, and then the other carved almost on top of that. It was an argument, played out through a steak knife that had been borrowed from the kitchen, digging into the wall. 

Him. He was there. She could feel him, could almost hear his voice. She caught glimpses of him out of the corner of her eye, and felt him standing behind her. But he was never there when she looked closer. He was always just out of sight, just out of reach. He was right there with her, yet not. 

Grasping the knife carefully in both hands, the eleven-year-old girl stared unseeingly through the darkness at where she knew the rear wall was. With a shaking grip, she reached up and began to carve a much larger word, which would take up the entire wall if she finished it. 

The first letter was A. That was followed by an M. By the time she began to carve the second M, the girl’s hands were shaking so much she actually dropped the knife when the letter was half-done. She reached down, fumbling a bit until she found it. Unfortunately, her hand found the blade first and grasped it, making the blade cut into her palm. Not too deep, barely enough to draw blood. But it made the girl yelp softly. Abruptly, she looked up at the wall again, still incapable of seeing it, yet knowing what was there. The expression on her face, had it been visible to anyone, would have shifted from one of resignation, to intense anger. With the knife held tightly in her slightly injured hand, she ignored the pain and lashed out to cut a deep gouge through the aborted name she had begun to carve into the wall. Once, twice, three times she cut deep lines through it, crossing the unfinished name out. She wouldn’t finish it. She refused. He couldn’t make her. He couldn’t change her. She wasn’t him. She wasn’t. She was Denny. He was–he was–he didn’t matter. He wasn’t here. She wouldn’t obey him again. She wouldn’t be what he wanted. She wouldn’t do anything he said. The whispers, the thoughts, the impressions he left at the back of her mind, they didn’t matter. None of that mattered. She was Denny. She mattered. She was going to do what she wanted to do. She was going to be what she wanted to be. She didn’t have to listen to him. She never had to listen to him. 

The sound of footsteps creaking on the stairs snapped the girl out of her intense fit of repeatedly gouging lines through the partially finished name. Someone was coming. Him? Was it him? Was he coming because she refused to carve his name? Was he coming for her now? No, no, he couldn’t come for her. He couldn’t come, because he was already here. And because he wasn’t. He was here, and he wasn’t, and he never could be. And yet, the rush of terror that filled the girl, the animalistic survival instinct as she heard those footsteps, couldn’t be ignored. 

Straightening, she stepped out of the closet, still holding the knife in her injured hand even as she heard those footsteps steadily approaching her room. Quickly and silently, she moved to stand behind the  bedroom door, safely out of sight as the footsteps stopped. Her hands shook so much she almost dropped the knife again. If he was here, if he was real, she didn’t know what to do. She was terrified, yet also furious. A righteous anger, a rage that the young girl could barely comprehend, had filled her at the thought that he was coming. She wouldn’t let him hurt her. She wouldn’t let him control her. No more. Not again. Never again. 

The footsteps stopped outside her door, and for a moment there was nothing but the silence. Then, the door slowly began to creak open. It came about halfway, and from her position behind it, Denny was able to peer through the small crack between the wall and the door itself just enough to see a figure standing there, mostly concealed in the shadows of the hallway. He was there, staring in at the lump of blankets on her bed that made it look as though Denny was sleeping in it. 

She would stab him. As soon as he came through the door and walked to the bed, she would stab him from behind. She wouldn’t let him touch her, wouldn’t let him talk to her, wouldn’t let him do anything. He would never hurt her again. She wouldn’t let him hurt her or control her.

“Is she okay?” Those words, spoken in a hushed tone, filled the air, startling the girl. They came from down the hall, not from the figure next to the door. And the voice was quite familiar. Her mother. Her mother was just down the hall, addressing… addressing the figure there. 

“She’s asleep,” came the whispered response. A whisper she also recognized. Her father. The figure standing just on the other side of the open door, looking at what he thought was Denny lying in bed, was her own father. She had almost stabbed her own father, out of the sheer terror that had been brought on by the thought that the figure from her dreams was standing there.

While the girl was reeling from what she had almost done, the door creaked closed once more and she heard her father walk away to join her mother. She was left standing there in the dark. The knife fell from her grip to the carpet, and she raised her hands to stare at her own palms. In the slight illumination that came through the window, she could see fairly clearly. There was no wound there. The spot of her hand that she had cut was already completely healed, save for the stain of blood that proved it had once been injured. In those brief moments, the wound had entirely vanished. 

Denny’s breathing grew heavy as she stared at her hand, where the cut should have been. Where she had felt it, where there was still blood showing that a cut had once existed. Her voice was a whisper that sounded entirely too loud within the confines of this dark bedroom. 

“What… what’s happening to me?” 

*******

Gas filling her mouth, pouring down her throat, choking her on the fumes. Tears filling her eyes, panic making her want to scream. But she couldn’t. She couldn’t move, couldn’t get away, couldn’t stop the gasoline from killing her, from–

“Yo, kid!” A sudden shout startled her. “You camping out to save a pump for your dad, or what?” 

Yes, Denny had been standing at a gas station right where a car was supposed to park, staring at one of the pumps. No, not just a gas station. Not just ‘one of the pumps.’ The gas station. The pump. The one from her dream that wasn’t a dream. She knew that, she recognized it. It was the gas station her parents sometimes stopped at on the way home, only a few blocks from their house. Standing there, staring at the pump, she knew it was the same one from those dreams. Something deep in her soul told the girl this was the right place. 

No, the wrong place. This was the wrong place entirely. She shouldn’t be here. She really shouldn’t be here. A loud voice in the back of her mind was telling the girl to turn around and run away, to never set foot anywhere near here again. 

And yet, another voice was telling her that she had to be here, that she would never get any better until she faced this and could understand it. She was so confused, so lost, she had to know the truth, had to know what was wrong with her and fix it before she… before she did something bad. 

Still, she didn’t want to get run over. So, she quickly stepped out of the way and let the man in the sedan pull up to the spot where she had been standing. He grumbled while getting out to pump his gas, and the sight of the man holding the nozzle made bile suddenly rise up in Denny’s throat. Pivoting, she rushed to the shop itself, pushing her way inside. As the polite ding filled the air, the girl took a moment to pant and catch her breath, almost doubling over as she tried to stop hyperventilating. No, no, she couldn’t be out there, couldn’t look at the pump. She couldn’t stand there and…

A sudden rush of images filled the girl’s mind. She was being hit, knocked to the ground, kicked repeatedly, a foot colliding with her stomach. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t scream anymore. She couldn’t beg. Her stomach hurt, there was something wrong with it, something that made it impossible to breathe properly. Her face was bleeding and broken, one eye swollen shut. The pain was awful, but it didn’t compare to the sheer terror. He was going to hit her again, he was going to hurt her, because he was told to. Because… because he told him to. Him, not the man hurting her, but the… the…

“Hey, hey, are you okay?” It was the clerk, a girl in her late teens who had come around the counter and moved to where Denny had crouched down and started crying. “Uhh, do you want me to call somebody? Are you lost or something?” 

Swallowing hard, Denny pushed herself to her feet and shook her head. “N-no, it’s okay. I just…” She trailed off helplessly then. How exactly was she supposed to explain what had just happened? She didn’t understand it herself. The images in her mind had been so vivid, so real. She could feel the blows, could hear the–him ordering the other man to hit her again, and again, and again. 

Forcing those thoughts down, she clenched her fists while meeting the gaze of the older girl with dirty-blonde hair. “Can um, can I ask you something, please?” She tried to keep the desperation out of her voice. 

“Uh, sure, I guess.” Clearly uncertain about what this girl who had just walked into the gas station before falling to her knees and crying was going to ask, the teenaged clerk gestured. “Come on, you can have a soda on me. You look like you need it. What do you need to ask?” 

A rush of confusing and contradictory thoughts ran through Denny’s mind as she followed the clerk over to the counter and accepted the bottle of Sprite. For a moment, she was able to distract herself by focusing on opening it and taking a long sip. But she felt the clerk’s curious eyes on her the whole time, and finally couldn’t wait anymore. So, Denny took a breath before looking up. Her voice caught a little as she forced the words out. “Did somebody die here? I–I heard somebody died here. Um, I think it was… uhh, awhile ago with–what?” The way the clerk was staring at her made the girl a little nervous. Even more than she had already been. 

“Did someone put you up to this?” the clerk demanded, though her voice was more resigned than angry. “Just–just tell me if someone put you up to it. They think it’s real funny just to send–” 

Eyes widening, Denny shook her head rapidly. “No! Nobody put me up to anything, I swear. I just… I heard somebody died here and I can’t stop thinking about it. I know it’s weird, but can you please tell me? I swear it’s not a joke or anything. Please.”

There was a momentary pause as the clerk considered, before sighing. “Yeah, somebody died here. But it wasn’t recently, and it wasn’t just one person. Two people died about fourteen months ago. There was a… a robber and the last girl who worked at this place. They said the guy tried to rob her and she… um, she got the gun away from him and shot him. Then she umm… killed herself.” Slowly, the clerk turned to look out toward the gas pumps. Her mouth opened, but Denny didn’t need to hear more. 

“She died from the gas,” the young girl murmured audibly, staring in the same direction. She could smell the fumes, could taste it pouring down her throat, could–could– Shaking herself violently, Denny forced herself to look back at the clerk. “They said she killed herself?” 

“That’s… what they said.” There was doubt in the clerk’s voice as she squinted that way. “It’s kinda weird though, isn’t it? I mean, they said she felt so guilty about killing my–the guy that she had to… to do that.” 

Catching what the older girl had almost said, Denny focused on her and frowned. “Did you know the guy who–” 

“You should leave.” With those words, the clerk pointed to the opposite door from the one Denny had come through. “Go out the back. Get out of here, hurry, go!” Her words were urgent, nearly frantic in a tone shift that startled the younger girl. She was already coming around the counter, taking hold of her shoulder to pull her away. 

Denny started to argue in confusion, when the ding of the bell above the door she had come through filled the air. Both girls turned that way to find an enormous figure crouched down a bit as he pushed his way through the door. Seeing that, the clerk suddenly gave Denny a shove that knocked her to her knees behind one of the display cases. “Hide,” she hissed. 

From her place behind the shelves, Denny lifted her head and peered through the crack in time to see the figure straighten up. Her first impression had been right. The man wasn’t just tall, he was a huge, broad-shouldered man with an assortment of bright red tattoos across his scaled body. 

Wait, scaled body? Denny gave a double-take, eyes widening. Yes, the man had scales. Like… like a really bad skin condition? Her mother had always said that she wasn’t supposed to stare at people who were different like that, but this guy was really different. He wasn’t just tall, he was… he was so tall he’d had to stoop to get through the door. Over seven feet. His body was dark blue-green, with a slightly lighter face. And, again, he had scales. Very thick, obvious scales. His eyes were vertical, like a snake or a lizard. 

“Kalia,” his voice rumbled while Denny shrank back in fear. “You shouldn’t have blown me off this morning. You know I don’t like that.” His vertical pupils narrowed at the older girl. “Your dad did that a lot.” 

“Mercer,” the clerk (Kalia) managed in a clearly weak voice. “I was gonna come find you after work. I’ve got fifty dollars for you.” 

“Fifty?” The enormous, scaled figure gave a heavy, humorless laugh. “Your dad owed ten thousand when he bit the dust. You think fifty’s even a drop in that bucket?” With that, the man paused, looking around. “Come to think of it, kid, you working in the place he died trying to get my down payment is pretty fucked up. And that’s coming from me.” 

Wait, wait, the girl was– Denny was left reeling from that revelation, even as the huge, alien figure stalked forward to close the distance between himself and Kalia. “Now,” he snarled, “Now, you gonna dig deep and find a way to get the money your family owes, or am I going to have to try to pry it out of grieving family member number three?” Before the girl could answer, he snapped a hand down to grab her by the throat. “Maybe what you need is some motivation. Cuz clearly, I ain’t done enough t–” 

“Stop it!” Without even knowing what she was doing, Denny had leapt to her feet and held both hands up. “Stop it, stop!” 

The giant figure did stop, his head slowly turning to look that way. Those vertical eyes focused on her. “Who the fuck are you?” 

“I…” Her throat was dry, a thick lump filling it. She could barely breathe, could barely think. “My… my name is Denise.” 

“Yeah? Good for you.” Mercer’s voice made it clear how little he cared. “Now, if you don’t mind, I–” His grip tightened on the other girl’s throat enough to make her yelp in pain. 

“Stop it!” Denny blurted as terror filled her. “Let her go!”  

Abruptly, the enormous figure did just that. He released Kalia, allowing the girl to suck in panicked gasps of air. Then just stared at Denny. His eyes narrowed. “What… the fuck did you just–” With an animalistic roar, he began to lunge that way. 

Denny, in turn, jerked backward with a panic. “Stop!” she desperately cried out. 

And, again, the figure stopped. He abruptly jerked to a halt, glowering at her. “Listen to me, you little shit. I don’t know how you’re doing this, but–” 

But something had a hold of the eleven-year-old by then, some subconscious realization that she didn’t fully understand. Her shaky voice came once more. “P-put… both hands… above your head.” 

He did, which almost scared the girl more than if he hadn’t. As the man raised both hands high over his head, palms flat against the ceiling, he began to snarl very intricate and detailed threats about what he was going to do to them. 

“St-stop talking!” Denny hurriedly stammered, terror filling her. “I–I–umm… ummm…” What was happening? Why was he obeying her? What was he? He wasn’t normal. He wasn’t normal. “P-please, just… just…” Her mouth opened and shut. Just what? What was he supposed to do? 

There was a… whisper at the back of her mind. A whisper she couldn’t quite hear, but her subconscious knew what the whisper was saying. Some small part of her understood the advice. “Forget you were here,” she finally managed. “Forget that girl there, and anything her family owed. Forget all of it, everything that happened here and everything about Kalia and her family. And… and go away. Walk away, and don’t stop walking until you… until you’re ten miles away.”  

And with that, the horrifying figure obeyed. He turned and left the store, walking away across the lot while leaving both girls standing there staring after him. 

“Wha… what j-just happened?” Kalia managed. “Who the hell–how did–” In mid-sentence, the girl abruptly stopped, shook her head, and then turned back to Denise with a smile, her voice utterly devoid of any fear or reaction to the events from a moment earlier. “I’m sorry, what were we saying?” 

“Th-that guy, who was he?” Denny asked, confused by the girl’s sudden chipper attitude. 

“Sorry, what guy?” Kalia looked politely curious, glancing over her shoulder. “I don’t see any guy. Were you looking for someone?”

“The guy who was just here!” Denny blurted. “The big–the monster with the scales and the tattoos!” 

Still, Kalia just stared at her uncomprehendingly. “Are you okay? You’re the only one who’s come inside in like half an hour. Hey, do you want me to call someone? Do–hey, wait!”

But Denny didn’t wait. As a tumultuous rush of confusion and fear filled her mind, the girl raced for the door. She slammed her way through it, ignoring the older girl calling after her. Instead, she ran across the lot and stopped in front of the gas pump. The gas pump. For a moment, she just stood there, staring down at the spot where… where…

Gasoline filled her throat. She saw the boy staring at her, watching, waiting. She felt the terror, the certainty that she was about to die. She felt it, she knew it was coming. Any second it would be too much. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t–

A scream tore its way out of the eleven-year-old girl’s throat, as her hands lashed out reflexively. They slammed into the gas pump with enough force to leave a pair of visible dents on either side.

Seeing that, Denny stumbled away a couple steps. Her hand covered her mouth, as she fell to her knees there on the asphalt. “No, no, no…” she mumbled behind her own palm as tears of confusion flooded her eyes. “Please… please…

“Somebody tell me what’s going on.”

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In Like Flynn 17-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Right, so now we had a fancy new team name, thanks to Peyton. I was just hoping we’d get a chance for the name to actually matter before something terrible happened to us. A nagging part of me was convinced that giving ourselves a name was going to curse this whole thing. Meanwhile, another part was telling me I was being stupid and selfish for even involving people in my problems like this. What if something happened to them? How was I going to feel? 

Eesh, maybe they were right about that whole brooding thing. It was just possible that my Touched powers had come with an additional ‘gift’ of being very, very pessimistic sometimes.

With effort, I pushed those thoughts out of my head. Yes, this could be pretty dangerous, for more than one reason. And yes, it was risky to involve other people in what could lead to a confrontation with my family eventually. But it wasn’t like I could just shove them out again. I couldn’t tell them to go away or whatever. It wouldn’t work like that. They were here, and I really needed them. I couldn’t do this by myself. I was just going to have to deal with the risk. 

Besides, I didn’t want to do this by myself. Scary as it was to trust others, even with only a small part of what was actually going on, I needed them. Not just physically. I needed their skill and power, yes. But it was more than that. I needed to know there was someone else I could depend on, even if it was only for bits and pieces of the truth. Hard as it was to admit, I really didn’t want to be alone in this. Having Izzy around to talk to had shown me how important that was.

Working as quickly as we could, our little group did everything we had to over the next short while to get the virtual reality system ready to go. We basically acted as several extra sets of arms and legs for Wren, letting the girl tell us everything she needed to get the thing done. 

For a while, I thought we’d never finish. But, eventually we were all standing around what still looked like a complicated MRI machine. Wren had just tightened one last bolt on the side before stepping back to drop the wrench onto a table and brush her hands off with a note of finality. 

After a moment of all of us standing there looking at the thing, happy to be done working on it, Peyton raised her hand. “I’ve got a question. This thing sorta looks like it’s for one person to lay in. Maybe two if you squeeze and get pretty friendly. How are all of us going to use it, exactly?”

I had actually been wondering the same thing in myself, and turned toward Wren before raising my arms in a shrug. “She’s got a point there. Please tell me we don’t need to build another one of these for all of us. I’m pretty sure we don’t have that kind of time.” 

Giggling to herself, Wren shook her head. “Nope! You’re not laying inside the thing, she is.” With that, she gestured toward Paige. “She lays inside it, her computer links to the VR system, and you guys wear these.” With that, the girl turned to the nearby table before picking up a cardboard box, holding it out to us. We all leaned forward, only to find… sunglasses and gloves. Yeah. All of them had various bits of wires and other clearly technical stuff attached. The sunglasses even had what looked like short antennae glued along one side of the frame. And the lenses were bright, solid green. Meanwhile, the gloves had little microchip-like things attached to the end of each finger. 

Wren quickly explained, while we were staring at the contents of the box. “All you gotta do is put the glasses and gloves on, then sit down by the machine there, see? You’ll get linked into the computer and, as long as it’s on, you’ll see and hear and move in there instead of here.  Whenever you tell your body to move, you’ll actually tell your avatar thing in the computer to move instead.” 

That-A-Way spoke then. “Three questions. First, do we have a way to cancel out of it if we need to? You know, in case there’s an emergency. Second, how much of what happens in there are we going to actually feel? And third, what’s the deal with using our powers? I mean, am I going to impulsively try to teleport and all of a sudden the real me is off on the other side of the room in a pile of boxes? Oh, and come to think of it, question three-b, how am I going to use different parts of my power if my body is simply facing one direction? And what about her lizards?”

Wren quickly explained. “Oh, well, first you just use the code ‘Falling Star’ to jump out of the system. And for the second thing, you really aren’t physically experiencing any of it, but the computer will sorta… give you feeling impressions up to a certain point. You’ll feel things, but you can’t die from it or actually be injured or anything. If you get hurt enough to ‘die,’ you’ll just wake up out here and have to go back in from the start and make your way to where you were again.” 

Once that much was explained, Pack put in, “You said we could use some mental approximation of our powers or whatever, right?” 

Wren’s head bobbed quickly. “Uh huh. It’s sort of hard to explain. But the computer looks at what your brain thinks it’s capable of and basically copies back into the system. If you were going into a world I made, I could make you like Superman! But… but you’re not. You’re going into another world, and I don’t have any control over it. Or at least, not very much. The best I can do is make sure you have what your own brains think your powers are.” She fidgeted a bit, starting to apologize for not being able to do more than that. 

“Don’t you dare,” I quickly interrupted, raising a finger to point at the girl. “Wren, after everything you’ve done– just don’t apologize. You pull all this together in one day. That’s amazing. Seriously, you’ve done enough. More than enough. Just let us handle the rest of it, okay?” 

Blushing at that, Wren stammered an agreement. Then she quickly moved on to show a couple tiny animal collars, explaining that putting them on a couple of the lizards would link them to Pack and let her take them into the simulation as well, just like they were really there. They would see and experience things the same way we did. Which, to be fair, was probably going to confuse the hell out of them. I just hoped Pack could make sure they understood well enough. 

“Who’re you taking in with you?” That was Way, looking at the girl in question curiously. “I mean, if you can only take two lizards, which two is it gonna be? They’re all pretty helpful.” 

“Tell me about it,” Pack muttered, her gaze focused over into the corner of the lab, where her assortment of reptiles were all spread out across the floor, curiously investigating their surroundings. “I think… Mars Bar for muscle and Riddles for utility. She can fly and let us know what she sees. Might make finding this chick and her evil twin easier, wherever we end up.” 

That said, she turned to look at Wren once more. “But you’ve gotta make sure the rest of them are cool, okay, kid? They’re gonna be confused, so you keep them happy while we’re busy.” 

Wren promised she’d make sure the rest of the lizards were okay, while part of me wondered exactly how much of Pack’s request had been for the lizards’ benefit, and how much had been for Wren herself. She was definitely going to feel pretty anxious as she waited for the rest of us to get through this whole thing. Anxious because she ‘couldn’t help,’ even though she had already helped more than enough. Getting her to keep the lizards entertained and distracted would also entertain and distract her. It was a distraction for both sides. Pack was pretty good at that sort of thing. Which made me briefly wonder if she had any younger siblings she had to distract like that.

But there wasn’t time to focus on that for long. Because Wren was running through one final checklist. She sounded like mission control for a space launch or something, intently and seriously checking over every part of the system. She didn’t spend long on it, only a couple seconds for each bit, just to make sure everything was still running smoothly. She even had us speak several sentences into a microphone, which would help translate our voices into the virtual world so we would sound right. Which was a real load off my back, since I’d been wondering how I was going to deal with the whole voice changer thing if it turned out to be an issue. 

Once she was satisfied, Wren gestured toward the motionless blonde girl on the table. “Can umm, you guys move her over to the machine?” 

Between the four of us each taking part of Paige’s body, Pack, Way, Alloy, and I managed to shift her as gently as possible over to the MRI-like machine. We laid her in place, before Wren hit a button and the thing retracted to take her inside. From there, the kid-genius picked up what looked like a small ipad and started fiddling with it. With each brush of her finger across the screen, the machine we had put Paige into gave what I hoped was an affirmative beep. The last thing we needed right now was for something to go wrong with the system. 

Okay, so I could think of a lot worse things than that, particularly revolving around one of the Fell-Touched teams like the Scions or Oscuro suddenly attacking. But that was (thankfully) pretty unlikely. Something going wrong with the device Wren had built in a day really could happen. 

Fortunately, the machine itself seemed fine. It gave happy beeps with each check Wren made, before she finally turned to us and gave a thumbs up. Her voice was nervous. “O-okay. I think it’s ready. I mean it is ready. She’s plugged into the system and it’s reading her computer. They’re completely linked. The computer says it’s all green lights. I mean, maybe a couple very faint yellow ones, but it’s still okay. Definitely okay. We are on the positive side of the line!”

Part of me wanted to ask what the yellow lights were, but I was pretty sure knowing wouldn’t help. This was the best we were going to get. And Paige didn’t have time for us to wait for everything to be completely perfect. So, looking to the other three, I asked, “We ready to do this?” 

Apparently we were, or at least as close as we were going to get. Sure, there was a lot more I’d like to do to be ready for this, but we didn’t have the time or resources. Paige was in trouble right now. We had to get in there and help her while we still could. So, the four of us arranged ourselves in chairs around the machine. Two on each side. I sat next to Alloy, lifting the front of my helmet to slip the sunglasses on through the holes in the ski mask. Then I exchanged my own gloves for the new ones and looked over to the girl beside me. She looked back and gave a thumbs up. 

“You guys ready over there?” That-A-Way called after a moment. “Cuz we have two lizards over here who are very confused about why they’re suddenly wearing collars. So we should probably get this show on the road. You know, so they can be even more confused.”  

“They’ll be fine,” Pack insisted. “Just make sure you hold Riddles carefully. Sometimes she forgets she’s not in bird form and tries to fly off things.”

Wren quickly assured us that as the machine kicked in, all commands to move that our (and the lizards’) brains sent our bodies would be translated into the virtual world instead. At least until we gave the Falling Star code. She also belatedly mentioned that we could yank each other out of the system in case of an emergency by saying that person’s Touched name in between the ‘falling’ and ‘star’ part of the name. 

“Okay, okay, right.” Wren sounded just as nervous as I felt. “Um, one more thing you should probably know. It won’t just be the virus duplicate thing you have to fight. You guys are technically sort of invaders in that system, so whatever defenses her computer has will probably try to kick you out. Especially if she’s not really in full control of it. I’m not sure how it’ll show itself, but umm, just be careful. It’ll probably look like soldiers or guards or something. Whatever fits with the scene they’re playing out you know? The defenses will try to fit in.” 

Well, that sounded fun. On the other side of the machine, Pack spoke up. “So hope this chick and her evil twin aren’t playing out some kind of Star Wars shit full of super battle droids, got it.” 

“Personally, I’m gonna close my eyes and really push for a Willy Wonka scenario,” That-A-Way put in. “I could dropkick half a dozen Oompa-Loompas when they start singing. Creepy shits.”

Yeah, we were definitely trying to keep our minds off what we were actually going to run into. Whatever it was, I had the distinct feeling it wouldn’t be as easy as drop-kicking Oompa-Loompas. But hey, maybe we’d get lucky. 

Yeah, I didn’t believe it either.   

In any case, after running one more, possibly paranoid check, Wren took a breath “Okay, alright. Um, you guys ready?” 

We confirmed that, as I shifted in the chair a bit. It wasn’t some random folding chair. The thing was a recliner that was actually fairly comfortable. Not as good as the chairs at home, of course, but at least I wouldn’t fall out of it the moment my body went limp. Or whatever was supposed to happen once I was in the system. 

Once she was satisfied, Wren looked over to the other side of the room, where Fred was standing next to a computer. She started alternating between typing stuff on a little iPad, and calling out things for him to type into his own keyboard. Behind me, I heard a gradually rising whirring sound as the MRI-like machine that we had put Paige into came to life. There was power in the air, enough that it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Oh boy, this was about to get really–

A sudden bright light blinded me, before quickly changing to a swirling pattern of colors that shifted through the entire rainbow multiple times. It wasn’t flashing or anything, just drifting, sort of like a slow kaleidoscope. I could hear the sound of dogs barking, then the sound of ocean waves, then an airplane, people talking in hushed tones, and more. It was cycling through all these random sounds that made no logical sense. Nearby, I heard another sound that I belatedly realized was Alloy muttering under her breath about not wanting to be drugged. 

Finally, the swirling colors turned into a reddish-purple fog and I had the distinct sensation of going down the drop on a roller coaster. A startled yelp escaped me, joined by three others, just as the falling sensation stopped and the fog vanished. 

I was standing in the hallway of my school. I mean, I wasn’t. I was sitting back in that room next to the machine. I knew that. Logically I knew that. But my brain was absolutely convinced at that moment that I was standing here. It looked exactly identical to one of the side corridors near the science classrooms. It even smelled right, for God’s sake. I wasn’t even sure how that part was possible, but it was. No matter what my conscious brain said, I really felt like I was standing in that hallway, as if we had been teleported there. God, this was so weird. I’d expected it to be weird, but anticipation was nothing compared to the real thing.  

Quickly, I raised my hands to my face and looked down to check. Sure enough, I was still in my costume. It had translated perfectly into the system. I had the gloves, the suit, even the helmet. Everything felt fine. Hell, the gloves were mine rather than the ones I actually had on for this, and the front of my helmet was down despite being up in the real world. Convenient.  

“Wha–” Nearby, That-A-Way was looking around. She too was in her normal costume, just the way she should’ve been. “Why are we at–in a… a school?” I could see the slight frown of confusion as she squinted at one of the classroom doors. “That’s what this place is, right?” 

Stepping from behind me to move into view, Alloy slowly shrugged. “Definitely ain’t my school. No graffiti, the lockers are way too big, everything smells clean and rich instead of like piss, sweat, and broken spirits.” 

“It’s the school for rich cunts,” Pack put in before adding, “I mean, it’s gotta be, right? Look around, tuition for this place must be fucking absurd. I bet these spoiled fucks only get world-touring, chart-topping bands to play their fucking dances.” Which totally wasn’t fair, considering the headliner of our last dance had only been like… ninth on the charts. 

In any case, even as Pack said that, Riddles and Mars Bar moved into view, sniffing around their owner’s feet before looking around. I could feel the confusion coming off of them as they adjusted to the fact that their poor lizard brains convinced them that they were somewhere completely new.  

“You guys hear anything?” Pack asked, while focusing on growing each of her pets into their larger, more capable forms. I really hoped that, like our movements, the lizard transformations weren’t translating back into the real world. Then again, we’d probably find out real quick if the iguana on the girl’s lap had suddenly turned into a full-sized grizzly bear with scales.  

“Nope,” Alloy was saying after we all took a moment to focus. “I don’t hear a damn thing. Is that weird? I mean, shouldn’t we hear them fighting or something? I thought they were supposed to be fighting.”

“Maybe they’re stalking each other,” I pointed out quietly. If they were sneaking around, it was probably a bad idea for us to make a lot of noise. Looking up and down the hallway uncertainly, I frowned in thought. Part of me wanted to call out to get Paige’s attention, but that was almost certainly a bad idea. We needed a better handle on what was going on in here before we just started shouting out for attention. Considering she had some sort of evil duplicate and we still weren’t sure how we were supposed to tell the difference between them if she decided to play that game. Seriously, what did an ‘evil Paige’ look like, after the years and years the real version had spent deliberately tormenting me (under her father’s orders, but still). It was really weird to think of the girl who had insulted and bullied you for years having an evil twin. 

No, we definitely needed to be quiet and go through this whole thing carefully. With any luck, maybe we could find our way to where they were and eavesdrop long enough to know which was which.

Unfortunately, of course, I wasn’t that lucky. And we definitely weren’t going to get much of a chance for the whole sneaking thing. Because even as I had that thought, several figures emerged from the classroom doors ahead of us. It was a mixture of teachers and school staff, even a few of the security guards and janitors. I recognized most of them. But they weren’t smiling at me the way they normally did. No, they looked pretty angry. Not to mention violent. Soon, a crowd of over a dozen had formed up to block our path forward. 

“Uhh, guys?” Alloy spoke up, and I looked back that way to see a similar group had come through the door leading to the outside. We were penned in on both sides. Worse, the assembled figures began to produce various weapons. Knives, bats, chains, and so on. This definitely wasn’t something we could talk our way through. 

“Trevithick was right about the security measures,” I muttered. “They’re definitely not happy to see us.” 

“Right, well, these guys we can rip apart, right?” Pack put in quickly, as the groups on both sides started to advance. “They’re just computer programs or whatever.” 

My head gave a quick nod. “Yeah, no need to play nice. Just get through them. And fast. We have to find Paige.” 

Either my saying her name was some kind of signal, or it was just a coincidence of timing. Either way, the moment I got those words out, a collective, horrific scream tore its way out of the throats of the people advancing on us and filled the air like some sort of terrible alarm. They all did it, shrieking like banshees. 

And with that, they attacked. 

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Interlude 12A – Denny (Heretical Edge 2)

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Her hands hurt from gripping something so tightly. She couldn’t let it go. Something–tape was wrapped around them. Not only around her hands, but her hwreead. The tape was wrapped tightly around her head and hands. She couldn’t release the thing she was holding, couldn’t let go. 

Couldn’t take it out of her mouth. 

She tasted metal, a long, grooved shaft of steel choking her. And she tasted more than that. Gasoline. She tasted gasoline. Not a drop or a drizzle. The thing tied to her head, tied to her mouth, was pumping gasoline into her mouth. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t take it out. She couldn’t do anything but sit there, letting the gas keep pouring down her throat. He was there. He made sure. The smell of the fumes blinded her. The taste made her retch. But she couldn’t stop. He wouldn’t let her. She had to keep drinking. Had to keep choking. Had to keep going until…

With a strangled scream, eleven-year-old Denise Cartland hurled herself sideways off the desk in her sixth-grade classroom, where she had briefly drifted off. As she landed on the floor between her seat and her neighbor’s, the girl was already heaving. She threw up on the cheap linoleum. The gasoline, she could taste it. She could taste it. It was in her mouth, down her throat. She had to get it out. She had to get it all out. Her fingers clawed at the floor, tears blinding her as she heaved. Her lunch, eaten only an hour earlier, came rushing out and drenched the floor. Around her, she could hear students crying out and jerking away. A few chairs fell over in their rush to escape the sight of their classmate throwing up. 

“Back up, back up everyone!” Mr. Tuttle, their teacher, quickly instructed as he approached. Stepping around the mess, the middle-aged man took a knee next to the young girl, a hand on her back. “It’s okay, Denise. It’s alright, get it out. It’s okay.” He coaxed her while rubbing her back, his other hand moving to draw some of the girl’s dark hair away from her face. At the same time, he turned toward a student near the door. “Brad, go get the janitor, he should be mopping near the library right now. Wait, grab the hall pass there. Now go, tell him what happened. Yolanda, Frank, open those windows over there.” Even as he gave those instructions, Tuttle was still gently rubbing the girl’s back, trying to coax and comfort her. 

Denise barely heard any of that. Her tear-blinded gaze was on the floor, but she wasn’t actually seeing that either. Instead, all she saw was the cold asphalt of a gas station parking lot. All she felt was the tape tied so tightly around her hands, forcing her to grip that fuel pump handle. All she tasted was the gasoline, pouring relentlessly down her throat. She was choking, dying. She had to get it out. Her small body heaved once more, but there was nothing else in her stomach. Try as she might, she couldn’t get the taste out. She couldn’t get the gasoline out. 

It took another minute or so before the girl managed to calm down enough to recognize that she had been having a nightmare. It wasn’t real. None of it was real. Finally lifting her head to look around with wide eyes, she saw the rest of her classmates staring. Most looked sympathetic or worried, though a few were snickering behind their hands, as whispers passed through the crowd. Whispers that sent a flood of embarrassment through the girl to replace the terror.

“Denise?” Mr. Tuttle gently asked after giving a quick look to the rest of the students to quiet down and get themselves under control. “Are you okay?” 

“I… I…” Opening and shutting her mouth, the eleven-year-old looked around, before lowering her gaze to the floor. A horrible shudder ran through her, as she hugged her arms tightly around herself. 

“I don’t know.” 

********

The man couldn’t move. Oh, he wanted to. He desperately wanted to. But his feet remained firmly rooted to the floor. He could do nothing about the flames gradually filling the room. He couldn’t even turn his head away from the rising smoke, his coughing growing louder by the second. He couldn’t do anything to save himself while the room burned around him. He wasn’t tied down, or hindered in any physical way. He stood there with the open door leading to open, cool, clear air mere feet away. It would have taken almost nothing for the man to sprint to safety. Six steps. Six steps and he’d be free. But he couldn’t take those six steps. 

Because she wouldn’t let him. 

Denise stood in that open air, just a short distance from the doorway. She saw the flames rising around the man. She saw his terrified gaze as he stared pleadingly at her. He wasn’t begging anymore, because she had told him to stop. His whining had been entirely too annoying after the first few seconds. It distracted from the sound of the flames, and she wanted to hear when they reached his body. She wanted to hear what it sounded like when a person started to burn, without all the annoying, distracting screaming getting in the way. So she had told him to shut his mouth and not open it no matter what. Finally, she would be able to hear the fire properly. Finally, she would hear exactly what happened when the flames began to burn his flesh away. He’d probably fall down by then, as the smoke got to him. But there wasn’t much to be done about that. Maybe next time she’d find a way to string the person up so they’d stay standing the whole time. But either way, she’d still hear it. She’d hear and smell the flames burning his body. 

And maybe, just maybe, as she watched this man burn to death, Denise would finally feel something. 

“Denise! Denny, sweety, Denny, it’s okay. Please, baby, wake up.” 

The voice, accompanied by hands gently shaking her, snapped Denise awake. She jerked in her bed, crying out while her wide, terrified eyes darted around. She wasn’t standing in front of a burning building. She wasn’t watching a man about to die. She wasn’t anticipating it, looking forward to it, savoring it. She was in her bedroom, in her bed, with her mother sitting on the edge shaking her awake. Her voice was worried. “Denny, baby, it’s alright. You were having a nightmare… again. You’re safe, sweetie. I promise, baby, it’s okay. It was just a dream. Just a bad dream.”

A choked sob escaped Denise, as she sprang toward her mother and grabbed on tight. Burying her face against the comfort of her mom, the little girl clung to her and shook violently. “Mom, Mommy, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. I didn’t wanna–I–I didn’t–” She was trying to say that she didn’t want to kill that man, but couldn’t get the words out. And a part of her knew there was no way to explain it anyway. 

Her mother, clueless about what was really upsetting the girl, hugged her tight while shaking her head. Her voice was soft and soothing. “It’s okay, baby. It’s alright. It wasn’t real. You’re okay. Nothing’s going to hurt you, I promise. You’re safe now, my sweet little girl.”

For a couple minutes, they sat there like that, Denise clinging to her mom as the feelings and desires she had felt in the dream gradually faded. They’d been so real, so intense. It was like she was really there, really standing near that man who was about to die. But more than that, it was like she’d wanted to be there. She wanted to see him die, wanted to finally feel some guilt, some good emotion. Because there was nothing. She couldn’t feel it. She couldn’t feel the guilt or sadness she was supposed to feel. Something was wrong with her, and no matter how much she tried to fix it, nothing worked. She just couldn’t feel the right things. She–she was a…

“Monster,” the girl murmured under her breath, the words barely audible. 

They were, however, loud enough for her mother to hear, and the woman simply hugged her even tighter. “No baby, there’s no monster. It’s alright. Come on, it’s okay. Let’s go get a drink, you’ll feel better.” 

With that, she coaxed Denise to stand up and began to walk out of the room with her, their hands tightly clasped as she promised the girl a glass of milk to calm her down. They passed Denise’s father on his way back from the bathroom, the man pausing just long enough to ask if the girl was okay before heading back to bed. After all, he had to get up early for work in the morning. 

Trying to push those horrific memories and thoughts out of her mind, Denise walked with her mother to the kitchen, then sat at the table, sipping milk and nibbling at a single cookie. Her mom sat next to her, looking worried and clearly trying to hide it. Her voice was gentle. “How do you feel, Denny?” 

Denise didn’t answer at first. Thoughts of those dreams filled her head, and she had to set the milk down before it spilled from her shaking hand. The nightmares didn’t come every time she slept, but they were often enough that her mother was talking about taking her to see a doctor, a therapist who could help. Her mother was already afraid of the nightmares Denise was having, and the girl hadn’t even told her any details. She couldn’t. She just… couldn’t tell her mother about those dreams. Not the monster ones. Not the ones where she was the monster. 

So, pushing that terror and confusion away, the girl met her mother’s gaze. She managed, through some effort, to smile. “I’m okay,” she claimed, her voice a little hollow. “Can I go back to bed now? I’m pretty tired.” 

Her mother nodded, getting up and moving to turn out the kitchen light. As she did so, Denise spoke up again. “Mom?” 

“Yes, sweetie?” Turning toward her, the woman was startled to see her daughter standing directly behind her, having moved silently from the table while her back was turned. 

But not nearly as surprised as she was when the girl’s hand rose with the knife to plunge into her chest.

And just like that, Denise snapped awake. She jerked upright so fast, crying out as she did so, that she nearly fell backward off the chair where she and her mother had been sitting around the kitchen table. Her mother’s head was on the table, the woman snoring quietly. The two of them had both fallen asleep while sitting there, and somehow Denise jerking upright hadn’t woken her mother. The half-finished glass of milk was nearby, next to a mostly-finished cookie. They had been asleep for about twenty minutes, according to the cat clock on the wall. 

Breathing hard, the young girl looked away from her mother, gaze focusing off toward her own distorted reflection in the gleaming metal toaster nearby. Her voice cracked as she whispered very quietly, “What’s wrong with me?” 

As if in response, the reflection in the toaster twisted even more. It could’ve been a trick of the light, or… or something else. But she saw her hair lighten. She saw her eyes change, her face shift. She saw… she saw…

Him. 

********

Things continued that way for another week. Denise–or Denny as she was increasingly insisting she wanted to go by permanently, had more nightmares, though she managed to stop screaming out quite as much. She hid as many of them as she could, afraid that her family and others would see her as even more of a freak than they probably already did. If they only knew the half of it. They thought she was only seeing monsters coming after her. But it was so much more, so much worse. She dreamed about dying, yes. She had that same dream of choking on gasoline. That dream that was so real it was practically a memory. But she had more dreams than that, horrific dreams where she was the monster. Half were just as realistic as the gasoline dream, so vivid they were as real to her, even after she woke up, as a real memory would have been. And the other half were… were fantasies. That was the only way she had to describe them. They were fantasies about killing people she knew. Her friends, her teachers, her family. People she passed on the street. Anyone and everyone. She would have long, intricate hallucinations about killing them. And after every single one, she would see… him. 

Who was he? She had no idea. And yet, she did. He was her. She was him. But she wasn’t, not really. He wasn’t real. But he was. He was the boy who spoke. But the boy who spoke never spoke. Not to her. Not in the glimpses she caught of him. Because he was her. But he wasn’t. 

This was all wrong. It was all confusing and wrong. She saw the boy here and there, always in distorted reflections or in the corner of her eye. She never saw him directly. He was at the edge of her mind, behind her and yet never there when she turned. She had no idea who he was, and yet she knew him. What? That didn’t make any sense. None of it made sense. She knew him but she didn’t? That was wrong. It was all wrong. All of it was… was… wrong. She couldn’t remember his name, but she knew it. She knew his name. His name, it… it was…

Dangerous. His name was dangerous. Every time she thought she had his name right on the tip of her tongue, Denny would collapse in a ball of fear. An unrelenting, terrible tidal wave of terror completely overwhelmed her whenever she got close to remembering, close to… thinking of it. 

Her family didn’t know about most of that, of course. But they knew enough that her mother insisted she see a therapist. So, that was where Denny was now, sitting in the woman’s office, mumbling a bit about one of the nightmares she’d had. One of the safe nightmares. No way was she going to tell this stranger about the other nightmares, the ones where she was a killer. Or her… her fantasies. She wasn’t going to tell anyone about those. 

The therapist, a tall, dark-skinned woman with short hair who had introduced herself as Megan, smiled gently from where she was sitting in an armchair. There was an actual couch in the room, but she’d told Denny that she didn’t have to lay on it, or even sit on it if she didn’t want to. She’d joked that she would lie to the grand order of therapists if they asked about Denny sitting on the magic couch. 

So, Denny did not sit on the couch. She sat on the floor, as far from the couch as possible. She didn’t want to be near it. She wanted to be– well, she wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else, really. She wanted to be anywhere aside from the place that would prove she really was… broken. Instead, she sat there on the floor next to a small table where some kids had left crayon drawings. But she didn’t touch the crayons either. She just sat there and talked about some of the nightmares she’d had. The safe ones. Herself choking on gasoline, and a few others that… that were more vague. Dreams about running away from someone, dreams about being thrown out a window and falling all the way to the cement, and dreams about being buried alive. That last one, that one was… that one was the worst. Because in that one, she was afraid. She was always afraid after, of course. When she woke up. But in most of the dreams, aside from the gasoline one, she was never afraid during them. It was only in the dream where she was lying in the grave, pleading and begging for her… for her… for a man to stop, when she actually felt fear during the dream. But the man never stopped. He just kept putting more dirt on top of her. Burying her in… a grave with other dead things. He ignored her pleading, ignored her crying out for her mother, and kept burying her in the dirt until everything except her face was covered. Then he took a vial of… of blood, poured it into her mouth, made her swallow it, and then… then he kept burying her. Shovelful after shovelful of dirt kept coming, all while she cried, and pleaded, and… and…

“Denny?” Megan quietly spoke up from her chair. She wasn’t holding a notebook or doing anything that looked like taking notes. “Are you okay? It looked like you… had something on your mind.” 

Realizing that she’d lost herself in the memory of that horrible dream, Denny gave a quick headshake. “Sorry. I was just… thinking.” Blinking up that way as a thought occurred to her, she hesitated before asking, “Are you going to tell my mom if I don’t tell you more things?” 

With a small smile, Megan shook her head. “No, Denny. I’m not going to tell your mom about anything we say during these sessions. You can say as much or as little as you want to. If you don’t want to talk about your dreams, maybe you’d like to draw a picture?” With that offer, the woman indicated the stack of papers, pencils, and crayons. “Would that help?” 

Looking over at the paper for a brief moment, Denny shook her head. “No,” she answered quietly, clenching her hands a little. She was too afraid of what sort of thoughts would run through her head if she picked up the pencil. The last time she’d picked up scissors at school, the images that had filled her mind when she’d looked at one of the boys… it almost made her throw up again. 

So, she left the pencils alone, turning away from them while fidgeting with her hands. “Can you give me medicine?” the girl finally asked after another extended moment of silence while she worked up a bit of courage. “You know, the kind that makes me not dream anymore. I’m tired, but I don’t want to go to sleep. That’s when I dream.”

Picking herself up from the chair and moving over to sit on the floor near the young girl, Megan quietly asked, “Those dreams are pretty bad, huh?” When Denny nodded, the therapist seemed to consider briefly before continuing. “I’m sorry you’re having these dreams, Denny. You don’t deserve that. I want you to know that you’re not a monster. These things you’re feeling, they’re not your fault. They’re not your thoughts, or your memories. Well, most of them. They’re not about you. None of this is. You’re just… an innocent bystander.” 

Shifting a little, Denny stared at the woman. Her suspicions had suddenly been raised. “What– what do you know about it?” 

Megan, in turn, smiled very faintly. It looked like a sad, old smile. “A lot more than I should, probably. But that’s not the point. And you won’t remember any of this later anyway. Denny, I’m very sorry about this. I know most others would doubt that, but I truly am sorry that you were affected this way. You deserve to be happy. You deserve to live your life and–” She sighed heavily. “But I can’t let this go. I need to know about your dreams. I need you to tell me everything you’ve experienced, all of it. I have to get every detail, just in case. There might be something important somewhere in there. Something I’ve needed to know for a long time.” 

Denny began to push herself up from the floor. “I don’t wanna talk to you anymore, Megan,” the eleven-year-old informed her. “I don’t–” 

The older woman interrupted. “I’m sorry, I’m not really a Megan. It is a pretty name though. My name is Denuvus. Tell me about your dreams.” 

For a brief moment, Denny was silent, staring at the woman. Then her mouth opened, and the words came.

“I told you, I don’t want to talk to you anymore. And why’d you say your name was Megan if it’s Denuvus? What kind of name is Denuvus? I–I have to talk to my mom.” She pivoted to walk toward the door. 

Megan–or Denuvus, had risen to her feet. “My name is Denuvus. I want you to come back and sit down.” 

“Yeah? Well my name’s Denise,” Denny sarcastically retorted, grabbing the door to pull it open. “And what I want is for you to leave me alone and go jump in a lake.” In another second, she was out and stalking through the hall. 

She didn’t look back as the door closed behind her, which was almost a shame as it meant that she didn’t see the surprised look on her supposed therapist’s face as the woman vanished from the couch. 

A few seconds later and several miles away, the woman appeared above the surface of a small, local lake. She dropped into the water with a splash before rising to stand atop the water as though it was a physical floor. As she did so, her physical form shifted and transformed back to that of the small Caucasian woman with black hair, the appearance she used most often when talking to Trice. “Hmmm,” Denuvus murmured.

“Well, this was unexpected.”  

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In Like Flynn 17-03 (Summus Proelium)

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It wasn’t that hard to convince That-A-Way to come meet us. Apparently, she had to beg off from doing some kind of school project with somebody, but didn’t really mind that much. In fact, going by her texts, the girl almost seemed grateful for the excuse. Especially when I told her I was with Pack and that this was something important that had to be done within the next few hours. Obviously, she had questions, but the girl held them until she got to the tire shop where we had both gone back to wait for her. It was close enough to Wren’s shop for this. 

Patient as she might have been over the phone, Way definitely wanted the whole story as soon as she showed up. Looking back and forth between the two of us as we all stood on that roof, she insisted that we tell her everything that was going on and what kind of emergency this actually was before anything else happened and before she would agree to go anywhere.  

So, I gave her the quick version, explaining what our Tech-Touched friend had found out about Paige’s apparently increasingly desperate situation, and how we were going to try to deal with it to at least buy ourselves time so we wouldn’t end up with the virus duplicate taking over and turning her into Evil Paige. Way made a few noises of confusion and surprise as I went through all the VR stuff, but mostly remained quiet until I was finally done explaining the whole thing.

Once I was finished, the blonde girl slumped back a bit and seemed to be lost in thought for a few long moments. She was clearly going over all of that in her head before eventually straightening up. “Wow. You really do get into some really crazy stuff, you know that?”  

With a cough at her words, I shook my head. “Trust me, you really don’t know the half of it.” 

She, of course, gave me a look while flatly pointing out, “And whose fault is that, exactly?” 

Shifting uncomfortably, I waved that off. “Anyway, like I said, we’ve got an extra slot for someone to help us go in there and help that girl. If you’re interested. But we have to do it tonight. Like, in a couple hours, so if you’ve got something else you can’t get out of… I mean, it’s short notice.” 

Snorting, That-A-Way drawled, “Totally smooth change of subject there, Paintball. How do you do it?” That point made, she firmly added, “And yeah, I’m totally in. Absolutely. If you two are going into some kind of Tron world to save Paige from turning into psycho evil crazy Paige, then I’m going too. No way am I letting both of you have that kind of adventure without me.” 

Before I could say anything, Pack spoke up first. “Technically, it wouldn’t be the two of us anyway.” Her gaze moved over to me as she slyly added, “Not with Paintball’s new sidekick.” 

Well, that definitely got Way’s attention. Her gaze snapped from Pack back to me, staring a bit. “You mean it’s true then? You really did recruit that girl you were with? Why? Who is she? Do you trust her? Have you told her about this Ministry thing? Have you told her what we’re doing at the mall? What else does she know? How long have you known her? How many times–” 

Quickly, I interrupted. “I haven’t known her very long. And no, I haven’t told her anything about the Ministry. But she kind of already figured out that there was a good reason not to join the Minority, because I keep refusing to even though I’m obviously fine with working with you guys.”

“Yeah, who could’ve seen that coming?” With that flat retort, Way shook her head before continuing. “So, are you going to tell her the truth about all that? I mean, if she’s signed up to be your sidekick or partner or whatever, she’s probably going to figure out there’s something bigger going on eventually. That, or something horrible is going to happen to her because she doesn’t know the truth and you’ll feel like a gigantic piece of shit for not warning her about it. Do you really want that? Do you want to put this girl in danger because you wouldn’t tell her the truth?” 

Wincing, I shook my head. “I’m gonna tell–okay I think I’m gonna tell her the truth. Just not–not yet. I want to build up to it first. More to the point, I want to get to know her first, see how she reacts to things, you know? I just need to get to know her more before we jump into the deep end with all the Ministry stuff. I mean, that’s a lot to shove onto a brand new Touched.” Glancing down, I muttered under my breath, “Seriously, it’s a lot.” 

From the corner of my eye, I saw Way’s mouth open as though she was going to say something. But she stopped herself. I had the feeling she was going to bring up my not telling them the whole story and keeping important things to myself again, then thought better of it.  

Of course, Pack chose that moment to speak up with, “Don’t worry, once you guys get through taking down Pencil and the Scions, you’ll definitely know her really well.” 

What?!” Yeah, unsurprisingly, Way had a bit of a reaction to that. Her eyes behind that domino mask were wide as she pointed at me. “Dude, what is she talking about? You are not going after Pencil or the Scions and you’re definitely not doing it with this brand new girl. What the hell?” 

Giving Pack a quick, pointed look (which she ignored), I sighed before launching into an explanation of the situation. I told the girl about the whole favor thing, and that we weren’t actually going after the Scions themselves, but a living witness from Pencil’s early days who might possibly have some kind of secret important insight about that piece of shit that would give Deicide an edge over him. With, of course, the added note that pointing her at the Scions was a hell of a lot safer than us having anything to do with trying to take them down. 

By the time I was done, Way had sat down and picked up Holiday (in her little skink form) to hold in one hand while gently rubbing the back of the lizard’s head with the other. She was watching me dubiously. “Do you really think it’s going to be that simple? You’re just going to track this girl down and get her to tell you some secret about how to stop Pencil, a secret she hasn’t told anybody else yet because she’s so scared of him? She’ll just tell you because you, what, ask nicely? Then you’re going to give that secret to one of the leaders of a Fell-Gang and she’s going to deal with him? And if this whole thing works, there won’t be any terrible consequences and nothing will go wrong?” 

With a long sigh, I shook my head. “I don’t know how it’s gonna go. Probably not that smoothly. But it’s the favor Deicide called in. A favor I definitely owe her. And quite frankly, she could have asked for something a hell of a lot worse than that. We all want Pencil to be stopped. If this works, great! If not, at least we tried. I’m paying back the favor by trying to help stop Pencil from killing more people. Like I said, Deicide could’ve tried to get me to do something a lot worse.” 

“Besides,” Pack put in, “I already told him to pull me in as soon as they get anywhere with it. He’s right, Deicide earned that favor. But she did it by helping save my boss’s kid. So I’m not letting him and his new sidekick run off by themselves and get hurt trying to pay her back for it.”

That-A-Way let out an audible breath, her voice dark. “Believe it or not, finding out that you’re getting involved in this whole thing doesn’t actually make me feel that much better. In fact, it kinda makes me feel even worse, because I really don’t feel like letting the girl I–” In mid-sentence, she stopped herself, clearly adjusting her words. “–the girl I’m pretty sure isn’t that bad make herself a target of that psycho piece of shit too!”   

Pack and I exchanged brief looks before the La Casa girl cleared her throat. “Sure, right. Well, the… girl you’re pretty sure isn’t that bad is already a target for Pencil. So are you. And so is our little buddy here.” She gestured toward me. “Sooner or later, he’s going to get around to targeting us to get back for what we put him and Cup through. So, you know, it seems to me that we ought to take this chance to get someone as strong as Deicide to maybe take him out. If that means we do a little digging and hopefully find an actual weakness no one else knows about so she can actually do something useful, so be it. Better than just sitting around waiting to see what his revenge for that night up at the cabin is gonna be.” 

It looked like Way wanted to argue with that for a brief moment. Then she exhaled and sank back a bit. Her finger gently traced along the body of the tiny skink before she found her voice. “Yeah, okay, I get it. You’ve both got a point. But don’t–don’t go running into life and death shit without getting help, okay? If anything happens–actually, scratch that. Anytime you’re doing anything that has to do with this… plan, tell me. Make sure I know where you’re going and what you’re doing. If you don’t keep checking in, I’ll be there. Just consider me your back-up. But that means you have to keep me updated. Got it?” From the tone of her voice, she wasn’t going to accept any arguments. 

“Sure,” I immediately answered, giving her a thumbs up. “Like we’re gonna argue against you having our backs? Fat chance, Pencil’s a piece of shit, but he’s a scary piece of shit.” 

“What he said,” Pack muttered, gesturing toward me. “I mean, if this thing works out perfectly we won’t get anywhere near him or any of the Scions. But I think we all know how unlikely that is. Nothing ever works out perfectly. Besides,” she added slyly with a look toward Way, “I could definitely think of worse people to have watching my backside out there.” 

Making a disconcerted noise in the back of her throat, Way pointedly looked at me. “What do we need to do to get ready for this? And, wait a minute, how are we going to do anything in there? I don’t know about you two, but I’m pretty reliant on my powers. I mean, yeah, I’ve had self-defense training, duh. But do you really think we can do enough in that place to help? Hell, you’re taking some brand new girl in there too and I doubt she’s had special training or experience. Unless you somehow managed to recruit a teenage ninja master commando.”

Briefly thinking about Peyton wearing a ninja commando outfit with a big rifle and a sword strapped to her back, I coughed before shaking my head quickly. “Not exactly, but Wren says we should be able to use at least some form of our powers in there. It has something to do with the system reading what we’re capable of, or something like that. I dunno, it’s complicated. The point is, we shouldn’t be completely helpless. Except…” Trailing off, I looked to Pack and frowned as a thought occurred to me. “I’m not exactly sure how you’re going to use your power. I mean, will she spawn in lizards for you or something? What’s the deal there.”

Before responding to that, Pack glanced to Way and informed her, “Wren’s the name of our friendly little tech kid.” 

“Kid?” the other girl quickly put in as she looked from Pack over to me and back, rising to her feet with Holiday still in her hand. “Hold up. You mean this Trevithick you’ve been talking about-”  

“That’s a long story too,” I muttered. “Yeah, she’s a kid. A genius kid, but a kid. Don’t worry, you’ll meet her soon. She said she’s cool with it. Apparently, she has this crazy idea that if I somehow get in trouble or something, having you to call for help would be a good idea.”  

Giving me an intense stare, Way flatly retorted, “Gee, what on Earth could ever have made her think she needed to plan for that ridiculous eventuality? You’re always so careful and definitely never take on more than you can handle. I mean, you’re practically the avatar of caution.”  

Flushing at her words behind the helmet, I waved both hands. “Yeah yeah, I get it. You’re hilarious. Anyway, we don’t have a lot of choice right now. If we wanna save this Paige girl, we have to get in there. And the only way we’re gonna get in there to save her is with Wren’s help. Believe me, I wouldn’t–I’d be dead without her. Several times over. I’ve made it this far because of you guys, and her. Yeah, she’s a kid. But she knows what she’s doing.” 

After a brief pause, Way gave a slow nod. “Right, well, I guess it could be worse. I mean, I go out in the field with Raindrop and she’s saved me a hell of a lot more than once. And this kid isn’t going out to fight or anything, she’s just building stuff.” With that, her gaze snapped over to stare me down intently, “She’s not going into the field, right?” 

My head bobbed quickly. “Yeah, of course not. She’s support. And she’s really good at that. Hell, her being really good is the only reason we even know about Paige being in trouble, let alone have any chance of doing anything about it. Seriously, Wren’s building a virtual reality system and patching it into Paige’s computer core in like twenty-four hours. She’s pretty amazing.”

“He’s right,” Pack agreed before pushing on. “Anyway, as far as being helpless in there goes, the kid already said she could patch exactly two of my little friends with me. Something to do with technical limitations or whatever. Point is, she can wire in two of my buddies so they’re linked to me in there, just like in the real world. I just uhh…” She trailed off, looking from Holiday on Way’s hand over to the backpack cage where the rest of the lizards were. “I have to choose which two to take in there.” I could hear the grimace in her voice. “Really wish we knew more about what it was like so I knew who I should take with me.” 

Shrugging, I pointed out, “I guess we could head over there and see if Wren needs any help. Maybe she’ll know more about what we’re dealing with.” Glancing to Way, I added, “And you can meet her. You know, if you don’t have anything better to do right now.” 

She, in turn, gave a short nod. “Trust me, I cleared my schedule for this. Paige sounds like our best chance of finding out more about the Ministry. I mean, we’ve got the mall thing, but that’s going to take a while. Plus, it’d be better if we knew what Paige knows before going in there.” 

So, keeping an eye out for anyone watching, the three of us carefully made our way through those alleys to reach the shop. We took the same route Pack and I had before, and I noticed the homeless guy from earlier was gone. Briefly, I wondered if he had just moved to a different spot, or if he had already taken the offer to start working for La Casa. Not that I could blame him if he had. The dude was living on the streets. Getting safety and resources from Blackjack and his people was probably pretty tempting. 

In any case, we made it back to the shop, where Pack and I introduced That-A-Way to Fred and Wren. To my surprise, Fred immediately copped to what he had done to make the whole Ashton thing worse with that tool to break into the bank vault. For a moment, Way looked like she wanted to say something about how stupid that was, but she saw the look on his face and let it go. He already knew just how bad it had been. 

Besides, by that point, Wren had already jumped in to start asking her a million questions about her power, her costume, and everything else. The kid looked even more worn out than she had earlier, making it clear just how much effort getting this thing done in time was taking. But at that moment, she really didn’t seem to care that much. The exhaustion fell from her eyes as she excitedly pressed Way to answer all her many, many questions about how the Minority worked. 

It was only a few minutes of that before the kid quickly shook her head. “Sorry, sorry, sorry. Gotta get the machine done. Getting there. Almost there. Really close. It’ll be done in time, I promise.” That last bit was directed toward me. “I’ll get it done.” 

Quickly, I spoke up in as reassuring a tone as I could manage. “Wren, it’s okay. You’re okay. I know. You’ll get it done. Just don’t kill yourself over it. And tell us how we can help, okay?” 

So, for the next hour or so, the three of us kept moving through the shop, carrying stuff up to Wren, holding things for her, passing the kid whatever tool she needed, and generally being as useful as we could. 

We also used that time to ask her about what we were going to be walking into. Unfortunately, Wren didn’t know much. Mostly because she hadn’t wanted to interrupt or distract Paige from defending herself against that invader. The best she could tell us was that the area we were entering kept changing appearance. Sometimes it was an open city street, sometimes it was a mall, a forest, the roof of a building, a huge mansion, a library, whatever. It changed all the time. So we couldn’t exactly plan on what kind of surroundings would be there. 

Eventually, the three of us were downstairs sorting through a couple of shelves when the buzzer at the backdoor rang. It was Peyton, covered by the armor she’d used yesterday, the purple and silver Power Rangers-like bodysuit with the ‘helmet’ that was purple on top across her head and silver across her throat and lower half of her face, leaving her eyes and nose exposed. 

The girl looked surprised to see That-A-Way when we let her in. She was also slightly surprised to see Pack, but at least I had already told her we would be working with the La Casa girl. There was a quick back-and-forth of introductions and explanations as I informed Peyton that we could trust That-A-Way with this. 

“Alloy, huh?” Pack put in as soon as that was done. She looked the other girl up and down curiously. “Cool name. Guess it fits with the whole melding your marbles together to turn into things.” 

Alloy, for her part, looked a little uncertain as to how she should react to the supervillain complimenting her name choice. In the end, she offered a little shrug. “Uh, thanks, I guess.”

“Hey,” Way put in, “I’m just glad you don’t have yet another P name.” 

Peyton, of course, practically choked, head snapping that way. “What?” 

“You know,” Way continued, “We’ve got Pack and Paintball.” She gestured between the two of us in question. “And the girl we’re supposed to be helping is named Paige. Too many P names. It’s becoming a thing.” 

Clearly glad that most of her face was covered to hide her expression, Peyton nodded slowly. “Right, good thing.” 

“Hey,” Pack suddenly put in, “speaking of names, what exactly are you two gonna call your little team-up thing? Hell, pretty sure you should count Trevithick too, so what’re you all gonna call yourselves? Every group’s gotta have a name, especially if there’s two of you out in the field.” 

“Batman, Robin, Batgirl, and the rest of that group didn’t have a team name,” I pointed out. “I mean, besides Bat-family. Hey, you could be–” 

“We’re not being Paint-family,” Peyton immediately interrupted. “And definitely not the Ball-family. Forget it.” 

That, of course, was the cue for Wren to come down the stairs, blurting, “Are we choosing a team name?! We’ve gotta choose a team name, right?” 

Groaning, I shook my head. “Is this really the best use of our time right now?” Another part of me was really resistant to the idea of making this whole team-up thing official in any capacity. It was dangerous, it was reckless, it could backfire with–

“I have an idea.” That was Alloy, hesitantly speaking up. “I mean, it might be a little silly, but I was thinking about Paintball’s powers, and mine, and the way Trevithick makes brand new things. And I sorta… I sorta came up with a suggestion?” She squirmed uncomfortably, kicking her foot against the floor. 

Not wanting to discourage her despite my trepidation, I nodded. “Okay, whatcha got?” 

So, she told us, and explained the spelling. Once she had it out, all of us exchanged looks. Pack shrugged. “I’ve heard worse. I mean, it ain’t my team, but I wouldn’t mind jumping under the banner now and then whenever you need a guest star.” 

Wren was bobbing her head rapidly, of course, gushing about how cool it was. 

“Yeah, it’s definitely cool,” Way agreed, looking to me. “What do you think?” 

“Let’s see how it looks,” I murmured, raising both hands before using my paint to spray the name across the wall in red with black outline. Once it was there, all of us stared at it. 

“I like it,” I finally agreed despite the worry I felt. “Good job, Alloy.” 

After we’d all taken in the name that we would apparently be using, Way turned from the wall. “Well, should we get busy? From what you guys said, time is sorta of the essence.” 

She was right, of course. So, we all got back to work, finishing up the last things that needed to be done before we would be able to jump into virtual reality to save Paige. Hopefully. 

In the background, meanwhile, the name of my brand new team remained in bold red letters across the wall. 

Avant-Guard.

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Long Awaited 12-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Okay, what the hell was it with this day finding new ways to shock me into open-mouthed silence? It was starting to become a thing. And this time was a bit worse than my mother having something surprising to say. This was the wife, wife–correction, widow of one of my worst enemies suddenly appearing out of nowhere. Did we even know Manakel was married? Was that a thing? Seriously, could someone have possibly warned me that that was a thing?! 

I was still staring at the woman, no sound having found its way to my lips. She wasn’t glaring or anything. She wasn’t making any threatening moves, or even attacking. She was just standing there, grinning a bit lopsidedly at all of us. If this was a threat, it was a very casual one. 

On the other hand, she had basically just plummeted out of the sky and disintegrated something as powerful as a Nuckelavee, then got up as if nothing had happened. So maybe she didn’t really need to go out of her way to look intimidating. Honestly, that was pretty damn impressive all on its own. And now she was looking at me. Looking at me because I had killed her husband. 

Before I could move or find any words, Miranda was suddenly standing in front of me. She had her shield up, projecting a force field. “Flick, get out of here,” the girl snapped over her shoulder in a voice that was tense and brittle, like she was barely keeping it together. Yeah, seeing this chick blow through the Nuckelavee that easily had gotten to her too. “You guys get help, we–” 

Abruptly, the woman started walking toward us. And that was apparently the trigger for everyone to react. Miranda sent the force-field flying that way, while Sands made a thick, solid rock wall rise out of the ground in the woman’s path just as the forcefield flew past that spot. At the same time, Koren made a wall of earth rise up to match and reinforce the rock. Finally, Sarah had her rifle in her hands, and took three quick shots through a scope-portal she had positioned above and to the left to hit the advancing figure from behind. They all acted instantly to protect me

And all of it did essentially nothing. The force-field hit the advancing figure and shattered into bits of light without apparent effect. The bullets bounced off of her, and she walked through the rock and earth walls as though they weren’t there, leaving a her-shaped hole behind. She didn’t even slow down at all. Though on the other hand, she also wasn’t sprinting or anything. She was just walking at a normal pace. It was like she didn’t even really notice the attempts to hurt or stall her. She brushed off the frantic series of attacks as easily as a semi brushed off the flies that bounced off its windshield. And with even less notice.  

Through it all, there was a strange sensation at the back of my mind. It felt familiar somehow. She felt familiar, in a strange way. Wait a second, I knew what this was. I knew what this sensation meant. It was absurd, crazy, but I knew what I was feeling in that moment. 

The strange woman was still walking toward us, casual as could be, while the other three began to launch another wave of attacks as they shouted for me to move my ass and get out of there already, while I still could. Instead, I quickly held up both hands, shouting, “Stop!” 

My friends listened and stopped attacking. But, more importantly, the strange woman halted. I felt my power reach out to her. My necromancy power. Yeah, she was dead. At least, I thought she was. It was a strange sensation. It was like she was sort of dead, but not completely. I had no idea what that meant, only that I had recognized the feeling that my power could affect her. My necromancy had wrapped itself around the woman and held her steady when I shouted for everyone to stop. And, just like that, she had stopped. 

“Uhh, Flick?” Koren was looking back and forth between the apparently frozen woman and me. “What–huh?” 

For a brief second, I had a flash of intense worry. This was at, least partially, power that had belonged to her dead husband, and I was using it to make her stop walking. I was using her dead husband’s power to stop her from enacting righteous vengeance for his death, or whatever. She was probably about to lose her shit on us, and I wasn’t sure I had the strength to keep her in place through something like that. Oh God, this was about to get bad, wasn’t it?

Except, the woman didn’t actually look mad at all. Instead, that smile she’d had the entire time just got wider as she clapped. Yeah, I felt her casually break the hold my power had over her just enough to bring her hands together a few times with obvious delight. 

“I knew it!” the woman actually cheered while hopping up and down. “I knew you had it now. Do it again, do it again!” With that weirdly ecstatic cry, she started walking toward us once more, arms raised extended out to either side. I swear, it looked as though she was trying to hug me. Which was a hell of a lot more confusing than if she had been screaming at me in anger and attacking. At least that I would have understood. This? This I had absolutely no idea how to react to. And neither did the others. 

Before any of us could figure out what to do, another interruption came. This one was in the form of half a dozen adult Garden Heretics, who appeared between us and the strange woman in a flash of light. No, they weren’t just Garden Heretics. They were Unset, led by Croc himself. The enormous Native American man in dark red armor loomed right in front of me, bellowing for the woman to halt even as two metal coils tore their way out of the ground and wrapped around her arms. The five other Heretics had produced weapons and seemed ready to lunge at her. Not that the woman seemed at all put off by that. If anything, she was smiling even more than before, as if the whole thing was just one big game. Hell, considering I kept getting the impression that she was at least partially dead, maybe it really was a game. 

Well, there was clearly something very weird going on with this whole thing, so I quickly blurted out once more, “Croc, stop! Everybody stop. Just stop! Hold on for a minute!” 

To their credit, the Unset stopped. So did my friends, who had looked as though they were about ready to jump into the fray again themselves. Everyone froze, even the strange woman herself, though she still looked like she wanted to hug me. Which was very much not the reaction I expected to get from a woman who claimed I killed her husband. This whole thing was even more baffling than my life usually was. And that was definitely saying something.

“Flick,” Sands demanded with her mace out and ready. “What the hell is going on?” 

“Yes,” Croc agreed flatly, not moving his eyes off the woman herself, who was still at least nominally held by those metal coils around her arms. “Who is this?” 

My mouth opened to say I wasn’t sure who she was, exactly. But before I could actually get the words out, another voice spoke up from nearby. “Persephone?”

It was Mercury. The real Mercury, not possessing Carfried as he had through most of last year. The somewhat tall (just over six feet, so fairly diminutive next to other people like Croc), leanly muscled man with very dark red hair worn in a ponytail stood there, beside one of the Unset people. He sounded just as surprised as the rest of us felt. Though perhaps in a different way. “When did you get to Earth?” Even as he spoke, the man was moving over to stand between me and the woman. I had the feeling he wasn’t exactly positive that she wasn’t going to attack after all. Which didn’t exactly help my confidence in the situation, considering he was the only one here who had any idea who she was. If he thought this might still be a problem, I wasn’t going to let my guard down anytime soon. And neither was anyone else, judging from the general reaction of everyone around me. 

If she cared or even noticed that everyone facing her was right on the edge of violence, the woman–Persphone apparently, didn’t actually show it. Instead, she positively beamed. “Murky! You made it! And you’re not hiding! It’s so good to see you! It’s been a long time, huh?”

Sarah managed to catch my gaze, silently mouthing a confused, ‘Murky?’ She still had hold of her gun, but had lowered it to rest at her side in one hand. Her other hand, the artificial one, was touching Sands’ arm as though telling her to wait. 

Mercury, who had put himself right in front of me (in front of Miranda and the others too) and near Croc, spoke carefully. “Yeah, been awhile. I ahh, I thought you were busy chasing down that crystal Manakel sent you after. How long ago was that?” 

“Oh, that one took a long time!” Persephone piped up, sounding completely unbothered and casual as she added, “He asked me to find it about a hundred years ago. It was really hard! They kept moving it a lot, and I had to find someone who knew where it was, only he was hard to find and then he died so I had to find his friend on this other planet, then that guy ran away for some reason and I had to go find him again, and it was a whole thing.” Through all that, the woman was squinting thoughtfully, before abruptly brightening. “But I found it! I really found it! It took me so long, but I found it and I knew Manakel was going to be sooo happy and proud of me!” That proud, cheerful smile turned contemplative, her voice quieting a bit as her gaze moved past the others to focus on me. “And then I found out Manakel died, because she killed him.” 

“No,” a sudden new voice spoke up then, as Sariel emerged from the crowd to stand beside Mercury before giving him a nod of thanks, apparently for summoning her. “She didn’t kill Manakel, Persephone. I did. If you want vengeance for his death, I’m the one you owe it to.”  

Oh boy, I really wanted to jump in and argue there. Not that she was wrong about the fact that she had basically been the one responsible for Manakel’s death (I certainly would’ve been completely screwed without her), but I really didn’t think it was a good idea to essentially call this strange, clearly powerful woman’s attention onto her like that. And, from the look of things, basically everyone else around us was ready to object and jump in to interrupt as well. 

But, before any of us could say anything, Persephone reacted in a way that was, uhh, a little confusing. Not that that didn’t describe this entire encounter, but still. She laughed. Okay, it was more of a giggle. Yeah, a simple, casual little giggle. Her hand waved dismissively. “Ohhh no, silly goose. You helped! You were there, sure. But that doesn’t matter. You don’t have his power.” Slowly, her eyes moved over to lock onto mine, past everyone who was standing in front of me. “She does. She has his power. I knew it. I knew it before, when they said she killed him. And I felt it just now. She made me stop. She used his power to make me stop.” Her voice, strangely, didn’t sound angry or indignant about that. She was talking about me using her husband’s power to make her stop walking, and yet she didn’t sound pissed off about that. She didn’t even sound resentful or anything. No, she actually sounded positively delighted

Sands slowly raised a hand. “Okay, so is anyone else really fucking confused right now?   

Beside her, Sarah offered a hesitant and clearly uncertain, “She didn’t like Manakel?” 

“She was devoted to Manakel,” Mercury put in. “Obsessed with him. You heard her earlier, he sent her to get something it took a hundred years to find and she still did it. She tracked it across the universe. He did that a lot, and she always managed to find whatever she was sent for. And she always brought it to him. The only thing he could never get her to do was leave forever. She always came back and always did everything she could to help. She loved him.”  

“Uh huh, uh huh,” Persephone agreed easily, bouncing up and down a bit. In the process, the metal coils that had been wrapped around her arms simply snapped like they were made of tissue paper. If she had the slightest bit of worry about the fact that she was still surrounded by a bunch of very tense looking and powerful Heretics who had their weapons out and pointed at her, she didn’t show it. Instead, she smiled broadly while continuing with, “I loved him. And now I love her.” 

Yeah, she uhh, she pointed at me. And it was a good thing I wasn’t drinking at all, because it all would have ended up on the ground as I spat it out. As it was, a fit of coughing grabbed me as I stared that way. After the first few violent heaves from my chest, I managed a weak, “What?” 

“The power,” Sariel abruptly put in. “You loved Manakel because of his power. You…” Trailing off, she glanced around, raising her voice a bit to address all of us. “She’s a Revenant.”  

Oh. Well that sort of explained part of why she was so powerful. I’d learned about them in school. They were spirit-like creatures who were weak in their natural state, but when they possessed a dead body, they became almost unstoppable. The problem for them was that they tended to run through a body pretty quickly. It would age rapidly and fall apart around them as they used it. They were incredibly strong while possessing a corpse, but all you had to do was wait for the body to run out, and then hit them when they were in their natural state again.  

“We found her while the Olympus was out exploring other parts of space,” Mercury added. “There was another of us, another Olympian named Kore. She… something happened and she was infected by these parasites. We couldn’t save her. She was dying in the medical bay and no one could do anything. Even her own power wouldn’t save her.” 

“Her power?” Croc asked, voice a bit tense for utterly understandable reasons. 

Sariel answered. “Any physical condition Kore created in any living being, she could recreate in that same being at any point after that. If she broke someone’s nose, any time she saw them again after that, she could re-break it just by looking at them. If she stabbed them in the stomach, she could recreate the same stab wound in that same person later with a glance. On the other hand, if she used magic to heal someone’s broken arm, she could re-heal that same arm later. It worked on herself. Except… except the parasites couldn’t be removed that easily. She could reset her body as much as she wanted, but they were separate organisms. She… she couldn’t save herself. We couldn’t save her. And when she died, the Revenant called Persephone possessed her body.” 

“Oh my God,” I realized aloud, “that’s why she’s still here. She’s still using the same body after all this time because… because Revenants make their hosts age while they use them. They age really quickly until they die. But Olympians are immortal. I mean, they never get any older. So she can–she can just possess her forever. She’s a Revenant with a permanent body.” 

While everyone else (aside from the two Seosten who already knew what was going on), reacted to that, Persephone gave a near-blinding smile. “See?! I knew she was smart. She had to be smart to help beat Manakel. He was really strong. You beat him, and you took his power!” 

She was smiling at the fact that I helped kill her husband. This was a man she’d been devoted to for thousands of years, doing everything he said, including scouring the universe for a century just to find something he wanted. That was how much she cared about him. That–wait a minute. 

“It wasn’t Manakel,” I abruptly blurted as the sudden realization came right then. “She wasn’t in love with Manakel. It wasn’t him she was so devoted to. It was his power, his Necromancy. She was… like, drawn to it? She loved his Necromancy. And now… now I have his Necromancy.” 

“Exactly!” Persephone sounded like this was all very obvious and not insane in the least. “You have his power, so you’re the one I love. If you want, we can play games. Manakel and I used to play games, like Hold This Bomb, or Airlock Jump. We usually played hide-and-seek after Airlock Jump, cuz the ship would fly away and then I’d have to find it. Sometimes it took a long time cuz they went really far! But it was fun, and Manakel was always excited when I found him again. He drank a lot to celebrate.” 

Squinting toward Mercury and Sariel despite myself, I hissed, “You guys just got her to jump out the airlock and then left?” 

“Or put a bomb in her hands so it’d explode?” Miranda added sharply. She was squinting that way too, sounding just as offended. 

Sariel shook her head. “Not us. Manakel and Puriel were afraid of what would happen if she ever turned, if she ever changed her mind about being so devoted. She was–she’s a Revenant with a permanent body. They were trying to find out what weaknesses she might have, just in case.” 

“And,” Mercury added in a slightly quieter voice, “she’s possessing Kore. A lot of people liked Kore, including Manakel. He felt like–he felt like he completely failed her. He was the ship’s main doctor, and he couldn’t save her. He couldn’t save Kore. When Persephone started… started walking around as her, possessing her body, it really messed a lot of people up. Including Manakel. Especially when she went on about loving him and all.” 

Sounding completely innocent, the Revenant in question spoke up. “I thought they’d be happy, because I made her walk again. I tried to say hi, but people were… they were still sad. And they were angry too. I didn’t… I didn’t understand.” Her voice had gone soft, gaze focused off into the distance as though trying to comprehend those emotions. 

Swallowing hard, Sariel murmured, “It was a lot to deal with. People were upset. There were all those emotions every time anyone saw her, for a long time. And as I said, they were terrified of how much damage she could do if she wanted to.”

Persephone, of course, wasn’t suddenly deaf. At that, she promptly piped up. “That’s true, I can be pretty scary. Raaaawr.” She held up both hands in front of herself like a monster, growling in a way that could only be described as unbelievably cute.  

Fuck, stop it, Flick. What the hell was wrong with me? 

There was a flurry of murmured words between all of the Unset, before Croc spoke up. “We need to make the rounds to check for any more Nuckelavee. Is uhh…” He awkwardly gestured back and forth between the woman and me. “Is whatever this is under control?” 

“Persephone,” Sariel spoke then, her voice careful. “You don’t want to kill Felicity Chambers?” 

Persephone, in turn, giggled as though that was the silliest question she had ever heard. “Why in the Void would I want to kill her? She has the power. She took Manakel’s power. That means she took me. You don’t kill the person you’re married to, unless they hurt you. That’s just rude.”  

It took a second for her words to really penetrate, a moment for me to actually comprehend what she was saying. Then I was sputtering all over again, my eyes widening. Despite myself, I moved that way quickly and put myself next to Sariel. “Hold on, wait, what did you just say? What was that about being married? Cuz you’re not talking about us. You can’t be talking about us. We’re not married. I don’t even know you. I don’t know anything about you except for what I’ve heard in the past, like, thirty seconds. I haven’t even met you until right now. You and me, we’re not–we’re definitely not married.” 

In the background, I could see Croc getting his people to head off to do their search. None of them wanted to be involved in this now that it wasn’t turning into a fight. Which was fair, but still. Cowards. 

Persephone, still grinning just as cheerfully as ever, corrected me. “No, see, Manakel and I were married. We took the binding oaths to each other. But I didn’t make the oaths to him. I made the oaths to the power, to his Necromancy. We were linked through that. He’s dead, but you have his power. He’s dead, but I took the marriage oaths to his power, and that’s not gone. You took it. That means you took my oath. You own it. So, my marriage isn’t over. It just transferred to you. You own my loyalty. Like I said, we’re married! Isn’t that fun?” 

“I…” My throat was dry. The sudden rush of terror, confusion, then more terror, then even more confusion over the past few minutes from the moment the Nuckelavee had shown up had taken its toll. And this? How was I supposed to deal with this? What was I–how was I–where was…

“I think I need to sit down.”

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

In Like Flynn 17-02 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

For those who read Heretical Edge, there was a commissioned interlude posted yesterday. If you missed that, you can read it right here

So yeah, Pack obviously had a lot of things to say about the whole thing with this Amanda girl. Mostly centered around how many ways it could either be a trap or backfire on us. She went on about how stupid it would be to intentionally piss off Pencil and make myself and my new friend an even bigger target for him then we were now. I had made him angry already, first by screwing up his plan at the Children’s Hospital so that he didn’t do nearly as much damage as he meant to, and then by escaping up at the cabin. Not to mention the fact that I had actually hurt Cup. Yeah, obviously he didn’t need an excuse to target me. And yet, here I was, about to poke my nose into his business again. Pack had more than a few loud opinions on that idea.  

In the end, all I could say was that at least we weren’t actually going anywhere near the man himself. And, I pointed out that someone had to put a stop to him. The longer he went on being able to torture and kill people, the longer his list of innocent victims would get. Even if I didn’t have a chance in hell of confronting him directly and winning, the least I could do was contribute to bringing him down by finding Amanda Sanvers and trying to convince her to tell Deicide about any actual weaknesses Pencil might have so that she could actually do something about it. 

“I’m not stupid. I know it’s dangerous. But he has to be stopped. And I do owe Deicide for that vial. The vial that saved your boss’s daughter. She came through with it and asked for a favor. She could have asked for a much harder favor than this. Okay, maybe this isn’t exactly easy, but it’s not bad or wrong. I don’t have a moral issue with stopping Pencil and the Scions. This might be hard and dangerous, but it’s still a good thing to do. And I’m going to do it. Or try, at least.” 

Through all of that, I could tell Pack was staring at me intently. She seemed to be weighing something back and forth in her head for a silent moment before giving a long, audible sigh. “Right, fine. But don’t go digging too far into finding this chick without me, got it?” When I started to object, she interrupted. “No, you’re right. You got into this favor to help save the boss’s kid. You saved her life, and now Deicide wants you to pay that back by possibly pissing off that psycho? You’re not doing that alone. Or even with some girl who’s had her powers for like half an hour. I’m not saying I’ll fight that son of a bitch, I’m not stupid either. But me and my buddies here can help everyone get away if shit goes south. If you’re doing this, I’m gonna be there to make sure you don’t go too far with it. Fuck, I owe you that much for the vial thing. Plus, you know…” She trailed off, kicking the roof with her foot before muttering, “I don’t exactly hate you. And the list of people like that isn’t long, so I’d rather not have to deal with that fucking freak getting his hands on you. Not to mention how Way would react if she found out I just let you… yeah. So, that’s it. If you’re doing this, I’m going with you. No arguing about it, capisce?” 

Snorting despite myself, I gave a short nod. Behind the helmet, I was smiling a bit. “So, my takeaway from all that is that you like me. You really like me!” 

A low growl escaped the girl. “Don’t make me change my mind, kid. This still all seems pretty stupid. But if you insist, I’m gonna make sure you don’t go too stupid with it.” 

“Not going too stupid, got it.” Giving her a thumbs up, I added, “But hey, at least we don’t have to worry about that for a while. I mean, that’s the problem behind door number two. We’ve got a whole other problem behind door number one we have to deal with first. Isn’t that great?”

Pack didn’t sound incredibly enthused, for some reason. “You know the whole ‘door number one or door number two’ bit is supposed to imply you pick one or the other? It’s supposed to be a choice, not a thing where you dive headfirst into both of them whenever you want.” 

“Meh.” I shrugged. “I always was a little selfish. Gotta have all the doors for myself. But hey, you’ll be there too.” I adopted a teasing tone once more. “Because you liiiiiike me. Because we’re super-good friends and you won’t let anything happen to me. Because we–”

She shut me up with a kick to the shin that made me yelp, then pointedly replied, “So, are we gonna find out if Wren’s got another slot we can slide Way into before we call her in, or what?” 

Giving her a thumbs up while using my other hand to rub my leg, I nodded. “Sure, sure. Let’s head over there and see what she can do. The more friends we can pull into this whole Tron adventure, the merrier.” Grimacing then, I added, “I can’t believe I’m saying that with a straight face. This is all super-weird, right?”

Snorting at me, Pack plucked Riddles off her shoulder where the bearded dragon had crawled. “Yeah, definitely super-weird. But you know, that’s pretty much par for the course as far as you’re concerned, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not like you ever do anything the normal way.” 

Opening my mouth to argue, I ended up hesitating before coughing. “Okay, fair. I guess I really don’t. But whatever, come on, let’s go talk to our kid-genius inventor friend about letting the Minority superhero chick we’re both friends with come along on the trip to go into the cyborg-girl’s brain so we can save her from the evil duplicate virus her supervillain psycho father installed before she gets erased.” 

So, the two of us collected the lizards, put them back in the backpack-cage thing, then headed down and made our way through the maze of back alleys toward Wren’s shop. We passed a confused homeless guy on the way as he poked his head up from his sleeping bag next to a dumpster, and I gave him a twenty dollar bill before heading on. Pack watched me do that, seemed to consider for a moment, then sighed and passed him a twenty as well before whispering something in his ear. 

“What’d you say to that guy?” I asked once we had moved out of the man’s earshot. 

“Hmm?” Pack glanced toward me, then looked over her shoulder that way. “Oh, I just told him if he wants an easy lookout job that pays really well, he should call the number on the money I gave him. Blackjack’s always looking to recruit the unfortunate. Even if they don’t have any powers or skills, you’d be surprised how much information they can get for you. Plus, like I said, they can play lookouts really well. No one pays attention to them. Get enough on your side, and you have a whole spy network working for you. Just takes a little cash here and there. Which is something Blackjack has to spare.” 

My mouth opened and shut a couple times before I sighed. “You know, I genuinely have no idea how I’m supposed to feel about that. At least he’s giving them money, I guess?” 

“Money they’re earning,” Pack clarified pointedly with a raised finger. “That’s the big part. Plus, some of them do enough to get promoted into the actual gang instead of just being street-eyes. All depends on how much work they do, and how good they are at it. There’s actually a decent amount of ex-military types on the streets.” 

I was still processing that as we made our way up to the back door of the shop and rang the bell. There was about a twenty second pause before the door was pulled open by Fred, who looked a little distracted and disheveled. “Come in, then. You can help carry some shit upstairs.” With that, he gestured to two milk crates on the floor that had random bits of equipment piled up in them. It looked like he had been pulling pieces off the shelves and shoving them in there. 

“Everything okay?” I asked while stepping in and moving to pick up one of the crates. Beside me, Pack did the same while the lizards chirped and squeaked from the backpack. 

Fred was taking a long drink from a bottle of water before wiping off his forehead. “Yeah. I mean as good as it can be. Just busy. Wren’s been working all day on getting this VR thing up and running, and it’s… look, she’s working really hard, so take it easy on the kid, okay?” 

My head bobbed quickly, and I started to ask if she was okay, but Pack beat me to it. “How’s she doing with all this? Gotta be a lot of pressure on the girl, even for someone with a techy brain that big. You made her get some sleep last night, right?” There was a firm tone to her voice that reminded me just how much Pack cared about Wren too, after the time they’d spent together. She definitely didn’t like the idea of the kid stressing herself out over this whole thing. Which was fair, even if I was worried about what was going on with Paige. I was worried about Wren too. The kid was taking a lot onto her plate, with trying to put her dad’s store back in business, designing things we could actually build and sell, upgrading my equipment, and trying to help with the Paige situation. She’d even apparently gone as far as building that whole communication thing just to check on Paige herself, found out there was something wrong, and reached out to her Tech-Touched friend in France to find a solution she could jury-rig. It was a lot for anybody, let alone a nine-year-old who should be focusing on having fun. Part of me wished I could just tell the kid to forget about the whole thing and focus on her shop. But, of course, I couldn’t do that because it would mean hanging Paige out to dry.

Fred had already nodded by the time I worked through all that in my head. “You’re damn right I made the kid go to sleep. Wasn’t easy either, she was bound and determined to work through the night, but I nipped that in the bud. So yeah, she slept, otherwise she wouldn’t be conscious right now. But she’s still working her butt off on this whole thing, so take it easy with anything you ask about, got it?” His gaze moved back and forth between the two of us. 

Pack and I exchanged glances before nodding. That time, I found my voice first. “Yeah, we do… we do need to ask her about something as far as this VR thing goes, but we’ll take it easy. Trust me, Fred, we don’t wanna pile anything else onto her. She’s done enough with all this.” 

His gaze seemed to bore straight into and even through me. “So you’re not about to ask her to try to fix that orb thing anyway, even after everything she said about not being able to do it?” 

Okay, that one definitely took me by surprise. Giving a double-take despite myself, I couldn’t find my voice for a second. “Wha–no! No, I swear, that’s not why we’re here. I mean, she said she couldn’t do it, that’s–I get it. Trust me, Fred, we are not about to try to talk her into working on the orb. I know it’s more than she can handle. I didn’t–” Oh. He thought I’d brought Pack for backup in talking the poor kid into taking on that job too. No wonder he was making a point of talking to us like this, especially after Wren had outright refused to work on Paige the first time. And now he thought we were here to pressure her into taking it up, just because it was an emergency and–oh. Now I definitely understood what his whole deal was. 

“He’s right,” Pack put in, clearly having gone through the same thought process. “We’re not here to talk the kid into doing stuff she already said she couldn’t do. We just think we might need more help if we’re going into this… computer world thing, so we were wondering if she could make enough links or helmets or whatever it is for us to bring That-A-Way over.” 

Quickly, I added, “And, you know, ask if she’s cool with That-A-Way knowing where the shop is and all that. I mean, she knows a good bit already. Some of it anyway. But it’s a pretty big step to have Way over here. Especially since she always knows what direction she’s facing, so putting a bag over her head to drive her to the shop wouldn’t really do that much. She’d probably still be able to figure out where we were going and all that.” 

Without missing a beat, Fred pointed out, “We could teleport her directly here, you know. Her knowing what direction she’s facing wouldn’t tell her the exact location if she was teleported in from somewhere else, right? It’d just take time to calibrate for her and all, as the kid would say.” 

Oh, right. Pausing to consider that, I slowly nodded. “We’ll ask Wren what she wants to do. Either way, having masks around for you or anyone who wants one would probably be a good idea, just to, you know, be on the safe side.” 

Fred looked like he was going to say something to that, before shaking it off. “Right, yeah. Well, if that’s what you need, go ahead and carry those crates up to the kid. And let me know if I need to start calibrating that teleport marker. Kid made me learn how to do it in case there was an emergency or whatever, and God knows she’s got enough to work on today as it is.” 

Yeah, Fred had definitely changed since I first met him. Or had he? His whole thing when he had gone against Wren’s rules and made the deal with Ashton had been to get money to take care of her and to pay the bills for her parents’ hospital and funeral stuff. Yeah, he’d definitely done something bad, but he hadn’t known how bad at the time. He had just wanted better for himself and his niece, and that wasn’t exactly the worst crime in the world. And now he was still trying to take care of her, just without going too far. He’d learned from his mistake, but he was still the same guy, for the most part. 

“You okay over there?” Pack asked as the two of us walked to the stairs with the crates.

Heading up first, I nodded quickly. “Yeah, sorry. Just been thinking a lot. You know, about everything. It’s just–” I sighed. “There’s a lot going on.” 

Snorting, Pack nodded while starting up after me. She had left the bag with her lizards inside on one of the counters downstairs with strict orders for them to stay put, eat their food, and relax. Aside from Twinkletoes, who was perched on her shoulder, curiously watching everything. “A lot going on, right. And yet, here you are, taking on more responsibility day after day after day.” 

Wincing, I shook my head. “Hey, I told you, it’s not my fault. I owed Deicide for the–yeah.” 

“I know, I get it,” she muttered, reaching up to scratch under Twinkletoes’s chin affectionately. The way she brought him with just as we were going up the stairs, I had the feeling Pack didn’t like to go anywhere without at least one of them. Which, again, made me curious about how she went to school. Did she go to school, or was it just like some kind of tutoring situation in La Casa? And why did I keep wondering about it? Seriously, it was none of my business. I had no idea why the question kept popping into my head. Like I didn’t already have enough to worry about and focus on? 

By that point, we had reached the top of the stairs and moved through the hallway there to get to the lab where Wren was working on what I swore looked like a large, makeshift MRI machine that was taking up a decent portion of one corner. The kid had the side of the machine open and was lying on one of those little wheeled carts that mechanics use, buried up to her waist in the wire-filled guts of the machine. We could both hear the girl talking to herself, or rather, to the machine. She was mumbling about making the thing work whether it wanted to or not. 

Exchanging a brief look with the girl next to me, I stepped that way. “Uh, hey, Wren. You need any help down there? Got some stuff for you.” I shook the crate in my hand a little demonstrably.   

Hearing my voice, the girl slid out, blurting, “Paintball!” She saw the other girl then and added a quick, “Pack! And Twinkletoes!” Hurriedly, she climbed into her feet, almost slipping on the wheeled cart before managing to catch herself. “Hi! Oh, you can put that stuff right there on the floor, I’ve gotta dig through it and find the right stuff. Do you know if Uncle Fred found the–” And then she said something so ridiculously technical that she might as well have been speaking in a completely foreign language. Or even an alien language. Hell, for all I knew, she was talking in complete gibberish and that entire sentence was just the girl screwing with us to see if we had any clue what she was going on about. And from the sound that Pack made in the background, I was pretty sure she didn’t have the slightest idea what any of that meant either.  

After a moment, I found my voice. “Uh, sorry he didn’t say anything about that. But it seemed like he found what you sent him for? So maybe it’s in there. If you want some help digging through it…” Oh, really? Where was I going to go with that, genius? I had no idea what any of what she was asking about looked like, so how exactly was I going to help her find it? 

Thankfully, Wren politely declined, saying she’d look through it later. Then she frowned slightly, looking back and forth between us while holding Twinkletoes (the chameleon had been quickly handed over to her and was quite thoroughly enjoying the attention). Curiously, the girl asked, “You guys aren’t here to do the thing yet, are you? Cuz I–I’m really sorry but it’s not ready yet. I’ve been trying and I swear I’ll get it working, but I had to sleep cuz Uncle Fred said I couldn’t–” 

Quickly, I interrupted. “No, no, it’s okay. We’re not here for that.” With that, I explained why we were there, asking how the girl felt about bringing That-A-Way over, how secret she wanted us to make it, and whether she thought there would be a way of bringing one more person into the VR thing. But I made it perfectly clear that if adding someone else was too much to get ready in time, she absolutely shouldn’t worry about it, and that it was just a thought we’d had about getting more help in there.

Thankfully (because I really thought we were going to need all the help we could get), Wren immediately agreed. According to her, once she had the actual system working, it wouldn’t be too hard to create an additional link-in for it. Especially since she had apparently been planning on making another one ‘just in case’ anyway. It was intended to be just in case one of the regular link-ins didn’t work properly, but assuming everything did work, there would be an extra one for That-A-Way.

“And you want us to go the blindfold, teleportation route?” Pack put in curiously. “Cuz if so, I think Paintball should do it. Just cuz someone from La Casa putting a bag over a superhero’s head and teleporting them to a secret location kiiiinda has a weird feeling to it.” 

Wren, however, shook her head. “Nuh uh, you can bring her here. She’s a superhero! She’s a good guy–errr, girl. An’ besides, if you guys trust her, I trust her.” Belatedly, she added, “Besides, if bad stuff happens, it’s probably a good idea to have someone like her know where we are, right?” 

“Uh, good point,” I agreed, giving her a thumbs up before looking over to Pack. “So, what do you say? 

“Shall we go find out if That-A-Way wants to play Tron with us?” 

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