Month: April 2019

Becoming 2-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Three’s Paradise, the motel and strip club. That’s where I needed to go. Somehow, even just putting that name in my phone to look for directions made me feel dirty. I kind of wanted to wipe down my phone screen with cleanser.

But at least I got the address. The place was only about six blocks away, which I just had to hope was close enough for me to get there before they realized something was wrong with those guys back at the apartment and ended up doing something horrible.

Thankfully, I now had a little edge in that regard. My little trip through the city earlier had already taught me how to use my power to get around faster using the rooftops and walls of the buildings. And I used that now, throwing myself off the apartment with a blue puddle that sent me flying into the air before yanking myself toward a high billboard with some red paint, running along the side of it, then leaping off to land on the roof of the next building over. Dropping into a roll before popping back to my feet while blurting the command to bring out the wheels of my skates, I took off again. Six blocks. I could get there in time. I would get there in time.

At least it wasn’t hard to find the place. Skidding to a stop on the roof of the last building, I looked straight at the billboard ahead of me. Given the risque image of two women fawning over a shirtless guy, I was going to guess it wasn’t advertising McDonalds.

Sure enough, peeking over the edge of the roof and looking down, I saw the building in question. It was far below me, almost eight stories down. There were three buildings arranged in a rough triangular formation, with a pool in the middle. One of those buildings had a bunch of neon signs on it, which probably made it the strip club. The other was longer than the other two, which made it the motel. The last one I was going to guess was the office, laundry, and whatever. The parking lot for the whole place stretched around all three buildings and looked almost completely empty aside from a half dozen cars.

Right. This was definitely the place. But what building were they holding Adrian in? I could see a couple guys standing around outside, probably keeping watch. Nothing, however, gave me any idea of where the rest of the guys were. I was leaning toward the main office, but they might be holding him in the strip club too. And it was broad daylight. I couldn’t exactly sneak around there very easily without being seen. Especially with those guards outside. Hell, I couldn’t even get down there to look. Unless…

Waiting until the view of both guys was blocked by one of the buildings as they patrolled, I took a few steps back, breathed out, and then ran forward while shooting a bit of blue paint down. I turned my legs purple to get more force while jumping straight onto the blue blob. It sent me careening into the sky and out over the lot, as I barely restrained myself from crying out. Windmilling my arms through the air, I looked down, waiting until my arc took me over the nearest building. Then I pointed down, shooting a bit of red while also painting my gloves and boots to match. Abruptly, as the red paint struck the roof, I was yanked straight down into a directed fall. On the way, I sent a shot of black paint down as well.

Just before I landing, I painted my legs orange to absorb the impact and put a black silhouette of a hand holding up two fingers in a peace sign on my chest. Between the black on my suit and the black that I’d shot onto the roof, my landing was completely silent. It wasn’t exactly the best looking, since I crashed and rolled halfway across the roof, yelping along the way before finally sprawling out in a heap. But hey, at least I didn’t make any actual noise. I got points for that, right?

Grunting silently as I rolled over onto my back. I breathed for a moment before pushing myself up to my hands and knees. Listening for a moment just in case one of the men had spotted me, I heard nothing. So I cautiously crawled to the edge of the roof and peeked over.

I was on top of the motel building. It was a small place, only two stories high, with doors that opened right into the lot. The two guards were walking together on the far side of the next building over, the strip club part of this whole glorious place. I saw them pass just into view for a moment, ducking back to hide in case they glanced my way.

Okay, I was down. Bully for me. Now what, exactly? I still couldn’t just wander randomly through the buildings, or just ask one of those guys where they were keeping their prisoner.

I could, however, make the guys inside show me where they were. To that end, I looked over the edge of the roof for the parking lot where a couple of the cars were. Whispering an apology if they actually didn’t belong to bad guys, I shot two bursts of red paint, one at either car. Then I activated it, sending both vehicles colliding violently into one another. With a spray of glass, the parking lot was suddenly filled with the sound of two horribly blaring car alarms.

Yup, it got their attention. Both guys outside went running that way. They were joined by several others that came rushing very quickly out of the strip joint part. All of them were very obviously armed, as they rushed to where the cars were, shouting and looking around.

Right, so the strip club was where I needed to be. Thanks for answering that, guys. You’re super-helpful.

Now I just had to get in there without being seen by them. Which meant it was time for another distraction. Looking down to the lot again at the guys who were all milling around the smashed-together cars as they tried to figure out what the hell just happened, I smiled to myself behind the helmet and mask. Then I looked to the other side of the lot, at a lone sedan parked there. Carefully, making sure no one was looking close enough to see my paint flying through the air, I shot a bit of red at top of the car. Then I shot another bit further off into the lot.

“Okay, boys,” I whispered under my breath. “Go fetch.”

With that, I powered up the paint. The sedan was yanked over onto its hood and went skidding that way. Shouts and curses went up from all the guys, as they sprinted after the car. That was the opening I needed. Painting myself green for the speed boost, with a little black to silence any sound I might’ve made, I leapt from the roof of this building. A shot of red paint to the roof of the opposite one yanked me over to it, allowing me to land on the roof of the strip club.

From there, I made my way along the roof quickly and quietly, moving away from the front where the guys were. On the way, I was leaning over the edge and looking down, watching for a window.

There. I spotted a window about halfway down the building. Crouching there, I counted to ten, trying to calm myself down. I had to pace myself, had to make sure I had paint to deal with whatever was inside. That meant slowing down a bit and being careful. With that in mind, I waited another moment before painting my hands and knees red. With a bit of red on the wall, I crawled down along it until I was just above the window. Then I leaned very carefully to peek through.

It was an office of some kind. An empty office, which was good for me. Trying the window, I found it unlocked. Another bonus. Before my paint could run out, I opened it, reached in to get a handhold, and hauled myself down inside, dropping into a crouch on the floor.

Kneeling there, in the office, I looked around. There was a simple, mostly bare wooden desk with a nearby leather chair, a couple filing cabinets in the corner, two metal folding chairs in front of the desk, and an incredibly explicit calendar on the wall. Seriously, the bare gazungas on the blonde bombshell on that picture looked like they came straight off of the Hindenburg.

Shaking myself away from that distraction, I focused on listening carefully. Voices. There were voices coming from somewhat nearby. Slowly, I crept closer to the door before listening again.

Yup, definite voices. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but from the sound of it, they weren’t very happy. Carefully, I opened the door, cracking it just a little at first. The voices still weren’t clear, but I could tell that they were coming from a room nearby. Taking a breath, I peeked out, looking both ways down the short corridor. To the left was a hallway with a couple closed doors. At the end was an emergency exit that was labeled as being alarmed. To the right was another hall that seemed to open up at the end into a much larger room. Probably the dance floor. There were a couple other doors as well. And through one of those I heard the voices. One was raised, letting me hear a few angry curses, while the other was more muted.

Before the guys outside could give up and come back in, I silently hurried to that door. Crouching there, I pressed my ear to it and listened.

“I’ll tell you what you need,” the louder voice all-but shouted. “You need to answer the goddamn question! What else did he say? Where was he going?!” The words were punctuated by a loud slam, as if the man had kicked something over.

That was followed by a quieter voice. “I apologize for him. You must understand, my brother gets a little… emotional when he feels like people are lying to him. Are you lying?”

“No.” I knew that voice. It was Adrian. He sounded weak, his voice cracking a little. “I’m not… lying. I don’t know… I don’t know where he went. I told you, I just… dropped him off.”

“Oh, I hope you’re right,” the softer voice murmured. “I really wouldn’t want to find out that–”

“You’re lying!” the violent, furious voice cut in. There was the sound of a hard slap or punch or something, and Adrian cried out. The angry voice continued. “I’m done. You’ve had enough chances. You’ve got four little brothers? Well maybe it’s time you lose one of them.”

As Adrian protested, he was cut off, his words dropping into a pained wheeze as he was apparently punched hard in the stomach.

“Maybe we’ll just cut something off right here, hmm?” the angry voice snarled. “Lose something off your body for every sibling you lose? Let’s make it an arm for each of the older kids and a leg for each of the younger ones. Right at the elbows and knees. That’s fitting, isn’t it? You don’t tell us the truth, and you’ll come out of here without any brothers and without any limbs. They can call you Stubby. Stubby the only-child. Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Let’s see… older or younger, older or younger… let’s go with… left arm.”

There was a panicked shout from Adrian, and I couldn’t wait any longer. Putting the purple outline of an arm showing off a bicep on my chest, I used the strength to kick the door as hard as I could, while blurting, “Hey, assholes!”

My entrance definitely got everyone’s attention. As I shoved my way into the room, my eyes quickly scanned to look for where all three men were. I saw two right away. Adrian was chained up against the wall opposite the door, almost straight across from me. Another figure was standing right next to him. But that was it. I could only see two guys. Two. Where was the third?

And then I focused on the figure next to Adrian, and understood. Fuck me, I understood.

The figure wore a blue suit, with a red shirt and blue tie. His entire head was covered by a silver metal helmet. On the front of that was a glowing smiley face made out of soft blue lights, its grin wide and distorted.

His hands were covered in gloves that were white on the first three fingers and black on the last three. Yeah, each hand had six fingers. Two of those were thumbs, one on each side.

But having two thumbs on each hand was far from the creepiest thing about this guy. Because even as I stood there, staring, the figure turned around. Or rather… his torso did. His legs stayed firmly planted, while the man’s torso pivoted one hundred and eighty degrees to face me.

I wasn’t looking at the man’s back. I was looking at his other front. His suit had a frontside here too. Instead of blue like the… other front, this side was red, with a blue shirt and red tie. His side of the silver metal helmet showed a frowning, angry face made out of glowing red lights.

Janus. That’s what this… guy… these two… whatever. That’s what he–they called themselves. He… or they… or… however it worked was actually two men fused into one. Like conjoined twins or whatever. Apparently they’d been two different people before both had touched the same Summus Proelium orb. And now, they were one joined being that didn’t have a back. They had two fronts fused together, each facing the opposite direction. Their head had two faces on it, one on either side. Their bottom half rotated independently of the top half, while each leg could twist a full three-hundred and sixty degrees. The same went for their arms, which seemed to have no limit to their rotation, able to function forward or… their other forward as needed, while each hand had six fingers with a thumb on each side.

They called themselves Janus together, but each was also separate. The smiling half was known as Uncle Friendly, while the angry half was called Mister Harmful. Mister Harmful and Uncle Friendly, Janus. Together (as they always were), the conjoined pair were one (two?) of the leaders of the Easy Eights. Not the leader. That honor went to the woman who called herself Deicide. Rather, Janus was/were one of the leaders of the eight individual gangs that had joined up together to form the Easy Eights in order to combat Oscuro. Now he/they were considered lieutenants or captains or whatever. I didn’t really know much about Fell-Touched politics.

But I did know, in that second, that I was in trouble. Caught flat-footed, I stared for a second while Mister Harmful glared at me with that glowing light angry face of his.

Then his arm snapped up and extended. Extended all the way across the room, that was. Even though I was standing about nine feet away, the man’s (Men’s? This was confusing) arm grew and stretched all the way to reach me. At the same time, the hand itself grew to several times its normal size, until it was as large as my torso. It slammed into my chest, knocking me hard against the wall.

Yeah, because just having two bodies fused together with incredibly fucking creepy range of motion wasn’t bad enough. Janus could also grow and extend any of their limbs to absurd lengths and sizes. I’d seen news footage of the guy(s) stretching their arm the length of a city block, their fist blown up as large as the SUV that they were punching. Because of course they had super strength too. They were incredibly strong and tough in addition to everything else.

Basically, I was in a little bit of trouble. Oops.

Mind racing as I yelped from the force of being shoved hard against the wall, I found myself completely at a loss. I was basically panicking, as Mister Harmful stepped toward me. Their torso rotated all the way around, hand briefly leaving me before they spun far enough for the opposite one to catch on and shove me even harder back. Then I was looking at Uncle Friendly.

“Why, hello,” the man almost cheerfully announced, his smiling-light face focused on me. “I don’t think we know you, do we?” He looked me up and down briefly. “And what do you call yourself?”

His hand jerked back as his torso rotated to make me face Mister Harmful once more. “Who cares what the hell he calls himself? He’s a trespasser. He’s–” He spun back, showing me Uncle Friendly briefly while he looked at Adrian. “He’s with him. He came to rescue him.”

“Is that right?” Uncle Friendly asked, his voice sympathetic and gentle. “Did you come to save this poor guy?”

“F-forget me!” Adrian blurted. “My brothers! Just go, they’re at–” He was silenced then, as Mister Harmful shoved a hand across the length of the room to cover his mouth.

“Nuh uh,” the angry man snarled. “We didn’t ask you to talk yet. Don’t interrupt.”

The worst part of this whole thing was that I couldn’t even take advantage of his distraction as he focused on Adrian. Because his other half was looking right at me. The man literally had eyes (and a nose, and mouth, and everything else) in the back of his head.  

Then I remembered a very important point. I had powers too. In the shock of the moment, I had actually forgotten that. Oops.

“My name?” I finally spoke up, finding my voice after those few seconds of blind panic. “It’s Paintball. And you know what? I don’t like you touching me.”

With that, I covered my torso in blue paint. It activated, sending the enormous hand that was holding me against the wall reeling backward with enough force to make the conjoined men stumble.

Before they could recover, I sent a spray of yellow onto Uncle Friendly’s chest, slowing him down. At the same time, I painted myself green to move even faster. Dropping from the wall to my feet, I threw myself into a forward roll that took me under their oh-so-slowly moving arms, before popping up behind Friendly and in front of the already-bellowing Harmful. Spinning that way, pivoting on one foot, I painted my arm purple while slamming my fist as hard as I could into his chest.

They went flying, crashing into the same wall that I’d been shoved against. Which gave me a second to focus on Adrian.

He was chained. How the hell was I supposed to–

An enormous hand, almost as big as my entire body, closed around me. With a yelp, I was yanked back, then thrown to the side. I put orange dots across my body just in time to collide with the window that I was hurled at. With a loud crash of shattering glass, I went flying through that window, hit the asphalt of the parking lot beyond, and rolled with a series of yelps.

Lifting my head a second later, I saw Janus lifting themselves through that same window. Mister Harmful was facing me, his glowing expression seeming even more furious than normal. Worse, there were guards already running to surround me, guns raised and pointed my way.

This… this was bad.

“Hey!” That unexpected voice came from just behind me, as a figure abruptly appeared. I caught a glimpse of a skintight purple costume, with white arrows drawn in every direction all over it.

That-A-Way. One of the members of the Minority, the youth hero team. And she wasn’t alone. Even as Janus and the rest of their troops reacted to her sudden appearance, she was joined by the jester-like Carousel and Whamline, a guy in a black and brown army suit and ski mask with big metal gauntlets. More Minority team members. They were here. I didn’t have to face these guys by myself.

Was it weird that in that moment, with everything else that was going on, I still kind of wanted to ask for their autographs?

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Summer Epilogue 5B (Heretical Edge)

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Neither Jophiel nor Elisabet responded outwardly to Gwen’s words at first. Instead, they simply glanced to one another for a brief moment, communicating silently. After a few seconds of that, the Seosten woman plucked her glass up daintily, taking a slow sip from it as though savoring the taste. Only then, once she had thoroughly enjoyed that single sip and set the glass back down, did she finally speak.

“You believe that something needs to be changed about our arrangement with the children, Queen Knight of Camelot?” Her tone was a mix of vague challenge and more curiosity.

Meeting her gaze, Gwen replied evenly, “I believe that you took advantage of your position of power over these children, and their desperation, to make an arrangement that suits you far more than it does them. More to the point, I believe you are forcing them to repeatedly and consistently lie to the people they care about, which is an odd thing to do for someone who is supposedly trying to advocate trust and alliance amongst humans and Seosten.”

It was Elisabet’s turn to speak then. “You’re right, it’s not ideal. But it’s for our safety. If word of our intentions with Miss Chambers or Sariel’s children were to get out, we would be expelled from our position and likely hunted down by Jophiel’s own people.” She paused briefly before adding, “And I would be hunted by my own people. Our position is rather tenuous.”

Tabbris abruptly put in. “Oh boy, a secret that could really hurt someone if it got out. Yeah, you better use magic to keep us quiet, cuz we’ve never had anything to do with something like that.”

Clearing her throat, Jophiel gave the young girl a brief squint before speaking again. “Experienced or not, we were and are not willing to put our lives in the hands of children. Look at what happened with Manakel possessing Miss Kohaku. Gaia Sinclaire had no clue. Even if we did wish to tell you which people we know are possessed currently or recently, we are not aware of all of them, particularly those who move often. The odds of our secrets getting out rise exponentially with every person who knows them. Given the amount of friends and family close to these four… that is an unacceptable risk.”

Tristan shook his head with a blurted, “That’s bullshit.” As everyone looked to him, the boy flushed a little but pushed on. “Yeah, sure, it’s a risk. But everything we do is a risk. Besides, we know how to check for possession now. We know how to guard against it. There’s about to be a spell that makes it impossible for any Heretic to be possessed without permission! We’re taking care of things on our end. And you’re still making us lie to everyone we care about. Like Tabs said, we’ve had secrets to keep all year long. It’s not just yours.”

With a little nod, Flick agreed, “I don’t like lying to my friends, or my dad. Actually, I hate it. You want to teach us how to have an alliance with your people, how to trust your people and work with them? But you’re not willing to take a risk yourselves. You might be a lot more powerful than we are, but you’re both so paranoid about someone you know finding out who and what you really are that you might as well be helpless. You’d rather we risk destroying our relationships with the people we care about, than you risk other Seosten finding out you love each other. Yeah, that wasn’t hard to figure out, for the record. You want to prove Seosten and humans can work together? Then stop making us lie to the people we’re supposed to trust.”

“Like I said,” Gwen announced, “we’re going to renegotiate this little agreement from a more equitable point of view. Yes, being cautious is understandable. You are taking a risk. But so are these kids. And there’s plenty of ways to make sure the people they’re talking to aren’t possessed. But first thing first, they couldn’t exactly tell me the whole story. So why don’t you two tell me instead? I want to hear the entire arrangement and plan, not just what I’ve inferred or gotten through eavesdropping. All of it. Then we can talk about how to make it more fair for everyone.”

Again, Jophiel and Elisabet exchanged glances. The latter opened her mouth to speak, but Gwen held a hand up to interrupt. “Wait. Actually, you put this on first.” With a flick of her wrist, she produced a bracelet, tossing it to the Seosten woman. “You know what it is?”

Catching the bracelet, Jophiel frowned at the small reddish-gold gemstone in the middle. “… Jaresh stone.” Her eyes snapped up to stare at Gwen. “You want to block my Tartarus power.”

“Tartarus power?” Flick echoed, blinking back and forth between the women. “You mean the other-dimension Olympian thing? That stone can do that?”

“Yes, it can,” Gwen confirmed. “As you might imagine, it’s very rare. And the power of the gem is drained relatively quickly.” Her eyes moved back to Jophiel. “Yes, I want you to put it on before Elisabet speaks. You know, just to make sure this entire… relationship you both have is actually her choice and not your little ‘shift the emotions someone feels about someone else to me’ power. If you two really trust each other, if your feelings are genuine, that shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Mmm,” Jophiel murmured, “of course not. And yet, you are asking me to put myself at a disadvantage. Should you have ill intentions–”

“I’m sure you’ll be just fine,” Gwen interrupted. “After all, if Elisabet’s feelings for you are real, she’ll protect you. So you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Let’s just call this practice, for you actually risking yourself a little bit instead of risking everyone else.”  

Pausing for a moment before heaving a slow, soft sigh, Jophiel nodded. “Fair enough,” she muttered before slipping the bracelet on. The stone flared brightly for a second before fading once more to a dim glow. “There,” she announced while holding her wrist out for inspection. “I cannot use my Olympian power. Everything my Sianame feels is her true, real feelings.”

Gwen took a moment, looking the bracelet over to make sure Jophiel hadn’t pulled a fast one somehow. Nodding in satisfaction, she looked to Elisabet. “First, why don’t you tell us how you feel about Jophiel here?”

The answer came immediately. “She is my Sianame, my partner. I love her more than anyone in the universe. I would do anything for her, and she’d do anything for me. That’s why we wouldn’t let the children tell anyone about our arrangement, because we won’t risk each other. We…” She paused, swallowing. “We want to fix things between our species, but we didn’t know how. But with Vanessa and Tristan there, our species can produce viable offspring together. That has to mean something. We have to convince the Seosten to work with humanity. The only way we knew of how to do that was to train them, so they could show the Seraphim how much better things could be with an alliance.”

“I seem to recall another of your members suggesting an alliance with my husband,” Gwen pointed out. “In fact, she convinced him enough to bring him to a vulnerable location for a ‘chat’. That turned out to be a trap. Why should we believe that this is anything different?”

It was Jophiel who spoke. “That was Chayyiel. And she did not betray Arthur. Puriel betrayed her by attacking their meeting point against her request. A betrayal which Chayyiel did not take kindly to, considering her promise to kill Puriel should he ever attempt to give her one more order.”

Showing no outward reaction to that, Gwen watched the Seosten woman for a moment before speaking again. “As I understand it, she has already negotiated your leadership into a potential alliance with humanity, in response to the impending Liesje spell.”

“An alliance,” Jophiel confirmed, “or invasion. They have not decided which. We have one year to prove that an alliance would be preferable to full enslavement. Which is why we must step up our training endeavors.”

“Does she know about what we’re doing here?” Vanessa put in. “Chayyiel, I mean.”

Jophiel started to respond that before pausing. “I… would say no, but it is Chayyiel. Who knows what that girl is aware of. She learned from the Apocalypse Twins, and has only improved on their teachings in many ways. That said, I do not believe so.”

From there, Elisabet and Jophiel explained the full original agreement to Gwen, who waited through all of it with only a few questions and clarifications. Finally, the former (and many would say current) queen of Camelot announced, “Yes, we’re changing that deal. You’ll get everything you wanted. The children can still agree to train with you. But you are going to remove the requirement that they not tell anyone about it. Yes, it puts you in danger. Just as they are in danger every time they interact with you. Just as they have been in danger for so long. If you want some measure of trust to be extended to you, then you will extend some as well.”

“We’re not gonna go blabbing it everywhere,” Tabbris piped up. “But making us always lie about it is wrong. How’re you gonna convince Mama and the others that you really want to be friends if you’re making us lie to them all the time? I mean… you do know that you’d eventually have to explain all this to them? If your plan works, I mean. If it works, and Seosten become allies with humans, you’d have to explain to Mama what you did.”

Vanessa stepped forward, hesitating slightly before putting herself in front of Elisabet. “When you guys pretended to be Mrs. Reibach while I was in the foster system, you were nice to me. You took me out for ice cream and helped me. You helped me feel like I wasn’t just crazy. I thought you were the only person there who cared about me.”

Swallowing, the Spanish woman lowered her head briefly before raising her gaze once more to meet Vanessa’s. “I did care about you, Vanessa. I do. We do. We care about you very much. We had… several discussions about possibly taking you in ourselves. But that would have been too dangerous. Not only for us, but for you as well. The best we could do was ensure that Kushiel did not take you.”

“You protected me,” Vanessa murmured. “I’m… I was free because you and Jophiel made sure the other Seosten didn’t take me in. Kushiel… she… she would’ve done bad things. You guys stopped her. You protected me. I never really had a chance to thank you for that.” Lifting her chin, she stared into the woman’s eyes. “I wouldn’t betray you. I won’t go telling everyone about you and Jophiel. I know it has to be a secret. We all know that. Please. Don’t make us hurt our families anymore. Don’t make us lie to them just to protect yourselves.”

On the heels of those words, Flick quietly added, “Just think about how you two would feel if you were put under a magic spell to lie to each other all the time, about anything, let alone something this important. This isn’t just something like lying about who ate the last cookie. We are working with the Seosten possessing one of the Crossroads Committee members, and we can’t tell anyone. You’re making us lie to the people we love, because you don’t want to put the person you love at risk. Isn’t that fucked up for people who want to make an alliance?”

Tristan nodded. “Seriously. Come on, let’s work together by working together. Like Nessa said, we’re not about to go blabbing everything all over the place. We’re smarter than that. You wanna be allies, let’s be allies by trusting each other. I mean, from what you said, we’ve only got a year to work all this out. We’re never gonna get there if you’re making us lie all the time. Yeah, it’s a risk. Everything’s a risk.”

Finally, Flick finished with, “What it comes down to is a choice, I guess. If you want to be perfectly safe, you guys could ignore us. Hell, you’re strong enough, I bet you could go off by yourselves and be just fine. If all you care about is each other, you could probably be just fine without anyone’s help. I’m pretty sure no one could track you down if you put your mind to disappearing. So you could do that.

“But I don’t think you want that. I think you want to make this alliance work. I think you really want humans and Seosten to work together. And the only way we’re gonna do that in one year is with some risks, and some trust. From both sides.”

In the end, it was Jophiel who sighed and looked to Elisabet. “I suppose they have a point.”

“But it’s still a risk,” the other woman pointed out quietly. She looked to Gwen and the others. “Give us a moment?” Receiving a nod, she and Jophiel stepped over to the other side of the clearing, using a spell or ability to mask their conversation as they spoke quietly and intently.

“Thanks for coming,” Vanessa softly said toward Gwen. “Even though everything we said would be true without you, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t be as quick to listen.”

Gwen, in turn, smiled easily. “Oh, don’t worry about it. I don’t mind playing muscle sometimes. Besides, like you said, it’s all true. It’s not fair that you have to lie to everyone you care about. That’s not how you foster an alliance. And they took advantage of your desperation to save your mother to make you agree to it. Whether their overall intentions are noble or not, that’s what they did. And it’s wrong. If they want a true alliance, they’ll do it from closer to even ground.”  

“You’re all correct.” That was Jophiel, who had moved back to them with Elisabet at her side. She still wore the faintly glowing bracelet. “We have discussed it, and in the interest of ensuring a lasting, true alliance between our people, we will agree to remove the prohibition against discussing it with anyone.” Even as she said those words, the woman’s voice seemed to tremble just a little. It was obvious that she was truly afraid of what might happen.

“However,” Elisabet added, “we would request time first. Before you begin discussing our arrangement with anyone, we would ask for two weeks. We’re not saying you are incapable of keeping secrets. But the Seosten are incredibly good at ferreting those secrets out at the worst possible time, regardless of your intentions or how careful you are. We would like to use those two weeks to prepare potential countermeasures and… escape plans in case things go wrong. We have things we can do to prepare for being exposed and to provide some advance warning should worse come to worst.”

“We know this is a lot to ask,” Jophiel informed them. “Particularly after you have made such compelling points about not lying to your loved ones. But we hope you will understand our own precaution. The Imperium is not forgiving. Should word of our relationship escape and we not know about it, there is a chance that… that they will take her from me.” She swallowed hard then, looking from Gwen to Flick and meeting the girl’s gaze. “Please. We will undo the spell and allow you to tell your loved ones, if you give us two weeks to prepare.”

Felicity and the rest all looked to one another before Vanessa spoke up. “I don’t see why we couldn’t do that. It’s an alliance, right? That means compromise. We can keep quiet for two more weeks while you get ready in case something goes wrong.”

“Yeah,” Flick agreed, “we’re not gonna be assholes about it. Deal, we’ll wait a couple weeks for you to set up your countermeasures and escape plan or whatever.”

Clearing her throat, Gwen gave a very faint smile. “It seems that you have come to an agreement. So let me make my own promise. Should either of you prove untrustworthy or should I believe for a second that you are putting these children at greater risk, I will end the arrangement as… thoroughly and permanently as needed.”

She stared intently at Jophiel. “I don’t know if I trust you. But I do know that the Fomorians are worse than anything your people might do to this world and everyone on it. So you’re right, we need an alliance. We need to work together. Just don’t give me a reason to think you’re playing us, or that either of you are a threat to these guys.”

Bowing her head in acknowledgment of that, Jophiel watched the woman carefully. Her tone was soft. “If I might ask, your purpose at Crossroads, was it to seek the Merlin Key or something else?”

“We are far from any point in our relationship where I might answer that question with anything truthful,” Gwen pointed out in a flat voice. “Suffice to say, I am not done at Crossroads. Not by a long shot.”

“Merlin Key?” Tabbris piped up. “What’s–”

“The Key of Merlin,” Elisabet informed them, “is a person who will help to wake Arthur from… who will bring him back to life. It was a prophecy given by fifteen different seers across the world at the exact second of his… pseudo-death. Fifteen seers that we know of, anyway. At the exact second of his fall, these fifteen unrelated, unconnected seers announced that a child known as the Key of Merlin would awaken Arthur.”

Staring at her, Flick managed, “And you guys think that it’s someone at Crossroads?”

“I know they are,” Gwen confirmed. “But I do not know who, exactly. I was making progress, until… well, until all of this happened. Perhaps they are still at the school, or perhaps they fled. Unless…” She looked to Jophiel and Elisabet.

“We do not know either,” Elisabet replied. “You may believe that or not, but it is the truth. However, we may know someone who does.”

Eyes snapping to the woman then, Gwen spoke in a sharp tone. “Do not toy with me.”

“Arthur was amenable to an alliance with Chayyiel,” Jophiel pointed out. “We would not exactly be against his return, in that regard. Again, give us two weeks to prepare, and we will tell you what we know.”

For a moment, it looked as though Gwen might argue with that. Her desperation to finally be reunited with her husband was so great that it took a physical effort for the woman to contain herself. She took in a long, deep breath before letting it out, her voice soft. “Very well. You can have two weeks to prepare for everything going wrong. After that, you will break the secrecy spell to allow these guys to tell the truth to their loved ones. And you will tell me everything you know about bringing back mine.”

“We can agree to that,” Elisabet murmured thoughtfully, nodding. “And as a show of good faith, there is something you should be aware of, concerning your… friend who was taken.”

Blinking once, Flick asked, “You mean Sean? What about him? I mean… wait, he’s okay, right? Dare said they wouldn’t really hurt him, just lock him up. But if they–”

“He is physically well,” Elisabet assured her. “But their methods of changing his mind, of… of breaking him of this loyalty to you are barbaric. And risk destroying his mind if something is not done.”

She explained what was happening then, that Sean had been put in a cell that accelerated time. For every day that passed in the outside world, weeks and months would pass in there. Weeks and months where he was left alone, with only the occasional visit from Crossroads loyalists to wear him down.

“Oh my God, Sean…” Putting a hand against her mouth, Flick gasped before cursing. “Ruthers. It’s Ruthers. It’s his plan, isn’t it? He’s the one who–”

“Litonya, actually,” Jophiel interrupted. “This is her doing. She is the one pulling the strings of this particular endeavor.”

“Then get him out!” That was Vanessa, her eyes wide. “We thought we could get ready and get him out of there in like a month or two. But–but two months? That’s years in there! He can’t stay in there that long. He’ll be–they’ll make him–they… get him out!”

“As I said,” Jophiel replied shortly, “The prison is being run by Litonya. We have no authority there. Or at least none that would not be run by her first. We cannot extract him without exposing ourselves. If we are exposed to Crossroads, we will be exposed to all of our people. That will be the end of any authority we might have. We understand your loyalty to your friend. But this is not something we can risk.”

Tristan started to open his mouth to argue, but Flick held up a hand. “What if there was something you could do? Not taking him out of there, but a way you could help him without completely exposing yourselves?”

Meeting her gaze, Jophiel asked, “What do you have in mind?”

“You might not be able to break him out without Litonya and everyone else finding out,” Flick replied, “But you’d know what kind of security measures are on him. I mean, maybe you can’t march in there and order him released, but you know what they’ve got to stop that from happening.”

Elisabet glanced to her partner before squinting at the blonde girl. “If you think you have a way of taking that boy out of that cell just because we give you the security details–”

“No.” Flick’s head shook. “I don’t know how to get him out, not yet. But I think I know how to help him.

“Or rather, who can help him.”

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Becoming 2-07 (Summus Proelium)

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Oh God, oh God. Okay, problems. Definite problems. There were bad guys here, and they were after Adrian for driving Josh out of the city. Worse, they already had Adrian somewhere else. Worse worse, his siblings were still inside the apartment with a guy who was apparently okay with hurting or killing them if Adrian didn’t cooperate, while his two buddies stood guard.

So yeah, problems. Tiny, innocent hostage-shaped problems. What… what was I supposed to do about that? If I fucked this up, those kids could get hurt. Or… or worse.

For a moment, I was left completely frozen from indecision and terror. People’s lives were on the line right now. Innocent people. Child people. What was I supposed to do? What… what…?

Who knows how long I might’ve sat there like that if the first man hadn’t spoken again, his next words penetrating the dense fog of panic I felt like arrow of cold terror. “Boss says this guy isn’t taking him seriously. Head in, tell Ted to break one of their arms and send the video. Maybe that’ll wake him up. Make it hurt, it’ll help if the kid screams good and loud.”

The second guy grumbled, cursing under his breath before heaving a sigh. I heard the door open as he went into the apartment before letting it close behind him.

Okay. I was out of time. Those kids were being hurt now. I had to do something. There wasn’t time to call the cops, there wasn’t time to get someone else there. As much as I might’ve wanted someone… better to deal with this, there wasn’t anyone. It was me or… or nothing. And if it was nothing, those kids were going to be hurt. Or worse, if this ‘boss’ guy didn’t believe that Adrian couldn’t tell him anything else.

I had to do something.

Shoving the fear and indecision away, I pushed myself up to my feet, took a breath, and stepped around the corner. Even as the man looked my way in obvious surprise, my hand was already snapping up to shoot a small glob of black paint that struck him in the chest. His mouth moved in a pantomime of a shout, but no sound came out. He recovered quickly enough from the surprise of that, turning toward the door to grab for the handle. Fortunately, I was ready, already shooting red paint at his back and at the opposite wall, to send him flying away from the door.

Even as he hit that wall, the man was scrambling to grab what was most likely a gun from inside his brown jacket. But I didn’t let him get that far. I was there, foot lashing out to kick the man in the knee while a purple tornado appeared on my leg, boosting my strength enough to leave the man a (silently, thanks to the still-active black paint) screaming heap on the floor.

Before the silencing paint could wear off, I kicked the man in the face with that same foot. His head snapped back, hitting the wall before he slumped with what looked like a weak moan.

Quickly, I reached down to check the man’s pockets and jacket. Sure enough, he had a gun, which I took away from him carefully. He also had the phone he’d been using to communicate with his boss, and I took that too, shoving the latter into my pocket while the gun I held gingerly.

Giving him one more shot of black paint to stop him from warning the guys inside for a few seconds, I moved to the door that he’d been about to open. Listening carefully, I heard nothing. Then I saw why I couldn’t hear anything. There was a small pen-shaped silver device attached to the doorframe. I knew what it was at a glance. The thing was called a Hushnow. It was another Touched-designed bit of tech that stopped sound from escaping the area it affected. This one looked a little more advanced and powerful than the ones I’d seen, but it was the same idea. That was why those guys weren’t afraid of the kids making too much noise, especially if they were going to break one of their arms. They had this thing stopping any sound in there from getting out. Which meant anything could be going on in there right now. Just because I didn’t hear screaming or crying didn’t mean it hadn’t already started. That was a fun realization.

I had to get in there now. But I also couldn’t let them use those kids as hostages. If one of them got shot because of me, I… No, I wouldn’t let that happen. I had to do this right. Which meant doing it fast and smooth, drawing their attention and disarming them before they hurt anyone.

Thinking quickly, I knocked several times quickly on the door, then ducked below the level of the peephole. My gaze was focused on the light coming through the bottom of the doorframe. I waited until there was a visible shadow of someone standing on the other side of the door. Then, with a purple arrow appearing on my leg, I pivoted, reared back, and kicked the door as hard as I could. It was torn off its hinges and went crashing into the guy that was standing there. I heard him yelp and curse, though it was muted by the sobbing and pleading I could hear coming from deeper in the apartment.

The guy who had been hit with the door had fallen onto his back with the door on top of him. I jumped, already painting a green smiley face across my back for added speed as I landed in the middle of the door as hard as possible before springing off of it. This front entrance was basically little more than a tiny hallway. Straight ahead I could see a dark bedroom, with a bathroom to the left and a larger room to the right. That was where the crying was coming from.

In a perfect world, I would’ve made sure the guy under the door was completely dealt with. But I didn’t have time. The remaining guy, whether it was Ted or the other one who had been outside, would already be reacting to hearing the door crash in. I had to keep moving. On the way, however, I took a half-second to toss the pistol I’d taken from the guy outside into the bathroom to get it out of the way for the moment.

Sure enough, as soon as I jumped from the back of the fallen door to the room beyond the corridor (painting an orange bullseye on my chest just in case), I found myself in the living room where five other figures already were. Four were kids, two boys on the cusp of being teenagers and two tiny toddlers. The last one was a big guy with an impressively long beard and a full sleeve of tattoos on both of his exposed arms, his chest covered by a leather vest. To complete the ensemble, he wore ratty jeans and a pair of dark sunglasses.

They were all staring my way, the guy (Ted, I assumed), already shouting a demand about what the hell was going on. He had a fuck-off enormous revolver in his hand, which was snapping up toward me the instant I appeared. The barrel looked like a fucking cannon being aimed my way.

But my speed boost was still in effect. Even as the man’s finger tightened on the trigger, I snapped my hands up, shooting red paint at the ceiling while shifting both my gloves and shoes to match. I was yanked upward, flipping over in the air to land upside down against the ceiling while the man fired that massive gun through the air where I had been.

Yeah, I had my orange defensive paint up too, but getting shot still hurt. And being shot by something that huge would probably hurt even more. So given the choice, I would avoid it.

As huge as it was, the gun was surprisingly quiet as it fired. Not totally silent or anything, but not nearly what it should’ve been. Probably the result of another Touched-device or something. Either way, it may have been quiet, but the effects were anything but subtle. A huge part of the wall behind me was torn through by that single shot. Yeah, not getting hit by it felt like the right move.

To that end, I shifted my shoes and gloves back to their base white, dropping from the ceiling even as the guy adjusted his aim to shoot that way. He got off another shot that blew a two-foot wide hole through the ceiling, while I landed in a crouch on the floor with dust and bits of debris falling everywhere. All four kids were screaming, the two older ones covering the toddlers to shield them and to hold them down out of the way.

Before the could adjust his aim yet again, I shot a wad of red paint at his gun. The shot that had hit the ceiling had blown away part of the paint I’d put there, but it left enough for the hand-cannon to be torn from his grip and sent flying up that way.

Straightening up as the man was reacting to his gun being yanked away, I raised my hand in an exaggerated thumbs up with a nod toward the hole in the ceiling. “Congratulations, chief, I think you solved the termite problem.”  

Behind me, I heard the sound of the guy under the door pulling himself out from under it. Meanwhile, Ted was yanking a knife from his belt, snarling something about idiot kids as he lunged at me. Quickly, I dove backward into a roll, my hands snapping up to shoot two tiny globs of paint. These ones weren’t red. They were white, striking the man’s sunglasses.

His glasses covered by white paint, the man slowed, stumbling a little. His hand jerked up to take the shades off, but I was faster. Even as I rolled away from the man, a thought activated that white paint. Instantly, both globs flared to life with a brilliant white light that made the man yelp. Now he was really blinded, tripping over an end table with a curse.

Unfortunately, while that guy was distracted, the one who had just pulled himself out from under the door had mostly recovered. And he had a gun of his own. As I rolled over, I could see the man stumbling up, using one hand on the doorway to steady himself while lifting that pistol. It was smaller than the one Ted had been using, but I was pretty sure it would still get the job done. Worse, the way he was aiming it, with the barrel jerking wildly all over the place as he fought to balance himself, he was as likely to hit one of those kids as he was to hit me.  

But he was standing on the very edge of that fallen door. So, from my prone position, I turned my glove red and shot more of the same at the door. It jerked under him as the paint was activated. There wasn’t room for the door to fly through the opening, but it did shift enough for the man to lose his balance, stumbling backward as he fired a shot into the ceiling.

Using that time to roll back to my feet, I shifted both arms to purple and caught hold of the same end table that Ted had stumbled into, leaving a red handprint-shaped bit of paint on it before flinging the thing hard at the guy in the doorway.

It connected, the small wooden table slamming full-speed into the man’s face. As he fell, I continued my pivot to carry myself all the way around back toward Ted. He had already managed to yank the sunglasses off his face and was fighting through the temporary blindness from the flare of white light I’d hit him with. It was clearly still affecting him, as he stumbled at me, blinking rapidly while swinging that knife.

I hit him again. Not with another bit of paint. Instead, I hit him with the same end table that I’d just thrown at his buddy. I had summoned it back the instant after it collided with that guy, by activating the red handprint I’d left on it and shifting my glove to match. It had flown right back into my hand while I’d spun to face Ted, and I swung it hard, slamming the thing right into his face. Given the fact that I was still being affected by the strength-enhancing purple paint, it snapped under the blow, breaking apart into a couple pieces, while Ted himself collapsed to the floor with a bellow of both anger and pain.

I still had a couple seconds of strength-boost left. So I used it, lunging across the room to where the guy in the doorway was. The end-table bouncing off his face had left the man slumped briefly against the wall next to the bathroom door. Before he could recover, I drove my fist hard into his stomach. The guy doubled over with a pained cry, falling to both knees while clutching his gut. Then he threw up, narrowly missing me.

Yeah, I was pretty sure he wasn’t about to jump back to the attack, the way he was laying there and groaning. His sounds basically matched the whimpers and curses of pain coming from the hallway where I had broken the first guy’s leg or knee or whatever.

“Gee,” I said loud enough for both of them to hear, “it’s almost like you shouldn’t go around terrorizing and torturing little kids. Karma’s a bitch.” Though my words were dismissive, I made a mental note to call an ambulance for these guys. And the cops, of course.

Speaking of these guys, Ted was still there. He had just started to pick himself off the floor where he’d fallen when I broke the end table across his face. There was a dark bruise all along his cheek and up under his eye, and his nose was clearly broken. Also clear: the fact that he was incredibly pissed off. Bully for him.

Before he could actually do anything about being pissed off, I grabbed his knife from the floor before dropping myself onto his chest to make him fall onto his back once more. The guy cursed, but went very still as I put the knife right against him.

“Hey!” I spoke up, looking over to where the kids were huddled. One of them looked at me, the other three still cowering. “You guys have any rope or anything?”

They did, and with the help of the oldest boy (his name was Leon and he was almost twelve), I tied all three guys up, hauling the one by the entranceway and outside the apartment into the main room with Ted. They were all thoroughly trussed up (and gagged, to make sure they didn’t scare these guys even more) by the time I straightened, breathing hard.

“Wh-wh-who are you?” The other non-toddler kid, a boy named Cristiano who was apparently ten months younger than Leon, spoke up tentatively. He was kneeling next to his two younger brothers, Arturo and Tomas, who were three and two, respectively.

“Are you a superhero?” That was Leon, who was staring at me with wide eyes. He was clearly just as scared as his siblings, but trying not to show it as much.

“I–I’m trying,” I managed a bit weakly. “I’m still working on the superhero thing.”

“Adrian!” Arturo blurted, clinging to his older brother’s arm. “I want Adrian!” Tears were welling up in his eyes, while Tomas was just openly bawling.

“They took him, Mister,” Cristiano informed me in a shaky voice. “Those gu-guys came and took him this morning while we were eating breakfast.”

“Don’t call him Mister,” Leon corrected. “He’s only like a couple years older than me. You don’t call me Mister.”

“You can’t do that stuff,” Cristiano pointed out, his hands gesturing to the tied-up bad guys. “He can be Mister if he wants to.”

“It’s okay,” I quickly assured them. “Just call me…” Think fast, Cassidy! “Paintball. Call me Paintball.” I had been torn between that and several others, but… well, Paintball sounded silly and fun, which was the image I wanted to project, considering I was trying to be different from my family. “And I’m gonna find your brother, I promise. I just–”

My words were interrupted by a chime coming from the phone I’d taken off the first guy. Digging into my pocket, I carefully pulled it out. He had a new message from someone labeled in his contact list as ‘Denny.’ It read, ‘Where’s vid of kid? Bosses getting annoyed.’

Shit, right. Ummm… I thought for a second before quickly looking through the earlier bits of their conversation just to make sure I wasn’t about to text in a completely different way than this guy tended to. It looked about normal, so I sent back, ‘Snoopy landlord came up. Couldn’t go back in apt. Pretended looking for new place. Getting tour. Will cut short asap.’

Holding my breath then, I watched the screen as the dots indicating the other party was typing came up. When the message that came through was a simple, ‘k – hrry’, I let out that breath.

There, that gave an excuse for why they hadn’t sent that video yet. I’d have a few minutes before they got too suspicious, hopefully.

“Mr. Paintball, sir?” Cristiano piped up. “Adrian, I think they took him to some place called Three’s Paradise.”

“It’s a strip club,” Leon added. “And motel. One of those motels. The ones that’re pay by the hour?” This almost twelve-year-old kid gave me a knowing look.

“Three’s Paradise motel and strip club, got it.” Grimacing behind the mask and helmet, I gave them a thumbs up before gesturing. “Come on. I’m not leaving you guys here with these… assholes.”

Each of the two older boys picked up one of their younger brothers, and we hurried out of the apartment. There already people in the hall, looking around to see what the hell was going on. Blurting a warning about bad guys in the apartment, I looked for the nearest somewhat friendly face, pulling the boys with me.

“Can you call 911?” I blurted to the neighbor, an older black woman in a robe and nightgown who held a pistol in one hand and a phone in the other. “Take these guys inside with you and call 911. Tell them there’s three men in that apartment. They’re tied up right now, but they need to hurry.”

The woman agreed, and I promised the boys that I would find their brother. Then I took off, running back for the stairs to the roof while the rest of the neighbors blurted questions at me. I heard the kids telling them what my name was, even as I took the stairs several at a time. There wasn’t time to chat, there wasn’t time to do anything except run. And there definitely wasn’t time to stop and think about just how insane everything that just happened was. I’d gotten into a fight with three guys! And won!

But I couldn’t just start patting myself on the back now. I had to get to the place where they were holding Adrian. Because if I didn’t make it there before they either found out or realized that the guys here had been caught, they’d probably cut their losses.

And in this case, I was pretty sure that meant cutting Adrian’s throat.

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Summer Epilogue 5 (Heretical Edge)

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“Let me guess,” Felicity Chambers announced while staring a wall packed full of dozens of various mounted animal heads and other such trophies, “this cabin belongs to a devout vegetarian.”

Behind her, three more figures stood, also staring at the trophies. They were Vanessa and Tristan Moon, and the younger sister of all three of them, Tabbris. All four were here in this hunting cabin together, far from the Atherby camp. The smallest of the group was standing between her two half-siblings, her eyes wide as she stared almost face-to-face with an enormous boar head. “I hope whoever lives here never meets Choo!” she squeaked out.

“Pfft,” Tristan retorted, “Trust me, li’l dipper, that lightning pig would wipe the floor with whoever set all this up.” He glanced toward the majestic-looking elk head that served as the display’s centerpiece, grimacing a little at the look of the thing. “And let’s not let Salten into this place any time soon. I’m pretty sure he’d tear the whole place down pretty damn quick.”

“Cornelius there put up a wonderful fight,” a voice from the nearby cabin doorway. As the four turned that way, they found themselves looking at a man with dark hair cut short along both sides and artfully tousled on top. He wore dark green army camo pants and a black turtleneck, with sunglasses. On one hip was a pistol, while a knife was attached to his opposite leg. He also wore heavy boots on his feet, as well as an easy smile that was somehow charming and disarming despite how on edge the group obviously was.

“Hi there,” the man announced. “Sorry if I startled you guys. I’d say it was unintentional, but I did kind of want to see if I could still get away with it. But it was probably rude. I’m sorry for it.”

“I didn’t sense you at all,” Flick murmured, her eyes watching the man intently. “Who are you?”

“And what are you doing here?” That was Vanessa, as she leaned up on her toes as though to look past him, searching for the person the four of them were actually waiting at this cabin for.

“Shit, sorry. Yeah, you’re probably confused and a bit lost right now,” the man realized. “Okay, introductions. First of all, Jophiel sent me. I’m supposed to make sure things are copacetic here. I guess you could call me the acceptable loss if there’s a problem. But that’s okay, I’m pretty used to being in that position.” He extended a hand to them. “The name’s Orion.”

That made everyone in the group do a sudden double-take. Tabbris was the first to blurt, “Orion?! Like… like… Mama’s Orion? But–but… but…”

With an easy smile, the man, Orion apparently, nodded to her. “Yup, that Orion. And yeah, Sariel and I were… friends. Pretty good friends, actually. At least for a little while. I liked her. Still do, from what I’ve heard. She’s a good woman. Strong woman. And it looks like she had some really good kids.”

Biting her lip with a glance toward her siblings and friend, Vanessa then looked back to the man. “You said… friends. So you guys–I mean, the myths said… and Uncle Apollo…”

Orion’s head shook. “Nope, we weren’t like that. Just friends. Maybe with a few–ahh, never mind. It’s personal. But the point is, Sariel and I were good friends for awhile. What happened between us at the end of that was… kind of personal. You should ask your mom if you want to know about it, it’s probably not my story to tell. Not without her permission, anyway.”

“But why are you here?” Tristan finally managed. “I mean, why are you working with Jophiel?”

“Now that’s a good question,” Orion confirmed. “I’m not… really working with her so much as working for her. See, I’m kind of a mercenary. Jophiel hired me because she thought my history with Sariel and Apollo would make this whole thing a little bit easier. Like I said, Sariel was my friend. I still consider her one. Her and Apollo both, even if we haven’t really… even if we haven’t exactly been close for a long time. Jophiel hired me because she knew I’d never do anything to hurt Sariel’s kids, or even be a part of anything that did. That’s why I’m here.”

“And yet,” Vanessa murmured, “you’re still okay with working for Jophiel.”

The man met her gaze. “I’ve worked for a lot worse than her, believe me. Don’t get me wrong, I have my lines I won’t cross. No children, no innocent civilians, that kind of thing. But there’s a hell of a lot of gray area between that and being a paladin of righteousness. And Jophiel’s closer to the light side of that line than you might think. Closer than plenty of others, anyway. So yeah, I’m working for her. Because her money’s good. And because I want to make sure whatever meeting you guys have goes smoothly, for Sariel and Apollo.”

“Sounds like she didn’t tell you much,” Flick noted thoughtfully, looking the man up and down.

“I didn’t ask her much,” Orion corrected. “Because I don’t need to know. That’s not my job. My job is to make sure this meeting goes smoothly, and that it’s not a trap.”

Looking over her shoulder at the elk trophy, Vanessa curiously asked, “You called that thing Cornelius. Does that mean this is your cabin? She just sent us that whistle and told us to blow it while we were all touching to come here.”

He nodded. “This is one of my places, yeah. And for the record, I put up trophies of my hunts that were the strongest, the smartest, the most impressive. I honor the creatures who have earned a place on that wall, or any of my walls. Because I want them to be remembered. Cornelius… I hunted him seventeen times. He kept getting away. That last time, I… I had him. I had him and I almost let him go. I almost let him escape again. But that would have been an insult. It would have tarnished his memory. His place of honor there, in the center, is because I respected him. His meat went to feed a hungry family. He did not die in vain, or for simple glory. But his glory will be remembered nonetheless. I will not forget him.”

The man let that settle for a few seconds before he spoke again. “And in any case, I was told to come here and meet with five people, not four. Actually, the fifth one is the reason this meeting is happening. I’m assuming you would’ve already told me if there was that big of a change, so they must be–”

It was his turn to be taken by surprise, as Gwen spoke from behind the man. “They were also making sure this wasn’t a trap.” She waited for him to turn to face her before raising an eyebrow. “It’s been a long time, Orion.“

“You guys know each other?” Flick put in before amending, “I mean, that’s not really all that surprising, I guess. But still, you know each other?”

A small smirk touched Gwen’s face. “You could say that. Arthur and his knights fought with and against him a few times. Depending on who was paying his salary at the time.” Her chin rose then. “Arthur always said that he respected you in a lot of ways. Even if there were times that he didn’t really like you. He knew you were a man of principle.”

“That’s funny,” Orion remarked with a curious look. “She said I was meeting with a woman who claimed to be the mysterious and always masked Lancelot. But here before me I see a woman who looks very much like the good king’s lovely wife, Guinevere. It does raise a few questions.”

“Questions are fun things to have,” Gwen replied easily. “But right now, all you need to know is that you can call me Lancelot. My friends may call me other things. And you can also tell us where Jophiel is. This meeting was to be with her, not someone she hired to stand in the way.”

Orion nodded at that. “I’m supposed to take you to her, just as soon as I’m convinced that you’re not a threat. Not that she’s afraid of you, per se, but… well, let’s just say everyone wants to avoid any misunderstandings.”

“Yeah,” Tristan agreed, “misunderstandings suck. So would screwing all this up. So just… what do we need to do? We brought her like Jophiel agreed to, and we’re all here. Bring her in and we’ll talk this whole thing out, huh?”

“Actually,” Orion corrected, “I’m going to be taking you guys to another place, where she’ll meet us. Or more to the point, we’re going for a walk and she’ll join in whenever she feels comfortable. So, ahhh…” Turning a bit, he gestured to the door that Gwen/Lancelot was standing in front of. “Shall we go? Up to you how you’d like to do this… Sir Lancelot.”

Giving a slight bow before stepping back through the doorway, Gwen replied simply, “After you.”

With a soft chuckle, the man stepped past her. The rest of the group followed then, as he led them out of the cabin, down the short flight of steps, and to a nearby path. The cabin was surrounded by a mountain on one side and trees on every other, aside from that single, narrow path. It was only wide enough to travel single-file, which they did with Flick first after Orion, then Tabbris, Vanessa, and Tristan, with Gwen at the back of the group. They walked quietly through the dark, thick forest for a few minutes, each left with only their own thoughts. Their way was lit only by the moon and stars, and even that was only what made it through the thick canopy of leaves and branches that hung above their heads. The sounds of animals making their way through the night filled the air, though none strayed close to their path.

Finally, Flick broke the silence. “So, Orion, are you actually a… you know…”

“Am I Seosten?” the man finished for her without breaking stride or looking back to the girl. “No. I’m not. I… well, it’s a long story. Let’s just say there are a lot of very powerful, dangerous things out there that you kids don’t really have any experience with yet. Primordial things that ancient people thought of as gods. The kind of gods that were sacrificed for. A few of which would terrify even the strongest of you Heretics now. Monsters in every meaning of the word. I was an ordinary man until one of those primordial things possessed me. It made me do some pretty terrible things. Sariel and Apollo helped save me from that. I lost most of the power that being connected to it gave, but kept enough. I’m stronger, faster, I heal from almost anything, and have a few other bells and whistles. I’m not connected to a god anymore, but just the bare shadow remnants of the power it left in me is more than enough to keep me going all this time.”

He paused briefly then before adding in a somewhat softer voice, “And a bit of the hunting instinct. It’s why I have those trophies, why I’m always looking for something bigger and better to track. Because hunting, winning, that keeps the remnants of that thing content. It helps keep me… me. More me than I ever was since it possessed me, anyway.”

“Possessed you?” Tabbris piped up. “Like a Seosten?”

“Nope,” he replied. “More like… you guys read comic books? It was more like–”

“Venom,” Tristan finished for him. “It was more like Venom, wasn’t it? The Symbiote thing.”

The man nodded to that, again without looking back to them. “Gooey stuff that climbed my arm and poured itself down my throat, yeah. Fun times, let me tell you.”

“Wow, do I ever really want to hear more about that,” Flick noted with a little grimace. “You know, at some point. But now, what I’m really interested in is…” She paused, looking around expectantly for a moment before coughing. “Ah. I uhh, kind of expected Jophiel to interrupt me right there.”

“That does seem to have been a thing today,” Orion agreed casually. “But no, not yet.” Still walking, he turned his head to look over his shoulder at them. “I don’t know what kind of deal you guys have set up here, but a word of advice to the children of a woman I consider a friend… be careful. Jophiel is better than a lot of the snakes out there, but even the kindest snake is still a snake. They have instincts, and if they feel trapped… just watch yourself.”

“That’s why I’m here,” Gwen informed the man from the back of their line. “Jophiel has an arrangement with them. I’m just going to make sure they’re not being taken advantage of.”

“And I’m sure they couldn’t ask for a better mediator on their behalf,” Orion replied. “Or a guardian, if it comes down to it. I heard about your little tussle with Gabriel Ruthers. It sounds like you gave him a bit of a wake-up call about the invulnerability of the Committee.” There was a slight smile on the man’s face then, barely visible through the deep shadows they were walking in as he glanced back once more. “Reminds me of that time with the Rougarou in Paris. What year was that?”

“Seven oh three,” the woman replied. “And trust me, the look on Ruthers’ face was even better than the one that was on Albinet’s.”

Raising his hand, Tristan announced, “I hope you guys know that I have a perfect memory now, so I am not going to forget to demand that someone tell us the whole story about all this stuff you’re talking about.”

They kept walking after that, continuing on in relative silence for another five minutes before a series of flickering purple candles appeared along either side of the path, leading off into the distance.

“That’s the signal,” Orion informed them. “If I turn the candles one color, it means she should stay away. If I turn them a different color, it means the meeting is safe.” He paused then, looking straight at Gwen. “I have a professional reputation to uphold.”

“I have no intention of harming that woman,” Gwen assured him in a flat tone. “Unless she gives me a reason to believe she intends harm to these children. We’re here to negotiate.”

Considering that briefly, Orion finally nodded and leaned down to touch one of the candles. He spoke a word under his breath, and the color of the flame changed from purple to blue. A second later, its opposite on the other side of the path changed color as well, followed by the two ahead of them, and on down the line. Soon, the path was lit by blue candles.

At a wave from the man, they started walking again. Gwen took a moment to look at one of the candles herself, murmuring a soft spell to enchant a bit of glass she was holding in front of one eye. Whatever she saw assured the woman enough to let Flick and the others keep walking.

The path curved gradually, a faint blue fog filling the air to ensure that everyone present knew that it was not a natural event. Their destination appeared in front of them in the form of a clearing with a series of plush, comfortable chairs arranged in a circle, and a beautiful Seosten woman who sat at one of those chairs, sipping wine from a crystal wine glass while she watched them approach.

“Thank you for your service, Orion,” Jophiel began as soon as they had all filed into the clearing. It was lit by several glowing white balls that hung in the air, making the place as bright as a lit stadium field. “I assume there were no complications.” When the man nodded, she snapped her fingers, causing a bag of what sounded like jingling coins to appear in the hand that wasn’t holding a wine glass. A simple toss sent it into Orion’s waiting hand, before the woman spoke again. “You can leave now.”

“Here, kid.” The man passed a piece of paper to Vanessa. “You can reach me at that phone number. You know, if you ever want to talk.” With a nod to the others, he turned and walked back the way they had come. Gradually, Orion disappeared from sight.

Once he was gone, Gwen spoke up. “Hello, Jophiel.”

“Hello, Guinevere,” came the reply. “I’d say it’s a pleasure to meet with you, but that remains to be seen. Let’s revisit that at the end of this little tête-à-tête, shall we?” As she spoke, the woman stood, taking another brief sip from her glass.

“Of course,” Gwen agreed, her eyes watching the other woman like a hawk. “But first, why don’t we all come to this meeting? After all, you’re only one half of your party. And I’d like to speak with both of you.”

It was Jophiel’s turn to squint very slightly, clearly undecided about how all of this was going to go. The two women stared at one another in silence while Flick and the others simply stood and waited, almost forgotten. Whatever would happen next had much to do with them, but they could do little to affect it.

Finally, Jophiel relented. Setting the wine glass down on a glass table that appeared from nowhere, she gave a single nod. “Yes, we should all speak.” Turning her head, she added in the direction of the trees at the edge of the clearing, “It’s okay.”

At her words, Elisabet appeared, stepping through the trees to enter the clearing. The Spanish woman looked first to Tristan, Vanessa, and Tabbris, taking in the three of them before her eyes moved briefly to Flick. Once she saw that the four were there, she moved to Jophiel’s side. “Guinevere. We never had the pleasure of meeting.”

“Yes, we did,” Gwen replied simply. “You just didn’t know it.” With those words, she looked back to Jophiel. “Okay. We’re all here. And we all know the deal that you made with these kids.

“Now let’s talk about how we’re going to change it.”

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Becoming 2-06 (Summus Proelium)

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Okay, okay. I had to check Adrian’s house. Maybe he was home sick and just hadn’t been able to call in. I couldn’t panic too much yet. I could check his home. Of course, to do that, I’d have to know his address, and I was pretty sure they wouldn’t tell me at the office even if I asked nicely.

So I had to find another way to get the address, and I had to do it asap. Because if he really was in trouble, every second counted. But how? How was I supposed to get something like that?

The custodial office. It was down in the basement with a bunch of storage rooms. I knew that much, though I’d never actually been down there. There was an unlabeled gray door just behind the east stairwell. According to plenty of other students, that was the door the janitors used to go down to their office. If Adrian’s address was going to be anywhere, it was there.

Unfortunately, I was pretty sure they’d object to a student just walking in there. And that was a conversation I didn’t want to have, especially if they decided to call my parents about it. I needed an excuse in case… or rather, when someone saw me.

Thinking quickly, I glanced around carefully to make sure no one was watching before looking down. Unbuttoning the black blazer with Cadillac Preparatory School written across it, I pulled it off and focused on part of it to make a spot of white appear in an uneven circle, so it didn’t look perfect. Once there was a big blotch of white, I tucked the blazer under my arm and headed for the door to the basement.

It wasn’t locked or anything. The door opened easily as soon as I pulled at it, and I quickly made my way down a narrow set of stairs. There weren’t supposed to be any students this way, so the whole place was a lot more bare bones. The stairs were concrete, the walls were unpainted, lighting was barely sufficient. It was all just as much as they needed, nothing more.

At the bottom of the stairs was an ugly hallway with lime green walls and an orange floor. Seriously, who did the color scheme for this? It was just gross. I was absurdly tempted to just fix it for them. There were also stains all over the place, as well as chipped and broken bits of wall. It stretched on in both directions away from the stairs, with a bunch of unlabeled doors. There was, however, a white arrow on the wall ahead of me pointing to the right with ‘office’ written under it. Good enough. I started that way.

As expected, I barely made it six steps or so before a man in a custodial uniform came around the corner ahead. Seeing me, he quickly walked over. “Hey, hey, son, what do you think you’re–uh, oh. Sorry, miss. What are you doing down here? You shouldn’t be here.”

Adopting an apologetic and somewhat mortified look, I held the blazer up. “I know, I know. But um, someone spilled something on my jacket and… look at it. I was hoping you guys might have something that could get it out before I have to tell my parents that I need a new one again.”

Blinking, the man took the blazer, staring at it. “What… this looks like paint. What happened?”

I shrugged. “Dunno. I was outside and it was sitting next to me and someone spilled… something. They didn’t stick around long enough to ask. Does that mean you can’t get it out?”

Seeing the hopeful puppy-dog look I gave him, the man grimaced. “I… I dunno. But fine, come on. Just don’t touch anything, for the love of God. I don’t need one of you kids getting hurt down here. Stay with me, let’s see what we’ve got.” Turning on his heel, he walked back the way he’d come, turning my blazer over in his hands as he muttered about why a kid had paint.

Following the guy down the hall, around the corner, and through an open door on the right side of that second corridor, I found myself in a simple break room. There was a card table in the middle surrounded by several chairs, a long counter across from the door with some boxes on it, a fridge and microwave to the left, and another doorway next to that. Meanwhile, on the right side of the room there were several large metal cabinets and another long table with more boxes on it. There was also a second doorway. The custodian I was with went to one of those cabinets, opening it up before starting to dig around inside. I could see a handful of cleaning bottles, rags, and other things like that. He was turning bottles around, checking for something that might help.

While he was doing that, I took a couple steps further into the room, glancing through that open doorway next to the fridge. It was an office, with a desk and an old computer. Perfect.

Unfortunately, if I was going to use it, I had to make sure this guy was busy. But how?

The doorway next to where he was working. Looking that way, I saw a storage room with a bunch of stuff piled up in there, including more cleaning supplies.

Mouthing a silent apology, I pointed at a couple of those industrial-sized bottles of cleaning solution, sending a bit of red paint to them and another bit to the floor. One second later, I activated the paint, sending those bottle flying down with a loud crash. Cleaning stuff instantly soaked the floor, pouring out rapidly.

“What the– damn it!” the poor janitor who was helping me blurted as he stepped over to see what that sound was. He set my jacket aside and quickly moved to grab a nearby mop.

While he was busy focusing on that, I silently slipped into the office. Moving as fast and silently as I could, I stepped to the computer, shot a tiny bit of black paint near the numpad to mask the sound, and typed Adrian into the search bar. It took a few seconds, but a few files popped up. I clicked the one labeled employee information.

I didn’t have time to read it. I just control-f’d my way to Adrian’s spot, made sure his info was on-screen, and took a quick picture with my phone. Then I closed the file and stepped out of the room. In all, it took me about twenty seconds or so.

It was almost too long. I barely made it out of the room before the janitor looked over at me. “Hey, look, kid, you probably shouldn’t be in here. Hang on.” He stepped out of the storage room, moving over to take my blazer from the table where he’d dropped it. Then he grabbed an orange spray bottle from the shelf. “Spray this stuff on the spot and rub it in with a clean cloth. Let it sit for about five minutes, then do it again. Run it under cold water until it’s soaked through, then do spray it one more time. That should take care of it. Hopefully. When you’re done, give that bottle to the nearest custodian. Okay?”

I agreed, taking the bottle before quickly fleeing. It wasn’t like I actually needed it, but I sure wasn’t going to tell him that.

Once I was out of the basement, I walked quickly through the hall while glancing at my phone to find the picture I’d taken. There it was, Adrian’s address. His name was there too, Adrian Perez. I typed the address into the maps app of my phone and got a hit of about fifteen blocks away. Okay, I could do this. I just had to get to his place as soon as possible. Like right now.

I didn’t want to attract attention, so instead of running through the hall once I grabbed my bag from my locker, I sort of speed-walked until I hit the nearest exit. That took me out to the side field, where I picked up the pace, moving past some people who were studying and eating, then started to jog once I reached the grass. Finally, I was running across the back field, ignoring a few of the people out there who called out or waved. I just had to keep moving.

Reaching the nearest empty alley, I took a second to drop the bag and crouched behind a dumpster. Unzipping the bag, I started to yank my costume out. Changing right now felt like wasting time that I didn’t have. But on the other hand, I could move much faster if I could actually use my power. And that meant keeping my identity secret.

Besides, if Adrian was in trouble, I doubted a few seconds right now would make that big of a difference. I just had to hope that… well, I hoped for a lot of things. I really hoped he was just sick. Please, Adrian. Please just be so sick you couldn’t call in.

Once I was changed, I slid the helmet on my head, snapped the front of it down into place, and then looked up. The building I was next to was about five stories high, with no fire escape or anything to climb. Not that I needed it. In fact, maybe I really didn’t need it.

“Alright,” I murmured under my breath before pointing with both hands. “Let’s try it.”

With those words, I shot a spot of red paint from both palms. The first time I missed entirely, overshooting the roof. Then I adjusted down a bit and tried again. That did it. There were two spots of red paint right near the top of the wall. After that, I just turned my gloves red and activated the paint.

It worked. Holy God did it ever work. I was instantly yanked off my feet, and hurled upward. A startled yelp escaped me, even though I thought I was expecting it. I went flying five stories into the air before crashing into the wall where the paint was. It didn’t really hurt. I was only moving fast enough for it to feel like I had fallen a little ways. It still stung a bit, and I would’ve lost my grip to really fall if the paint hadn’t been doing all the work. But there I was. No running up the wall, no aided super jump, I just used my paint and went straight from the ground to very near the top of a five story building in the span of a couple seconds. Holy crap!

Shaking off the amazement, I scrambled over the edge of the wall and onto the roof. Giving my phone a quick glance to orient myself, I looked the right way. There was another building around the same height and not too far apart. Then another beyond that one that was a little taller, and so on.

“Okay,” I announced aloud, checking to make sure my voice changer was working. “Let’s do it. Skate out now.” On command, the wheels of my pace-skates popped out. Then I pushed off, skating hard for the edge of that roof while silently telling myself I was insane.

Reaching the edge of the roof, I put purple stars over my legs while readying myself. At the last second, I used the extra strength the purple paint gave me to leap over the gap between the buildings, five stories up. My arms windmilled a bit as I flew through the air… before landing smoothly on the next roof over. The fact that it worked so well almost made it not work, as I very nearly spun out from my own surprise. But I caught it, thinking about Adrian as I pushed off again for the next roof.

That one was taller by a few stories. But I was ready for that. Skating faster across the roof, I went right to the edge and jumped once more. This time, I snapped my hand up, shooting out a spray of red paint. Unlike when I’d skated along the wall of the room last night and run out of paint, I didn’t make a huge blast of the stuff. Instead, I shot out two thin lines, just enough for my wheels to hit. Because I didn’t need to be exact. The second I got close enough and activated the paint while turning my wheels red, they instantly snapped to the right spots on the building.

That was a bit jarring, and I grunted. It was going to take some getting used to. Suddenly, I was skating along the wall of the building. To my left was the long drop to the ground. To my right was the roof. And I was skating on a pair of thin red lines, right toward the corner of the building. My skates maintained their momentum, carrying me to that edge so fast I almost didn’t react in time before hitting the end of both my red lines, and the building itself.

But I did react. At the last possible instant, I managed to shoot a bit of blue paint right at the edge of the roof, sending myself flying as my skates hit it. My hand pointed across the street, and I shot a spray of red that way, hitting a building there before activating it. It took a second to kick in, a second in which I was literally free-falling off the side of the building I’d just been skating across, and toward the busy street below.

Then the paint kicked in, and I was yanked through the air, shooting right toward the building. Below, I could see a few cars slowing down, drivers sticking their heads out to look in confusion. But I ignored that, because I had to focus. Focus… had time it just right…

Now! Before I actually reached that building on the far side of the street, I changed the color of my gloves back to white, disabling the yank from the red paint. At the same time, I shot another pair of thin red lines along the side of that building, while shifting my skates to match it once more. Just to be on the safe side, I painted a couple orange stripes across my legs.

Again, it worked. It fucking worked. My body was snapped around in mid-air so that I hit the side of the building feet first, the orange paint helping me absorb the impact. Then I was skating once more, moving right along those thin red lines as I used the momentum from my trip through the air to keep myself moving even faster.

Then I hit the edge of that roof. There was another building right across from it that was only slightly taller. Even better, there was an antenna sticking up above that roof. As I reached the end of the building I was skating sideways along, my hand snapped out to shoot yet another spot of red that way. It hit the antenna, and my suddenly-red gloves took me sailing toward it.

I cleared the roof, raising my legs at the last instant to avoid slamming them into the wall before turning my gloves white. As the connection with the red paint on the antenna was cut, I dropped to the roof, landing on my wheels as the momentum kept me rolling onward.

Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit! I’d done crazy stuff before, especially on the skates. But this? This was… this was…

This was so fucking cool!

I eased up on the paint a little bit then, skating to the edge of that building before jumping to one across from it that was near enough for me to make it without much help. And that was basically how the rest of my little trip to Adrian’s place went. I skated across the roofs, along the sides of buildings, jumped from roof to roof, and so on. I used blue paint to propel myself higher, red paint to yank myself around, purple paint to boost my jumps in conjunction with the blue, and orange paint to absorb what should have been damaging falls.

Through it all, people noticed. I heard a few horns honking, and a couple onlookers waved. Maybe it was silly, but I waved back. Worried as I was, terrified as I was that something bad had happened to Adrian, I still waved as I passed them. It just felt like the right thing to do.

Before nearing the place in question, I made sure to be less obvious, sticking to the top of the roofs instead of along the walls. I stayed low while skating across the last roof before Adrian’s apartment building, pulling my skates in entirely before dropping to my stomach at the edge of the roof. There, I peered over to look down at the building in question.

Right, it was a building. The roof was several stories below this one, and the place didn’t exactly look like it was in the best shape. But I also couldn’t really tell anything else. Which was obvious. I had to get inside, to Adrian’s actual apartment. According to his file, it was apartment 5G. And since that was a five story building, it was on the top floor.

The roof was empty, so I backed up, took a running start, and used a bit of purple to boost myself in a jump that way. Orange rings along my legs shielded me from the damage as I landed in a crouch on the roof in question.

“Okay,” I murmured to myself, “stealth mode.”

My costume turned black. In broad daylight.

“Stealth mode is easier at night.”

Still, I was able to get to the roof access door and test it carefully. It wasn’t locked. Probably so that people could come out here and smoke or whatever. Either way, it worked for me. I slipped in, carefully making my way down the stairs there.

The sound of voices reached me, and I stopped abruptly before reaching the bottom of the stairs.

“Yeah,” one voice announced, “they’ve got him down at the motel. No luck so far.”

Another voice incredulously retorted, “Does this guy want to lose one of those little ankle biters?”

The voices were coming from down the nearby hall. Very, very carefully, I kept my head low and barely peeked around the corner. Two guys. They were standing near one of the apartment doors, facing each other as they spoke.

“He says all he did was drop the guy off at the bus station. But the bosses don’t believe him. They think he knows something else and just needs a little motivation to bring it out.”

The second guy shook his head. “Shit man, I’m glad it’s Ted in there with those kids and not me.”

“Got that right,” the first agreed. “Course, it’s bad luck for those kids in there.

“Because the second the bosses call and say to make an example of one of ‘em, he ain’t gonna hesitate.”

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Summer Epilogue 4 – Sean (Heretical Edge)

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It didn’t feel like a prison. At least, not on the surface. There were no bars, no guards with jangling keys and batons, no hard cot or moldy food. The house was nice, a two-story suburban affair with a well-stocked fridge, books lining the shelves, even a television and blu-ray player with an assortment of movies. The windows overlooked a quiet, pleasant neighborhood full of children playing, men mowing or watering their lawns, and women chatting. The house appeared to be a completely normal home in a completely normal, average neighborhood.

That, of course, was an illusion. Whether the people out there were real or complete fabrications, Sean Gerardo couldn’t say. What he did know was that he was trapped here in this house as thoroughly as though it was a simple eight by twelve foot cell. Any attempt to open the doors or windows failed. They were stuck tight. Attempting to break the glass, use the phone, shout to the people outside, and anything else he’d tried was equally fruitless.

He should know, he’d tried everything repeatedly in the three and a half weeks that he’d been here. Nothing worked. He’d received a single phone call the first day informing him that someone would be around to talk to him about his ‘traitor’ teammates when they had a chance, and then… nothing. He was just stuck here in this house, alone. He had food, he had entertainment, but no interaction. He could go nowhere and talk to no one. His life, for nearly four weeks now, had revolved around being in this house.

Stuck here like this, he’d had time to think about what had happened that night back at Crossroads. That girl, Harper, she had shown up while Sean, Columbus, and Doug were being taken from the dorm by those Committee goons. And then… well, somehow Harper had taken down most of the goons. Which was just– yeah, almost four weeks later and Sean was still utterly flummoxed by that one. The hell?

Either way, she’d taken down most of the Committee’s guys before starting to free the boys from the weird magical bonds they’d been put in. But just as she’d gotten through Doug and reached for Sean, he’d found himself suddenly flying backward through the air before another of those thugs caught him by the hair.

Columbus, Deveron, Vulcan, and Harper had all taken a step that way, but the Committee’s lackey had been prepared. He used an enchanted medallion to project some kind of blindingly powerful forcefield. From what Sean had heard later, the shield itself wasn’t made by that guy himself. Apparently certain Committee members empowered objects like that for their people to use in an emergency. So it was a Committee-level forcefield surrounding Sean and the guy holding him, while more reinforcements were on their way.

Columbus had tried to stay, but the others basically dragged him off. The last thing Sean had been able to do before his captor yanked him through a portal was to shout for Vulcan to follow the others, to listen to Columbus. His last sight was of his mechanical friend whining before being pulled away by Deveron.

That was three and a half weeks ago. For almost a solid month, Sean had been locked up in here. Even with the movies and books, he was going a bit stir-crazy. He missed his friends, his team, his dog, everyone.  Which was also probably the point. They wanted him to be good and ready to actually have someone to talk to when they finally showed up to interrogate him.

There wasn’t an exercise room in the house, but Sean had made do by dragging most of the furniture out of one of the bedrooms, fashioning makeshift equipment by doing things such as loading as many books as possible into a couple bags and tying them to a broken broom handle to function as weights. He also used the furniture itself, buckets of water he’d filled up, anything he could get his hands on that would work, he repurposed. He cleared space from the front door all the way down the hall, through the living room, and into the attached den, using that as a track to do sprints back and forth for hours at a time. He did pull-ups in the doorways and practiced his accuracy with the knives in the kitchen. Everything helped, both to keep him in shape and to occupy his mind through these weeks of no communication.

At the moment, he was keeping himself busy by fixing food in the kitchen. The fridge, freezer, and cabinets seemed to restock themselves about every week as needed. He never saw anyone do it, he’d just wake up and find them that way.

Sean wasn’t the best cook, but he’d been bored enough to try things over the past few weeks, and there were recipe books in the kitchen. He’d burned a decent amount, and had even had the thought to try to force someone to talk to him by starting a fire with the stove. But he honestly didn’t know how much attention they were paying to him. If they only checked in once in awhile, that could get bad quickly. Not to mention they might take away his ability to cook, which would make this place even worse. Because he was finding that he liked cooking.

Either way, something needed to happen. And finally, as he was flipping through a recipe book to see what he could try for dinner that night, it did. ‘It’, in this case, was the sound of a key in the lock of the front door.

For a moment, Sean didn’t recognize the sound. His head turned a bit as a frown of confusion touched his face. Then he got it. Eyes widening, he dropped the book and ran for the front hall.

He made it just in time to see the door open and two figures step inside. At the sight of them, the boy froze very briefly before lifting his chin. “Great,” he started simply, “now they’re sending total strangers in to gawk at me.”

“That’s not funny, son,”  Elias Gerardo retorted.

“Yeah…” Sean agreed slowly, “probably depends on which end of the neglect you’re standing on.”

Folding his arms with a simmering stare, Sean’s father stood beside his wife, Andrea Nores Gerardo, both of them staring intently at their son.

Elias looked a lot like Sebastian, Sean’s uncle. He was slightly taller than his older brother, at five foot nine inches. His hair was also worn longer, but he had the same thickly muscular arms and gray-blue stormcloud eyes. Andrea, meanwhile, was an almost painfully rail-thin woman, who looked as though a single touch would make her shatter into glass shards. Several had mistaken her for being a walking skeleton in the past, though her son knew from experience that she was much stronger than she looked.

Shrugging at them, Sean replied, “I dunno, maybe you’re right. My sense of humor might be on the fritz after sitting here by myself for a three and a half weeks.”

The words made both of his parents exchange brief looks, before his mother spoke. “We need to talk, Sean. Let’s go sit down and we can discuss this… entire situation.”

“I’m cooking,” Sean informed them before turning on his heel to walk back to the kitchen. “You’re welcome to stick around. Not that I could stop you. Hey, you know if anyone else is coming? You know, if you guys don’t like what you hear, does someone get to come in and play bad cop? I need to know how much food to fix.”

“You shouldn’t be in here, Sean.” That was his father. Elias followed him to the kitchen, with Andrea following behind. “That’s why we came, to tell you how to get out, how to get out of all of the trouble you’re in now.”

Picking up the cookbook once more, Sean murmured, “Let me guess, sell out all my friends.”

The book was plucked from his hands by his mother, who tossed it aside. “They are not your friends,” she snapped as the book landed on the nearby table. “They’ve gotten you all twisted around. And that stops right now, do you understand? You are going to answer every question the people here ask you. You are going to tell them everything you know about the Chambers girl, the Atherby camp, Sinclaire’s plan, all of it. You will answer everything, mi hijo.”

For a few long seconds, Sean met his mother’s gaze. The woman had barely had anything to do with him for as long as he could remember. And yet, despite that, she was also his mother. He’d never been able to deny her, or lie to her. What little attention she and his father did pay him had been so precious that he’d never found it in himself to argue or deny anything they wanted, for fear that they would pay even less attention to him. He never wanted to give them a reason to withdraw more than they already had.

Now, after several long moments of tense silence, he simply replied, “Where’s Ian? Does he know about any of this?” Sean’s brother had been much less absent than his parents in his life growing up, though even he had been gone a lot more lately. It was Mateo and Uncle Sebastian who had basically raised Sean in all but name. But the odds of either of them showing up here was probably slightly less than the odds of Flick herself waltzing in.

Actually, after spending most of a year with that girl, Sean was putting higher odds on her.

“Your brother is… busy,” Elias informed his son. “And we’re not here to talk about him. We are here to tell you how this is going to play out. You need to play ball here, Sean. We know you’ve been twisted around by that girl, that woman, those… people. But it stops now.”

Shaking her head, Andrea sighed. “Do you have the slightest idea what they’re doing, what they’ve done? Sean, they have restarted a conflict that nearly tore our entire civilization apart the last time. They’ve brought it back, and now everyone is fighting again. For what? For monsters? For beasts that will think nothing of killing you and everyone you care about? Why? Why would you side against your own family, to serve those creatures?”

“Oh, Madre,” Sean murmured as his own head shook as well. “You’d be surprised.” The thought of throwing Sebastian and Mateo in their faces came to mind, but was just as quickly dismissed. If they didn’t know about that, he wasn’t going to hand them anything about it.

Tugging out a chair from the nearby table, Elias pointed to it. “Sit.” His tone was firm, brooking no arguments or other such nonsense. In that moment, Sean found himself doing just that without thinking about it. He sat in the chair almost before he even knew it was happening.

That wasn’t any kind of superpower, he knew. It was just his father being his father.

Both Elias and Andrea sat at the table opposite him, the latter speaking first. “We’re going to get you out of this… situation, Sean. The Committee are prepared to wipe your entire slate clean. You get a completely fresh start, like none of this ever happened. They’ll chalk it down to you being mislead by a team and a headmistress who betrayed and tricked you.”

“So,” Sean dryly retorted, “while we’re making up lies, can I have a unicorn too?”

There was a loud bang as his father’s hand slapped down hard against the table. “Is this a joke to you?! Do you know what you’re facing here? Do you know what they want to do to you? They think you’re a traitor, son. If they can, they’ll make an example out of you.”

“They will Nothing you, Sean,” Andrea quietly informed her son. “They will banish you. They will make you human again, erase your memory of everything, and shove you out into the Bystander world. You will have nothing. You will not be a part of this world, or our family. We’re stopping that, for now. But if you don’t play ball…”

Sean coughed once, shifting up in his seat. “And by play ball, you mean betray all my friends. Not to mention everything I believe. Oh, and help perpetuate the murder and genocide of every non-human species on the planet that the Seosten point you at. Let’s not forget about that one.”

Staring at him blankly, both of his parents simultaneously demanded, “That who points us at?”

“Oh, right,” Sean muttered, “that bit wasn’t explained, was it?” He paused, squinting at the two of them for a long, silent moment before shrugging. “You know what? Fuck it. Seosten. That’s S-E-O-S-T-E-N. Say-Oh-Stun.”

“And what, exactly, do you think a ‘Seosten’ is?” Elias asked while squinting at his son.

Sean didn’t answer. Not at first, anyway. Instead, he leaned back in his seat and stared at the ceiling, mouthing something under his breath. Dozens of thoughts bounced wildly through his head. They’d been so careful for so long not to let anything they knew get out. But now? Now the rebellion was back on. Now everyone knew about Joselyn and all of that. Why shouldn’t they know the rest of it? Why shouldn’t they know the whole truth?

Because they wouldn’t believe it, for one. But at this point, he didn’t particularly care what they believed.

So he told them. Opening his mouth, Sean told his parents about the Seosten. He told them where they came from, why they’d set this whole thing up, their war with the Fomorians, how they infiltrated the place, that Columbus had been possessed by one, all of it. He told them how the Seosten had turned Earth into a training ground for Heretics so they could take their bodies and use them as what amounted to biological-mech suits against their own enemies, that they secretly controlled both Crossroads and Eden’s Garden, everything. Everything. It took most of an hour for him to get through all of it, because more kept spilling out. Partway through, he took a glass of water and sipped it. Other than that, and clarifying a few things as his parents asked questions, he spent the entire time talking.

Finally, he finished, sitting back to stare at his half-empty glass. Or was it a half-full glass?

“Anyway, that’s it. That’s basically the whole story, barring something I might’ve forgotten here or there. That’s the truth about this whole fucked up situation that you guys have been part of.”

“Dios mío,” Elias murmured, his tone shocked nearly into silence. “We… we had no idea.”

“We are so sorry,” Andrea added, sounding equally taken aback. “My poor boy. We knew it was bad, but this? This is our fault.”

“Wait… what?” Blinking, Sean looked up from the glass to his parents. “How are the… Seosten your fault?”

“We left you alone for too long,” Andrea replied, staring at her son. “We are so sorry. We should have taken more responsibility. We should have kept you with us. Maybe if we did, you wouldn’t have fallen for such… such absurd nonsense.”

What?!” Sean blurted, his own eyes widening. “What–nonsense? It’s true! Listen, how would–”

Face twisting up a bit, Elias swallowed hard before forcing the words out to interrupt. “Son, you’re confused. Look, listen to yourself. Think about everything you just said, about how… how crazy it sounds. An empire of super-advanced magical bodysnatchers are behind all of this? Seriously? All those monsters out there are just nice fluffy do-gooder innocent victims? Do you know how many humans I’ve seen those things rip apart? How many little children have been eaten?”

“That’s the point!” Sean snapped, rising from his seat. “There’s good guys and bad guys! There’s good Strangers and bad Strangers! Why is that so hard for you people to understand? And you’re willing to believe that everything that isn’t human is evil, but not that the Seosten exist?”

“Oh sure, they might exist,” Andrea allowed. “Actually, I’m sure they do. But they’re not behind Crossroads, Sean. That’s ridiculous. In fact, I’d wager they’re behind you thinking that they’re behind Crossroads. They’ve got you all… twisted up.”

“Yes,” Elias agreed. “That’s it. That’s probably what happened with Joselyn too. They got her all confused. They manipulated her, just as they’ve manipulated your team, Sean. They got her to start a Heretic civil war just to weaken us, and now they’ve got her daughter and Gaia doing the same.”

“That’s–no!” Sean’s head shook. “Damn it, that’s not what happened! That’s not what’s going on. You have to listen to me. The Seosten–”

“We’ve heard enough.” That was Andrea, standing from the table. “We are so sorry, Sean. We should have been there to help you learn to differentiate truth from lies. Maybe you wouldn’t have fallen for this manipulation then. Things would be different. If we’d known, we could’ve stopped Ian from–” She stopped then, at a glance from her husband.

“Stopped Ian from what?” Sean blurted, staring back and forth between them. “What did Ian do? What’s going on?”

“Never mind,” Elias insisted, standing as well. “We’ve been here long enough. Now that we know about this ‘Seosten-are-behind-Crossroads’ lie, maybe we can combat it more effectively. Thank you, son. And don’t you worry, we’re going to get you all the help you need to make sure you get better. We’re not going to abandon you, I promise.”

“You–you–what?” Sean floundered a bit, his mouth opening and shutting. “Just stop! I’m telling you the truth. You guys are wrong. You’re wrong! The Seosten want humans to hate every other species. They want us to hunt and kill them because it’s practice for the Fomorians. You know the Fomorians! You know they exist, you know how dangerous they are! This isn’t just a story! Think about it logically, if every other species was really–”

“That’s enough,” Andrea interrupted, already turning with her husband to leave the kitchen. “You’ll see, Sean. You’ll spend some time in here and forget about all this nonsense. We’ll have someone come in once a week to talk with you until you understand that your conspiracy theory was nothing but paranoia. No matter how long it takes.”

“You’re not listening!” Sean shook his head, quickly following after them. “Just stop, this isn’t a paranoid fantasy. It’s not delusion. It’s not a lie. It’s the truth. You–fuck. Yes, I know how it sounds. I know! But I’m trying to tell you the truth about all of it. If you’d just—” Groaning out loud as he realized just how fruitless the whole thing was, Sean blurted, “You really think you can keep me in here long enough to make me change my mind about this whole thing? It’s already been almost a month. Flick and the others, they’re going to get me out of here.”

For a moment, his parents paused. His father’s hand rested on the knob of the front door as he exchanged a look with his wife before turning back to Sean. “Son, I wouldn’t count on your friends coming any time soon. At least, from your perspective.”  

Sean blinked at that. “From my perspective? What?”

His mother spoke then. “You think you’ve been here for almost a month? Sean, that’s the time dilation spell. They use it to isolate a prisoner, like you, for much longer than they’re actually imprisoned. It hasn’t been a month. It hasn’t even been a week. Or a day. Sean, you’ve been in here for six hours.”

“So you see,” his father put in, “even if those people you call your friends do find you, it’ll be weeks from now. Or months. From their perspective. From yours…

“It’ll be years.”

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Becoming 2-05 (Summus Proelium)

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“Well, if the project didn’t specify only one person to focus on, I’d say the Medici family would be good.” After saying that, Amber shoved half of a chocolate-covered éclair into her mouth while making noises of delight. That was quickly followed by the other half of the treat, and more happy sounds, as the other girl half-collapsed against Jae while smiling with delight. “Mmmm…”

The three of us were sitting in the school cafeteria the next morning. We’d staked out a small table far away from everyone else so we wouldn’t be disturbed, and were going over project possibilities.  

“Medici?” I asked absently while flipping through one of the history books we’d taken from the library. Not that we really needed books when there was the whole internet, but still. Having hard copy sources tended to make teachers happy.

“Super rich family in Florence,” Amber explained. “They were basically this like… banking dynasty for a long ass time from back in the fifteenth century. They… hold on.” She glanced at her phone. “Yeah, four different popes came from them. So did two French queens. They funded the invention of the piano and the opera, and Leonardo, Michelangelo, and maybe some other ninja turtles. Oh, and Galileo. Seriously, dude, they were like… the money behind everything for a long time.”

Boy, did that ever ring a few bells. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve thought she chose that one on purpose. It took me a second to clear my throat. “Oh, uh, well yeah. If we could do it on a group or something, that’d work. But Mr. Dorn definitely said ‘single person’. Maybe we could ask him if that’s okay… or keep looking.”

“Let’s keep looking,” Amber agreed, looking over to Jae. “What do you think, any ideas?”

As she spoke, I took another quick look at my former cheerleading teammate. I still felt bad about how she’d quit the team back when her dad was killed in that hit and run. Apparently the coach had said she could come back this year and just pick up where she’d left off, but Amber refused, saying she was too busy. Personally, I was pretty sure cheerleading had been a big thing with her and her dad, and she didn’t want to do it without him around. Too many memories. Which was too bad, really, since she’d been one of the team’s best tumblers. Seriously, that girl could do some pretty crazy stuff.

Jae, by then, had answered the question about whether she had any ideas by passing over a piece of paper that she’d written a list of names on. Amber and I leaned closer to look at it while I read the names. “Laura Bassi – female physicist in the eighteenth century, Nicolas Steno – father of geology, Cleisthenes – father of democracy, Lucius Vellutus – successfully led a secession in Rome of the plebeians to advocate better treatment and actual representation…” Blinking up at the incredibly pale girl, I remarked, “Hey, these are all pretty good. I don’t think I’ve heard of any of them. Or if I have, I don’t really remember them very well.”

Amber nodded. “Yeah, and they sound important enough to fit Mr. Dorn’s request. Which one should we focus on?”

Biting my lip, I mused, “Laura Bassi sounds interesting, but so do the rest of them. This Steno guy is the father of geology? Cleisthenes is the father of democracy? This Vellutus guy basically took the working class on strike and actually changed things for the better? How do we pick out of options like those?”

Jae shifted in her seat a little before reaching out to point to a name that I hadn’t gotten to yet. Her voice was quiet as she read it aloud. “Laura Cereta.”

Exchanging a brief look with Amber, I asked, “Who?”

“Writer,” Jae answered softly. She fidgeted for a moment, clearly uncomfortable with the attention before pressing on. Despite her shyness, I could tell this was a subject she really cared about. There was obvious excitement and passion in her voice, quiet as it was. “She was a humanist and feminist writer… in the fourteen hundreds. She was one of the first people to actually write about female friendships. She wrote about how women should be educated, and how marriage should be a partnership. And she was smart. Like, one of the leading scholars in Italy smart.”

After saying all that, the girl hesitated. She was obviously embarrassed and wanted to return to her silence. But her love of this Cereta woman pushed her to add, a little more quickly, “In one of her letters, she wrote, ‘I am a scholar and a pupil who has been lulled to sleep by the meager fire of a mind too humble. I have been too much burned, and my injured mind has accumulated too much passion; for tormenting itself with the defending of our sex, my mind sighs, conscious of its obligation. For all things — those deeply rooted inside us as well as those outside us — are being laid at the door of our sex.’

As she finished that, I swallowed. “Wow… umm… yeah. Yeah. I mean, I guess she didn’t really go discovering new continents or conquering other peoples. But she sounds pretty important. And I doubt she’s at the top of anyone else’s list.” Looking to Amber, I added, “What do you think?”

Her nose scrunched up a little thoughtfully. “I think she sounds cool. Come on, let’s see if we can catch Mr. Dorn before first period.” Picking up the books we’d spread out, she stepped away from the table, while Jae joined her. I started to follow too, but stopped to grab something from the table that Amber hadn’t picked up. “Oh, hey, you left your… pen?” I was blinking at it in my hand, not because a pen was so surprising, but because of the words written on it. Stamped across the simple white pen was, ‘Prime International Enterprise’. PIE. The bank that had been… well, almost robbed the other day.

Okay, it wasn’t really that weird that Amber had a pen from the bank. This was a private school. Private school often meant money, and money meant bank. PIE had a lot of clients, most of them not evil or anything. Still, seeing it like that made me do a little double-take.

“Oh, thanks.” Amber took the pen, blinking at me. “Uh, you okay?”

The bank thing wasn’t really a secret, so I just shrugged. “Yeah, I just–didn’t someone just try to rob that place the other day?”

“Huh?” The other girl glanced at the pen, taking in what it said before clearing her throat. “Oh, right. Yeah, sorry, my dad used to collect pens and there’s this whole big… jar of…” She paused, swallowing. “I just grabbed one. That was pretty screwed up though, huh? I mean, what kind of idiot tries to steal from the Super-Mafia?”

I thought of Josh’s brother, muttering, “A pretty big one, apparently. Come on, let’s go tell Mr. Dorn who we’re doing our project on.”

I really wanted to get this project done. Because I was pretty sure being a Star-Touched to make up for the horrible things the rest of my family was doing would take up most of my remaining free time.

******

As it turned out, all three of us had study hall right before lunch. Well, they called it study hall. There wasn’t really an assigned place to go, which made it pretty much a free period. So, since Mr. Dorn had agreed to let us do our project on Laura Cereta, we’d decided to meet at the library at the start of that study hall to get started. I was there now, scanning through some old news stories about Silversmith on my phone while desperately trying not to throw up in my mouth at the thought that he was both a villain and my father. He had been my hero, and now I tasted bile just from looking at a picture of him standing triumphantly in front of a group of Scions of Typhon grunts and acolytes (their term for regular foot soldiers or Touched) he’d helped bring down.

Yes, it had been a pretty big deal to stop Trolley and Hammock (The Scions had some kind of weird thing about Touched names. They always chose completely random, ordinary words that were often unrelated to their powers and had nothing to do with anything else. Their leader was named Pencil). They were nasty, horrible people who had been in the middle of a murder spree. Stopping those two and bringing them in was good. They weren’t just thrown in regular jail after being caught. They were sent to Breakwater, some kind of inescapable prison for the worst of the worst. According to the rumors I’d heard, it was an isolated island somewhere that the most dangerous Touched were left on to fight things out amongst themselves where they couldn’t hurt any innocent people.

It sounded a little fucked up, to be honest. And I was pretty sure there were like a dozen different movies about why that kind of thing was a bad idea. But it was what it was. And as far as I knew, no one had ever escaped from it once they were seen as bad enough to be sent there. Which, Trolley and Hammock definitely fit the bill on that. They’d been responsible for about sixty-seven murders just in that two week period where they’d been on their main rampage.

So… so my dad had put an end to that.

But he had also sanctioned other murders. Enough that it wasn’t a big deal to him at all. So… so…

My head hurt. And so did my stomach.

“Hey, Cassidy!”

Oh, thank God. Amber and Jae were here to distract me from what had quickly been turning into entirely too much obsessive brooding. Closing the news story on my phone, I quickly turned in the seat, only to find that it was actually only Amber. “Hey, I–”

“Miss O’Connell.” That was one of the librarians, Mrs. Mossing. She looked like she had been hand-picked from a casting department to play a stern librarian. She was old, with gray hair pulled into a severe bun, and she always wore frumpy clothes. “How many times do I have to tell you, keep your voice down in here?”

We both apologized to the woman, before I quietly asked, “Err,  isn’t Jae with you?”

Raising an eyebrow, the other girl snorted. “Gee, thanks. Now I know which of us is more popular. But actually, I just stopped by to see if she was here already. And to uhh, tell you that we’ll have to take a rain check.” She looked apologetic. “Really sorry. Something came up.”

“Something came up?” I echoed, blinking at her. “At school?”

Wincing, the other girl nodded slowly. “Like I said, sorry. It’s umm, it’s kind of a personal thing. I mean…” She looked at her phone then, giving a visible grimace. “Shit. Um. When Jae shows up, could you please tell her that Uncle Don is sick? You, uh, you got that?”

“Uncle Don is sick,” I repeated back to her. “Sure, no problem. I can do that. And sorry to hear about your uncle.”

“Great, thanks!” Giving me a thumbs up, Amber turned to head back out of the library. She stopped to say something else to Mrs. Mossing before leaving.

Watching her go, I shrugged. Well, if nothing else, maybe I could use this time to practice with my power. God knew I needed all I could get. I just had to wait for Jae so I could tell her about Amber’s uncle.

Or I could get bored after like two minutes of that and wander out into the hallway to look around for her. Yeah, I went with that one. Turning in a circle in the hallway, I looked around and ended up asking a few people who hadn’t seen her before finally looking to one of the school’s baseball players. “Hey, Pat, you seen Jae Baek anywhere?”  

“Oh, hey, Cass,” Patrick Aaron, a skinny black guy who was a star shortstop, shrugged. “Not really. Hang on. Hey, Francesca, you seen Jae around?”

The girl he was addressing, a slightly hefty brunette whom I’d never shared a class with, looked over from her locker. “What? Oh, yeah, she’s in the ladies room over there.”  

Thanking the two of them, I headed that way. The hall was pretty empty by that point, since everyone who didn’t have study hall/free period was either in class or late. I stepped through the door, already starting to talk. “Hey, Jae, you–”

I stopped then, because the albino girl was there. She was standing by one of the sinks, and as I came in the room, she jumped, quickly starting to shove things from the sink into her bag. But not quick enough that I didn’t notice what they were. Self-tanner, dark hair dye, and some crumpled paper.

“Wh-what?” Flushing with obvious embarrassment, Jae stared at me, only seeming to belatedly realize who I was. “Cassidy?”

Oh. Oh God. There were tears. She was quick to recover and had already blinked them away, but the girl had definitely been crying. She wasn’t just embarrassed because I’d seen those things on the sink, she was upset.

“Yeah, I, um… are you…” Remembering why I was there, I quickly pressed on. “It’s Amber, she wanted me to tell you that she can’t make it. Apparently her Uncle Don is sick?”

“Uncle Don?” Snapping out of her embarrassment, Jae looked to me. “She said that? I–thank… thank you.” She shifted the bag back up onto her shoulder then, seeming to shrink in on herself as she mumbled, “I better go see if she… if she needs anything.”

Stepping out of the way, I let her start to walk past before speaking up. “Um, Jae? I know this is like… really none of my business. And I’m probably overstepping like…a thousand different bounds. But I still wanna say, whether you use those things or not, I think you’re really cool.”

For a moment, I didn’t think she would actually respond. The other girl was quiet, biting her lip as she seemed to debate back and forth with herself for a couple seconds. Then she looked to me, and asked something I hadn’t been expecting. “Why did you stop being a cheerleader?”

“Um. I… guess because the whole reason I joined was so that people would stop seeing me as a prepubescent little boy,” I answered honestly. “But it didn’t really work.”

It looked like she really wanted to say something to that. But she didn’t. Instead, the other girl hesitated briefly before nodding to me. Then she headed for the door, leaving me standing there in the restroom by myself.

I was about to leave, before noticing something on the floor next to the sink. Stepping over, I knelt to pick it up. It was a crumpled note. The same crumpled note that Jae had been putting into her bag with the tanner and hair dye. She’d missed the bag with the paper.

It was an incredible invasion of privacy, but I wanted to know if it was something I should chase her down for. Telling myself that if it looked personal, I’d stop reading, I uncrumpled the paper and gave it a quick glance. I’d just read a couple words, not the whole thing. Just enough to see if it was important.

As it turned out, a few words were all I needed to read. And far more than I actually wanted to. There were only four words on the paper, written in big bold letters with a red marker.

It read, ‘Kill yourself, albino freak.’

Okay, now I actually wanted to hurt someone. I wanted to find whoever had written this note and beat them into a fucking coma. What the actual fuck?

Crumpling the note even more, I shoved it into my pocket. My first instinct was to throw it away, but then I figured I’d keep it. If I ever found out who wrote the thing, I might be able to make them eat it.

Leaving the restroom a minute later, I looked around before heading down the hall. I figured that I could stop by the cafeteria to grab a sandwich from one of the machines, then head out for some practice over what was left of study hall and lunch.

That was the plan, anyway. It was derailed partway there, as I was passing one of the janitors talking on his cell phone. “Yeah, I told you, I’m sorry,” he announced with a sigh. “What can I say, Adrian never showed. Which means I’ve gotta stay. Look, Judy, I know. I know what I said, but that was before–I can’t just take off. I can’t just–damn it, we’ll talk about it later. Yes. Yes, later. Goodbye. Good–” Sighing, the man hit the disconnect on his phone before cursing under his breath.

“Um, excuse me?” I spoke up, waiting until the guy looked to me with an expression that made it clear he was surprised a student was talking to him. “Did you say Adrian didn’t show up today? Did he… call in sick, or…”

“Nope,” the man, whose nametag read Eugene, replied. “Just a no-call, no-show. Which, for the record, looks really fu–really bad on him. Unless he’s got a pretty good excuse, he might as well not bother coming in anymore at all. Little piece of advice, you get a job you give a crap about, don’t blow it off. Especially when you’ve only been there a couple days.” Muttering something about being left to clean the locker room by himself, the guy glanced to me once more as though just remembering who he was talking to. “Wait, you know Adrian?”

“Uh, we’ve talked a couple times,” I murmured. “If he didn’t show up or call or anything, did anyone call him? Or, you know, check his house?”

“Sorry, kid, we’re not his babysitters,” Eugene informed me. “If he can’t bother to show up or let us know what’s going on, there’s not much else we can do. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a bunch of piss to wipe up from fifteen year olds who haven’t figured out how to hit the toilet.”

He left then, and I let him go. My gaze was on the floor, as my mind reeled. Adrian had never shown up. He never made it to work, never called…

It could be a lot of things. But from what little I knew about the guy, he seemed responsible. Hell, he mentioned taking care of four little brothers. I was pretty sure he wouldn’t just blow off work like this. Not without a good reason.

Or a very bad reason. And the last time I’d seen Adrian, he had been driving Josh out of town. Josh, the guy all those bounty hunting assholes had been after, so they could go through him to get to his brother, Ashton. Adrian had been driving Josh out of town, and now he was missing.

I had a really bad feeling about this.

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Summer Epilogue 3 – The Hunted (Heretical Edge)

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“Mmm. You know, it may not be as great as Escalan made, but sometimes you just need a good grilled ham and cheese.” As she spoke those words, Shiori took a large bite out of the sandwich in question, swallowing before adding, “And as a pretty nifty bonus, this one wasn’t made by a zombie.”

At the moment, she, along with Avalon and Flick, were sitting in the large cabin that served as the camp cafeteria. The room was filled with long rectangular picnic tables, one of which the three girls sat at together. They were just finishing up a late lunch, and had the room mostly to themselves, aside from another group a few tables away. That group was made up entirely of old camp inhabitants, as the majority of the Crossroads students who had elected to stay after abandoning the school were still mostly keeping to themselves, not quite ready to integrate. They tended to stay in or right around the cabins they had been given, though a few had slowly started to wander around a little bit. It was progress.

“Ugh,” Flick groaned. “Don’t remind me. I felt like gargling with bleach or something after I thought about how many meals he made after he was already dead. Seriously.”

“You do remember that you’re a necromancer now, right?” Avalon mildly pointed out before plucking two things from her plate. The first was a chip, which she popped into her mouth. The other was a small metal bolt, which she flipped to the middle of the table, where Porthos sat. The lizard cyberform caught the bolt, making a delighted sound before chomping onto it.

“I don’t care, I still wouldn’t have a zombie make my food!” Flick squeaked. “Necromancer or not, that’s just gross. I couldn’t–” She stopped then, blinking over toward one of the windows of the cabin. “You see that?”

Both other girls looked that way as well, while Avalon shook her head. “See what?”

Flick kept her eyes on the window for several long seconds before shrugging. “I thought I saw something watching us. It was just–never mind. It was probably a kid or something.” As she spoke, the girl took two small metal washers and slid them over near Porthos, where Jaq and Gus were perched. The robotic mice picked the washers up in their paws and quickly nibbled.

“Or a pervert,” Avalon suggested idly, taking another chip. “Maybe one of you has an admirer.”  

“Oh sure,” Shiori shot back while rolling her eyes. “If there’s a pervert around, it’s gotta be Flick or me he’s staring at. Because God knows you’re so hideous no one can stand to look at you.”

With a smile that bordered on dangerous and feral, Avalon leaned closer while shaking her head. “No, I just mean that they know better than to stalk me like that.”

Porthos made a quick noise of agreement then, hopping up onto two feet while beginning a long tirade in his own chittering language about just what would happen if anyone tried something that stupid with Avalon.

“What, who’s being stalked?” Kaste, one of the camp’s primary mages along with her sister Rain, stopped by the table to blink at the girls. “What’s that about a pervert?”

Flushing, Flick shook her head quickly. “Theoretical pervert. Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong.”

Raising an eyebrow at them, Kaste urged, “Okay, well, let one of us know if something does happen. We’re still sorting out all the new protection spells since we’ve got all these people coming in. We’re expanding the camp around to the other side of the lake, so people aren’t cramped in so much. Especially if more keep showing up.”

“Garden people start trickling in yet?” Avalon asked, shifting a little as she looked to the woman curiously.

“A few,” Kaste confirmed. “There’ll be more later tonight. Apparently there’s a pretty big group that got out of there after the initial fighting. They’ve been shaking off any pursuit and making sure the people they’ve got are actually loyal before Gabriel sends someone out to guide them the rest of the way.” Snapping her fingers then, she added, “Speaking of which, I better go prepare a couple more cabins while I’ve still got the oomph for it. You guys enjoy the rest of your lunch. And remember–”

“Tell you about any perverts,” Shiori finished, giving the woman a thumbs up. “You got it.”

As the woman left, Flick picked up her now-empty plate. “What do you think the Garden people are gonna say when they show up here, Valley? You didn’t exactly leave on the best of terms. There might be people that hold a grudge about that.”

“I’ll deal with it,” the other girl replied. “They haven’t left on good terms either. And at this point, they pretty much have to listen to the explanation. That or I’ll hit them until they listen.”

“That’s my girl.” Beaming, Flick rose from the table, holding a hand out for Jaq and Gus to scamper up to her shoulders. “Come on, I kinda want to see where they’re gonna put those new cabins in. And besides, you’re not gonna let us have cake until we walk off lunch. Two birds, one stone.”

“You’re dreaming if you think you’re getting away with just walking,” Avalon informed her primly while standing up alongside the other girl. “We may be pretending this is summer vacation already, but no one gets to be lazy. Okay, well, some people do. But you two don’t. We’re doing a full work-out today. And every day. No classes means more time for training.”

Exchanging glances, Flick and Shiori grinned at one another, the latter handing a ten dollar bill to the former. “You were right,” Shiori admitted, “First couple days after everything that happened and she’s already been planning out a whole new training regimen.”

“Hey,” Avalon retorted, “there’s all-out war coming. And we are going to be ready for it. Now come on, we’ll go check out where they’re putting in the new cabins, then jog around the lake a few times. After that, we’ll head for the weight room and really work up a sweat.”

Chittering in agreement and pride, Porthos leapt from the table to her arm, then climbed onto the girl’s head and stood on two legs while holding his other legs up like arms in a standard muscle pose, as though showing off his biceps.

Adopting a baffled look, Shiori asked, “Why would we work up a sweat just by sitting around?”

Squinting at the other girl with a look that said she was going to be sorry for taking the bait, Avalon murmured, “Why would we just sit around?”

“Well,” Shiori innocently replied, “you did say that we were going to the wait room.”

“The wa–oh Gods damn it,” Avalon muttered, shooting the cackling girl a look. Even then, it quickly turned to a bright smile. “Oh well. I’ll just make sure you pay for that one later.” She gave a sigh of anticipation. “Won’t this be great? We can work for hours without being interrupted.”

“Stop, you’re drooling,” Flick teased before pulling both girls by their arms. “Come on, let’s go see. But first, I’ve gotta stop by Dad’s cabin and pick up my towel if we’re going to work out.”

“Yeah,” Shiori agreed. “And I wanna see if Choo’s up from his nap yet.”  

The three of them stepped out of the long building, glancing around the busy camp briefly before first heading for the cabin that Flick was sharing with her father and Tabbris (though the latter split her time pretty evenly between Lincoln’s and Sariel’s cabins). As they were walking between a couple of the buildings, Shiori stopped, turning her head to look into some bushes nearby. “Do you guys…” She paused, taking a step into the bushes to look around before returning with a slow head shake. “Weird.” Her hand waved at Flick. “See? Now you’ve got me seeing things too.”

“Hold on.” Avalon held a hand up, head tilting as though listening for anything. On her head, Porthos seemed to be listening as well. After a few seconds of silence, the girl looked to Flick. “You got anything?”

Flick shook her head. “I’m not sensing any objects or anything, if that’s what you mean. I’ve got nothing.” She, in turn, looked to Shiori. “What about you? That ‘someone’s watching me’ sense going off?”

“It comes and goes,” Shiori murmured. “There’s a lot of people around here and they tend to look at us a bunch. I’m not sure how trustworthy it is like this.”

The trio stayed there for another minute, poking around the bushes for any sign of anyone. But there was nothing. Finally, they collectively shrugged and started off again.

“Part of me feels like we should say something,” Flick pointed out as they reached Lincoln’s cabin. “But we’re probably being paranoid. I mean, we’ve got plenty of reasons to be, after… well, all that stuff.”

“Yeah, we should still say something,” Avalon agreed. “Maybe it’s paranoia. Maybe it’s not. Just dismissing it is stupid. We’ll talk to Rain and Kaste, see if they can run another scanning spell or something to make sure everyone here is supposed to be here. Though I’m pretty sure we’d know if anyone really bad managed to find this place. It just… doesn’t feel like anything bad. Annoying and confusing, maybe. But not bad.”

“It’s probably one of the Crossroads people, you know,” Shiori put in. “They’re probably trying to find a way to talk to the girl who brought the rebellion back but don’t know how. Or maybe it’s someone who knew your mom before. Either way, they’re probably nervous.”

That sounded about right, so the girls went into the cabin and picked up the towel, as well as a couple bottles of water. They took a few minutes to talk to Lincoln in there as well, before heading out to make another detour into the cabin Shiori had been sleeping in, collecting an excited Choo. The Jekern ran ahead of them, scampering through the camp with an eager series of snorts and oinks while electricity sparked around him. Every person they passed, Choo made happy noises at, especially those who took a moment to rub his head and pet him. He preened and posed for anyone who would pay the slightest bit of attention to him.

“Well, looks like someone prefers our new living arrangements over the old one,” Flick noted.

“Dude,” Shiori replied, “he is so much happier here. He doesn’t have to hide all the time. And do you have any idea how much he likes to play with those kids? It’s the most adorable thing ever.”

They went back through the line of cabins toward the lake then, and even Choo stopped a couple times as though he sensed something following them. Yet, still, none of them could spot anyone. They looked everywhere and used every power they could, but came up empty. Shiori even had her ‘someone is watching me’ sense trigger a few more times, but in the open camp area, that didn’t mean much. Whoever was there, if there was indeed someone, was very good at remaining hidden.

“Okay, that’s enough,” Avalon muttered as they reached the lake. “I’ve been trying to be nice about all this because I figured it was just one of your mother’s friends or fans or whatever, or someone who wanted to talk to me about Gaia. But this is absurd. We’re not playing this game anymore.” Raising her voice then, she called, “You hear that? We’re not playing this game. If you don’t knock it off and show yourself, we’ll just get one of the witches to use a spell to figure out who’s been playing peeping tom all afternoon. Then you can try to explain just what the hell is going on to one of them. Or, you could maybe try not embarrassing yourself and just–”

In mid-sentence, she was interrupted by a sudden splash from the lake. As all three of them jerked their gazes that way, they found the remnants of ripples spreading, as though something had just jumped in, or out, of the lake. Yet there was nothing in sight. The water was clear, revealing nothing beneath it beyond a few swiftly scattering fish.

“Wait.” Avalon squinted at the water while something seemed to dawn on her. “Something’s been following us this whole time, peeking in windows, hiding, stalking, hunting us. Something that… Oh, my God, it’s–”

That was as far as she got before something slammed into the girl from behind. It took Shiori and Flick both completely by surprise, a large shape that went right between both of them without making any sound until it crashed into Avalon. Then the two went tumbling end over end.

“Valley!” Flick blurted, grabbing her staff from its place at her belt. She and Shiori (with Choo right there alongside them) both went to lunge after their companion, only to come up short at a bafflingly unexpected sound, a sound that none of them saw coming.

Laughing. Avalon was laughing. And squealing. As the two stopped dead, staring, they saw the other girl roll to a stop there on the ground. Her arms were around the neck of her ‘attacker’.

“Salten!” Avalon blurted, jumping to her feet while the Peryton did the same with a little help from one of its wings. They landed facing one another, just before the girl threw herself at the winged elk with a sound that was somewhere between a put-on snarl and another laugh.

Salten met her charge, slamming right into her with a loud huff. His wings folded in against his body, and he brought his head down against Avalon’s. She, in turn, wrapped both arms around his neck and yanked to the side, her strength pulling Salten to the ground. They rolled several times, each fighting for position and advantage. Grunting, huffing, and laughing (or snorting, in Salten’s case), the two wrestled right there in front of the lake.

Through it all, Flick and Shiori stood there, staring. They were joined in that by Jaq and Gus on Flick’s shoulders, as well as Porthos from Choo’s back, where he had jumped from Avalon’s head at the last moment. Both girls, all three cyberforms, and the Jekern as well, were staring with open-mouthed surprise as Avalon and Salten went rolling back and forth along the dirt.

“I knew it was you!” Avalon blurted while rolling on top of Salten to put the animal into a headlock. “You’ve been stalking us all day, haven’t you, you big jerk!”

Salten, for his part, jerked his head to the side to knock the girl back before making a huffing, snorting sound as he pivoted to face the girl. Head down, he danced one way, then the other while Avalon mirrored his movements. Both moved in a circle around one another, gazes locked as they watched for an opening.

Porthos made a curious chittering sound from Choo’s back then, and Flick reached down to pat him. “No, she hasn’t gone insane, buddy. At least, I don’t think she has. They’re just really old friends. From what Seller said, they basically grew up together, since Salten was a… foal?”

“That’s a horse,” Shiori corrected. “You mean fawn.”

Salten faked right before lunging left, but Avalon was ready. She caught one of his antlers, kicking herself up and around to land neatly on his back. “Hah!” That lasted until the winged elk flew straight up off the ground and turned over, dumping the girl to the ground, where she landed in a crouch. “Cheating! No flying until the fourth round, we said that!”

Landing with a huff, Salten bumped up against Avalon, who wrapped both arms around him and clung tightly while looking to the others. Finally, she seemed to realize what was going on, flushing a little bit. “Errr. What–I mean, look, Salten made it.” She held a hand out for Porthos, who jumped up, ran along her arm, and perched on the Peryton’s head while making curious sounds of his own that seemed half-questioning and half-greeting.

“Salten, this is Flick and Shiori,” Avalon introduced them.

“Hi, Salten,” Flick greeted, stepping that way. She started to give a short bow to the creature, before gasping as he lifted his leg, extending his hoof to her. “Oh, uh, right. Good to meet you.” Her hand grasped his hoof, shaking it.

“You must be really good at hide and seek,” Shiori noted while taking her turn to shake his hoof. “You’re a sneaky sky-deer, you know that?” Choo, who had come up right alongside her, made a noise of agreement before nuzzling up against the Peryton’s leg affectionately.

“Let me guess,” Avalon announced, “Seller dropped you off and convinced everyone else not to tell me that you were here.” As Salten made what sounded like outright chuckling sounds, she rolled her eyes. “You’re both jerks.” Still, she was clinging to him, her adoration and love for the Peryton incredibly clear. “And I’ll get you both back. You’ve gotta sleep sometime, and that’s when I will piledrive the crap out of you. When you least expect it.”

Raising his head imperiously, Salten made a disbelieving or dismissive sound, snorting as he spread both of his wings out wide. He then brought the wings in, catching everyone to pull them right up against him in an embrace. Even Choo was included.

“Aww,” Shiori giggled while returning the hug. “I like you too, sky-deer.”  

“Okay, okay,” Avalon finally managed as she extricated herself. “Let’s go. We were on our way to see where they’re setting up the new cabins over there. You can come with. You know, so you don’t get any more ideas about another ambush.” Squinting at her old friend, she gave him a push. “Come on, don’t tell me you’re tired already.”

With an offended huff, Salten started trotting ahead of them, lifting his head imperiously as he  led the way around the lake.

“Hey, you know,” Shiori started, “if you want to spend some time with your friend, we can always do the work-out part later.”

“Pfft, nice try,” Avalon shot back. “But that Peryton’s a bigger stickler about exercise than I am. You thought I ran you ragged, wait until Drill Sergeant Salten gets hold of you.”

“Oh boy,” Flick murmured. “Shiori?

“I think we might be in trouble.”

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Becoming 2-04 (Summus Proelium)

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A little bit of toast bounced off my forehead. When that failed to get a reaction, it was followed by an orange wedge.

“You know,” Simon remarked from the other side of the kitchen island where the two of us were  eating (supposedly, in my case, as I hadn’t actually touched my food), “if you keep not reacting, I might just transfer my entire breakfast over to your side.” Squinting then, he leaned closer and whispered, “That’s your plan, isn’t it? Just stare mindlessly until I give you all my food.” He straightened, flashing me a knowing (and probably charming, to others) smile. “I see riiight through you, Booster. You might think you’re cunning, but you can’t keep secrets from me.”

I swear, it took every ounce of self-control I could dredge out of the pits of my soul not to look him right in the eyes and say, “Wanna bet?” Although, thinking on it, that kind of would have proved his point to begin with. Huh.  

In any case, I kept quiet, staring down at my own plate of food without touching it. Not that I wasn’t hungry. I was. After finally getting home so late that everyone else had already gone to sleep, including Simon, I’d had just enough energy to crawl into my own bed and pass out. Now I was famished. But every time I thought about eating anything on my plate, I just ended up thinking about how it had been paid for. The thought of shoveling blood-money food into my mouth made me want to throw up, regardless of how hungry I may have been. I knew it was stupid. The food was already bought. And what was I going to do, starve myself? That would accomplish nothing. Even so, I just couldn’t make myself get past it that easily.

And yet, I also couldn’t let Simon know anything was wrong. So I took a drink of my juice before mumbling, “I guess you caught me.”

Caught me? Okay, I really needed to think about what I was saying before blurting out things like that. Saying those words made me blink up at him. Luckily, he wasn’t even looking at me. His eyes were on his phone, as he texted something while muttering, “Like I said, can’t get anything past me. At least, not without getting up pretty early in the morning. And from all that yawning, I’m pretty sure getting up earlier isn’t really in the cards for you.”

He looked up then, smirking a little. “What time did you finally get to bed, anyway?”

“Well, what do we have here?” The deep baritone of my father’s voice suddenly and unexpectedly speaking up from the  doorway behind me meant I was spared from answering Simon’s question. But it also made my body jerk upright, just before Dad’s hand came down on my shoulder. Then he was there, hand squeezing my shoulder as he kissed the top of my head. “Why, I’m pretty sure it’s my little oompa loompas.”

Trying not to let Simon see the reaction on my face was hard. The only thing I could think of to cover it up was to grab the orange piece he’d thrown at me and stuff it into my mouth. That at least gave my face something to do. And spared me from responding for a second or two.

“She’s sulking for some reason,” Simon informed Dad. “I think it’s about a boy. Or a girl.” He winked at me. “Did we ever decide where you fall on that scale?”

At least they were giving me other reasons to be mortified by them beyond the fact that they were murderous monsters whose money was tainted by the blood of innocent people.

Swallowing the orange in my mouth, I forced out a weak, “I better meet Jefferson before he gets all antsy about being late. You know how he is about his schedule.”

Dad ruffled my hair affectionately, his tone light. “Have fun at school, babygirl. But not too much fun, I’ve got a lot of meetings today. Can’t really be pulled out of them to talk to your principal about whatever stunt you think is funny. Have a non-authority-intervention amount of fun.”

Somehow, I managed to give him a thumbs up while slipping out of my seat. I even hugged him. Yeah, it was a one-armed awkward sort of half-hug, but I was counting it. Then I grabbed my bag and retreated from the room, while Simon called after me, “Does this mean you don’t want your bacon!?”

I went back, grabbed it off my plate, and left again. Yes, my entire family was a bunch of murdering psychopaths, and I still didn’t know what to do about that. But bacon was bacon.

*******

“Alright, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to a new day!” Mr. Dorn, my European history teacher, announced while coming into the room and crossing to his desk. He was a short, squat man who basically looked like a slightly taller body double for Danny DeVito. But he was also incredibly enthusiastic about teaching, and about history. It was pretty infectious, even for those who didn’t care that much.

Yeah, I was in class. Part of me had wanted to skip out again to go practice with my power. But that felt like a bad idea, especially after Jania had already intercepted one call from the school. Missing two in a row might make them actually step in for something more than a phone call. So I was here, trying not to think about what kind of things my family was probably doing in the meantime.

Laying his briefcase on the desk, Mr. Dorn continued, “I see we’re all here except for Tommy B. Let’s hope he feels better soon, or that he enjoys his day off. Either way, he’s going to be sorry that he missed today. Because it’s now March, which means that it’s time for us to start…” As he was talking, the man clicked open his briefcase, reaching inside before pulling out a sheet of paper while triumphantly finishing with, “Term projects!”

A series of groans met his words, and the man repeated the sound right back at us. “Yeah, yeah, it’s horrible, I know. But you just wait, because this project has a twist. Are you ready for it? That’s right, it’s a group project. Each of you will work with two other people to write a six page paper, which you will present to the class in three weeks. You will have fifteen minutes of each class period for those three weeks to work on it in here, but you will also need to work out of class if you expect to get an A.”

One of the other students raised her hand. “A project on what, Mr. Dorn? What’re we supposed to be writing about?”

“Very good question, Amber,” Mr. Dorn replied with a smile. “The answer is… whoever you want. I want each group to pick one person from the entire history of Europe and write about how their existence and actions shaped the world as we know it. I want you to write this in a way that explains how things would have been different without that person. There are people throughout history who have changed the entire direction of this world. I want you to write about them.”

One of the boys raised his hand then. “Like King Arthur?”

Mr. Dorn coughed, shaking his head. “Sorry, Ben. Real people only. Fun as it might be to pretend, King Arthur was never a real person. Let’s stick with historical figures.”

Another boy asked, after being called on, “Can we pick our own groups?”

Again, Mr. Dorn shook his head. “Sorry. For some reason, people tend to turn these things into either popularity contests, or a fight over who gets the genius. You’ve all been randomly assigned two partners. Right here.” He shook the paper he’d taken from his briefcase earlier. “First, we have…  Menna Blaese, Cole Whitney, and Evan Guthrie.” He nodded to each student in turn, letting them react to being put together before continuing on to the next trio. There were thirty-three people in the class, which meant eleven groups. One of whom would only have two today, with Tommy B absent.

Eventually, Mr. Dorn came to my name. “And now we have… Cassidy Evans with…” He pointed to the girl who had asked what we were supposed to write about. “Amber O’Connell and Jae Baek.”

Oh, wow. Jae Baek. She was an albino girl. An Asian albino. Which meant she kind of stood out. That was probably bad for her, considering she was also one of the shyest people I’d ever met. I didn’t think I’d heard her exchange more than a handful of words all semester that she didn’t have to say.

Amber, on the other hand, was pretty outgoing. She had black hair that was tied into a loose ponytail, and blue-green eyes that seemed to shift whether they were more blue or more green depending on the lighting. She’d also been a cheerleader for a long time, even back when I’d done it in junior high. We were on the same team for awhile. But she’d stuck with it for longer, only really stopping around winter break a year earlier.

We weren’t close or anything, but I did know that she’d quit the team about a month after her dad had been killed by a hit and run driver. Which was… understandable. She was better now, but for awhile there, even I knew that she’d been pretty messed up. Not coming to class, getting in trouble, lashing out at teachers. She’d nearly gotten herself kicked out entirely. But the school gave her some leeway, let her make up a few classes over the previous summer, and she stayed on track.

I also kind of suspected that these groupings weren’t completely random. Because as far as I knew, Amber was one of the few people that Jae actually seemed to interact much with. As shy and quiet as she was, it wouldn’t have surprised me to find out that Mr. Dorn had at least somewhat helped things along by making sure the two of them were put in a group together.

“Now that you’ve got your groups,” the man announced after listing the last set of names, “go ahead and get together to talk about your plans. I’ll give you all about fifteen minutes to either figure out who to start your project on, or, you know, when to get together and talk about it later. Oh, and don’t forget, first come first serve. Once your group knows who you want to write about, make sure to tell me, because we can’t have any repeats.”

Amber and I pulled chairs over to where Jae was, the former cheerleader waving to me. “Hey, Cass. Long time no work together. But hey, at least we don’t have to do the frog squats or reverse to high knee lunges this time.”

“You know you’re not fooling anybody,” I shot back to her. “You loved those exercises.”

She just grinned. “You’re right, I still do them. But they probably won’t help with this.” Looking to the girl we were sitting by, she asked, “So, Jae, got any thoughts about who we should write about?”

The pale, white-haired girl peeked up from her desk, looking to me briefly before answering. Her voice was quiet. “Maybe not an obvious one.”

“Right,” I agreed. “Mr. Dorn would probably like it better if it’s not someone he’s heard about over and over again every year. Someone a little more obscure, but still really important. Not like Churchill, or Columbus, or Napoleon, or… whoever. Someone important but different.

“Anyone got any ideas?”

*****

We didn’t. Not yet, anyway. We’d made plans to decide later. Each of us was supposed to come up with a few options and compare notes to pick one the next morning. We’d meet at breakfast in the cafeteria, which meant I’d have to ask Jefferson to drive me over half an hour early. He’d probably love that.

Actually, I genuinely didn’t know how he’d feel. It was different from his strict schedule, but it was also early. Hmm. Maybe his annoyance at the first and delight with the second would cancel each other out.

Either way, I’d texted him to let the man know that he didn’t have to pick me up after school ended, because I was getting a ride with friends. In reality, of course, I was busy with something else. A few things, actually. The first of which had involved making a trip to the nearest specialty electronics store to pick up a couple essentials.

With my new toys safely stowed away, it had been time to focus on the things that would take up the rest of the afternoon. Namely, practicing with my power and, with any luck at all, actually deciding on a name that I could use that didn’t sound dumb.

So far, I was having more luck with the former than the latter. I was back in that unfinished skating rink place again, where I’d set up targets along the wall by painting various sized circles in pink, since I still didn’t know what that color did. Using the circles as targets, I was alternately running and skating through the place while shooting different colors of paint, trying to hit the center of the circle as much as I could, with only a small amount of paint.

It was a work in progress, that was for sure. I was missing the center of even the bigger targets most of the time, and missing the smaller targets entirely if I was moving at any kind of speed when I shot my paint at them. Running was easier than skating, but either way it was hard to hit the targets without slowing down. Especially when I used the green speed boost paint on myself. Hitting a target at that point with anything less than a hurled gallon’s worth was basically an exercise in futility unless it came as utter blind luck.

I needed practice. A lot of it. But fine. I was willing to put in the work. One time after another, I raced from one end of the large open room to the other, shooting paint at targets on both sides, as well as some on the floor that I had set up. Shot of paint after shot of paint flew from my hands, while my earbuds blared heavy rock music in my ears. Again and again, I would check my progress, erase all the paint aside from my pink targets, then do it again. I took breaks only to let my paint recharge.

It was during those breaks that I thought about a possible name. That was… well, hard. I’d thought of several possibilities, and even painted some of them across wall just to see what they looked like. Some were… dumber than others.

Paintjob

Paint

Paintball

Brushstroke

Easel

Canvas

Palette

Artisan

Graffiti

Technicolor

Chroma/Chromatic

I’d already crossed out a few of those. Paintjob, Paint, and Brushstroke didn’t sound right. Neither did Easel, so it was crossed out as well.

But the others… I kind of liked both Canvas and Palette, for the same reason. I would be putting paint over myself a lot. Graffiti was good too, for the opposite reason. I’d be painting other things. Technicolor and Chroma or Chromatic sounded cool, but might be too complicated for a name. Artisan sounded pretentious.

In all, I just couldn’t decide. I kept wavering back and forth, and I probably needed to make a decision eventually. It would be pretty bad if I went out in costume again, only to hem and haw the second anyone asked what they were supposed to call me. It didn’t seem like it would be very heroic to be like, ‘here’s a few options, which one do you guys like best?’

Oh well. After two hours of practicing my aim (and getting gradually somewhat vaguely better toward the end), that was probably enough. I needed to get home and at least put in an appearance, since the last thing I wanted was for anyone to get too curious about where I was spending time.

But first, I needed to do something. Reaching into my bag, I took out the ski mask and helmet, pulling both on. Then I pushed the ski mask off my mouth, and shoved the front of the helmet up as well. Taking off my pace-skates next, I found the concealed button on the bottom of both and pressed them in together. Holding the buttons in, I spoke in a clear voice. “Cassidy Evans voice code addition.”

The skates beeped twice, and I quickly pulled the mask and helmet down. With my voice muffled by them, I spoke again. “Cassidy Evans voice code addition. Code to deploy: skate out now. Code to retract: skate in now.”

I tested it afterward. Sure enough, the skates responded, extending or retracting the wheels whenever I said the appropriate code.

That was good, but it was only part of things. I wasn’t going to rely entirely on the muffled effect of the mask and helmet to hide my identity, especially when it came to my family. They’d see through that so quick my head would spin.

I already knew that, though. That was why I’d made that trip to the electronics store. Digging into my bag, I took out what I’d bought: a tiny microphone attached to a piece that hooked over and onto an ear, with a Bluetooth connection to my phone. 

Holding up the earpiece, I turned it on and then opened the app on my phone before starting to slide through the options. Stopping on one, I held the little microphone close to my mouth and spoke clearly into it. “Test, this is a test. This is a big, old, fat test. It’s just a giant stinky test.”

It worked. My voice was shifted by the microphone to sound like an old woman. It didn’t even need a speaker or anything. Touched-Tech. Apparently whenever I spoke, the microphone would project its own little sonic… sound… disruption thing that would change what my voice sounded like before the words reached anyone’s ears.  It tickled just a little bit, but I’d get used to that. 

Flipping to another option, I tried again and sounded like a little kid. Another option made me sound like Elmo from Sesame Street. Then it was an incredibly deep voice that sounded like it should have been coming from a guy with tree trunks for arms.

Then I found one that sounded right. It sounded like a guy who was maybe fourteen. That was it. That was exactly what I wanted. I slipped the earpiece on, then added the mask and helmet once more. The way it was designed, the small microphone part extended down under my ear, which prevented the helmet from digging into it too much.

Clearing my throat then, I switched my phone to record, then started. “Testing. New test. How’s about a test? One, two, three, four, five four three two one.”

Playing it back, I listened carefully. Yeah. Yeah, it worked. I definitely sounded different with that thing. It would work. I could add this voice to my pace-skates too. With that, no one would know I was a girl just by listening to me. And my family wouldn’t recognize my voice.

Which was good, because them not knowing that I knew about their real lives was basically the only advantage I had right now. And I was in no hurry to give that up.

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Summer Epilogue 2B (Heretical Edge)

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“I don’t understand, this… museum is called Wonderland?”

As she voiced her confusion hesitantly, Marina slowly looked around. She, the children she had taken charge of, and Roxa were all standing in a large, brightly lit room that was full of dinosaur displays. The kids were nearby, gathered around the centerpiece Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in the middle of the room as they excitedly jabbered back and forth about both it and the other displays scattered around. Across one of the walls was a mural depicting the various time periods of when various dinosaurs lived.

With a tiny smile, Roxa replied, “Wonderland is more an organization than a place. The location changes all the time, because…” She paused briefly, biting her lip. “Because of people hunting them. It was in a closed-down mall awhile ago. Right now, it’s in this closed museum. In a few months, assuming nothing happens, they’ll move again. Can’t stay in the same place too long.”

“There’s… there’s Strangers here, you said.” The words sounded awkward coming from Marina’s own mouth, as her eyes slowly looked around. She saw nothing out of the ordinary that would make her think this was a haven for monsters. The kids had moved to look at a Triceratops skeleton, while their self-appointed expert Alicia (an eleven-year old brunette who was actually currently wearing a shirt with a Pteranodon on it) began to list facts about the horned dinosaur for her enraptured audience.

Roxa was watching her, nodding slowly. “Yes. I mean, they’re not here in this specific area. They cleared out for now, to give you guys time to… to settle in. They’ll stay out of this room, if you want to keep away from any… any non-humans. We prefer the word Alter, for the record. Alternative from baseline human. Actually, they consider Heretics to be Alters too, which is a whole other can of worms. But… yeah, there’s Alters out there, and they’d like to meet you guys. But they’re not gonna force it. You’re welcome to stay here as long as it takes to get those kids sent to their parents, and if you don’t want anyone… else to come around, it won’t happen.”

Her expression softened then, as she quietly added, “I know it’s scary, Marina. It’s a lot to deal with, and all you want to do is protect these kids. But you’re afraid that you’re making the wrong choice, because you’ve been told all your life that the people who live here want to kill and eat the children you’re trying to protect. You’re wondering if you made a mistake. Every sound makes you look around like you’re about to be ambushed by a bunch of… well, monsters.”

Marina was quiet for a moment, looking away to watch the children. “I… you’re right, I’m afraid I made a mistake. I’m afraid if I close my eyes for more than a second, something horrible is going to happen. You said there’s… there’s thing–creatur–people… whatever through those doors that everyone I’ve ever known has told me were monsters. And I brought children here. Children that I’m supposed to be protecting, Roxa. What if I’m wrong? What if you’re wrong? What if you’re… lying? I don’t… I don’t think you are. But what if I’m wrong about that? It’s not me I’m risking. It’s these kids. And I can’t… I couldn’t… handle it if anything happened to them. I’d rather die.”

Solemnly nodding, Roxa murmured, “I get it. Believe me, Marina, I get it. It’s hard to… to move past that. I kind of got thrown into the deep end of all this. You did too, just in a different way. And you’re not just responsible for yourself. You’re responsible for these kids. I get that. I think… I think the only way to make you feel better about this is to let you meet them. If you don’t want to, that’s okay. Like I said, no one is going to force you. If you want, you and the kids can stay in this room, we’ll bring you food, and no one but me will come visit you. Or you can come out with me to meet the people here and decide on your own if you trust them enough to close your eyes.” She smiled just a little, watching the older girl. “It’s totally up to you.”

“But if I go out with you,” Marina pointed out, “wouldn’t that mean that I’m leaving the kids here alone? If this place is dangerous, that would be pretty stupid of me. I mean, not that it is, just… um, you know.” God, this felt awkward. She still just wanted to hug Roxa again, even though she kept feeling that dangerous Stranger sense every time she looked at her. It was just… wrong.

“Bring them with,” Roxa suggested, gesturing to the assorted kids. “Keep them with you while we go out there and look around. Like I said, no one’s gonna hurt them. And if they’re with you, you won’t have to worry about what’s happening to them.”

Marina hesitated at that before replying, “And if you’re right, then you have kids who are going back to their… loyalist parents after meeting a bunch of Strang–Alters who don’t seem like the monsters that their parents think they are. Even if they go back to parents who are… who are hardcore Crossroads loyalists, the kids might think differently after meeting those people.”

Roxa met her gaze without blinking. “And if I’m right, would that be a bad thing?”

It took Marina a moment to answer. She bit her lip, her gaze moving from Roxa to her charges and back again. A wave of indecisiveness washed over her. If she was wrong… if this went wrong

If she was wrong, she’d already fucked everything up more than anyone would ever comprehend. That was the truth.

“Guys!” Marina waved to the kids, beckoning them over. “Come on. We… we’re going to take a walk and meet some people.” Looking to Roxa then as the group approached, she added in a softer voice, “I’ve come this far with it. Might as well go all-in.”

It wasn’t as though she’d hate herself any less if things went wrong now rather than later.

******

Organizing the kids once more and giving them all firm instructions about staying with her, not shouting, not running off, not blurting out offensive things or anything that might make them look bad to their hosts, Marina finally led them through the door at the end of the room. Roxa was there, as was an incredibly thin Latino man with a neatly groomed thin mustache and dark eyes, yet a friendly smile. As with Roxa, looking at the man immediately made Marina’s Stranger-sense start blaring its warning at her.

“Good, ahhh, morning,” the man greeted, hands clasped behind his back as he stood straight beside Roxa. “I know this is a… tense and awkward situation, but I do want to say that it’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Dupont. And all of you.” He nodded to the group of children and early teens assembled behind the girl. “My name is Mateo Dias. I ahh–”

“Are you a monster?!” That was blurted from the eight-year-old Donny Kartner, prompting Marina to spin on her heel, a horrified sound of disbelief escaping her. The sound was more akin to air escaping a balloon very rapidly than it was any actual words, as she paled, trying to simultaneously shush and point at the boy in horror.

“What?” Donny blinked at her reaction, his expression betraying nothing but complete innocence and curiosity. “I was just asking.”

“It’s alright,” Mateo assured her while she continued to make the sounds of a broken computer trying desperately to restart. “Let’s see.” Taking a knee, he extended a hand to the boy very carefully. “What’s your name, if you don’t mind?”

The boy looked first to Marina, then swallowed uncertainly before slowly stepping that way. “Um. Donny? Donny Kartner. Kady heard Miss Marina talking to her.” He pointed to Roxa. “They said that you’re werewolves. Aren’t werewolves monsters? Do you eat people?”

Marina almost wanted to die right there on the spot, but Mateo just smiled a little encouragingly. “Well, Donny, let me ask you something. Do you know a lot of Heretics?”

The boy’s head bobbed up and down quickly. “My parents were Heretics. But… but they died.” His lip trembled a little before he bit down on it and stared at the man. “They killed a lot of monsters.”

Meeting the boy’s gaze with a nod, Mateo agreed. “I’m sure they did. They must have saved a lot of people. I’m sorry to hear that they’ve passed away. You miss them a lot, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” Donny answered softly, his voice shaking a little.

“And you’re proud of them, because they helped so many people,” Mateo guessed. “They must have stopped an awful lot of monsters from hurting others.”

Again, the boy nodded, sniffling quietly. “They killed bad guys. Until the bad guys…” Again, he sniffed, his voice failing him.

Mateo’s gaze softened even more, and he swallowed once before speaking. “Your parents killed… monsters. They killed bad people before they could hurt others. And that’s okay, because the ones they killed were bad.” He stared directly at the boy, raising his hand as though making a pledge. “I swear to you that I have never killed an innocent person. I fight to defend myself and my family, my people. I have killed, but I kill monsters, just like your parents.”

That time, it was Kady, the ten-year-old dark-skinned girl with a tight braid and purple glasses, who spoke. “But everyone says that werewolves are all monsters.”

Turning his gaze to her, Mateo nodded. “You’re right. There’s been a lot of… mistakes. There are some of us… some people like me, who are evil.” He touched his own chest. “They’re monsters. And your families, your parents, your grandparents, your brothers and sisters, they’re heroes for stopping them. They make sure those monsters can’t hurt other people. But… sometimes it’s hard to know if someone’s a good guy or a bad guy. You guys watch movies?”

All of their heads bobbed up and down quickly, and the man grinned. “Of course you do. You know Star Wars?” When that earned just as rapid of a series of nods, his smile grew. “Okay. Well, you know how Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader both have the Force? They both have special powers, but they’re not both evil, right? How do we know which one is evil?”

“Vader hurts people!” One of the kids blurted.

Another put in, “He kills them! And he blows up a planet!”

“That’s pretty bad, yeah,” Mateo agreed. “So… we know he’s evil because of what he does, not because he has powers. Because Luke has powers too. We know Darth Vader’s the bad guy because he kills innocent people. Just like we know that real life people are bad because they kill innocents.”

“But why do they say you’re all bad?” one of the kids asked while raising a hand. “My dad’s a Heretic and he kills werewolves, but he never said anything about some good ones and some bad ones.”

“Well, your dad’s trying to help people, just like the other Heretics,” Mateo carefully replied. “It’s just that sometimes it’s hard to tell who the good guys and who the bad guys are.”

“Does that mean my mommy’s bad?” The girl who asked that did so in a trembling voice.

Mateo shook his head. “No, sweetie, no. Your mom is a hero who wants to help people. That’s all. She wants to make sure monsters don’t hurt innocents. Right now everyone’s just arguing about who the bad guys really are. But your mommy, she’s doing the best she can, okay? She is trying to help people.”

That time, when the slow nod came, he straightened. “Okay. We’re gonna go for a walk and meet some people. And some of them are going to look a little different, or even scary. But no one is gonna hurt you. You are completely safe.”

While the kids reacted to that, Marina leaned closer to Roxa and whispered under her breath, “He’s very good.”

In turn, Roxa whispered back, “Why do you think I asked him to help? Also, werewolf hearing is super good, so he can totally hear this. Just FYI.”

They had barely started to walk again before a tiny figure zipped through the air. For an instant, Marina thought it was a large dragonfly. But then the figure stopped, hovering in the air in front of them and she saw that it… she… the figure was a small pixie. Her fluttering wings were bright purple, and her hair was dark blue. She wore a tiny sword at her waist, and leather armor that looked like it was made for a doll.

“Hiya!” the pixie blurted, waving.

The kids, in turn, jerked backward, one of the boys yelping in surprise. Kady pointed that way. “It’s a Fairy!”

“Humph.” The pixie folded her arms and gave them a scowl. “Pixie. A Fairy is different. And Faeries with an e are really different. Not a Fae. Pix. Pixie. My name’s Namythiet! What’re your names?”

The kids started to slowly introduce themselves while the hovering pixie gave them her rapt attention. One of them asked her a question about what it was like being so small, and she shot back that she didn’t know what it would be like to be as big as them and how they manage to avoid tripping over everything. That convinced another kid to ask a question, and then more came.

They were so busy asking the tiny pixie questions that they almost didn’t notice the tiny green cat that came trotting up. Marina started to ask why the cat was green, only to double-take as the thing looked at her to reveal long sabertooth tiger-like teeth.

“Kitty!” One of the kids announced, before taking a step back as she saw the teeth. “Whoa…”

Namythiet, however, landed on the green cat’s head. “It’s okay, this is my friend! His name is Clubber.”

If meeting a real life pixie and not being eaten was impressive for the kids, meeting a green sabertoothed tiger… thing was even better. Most wanted to pet him, though a few hung back and shook their heads, not wanting anything to do with either Namythiet or Clubber. They were staying away from Roxa and Mateo too, who hadn’t quite won all the kids over.

Biting her lip, Marissa hesitantly looked to her old mentee. “And you’re… I mean, you’re completely sure that there won’t be… I mean that it’s… I mean–”

“It’s okay,” Roxa assured her. “They’re safe, like I said. There are little things that look like pixies who are pretty nasty, but actual pixies like Namythiet just got lumped in with those things because they look similar. And, you know, because everything that isn’t perfectly normal human must be evil anyway.” There was a hint of bitterness in the girl’s voice, but she swallowed it back and smiled a little at Marissa once more. “I know, it’s too much to take in. But hey, at least the next meeting should be easier to take.”

“Next mee–” Marissa started to echo, before hearing something behind her. She pivoted, only to stop short at the figure she saw there in the museum corridor, grinning at her.

“Jazz!” The name leapt to her mouth even as she moved to quickly embrace the girl in question. “You’re–you’re okay! You’re–wait…” Leaning back in mid-hug, she stopped short to stare at her. “You’re not a werewolf too.”

Raising an eyebrow, Jazz shook her head. “Nope. C’mere.” She hugged Marina tightly then before stepping back. “I’m not. And neither are these guys.”

Looking to where she was nodding, Marina saw Doug and Gordon. Immediately, she embraced both of them. “Oh my God, you guys are just–you’re together and… and…”

“It’s a really long story,” Doug replied dryly. “But hey, at least we can finally tell it to you. All of it.”

Biting her lip as she looked around at the four of them while hearing the kids asking more and more questions of Namythiet and of Mateo, who had wandered that way, Marina took a moment before managing to speak. “I… I guess we can’t talk to Rudolph, Paul, and Isaac…”

That made the four exchange more glances, their expressions sobering. Gordon cleared his throat. “That’s one of the things we should talk about. You’re not going to want to hear it.”

“But you need to,” Jazz put in. “There’s a whole year worth of stuff that we all need to tell you about. Including that piece of shi–” She stopped then, clearly restraining herself. “We’ll talk about it.”

“Later,” Doug added. “Right now, we thought you might like some company walking through this place. You know, have some people you know around to help you meet all the people you… really don’t.”

“I–I just…” Blinking back the wetness that suddenly appeared in her eyes, Marina managed a weak, “I know I was a shitty mentor for you guys, I just–”

“Miss Marina!” The was Donny, eyes wide as he waved a hand to get her attention. “Nommy says they use the buddy system too! Just like us!”

Namythiet in turn bobbed up and down. “Yup! C’mon, you can meet him!”

“Meet him?” Marina echoed, blinking at Roxa. “How do you meet a buddy system?”

Roxa, Gordon, Doug, and Jazz all exchanged knowing looks before smiling at her. “Oh,” Roxa replied mysteriously, “you’d be surprised.” Then she sobered. “Actually, you being surprised is probably a bad idea. Buddy System is a–”

“Wonderful children!” The Russian-accented voice came from just down the hall, and Marina looked that way, only to see an enormous troll. The thing was almost nine feet tall, covered in thick muscle and leathery hide, with a face full of teeth that he was showing all of. Over his back he had a broken telephone pole with a big spike driven through it, and he wore a shirt that was almost comically too small for him, with words written across it. Words that read… ‘Safety First – Use The Buddy System’.

Marina, by that point, had put herself in front of the kids. Most of them had already shrunk back, hiding behind her while whimpering with fear. She found herself almost drawing the sword at her side, before Roxa was there with a hand on her arm to stop her.

“Ohhh.” Slowly slumping down to his knees with a pair of heavy thuds that shook the hallway, the enormous troll shook his head. His voice cracked a little.  “No scared, children. Buddy System not hurting you. Never hurting children.”

“It’s okay, Buddy,” Roxa assured the troll before walking that way with a quick look at Marina. She pointedly reached out, putting a hand on his gigantic arm. “He’s a nice troll. He protects the people here from the bad monsters.”

“M-Miss Marina?” one of the kids whispered in a trembling voice. “Is… is it okay? That thing looks… really scary.”

Marina honestly agreed. The troll looked terrifying. But then she looked at his eyes. She watched his eyes, and saw… dejection. He looked forlorn now, kneeling there staring at the children that he had… that he had been so excited to meet. He saw how they were looking at him, and it made him… sad. He looked… he looked… sad. He looked empty and sad.

She straightened. Clearing her throat, Marina took a single step that way, then another. She was shaking a bit, forcing herself not to cry from fear, and not to run away. One step at a time, she walked up to the kneeling troll. Her hand went out, shaking a little as she extended it to him.

“Mr… Buddy System,” she started, her voice cracking only a bit. “I… I’m… Marina Dupont. It–” She swallowed and kept her hand steady. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

The big troll gave her a hesitant look of his own, clearly gulping before he very slowly extended his own hand. It completely dwarfed her own, but he (extremely carefully) shook it, his strength obvious even through his incredibly gentle actions. “I am… being… good for meeting you too, Miss Marina Dupont.”

Very slowly, a couple of the kids came forward. Laina, the nearly thirteen-year-old girl who had been helping so much over the past couple days, was the first to put herself beside Marina. The little black-haired girl raised her own trembling hand, very lightly touching the troll’s before quickly jerking her hand back with a gasp. Then she put her hand forward once more and left it there, grasping his outstretched thumb. Her voice was soft. “You’re really big.”

“I like your shirt.” That was another kid, a younger boy named Thomas, who poked his head out from behind Marina’s other side.

The troll gave them a broad smile at that, his eyes delighted. “It is good shirt. And funny. I am Buddy System. We must use Buddy System for safety, yes?”

That made a few of the kids giggle, and more slowly came forward to join them. Their reaction made the troll–made Buddy laugh as well, a surprisingly pleasant sound.

Marina took a step back then, letting the kids move past her to meet Buddy. They were already asking questions, just like they had been asking Namythiet. And he was answering. At a request, he held his arm out, letting several of the children climb onto it in a vain attempt to pull it down.

“You’re wrong, you know.” That was Doug, who had moved up by Marina, along with the other three. “You’re not a shitty mentor.

“You just needed the right students.”

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