Month: May 2019

Legwork 3-03 (Summus Proelium)

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“Man, I still can’t believe you get to come here whenever you want.”

Amber was the one talking, and ‘here’ was the White Pines Country Club. It was a pretty exclusive place. A pretty exclusive place that my parents happened to be on the board of directors of. We’d been members basically my whole life.

I wondered how many of the other important members were also supervillains.

Feeling self-conscious (for a few reasons), I shrugged at both Amber and Jae, who sat next to her. The three of us were out on one of the balconies overlooking the golf course, sitting on some admittedly incredibly plush and comfortable chairs. “It’s not a big deal. Your families could probably join up if they wanted to. I mean, we all go to the same school, you know.”

Taking a sip of her virgin strawberry daiquiri, Amber shook her head. “No, see, our families are comfortable. High end of comfortable. Yours is filthy stinking rich. There’s a difference.”

“It’s not just filthy stinking rich people who come here,” I pointed out. “If it was, there’d be like, four members.” Shifting in my seat as I tried to push my thoughts away from that one about how many of the people I saw here all the time might be evil, I looked to the quiet Jae. “Besides, with how cool she looks, I bet you guys could get in all on your own.”

“It’s true,” Amber agreed with a wink at her friend, “she is pretty cool.”

Jae, who was wearing dark shades and a large sun hat to help keep her sensitive skin from burning so easily while we were out here in the open, flushed a little and took a drink from her iced tea. Her voice was very soft as she suggested, “We should probably start.”

“She’s got a point.” Looking to Amber, I added, “We should get to it. I just figured coming out here might be a nice change of pace from holing up the library or whatever. But we can still work on the project without too many distractions.”

Clearly distracted, the dark-haired girl stared at a passing woman in a short tennis skirt. “Uh huh, not too many distractions. Sounds yummy–I mean good.” She looked back to me. “Good.”

Giving her a disbelieving stare, I shook my head while muttering, “Has anyone ever told you that you’re as bad as a guy?”

Her response was a Cheshire grin. “Bad wasn’t the word they used.” Before I could respond to that, her eyes glanced over my shoulder as she added a quiet, “Heads up.”

I turned, just in time to see basically the last person I wanted to run into (okay, there were a few lower on that list, like Janus). It was Simon, dressed in his own tennis outfit as he smiled broadly while sidling up to the table. “Well, if it isn’t my little sister and her friends. And here I thought you didn’t like watching golf.”

“I don’t,” I retorted. “I like playing it, but it’s boring to watch. Thankfully, it looks like a lot of people agree with me.” I gestured around the mostly empty balcony to illustrate that fact. “So this is a quiet place to work.” Pausing pointedly before making my voice sound as lightly teasing as possible, I added, “Or at least, it used to be.”

“Psst,” Simon stage-whispered toward Jae with a slight smile. “I think she’s talking to you. There’s already been noise complaints about the racket you’re making out here.”

Jae, in turn, sank a bit in her seat while apparently trying to hide behind her iced tea glass. Her reply was a very quiet, “They must have very sensitive hearing.”

“Ears like rabbits, I tell you,” Simon agreed, winking before he looked to me. “Anyway, I just thought I’d see if my little sister was bored.”

“Bored? Not until you showed up,” I tried to tease before giving him a firm pushing motion with both hands. “So why don’t you let us get back to work before you put us to sleep?”

Snorting, he gave me a light jab at the shoulder before stepping back. “Yeah, yeah, I get it. I’ll stop crowding you guys and let you work. You don’t need a ride home, do you?”

The thought of being alone in a car with him made me repress an almost violent shudder. It was all I could do to keep the revulsion off my face while quietly replying, “I think I can manage.”

With a nod to the other two, he headed off. Amber, watching him go, murmured, “Something about him bugs me.” She jolted a little then, as I caught the slight motion of Jae subtly kicking her under the table, eyes finding me. “I mean… um, sorry.” Flushing as she clearly just realized she’d been talking out loud, the girl gestured. “I guess we should work, huh?”

“Yup. And don’t worry, I uhh, I get it.” Leaving it at that, I reached down to grab the bag at my side, taking a book out to set on the table. “Right, so… Laura Cereta.

“Let’s see what history has to say about you.”

******

Hours later, we’d done enough on the project for the day, so Jae and Amber had gone off to do… whatever they were going to do. I, meanwhile, was standing on the roof of a building downtown, dressed in my costume. Because it was time for me to started on my other project. Namely, finding either Ashton himself, or at least those vials, so Blackjack’s daughter didn’t die.

Yeah, I had a feeling this project was going to be harder than the other one.

Face covered by the ski mask but with the helmet hanging loosely from one hand, I tried to think. What did I know? Or at least, what could I be pretty sure of?

I was pretty sure that Ashton guy was still in the city. Mostly because what he took had to be useless for him personally. It was valuable only as a way of getting money out of Blackjack, or one of the other gangs. Unless I was really off, my guess was that he was going to lie low until it was clear they couldn’t find him in time, then find a way to start auctioning it off. He’d try to get money out of Blackjack, or out of one of the other gang leaders who wanted to take the vial to get control and concessions out of the man. Or just to fuck with him. Either way, it was only worthwhile to Ashton as something to sell. And the only people interested in buying it would be the ones here in this city. So he was probably hiding out somewhere within it.

But where? He had basically the entire city looking for him. Cops, heroes, villains, entire gangs were going to be roving the city, turning over every stone they could to find this guy. He wouldn’t be able to hide anywhere they could find out about. Every family member, every friend, they’d tear through every clue to drag him out. They’d be going through showing his picture at every motel, homeless shelter, bed and breakfast, taxi driver, bar, everywhere. And yet, despite all the people out scouring the city, apparently he was still safely hidden.  

So how was he doing it? Why had no one been able to find him, even with what had to be incredibly intense motivation? And how was I going to do any better than they were?

I needed to think outside the box. I needed to figure out where to look that everyone else wasn’t already looking. Obviously, Ashton wasn’t stupid enough to stay somewhere he could easily be noticed. My guess was that, wherever he was, he hadn’t left for a long time. Probably since he stole the vials to begin with. He’d most likely set the place up far ahead of time, so he had food, water, everything he needed to stay holed up without venturing out to be recognized.

Also, I realized belatedly, he’d probably only ever gone there in disguise. There was too big of a chance of someone noticing a new person fitting his description. So, be it a wig and glasses or… or whatever, anyone around where he was staying had probably never seen the real him.

Right, unless I was wrong, this guy was holed up somewhere he wouldn’t have to come out of for a long time and was disguised so that no one around would recognize him.

How the hell was I supposed to work with that?

“You got any ideas, Pinky?” My question was addressed not to a cartoon mouse, but toward the blob of pink paint that I had sprayed out onto the nearby wall. Glancing to it, I waited until it was painfully clear that no answer was forthcoming. “Right, so you’re not ‘magically instill answers’ paint. Got it.” Scratch that off the list of possible powers the pink stuff could’ve been hiding.

“I guess I’ll have to do this myself then. Hmm.” Frowning behind the mask, I moved to the edge of the roof and looked down. I’d come to a place across the street from the bank in question, hoping it would give me some ideas to work with. But even looking at it now, I still wasn’t sure.  

Unless… apartments. Right, so I could guess that he’d set up an apartment ahead of time, and that it was stocked with everything he needed. But I was also pretty sure that it would be somewhere within walking distance of the bank. Because he wouldn’t want to take his car there to be found, and there was no way he’d risk a cab or Uber driver remembering him. So he’d walk. Beyond that, he’d also probably want to change into his disguise on the way, rather than doing so at the bank where his disguise would be seen, or at the apartment where his real self would be seen. He’d want to leave the bank as his real self, change somewhere along the way, and show up at his hideout in his disguise. That made sense, right? Yeah, totally made sense.

So apartments within walking distance of the bank, preferably with a place he could stop and change at. Either a fast food or gas station bathroom, some other store, an alley, something. There were probably a few that fit that bill, depending on how far he’d want to walk. Not longer than ten to fifteen minutes or so, I was guessing, since he would want to get out of sight quick. But not much less or he’d be too close to the bank. He’d want a sweet middle ground where he felt safely distant from them, but close enough to get to and hide in time.

Okay, then step one in this plan that was slowly taking shape in my head was to identify potential apartments that could fit that bill.

With that in mind, I put the helmet on my head, adjusted it, and then took a few steps back. Taking a breath to brace myself, I ran forward, painted my legs purple, and leapt as high and far off the roof as I could before extending a hand to shoot a burst of red paint toward the antennae sticking off the edge of the next roof over. Using that to yank myself across the distance before disabling the red paint on my hand, I tucked myself into a flip to fall just under that antennae, landing on the roof on both feet before sprinting once more.

I was going apartment hunting.

******

Cripes, there were a lot of apartments in Detroit.

Yeah, a lot. Even narrowing it down the way I had still left more than I’d thought there would be. Being incredibly picky about it, I ended up with six strong possibilities. Six apartment complexes that were within the right distance, that seemed private and quiet enough, and generally fit the idea I’d had in my head. If none of those six panned out, I’d have to expand. But I’d start there.

To that end, I was crouched on the roof of yet another building (I was becoming very acquainted with roofs already), watching the nearest possibility. It was a small complex that amounted to four main buildings, all in a line, with dog paths between the first two and a pool between the others. There was a high fence all the way around the whole place, with a gated parking lot.

It was late enough that the windows of the main office were dark. They’d been closed up for a few hours by that point, the employees long gone aside from possibly a night manager, who didn’t work in the main office itself.

So the main office was clear. Exactly as I wanted. Looking around briefly to make sure I wasn’t being watched, I used a purple strength boost combined with a blue springboard to fling myself high into the air, then red-paint-yanked myself across the street and down toward the building in question. A shot of black made sure my landing would be silent, as I came down in a crouch.

Waiting there for a minute just to see if anyone had seen anything, I couldn’t hear any reactions. So I slid over to the far side of the roof, leaning over to carefully look through the window.

Nothing. It was dark aside from the light from the screen savers on a couple computer monitors. Which was just perfect for me. Aside from the fact that I was about to technically break into a place illegally. Yeah, I probably needed to work on that whole ‘hero’ thing. But this was important. Plus, I wouldn’t actually be stealing anything. Nor would I be really be breaking.

Nope, no breaking here. Instead, I boosted myself back up onto the roof and took a phone from my pocket. This one wasn’t mine, it was a pay-as-you-go phone I’d picked up from a gas station. I’d already taken it from the package and made sure it worked, and now I used it to look up the number of the after-hours office for this place. Dialing it in before lifting the front of my helmet and mask, I carefully moved the slider on my voice changer over to the first option.

“Yeah?” aman release voice grumpily spoke up. “I mean, ahh, Four Pines Apartments, how can I help you?”

“Yes, hello,” I started. My voice sounded like an old woman. Mostly because I was pretty sure no one on the other end of the phone would have listened to either my regular voice or the one I used that sounded like a fourteen year old boy. “I think someone might’ve made a mistake at your office, young man.”

There was a brief pause before the guy replied, a little uncertainly. “Sorry, ma’am, if you have a problem with your bill, I’m sure you can–”

“Oh, no, no, no,” I interrupted. “This isn’t a complaint. I’m just calling to warn you that someone left the door to the main office open. My little Posey almost ran right in there after the squirrel. I shut the door so no one else would go rooting through your things, but it’s still there. The squirrel, that is.”

The man on the phone clearly had to take a second at that, realizing he wasn’t about to be sworn out by an angry tenant. “Oh–I–right, thank you, Miss…?”

“You’re quite welcome, young man. Have a good evening.”

With those words, I disconnected. There, that should do it. Laying on my stomach, I carefully watched the path leading up to the main door into the office.

I didn’t have to wait long. Within a couple minutes, I spotted a figure moving quickly along the sidewalk from one of the other buildings. Laying flat, my costume painted black, I watched as a man in his late twenties approached, grumbling to himself. Slowing as he approached, I heard the man mutter about people not locking the door, just as he went to open it.

“What…” There was a brief pause, then a jangle of keys as the man unlocked the door before carefully stepping inside. “Hello? Squirrel? Are there any squirrels in here?”

Leaning carefully over the edge of the roof, I peered down and watched. The man made his way into the office. As soon as he was through the door, I activated the black paint to silence myself, dropping behind him before quickly and carefully scooting through the doorway. There was a small lobby, with several private offices attached to it. The man was standing in the middle, looking around for the supposed squirrel. Quickly, I slipped to the right, through the open doorway of one of the offices to slip out of sight.

The man looked around a little bit more, but it was pretty half-hearted now that he’d found the door locked. I heard him talking to himself as he tried calling the number of the phone that had called him, but I’d already turned it off.

Finally, he gave up and stomped out, locking the door behind him. Once he was definitely gone, I straightened up and moved to the nearby computer.

Password locked. And no convenient password written down anywhere. Damn. But there were still several more computers. I moved quickly to the next office.

They were apparently pretty security conscious here, at least as far as computers went. Or they were used to other employees trying to snoop on them. All the computers were locked, but I was able to find a password written on a post-it note inside one of the desk drawers of the last office. That opened the computer, and I went through the files, looking for resident information.

There it was. They had it in an Excel file, which I brought up and sorted by date, looking for anyone who had rented an apartment within the past six months. Ashton might’ve started this further back than that, but I was kind of doubting it.

Once I had that list of nine possibilities, I looked at other criteria. Anyone with more than one person living there was immediately dismissed. I also looked at birthdates, mentally crossing out anyone who was definitely too old to be Ashton in a simple disguise.

Doing all that left three possibilities. Three different apartments. Noting where they were on the handy map posted on the wall, I turned everything back off, then carefully opened a nearby window and slipped out to climb back on the roof. Three apartments to play peeping tom at, just to see if any of the people in there looked like they could be Ashton.

They didn’t. One was a black guy, and the other two were Hispanic. None were white, and none looked anything like the picture I’d looked up of the man I was looking for. While he could have been in disguise even in the confines of his safe apartment, I kind of doubted it. And it wouldn’t have been that much of a disguise.

So, unless I’d missed something, these apartments were a bust. But that still left another five possibilities to check.

Yeah, it was gonna be a long night.

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Summer Epilogue 10 (Heretical Edge)

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“Oh damn it, I liked you as a teacher!”

The outburst came from Tristan, as the boy put the heels of both hands against his forehead, fingers pressed against his scalp. “Seriously, dude, you’re possessed too?”

Wyatt, meanwhile, had a hand against his own forehead as well. In his case, however, the man was repeatedly slapping himself. “No! No, should’ve known. I did it wrong. I knew I did it wrong. Had to test. I had to test and it was supposed to work. What did I do wrong?”

There was a brief pause as the man in the doorway blinked at her, before stepping fully inside. “First, Mr. Moon,” he began simply, “I promise, the man you enjoyed having as an instructor is basically the exact same guy you always knew. My, ahhh… influence runs pretty much the same way as Sariel there. You know, I act as subtly as possible, and only taking direct control when I absolutely have to. For the most part, all the teaching you experienced was from Benji himself.”

Flick was pointing at him. “You–that–we tested you! I tested you! I swear, I used the choker thing and you didn’t show up as Seosten. And Wyatt! He’s right! Wyatt used the ejection rune thing on everyone who came in here. Why wouldn’t it work on you? Why didn’t you show up as Seosten before? What?”

Holding up both hands for peace, the Seosten-possessed-man carefully replied, “There’s a reason for both of those not working. My old friends here, they already know.”

“Amitiel,” Sariel herself announced neutrally, already having moved to step in front of the man.  

“He prefers Mercury,” Apollo reminded her as he put himself beside his pseudo-sibling. “Right?”

The man wearing Benji Carfried gave a very slight swallow before his head bowed. “Yup. That’s right. Mercury’s my name. Just like Apollo is yours. Do you want to explain why their tests didn’t work?”

“It’s Mercury’s Olympian power,” Apollo murmured, glancing to the others. “It allows him to extend, delay, or quicken the effects of any magic that’s used on him. When you tested him with the choker, or the expulsion rune, he just delayed the effect long enough to convince you it didn’t work, then got out of sight before letting it happen.”

Wyatt, cursing rapidly under his breath, yanked a well-worn notebook from his pocket once more and set about rapidly scrawling in it. He tore three pages out, looked around briefly as though looking for somewhere to throw them, then simply shoved the paper into his mouth, chewing and swallowing before setting out to scribble even faster.

“Errr, right,” Mercury murmured at that before shaking his head. “But before we get too far with this, I ahh, I’d kind of like to speak to you guys directly. Without my host, I mean. Do you have a place for him to rest for the time being? He and I… we need to have a conversation about where we’re going from here, if he’s up for it. But that can wait. This seemed more pressing.”

“So you’re not going to try to possess him against his will again?” Flick put in, staring intently at the man. She too had enjoyed Carfried as a teacher and didn’t know what all this meant for that, despite Mercury’s words. “You’re not just gonna make some deal about jumping back in?”

The man offered her a brief, genuine smile. “You know, I’m pretty sure the days of that are almost gone as it is,” he pointed out. “After all, Liesje’s spell must be pretty close to being ready to go. So I would’ve revealed myself eventually regardless.”

He heaved a slow sigh. “No, I’ve no intention of forcing control of Benji again, after this. I’d… ahhh, kind of like it if somebody else would sorta… talk to him and explain the situation. Tell him that, if he wants, we can have a face-to-face conversation any way he wants. Or I can leave him alone. His choice. Either way, it’d  be best if he hears it from someone other than me, at first.”

Vanessa spoke up then. “You really don’t take much control of your vict–host?” She was squinting suspiciously at him.

Clearing Carfried’s throat, Mercury quietly pointed out, “Yeah, I get your doubts, trust me. All I can say is that you’ll see for yourself when you talk to him enough after I’m gone. You’ll know it’s him. He’s your teacher and he always was. I took control only when I had to for my mission. Or to protect some other Seosten secret. For the vast majority of my time with Benji, I was a passive observer.”

“He definitely sounds different,” Flick pointed out. “I can’t explain it, but he’s not really talking like Carfried does. If I didn’t know about Seosten or anything, I’d almost say they were twins.”

From the corner where she was still standing, Gwen agreed, “She’s right. This guy may look like Benji Carfried, but you can tell the difference. He’s not trying to blend in. I can’t say if that means that he wasn’t acting different before, or that it proves what he’s claiming about not taking control. But he is different now.” As she spoke, the woman continued to look the man up and down with a hard, yet thoughtful expression, still deciding exactly what she thought of him.

“I’m sorry,” Abigail suddenly put in, “I’m still trying to wrap my head around this whole ‘Flick, Tristan, Vanessa, and Tabbris have been co-opted by Aphrodite to convince an intergalactic evil empire to completely change everything about itself in order to win a war against another intergalactic evil empire full of even worse monsters, and they have a year to do it’… thing. Now this guy’s another Seosten?” She paused, taking a breath before exhaling long and hard while muttering, “I never thought I’d say this, but I miss law school.”

“Don’t worry,” Flick assured her sister with a hand on her shoulder, “we’ll let you learn Seosten law so you can help convince the Seraphs not to kill all of us.” As Abigail lifted her head to squint at her, the girl raised her hand to give a thumbs up. “You got this.”

Lincoln finally spoke, standing up. “Well, Mr… ahh, Mercury. Whatever’s going on, I guess you can put your… host over in the bedroom here.” He waved for the man to follow while heading that way. “He can sleep on the bed, and we’ll explain things to him later.” Pausing, he added, “I should probably make sure there’s alcohol nearby at the time.”

While the two went to do that, Gwen took a breath before quietly asking, “Are you sure we can trust him to tell us the truth about the Merlin Key?” Her eyes were on Sariel and Apollo.

The ‘twins’ exchanged glances before Sariel spoke. “He has no real reason to lie right now. It’s in the best interest of everyone who stays on Earth that Arthur be awake before the year is up. The Seraphim are much more likely to listen to alliance suggestions if we make them from a position of strength.”

Apollo nodded. “Kinda hard to get any stronger than a natural Dragon-Heretic. If you guys say that Jophiel sent him, I don’t see why he’d lie about anything here. He has to know that that would be a bad idea for the trust they’re trying to foster.”

“And,” Sariel added, “he’s the one who first convinced us to… to save Chayyiel. He begged us to find a way to get her out of Tartarus. He was willing to risk everything, willing to do anything, to save her.” She paused briefly, before finishing with, “I’d say we can trust him for that, if nothing else. Besides, as we said, he has no tactical reason to lie right now.”

Tabbris, holding onto her mother’s arm, asked, “Does he really possess people like you did?”

“As far as we know, he does,” Apollo confirmed. “Mercury was always getting in trouble for not taking more control, for not having a… firm hold on his hosts. If he says he’s barely been doing anything with Carfried, I’d believe him.”

“Thanks.” That voice, unknown to most of them until now, came from the doorway where Lincoln stood with the actual Mercury. He was shorter than the man beside him, yet taller than his host, standing just over six feet. His hair, dark red to the point of nearly being black, was worn long, with a tight ponytail, and his skin was very tanned, with firm, lean muscles. He looked like a lightweight boxer, with eyes that were bright green.

“I’d like to say it’s nice to meet all of you face to face,” the Seosten observed. “Honestly, I would’ve preferred to do it without all this tension, but I suppose that was pretty inevitable.” Taking a breath, he stepped forward and extended a hand toward them. “Let’s start this again. You can call me Mercury.”

Haiden was the first to step that way, taking the man’s hand firmly as he looked him straight in the eyes. “I hope my wife and brother-in-law are right about trusting you with this.”

“Yes,” a new voice announced from the entrance into the cabin. Athena stood there, watching the other Seosten as she let the door close after her. “So do I.” Glancing to Flick and the others, she added, “Guinevere has brought me up to date about what happened. I…” She paused to consider, then finished with, “I’m sorry you were put in that kind of position.”

Vanessa offered her a weak shrug. “We’ve been in worse. I mean, Jophiel isn’t that bad.”

With a small smile, Athena agreed, “Yes, there were certainly worse people who could have discovered Tabbris at the lab that day.”

She and Gwen exchanged brief looks and a silent conversation passed between the two before Athena turned back to the others, her gaze finding Mercury once more. “As tense as it may be for some of us, for this alliance to ever work, we are going to have to trust each other.”

“In the… interest of that,” Mercury began slowly, “there’s something that Chayyiel was trying to convince me to do a long time ago. I resisted. But it’s probably time, if it’ll help with trust.” While the rest of the room looked uncertain, he focused on Flick. “The Anuk-Ite choker, do you have access to it?”

Of all the things he could have said right then, that was probably one of the most surprising. Blinking at him, Flick hesitated before looking over toward Athena. Only when the woman nodded to her, did she hold her hand out. “Tabs?” Tabbris, in turn, produced the necklace and passed it over.

“Go ahead,” Mercury urged gently while putting his hand out, palm down. “Test me.”

“But you’re–” Stopping herself, Flick put the choker on, adjusting it. Giving one last look to the others, she shrugged before putting her hand on his. Her eyes had just begun to squint that way when she jumped, stumbling backward a step. “What–the–but you’re–”

“SPS,” Abigail murmured. “You’re an SPS-Seosten, like Theia, aren’t you?”

“I’m not sure what that stands for,” Mercury replied, “but I am what my people call a Lie, yes.”

Sariel was staring at him. “You… you’ve been like this the whole time. Back in the lab, you were supposed to have disappeared, run off with some supplies or something. That was you, wasn’t it?”

“And that’s why Chayyiel trusted you,” Apollo added. “Why you were so intent on saving her. And why you prefer the name Mercury instead of Amitiel. Because you’re not really Amitiel.”

“She kept my secret,” Mercury confirmed, swallowing visibly. “She… she was my friend, in the lab. The original Amitiel saw me in her room when I went to visit her, and jumped to conclusions. We fought. He was gonna…” He grimaced, looking away. “He was going to kill me and tell them that I was doing things to Chayyiel. She was my friend. I would never–” Cutting himself off, he sighed. “I possessed him. We… struggled. I won. I was going to turn myself in, but Chayyiel convinced me not to. So it’s been a secret. Our secret. Until now.”

Flick, who had been staring at the man that whole time, swallowed hard. “That… you’ve been keeping that kind of secret for that long?”

“Yeah,” the man murmured, “saying it out loud like this is pretty… pretty hard.”

It was Tabbris who moved to him then. Stepping in front of Flick, the young girl squinted before speaking softly. “It must’ve been really scary to hide for so long, around so many people that would’ve hated you.”

Meeting her eyes, Mercury slowly sank to one knee. “Yeah,” he murmured. “I kinda got used to it. Mostly, anyway. But I never forgot that I didn’t belong there.”

After a very brief hesitation, Tabbris reached out to embrace the man. “It’s okay,” she informed him. “You can belong here, if you want to.”

Flick glanced to her younger sister and partner before nodding. “Yeah,” she murmured, “she’s right. If you’re open about things now. Which means telling us everything about this… Merlin Key.”  

Taking that as her opening, Gwen stepped forward with a nod. “Yes. Everything.”

Glancing up to her, Mercury offered a slight smile. “Honestly, I’m kind of glad to have good news for you, your majesty. And not just because I’d rather not have to face you when you’re angry.”

He straightened then, standing up to face the woman. “I should probably explain first. You see, Chayyiel… she wants to bring back Arthur too. She had me track down and keep an eye on the Merlin Key, to make sure they’re safe.” Pausing, he amended, “Well, technically my official orders from Metatron were to make sure the Merlin Key didn’t do what they’re supposed to do, and that no one found them.”

Raising his hand, Tristan asked, “Not that I’m objecting, but they didn’t tell you to just… kill this Merlin Key?”

The man shook his head. “No one exactly knows how the Key is supposed to wake up Arthur. They’re worried that if the person is put in too much danger, that could be what wakes him up. The rules were to keep an eye on them and keep anyone else from interfering or doing anything that might set things off. Chayyiel wanted me to watch for the right moment and… help things along.” His gaze moved to Gwen. “When I saw you, as you, that’s when I figured it must be about time. At least… time to tell you all the truth about it.”

“Yeah,” Abigail put in, “I’ve kind of noticed that you’ve been really careful to not even give away the gender of this Merlin Key while you’re talking. It’s all ‘they’ and other such words.”

With a slight chuckle, Mercury bowed his head to acknowledge that. “True. I ahh, sorry, product of spending a long time keeping secrets. I’m a little too accustomed to being careful.”

“Okay,” Haiden acknowledged. “So who is this Merlin Key? Are they here at the camp?”

Holding up a hand, the Seosten man murmured, “First, yes, they are here at the camp. But before we get into the who, we need to make something clear.” His eyes moved over everyone in the room slowly, his voice firm. “This is the one chance to bring Arthur back. One. If we fuck this up, he’s gone forever. And here’s the thing, even the Imperium doesn’t actually know what might make him return. We know who is supposed to bring him back, but not how. Putting that person in danger might be the thing that triggers it. Or that might stop it. No one knows. But we do know that if Metatron and the other Seraphim find out that you know who it is, let alone that you’re trying to make it happen, they might just panic. The last thing we need is panicking hostile Seraphim in the middle of a truce. So everything we talk about here, everything, has to stay secret. I mean it cannot leave this room. At all. I don’t care how much you trust someone else, things have a way of getting out there.”

Abigail’s mouth opened to respond to that, but Athena spoke first. “He’s right. We won’t get another chance to bring Arthur back. If this goes wrong, that’s it. So we have to make it perfect. Which means not letting the information out of this room. If anyone here isn’t okay with that, you’re free to leave.”

Apollo nodded, arms folding across his chest. “Believe us, if the Seosten Empire can stop Arthur from returning, they will. Too many of them will always see him as too much of a threat to their power, instead of as the ally against the Fomorians that he could be. So we’re gonna have to play this perfectly. Which is gonna mean keeping secrets. For now.”

“We can do that.” That was Vanessa, her voice soft and reflective. “If it’s a chance to bring Arthur back to life, I think you’re probably right about keeping it secret.”

“But if the Imperium already knows who it is,” Flick put in, “what if they get jumpy and order something done about them?”

“I’ll be the one they ask,” Mercury pointed out. “And I’ll give you the heads up. That’s another reason for why we have to keep it secret. If they find out I’m talking to you, this whole thing blows up.”  

Slowly, and with various degrees of reluctance, everyone in the room agreed to keep the identity of the Merlin Key secret, until the time was right. Once they had all done so, Tristan offered, “You know, this might be a bad time to ask, but are we keeping the whole Merlin Key thing secret from… well, them? The person themselves, I mean. Cuz that could be a pretty big conversation all by itself.”

“It’s okay,” Mercury informed him simply, “that’s not a conversation you have to have. Mostly because I already had it. I’ve revealed myself to the Merlin Key and I’ve been talking them through it for the past few days. It felt like something they should know ahead of time. I’ve been helping them deal with it.”

“You have?” Tristan blurted, snapping his fingers. “Oh. Well, I was kind of thinking it’d be Avalon. You know, the name Avalon and all. It seemed appropriate.” He frowned then. “Except they were trying pretty hard to kill her before… huh. Okay, that doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s no one in this room,” Mercury assured him with a slight smile. “Though I have asked them to come here. Now that we’ve talked it out this far, they should be–”

Once again, the people in the cabin were interrupted by a knock at the door. As everyone else looked that way, Lincoln stepped over, glanced to the others, and then opened it.

Everyone watched then as the person destined to bring back the Once and Future King stepped hesitantly into the room, the door closing behind them.

“Uhhh… hi. I umm, I guess back when Arthur was still… right before his village was attacked, right before he… before he became a Dragon-Heretic, my grandfather was the Reaper who met him.

“Which I guess means,” Aylen Tamaya continued, “I’m the one who has to wake him up.”

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Legwork 3-02 (Summus Proelium)

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“Um.” Raising one finger, I hesitated for a second before asking, “What do you mean, after we catch the bad guys? Isn’t that when we say woo hoo or whatever and celebrate?”

Staring at me through that stylized and sleek-looking samurai bug mask, the woman dryly replied, “Woo hoo indeed. But there is more to it than that. At least, there is if you wish to be effective. Cuff the man there and we shall discuss it.”

Realizing that I had basically, however briefly, forgotten about the man lying at my feet, I quickly knelt beside him. “Sorry,” I murmured to him without really knowing why. “I’m still new at this.”

The look that he gave me seemed incredulous. “It’s okay,” he informed me. “I’ve been here a few times, we’ll get through it together.”

“See, I know you’re being sarcastic,” I replied, “but thanks.” With that, I pulled the man’s hands behind his back and put the cuffs on him. As I did so, they changed from plain silver to blue.

“Do you know what those are?” Flea asked idly. I noticed that she had already cuffed the other two guys. “And what the color means?”

Belatedly, I realized I did have an idea. I’d just been surprised that she would give me one of them. Biting my lip behind the mask and helmet, I slowly nodded. “I think so? It’s Touched tech, right? When the cuffs are hooked up to someone it makes it hard for them to move? I don’t know what the color means, though.”

“Yes,” she confirmed. “They’re called stay-downs. When they are attached to someone, that person cannot move more than a foot or so from their original position. If they do, the stay-downs will gradually magnify their weight up to many times over, dragging the person back to the ground. When they are on the ground and still, the weight will decrease. The cuffs can sense the amount of strength being used and adjust accordingly, up to a thousand pounds or so. It’s enough to keep most down once they’re applied. Not perfect, but it helps against basically all but those who are Brawn-Touched, and there’s special cuffs for them.”

“Brawn-Touched?” I echoed. “People with strength powers?”

Flea gave me a brief look of curiosity, nodding. “You really are new to this. Yes, we use the something dash touched descriptor to explain what people are. Or at least to give a very slight overview. There are eleven basic categories, including Brawn, Tech, Mind, Travel, Bang, Form, Vary, Psy, Field, Crowd, and Friend.”

“Wow.” Blinking, I thought through it. “Okay, so Brawn-Touched are strong, tough people. Tech-Touched are people who make things. Mind-Touched are… people who affect other people’s minds?”

Her head shook. “That’s Psy. Psy-Touched affect other people’s minds in some way. Mind-Touched are people with mental gifts that affect themselves, like enhanced intelligence, knowledge that just pops into their head, an understanding of people, future knowledge, things like that. Enhanced senses tend to be classified under that too, even if some people think they shouldn’t be.”

“Oh, right.” Nodding to that thoughtfully, I continued. “Travel-Touched are obviously people with like… super speed or flight or whatever. Bang-Touched… umm… I wanna say explosives but… maybe like lasers and stuff?”

“Correct,” she confirmed. “The second part, I mean. Bang-Touched are people who project any kind of obvious outward attack. Lasers, fire breath, ice blasts, they’re all Bang-Touched.”

“Got it.” Thinking for another second, I guessed, “Form-Touched are probably people who can shapeshift or, you know, alter what they look like in some way.”

At a nod from her, I winced. “But uh, I have no idea what ‘Very-Touched’ could mean. Unless it’s like… they’re very powerful.”

I heard a very slight snicker from her before she caught herself. “No, ahh, vary. As in with an A, not an E. A Vary-Touched is someone whose powers change based on… well, various things. Someone who gains different powers based on the situation, or who can change their powers a lot.”

“Lastword,” I blurted. “His powers change based on what he last said, so he’d be a Vary-Touched.”

“Exactly,” she agreed. “And that leaves Field, Crowd, and Friend.”

Those three I considered for a couple seconds before offering, “Field is someone whose powers affect the world around him?” Glancing to the woman to see her nod again, I added, “Crowd must be affecting other people in a way that’s not just like blasting them.”

“Correct,” the woman confirmed. “Crowd-Touch powers are those that affect one or more living targets in a way other than direct damage or the mental effects that Psy covers. Healing, for example. Or petrification.”

Slowly, I nodded before finishing with,  “And Friend is someone whose powers summon things, or in some way create like… minions for him to use?”

Flea gave me a thumbs up. “You got it. There’s more specifics to it, but that’s the basic idea. Also, they’re often given other descriptors or combined to make things more understood. Like, someone who can control plants might be called ‘Nature-Field-Touched.’ Or someone who can shoot lasers that change the emotions of the targets they hit would be ‘Psy-Bang-Touched’. If you see two of the categories together like that, it means they’re connected in the same power. If, say, someone had lasers and flight, there would be an ‘and’ between them. Bang-And-Travel-Touched. That’s common enough that people will use BAT as a descriptor. Or BABAT.”

“Bang-And-Brawn-And-Travel-Touched?” I guessed. “For someone with flight, lasers, and super strength.” When the woman nodded, I added, “So people like Carousel and Raindrop would be considered Field-Touched, because their powers affect the things around them.”

“Technically,” Flea amended for me, “Raindrop is Crowd-And-Field-Touched because her power can affect living people as long as they’re wet. That’s also a common enough combination that people abbreviate it to CAF-Touched, or CAFT. Carousel is only Field-Touched because her power doesn’t affect living beings.”

“What about the ones that start with the same letter?” I asked. “How do you tell the difference between, say, someone who is Bang-And-Travel-Touched or someone who is Brawn-And-Travel-Touched? Both abbreviate to BATT.”

“Good point,” she agreed. “That’s why they usually say it all out at least once to make sure everyone’s on the same page. Every group is different about how they abbreviate them, or even some of the exact terms they use. It’s a good idea to get clarification.”

As I was nodding to that, the guy I had cuffed muttered, “Spiffy, do I get credit for class attendance too?”

“Yes,” the woman informed him. “I’ll be certain to note your interest in attending academic courses to the warden of your prison.”

With that, she made sure I had the guy properly cuffed, then turned to walk back into the store while gesturing for me to follow. On the way, the woman continued. “In any case, the colors of those cuffs refer to what kind of person is authorized to properly move that person. An authorized person can touch the cuffs and they will allow the prisoner to move normally as long as they stay close to that person. Blue is the most common, and it means uniformed police officers. Or anyone above them. All members of the government sanctioned Touched teams are authorized for them as well. Or, of course, the person who applied the cuffs.”

By that point, we’d gotten into the main part of the store, and I could see the damage that had been done. There were several racks tipped over, bullet holes in the walls and shelves, a pile of discarded shopping carts, and about four or five unconscious figures lying around. Flea had been busy. Actually, her power to make people tired probably really helped with the whole ‘making sure they stayed down’ thing. She just drained them until they fell asleep.

The two of us pulled all the unconscious figures to the middle of the room, cuffing them. They were still unconscious by that point, as Flea straightened up. “Now what?” she asked while looking to me. “What do you think we do next?”

“Um.” Shrugging, I offered, “Call the cops and let them know? Just leave seems pretty bad.”

With a soft chuckle, she agreed, “Yes, pretty bad indeed. I assume you already know how to use the Doephone app from Ten Towers.”

For a very brief second, my mind instantly flashed into panic mode, as I reflexively wondered if she somehow knew that I was the person who had sent the message the other night about the dead guys back in that motel. But that was dumb. Even if she did guess that much (like, say, if she had contacts who told her about the whole paint thing), it didn’t mean anything. The Doephone was anonymous. There’d been actual court cases about keeping it anonymous. It was a whole big deal.

“I’m aware,” I confirmed simply, trying to keep it somewhat vague. “I’m pretty sure you guys don’t use it, though.”

“You’re right, we don’t,” she agreed. “But it works just fine for you. Unless you’ve changed your mind about joining up.” Letting that hang very briefly as she glanced to me, the woman then went on without making me answer. “Regardless, you can use the Doephone to report the situation, or call the number That-A-Way provided if you need assistance in containing a more… imminently volatile situation. For something like this, you use the Doephone. And then?”

Biting my lip, I offered, “I’m guessing ‘and then leave’ still isn’t the right answer.”

I had the feeling she was smiling slightly while replying, “It can be, if that’s your choice. But that also risks the people you’ve stopped being released fairly quickly, without some kind of testimony.” As I flinched, she went on a bit quicker, reassuring me, “It doesn’t require you unmask. Simply put, if you want to be more effective, set up a case logger.”

“A case logger?” Frowning a little uncertainly, I asked, “What’s that?”

She explained readily. “Basically, a case logger is a confidential voice mail system accessible by you and the DA’s office. Whenever you complete something like this, you call in and leave a voicemail giving as many details as you can about what happened. Someone in the DA’s office will listen to the logs and attach them to case files. Once a month, they will also leave you a message about various cases that they need your deposition for. If you agree to it, you can go in and do that. It means sitting in a private room in the courthouse, in costume, they won’t make you unmask. You’ll sit there with a judge, a court stenographer, and they’ll cycle through each of the attorneys for both sides of all the cases involving you. Both sides will have the chance to ask questions, just like in a courtroom. You’ll give your testimony about what happened and have it recorded for potential use at trial, then leave. That’s it.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad,” I murmured thoughtfully. “So they just do that once a month?”

The woman nodded. “Yes. It’s different and more involved for official government Touched, but for someone like you, that’s what they’ll do. If you want, I can help you set up your case logger and get it connected to the court.”

Smiling just a little despite myself, I agreed, “I… yeah. Thanks. That sounds nice.”

Okay, Flea was cool. I really hoped she was actually a good guy and not one of my dad’s secret minions.

That would really suck.

*******

When we were done, Flea gave me a box with a bunch of simple zip-ties, and six of those actual metal ‘stay-down’ cuffs. According to her, I could get more when I needed them from the courthouse if I showed up for those deposition things.

It was probably a pretty good sign of trust that she gave me the things. So I felt kind of bad that I didn’t trust her enough to take them home. Because despite the fact that Flea seemed nice, I didn’t know if those cuffs might have some kind of tracker on them. So there was no way I was going to take them back to the house. Instead, I put them in a safe place for the time being. Namely, back at the half-finished rec center near the school that I’d been training at.

After that, I headed home. I’d been out to practice moving around, but it was getting pretty late by then. The last thing I wanted was for my parents to notice I was gone too long and start getting curious. Besides, it may have been Saturday, but I was still supposed to meet up with Jae and Amber so we could work on our project.

It was even easier to sneak in tonight than it had been that first night. Mostly because I understood my power a lot better now. Waiting until the camera at the gate was faced the wrong way, I used a bit of blue paint to jump to the top of the wall, making sure I was in black stealth mode. Keeping low, I ran along the wall toward the house, passing all the trees, flower gardens, and the fountain on the way. Finally, I reached the spot of the wall just across from the house. I could see my bedroom window up there. All I had to do was red-paint myself there and climb in.

Except just as I was about to do that, I saw shapes moving at one of the other windows, one floor above where my room was and a few rooms down. It was one of my dad’s offices. And the people I could see through the window were him and Mom. My parents were in there, clearly talking.

Did I dare? Would I really push my luck? Was that more brave or more stupid?

Whichever one, I had to hear what they were saying. Telling myself I was being dumb, yet unable (or unwilling) to stop, I shot a glob of black paint over to the spot of roof near the window, then used red to yank myself over there, activating the black just before impact to silence my arrival.

There was a ledge there, running along the wall near the window that I could rest on without having to use my paint to stay. Thankfully, the window was open a crack, so I could hear what was going on. Pressing myself against the wall, I leaned closer and listened.

“But until then, we’ll just have to wait and see what he does,” my mother was saying.

“I don’t like being passive when it comes to new Touched,” my dad replied. “Especially new Touched who might know more than they should about our business.”

Wait, they were talking about me. Did I get here just after they said something important and relevant to my situation? What the hell? That’s not how this was supposed to work. TV lied to me.

My mother was talking then. “Of course not, but we have been over this. Spilled milk and all that. Focus on what we can affect right now. Namely, this bounty.”

“Blackjack just tripled it,” Dad replied. “It’s up to three million now. He wanted to go as high as fifty, but I convinced him to leave it at that. He’s desperate and not thinking straight.”

“Would you,” Mom asked, “if it was Cassidy’s life on the line? This is his daughter, Sterling. I’m surprised you convinced him to keep it at three million.”

Blackjack? The leader of La Casa? Dad had enough pull to convince him about what to do with the bounty on that Ashton guy? And whatever was taken from that safe deposit box had to do with the guy’s daughter? Apparently something that was worth her life, from what they were saying. But what could’ve been in a bank that put her life in danger when it was stolen?

Right, it was even more clear that I should’ve been eavesdropping earlier. Or constantly.

“Yes, his daughter,” Dad agreed. “And even if the other gangs don’t know exactly why it’s so important, they know he’s losing his mind over it. So they’re just as determined to get the vials for themselves. Which is not helping Blackjack stay calm about any of this. If we don’t find the boy or those vials, there’s going to be a war. The people of La Casa will bring hell to this city to save that girl. And you know what it means if things get too out of control.”

Mom sighed. “Attention. Which we don’t need any more of. Brumal already wants to bring more reinforcements in as it is. If a gang war breaks out in the streets, she’ll have the excuse she needs.”

Brumal. She was the leader of the local Spartans, the state-level Touched team as opposed to the Federal-level Conservators. No wonder my parents were concerned about her bringing in more people. Especially if they didn’t have a way to control her.

Wait, if they didn’t have a way to control her, could she be a good person for me to approach?

“Have our people keep an eye on her,” Dad murmured. “If there’s a problem… we’ll deal with it. We know how to bring her in line if need be.”

Never mind. Restraining the urge to sigh, I focused once more.

“Yes,” Mom was agreeing, “but let’s not tug on that particular line just yet.  There’s a better solution to this problem.”

I heard Dad chuckle darkly. “Of course there is. All we have to do is find one of the Austin boys. Or this… Paintball.” He said the last bit with distaste. “And maybe tell him to pick a better name.”

Pffft, rude. What did he know? His real name was Sterling and not only did he pick a Touched name with the word silver in it, it even fit his power. He had it easy.

“As far as we know,” Mom clearly reminded him, “neither of the Austin siblings are anywhere in the city. Which leaves the new Touched boy.”

Dad was quiet for a few seconds before muttering something I didn’t hear. He followed up with, “You think he knows anything about where the vials are?”

“Perhaps,” Mom mused softly, sounding thoughtful. “But at the very least, I think he knows more than we do about what happened to them.”

Boy was I going to disappoint her if we ever had to talk. I didn’t even know these so-called ‘vials’, whatever they were, existed until now.

That said, I really hoped we didn’t have to talk. I didn’t exactly trust myself to fool either of my parents in a straight conversation, voice changer or not. I felt like the second I started talking, they would both instantly know who I was. It wasn’t something I wanted to test.

Both my parents were quiet for a few moments, and I thought they were done. Then Dad spoke up again. “Maybe the direct approach would be best.”

“Direct soft or direct hard?” Mom asked. It sounded like she was right near the window, and I silenced the area around me with a shot of black before edging a little bit away, just in case.

“Soft,” Dad replied. “There’s no reason to put him on guard if he doesn’t know about us. But if one of the Minority approaches him and asks about the Austin brothers…”

Mom finished for him, “They could tell him about the impending gang war. They don’t need to know details, only that La Casa is going to burn the city down looking for what was stolen. If the boy wants to be a hero, he’ll want to stop that.”

Dad had moved closer by then, also standing near the window as he replied, “Yes. Which should push this Paintball to tell them what he knows about where either of the brothers went. Or where the vials are. You see, there’s no need to play the hard game just yet.”

Hearing the squeak of the window, I quickly put both hands up, shooting a burst of red paint to yank myself up from that spot to the roof. Clinging there, I looked down as my father’s head appeared. It made me tense up, but he didn’t seem to be looking for me. He was just glancing around.

Before he could happen to look up, I climbed over the edge and laid on the roof for a second. Staring at the sky, I thought about what I’d overheard.

The thing that was stolen from the La Casa bank was some kind of vial. Or vials, rather. And whatever they were, losing them put Blackjack’s daughter’s life at risk. Medicine, maybe? Probably. Either way, it was definitely a big problem. Even if Blackjack was a bad guy, I couldn’t just let his daughter die.

The problem was, despite what my parents thought, I didn’t actually know anything useful about where those vials were. I knew that Josh had a ‘friend who lived in Illinois’ that he was going to stay with. But Illinois was a whole state. It didn’t exactly narrow things down. Plus, even if we found him, he didn’t know where his brother was.  

So my parents and I were actually on the same page. They wanted the vials returned to Blackjack to save his daughter’s life and so did I.

But I didn’t have the first fucking clue about how to do that.

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Summer Epilogue 9 (Heretical Edge)

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“Well, guys… you’ve assembled quite a little group here.” As he spoke, Haiden Moon glanced around at the other occupants of this small cabin. Sariel was there beside him, as were Apollo, Lincoln, Abigail, and Wyatt. They were arranged around a table, their eyes on the other side of the room where Vanessa and Tristan stood with Flick and Tabbris. Guinevere stood in the corner of the room, watching the proceedings.

“Yeah, you have,” Abigail agreed. Her gaze was focused intently on the quartet who had asked all of them to come. “I was even planning on going with Koren and the others on that hike that Klassin’s running until you asked to meet up here.”

“Don’t worry,” Tristan assured her, “there’ll be other hikes. But this is a lot bigger.”

“Why?” Abigail pressed. “What’s going on? Did… something else happen?”

Apollo, who had been watching them closely, spoke up. “I’m pretty sure something happened a couple weeks ago. Something that let them know what was going on with Sean.”

Instead of answering immediately, Flick and the other three exchanged glances. Finally, Vanessa was the first to speak. “Something did happen. But it happened awhile ago. We… umm, we couldn’t… exactly talk about it before…” She trailed off, looking uncomfortable while shifting from foot to foot.

“Hey, Nessabird,” Haiden started while frowning a little at his daughter’s nervousness. “It’s okay. You know you guys can tell us anything. No one here is gonna get mad at you, whatever it is.”

Lincoln nodded slowly, his own gaze centered on Flick and Tabbris. “Girls? Something’s been off with you lately. Especially today. But if something’s wrong, something that’s got you this… out of it, even after everything else that’s happened…”

Apollo, whose gaze had been more on Gwen than the children, spoke quietly. “Oh yeah, something’s definitely been off. But for longer than that. It’s been off since around–”

“We don’t like lying to you,” Flick abruptly blurted. “We hate it. We… hated it. But we had to.”

Raising an eyebrow, Sariel echoed in a slow, soft voice, “You… had to lie?” Her tone wasn’t accusatory, only curious, as her eyes moved from Flick to her own children. She said nothing else to prompt or push them, content even now to let the story come in their own time.

Tabbris, who was half-hiding behind Flick while clinging to the girl’s waist, nodded. “We had to. Magic ‘had to.’ It was part of the deal.”

Before Sariel or any of the others could question that, Tristan spoke up. “We should really start from the beginning instead of skipping around so much. It’d be a lot less confusing. So um, it started back on that prison lab, the one… the one Kushiel was running, when we were…” He hesitated, glancing toward Sariel. “When we were saving Mom.”

Haiden leaned forward, glancing to his wife before turning his attention back to the group that had called them all here. “That’s right, you four were off on your own at the end of that, weren’t you? You made it to the room just before Apollo showed up to help.”

“We made it a little sooner than that,” Tristan muttered. “We made it in time to hit that security field that knocked Tabs out of Flick.”

Eyes widening just a bit, Abigail blurted, “I’m sorry, what? There was some kind of anti-possession field and you walked into it with Tabbris?”

Wincing a little, Flick nodded. “Yeah, we didn’t know about that until it was too late. We walked into the room just outside the place where that transport ship thing was and suddenly she was… outside me.”

Head bobbing up and down quickly, Tabbris added, “Uh huh. It felt funny. And then Miss Jophiel showed up.”

For as simply as she stated those words, the girl might as well have thrown a bomb into the middle of the room. Two different chairs hit the floor as both Sariel and Lincoln jolted to their feet. Several people spoke at once, all talking over each other.

Finally, Apollo cleared his throat. “Ahem. Maybe it’d be easier to get the answers you’re all looking for if you let them keep talking.”

His words made Sariel flush a little, but she remained standing, her gaze fixed on her children. “What… do you mean, Jophiel was there?” Her voice was careful and deliberate, but it was very clearly a shell covering her true fear at the revelation that the other Seosten had seen Tabbris.

It was apparently Vanessa’s turn to speak, drawing her mother’s (and everyone else’s) attention with, “She came in her host.” A brief pause, then, “Elisabet, from the Committee.”

Again, there was a flurry of reactions. Lincoln was staring at Flick. While most of the others were talking, he met her gaze and silently mouthed, ‘Are you okay?’ Getting a quick nod from the girl, he relaxed just a little. It helped.

Wyatt, meanwhile, was on his feet, though he said nothing. For once, he wasn’t blurting out conspiracy theories or accusations. Instead, the man drew a notebook from his pants and proceeded to scribble in it quickly. He crossed out several entries, added a few words to others, and even seemed to draw a picture. Meanwhile, everyone else kept talking, until Sariel stepped around the table and moved to where the children were. “She… did she…”

“They didn’t hurt us,” Tabbris promised her mother, hesitating slightly before moving to embrace her tightly. “We’re sorry, Mama. We’re sorry we didn’t tell you, but we couldn’t.”

“Magic.” Of all people, it was Abigail who realized that first. “They used magic to make sure you couldn’t tell anyone about them seeing you, didn’t they?”

“That figures,” Apollo muttered, adding a few words in Latin that was clearly a curse of some kind.

“Yeah,” Tristan confirmed. “But it’s–it’s not like they wanted to hurt us or anything. They weren’t setting up a trap or… you know, they could’ve told the Empire about Tabbris way back then. They could’ve captured us. They–right, gotta tell it in order.” He looked to his sister for help explaining.

“We freaked out,” Vanessa supplied dryly. “Especially when Jophiel, umm… revealed herself. It was scary. I mean, they knew about Tabbris, and we couldn’t exactly… fight her. We couldn’t fight either of them. But it’s like Tristan said, they didn’t want to hurt us or anything.”

“You keep saying ‘they,’” Haiden observed, trying to keep his mind from spinning out. “But it sounds like it was just Jophiel and her host. Are you saying that…”

“They’re a couple,” Flick confirmed, clearly watching everyone’s reaction to that. “Jophiel and Elisabet. I mean, even when she’s not possessed, Elisabet is head over heels for Jophiel. Still.”

Apollo coughed. “I don’t know how much I’d trust that. Jophiel’s got ways of manipulating people’s feelings. Supernatural ways.”

“Yeah, she checked that.” Flick gestured to the corner of the room where Gwen stood, the woman nodding once in acknowledgment. “She used something to block Jophiel’s Olympian power and it didn’t change how Elisabet felt. They’re in love. They’ve been in love for a long time. But that’s not the point. I mean, it really is a huge part of the point, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.”

Vanessa nodded in agreement. “Yeah, totally getting ahead of ourselves. Jophiel and Elisabet showed up, but they didn’t want to turn us in. They… they wanted our help.”

“Your help?” Apollo echoed, glancing toward Sariel as the woman held Tabbris close. “Help with what, exactly?”

Tristan took that one. “They don’t want to dominate humans anymore. I mean they didn’t want to, even before we got the spell from that vault.”

“Jophiel’s in love with Elisabet,” Flick added. “So she wants humans and Seosten to work together. You know, sort of… combine forces.”

Vanessa quickly pushed on while everyone stared. “They said the best way to make an alliance with the humans is to prove to the Seraphim that humans and Seosten working together willingly is better than their other system. The umm, constant enslavement and manipulation of our entire society, I mean. And the way to do that–”

Lincoln realized what she was going to say first, supplying, “–was to show them human-Seosten hybrids and a human-Seosten possession pairing worked together willingly instead of with slavery. They wanted Flick and Tabbris to show their leaders how effective a willing, cooperative partnership could be.” Pausing then, he added with a frown, “Because apparently those same leaders haven’t heard it enough times from Athena’s rebels, or that Chayyiel girl’s people. Or basic common sense. Remind me, how did they get to be your people’s leaders again?”

“Trust me, it takes a lot to convince the Seraphim of anything,” Apollo informed him in a flat voice. “It kind of needs to be hammered home a lot. And sometimes I’d really like to do that with an actual hammer.”

Looking a bit troubled, her forehead wrinkling thoughtfully, Flick put in, “Anyway, they’ve kind of adjusted a lot of the plan now, especially the timeframe, considering the whole ‘one year to prove they shouldn’t invade’ thing. But the deal we made back then was that they would teach us what they knew, that they’d… you know, train us to impress the Seraphim so we could convince them that an alliance is better than slavery.”

“And God forbid they use themselves as the example,” Abigail muttered darkly, “instead of using children. After magically forcing them to keep it a secret from their families.”

“Wait, just… wait.” Flick’s head shook. “That’s not really fair. I mean, yes, they strong-armed us into keeping it secret, but they were just protecting themselves. It’s a really big secret. Like Vanessa and Tristan said, they could have completely destroyed us if they wanted to. They could have taken us in, exposed Tabbris, kept Sariel imprisoned… they didn’t. And their plan, the one about teaching us to be an example for the Seraphim, that… like it or not, it’s a better plan than anything else we’ve got. The Seosten leaders obviously aren’t going to listen to people they see as rebels or traitors. Jophiel staying in power long enough to train us and then using us as the example might sound crazy or like they’re taking advantage of us, but they’re kind of just working with the hand they were dealt. Maybe they’re not perfect, like with the whole… being okay with enslaving other races just because they think it’s the best way to beat the Fomorians thing. But they’re not that bad.”

Vanessa was nodding. “Yeah, and really… they would be putting themselves at risk. As they pointed out already, the Seraphim aren’t stupid. They’d figure out that Elisabet and Jophiel weren’t exactly a normal Seosten-slave host relationship pretty quick once they started talking up the benefits of being partners. Like Flick said, maybe they’ve done some shady stuff, but they’ve also got the best chance of actually convincing the Seraphim of changing things. Bright wishes and hopes just aren’t going to do it. Maybe their plan can.”

“Still,” Abigail insisted, “They just had to terrorize a handful of minors into doing what they… what they…” She trailed off then, her eyes widening as something occurred to her. “Those… God… damn…” Abruptly, the woman jerked upright, staring at Flick. “They made rescuing Sariel a condition, didn’t they? They made rescuing their mother a condition.” Her hand gestured toward Tabbris, Vanessa, and Tristan while her voice cracked audibly. “If you guys wanted to free her, you had to agree to their plan.”

Hearing that was enough to make Sariel drop to one knee, wrapping both arms around Tabbris tightly. “You–oh. You’re right. They–she would… Jophiel would do that.” She sounded stricken upon the realization that her own imprisonment and subsequent freedom had been used to essentially blackmail her children into obeying Jophiel and Elisabet.

Swallowing hard, Flick managed, “Yes. But we would’ve agreed to a lot more than that. All they wanted was for us to meet with them for training any time they wanted so they could use us to prove their point to the Seraphim, and to keep the truth about their own relationship secret. I mean, we had to keep all of it secret. They used magic to make sure we couldn’t talk about it.”

“I knew it!” That was Wyatt, suddenly blurting out loud as he pointed at Flick. “I knew you had a different spell on you! I could smell it. I could taste it. But I couldn’t see it. They hid it really well. But I knew. Iiiii knew it. Thought I was being paranoid, huh? No! You were spelled. I tried to find the spell, but I couldn’t. I thought it was Gaia’s spell, the one she broke to let you bring back the rebellion. That was a secret spell too. So I thought the secret spell I sensed on you was that one. But it wasn’t! I mean, it wasn’t just that. You had that one and this one, and–”

He paused then, frowning at Flick. “Has it occurred to you that you get a lot of secret magic put on you?”

With a tiny smile, the blonde girl nodded to him. “It, uhhh, crossed my mind a few times, yeah.”

Haiden had moved by then to take a knee by the twins, holding one of each of their hands. “They said you had to take this secrecy spell thing to save your mom, and you went for it?”

Blinking away tears rapidly, Vanessa stammered, “W-we had to. It was Mom. It was our chance to get her back. They said that… they said they’d give us the passcode to unlock her stasis chamber.”

“That’s how you had that,” Sariel breathed, rising to step that way while pulling Tabbris with her. She embraced all three of her children, and her husband, together. “I thought there was… something about it that you weren’t telling. But I didn’t know it was anything like this.”

“It wasn’t so bad,” Flick carefully explained. “They really do seem like they want humans and Seosten to work together.”

“And other species?” Abigail prompted pointedly. “How do they feel about stopping all enslavement?” Seeing the expression on her younger sister’s face, she nodded. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. And I don’t see them speaking up to stop the mistreatment of SPS Seosten either.”

Finally speaking up for the first time, Gwen asked from her spot in the corner, “SPS?”  

“Sticky-Possession-Syndrome,” Flick supplied. “Miranda made it up. It’s better than calling them Lies.”

“Huh,” Gwen murmured thoughtfully. “Yes, I imagine it is.” She went quiet once more, allowing the group to continue their story.

Tristan was shaking his head at Abigail. “Yeah, they’re not exactly all-in on ‘everyone is equal’ yet. It’s more of a human and Seosten thing. But hey, it’s a start. It’s probably easier to go from ‘humans and Seosten should totally be allies’ to ‘all the non-assholes band together against the assholes’ than to get there from ‘everyone who isn’t Seosten is worthless.’”

Muttering something under her breath about how that should be self-evident, Abigail continued to bristle for a moment before sighing audibly. “Fine, it’s a start. But they made you lie to everyone.”

Tabbris’ head bobbed up and down while she clung to her mother. Her voice was quiet. “W-we’re sorry. We had to take the spells so we could save Mama.”

“Oh, don’t you worry,” Lincoln assured her. He exchanged a brief look with Sariel before reaching out to pick the young girl up, holding her to him. “No one’s mad at you.”

“I can think of a few choice words I have for those two, though,” Haiden put in, his eyes cloudy as he stared at the nearby wall as though imagining having a chance to confront the pair.

Looking over to Sariel, Lincoln asked, “What do you know about this… Jophiel?”

There was a brief pause from the Seosten woman before her head shook. “It’s been a long time since I had much to do with her. If she’s really in love with a human… then she’s changed a lot.”

“She is,” Gwen put in. “I put them both through enough tests to be sure of it. Elisabet’s feelings for her are real. And as far as I can tell, so are Jophiel’s toward Elisabet. It makes sense given what they’ve done. Jophiel wants to prove humans are okay to ally with so that she can be open about her relationship with Elisabet. But they want to use these kids to prove it. Which means getting them ready.”

“So they’ve been… training you?” Sariel asked carefully, her voice bristling with what was clearly tightly controlled anger.

The group exchanged glances before Vanessa nodded. “Teaching us how to use our Seosten gifts, how to fight, and… everything else they could think of that could be impressive. And they were teaching Flick and Tabbris how to work together.”

“Basically like what Athena started,” Flick put in, “but more intensive. Plus, they’ve worked together for so long, they have a lot of tips.”

“That’s just fantastic,” Haiden dryly remarked, “but how about they do it the right way, instead of sneaking around behind all our backs and magically forcing our kids to lie to us for months?” His words were followed by a collection of tight nods, as the adults tried not to let their kids see just how upset they were with the whole situation.

“What changed?” That was Wyatt, who spoke up while the others were all silent as they took in everything that the group had told them. “They had magic spells to keep you quiet. Why can you tell us now?”

Straightening a bit while still holding Tabbris, Lincoln looked toward Gwen. “That’s a good question. And I’m pretty sure it has everything to do with you.”

Flick nodded. “Yup. She umm, sort of accidentally found out part of the truth while she was posing as Harper, and I guess she followed us to find out more. She’s been keeping an eye on us.”

“And when all this went down,” the woman herself added, “there was no point to keeping my involvement secret. So we arranged a meeting a couple weeks ago and… made an arrangement for the secrecy spells to be removed. There’s little point to them. We have a year to prove to the Seraphim that invading this planet is a bad idea. Which they have their way of doing, and I have mine.”

That drew Sariel’s attention. The woman looked to her, blinked once, then realized. “Arthur. You want to bring Arthur back.”

“Having him would tend to push the Seosten toward cooperation, yes,” Gwen confirmed. “Not that I don’t like the idea of happy alliances against the bigger threat, but with people like the Seosten, it’s a good idea to extend one open hand while holding a really big gun with the other.” Pausing, she added, “No offense.”

“None taken,” Apollo and Sariel both replied simultaneously. The two exchanged looks of their own that said just how much was going through their minds, before Apollo added by himself, “We need to talk to Jophiel. About this and a lot of other things.”

“She said you’d say that,” Tristan informed them. “And they said they’ll meet with you later, once they can get away. Plus, we have this other meeting first.”

“Other meeting?” Lincoln echoed, frowning.

Gwen took over once more. “To bring Arthur back, we need to identify the Merlin Key, the prophesied figure who will wake him up. That person is supposed to be one of the students at Crossroads.”

“And Jophiel knows who?” Apollo quickly asked, his eyes widening. “I couldn’t get that much, even with what was, let me tell you, an awful lot of work.”

“She knows someone who probably knows who,” Flick informed them, biting her lip then before adding a quiet, “Mercury.”

That made the two Seosten look at each other once more, their eyes meeting before Sariel snapped, “Mercury is here too?”

The teens started to respond to that, only to stop as there was a knock at the door. Gwen, standing next to it, glanced to the door, looked it up and down before whistling softly as she reached out to tug it open, revealing a figure standing there.

“Good evening,” the man who appeared to be Benji Carfried announced. “May I come in?

“I’m told we have things to discuss.”

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Legwork 3-01 (Summus Proelium)

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“So I guess I’m a superhero now,” I announced to my unicorn.

Right, backing up. I didn’t have an actual unicorn. My parents were rich and powerful, but not that rich and powerful. They couldn’t magically produce things that didn’t really exist. At least, I was pretty sure they couldn’t. If it turned out I could have had an actual unicorn this whole time, I was going to be even more ticked off about my parents being secretly evil supervillains.

Ugh. Bad time to joke. Bad thing to joke about in general.

The point was, the thing I was talking to was my toy unicorn. It was a little plastic thing that fit in my hand, pink with a couple white stars along its side. His name was Felony, because I’d been a precocious seven year old when I got him and had thought that was hilarious. Felony the unicorn. I’d actually made up stories about myself and Felony running around having adventures. Only where most girls that imagined meeting a unicorn had magical princess fantasies in an enchanted forest, Felony was a thug unicorn. Bright pink with white sparkling stars… and a leather jacket (as much as a unicorn could wear a jacket) who spoke with a thick Brooklyn accent, cursed a lot, and took me through the streets of New York.

I was a weird kid.

It was the next night after my not-so-little fight with Janus and his men. A fight I had survived mostly thanks to a lot of help from a few members of the Minority, but still. And now I was standing on the roof of a building downtown, talking to my toy unicorn that was sitting on the air conditioning unit near me.

Sue me, I’d needed something to talk to and Felony sounded like a better idea than my dad.

“I’m sort of a superhero. I saw my name in the news this morning. I mean, not my name. Not Cassidy. Paintball. I called myself Paintball.” My gaze slid over to the toy. “What do you think? Good, bad? I guess whatever it is, it’s me now. So I’m just going with it.”

After that whole business that had taken me through lunch and into part of sixth period, the rest of the day had been pretty normal. I’d told my teacher that I was late because of ‘girl things’, which was an excellent way of avoiding any further follow-up questions. It meant I had to endure the mock-surprised exclamations from people upon ‘learning that I was a girl’, which never ever got fucking old, let me tell you. But beyond that, everything was fine. I’d gone to Thursday night family dinner and even managed to make something resembling conversation.

Just a few days into this whole thing and I was already getting depressingly good at pretending my family didn’t leave me violently shaking while I clutched a pillow and cried into it at night.

Adrian hadn’t been at school today, which was pretty much what I’d expected. The authorities probably had him and his siblings deep in protective custody, or whatever. He wouldn’t be coming back to work here at least until they sorted out this whole situation with the bounty.

Would he be fired for missing work? Would he get paid for going through all this? I’d wondered that all day. Actually thinking about money was a pretty new experience, and it made me wonder if I should do other things besides just be a superhero. Like… volunteer at a soup kitchen or something. Smacking around bad guys was all well and good, but how much did it help regular people who were hungry and had bills to pay? Could I do something more for them?

I was still thinking about that (and discussing it with Felony), when a figure caught my eye. A figure on the roof across from me, in fact. As I watched, the figure drew close enough to make out details. I saw loose-fitting pale blue pants, a black chainmail-like top that was mostly covered by a long, light blue cloak with very faint goldish trim, just enough to offset it a bit. A long katana was sheathed across her back, and she had two more much shorter swords, one against each hip. Her head was covered by a samurai helmet with slight mandible-like protrusions across the front of the metal mask, almost like the head of a bug.

I knew her at a glance. It was Flea, one of the members of the local Conservators. Any other time, before I’d known the truth, I would have been positively giddy at just seeing her. Now the first thing that sprang to my mind was, ‘Did she know her boss was an evil, murdering monster?’

Reaching the end of the roof, the female figure didn’t even miss a step before springing easily across the gap that separated the two buildings. It was that jumping ability (she could literally leap a tall building in a single bound), combined with her power to drain people’s stamina and make them tired if she was within a few feet of them, that made the ‘Flea’ name stick. I thought she was also strong and had some kind of speed boost too, but I wasn’t sure. Mostly people knew about the jumping and the stamina-drain.

In the midst of gaping at the woman’s easy leap, I remembered my unicorn sitting nearby and quickly shoved Felony away into the bag that lay at my feet. In the next second, Flea landed smoothly a few feet away. “Good evening,” she started politely, her voice clearly feminine, yet also slightly electronically distorted, like it was coming through a faulty intercom.

Oh, right, she was talking to me. Shaking myself, I managed a weak, “Um, hi.” I’d been standing around with the front of my helmet up, so only the ski mask was covering my face. Thankfully, my voice changer was still active, so I didn’t accidentally give myself away by letting her hear a girl talking.

Her brown eyes, the only part of the woman’s face I could actually see (they were very clearly Asian), watched me carefully before she spoke again. “You are the one who calls himself Paintballs.”

“Err, just the one,” I corrected quickly. “Paintball. But uh, yeah, that’s me.” Clearing my throat a little, I added, “I’m not doing anything wrong here or whatever, am I?”

Her head tilted, eyes never leaving me. “I don’t know,” she replied coolly, “are you?”

Eyes widening a little behind my mask and helmet, I quickly shook my head. “N-no, no. I mean, I’m not–I wasn’t–” Taking a breath, I managed, “I’m just standing up here.”

“Then you’re not doing anything wrong,” she pointed out simply, voice very matter-of-fact. The woman’s head tilted slightly as she regarded me for a moment before adding, “Are you okay?”

“Uh huh,” I assured her, letting my head bob up and down. “I’m fine. I’m just–um, thinking. And talking to myself. I do that sometimes.”

Her response was a nod. “Most do.” Slowly, she raised a black-gloved hand, extending it to me. “I’m told you did very well yesterday, that you risked yourself to save that man and his siblings.”

Blushing a bit despite myself, I accepted the offered hand. “Oh, um, I was just… trying to help.”

Her hand squeezed mine firmly, before she replied, “You certainly did that.” I saw those eyes focus intently on me then. “And you painted a target on your own back in the process.”

“I–um, did you just make a joke?” I asked uncertainly. “I mean, with the whole ‘painted’ thing.”

I couldn’t see her mouth, but I was pretty sure the woman smiled just a little bit before ignoring the question as she spoke in that same careful, even tone. “That bounty is still active. Without either access to the original thief, his brother, or the man who drove the latter out of town, the only visible target left to get any information out of is the person who somehow happened to save both the brother and the driver.”

Swallowing hard, I shifted my weight a bit nervously. “Um, right. Me. I guess you’re right about that whole painted target thing, huh?” Managing a weak smile, I added, “At least I’m making a name for myself?”

“You are certainly doing that,” Flea agreed before glancing away. She turned, facing the edge of the building to look out over the street below. We stood there in silence for a moment that she seemed far more comfortable with than I did. Finally, after that had dragged on for a minute or two, she spoke again. “That-A-Way said that you seemed less than enthused by her invitation.”

Wincing inwardly, I offered a weak, “It’s complicated. It’s just… um, better if I’m by myself now.”

Her head turned to glance at me, clearly trying to read my body language or something before she replied, “If you cannot be convinced to join the Minority for safety, I will not waste my breath or our time. But perhaps I can still offer other suggestions and advice. You are new to this life.”

Again, my head bobbed. “Yes, ma’am. I am very, very new to this.” But apparently it’s old hat to my family, I added silently.

She returned her gaze to the street below. “Then if you would like, I will offer what advice I can.”

“I, um, I’d like that, ma’am,” I agreed. I didn’t know if she was part of my dad’s whole secretly a villain thing, but I was going to guess that most of the Star-Touched on the Conservators were really good guys who didn’t have anything to do with that stuff. Besides, I didn’t really have a good reason to refuse without drawing even more attention. And I really did need advice.

“Flea will work just fine,” she informed me. “And perhaps we can start with that.”

Belatedly, I realized she was looking at something. My gaze followed hers, and I saw the lights on in some kind of electronics store. There were people in there, long after hours. A blue van had been pulled up to the side door in the alley next to the building.

“Would you like to stay and watch, or assist?” the samurai-clad woman asked without taking her eyes off the store below, where we could both see shadowy figures moving through the windows. From their motions, they were clearly in a hurry, not that it would do them much good.

“Oh, I’ll go with you,” I quickly replied, not wanting to miss any of this. Seeing a full-on Conservator member like Flea do her thing, from a front-row seat? I would’ve been all-in just from that. But to actually be part of the whole thing, to help her? That thought made me giddy, though I tried to keep it out of my voice. “Ahem, I mean, I’d like to help.”

Her head gave a single nod. “Then you are welcome to come. Please be careful. You may not wish to join the Minority, but all Star-Touched are appreciated.” She looked toward me, eyes softening just a little as she added, “And you seem nice. I would hate to lose you so soon.”

With that, Flea took a quick step forward, right off the edge of the roof. As I watched, she fell all the way to the ground several stories below before landing as smoothly as though she had just stepped off a curb. There wasn’t even a hesitation as she started walking to the building.

Be professional, I told myself, just be calm and professional, like her.

In this case, being calm and professional meant putting both hands over my already ski-masked covered mouth while muffledly ranting about how amazing and cool that was for a second or two. Then I collected myself, reached up to shove the front of the helmet down to lock into place, and jumped from the roof myself. Painting my legs orange, I fell to the ground and landed in a crouch just a few feet from where the other woman had dropped.

She was waiting for me, I realized. Her slight (she was only about five foot four inches, which also contributed to the whole ‘Flea’ thing) figure stood in the middle of the empty road, turned sideways so she could glance back my way without taking her gaze entirely off the store.

“There is a lookout,” the woman informed me as I quickly joined her. She nodded toward the alley where the van was parked. “Near the side door. Can you handle him?”

I had no idea how she knew that, unless she’d seen him while jumping down from above. But I knew she wasn’t wrong, nodding quickly. “Oh, uh huh. I mean… um, I think so?” My eagerness to impress the woman was at war with the fact that I was still nervous about actual fights. Still, I didn’t want to look like a baby, so I made myself stand up a little straighter as the woman’s gaze snapped to me questioningly at my first response. “I can do it.”

She watched me a little closely for a second then before simply telling me, “Be careful. Get into position, then wait for me to make myself known. When he reacts, take him by surprise. If you get into trouble, shout ‘green grass’ and I will be there to help you.”

“Green grass,” I echoed, giving her a thumbs up. “Got it.” With that, I painted myself black (yay for working stealth mode at night!) and quickly moved to the parked van. Pressing myself against the wall, I gave the waiting woman a thumbs up. Rather than return it, she simply strode steadily toward the front of the store, and I ducked to peek under the van.

Sure enough, there was a guy there. He was standing next to the door, partially hidden by a some kind of stylistic outcropping of brick wall there. Which made me even more uncertain about how the Conservator woman had managed to spot him so easily. But hey, she was right.

Okay, now I just had to wait for the–

“Oh shit, shit, shit!” The shout came from in the store, and was accompanied by the sound of three quick gunshots.

Right, that was probably the sign. Staring under the van, I saw the lookout quickly spin that way, almost falling over himself as he grabbed a shotgun resting against the wall. Before he could do more than take a step toward the door, I extended a hand, shooting a bit of red paint at the barrel of the gun while using my other hand to put a matching crimson blob on the ground beneath the van. The paint activated, and the shotgun was torn from his grasp as the man yelped in surprise, flying over to land out of his sight.

“What the fuck?!” I heard the man blurt, before he came running over to the van. There were already more gunshots coming from inside, and I silently hoped Flea was okay. But right now, I had to deal with this guy.

To that end, I waited until he got close, then shot a bit of black paint onto the van to silence it so the thing wouldn’t groan as I painted my legs purple and hopped from the ground to the top of the van itself. My timing was perfect, as I landed on the roof just as the lookout dropped to his knees to look under the vehicle.

“How the…” I heard him mutter while stretching out to grab the gun. As he was focused on that, I quickly moved to his side of the van, looking down to shoot out two spots of red paint, one at his left boot, and the other at the the ground about ten feet away. Then I activated them.

Apparently I managed to do that before he could get hold of the gun he’d been reaching for, because it wasn’t in his hands as he went sailing backwards with a strangled cry, yanked by his own boot.

He saw me then, crouched there on top of the roof. As his confused, then angry gaze snapped up to me, I waved. “Hi!” My voice was a pleasant, cheerful chirp, as I hopped off the van to drop in front of him. “You know, I’m pretty sure you don’t want to go in there.” My thumb jerked a bit toward the store, while I cupped my other hand against the side of my mouth, stage-whispering, “They’re having a bad day.” My words were accompanied by the sound of more shooting, more shouting, and more crashing sounds.

“You–” The guy jerked backward, then stopped upon realizing, “You’re that paint kid! Ohhh, they’ll pay good money for you!”

Oh God, oh God, there really is a bounty on me too. This is fucked up. What am I doing? What the hell am I doing? I’m gonna die. I am going to die. This is so stupid. I’m so stupid. What am I doing?

That was inward, of course. Outwardly, my head tilted. “Really? Maybe I should go for it. I could use a new iPhone, have you seen what they’re charging for that thing? If you ask me, they’re the real crimi–”

That was as far as I got before the man was suddenly hurling himself at me. He was a pretty big guy, and probably thought he could hold me by himself. So he came charging straight in, arms swinging.

It was a bad move for a lot of reasons. But mainly because I simply threw myself to the side. As I went, both of my hands snapped out. From one, I shot a ball of green paint at the man. Suddenly, he was going much faster than he meant to. Before he even knew what was happening, the man sailed right past the spot where I had been and crashed into the van.

Which was where my other hand had shot a blob of blue paint. Running full-tilt, his speed about twice as fast as it should have been, the man hit the blue splotch and was suddenly airborne, flying backwards in the opposite direction before crashing into the far wall. I was pretty sure he even did that yell that Goofy does when he’s falling.

He hit the wall, sliding down it with a groan before collapsing on the ground. Before he could get his bearings, I announced, “So, I can ping pong you back and forth off the walls for awhile if you want, or you can lay on your stomach with your hands behind your head and take a break. Your call.”

He went for the latter, interlacing his fingers while shifting onto his front with a grumbled curse about how screwed I was going to be. Before I could respond, however, there was a sudden rush of movement from the doorway, as two guys in ski masks and carrying guns came rushing out. One of them saw me, spinning with his gun up. But before either of us could do anything, a short sword was hurled through the open door, colliding with the gun and knocking it from his hand.

The second man pivoted back that way, just as Flea strode into view. His own gun snapped up to take a shot at her, but she jumped just as he opened fire. A simple hop launched the woman a good thirty feet in the air, as she threw her second short sword, knocking the gun from the second man’s grip before he could adjust.

Both men were still reacting to their weapons being knocked from their hands as the samurai-clad figure dropped to land between them. The first guy took a wild swing at her from behind, which she ducked, driving her elbow into his stomach to double him over while simultaneously catching hold of the katana on her back, snapping it up just enough to make the hilt hit the guy hard in the chin. His mouth snapped shut, and he stumbled back, clearly dazed.

Meanwhile, the second guy tried to sucker-punch her as well, this one from the front. Her head twisted away from the first swing, before she sidestepped the second one, then pivoted to avoid his follow-up kick. She treated it like a dance, as if she knew every move he was going to make.

By that point, the first guy had recovered enough to try to grab her from behind. But she somehow anticipated that, ducking out from under his grasping arms and stepping away to make the two men collide with each other.

They took a few more swings, but they were half-hearted at best. The men were moving more slowly with each passing second. Their punches were sluggish, and each of them were stumbling like they were drunk.

Then they collapsed, and I realized, it was her stamina-draining power. She tired them out within a few seconds just from being within a few feet. The guys couldn’t manage more than a few swings like that before they hit the ground, completely unconscious.

Once the two men were down, she turned my way. “Under control?”

A brief moment of silence passed, before the thug on the ground whispered, “Dude, she’s talking to you.”

Oh, right. Snapping out of it and forcing my mouth to stop gaping, I made myself nod quickly. “Uh… uh huh. Uh huh. He surrendered.”

“Smart man,” Flea replied, stooping to pick up her short swords before sheathing them. “Here.” She threw me something. A pair of metal handcuffs. “Put those on him.

“Then I’ll show you what you’re supposed to do after you catch the bad guys.”

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Summer Epilogue 8 – Fossor and Joselyn

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“So yes, I must say, that was certainly an… unexpected turn of events.”

As he murmured those words, the man known as Fossor strode through the busy suburban mall, looking for all the world like an average, middle class dad out for a little shopping trip with his younger, far more attractive wife. Well, average save for the fact that a small cloud of ash kept appearing in front of his feet for the man to step on. But save for that small anomaly (which no one else seemed to notice), they could have been a hit sitcom.  “Unexpected indeed.”

Joselyn, who walked in his shadow, spoke softly without looking at the necromancer. “And just when you thought you had Gaia dealt with and out of the way. Too bad, really.” She could not inject even the slightest amount of sincerity into her words. “You must be so upset.”

Joselyn had experienced the same ‘awakening’ that every other Heretic must have when Felicity and Gaia had triggered that spell. The sudden download of information about her own rebellion, her own situation, that had abruptly flooded into her mind had dropped the woman to her knees.

Gaia. Gaia had destroyed the spell that erased the rebellion. She had brought it back, had restored everyone’s memories. More than that, she had shoved knowledge of it into everyone’s head, even those who weren’t there at the time. Every Heretic, everyone connected to the Heretical Edge, had been given the same rush of information.

They knew her. They knew Joselyn. All of them knew who she was, what she had tried to do. They knew what happened to her, what… what Ruthers had done to her children. They knew the truth. It was a thought that struck Joselyn even harder than the actual information upload had. Everyone knew who she was. Everyone knew the truth. They could accept it or not, but they knew. Ruthers had taken her children hostage, had treated babies as bargaining chips to win a war. And now everyone knew.

She truly, genuinely wished she could have seen the look on his face as it happened.

Pausing to give a brief fatherly smile to a woman who passed by with her two young children, Fossor replied simply, “Upset? Hardly.” Winking at the little boy who looked over his shoulder at them, he gave a jaunty wave before turning to walk once more, his gait one of a man with little care in the world. “As a matter of fact, I feel quite invigorated. It’s not good for a man to have no challenges. That just makes you slow. No, I dare say the good headmistress did me quite the favor here. Bringing you back to the attention of the Heretics, reinvigorating that delicious civil war? That should make for some fun, don’t you think?” Pausing, he pointed to the food court. “Oh, let’s treat ourselves. I do enjoy a good soft pretzel, don’t you?”

As she wasn’t really in any position to argue, Joselyn followed after the man. On the way, she made the mistake of glancing back once more to see that small boy with his sister and mother. Soft blonde hair, pink cheeks, an innocent smile… Her gaze quickly snapped away from him while a hard lump formed in her throat. As her eyes jerked from the little boy, she brought her thoughts firmly with it, forcing herself to not think about… that. About him.

Fossor was already standing in front of the pretzel shop, hemming and hawing about which one he wanted to get. When he noticed Joselyn standing quietly nearby, he ordered two, passing the teenage clerk behind the counter cash for them. Taking the napkin-wrapped pretzels, he held both up. “I just can’t decide. Which one would you like, my dear?”

Barely looking at them, Joselyn took one of the pretzels, holding it loosely in one hand just so that he would shut up about them. Her eyes were on Fossor himself, as she spoke in a low, pointed voice. “Are you done with this game? Why are we even here? You know there’s a chance that there could be Heretics in this place. What if they recognize one of us?”

Fossor’s reply to that was as casual as if he was discussing the weather. “Well, if that were to happen, I’d simply have you kill them, of course.” He took a bite of the pretzel, smiling pleasantly. “Mmmm. That is quite the treat.”

“So you’re saying we’re just here so you can see if anyone comes after you,” Joselyn murmured, not bothering to keep the disgust from her voice. “Don’t you have anything more important to do?” Besides manipulate this whole situation to try to force me to kill one of my old friends, she added silently. Despite not saying it aloud, he would know she was thinking it.

Taking another bite of his pretzel, Fossor simply shrugged one shoulder. “Let’s just call this whole thing a test, shall we?” With those simple, yet also troubling words, he turned to walk once more. “Oh, I do hope there’s a decent sale at Old Navy. I need a new pair of slacks.”

As they walked through the mall, Joselyn remarked, “You did all that to get Gaia out of the way so she couldn’t protect Felicity, and she still managed to paint a giant target on you. If anything, Felicity has even more protection now. She’s with Prosser and his people. You won’t get anywhere near her.” She didn’t truly believe that her daughter was completely safe, of course. But Joselyn hoped that taunting the man about it might get him to reveal something she could use, eventually. And, of course, make him believe that she was actually that arrogant or blind.

For a moment, however, Fossor gave no reaction at all. Well, no reaction aside from stopping in front of the window of a pet store to smile at the little puppies on display. “They really are adorable at that size, aren’t they?” Giving the tiniest dog there a two fingered wave, he added, “Perhaps we should pick up a few. I enjoy having some of man’s best friends around.”

“Are you sure you want to do that?” Joselyn asked, injecting false sweetness into her voice. “We both know how much you hate anything else getting more attention than you.”

Chuckling seemingly genuinely at that, Fossor tipped an imaginary hat to her. “Nicely riposted, my dear.” He smiled, strolling onward through the busy mall after giving the dogs another brief look. His tone was as casual as ever. “Do you know why I enjoy these little jabs of yours?”

Joselyn sighed under her breath, head shaking as she followed after him. “I don’t know, maybe you’re just tired of being surrounded by nothing but mindless sycophants. Which is odd for a necromancer who kills almost everyone who spends any time with him, but maybe you just don’t think these things through.”

He chuckled again, head shaking. “No, no, no. A good thought, but no. You see, I enjoy hearing every single one of these little acts of verbal spite. Because each is a tiny flower in a garden of rebellion that shows you haven’t completely surrendered, that you still have your spirit. Which makes the fact that you will always do exactly as I tell you even more perfectly delicious.”

With that simple pronouncement, the man began to step onto the escalator, before stopping to allow an older couple who were holding hands to go first. “Oh no, go ahead, I insist.” He gestured for them to proceed, while giving them a disarmingly pleasant smile.

Joselyn stepped beside him, watching the two retirees ride the escalator to the top. Her voice was flat. “I don’t suppose you could at least tell me why you wanted the Hangman rope now?” She offered him a humorless smile. “It’s not like I could do anything to stop you anyway.”

“Curiosity is a powerful thing, isn’t it?” Fossor replied while stepping up onto the escalator. He didn’t bother gesturing for her to follow, knowing she would anyway. “It motivates one to such great lengths.” He turned a slight smile her way. “It can even inspire you to make unneeded conversation with someone you truly despise with every fiber of your being.”

Standing two steps behind the necromancer as they rode the escalator to the next floor, Joselyn retorted, “Let’s just say I’ve got a lot of practice talking to people who make me sick. And,” she added while stepping off at the top, “you didn’t answer the question.”

“I have a habit of that,” Fossor agreed, wrapping his empty napkin up in one hand before nodding to her. “Don’t forget to eat your pretzel before it gets cold.” With that, the man turned to walk once more, passing a group of teenagers arguing in front of an arcade. He didn’t speak again for a minute, contenting himself with simply window shopping through the next couple of stores. Finally, he spoke thoughtfully. “The trouble with telling you what the rope is for is that it would spoil the surprise. And I do so love to see your look of surprise.” Glancing from the selection of shoes and boots he had been idly looking over to meet her gaze, the man added slyly, “In fact, I’m quite looking forward to it when we get to the end of today’s test.”

Positively certain that she didn’t want to know what he meant by that, Joselyn took brief look at the group of teens, watching them finally settle on going to see a movie instead of heading into the arcade. As they strode off, she sighed and followed after Fossor while absently taking a bite from the pretzel. She was almost annoyed by how good it tasted.

Since he clearly wouldn’t answer any of her earlier questions, she chose to ask a different one. “You’re doing all of this, all these schemes and risky plans to piss off the Committee and the Seosten, just to get a little stronger. Just to protect yourself a little more. Why bother? You’d be completely safe on your own world. No one could challenge you there. The place is an impenetrable fortress. Why not stay there? You have billions of servants, lives to play with. You have everything you could ever possibly need. Why stay here on Earth, with all the Seosten, the Heretics, and even the random Fomorian? Why risk it?” She paused briefly before adding in a quieter, almost resigned voice, “You could even take me back with you.”

Fossor chuckled at that. “First, my dear, don’t be arrogant. Not everything is about you. I have far more interests than you or your family, even if you are a rather pleasant distraction in… let’s say several ways.” His look made her shudder, as bile rose in her throat.

“Second,” he continued, “I stay because they have tried to drive me away. They have tried so very hard to tell me that I cannot be here.” His eyes hardened then, a dark look crossing them as he continued in a harsh, vindictive tone. “And no one tells me where I cannot be.”

Just as suddenly, the man’s eyes brightened. “Oh, look, twenty-five dollars for men’s slacks. Exactly what I was looking for.” He stepped past her, heading for the Old Navy store.

Muttering about psychotic necromancers under her breath, Joselyn trailed after the man, giving a short nod to the young man who stood just outside the store with a sign advertising the sale. Together, she and Fossor moved through the store. Just like any ordinary mundane couple, they actually shopped for pants. The man hemmed a bit over various brands, holding them up to himself before looking in the mirror. Finding several he liked the look of, he stepped into the changing room to try them on, leaving her with a casual, “Find a belt for me, would you, dear? The old one is rather frayed.”

Left on her own for a minute, Joselyn never thought about walking away and abandoning him. As nice as it would have been, the spell she had taken part in all those years earlier would never allow it. She gave a soft sigh instead before moving away from the dressing rooms, looking for men’s belts. On the way, she passed several people who nodded to her pleasantly. One actually made conversation, stopping to ask if she knew where the summer children’s clothes were, but most simply went on their way with barely a glance in her direction.

Would there be a Heretic in here? Would someone she knew, or who knew her actually approach? Was this the test that Fossor was talking about? Did he want to know what she would do if she encountered someone like that? What would she do if… if ordered to kill them?

She had no choice. The spell would allow her to disobey an order only if following it would put Felicity in direct danger. There was no way around that. She knew all too well just how far Fossor could push his control of her. The things he had already forced her to do…

She snapped out of it, head physically jerking as she found herself standing in front of the belts. Her hand was actually on one of them, gripping it so tightly she’d nearly snapped the thing in half. And yet, she found herself unable to immediately let go of it. As angry as she was, as frustrated and helpless as she felt, all she wanted to do was squeeze harder.

“Oh, good,” Fossor announced as he stepped up behind her, brushing a hand over her shoulder while reaching for the same belt she was holding. “You found one. And just my style too. See now, you know me so well.” With a wink, he took the belt and tried it against the new pants. “Perfect. Why don’t you head to the front and pay. I’ll mosey along after you in just a moment.”

Simultaneously unsure of what the man would be doing in the meantime, and absolutely sure she didn’t want to know, Joselyn took the pants that he offered her along with the belt before moving to the checkout. There, she waited in line, spoke casually with a few customers as well as the employee herself, and then stepped out with bag in hand.

Fossor joined her immediately, his eyes twinkling with amusement. “So,” he began simply, “what do you think? Was today’s test successful?”

Squinting at the man, Joselyn shoved the bag of clothes against his chest while muttering, “What test?” Even as she asked, the events of the entire shopping trip were playing through her mind. Was he expecting her to challenge him more? Had she missed something important?”

Still clearly enjoying himself more than she liked, Fossor replied, “Come now. Play everything back, our entire trip here. Has anything stood out to you? Anything jump to mind?” He could clearly barely contain his giddiness over the whole affair, her obvious bafflement over what he was referring to only making it better for him. “Look around,” he added ‘helpfully.’ “See if anything stands out at all. Take your time.”

Instead of moving immediately, Joselyn met his gaze, trying to read him. Finally, she turned and stepped to the nearby railing. Looking out over the crowd below, she watched for a couple silent minutes. Nothing. Nothing stood out. No one seemed to be paying too much attention to them. No one was following them. She saw no Alters, nothing out of the ordinary. They were just shoppers, employees, random people.

Finally, Fossor spoke up from behind. “Let me give you a hint.”

With a sharp sound, the man snapped his fingers. And everything stopped. Everyone stopped. Hundreds of shoppers on both levels suddenly halted. Conversations ceased instantly. People who were arguing, people who were hugging, chatting, shopping, everything. They stopped. And as one, in the exact same motion, they turned to face Joselyn. Hundreds of eyes were suddenly staring at her blankly. They had no emotion. They had no hopes, no dreams, no fears, nothing of their own. They had nothing, were nothing, not anymore. Because they were…

“Zombies,” she breathed out, eyes widening. “They’re… zombies. All of them. All… the whole..”

“Yes,” Fossor confirmed, the delight evident in his voice. “The whole mall. Every last shopper, employee, man, woman, child, all of them. They are all mine.” He watched her with a bright smile as she slowly turned to stare at him in horror. “They did well, didn’t they? Did you enjoy the show? My puppets did try oh so hard to impress you. Or, not impress you, I suppose. After all, the point was not to stand out.”

“But… why?” Joselyn demanded, feeling sick in the pit of her stomach. The children she had seen, the… the… all of them. They were all dead. All killed and then puppeted by this monster. “All this, just to put on a show for me? Why?”

“A show just for you?” he echoed. “Don’t be absurd. You’re the bait here, not the target.”

Swallowing hard, Joselyn murmured, “You’re setting up a trap.”

The man winked. “One of several, yes. You see, you’re right, now that Heretics know who you are, they will be on the lookout for you. They will try to find you. And this, what you see around us? Let’s just say it’s one of several preparations I’m making. We’ll see if any of your old friends follow you in here. And if they do, we’ll spring the trap.”

Staring at the man, Joselyn pointed out, “Pretty elaborate just to have them killed.”

“Oh no, no no, not killed,” Fossor corrected, shaking his head. “You see, our friends here are very special creatures. Very… special indeed. I designed them myself after watching one of those old Romero movies. You know the whole ‘zombies want to eat your brains’ nonsense. Well, these don’t eat your brain. They infect you. With each bite, each wound, they tear at your willpower, your ability to resist commands.”

Letting that sink in for a moment, Fossor continued. “Of course, the downside of creating these wonderful creatures is that they are limited to a relatively small area. If they move beyond the area of their creation, in their case, this mall, they will disintegrate. Which means anyone I wish to subject to them must come here. But that shouldn’t be hard to achieve. As you said, there will be people coming after you. People who will follow you into this simple, ordinary mall. So yes, a little bit of extra work, but worth it, I believe.

“After all, as much fun as having one Heretic enslaved at my beck and call has been, imagine what I could do with an army of them.”

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Interlude 2C – Carousel (Summus Proelium)

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“Jae!” The shouted name was accompanied by a series of increasingly loud knocks against the wooden door. “Come on! Get up! I’m gonna be late for work, and you know what happens then? They don’t hire me for another episode and you’ll have single-handedly destroyed my career! Come on!” The cajoling words were punctuated by two more quick bangs against the door, and a heavy, audible sigh.

Sitting up in bed, Jae Baek opened her eyes, glancing around the small room. The bed itself took up about half the space, while her dresser and desk occupied a substantial portion of what was left. The albino-Asian girl slipped her legs off the bed into the single bit of open space right between her desk chair, her bed, and the door. Just as another knock started to come, she opened the door (very nearly taking a fist to the forehead in the process). Standing there in her pajama bottoms and tee shirt, she faced the woman outside the door. Or rather, she faced the woman’s shoes. Jae’s gaze remained low, as usual, while her voice was also soft and polite. “Good morning, Kella. I’ll be ready in ten minutes, as soon as I shower.”

“Hurry,” the overly botoxed and heavily bleached blonde woman urged, annoyance clear in her voice. “I don’t have time to wait around while you sleep in to all hours. Some of us have responsibilities, you know.” With that, she spun on a heel and walked away, high heels clicking on the hardwood floor.

With a quiet sigh, Jae turned to take clothes from the nearby dresser before heading for the bathroom across the hall. She could hear the woman making as much noise as possible in the kitchen, just to make it absolutely and perfectly clear how annoyed she was at having to wait.

With a soft sigh, as the things she could have said to the woman flooded her mind, Jae stepped into the bathroom and closed the door. It wasn’t worth the fight, even if she had been brave enough. Kella Song was her… step-adopted mother, of sorts. It was complicated. Jae, along with six other ‘ethnic’ children of varying ages (Jae being the youngest), had first been adopted by Timothy Wallace and Andrea Mars. The former was producer and director of various television shows, while the latter was an actress who had served as lead or co-lead of a couple movies and one long running drama series, the latter of which she had received awards and great accolades for.

A couple decades earlier, an award-winning television actress and her director-producer husband might have seemed very… out of place in Detroit, of all places. At least if they wanted to have any kind of career. But with the resurging economy in these past twenty years, and a rebuilt infrastructure, the city had become a good stand-in for other larger cities such as New York. It was useful when shows lacked the funding to actually film where they were supposed to be set.

In any case, Jae and her adopted siblings had been taken in by Andrea Mars and Timothy Wallace as part of a… giving back to the community or… something. With their wildly varying and nicely photogenic ethnicities (especially Jae hitting the mark of both Asian and albino), the two could parade their children around to show how much they cared about minorities.

That wasn’t fair. Timothy (she had never and would never refer to him as father) may have mostly seen the children for what they could do for his image, but Andrea had been the opposite of what Jae thought a vapid actress would be. She had genuinely cared for all of them, and spent as much time as she could with the group. It was Andrea who helped pull Jae at least a little out of the shell she had spent so long in before being adopted at the age of nine.

For a few years, things had been nice. Jae got to know her new siblings and mother, learned not to expect anything from Timothy, and actually began to enjoy herself. Even her small room was a personal choice rather than anything forced on her. Jae preferred not having a lot of space. That was the way she had grown up, in foster home after foster home. It was what felt natural.

But the time with her new family didn’t last. When Jae was thirteen, Andrea suffered a traumatic ruptured brain aneurysm and passed away before even reaching the hospital. Within a couple years of that, each of her adopted siblings had moved on to college or other things (Andrea had been the glue that kept them together), leaving Jae the only child in the house, and often the only person in the house, as Timothy took more jobs that kept him away.

It was that feeling of being abandoned, of having had a real (if unconventional) family for such a brief time before it was snatched away to leave her alone in a silent, dark house that had driven Jae to such emotional extremes that her Touched-sphere had appeared. The sphere which had given Jae her powers and introduced her to a new unconventional family, the Minority.  

Then Kella happened. Though she was younger than Andrea had been (and much younger mentally), the woman had already used enough plastic surgery to qualify for some kind of frequent patient award. She was a thirty-something clinging to her teens and the very short-lived success she’d had as an actress back then. And she was certainly in no mood or mindset to actually help raise a teenager when she herself had never truly grown beyond being one.

Kella and Timothy were married just before the man himself found great success once more on another show. That kept him very busy, so he was rarely home. Which left Kella and Jae alone most of the time. Kella, at Jae’s request, knew nothing about her being Touched or a member of the Minority. Timothy did, but he said nothing to Kella. For all the faults he may have had as far as actually spending much time with his adopted children went, he did keep his promises. And he had promised not to tell Kella until or unless Jae asked him to.

Besides, it wasn’t as though the woman ever expressed that much interest in anything Jae did.

What she was interested in was drinking. And also taking as many roles as she could. Even if those roles were almost exclusively either commercials or extremely minor ‘day player’ roles on an established show.

The drinking part was what had gotten her license revoked. Which meant that with her husband gone so often, the woman either took cabs or other ride sharing services to get to her roles, or she relied on Jae to drive her. Most of the time it was that second one, as it didn’t cost money.

Showering quickly before dressing, Jae made her way back out to find Kella waiting for her in the kitchen. The woman held out a bagel with sausage, egg, and cheese stuffed into it that she had taken from a box and heated in the microwave. “I made you breakfast,” she announced. “Come on, let’s go. If I’m late for this shoot, do you have any idea what that’ll do to my career?”

With a quiet, “Thank you,” Jae took the breakfast sandwich. It was nice of Kella, even if she was still acting so incredibly impatient. The woman wasn’t horrible (aside from that whole drinking problem), just… self-centered and not really the type of person to raise or care for a minor. She didn’t know how to handle Jae. Microwaving breakfast for her while demanding she be driven to her work because she’d lost her license for driving under the influence was par for the course.

She wasn’t abusive. She was… complicated. And unreliable. Complicated and unreliable, that summed up Kella Song well enough. She had never intended to be any kind of mother.

Heading outside while taking a bite of the bagel sandwich, Jae silently opened the back door and waited for Kella to get in, the woman making a muttered production about how much the director was going to chew her out for being late. Then Jae got in the front, starting the car before checking the time. She still had about forty minutes before classes started. Plenty of time to drop Kella off and get to school.

Did Kella even remember that Jae had school to go to after this? She genuinely wasn’t sure.

But hey, at least today would hopefully be less exciting than yesterday and last night had been. Jae just hoped no one lit any fuses on the powderkeg today. Or at least that they would wait until after school to do it.

It would just sort of be nice to get through all of her classes without having to go fight any supervillains.

******

On second thought, supervillains would have been nice. At least she could hit those problems.

That was the thought that occured to Jae a short time later, as she stood facing her locker. The actual lock part had been broken (not for the first time), and the door stood open to reveal an exciting collection of hate and vile.

First, there was the fact that everything in the locker reeked beyond belief, as what seemed to be a combination of sour cream, old milk, and rotten eggs had been thrown inside at some point the day before. It also looked like there were some mushed bananas in there for some reason.

On the door of the locker was a taped bit of paper that read, ‘Just in case you want to be even whiter, freak.’ Below that, written in marker on the door itself, were a series of notes, some barely legible. They reached all the way to the bottom of the locker, most written in different handwriting. Among other things, they read,  ‘Fuck off, mutant’, ‘Get out of our school’, ‘Eat shit and die’, and ‘Are you cuntagis? Cuz I’ll still fuck you if you put a bag over your head.’

It went on like that, with other fun misspellings and bits of horrific grammar.  And dicks. Lots of dicks. They were drawn all over the inside of her locker. One enterprising person had even gone beyond drawing to tape up an actual photograph of a penis.

Quietly, to the point of barely being audible, Jae whispered to herself, “For people who think that I’m such an untouchable freak, they sure are eager to let me know they have penises ready to go.”

It made her smile just a little bit, though it was a smile touched with resignation. With a sigh, she closed the locker door and turned to find the nearest janitor. In the process, she nearly ran right into Amber, the two of them both jerking back at the last second.

“Jae!” the dark-haired girl blurted. “God, do you smell that?” Her nose wrinkled. “What the hell is it?”

Quietly, Jae replied, “I think someone’s lunch went bad.” Leaving it at that, the girl started to walk. She was not going to have her teammate and friend feeling sorry for her. Or worse, trying to take care of it herself. Jae knew Amber well enough to be certain she would start throwing people around until someone talked. And as much as the girl would have appreciated the gesture, this was something she needed to deal with herself, or not at all.

The two of them walked together, talking for a few minutes until Jae said that she’d forgotten something. They were near Amber’s first class (a purposeful move), so she said goodbye to the other girl before heading back the way she’d come. On the way, she felt her friend’s eyes on her, but resisted the urge to look back. It only would have confirmed Amber’s obvious suspicions.

Instead, Jae made her way to one of the janitorial closets. There was usually at least one of the custodial staff around there right as school was about to start.

Sure enough, Frank Harrington was there, just filling one of his mop buckets. When Jae approached, the man looked up, smiling broadly. “Well, if it isn’t the only kid in this school who ever beats me at Scrabble. You up for a tie-breaker match later?”

“Maybe,” Jae agreed before adding, “Could I borrow some cleaner and a rag? I spilled some of my lunch in my locker yesterday and didn’t notice.”

Raising an eyebrow, Frank gave her an unconvinced look. “You spilled it?”

She met his gaze, pausing briefly before giving a single short nod. Her voice was even softer than usual. “I’m sorry.”

For a moment, it looked as though he might push things further. The man knew something else was wrong, and was clearly wondering if he should take this to the administration. In the end, he handed over a spray bottle, several rags, and some kind of air freshener. As Jae took them, he hesitated before speaking up. “You come back for that rematch, you hear? I’m gonna take the crown.”

“What crown?” the girl found herself asking.

“I’ll make a crown,” he declared, “and then I’ll take it.” Pointing at her, he added, “Next Monday. Lunch. You bring that thesaurus you call a brain and I’ll bring a crown. Got it?”

She agreed before taking the cleaning supplies and heading back to her locker. The bell would ring in the next few minutes, but she had time to at least start cleaning things out.

The books that were covered in the… stuff were all put in a plastic bag after being wiped off as well as she could. Several notebooks and loose bits of paper were thrown away, but she was able to salvage her favorite pencil case that she’d had since the first day of school after being adopted. Andrea had given it to her, with a note written on the inside about being part of a family.

Taking the case, Jae smiled while opening it, only for her smile to fall immediately. It hadn’t gotten away unscathed after all. Over the note that her now-deceased adopted mother had written, someone had used marker to scrawl, ‘Ghost Slut.’

Clutching the box tightly with both hands, Jae closed her eyes. She was breathing harder, the rage boiling up before she could get a handle on it. Of all the things to ruin, of all the things they could have destroyed, they chose to scrawl those hateful words over a beautiful note written by the woman who had adopted her. A woman who was no longer around.

No. No. She would have stood for other things. She would have gritted her teeth and bore it, for the most part. But this? This was too far. This was something she would not just ignore.

First, Jae finished cleaning the locker as well as she could, including scrubbing off the vile marker scribblings. She hesitated over the writing in her box, but was afraid that any attempt to clean off that ink would also wipe away what remained of Andrea’s note. In the end, she pushed the box into her bag and straightened up.

The rest of the vandalism could have been anyone. But the specific note in her pencil box? She knew who had done that. One person had started calling her Ghost Slut, Casper The Friendly Whore, and other variations of that theme. There were others who used it now and then, but she knew this was the work of the person who had started it.

And she knew what to do about it.

******

Jae’s chance didn’t come until fourth period. That was the first time she shared a class with…  Arleigh Fosters. At the beginning of the school year, Arleigh’s then-boyfriend, Price, had made the mistake of saying that he thought Jae was cute and exotic. It had been a stupid thing to say to someone as prone to jealousy as Arleigh was, but he hadn’t actually meant anything that bad by it. To Price, it had been an offhand comment that he immediately forgot about. But it had boiled up and blossomed into a full on rage fit from the Arleigh, who became convinced that Jae was sleeping with him. She had all-but attacked her at the end of September, until Price stepped in. He’d broken up with her then, while making it clear that he and Jae were not a thing.

But that hadn’t helped. Arleigh was utterly certain that Jae had been the one to break them up, and ever since that day, all of incredibly-rich girl’s hangers on and friends had made it their life’s mission to make Jae feel like a freak.

Now that she thought about it, Jae knew what today had been about. It was around this time the year before when Arleigh and Price had become a thing. This must have been the day that would’ve been their anniversary, renewing the hatred in the girl enough to make her lash out again.

As luck would have it, Jae’s desk was situated directly behind Arleigh. The tall, blonde girl was already there, staring at Jae with a smug, self-satisfied look that made it even more clear she was the one responsible. With her phone in one hand, the girl made a point of typing out some kind of text, glancing up at Jae once more, smirking again, then typed some more.

“Alright, alright, alright, people!” Mr. Hughes announced while coming into the room. “You know the rules. Phones away. That includes you, Miss Fosters.”

With a sickly sweet smile, Arleigh replied, “Of course, Mr. Hughes.” She then set the phone down on top of the book bag at her side, giving the girl behind her one last glare.

Jae ignored her, sitting down with her gaze on the desk. Or at least, it would appear to be to everyone else. In reality, she was watching Arleigh’s phone, and keeping a look out for anyone paying too much attention. Luckily, everyone was too busy listening to Hughes as the man began to go over the results of a quiz they’d just taken the day before.

Once Jae was certain the coast was clear, she focused on the phone on top of Arleigh’s bag. Stretching out her power, she felt it pick up the phone, shrinking it down to about the size of a marble before it floated up under her desk. Jae was able to grab hold of it and put the phone in her lap without anyone noticing.

From there, she divided her attention between Mr. Hughes and the phone, making sure it was silenced before opening up the messaging app and scrolling through. As expected, Arleigh spent a pretty big portion of her conversations with people insulting other people, many of whom she was also having conversations with insulting the people she was having the first conversations with. She was talking behind everyone’s back.

Taking as many screenshots of the various conversations as she could, Jae then went about sending those screenshots to the people who were being talked about. All of the insults, all of the catty remarks about their personal problems, all the times that Arleigh had spilled some close personal secret to someone else just so they could mock the person in question, all of it. She screenshotted all of it and sent dozens of messages to as many contacts as she could.

Already, the phone was starting to blow up with responses demanding to know what the hell was going on. Still, as one last measure, Jae opened up Arleigh’s Facebook account and proceeded to upload all the screenshots there as well, posting them publicly.

Finally done, she looked around once more. By that point, Mr. Hughes was deep into his lecture for the day, and everyone was taking notes. Using her power again, she sent the phone back out, carefully letting it spin around her desk until it was positioned just above the other girl’s bag. Then she let it fall back into place. One of the students beside her noticed something, glancing over as if he’d seen the tiny marble-sized phone out of the corner of his eye. Finding nothing out of the ordinary, he shrugged and went back to paying attention to the teacher.

After that, Jae focused on class. When it was over, she straightened from her desk and headed out without sparing a glance toward the girl in front of her.

She was all the way to the door before hearing the shrill, panicked, “What the fuck!?

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