Leaning against one of the posts holding up an exit sign along the freeway, Trice watched cars continue to stream by. The green-haired boy wore his usual long brown trenchcoat. It wasn’t his coat, of course. Not any more than the pike secured to his back was his pike. Who the hell even knew where those were now. But they were, at least, perfect replicas provided by his current patroness.
Speaking of whom, he looked over his shoulder to where the small, dark-haired woman herself sat on a chair she had conjured on the far side of the sign. The chair projected some kind of magical cloaking field that rendered both of them invisible to the cars passing by. “So,” the boy started, “not that taking Heretic prisoners doesn’t sound fun. But what’s the point? And–” He paused, blinking at the woman. “Are you reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets?”
“Mmmhmm,” Denuvus murmured, her eyes on the book in her hands. Her voice was absent, attention clearly on the writing in front of her. “I kept meaning to, but time has a habit of getting away from you when you live for centuries. I do hope that Harry finds out who’s been petrifying all the students.” Closing the book then, she used it to point at the boy “And I promise, if you spoil it for me, I will be quite cross.”
Trice squinted at her for that. “I’m kind of surprised you’re rooting for the good guys. I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, but aren’t you kind of a megalomaniacal supervillain?”
Dropping the book onto the chair as she stood, Denuvus replied, “I’m a lot of things. But medically speaking, no. First of all, they don’t use the term megalomania anymore. Now it’s narcissistic personality disorder. And I don’t have that. I can fake it pretty well, but that’s not me. I want you to keep that in mind. Everything I do is not because of a mental disorder. It’s because I choose to do it. Because I chose a very long time ago to put three things above everything else. My life, my comfort, and my revenge. I know exactly who I am, what I’m doing, and why.”
It was the first time she’d said that much about herself, and Trice found himself blinking. “Revenge?”
“That book has me pontificating,” Denuvus muttered, waving a hand to make the book and the chair it was sitting on vanish. “Let’s just say that my sister and I were once more… Dobby than Harry Potter. We had a master, and everything I do is geared toward one day destroying him.”
Biting his lip as he wondered if he should even say anything, Trice found himself asking, “You have a sister?” What the hell, if she didn’t want him to talk about it, she could always make him shut up. She could technically make him do anything she wanted. Actually, the fact that she had yet to use her true power on him aside from demonstrating that she could was a little confusing.
“I had a sister,” Denuvus informed him in a matter-of-fact tone. “And then I killed her.”
“Damn,” Trice managed. “That’s cold. You must’ve really hated her.”
The woman’s voice was soft, mind clearly elsewhere. “I loved her with all my heart. She was all I had. We were all each other had. In my entire life, she was probably the only person I ever truly loved besides myself. In all the centuries that have passed, I’ve never stopped missing her. Not once. Not for a single day. But I had a choice once, to escape with my sister and leave our revenge unfulfilled. Or to sacrifice her to gain the power I needed to one day make him pay for everything he did. I made my choice.”
For a moment, Trice was silent. He shifted from foot to foot, mind racing before finally speaking up once more. “That all sounds pretty personal. Why the hell are you telling me about it?”
“As I said, that book has me speaking too much,” she replied before turning her gaze on him. “And because I want you to understand. I am not a maniac. I will not turn on you for no reason. I know precisely what I’m doing and why. As long as you are either helpful or at least not a hindrance to that, we will have no quarrel. But the moment you think about making me regret taking you out of that cell, remember that I sacrificed my sister to achieve my goals. And I have only become more determined since that time.”
Swallowing, the boy gave a quick nod. “Yeah, point taken. I get it, believe me. Besides, it’s not like I’ve got anywhere to go. That Chambers chick might’ve restarted the whole rebellion thing, but I’m pretty sure I’m still persona non grata with the Heretics. And since that whole magical info download shit she did actually didn’t mention the body-snatching fuckweasels you say were responsible for Torv’s death, I get the feeling that I’ve got a better chance of making them pay by staying with you. Doxer’s dead and… and I don’t know what the hell happened to Pace. There’s nothing for me to go back to. Whatever you’re doing, I’m with you.” He paused then before gesturing to the freeway. “But like I said, I still dunno what the point of taking Heretic prisoners is. It seems kind of… loud and obvious. The kind of loud and obvious that gets attention. And from everything you’ve said, attention is something you usually avoid.”
“Attention can have its uses,” she reminded him. “Having a reputation, even if only by your name, tends to open a lot of doors. If I wanted to disappear entirely without leaving a trace, I could have done so centuries ago, and lived quite comfortably. But comfort is not my only goal. Sometimes to accomplish what one needs to, one must… make a little noise.”
With that, the woman began to walk toward the freeway, stepping over the guardrail. “And we’re not taking Heretic prisoners.” Her hand rose to flag down passing trucks. “We’re saving them.”
Before Trice could ask what that meant, a semi pulled to the side, slowing as it came right up alongside them on the shoulder. When it stopped, the woman opened the door, using it to haul herself up to look at the expectant driver. “Hi,” she started. “My name is Denuvus. I need you to do something for me.” Leaning closer, she whispered something Trice didn’t catch, then hopped down, closed the door, and pounded her fist against it twice. Apparently the driver took that as a signal, because the truck started moving again, pulling back out onto the freeway.
“What’d you tell him t–” Trice started before cutting himself off as he watched the semi. Rather than actually pull back into a lane to drive on, the man was maneuvering the truck and trailer across all four lanes of traffic, blocking all of it before stopping entirely. Immediately, horns began to blare as cars and trucks were forced to come to a quick halt. There were a few fender benders, which only added to the obnoxious horns. Those were quickly accompanied by shouts.
Trice’s mouth opened, but Denuvus was already moving, walking along the shoulder toward the quickly mounting traffic jam. With a sigh, he followed, keeping his eyes open for any kind of threat. Not that he expected one right here, but stranger things had happened. Like little Hannah Owens becoming a certified badass, for one. Who could’ve seen that one coming?
He still didn’t know how he felt about that… hurgh, he was trying not to think of her as a bitch. Especially after having time to think about this whole Seosten… situation. But whatever. It wasn’t like he wanted to sing Kumbaya with the–damn it, with her. He still didn’t like her. And she was still the one who had killed his little brother. But now he had bigger fish to fry. Angel fish.
Heh, angel fish. Yeah, that was a good one.
They approached a red van that was stopped in the middle of the rapidly growing line of cars. Five figures sat in the van, all of them watching. As the two got closer, several of the van’s doors opened, and the figures emerged.
“Whatever you want,” the man who had been driving started, “you need to turn around and walk away.” He stepped around the front of the van then, ignoring a few horn honks that were directed his way. “Ain’t a single person here who’s in any mood for games.”
Trice looked the man up and down briefly. He looked to be in his mid-forties as far as Bystanders would be concerned, not that that was any actual indicator of anything. At least, the boy thought it was forties. Sometimes it was hard to remember what normal human aging was supposed to look like. In any case, he had dark blond hair that fell just past his ears, and a face that looked oddly off-centered. His nose seemed to be set slightly off from his eyes, and his mouth seemed further off-set than that. It was like his entire face had been set at a very slight, yet noticeable diagonal angle rather than a vertical one. Not enough to be clearly unnatural or anything, but definitely enough for the man to stand out in a crowd.
“Hey, you don’t wanna come with us, that’s up to you,” Denuvus replied then, her voice taking on a more casual bordering on arrogant tone than the one she normally used. It was the voice of a confident and competent person who was not necessarily a leader. The voice of someone who followed orders well. Exactly how the woman managed to portray that much in a single sentence was beyond Trice, but it was the exact impression he got. And judging from the looks the people who had just gotten out of that van gave each other, they felt the same.
“Why would we come with you?” the man with the uneven face demanded with a squint. “I’ve never seen you before. And that one–” He looked toward Trice. “Something tells me he’s got a tattoo on his arm. An apple with a dagger in it? Am I getting close?”
“He used to be part of Eden’s Garden, yeah,” Denuvus confirmed. “But he’s not now. And neither am I. What we are, is your ticket out of here without being picked up by your old friends from Crossroads.” She shrugged. “Of course, if you’d rather take them on… I’m sure they’ve noticed the delay by now. They should be here any second.”
“What?” one of the women in the group spoke up. She had light brown skin and looked like she was in her very early twenties, her eyes pale green. “What do you mean? There’s Crossroads people here?” She looked to the man in charge then, adding a quick, “I told you they’d track us down, Barrus. Now what the hell are we supposed to do?” Her words were echoed by the others, who were all already looking around as though expecting to be jumped any second.
“Stop,” Barrus retorted, his eyes on Denuvus. “We don’t even know who these people are. For all we know, they’re part of a trap.”
“Not a trap,” Denuvus corrected. “An opportunity. We don’t have time to explain, but if you come with us, we will. The men from Crossroads are a few miles up the road. They were waiting for you to come by. Like I said, they’ll have already noticed the delay and the lack of cars. So they’ll be coming. I dunno who they are, but there’s one guy. He like… he looks like a buff Santa? Only change the suit for this red chainmail stuff, and he uses a chaingun with–”
“Kalvers,” Barrus snarled the name with clear hatred. “That’s him. Fuck. If he’s up there…” He trailed off, looking toward the others as if thinking about how much trouble they were in.
“Our employer sent us to offer you a way out,” Denuvus put in, making Trice glance to her. He kept all surprise off his face though. She’d told him enough to understand that she tended to play things this way. “We have an escape portal right over the ridge there. But we need to go.”
“And who is your… employer?” Barrus asked with clear suspicion in his voice. “Why should we believe that you’re–”
“Barrus!” the woman who had spoke a moment earlier blurted, “we don’t have time!”
“Your friend is right,” Denuvus agreed, stepping back. “You can do what you want, but we’ve got no intention of staying here while those Crossroads people come to see what the hold-up is. Follow or don’t, it’s up to you. But I’ll tell you this much, you come with us and we’ll make you an offer. If you don’t like it, you can walk away. No hard feelings. Either way, you get out of this place.”
She was walking then, and Trice quickly pivoted to follow. He resisted the urge to look back, instead using his enhanced hearing and his new ability (thanks to a brief fight with a Stranger that Denuvus had procured) to manipulate and sense cloth to keep track of the people behind them. There was a brief delay, but then all five followed them. Warily, but they did follow, while the sound of blaring horns and screaming people faded into the background.
As promised, there was an active portal just over the ridge by the time the group got there. It glowed with power, a shimmering blue door-shaped light. Reaching it, Denuvus stepped aside. “I know you guys don’t have any reason to trust us,” she announced simply, “but we’re just here to do a job. That job is to get you out of here so our employer can make you an offer. That’s it. Trice?” She nodded to him. “You go first.”
Giving the group of wary Crossroads Heretics a brief glance, Trice shrugged. “Sure, whatever.” He stepped through the portal then, ending up exactly where he expected: an empty restaurant. The place had been cleared out specifically for this. The tables were all immaculate, the view through the nearby floor to ceiling windows extraordinary as they overlooked the bustling city of New York. This restaurant, set in the fifteenth floor of the building, was normally packed from opening to closing. But Denuvus had a way of… making things like that change, whether she used her power or not. Be it natural charisma, favors she was owed, money put into the right hands, or, failing all of that, her power, she generally got anything she wanted.
Turning as he stepped away from the portal, Trice watched as the five Heretics came through, followed finally by Denuvus herself before the portal closed behind them.
“What–” one of the other guys, a small, skinny guy with pale skin and red hair who looked like he wasn’t even twenty-one yet, blurted. “I know this place. My girlfriend and I got in a couple summers ago. Her dad had an in with the Minutemen and they pulled some strings. But it’s never empty. What the hell?”
“Our employer knows how to pull a few strings,” Denuvus demurely replied with a tiny smile. “He thought you might enjoy a nice, private lunch in one of the most exclusive restaurants in New York. Afterward, we can talk a little business. If you don’t like what you hear, any or all of you are free to walk away.”
“Who exactly is this employer?” Barrus asked, his tone a bit lighter than it had been, yet still clearly tinged with unease and suspicion. “And who are you people? We don’t even know your names. Except you called that one Trice.”
“You’re right, sorry,” Denuvus admitted. “Yes, he’s Trice. I’m Glaive. As for who we work for… have you heard the name… Denuvus?”
Apparently they had, because all five people blurted different things at once. Trice heard completely different things from each of them. One said that Denuvus was dead, another that he was a monster, another that he was a hero, the fourth that he had never existed at all, and the fifth that he was a Stranger who pretended to be a Heretic.
“Oh, Denuvus is very much real, and alive,” Denuvus assured them with a faint smile. “And he’s ready and willing to offer each of you food, shelter, power, money, and everything you need to take this battle to the people who really deserve it, the ones responsible for this whole situation.”
That made the quintet look to each other once more, exchanging silent conversation before they looked back to the woman. “No offense,” the brown-skinned woman started, “but you kind of came out of nowhere. You say you saved us from a Crossroads ambush, which, if so, thanks a lot. But we don’t know anything about you. And you say this Denuvus guy, if he’s even real, is going to help us take the war against Crossroads?”
“No.” Denuvus’s voice was blunt. “That’s not what I said. What I said was that he wants to help you fight the people who are responsible for this situation. That’s not Crossroads. They’re as much victims as anyone else in all this. Some more willing than others, but still.”
“The hell are you talking about?” the red-haired man demanded, his eyes squinting. “You trying to say that Eden’s Garden is behind all of this shit?”
“They’re victims too,” Denuvus informed them. Her eyes scanned over the group, pausing as if she was trying to decide just how much to tell them this early.
“Spit it out,” Barrus snapped, his fists visibly tightening. “Or we walk out of here right now.”
“Okay, okay.” Waving a hand as if in surrender, while Trice knew she’d wanted to be talked into sharing this the entire time, Denuvus took a breath. “You want to know who the real enemies are? You want to know who’s responsible for manipulating all of Crossroads and all of Eden’s Garden? I’ll tell you all about them. I’ll tell you who your real enemies are.
“They’re called the Seosten…”