Month: June 2019

Pursuit 4-02 (Summus Proelium)

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It was probably a good thing that family dinner night meant I couldn’t run out right then to check out my new lead, because there was a decision I had to make. Mostly about whether I should go there as myself or in costume. I wasn’t sure which would be better. If I went as myself it would be more subtle and I could just look around a little bit before possibly going back later as Paintball. 

On the other hand, if this place really was working with Ashton, going as myself might be dangerous, even if they were a shop of some kind. Or maybe they would somehow recognize me later from my height and build as the person who was just in there asking questions? I wasn’t sure. I was pretty much winging all of this. 

So, I thought about it through all of the time leading up to dinner, and most of the way through that, before finally deciding to go with going as myself to start. Leaving the house, I summoned an Uber (that time it wasn’t Adrian, obviously) and had it drop me off a few blocks away from the address I’d found when I looked up this place online. 

And now I was here. With my costume in my backpack, which was slung over one shoulder, I stood in front of a three-story brick building nestled between an ice cream shop and a pet store. This place didn’t really look like anything, aside from a small wooden sign hanging just above the glass door reading, ‘Wren’s Nest.’

Well, this was definitely the place. Ashton had called these people right after he barely escaped being caught by Blackjack’s men. Now I just had to go in there and see if I could figure out why. Good luck to me, I guessed. 

There was a bell above the door that dinged as I stepped through. The place definitely looked like a pawn shop, as far as I’d seen them on TV. It was a wide-open room about as large as the school gymnasium, only perfectly square. The ceiling was about fifteen feet up, with tall shelves lining every spot of wall aside from the door where I entered, and a pair of metal doors straight across on the far side of the room that looked like an elevator. 

More shelves of varying sizes were scattered everywhere throughout the room with no apparent rhyme or reason. They were all different heights and angled randomly. Roughly a third of the room toward the middle was lower than the rest, sunken in several feet. There were several stairs leading down into this lower pit area that wrapped all the way around it. In the middle of that pit were four glass counters set in a rectangle, with a guy who looked like he was probably the salesman, or clerk, or whatever behind them, in the middle of the rectangle. He had a TV on the counter facing him, and he was arguing with some guy on the other side of the counter. The guy’s back was to me, but it definitely wasn’t Ashton. Not unless he’d lost his hair, turned black, and gained about a hundred pounds. 

If either the customer or clerk had noticed me enter, neither gave any sign of it. They just continued arguing. So I started slowly walking through the room, letting my eyes pass over the shelves. It just looked like a random assortment of junk. There was no rhyme or reason to it. I saw action figures lumped in with tin cans, GameBoys or other handhelds, and kitchen utensils. I saw a microwave missing the door, with a clock stuck inside of it. On one shelf was a single spray bottle of what had been Formula 409, except someone had taped a piece of paper over the label and written a series of numbers on it. Below the numbers was a scribbled note reading, ‘Never ever use on tomato sauce. Ever.’ That last word was underlined three times. 

On and on it went. Every shelf throughout this large room was like that, as far as I could see. Moving around one of them, I looked at another with a pile of small handheld vacuums stacked up on it. The vacuums all seemed to be labeled as well, with post-it notes that had a single letter followed by a single number scrawled on them. 

“Ahem.” 

The voice made me jump a bit, and I turned to see the clerk standing behind me. From the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of his customer leaving through the front door. 

My eyes focused on the guy in front of me as I turned. He was about six feet tall, and maybe forty-five or fifty years old, with black greasy hair that was slicked back. He was mostly thin in the arms and legs, but had a pronounced potbelly. When he spoke, I could see teeth that were pretty yellowed from smoking, which explained the breath. “Just so you know, kid, you get any ideas about shoving anything into that bag of yours, and I’ll break your fingers. Then I’ll call the cops. You got it?”

His voice was familiar. It was the guy who answered the phone before. Of that I had no doubt. But why is he the guy that Ashton had been talking to? I wasn’t sure. And I couldn’t exactly ask him.

Instead, I gave the man a thumbs up. “No worries. I’m just looking around a little bit. Um.” Hesitating, I asked, “What kind of place is this? Like, a junk shop?”

The man sneered at me. “You in the habit of walking in places when you don’t even know what they are? And then calling it junk?”

“Sorry,” I murmured. “I wasn’t trying to be rude. I thought junk shop was the right word. This stuff all seems pretty random. People buy it?”

The man made a non-committal noise before turning to walk away with a muttered, “They buy what they need.”

I had no idea what that was supposed to mean, and I hesitated briefly, unsure if I should follow him or look around a bit more. In the end, I did a bit of both, gradually making my way toward the counter that he was returning to, while also looking around a bit at more of the junk. Err, stuff. 

As I stopped to look at what seemed to be a lawnmower with an actual motorcycle engine attached to it, a small brown box of sorts sitting next to the television on the glass counter made a chiming sound. The guy gave me one last glance before reaching out to hit a button on it. His voice was gruff. “Yeah?”

The voice that came through what was apparently an intercom there was basically the polar opposite of his. It sounded young and feminine, with a bright chirping tone. “Fred! I need three metal balls, four inches in diameter. Oh, and I need a wooden broom, six ziplock bags, four tin cans, twelve feet of CAT5 cable, two standard light bulbs, and one of those radio alarm clocks with the digital display on the front, please! Thank you!”

“Yeah, Wren,” the man grunted after hitting the button again. “I’ll bring that right up.”

As he released the button and stepped away, I piped up, “So there is a Wren.”

Giving me a look that clearly showed he’d forgotten I was even there, the man pointed to the door. “We’re closed. Come back another time.”

I was obviously super curious, but I wasn’t going to push things. Nodding to the man, I waved before heading out. I felt his eyes on me the whole time until I stepped through the door. As soon as it had closed behind me, I heard a loud electronic click. I was willing to bet that if I tried the door again, it wouldn’t open. 

Right, there was an actual Wren, and she was clearly upstairs somewhere. If anyone was going to know why Ashton had called, it was probably her. Her name was on the building, after all. 

Unfortunately, there was no way Fred, as his name apparently was, would ever let me talk to her. Nor would I be able to explain to either of them why some teenage girl wanted to find the guy. 

So, I was going to have to go at this a different way. Namely by changing into the costume in my bag and sneaking in. I’d either find the information I needed, or talk to this Wren in person. 

Either way, first I had to find a place to change. It ended up being an alley (I was getting to be quite the connoisseur of those) a couple streets over. Stashing my clothes in my bag and hiding it under a bit of machinery on a roof, I jumped over several buildings before making my way to the one closest to my target. It was the roof of the pet store, which was only two stories tall, so the roof of the place in question was another floor higher. 

There were windows along the building, but they all looked barred. I wasn’t sure my purple paint could raise my strength enough to rip one of those bars out. Besides, that would take way too long. I needed to find a faster, easier way in. 

Then I saw it. In the top left corner of the building was a window that was open. There were curtains there that were drifting slightly in the breeze. That was my entrance. I just had to be careful. Really careful. 

Looking around briefly to make sure I wasn’t being watched, I straightened up, extended my hand, and used a burst of red paint to yank myself over beside that window. On the way, I put a bit of black paint both on myself, and on the wall I was about to hit, to keep things silent. 

Hitting the wall just under the open window soundlessly, I stopped there and listened. Music. I could hear James Brown singing about feeling ‘so good’ coming through the window. It sounded like it was coming from another room in this place, not the one this window was attached to. From the room itself, I couldn’t really hear anything. 

Slowly and cautiously, I peeked up over the edge of the window and looked inside. It looked like a bathroom. There was a tub right below me, and a sink next to it. A blue robe hung on a hook on the open door, and through that opening, I could see a hallway. Sure enough, the music was coming from out there somewhere. 

For a moment, I hesitated. This was technically breaking and entering. Or at least entering. I didn’t know that there was any kind of crime going on, or that these guys definitely had something to do with Ashton.  

On the other hand, why else would he have called them right then? At the very least, they had to know something about him. And this was about saving a little girl. Not to mention stopping the rapidly building gang war from turning the streets bloody. 

Mind made up, I carefully and quietly pulled myself through the window, dropping down into the tub before stopping once again to listen. Just the music. It had moved on to Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now. Whoever this Wren was, I couldn’t really fault her taste in music. 

Slipping out of the tub, I quietly made my way across the bathroom, crouching on the side of the open door before peering out. There was a hallway there. The place just looked like an ordinary house or an apartment or whatever. Clearly Wren lived here, on the third floor of the building. 

The music was coming from down the hall on the left, so I peeked out to the right first and saw a couple closed doors. The floor of the hallway was carpeted in bright blue, while the walls were white. Or at least, they had been white. I could see random notes, some scrawled on post-its and others written on the wall itself. There were math equations, reminders about picking things up from the store, even what looked like a list of characters from old cartoons. Some of the random notes had arrows drawn to one another connecting them, though I couldn’t see how they were related. Like, there was a list of fruits, with a long squiggly arrow connecting it to some kind of math equation that made my head hurt just looking at it.

Taking a breath, I crept my way out of the bathroom and further down the hall to the left, where the music was coming from. Just ahead and to the right was a set of stairs leading down, and to the left was an open door leading into what looked like a storage room that was filled with just as random of stuff as the shelves downstairs. 

Moving on, I found a huge bedroom that was basically packed with toys along every spare inch save for a spot right in the middle where a waterbed with Transformers sheets and blankets jumbled up on it. On the nightstand next to the bed sat several more action figures, posed atop a physics book. 

Yeah, this just kept getting weirder. Shaking my head, I kept going, staying low, crouched, and quiet. I had to find this girl.  

Before I could go any further, however, I heard that Fred guy’s voice, calling back something about ice cream from the far end of the hall. The door there started to open, so I quickly threw myself into the bedroom I had just been looking at. 

Footsteps were approaching, and I slipped beside the open door, listening as the man walked past. I could hear the clomp of his feet going down the stairs a moment later. He was gone, for now at least. Which gave me a chance to see this Wren for myself. 

Hurrying down the hall as quietly as I could, I moved straight to the door at the end that Fred had come through. The music was back, as Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell filled the corridor. The man had left the door open a little bit, so I could crouch there and peek through. 

It looked like a garage, complete with a sedan in the middle of the cement floor, which raised all kinds of questions in my head. Starting with, how the hell did they get a car up here on the third floor? 

It was more than a garage, I realized after peeking around a bit more. There was vehicle maintenance stuff in there, but there was also carpentry stuff, a table full of half-built computers, another one with medical supplies scattered around it. There was even a long table to one side with a full on train set complete with miniature town and landscape. The train was chugging away, going in circles. The centerpiece of the train set was a volcano, with a radio sitting half in it. That was the source of the music. 

Right, there was a lot of stuff in here. But where was the girl I was looking for? Seeing nobody and no sign of her after looking around for a minute, I finally had no choice but to slowly step into the room. I kept glancing around, wary of some kind of ambush as I took a few steps into the large room. Fred had just come out of here. So where the hell was—

“Hi!”

The loud, startling voice came from behind me as the music abruptly cut out, leaving the room silent save for that single word and my resulting yelp. I spun around, hands up defensively, only to find nothing there. 

Then I looked up. There, hovering just above and in front of me, was a girl. At first, I thought she had dragonfly wings. Then I realized that the wings were just attach to the metal harness she was wearing. She also wore a tool belt laden with equipment, held a screwdriver in one hand and a wrench in the other, and had one of those miner helmets with the light on her head. 

Oh, and she was a kid. Like, maybe nine years old at most. She had blonde hair that stuck out wildly in every direction, and her bright green eyes were wide with curiosity and innocence as she hovered there in the air, dragonfly-wings beating soundlessly to keep her in the air. 

While I stood there and stared open-mouthed, the girl dropped to the floor. Her wings retracted back into the harness, and she dropped the tools into her belt before extending a hand. “I’m Wren,” she chirped. “What’s your name?”

“I… um… you’re Wren?” was all I could manage. 

She blinked, head tilting as she looked at me. “You mean you came through my bathroom window and you didn’t even know what I looked like?”

That made me reel even more. “You knew I was there?”

In reply, the girl plucked a remote from her belt and pointed it to the side. She clicked it, and I saw part of the wall turn into a video screen that showed security camera footage of this whole place, including everywhere I had been. Oh. 

“Don’t worry,” Wren assured me, “I didn’t tell Fred. He gets growly sometimes, and it’s fun to have a new person to talk to. So, what’s your name? Are you a superhero? Wait, are you a super villain?” She said the latter bit a little carefully, eyes squinting at me while taking a step back.

Quickly, I shook my head. “I’m not a villain. I’m… I’m Paintball. And I’m looking for a guy that I think you did some work for? He’s the bad guy.” It was more complicated than that, of course, but I wanted to keep it simple. 

The girl’s head shook. “Nuh uh, I don’t do work for bad guys. See?” Her hand raised a point, and I turned to look at a banner that had been painted on the wall. Sure enough, it read, ‘We Never Work For Bad Guys.’

Well, I could hardly argue with a banner as straight into the point as that. Clearing my throat, I looked back to the kid. “You probably didn’t know he was a bad guy. But he stole some medicine from a little girl and she’s going to die if we don’t get it back. His name is Ashton.” Quickly, I described the man, adding that he had to use some kind of stun grenade, and that he’d called this place right afterward to have an extended conversation. 

When I was done, the girl snapped her fingers. “Ohhhhh, he’s the guy who came in a few weeks ago and wanted something to break through a bank vault.” Then she shook her head. “But we didn’t give him anything. I told him we don’t do that and he left.” Sounding thoughtful, the girl added, “He wasn’t very happy. He kept trying to pay more.” Her voice turned firm. “But we have standards. We don’t work for bad guys.”

She sounded pretty serious about it, and I hesitated before starting to ask, “Fred, you… is he… I mean—”

The girl blinked at me. “Is Fred what?”

“He’s asking,” the man himself announced from the doorway where he was standing with a heavy, complicated looking high-tech rifle pointed at me, “if I made a deal with the guy behind your back.

“Spoiler alert, I did.”

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Summer Epilogue 15 – Elisabet (Heretical Edge)

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“So, you’re saying this… supercomputer… thing calls itself Maestro, and he created you to serve as a guide or babysitter of sorts to ensure that I didn’t allow things to get out of hand given my relationship with Jophiel?”

Once again, Elisabet had been left behind in the private offices that she and Jophiel jointly used, while the woman she loved so much had gone to have certain discussions with Cahethal. And once again, her secret mind duplicate who called herself Gemini had appeared to run through her tests. 

“And now we’ve been through it three thousand seven hundred and twenty three times,” Gemini teased before adding, “Damn, I’m getting good at streamlining this. So, what do you say we go through the list and make sure everything is still above board and hunky dory, then you can get on with your day?”

Elisabet’s mouth opened to reply, just as a word written in what looked like blue flames appeared in the air above Gemini’s head. Liar, it read. 

Blinking at her clear distraction, the projection of her younger ‘twin’ turned to look up. From her reaction, she clearly didn’t see the word that was still hovering there. She frowned, looking back toward Elisabet. “I know this is still a lot to take in, especially since I keep erasing your memory, but—”

The word had changed. Now it read, Festemuelkan. 

Without quite knowing why she was doing so, Elisabet interrupted Gemini by blurting out that word. Somehow, the correct pronunciation jumped right to her head, along with exactly how much power she needed to put into it. Because it was a spell. How she knew the word, how she knew it was a spell, how she knew any of this, and where the word had appeared from, she had no idea. Nor could she explain exactly why she had simply blurted it out. 

What she did know was that the moment the word left her mouth, a pale yellow forcefield of some kind abruptly sprang into existence around her. It was only a few feet wide, and looked weak enough to fall apart at a firm touch. Yet she could sense an indescribably enormous amount of power behind it. This forcefield would take someone of even her own power a good ten minutes to break through. 

Gemini, for her part, looked completely taken aback, simply staring at the forcefield with an open mouth. It was almost amusing. Or it would have been, if Elisabet herself hadn’t been just as confused. 

“Where—” Gemini started before suddenly lunging that way. Her hand smacked against the force field, colliding with it before stopping as the defensive shield held even against her. “Where did you learn a Kortean mind-level shield? And how did you keep it from me?”

Before Elisabet could answer, she saw more blazing words appear in the air. To most, they would have looked like complete nonsense. But she recognized it as a sort of truth spell. A bit of magic that would force the person subjected to it to answer absolutely truthfully. Its weakness was that it could be counterspelled. But, if the subject couldn’t use magic for whatever reason…

“Hey,” Gemini spoke up, “I don’t know what kind of trick Jophiel’s managed to leave in your head, but you need to stop. I can’t get back to you. Take down the shield. I can’t reach you from here. I can’t do anything. We knew you couldn’t really trust the Seosten. That’s why I’m here, remember? Take down the shield and then we’ll figure out what happened.”

Instead, Elisabet spoke the truth spell. She had no idea whether this really was something from Jophiel or from something else, but she did know that it felt right. 

“Wait,” Gemini started, “what are you trying t—”

More words appeared in the air.  These weren’t any spell, but Elisabet spoke them aloud anyway. “Are you really here to protect me from Jophiel going too far or enslaving me again?”

Her younger-looking mind twin pursed her lips briefly before exhaling. “This won’t do you any good, you know. You’ll forget all of this soon enough anyway. But fine, no. I am not here to protect you.” The words came out mockingly, Gemini’s tone and behavior having changed drastically under the new situation, like a mask had been ripped off. 

Elisabet didn’t need the prompting of new words to ask the next question. “Why are you here?”

Again, there was a brief pause before Gemini rolled her eyes and answered. “Why am I here? I’m here to use you to control Jophiel. Well, more to manipulate, for now.”

Squinting at the image of her younger self, Elisabet demanded, “What are you talking about?”

Sighing dramatically, Gemini waved a hand dismissively. “Right, maybe we should start at the beginning so you can keep up. First of all, the story about the lost ship? That’s true. You did go to that ship with Jophiel for new powers. You did get trapped, and she did go to get help before life-support ran out. Hell, you even met someone named Maestro. But the details there are a little different.”

She went silent for a moment, walking back-and-forth in front of the forcefield as though gauging how strong it was. Finally, she sighed and continued. “Maestro needs a powerful Seosten to do some things for him eventually. Things they’d never do on their own. His chance for that came when he met you, and found out about your relationship with Jophiel. He put me into your head, and I’ve been using that to worm my way into hers so I can take control whenever I need to. It took a long time to do it without being noticed. I had to be so careful, so subtle. Especially given everything I had to do to you to make it fit.”

Elisabet’s instinct was to reach out for her connection with Jophiel. But she couldn’t do that with the shield up this way. It cut her off from everything in the outside world, including her beloved. And if she took it down, Gemini would be able to jump right back into her. 

So, she instead demanded, “What did you do to me?”

Gemini’s answer was blunt. “Rewrote you. Memories, thoughts, personality in general. Not overtly at first, but more as time went on and I got better at making sure you and Jophiel didn’t notice any changes… well, I nudged a bit more.” 

She smiled while continuing, clearly enjoying explaining herself, “I mean, first of all, you were a little too accepting of the whole ‘Seosten enslave everyone for their own good’ thing. I mean, you grew up in the time of the Spanish ‘colonizing’ the Americas. The idea of a more powerful, more advanced people taking a firm hand over the savages and raising them up? Come on, that fit in your worldview perfectly. Unfortunately, Maestro needed you to be closer to the human side of things, more sympathetic to the slaves. Or, more to the point, he needed you to like the Seosten in general less than you did. He needed you to be a bit more ready to side with the humans.”

Elisabet’s head shook as she demanded, “Why?” 

With a low chuckle, Gemini replied, “Because that allowed me to start sewing some doubts through you into Jophiel. Which will make her easier to control when the time comes. Not that you should be complaining. I mean, would you believe that to pull this off we had to make you nicer than you actually are? Like I said, we had to make this change gradual so Jophiel wouldn’t notice what was going on until we had enough control to adjust her memories too. But if the new you saw the old you, you probably wouldn’t even recognize her. Or you. Whatever. The point is, you were all in on this ‘enslave for the greater good’ thing. Except you wanted to be a little more open about it. You were trying to convince her that the Seosten should do away with the whole Bystander Effect thing and just openly control humanity. Teach them to reach their potential, yada yada. You were convinced that your people would thrive and be raised up to eventually stand equal with the Seosten if Jophiel and her people acted openly. Which didn’t really work for Maestro. He needed all of you to be a lot more subtle than that. That’s the other reason he needed you to be… adjusted a little. It’s been a long road, let me tell you. But worth it. Especially since it lets me reach into Jophiel’s head now and then and… adjust her. Sometimes I do it just for fun, like taking pointless little shots at Lancelot back when you met. You know, those little verbal attacks that did nothing except make the situation more tense? It’s a good way of testing just how much control I have.”

Exhaling, Gemini actually smiled, her eyes watching the expression on Elisabet’s face. “It’s kind of fun actually explaining all that for once, you know? Especially since there’s nothing you can do about it. The second that shield goes down, I’ll be back in your head. And you can’t contact anyone while it’s up. Maybe I’ll do this again another time. Seeing that look on your face is worth it.”

She frowned then, as a thought clearly occurred to her. “Even if I’m still not sure how you pulled this off. I’ll find out when I’m back in your head. Whatever kind of oversight that was, I’ll fix it.”

For the first time in several minutes, more flaming words appeared above Gemini’s head. Raising her eyes to read them silently, Elisabet realized that she had no idea what these ones did. They were a spell of some kind, but of what, she had no idea. 

On the other hand, whoever her mysterious benefactor in all this was, they had yet to steer her wrong. So, taking a breath, she spoke the words. 

There was an immediate reaction from her mental twin. Elisabet may not have known what the spell did, but Gemini certainly did. Her eyes widened, and she immediately went back to trying to break through the shield. “No! Stop it!  You’re endangering both of us! You’re going to kill yourself! You—”

Elisabet didn’t hear anymore. Her ears were filled with a deafening loud buzzing sound as she fell to her knees, clutching her head. It was the worst pain she could ever imagine, and it seemed to go on and on. Only belatedly did she realize that she was screaming at the top of her lungs, her shrill, terrified and agony-filled cry filling the room. Gradually, her vision went dark, and she collapsed. 

A few, long seconds of silence passed before the woman abruptly jerked up right, sucking in a long gasp of air. Her eyes were wide as she stared at the ceiling while panting heavily. 

“Well,” Gemini started in a low voice, “you managed not to kill yourself. Congratulations, I suppose.”

Ignoring her for a moment, Elisabet took another deep breath and looked down at her hands, turning them over both ways before smiling just a little. “Si, I survived. And now I remember.”

Gemini rolled her eyes. “Not surprising, considering what you’ve just used was a hidden consciousness spell.”

A hidden consciousness spell was a way of blocking off and hiding entire segments of one’s memories or thoughts. There were several uses for it, including enabling one to lie successfully by blocking off the incriminating knowledge with a note to oneself to use the spell later, or even as a way of blocking off addictions or inappropriate behavior. The spell could only be used by the person it was targeting, and would not work at all if it was being forced. So it had to be consensual. 

The downside of the spell was the pain associated with unlocking that part of the mind once more. It was usually only a brief flash of headache that lasted for a second or two when the mind lock was undone within a year. Most were undone within a few days at most. No one kept a mind lock going for longer than a decade and then risked undoing it. But this one… the only time it could possibly have been made was…

“Before Maestro put me into your head,” Gemini realized. “You prepped a mind lock spell to shove your memories away, to hide them. Memories of how to restore yourself, how to… reboot, so to speak.”

Elisabet slowly pushed herself up to a standing position, meeting the eyes of her mental clone through the shield. “Yes. I left myself instructions about how to protect myself from you and how to restore my real memories and thoughts. I did not have a lot of time, as you know. All I could do was set it to trigger at a time when you were out of my body, and your… Maestro was close to his goal.”

Her eyes narrowed. “It’s the hybrid children.  Something about them meeting with the Seraphim. It’s a trap of some kind. Maestro wants to use the children to destroy the Seraphim.” She paused, head tilting. “No, not destroy…” 

Gemini waved a hand dismissively once more. “It hardly matters. As I said, you can figure out all you like in there, but you have no way of contacting anyone. And the instant that shield goes down, I am going to erase it from your mind. This entire endeavor was useless. You can do nothing to stop the Maestro AI from completing his goal.”

“You forget,” Elisabet sharply reminded her, “I remember things now. Including what happened back on that ship. I know he’s not an AI. And neither are you.” She pointed to herself. “This thing in my neck, it’s not a computer. There may be electrical and magical components in it to keep it hidden, but the main part of it is not a computer. You are not an artificial intelligence and neither is Maestro. 

“He’s a hybrid. A hybrid of a Fomorian and the Seosten who was once known as Zadkiel.”

Gemini gave a slow, soft clap while shrugging. “Goodie for you. Yeah, he goes by a few names. Maestro is one. His… brother of sorts calls himself Grandfather, so he sometimes goes by Godfather. God. It’s appropriate, don’t you think?”

“He’s the one who trapped me on that ship,” Elisabet murmured. “He was chasing me after Jophiel left to get help. I knew he would catch me. I knew I didn’t stand a chance. So I set this up to give myself another try when I was stronger. That was another reason why I deleted it until now. Because I had to believe that I was strong enough to defend myself from whatever he did to me. Strong enough to defend myself from you.”

With a soft snort, Gemini raised an eyebrow. “Well, you kind of screwed yourself on that one, didn’t you? By my count, that shield of yours is going to last about another minute, at most. Then all of this goes away and you’re back to being a nice little puppet.”

Meeting her gaze evenly, Elisabet replied, “That’s the thing. You see, that reset didn’t just restore my memory. It also removed my little prohibition against hurting the little sack of wires and Fomorian biotech stuck to my neck.” She smiled dangerously. “I can hurt you.”

With wide eyes, Gemini blurted out something that seemed midway between a threat and a plea. But Elisabet was already raising her hand. A blade made of electricity that crackled with power appeared. As the protective shield preventing Gemini from taking control again flickered and vanished, Elisabet stabbed that electrical blade into the base of her neck. Both she and Gemini screamed, the sound once more deafening within the room as dozens of books, tables, chairs, glasses, paintings, and everything else was hurled in every direction as though a tornado had struck it. Ice, fire, and more whipped throughout the room, burning, freezing, and generally destroying everything it touched. 

At the last instant, Elisabet felt a sudden rush of movement. The world spun around her, leaving the woman dizzy in a way she had not been in many years. Darkness enveloped her vision, as her senses of direction, orientation, time, and everything else were sharply cut. In the end, she blacked out, her last thought being a hope that she had actually managed to destroy the thing inside her. Because she wouldn’t get another chance. 

*******

She was lying on sand. Eyes opening, Elisabet once more found herself staring into the face of her younger self. 

And then the image flickered, disappearing entirely for a second before returning. Gemini scowled at her. “Congratulations, murderer, I’m dying.”

“Not fast enough,” Elisabet retorted. 

The scowl on the other her’s face brightened somewhat. “You’re right. Before you managed to cut me out entirely, I had a couple seconds. That might not be much for most people, but for me it was enough.”

“It would’ve been an eternity if you were actually a computer,” Elisabet couldn’t help but goad while looking around. She was trying to orient herself. Where was she? All she could see was desert in every direction.

The image of Gemini flickered again before stabilizing somewhat. “As I was saying, I had a few seconds. You killed me? Well I fucked you over too. See, I had centuries to build spells into you, carved into your actual bones. And now that I’ve used them, they’ll be active until I turn them off. Which, given I’m about to die, I guess will be never.”

Elisabet slowly stood up, watching the rapidly flickering and fading image. “What spells?” Even as she spoke, the woman focused on contacting Jophiel. When that failed, she held her hand up to create a portal. That too failed. 

“Not gonna work,” Gemini taunted. “See, those spells I was talking about? One of them blocks you from any contact with Jophiel. She can’t sense you properly, she can’t come to you, she has no idea where you are. As far as she’s concerned, you’re alive but she has no idea where. And another of the other spells, it shuts down your connection to the Committee. They can’t sense you either. And you can’t use any of the Committee powers. Nor can you use any transportation powers. I’ve shut those down too. It was supposed to be a way of trapping you for Maestro when the time came, but this is good enough.”

Slowly looking around the desert before returning her attention to the image of Gemini, which had faded almost to the point of being invisible, Elisabet noted, “Shall I just assume you’ve sent me further away than the Sahara then?”

Gemini gave her one last smile, her mouth being the most visible part of her nearly completely vanished form. “Welcome to Aiken’te’vel, the Meregan homeworld.”

Raising an eyebrow, Elisabet noted, “I already know there are ways back to Earth from here.”

Gemini had faded completely by then, only her voice remaining. “Of course, but the question is, can you find the way back before they find you?”

Elisabet started to ask who they were, only to look up and see a familiar and incredibly chilling sight. Swarms of Fomorian bioships were descending toward the planet, so many that they blocked out the sky. 

“Fomorians have been looking for a way back to earth for decades,” Gemini’s fading voice informed her. “This happens to be an alternate Earth, in another reality. And would you believe they’ve detected humans here recently?  They’re quite interested, let me tell you. I would imagine they’ll scour every inch of this planet. And they’ll be very curious when they detect you. I imagine you’ll be quite the fun little rabbit to chase, especially without the Committee link or any transportation powers.”

Her last words before fading from Elisabet’s mind entirely as the Fomorian ships descended were a mockingly sweet,  “Good luck, murderer.

“You’re going to need it.”

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Pursuit 4-01 (Summus Proelium)

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“You know, you’re really lucky you don’t have any actual responsibilities,” my brother announced the next afternoon as the two of us stood on one of the balconies overlooking our massive grounds behind the house. The place was basically too big to even see all of from where we were standing. Our property extended off over the hill and down into a small forested area with a stream running through it. Let’s just say that when I had read the Harry Potter books, I basically pictured the grounds as my own backyard. Actually, the school itself wasn’t that far off from my house, come to think of it. Which probably gave me a somewhat different view of good old Harry’s upgrade from cupboard to castle than most people had.

Glancing sidelong toward Simon, I resisted the urge to punch him, though it was close. “I have responsibilities,” I informed him stiffly.

Like finding those stolen vials for Blackjack before his daughter dies and he takes his grief out on the entire city, I added silently.

Yeah, that new little responsibility had been weighing on me all night long, ever since the La Casa leader had his men drive me back into the city. I got them to let me out in the back lot of one of the public libraries, since that wouldn’t give them any indication of who I was. Then I’d spent a solid half hour making sure I wasn’t being followed and that there were no tracking devices on me (as far as I could tell). In the latter case, I didn’t actually trust my own ability to find any minute trackers that might have been placed on me, so I had gone as far as dunking my entire body in a fountain (after taking out my voice changer of course) to soak myself and hopefully drown any electronics that might have been placed before finally heading home (soaking wet and cold) to crash. It might not have been necessary, but I was paranoid.

Then I’d tossed and turned for hours before finally getting to sleep. It was a good thing today was Sunday.

Simon just chuckled at me. “Oh, of course, make sure you get to class on time, do some homework, such a hard responsibilities. How do you ever manage to keep up with it all?”

There was so much I could have said to him right then that would have blown his mind. It almost felt like it would’ve been worth it. But I bit back the initial retort that came to mind, settling on just shrugging at him. “Everyone’s got their own stuff.”

Somehow, I was pretty sure that asking him if ordering people to be murdered and working out deals with the Easy Eight gangs were the extent of his responsibilities or if there were more I should know about wouldn’t go over that well. But it still would’ve been funny to see his face. For a few seconds anyway.

Giving me a little push with his elbow, Simon laughed. “Oh, don’t worry about it. I’m just giving you shit, Booster. It’s good that you don’t have to deal with too much. You’re gonna have to worry about enough stuff when you get older. No reason to be in a rush. Be happy you’re still…”

He paused then, looking very briefly troubled, a short expression of uncertainty crossing his face. Even if I hadn’t known at least some of the truth, that would have stood out. He looked, maybe not sad, but at least… somewhat regretful? Maybe scared. Or lost. Or like someone who was in way over their head. Or all of the above. Either way, it flashed across his face for just a moment.

“Are you okay?” I found myself asking. Not that I actually expected him to open up with the truth, but I was curious about what he might actually say. Especially in that moment where he looked somewhat vulnerable.

He didn’t answer at first. Instead, Simon just turned to look out over the grounds. His lips pursed a bit and he reached out to set a hand on my shoulder, squeezing it. And for just the slightest instant, I had the absurdly paranoid thought that he was going to shove me off the balcony. But of course, he just squeezed my shoulder and replied, “Sure, I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be? We live a charmed life, you know? Everything’s just fine and peachy keen.”

Hesitating slightly, I looked up to him. “Simon, you know if there’s something you want to talk about… we can—”

His fist hit my shoulder, just enough to sting. “Told you” he retorted, “it’s fine. I’m fine. Don’t be such a little girl.”

“I could stand on stilts if you want me to stop being so little,” I offered. “But I kind of like the girl part, so you’re stuck with that.” Lowering my voice, I added as masculinely as possible, “I could pretend for a little bit if it makes you feel better.”

The saddest thing about all of this was that it was only with Simon that I could feel comfortable making these kind of jokes. Most of the time I was so busy making sure people knew I actually was a girl that I’d never say something like that.

Or maybe pretending to be a boy in costume was making me more comfortable with it too. Either way, I felt a brief wave of incredible depression at the thought that one of the only people in the world whom I felt comfortable with joking about looking like a boy with was only unaware that I was the one he had nearly had killed because he thought I was a boy. There was some kind of joke in there somewhere, but I didn’t feel like finding it. This just sucked.

Apparently it was my turn for something to show on my face, because Simon looked to me and frowned. “Are you okay? You look like someone just bought you a puppy and then strangled it in front of you.”

Grimacing, I shot a look at him. “Morbid. Too morbid.”

Before I could actually answer his question, however, the sliding glass door opened and we both looked back to see Mom stepping through. She smiled beautifully at us, a radiant expression that immediately made me feel loved and protected. Damn, she was good.

“I do enjoy seeing my children spending time together without being shamed into it,” Mom announced lightly, leaning in to give Simon a quick peck on the cheek before whispering something in his ear that took a few seconds to get through. She leaned back then, giving him a nod of what looked like encouragement before gesturing. “Before dinner, please.”

Giving me a brief glance, Simon nodded. “Yeah,” he grunted, “I’ll get right on that. He turned then, heading back into the house without saying anything else to me.

Even knowing that the best I would get was a lie, I turned to Mom and asked, “What does Simon have to do?” Despite the odds against getting a real answer, it probably would have been weird if I didn’t ask, after something like that.

Sure enough, Mom just shook her head at me. “Nothing for you to worry about, dear. Now come, let me look at my little Principessa.” She stepped closer, putting her hands on my shoulders while smiling down at me. Her gaze met mine and I felt like melting against her. She was my mom. I wanted to trust her so much. Everything in me was saying that I should just grab onto my mother and tell her everything. It was so hard not to. It took a physical effort to keep my face as blank as possible. It was hard. It was so damn hard.

Mom held me like that for a few long seconds before leaning in to kiss my forehead. She ruffled my hair and then stepped back. “Come, let’s take a walk in the garden and talk.”

“Talk?” I echoed despite myself.

She gave me an easy wink. “Never fear, whatever personal secrets you have are safe. You’re not in trouble. I only wish to speak with you about good things.”

Reminding myself to act like a normal teenager, I quickly put in, “Oh, you mean we’re talking about the car I’m getting when I pass Drivers Ed?”

Mom just chuckled softly at me. “That’s your father’s department, dear. Let’s go.” With that, she turned to walk back inside. I followed, as I was expected to. She didn’t even look back to see if I was, simply knowing that I would. That was the kind of power my mother held over everyone.

We walked through the house, down the stairs, and out into the back yard. Mom led me to one of several elaborate flower gardens we had out there, and we began a stroll between the dazzling display of colors from all the blossoms.

We had been walking in silence for a minute before my mother finally spoke up once more. “You are sixteen years old now, Cassidy. You are nearly an adult. And that comes with additional privileges as well as responsibilities.” She glanced toward me then with a half smile. “Some could be considered both privilege and responsibility.”

My throat felt dry, a lump forming in it. What was this about? Was she going to tell me about the real family business? Was I about to be inducted into their criminal empire? Was she actually going to tell me the truth? How was I supposed to react? What was I supposed to do? Why were we out here in the garden?

“The Reformation Ball,” Mom announced, yanking my attention back to her.

“Huh?” I blurted, blankly. “What about it?”  The Reformation Ball was some big wig party that the leaders of the city had been throwing alongside the rich and powerful movers and shakers for the past couple decades, ever since things in Detroit started to be turned around by the emergence of Touched. It was a huge deal, which all the most important people in the city attended, including the Star-Touched teams. All of them sent at least a representative. But that didn’t have anything to do with me. I was too young to have anything to do with the— Wait a minute.

Mom must have seen the light bulb go on above my head, because she gave one nod. “Yes, you are sixteen. Your father and I believe you are old enough to participate and be seen. We would like you to attend. It is next Saturday and your father would like to make a present out of a dress for you. You will have to attend a fitting Tuesday evening. May I count on your attendance?”

My mind was reeling. I had just gone from thinking she might be opening up about all the bad things they were doing and how I should react to that, to being told that they thought I was adult enough to attend one of their most important dinner parties. How was I supposed to react? What was the appropriate level of excitement? Should I be excited? Should I be disappointed that I had to go to some party? I had completely lost all perspective or sense of balance.

In the end, I covered it as best as I could, after standing there in silence for a few seconds, by stepping over to tightly hug my mother. Maybe she would think my silence was because I was too choked up to say anything?

It seemed to work well enough, because Mom returned the embrace, brushing her hand up through my hair before holding my head against her chest as she murmured my name tenderly. That basically made me cry for real, and I clutched her tighter. God, why did this have to be so hard?

“I’ll be there,” I finally managed quietly. I would. I had to be. If they were starting to open up to me a little, maybe I could find out more about what my family was really up to and how they were involved in the Fell-Touched scene.

Also, I really wanted to know how they were going to pull off having both my father and Silversmith at this dinner.

******

Of course, first there was a much more pressing problem I had to deal with. Namely, finding those vials. Which meant finding Ashton. There wasn’t much time, and I didn’t have much in the way of ideas. I had tracked the guy down once, but he was back in the wind. How was I supposed to find him again? Especially if, despite being driven from his first hideout, he still hadn’t been found by one of the many, many people out beating the bushes for him.

I had only one idea, and it involved going back to the place where I had found him in the first place. In my costume later that day, I found myself back in front of that building. Blackjack’s men had definitely given it a thorough search after the cops who had been called to the disturbance had left, but they hadn’t found anything as far as I knew. So what made me think I would have any better luck than they had?

Blind optimism, mostly.

I hopped over the fence once more and made my way around to the right window. Glancing around to make sure no one seemed to be watching, I used red paint to yank myself up to the window and slipped inside. There, I looked around the dining room. The place was a complete disaster area. Whatever the stun grenade thing hadn’t destroyed, Blackjack’s people (or maybe the cops) had finished off. Everything had been torn out of all the cupboards, the fridge, the drawers, all of it. Things were scattered everywhere in the kitchen, and moving beyond that, I saw that the rest of the place was no better. They had cut open chairs, ripped up the couch, slashed the mattress on both sides, all of it. They’d torn apart the whole place. It looked as though a small tornado had struck the apartment, thanks to the men who had been looking for those vials.

This was insane. How was I going to find anything in here that those guys had missed? But it was my only lead. It was the only chance I had, aside from just blindly wandering the streets while looking for this guy. And that didn’t seem to be working very well for anyone else. No, this was what I had, and I needed to do something with it. Hence my one idea.

Placing myself in the same position he had been standing in, I faced the spot where I had been before, when he triggered the blast. From there, I turned on one heel, pantomiming running to the door. There, I pulled it open and stepped into the hallway where the stairs were. Across the way was the door of the opposite apartment, and straight down the stairs I could see the front door. The door where he would have known Blackjack’s men were coming. Would he really have risked running down the stairs where he could have been intercepted by someone who knew who he was? Did that really sound like the exit strategy of the guy who had pulled all this off so far? I didn’t think so.

Instead of going down the stairs, I stepped over to the next apartment and knocked. Waiting a moment, I knocked again when there was no answer. Finally, the door was pulled open and I saw a short, heavyset and balding man peek out. He stopped when he saw me, the chain on the door keeping it mostly shut. “What are you supposed to be?”

“Paintball,” I answered simply before adding a blunt, “Is he still here?”

The man didn’t try to play dumb. He sighed, lowering his gaze for a moment before shutting the door to take the chain off. Opening it once more, he gestured for me to enter. “He left, pretty soon after those guys did. I— listen, we don’t want any part of this.” His voice was shaking a bit as he led me into the living room where a woman who was obviously his wife was sitting with a young girl, barely five at a guess, on her lap.

The man waved off his wife from asking questions, looking at me. “That guy came in here with a gun. He pointed it at my little girl, and he told us to be quiet. He told us to tell them that there was no one else here. So that’s what we did. That’s all we did. We kept quiet and we let him stay until those guys left. That’s it. We’re not involved in this.”

“I understand,” I assured him. “I’m not here to cause any trouble, I promise. But there’s another little girl who is going to die if we don’t find him. He’s put her life in danger too, so I have to find him. Do you know anything else? Did he say anything while he was here about where he might be going? Anything at all?”

The parents exchanged glances, before the woman looked to me, voice cracking. “He said if we told the police or the La Casa people anything, he’d come back and kill all of us.”

“I’m not the police,” I reminded them. “And I don’t work for La Casa. I just want to stop all of this and make sure no one else dies.”

They exchanged another look before the father reached out, picked up a phone from the hook, and tossed it to me. “He made a phone call. We didn’t hear what he said, but it was a long conversation. Sounded pretty intense. It was the third to last call on there.”

Catching the phone, I checked through the outgoing call section, finding the right number. Then I took my own cell phone, the cheap throwaway one I had picked up, and put the number into that before hitting send. I wasn’t going to make the call from their number again.

It took three rings before a gruff voice answered, “Wren’s Nest Pawn. Hello?”

Thinking quickly, I asked, “Yeah, could I get a large pepperoni with extra cheese and—”

“Dude,” the man on the other end interrupted, “electronics shop, not pizza. You’ve got the wrong number.” That was followed by a click as the man disconnected the call, hanging up on me.

Looking down at my phone, I smiled to myself behind the helmet. Wren’s Nest Pawn, huh?

I officially had another lead.

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Mini-Interlude 80 – Joselyn and the Codell Tornadoes

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May 20th, 1919

“Boy, this place isn’t looking so good.”

“Let’s have your home get hit by three tornadoes in three years and see how good it looks.”

The first remark came from Roger Dornan, whose small stature and light blond hair were truly at odds with his fiery temper and impulsive attacks. The reply, meanwhile, came from his cousin, Seamus, who looked similar enough to Roger that many thought they were brothers or even fraternal twins. His hair was somewhat darker and he was a couple inches taller. But other than that, the two were quite similar in appearance if not temperament.

They were two of the members of seventeen-year-old Joselyn Atherby’s Crossroads team. Around them were Joselyn herself, her roommate and best friend Lillian Patters, Deveron Adams (whose appearance had been so radically altered several months earlier after he had killed an incubus), and his own roommate and best friend, Tribald Kine. All six wore civilian clothes rather than the school uniforms (with white trim in Tribald’s case, green trim in Roger’s, blue in Lillian’s, red in Joselyn and Deveron’s, and purple in Seamus’s). This was an attempt (hopeless as it was) to not stand out as much around here.

Here, the place being discussed, was the small town that the six of them were slowly walking through. Roger, for all his lack of tact, was actually correct. It really did not look very good. Despite the last tornado striking a year earlier, there was still visible destruction. They had already passed several houses as well as a hotel that had been completely torn apart, and according to their briefing, a church and school had also been ruined, along with more houses. Some of it had been rebuilt, though not all.  

“Seamus is right,” Joselyn noted quietly, watching as a stray dog jogged down the street across from them. “Three tornadoes in three years, always on May 20th. Something’s not right here, and I doubt it’s these peoples’ fault. So keep looking.”

“I’m looking,” Deveron replied, his voice flat. “I’m looking at all the people glaring at us because they think we’re lookie-loos just here to gawk at their town if it gets hit by a tornado again.”

From the other side of the boy, Lillian reached out a hand to pat his back. “Let us know if the bad people giving you dirty looks hurts your feelings, Dev. We’ll make them knock it off.”

Rolling his eyes at the girl’s teasing, Deveron retorted, “My point is that we’re attracting attention. Which is going to make it hard to look around. We kind of stand out.”

“We would anyway,” Tribald pointed out, “no matter what day this was. It’s a small town.”

“So how exactly are we supposed to find out what caused those tornadoes, let alone stop it this time?” Roger demanded through his teeth while flashing an elderly woman staring at them from across the street a bright, toothy smile. He waved at her, and she said something most likely nasty under her breath before going back into her house.

The woman wasn’t representative of the whole town, though there had been more than a few who expressed their clear annoyance at what they thought were, as Deveron had said, curious lookie-loos just there to see if another tornado happened. There were also plenty of those who had been quite friendly about it. And, of course, the ones who were sad.

Those were the worst. While the town had been hit by three tornadoes in as many years, always on the same day, the first two had been much less devastating. Not only had they been smaller, but they had missed hitting the town head-on by going to the east and west of it, respectively. But the one the year earlier had been both much stronger than the first pair, and had gone straight through the town. The first two had only done property damage. The last had not been nearly so lucky, killing ten people.

That was why Joselyn and her teammates were here. Crossroads was incredibly busy, still dealing with the aftermath of the recent Great War among the Bystanders even six months after it had ended. It was an ongoing effort to handle everything, which meant students had to step up, such as now. Looking into the causes of the past three years of tornadoes and (hopefully) stopping it from happening again was considered their ‘hunt’ for this month. And, Lillian had noted before they arrived, was probably also part of their yearly final.

It was also the second hunt after Joselyn had had her… life-changing experience during the werebear situation, and over a month since Gaia Sinclaire had taught her to keep her revelations more quiet rather than shouting them from every rooftop. She had, however, been through all of it with her team. They were her friends, and she would not stand idly by as they unknowingly committed atrocities just because that would be easier.

The conversations had not been easy. Some harder than others. Seamus had actually been the hardest to convince, while Lillian had been the easiest. The others fell somewhere in between. But they all listened eventually, particularly with a little help from Gaia. The woman had also helped to keep Headmaster Ruthers from paying too much attention to Joselyn and her team.

Joselyn still didn’t know what they were going to do, but she knew it was something. No matter what Gaia said about taking things slowly, they still had to actually stop what was happening. Innocent people were being slaughtered by Heretics who didn’t know any better. Someone had to put a stop to that, and Joselyn was damn sure not about to wait for some other person to do it.

That was, however, a problem for later. Right now, they had to figure out this tornado situation.

To that end, Joselyn shook her head at Roger. The six of them had stopped at the end of the largest street in town after giving the whole place a slow walkthrough. “I’m… not sure. I don’t think Professor Konstant knew either. She’s probably just hoping that we’ll stumble into something by blundering around and drawing attention to ourselves.”

“If whatever’s going on is Stranger-based, that’s not a horrible plan,” Tribald admitted. “I mean, considering they have no actual leads or anything. Strangers are probably going to notice a bunch of Heretic students snooping around.”

“This feels entirely too much like being bait,” Roger muttered under his breath. “I don’t like being bait.”

“Nobody does,” Seamus assured his cousin before shaking his head in Joselyn’s direction. “So what do you want to do now, boss? Should we tell Carver we couldn’t find anything?” Alvis Carver was their team’s second-year mentor. Apparently his father, Bentley, had turned down a teaching position at the school three separate times when Headmaster Ruthers had tried to bring him on. None of the students were sure why, and Alvis didn’t talk about it much aside from noting that his father and Ruthers didn’t get along very well.

Now, Joselyn shook her head, murmuring, “Not yet. Maybe they put us out here as bait and maybe they didn’t, but either way, we’re taking it seriously. We’re going to figure this out.”

How, she didn’t know. But it sounded good, and gave her a few seconds to think.

While she was thinking, Roger grumbled, “I bet this was all Ruthers’ idea. He wants us to fail.”

“He wants Joselyn to fail,” Lillian corrected. “The rest of us are just in the crossfire.”

She started to tell her friend that they didn’t blame her for that, when Joselyn interrupted. “We’re not going to fail. We’re going to figure this out and stop it from happening again. First…” She hesitated for just a second before pushing on, shoving her indecision away, “First, we check out one of the places the tornado hit the hardest. We’ll use that magic-tracer spell Seamus was talking about the other day and see if there’s any residual magic from anything that might have drawn the spell that way. Then we’ll go from there. Hopefully that’ll at least tell us something.”

“Yeah,” Deveron agreed, “like if there’s something else drawing a new tornado today.”

Together, the six made their way back through the town, attracting a little more attention. Not as much as they could have though. Most of the people were already holed up inside, trying to wait out the day while hoping their town wouldn’t be the sight of a fourth tornado in as many years. There weren’t that many people still out on the streets. Those that were mostly either gave the group annoyed or sympathetic looks. A few called out that they should get somewhere safe, with varying levels of annoyance or genuine helpfulness.

Eventually, they reached the ruined remains of the hotel that had been destroyed by the previous year’s incident. It was pretty much an empty lot at the moment, with most of the debris taken away to build new things, such as fixing up the also-demolished school. There wasn’t much on the hotel lot aside from the foundation and just enough of the walls to know that there had once been a building there.

Carefully, the group made their way over the ruins. Their gazes moved solemnly across the very few broken bits of debris that still lay scattered through the foundation, taking in the only signs that there had ever been an actual building in this spot. None said anything for a few moments, each simply thinking about just how much power it had taken to rip through this structure and reduce it to what they now saw. And each also thinking about the fact that so many people at Crossroads itself could manage the exact same thing with a flick of their wrist.

Finally, Joselyn cleared her throat. “Um, okay. Let’s spread out and try that magic-tracer spell. Everyone pick a different spot. If it finds anything, we’ll track back along the line.”

They did so, each of them moving to a different spot before using a field-engraver to carefully use create the symbol for the magic-tracer spell. Seamus, as the member of their team both most experienced with that rune and the best with magic overall, took the time to check and make minor corrections to each to make sure the spells were perfect before they were used.

Half of the spells were too far from any residual magical tracings to detect anything, and another barely found a hint, too little to work with. But Deveron’s and Lillian’s each managed to find a single, faint trail. Both of them could see a barely visible line leading out of the remains.

“This way,” Lillian started, waving for the others as she and Deveron slowly made their way back out to the street. The lines they saw were faint enough that it would have been very easy to lose track of them entirely, so they had to move very carefully. The rest of the team followed, staying out of the way and quiet to avoid disturbing the pair while they followed those lines.

They walked for well over an hour like that, all the way out of town. The lines of magic gradually grew more visible to Lillian and Deveron, making it easier to trace them back as they left the road entirely and began walking across an empty field in the middle of nowhere. The flat Kansas terrain meant that it would have been incredibly easy to get lost without any kind of landmark. Yet they kept going, following the gradually strengthening traces of magic.

Eventually, the traces led to a stream. Following the stream, they found a very small hill. The lines of magic seemed to lead directly into that hill. As the group searched around a bit, Roger pushed aside a bush and called to the others. He’d found a small hole, just large enough for one person at a time to squeeze through. Tossing a light stone through revealed a tunnel beyond that sloped downward.

“What now?” Seamus asked, looking to Joselyn. “Do we call it in, or–”

“Let’s check it out,” she decided. “One at a time. I’ll go first. You guys come in after me. Quietly.” She looked to the others until they nodded, then laid down on her stomach before pushing her way in through the hole as quietly and carefully as she could, trying not to make any noise. They had no idea what was in here, but if it was responsible for the tornadoes, there was no sense in warning the thing too openly that they were coming.

Scooting forward enough to get out of the hole and into the tunnel, Joselyn found the space just large enough to somewhat rise in, though she had to remain crouched. She waited there, moving out of the way so the others could come through. One by one, the rest of the team joined her. Once all were ready, they slowly crept down the narrow, sloped tunnel using the light from the enchanted stone to guide their way.

For ten minutes, they moved steadily downward, until the tunnel eventually opened up into a small cavern deep underground. The cave was about thirty feet across, went back about the same distance, with a ceiling of about fifteen feet. In the center there was a small metal circle about six feet across, slightly raised off the ground. It was clearly man-made. Or at least… not natural.

After exchanging brief glances, the group cautiously approached the circle. They took the time to check for more magic, eyes scanning to see if there were runes or anything to indicate traps. Finding none, they stopped at the edge of the metal circle and looked down.

There were words etched into it. Nothing they could read, as the symbols were of foreign or alien nature. But they were definitely actual, deliberate words. They stretched across the metal.

“It’s a memorial.” The announcement came from behind the group, and all of them spun to see a figure standing there in the shadows. As their light stones illuminated him, he stepped more clearly into view, revealing a body made entirely of stone. Their Stranger-senses instantly began to blare its unneeded warning, as the rock-man held up both hands, palms out.

“Heretics, right?” he muttered, seemingly unconcerned about that fact as he stared past them toward the metal circle. “I suppose it’s just as well. Better you do it than me. And at least I’ll be too dead to care.”

Though they had all drawn their weapons, Joselyn quickly put hers out to either side to stop the others from moving. Her gaze was intense as she stared at the stone figure. “Who are you? What do you mean, it’s a memorial? And it’s better we do what than you?”

There was a slight rumble as the stone figure raised part of his brow. “Heretics who ask questions? This is a strange day indeed.”

“We’re strange people,” Lillian informed him, while holding two of her metal bracelets in each hand. “Why don’t you answer them. Are you the one who keeps sending the tornadoes?”

“Am I the one who…” Echoing her words, the stone figure gave a low chuckle that echoed through the cave. “Ahh, if only it were that simple. How much better would this be, were it as simple as killing me to end such attacks.” He paused, seeming to realize that he had said nothing that would count as any sort of answer, before slowly approaching. The group parted, three to each side, while they warily watched him step near the so-called memorial.

He stood there, staring down at it for several seconds in silence. Finally, his words filled the cavern once more. “I am Dorarg. I know not why Heretics wish to know my name, or my story, before killing me, but I will… tell you. I am what my people call Denmiek.” He pronounced the word den-my-eek. “In our language, it means ‘soul of earth.’ Your people call me rock-elemental. There are also others of my world, called Denstarel, Denpien, and Denaksen. Soul of water, soul of fire, and soul of air.”

“Water, fire, and air elementals,” Deveron murmured, glancing to the others before asking, “Is that what those tornadoes were? Air elementals?”

Dorarg was silent for a moment before heaving what seemed like a long, heavy sigh. “Esenadey. She was… Denaksen. Soul of Air. She was… she was my friend. My best friend. We came to this world together. We explored it. We… we had adventures. And she fell in love. She loved a human from this world, a man of the place called Eden’s Garden. A Heretic, though he cared more for healing than for killing.

“They loved one another. They lived for one another. And we had… lives. But those of the Garden learned the truth. They hunted Esenadey and the man, Caladrius. I… I was not there. I could not get to them in time, and both were… were slain by the Caladrius’s brother Heretics. I came too late, discovered their… remains.

“You made this memorial,” Roger realized with the rest of them. “You… buried them here?”

“I’m so sorry,” Joselyn breathed, feeling a sharp pain in the pit of her stomach. “I know it doesn’t mean anything, but… I am. We are.”

Swallowing, Seamus carefully asked, “But… the tornadoes…”

Crouching, Dorarg brushed his fingers over the memorial, tracing the words on it that only he could understand. “I… Esenadey was… with children. Our people, when they… procreate, the eggs are set into our world. They hatch once a year, beginning a year after they are first laid. As each hatches, the child is drawn directly to their mother.”

“They’re drawn here,” Lillian realized. “And they find… they find out their mother is dead.”

“They’re children,” Dorarg murmured, hands running over the metal circle. “They are born with more… understanding than human children, about your equivalent of a nine-year old. But still, children. They come here. They learn that both of their parents are dead and that there is no place for them. In their grief, they… they rage. They flee. They… do what they do not mean to do.”

“They create the tornadoes,” Joselyn started, before amending, “They are the tornadoes.”

“But wouldn’t they be half-human?” Roger pointed out. “If her… if her lover was a Heretic.”

Dorarg’s head shook. “Our people do not procreate like that. It’s more… each parent invests energy, like creating a spell. That energy is used to split off small pieces of the chosen parent, creating eggs which eventually hatch into smaller versions of that adult. Caladrius contributed his magic, a part of himself, but they were physically Denaksen, not human.”

“They’re coming here once a year to find their parents,” Joselyn muttered, “air elementals with the intellect and emotions of a nine year old. They find their parents dead and… and they don’t know what to do.”

“They flee,” Dorarg explained. “They run, they fly, they… lash out. But they are children. Grieving children, but children nonetheless.”

“So you came here to… to try to talk to the next one?” Seamus asked.

The rock man slowly shook his head. “I tried to talk to the last one. It only made things worse. Our people are… long-time enemies. Esenadey and I moved past that, yet her children are too small and too new to these things to understand. They see an enemy. When her child of last year arrived, I attempted to explain things. But… seeing me so soon after finding his parents dead only made him lash out more. When her children come here, they feel her pain. They absorb her last emotions, so they can feel how afraid she was. Between that and seeing me…”

“That’s why last year was worse,” Tribald put in. “Because he saw you and… and fled.”

“He was afraid, and… and grieving,” Dorarg confirmed. “As I said, my appearance only made things worse. So I came here today to end this problem by destroying the bodies. Destroying the remains will prevent Esenadey’s children from finding their parents. It should prevent more destruction. I spent the past year trying to find another way, but… but there is none. Should you wish to kill me after that, I will not stop you. But either allow me to destroy the remains, or… or do so yourselves, to protect the town and prevent any more deaths. Esenadey and Caladrius would want it that way.”

The group exchanged looks, silent conversation passing between them before Joselyn shook her head. “We’re not going to kill you, Dorarg. Listen, it’s a long story, but–”

Before she could say anything else, everyone felt a very faint breeze brush through their hair.

“It’s coming,” Dorarg abruptly blurted. “Her next child. We’re too late. The child is going to come through and–”

“Out,” Joselyn snapped. “Go. If the kid sees you, they’ll just freak out more.” To the others, she added, “You guys too. A bunch of us standing around is just going to make things worse. Go, hurry! Get out, I’ll meet you!”

The others hesitated, aside from Dorarg, who stepped back against the wall and melded into it, disappearing from sight immediately. Deveron and Lillian looked most resistant to leaving Joselyn alone, but were pulled away by the others, eventually going with them.

Left alone in that cavern, Joselyn waited as the wind continued to rise, throwing her short blonde hair around more wildly with each passing second.

Finally, a ghostly figure appeared almost directly in front of her, near the memorial. It looked like a small child of indistinct form, more of an impression on the air with little bits of wind gusting around in every direction around it than a physical body. A moment later they became slightly more definitive, a clearly female figure with a small glowing stone directly in the middle of the form, a stone that pulsed with magical power. This, quite clearly, was the same sort of magic that the group had followed back to this cave. It was one of these stones, the heart of the wind-elemental, that had left the trail.

The wind-girl stopped short, staring down at the memorial. She seemed to take in what was below the ground almost instantly, a sound of confusion and grief escaping her.

“Hey.” It was the only thing Joselyn could think to say, drawing the suddenly terrified girl’s attention, as the wind abruptly picked up with enough force to almost throw her against the wall.

“It’s okay!” Joselyn blurted. “I–Esenadey! Your mother, your mother was Esenadey!”

The wind didn’t stop, though it also didn’t grow any worse. The wind-girl had backed up to stand over the memorial, eyes wide as she stared at Joselyn.

Feeling that pain return, Joselyn quietly murmured, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry about your mother, and what happened to her and your dad. I–”

Before she could say anything else, the wind abruptly redoubled. Suddenly, she was thrown against the wall. A wail of rage and grief filled the small cavern, as the air elemental fled for the exit.

Seeing her go, Joselyn lunged. Her hand lashed out through the powerful winds, catching hold of the stone in the center of the Denaksen child. She held on tight then, allowing herself to be hurled through the tunnel and out of the hole into open air.

Seeing her teammates spread out, each with weapons drawn, Joselyn had time to blurt, “Don’t!” Then she was flying through the air. The Denasken took her fifty feet up, then a hundred, winds already rising. Dirt, rocks, and other random debris were thrown in every direction, while the strength of the gusts nearly threw Joselyn to the ground. Still, she clung tight to the rock, the literal heart of the tornado.

“Please!” Joselyn cried out, “don’t! I know you’re scared and I know you’re sad, but your parents wouldn’t want this! What happened to them was terrible, and wrong! It was wrong! But you can’t make things better by hurting people! I know what you’re feeling. I know it hurts! You don’t want to make other people feel that way! You don’t want to take their mothers and fathers away!”

Through all of that, the winds were getting stronger. The tornado was forming, and already it was very apparent that this would be worse than all of the others.

Using both hands to cling to the glowing, warm stone as her body was violently thrown around by the wind, Joselyn closed her eyes tightly before opening them once more. There were tears in them. “I know you feel like you’re alone. I know you feel like you have nowhere to go, and no one who cares about you. I know you feel betrayed and lost. I know you feel like there’s no one to help you, no one to teach you who you are, or who you could be.”

She paused then, glancing down. They were several hundred feet up by that point, the ground looming far below. Still, the girl pushed on, even as the winds threatened to tear her from the stone she was clinging to. “So I’m going to teach you! I’m going to teach you who you are! You want to know who you can be?! You can be the one who destroys a town full of people who didn’t do anything to you! You can be the one who lets your grief and your anger control you!

“Or you can be the one who saves my life.”

With those words, Joselyn released her grip on the stone. The winds instantly flung her away, sending the girl flying end over end through the air before she tumbled out of the tornado. She was falling, plummeting toward the ground while the sound of her friends screaming reached her ears.

Then… the falling stopped. The wind had returned, as Joselyn found herself floating in the air, the air elemental’s form directly in front of her. There was still profound loss and grief in those eyes, as the girl stared at her. They floated in silence like that, slowly sinking to the ground before the wind finally faded.

“This is who you are,” Joselyn quietly managed. “This is who your parents would have wanted you to be.”

Finally, the small, insubstantial girl spoke through the wind. It had the effect of making her voice sound as though it was coming from everywhere at once. “Mother… Father…”

“I know.” Joselyn’s own voice was quiet, strained from emotion. “I know. It’s not fair. It’s not. But you’re not alone. There’s someone here for you, someone who can help take care of you. Do… do you trust me?”

There was a brief hesitation before the Denaksen slowly nodded. The glowing stone that was her heart moved up and out toward Joselyn, as though indicating her level of trust by exposing herself.

Very slowly, Joselyn reached out, putting her hand against the stone. She felt the wind gently rush over her, almost like an embrace.

“You’re not alone,” she repeated. “You never have to be alone. I’ll be there whenever you need me. I’ll come, I promise. But I can’t raise you. I can’t teach you. Not the way you need. For that… for that you need him.”

She turned then, raising a hand to point a bit into the distance, to where Dorarg stood. Seeing the earth-elemental, the wind-child jerked back reflexively. But Joselyn quickly spoke up. “It’s okay. It’s alright. He’s a friend. He’s a friend of your parents.”

The girl was clearly still skittish, yet she stood still while Dorarg slowly approached. Together, wind and earth elemental stood facing one another. They seemed to communicate without words for a moment, before Dorarg looked to Joselyn. “She needs a name.”

It was a request that made Joselyn rock backward a bit. “A… a name? You want me to…? I… umm…” She paused, then looked at the distortion in the air that was the wind child. “… Fiona. That was the name of my–of the woman who adopted me. My mother. Fiona.”

From the way the air elemental brushed over her face and hair, Joselyn assumed she approved of the name.

She was just going to have to be very careful from now on not to laugh too much every time Papa Dustin said his wife was full of hot air.

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Summer Epilogue 14 – Lillian Meets Joselyn’s Children

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“Can I just say, I never thought I’d actually think, ‘I’m glad I don’t have Aylen’s responsibilities?’”

As she said those words, Flick shifted the fishing pole in her hands while glancing over her left shoulder to where Abigail was sitting. Wyatt was to her right, the adult twins’ younger sister sitting between them. All three held poles with the lines out in the water, perched as they were on the end of the dock.

Abigail made a face. “Telling that girl she’s supposed to be the one who awakens…” She took a breath and let it out again, looking as if she couldn’t believe she was actually saying the words. “… King Arthur. She is supposed to bring him back to life, or wake him up, or whatever she’s supposed to do? Shoving that kind of responsibility onto a teenager… telling her that she’s the only one who can do that?”

“Something tells me Aylen can handle it,” Flick pointed out. “I mean, for one thing, she was never just an average person. She’s part Reaper. She came to the school to rescue her grandfather in the first place. Her grandfather who, by the way, just happens to be the thing that gives all Bosch Heretics their power. So, that’s a thing.”

“I knew there was something off about her,” Wyatt grumbled. “I told the headmistress when she showed up that that girl knew more than she ought to, that she wasn’t surprised by enough, but did she listen? Nope. She dismissed it right out of hand. I should’ve looked deeper. I should’ve checked into her backstory even more.”

With a little smile, Flick nudged him with her elbow. “For all we know, Gaia already knew this stuff. I mean, she did have a lot of secrets.” She looked up to him then. “Besides, if you’d found out more about her, things might’ve been a lot worse. If the Seosten thought Joselyn Atherby’s son was getting too close to the Merlin Key… they might’ve reacted badly.”

While Wyatt grumbled his agreement with that, Abigail spoke up once more. “Actually, it is kind of funny that one of the biggest, most important mythical legends in European history, the one and only King Arthur of Camelot, is supposed to be awakened by a Native American.” She paused then, considering while tilting her head. “Is that cultural appropriation? I’m not sure.”

“I think it’s kind of a gray area,” Flick replied dryly.

They sat in silence for a minute, considering that. Then Wyatt nodded out into the water. “Your sharks are still watching us.”

“Yup,” Flick confirmed. “I promised them we go swimming later. And they’re still confused about why I’m bothering with this,” she hefted the pole, “instead of just letting them bring all the fish we could want. I explained it, but I’m pretty sure they still think I’m crazy.”

Coughing, Abigail replied, “So, your pet sharks think you’re crazy because you explained fishing to them? Yeah, I can’t see anything wrong with that.” Letting out a long, low breath, she muttered, “This is such a strange world.”

“It’s a lot more than that, Mom.” With those words, Koren joined the trio at the end of the dock, dropping down beside her mother. “Remember, there’s lots of worlds out there. It’s a strange universe.”

With a groan at the reminder, Abigail passed her fishing pole to her daughter. “Make yourself useful and reel in something tasty.”

Koren glanced to Flick. “Your sharks are right, by the way. You should’ve just had them bring some fish for you. That would’ve made this whole thing take like two minutes, tops. Much more efficient.”

The other girl scoffed at that, “And let them have all the fun? No way. Then we’d miss out on this.”

Squinting disbelievingly, Koren muttered, “Yeah, right. Wouldn’t want to miss out on all this excitement.” Turning back to look at the tranquil lake, she added in a low monotone, “Whooooo.”

Flick shook her head at that. “No, see, it’s not exciting. It’s calming. And that’s a good thing. Especially if you know who actually makes it today. Cuz that’s gonna be exciting enough on its own.”

Wyatt nodded quickly. “Lillian. Our mother’s old roommate.” His voice held a mixture of anticipation and worry for how that might go.

“And best friend,” Abigail added. “I wonder what she’s like. Did anyone talk to her at that family day thing before it was all…” she swallowed hard. “Before it was interrupted?”

Flick’s head shook. “I didn’t really get much of a chance. I just saw her from a distance.”

“I talked to her a little bit,” Koren put in. “You know, before…” She trailed off, making a face at the unwanted memories that crapped in despite all efforts to suppress them. “Before Ammon.” Sighing as they all thought about how that had gone in silence for a moment, she then pushed on pointedly. “She seemed nice, and funny. She was teasing Rebecca a little bit about having this crush on…” She hesitated, before shaking her head. “… on somebody. She never actually said who. Some boy in our class. Rebecca was throwing things at her to make her shut up.”

“Good,” her mother primly informed her. “It’s none of our business who Rebecca has a crush on.” She paused before but slyly adding, “Although, I wonder if it’s that boy who was…” In mid-sentence, she stopped talking, looking thoughtful.

“Who?” Koren prompted. Getting nothing but a little smile from her mother, the girl groaned and pushed her arm. “Oh come on! You can’t do that!”

Before Abigail could respond to that, Flick cleared her throat and turned to look over her shoulder. As the others did the same, they saw two figures walking toward the dock. As diminutive as both were, it wasn’t hard to know their identities at a glance, even before they saw their faces in the dim, early morning light.

“Hey, Rebecca!” Flick called, pushing herself to her feet while leaving her pole sitting right beside her. Unfortunately, the very second she let it go, something on the other end of the line bit down and the pole was yanked off the dock to disappear into the water. Spinning that way to see it go, the blonde girl exhaled long and hard. “Yeah, that figures.”

Rebecca and her grandmother had reached the dock by then, the latter stopping short as she let her wide-eyed gaze move over all four of the people there. “Oh Gods,” she murmured, “It is you. The twins. You’re alive… You’re…” Tears had already sprung to the woman’s face as she hurriedly strode that way, grabbing Abigail in a tight hug as the woman stood to meet her. “Baby girl! Oh sweet baby girl!“

Shipping on her feet, Abigail slowly return the hug while coughing. “Not gonna lie, it’s been a long time since anyone called me that.”

“Sweet little pudding cup,” Lillian managed in a teary voice as she leaned back to look up at the taller woman. “I remember holding you when you were so tiny. When they took you, when we thought you could be…” Her eyes blinked rapidly, tears streaming down her face as she looked over to Wyatt.

The man instantly froze with a deer-in-headlights look, hands up. “There’s no need for hugging,” he put in a bit stiffly. “Our introductions, or reintroductions, can proceed just fine without…” He trailed off then, as Lillian had stepped over in front of him.

“Young man,” she began, “I am not in the habit of forcing the people I care about to do anything that makes them so uncomfortable.” Clearing her throat, she raised a hand and extended it to him. “I will hug you when and if you ask, no sooner.”

Wyatt, for his part, looked a bit uncertain, but raised his hand to shake hers. He hesitated, before asking, “You really knew us as children?”

“Hardly more than infants,” the woman corrected before nodding. “But yes. You were both so clingy to each other. You couldn’t do anything unless the other one was either in your line of sight or touching you. The scene you must have made when they separated you…” She grimaced, her fist having tightened so much the whites of her knuckles were visible.

Flick and Koren exchanged glances, before the latter spoke up. “Ruthers is a real piece of work, huh?”

Squeezing Wyatt’s hand once more with a warm smile of assurance, Lillian turned to the younger girl. “And you. Somehow, I knew that you were more familiar than you should have been. I couldn’t understand it then, but now…” She took a step that way, embracing her. “I can’t believe your mother remembered the name Koren.”

Abigail nodded vigorously. “Neither can I, honestly. If I was an infant the last time I heard it, how would I remember it? The only thing I can think is that someone used the name where I could hear them when I was older, after they already adopted me out. Maybe one of the Heretics came to check in or something?”

With a slight nod of agreement, Lillian murmured, “Yes, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if that bastard sent people to check in on you through your whole life.”

Rebecca, who had been quiet throughout the encounter so far, finally spoke up. “Abigail isn’t the only one who remembered her name, though. Grandma remembered the name Joselyn, and Flick’s mom remembered the name Lillian.”

Flick glanced to the girl before returning her gaze to Lillian. “She’s got a point. And those names were magically erased.” She paused before quietly adding, “I guess that’s just how much you and Mom meant to each other, huh?”

It was her turn to be hugged then, as Lillian stepped over and pulled her into a tight embrace. “You look so much like your mother,” the woman breath while holding her tight. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe I didn’t immediately see it the second I saw you. And everything you’ve done, she would be… She is so proud of you.” She leaned back them to look at the rest. “She is so proud of all of you. I know she is. You’re together. You’re helping each other. You’re…” Her head shook and she had to take a moment to collect herself. “I’m just glad you’re okay.” Pausing then, she looked over Flick’s shoulder to the water and cleared her throat. “And you’ve made some interesting friends, I see.”

Turning with the others, Flick looked that way to see one of her sharks poking her head up from the water with the missing fishing pole in her mouth. Immediately beaming, she made a small portal with one hand and stuck her hand through to reach the shark’s head, which she patted fondly. “Good girl, Simpson! See? Even if they think I’m crazy for this whole fishing pole thing, they’re still willing to help. Now let’s see…” Pulling the pole through the portal, she began reeling in the still somewhat weakly struggling fish. In the end, it came through the portal and into her hand, and she held it up, beaming. “I caught a fish!”

Koren sniffed airily. “I think your shark gets like three quarters of the credit for that one.”

“It totally counts,” Flick insisted, briefly sticking her tongue out at the other girl before admiring her catch. “See, I told you I could catch one.” Pausing, her head tilted. “Now what do we do with it?”

Lillian answered, “Gut it and clean it.”

Blanching, Flick looked at the fish in her hand, then promptly turned to throw it to the waiting shark. “You’re right,” she informed Koren. “Simpson deserves most of the credit. I shouldn’t be greedy.”

While the other is all exchanged doubtful looks, the blonde girl clapped her hands once. “Well, I don’t know about you guys, but fishing and meeting people makes me hungry.

“How about we go get some breakfast?”

******

“So, you were really my mom‘s best friend?” Flick asked a couple hours later as she and Lillian walked together along the side of the lake. They had eaten breakfast with the others before the woman took a little time with just the adult twins. Now it was Flick’s turn to be alone with her.

“Am,” Lillian corrected. “I am Joselyn’s best friend. At least as far as I’m concerned. Anyone who wants to take that title away from me is going to have to fight me for it. And I bite.” She winked before looking more seriously at the younger woman. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I haven’t been there at all.”

Flinching at that, Flick quickly shook her head. “It is so far beyond not your fault, it’s not even funny. You didn’t have a choice. You didn’t remember any of it.”

Lillian stopped walking then, turning to put a hand on her shoulder. “That doesn’t stop me from being sorry that I wasn’t there. Your mother was always there for me. She helped me with so much, taught me so much. She made me laugh, she made me…” She sighed and murmured, “I should have been there. And I will be from now on.”

Hesitating, Flick asked, “What about your daughter? Rebecca’s mom, I mean.”

“I don’t know where she stands just yet,” Lillian admitted. “She or her husband. I haven’t heard from either of them. But I’m going to find out. And I’m going to make sure they understand. I’m going to bring them into this, if… if I can. I just hope they’re okay. If Ruthers’ people have done anything to them…”

“I’m sure we’ll find them,” Flick quickly put in. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you feel even more worried than you already are. Gabriel’s people will probably find them. Or maybe one of the other runaway Heretic groups will know something. Like your group, I mean.”

With a small smile, Lillian nodded. “Thank you, Felicity.”

Hearing that name made Flick hesitate before she quietly asked, “If you’re my mom‘s best friend, could you tell me where she got that name from? I kind of have the impression it’s something important.”

“Oh, it is,” Lillian confirmed. “I mean, first, you know what it means, right? Felicity means happiness.” When the younger girl nodded, she went on. “But of course, it’s more than that.”

“I figured it was,” Flick murmured. “Where did she get it from? Why does the name Felicity mean so much to her?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” the woman replied before glancing back to the girl as she started to walk once more. “It’s because that’s where I was born.”

Blinking twice before quickly following, Flick blurted, “Wait, what? Where you grew up?”

Lillian nodded, stopping to grab a rock from the ground, which she tossed out to skip over the water as she continued to walk. “Yep, Felicity, Ohio. That’s where I was born, and where I grew up before Crossroads. It’s a tiny town. I mean, even now, let alone then. I think it’s got like a thousand people there today. It’s barely a blip on the map. Not even on lots of them. But it’s there, and it was home for a long time.” She was smiling faintly at fond memories that obviously came with those words.

Walking beside her, Flick hesitantly asked, “So, my mom named me after your hometown?”

“It was better than calling you Ohio,” Lillian teased with a wink. “But yes. It was when we were still at school. We were telling stories in our room a long time after we were supposed to be asleep. I told her a story about going camping with my brother and what it was like out there, and she said, ‘Lillian, you’re my best friend. I am going to name my daughter after you.’ But I said she couldn’t do that because then her daughter and I wouldn’t know which Lillian she loved more.”

She fell silent for a few long seconds, her eyes adopting a far-off look as she remembered those much simpler and more innocent times. Despite her silence however, Flick knew better than to interrupt or prod the woman. She remained quiet as well, walking slowly alongside her.

Finally, Lillian exhaled a little sadly before speaking once more. “Anyway, Joselyn said, ‘Fine, then I’ll name her after your hometown. I’ll call her Felicity. Because Felicity means happy, and you make me happy.’ She… she used to say that Felicity was the source of her happiness.” Pausing, she reiterated. “Felicity was the source of her happiness, because that was where I came from, and I made her happy.” There were tears in the woman’s eyes then, and it took her a moment to somewhat shakily finish with, “Because that’s where I came from. Felicity, Ohio.”

She stopped walking then, hanging her head a little. “She’s my best friend, and I haven’t been there for her at all through any of this.”

Flick didn’t hesitate. She stepped around in front of the woman and embraced her tightly. “You’re here now. You remember now. That’s what matters. I’m just glad you’re okay, and she will be too.”

Lillian returned the hug just as tightly. “Yes,” she promised. “I’m here and I’m staying. And we are going to find her, do you hear me? We are going to find that piece of shit necroasshole and get her away from him.”

Meeting her gaze for a moment, Flick slowly and seriously nodded. “Yes, we are.”

Reading her expression easily, Lillian lifted an eyebrow. “And when that fucker tries something on your birthday, we’ll be ready for him.”

Flick swallowed at that. “Right. Yeah, we’ll… be ready.” Taking another breath, she tried to make things better by asking, “Could you maybe tell me a story about you and my mom in school?”

Calming herself for the girl’s sake, Lillian managed a soft smile. “Felicity, I have more stories than I could tell you in a whole year.

“Why don’t we start with the one about the Codell Tornadoes?”

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Interlude 3B – Deicide (Summus Proelium)

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Three Years Ago

Her name was Austen. Not her last name. Her last name was Deleon. Austen Deleon. Yeah.

The girl’s mother had named her in honor of Jane Austen, her favorite author. When asked why she hadn’t simply named her daughter Jane in that case, or Jane Austen Deleon, she had simply replied that Jane was such a common name, it wouldn’t draw any attention. A girl named Austen, however, that would grab people’s interest. No one would forget a girl named Austen.

The then-infant’s opinion on the subject of such attention was not consulted.

There was also no input on a name from the father, as he had been some guy who made a lot of promises, got her mother pregnant, and then took off. He’d abandoned them before she was even born.

Growing up in the streets of Detroit, Austen had split most of her time between holing up in the library where she could lose herself in the worlds of her favorite authors (of whom Jane Austen was decidedly not one), and running scam and con games on unsuspecting tourists and people new to the city. Very few suspected that the brown-eyed, dark-haired, innocent-looking little angel child was going to take the money they handed her for a tour or photograph and take off with it. Fewer suspected any of her more involved and complicated cons.

Indeed, from the age of six to eleven, Austen had racked up both quite a reputation as a con artist, thief, pickpocket, etcetera, and quite the haul of loot to go with it. She hardly ever spent any of the money she managed to get out of people, preferring to hide it in her ‘safe place.’ It was intended as a college fund, because Austen had every intention of going to university, even if she had to save up enough money to flat-out pay her way in.

Unfortunately, it was when she was eleven that Austen’s mother found Jesus. Literally, in her case, as a man who called himself Jesus The Saint managed to hook Laia and many other poor, desperate people from the Detroit streets, convincing them that he was truly the man himself reborn. Laia had taken her daughter with her as they joined Jesus and the rest of the ‘flock’ in his compound almost fifty miles away from the city where Austen had grown up.

For two years, Austen had lived in that hellhole. The Church of the Lamb, as ‘Jesus’ called his cult, did not allow any contact with the outside world, or nearly any technology in general. Even so much as a flashlight or digital watch was forbidden. Punishments were plentiful, in the name of ‘making the flock worthy’, and multiple hours per day were devoted toward studying both the scriptures as well as Jesus’s own (often rambling and barely coherent) writings on subjects ranging from the uncountable sins of the world all the way down to his opinion of various sports teams. Included, of course, were the list of celebrities and historical figures who were going to hell, though the list might as well have simply said ‘all of them.’

It was, in short, a thoroughly exhausting and demoralizing place to spend any time at all, let alone two years of one’s life in the midst of being a teenager.

Now, at the age of thirteen, Austen sat in what was called the ‘Cusp of Hell.’ It was, in short, a box about six feet high, and three feet in every other direction that in the middle of the courtyard of the compound. Heat lamps were arranged around the box to raise the temperature to near-unlivable conditions, and those who were being punished were left inside, often long enough to nearly kill them.

Authorities had come to check on the conditions here a number of times. None ever amounted to anything good, either because they were straight-up paid off (she had seen that happen with her own eyes), or, in some cases, because they were ‘gifted’ with an evening of entertainment by one of the flock. Her mother had been used that way several times, always rambling on about what a gift and pleasure it was to serve her divine purpose for the Lord. Even Austen herself had been eyed, young as she was. But Jesus held off, saying that she would not be ‘ripe’ until the age of fourteen. One more year.

She didn’t plan on being here at that point.

Austen had spent more time in the Cusp of Hell than anyone else in the flock, a fact that brought her mother untold shame. Not that the girl herself cared. Well, not that much. Seeing the way her mother looked at her did hurt, but she had long since given up any hope of snapping the woman out of the absurd spell that Jesus had cast over her. She loved her mother, but she had not liked her in a very long time.

This current stint in the box was a result of being caught listening to music. Austen had found an old MP3 player and headphones, and had been listening to it while pulling weeds in the garden. For such horror as deliberately subjecting the ears of her immortal soul to the devil’s tongue (as Jesus called all music that was not religious hymns), she had been thoroughly flogged and then tossed here into the box where she was left for hours. Once in awhile, a small cup of water was brought by one of the ‘holy sisters.’ It was just enough to keep her alive.

Lying on her side, curled up as she couldn’t lie flat out within the three foot space, Austen stared at the dirt ground in front of her. The box had glass windows in it that could be opened or closed, but at the moment they were shut. She was left in blistering hot darkness, with no idea of what time it was or how long she had been here. The ache in her body from the crack of Jesus’ rod had finally dulled somewhat, only flaring up if she moved too quickly. Which wasn’t a problem inside the box, small and unintended mercy though that may have been.

She was hungry. She had been hungry for quite awhile, and now it was almost excruciating. Her stomach hurt, as she clutched it with one hand, mind drifting back to better times. Times before her mother had met this psycho and fallen under his sway. She had long-since stopped asking herself how her mother could allow this to happen. Any answer that came was never satisfying.

Light appeared. Which, given the fact that the box was still very much closed, was rather unexpected. With a gasp of confusion, the girl’s eyes opened as she snapped upright, staring at the source of the sudden illumination.

It was a glowing orb, slightly bigger than a softball. The orb, and the light it cast, was blue with white hieroglyphic-like symbols alternately appearing and disappearing across its surface.

For a moment, the girl simply sat there, staring in rapt fascination at the orb. It drew her like a moth to flame, as her hand very slowly rose toward it. She hesitated briefly like that, with her hand right near the thing. Then she moved it the last inch or so, settling her palm against the warm surface.

She saw the empty, featureless world that lay within or beyond the orb. She walked through the deep, foreboding fog and saw the images drawn from her own life within it. She saw her mother, the people she had conned, the other cultists, and Jesus himself, his long black beard and heavily tanned skin filling the last fog-born image as his hand with the cane lashed out one last time to send a jolt of pain across her back before she had been thrown into the box.

“Summus Proelium.”

She heard the phrase in a soft, feminine voice. Those two simple words filled her mind, seeming to echo through it even as the fog world vanished, and Austen found herself back in the box.

~~~233-044-2121~~~

~~~Eggs, butter, ramen, bread~~~

~~~Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming. It is close at hand— a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains, a large and mighty army comes,such as never was in ancient times nor ever will be in ages to come. And in these words, we may look for what will descend upon this people: For as surely as the men who dwell upon it shall suffer for the sins of those who~~~

More and more words filled the girl’s mind. She didn’t hear them or see them. She simply knew them. Those words and more came flooding into her as if she had always known them, as if she was remembering them. Those and more kept coming. Hymns, bible verses, scrawled speeches with words crossed out, phone numbers, lists, more and more. It was almost too much, and she put both hands to her head, crying out, “Stop!”

It stopped. The flood of words halted. But something else remained. It was a… sense. She could feel… something. Some things. She could feel things beyond her sight. Things where the words were. She could feel them, could sense the shape of them. Lots of them. One actually quite close, right outside the–

With a loud clang, the lock on the box was released, and the door was opened. One of the holy sisters stood there, bible in hand while staring at Austen with a look of severe disapproval. Her tone was sharp. “The savior will see you now, young sinner. Come, and pray to him.”

Austen didn’t move. Her attention remained riveted to the book in the woman’s hand. She could… feel it. She could sense the shape of it even if she closed her eyes. It was almost, though not quite, like having it in her hands. At a thought, the words within the bible sprang to mind, almost-but-not-quite like remembering them. She could have remembered a lot of it anyway, after the past couple of years. But this wasn’t that. The words written within the book were filling her mind, and she would have known them even if she had never read it before.

“Ah,” the woman smirked while holding the bible. “You see the good book, yes? To stare upon it with such reverence, perhaps your time within the Cusp of Hell has awakened your spirit. You thirst for–”

With a thought, Austen lifted her chin. The book abruptly tore itself from the woman’s grasp, flying up to smack her in the chin hard enough to snap her mouth shut in mid-sentence. Even as the woman reeled backward from that, Austen gave a sharp gesture with one hand, and the book obeyed her unspoken wish, smacking the woman across the face hard enough to crack her jaw and send her to the floor with a loud cry of pain.

Two more sisters and a brother came running at the sound of the cry. They came into the main courtyard, the women empty-handed while the man held a rake from the work he had been doing. First, they stared at the woman on the ground, and at Austen standing over her. Then, their gazes moved up to take in the bible floating in the air. Seeing that, the two women immediately began to pray aloud. The man, meanwhile, blurted something about the devil and raced straight for Austen, swinging the rake like a club.

A thought, an urge, an impulse filled the girl’s mind. In response, the floating bible tore itself apart. Hundreds of separate pages flooded the air, glowing slightly before a handful went flying at the charging man. Six pages, glowing brightly, sliced straight through various parts of the rake that he was swinging, making it fall apart into useless pieces.

Still, he kept coming, swinging his fist rather than his abandoned bits of wood. With a scream that was half-meaningless word and half-prayer, he swung hard for the girl’s face.

A single piece of paper, a single page torn from the bible, flew into his path. It stopped there, and as his fist collided with it, the man might as well have been punching a solid steel wall. The bones of his hand shattered, and he screamed in pain while collapsing to his knees.

Seeing the women fall to their knees and pray while the man simply cradled his ruined hand and sobbed, Austen slowly stepped past them all. The pages of the bible flew behind her, then arranged themselves on all sides of the girl as if forming an honor guard as she walked from the courtyard to the door of the main building.

It was locked, as part of Jesus’s rules were that all buildings were to be locked at all times. That way, only people allowed keys of each building could freely go in and out, while others would have to ask permission. It was part of his standard power play, and a way of reminding his flock that they were dependent on those above them. Only he held all of the keys, of course.

Austen didn’t ask permission. Instead, she focused. Beyond the doors, she could feel paper, loose pages, entire books spread throughout the building. With a single thought, she could not only feel every piece of paper in the place, she knew everything that was written on it. Passwords, little notes, lists, the entire plot of books flooded into her mind. Now that she knew it was coming, she could sort through it, could let the flow of information simply cascade past her into a pool at her feet. If she wanted, the girl could reach down to take from the pool, lifting out any information she needed. Otherwise, it was simply memories in the background of her mind.

Instead, she focused on the papers and books themselves. At a thought, she could feel hundreds of them leap from the shelves, desks, even ripping their way from the pockets they were held in. They flew through the air, colliding with one another. She could feel them crash through no-doubt confused onlookers, jerking free of any attempts to hold them as they soared through the halls toward the front of the building where she stood.

Stepping out of the way at the last second, Austen allowed the tornado of books and papers to slam into the doors from the other side. The doors didn’t simply slam open, they were literally torn from their hinges and sent flying as the glowing bibles, hymnals, novels, notebooks, and even loose bits of paper crashed in and through them. Beyond, Austen could see the main foyer of the ‘church’, where people had gathered to stare in shock and fear. As a collection of prayers against evil filled the air, she crossed the threshold, stepping into the front area with the books and papers still fluttering around her.

“De-demon! Devil’s whore!” one of the men shouted at the thirteen-year-old girl who stood there. He brandished a metal fireplace poker he had grabbed from somewhere and ran for her, blurting a prayer and a curse almost simultaneously.

Thousands of pieces of paper tore their way free of the dozens of books, flying to join up with more loose pages. In an instant, the papers formed into what looked like a six foot long origami tiger. It collided with the man in mid-lunge, taking him to the ground.

At the same time, more bits of paper cut and folded themselves into the shape of a single word, each letter roughly a foot and a half in height. The single word was, in all capital letters, ‘ROAR.’ And it did. The word glowed brightly as the sound of a terrifying roar actually filled the entire front area, echoing throughout the building.

With the man who had tried to attack her pinned to the ground and currently sobbing, Austen turned her attention to the rest of the group who were (most unknowingly as they were simply staring in shock and confusion) blocking her way forward. The ‘ROAR’’ tore itself apart, more papers flying in to join those ones as they formed the word ‘MOVE.’ Once again, at a thought, the sound of a booming voice saying that single word filled the front area. It was the voice of thunder, and all obeyed, scrambling out of her path as Austen continued on. The paper tiger gave one last dirty look toward the man it had taken to the ground before trotting after her.

On through the church the girl marched. Most who moved to intercede were scared off by the tiger. Others were knocked aside by flying books, pinned to the wall or literally bludgeoned into unconsciousness. A general alarm had been raised, but no one seemed to know exactly what was happening, aside from the cries of ‘demon’ and such.

Finally, she reached the doors that led into the office of the man who called himself Jesus. Taking a breath, Austen pointed. Obediently, six different books slammed into each door, knocking them open and allowing her to step through.

He was there. Standing behind his desk with a pistol pointed at her head, the cult leader demanded in a booming voice of his own, “Stand down, demonspawn! Release your hold on this child and begone from this realm. You are so commanded by the Father and the Son, the God of this world in mortal flesh come once again. Flee to the hells from whence ye came!”

Without waiting for a response, he pulled the trigger, shooting at the girl who stood in his doorway. But Austen was expecting that. She knew him. A piece of paper had already moved to intercede, glowing in the process. That single sheet, torn from a notebook, floated between them as the bullet rebounded. The ricochet narrowly missed the man himself, embedding itself in the nearby wall.

“Hi, Jesus,” Austen started, almost conversationally. “That wasn’t very Good Samaritan of you.”

The man fired again, lower this time. But again, papers had already moved between them. That ricochet did hit him, glancing off his shoulder and drawing a cry of shocked pain from the man as he stumbled backward while rambling about how she had given herself to the devil.

“This is your book?” As she spoke, Austen made one of the bibles float up into the air in front of herself. At a thought, all of the pages tore themselves free. Over a thousand bits of paper filled the air. With a flurry of tearing and folding sounds each joined with several others to shape themselves into small daggers. In the end, over a hundred of those paper knives floated there.

“If this is your book,” the girl continued, while the psycho cult leader who called himself Jesus fired several more desperate shots, all of which were blocked, “you should take it back.”

With those words, and a single urge, she sent every paper dagger, more than a hundred, flying at the man. He screamed, threw the gun, tried to dodge, all to no avail. From his head to his feet, the man was struck through by glowing paper knives. In the end, he fell, his body filled with the very pages of the book he delusionally claimed to have been such a key part of.

It should have been harder. It should have hit her more. He was dead. He was dead… because of her. She murdered someone. It should have made her cry, shouldn’t it? Even as bad as he was, it should have meant… more.

It didn’t. Seeing his body there, thinking about what he had done to her mother’s mind and to the minds of everyone here, thinking about how he used them and would have used her, about how she had been struck, imprisoned, enslaved over these past two years, Austen felt nothing for the man.

Was she a sociopath too?

Turning on her heel, the thirteen-year old girl stepped from the room. Her mother was there, staring open-mouthed. “Austen…” she whispered in a barely audible voice full of despair and horror. “What… what did you do?”

Lifting her chin, the girl replied simply, “What did I do, Mom?

“I killed God.”

*******

Three months later.

 

The street gangs were meeting. Well, those who hadn’t already been destroyed to the point of nonexistence, absorbed by one of the larger gangs, or, in the case of Latinos, taken in by Oscuro. Their new leader, Cuélebre, had made a point of expanding the formerly small group exponentially, exploding its growth and power faster than anyone could react. And now, the smaller gangs were left scrambling, struggling to even survive, let alone thrive, against the might of Cuélebre.

So, they were meeting here in this abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town in a desperate, probably pointless attempt to come to terms with an alliance. For two hours, the leaders of the eight gangs who had survived to this point bickered about who would lead them, what the terms would be, who would own what territory, and how they would stand against Oscuro.

It was in the midst of these loud, shouted arguments that Austen strode. But not as herself. Over the past month, she had grown to understand more of her power. Currently, her body was literally covered by thousands upon thousands of bits of paper. Pages torn from novels, from journals, from phone and text books, and more surrounded her. They had formed into the shape of a suit of feminine armor, complete with a bust that the thirteen-year-old could only wish she would someday have. Beyond that, the armor also made her look taller than she actually was. Her actual feet ended somewhere above the armor’s knees, while her hands fell much short of the supposed gloves. Her head was covered by more paper in the shape of a stylized medieval helmet, and she carried an enormous paper sword across her back.

The much smaller young girl essentially piloted the suit of paper armor shaped in the form of an adult female knight.

As she came into view, the eight gang leaders and their assorted entourage spun toward her. Mr. Harmful, leader of the Fifth Street Broodwalkers alongside his sort-of conjoined twin Uncle Friendly, snapped his hand out her way. It grew to the size of a large dresser to slap her out of the way while the man snapped, “Who’re you supposed to be, Captain Library?” Around him, the other leaders were readying their own gifts, while others produced guns. Lots of guns.

Seeing the attacks coming, Austen simply braced herself. The blow from Mr. Harmful’s giant fist struck her side… and stopped. Her paper armor glowed, as she focused simply on not moving. The paper went exactly where she wanted it to, and did not go when she didn’t want it to. It stayed in place, taking the blow as if it was a gentle tap.

A glowing energy harpoon, along with a dozen bullets, a simple laser, and two concussive bolts of force, struck her. None penetrated her paper armor. None so much as left a single mark.

Still not speaking a single word, Austen drew the giant sword from her back. Sweeping it across the room in a sharp gesture. In reality, she was simply commanding all the bits of paper to move to make it look as though she had drawn and swung the weapon. As she did so, dozens of pages flew from the sword.

Before the men knew what was happening, the papers had wrapped around their necks, around their wrists, and around their ankles. Each of the men, leaders and lackeys alike, were ripped from the ground and suspended above it while their airways were constricted by the glowing pages surrounding and constricting their throats.

This was the best way to open. Making a big show. Demonstrating her strength. Austen had spent the past several months planning her entrance, practicing with her power, and most of all, absorbing books. She walked through libraries, through colleges, through military surplus stores, law schools, everywhere there were books. She had absorbed knowledge of strategy, tactics, diplomacy, laws, and every bit of detail of the past near-twenty years of Touched activity. Later, she would prove to these people that she could guide them.

Right now, she had to prove that she could crush them. Or they would never listen long enough to get to the part that was good for them.

And they would obviously never listen to a child. Hence this disguise. Which was also why she didn’t speak. Instead, several books flew up along either side of her. Each book opened to a different page, as words on that page glowed, and were read aloud by a booming feminine voice.

“This meeting was to determine how you would survive against the one who calls himself Cuélebre.” She had prepared for that one, bringing along a book of mythology to have the name ready.

More pages flipped, more words were highlighted, as the voice continued. “You want to know which of you stands a chance against him. The answer is none of you. If you try to stand against him and his people, they will crush you.”

She loosened the grip of the paper around their throats enough for one of the gang leaders to demand, “And what, you think you can do better so you’re just gonna march in here and demand we all kiss the ring? We don’t even know you, bitch.”

“You’re right,” Austen made the books say, “You don’t know me. But no. I don’t expect you to put me in charge. I expect you to allow me to help you.”

With that, she let all of them go, bringing the dozens of pages back to float at her side. “Give me one month to prove that I can help you outmaneuver Oscuro and stop Cuélebre from killing you all.” Her head turned toward one of the other gang leaders, the electricity manipulator and super-strong man known as Juice. “Your territory is on the front lines of this war. Give me one month with your men to prove I can help you. When I do, you will sponsor my leadership of this alliance. And then you can all stop arguing about which of you should be in charge.”

Juice, a heavy-set black man, lifted his chin. “Oh, you think so, huh? Well, tell you what. How about we just go ahead and throw you out there to fight Oscuro, then laugh when your paper-ass gets lit up?” He lifted his chin. “Whatchoo call yourself anyway?”

“If I fail,” Austen replied through her collection of books, “it will be of no great loss to you. As for my name, what can kill a god but knowledge? What is knowledge but words? And what is the word for the death of a god?”

“Deicide,” one of the assembled group slowly answered, looking dubious.

“Yes,” her assortment of papers confirmed, “that is the word. But you need not use it until I have proven that it’s apt. For the moment, simply calling me Papercut will do. I will earn the name, as I will earn your loyalty and trust. But now, I believe the time for discussion is over. Oscuro knows of your meeting here. Your territory, Juice, is about to be under assault. If you’d like to stop it, we and your men should go now.”

“Wait,” Juice demanded, “how the hell do you know that?”

“Perhaps you’ll know in time,” she replied. “But for now, the clock is ticking. Would you rather discuss it, or protect what is yours?”

The man only hesitated slightly before turning on his heel, whistling for his men to follow as he made for the exit.

There was, of course, no way that Austen would even tell the men the truth about how she knew the attack was coming. There was no way she would tell them what she had also spent the past three months doing, just as there was no way she could reveal her actual self to them. Because seeing her, they would see that she was Latina. They would see that she could have been taken by Oscuro herself.

And she had been. For the past two months, Austen had worked for the Oscuro gang as a simple street runner, pick pocket, con artist, thief, and anything else she could do. She had made herself useful, though she kept her powers completely secret. As far as everyone in Oscuro knew, she was nothing more than a helpful little kid. It allowed her to see and hear things she shouldn’t, such as what was going to happen tonight.

Two months spent doing that. The first of the past three had been spent searching for her father, for the man who had conned her mother into loving him, got her pregnant, then abandoned them. She had a general idea of the kind of trouble he’d gotten back then, including one specific vandalism incident. Absorbing police files, personal notes, information from the college her mother had been attending at the time, and more, and she had actually accomplished her goal. She had found the one responsible for her birth and for putting the first crack in her mother’s soul that eventually led to what she became.  

And in time, the man who now called himself Cuélebre would pay for all of it.

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Summer Epilogue 13 (Heretical Edge)

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At four-thirty in the morning, the rural bus station in southern Ohio wasn’t exactly hopping. A few figures dotted the seats around the waiting area, most of them curled up asleep with coats and bags acting as blankets and pillows respectively. One grizzled old man in an army jacket sat at a metal table eating a sandwich from the nearby vending machine.

Sitting at a table on the opposite side of the room was a group of what appeared to be ordinary teenagers, four girls and one boy, on a trip. Given the bags and jackets they wore advertising a certain university a couple hundred miles away, they seemed to be just-graduated high schoolers out for a tour of the campus.

Which was exactly what they were supposed to look like. They had even bought tickets for a later bus heading that way, and spoke in front of the clerk about how much fun it was going to be.

At the moment, the five of them were quietly playing poker. To any outside observer, their conversation would appear to be centered around their upcoming university tour. But that was an illusion maintained by the magic coin lying on the table in front of the single male. Their true conversation was much different.

“Lobby’s still clear,” Gordon Kuhn announced, his finger idly brushing the coin in front of him as his eyes scanned the room. “We checked everyone here. As far as we can tell, they’re all ordinary Bystanders.”

“Good,” Risa Kohaku replied through the communication badges they all wore. “Keep your eyes open. With any luck this will be a simple pick-up. We’ve got no reason to think Crossroads or Garden know anything about it, but there is no reason to get sloppy.”

Across from Gordon, the smallest member of their group raised a hand, clearing her throat. “Can I just say,” Rebecca Jameson started, “talking about Crossroads like they’re the enemy is still really weird.” Quickly, she amended, “I mean, I know they are. It’s just…”

Sitting next to her, Jazz Rhodes nodded. “It’s weird. Yeah, don’t worry, we get it.” She sighed then, rubbing her hand over her hair, which had recently been shortened down to only a couple inches long, and dyed a bright neon green. She wore sunglasses with matching coloration to her hair. “It’s a lot to deal with.”

The final two girls, identical twins Sands and Scout, glanced to one another before nodding. The former spoke up. “Yeah, don’t worry. You’re definitely not alone. We’ve had a lot longer to deal with it. Considering you only found out about this stuff like… under a month ago, you’re doing really good.”

“Well,” Scout corrected her sister idly before looking to Rebecca with a small smile. “And it’ll be a month tomorrow.”

The small girl grimaced a little at that. “A month,” she echoed. “All that stuff at Crossroads happened a month ago, and we still don’t know where my parents are.” After a brief pause, she added in a softer voice, “Or what side they’re on.”

Wincing, Sands assured her, “We’ll find them, I promise. Things are really confusing right now. You’re not the only one who doesn’t know what side the rest of their family is on.” Biting her lip, she then offered, “At least your grandmother should be with this group, right?”

Making herself smile despite the worry that she felt, Rebecca gave a quick nod. “Yeah,” she murmured, “hopefully. As long as they haven’t gotten separated. Last I heard, Grandma’s group had to go through some place that was full of Garden patrols. I… I just hope she made it. I hope they all made it.”

Jazz put a hand on the other girl’s shoulder. “She’ll be here. Just don’t let this whole reunion thing make you forget that you promised you’d come to mine next month.” Despite her light, teasing words, it was clear that there was a deep underlying tension and nervousness there.

Rebecca started to say something hopefully reassuring back to the girl, but she was interrupted by Scout. “There.”

The rest of them turned to look. Sure enough, a bus had pulled into the depot. The number on the front and side read forty-six. Bus forty-six, the one they had been waiting for.

Immediately, the five of them stood up. But they didn’t all walk toward the doors. Instead, they followed the plan. Gordon and Rebecca moved to the vending machine close to that entrance and proceeded to casually discuss what to get. The twins, meanwhile, went to the restroom. And Jazz moved to the street-side entrance, pretending to read a flyer there while scanning the sidewalk and street beyond, watching for intruders. Kohaku would already be keeping a close eye on things from her own elevated position on top of a building across the street, but every little bit helped.

The bus had come to a stop then, as the passengers began to disembark. Watching them come through, Rebecca turned from the vending machine and raised a hand in a lazy two finger salute. “Howdy,” she greeted the first arrivals. “Long trip, huh?”

It was code, of course. If she had said nothing, it would have meant that the place was compromised and they all needed to scatter. If she had welcomed them home, it would have meant that their exit point was outside. And if she had said anything about food, it would have directed them to the nearest restaurant for extraction.

Her actual words, about how long the trip had been, would point them to the restroom. Those who knew what was going on, anyway. Bystanders would be clueless.

More passengers entered, as she and Gordon took turns greeting them with some variation of discussing the length of the trip. Through it all, Jazz watched the other doors, tense as she waited to see if there would be any interruption.

But there wasn’t. One by one, the arriving Heretics made their way to the restroom and the waiting extraction point. Sands and Scout were there, pointing them to the portal that had been set up. The portal that would take them to the (for now) final leg of their long journey, the Atherby camp.

Unfortunately, as smooth as the extraction seemed to be going, there was still no sign of Rebecca‘s grandmother. With each passing person and lack of recognition, the girl felt herself deflate a little bit more. She tried not to show it, but she had been really looking forward to seeing the woman again and finally being reunited with a family member. Even though she tried to tell herself that was selfish given what everyone was dealing with, it didn’t really help.

She had just resigned herself to the fact that she would half to wait for another group, when the doors opened one last time and the driver came in. He was accompanied by two other figures. One was a certain incredibly handsome dark-haired young man with very slightly Asian features. Deveron Adams. Seeing Rebecca there, he gave a brief, broad smile before looking to his companion.

There beside him stood  a certain small, brunette woman whose family resemblance to the waiting girl would have been fairly evident even without any other help.

Seeing Grandma Lillian, Rebecca’s eyes lit up. It was all she could do not to fling herself at the woman. And, given the look her grandmother gave her in return when she was spotted, the feeling was mutual.

They still had to play this cool. Until they were through that portal, anything could go wrong. Out here in the open, exposed like this, loyalist Heretics from either organization could show up any second.

Clearing her throat while fighting to keep the broad, giddy smile from her face, Rebecca intoned, “Long trip?”

The driver, clueless as to the code, gave her a brief, wary nod while muttering, “You don’t know the half of it.” He headed off to get coffee from the nearby machine then, while Lillian winked at Rebecca and moved toward the restroom.

The girl physically ached to run after her. But that wasn’t the plan. They had to make sure everyone made it through. This wasn’t the only bus carrying Heretic refugees, and the second one had already pulled in.

In the meantime, Deveron held the door open, allowing one more figure to come through. Asenath gave Rebecca a tiny nod before walking right past. She and Deveron and casually made their way across the lobby before heading for the restroom.

It took what seemed like forever, a torturous twenty minutes to make sure everyone got through the portal. But finally, it was done. There had been no interruption, no attack. The last of the arriving groups had passed through the portal in the restroom without incident.

“That’s it,” Kohaku finally announced. “You’re clear. Take the exit and head home. I’ll do clean up.”

Clean up, in this case, was part of the reason for why they couldn’t simply instantly teleport everyone home. There were spells and certain abilities that could track such transports. Anyone on the loyalists’ side who figured out the general area where a transport had happened could potentially track the destination. That would lead them to the Atherby camp. The solution was this subterfuge, as well as leaving someone behind (Kohaku in this case) to magically wipe the traces of transport so that they couldn’t be followed.

“Good work, guys,” the former Crossroads security chief added, “and thanks.”

That was all the invitation Rebecca needed. Joined by Gordon and Jazz, she all but ran to the restroom. The twins were there, along with Deveron and Asenath. When Sands saw her enter, she gave Rebecca a thumbs up. “She’s through,” the girl assured her. “We’re all good.”

Without missing a beat, Rebecca all but hurled herself at Asenath. Hugging the vampire would have been utterly horrific and terrifying a month earlier. Now, she didn’t care. She held tight while blurting,”You found her! You actually found her!”

“We said we would,” Asenath reminded her with a small smile, returning the embrace. “Though hugs are pretty good payment, I’ve gotta say. I could use more of those.”

Blushing, Rebecca took a moment to embrace Deveron as well. “Thank you,” she murmured, “Thank you for finding my grandma.”

“It really wasn’t that hard,” the man admitted. “She was helping a group of glasswalkers and they… well, let’s just say they were in good shape with her.” Stepping back, he gestured. “But enough of us. Why don’t you head through? She’s waiting for you. And let me tell you, she is one proud grandmother.”

“Yup,” Asenath agreed. “Nine hour bus ride just to make sure no one can track us back to the camp, and she hasn’t stopped talking about you once.”

The thought of that made Rebecca blush, squirming on her feet before looking over to the exit point. The portal looked like a glowing blue square on the wall. Smiling even while trying to contain her overwhelming excitement and giddiness, Rebecca stepped through. She braced herself for the brief feeling of this disorientation and slight nausea that would come from the sudden transport.

The moment cleared, and she was standing on the waiting patch of grass about fifty yards from the nearest cabin, the glistening lake visible to her right.

An instant later, she found herself suddenly grabbed in an embrace that nearly took the wind from her. “Weasel!” her ‘captor’ blurted.

“Grandma!” Rebecca clutched onto the other woman, who was no taller than she. Both quickly stepped away from the portal to avoid the others while still clinging to one another. Rebecca felt like crying, clutching her grandmother even tighter. “Grandma, you made it, you made it!”

In a soft, fond tone, Lillian Patters replied,  “Well of course I did, Weasel. Did you really think I’d leave you out here to camp without me?”

Squeezing the woman as tightly as she could for a moment while fighting to control the tears that were trying to pour down her face, Rebecca tried to get a hold of herself. Finally, she managed a weak, “Mom and Dad?”

There was a brief pause, before Lillian leaned back to look at her granddaughter. Her voice was quiet. “I haven’t heard,” she admitted. “Have you…”

Rebecca‘s head shook. “Nothing. I don’t know if they’re out in one of the groups that haven’t come in yet, or if they’re prisoners, or…” She trailed off, face screwing up a bit.

“We’ll find out,” Grandma Lillian promised while squeezing her tighter. “If they need help escaping, we’ll get them out. And if they need a little help waking up still… Well, we’ll handle that too.”

Choking back the tiny sob of relief she felt just by her grandmother’s presence, Rebecca managed a somewhat teary smile. “I’m glad you’re here, Grandma.”

“Oh Weasel,” Lillian murmured, moving a hand to cup the side of the girl’s face. “I’m glad you’re here too. I am so proud of you making it this far.”

Blushing, Rebecca shook her head. “I haven’t really done much,” she admitted. “I’ve been pretty clueless all year.”

Hesitating briefly, she peeked at the woman. “Is it really true that you were part of the very first rebellion? Right from the beginning, I mean. With Deveron and Flick’s mom.”

“Deveron…” Smiling to herself, Lillian gave a quick nod. “Yup. I knew him back before he killed that Incubus thing, when he still looked all goofy. Jos liked him even then, you know. They were…” She went quiet for a moment, looking away while lost in her memories. “They were always a thing. Even before they knew it. We knew. The rest of the…” Swallowing hard, the woman looked back to her granddaughter. “Your middle name–”

“Joselyn,” Rebecca confirmed, head bobbing quickly. “You remembered her. Sort of, I mean.”

“Sort of,” Lillian agreed. “Somewhere in the back of my mind. I…” She straightened, taking her granddaughter by both sides of the face before leaning in to kiss her forehead. “You are amazing, Weasel. You really are.”

“She is.” That was Deveron, who had come through the portal with the others. He stood there, watching the two of them with a broad smile. “You know, if you stood on each other’s shoulders, you both might reach the height of a normal human b–oww!” He grunted, stepping back as Lillian put her fist in his side.

“Same old Deveron,” the woman muttered, squinting at him. “You still don’t know when to stop talking.”

Grinning at her, the man retorted, “Worth it.”

Despite her words, Lillian was smiling as well, her hand moving to grab onto her granddaughter’s. “Your children and Joselyn’s other daughter, they’re…”

“They’re here,” Rebecca put in, squeezing the woman’s hand. “Wyatt and Abigail and… and Flick. Do… do you want to meet them?”

With a little nod, Lillian agreed, “I’d like that very much. The last time I saw… Zedekiah and Koren together, they were… well, they were still Zedekiah and Koren. And babies.”

“Go ahead,” Deveron urged the pair, glancing back over to the camp. “They’re… over that way, by the lake. Looks like all three of them are there. With the actual Koren.”

Heading that way with her grandmother, Rebecca hesitantly asked, “They said you were helping some Glasswalkers? What happened?”

So, the woman told her about how her memory had come back, and that she had helped the group of Alters escape. “They’re okay now,” she informed the girl. “They made it to another group that was going to take them to Wonderland. That’s–”

“I’ve heard of it,” Rebecca quickly informed her. “The others told me about that place. It’s like a Stranger ha–I mean Alter haven, right?”

Nodding, Lillian looked to the much younger girl. “You’ve learned a lot over the past month, haven’t you?”

“Not enough,” Rebecca admitted. “I’ve been trying to catch up, but… but it’s a lot.” She swallowed hard. “I feel stupid for going along with Crossroads for so long. I mean, they… they hurt and kill a lot of innocent creatures… I mean… people, or… or…”

“I know what you mean,” Lillian quietly assured her. “It’s okay, Weasel. Lots of people fell for their propaganda. Until Joselyn came along that first time, I did.”

“Joselyn… she was pretty special, huh?” Rebecca hesitantly offered, glancing to her grandmother.

Lillian’s smile was both incredibly fond, and incredibly sad at how much they had lost. Particularly time. “Yes. Yes, she is. She’s my best friend, Rebecca. She was my best friend for… for so long. Not since we met. We kind of… fought at first, when we were put together. We argued so much for about the first month or so. Then things changed. She saved my life on a hunt and from there… well, we were almost inseparable. I would have followed her right into a volcano. Actually, I think I did a couple times.” She laughed to herself a little before looking over to the girl. “Joselyn has a way of inspiring people to do ridiculous things.”

Her smile fell a bit then. “And now… now she’s been in this… she needed me and I wasn’t there. I couldn’t help save her twins, and then I couldn’t… I couldn’t stop Fossor from taking her. I forgot her.” Her voice was hollow, eyes filled with regret.

“You didn’t know,” Rebecca quickly put in, hating to see her grandmother like that. “It was magic, they… they erased your memory. You couldn’t have been there.” She squeezed the woman’s hand, staring up at her as their gradual walk slowed.

Breathing in, then out, Lillian gave a slight nod. “I know. But that doesn’t really help very much. Jos needed me and I wasn’t there. I haven’t been there for so long. The things Crossroads did–the things they made me do after they knew how I felt, what I chose… the…” She stopped talking then, blinking rapidly before forcing herself to focus on her granddaughter. For a moment, she just pulled the girl into a hug, needing that connection.

For Rebecca’s part, she certainly wasn’t objecting. Returning the hug tightly, she murmured, “It’s okay, Grandma. The spell’s gone. You… you remember now. And we’re gonna find Flick’s mom, before…”

Hearing the girl trail off, Lillian blinked. “Before what?” she asked with a frown.

“I…” Swallowing, Rebecca gestured toward the lake where the others would be waiting. “Flick’s birthday. Something…”

“Fossor,” Lillian guessed, eyes darkening. “He wants to take her on her birthday, doesn’t he?” Seeing her granddaughter’s hesitant nod, she cursed under her breath. “Over my dead–” Stopping herself, the woman met the younger girl’s gaze. “We’ll see about that. Now come on. I really need to see how my tiny twin tykes grew up. And if their cheeks are just as pinchable as they used to be.”

“Uh, I know you’re a real badass, Grandma,” Rebecca offered, “but you probably shouldn’t try to pinch Wyatt’s cheek.

“That just seems like a really bad idea.”

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