The bruised, battered, yet still handsome man smiled through the blood that coated his rugged face. His voice was worn and haggard. “That’s the thing. See, a gun’s like a politician. There’s good ones, bad ones, they should all be kept away from children, and… just when you think they’re completely empty…” Abruptly, his hand snapped up with the pistol, slamming it into his attacker’s face hard enough to knock several teeth out. “They still make an impression.”
The thug fell backward, while Lou Devereux caught the pistol that fell from his hand, spinning with this actually loaded weapon to begin firing at the men surrounding him before they could react. At the same time, he was hurling himself up and over the nearby counter, taking cover even as those who were left frantically began to shoot back. The music, which had quieted for the long-time action hero to give his line, suddenly launched into a pounding, frantic rock song for the scene.
It was really too bad there was no one in the theater who was in any condition to enjoy it. I’m sure it was a really great action scene. But we were… sort of stuck in the middle of our own.
“Flick!” Sands shouted from one side of the theater near the entrance. Even as she called out, the brunette girl was hurling a rock up and over the seats, down toward the screen.
“I got it!” I shot back, using a very small burst from my staff to launch myself up on top of the seats from where I was. Landing with one foot on the back of one seat and the other foot on another, I threw myself that way, leaping from seat to seat to catch up with the thrown rock as it arced lazily up and over. It descended, too far away from me still. But my staff lashed out, and I extended the length of it to about twice normal, hitting the rock like it was a ball to send it the rest of the way toward a figure running for the emergency exit. The rock passed just over their shoulder, crashing into the door before the spell on it triggered, expanding the rock into a full, huge boulder blocking the exit just in time.
In the next instant, still recovering from that swing as I balanced on the back of two seats, my head jerked backward to avoid the wild swing of a massive glaive. My attacker, springing up from where he had been crouched, snarled and spat angrily. He, like the figure I had just blocked from leaving, were Glerhns, which looked like a cross between a wolf, a pig, and a man. Shiori said these guys looked like furry Gamorreans, something from Star Wars.
Whatever they looked like, this one was really pissed. He snarled something in his own native language and stabbed at me with his enormous glaive, trying to run me through. Or, more likely, trying to make me dodge backward right into the path of the second glaive already being very quietly swung at me by his buddy behind me. Even his snarled threat or curse or whatever was clearly intended to cover the sound of the other guy so I wouldn’t know he was there.
But I did, thanks to the power that allowed me to sense items within my range. I sensed the weapon, the figure’s clothes and armor, all of it. I knew he was there.
So, instead of dodging the way they wanted, I jerked my staff up and back with one hand, shrinking it back to normal size to intercept the glaive coming at me from behind. At the same time, my other hand snapped forward, conjuring a portal in front of myself. The glaive from the first Glerhn went through the portal and out the other end… right behind me. He stabbed his buddy right in the chest, both figures giving grunts of surprise (one with far more pain and blood involved).
With one hand, I used my staff to smack the glaive out of the second Glerhn’s faltering grip after catching its swing. Simultaneously, my finger found the button on the staff to send a cloud of sand out, which I directed straight into the first figure’s face. And not just any sand, this was suddenly superheated. Thousands of tiny grains of sand hot enough to burn through wood were hurled into his face, and the wolf-pig man lost any and all interest in attacking me for the moment.
While he squealed and fell backward, I was already spinning around the other way. In mid-motion, I hopped backward off the top of the seat and landed smoothly on the sticky floor. My staff was already lashing out, the bladed end (thanks to Jaq, one of my cyberform mice) cutting straight through the stumbling figure’s throat to finish him off entirely. My gold aura flared up, but thanks to my Seosten partner and adopted little sister riding shotgun, I wasn’t fatally distracted by a rush of pleasure.
At the same time, just as the blade end cut through that Glerhn, I triggered the grappling hook (also known as Gus) at the opposite end of the staff. The hook shot out, attached to an energy cable as it was driven through the chest of the stumbling first Glerhn, who was still screaming from the burning sand attacking his face. The hook went through him before retracting to yank the figure back toward me, Scorpion-style. As he stumbled and half-fell, my hand caught his arm and I was suddenly possessing him.
He was panicked, terrified from the grapple sticking through his chest. Yet I also sensed everything he and his friends here had intended to do to the innocent Bystanders. They’d intended to do far worse than simply kill the humans they found here, so my sympathy for him was somewhat muted. Still, I shut him down, shoving the figure into unconsciousness while Tabbris scanned his mind for what we needed. He might’ve deserved to die for the things he did, but there was no need to be evil about it. He could just go to sleep and not wake up again.
Hopping out of the figure a moment later, I finished him off for good with a quick slash of my empty hand as my fingernails grew as hard as steel to tear through his throat. He fell and wouldn’t get up again, bleeding out quickly from his throat just like his partner as my gold aura flared once more.
Then I sensed him, the last Glerhn lunging up from the seats behind me. Already, he was in mid-lunge with his glaive coming down in an overhead swing, moving too fast for me to turn or raise my weapon.
So, I didn’t move at all. Instead, I focused on the first dead figure on the floor, sending a single command of defend! In response, the deceased Glerhn lunged back to his feet while lashing out with his own weapon. The sudden attack from his dead friend took the living figure completely by surprise. He’d been focused on lunging at me right up until the glaive went through his chest. He collapsed to the floor, and I released my necromantic control over the other body, allowing him to fall as well.
Hey, you’re getting pretty good at that, Tabbris informed me excitedly. Mr. Bones is gonna be happy. Oh, and uhh, you got really, really minor strength boosts from those first two guys. Nothing too big. And that third guy made it so you can uhh, call back anything to your hand no matter how far away it is as long as you were holding it in the past… like, two or three seconds.
Thanks, I sent back. I’m pretty sure that’ll end up being really useful at some point.
My guys taken care of, I looked around quickly, just in case. But things seemed to be under control. The Glerhn who had been blocked from fleeing out the emergency exit by the magic boulder had tried to run for the exit on the opposite side of the room. Unfortunately for him, he’d been met by Avalon, who put him down, along with two others who had been waiting there for fleeing Bystanders back when they’d set up this death trap for innocent civilians.
Meanwhile, Sands was standing over another body near the entrance, and from the corner of my eye, I could see Doug at the opposite entrance, panting as he pulled the sword conjured from his pen out of the back of yet another Glerhn, who collapsed to the floor in a heap while the boy’s light turquoise aura flared to life. Finally, a glance up toward the projector room showed me Columbus giving a thumbs up to show that he’d dealt with the guys up there.
“We’re good,” Avalon announced as she approached, pausing to touch her communication badge just to make absolutely sure of what she had just said. “Gerardo, we’re good?”
There was a very brief pause, during which I held my breath. Then Sean’s voice came back (still sounding oddly old even after all the time that had passed since we rescued him from the Crossroads prison). “We’re good,” he confirmed. “All civilians are safe and accounted for.”
His reply made me breathe out in relief. It had worked. This theater had been set up as a trap to let the Glerhn capture and… do very bad things to innocent civilians. We’d had to fight them, but we also didn’t want to get a bunch of civilians caught in the crossfire. So, I’d used the fact that I didn’t register as a Heretic until I used my powers to safely enter the theater without being noticed. I’d pretended to be looking for someone, making my way through the half-full theater while depositing dozens of coins that had been enchanted by Sean. On activation, they had transported everyone with a coin out of the room, sending them to a nearby park where he’d been waiting to make sure they arrived safely and without any unwanted visitors. Thanks to the Bystander Effect, their confusion would be quickly forgotten. I wasn’t sure what it would tell them, but hopefully they would eventually get to see the movie they’d come for.
Either way, they were safe and the Glerhn were down. So it was a win. And a bigger win than that, considering–
“Chambers,” Avalon interrupted my thoughts as she, Sands, and Doug approached. “You get it?”
Smiling a little, I stowed my staff away with a nod. “Yup, we got it. Right, partner?”
My hair turned pink briefly as Tabbris spoke through me. “Uh huh! We know exactly where these guys took the people they kidnapped last week. And they’re still alive. Um… most of them anyway.” At the last bit, my borrowed voice grew slightly less happy.
“Hey,” Sands put in, “most is better than it could have been. Good thing these guys wanted money for selling their prisoners more than they wanted them for food or whatever.”
“She’s right,” Avalon agreed, gesturing to me. “You should call it in.”
I nodded, my hair returning to its natural dirty blonde as I touched my own communication badge. “Dare? We’ve got the address for you.” Once the older woman (and my secret grandmother, though I was one of only four people including her who knew that) acknowledged, I carefully recited the location that Tabbris and I had taken from the Glerhn.
“Good job,” Profe–errr Miss–err… Dare sent back. “We’ll send a team there right now.”
“You guys need any help with that?” Columbus asked over his own badge, having descended from the projectionist’s room to join the rest of us in the theater. “We could join up.”
Dare, however, declined. “You’ve done enough for today, guys. Between you and Scout’s team dealing with their transport truck, I’d say these guys are dealt with. Take a break. Come on home and relax for awhile. Don’t forget, tomorrow’s a big day. Thanks. And again, good job.”
Between the four of us, we started gathering up the bodies. I’d wondered about what happened to the bodies of Alters killed out in the regular world like this, and about just how hard the Bystander Effect had to work during potential autopsies. When I posed the question to Dare, she had informed me that Crossroads and Eden’s Garden both tended to have people whose sole job was to collect the bodies put down in these kind of attacks. The Bystander Effect could take care of the whole identifying monsters thing, but it was easier just to take them and avoid any issues. To say nothing of the fact that Bystanders could contract diseases from poking around dead bodies of species they weren’t prepared to defend against. Which was an issue I honestly hadn’t actually thought about up until Dare mentioned it.
Anyway, that was the normal situation. But now, with us… not exactly part of Crossroads, we had to collect the bodies and place prepared teleportation buttons on them that would take the corpses to a special building that had been set up for them to be safely disposed of. We were kind of stretched too thin to have a group dedicated to retrieving the bodies manually.
As we sent the last of the bodies away and started to leave before anything else could happen, I took a second to look at the screen. The movie was still playing, currently in the middle of a car chase scene as vehicles screamed their way through the streets of Los Angeles.
“Hey.” Standing nearby, Avalon watched me. “Are you okay?” She was clearly torn between concern for me and trying to be professional while we were on an official mission.
Looking away from the screen, I offered her a faint but genuine smile. “Yeah, I’m good. Sorry, it’s just…” My hand waved toward the screen. “The previous Lou Devereux movie was playing in the theater I was working in right before I ended up going to Crossroads. It was kind of the last movie I saw while I was working that night. It… I… wow. Yeah, I guess it has been a year, huh?”
Sands nodded. “Well, I mean, it’s what… Sunday? Yeah, so it’s September ninth.”
“Just over a year,” I confirmed. “I met you guys a year ago. Where does the time go?” I muttered the last bit just to see the incredulous looks I received from everyone present.
You’re mean, Tabbris informed me, though she sounded just as amused by the reactions.
I make my own entertainment, I retorted before gesturing to the others. “Come on then, before we have to explain to some poor usher what happened to all the guests.” Thankfully, we’d timed the fight to take place during one of the loudest parts of the movie, so no one had come to investigate. Not yet, anyway. Leaving was probably still for the best.
So, we did. Together, we made our way out of the theater emergency exit, without setting off the alarm thanks to the minor and very weak control over technology power Doug had picked up a couple weeks ago. Once in the parking lot, we headed toward a van that was waiting. On the way, Valley caught my hand and our fingers interlaced. I smiled over at her, winking. “Not a bad night.”
“Getting better every second,” she replied before squeezing my hand pointedly. Then she glanced to the side and nodded that way. “Oh, ah, you should probably take care of that.”
I looked that way, seeing the small, furry figure poking his head around the side of a sedan. “Right, I’ve got it. Be right there.” Squeezing her hand one more time, I let go before heading that way.
The figure by the car seemed to reflexively shrink back a bit as I approached. He was about three feet tall, and looked kind of like a teddy bear crossed with a fox, with three tails. He wore a shirt, pants, and jacket meant for a little kid, with bright cartoon characters. Apparently he was known as a Feursel, though this one’s name was Karf.
“Hey, Karf,” I started as gently as possible. Though I’d interacted with the Feursel before, with Kohaku, the little guy was still pretty skittish. For good reason, of course. “You okay?”
It took him a second to answer, fearful as he was. But the little guy finally gave a quick nod before hesitantly asking, “Th-the people?”
I smiled a little. “They’re safe. They’re okay. You did good, Karf. All those people in there are alive, and we sent a lead about where the others that were taken are to our friends.” Karf had been the one to find out what the Glerhn were up to and, despite clearly being terrified, had taken the information to some friends of his who knew about the rebellion. Through those contacts, he’d eventually come to talk to Kohaku and me, and we set this whole thing up. I didn’t care how skittish he looked now, Karf was one brave little dude.
When I reached into my pocket, he quickly jerked backward reflexively. But I held my other hand up placatingly. “It’s okay. It’s alright, I promise. Here, Ms. Kohaku wanted you to have this.” Extending my hand slowly and carefully, I opened it to show him a couple golden rings and a few gemstones, all of which were apparently fairly valuable.
Eyes slowly widening, the small Feursel whispered almost reverently, “Shinies.”
I nodded. “They’re for you, go ahead. You can trade them for things, right?” His head bobbed up and down, but he still hesitated for a few seconds while I held the rings and gems out before finally taking them with a quick swipe of his hand. His eyes snapped up to me as though afraid I’d do something very bad to him for taking what I’d offered. When I didn’t, he smiled before looking down at the things in his paw, speaking very fondly and happily. “Shiny.”
“There’s this too.” From my other pocket, I produced a necklace with a pearl at the end of it. “But don’t sell this one. Keep it secret. See the pearl? You hold that and say ‘Help me Risa.’ That’s it. Say ‘Help me Risa’ while you’re holding the pearl and she’ll know you’re in trouble and where you are. She’ll come to help you, or someone will. Just keep that safe. It’ll also trigger automatically if someone takes it from you by force.”
Staring at the necklace, he slowly took it while hesitantly whispering, “Heretics save the Karf?”
“Kind of surprising, huh?” I smiled and nodded to him. “We’re trying to change things, Karf. Just be careful out there, okay?”
He met my gaze with a solemn, “You are to be careful also, the Flick. You are to be careful too.”
Promising that I would, and that I hoped to see him again, I headed back to the others. They were waiting by the van.
“Everything good?” Doug asked, after looking up from his phone.
“Yup,” I confirmed. “Little dude’s just fine. Now let’s get out of here. Dare’s right, tomorrow is a pretty big day.
“After all the time she’s spent putting it together, Abigail would definitely kill me if I missed her first day as headmistress of our new school.”