Month: October 2019

Learning Days Daze 2-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Abigail wanted us to have a well-rounded education. Which meant learning both Heretic and Bystander lessons. Wait, we had Alters in school now. So it really wasn’t ‘Heretic’ lessons. Supernatural lessons, maybe? Either way, she wanted us to learn both that stuff and the regular old lessons like Math, English, and so on. Just like back at Crossroads, though with fewer classes, since we were only going to them in the morning. To that end, they’d made up a system of having one day where we would have two mundane classes and one magical-type class, then the next day we’d have the opposite, two magical-type classes and one mundane class. 

Today, Tuesday, was a two mundane, one magical class day. Specifically, my schedule for the day consisted of Calculus first, then Trials of the Sea, and finally History of Africa. Though they were apparently going to teach us about both mundane and supernatural-type stuff in that last one, so maybe it counted as both. 

I had no idea what Trials of the Sea was, to be honest, but it sounded awesome. Although I was a little sad that we wouldn’t get to have Blackbeard as a guest speaker. The Committee members who were sympathetic or totally on our side still couldn’t act openly like that. The word that they had come to talk to us would somehow get out and then there would be hell to pay. 

The Committee were also still missing Elisabet. The last I’d heard, Jophiel had managed to work out through help from Sariel that her lover wasn’t on Earth and hadn’t been since the moment she disappeared. They knew she was alive, and not on Earth. That was about it. What had happened to her, where she went, what kind of condition she was in, all of that was blank. 

Jophiel wasn’t taking it too well. But, to her credit, she wasn’t letting that stop her from teaching us. Yeah, Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, and I had some lessons with her over the summer. Even without Elisabet around for demonstration purposes, Jophiel still knew a hell of a lot about working together in a possessor-possessed partnership, and she taught us as much as possible. She’d set time out of her schedule looking for the woman she’d loved for hundreds of years, a woman who was now missing and could be anywhere in the universe, to teach us. She’d even worked as much as she could on teaching us that power-sharing spell, though it was slow-going. It was a very powerful spell, and it turned out we had to cast it ourselves. 

I had my issues with the way Jophiel did some things, but I had to respect that she was doing all this. The thought of focusing on… anything while Avalon or Shiori might have been missing like that was… impossible. Hell, I didn’t know how they had done anything back when I was missing. 

In any case, Jophiel taught us a lot. Even if every time we’d seen her, she looked more haggard, and not at all like… well, like I was accustomed to her looking. She was tired, emotionally wrecked, drained of almost everything she had. And still, she taught us for hours. She was patient, she didn’t yell or curse at us. At least, not outwardly. In short, she was a great teacher.

Which made the fact that we still had no idea where Elisabet was somehow even worse. 

Sighing as I shook that thought out of my head and walked the rest of the way through the connecting tube (filled with visions of the solar system from somewhere around Saturn) leading from the elevator room to the classrooms, I found myself stepping into what looked like any old high school on Earth. Seriously, there were lockers along the walls, kids getting stuff out of those lockers, a janitor mopping up some spilled milk or yogurt or something, and more. There was even a sign on the nearby wall above the lockers welcoming students to our new school. Hell, this looked more like an ordinary public high school hallway than Crossroads had. 

Well, except for the fact that some of those students were obviously not human. Nor was the janitor. He was an Orc of some kind, though one with four arms. Two of those arms were being used to hold the mop he was wiping up the milk with, while the other two steadied the bucket. 

Oh, and the sign welcoming all of us was some kind of projected magical hologram or something. As I watched it, the words changed from a generic welcome message to a room number and directions. It was telling me where to go for my first class. Along with a reminder note about which locker number was mine, and a countdown before school would start. It just knew all that and was able to change for each person looking at it. 

I had six minutes. Plenty of time to get to the lockers. Thanks to Abigail, I knew that Shiori, Avalon, and I all had them next to each other. There were benefits to being related to the principal.

Doug and Ruckus split off to find their own lockers, while Avalon, Aylen, and I went for ours. Aylen’s was directly across from Avalon’s, with a female Menmeran (the really muscular frog-like people) already standing at the next locker over from that one when we arrived. Aylen gave a little curtsy-bow and said something to the Menmeran girl. Apparently she was greeting her by name, calling her Pret. I only knew it was her name because Pret responded by saying Aylen’s name and doing the same kind of half-curtsy thing that Aylen had done a moment earlier.  

“She lives in the house on the other side of theirs,” Avalon informed me. “The one on the corner. We were talking for awhile last night.” 

Nodding thoughtfully, I asked, “Man, this school really is different, huh?” 

Avalon snorted once, glancing to me before replying, “Gaia would like it.” She swallowed very faintly then. 

“She will,” I corrected. “When we get her out and back here.” My hand found Avalon’s, squeezing briefly as she returned my smile silently, but clearly gratefully. Then we separated to get our stuff. 

Which was right when a pair of hands covered my eyes from behind, as a voice whispered, “Guess who.” 

“Uhhh…” Pretending to think about it, I offered, “The girl whose clothes and pocket contents my item-sense is almost as familiar with as my nose is familiar with the exact soap she uses?” 

Sulking just a little at that, Shiori took her hands off my eyes and pecked me on the cheek. “Powers make games like that too easy. I’m gonna take you by surprise someday, I swear.” 

With a smile, I turned and put both hands on either side of her face. “Shy,” I said quietly, “not being startled is not the same thing as not being surprised. And believe me, you surprise me every single day just by being the ridiculously amazing person you are.” With a little smile, I leaned in and kissed her gently, shivering as she gave a tiny whimper and clutched at me. 

Finally stepping back, I moved to the nearby locker while asking, “So is Choo back at the house?” As I spoke, my thumb pressed against the reader. It wasn’t just reading my fingerprint. Apparently it read some kind of magical signature or… something, I wasn’t sure of the specifics. Either way, the scanner went from red to green after I held my thumb against it for a couple seconds, and the door clicked. I opened the locker, finding all the books I was going to need for the semester already stacked neatly in there, as they were for everyone. My finger moved along them until I found the one for Calculus, pulling it out before tucking the book under my arm. 

Shiori was nodding, finding her own locker to open it. “Uh huh, he’s in the back yard with Salten. I think he really likes it here.” With a little smile, she glanced toward me while adding, “He liked it at the camp too, with all the kids. I can’t believe how much he likes being around people.” She had her own calculus book out by then, shutting her locker with a quiet, “Maybe it’s because he had to hide for so long before, back at Crossroads. He got really lonely in his pocket world.” 

Reaching out to catch her hand, I assured the girl, “Well hey, he’s here now. And I think he and Salten are really getting along.” With that, I glanced over to Avalon, who had closed her own locker to join us. “Though we should probably put some stuff out in the yard for them to do.” 

The others agreed, and we walked toward class with Aylen. Sands and Sarah were just outside the room, talking to Eiji Ueda and Gordon. The big (huge, he was six and a half feet tall and built like a truck) Canadian-Asian boy looked over as we approached. “Oh hey, I ahh, hope you guys don’t mind. Rebecca said it’d be okay if Raphael chilled in your backyard with your buddies.” 

Raphael, of course, was Eiji’s cyberform rhino. As far as I could tell, he and Eiji were almost perfectly matched. Both were enormous, but also incredibly smart. Eiji read very nearly as much as Vanessa did, and was just about as likely to know the answer to any given question. And, as far as I knew, he was a totally normal Heretic-born student. Aside from the fact that he was from Canada, which apparently was some kind of big deal. There was a so-called ‘King of Canada’ there that Heretics stayed away from. Even the Committee left him alone, which… yeah, that confused, intrigued, and worried me all at the same time. I’d been promised that we’d learn about the King soon, and that was something I was definitely looking forward to. Just who and what was this King of Canada that he could make all of Crossroads and Eden’s Garden too afraid to challenge him? 

Avalon told the boy it was fine and that Raphael could visit any time. The more those guys were entertained, the better. Porthos, who was riding on her shoulder, make a sound of agreement before using her hair to swing over to the opposite shoulder, landing there while pointing to the classroom with a trumpeting sound. 

“You know this is math class, right?” Avalon dryly asked the cyberform gecko while heading in. “Not dueling class.” 

Shiori went in behind Avalon. But before I could follow as well, Sarah spoke up, taking my attention. “Brom says he’ll meet us in one of the magic testing labs up here tonight right after dinner for the next session. If you’ll be settled in enough by then.” 

Right, Sarah had actually been working with Brom too. Necromancy was a lot harder to learn without inheriting (or stealing) an actual power for it, but it was still possible. At least, learning the basic stuff was possible. Sarah had said that she wanted to learn as much as she could, because knowing how to do something was a big step toward knowing how to undo it. That and she had this whole thing about being prepared for every eventuality. 

It was that thought that made me glance toward her left arm. Even though it had been almost two months, the thought that it wasn’t a real arm at all, but a magitech solid hologram of one still made me do a double-take every now and then. It looked real. It felt real. I tended to forget the truth unless I was actively thinking about it, or whenever she shifted it to one of its other forms.

“Sure,” I finally replied, shrugging. “I’ve gotta ask him some questions anyway.” Questions about getting a certain ghost back so I could talk to her and get some actual help with my own increasingly pressing necromancer problem. It was clearly time to think outside the box with this whole thing. 

“Sorry, guys,” Sands informed us, “I still think the whole necromancy thing is creepy. I mean, I get it. Useful, gotta know it to fight it, don’t throw away any potential advantage. I just… yeesh.” 

“Does this mean Sarah doesn’t get to store her rodent practice corpses in your house?” I teased, watching Sands turn several different shades of green before snickering. 

“Outside,” she informed me (and Sarah, probably). “All necromancy stuff has to be done outside. And especially nowhere near the kitchen.” 

All three of us shuddered, collectively remembering the fact that Crossroads’ chef had, for some time last year, been a zombie manipulated by Fossor. That was… an unpleasant thought, to say the least. 

“Okay,” I started with a quick headshake. “Now that we’re all thinking about something we really don’t want to, how about we get into class? I hear Calculus is really fun.

“Of course, it was Vanessa who told me that, so…” 

******* 

“Welcome!” a voice called grandly, its deep baritone filling the air, “to the Trials of the Sea!”

The place for our second class wasn’t technically an actual ‘sea’, though only because it technically wasn’t connected to an ocean. Size-wise, it almost might as well have been. It was a lake located within the station itself. Only in this case, the lake was about the size of Lake Superior back in the US. In other words, it was three hundred and fifty miles long and about a hundred and fifty miles wide. 

It was a lake… on a space station… three hundred miles long. I just… I couldn’t even fathom the size of this place. I really couldn’t. Someone back in Calculus had brought up how much room the station was taking up in the sun and Eiji had reminded them that over a million Earths could fit in the sun. It would take one point three million Earths to fill up the entire sun. This station, even with a lake this size in it, only amounted to a drop in the bucket if that bucket was the size of Texas. 

The point was, there was a lot more to the station than just the areas we were generally staying in. We’d had to take a portal to get down here, and I was sure there were more parts of this place that other teachers would have us use at some point. That or we’d end up around them for one reason or another. 

We were also on a boat. A ship. Right, ship was the proper term. I knew that much. It was an old wooden sailing vessel floating along in the middle of that lake. The portal had deposited all of us out here. And by all of us, that was about thirty students. Not everyone had every class at the same time, of course. There were way too many students for that. Of the ones here with me, I had Shiori (Avalon was in a different class this time), Jazz, Jason, Tristan, Triss, Miranda, and Koren. 

The man who was talking stood just a hair over six feet in height. His frame was muscular in a lean sort of way. His black silk pants were loose, billowing slightly in the artificial breeze. He wore a white and gold silk shirt with some ruffles to it, and the exposed skin of his arms (the shirt was sleeveless) and chest (the top few buttons were undone) was heavily tanned over skin that was already a natural Middle Eastern dark. His black hair was long, falling just past his shoulders, and he had both a goatee and a neatly trimmed mustache. His eyes were the only openly unusual part of him (aside from the fact that he was drop dead gorgeous in every way), considering they were a deep, striking gold color. 

Koren had her hand up. When the man looked that way, she asked, “Err, why is it called that? Why are we on a boat? And who are you?” Ticking them off on her fingers, she paused before nodding definitively. “I guess that’ll work for the first three questions.” 

Giving her a smile that was a mixture of gold, silver, and ruby teeth, our instructor casually replied, “And a good first three they are, Miss Fellows. I’m not just saying that because your mother’s the principal either.” With a wink, he started, “As for why we’re on a boat, that’s because every class we have will take place here or right down in the water. Or under it. Be it in this station’s water, one of the Earth’s oceans, or even the seas of a whole new world, our classes this semester will always take place there. Not in a classroom. In my experience, you learn by doing. And we will be doing a lot.” 

With a broad (very metallic) smile, the man waved a hand. “And we’ll do it in style! While having fun. Because I promise you all, having lived as long as I have, if you’re not having fun, then why the hell even bother?” 

Turning, he grabbed the nearby rope and used it to haul himself up onto the nearby railing. The man stood there, staring out over the water with a heavy, contented sigh. “The oceans are a great mystery, boys and girls and everything in between. They are rough and harsh and gentle and loving. They are dark, they are open, they are cold and they burn with the fires of a thousand, thousand, thousand mysteries. Monsters and creatures beyond your wildest imaginations and your deepest nightmares lurk there, along with wonders you could never conceive. Entire civilizations lay beneath the waves of all the oceans of the Earth. Worlds of mystery and fascination, of monsters and fables are all out there. And we will find them. We will see them. We will seek them out, explore them, and learn all the secrets I can teach you. You stay with this class and I will take you beyond all of your dreams. We will find the monsters and our fortunes in the world far beyond the land. Beyond both in distance, and in mystery.” 

“You asked who I am, and that is your answer. For all the times I have put the ocean behind me, it has never lasted. Because its power and mystery will forever call to me. The danger and wonder of what lies beneath the next wave, or beyond the next island, is one that I can never truly ignore for long. It is everything I am. It is everything I will ever be. 

“I am Sinbad, and I am here to show such wondrous things.”

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Interlude 6B – Cuelebre (Summus Proelium)

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The room had the appearance of an old Japanese dojo, with soft lighting, padded floor and fusuma, or rectangular wall panels. A pair of illuminated fountains at either front corner of the room provided gentle, soothing sounds of water steadily falling. Between and slightly before them knelt a figure whose meditative pose, with his legs crossed beneath him and hands lightly held to the sides, was at odds with the sheer menace of his physical appearance. This did not look like any ordinary man. When standing, he was a solid fifteen feet, his blue-purple skin appearing rough, while his demonic wings and long bladed tail completed the monstrous impression. Even sitting now, as he was, the figure still towered above most men. 

A soft, yet still intrusive chime interrupted the peaceful air within the room. It was followed momentarily by a second chime. The first indicated that his attention was requested. The second following it was the sign that it was too important to wait. A third chime would indicate an immediate emergency, such as an attack or something that couldn’t wait even thirty seconds. 

Hearing no third chime, and thus understanding that this was important but not an immediate overwhelming threat, the kneeling, meditating figure exhaled slowly. Then he opened his eyes and looked to the single object that stood between the two fountains: a mirror. It was enormous, standing clear to the ceiling of this twenty-foot high room and stretching eight feet wide. The sides of the mirror were decorated by various gothic figurines as knights and gargoyles. Within the reflective surface of the massive mirror, he saw himself as the rest of the world did. But looking further, gazing into his own eyes, he saw the man they would never actually know. He saw the man before the power. 

Danilo Taca. It was a name that the man known as Cuélebre hadn’t gone by for quite some time. Given his extensive physical changes, having much of a secret identity wasn’t really in the cards. He relied on his subordinates to do such ordinary, day-to-day things as shopping or making any appearance in public where intimidation or outright violence wasn’t desired.

Some of those who were similarly physically altered, he knew, were capable of transitioning their forms between the more mutated version and something that would more easily blend in. For whatever reason, he lacked that ability. Since the day he had touched the glowing orb and gone from being just another Latino guy being hounded by his parole officer on one side and his dealer on the other to… what he was now, he had been this fifteen-foot tall demon. A demon with more strength and power than almost any in the city. There was a reason he had been mistaken for being an Abyssal for awhile. Very little could actually stand up to him. 

It was almost funny, the way being turned into what he was now had entirely solved his addiction issues. For so much of his life, Danilo Taca had been addicted to a pharmacy’s assortment of the usual suspects. Anything he could snort, smoke, or inject. He’d gone through all the normal cycles of trying to get clean, being out of it for awhile, then inevitably falling back into old habits. He even had a kid out there somewhere, one he’d made with an old girlfriend during one of his clean times. He’d told himself back then that he’d stay clean for his girls. But… well, his willpower back then wasn’t exactly the greatest. He’d stumbled and, when one was talking about that kind of lifestyle, a stumble meant one fell directly off a cliff. 

So he’d fallen off the cliff and eventually ended up hiding out in the back of a crackhouse, waiting for the day either his parole officer or the dealer he’d stolen from to bribe the parole office the first time managed to find him. The cops had raided the house, and he’d managed to escape through a basement window only to have a couple of the damn dogs start chasing him. With cops shouting, someone shooting back in the house, dogs barking and nipping at his heels, Danilo had, through sheer adrenaline, hurled himself up and over the fence at the back of the yard. Falling on his back in the alley there with sirens wailing and the sound of more cops coming his way, he’d opened his eyes to see the orb floating above his head. He’d touched it, and… among all the other changes, his addiction issues were gone. Sure, he still kind of missed the great way his old vices made him feel at times, but… the physical urge, the feeling of being sick without them… they were gone. He hadn’t touched any of it since that day. 

Still, despite the many advantages his size and power granted, there were times when Cuélebre regretted being unable to pass as an average person the way others could. There were no times when he was ever just Danilo anymore. He was Cuélebre now and forever. 

But there was no sense in dwelling on such things. Picking himself up, the naked giant reached out to pluck his specially designed and tailored pants from the nearby shelf, tugging them on. Leaving his chest bare, he moved to the sliding door and used a single claw to push it aside. Beyond was a much heavier steel vault-like door with a spinning lever, which he cranked three times before pushing it open with a grunt. Strong as he was, he made it a point that his inner sanctum would be difficult for almost anyone to penetrate. The heavy door was a part of that. 

The second the vault door had been pushed open, the meditative peace of his sanctum was filled with blasting, piercing hard rock music that reverberated through the large hallway. It was coming from the nightclub and bar that lay directly above. That club served as one of several public fronts for the Oscuro gang within their territory. The corridors he now stood in (as well as his actual sanctum) were actually heavily refurbished alcohol smuggler tunnels from back during the days of prohibition. The bootlegger who’d had the tunnels built originally had designed them large enough to drive a truck through to reach the basement of his illegal bar at one end. The other end of the tunnel, meanwhile, came out several blocks away through an ordinary-looking storm drain. Cuélebre had paid a hefty fee to have the tunnels shored up, put new entrances in leading to various buildings in the neighborhood for his people to get in and out of, and added a few defenses and security here and there in addition to rooms that would fit his size. It’d cost a pretty penny, but being safe (not to mention comfortable) was worth it.

Stepping out of his personal meditation chamber, he was immediately addressed by a woman in what appeared to be a circus ringmaster outfit, with a long red tailcoat fashioned so that the front only covered the top third of her torso. The front-center part of the ‘coat’ (such as it could be called one) was black with several rows of silver buttons. Beneath the tailcoat she wore a matching red vest that covered more of her upper body, leaving only the space from her navel to her waist bare. Black pants, dark gloves, a black top hat resting atop braided blonde hair, and a black, Zorro-like bandanna mask completed the look. She wore a whip on one hip and a pistol on the other. 

This was Grandstand. She had an assortment of powers. One allowed her to command the attention of anyone who could hear her voice, forcing them to focus on her and forget about anything else going on around them, though pain or injury would snap them out of it. She was equally capable of shunting attention away from herself and onto something else, allowing her to essentially disappear unless she took some direct action against them, breaking the effect. While the first power was in use, she would gain strength and durability for each person paying attention to her. While the latter was in effect, she would gain speed for each person whose attention was being drawn away from her. And she was capable of using both at the same time, forcing some to pay attention to her while the attention of others was diverted, allowing her to mix and match an assortment of strength and speed while controlling who noticed her. Beyond that, Grandstand always possessed an enhanced sense of timing and balance, as well as a constant awareness of how many people were looking at her. 

“There’s been a problem,” she informed Cuélebre curtly as soon as he emerged, standing a few feet away with her hands clasped behind her back. “It’s Handler.” 

Pausing, Cuélebre took a moment to consider his response before carefully guessing, “His secret project, the one he said was coming to fruition tonight. Something went wrong.”

With a nod, Grandstand replied, “Very wrong, sir. You aren’t going to like this. And neither is the Ministry. This falls directly under something they would have had to give permission for. And they wouldn’t have given it for this.” 

Starting to walk down the large, refurbished tunnel, Cuélebre ordered, “Let me worry about the Ministry. They may control the city, but my people are mine to judge. Tell me what happened.”  

She did, and he immediately regretted his previous words. Stopping in the tunnel, he dropped his head and heaved a long sigh. “He should have told me what he was planning. I could have told him that it was stupid. I could have told him to leave it alone. Or negotiated to pass the information to the Ministry so they could handle it, making them owe us a favor. As it is…” He exhaled, turning to punch the wall with his massive fist with a sharp curse. As reinforced as it was (for just this very reason), the blow still left a visible dent and spiderweb cracks. He stood there, fist against the wall as he continued in a flat voice, containing his anger beyond that single outward expression. “As it is, we’ll be lucky to get out of this without substantial losses, monetary and otherwise. Correction, we won’t get out of it without substantial monetary losses. We’ll be lucky if that’s all it is.”  

Some might have been surprised to hear the way a former lowlife thug, who had spent his life in and out of prison and never graduated high school, turned giant monster spoke. But the truth was, Cuélebre had done more studying and learning since his transformation than he ever did before it. After realizing that he no longer felt those old addictions, he’d worked to improve himself as many other ways as possible. His body was about as strong as it could ever get, so he’d worked to exercise his mind. Not being able to go out in public helped with that. He couldn’t waste time going to bars, stadiums, arenas, or anything else where people would see him. His free time, for quite some time, had been taken up by learning more than he ever had at school. He’d had college professors brought to him and paid to teach him. By his count, he’d actually learned enough to have both earned his GED and at least one Master’s Degree over the past three years or so. Hell, he’d even considered reaching out to find that kid of his and her mother a few times, but had dismissed the urge. There was no reason to drag them into this kind of life. 

Not that it mattered. Learning was a way of passing the time, a way of reminding himself that he was more than his outward appearance, and a way of ensuring that he knew more than others might expect. He’d figured out long ago that he could run Oscuro as an iron-fisted thug and keep it going for awhile, but that if he really wanted to achieve anything, he needed to be more than that. His people, generally, respected him more for that. 

And then one of them went and did something this utterly idiotic, and made him want to revert to a far less mature mindset. He had to take a minute to collect himself before sighing. There was no sense in waiting any longer. “Where is he?” 

Pointing to the nearest vault-like door (there were many spread along the tunnel), Grandstand replied, “He’s waiting for you above, in the back of the club.” 

Without responding, Cuélebre reached out and opened the vault door. It led into a large basement room. As with all of the rooms beneath the Oscuro holdings, the basement had been refurbished and updated to suit his size. This one appeared to be a living room, though one where everything within it was scaled up, with much larger chairs, dressers, a desk, even a television with a remote intended for use by his massive hands. Stepping in, he moved to the enormous, specially made plush leather chair in the corner and sat. His tail went through the convenient hole, idly dragging back and forth along the floor as he waved a hand. “Bring him down.” 

Obediently, Grandstand moved to the heavy metal ladder against the far wall and pressed the button against it. There was a buzz as the intercom activated. “He’s ready, come down.” 

A moment later, the circular hatch at the top of the room was hauled open, and Handler climbed down the ladder. Out of his costume, the man was a thin, balding figure named Luis, with an intricate patchwork of religious tattoos on his left arm depicting the life of Jesus. 

Hopping off the ladder, Luis turned to Cuélebre. “So, I suppose you heard that–” 

“Stop,” Cuélebre ordered, holding up a hand. As his subordinate fell silent, he exhaled long and slow, watching him as several thoughts ran through his mind. Finally, he said, “You don’t know where the girl is.” 

“No,” Luis admitted. “We have people looking, but to be honest… I don’t think we’ll find her in time.” He said it quietly, but definitively, standing straight as he awaited the judgment of a man who could cut his head from his shoulders with a simple flick of his tail. “I made a mistake. I should have brought the girl to a secure facility before letting her wake up. I was… eager to begin. It would have been an incredible gain for–” 

“Stop,” Cuélebre repeated, watching as the other man’s mouth obediently snapped shut. Again, he watched the man in silence for a few moments. His eyes glanced toward Grandstand, who was standing quietly in the corner, before flicking back to Luis. With a sigh, he came to a decision. “You need to get out of town.” 

“Sir?” Luis asked, blinking up. 

“The authorities will want your head,” Cuélebre informed him. “We need to get you out of town before they start looking. You can lie low up north. Keep your head down, take a vacation. We’ll bring you back in a few months, maybe longer.” He paused before adding, “And I will be taking from your accounts to pay the Ministry for the complications.” 

It was clear that the other man didn’t like that, but he accepted it with a bow of his head. “Of course. Whatever’s needed. I’ll pack my things.” 

“Do that,” Cuélebre nodded with a dismissive wave. “Be ready to go in fifteen minutes.”

As Luis climbed the ladder once more and the hatch closed, Grandstand looked to him. “Sir–” 

“Get the Ministry on the phone,” Cuélebre interrupted, his tone resigned. “They’ll be expecting the call.” 

He waited then, while the woman used her own phone. Once she had them on the line, a couple button pushes transferred it to the oversized phone sitting on the nearby table. As it buzzed, he let it do so for a second or two before slowly picking it up. “This is Cuélebre.” 

“Minister White,” came the response. It was the woman, the female leader of the Ministry, the secret organization who kept the criminal underground of Detroit in line. She and Minister Gold were the secretive heads of the organization. They held more power than anyone really knew, with deep access into almost every Touched organization in the city. Anyone who pulled a job within the city owed the Ministry a tax, and they always collected. They had ways of either keeping the attention of the authorities away from you, or directing them your way. For a price, they could ensure that a job had a much higher chance of not being interrupted. The Ministry ran things in Detroit, and as far as Cuélebre knew, none of the authorities had the slightest clue they even existed beyond the occasional dismissed whisper. Most in his own organization, aside from Grandstand, were utterly unaware of them. 

“Minister,” Cuélebre started once it was clear the woman wouldn’t say anything else just yet. “I assume you’re aware of the situation.” 

After a brief pause, she confirmed, “We’ve taken steps to contain it. But we require an explanation.” 

“Handler worked on his own initiative,” Cuélebre informed her. “I was aware that he had a secret project, which he believed would be a great boon for Oscuro. I was unaware that he had designs on a member of the Minority, let alone the youngest. He intended to surprise me with… a gift. Had I known, you would have been informed so that the girl’s mother, who came to us to begin with, could be dealt with sufficiently.” And if that had happened, they would have been having a much different conversation. A conversation where the Ministry would owe him, rather than the other way around. God damn it, Luis. 

His words were greeted by silence for a few seconds, before Minister White spoke again. “I see. You are aware that there must be repercussions for this. The authorities will raze your territory to the ground to find someone who attacked the youngest Minority member in her own home. Let alone one who threatened to enslave her through torture. They have to. An example must be set, or no one will trust the Minority program.” 

“I know,” Cuélebre confirmed, his voice dark. His hand gripped the phone tightly. This was the part he had known would come since the moment Grandstand had told him about the situation. “I am prepared to make things right. First, one million dollars to your organization for the trouble all of this has caused.” 

“A fair start,” Minister White replied simply. “But hardly what will calm things down and ensure your organization doesn’t become the target of a full-city sweep the likes of which even you could not survive. The Star-Touched will be enraged by this act, Cuélebre. They will be united in coming after you, and none of the other gangs will intervene. They won’t want to draw that kind of heat to themselves. You’ll be alone out there, if something isn’t done to appease the authorities.”

Cuélebre’s response was a gruff, “I know.” He took a breath, steadying himself while turning a look toward Grandstand. The nearby woman was watching him with an impassive look, having taken off the mask as she played with it in her hands. Watching her briefly, Cuélebre continued. “You want him.” 

“We want to contain the situation,” came Minister White’s response. “You know the only thing that will do that.” 

“Of course I do,” he grunted, reminding himself not to throw the phone against the wall. “This will slow our income.” 

“We will take that into account,” Minister White assured him. “You have always paid your dues for the territory you hold. We understand that this will affect what you are able to tithe, and will of course allow for it. We may be able to point to a few future jobs that will bolster your coffers to make up the slack. But we must know, will this affect your actual organization?” 

“You mean are half my people about to suddenly change their minds about who they’re loyal to if I lose access to Handler?” Cuélebre snorted. “No. I’m not a fool. Handler has been useful for the growth of Oscuro, but not that directly. I’m not stupid enough to keep people close to me who were only obedient through torture. I used him to raise my army through training his… subjects and selling them to organizations outside of the city in exchange for cash or in trade for one of their own Touched. None of my people were his subjects.” He paused before amending, “None of the Touched, in any case. Like I said, it’ll slow income, it won’t cripple us.” 

“You may wish to warn those you have done business with, in that case,” the woman noted. “As I assume you are prepared to make the necessary arrangements to bring this under control.” 

Again, Cuélebre paused, looking over to the wall for a long moment before giving a low growl. “Yes. I’ll give you the address where Handler will be. You provide it to your contacts and have the authorities pick him up. But when they do–” 

“When they do,” Minister White smoothly assured him, “the heat will fade. Or, more accurately, it will be directed to the courts. He will be made an example of. I have no doubt that he will end up in Breakwater for what he’s done. And there will be a great deal of scrutiny. Anyone within your organization who is arrested at any point in the future will likely have a strong legal defense that they were taken by Handler, and it will be difficult to prove otherwise. Though I believe the confusion and uncertainty that raises will be more of a boon for your people than a hindrance.” 

“Small compensation for a grand mistake,” Cuélebre muttered before straightening. He gave the Minister the address she would need, exchanged a few more words, and dropped the phone back onto its hook. Turning, he cursed before putting his fist against the wall. 

Through gritted teeth, the giant, demonic man ordered, “Contact anyone we sold a Touched to in the past year. Let them know there may be issues and that they should be prepared to contain the subjects themselves, and that we will provide a certain level of refund if such problems are severe. And get me in contact with Sandon.” 

“The Ninety-Niners leader?” Grandstand inclined her chin curiously. “Do they have–” 

“No,” he interrupted. “They don’t have Handled subjects. I wouldn’t provide such a resource to any of our direct rivals. But they have made certain… offers of an alliance in pursuit of these vials that Blackjack wants so desperately. I’ve refused before now, but we may need the kind of boost such an alliance could provide. With their aid, we can sell the vials either to someone outside of the city, or to Blackjack himself. As desperate as he seems to be, he’ll pay any price for it. That could help recoup our losses from this disaster, even if we have to split it with Sandon and her people.” 

“This… Paintball,” Grandstand began carefully, “he seems to have the best lead on the vials, from what we know. He certainly has Ashton Austin, or knows where he is.” 

Cuélebre was silent for a few long seconds, thinking about the embarrassment he’d felt at chasing that boy all over the city, only to have him disappear at the last second. But this was more important than any embarrassment. “Then have our people watch for him,” he ordered. “Don’t attack. Don’t make themselves known until the vials are in sight. I want eyes everywhere watching for that boy to go gallivanting around with his paint. When he makes a move, our people will be ready. 

“He can do all the work to find the vials, and then we’ll take them from him.”

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Learning Days Daze 2-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The next morning, just as the simulated sun came up (if it was the real sun poking through, we’d all be dead), I was out jogging around the neighborhood. There were others who were up and moving around already, some of them waving to me or talking a bit. But mostly, I was left with my own thoughts. Which was how I wanted it. We were going to be busy in classes soon enough. For this short time, I really needed to clear my head somewhat so I could focus. Running helped with that. I could mindlessly jog along the sidewalk, letting my mind wander.

The night before, Tabbris and I had tried again to summon or contact Rahanvael’s ghost. But it hadn’t amounted to anything. We put the call out and she didn’t answer. I’d try again until she did, but I had to admit that it was a little disheartening to get absolutely no response for so long. 

It didn’t matter. I’d keep trying until we pulled her in again. If she was for real, and judging by everything the best magic-inclined people I could find could determine, she was, then she was the biggest chance I had to find out something useful about Fossor before the time limit was up. 

I was going to look for more necromancy books, and ask Brom where I might find some that were useful as far as calling to ghosts from other worlds and possibly anchoring them here on Earth went. It was yet another project to work on, but a really important one.  

Pretty soon, it would be time to head to breakfast with the others. So, I started looping back around to head for home. As I plucked the bottle of water from my belt and took a sip, a nearby whistle caught my attention. Turning while slipping the cap back on the bottle, I saw a tall, caucasian boy with long, bright red (clearly unnaturally dyed or magically colored) hair. He was leaning against a tree. Nearby on that same tree, a cyberform owl perched, head turned toward me. The boy waved, making it clear I was the one he was trying to get the attention of. 

As soon as I took a step that way, he started with, “Holy shit, I am so sorry. That was stupid. Whistling, I wasn’t… I mean, I wasn’t trying to… you know, whistle like that. I was trying to get your attention, but not with the–you were running and all and it wasn’t–shit. Yeah. Sorry.” 

Blinking at that, I shook my head. “It’s okay, I can kinda tell the difference between ‘hey, you’ whistles and… that kind of whistle. Don’t worry about it. Um. I don’t think we’ve met, though.” 

“We haven’t,” he confirmed. “My name’s Gambol. Well, that’s my Garden name anyway. Not sure if we’re still supposed to use them or… whatever, it’s better than my real name, trust me.”  

“Gamble?” I echoed curiously. “Where’d that come from, are you really into cards or Vegas or something? Or are you from Vegas? Cuz I have a lot of questions about that place.” 

He chuckled, shaking his head. “No, not that kind of gamble. Gambol, b-o-l. And… why do I always correct people on that? The version they assume is so much cooler.” With a sigh, he informed me, “Gambol, it means to… eeeehhhh… frolic around. You know, skip and play.” 

Covering my mouth, I coughed while giving him a look. “Your Garden name is basically ‘frolic’, and you actually correct people who think it’s the betting money version?” 

He raised his arms, spreading them out helplessly. “I know, right? You’d think I’d learn at some point.” Sighing once more, the boy rolled his eyes exaggeratedly before adding, “Anyway, now that you know my cool warrior name is all about dancing around in a field of flowers, possibly with a crown of daisies on my head, you’re Chambers, right? The girl that ahhh, Flick, was it?” 

“The girl that Flick, yup,” I confirmed. “That’s me. Why, what’s up?” I added the last bit curiously. 

“Well, first of all,” he started after a brief hesitation, “you totally helped erase that damn spell that made everyone forget genocide might be a bad thing. So thanks for that. It’s actually… kinda nice to know that there’s good people out there besides humans. Cuz the other way is ummm, pretty lonely if you think about it for a second. Size of the universe and everything else is evil?”

“There’s plenty of evil things,” I murmured before nodding. “But yeah, everyone besides humans being monsters who want to kill us all does seem like a pretty lonely way of thinking. But really, it was Gaia who did most of the work. She had the idea, she set up the spell and everything. All I did was follow her instructions. Hell, I didn’t even remember doing it at the time. She took it out of my memory so I wouldn’t think about what I was doing and give it away.” 

“She uhh, she’s still a prisoner, right?” He sounded hesitant. “The old Crossroads Headmistress? That’s what people keep saying anyway. Some people said she died back during that escape, but mostly they say your Committee is keeping her locked up somewhere.”  

“Unfortunately,” I replied with a slight nod. “They’re working on it, but… the Committee’s got her locked down pretty tight. Obviously. Especially after that attack we made on the prison a couple months ago. I mean, she wasn’t there to begin with, but after that they really went hardcore in keeping her secure. Last I heard, they had her prison off-planet and it keeps moving around.”

“Shit, they really don’t want anyone getting her out,” the boy muttered before shaking himself. “Err, yeah, sorry. Probably none of my business. Hope you get her back though. And not just because she’d be really useful.” Again, he hesitated, looking awkward for a moment before heaving a sigh. “Right, the real reason I wanted to talk was to umm, to apologize for my sister.”  

Well, that was unexpected. Blinking at him, I asked, “I’m sorry? Who’s your sister and why are you apologizing for her?” I was trying to think of any girl Garden student I had a problem with. The only one who came to mind immediately was Pace, and that was before we knew she was possessed (and we’d even settled things with Theia). Plus, she was Latina and he was white.

“Oh, right, you haven’t… I mean I don’t think you…” Wincing, Gambol gave a vague gesture. “It’s actually your friends… or… whatever they are who met her. Miranda and Karen?” 

“Koren,” I corrected. “So your sister did something to Miranda and Koren? I don’t–wait…” Something was tickling my memory when he mentioned that, something I tried to repress.

“Yeeaaaah,” he drawled reluctantly. “But trust me, you’re the one who deserves the apology. My sister’s name is Josie. She and her boyfriend and his other girlfriend Kumiko were sort of…” 

“Oh my God.” My face was red by that point. “They’re the ones that–I mean she was the one that– Oh God.” Right, I knew who Josie was now. Koren and Miranda had mentioned that there was some trio at Garden, the jackass named Weston (whose Uncle had nearly killed Pace before Roxa finished him off) and his two girlfriends. Two girlfriends who happened to be very deliberately fashioning themselves to look like parody versions of Shiori and me for… reasons that made me seriously want to saw open my head and fill my brain with bleach for thinking of.

Wincing when he saw that I’d realized what he was talking about, Gambol offered, “Yeah, like I said, sorry. She used to be a pretty good person, I swear. Then she fell in with that Weston creep and keeps getting worse. I don’t know how he convinces her to do half the shit he does, it’s just… it’s dumb and I’ve tried to talk to her but she won’t listen. Which… I know people have to make their own choices, but she’s sort of my twin and I feel responsible for the shit she does.”

My head shook. “Don’t worry about it. Yeah, it’s pretty freaking gross. But I seriously have a lot bigger things to focus on. So… whatever. I’m gonna guess that she didn’t come with you?”  

“Hell no,” he confirmed. “Believe me, we had a whole fight about it and everything. I tried to drag her away, which… in retrospect, was pretty stupid. She’d never have stayed, and they probably would have sent her back anyway as soon as they realized they couldn’t trust her. But still.” His voice trailed off at the end, as he looked to the ground with a sigh. 

“She’s your sister and you wanted to get her out of there,” I finished for him. “Not to mention getting her away from Weston. I get it. Maybe you’ll be able to talk her into it later.” 

“Here’s hoping,” he agreed before waving a hand. “Anyway, I just wanted to say that. You know, before anyone else happened to bring it up. So yeah, I hope you can get Gaia out of prison.” 

“And I hope you can talk your sister back to her senses,” I replied. “Not only because her cosplay bullshit makes me feel super, incredibly, unbelievably gross, but also because she’s your sister. So good luck.”

“Thanks.” Giving a little wave, he stepped back. “I’ll let you get back to your run. And ahh, probably see you in class at some point, I guess.” 

With a wave, I headed off once more, moving a little faster than before. Yeah, I needed to shower before breakfast. 

And not just from the run. 

******

After cleaning up and having breakfast with some of the others in the kitchen, I headed out with Tabbris. The two of us got to the elevator before I squeezed her hand. “You ready for this, partner?” Even though I’d known it was coming, the idea of separating to go to different classes only really struck me just then. This was more than just doing separate things for awhile like we’d done during the summer. This would be the first time since I was a kid that I would regularly be going to school without someone riding shotgun in my head. Even if I hadn’t actually known about her for most of that time, there was still something big about that. 

It wasn’t just me, either. Tabbris looked my way as we stood by the elevator and gave a hesitant nod, gulping. “I umm… I think so?” she offered weakly, clutching my hand tightly. “I kept thinking it was a long time away, y-you know? Even yesterday. I was thinking it’d never get here. This morning, it felt like… it felt like it’d never really happen. But it did. We’re here, and… and…” 

“Don’t worry, sis,” I assured her. “You’ll be great. And then we’ll have stories to share.” Offering my fist for her to bump, I added pointedly, “Besides, it’s not fair for me to hog all your awesome for myself. Hell, I’m pretty sure it’s not even physically possible, you know? That’d be like trying to hold all the heat of a volcano. And, well, it’s not like you’ll be alone up there.” 

Her head bobbed a bit. “I know. There’s the other kids up there. Like Richton and Meley.” 

“Well, them for sure,” I agreed before reaching into my pocket. “But you’ll also have someone else to help make sure everyone’s safe.” Producing Herbie, I held the rock out for her.  

Eyes widening, Tabs shook her head quickly. “What? I can’t take him. You–he’s yours.” 

“He’s ours,” I insisted. “And he can take turns keeping us safe. This is your first time going to class by yourself. If I can’t be there with you, he can. Trust me, he’ll make sure everything’s okay. You carry him this week, I’ll carry him next week.” Smiling, I pressed him into her hand. 

Hand closing around our incredible, handsome, daring and brilliant bodyguard, Tabbris gave me a solemn nod. Her voice was a very quiet, somewhat shaky whisper. “Thanks, Flick.” 

In response, I embraced her. “I love you, little sister. We’ll meet at lunch, okay?” 

Returning the hug as tightly as she could, Tabbris nodded against my shoulder. “Uh huh,” she murmured before adding a quiet. “I love you too, Flick.” 

We separated, just in time for the elevator we were waiting on to arrive. And it wasn’t empty. The forcefield lowered, revealing two people whose ears were probably burning right then. It was Richton and Meley. Plus, Kisea and Demeas were with them. The four young Seosten blurted both our names, before Meley sprang over to embrace Tabbris with a happy meep. 

“That’s funny,” I teased the others, “I didn’t know you guys had your classes down here.” 

Demeas, who somehow looked even more like a miniature viking than he had before (despite being too young to have a beard) by apparently putting on a little more muscle over the past few months, shook his head quickly while retorting, “We came to bring Tabbris to class!” 

“And what class is that?” I asked while giving the boy a look up and down, “How to train a dragon?” 

The red-haired boy’s eyes widened dramatically as he blurted, “You know how to train dragons?!” That, of course, got the attention of the others, as well as some people passing by to use the elevators. 

Feeling a slight flush touch my face before using my power to shift it away self-consciously, I corrected, “No, no, it was just a joke. I was referencing a–never mind. We’ll show you the movies later. Shouldn’t be that hard now that we’re on Earth. Or, well, close enough.” Clearing my throat, I gestured. “You all set then, Tabs?” 

She gave me a brief, hesitant look before nodding. “See you at lunch?” Her voice was hopeful. 

“Definitely at lunch, partner.” Giving her a thumbs up, I waved them off. “Go on, have some fun, learn things, do whatever you’re supposed to. I’ll muddle through school all by myself.” 

That, of course, was the cue for Jaq and Gus to each crawl up out of my backpack. They perched on either of my shoulders, shooting me betrayed looks. 

“Ah, hey boys.” Reaching up carefully with either hand to rub their heads, I pointed out, “I know you’re here, but you can’t cheat and give me the test answers inside my head.” 

Indignantly, Tabbris blurted, “I never did that!” 

“And see where we are now?” I primly retorted before winking. “Go on. We’ll be fine. You and Herbie go show everyone else how awesome you are.” 

With a still-hesitant but somewhat better wave, Tabbris set off back up the elevator with the others. I stood there, waving up at them for a few long seconds before pausing with my arm up. Head tilting, I squinted after the departing elevator. “Wait, shit, I’ve gotta use the elevator too. What the hell am I doing?” 

“Chambers,” Avalon’s voice called, “why are you waving at the elevator?” 

Turning, I looked over as she, Doug, Aylen, and that Ruckus guy (the Alter who looked like several metal slinkies all stuck together, with eyes that were glowing red orbs poking out of the head slinky) approached. “Oh, sure,” I sniffed, “I’m Flick when we’re being all friendly and stuff, but Chambers when I look ridiculous.” 

“I’m glad we’re on the same page,” she replied coolly, though she was unable to stop the slight smile that quirked her lips upward for a moment while trying to keep her voice flat.

One who didn’t make the slightest attempt to keep his voice flat was Ruckus, who basically launched himself my way. He didn’t literally crash into me, thankfully. He just bounced forward, practically flying into the air from his slinky-like feet and legs (which apparently acted like springs), traveling the fifteen feet or so that separated us in an instant before landing in front of me. The metal coils that were his arms popped up, some kind of metal fingers that amounted to smaller, tightly wound springs extending to take my hand with both of his. He was shaking it up and down rapidly. When he spoke, it all came out in a rush. It was like every sentence came as one word, with breath pauses only between those sentences. “Ohmygoshohmygoshohmygosh! It’ssogoodtomeetyou! Iknowhoyouare! You’reJoselynAtherby’sdaughteroroneofthem! That’sawesomemydadusedtobepartoftherebellion! NowheisagainIguessandIgettocomehere!” 

Stepping up beside him, Doug put a hand on the coil-boy’s shoulder. Or what there was of one. “Easy, Ruckus. Remember what we said? Slow it down a little bit.” 

“It’s okay,” I assured them, looking back to Ruckus. “Your dad was part of the old rebellion?” 

His head bobbed up and down very fast, creating the sound of metal coils rapidly clanking against each other before he added a quick, “Heremembersyourmomnowandwantedmetosayhehopesyoufindher.” 

Swallowing, I offered him a little nod. “I hope we find her too. Tell your dad thanks, and I’m glad he made it back. Does that mean Alters are remembering the rebellion too?” The spell from Gaia hadn’t specifically targeted them. Targeting Heretics through the Edge had been hard enough. 

It was Aylen who answered. “When the Rebellion eraser spell was broken for the Heretics, it damaged it enough for everyone else that it’s been fading for months.” 

“I guess that makes sense,” I murmured. “Asenath and Twister started remembering things right after they interacted with me. So it must’ve been kind of flimsy that way.” 

The elevator arrived, and we stepped on to head up for breakfast. On the way, Sovereign, from his spot on Aylen’s shoulder, made a soft, pointed noise. 

“Oh yeah,” the half-Reaper girl started, “I got word from my mothers. They’re finally on their way back from whatever they were doing. They should be home in a couple days. So if you guys are ready to meet them…” 

“Ready?” I echoed, raising an eyebrow toward her. “Of course we’re ready to meet your family.” 

She met my gaze while the elevator reached the top of its ascent. “No, you’re really not,” the girl informed me. 

“But it should be fun anyway.” 

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Interlude 6A – Raindrop (Summus Proelium)

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It was almost two o’clock in the morning when a small, clearly very young girl in a hooded windbreaker walked through an alley beside a fast food joint. Izzy Amor, publically known as Raindrop, was practically dead on her feet. She was so tired by that point that she could barely keep her eyes open as she all-but stumbled down the alley. She had just spent the past several hours helping to clear up the fires at the hospital, and then hanging around while the bomb squad people made sure there were no more explosives that might go off. There weren’t, but the bomb guys had to be really thorough, which meant Izzy and the others sat around for hours.

Now that it was all over, Izzy was pretty sure she wouldn’t be able to even summon a little rain cloud in her hand. Just the idea of using her power any time soon made the twelve-year old feel kind of nauseous. All she wanted to do was get home, fall into bed, and sleep for a whole day. 

Reaching the end of the alley, the girl stepped out onto the sidewalk and looked both ways. There was no sign of anyone, aside from a sedan at the end of the street going the other way. Taking the phone from her pocket, she checked the messages. The most recent conversation showed the short, clearly terse, ‘Coming’. It was sent fifteen minutes earlier. Home was a ten minute drive away, so counting time to get dressed, her ride would be here any minute. 

A smile touched the girl’s face at the thought of getting home. She might take a shower before crashing, just to get the smell of smoke and stuff off. But mostly, just sleeping sounded great. 

With a yawn, she put her back against the wall of the nearby building and watched the corner her ride would be coming from. Headlights appeared, and she perked up. But they belonged to a jeep that drove straight past. After another minute, the girl yawned and slowly sank down to sit against the wall. Her eyes glanced briefly to the phone to make sure there wasn’t another message, before returning to watch the nearby intersection. Any minute now. Any minute. 

The sudden blaring of a horn along with a nearby light snapped Izzy awake. She jerked up right from where she had slumped over, staring with wide eyes until her gaze centered on the van waiting in front of her with the door open. The driver, her mother, hit the horn again and made an impatient gesture while shouting, “Stop wasting time and get in! Some of us have to work!”

Scrambling to her feet, Izzy took a brief second to glance at the phone in her hand. Forty-five minutes had passed since she sat down, an hour since her mother had said she was on her way. Quickly, she shoved the phone in her pocket and moved over to climb into the van. Before she had the door shut, they were moving, pulling away from the curb with a squeal of tires. 

Mariana Amor wore a jacket over her nightgown, grumbling to herself as they blew through a red light. “This is garbage, you understand? Garbage. These people have you out at all hours and they can’t even bring you home afterward? It’s disrespectful. Completely disrespectful. You know why they do it? Because they don’t respect you. They think they can walk all over you, walk all over us. It’s what they do. They use you for your power and they will throw you away as soon as you’re not useful enough. You know that? You tell me you know that, Isidora.”

“But Madre,” Izzy protested a bit weakly, “they’re still busy making sure everyone’s safe at the hotel and the hospital. They’re gonna be busy all night, but they said it was okay for me to leave because I was tired. And they said I could wait for a ride, but your message said that you were on the way, so I said they didn’t have to do anything. I thought you’d be here soon.”   

Her mother gave the girl a sharp look. “Don’t you put it back on me, niñita. I told you, I have to work in the morning. You know, that thing that puts real food on the table for both of us? Besides, I was a little tired when you called and I didn’t want to have an accident falling asleep at the wheel. You don’t want your mother to have an accident and die, do you?” 

“No, Madre,” Izzy murmured quietly, shaking her head. She turned a bit to look out at the passing buildings as they drove, not wanting to rile her mother up any more than she was. 

It didn’t really work. For the next seven minutes, Izzy sat in silence and listened as her mother ranted about how disrespectful the people behind the Minority were, how they treated her like a disposable asset, how they didn’t care what happened to her or what kind of trouble they put her family through as long as they had access to her power. And so on and so on. Occasionally, she would tell Izzy to agree with her to make sure the girl was listening, but mostly she just went on.

Finally, they parked in the covered parking lot next to their condominium and headed up the stairs. Izzy trudged along, yawning once more as they reached the front door. Her mother fumbled with the keys in the dim light from the nearby porch lamp, still cursing under her breath about how late it was and how little sleep she was going to end up getting before work. 

Eventually, her mother found the right key and unlocked the door. Izzy stepped through, unzipping her jacket while visions of her warm, comfy bed danced through her mind. Maybe the shower would wait until morning, because at this rate, she’d fall asleep in there and that would–

“Oh good, you’re finally home.” The sudden words interrupted Izzy’s thoughts, and she blinked up to see a strange man standing in the doorway to the kitchen. He wore one of those old bird-like plague doctor masks, along with a dark red apron over a black bodysuit. 

The sight of the man suddenly made Izzy forget all about being tired. Her hands snapped up, a ball of water forming between them before she even thought about the fact that she was giving away that she had powers. None of that mattered, except for protecting herself and her mother. 

Unfortunately, the ball of water had barely formed between her hands before a sudden, intense pain exploded in the back of the girl’s head. Izzy collapsed to the floor, sprawling out as her vision wavered in and out. Black spots had appeared, and she blearily looked up to see her mother standing there with a heavy, now-cracked figurine in one hand. “Sorry, baby,” she started while Izzy’s vision swam and began to fade. It took another second for consciousness to completely flee, enough time to leave her with her mother’s words echoing through her head.
“But this whole thing just isn’t working out anymore.” 

*******

With a sudden start, Izzy snapped awake. She tried to sit up as her eyes opened, only to find that neither helped. From what the girl could tell, she was tied to a chair, with a blindfold on. Some kind of heavy plastic ball was in her mouth, stopping her from saying anything. She did, however, make a noise of confusion, shifting in the chair while jerking a bit against the bonds. 

“Ah,” a man’s voice spoke, “she’s awake. Let’s see then…” There were fingers against her head, and she flinched at the rush of pain that shot through it from the blow she’d taken to the head. A blow from… from… her own mother? But why? Why would her mother hit her like that?

The blindfold came off, and Izzy found herself staring into that plague doctor mask, as the man studied her from behind the mirrored lenses in the eyes, leaving the girl staring at her own reflection when she tried to meet his gaze. She saw herself, bound to a heavy metal chair in her own kitchen, ball gag in her mouth. Her eyes were wild and looked almost crazed, leaving her even more stunned at the sight of it than she had already been. 

“There, see?” That was her mother’s voice, speaking up from the doorway. As Izzy’s eyes snapped that way, she saw the woman come into view. “The kid’s just fine. You can do your… whatever you’re going to do, after I get paid. So come on then, give it over before I change my mind about this whole thing and find someone who might offer a little bit more.” 

Instead of responding to her, the plague doctor looked at Izzy, head tilting a little. “You look confused, dear,” he murmured. “Let me spell it out for you. My name is Handler. I work for the man you know as Cuélebre. Your mother sold you to him, and I’m here to get you ready. That’s why it took time for her to come pick you up. We were… coming to a final arrangement.” 

Staring in shock and confusion, the words echoing through her head as she stared at her mother, Izzy shouted into the gag, her words swallowed up by it. At the same time, she jerked in the chair, a ball of water forming in front of her. But the instant it did, the man called Handler put a finger against her hand, and Izzy’s muffled words turned to a scream of agony. Pain, the likes of which she’d never known, exploded throughout her entire young body as the water fell apart.

“Hey!” her mother blurted, “I told you, not until you pay me. Money, you cheap bastard.” 

“In a moment,” the man assured her before turning his attention back to Izzy. “We have to make sure we all understand each other. So go ahead,” he urged, stepping away from the girl once her muffled scream had faded, hands up to show he wasn’t going to stop her. “Try that again.” 

The ball of water had barely begun to form that time before the shock of agony was back, bringing a renewed scream to the gagged young girl while her mother simply looked away. 

“I touch you,” the man informed her, “and mark a certain action as wrong. Actions such as using your power. Or raising your voice. Or disobeying an order from certain people. You do the action, you get punished. For now, the punishment my touch instills will only last for a few minutes. But with enough training and repeated sessions, anything you ever do that is against what Cuélebre requires or allows will bring that same pain for weeks, months, years at a time without needing to be refreshed. Eventually, I won’t need to renew it at all. And by then, you won’t need the pain anyway. You’ll simply do as you are told. Now then, remember that I have instilled a punishment for raising your voice. So no shouting. Let’s see if we’re on the same page.” He reached out, carefully unlatching the ball gag before pulling it away from her mouth. 

“M-Madre!” Izzy blurted, tears suddenly flooding her eyes. “Madre, it’s not true! Say it’s a trick! No, you wouldn’t do this! You can’t do this!” All thought of being tired had fled the girl, replaced by a feeling of loss and betrayal the likes of which she might never actually understand. 

Her mother spared a glance for her, pausing before stepping over. “Look, Izzy, it’s nothing personal. I just… I never wanted to be a mother. I never wanted to be a normal mother, let alone one for a… a superhero. I didn’t want it. I still don’t. I’m not… I’m not strong like you are, Izzy. Whatever happens, I know you can handle it. Yes, they’ll hurt you. But you’re a big girl. You’re a strong girl. You’ll be okay. And me… I… I’ll start a new life somewhere else. You’ll get over it.”

She’d… she’d get over it? Her mother had… her mother had sold her identity and her to a monster who wanted to torture her into obedience and she would just… get over it? Izzy stared, mouth open as tears continued to fall silently. She could find no words, could find no thought. Her mother… her mother didn’t care about her. She sold her. She was… she was going to leave her in this man’s hands so he could do… do whatever he wanted. Why? Why? Her body trembled, shaking against the bonds that held her to the heavy metal chair. Her voice was weak, marked by fear and confusion that made her ashamed of herself. “Madre… Mama, please…” 

“Don’t,” her mother snapped. “Don’t start that. I just–I can’t handle you. I don’t deserve to have to deal with any of this. I told you, I didn’t ask to be a mother, especially after your father left. I’m not cut out for it and you–you’re worth more like this. Do what the man says and you’ll be fine.” With that, she turned to Handler, voice snapping, “You have her and she’s secure. Money, now.” 

A new ball of water formed, reflexively summoned by the sobbing, pleading girl. It popped, as a renewed scream of agony exploded from her mouth. She’d barely gotten the first sound out before the gag was unceremoniously shoved back in. With it secure, muffling yet another scream as she struggled to use her power, Handler turned his back to the girl, apparently dismissing her from his mind as he produced a cell phone and extended it to her mother. 

“As agreed, five hundred thousand dollars for one moldable, powerful young Touched. As you can see, it’s been sent to the offshore account you specified. Are you satisfied?” 

The look of eager greed on her mother’s face as she stared at the phone screen made Izzy stop pleading and struggling against the gag. It was that, more than the woman’s cold words or the entire situation, which convinced her of just how real this was. Her mother didn’t care about her. She was selling her to be tortured and running away with the money. There was no sense in begging, no sense in pleading with her mother to change her mind, because she wouldn’t. Her mother wasn’t just okay with her being sold to Cuélebre, she was eager to leave with her money. There was no guilt in her face, nothing to indicate that she cared at all. 

Begging was useless. Being scared, sad, none of it would help. So Izzy stopped doing any of that. 

And started getting angry. 

Both her mother and the ‘Handler’ man had turned away from her. They were talking to each other while walking out of the kitchen. Izzy could hear them moving to the front door, her mother saying something about getting the money out of town before anyone found out what she’d done. Through it all, listening to her voice, she felt that… anger… that sense of betrayal. And with it came agony beyond anything she had ever thought possible, pain she couldn’t hope to describe. It suffused her entire being, her body arching up against the bonds as her dull, horrific scream of anguish, muffled only by the heavy gag, gradually filled the room.

The front door closed, and those footsteps steadily returned, as Handler came back. “Now then,” the man was already saying, “we’ll start your real training back at a more private place, but… we…” He trailed off, head tilting upward toward the rapid, steady thrum of water against the roof of the condo. “Is it raining? I–” His gaze dropped, staring at the bound young girl. She was pale, face stricken by the torture of what she was putting herself through. Sweat soaked through every pore, eyes tightly closed while she gave a low, tormented sob of misery.

Then her eyes opened, staring at the man while the rain hammering against the condo suddenly grew louder. It sounded like a deluge of water had suddenly opened up. It hammered the windows, the rain coming down so hard and fast that the entire building literally shook under the force of it. 

“Oh,” Handler managed to get out, “shi–” 

That was as far as he got, before Izzy arched her back, bonds barely holding her to the chair. The gag did almost nothing to muffle her deafening scream, as the condo literally ripped its way out of the ground. Her other power, the one that allowed her to control gravity on anything that was wet, tore the building up into the air. They went up a good ten feet or so before the building tipped over entirely. Handler’s words turned to a surprised shout, as the lights faded, plunging the condo into darkness. Cabinets had flown open, furniture, dishes, and more flying through the rooms. The last sight Handler had of the girl, she had directed water onto herself before flying, chair and all, through an open window just before the entire building slammed upside down into the ground. 

The wreckage of the condo littered the street, looking like a small, personal tornado had lifted it up, torn it apart, and thrown it back down again. Izzy found herself staring at it from where her power had dropped her when she could no longer handle any more pain. The drop had been enough to bend the chair somewhat, so she could slip her way free. Now, she stood, staring at the wreckage while tears fell freely from her face. Tears that would not slow, or fade, for a long time.

Some of the rubble shifted a bit, and she saw Handler pushing himself out of it while lights on the front porches of nearby houses turned on. People were starting to come out, even as the masked man climbed up. He was joined almost immediately by several other Oscuro soldiers who came running from the nearby car where they had obviously been waiting to transport her. 

Her mother’s van was already gone. 

The Oscuro people were looking around for her, weapons raised. They hadn’t spotted Izzy from where she was crouched by a fence a couple houses down. But they would soon. And she still couldn’t use her power without more pain. It had nearly killed her to do what she did. 

She couldn’t fight them. Not like this. Not physically, and not emotionally. So, the twelve-year old did the only thing she could in that moment. 

She turned and ran away.

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Interlude 1 – Marina Dupont (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Marina, Marina!” The voice calling out belonged to a young girl, frantic as she came flying around the corner. Literally flying, as the girl was clearly not human. She was one of the bird-like Lavinsi, complete with dark red feathers all over her body, wings, and a beak. Coming around the corner of the hallway in the museum, she nearly crashed into the subject of her frantic calls, barely managing to halt herself at the last instant thanks to the incredible aerial agility inherent to her people. She jerked backward in the air barely a few inches from crashing into the older girl, before hovering there. Her wing-arms were still and motionless, mostly used for steering through the Lavinsi’s maneuvers in the air rather than for any actual thrust.  

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” the young bird-girl hurriedly cried out while hovering there. “I just didn’t want you to go without me because I really wanted to go on this trip and I didn’t mean to sleep in but I was really tired and needed a nap and I tried to set my alarm but it’s really confusing and I guess I set it for AM instead of PM but I’m ready now I’m really ready.” 

With a small giggle, Marina Dupont held her hands up. “Baidy, wait, here, hands.” 

The wings folded in and extended that way, as Baidy (her real name was Baiden) took Marina’s offered hands, breathing hard from her desperate flight down the hall. Marina held her wing-hands and the two of them breathed in and out together a few times, a trick that the older girl had learned to help the often overly-excited Lavinsi girl calm down so she could speak. 

“I… I didn’t want to be left behind,” she finally managed, while slowly dropping from her hovering position to land on the floor. “I’m sorry I had to take a nap and slept in, but I really would like to go on this trip, please.” It was clearly taking everything she had not to rush through her words, forcing herself to stay calm. Even then, her feathers (those that were visible around her museum souvenir tee shirt with the pterodactyl on it and her loose sweatpants) seemed to vibrate with energy. 

With a smile, Marina assured the girl, “Don’t worry, we weren’t going to leave you behind. Your uncle said you’d be here so I was waiting for you. See?” She turned, indicating the glowing blue circle on the nearby wall. “Portal’s still here. Just waiting for one more little bird girl.” 

“Uncle Quing?” Baidy gasped. The older Lavinsi wasn’t really her uncle. They had no actual relation, as far as Marina knew. But he had essentially adopted the young girl a month earlier when she had been rescued from a group of slavers. Baiden had originally been the sole survivor of her nest, which had been wiped out a couple years earlier. She had been bounced around through several stages of imprisonment before Wonderland’s current Tie-Breaker, Jeanne d’Arc, had rescued her and many others. Some had gone back to their own lives, others went to the Atherby rebellion. But Baidy had stayed here at Wonderland with her new adopted ‘uncle.’ 

In a hushed tone, the Lavinsi girl whispered, “I thought Uncle Quing was busy at work.” 

“Pshhh,” Marina retorted, “Too busy to make sure you got to go on this field trip? Fat chance. I’m pretty sure he’d lock us out for good if we left without you.” She reached out, gently pushing the errant feathers from the top of the girl’s head before turning to gesture. “Come on, the others are already there. You don’t want them to get all the balls.” With a wink, she added, “Then you’d have to play with one of the balloons, and do you know how hard it is to knock pins down with one of those?” 

Baidy giggled musically. “Nuh uh, they wouldn’t make me use a balloon! You’re silly!”

“Oh, sure they would,” Marina teased. “And the ones who argue about it? They get the helium balloons.” She mimed throwing one of those, then watching as it would simply fly up. 

With a loud burst of laughter, the young winged girl flew away from Marina, passing straight through the portal. Marina watched her go, smiled a little to herself, and then followed her. 

She had officially left Crossroads (taking all the children she could so that they couldn’t be used as hostages or pawns by the warring adults) several months earlier. That had been on May twentieth. It was now September tenth. In ten more days, it would be four months. Four months since she had abandoned everything she knew and had become… quite possibly one of the most hated traitors out of a very large group of traitors. Because she hadn’t just left. She took children with her. Not as hostages, but so that they couldn’t be used as hostages. She’d seen and heard messages from those who said that everything that happened in this war would be her fault, because she had prevented Crossroads from forcing the traitors to surrender for their children. And she’d also heard the same for the opposite reason, that her refusal to give all the children to the rebelling Heretics would make the war go on much longer than it needed to, and that the blood of every innocent Alter who was killed by the zealous fanatics was on her hands for not giving the Rebellion that leverage. Though, of course, there were plenty on both sides who were just happy to get their children back. The hateful ones were few, but vocal. 

For weeks, Marina had carefully sent the children back to their homes. Some were easy. The ones who had both parents on the same side (or only one surviving/viable parent) simply involved setting up a safe handoff point. Then there were the ones who had one parent on the rebellion and one on the loyalist side. Those were trickier. Especially given everything Marina knew now. She believed the rebellion. How could she not? She had been living at Wonderland, she saw the Alters just trying to live their lives and survive. Of course she believed the Rebellion. But was it fair to simply always hand the child over to the rebel parent then? 

It was a hard question, that was for sure. Marina had been kept up night after night worrying about what the right thing to do was. In the end, she had simply taken it on a case-by-case basis. She spoke to each child about their parents, talked to them about who they might want to go back to, and researched both parents as well as she could, including talking to them over untraceable phones and e-mail about who should take their child. In some cases, she had urged them to pick a relative or friend who could take care of the kid in question, someone that might not be so directly involved in the fighting. In others, there had been a clear choice of who was better. And in a few, it had come down to simply letting the child decide who to go to. 

And then… there were the ones who didn’t want to leave. Those were, in many ways, the hardest. These children had suddenly been introduced to a bunch of people they really liked here in Wonderland. They, particularly the ones intended to go back to Crossroads, didn’t want to be sent there. They knew that what they were going to learn was wrong, even if both their parents, or the only viable one, believed in the propaganda. They didn’t want to be taught about how evil their new friends were. And all Marina could offer most of them was the suggestion that they simply listen without believing it, that they keep their heads down, and maybe try to talk to their parents if they thought it might help. But even that, she wasn’t sure was a good idea. 

That’s what she did with the children eleven and younger. The ones over twelve were different. Even if their only guardians were at Crossroads, Marina let them decide for themselves if they wanted to go back. She let them decide if they wanted to stay here at Wonderland. 

That was probably the worst thing she had done, in the minds of many. Marina had simply allowed any child twelve and over to choose where to stay, even if it was against the wishes of their parents. It was definitely the hardest thing to decide. A big part of her thought she should simply send them back home regardless. That was the obvious ‘right’ choice, wasn’t it? They were children, they couldn’t decide for themselves. 

But in this case, what Crossroads was teaching was wrong. She knew that. After spending first weeks and now months among the supposedly ‘always evil’ Alters, she knew for certain that they were wrong. They were teaching genocide. So no, in this particular case, allowing those twelve and up to choose for themselves was, in her mind, the right thing. They were old enough to make their own choices in that regard. At least… she believed they were. 

Shaking all that off, Marina gathered herself before stepping through the portal. There was a brief twisting sensation in her stomach, but nothing too bad. Then she was standing in the back of a parking lot, surrounded by Baidy and a couple dozen other children. Some were the children she had taken from Crossroads, who had either chosen to stay, had no viable parents to go back to (that was another possible situation, children whose parents were either injured or dead and who had been taken care of by Crossroads itself), or whose Rebellion-aligned parents asked for them to stay at Wonderland where they would be safer than the middle of a war. Others were Alters, or even the children of Natural Heretics who were aligned with Wonderland. 

It was quite an eclectic group, that was for sure. And all of them immediately began clamoring for Marina’s attention for various reasons. Some asked if they could go in now, others needed to use the bathroom, or were hungry, or thirsty. Most were just overly excited about being out. 

Marina looked over their heads toward the other couple older chaperones for this trip. They were a werebear boy in his early twenties named Diles, and a female Akheilosan (the pale humanoids with shark-like teeth with the power to tame predators) named Sesh. The two of them were chuckling with amusement while watching Marina being bombarded by excited children. Diles, Marina, and Sesh weren’t the only protection here for this group, of course. It was entirely too dangerous to take a bunch of kids out for even a simple field trip for a couple hours, given certain enthusiastic Heretics from both Crossroads and Eden’s Garden. These three were simply the direct chaperones. There were others scattered around the entire block surrounding the bowling alley that was their destination for tonight’s activity, using magic to keep weaker and more moderately strong Heretics away, while keeping a sharp eye out for those who were too powerful to be affected that way. There were several emergency escape plans in case everything went wrong, including prepared vehicles if magic was cut off. 

All this, just to take a few kids on a bowling trip so they could have some fun for an evening. If Marina hadn’t already been convinced that Crossroads was wrong, that would have done it. 

“Okay guys, okay, hold on. Remember, what’s the rule about going into other places?” As she spoke, Marina adopted what she called her ‘big sister’ tone, firm without being dangerous. Some of these kids were scared enough of Heretics. She couldn’t make it worse for them. 

A chorus of answers came with, “Don’t make a big mess!” 

“That’s right, don’t make a big mess. We have to be nice so they don’t make us leave.” With a little smile, Marina gestured. “Okay, let’s go. Double lines, right up to the doors. No pushing, no shoving. Everyone’s gonna get a chance to play! Follow Diles.”

The werebear boy went first, leading the children up to the bowling alley doors and making them head through two at a time. He would make sure they all got shoes and balls, and that they were divided into teams for each lane. Marina and Sesh, meanwhile, brought up the rear to ensure everyone made it inside and that there weren’t any stragglers. The Bystander Effect, of course, would make sure that they were seen as normal human children by everyone inside. 

Just as the last kid filed inside (the sound of excited babbling about who got to be on what team and what ball they would use filtered out through the open doors), Marina started to go before stopping as the shark-toothed girl beside her blurted, “Sept Stav!” 

Sure enough, when Marina turned around, she saw one of the Wonderland leaders walking across the lot toward them. Stav was a Granakin, a rock-like humanoid with long silvery hair that glittered in the parking lot lights. 

“Good evening, Sept Stav, I hope the Earth has found you well,” Sesh promptly greeted, head bowing a bit before she gave a bright smile that showed all her many, many teeth. Despite her dangerous appearance, Marina had never met a bigger geek than Sesh. She played video games, hosted literal tabletop RPG’s for some of the others, and spent hours a day scouring the internet for news about her favorite shows and games. She had a collection of manga and anime bigger than Marina had ever seen before. 

She was also, as Marina understood, the daughter of Fahsteth, the mercenary who had tried to kill Avalon Sinclaire as a child. Sesh despised her father with every fiber of her being, while he had repeatedly tried to recruit her over to his ‘family business.’ According to the Akheilosan girl, the last time she saw her father, he was attempting to convince her that hunting was in her blood and that she would never escape being the same kind of person that he was. 

It had been Stav who took her away from that life, who managed to beat her father into retreating so that Sesh could live her own life. And the girl basically idolized him for that. Which was something that Marina could hardly blame her for, given everything she’d heard about Fahsteth. 

With a smile of his own, the rock-man returned Sesh’s bow. “Good evening, small toothed one,” he murmured, a nickname he’d apparently given her since she was much younger. “Would you mind if I speak with Marina here for a moment?” 

“Oh, of course not, sir,” Sesh quickly replied. “Will you be joining us afterward?” There was very clear hope in her voice. Stav was an adopted father figure to the girl. One much better for her than the one related to her by blood. 

“As though I could say no to such an invitation,” the man replied with a low chuckle. “Yes, we will both join you all inside shortly, I promise.” 

As the two of them were left out in front of the building, Marina gave a slight bow of her own. Like the other girl, she greeted him with, “Good evening, Sept Stav. I hope the Earth has found you well.” It was the customary words of his people, she had learned over these months. Though one replaced ‘Earth’ with whatever planet they happened to be standing on. 

“I hope you are well also, Marina Dupont,” the rock man graciously replied. “And I hope you do not mind that I am pulling you from your charges for a moment. This should not take long. I simply wished to ask… if you have given any thought toward attending the new school that the Rebellion has just opened. I hear they are still accepting latecomers, if you are interested.” 

Taken just a little aback by his question, Marina opened and shut her mouth. “I… um. I’m sorry if I’ve overstayed my welcome at Wonderland, honorable Sept.” 

She started to go on, but he raised a hand, head shaking. “No, no, not at all. I’m afraid you misunderstand. We’re simply… “ Stav paused as though considering his words. “It is time for Wonderland to move again. We have our new location chosen. But before we do, those who are intending to stay as residents need to be added to our magic that allows them to find and reach our new location. We simply needed to know if you intend to stay or go to this other school, for planning purposes. And… if I might speak personally for a moment?” 

Realizing the man was genuinely asking permission, Marina hurriedly nodded for him to go on. 

“I truly hope you stay,” Stav informed her. “You have been very good with these children, both those you brought along, and those who were already here. You are a wonder with these children, Marina Dupont. And as we say, wonders belong at Wonderland. Your leaving would be a great loss for us. Yet, you could also do quite well at this new school. You deserve to attend to your own education.” 

Marina only hesitated for a moment before straightening. “I want to stay here,” she replied. “I believe… I believe in what they’re doing at the rebellion. I do. After the months I’ve spent at Wonderlands with you guys, I… how could I not? But the kids here need me. And I need them. This is what I’m good at. If you don’t mind, sir, this is where I want to be.” 

The rock-man offered her a smile. “I am glad to hear that, Marina Dupont. We will make it official, in that case. You will be added to the spell protecting Wonderland, and will be one of its defenders in times of crisis.” Extending a large hand to her, he waited until she accepted with her own before shaking it gently. “Now then, with that business out of the way, let us go in and bowl, shall we? I will need you to remain close as an impartial witness, of course. Sept Calvin and I have a bet, and I intend to break his high score.” 

Holding the door for the large man, Marina gestured for him to go ahead. Left alone in the lot, she looked around briefly before starting to follow him in. There were two sets of doors to enter the bowling alley, with a vestibule between them. As she began to cross the space between the two sets of doors (there was just enough space for a couple vending machines and one of those coin-operated riding horse things for little kids), Marina’s attention was drawn down toward the floor at the sound of a squeak. A mouse, small, brown, and plain, sat there right in front of the doors. Wait, no, two mice. The second one came into view a moment later, both of them looking up at Marina curiously. 

“Uh.” The willowy girl blinked at the mice. “Are you guys–” Before she could get further than that, a squeak from behind her drew Marina’s attention that way. In the back corner was another small rodent, this one a chipmunk. She’d barely noticed it, before the tiny creature abruptly slammed its head sideways into the bit of metal that stuck out from the doorjamb. As Marina yelped in surprise and took a reflexive step back, the chipmunk fell dead, while a glowing figure popped up out of it. A glowing figure that quickly resolved into… a little girl. She couldn’t have been older than ten years old, with black hair framing light skin, and eyes that were so pale they were almost white. She wore urban camo pants and a large white hoodie.

“Hi!” the girl blurted to the suddenly baffled Marina. “Sorrywedidn’tmeantoscareyousometimeswedocuzit’sagoodwayoftestingpeoplebutthistime–” 

“December.” The new voice came from behind Marina yet again, and she spun with a hand down toward the handle of her hidden corseque in time to see that the two mice were now dead, and had been replaced by a couple more figures. The one who had spoken looked like a fifteen-year-old red-haired girl who wore a schoolgirl uniform. “We’re scaring her anyway, slow down.” 

The third figure was an Asian girl who looked to be about seventeen or eighteen, with short black hair and army fatigues, folded her arms while looking to Marina. “Do yourself a favor and don’t pull that weapon out. We didn’t come to fight, or to hurt anyone. Why do you think we waited until you were out in the real world instead of coming to find you in Wonderland, Marina?” 

Eyes widening even more, the former Crossroads student frowned, taking a step back to put all three of them in her field of view. She didn’t draw her corseque just yet, but she didn’t move her hand away from the handle either. “You know my name? You–wait, I know what you are. You’re Seosten. I know what–” 

The little girl, December, launched into another flood of words that were hard-to-impossible to follow. “Listenwereallydon’thavealotoftimetoexplainthisbeforeyourpeopleinsidestopbeingsodistractedandthingsgetawkwardsowe–” 

Her mouth was covered by the red-haired girl. “She’s right, we don’t have a lot of time before things could get a lot more awkward. We don’t want to fight, we don’t want to hurt anyone. We just want you to pass a request to the people in that new school that your friend the Sept was just talking about. I’m April, this is December, and that’s May.” She indicated the Asian girl last. 

“We know you have friends still in that place,” May herself informed her. “Friends in high places. You’ve got contacts, and you can get a message to them.” 

Biting her lip, Marina let her gaze pass over each of them, trying to figure out if they were serious about not wanting to fight. “Are… what kind of message? If you’re trying to threaten them, I don’t think–” 

December managed to squirm free, words blurting from her once more. This time, however, it was clear she was making an effort to slow herself down to be at least somewhat understandable. “Notathreat. It’s notathreat. Our boss is supposed toplaynicewhile the truceison.” 

“Yes,” April confirmed. “There’s a truce for the rest of the school year. Our boss has to play nice during it. Plus, even longer if the truce continues the way your side wants it to. And she’s really curious about this school. That’s why she sent us.” 

“We don’t want you to send a threat to them,” May explained. “We want you to send a request. A request to enroll the three of us in that school.” 

“We’regonnabestudentsisn’tthatawesome!?” 

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Alliances 6-09 (Summus Proelium)

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Run, run, run! I had to get back to the hotel before my family figured out I had been gone. They were going to be freaking out as it was, and if they realized I wasn’t anywhere in the hotel, the whole damn city would shut down. I’d never be able to explain it. I had to get in there and convince them that I hadn’t gone anywhere, before my whole situation got a hell of a lot worse than it already was. 

In a blind rush, I made it to the top of the hospital while the firefighters and Raindrop were still working. From there, I made it through the next roof over and went through a quick loop to reach the back side of the hotel. It was hard, considering everyone was on high alert. I could see people all over the grounds, cops and Touched alike. It was chaos down there. Police lights, both the red and blue flashing kind and the bright spotlight variety, were so prevalent they made the parking lot almost as bright as day. 

Somehow, perhaps by a miracle I’d earned for saving those kids or something, I made it back to the balcony of the hotel. There was a spotlight coming my way, so the second I was down, I dropped and flattened myself against the floor of the balcony while the light swept by just above my head.

Landing also reminded me of the pain in both my leg and wrist. I was pretty sure the wrist wasn’t actually broken or anything. Or even sprained. It was just bruised where Pencil had stepped on it. My leg, however, had that cut in it from Fork’s quill. And my parents would undoubtedly notice both. How was I going to explain those

Wait, I knew how. Scrambling to my feet, I painted myself green for speed and rushed through the bedroom of the suite just in time to hear someone shout my name muffledly. It was coming from out in the hotel corridor, and I could see the door handle jiggle a bit. My name was shouted again, and that time I recognized my father’s voice. It sounded like he was fumbling for the key. 

Still sped up, I stretched one hand out toward the dress I’d left on the floor and shot red paint at it. At the same time, I lunged for the nearby desk. As the dress was summoned to my red glove, my other hand yanked the drawer there open and found the fancy letter opener with the hotel’s name engraved on it. 

There was an affirmative beep from the door just then, as my dad managed to get the key card in. At the last second, I threw myself sideways into the connected bathroom and yanked the door shut, locking it. 

I was still sped up, but I had to change clothes. Looking down at my arms, I painted those green. Not the suit, my actual arms. With the added speed, I stripped out of the costume probably faster than anyone had ever change clothes in the history of the universe. I could hear the door opening out in the main room, my dad‘s voice louder and clearer then as he called for me. 

Ignoring it for the moment, I grabbed the dress and yanked it on haphazardly. It was rumpled and wrinkled to hell, but that was the least of my worries. 

The bathroom doorknob jiggled, then there was a loud bang against it as my father shouted my name once more. He sounded frantic, maybe even close to tears. 

But there was one more thing I had to do. Putting black paint over my chest to silence my yelp, I used the letter opener to stab into the dress and my leg right where the wound was. I tried to be careful, but it had to look right. Even if it did make me cry out (silently thanks to the paint) and stagger.  

Dad banged on the door again, sounding like he was about to knock it down. Marshaling myself, I started to say something. Then I caught myself and yanked the helmet and mask off. It would’ve been pretty bad if my voice was still changed. Saved from making that kind of fatal mistake, I made myself sound afraid. It wasn’t honestly that hard. “Wh-who’s there?” That gave me time to yank open the cupboard under the sink, shoving the costume in there. 

There was a brief pause, and I heard my dad take a shaky breath. “Sweetie, it’s Dad. It’s okay. You can come out.”

Checking myself in the mirror, I belatedly yanked the gloves off and stashed them under the sink as well. Then I smoothed the dress down as much as I could before hesitantly stepping over by the door. Slowly, I cracked it open, peeking out with the letter opener held tightly in one hand. When I saw my father standing there, I pulled it the rest of the way. 

He was on me immediately, picking me up from the floor while crushing me against his chest. My dad hugged me tightly, so much so that it was hard to breathe. He murmured my name a couple times, voice cracking a little bit in the process. 

“Dad,” I managed to get out a bit weakly, my exhaustion from everything that it happened, including my rush to get back here, helping me sound even more out of it and afraid. “What happened? There were men with guns and they were in the hallway so I hid. I’m sorry, I was just hiding and I didn’t do anything and my phone didn’t work and—”

“Shhh, shhhh, it’s okay.” Dad still held me crushed against his chest, shuddering a little bit as he held me. “You’re safe now. They are gone, it’s over. You’re safe. You’re safe.” It sounded as though he was talking to himself as much as to me. 

I started to say something else, but was interrupted by the sound of someone else coming into the room. It was my mother. She practically flew through the doorway, eyes wild until she spotted the two of us. My name fell from her trembling lips as she came our way. Dad set me down just in time for her to scoop me up, pulling me into a new tight hug. “You’re okay, you’re safe.” She too was clearly telling herself that as much as me. Then she looked down, giving a soft gasp. “You’re bleeding!” 

Dad had clearly just noticed that too, his eyes snapping to the letter opener in my hand. “What did–” 

Flinching, I stepped back, ducking my head as if I was embarrassed. “I… I saw those guys so I took the letter opener in case they came in. It was all I could think of. But I… when I went to hide in the bathroom, I slipped and… and fell. I guess I sort of… cut myself? I might’ve sprained my wrist a little too.” 

“Let me see.” Dad already had something in his hand. It was a safe-seal bandage, one of the professional variety, meaning it had medical gel on it that would prevent infection and help the wound heal faster. He took a knee, and I lifted the dress enough for him to carefully put the bandage on my leg. It looked like a large white patch, which sealed to the skin as soon as he pressed it firmly against the wound. I could immediately feel the very slight sting, followed by a soothing cool gel. The bandage would come off on its own sometime the next day, and would either need to be replaced by another or not, depending on how bad the wound was. 

“Th-thanks, Dad,” I managed. “But… but I think I ruined the dress too. I was hiding and laying on the floor after that and it’s all bloody from the stupid knife thing and I was all curled up and I know you’re not supposed to do that, but I was afraid. And I was trying to call somebody, but the phone didn’t work and I was—”

Head shaking quickly, Mom stepped over to pull me into another hug before looking down at me. “I do not care about the stupid dress.” Her hand moved to cup my cheek tenderly, tears in her eyes. “You are safe, Principessa. You are safe, that’s all I care about. You are safe. I was afraid that… I was afraid. You are okay. The men who came, they didn’t…”

“They didn’t see me,” I confirmed. “I saw them in the hallway, so I shut the door. But then I was afraid they’d come in, so I took the letter opener and hid in the bathroom. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t hear what was going on, I wasn’t… I mean…”

She shushed me again, pulling me into another hug with her trembling arms. “You are safe. That’s all that matters.”

Simon had made it to the room by then, hearing my explanation. He too came over to hug me, without even making any kind of smartass remark. He actually looked worried, his hug genuine and firm. “Lucky you,” he managed after a few seconds of that. “Missed all the excitement. Even if you did manage to hurt yourself anyway.” Okay, maybe he couldn’t avoid every smartass remark. It was probably genetic. 

“I… I don’t want anything more exciting than that,” I murmured before stepping back to smooth the wrinkled and bloody dress down. “But what happened? Who were those guys? They look like soldiers or something, but… not.”

Dad shook his head. “Definitely not soldiers. It was…” He and Mom exchanged brief looks, some kind of silent conversation going on between them before he continued. “It was the Scions. But it’s okay. They’re gone now. They’re all gone, I promise. We’re safe.”

“Th-the Scions?” I made my voice whimper weakly. “Are you sure they’re gone? What if they come back? What if they’re still around? What if—”

Mom quieted me with another embrace, promising that all the danger was gone and that there were police and Star-Touched all over the place. Dad took me by the hand and led me out to the balcony to look down, showing me all the cops down there while telling me all about the heroes who had shown up and were scouring every inch of the hotel. “The Scions aren’t stupid enough to stick around with all this here,” he murmured. “They’re gone by now, I promise. They’re gone.”

Somehow, I stopped myself from pointing out that there had been plenty of cops and Star-Touched around when Pencil first showed up with his fanatics. It didn’t feel like that would actually accomplish anything useful. 

Instead, managing a little nod, I turned a bit to look over at the hospital. The fire was out by then, but there were still fire trucks and police. Raising my hand, I pointed. “Oh my God, what happened over there? Are they okay? That’s the kids hospital. What happened?”

Dad assured me that things were handled over there too, that from what he heard, no kids had been killed. “The fire was contained to one floor that was already evacuated. It’s okay. It could’ve been a lot worse. A lot worse.” He repeated that in a quiet, somewhat shaky voice while putting both hands on my shoulders with a gentle squeeze. He was clearly still convincing himself I was really there and I hadn’t been hurt. 

“The Scions are monsters,” I murmured before turning to look at him with wide eyes. “What about Pencil? He had to be here too, right? Did they catch him?” I was still curious about how he had gotten off the roof of this place and all the way over to the hospital. 

Dad sighed. “They took down the one pretending to be Pencil. Or being forced to pretend.”

Blinking at that, my head tilted. “Forced to pretend?”

With a grimace, Dad explained. “Someone who looked like him was on the roof, someone with his costume. He was going on the way Pencil does. But when it all went down, someone tackled him and it turned out he was just some innocent civilian under that mask. He was gagged and had a speaker system rigged up under his suit so the real Pencil could talk through it. And a bomb collar to make sure he did what he was told. They just managed to disable the thing in time.”

Mom cursed in Italian quietly before adding, “He probably thought it would be amusing if someone took a shot at the man and ended up killing an innocent civilian.”

“They would have killed more than that,” Dad pointed out. “That collar was linked to his life signs too. If he died, he would’ve blown and taken off a good chunk of the roof in the process.”

“Sterling,” Mom chastised, “that is enough. We don’t need to scare her any further.” To me, she added, “The point is, they did not find the real Pencil.”

“Of course not,” Simon muttered from the doorway onto the balcony. “Why would they do something useful like that? They oughta grab that motherfucker, bury him in concrete, and drop the whole slab into the Marianas Trench. Just be done with it. Go be invulnerable thirty-five thousand feet below sea level, dickface.”

The fact that Mom didn’t reprimand his language said more to me about how shaken up she was about this whole thing than basically anything else could have. Instead, she stepped up behind him from within the room, looking to me. “Your father and I need to take care of a few things. Can you stay right here in this room and not go anywhere until we get back? Simon can stay with you, if you need someone.”

I started to respond to that, but there was a knock against the still open doorway out in the main hall. Tomas was there, raising a hand. “Uh, I could stay if she wants. Sorry, I was coming to check on Cassidy and… I guess I interrupted.”

“It’s okay,” I quickly put in. “I’ll stay with Tomas. We’ll  just stay here in the room. We won’t go anywhere, I promise. Trust me, I… I’m not really in the mood to go wander around. And I’d be limping anyway.” Considering everything I had just been through, it was an easy promise to make. I wasn’t interested in doing anything else for a long time. And at least this way it would be Tomas staying with me. I knew he didn’t have any kind of involvement with my family’s criminal empire. Unless they had some kind of London branch, which was just me being ridiculously paranoid. 

My parents exchanged looks once more before Mom stepped out to gently kiss my forehead. “The phones are working again,” she murmured, “so if you need anything, anything at all… just call one of us, okay?”

Once I promised to do so, she, Dad, and Simon headed out to do… whatever they were going to do. I was left standing there in front of Tomas, feeling awkward. 

“So,” the boy started hesitantly, “I guess this was all a stupid game for those guys. They were just trying to get money and stuff out of all the rich people here,  threatening those kids at the hospital for it. Pretty fucked up, huh?” 

“Fucked up?” I echoed before nodding as I stepped into the room and moved to sit down on the nearby couch. “Yeah, I’d say it was really fucked up. 

“Then again, that’s kind of the Scions in a nutshell.”

*****

Things were busy through the rest of the night and most of the next day. I stayed at home, making sure my parents understood I was safe and that, as far as they knew, I had never been in any direct danger. They insisted on checking the cut in my leg, and put a fresh safe-seal bandage on it after calling in the family doctor to make sure it wasn’t infected or anything. I held my breath through the examination, but she didn’t say anything out of the ordinary. The cut I’d made with the letter opener clearly covered up the puncture wound from the quill, so the pain had been worth it. And my wrist wasn’t actually sprained, though there was still some soreness to it. 

In the end, my family thought I had hidden in that bathroom and never saw anything more of the bad guys than their backs. If they’d had the slightest clue of just how close I’d come to being killed last night, regardless of the being Touched part, they probably would have locked me into my room and not let me leave until I was in my mid-twenties. 

As it was, I waited until evening when I knew they were at some kind of big meeting for all the rich and powerful players who had been there last night before I went anywhere. Once I finally felt safe getting out of that house for awhile, I changed clothes into my costume and made a beeline for Wren’s place. 

Reaching the parking lot in front of the bookstore, I saw Fred hosing down some kind of sedan. When he saw me, the man twisted the nozzle to shut down the water before speaking. “Hey, you okay? Lizard girl said you ran into that Scion shit down at the party last night.”

Nodding, I replied, “Yeah, I’m good. Thanks mostly to her. She’s pretty cool. You know, for a villain.”

“For a villain,” he echoed quietly, frowning for a moment before heaving a sigh as he looked to me. “Hey, listen. I just wanted to say that I’m sorry about before. Sorry for how I treated you and for helping that crazy asshole. I didn’t know what he was going to do with that stuff, but it’s not an excuse. I should’ve asked more questions, I shouldn’t have gotten involved. Shouldn’t have sold the kid’s stuff like that. It was wrong, and I was an asshole. So… yeah, I’m sorry.”

Blinking at that, I gave a short nod. “It’s okay. You’re working on fixing it. I’m pretty sure that’s what matters.”

“Hell yeah, we’re working on it,” he confirmed. “Speaking of which, the kid’s downstairs. You should go talk to her.”

So, I did, heading in and down. Reaching the lab, the first thing I saw was Pack. She was sitting over on the couch, legs held up to her chest in a pretty casual posture for someone in a costume. Her attention was focused solely on the phone in her hands. When I entered, she looked up and waved the phone at me. “Hey, you know what? Your friend That-A-Way is pretty cute. I see why you like playing hero with her around.”

Flushing under the helmet, I started to say that I hadn’t noticed, only to stop myself. Would a boy have noticed? Hmm. 

Shaking that off, I decided to change the subject by asking, “Is Holiday okay then?”

She nodded, pointing to the cage where all the lizards were curled up asleep in their natural forms. “Yup, giving them a break today. They put in a lot of work back there.”

“So did you,” I pointed out. “And you didn’t have to, so… thanks. Seriously, I’m pretty sure a lot of those kids would’ve died without you last night. Actually, I know they would have. Without you, there’d be a bunch of dead children in that place. And they would’ve lost a lot more of the hospital with that bomb. Seriously, you were awesome.”

The full black mask hid her expression, but I had the idea she was blushing a bit. “No big deal. I’m not some monster who’s going to let a bunch of little kids die. But it’s over. Let’s talk about the important stuff, like, for example, do you have That-A-Way’s number, or what? You know, so I can thank her for saving Holiday.”

Hesitating briefly, I carefully replied, “I better make sure it’s okay with her before letting you have it, you know? I mean, you guys are still on opposite sides. Unless you wanna join the Minority so you can see her again?”

She laughed, shaking her head. “Nice try, kid. Hey, if the Minority’s so amazing and all, why aren’t you joining them? Last time I checked, you actually were trying to play hero. And they’re kind of the big thing for teen heroes, right? You get training, support, friends, all that stuff you should be interested in. So what’s with the whole keeping them at arm’s length thing?”

Thankfully, I was spared from having to respond to that very good question by Wren, who popped her head up from the pile of junk she had been buried in, waving excitedly. “Paintball! Hiya. Good timing, we just need a little more help and poof, here you are. I got through some of this faster than I thought I would.”

“Faster?” I echoed. “Does that mean…?”

Her head bobbed quickly. “It’s almost done. Like, really close. We just need to do a couple more things, and I think you can help finish it up. With a little luck, it’ll be ready by tomorrow. And then we’ll be able to use the suit and find those vials.”

“Well then,” I replied with a smile. “What are we waiting for?

“Let’s get to work.”

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Fusion 1-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Once it was time to go to dinner after visiting a bit with the others, I headed up. Tabbris was with me, along with Miranda, Sands, Sco–Sarah, and Koren. Avalon had gone up earlier, and Shiori was stopping by the house to take a quick shower after an… incident with some mud. They and the rest would catch up. Meanwhile, the six of us were talking about an old show Randi and I used to like, explaining the details to Sands and Sarah while stepping up onto the spot of the hill where the elevator was. The forcefield walls and floor formed around us, and we began to rise. 

“Wait,” Sands blurted on the way up (thankfully, the elevator had been set to move at a normal pace instead of the incredibly slow version they’d been using earlier to get us all down here), “So the dog is a genie? Like, the full on granting wishes kind? And he can talk.” 

Miranda nodded. “He didn’t start off as a dog, and the dog didn’t start as a genie. But when the kid found him, he was lonely. His only friend was his dog. So when he found the genie and said, ‘I wish you were my best friend’, it literally turned the genie into his best friend. His dog.” 

Sands and Sarah looked at one another before speaking a single word together. “Weird.” Sands looked to us then and followed that up by herself with a flat, “Bystanders are so weird.” 

“Hey,” Koren objected with a raised hand. “That show was the bomb, don’t go dissing it. I begged my mom to get a Samoyed for months because of that show, until she caved.” 

“She let you get a dog like the one on the show?” I asked. “How was he?” 

A slightly sad smile touched her face. “I named him Whim, just like the show. He was the best dog ever. Kinda dumb, but… but he was my dog.” She swallowed hard. “Then he got hit by a car. Mom said I could get a new dog, but… but I didn’t want a new dog. I–wait.” She paused, head tilting a little as her eyes widened. “No… did he get hit by a car? I found him… I think I found him in my room. Why would he be in my room when he was… oh. Oh…” Suddenly, she turned away from us, arms folded tightly over her stomach as her face turned green. 

“The Fomorian,” I murmured, feeling a cold chill go over me. “You think it was the Fomorian.” The one who had been stalking her for such a long time, hiding around her for years. The one who had eventually shown himself, killed her father, erased him from their memories, and replaced him for a bit. The one from Thanksgiving last year, who had thankfully been killed.  

We reached the top of the dome then, passing through it while Koren nodded. “My memories are all fuzzy and messed up. When I focus on it, I can remember finding him in the street, but I can also remember finding them in my room. It gets all blurry. What else would it be?” She cringed, bowing her head. “He was around for a long time. Of course he’d fuck with me like that. He probably thought it was funny. Or he wanted to see what I’d do. Or Whim noticed him or… or something. I dunno. But he killed my father, it’s not exactly a stretch that he’d kill my dog.” 

Wincing, I hesitated before stepping over to embrace the other girl, my niece. She returned the hug after a brief hesitation, and we stood there on the elevator for a few seconds like that. It had been so easy to forget about just how long the Fomorian monster had been hiding in her house. So easy to stop thinking about him stalking Koren as a little girl. Mostly because thinking about it made me want to throw up, or scream, or both. It was too horrific and terrifying to focus on. 

After a moment of that, the two of us released each other and stepped off the elevator with the others. Only then did I look around. The station had sure been changed a lot since the last time I was here back in Seosten space. They’d done a lot of work over the summer, moving around parts of the interior and changing things up, probably remodeling as much with magic as with tech. I assumed the point was to make the place easier for all of us to navigate properly through the areas we were supposed to be around, and probably also to accommodate the larger number of students the place had now that it was (mostly) a dedicated school. 

Specifically, the area at the top of the elevator was a large circular room. The various elevators all ended up in this general area, so the floor had wide circular ‘holes’ covered by forcefields for each of them. Labeled doors were spaced relatively equally around the room. The metal plates beside each door had words in several languages stenciled into them, letting people know where each doorway led. There were seven doors from here. One was labeled ‘School and Auditorium’, another ‘Cafeteria, Kitchen, and Snackbar’, a third ‘Theater and Main Rec’, the fourth ‘Gym, Training Center, and Workshop’, the fifth ‘Spell and Power Testing’, and the sixth was ‘Transport.’ 

There was also a seventh door that was mostly unlabeled between the gym and spell testing doors. The plate there simply said, ‘Faculty And Authorized Personnel Only.’ There were several magical runes displayed openly on the door that I was sure weren’t the only protections it had. 

Tabbris went first, heading for the cafeteria door as she spoke hesitantly to Koren. “I’m pretty sure my… my Mama can probably help you get your memories about that… back, if you want? I mean, the real memories, so you’re not confused about what was real and what wasn’t. If you… if you want to know exactly what happened without the Fomorian’s tampering.” She sounded like she wasn’t sure she should say anything about it, eyes darting to me briefly through that.

Koren, however, managed a very slight smile. “Thanks, Tabbris. That sounds…” She paused, carefully choosing her words. “It sounds horrifying as far as actually remembering exactly what happened goes, but also… good. I want my own real memories, not this jumbled bullshit. Sorry.”

Sarah spoke up then, her voice a quiet murmur. “Real memories are better than fake ones.” Lifting her fake arm, the one with the solid-light hologram, she seemed to study it briefly before looking to the rest of us. “Even if they hurt.” Belatedly, she amended, “Especially if they hurt.” 

“She’s right.” That was Vanessa, as she and Tristan arrived on another elevator with Jazz. “Bad memories hurt. But they make you grow too. Ignoring them, erasing them, that doesn’t help.” 

“She says,” Tristan teased, “having never forgotten anything in her entire life.” 

Together, we headed for the cafeteria. First, we passed through the doorway and began to walk through the connecting tube. Like before, the ‘glass’ of the tube showed scenes from other parts space, though these particular ones had been changed to show a view of our own solar system from what looked like the moon. It was like we were on a station hovering above that instead of one buried deep inside the sun itself. Tabbris and I had fun explaining that to the rest. 

Others joined us on the way as we continued on, a small crowd making our way through the tube to the cafeteria station. Eventually, we all emerged into another wide circular room. We were essentially at the six o’clock position. Straight ahead across the room at the twelve o’clock spot were two wide double doors big enough to let a full sized troll pass through. Above the doors was a metal plate announcing the room as ‘Main Cafeteria.’ The doors were open and we could see tables through them. At the nine o’clock position were another set of doors labeled ‘Kitchen – Staff Only’ and at the three o’clock spot were doors labeled ‘Snackbar and Lounge.’ 

Avalon was waiting by the doors into the main cafeteria, and we met up with her while heading in. My hand found hers, squeezing briefly before I asked, “So, did the big gym meet your high standards?” She had gone up to check the place out, making sure the training center was up to the kind of workouts she wanted to put all of us through. Sure, there was one down in the living habitat, but when we really wanted to go through our paces, we’d need the main one up here.

Offering me a small smile and shrug, Valley replied, “It’s good enough for now. I’m sure we’ll find ways to improve it over the year. Plenty of time.” Her hand squeezed mine a little more firmly before she added, “There’s a lot of work to do in general, but it’s a pretty good start.” 

“I’ll tell my Mom you said that,” Koren informed her dryly, stepping aside to let others pass. “Hearing ‘pretty good start’ from Avalon Sinclaire is basically a five star review. She’ll take it.” 

Snorting at that, I looked around. The cafeteria they had set up was… similar to the one at Crossroads, but still different. The room was essentially rectangular, and set into three descending levels. The area we came in on was the highest level. To the left and straight across was the L-shaped serving counter where food could be ordered and picked up. A mixture of long rectangular and smaller circular tables filled the rest of the space. At the edge of that area to the right were stairs leading down to the middle level, where more tables were arranged. There was another set of stairs to the right of that leading down to the third and final level. There were a few tables down there, but most of the space was taken up by lounge chairs and more casual seating. There was a stage just past that where people could stand and talk, along with a screen on the far right wall, taking up the entire thing. Currently, an old Roadrunner cartoon was playing on the screen, while a bunch of people watched and laughed along with it. Some were human, some not. Regardless of species, they were all thoroughly engrossed in the video. Which kind of said something about the universal appeal of Warner Brothers cartoons. 

Heading with the others over to the counter, we found small, individual white boards attached to the counter itself, all down the line. There were markers attached to the boards, along with a metal plate below them with an explanation. You were supposed to write what you wanted, include any details if it was a special order like how you liked the steak or what dietary restrictions you had, or even detail what something was if it happened to be something unique or rare. You just wrote it down, then the writing would disappear. When it disappeared, that meant the order was received. A tray would then appear, which you took to your seat, and the food would eventually be sent to that tray. Easy enough. 

We each spread out, wrote down what we wanted for dinner, took the trays that appeared, and then went for one of the long tables on the second level, near the wall opposite the entrance. I sat next to Avalon, with Tabbris across from me and an empty seat for Shiori on the other side. 

Vanessa, who sat next to Tabbris, put her tray down with a quiet, “Being in school feels weird.” 

“Whelp, that’s it,” Tristan announced, standing right back up from his seat he had just taken next to his twin and dusting himself off. “Nessa thinking that being in school is weird is basically the final sign of the apocalypse. Our entire universe should be wiped out aaaany second now.”

Rolling her eyes, Vanessa primly informed him, “I meant that it feels weird to be in school again after what happened at Crossroads. Not to mention all this fighting that’s going on. It feels… funny sitting here, getting ready to go to classes tomorrow. Not wrong or bad. School never feels bad. Just… funny.” She shrugged a bit helplessly. “You know what I mean.” 

“Sure do,” Jazz agreed after looking up from her phone. “But you know what’s really weird?” 

Jokai finished for her, the chameleon-man appearing in time to take the seat next to his girlfriend. “Having… telephone connection inside sun.” His English had gotten better over the months since we met him, even if he still had to take the time to think through what he was saying. He was understandable. Especially when he was around Jazz. Those two were ridiculous together. Which, to be fair, was probably what people thought about me with Avalon or Shiori. 

Speaking of Shiori, she slipped into the seat beside me, with Columbus joining her. “Yeah,” the girl was already saying, “having phone service inside the sun is weird. But you know what’s weirder in that sentence? The ‘inside the sun’ part. Like, we’re literally living inside the sun. I mean, in a space station habitat thing within the sun, sure. But still! In the sun!” 

“Portals for phone service,” Avalon pointed out simply. “And forcefields protect us from damage within the sun. Forcefields that are constantly supplied with power from the sun itself.” 

Hisao arrived. The former Eden’s Garden Vigile (and Crossroads substitute teacher) stopped at the end of the table, his hand finding Miranda’s shoulder. “Hey there, you guys get settled in okay?” 

We all agreed that we had, before Miranda looked up at her former mentor. “You’re definitely gonna be one of our teachers, right?” 

“One of, yes,” he confirmed. “We’re sort of playing it by ear and taking turns with classes. You’ll have a main teacher, but also several back-ups who can teach specific subjects within that class, or take over if the main teacher is indisposed or just busy.” 

“Busy fighting the war, you mean,” I clarified, looking at the man. “They don’t want to tie up all useful people with classes, so it’s just ‘whoever’s good with that subject and not busy can teach that day.’” 

“A little more structured than that, hopefully,” he replied, “but essentially, yeah. We’re doing the best we can here. Just gotta go with it. Speaking of which, you guys know how this works, right?” He nodded to the big video screen. When we all just looked at him blankly, the man chuckled before explaining. “Right, see, you go up to that little glowing table over there and put your cell phone on it. Once you do, it’ll download a new app. You use the app to look at a list of what’s available to watch here on the screen and submit your suggestion. While a show or movie is on, there’s a list of currently submitted suggestions for the next thing. You can add your own, like I said, or add a vote to one that’s already there. Once the current thing ends, the next thing with the most votes will go on. You can only vote inside the room, and if you’re not in the room when the votes are tallied, yours won’t be counted. So you only get to use it if you’re here.” With a shrug, he added, “They’ve got the same kind of system in the rec room.” 

“Entertainment by democracy,” Columbus noted. “I guess there are much worse systems.” 

It wasn’t long after that before our food arrived, and we were basically finished eating when the video on the screen (it had been voted over to the old Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory movie from the seventies) paused. Abigail came over to the stage, along with a couple Eden’s Garden people and a man who was apparently an Alter from the way he made my Heretic sense shout at me. Yeah, I really hoped they found a way to do something about that, because it had been low-key going off every time I stopped looking at Alters for awhile, then did again.

Speaking up after magnifying her voice, Abigail began with, “Okay, first of all, welcome to the cafeteria. I see you all managed to find it.”  She offered a slight smile then before adding, “I did hear a few people asking about the younger students. So I’ll go ahead and tell you that their cafeteria is on the opposite side of the school area. You go through your section of the school to reach their section, and on the far side of that you’ll reach their cafeteria, then their dorms. I’m sure you’ll be able to explore all of that soon. Or just take one of the maps that will be handed out at the door. Those same maps are available for your phones if you set it on any of the pedestals you see around this place with the map icon on them.

“Your phones will also receive a copy of your schedule for the week, and a paper copy will be delivered to your mailbox each Sunday. We’re going with a weekly schedule at least for now, while we sort things out. Your classes can and will change from week to week, depending on what and who is available. But you will receive a full and balanced education. Or, as much of one as we can reasonably provide.” 

Gesturing to the Edens Garden people, as well as one of the Crossroads teachers who had been responsible for an older grade, Abigail continued. “My new friends here are going to help answer any questions you have. I’m sure there are a lot. But in the meantime, now that we’ve all moved our stuff in and had time for it to sink in, allow me to be the first to officially say…

“Welcome to the Joselyn Atherby Fusion School.” 

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