Month: December 2019

All-Out 3-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The dealer in question was apparently named Sarez. He was a dark blue-skinned humanoid with white spots on his neck and forehead, along with three evenly-spaced eyes instead of two. He was also not on the casino floor anymore, though he was in the building still. Going by the cameras, he had made his way to the staff kitchen and was having food with a few others. 

Asenath wanted to go grab the guy immediately, but Bol initially made her back down with the reminder that we were in their casino and their own people would take care of getting information out of him. We were just supposed to watch the security feed while they picked the guy up. Which led to all of us staring impatiently at the screens for what felt like way too long even to me. For Shiori and Senny with their mother missing, it had to have felt like hours

“Come on!” Shiori blurted out loud while pointing at the screen of the nearest laptop. “What’s going on, why don’t they grab that guy and drag him out already? He’s right there, and he’s gotta know where Mom is! What’re they doing, letting him finish his meal first or something? Wait, is this a last meal he doesn’t know about?” 

Bol, who was holding some kind of small golden orb that was apparently a communication device, tucked it away while responding with a flat, “Unfortunately, there is a problem. Our people ran passive magic checks over Sarez and he appears to be in possession of a particular artifact which allows him to mark any person. From that point, if any marked person approaches him with hostile intent, or even targets him directly with anything like a teleportation spell or attack, he’ll sense it ahead of time. We don’t know how long he’s had it–” 

Miranda groaned, “But it’s probably been long enough for him to mark everyone on your security team, if not everyone on your staff. So if they go to grab him, or teleport him anywhere, or whatever, he’ll know and get the hell out of Dodge. That’s why he feels safe enough to sit around eating lunch or whatever. Because the second you come after him, he’ll just bounce.” 

“So let us do it,” Asenath told Bol and Eldridge, giving the men a sharp look. “We’re new, there’s no way he could have marked us. We’ll grab the guy like I wanted to in the first place. Bobbi still has to get close to him anyway to make sure he’s the right one. I mean…” She glanced at the laptop screen, showing her teeth with a low snarl. “He is, but it’d be nice to have confirmation.” 

“That’s our other problem,” Bol replied with a snarl of his own that showed just how frustrated he already was. “Look at his wrist when he reaches for his drink again. There, see the silver bracelet? It’s got a partner on his ankle. They’ve got what you call Double Jump spells on them. The second he feels threatened, he’ll activate one, probably with a voice command. The Double Jump means it’ll teleport him twice. Once inside the building, and once outside of it.”

“The first jump will take him to another place where he’s tampered with the anti-teleport security,” I murmured. “Like the one in here, but it could be anywhere in the building.” 

Eldridge nodded in agreement. “Sounds about right. Then this pain in the ass can teleport through that hole in the security to get outside the building. And the fact that he’s got two on probably means they’re keyed to each other. So if you take one off, it’ll trigger the other automatically. You’d have to the one from his wrist and the one from his ankle simultaneously, and too quickly for him to say the command word before you manage to get them off him. And they’re probably spelled against things like telekinetic or metallokinetic control. Which is just–”  

“Wecandoit!” That was December, jumping up and down with obvious excitement. Though whether it was at the prospect of being helpful, or just at doing something given how bored she was, I couldn’t say. She was gesturing back and forth between herself and Bobbi. “She’saStardrinker. They’rereallyfast. AndI’mreallyfasttoo. MyboostisboostedandIcanboostitmore. Sowecanbothbe reallyfastandgoget themagicthingsoffhim. Andwecandoitatthesametime. Cuzwe’rebothreallyfast.” 

“I think I followed that pretty well,” Miranda murmured. “But could that really work? They both just superspeed into the room and grab the teleport bracelets off that guy before he can react?”

“It could,” Bol thoughtfully replied while staring at the nearest screen. “And I believe it may be the best chance of making sure he doesn’t escape in the time we have to work with.”  

Asenath was already heading purposefully toward the door. “Right, so point us in the right direction. We’ll get close, send the speedsters in to make sure he can’t escape, then nail him to the wall.” Pausing, she added, “And I mean that figuratively… mostly. Okay, if nails are in the immediate vicinity, I won’t be held responsible for how literal it becomes. I’m just saying.” 

Miranda and I exchanged brief looks, before I offered her a thumbs up. “See?” I asked while following after Asenath. “We know how to make a trip to Vegas fun even without the gambling.”

“At this point,” Miranda informed me, “gambling seems like a downgrade in excitement.” 

So, Bol and the other Vestil escorted us to just down the hall from the room in question. Our guy was still in there, just enjoying his food while apparently unaware that he had already been found out. Which, given that little artifact of his that was supposed to let him know if anyone he’d marked was coming straight for him with hostile intent, made sense. But still, that was some patience on his part, to pull off something like that and then just sit there eating food while waiting for the lockdown to be over? 

Actually, if he could teleport out, why didn’t he? Was he hoping to keep his job here if they couldn’t figure out that he was the one who had done it? Or was he waiting for something else specific? Was there a certain time he was waiting for? Maybe someone else was going to arrive or… be available? Or maybe it was some thing that was being brought in? We’d have to ask as soon as we had him contained, because damn, that was really bothering me. 

Soon, we were set up in the hall. I could see the door ahead of us, and murmured in Bol’s direction, “I know we’re in a rush, but what exactly are this guy’s gifts, his powers? Besides using hold and pass magic. What are we about to walk in on? More importantly, what are we about to send Bobbi and December over there against when they grab those bracelets off him?” 

“Sarez is a Heaul,” came the answer. “Each of those white spots you see on his neck and forehead, and other parts of his body, can grow into a separate layer of armor you have to break through to get to anything vulnerable. Heaul can either stack their armor plates like that for more protection, or wait until you break through one, then activate another one. The stronger ones can grow back damaged shell spots fast enough that as long as they drag the fight out enough, they can keep cycling through fresh armor. And that third eye in the middle can do a paralyzing stare, as long as it’s looking at you and using it, you won’t be able to move.” 

Asenath nodded. “Right, well he can armor up all he wants, considering we have questions to ask. As for his paralyzing powers, we outnumber him and we’re hopefully about to take him by surprise.” She looked to December and Bobbi. “You two ready? We’ll be right behind you. The second you’ve got the bracelet and anklet off, bail and leave us room to grab him. Got it?” 

December’s head bobbed up and down so fast I seriously thought it might fall off. “Yupyupyupreadytobeusefulcuzwe’resupposedtobeusefulandifwe’renotusefulthenwhatareweevendoinghere–” From the corner of my eye, I saw Tabbris make a weird, funny face at her. She crossed her eyes, tilted her head, and puffed out her cheeks. It made December suddenly laugh, sputtering a little before actually slowing down a bit. “Imeanwe’reready. We’rereadytogo. Youknowassoon… asyousaytheword.” That was accompanied by a deliberate thumbs up toward Tabbris, who returned it with a giggle. 

We had one of the laptops letting us see the security screen, so that the two speedsters would know exactly where their target was. I held it up in front of them, while Asenath counted down from three. At the last second, the lights behind us went out. Not a surprise considering Bobbi had warned us it was coming. She needed the extra boost from that power. 

I also saw December touch something on her own wrist. There was what looked like a medical alert bracelet or something there, only with a dozen little dark blue gems. One of them dimmed as she touched it, just before Asenath reached zero. 

And then they were off. I could see a slight blur of motion from December, but almost nothing from Bobbi. They were just gone. Meanwhile, on the screen, Sarez suddenly fell over backward with what sounded like a blurted magical word. The trigger for his escape spells. But nothing happened. And we were already on our way. Asenath used her own speed, becoming a streak of color rushing ahead of us to reach the room even as the last syllable of his useless escape spell left the man’s lips. 

An instant later, I had passed through the doorway right behind Shiori, with Miranda just behind me. Tabbris had already recalled into me right as all this started, and Asenath was right in front of the man with her fist swinging for his face. December and Bobbi were in opposite corners. 

Unfortunately, not having his escape hatch apparently didn’t mean the man was totally vulnerable. Which we found out, as he suddenly blurted another word, and a concussive wave of force erupted from one of the rings on his hand. It slammed into all of us, sending us backwards. I was hurled out of the room entirely, crashing into the far wall while everyone else hit the walls inside the actual room. 

But it wasn’t just the pain of hitting the wall. There was something else to it too. Even as I slumped to the floor, I felt a strange… listless sensation. It wasn’t exhaustion or anything, it was just… a moment of not really caring about anything that was going on. I wanted to zone out and think about… birds. Birds sounded interesting. How did they fly, really? And why did they come in so many colors? It was a mating thing, right? But why were some bright and others were so–

Flick! Tabbris’s voice in my head snapped me out of it. Belatedly, I realized we were running down the hotel corridor. Wait, why were we running? 

Then I ‘remembered’, though it was less remembering and more having the past few seconds dumped into my head. As soon as I hit the wall and went out of it, Tabbris had taken control just in time to see Sarez flee through the door we had just been flung out of. He hit Bol, Eldridge, and the others with some kind of slow spell before taking off the other way. So Tabbris had given chase while inwardly screaming for me to wake up. And now that I knew what was going on, she relinquished the reins, just as I saw Sarez hit the door leading to the stairwell. It slammed shut right behind him, and I saw three different semi-transparent glowing chains appear around it. A spell to keep it shut. 

I didn’t even hesitate. Grabbing the knob, I turned while shoving against the door and the lock spell shattered under my ‘passage through locked doors’ power. I hit the stairwell in time to see the guy heading up instead of down. He glanced back, a gun appearing in his hand. In the same instant, I felt my body suddenly jerk to a halt as his third eye focused on me. He took a second to aim, then fired. Just as he did, I summoned a portal in front of my face, sending the other end of it back toward the guy’s leg. I hoped to slow him down, but the bullet barely seemed to do much. A second later, the reason became apparent, as a spot of white broke out through his pant leg where the bullet had struck, expanding outward to form a full suit of armor around the man. 

His hand snapped up, another ring on his hand glowing as a ball of white-hot fire appeared there before it was sent flying my way. Instantly, I focused on absorbing all that energy. By the time the explosion of fire faded, my whole body felt uncomfortably warm as it fought to contain that much power, and the sound of Sarez’s footsteps was fading as he ran.

“Oh no you don’t,” I muttered, already calling my staff instantly to my hand. Transferring all that power I’d absorbed into the staff itself to instantly charge it, I sent a burst out through the bottom to launch myself over the edge of the stairwell and into the open space leading all the way down to the floor far, far below. Before I could drop very far, Gus was launched upward in his grapple form, slamming into the ceiling far overhead to stop my fall. Then I expended the rest of the charge I’d just absorbed, channeling it into a boost from the other end of the staff that sent me rocketing all the way upward, past stairwell after stairwell. 

Where were the others? Were they okay? I couldn’t think about that. They’d be fine. I had been fine, eventually. I just had to catch this guy, right now, before he somehow managed to get away. That had to be why he was going up instead of down, right? He had some kind of backup escape plan. Another one. 

He also must’ve been using some kind of speed-enhancement spell, because even with the rocket-boost yanking me past all the stairs to the top, he still beat me up there. Barely, but he beat me. I saw him disappear through the roof-access door while leaving two injured security guards on the floor nearby. Very injured, if I had to guess from a glance. 

Tabs, help them! I blurted inwardly while giving my little partner a mental push as I went for the door. I’ve got this! 

Without hesitating, Tabbris popped out of me from behind, solidifying as she dropped down to do what she could for the security guys. Meanwhile, I could hear the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps and hoped it was Asenath and the others. But I couldn’t wait to find out. This guy could be gone by then. So, staff raised, I went right through the door.

Yup, it was definitely a roof alright. Sarez was ahead of me, racing for the edge. Before he could get any further, however, I summoned a quick little portal and shoved my staff through it, letting the other end pop out right in front of him before triggering a blast from the energy that had stored up since I landed in the stairwell a few seconds earlier. It wasn’t a lot, but it did manage to take the guy by surprise enough to make him stumble back a step or two. And that gave me an opening to hurl a small ball of goop that I’d summoned to my other hand. The goop was that nausea-inducing liquid, solidified into a gel. It stayed that way just long enough to splatter against the back of the man’s head. 

Unfortunately, that armor of his must’ve protected him from the effects of the gel, because he barely reacted before throwing a marble at his own feet. As the marble shattered, a wide wave of metal spikes, taller than I was, erupted from it and went shooting along the ground toward me. But I was ready, running forward to meet them. At the last second, I leapt up, planting my left foot against one of the spikes before pushing off. There were several lines of them, all staggered in size and placement, and I bounced from one to the next, ducking under a couple, hopping over one, trusting my instincts and reflexes. 

Once again, Sarez was almost to the edge of the roof. I opened another portal while leaping off the side of the last jagged metal spike, hurling myself that way as the portal appeared in front of me with the other end directly in front of the fleeing man. That time, I literally threw my staff through it while triggering the charge. The explosion of energy knocked the man backward, and I used the new power I’d just gotten at the theater a couple weeks earlier to summon the staff back into my hands as I landed on one knee, swinging it for the back of his leg. He was tough, but the strength behind the blow coupled with the concussive explosion of force he’d just taken to the face made the man stagger. 

I took advantage, springing to my feet before grabbing for his chest. But nothing happened when I summoned the Seosten possession power. There was just… nothing there.

The armor, I realized. The power couldn’t get through that white exoskeleton armor, which had completely covered him. Just as that came to mind, the man’s fist found my stomach, and then he was hurling me over his shoulder to the roof. His voice was a vicious snarl, “You don’t know what you’ve brought upon yourself!” 

Rolling backward to my feet, I was about to snap a snarky retort, when Asenath’s voice interrupted. “Why don’t you tell us then?” She was there, along with the others. Miranda, Shiori, Bobbi, and December were coming out right behind her. “And while you’re at it, tell us where you sent my mother and those kids.” 

I couldn’t see the blue man’s expression through the exoskeleton helmet that covered his face. But I saw the contempt in his eyes, and heard it in his voice. “Why don’t they explain it, in detail.” 

They, in this case, apparently referred to the entire swarm of lizard-people in suits (seriously, they looked like reptilian humanoids all wearing perfectly tailored tuxedos) that appeared in a literal flash of gray-green smoke. One of them screamed something about oppressors before they all threw themselves at us. In the background, I saw Sarez leap from the edge of the roof, throwing something ahead of himself that seemed to slow his fall. 

Then two of the lizard-men were on me. I ducked under one, snapping my staff up to rebound off the other’s chin before flipping the weapon around to drive the bladed end down into his foot. Using that as a brace, I shoved myself up into a double-kick, planting both feet against the first reptilian’s chest. But I didn’t just kick him. I also possessed him in the same motion. As he fell back, I took control, summoning my staff back to his hand (telling myself to cheer over that part actually working later) before spinning to cut the blade across the throat of his companion while simultaneously shoving my own host into unconsciousness. 

Then I just staggered for a second as the rush of pleasure from that kill filled me. It wasn’t all that strong, but still. Without Tabbris muting the sensation, it hit me more than it might have. I shook it off in time to see another lizard guy coming for me, holding a weird jeweled khopesh. 

He, in turn, was knocked to the ground by Miranda as she tackled him. “Go!” She shouted at me. “Get that guy!” Even as she said it, another Miranda appeared, already running. 

Asenath and Shiori were across the roof, engaged in a fight back to back. December and Bobbi were together too. All of them were busy. They didn’t have time. We didn’t have time. Not before Sarez got away. 

Running to the edge of the roof, I looked down. He was far below. Far, faaaaar below, a speck that was already landing on the pavement near a waiting SUV.

“With me?” I blurted, looking to the nearby Miranda. 

“Since second grade,” she shot back, already planting her hands on the edge of the low wall and starting to push herself up. I followed suit. Together, the two of us heaved ourselves over the edge of the roof. 

Then we dropped, plummeting through the air hundreds of feet toward our escaping target… and the ground. 

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Friends and Enemies 8-01 (Summus Proelium)

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A scream, distant yet urgent, drew my head from its place buried under my pillow. It was still dark outside, and the illuminated clock on the wall (the one that was local time anyway considering I had a lot of them all set to different time zones so I could keep track of what time it was wherever my dad happened to be supposedly traveling) read five in the morning. The sun wouldn’t rise for a couple hours. Everything was quiet. So why–

The scream came again, as I sat there groggily staring at the wall. Before I knew what was happening, I’d already flung my blankets off, half-tripping over them as I stumbled out of bed and ran for the door in my sweatpants and tee-shirt. I hit the hallway before my conscious brain actually caught up and I realized what the screaming was. Izzy, it was Izzy down the hall.

Running that way, I reached the door of the formerly empty room that had been converted into Izzy’s. There still wasn’t much in there, just that bed, a dresser with some clothes that she and Mom had picked out, and a desk with a chair. Both of my parents had made it clear that they would get Izzy whatever she wanted or needed, but she just kept demuring from getting anything aside from the bare essentials. Mom had said something to me about not wanting to push the girl too far, too fast. She quite clearly wasn’t exactly comfortable with any of this. 

And speaking of not being comfortable, the girl herself was on the floor instead of the bed. I had no idea how she’d ended up there, but she was down there thrashing around. Her foot kicked the side of the bed a couple times while her fist hit the floor and she screamed. Like, full on screamed. It was like she was being tortured. Her body arched off the floor with that loud cry. 

Eyes widening, I hurriedly dropped beside the girl and grabbed her arm with one hand and the side of her face with the other. “Izzy? Izzy, it’s okay, you’re having a nightmare. Izzy, it’s–” 

And then I got punched in the face. The girl’s eyes snapped open and the arm I wasn’t holding swung up wildly, fist crashing into my mouth as she shouted something about leaving her alone. I reeled backward with a yelp, falling onto my backside while she scrambled up. She was on one knee, glaring at me before suddenly freezing in place, seeming to realize where she was. 

“Izzy, it’s okay,” I managed while holding a hand against my face. That hurt, damn. The kid packed a punch. “You were just dreaming. I mean, having a nightmare, I guess. I heard you screaming from the other room, so I came to check and I guess I startled you or something–” 

“I’m sorry,” she blurted, face immediately falling. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” Tears had already filled her eyes as she fell backwards against the bed, knees drawn to her chest. “I didn’t mean to.” 

“Wha–oh, I know.” Quickly, I put both hands up placatingly, ignoring the pain in my lip. “I know you didn’t mean to. It’s okay. You were just having a bad dream. A, uhh, really bad dream.” 

Swallowing hard, the younger girl took a few seconds to collect herself. She was trembling so much I thought she might need a hug or something, but I just wasn’t sure how she’d react to it. “I’ll be ready to go as soon as everyone’s up,” she said in a quiet, somewhat shaky voice. 

Blinking at that, I shook my head slowly. “Uh, ready to go where, exactly? What do you mean?” 

Still holding her knees against her chest, the girl stared at the floor rather than look at me. Her words were a quiet mumble. “I’ll be ready to leave as soon as your parents tell me to get out.” 

Well, that made me stare at her. “My parents aren’t going to kick you out of the house, Izzy.” 

The look she gave me was a mix of disbelief, exhaustion, and fear. “Y-yes, they will,” she insisted in a voice that trembled weakly. “I hit you in the face, Cassidy. I hit you. I hit their daughter. They’ll never let me stay with them now. They won’t let me sleep in the same house as you, let alone two doors down. They’ll throw me into foster care in Idaho or something.” 

My mouth opened, then shut as I stared at her. Taking a second to collect my thoughts while she whimpered, I finally replied, “Do you realize that’s probably the most words you’ve said to me all at one time since you got here?” I meant it to be gentle teasing, but she just flinched. Seeing that, I moved over and sat down next to the other girl with my back against the bed as well. “Izzy, listen, you didn’t mean to hit me. I know that. You were having a nightmare, right?”

Drawing herself in tighter, like she had to make herself as small as possible before responding, Izzy slowly nodded. “A nightmare… yes. Yes, I was having a nightmare.” From the sound of it, there was a lot more that. But I kind of doubted that she was in the mood to tell me any more.

“Right, you had a nightmare, you lashed out. It was an accident, and now it’s over.” Stating that firmly, I turned to look at the girl beside me, trying to meet her gaze while she studiously stared at the floor. “It’s over, so we don’t have to tell anyone. I mean, I know my parents wouldn’t kick you out just for having a bad dream. But still, they don’t need to know about it in the first place.”   

Izzy mumbled toward the floor, “You said I was screaming. You heard it from your room and it woke you up. Don’t you think your parents probably heard too?” Even as she finished saying it, the girl blinked up and frowned in confusion. “Wait a second, how come they’re not here yet?” 

Despite myself, I chuckled softly before catching it as she flinched. “Izzy, first, this house is really big. Second, the walls are really soundproof. They were already pretty good before, but a few years ago Simon got really nuts with his music so Mom had them all redone. Now you could scream at the top of your lungs from here and they’d never hear anything. Hell, you could be in the next room over and not hear anything. That’s why we have the intercoms.” I pointed to the button on the nearby wall next to the door. “You could also just say B-R-O-A-D-C-A-S-T without spelling it, then say ‘now’ followed by the name of the person you want to hear you or a specific room and the intercom will connect you without touching it. Like, modcap now kitchen. Or modcap now Elena. Except say broadcast instead of modcap.” 

Izzy stared at the intercom, then slowly looked at me. Her expression was still very lost and apprehensive, but she managed an utterly disbelieving, “You guys have a lot of money.” 

It was my turn to blush, as I shrugged while shifting a little so I was facing her more directly. “Having an intercom isn’t a big deal, and lots of people have voice activated home assistants.” 

“But your house is so big and so soundproofed that people can’t hear each other screaming,” she pointed out before finally looking up at me. “Wait, how did you hear me then? You… umm, you said that people couldn’t hear each other from the next room. Except you did hear me.”

“You left your door open,” I replied with a gesture that way. “And I guess I left mine open too. I was really tired after I got–” I almost said ‘home’ but caught myself. “After I came upstairs from my snack. Guess I forgot to close it.” That much was the truth, actually. I’d been seriously famished when I finally dragged myself in after everything that had happened the night before. I’d gotten food from the kitchen and gone back to my room before crashing hard into bed.

Izzy was staring at me, her eyes boring into mine. “So… the only reason you heard me is because we both forgot to close our door?” she asked in a voice that still trembled just a little. 

“I, uhh, I guess so.” Offering her a tiny smile, I shrugged. “Not a bad coincidence this time, huh?” Sobering then, I added, “I don’t know what you were… what the nightmare was. But are you okay? I mean, like I said before, if there’s anything you might want to talk about, or–” 

“I’m okay,” she interrupted, shaking her head before biting her lip as she stared somewhere around my stomach. “You…” In a small voice, the girl hesitantly asked, “You really don’t want to tell your parents?” Her gaze peeked up at me with a quietly added, “I hit you.” 

“Eh, I’ll get over it.” I shrugged, and both of us looked at each other for a few long seconds before I straightened up and offered a hand to her. “I guess we’re both awake now, huh?” 

Izzy still seemed a bit reluctant to touch me, but in the end she let me help her up to her feet. Then she took her hand back, folding her arms around her stomach with a slight flinch that I almost missed. “I’m really sorry I woke you up, Cassidy. And that I hit you.” 

Dryly, I assured her, “I’ll survive.” It wasn’t even the worst injury I’d taken in the past twenty-four hours, really. I had bruises all over, but they were thankfully all in places other than my face, thanks to my now-destroyed helmet.

Clearing my throat to avoid thinking about all that, I gestured. “Anyway, like I was saying, we’re both awake and there’s no point to me going back to sleep. And I–” Yawning abruptly in the middle of my own words, I flushed. “I need coffee. You wanna come downstairs? It’s not time for Ethan or Christiana to be up yet, but I’m pretty sure we can hunt down our own breakfast.” 

“Ethan or Christiana?” Izzy asked with a confused expression, even as she started to move to the door with me. “Who are they?” 

So, I told her about Chef Claudio’s assistants. Or interns, or whatever he called them. Students, sometimes. Either way, as we headed down for the kitchen and found our own food, I told her about how those two set things up in the morning and made sure breakfast was ready for everyone. I even told her about how the two of them had taught me how to make omelettes.

“Anyway,” I finished while we carried our food back upstairs (with my coffee, of course), “they’re both really…” I trailed off. Really nice? Did I know that for sure? Hell, for all I knew, Ethan and Christiana were both psychotic axe murderers. Maybe all the people my family employed were secretly evil monsters.

Shaking that off, I started to go on before hesitating once more. That time, it was because Izzy was standing there on the landing just ahead of me, staring silently out through the large window at the dark sky. The tray of toast, fruit, and cereal in her hands shook just a little. 

My mouth opened to ask if she was okay (seriously, just what had my family put this girl through?), but she started speaking first. “I wasn’t dreaming.” Glancing back before turning to me, the girl amended, “I mean, I was. But it was more like a memory.” 

Boy, did I both want and not want to know what kind of memory would make her scream like that. Almost not trusting my voice, I still managed, “A memory of the reason you’re here?” 

She hesitated before nodding once. “I–I can’t talk about it. But… but there’s bad guys out there, and now I’m afraid they’ll come here and hurt you and your parents because I’m here. I… I don’t want that to happen. You guys have been really nice and… and if the bad guys hurt you…”

Wait, was she seriously afraid of bad guys hurting my parents? That had to mean it wasn’t them that she was afraid of at all. If she knew anything about what Mom and Dad did, if they had been involved, then she’d know better. But–okay, maybe it had to do with Dad’s work as Silversmith? Maybe he saved her from something bad? Just because he was also a villain didn’t totally discount Silversmith from ever helping people, of course. Maybe Silversmith saved this girl from someone terrible like… like Pencil. That would fit. Maybe Pencil did something awful to people she knew, like her family, and Dad saved her as Silversmith before taking her in as himself. Wait, this was right after that whole thing at the hospital. What if Izzy’s parents were killed during that whole thing? Yeah. Shit, shit, yeah, that actually fit everything, didn’t it? 

A voice in the back of my head told me I was missing something obvious, but I had no idea what it could be. The theory I had was the best I could think of. And hell, there was always the chance that my family was the reason she was upset and she just didn’t know it. 

Realizing I’d been silent, I quickly shook my head. “It’s okay, Izzy. You’re safe here. Seriously, this place is probably one of the safest buildings in the city. If you weren’t keyed into the security system, it’d be going nuts right now. You know how Dad had you do all that stuff to add your biometrics into the system before he let you walk anywhere by yourself? That’s because the system tracks all that. If someone tried to go anywhere in this house without either being admitted as a guest or added permanently like you were, there’d be private security here in like sixty seconds and cops in three minutes. Plus, the whole house would lock down, the actual onsite security would be on the job, and…” Trailing off, I shrugged. “Seriously, you’re safe here.” 

Except for the fact that the thing keeping her the most safe, who my parents were and what they were capable of, was also the thing that put her in the most danger. But I couldn’t exactly explain that. Part of me wanted to tell the girl to run and never stop running. Instead, I just told myself that Mom and Dad wouldn’t hurt Izzy, even if they were actually villains. Which meant that I had to ignore the voice in the back of my head reminding me about Dad talking about killing me without knowing it was me. 

Izzy still looked a little uncertain even without all those details, but started walking again anyway. Together, the two of us went back to her room and sat on the floor. I handed her one of the small cartons of milk for her cereal before pouring some on my own, then started with, “Hey, Izzy?” 

Looking up from her food that she had immediately started to dive into, the younger girl hesitated, clearly uncertain about what I was about to say. “Umm, yeah?” 

“I know you don’t want to talk about why you’re here, and that’s okay. Really, I’m not gonna push you or anything.” As much as I seriously wanted to, it felt like a bad idea. Especially if I was right about the whole ‘her being traumatized by Pencil killing her parents’ thing. That was not something I wanted to force her to think about. “But I did want to say that you don’t have to be afraid of my parents kicking you out for every little thing.” 

Quietly (and with a tiny bit of humor, I thought), she pointed out, “Hitting you isn’t a little thing.” 

“Are you kidding?” I scoffed. “Simon hits me all the time and they haven’t kicked him out. I think you’re fine.” Then I sobered a bit. “No, seriously, it’s okay. My parents brought you here, they keyed you into the security system. My–” Fuck, I was telling her to trust my supervillain parents to be good to her. But what else was I supposed to do? I couldn’t tell her the truth about them. I barely knew this kid. I liked her, but I didn’t really know her. She could do literally anything if I told her about that whole situation. And besides, even if I could trust her not to freak out, I definitely didn’t want to thrust that whole responsibility onto her. The poor kid was traumatized to the point of screaming nightmares as it was. I couldn’t do that to her. 

Finally, I settled on, “My parents definitely won’t throw you just like that. And if they try, I’ll… I’ll tell them I’ll keep holding my breath until I pass out or they bring you back. I figure it’ll only take five or six times before they cave.”

A giggle escaped the girl before she even seemed to know it was coming. Her hand covered her mouth, and she flushed visibly. “I–thanks, Cassidy,” she murmured quietly. 

We ate breakfast on the floor like that, before I picked up the trays. “I’ll take these down, then come back to take a shower before I’ve gotta go to school. Are… you gonna be okay here without me?” 

“Uh huh,” she confirmed. “I’m okay, really. I–” Again, she hesitated. For a second, it looked like she was going to say something else, before settling on, “Good luck on that project you told me about.” 

Giving her a thumbs up, I stood with the trays. “No worries, Jae and Amber’ll cover anything I don’t have a handle on.” 

There was a sharp cough from behind me, and I turned to see her staring at me. “Jae and Amber?” 

“Yeah, my project partners,” I replied. “You okay?” 

A quick nod came. “Uh huh, I just… swallowed wrong.” She coughed again, then took a drink of juice. “I’ll make sure to shut the door tonight, I promise.” 

Glancing to the door, then back to her, I shook my head. “You know, maybe you should leave it open. If you want to.” 

“But if I do,” she pointed out, “I’ll wake you up again if I have another nightmare.” 

“I know,” I replied simply. 

“That’s kind of what I’m counting on.” 

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All-Out 3-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“What?!” 

The blurted demand came from both Shiori and Asenath in the wake of the news that, rather than being closer to finding the latter’s father, now their mother had disappeared. Both of them looked like they were reminding themselves that killing (or even just smacking) the messenger was both totally wrong and would be a really bad idea right now, all things considered. 

But, of course, they controlled themselves. Senny found her voice first, while the two Vestils and Eldridge all looked briefly nervous. “What do you mean, they’ve disappeared? How can that happen? This…” She took an obvious calming breath, though I could see her fist tighten at her side, fingers digging into her palm. “This place has ridiculous security measures, doesn’t it?” 

“The ridiculousiest,” came an answer from a new approaching figure from down the hall. It was another Vestil, and from the description Shiori, Columbus, and Senny had given of their visitor that started all this, I was guessing that was this guy. An assumption proven right as the Vestil glanced in the direction of Bobbi, Miranda, Tabbris, December, and me. “Bol Sampson. Glad you could all make it. And yes, our security is absolutely top notch. It has to be, to run a casino like this. But that doesn’t seem to have helped, in this case. Come on, I’ll show you what happened.” 

His voice was tense despite his attempt to sound cordial. Which made sense. Even ignoring the security failure, having a bunch of children apparently abducted right from under your nose, to say nothing of a temporary ally who was trying to help you find what amounted to a literal supernatural mob princess? Yeah, no wonder the poor guy sounded like he was right on the edge of an actual breakdown. 

Together, we all followed Bol. The other two Vestil trailed behind us, along with Eldridge. The hall we were walking along had an open wall to one side overlooking one of the casino floors, clearly meant to entice everyone with all the bright, flashy games below. Glancing that way, I saw plenty of humans obliviously enjoying their gambling. But I also saw other things, Alters of every shape and size. There were Relukun, crystal people, various elementals, a couple orcs, and more. Most were having fun, though there were a few who looked like they had just gambled away the last pennies in their pockets. One guy in particular, a large onyx-skinned humanoid with burning flames where his eyes were, looked like he was about to cause a scene. But just as he started winding himself up, two figures dressed the same as the security guys I’d seen outside stepped that way. One leaned in and whispered something to the man while putting a hand on his arm. After a second of that, the upset guy gave a short nod, stepping back as he deflated a bit, the moment neatly deescalated. With a somewhat embarrassed-looking expression, the big guy hurriedly left the gambling floor.

Eldridge had moved behind me as I watched that, his voice quiet. “If their security is anything like ours, those guys just informed him that a nice bottle of something they know he enjoys was sent up to his room, on the house. Then it’s his choice to either go up and enjoy it or escalate things. With a little reminder of just how that kind of thing tends to go inside these places. Which, believe me, isn’t well for the person making a scene.”

By that point, we’d reached the conference room where the kids were supposed to be. The place was one of those with a bunch of plush, comfortable chairs arrayed in a semi-circle in front of a smallish, slightly raised stage. There was room for a hundred or so people in the room. At the moment, there were various toys, books, and coloring things all over the place, along with a few snacks and drinks clearly meant for kids. Apparently they didn’t want their young witnesses to be bored. Which was nice. I wondered who had been in charge of that. 

Asenath moved immediately to the front of the room, near the stage. She crouched, putting a hand on the floor before exhaling. “Mother was here. Right here, just a few minutes ago.” 

“What happened?” Shiori asked, voice tense as she stepped near her sister and stared at Bol. “How could someone make our mom and a bunch of kids you guys were supposed to be taking care of just disappear right from under your noses? You’ve got like… anti-teleportation things?” 

“Yup!” That was December. She hopped right up on a chair, pointing up to a corner of the room. “There’sonethere…” And then she started literally leaping from chair to chair, hopping around the room while pointing seemingly randomly in every possible direction. Seriously, she was like some kind of bouncy ball, a blur of motion and energy. “Andonethere… andthereandthereandthere…” Turning to us after stopping on the back of the last chair, she brightened cheerfully. “Doyouwanttogo… backdownthehallso… Icanshowyou…. alltheothersIsaw?” 

See, I had no idea what I expected SPS Seosten under Cahethal’s authority to be like, but this? This wasn’t it. Was it all just because she mostly left the so-called ‘Calendar’ on their own? 

“Ah, that… “ Bol shook his head. “Thank you, but I don’t believe that will be necessary, Miss…” 

“Ember,” she promptly supplied with a cheeky grin, barely able to restrain the obvious giggles. 

“Miss Ember it is,” Bol agreed with a slight bow, the glowing, multi-colored smoke-liquid in his glass-like body pulsing with what I… thought might be a silent chuckle of sorts before he moved on. “Yes, the room, like the rest of the casino and hotel, are filled with anti-teleportation markers along with defenses and sensors against other magic. But even with those… well, here.” With one hand, he produced a small blue ball with runes drawn on it. “You should see for yourselves.”

With that, he activated the ball. Immediately, a bunch of glowing figures appeared in the room around us. Holograms. They were holograms of all the Vestil children. Each of them looked different. Like, really different. There were a couple humanoids, but there was also one shaped like an octopus, a big dog, a bird of some kind, even one that was basically a long snake. The only way I could tell they were all Vestil was that each body, no matter what shape it happened to be, was clear and filled with colored smoke and liquid. I supposed since these people’s physical bodies were essentially just magically-summoned constructs, what they actually looked like didn’t actually matter. They were basically a race of shapeshifters or whatever. Crystal shapeshifters. Briefly, I wondered what it was like to grow up in a society where everyone literally just shifted between liquid and gas forms, with your only physical bodies being whatever you conjured and shaped to place yourself in. Bodies that looked like whatever you wanted. Did that end prejudice sooner? 

No, I reminded myself, they didn’t have to be as prejudiced against each other as humans have been, because they had three other intelligent species on their planet to compete against. 

Jiao was there in the magical hologram too, of course. Just as Asenath said, the woman was standing on the stage. She was watching the kids scattered around the room while alternately looking at a phone in her hand. Then she turned, looking off toward what appeared to be the wall. A second later, they all vanished. Just like that. One second Jiao and the kids were there and in the next, poof. Gone. 

“What was she looking at?” Miranda asked, stepping up to where Jiao was before turning to look in the same direction she had right before the whole disappearing thing. “It’s a wall.” 

“One of the teleportation blockers,” Asenath replied, already stepping over that way. She pointed to a small, barely visible design half-hidden in the woodwork. “That’s what this is, right?” Frowning, she added a quieter, “But there’s something wrong with it.” 

Bol joined her, leaning in to examine it himself while the rest of us approached. “Yes,” he agreed. “Someone has definitely tampered with this one.” Glancing that way, the man added a quiet, “Good catch for someone who can’t use magic at all yourself.” 

“I’ve learned to adapt,” Senny replied flatly before looking over her shoulder. “Bobbi, come taste this. See if you can figure out anything about it.” 

“Taste…?” Bol echoed curiously. He, Eldridge, and the two other Vestil watched as the younger girl stepped up to put her hand against the symbol. 

“There’s… there’s two kinds of magic there,” Bobbi murmured. “One is older, sort of… set into the wall. It’s been there for a long time. Or at least the shape of it has. But the other magic is new. It tastes… strange, like it doesn’t belong there.” 

“Would you recognize it if you felt it again?” Asenath asked while everyone else watched. This, from what the vampire had told me, was a new trick Bobbi had picked up over the past few months, being able to identify what she called the ‘taste’ of the energy in magic to know the general type of spell it was and who had cast it. Or at least, that the same person had cast a particular spell. 

Now, the girl hesitated, touching the symbol again before giving a hesitant nod that grew a bit more firm after a moment. “I–uh huh. Yeah, I think so. It’s pretty distinct magic. Whoever put it there, if I can feel their magic, I’ll know it’s them.” Her words were somewhat uncertain at first, but gradually became confident toward the end. “I can do it, I can identify them. Mr. Rendell’s been teaching me.” 

“A Stardrinker-Heretic,” Eldridge noted with an approving tone. “Now those are rare. Particularly one so… young.” 

“Yeah, she’s pretty special,” I agreed with a thumbs up at the girl in question, a gesture that she returned with a bright smile. Then I turned my attention back to Bol. “Please tell me you guys locked this place down as soon as they disappeared. Not that I expect it’ll stop them if they were able to teleport Jiao and the kids out past all your security anyway, but still.” 

“Actually,” came the response, “we know they haven’t left. They may have been able to get a teleport past our security, but we still detected it. Our alerts let us know it was happening, and it hasn’t happened since. We locked everything down, and the only spot the teleport happened was right here in this room.” 

Tabbris piped up then. “Could they maybe have not been in this place to start with? Like, maybe they set the spell up and then left before triggering it.” 

If answering a girl as young as Tabbris was bothering Bol, he didn’t show it. He just shook his head. “What they did was hard enough to begin with, just doing it from the inside. I don’t believe it’s physically possible for them to project magic through the defenses we have around the outside of the building. At the very least, our alarms out there would have detected it. The magic had to be triggered from within this building, we locked everything down the moment the one and only teleport happened in this room right here, and there’s been no alert of another one since.” 

“So whoever did it is probably still in the building,” Miranda put in with a small frown. “Maybe this was a one-time thing? Or they’re just arrogant enough to think they can wait you out. I mean, important or not, you can’t lock down this building forever.” 

“We have magic keeping the Bystanders from thinking about leaving,” one of the Vestils whose name I didn’t know announced. When we looked that way, he added, “Peace, we do not use it constantly or without cause. The magic is used to keep Bystanders inside when events are happening outside that would be hazardous to their health, and difficult to explain. We ensure they win enough to compensate for their time and to keep them happy, magic or no.” 

“The point,” Eldridge informed us, “is that the Bystanders aren’t wondering why they can’t leave, and the non-Bystanders know something’s up and that they’re supposed to sit tight. Everyone’s still having a good time, so no one’s going to panic or get upset. People at the front?” He added with a look toward Bol. 

“They’re being turned away,” the other man replied. “Our security is informing them that the venue is at capacity, given certain construction that’s taking place, and that they should try their luck at one of our other locations.” 

Shiori spoke up. “So we just have to get Bobbi near everyone in the casino so she can check them? That… um, seems like the person would notice something first and maybe get away if they decided to bolt for it. Or just, you know, kill themselves rather than be taken by you.” 

Eldridge gave a nod of agreement, “The Dhampyr is right. We don’t have time to take the girl near every single patron, and the moment we start doing that, the… perpetrator will probably notice something and escalate the situation.” 

“So use her to confirm it’s the right person,” I pointed out, “but narrow it down some other way. We can do that, right? If this is a casino, you’ve got cameras all over the place. We just have to look through the footage and find anyone doing what might be magic. That should help cut down on the possibilities.” 

“What if they were doing it in the restroom, or their hotel room?” Miranda asked. “Then we won’t see them at all.” 

“Simple,” I replied, “they look through the footage themselves and check it against guest records. Make a note of anyone in the hotel who is not on the footage, as well as anyone who was in the restroom at the time the teleportation happened. If we don’t find the right person while watching the people we can see, it was one of the people we can’t. Then it’s still narrowed down.” 

“Do we have time to look at all the camera footage?” Shiori sounded (understandably) worried. 

Bol snapped his fingers to one of the other Vestil, who left the room quickly. “Yes, we’ll keep things as calm as we can. Our own people are looking through the footage as well, but… perhaps you will see something they don’t. Take a look, see if you can narrow it down while we make a note of anyone not on camera at the time.” As he said it, the Vestil who had left came back in the room. Behind him floated a half dozen laptops, which flew around to land on various surfaces. On their screens I could already see camera footage playing. 

“It will be within a two to three minute window at the time of the abduction,” Bol informed us. “See if you can spot anything before our own people do.” 

So, we spread out around the room with the provided computers and spent the next little while staring at the camera footage. We watched the same couple minutes over and over again from as many different angles as possible. Sped up, slowed down, zoomed in, zoomed out, we watched all of it again and again. Miranda even split herself into several duplicates to watch her screen with multiple pairs of eyes. 

None of it helped. The only magic we could see being used was some of the dealers making cards float back to them, flip through the air, change colors or give off little sparks, that kind of thing. Clear and obvious entertainment tricks for the non-Bystanders. Showmanship. 

“Uuuurgggh,” December groaned. She wasn’t watching a screen. Instead, the girl was hanging upside down from one of the ceiling lamps, watching us. “Sooooo bored, can’twejustgopunchsomeone?” 

“We have to know the right person to punch,” Tabbris reminded her, though I could tell she was bored too. It was frustrating, staring at the same two minute time period, sometimes slowed down and sometimes sped up, while trying to spot any of the guests doing anything untoward. But they just weren’t. The security in this place was too good. They would have noticed a guest casting a spell if they were on camera. Which–

Wait. 

My hands quickly danced over the controls on the keyboard, adjusting the playback timeline as I rewound and then pushed it forward, my eyes staring intently. 

“This is impossible,” Shiori announced, clearly too distraught about her missing mother to sit and focus on this for any longer. “All these people aren’t using magic. I swear we’ve stared at every single guest in this whole place and not one of them is–” 

“That’s because it wasn’t a guest,” I cut in. “Camera thirty-two, zoom in on the dealer at the table and go back an hour, then play it forward at five times speed.” 

They all did so, and I pointed. “There, see it? Pause… there.” 

“Yeah, he’s using magic,” Asenath confirmed. “They all use magic, the dealers. It’s just performance art, and not powerful enough to actually trigger a teleport for one person, let alone a whole group.” 

My head bobbed up and down quickly. “Yeah, but look at his other hand. He’s using hold and pass magic.” 

Most of the others asked what I was talking about, while Bol took a step my way, his voice clearly surprised. “Are you sure?” 

“Hold and pass magic,” I quickly explained to the others. “It’s…basically you start the very bare bones of a spell and then hold it, hold the… the shape of it. Normally you do that by repeatedly tracing a rune of the spell against your palm or a flat surface or something every minute or so to keep it fresh. You hold the power that way, keep it shaped the way you want it so the spell doesn’t fade. The pass part comes from the way you empower the spell. Basically, you kind of… push it into someone else, let the spell take some of their power, usually so little they don’t notice it’s gone. Then you pass it into someone else and take a bit more power from them, then someone else, and so on. You can empower really big spells without draining yourself by passing the spell back and forth between willing or unwilling subjects, even without letting them know what’s happening if you’re careful enough. And that’s what this dealer guy right here is doing. For an hour before the teleport, he keeps putting his thumb against his palm like right… there. He’s tracing a spell against his own hand and passing it through people that sit at his table, empowering it over that hour. He’s using hold and pass magic to set up the teleport.”

The others stared at me, Miranda finally asking, “How do you know about that?” 

Chayyiel, of course. She’d been giving me magic lessons in addition to the combat ones. I couldn’t do the hold and pass spells yet, but I had the basic idea. I also couldn’t tell them about it. 

So, I settled on a simple, “I have really good teachers.” It wasn’t a lie. “But that’s him, that’s your guy.” I looked at Bol pointedly. “And it’s why your people haven’t caught him yet. Because they’re looking for a guest using magic.” 

Bol stared at the screen, his eyes focused on the dealer who had apparently helped abduct Jiao and a whole group of Vestil children. Not to mention the fact that this guy was obviously connected to the original disappearance of the Vestil-Akharu princess. 

“Well then,” the man murmured. 

“I think someone should go have a little chat with our new friend.” 

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Interlude 7B – Molly and Ryder (Summus Proelium)

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A/N: Molly was Eits’ real name before he transitioned, as mentioned in 6-03.

Just Over One Year Ago

“A one month shifting process, Miss Travers.” The heavyset man with the white bushy beard who looked like Santa Claus in a doctor’s outfit spoke definitively as he sat behind his large oak desk in the wood paneled office. There were no windows in the room. Behind him was an array of certificates and diplomas. To his right were a few animal trophy heads, and a gently crackling fireplace was to his left. The room itself was fairly small, intended to feel like a nice cozy place. 

Except for the animals, Molly Travers supposed. Those heads on the wall probably didn’t find it all that cozy or nice. It also honestly kind of seemed a little weird to have animal head trophies on the wall in a doctor’s office. Let alone an active fireplace. But then again, this wasn’t exactly a normal doctor’s office. 

“One month?” she echoed belatedly, suddenly realizing that she’d been staring at the deer head in silence for a few long seconds. Quickly returning her gaze to the man in question, she added, “Are you sure that’s the best timeframe, Doctor Dyers?” Yeah, her doctor’s name was Dyers. It could’ve been worse though. He could’ve been Doctor Losesallhispatients. 

Dr. Dyers was nodding. “Yes, one month. As I told you when we started, permanent transition like this is different for each individual. The process is easier than it has been in the past with the technology we have access to thanks to Tech-Touched individuals, but that same technology requires a very specialized selection of treatments. We have to account for a lot of things. The process typically varies between two weeks and two and a half months. For you, one month is on the low end. But you know what I mean when I say one month, what that entails?” 

“Taking a bunch of pills every twelve hours and visiting this place every other day without missing once,” Molly confirmed with a firm nod as she met the man’s gaze. “Don’t worry, I know. I’ve wanted this since I was a kid. Since before I knew what this was. I won’t blow it off.” 

“Our new techniques are far less invasive and easier,” Dyers carefully reminded her. “Instead of full surgeries, you’ll simply spend hours every other day inside the tank I showed you. You can sleep through most of it, or listen to an audio book or podcast if you’d like. We have a selection, or you can bring your own and one of my assistants will be glad to set it up for you. Throughout the treatment, assuming you come every day, your body will gradually shift into its… new and permanent form.” He offered a smile before sighing. “All of that knowledge and agreement on your part does bring us to the unfortunately more… mercenary part of the discussion.” 

“Money,” she finished for him. “You can’t start the treatment until you get paid in full.” 

“It’s for your benefit as well,” he assured her. “There can be very bad reactions to starting this process and not finishing it. It’s best that we have all those details in hand before day one.” 

“I’ve got the money,” Molly quickly informed him. She reached down to the duffle bag beside her chair, lifting it up with both hands to set on her lap. It was filled with cash. Cash she’d managed to get over the course of the past couple of months thanks to her new little friends. 

She didn’t know what to call them yet. Ever since she’d touched that orb and gained her powers in the wake of her parents… deciding they didn’t want her to live with them anymore, she’d worked her way through various ideas of what to call the tiny poltergeist-like creatures which allowed her to take over machinery and electronics. Gremlins, ghosts, geists, imps, none of that seemed right. 

All Molly knew for certain was that she made them with her power, and they were basically the only friends she had right now. With Grandpa Warner gone, the rest of her family had… well, they’d always made it clear how they felt about her declarations that she wasn’t… she. 

“Not here,” Dyers informed her. “We don’t keep that kind of cash on hand, Miss Travers. Here.” He took a card from his desk and slid it over to her. “Go to the address here and ask to meet with Ryder. Give him the cash, he’ll make sure it’s right and give you a receipt. Bring that here tomorrow and we’ll get started, okay?” 

Molly agreed, standing up before shaking the man’s hand with her own shaky, clammy one. Then she made her way out of the office and into the small hospital-like area beyond. She’d been here often enough that she knew the route to the exit without help, moving through a short maze of corridors, then heading down a narrow set of stairs and out an unlabeled metal door. 

Rather than a real hospital parking lot or anything, that put her in a narrow alley. Because this wasn’t a regular hospital. It was far less official, a place that didn’t mind taking her stolen money. Money she had stolen from ATM’s and things like that over the past few weeks in order to pay for this procedure. A procedure that would finally let her… him… her be him. 

And wasn’t that confusing enough? Even standing here, right on the cusp of paying for a process that would finally… finally allow her to look like the person she had always felt like, the years of her parents’ violent, vitriolic reactions to her attempts to change her own pronoun had done its damage. The idea of thinking of herself–himself as himself was… scary. It was what she wanted more than anything else in the world, but it was so scary. Even thinking ‘him’ in her own head was enough to make her flinch, expecting her father’s bellowing voice or raised hand. 

So, she’d made a deal with herself. She would stick with ‘her’ until her outside matched her inside. She would answer to her, she would… try to think of herself as her, even if… even if that was wrong. But as soon as her change was far enough along to be noticeable, she would… she would be he from then on. He would be the way he was supposed to be. Maybe she’d have a party for herself then. Heh. Maybe she’d have a party for himself was probably the better way to put that. 

That was stupid. She was stupid. Why was she stupid? Why didn’t she feel the way she was supposed to feel? Her parents were convinced that she was doing this for attention, like dyeing her hair or getting a piercing or a tattoo. They thought she was just acting out to act out, or to betray them, or something like that. 

But the thing her parents had never understood was that she wasn’t trying to be different. She was trying to be normal. That was it, that was the entire thing. They wanted her to be normal and she was trying to be. She was trying to look the way she felt. For her entire life, her body had felt wrong. Looking in the mirror had felt wrong. It had felt like she was puppeting her own body, like she was some foreign entity inside her own head. Her fingers didn’t feel right. Her hair didn’t feel right. Nothing fit the way it was supposed to. She was all just… not right. Wrong. 

Her father was wrong. She didn’t want to turn herself into a freak. She wanted to take the freak and make it normal. She wanted to be the person she was. That was it. She wanted to take the person she was on the inside and make that the person she was on the outside. She wanted… she wanted to feel as though she belonged in her own body. 

Why couldn’t she say that in a way her parents could understand? Why was she too stupid to find the right words? For years she had tried. For years she had failed. They had to exist. There had to be one perfect set of words in one perfect order said in just the right way that would make her parents finally understand. One set of words that would penetrate their fog of stubbornness and hatred. 

Then they’d understand.

Then they’d take her back. 

Then they’d love her. 

With a sigh, she started toward the end of the alley, throwing one of her helpers ahead to start the car that was already waiting there. Technically, she was only sixteen and had not passed her driver’s exam. But that was far from the first of the crimes she’d committed over the past few weeks. Particularly considering the car wasn’t actually hers. She’d return it later. She already knew that the owner never used it during the time he was at his office. By the time he came out, the car would be back in the same parking garage she’d taken it from an hour earlier. Her little friends had already disabled all the trackers on the car and any other security system it had. 

Checking the address on the card Dyers had provided, she used her power to direct the car that way while closing her eyes and leaning back a bit in the seat. It took about ten minutes to drive there. There, in this case, turned out to be an old apartment building. The front was boarded over, but there was a note on the card that said to go around back. So, she drove the car around that way, stopping in a spot close to the rear door and out of sight of the street. 

Unfortunately, she barely stepped out of the car before a truck came pulling up right in the same lot. Belatedly, she realized the truck had been back near the doctor’s office too. Was this some kind of escort that hadn’t been mentioned?

No. No, it was not. She realized that immediately, as soon as the three men in the truck hopped out. One held a shotgun pointed at her, while the other two had metal baseball bats. 

“Hey, bitch,” one of the guys with the bat snapped while taking a couple steps her way with the end of his weapon pointed at her. “We keep seeing you going in and talking to that fucking piece of shit doctor. That fucking butcher. You going to him to get your tits cut off, you fucking freak? Because I’ll tell you one thing. You want a cock where your cunt is? I can help you with that. For a few minutes anyway.”

The door into the apartment building was close. But not close enough to escape that shotgun. And she had no idea what was on the other side. Maybe nothing for all she knew. That Ryder guy might not even be there. The door could be locked. 

“Well?” The spokesman for the trio demanded while stepping even closer. He put the bat up under her chin. “You’re pretty cute. What do you say we show you what you’re supposed to do with,” he used the bat to gesture all over her, “all of this before you go getting all hasty and shit? Who knows, you might change your mind. What do you think, boys? You up for a little education? Maybe we won’t break this one.”

Powers. She had powers. But she’d never use them offensively before. Not like this. And what good could they be right now? The guy was pointing a gun at her and would shoot her before she sent any of her friends out. And the one that was still in the car behind her wasn’t going to be any help. It wouldn’t be able to get anywhere before she was shot or beaten down. She wasn’t a fighter. But she had to do something. She could scream. There could be people around. Screaming could help. Except for that gun. He’d shoot her. She could already see it in his eyes. He was disgusted by her. He wanted to shoot her. He was just waiting for the word. 

If only they’d waited one more month, her obituary could have listed her as the correct gender. 

Somehow, she found her voice. The words came as she looked into the eyes of the man with the bat close to her chin. “I should warn you. You’re right, I’ve been looking for a good penis. But they’re pretty hard to get. So if you put that thing anywhere near me, don’t expect to get it back.”

Rage and hate twisted the man’s face as he reared back with the bat. She jerked backward but tripped, falling on her backside with a yelp. Her wide eyes jerked upward in time to see the bat descending toward her. 

A hand caught the end of the descending bat. Eyes snapping that way, Molly saw a new guy standing there. He was a few years older than her, a fairly tall black guy that stood a bit over six feet, with movie star good looks. 

“Yo, asshole,” the guy with the gun snapped while pointing it toward the new arrival. “This ain’t got nothing to do with you. Fuck off.”

“Yeah, fuckknob,” the man whose bat had been caught snapped while trying to jerk the weapon away, “take a fucking hike, we’re busy.”

If the guy who had caught the bat was bothered by the other man desperately trying to yank his weapon back, he didn’t show it. The muscles in his arm tensed a little bit, but he held firm. “No, see, that’s where you’re wrong. This has got a lot to do with me. Cuz you know all those people who just stand there and bite their tongue while you spout it off all that stupid bullshit you were just saying to this person right here? You know all those people who pretend they didn’t hear anything, all the people who embolden you worthless fucking cocksuckers by going conveniently blind and deaf while you get away with all the shit you’ve gotten away with your entire life?

“I’m not one of those people.”

With that simple declaration, the new guy snatched the bat fully away from its owner before instantly snapping it forward so that the handle hit the man in the throat. As he doubled over with a panicked wheeze, the guy pivoted, hurling the bat into the face of the man with the gun just as it went off. But the new guy had already kicked the doubled-over man backward into the path of the shot, and he took the brunt of it. 

Molly realized belatedly that she was screaming. Everything else happened in a blur that was too fast to follow. The guy who had been threatening her was down, bleeding out all over the pavement. The one with the gun had only gotten off that one shot before this stranger was right there, disarming him and putting him down just as quickly and efficiently. 

The man was… was dead. Or dying. The man who had been threatening to… to… Yeah, somehow, she couldn’t muster a whole lot of sympathy. These guys wanted to rape and kill her. And from the way they’d talked, it wouldn’t have been their first time. Yeah, not much sympathy. Yet, despite that, she also couldn’t bear to look at him. 

But there had been three guys, right? Realizing that, Molly heard running footsteps. Her eyes snapped that way in time to see the third guy leaping into the truck. And he had something in his hands. Her bag. The bag with all her money that she’d dropped when the men first arrived. 

“No!” Molly shouted, scrambling to her feet. She held her hand out, reflexively summoning one of her little ghost friends to fly after the truck as it peeled out. But it wasn’t fast enough. The truck roared out into the street and pulled away with a squeal of tires. 

With another almost animal scream, she started to throw herself after the departing truck. But the stranger caught her arm. “Hey, hey. Bad idea. You’ll never catch up.”

Turning to stare at the black guy who had saved her, Molly opened and shut her mouth a few times. Her voice was a tiny whimper. “He took my money. He took everything. I needed that. They won’t help me. They won’t help me without that.”

The guy studied her for a moment. “You’re Molly, right? Yeah, I’m Ryder. And that guy just took all the money you were supposed to give me. I’d say we’re both kind of screwed, but I’m pretty sure you’re in worse shape than me.” 

Obviously seeing the look in her eyes as she all-but collapsed inward on herself, the guy exhaled long and low. “Fuck. I’m sorry. I was trying to lighten the mood, and… sorry. Look, maybe we can still work this out.”

She stared at him, shaking her head. “I can try to get more money, but it’s gonna take a lot longer. They’ve already started extra security procedures from me getting what I had before. I can try other things, but I… I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t… I’m not…”

Holding up a hand to stop her, Ryder interrupted. “You’re Touched. You did that thing with your little ghost gremlin thing. That’s how you got all that money before, right? Yeah. Yeah, we can help each other. See, I happen to know about a certain group that’s hiring people like you, with a finders fee. I think you’ll do pretty well there, and they’ll… they’ll take care of you.”

“Who?” Molly asked hesitantly. 

Turning, Ryder beckoned for her to go around to the passenger side of the car she had arrived in while he stepped down into the driver seat. “Let’s go. There’s gonna be cops on the way with that shotgun going off. I’ll take you over to meet Blackjack and give you an introduction.”

Molly had just gotten in when he said that name, her eyes snapping wide open. “B-Blackjack? La Casa?”

Ryder nodded. “Don’t worry. Like I said, they’ll take care of you. He’s a good guy to have in your corner. Let me do the talking when we get there. I’ll make sure your signing bonus includes that procedure you want.”

For a couple minutes as the guy drove, Molly just stared at him. Her voice, when she found it, quivered a little. “Thank you. Thank you for saving me, and for all of this. Thank you. I just… I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. I just wanted to be myself. I just wanted to feel… right. So… so… thank you, Ryder. And that’s… that’s a pretty good name, by the way,” she added a bit awkwardly. “I like it, Ryder. I mean, don’t worry, I’m not gonna take your name or anything just because–I mean. Um.” 

Another sigh came from the man. “Look, don’t thank me, okay? I just know how to get both of us a bit of what we want, and those guys back there…” He paused before muttering something under his breath that she didn’t catch. “And do whatever you want with the name. It’s not my real one. Just like this…” His hand waved in front of himself. “This isn’t my real face. It’s an illusion. So don’t get any ideas about tracking me down later or whatever. That’s not how this works. Just–” He stopped, eyes rolling up toward the ceiling of the car while they pulled into a lot. “We’re here, I–” There was a buzzing sound, and he took a phone from his pocket. “Fuck. Yeah, I’ve gotta handle this. You’ll be good here, I promise. Get out, go inside, tell the guy at the front in there that the Squire sent you to talk to Jack B. Got it? Jack B. When you get to Blackjack, tell him your story, what you can do, all that. And tell him I get credit for picking you up.” 

Molly was silent for a moment. “I… um. Thanks. I know, I know, you just did it for the finders fee and all that and… just… thanks, Squire. Or whatever your name is.” She started to get out. 

“Simon,” the guy quietly informed her. “It’s Simon. Here.” His hand flicked a card toward her. It was blank except for a phone number hand written on it. “You get in trouble again, or this doesn’t work out… call me. But only if you really have to, you got it? I don’t want you whining at me because you don’t like your hair cut or whatever.” 

“I got it,” she agreed while holding the card tightly. She stepped back after telling him where the car belonged, then shut the door and watched as it sped off with a squeal of tires. 

Looking up at the building in front of her, she swallowed hard. Blackjack? La Casa? Was this… could she really…? 

Slowly, she walked to the door, starting inside. Honestly, she had no idea if Molly could actually do this, be a part of La Casa and actually use her powers for more than very petty crime. 

But maybe Ryder could.

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Interlude 7A – Pack and That-A-Way

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With a flash of light and a pair of yelps, two figures appeared in the air in the middle of a large corridor and fell to the floor in a heap. They were tangled up there for a moment, lying on that hard stone floor. Each of them was equally disoriented and confused, almost violently pulling away from each other and scrambling backwards with their guards up as they stared wide-eyed at one another. 

“Pack?!” That-A-Way blurted out loud, her voice high-pitched and clearly completely lost in that moment. 

Pack’s own voice was just as baffled. “Way? What… what the fuck is— where the hell are we?!” Even as she said it, the girl was scrambling to her feet, looking up and down the hall. “Is… is this a fucking prison?”

It was. The hall they were in was lined with cells on each side. They were small, simple affairs with iron bars covering the front of a tiny room that had the metal frame of a cot bolted to the floor and a sink next to a toilet. Dozens of visible cells, visible as they looked up and down the hall, were the same. Heavy and clearly reinforced metal doors lay at either end. 

“Well fuck this,” Pack announced, already heading for one of the doors. “I don’t know what the fuck this is, but I’m leaving. You coming, Minority chick?”

After a brief moment of confused staring, That-A-Way jolted a bit, eyes widening. “Wait, I know what this is. I’ve heard of this guy, he’s newish.” She shot a look to the other girl, who had stopped to look at her. “Jailtime. He calls himself Jailtime. This whole prison, it’s… it’s in some isolated place… or completely created by his power or… or something. Anyway, he touches you and brings you here and you have to find your way to the exit. Then you get teleported back to where you were.”

Pack stared at her for a moment. “Are you serious? The hell kind of power is that? Just teleport people to one location and wait for them to leave?”

That-A-Way shrugged. “I think there’s more to it, but I can’t remember. Like I said, he’s really new. The Ninety-Niners pretty much just picked him up.”

Cursing under her breath, Pack tilted her head back to stare at the ceiling before muttering, “What’s with those guys and Touched who take you somewhere against your will like that? They’ve got Ringside too. And I’m counting Longhaul.”

Distractedly shaking her head, the other girl replied, “Maybe they put out a really specific want ad. All I know is we have to get out of here and back to help the others. So come on.” Even as she said it, the girl was heading past Pack to the nearby door. She was trying not to think about everything that could have already gone wrong back there while they were talking.

Pack exhaled, glancing around once more before following. “Can you just teleport us out the quick way?”

That-A-Way’s head shook. “I have no idea where we are, what this place looks like, what might be around, or anything. I need to have some vague idea of where I’m going if we don’t want to end up inside a wall or something. If it even works at all.” With that, she reached out to put her hand on the other girl’s arm. “But this way is south, so we can just walk right through…” While saying it, she turned herself and Pack intangible and went right through the door. 

Or she tried to. Despite the fact that the two of them were definitely intangible, the door held firm and they walked right into it with a pair of surprised grunts. 

Laughter erupted from behind them, and both reeled back while turning to find the guy who had brought them here. Jailtime, wearing his cliché black and white striped prison uniform with the number placard and simple mask, was doubled over laughing to himself. “Oh man, that was amazing! That was totally worth being quiet and letting you stupid bitches ramble for so long. Can you do that again, because I didn’t have my camera ready and you two really owe me for putting up with listening to you. Come on, maybe if you run at it really fast, you can get through! Give it the old college try! I mean, I know you’re both too dumb to ever go to college, but let’s just pretend. It’ll be great. I promise to clap.”

Glancing to each other silently, both girls suddenly threw themselves that way. It was north, so That-A-Way teleported past the guy to appear behind him, turning to grab him. At the same time, Pack launched herself into a tackle. 

Jailtime turned to smoke, floating into the nearby wall and disappearing just in time for the two girls to collide with one another. They went to the floor in a heap again, while his laughter filled the hall.

Pulling away from the other girl, Pack angrily lashed out with a foot, kicking the wall where the smoke had gone. “Get out here and fight, you fucking coward!”

His disembodied voice failed the hall. “Now why would I do that when we’re having so much fun this way? Well, I’m having fun anyway, and that’s what really matters, isn’t it? But if you bimbos really want someone to fight, never say I’m not accommodating to guests.”

Both girls stood up warily then, just as the heavy doors to either end of the prison hall opened and several large figures stepped through. They looked like prisoners, only featureless ones. They were men with no faces, only the vague shape on their bald heads where a face would be. No noses, no eyes, no mouth. They clearly weren’t real people. But their fists were real, as were the chains and knives that several clutched as they approached. Or, they were at least real enough to hurt, and neither Pack nor That-A-Way had any desire to see just how real they could be. 

Without missing a beat, Way grabbed the girl beside her, teleporting both of them behind the group to the north. As they arrived, Pack already had her shotgun out, and pumped a heavy beanbag round right into one of their backs, before turning the barrel slightly to shoot again into the next one. Both hit the floor from the force of the impact at such close range. 

That-A-Way, meanwhile, shoved her taser into the neck of a third one. It did nothing, the being just turning to smack the weapon from her hand before punching at her face. But she was facing south, so the girl went intangible to let the fist pass through her. Then she pivoted around him, facing east to activate her invulnerability while lashing out with as hard of a punch as she could manage. She didn’t have superstrength, but the invulnerability meant she could hit a lot harder without hurting herself. Her fist slammed into that featureless face, staggering the figure. 

Before it could recover, she slipped around the opposite side of him, activating her super speed as she grabbed the simulacrum by the arm and waist. With a grunt, she spun, using her speed to hurl the figure to the ground near the door. “Pack!” She blurted out loud, even as the figure was starting to pick itself up, barely dazed. If it was even possible to actually daze these obvious automatons. 

Pack didn’t need an explanation. Hopping over the outstretched arms of one of the figures she put on the floor, the girl raised her shotgun once more. A pull of the trigger sent the next heavy round right into the non-face of the figure Way had tossed. The shot completely caved in the front of the head, and the figure reeled backwards and fell. His body prevented the door from closing. Both girls lunged that way, throwing themselves through it just as the body disappeared and the door slammed shut behind them with a heavy clang. 

Out of that first hallway, the girls were now in a narrower one with no cells. It curved out and around, the corridor continuing out of sight. Behind them, the door was starting to open again as the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps from those things grew louder. 

Grabbing Pack’s hand, That-A-Way teleported to the end of the curve, as far ahead as she could see. The hall continued that way, a wide curve arcing away from the place they had just left. It was still generally north, so she teleported a couple more times, each as far as she could see. It would give them a little bit of a head start, assuming their captor didn’t just create new ones or teleport the ones he had around or something. 

At the end of the widely curved hall was a large set of bars, a heavy gate. Beyond that was a fairly small area followed by another barred gate that blocked an equally small room with a door. 

“Like an airlock,” Pack realized. “They open the gate on one side, make sure only the people that are supposed to go through get into that small area, close the gate on that side, then open the other gate.”

“Yeah,” the other girl agreed before heading that way. “Well, good thing we’re not waiting for anyone to let us through.”

The steady sound of many approaching footsteps from the direction they had come propelled That-A-Way to take Pack by the hand once more and teleport through both sets of gates to reach the room on the far side. Just as they arrived, however, that entire space was flooded with arcs of electricity. Both girls jerked away from each other with pained yelps before falling. They lay on the floor for a moment, dazed and out of it. Both knew they had to move, but the brief shock of electricity left them unable to focus even as the footsteps drew nearer. The by-then familiar sound of mocking laughter accompanied the footsteps. 

The gates opened, letting the faceless figures move through toward the prone girls. However, just as the nearest one extended its hand toward Pack’s masked face, there was a squeal of fury from above. All of the figures turned that way, as a grate on the ceiling came popping open and a small, scaled figure dropped through to land on the head of the automaton that had been reaching out. 

It was Tuesday. The monkey-lizard wasn’t that big, but was quite strong for his size and was currently motivated by the blinding rage he felt on behalf of his owner. Making his paws into fists and putting them together, he brought them down in a sledge hammer blow against the top of the automaton’s head.  It caved in, and the figure collapsed just as Tuesday ripped the arms from its sockets and use them to bash in the heads of the next two while dropping to the ground. They staggered back, and the others hesitated while the monkey lizard bared his teeth and chest, swinging both of the broken automaton’s arms menacingly. 

That-A-Way, by that point, had recovered enough to sit up and grab one of the arms from Tuesday. He hissed in surprise, but stopped upon seeing who it was, even as the girl stumbled to her feet and turned intangible while lunging toward a metal coil sticking out from the wall that was already starting to spark with electricity. She shoved the intangible arm through the coil and released it, hopping back as the arm solidified, destroying the coil and stopping that electricity. 

“Tuesday?!” Pack blurted. “How are—never mind.” Even as she dismissed it, the girl was snapping her shotgun up to pull the trigger twice more, knocking a couple automatons away to fall against their companions as she scrambled up. “We’ve gotta go!” Even as she said it, the girl lunged at the gate and shoved it closed, trying to hold it in place while not letting the automatons grab hold of her.

“Love to,” Way retorted while yanking fruitlessly at the heavy door. “But I can’t teleport through this without knowing what’s on the other side, and—”

“Through the vent!” Pack interrupted, still struggling to keep the gate shut while the automatons pushed against it. “Go up!” 

Tuesday went first, leaping straight back up through the open grate he had appeared from. That-A-Way, meanwhile, grabbed Pack by the arm and turned to put herself behind the girl, hands on her shoulders as the two instantly crouched together, dropping almost prone in order to fit within the space they were about to occupy. Behind them, the gate banged open as the automatons barged through. But both girls disappeared, teleporting up into the shaft through the tiny opening that Way could see.

There was almost no room up there, but the girls scrambled quickly along with Tuesday, moving through the shaft even as the metal under their hands and knees grew warmer by the second. Jailtime was retaliating against their narrow escape by heating up the shaft. It was already painful, making all three of them yelp a bit while scrambling toward the nearest next grate. 

Tuesday was in the lead, making pained yipping noises as he banged his fist down hard against the grate to slam it open before dropping through into the room below. The two girls were right behind him, cursing and yelping the whole way as they all fell into an undignified, but at least survivable pile. 

Now they were in a cafeteria of some kind, simple metal tables filling the room. At one end was the line of counters where food was handed out with a doorway into the kitchen. The other end of the room was the exit. An exit which was already open, as automaton figures pushed their way in.

“These motherfuckers don’t give up, do they?” Pack demanded while quickly reloading her shotgun with shells pulled from within her costume. Tuesday had climbed up to hang from her back while hissing at the intruders angrily. 

Just as the three braced themselves to deal with yet another attack from their relentless pursuers, there was a loud roar. A figure on all fours leapt over the kitchen counter, raced past the trio, and threw itself at the automatons. The initial collision completely broke one apart, before a hard swipe of one large paw took the head off another that had stumbled. 

“Holiday!” Pack blurted happily, already running that way to fire a shot at one of the automatons who was trying to grab the lizard-panther. Tuesday leapt off her shoulders to collide with another one. 

“I am so glad I saved that beautiful freaking lizard,” Way announced while using her super speed to dash that way, colliding bodily with one of the automatons with enough force to send it flying back against the wall. 

Together, with a lot of help from the vicious Holiday, the group demolished the automatons to the point where they could no longer function. Pieces of the things lay around them while they all slumped a bit and panted. 

Unfortunately, only a few seconds passed before Jailtime’s annoyed voice filled the cafeteria. “Fine, you wanna play rough? Let’s play rough.”

With those words, the sound of twisting, grinding metal filled the room. The girls looked that way to see the tables contorting and twisting themselves, reshaping into metal figures, each with four long bladed arms and six legs. On top of that, the figures began to glow bright red from the waist up, including those arms and blades. They were clearly incredibly hot, and were rapidly approaching, skittering spider-like on their half-dozen legs. On the way, faces appeared on the half-formed heads, just enough for mouths to gape open, revealing lines of jagged metal teeth. 

“Nope, nope, nope!” Pack announced, already pivoting to run for the exit. “Fuck that, not doing it, let’s go!”

The door slammed shut on them, but almost immediately collapsed inward as another figure burst through from the other side and loomed in front of them with a roar. 

“Mars Bar!” That-A-Way blurted. In that moment, she was as happy to see the enormous bear-lizard as she had been to see Holiday. “Pack, how are your—”

“Hell if I know!” the other girl interrupted. “But I’m not gonna fucking question it, let’s just get the hell out of here. I’m done playing this bastard‘s game. Go!”

Mars Bar stepped back, while the group joined him in the hall. There, they ran as Pack called, “You guys know where the others are?” Because if this many of her creatures were in the prison, the remaining two would be.

Her question was seemingly answered by a loud screech just as they reached a four-way corridor. That-A-Way pointed left, toward the sight of sunlight and freedom. “Exit!”

“Riddles!” Pack had already turned the opposite way, toward the direction of the screech. “Go, I’m not leaving my friends!” She and the rest of her creatures ran toward the screeching sound, leaving the other girl standing there for a moment. 

After only the slightest hesitation, That-A-Way launched herself after the others, racing to catch up. Together, they burst into an obvious visitation room, where Riddles was flying back-and-forth over the tables, avoiding dozens of pens, knives, balls, plates, and any number of other small objects that were being flung through the air at her by an invisible force. 

“Riddles, let’s go!” Holding the door open as she called to the bird lizard, Pack watched as the flying creature dove between several more flying objects before reaching the entrance. She slammed the door shut just as a handful of knives collided with it, before turning. Riddles had landed on Mars Bar’s head. “Okay, now–”

A sudden, incredibly violent and powerful force slammed into all of them. They were flung down the hallway and collided with the far wall before falling forward to the ground. As Pack looked up, she saw that Riddles, Mars Bar, Tuesday, and Holiday were all back in their regular lizard forms, having apparently been hit hard enough to knock them right back to normal. They all squeaked and scrambled over to her, climbing up the girl’s arms. She and That-A-Way picked themselves up, just as Jailtime appeared in front of them. 

“Okay,” the guy snarled, “that’s just about enough of that! Apparently it’s time to really scare you bitches. Maybe if…” He trailed off at the sound of Pack chuckling. “Why are you laughing?”

“Why?” she echoed. “Because when we were running through that hall back there, I found another friend. One that you missed.”

“What are y—” That was as far as the guy got before the nearby door was suddenly ripped off its hinges, seemed to hoist itself through the air, and slammed into the guy so hard he was knocked into the opposite wall with a squeal. He turned into smoke and dissolved back into that wall, just has the slightly bent door dropped to the floor and Twinkletoes appeared. 

All around them, the prison seemed to shake with rage, the walls and floor grew hot, and more automatons emerged from various rooms, all of them bent on vengeance.

“Twinkletoes,” That-A-Way blurted, “Jump on your mama with the others!”

The gorillizard understood, jumping that way while shrinking back into his normal lizard form to land in Pack’s outstretched hands. In the next second, while the floor under their feet grew too hot to stand on, That-A-Way wrapped her arms around the other girl and focused on the exit she had seen when they first got to that four-way intersection. The exit to the north. 

They teleported. Suddenly, That-A-Way and Pack, with the lizards clinging all over the latter, were right in front of the door. Sunlight and blue sky were in front of them. The two girls looked to one another briefly as an outraged bellow filled the burning hot prison behind them. 

Without wasting another second, they lunged for the doors and burst through together. The sweet sensation of open air washed over them for a moment. 

Then they were gone, leaving the prison, wherever it really was, behind. 

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Commissioned Interlude 2 – Lucifer and Sariel (Heretical Edge 2)

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Author’s Note: Rysthael is the name of Earth as given by the Seosten.  

Several thousand years ago

Two figures stood atop a hill overlooking an ancient city. To its inhabitants, it was the pinnacle of civilization, a gleaming center of prosperity and protection. The magic along its walls protected its people from the wandering beasts and brigands who plagued the surrounding lands and ensured an area of safety for the populace to live and grow. Its standing guard were armed with swords and spears of iron, as well as heavy shields. All of them heavily enchanted to cut deeper, to defend against more, and to return to a hand when thrown. They used bows enchanted with fire and ice, the horns attached to their belts capable of producing a single blast of sound that could blow through great stone boulders before their magic would be expended. They were some of the strongest, most capable of any people who lived upon this planet.

The two figures who stood upon that hill, gazing down at the walled city, might as well have been twenty-first century scientists observing a village made of mud, stone, and sticks. 

“There it is,” the man casually announced while adjusting the fit of his leather tunic and hood. He smiled, staring down at the city with open and eager curiosity before turning a glance toward the woman who stood beside him. “You see, Sariel, I told you we’d make it before nightfall.” 

“You said we’d make it before nightfall yesterday, Lucifer,” Sariel reminded the man idly. “As I recall, your actual words were, ‘Rysthaelean maps show it only a fingernail width away, let’s walk.’” Despite her teasing, she felt no particular annoyance. Spending a couple of days walking across this land with the man who was a brother to her was a vacation from the myriad other tasks and seemingly endless array of problems that continued to pop up since they arrived on this world. Truthfully, she was all but certain that Lucifer knew exactly how long this would take and had been giving her plausible deniability about the mini-vacation he had brought her on. 

At the moment, the man simply shrugged. “Yes, well, I may have said it yesterday, but I’m quite certain I wasn’t specific about the day.” With a wink, he cleared his throat. “Anyway, we’re here. Time to go down and see what we can find out about these Rysthaeleans. But ahh…” He glanced to her with a small smirk. “What do you say we make a real challenge of it, hmm?”  

Flipping her own hood down to reveal her tightly braided blonde hair, Sariel replied without looking at him. “What exactly do you mean by a challenge, oh troublemaker of mine?” 

Grinning when she took the bait, Lucifer tapped a finger against his forehead. “Oh, I was just thinking it might be fun to see how much we can manage down here without resorting to cheating. No possession, no magic, nothing like that. Put some actual effort into this whole scouting thing. Talk to people, see what we can pull out of the populace the old-fashioned way.” 

Before Sariel could respond to that, they both became aware of the approach of several men on the back of the four-legged animals the locals referred to as horses according to the research they had already done. The men on their horses were coming at a pace much faster than ordinary animals of that type, a glowing mystical fog around their feet lending more proof to the idea that they were magically enhanced with a sort of speed boost. The men were certainly in a rush to get to the pair, though their weapons remained sheathed, at least for the moment.  

Glancing back to the distant city wall, Sariel noted several figures armed with bows that were drawn and ready. The archers appeared to be members of the bird-like Lavinsi people. Which made sense, given their remarkable vision capabilities. Marksmanship in general was one of their fortes. Which explained why the people approaching felt comfortable doing so without swords in hand despite not knowing who or what she and Lucifer were. They trusted the archers at their back to cover them in case of any threat, at least long enough to draw their weapons. 

“I suppose you mean for us to handle this without magic or other tricks as well?” she asked in a soft, private tone as her gaze went back to the approaching horsemen without making any sudden moves that might spook the archers. They could handle it if things went sideways here, of course. But getting into a fight would put a real damper on the idea of pulling this off subtly.  

“What fun would it be otherwise?” her companion drawled before adding, “First one to have to pull magic or possession before this is over has to do the other’s trench duty for a month.” 

Trench duty, in this case, referred to the act of performing the dozens of mind-numbing simple spells required to, among other things, keep their landed ship safely hidden and prepare it in case of attack. There were wards that had to be put up, countermeasures against spies and infiltration, even spells for safely luring in food for the crew, transferring fresh water, and eliminating waste. Everyone took turns contributing their own magic to keep such spells running properly, and doing so was referred to as trench duty because of how boring and repetitive it was. Not to mention the fact that, while boring, it still drained you. No one particularly enjoyed trench duty, least of all a couple like Lucifer and Sariel, who build their lives around creating and experimenting with new magic. Wasting their energy performing such incredibly mundane, though necessary spells was annoying enough that they often made these kind of bets. In truth, what they were actually doing was sharing the load so that one of them did trench duty while the other could perform all the spell research that they wanted. But they hid it behind these wagers. 

“Deal,” Sariel replied. There were a few in-depth tests she wanted to do with some of the flora and fauna of this world. From the little research she’d read, the native Rysthaeleans’ remarkable ability to form a genetic bond with other species only worked with creatures from other worlds. How and why a species would develop that kind of power and have it be utterly useless on creatures that were actually native to their world was… curious. She had some ideas, but they would require intense magical research. Particularly with Cahethal insisting on claiming the Olympus’s main labs for her own work throughout the foreseeable future. Though she had mellowed on the twins over the past decades that they had been shipmates and even allowed their assistance, the woman still preferred to work on her own, particularly with this sort of thing. She only truly trusted herself when performing research this important. Sariel understood that.

“Ho there!” The man on the lead horse called, riding his mount to within about twenty feet before drawing it up to a halt. The other two came up slightly behind him. While the man in front appeared to be Rysthaelean, the two behind him were a short, blue-skinned and four-eyed Pisendej, and a red-furred, long-eared Reusfeil. The two non-natives watched Sariel and Lucifer intently, hands on the weapons still sheathed at their sides while the horses whinnied softly. 

“Apologies for the tense greeting if you come in peace,” the Rysthaelean informed them in a voice that was casual, but could easily turn hard. “Things are just a bit tense around here lately, and we’d like to know where you come from. As well as your business at Ephesus if you don’t mind.” It was clear that, despite the polite way he spoke, this was not a simple request to be denied. 

Lucifer, as usual, took the lead in the conversation. “Hail and good evening, sirs. Our deepest apologies for disturbing the peace of your city. I am called Delian and this is my sister, Diana. We’ve left the lands of our parents far behind and have been searching for a quiet, peaceful place where we might live. We carry no trouble at our backs and mean you and yours no harm.” 

“I am Hector,” the Rysthaelean informed them. “And I’m afraid if you’ve come for peace, your journey has led you astray. You’ll find little peace in these lands, less if you keep going this way.” 

“I don’t understand,” Sariel chose to put in then. “Your city seems quite well-defended, and I see no armies camped outside its walls. Is there truly a threat to it that you cannot put down?”

“An army, no,” Hector confirmed. “One of those we could fight in a true battle and simply end the situation once and for all. No, the trouble in this case comes from the one called Faelt, a brigand, murderer, and king of bandits. He is a bad sort, an evil man. If you wish to avoid drawing the attention of him and his group, I would suggest you make a wide path around this place and push on as far as possible before night. It would be in your best interest to stay safe.”

Lucifer’s head shook. “What threat could a small band of murderers pose to a whole city? Surely your walls are warded against unwanted intrusion by such beings, and you have a night watch.” 

Instead of Hector, it was the Reusfeil who spoke, his tone one of long-stressed anger and helplessness, the tone of a man who was far beyond tired of seeing those under his protection die while he remained frustratingly incapable of protecting them. “We have all of those and more. They have always protected our city in the past. Now they do not, and we know not why.” 

“They are travelers and strangers, Sanja,” Hector reminded his companion sharply. “They are not here for our internal issues. For all we know, they were sent by the bandit king himself.” To the twins, he added a softer, “Apologies for any insult. We simply don’t know you, I’m afraid. We have problems enough without inviting strangers into our confidence. And I’m quite certain you have your own lives to proceed with. As I said, it would be to your benefit to push on while–” 

Before the man could continue any further with that, something exploded out of the ground directly near the feet of his mount. The creature’s head was split in two almost instantly. In that split second, Sariel triggered her boost. She saw the weapon that had burst out of the ground. It looked like a metal rocket of some kind. Having been launched vertically out of the ground, the bladed end ripped through the head of the mount and hovered there directly in front of Hector’s face. All around the cylindrical body, a half-dozen small arrows snapped down into horizontal position and began to launch out in every direction. Two were heading for the man’s eyes. 

But Sariel was quicker. A thought popped one of her daggers into one hand, and she gave a quick snap of her wrist to send the dagger straight into the rocket-like weapon. As it struck home, the spell on the dagger incinerated the weapon and most of the arrows attached to it. The single one that managed to fire was thrown off course, barely grazing the man’s ear as it shot past to hit the dirt nearby. 

Of course, his mount was still dead, and the man fell. But the Reusfeil called Sanja was already off his own mount and there to catch him before he could hit the ground, his figure a blur of motion. Meanwhile, the small, blue-skinned Pisendej was standing on his mount, a bow in hand and arrow nocked as he scanned the area around them wildly while making a hissing sound. 

Catching himself against Sanja, Hector stumbled before quickly spinning. He drew a sword from its sheath and blurted a command word. As he did so, the sword began to glow with a faint green light, and a bubble-shaped forcefield appeared, “That was dwellershot, are there more?!”

“Checking.” The terse response came from Sanja, as he took a glass ball from the leather pouch at his side. Clutching it in one hand, the Reusfeil murmured a command word. As he did, a holographic image of the land around them appeared. He studied it briefly before reporting, “No more. I see the path it took. From up there on that ridge. Looks like they took off.” 

“Then we’ll track them back to their base and see about ending this,” Hector ordered. Despite his words, the man took a knee beside his dead mount. His hand moved to touch the body, and he murmured what appeared to be a prayer of some kind. The pain in his voice, and the way his hand shook, made it clear just how much the animal had meant to him. He rubbed its motionless side with a heavy sigh before his head turned.  He was staring, first at the incinerated pieces of the rocket and the arrow that had grazed his ear, then to the woman standing in front of him. When he spoke, his voice was strained. “My… ahhh, my thanks to you, Miss Diana. Goddess be praised, you were blessed with great reflexes, it seems.” As he spoke, the man reached down for the gleaming metal dagger on the ground. “But if I may ask, where did you acquire such a weapon?” He carefully picked it up with two fingers, studying the thing briefly. “You have an item of the gods, they are far too rare for simple travelers. And your skill with it…” He trailed off before turning to extend the dagger to her. “I have many questions, but you have saved my life, so I will only ask rather than demand.” 

Lucifer exchanged a glance with Sariel before replying, “We are travelers, as we said. Perhaps not entirely simple, but we mean no harm to your city. Perhaps we can help with this bandit problem of yours, and you can help us. We’re very new to this land and we’d like to learn more.” 

There was a brief pause as Hector considered before sighing with a nod. “As much as I loathe to say it, we may need the help of outsiders like yourselves to settle this without more deaths.” 

“In that case,” Sariel announced while turning to look at the distant ridge that had been pointed out, “it sounds like we’re going that way. On the way, you should tell us about this bandit king and why he is still a threat to your city despite your walls, magical wards, and guards.” 

Hector agreed, before starting to walk alongside the twins. The other two guards brought up the rear on their mounts, keeping a careful eye out. On the way, the Rysthaelean explained that this so-called bandit king, Faelt, had actually been the second-in-command of the city guard at one point. He was found in the midst of raping the leader of the city’s daughter, and was set to be executed. Instead, the man escaped and united the bandits of the surrounding areas beneath his rule. He had apparently been using some sort of secret way of bypassing the city wards, as well as his knowledge of guard routines and perhaps even traitors within the guard itself, to conduct a campaign of terror against the city. He and his people came and went as they pleased, killing a few here and there before they could be found, then retreating. None were safe. He targeted the young and old, rich and poor alike. 

“He is evil beyond any you may have seen before,” Hector warned them. “And he will not fall easily. Be ready, for this coming battle may be the end for us all.”

******

The body of Faelt lay at Sariel’s feet, his casually discarded corpse bleeding across his own makeshift throne room while she stood over him, liberated bow in one hand. Two dozen bandit troops, most felled by herself and Lucifer, were scattered elsewhere through the room, with even more filling the tunnels of this cavern complex. 

Standing at one end of the room, staring in open wonderment, were Hector, Sanja, and the Pisendej, whose name they had come to find out was Nep. All three had dropped their weapons, their mouths agape. 

“You… the way you fight,” Hector breathed. “You are truly blessed by the goddess.” His gaze took in Sariel as he murmured, “Her hand guides your bow, that is certain. Never have I seen such skill, such…” He swallowed hard, his voice dropping to a whisper, “…grace.” 

Lucifer took a step that way, his tone curious. “What do you know of your goddess?” 

Hector answered promptly. “She is the goddess called Artemis, Lady of the Amazons, queen of their hunters and protector of this land.” 

“She protects your people,” Lucifer confirmed, easily jumping on that without a second thought. “And this Faelt, he is the greatest threat your city has ever known.” Pausing for dramatic effect, he corrected, “…I mean, was. He was the greatest threat. One that only your guardian could put down, with you all as witness to her act of protection.” 

“Delian,” Sariel spoke warningly, using the name Lucifer had given for himself as she realized where he was going with this.

“No, ‘Diana,’” Lucifer replied with a shake of his head. “They have suffered too much. The people of this land have lived in fear for long enough. They deserve to know that their goddess truly stands with them, that she is here when they need her.” 

He turned to the assembled trio, all of whom had already fallen to their knees while staring in awed reverence. “Let it be known that the goddess has not forsaken you, that she has returned in your time of need. Tell your people that the cloud of darkness that had settled above your lands has been pierced by her arrows. 

“Tell them that the Lady Artemis is amongst them.” 

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