Month: February 2020

Perennial Potentate 4-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Right, so… that was a lot to process, to say the least. We’d gone to Vegas to help find a missing little girl. When we were there, more kids as well as Asenath’s mother were abducted too. Then Heretics attacked one of the casinos and the information our two groups had gained led us up to Canada to meet King Oberon. From there, we’d been directed to some pure Alter town in the north wilderness. And because that clearly wasn’t enough, there turned out to be an outpost of an interuniversal prison up there, who were on Earth partially to eventually do something about Fossor. But while they were here, one of their other dangerous prisoners, a… sapient plant of some kind, had extended pieces of himself into the outside world, where they were infecting people to do bad things. If he managed to make enough bad things happen, he’d be able to manifest his primary consciousness in the outside world, escaping prison to do horrific things. 

Okay, one, my life was really fucked up. And two, the most surprising thing about all of this was that it didn’t seem to have anything to do with the Seosten at all. According to Prelate, the Seosten mostly left them alone (though they did have a few Seosten members), recognizing that the Gehenna provided an invaluable service. And, I imagined, recognizing the futility of attacking a group who could just decide to unleash all of the most dangerous and deadly monsters in the universe if you really pissed them off. 

So yeah, now we had at least some idea of what was going on. Even if it was really fucked up. Somehow, one of the Gehenna guards, this Azlee Ren, had been infected by spores from the prisoner they called Kwur. Azlee had set about trying to create a war in Las Vegas by abducting the princess, Rowan with the help of mercenaries he either contracted or infected with more spores. Or both. Probably both. Some of those mercenaries thought they were working for Gehenna itself, which was why Sarez sent us up here to Canada. They’d also abducted the other kids as well as Jiao to continue pushing Vegas toward outright war with each other.  

It wasn’t a bad plan, overall. Especially when he brought Heretics into it. Vegas was a powder keg that could easily blow up. Seriously, I didn’t know much about the Oni, but the Vestil and the Akharu were eons-old enemies. They had found peace in Vegas because two of their number married and started a family. The best way to break that peace was obviously to break the family. They took the kid to light the fuse, then took more kids to make things even worse. And now, if we didn’t do something to stop it, Vegas would go to war and Kwur would be free. 

Obviously, we asked Prelate why they couldn’t just move this Kwur guy off-world. He said it wouldn’t make any difference. Kwur’s spores were out there now, and moving the main body wouldn’t change that. Someone had to find the spores and either bring them back to the prison to join up with the main body, or destroy them. That was the only way to actually fix this whole situation before everything ended up getting a hell of a lot worse. 

Prelate had also mentioned that they couldn’t just kill Kwur because if they killed the part of his body that held the core consciousness, that would allow him to manifest it into one of the other parts of his body. And while he was handing out warnings, he’d mentioned that possessing anyone who was infested would be a bad idea, because that would give Kwur a chance to infest the person doing the possessing. 

So yeah, that was all just great. We had to retrieve or destroy all the pieces of that plant asshole the hard way. Oh, and save the kids and Jiao, of course. We had to get those children back to Vegas to prove what really happened. 

And there was another reason to solve all this, as if we needed more incentive. According to Prelate, they could help me with my Fossor situation by giving information that might be useful. But they would only do that if we helped solve this problem and get their prisoner back under control. You’d think they’d be super-invested in dealing with Fossor too, but apparently this Kwur thing was a more immediate and dangerous problem. Which–yeah, I could see how him getting out would be bad. If he was capable of spreading through all of the plants on an entire world (or even potentially beyond)? That could be apocalyptically bad. So we had to make sure that didn’t happen. We had to find his spores and deal with them before he managed to provoke enough violence to escape his prison.

Find and destroy the spores, save Jiao and the kids, return said kids to Vegas, avert a war, and in doing so, get information from the Vegas people about where Asenath’s father was, as well as information from the Gehenna group that might end up helping me deal with Fossor. 

There was just one problem with all that, of course. We had no idea where this Azlee Ren was. Or where any of the spores were. What were we supposed to do? How could we track them down? Finding Azlee was the key, but Gehenna had no idea where he was. So what now? 

We were all still wondering about that an hour later, as we left the prison outpost to meet up with our escorts, and the rest of our group, once more. Prelate had said that they would help in any way they could to deal with Kwur. They had numbers, power, weapons, they just didn’t know where his spores were. Or what they called his spores. I’d come to find out over that hour that his ‘spores’ were essentially any plant that wasn’t part of his main self. So finding infested ones? Not easy. They’d given us a spell that was supposed to identify any infected plant or person once it was applied to them. But we couldn’t just wander the entire North American continent using the spell on every person and plant we saw. That would get tedious pretty damn fast. 

We were just going to have to talk it through and see if any of us could come up with a good idea of how to find these people. And I really hoped that one of the others would have something, because I was drawing a really unusual blank. All I could think about was the fact that those guys in that tower were supposed to keep Fossor prisoner, and the fact that he had escaped in the first place to ever be a threat here on Earth was their fault. And how did I meet up with them in the first place? Because another prisoner of theirs had at least partly escaped. 

Okay, I knew that wasn’t fair. These people were responsible for the worst of the worst. They kept the vast majority of them contained. Having one of their charges escape a few thousand years ago, and then another work on escaping now was hardly the worst track record. 

Still, logic didn’t always work against emotions. And my emotions right now were telling me that Fossor wouldn’t ever have been a problem at all if these guys had kept him under control. I just had a lot of extremely complicated feelings about this whole messy situation, to say the least. 

Nuliajuk was talking as we left the tower to join up with the others out front where they were still waiting. “This is very… troubling news. If the plants themselves may become our enemies, sparking violence in those who inhale their scent, King Oberon must be warned. Canada,” she added in a dry voice, “as you may have noticed, has something of an abundance of plants. Something will have to be done to ensure they do not present a threat to the Court.” 

April piped up, “You’re not going to burn all of them are you?” Her voice sounded accusatory as she squinted at the Inuit woman. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of those plants are completely innocent. You can’t just take a flamethrower to every tree and flower in the area because one–” 

“We are not going to burn our gardens and trees,” Nuliajuk assured her calmly. “But precautions will have to be taken while this situation persists. As I said, the King must be informed of this.” 

“Informed of what?” That was Paul Bunyan, speaking up as he approached, still in his much smaller (yet still tall) form. He stopped in front of us, hugely muscled arms folded across his chest. “And what’s this about burning plants? You know if you need a plant taken care of, all you have to do is point Babe at it. If there’s plants to eat, he’d give me the silent treatment for a month if I didn’t give him first crack at it.”

Vanessa, meanwhile, was staring at us. She clearly had been paying attention to what happened in there through her father, judging from the look on her face. Tristan seemed to know what was going on too, as he leaned over and whispered something in his sister’s ear. 

“We’ll tell you on the way,” Haiden replied with a glance toward the rest of us. “Right now, we need to get back to King Oberon and tell him what’s going on. Then we can start helping these Gehenna people put a stop to this whole situation. And that’s gonna be fun, let me tell you.” 

Decker and his group of armed soldier-types (Strangers, as they deliberately called themselves) escorted us back to the bus. We would take the bus to the hangar and then portal to Oberon. Even if we had wanted to stay longer, Strangefield’s residents apparently weren’t interested. Well, the ones who knew we were there weren’t interested, at least. They wanted us out of their territory so they could go back to their ‘normal’ Heretic/human-free lives as soon as possible. Which, again, was fair. These people had been screwed over by humans losing their memories of being allies and then trying to kill them more than once. I couldn’t blame them for giving up on us.

During the ride back to the hangar, we carefully filled the others in on the whole situation and everything we’d found out. I saw Decker and a couple of his men give us double-takes once in awhile, but they stayed out of the conversation. Clearly they were all serious about not getting involved in this kind of business anymore, and just keeping to themselves. Still, I was pretty sure they would be paying a lot of attention to any plants that were in their city once they got back.

Meanwhile, April and December were deep in a private conversation that seemed pretty intense. I wondered if that had anything to do with the fact that the guy we were after was a magic plant monster and they served the Seosten who had posed as Demeter, who was basically supposed to be goddess of the plants or whatever. Not that I thought there was any kind of connection between them beyond that, but still. Maybe they thought there was? Or that she could do something? 

“Prelate gave us a stone that we can use to contact him as soon as we have anything substantial about this Kwur guy,” Haiden was saying. “And he said their people are going to continue doing their jobs to track down those spores themselves. But for the most part, we’re on our own with this. They have no idea where Azlee might be holed up, but it must be somewhere near Vegas if he’s trying to start a war there. Not that ‘somewhere near Vegas’ tells us much.” 

Paul spoke up thoughtfully, “Now that the conditions of the secrecy spell have been fulfilled, King Oberon might be able to tell you more. Maybe he’ll have something you can use.” 

“Unless there’s a magic ‘point me at the evil plant dude’ spell,’” Tristan pointed out, “I don’t think even the King of Canada can help that much. I mean, he’s crazy super powerful, sure, but how do you narrow down a search like that? Besides having lots of manpower, and I don’t think sending a huge force of Canadian Alter troops to Vegas would do much to calm the situation. You’d be playing right into what this Kwur wants, provoking a war. Seriously, it doesn’t matter if it’s one he made or another, right? Violence and anger is violence and anger, and he’ll be right there to soak it in.” 

“At least he has to be nearby,” Miranda muttered. “Imagine if he could just take in violence from anywhere in the world to get stronger.”

April’s reply to that was flat, seemingly emotionless. “If he gets strong enough to spread, that’s exactly what he’ll be able to do. Think about it,” she added after letting that hang for a moment, “his growth is exponential. As soon as he’s strong enough to break out of that prison and put his full consciousness into the outside plants, he can spread through those and keep growing. He’ll spread himself out to everywhere there’s conflict, and keep generating more of that to get even bigger. The more violence and anger he incites, the stronger he gets, which will allow him to incite more violence and anger in more areas.” 

Asenath, speaking up for the first time since we’d left the tower, murmured a quiet, “This could be very bad.” Her voice was subdued. I had a feeling that she was getting more and more worried about her mother’s prospects with every bit of information we found out. After she said that simple sentence, Shiori leaned in and hugged her sister, the two of them sitting quietly like that. 

“The Heretic war,” I pointed out after swallowing hard to push away the thought of anything happening to Jiao. I had to focus. “The Rebellion. If he gets a taste of that, he’ll make it worse. It’s hard enough to negotiate and have conversations with Hardliners, but with someone like Kwur inciting things in the background? There’d be no chance for peace or any kind of… of understanding. He’ll make sure everyone kills each other, just for the power boost he’d get.” 

“Basically, the whole world is fucked if that son of a bitch breaks out of that cell,” Haiden summed up. “And he’s not even the biggest threat they’re holding in that place.” 

Nuliajuk, with what I was pretty sure was deceptive calmness to her voice, spoke. “That is perhaps the most pressing issue. This Kwur will not simply content himself to ravaging this world. He will put his efforts, once he is strong enough, toward freeing his master, the Dragon-Heretic they call Ehn. If that happens, I fear the fate not only of this world, but of all worlds.” 

“But no pressure or anything, right?” I managed with a slightly crazed, high-pitched laugh. “No big deal, just stop Apocalypse Plant from unleashing evil Dragon God and destroying everything everywhere.” 

“It’s okay, Flick,” Tristan assured me. “We can handle this. We just need… I don’t know, Vanessa, what do we need?” 

Promptly, the girl replied, “What you really need is a spell to track this plant guy, or his spores.”

Tabbris piped in with, “You could do that with the spell they gave you, but if you want to do it… you know, faster and less… tediously, you need someone who was infested before, but isn’t now. I think…”  As everyone watched her, she went on eagerly with, “Yeah, yeah, that’s what you need. Someone who was infested but isn’t now. And is still alive. See, it’s like… there’s a couple spells that are kinda sorta right, especially if we change them a little bit. But none of those ones are ever gonna tell you exactly where to go. You can’t just like… enchant Google Maps and get an exact place.” 

Vanessa nodded along with our younger sister. “What she said. Basically, if you combine a tracking spell with the identification spells they already gave us, then get some of the plant or its remains, and some material from a previously infested person, you could probably jury-rig a spell to tell you if you’re anywhere near another infested or the plant itself. But the range wouldn’t be that long. You’d have to be within a short distance, like… a block or so, maybe? I’m not sure.”

“Butifit’sthateasy,” December demanded while her head snapped back and forth between Tabbris, who was sitting across the aisle from her, and Vanessa, several rows forward, “thenwhydon’ttheGehennaguysjustdothat? It’stheirjobtokeep… theplantguyinprisonright?” 

“Because it won’t be easy, right?” I put in. “I feel like we kind of skimmed over the ‘find someone who was infested, but isn’t now’ part. But wait, what about Sarez? You know, dealer guy? He was infected, he had to have–wait. No. Shit. Was he infected or just being used? Prelate said they used hired mercenaries who thought they were working for Gehenna because of who he was and–shit, he’s not, is he?” 

“We’ll find out,” Haiden announced. He took the phone from his pocket, making a call. As the rest of us watched, he went through a quick, private phone call. I saw him make a face several times, and it made my heart sink. 

“Okay,” the man finally announced while disconnecting the call. “That’s a no-go. Let’s just say if we need a living subject, Sarez isn’t going to be best choice. Someone assassinated him in the cell where they were keeping the guy. They’re working on finding out who did it, if it’s connected to our big bad or just one of their own people getting pissed off and making a move. The point is, he’s not gonna be providing any living material.”

“Oh, wonderful,” I managed. “So we have no host to work with. Which means we’re back to the plan of going door-to-door in Vegas looking for this Azlee guy. If we can find him, we can use him to find any of Kwur’s spores and deal with them. But we have to find him. Unless anyone happens to know where any other former Kwur hosts might be? Yeah, I didn’t think–” 

My phone rang. Blinking down at it, I checked the name. “It’s Sands. I–hold on.” Answering the phone, I started with, “Hey, Sands, we can’t really–wait…

“I’m sorry, you’re standing there with a little girl who was what?!

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Private Affairs 9-02 (Summus Proelium)

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“Oh, don’t you even think about it! Don’t you think about going after that star. That star is mine!” 

Even as I blurted those words, my fingers worked frantically over the controller. I shot a quick glance toward Izzy, who sat beside me in the game room (the one that was directly across the hall from our bedrooms, not the main one with the billiards tables and all that). “All I need is one more and this game is over! You’re going down, Little Missy Izzy!” I declared confidently. 

That confidence took a pretty big hit a second later as I sent my character around the corner in the virtual maze only for them to trip over a wire that had been strung up. My yelp in real life almost matched the sound of the star that popped out of the character’s flashing body from the impact. 

“Thanks!” Izzy called, as her avatar popped out of hiding and grabbed the star. She hadn’t been going after the one I thought she had been after all. She’d simply made me think she was and laid a trap. A trap that I had blundered right into, instantly losing my advantage. Now she had two stars and only needed to find one more. Then she’d be the one who ended the match. 

Quickly hitting the buttons to get my character back on her feet, I glanced toward the other girl once more. We were both wearing a pair of special glasses. They had come with the game. One pair was red, the other blue. The gimmick was that what the red glasses let you see on the screen was different from what the blue glasses let you see. The screen itself was divided into two halves and when I looked at the half that was Izzy’s side, all I saw was a static image of her character that showed her current amount of life, how many stars she had, and a few other details. When she looked at my side of the screen, she’d see the same for me. It let us play a split-screen game without either of us being able to cheat by watching what the other person was doing.

Unsurprisingly, I hadn’t really gotten that far with either of my goals earlier. Tomas said something about how his dad was apparently going to be holed up in meetings inside his home office for the next few days with a bunch of other people. Snooping around that place in the best of times wasn’t going to be easy. If his father had other probable bad guys around? Yeah, forget about it. He was probably dealing with the aftermath of letting Paige get away alive and intact with the information she stole. 

Either way, going over there wasn’t going to work right now. And as far as Paige herself went, I hadn’t had any luck on that end either. She’d disappeared shortly after the last class, and I hadn’t been able to track her down as myself or as Paintball. She might’ve been at her house, but the place was almost as big as ours and just as protected (and I didn’t know where all the cameras were there like I did here). I’d waited around a bit, but never saw her. I was going to have to try again another day. And didn’t the idea of spending multiple days actively trying to spend time with Paige Banners just fill me with absolute joy and giddiness? No. No, it did not. 

Anyway, the point was that I couldn’t do anything with either of those at the moment. And I’d needed a break. More importantly, Izzy needed someone to spend time with her. I already felt bad about leaving her alone in the house for so long. Not alone. Worse, leaving her in a house that I knew for a fact was full of evil, evil people who were fine with killing innocent teenagers. 

Yes, despite our many issues, I was still counting Paige as innocent. I didn’t know everything that was going on there, but I had no reason to think she was actually evil. A mean bitch who went out of her way to mock and insult me, sure. Someone I would gladly punch in the face? Undoubtedly. But not someone who deserved to be shot in the head. There were levels of bad.

So I was here, playing a game with Izzy. And currently getting my butt kicked as I was unable to catch up with her before she managed to grab the last star. As I groaned and fell onto my back, she dropped the controller and cheered while pumping her hands into the air a few times. On the screen, we could finally see each other’s sides, as my own character slumped and shook her head, while hers jumped up and down with the three stars spinning around her triumphantly.

“Sounds like someone’s having fun in here.” That was my father’s voice as he stepped into the room and smiled down at the two of us. “How’re we doing, girls?” he asked, giving a brief glance toward the screen. “Ooh, this one. You should see the next game, it looks pretty good.”  

Izzy’s head shook. “The next one isn’t gonna be out for another few months, Mr. Evans.” 

With a wink, Dad replied, “You’d be surprised what’s ‘out’ when you invested in their start-up ten years ago. But you’re right, it’s not ready for the public. Too many glitches. Just saying, you’re definitely gonna love it.” He let those words trail off teasingly while reaching down to rub the top of my head affectionately, his fingers gently stroking through the side that had long hair.  

A memory flashed through my mind, the memory of hearing Mr. Jackson on the phone telling my father that he would handle the situation with Paige by shooting her in the head. While I haven’t heard Dad’s side of the conversation, he obviously hadn’t objected. Plus, I’d heard him talk with Simon about killing ‘me.’ Or rather, the person who had witnessed those murders. 

It took everything I had not to freeze up or show much visible reaction as the wave of revulsion swept through me. It was joined by a rush of confused feelings. How could my awesome dad be like that? How could he be okay with killing people?  How could he be a supervillain? All of which was combined with my feelings about the fact that the man who had been my favorite superhero for so long was both my father and actually a villain, an evil psychopath. Damn it, why? Why?! That was the single word I wanted to scream at him in that moment. I wanted to demand that he explain himself and it took everything in me to stay outwardly calm. 

Swallowing back that reaction, I took a breath before turning to look up at him. Somehow, I managed to keep my voice from shaking or cracking too much as I slowly held up the controller. “You want a chance to try to beat the champion over there? Maybe you’ll have more luck.” 

“Oooh, wish I could,” Dad lamented with a shake of his head. “But I’ve got too much to do right now. Got a meeting to run to. Just wanted to make sure you guys were okay up here. All good?” 

A meeting? What kind of meeting? Was he going out to see Mr. Jackson?  Was this related to the fact that Tomas had said his dad was going to be busy for the next few days? Or was my father going out as Silversmith? Hell, I wouldn’t even be able to tell for sure if I saw that Silversmith had been out later, considering Dad clearly had a way of having someone else appear in his place. And how did he do that, anyway? How was he able to appear on the roof at that party that Pencil had interrupted both in his civilian guise and as Silversmith? Was the fake Silversmith just a body double who didn’t actually have any of his powers, or had some kind of tech to fake it, or did Dad somehow share his powers with the other person, or… or… what? 

Yeah, I had no idea. Somehow, I managed to tell my father good luck and he dismissed himself a moment later, heading out of the room with an added promise that he would be back at some point to beat both of us at the game. He said he’d take both of us on, so we should practice. 

After he was gone, Izzy looked at me with a slight frown. She’d taken the glasses off and there was concern in her eyes. “Cassie?” she started slowly. “Are you okay? You seem a little weird.” 

Shit, right. My father hadn’t been able to see my face from his position behind me, but she had, and had clearly picked up something in the split second before I had gotten control of myself. Thankfully, I didn’t think she’d noticed too much. I’d kept it together for the most part. 

“Sorry,” I replied, forcing myself to smile just a bit. “Maybe I’m just hungry. You wanna go grab a snack real quick? Then we’ll get right back up here and play another game. But I warn you, it might get pretty violent up in here, so you better be ready. Suddenly, I feel like I really–” 

*****

“–need to punch something in the face!” 

It was a few hours later, and I was out as Paintball. The words that blurted out of my mouth were accompanied by my actual fist slamming into the side of a man’s mouth as I threw myself away from the wall where I had been clinging, watching him and his partner corner some poor girl in the alley. They had just shoved her to the ground when I made my presence known. 

Yeah, I couldn’t do anything about the Jacksons or Paige just yet. But I could still do some good for random people. Hopefully, that would take my mind off of… everything else. That was the idea, at least. And right now, it was working. Hitting a couple thugs who were trying to rob (and maybe do worse things to) some innocent woman? Yeah, I could definitely handle that. 

Thanks to the purple paint boosting my strength, the guy I punched was knocked to the ground with a yelp. His buddy quickly raised the pistol in his hand that he had been threatening their victim with, but I used a shot of red paint to yank it from his hand and tossed it down the alley. He let out a cry and lunged my way with a wild swing. As he did so, I used green paint to speed myself up, ducking under his arm and stepping behind him, pivoting before using the last of the purple strength to lash out with a kick into his back that knocked him down on top of his friend. 

Still sped up by the green paint, I moved quickly while the men were tangled up with each other. Producing a pair of normal handcuffs I’d picked up, I clicked one shut around the wrist of the man I had kicked to the ground, and the other around part of the nearby dumpster to trap him. 

The first guy was scrambling on his hands and knees towards the gun that I had tossed away. With a sigh, I used blue paint to throw myself into a leap, turning over in the air to land on the ground between the man and the gun, facing him. “Tell you what, dude. Let’s play red light, green light. Red light!” With that, I shot two bits of red to his shoulders, yanking him off the ground and toward me. As he was pulled my way, I blurted, “Green light!” Then I dismissed the red paint while simultaneously speeding myself up once more with green paint so I could quickly dodge out of the way just before the man slammed face first into the wall behind me. 

Before he could recover, I used another pair of handcuffs on him. This was a set of stay-down cuffs, so he definitely wouldn’t be going anywhere. He lay on the ground groaning and cursing.

“Hey,” I informed him, “just be glad our red light-green light game didn’t involve an actual car.” 

Turning away from them both, I stepped over to where the girl was. She looked to be a few years older than me, probably in college. Her eyes were wide, her breath coming in deep, rapid gasps as she stared up at me while working her mouth repeatedly. No sound was coming out.

“It’s okay,” I promised, extending a hand to her. “Trust me, those guys aren’t going to hurt you.”

Tentatively, she took my offered hand, letting me help her to her feet. Still, it took her another moment to find her voice. “I–you…they…” The girl finally managed before giving a violent shudder. Then she was suddenly hugging me tightly. “Thanks. Thank you so much. Oh, my God. They were going to–they were–and you were–but they–” Her voice cracked again, and she was hugging me even tighter than before. “Oh God, if you weren’t here, y–you’re amazing!”  

A deep blush spread out over my face and I hesitantly returned the hug. What else was I supposed to do? Even as a brief flash of guilt about the fact that I still couldn’t do anything about my evil family washed over me, I pushed it away firmly. This girl didn’t care about any of that stuff. All that mattered right now, in this moment, was that she was safe. That was enough.  

Once the girl was calmed down as much as I could manage, I used the doephone app to let the authorities know where to pick these guys up and what had happened. Then I waited with her for another few minutes until the patrol car showed up. As soon as the cop stepped out and the girl (her name was Macy, apparently) ran up to him, I excused myself, using a shot of red paint to yank myself all the way up to the roof of the building we were next to. 

Clambering up onto the roof, I spoke immediately. “So, how did I do? Good enough to pass?” 

A guy in a military camouflage suit (black and brown), along with a ski mask and heavy-looking gauntlets stood a few feet away. It was the Minority guy, Whamline. He tilted his head a little at my words, before curiously asking, “So you knew I was up here watching the whole time?”  

My head shook as I admitted, “Not the whole time. I saw you looking down back when I jumped over that guy partway through.” Idly gesturing over my shoulder, I added, “Figured you were getting ready to hand out my score. So, like I said, how’d I do? Did the Russian judge screw me over on points again? I swear he never gives out anything higher than a five, the stingy jerk.”  

Snorting a bit at that, the Minority Touched replied, “Looked pretty good from up here. You definitely saved that girl. I’m just still a little confused about the whole good guy or bad guy thing. Like I said the other day, you’re all buddy buddy with a few villains, but you’re also helping people. Most Star-Touched aren’t palling around with the people who are hurting the city.” 

Oh boy, would he ever have been surprised. Or maybe he wouldn’t be. Honestly, for all I knew, he was working with my father and trying to sniff out what I actually knew. There was just no way to tell right now. I definitely couldn’t trust him. I couldn’t trust anybody. Look at what happened with the whole Tomas situation. I had thought that his family was at least somewhat safe considering they’d been out of the city for so long, and it turned out that his father was one of my family’s top enforcers or agents or whatever. So yeah, confiding in Whamline (or anyone else) right now just wasn’t going to happen. It wasn’t worth the risk. 

So, I just shrugged at the boy. “I help people who need help,” I informed him. “Blackjack’s daughter needed help. That girl back there needed help. I wasn’t going to say that Blackjack’s kid could rot in hell just because of who her father is. There’ll be other chances to bring him in.”

“Yeah, that’s fair,” Whamline agreed. “But you’re still a little confusing. I don’t know what it is, I just feel like there’s a lot more to this whole situation that you’re not talking about. And something tells me that something is gonna end up exploding in a lot of our faces. Not saying I don’t like you, or that you’re bad… just… something’s dangerous about you. About all of this.” 

What was I supposed to say to that? He wasn’t exactly wrong. There was a good chance that, even if he wasn’t knowingly working with my evil father, the whole situation would still end up going bad. It was just… too fragile. Someone was going to get hurt at some point. 

In the end, all I could do was reply, “I have my reasons, my own issues. But those are my issues. The point is, I really do want to help people. That’s important, right?” 

He nodded once. “Yeah, it’s definitely important. And that’s what bugs me. Because you’re just… you’re helping people. But every time I look at you, I just get this… feeling that–” Cutting himself off, he sighed out loud. “I’m sorry. Look, I’m sorry, okay? I’m just paranoid. I’m glad you’re out here helping people. I’m glad you helped Blackjack’s daughter, no matter who her father is. I’ve seen a bit of what Rot-Bone can do, and it’s not–no one should go through it. So, good job, seriously. And thanks for helping Way before, at the hospital.” 

I assured him that it wasn’t a big deal, but he disagreed. Thanking me again, while still being clear in his body language is that he thought there was more to me, the boy held his hand out. A glowing energy coil shot from it to a nearby billboard and he used it to swing himself over to the next building. From there, a second energy coil lashed out to catch the taller building beyond so the boy could swing himself out and around it. Then he was gone. 

For a moment, I continued to stand there, watching after his departing form. A long, slow sigh escaped me, as my head shook. Right. As much as I might’ve wanted to explain everything to someone, I couldn’t. Certainly not him. I had to keep all this under control.  And, for the moment, I had to distract myself. 

Maybe I could find another bad guy who needed to be punched.

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Commissioned Interlude 5 -Avalon and Tabbris (Heretical Edge 2)

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Sometime over the summer

Two figures walked through the woods surrounding the Atherby camp. One moved on two legs, the other, much larger one moved on four. The pair were barely visible through the early, pre-dawn light, their forms also shadowed by the thick trees. It wasn’t raining, but there was a thin early mist in the air. The forest itself was peaceful and quiet, most of its residents either still slumbering deep in their burrows, or on their way after a long night spent hunting for food.

As they walked, the four-legged figure raised a wing that was held tight against his body, using it to nudge the girl beside him. She stopped, head tilting a little before speaking up, her voice directed somewhere behind them. “Salten wants to know which one of us you’re following.” 

There was a brief pause, then a soft sigh as a much smaller figure emerged from behind one of the nearby trees. Tabbris gave an embarrassed, sheepish shrug. “Um. Both of you, I guess?” 

Giving a look to her Peryton partner, Avalon leaned in to whisper something to him before patting the majestic winged elk on the back. “You need something, kid? Or were you just practicing being sneaky without the benefit of another person to hide in?” A second passed, as she saw the way the young Seosten flinched, before Avalon exhaled. “Shit. Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.” Her hand patted Salten before she took a step closer. “I know what that sounded like, but I wasn’t trying to…” Pausing, she exhaled. “I don’t like a lot of your people.” 

Biting her lip, Tabbris nodded slowly, watching the older girl. “You have a pretty good reason,” she pointed out quietly. “We kind of… really hurt you and your whole family for a long time.” 

“Not you,” Avalon corrected quietly. “Not your mom, not everyone. But some, yeah. Some of your people are real ass–jacka–jerks. Some of your people are real jerks, you know that?” 

“Tell me about it,” Tabbris mumbled before realizing she’d said that aloud. With a visible blush, the young blonde added, “And you can curse in front of me, you know. It’s not like I haven’t heard it before.” The last bit was added quietly before she asked, “Do you want me to leave you alone? Because I can do that, I swear. I’ll disappear and I won’t bother you anymore and–” 

Holding up a hand, Avalon interrupted. “Breathe, kid. In, then out, in, then out, without words.” She watched while Tabbris did that, before shaking her head once the girl calmed down a bit. “You don’t have to leave. But seriously, I’ve got to know, why were you really following us?” 

There was a brief hesitation, as Tabbris shifted, kicking the dirt a little with obvious self-consciousness. “I–well I wasn’t really following you at first. I was just out here doing… um, other things. But then I saw you and I wanted to… I just wanted to say thank you, I guess?” 

Now Avalon was the one who looked uncertain. She turned, glancing back toward Salten, who seemed to literally shrug back at her before returning his attention to the tree full of leaves he was busy munching on. Then she looked at the younger girl once more. “I’m sorry, thank me?” 

The other girl’s head bobbed up and down. “For helping Flick before. You know, at the beginning of the year. Not just with the Peridles, but with everything else too. You didn’t have to help train her, but you did. You helped her a lot, even before you really… umm, liked her like that. I think.” 

For a few long seconds, Avalon just stared at her. “I…” She paused, then shook her head, a very small smile playing at the side of her lips before she mastered it. “I suppose we really haven’t talked that much, have we? Just you and me without Felicity.” The last bit was added as she turned and stepped back over to where Salten was, pulling a handful of blueberries and acorns out of her pocket before gesturing. “Come on, you can give the big guy his treat.” 

Tabbris hesitated, but then did so. Stepping over that way, she quietly responded with, “No, we… don’t talk much. I wanted to leave you alone, I guess? After Flick and me got back from space, and the whole thing with you being kidnapped, then the vault and… umm, I kind of… always tuned out and put myself to sleep for awhile whenever you and Flick were…” She trailed off, face going bright pink before she stammered an awkward, “You know, I just mean I always left you alone when you started getting relationshippy or whatever, I swear. I didn’t spy like that.” 

“Yeah, I didn’t think you did,” Avalon murmured dryly. She held that briefly before amending, “Okay, maybe I did a little bit when I first heard about someone possessing Felicity. Just for a little bit. I was worried about a lot of things. But I didn’t know you. Now I do know you, and trust me, I absolutely believe that you haven’t spied on any of the times that we were… involved.” 

Looking up at the other girl, Tabbris admitted, “It wasn’t just because of the relationship stuff. I was sort of avoiding you because of all the things the Seosten did to your family, and to you, like I said before. I know you have a lot of reasons to not like us, and I didn’t want that to come between you and Flick. I was afraid if I made her stand up for me, you two would…” She trailed off before giving a quick headshake. “I didn’t want to do that. So I tried to leave you alone.” 

Avalon’s mouth opened at that, but before she could say anything, there was an annoyed huff from nearby. She glanced toward Salten, who was giving her a significant look before snorting again pointedly. Rolling her eyes at him, she looked back to Tabbris. “Here, hold out your hand, or his majesty’s going to get all snippy with us. He gets annoyed without his morning treat.” 

Obediently holding up both hands cupped together, Tabbris watched as the nuts and fruit were poured into them. “I guess he really likes all these, huh?” she asked while extending her arms so that the huffy Peryton could immediately start munching, his eagerness as his snout all-but dove into the small pile of treats making her giggle with delight. “Oh–oh, he really likes them.” 

Smirking, Avalon nodded. “Yeah, he can be a bit of a pig sometimes.” She automatically ducked without looking as Salten’s wing lazily snapped out that way, before pouring a bit more into the younger girl’s raised hands. “He’s earned it though, even if he is a bit of a jerk about it.” 

The two stood together like that, Avalon watching as Tabbris fed Salten his treat for a silent moment. Then she exhaled. “Anyway, what I was going to say before someone had to butt in, is that I already told you, I don’t hate all Seosten for some being jackasses any more than I hate all humans for some being jackasses. You know, assholes are assholes, whatever the species. It just so happens that your species happens to have a lot of assholes in charge of them.” Pausing then, she shrugged. “I guess that’s what happens when you’re at war for so long.” 

Looking down and away with a hard gulp, Tabbris nodded in agreement. “Yeah… and the Seosten have been at war basically forever.” Quietly, she added, “I don’t think they’d know what to do if the war ever actually ended. Their whole… I mean… our whole society is built around it. It has been for hundreds of thousands of years, you know? They’ve always had the Fomorians to fight. If those… those monsters just disappeared? What would the Seosten be without them?” 

“They’d still be an intergalactic… interuniversal Empire,” Avalon pointed out mildly. “And there would always be new enemies to fight. Good guys and bad guys. People who just want their freedom and people who would treat the Empire’s subjects even worse than the Seosten do. It’s a big universe, and even if the Fomorians disappeared, something else evil would take their place. The Seosten have made a lot of enemies over the millennia. There have to be plenty of groups just waiting for a chance to take a swing at them. Good ones and bad ones, as I said.” 

As Salten finished his snack, Tabbris dusted her hands off. Then she hesitated before slowly reaching up to touch his nose. When he didn’t move away or seem annoyed, she started to pet him with a tiny smile. Her voice was quiet. “You’re right. My people will always have others to fight. It doesn’t matter if the Fomorians disappear or anything. And it’s more than that. Mama said that there’s a lot of bad groups that the Seosten crushed so they wouldn’t fight each other and could focus on the Fomorians instead. You know, whole governments that were fighting each other when our people showed up, smacked them down and forced them to get along. If the Seosten stopped doing that, some of them would go back to fighting each other. There wouldn’t be one giant war in the universe, there’d be a whole bunch of smaller ones.” 

“Exactly,” Avalon agreed. “I mean, I didn’t know all that. But yeah, of course the Seosten have a lot more enemies, and other groups who just want to fight. Keeping what has to be thousands of species all working together against the Fomorians can’t be easy, even for people with possession powers like your people have. And without one unifying threat, even the Seosten themselves would probably splinter into smaller groups. They already have, sort of, with Athena’s group. Different people have different ideologies, different ways of doing things.” 

“I guess that’s one thing my people are good at, making people focus on fighting just one threat.” With those muttered words, Tabbris stepped up to Salten. The young girl shuddered a little at the thought of what the universe would look like if it plunged into a thousand little wars as her arms went around his neck. The Peryton took it in stride, nuzzling her back gently while one of his wings came down to wrap around the girl like an arm as he made a noise of reassurance.

“I had a point beyond being horribly depressing,” Avalon noted, “I swear I did. What was it again?” She stepped over, looking a bit awkward with her hand raised as though she thought she should pat Tabbris or something but wasn’t sure how to go about it. She was saved, sort of, as Salten’s other wing came down, giving her a push so that her hand found Tabbris’s back. She kept it there, squeezing a little bit. “Hey, kid… Tabbris, look at me for a minute?” 

So, the Seosten girl did, slowly turning around to put her back against Salten while looking at Avalon. “I don’t think you’re horribly depressing,” she assured her. “I think you’re really good for Flick. That’s what I was trying to say before. Thanks for always being there for my… sister.” 

“That’s my line,” Avalon informed her, before amending, “Sort of. You’ve been there for Felicity as much as… more than I have. You’ve been there through a lot of things that would have gotten her killed. Or possessed. Without you, she wouldn’t be Felicity.” Her hand rose then, resting against Tabbris’s cheek without any nudge from Salten. “Back when I first heard about Felicity being possessed, my first thought was that you made her the way she was. Then I thought that was wrong, because you didn’t take control of her. But that was wrong too. You did make her the way she is. Or… you helped make her that way. Without you, she wouldn’t be the person she is. I love her the way she is. A big part of that is because of you, Tabbris. You saved her, you protected her. Everything I love about Felicity is… there because you possessed her. She’s not my… our Felicity in spite of you possessing her, she’s her because of it. Because of you.” 

The two stood there in silence after that, Avalon because she felt uncomfortable and Tabbris because she was quite literally overwhelmed. Finally, the older girl snapped her fingers. “That’s what I was trying to say before. Your people have been at war for so long that the people who took over, who held the most power for the longest time, have been the ones who were willing to do whatever it took. And that’s good sometimes, in some situations. Against monsters like the Fomorians, having people who are willing to do anything to beat them is good. Even necessary.” 

She took a breath then, arms folding against her stomach. “But you need the other kind of people too. The people who can hold those first people back when they need to be held back, who can convince them to stop instead of charging forward across that moral line. You need the pragmatic ‘do anything to win’ people and the people who think about what will come afterward. The rebuilding people. But the Seosten have been at war for so long that it seems like most of them don’t even think about rebuilding anymore. Anyone who comes up with any kind of ballast to the situation to try to pull back gets labeled a traitor and has to completely separate themselves from their own civilization.

“That’s why this truce is a good thing. That’s why you, your mom, Athena, and all the other Seosten who will push for peace are good to have right now. Your people aren’t total monsters, Tabbris. It’s not a biological thing. It’s a societal thing. There–I know there are a lot of your people who would lean toward cooperation and genuine alliance if they saw that it was a viable option. They just need to see it. You, your mom, and all those others can show that to them.” 

Blushing bright red, Tabbris stepped over to bury her face against Salten’s side with a mumbled, “You know, you sound like Jophiel right now?” It was true, those were the kind of things the woman who had once been known as Aphrodite had told Tabbris, Flick, Vanessa, and Tristan. They were supposed to be able to show the Seosten that a Seosten-human alliance was the best way forward.

“She’s talking about the Seosten leadership,” Avalon pointed out. “She means to get the Seraphs to turn your society toward an alliance. I’m talking about the people of your society seeing that this is an option. I don’t mean that your leaders should decide to change things, I mean that the Seosten people should see that things can change and then demand that they change. They’ve been trapped in this cycle of war and domination for hundreds of thousands of years with no real changes. They just need the chance to see a new option.” 

After a momentary hesitation, Tabbris asked, “Do you really think they can change? We only have a year of this truce before the leaders make up their minds about an alliance or an invasion. I… I’m afraid they’re just building up and getting ready to do the invasion thing.” That admission came in a soft, worried voice while she hugged Salten’s side tightly, her face pensive. 

“I don’t know,” Avalon admitted with a small shrug, her voice flat. “But I do know we’re not just going to roll over and wait for bad things to happen. Like I said, the Seosten need to see that there are other options. Not just about working with humans, but about working with everyone. Their hardliners have had a long gods damned time to beat the Fomorians their way. It’s not working. But they’ll just keep banging their heads against that wall until the entire universe collapses into a singularity, or until enough of your people decide enough is enough and drag them into a new way.” 

Tabbris was quiet after that, thinking about what the other girl had said for a few moments before she murmured, “It’s gonna be hard to convince them of that with this Heretic war going on, you know. They’ll say humans can’t even get themselves in order against a bigger threat.”

Sighing heavily, Avalon muttered under her breath about the Seosten creating that problem to begin with before nodding. “Yeah, I know. That’s why this year is important. And why you’ve gotta be there for Felicity when she needs you. Because I can’t always be. Especially with… with her birthday coming up in October. You be her back-up, right?” 

Stepping away from Salten, Tabbris looked straight to the older girl. “We both be her back-up.” 

“Both,” Avalon agreed before adding, “So are you going to tell me what you were doing out here in the forest before you saw me?” 

Now, Tabbris looked embarrassed for an entirely different reason. She poked the ground with her foot, ducking her gaze while mumbling, “Looking for bugs.” 

“Bugs?” Avalon echoed, raising an eyebrow. “Why were you looking for bugs?” 

The answer came with a shrug. “I like looking at bugs. Weird bugs. Neat bugs. When I was…” She hesitated before pushing on. “When I was still hiding in Flick at home, and I had to get out at night to sneak around putting spells up on the outside of the house, I used to… to… name the bugs there. You know, in the flower garden and the yard. I knew a lot of the bugs out there and I gave them names and… and they were sort of…” She swallowed hard, looking down with a barely audible, “They were sort of like friends.”   

A long silence followed that, before Avalon took a step over there, reaching out to take Tabbris by the hand. “You know what? When my… dad used to lock me up in my bedroom, there was this spider that lived in the corner. I named him Wilbur.” 

“Wilbur?” Tabbris echoed, eyes widening a bit as she looked up at the girl. “Really?” 

“Really,” Avalon confirmed. She hesitated then before adding, “You know, I’m basically done with my work-out this morning. At least until someone else gets up. You want to take a walk with me?” An annoyed huff from nearby made her amend, “A walk with us, I mean.” 

“You… want me to walk with you? With… without Flick?” Despite their conversation, Tabbris still sounded amazed by that idea. 

Snorting, Avalon tugged her by the hand while turning. “Yeah, well, not everything’s about her. I’d like to know you too. So come on. 

“Let’s go see what sort of neat bugs we can find.”

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Perennial Potentate 4-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Okay uh, wait, wait, wait! What do you mean you’re here to recapture Fossor?” Shiori demanded while I just stood there with my mouth open, unable to even think straight, much less talk. “You’re saying that you people are the good guys?! And you’re actually going to deal with the problem of the psycho evil necromancer who escaped from your prison?” Her hand was squeezing my arm almost painfully as she stared at the blue-scaled man. “Are you serious?” 

“Seosten call them Gehenna,” April informed us with a curious expression. She looked like she suddenly understood a few things better. “I’ve never seen any of them, but…” She glanced to Prelate Kotter. “Now that you’ve explained that much, that is who your organization is, yes?”

His head gave a short nod. “Yes, the Seosten and their adjacent peoples refer to our organization as Gehenna. We take the most wicked, those who could pose a true threat to the overall universe, and hold them where they cannot harm others. It is our purpose, and we hold no allegiance or debt to any government or individual save our own. We are neutral in all things save for our duty.” 

Haiden stepped in front of us, his back stiff as he stared at the man. “And the reason King Oberon didn’t tell us you were up here when we spoke to him was the oath of secrecy our friend over there mentioned?” he asked with a gesture toward Decker, standing nearby. “You actually got the King of Canada to agree to be bonded under a magical oath like that somehow?” 

“The good king understands that the service we provide to the universe should not be threatened,” Prelate replied simply. “The more who know of our presence and location on this world, the more dangerous that presence becomes, both to us and to his people.” 

Finally, I found my voice. “Because there’s gotta be a whole lot of bad guys out there who would love to smash their way into your prison here and release your inmates, right? I bet someone could cobble together a pretty damn good army that way. And if the people you’re holding on to are as dangerous as you’re saying they are… if they’re on the level of Fossor? That’d be bad. And you guys are up here all by yourselves.” 

“Indeed, Miss Chambers,” the man agreed. “It would be very… bad, as you say. Two points of correction, however. First, we are not alone. Not only would others of our organization arrive in short order to assist, but we would also have the aid of those who bear the Mark of Gehenna to bring forth their Leau Drema, their… as you would say, Spirit Animal.”

“Spirit Animal,” I echoed, blinking a couple times. “Mark of Gehenna, spirit–you mean tattoos? Like Larees, she has a–” 

He gave a short nod. “Yes, a phoenix Leau Drema. Larees bears the Mark of Gehenna, and is thus bound to aid our organization when called for. Those of the Mark swear oaths to ensure, at any time of need, that our most important prisoners do not escape, and to thwart all attempts of their minions and sycophants to retrieve them.”

“But we saw another guy,” Vanessa pointed out. “He had a tattoo that could become a giant snake, and he’s definitely still loyal to the Seosten.” 

Prelate gave a short, careless shrug. “Loyalties to governments and ideologies do not matter when Gehenna is in need. The one you speak of is named Nahash. He and Larees may fight on opposite sides at any other time, as may any of our other Marked. But when Gehenna calls, they will fight together to ensure the overall preservation of the universe at large.” 

That said, the man looked back at me. “The second point of correction to your earlier remark is that our prison is not ‘here.’ The structure you see behind me contains an entrance to our prison, along with multiple temporary holding cells and a barracks for our troops on this world. But it is not the actual prison itself. There are several such buildings like this one spread across the universe, wherever Gehenna establishes an outpost. But there is only one full prison, connected through magic to each outpost for immediate transport of our subjects.”

“Sounds like the Pathmaker,” I murmured before focusing. “The King spoke to you before sending us up here, didn’t he? That’s what he was doing that whole time.” 

Again, he nodded. “He made arrangements for this meeting, but we asked that he not give you the full story until we were able to speak in person. You may call us paranoid, but keeping our secrets is an important part of how our prison remains secure. We asked for the favor that he direct you our way, yet allow us to decide when and how to speak to you directly. He agreed, again, because not allowing word of our presence here to leak is in everyone’s best interests.” 

“Wait, hold up.” That was Jason. “I know I’m just the clueless nobody new guy around here, but if that place right there is just an entrance that connects to the prison, couldn’t you just shut it down if you were attacked here? I mean, yeah, they’d probably be able to breach the building itself with a strong enough force, but then what do they have? If you turn off the connection to the prison or whatever you use, they’ve basically got nothing. So what’s the big deal, exactly?”

Tabbris was the one who answered him. “There’s still a connection to the other place even after they shut it down. Especially if the link between locations has been there for a long time.” 

Prelate actually gave a faint smile at that, bowing his head in acknowledgment. “Yes, as the young miss said. If they were to take this structure, we would of course close the connection to the prison. But a force that was strong enough to take this place from us would likely be skilled enough to reopen that connection through the lingering magic from the previous link. Perhaps before sufficient aid could arrive.”  

“The same reason we have to be careful about where we connect portals to our own base,” Haiden reminded us, while clearly taking care not to give away any more information than necessary about the star station. “Because Crossroads and Eden’s Garden could potentially grab the lingering energy from a recent portal and use it to create another one, leading them to our home.” 

“Right, I guess that makes sense. Bad idea to let them do that.” As he said that, Jason looked over to Columbus. “Didn’t you say those goggles of yours can see lingering magical energy?” 

“Among other things,” the boy confirmed while looking toward our new host. “And if I can do it, anyone strong enough to attack this place and get anywhere definitely could. Plus, they’d actually know what to do with it. So, we can’t really blame these guys for being paranoid.” 

“Blame them for being paranoid?” Asenath echoed, her voice sharp. “No. But I do want answers, and I want them now.” She moved up, stepping beside me to focus on Prelate Kotter. “Someone kidnapped the princess from Las Vegas. When we investigated, they came back and abducted several more children and my mother. One of the people who helped them get away with that second abduction was a blackjack dealer, who told us to come here to Canada for answers. And while that was going on, a group of Heretics invaded another casino. When one of them was possessed, he gave us a single name. Azlee Ren Kotter. Whoever helped the Heretics break into the casino was going to take the kids they abducted to see that person.” 

If he had any reaction to hearing that, the man didn’t show it. Which was probably because he’d already heard all of it from Oberon the night before. Instead, he gave us a slight nod before replying, “There is much to discuss. Which we should do inside. But first, there are a few steps to take to ensure that you may safely enter the outpost without any… unfortunately accidents. We need to sync you to our security spells to make the system see you as our guests.” 

December’s hand snapped up quickly. “Waitwhenyousayguestsdoyoumeanguestsorguests?” Her eyebrows waggled pointedly. “Youknowwiththesinistermusicandstuff. Cuzthosearedifferent.” 

“What the kid said,” Haiden agreed. “Exactly what do you mean by making us your guests?” 

In the background, I could see Paul (with Babe) and Nuliajuk watching us from their place beside Decker. None of them looked like they were about to interrupt, though the big lumberjack (still in his smaller, more manageable form) did meet my gaze briefly and wink with a mouthed, ‘It’s okay.’ Somehow, that actually was reassuring. Knowing that… okay, believing that they had our backs if this went wrong helped a bit. As strong as this Gehenna group might’ve been, I refused to believe that they would just willy nilly piss off the King of Canada by attacking us right now. 

“Your caution is understandable, given this situation,” Prelate was saying. “I can assure you that we mean you no harm. But, for your own peace of mind, if you would like, you are free to leave some of your number here. They may, in turn, act or call for assistance should you not return promptly and safely. It is entirely your own decision. But I can only answer further questions inside.” 

As a group, we all exchanged glances. I was going in there, no matter what. They didn’t just have information about the missing kids and all that. They also knew things about Fossor. Things that might end up being useful, when… when the day came that I had to face him. So, whatever the others decided, I knew that I had to go in and find out whatever I possibly could. 

Apparently that wasn’t even much of a surprise, considering Shiori promptly announced, “I’m going in with Senny and Flick.” Yeah, she knew Asenath would go in there too, for her mother. 

“We can stay outside,” Vanessa pointed out. “If Tristan and I each possess someone who goes in for a second, we can use that connection to know if anything bad happens in there.” 

“The last person I possessed is back home at the school,” Tristan put in. “If I just stand out here and don’t possess someone, but Vanessa does, she can tell me if something bad happens. Then I can recall to the school and grab a whole crapload of cavalry. You know, like Mom.” 

“Whatever you decide to do,” Paul Bunyan spoke up after exchanging a few quiet words with his group, “Decker and I’ll stay with whoever waits out here. Nuliajuk can go inside with the rest.” 

In the end, we went with Vanessa, Tristan, Tabbris, December, and Bobbi waiting outside with Paul. Tabbris had the same benefit with me that Vanessa had with her own father (he was the one she chose to briefly possess). She could check in on me from outside to make sure we were safe. And December wanted to stay with her. With Bobbi, Paul, Babe, and (hopefully) Decker’s group protecting them, there was at least a decent chance they’d be okay long enough for Tristan to recall up to the station and get help. Which… yeah, we were probably being overly paranoid, but still. Wyatt would say we weren’t being cautious enough. This felt like the least we could do while still getting the information we needed. At least, assuming this Prelate guy was on the up and up. And I thought he was.

Yeah, if this Gehenna group had anything bad in mind, the people out here were in as good of a position to deal with it as they could possibly be given what we had to work with. 

Which left Haiden, Asenath, Miranda, Shiori, April, and me to go inside. With Nuliajuk, of course. Once we’d sorted all that out, Prelate nodded acceptingly and stepped over to Haiden first.  Carefully, he used what appeared to be their own version of a field-engraver to draw a magic symbol on the man’s arm. When he was done, he powered it and the spellwork disappeared, apparently activated. His voice was calm. “For the next twenty-four hours, or until it is revoked, our defenses will not bother you. Do not attempt to replicate the spell you just witnessed. There are elements you could not see, and specifics are changed often.” 

“Darn,” Haiden replied, “And here I was hoping to cover my body in spell tattoos and magic Michael Scofield my way into your prison.”  

“He broke out, not in,” Tristan reminded him. 

“Depends on the season you’re talking about,” April of all people put in. “And it depends on–” 

“Are you guys really having this discussion right now?!” an exasperated Vanessa demanded. Despite everything, the look on her face was actually pretty funny. I stifled my reaction though. 

Under Vanessa’s squinting gaze, the rest of us had our spell tattoos put on. Once we were suitably protected from the prison’s defenses, Prelate pivoted on his heel and started to move while beckoning. A massive ruby-red door with a bunch of white spell runes appeared at the base of the building as we followed him toward it. When we got closer, the man held up his hand. I had a brief glimpse of white spell runes on his palm before he held them in front of the door. The spells on the building seemed to glow brighter for a second, then the door opened. 

We stepped through that massive door and found ourselves in the lobby. But this definitely wasn’t a welcoming lobby. There were heavily armed troops, a dozen of them, waiting for us. They were dressed similarly to Prelate, each of them holding a complicated-looking advanced  rifle of some kind that probably shot lasers or nuclear explosions or something. They weren’t pointing them at us or anything, But I had the feeling that it wouldn’t take much if we were to act up. Plus, these guys were reinforced by a bunch of turrets all along the walls and ceiling. And I saw more spell work along every surface. Those runes glowed briefly when we stepped onto the floor, and I saw the spell that had been painted on my arm flash back to life for a second before it faded once more, with the defensive spells doing the same. Somehow, I was really glad that I hadn’t stepped into this place without that. It wouldn’t have ended well, that was for sure.

As for the room itself, it was circular, about a hundred feet in diameter, with a ceiling that was slightly curved and around thirty feet high. Beyond the turrets that I could see, there were also spots where I was pretty sure more defenses could pop out if need be. We weren’t seeing everything. Probably because they wanted to keep at least some secrets in case this went badly.  

Prelate said something in another language to the assembled soldiers, and they dispersed into pairs, going through various doors that appeared and opened as they approached before immediately disappearing again. He looked to us then, his tone softening somewhat. “Pardon our paranoia, this is quite an unusual situation. If you’ll come with me, I’ll explain what’s happening and how we can help each other.” 

So, we did. What else were we gonna do, leave? We trailed after the man as he walked to the middle of the room. Once there, a circular portion of the floor around us began to sink, as we were taken down on an elevator. There were smooth metal walls around us, with more obviously defensive spellwork.

Asenath clearly couldn’t wait any longer. She squinted at the man, demanding, “Would you like to finally explain what your people have to do with those kids and my mother being abducted? Because right now, it’s not looking very good for your people, I’ve gotta tell you.” 

“I’d also like to know why it seems that your people are trying to start a war in Las Vegas and using Heretics to do it,” Haiden lightly noted, though there was a slight edge to his voice. I was pretty sure he didn’t actually think the man in front of us was an enemy, but he also definitely wasn’t in the mood for any kind of runaround. 

“Yes,” Prelate agreed with them both. “First, I must confess that the spell I used to allow you into this building did more than what I said. Nothing harmful, but it also tested you for infection.”  

We all started to ask what he meant by that, but the elevator stopped. Rather than doors appearing, part of the wall turned transparent and we could see into a large chamber. It looked like some kind of zoo exhibit or something, a big rectangular room, about fifty feet by eighty feet with a twenty foot ceiling. The whole place was filled with plants. There was grass, a few gnarled-looking trees, some bushes, flowers everywhere, vines along the walls, the works.

The man spoke while we were taking that in. “As I said, we hold the most dangerous threats in our prison. But the single greatest threat is the being the prison was originally created for. The first prisoner. Or, as we call him, Ehn. One, in your language. Prisoner number one. Ehn, in our language. He is actually from your world originally. A human who became what you call a Heretic, bonded to a dragon.” 

That made Shiori’s gaze snap around, blurting, “Wait, like Arthur?” 

Like the king known as Arthur, but not him,” Prelate informed us. “Ehn predates that man by quite a bit. And he is far, far more dangerous. He is a monster who must remain contained. As must his closest followers. There are eight of them. The next eight prisoners after Ehn. All are potential world-ending catastrophic threats, given their own proclivities, strengths, and the fact that Ehn spent a long time using his dragon abilities to boost his lieutenants. They are dangerous, and they can never be allowed to escape.” 

He nodded then to the room ahead of us. “I already mentioned Kwur, or Three in your words. Kwur is different from the others. He cannot be left in the same place for long and must be moved every few months. The longer he stays in one general location, the stronger his ability to influence emotions becomes.” 

“Influence emotions? So he makes people violent, scared, that kind of thing?” Columbus asked. “And where is he, behind one of those bushes or in one of the trees?” 

“He is the bushes and the trees,” Prelate corrected. “Kwur is a plant-based life-form, of sorts. He grows and spreads through the plants. They are his body. And yes, he can influence those within a certain range of himself to feel strong, uncontrollable emotions, given the opportunity and enough time in an area. Normally that is a fairly short time, but our defenses render him mostly safe, for awhile. Eventually, however, his power will overload our ability to contain it and he has to be moved again. This was his time to be here, in this outpost. Unfortunately, it seems that some of his spores managed to infect one of our people somehow, and that person carried more spores into Las Vegas.”

“But why?” Miranda asked. “Wait, spores? Like… pieces of himself?” 

“Yes,” the man confirmed. “While he is capable of influencing people’s emotions, he is also able to influence them even more strongly, sometimes directly, by infesting them with his spores. That is what happened with the Azlee Ren you are looking for. Ren was infested with spores and, in turn, infested several others. We learned the truth too late, and they escaped. We didn’t know where they escaped to, but sent forces to search for them, to no avail until we were contacted by King Oberon, who told us of your questions. We now believe that the infested Ren and the others have contracted mercenary groups on this world for aid.” 

“But why?” I asked. “And what does that have to do with Las Vegas, and those kids? And why did that guy tell us to come to Canada to find them?”

In answer, Prelate replied, “Kwur feeds off of hatred and violence. His spores can grow faster and stronger in the middle of a warzone. Particularly one where peace previously existed. We now believe that Ren and the others under his influence are attempting to create a war in Las Vegas in order to grow his spores. The more of his spores grow, the more people he will be able to infest. And the more he infests, the greater his ability to provoke even more hatred and violence on an exponential scale.

“As for the man who sent you to us, it is very possible that at least some of the mercenaries employed by Ren and the others are under the impression that they are following our instructions, that Ren is acting in some official capacity. Whatever they believe, the result is that they are working to destabilize Las Vegas in order to create an environment which will best allow Kwur’s spores to grow much stronger and more numerous. If they grow strong enough, he will be able to manifest his core consciousness beyond this prison. 

“And if that happens, his evil will spread through every plant on this world, locking every being who lives here in a never-ending cycle of violence and hatred.” 

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Private Affairs 9-01 (Summus Proelium)

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I skipped out on my first couple classes the next morning. I just couldn’t… I couldn’t. I couldn’t deal with them that morning. Getting to sleep had been hard enough after what I’d heard. I woke up a couple times with strange nightmares I couldn’t explain or even really remember. In the morning, I dragged myself through breakfast and used the voice changer again to call myself out of the first couple classes, claiming family obligation.

Then I made my way to the half-finished youth center thing where I had first practiced with my powers. It was no more completed now than it had been a few weeks earlier, and I let myself in. But I didn’t start playing with my paint again. Instead, I just stood there in the room with my face against my hands, letting all the emotions run through me. All the emotions I’d been feeling for so long and had just been burying deep down inside me. With the lock taken off of them, they boiled up quickly, making me feel everything I’d been pushing back since that fateful night. 

Gradually, my hands against my face closed into fists and I found myself moving to the nearest wall without conscious thought. My fist lashed out to hit the wall hard enough to hurt. Good. I hit it again with my other fist then I kicked the wall. Then I hit it with both hands and screamed out loud. Then I screamed again and punched it before kicking the wall several times in quick succession, each time saying a member of my family. Simon, Dad, Mom. I hit that wall while cursing loudly, not even really following anything that I was saying. It was emotional gibberish.

Finally, I spun around, put my back to the wall that I had just been abusing, and sank down to sit with my knees drawn to my chest, arms wrapped around my legs. I buried my face against my knees, held myself as tight as I could, and screamed against my own leg. The sound was somewhat muffled and I did it again. I held myself even tighter than before, tighter than I thought possible, and screamed into my leg. Everything I felt poured out into that scream. But it wasn’t enough. Just screaming wasn’t enough, of course. It couldn’t be. But that unleashed the floodgates, and my scream suddenly turned into a choked sob without any input from me. My hand groped blindly for my backpack, shoving in before finding what it was looking for. 

Felony. I came out with my little pink plastic unicorn with his leather jacket and held him tightly in both hands. I pressed my forehead against the toy, just as the tears burst forth like a damn had been broken. The force of it took me by surprise, and I fell onto my side as my body shook with emotion. I couldn’t fight it. I couldn’t control it. My eyes were stunned into blindness by the rushing tears. For sometime, how long I wasn’t sure, I just lay there on the floor, crying as I clutched my unicorn.  

No, it wasn’t productive. It didn’t actually contribute to anything. Maybe it was even childish. But I couldn’t hold it back anymore. Not after what I had heard. Not after everything that happened. Not after having to shove my feelings down for so long. It all came out at once, and I was completely helpless to keep it in. I just lay there, sobbing from every bit of stress and lies that had been boiling up inside me. Having to keep myself under control while in the house the night before had been the end of my ability to bury it. The emotions had to come out, and right here, away from anyone who could possibly see, was my best chance. So I stopped holding back. 

Some time later, I opened my eyes and stared at the wall in front of me. I was still lying on my side, the floor under my face damp from my tears while I shuddered a bit weakly. I didn’t move at first. I didn’t do anything. I just lay there, staring at that wall. I was too exhausted from the rush of that whole emotional release to even think straight. I stared and let my mind stay as blank as possible. I didn’t want to think. I didn’t want to feel. I just wanted it all to go away for a few minutes. I just needed it to leave me alone for now. Please. Please just leave me alone. Just for a little bit. Just for now. Let me lay here and not… not think about it. Please. 

I might have fallen asleep like that. I wasn’t exactly sure. But the next thing I knew, my eyes were open. Something… something caught my attention, visible just out of the corner of my eye. Quickly, I sat up and turned that way with a gasp. 

Nothing. There was nothing there. It was weird, for a second… for a second I’d thought I saw another one of those Touched orbs. It was so real. I’d seen… or thought I’d seen it hovering just over there in the corner. It had looked the same as before, a small glowing blue orb with white rune symbols on it that flashed and moved in a hypnotic pattern. I’d had the strangest feeling that it was… watching me? 

Dream. I was definitely dreaming, imagining things, whatever. There was no orb. And now my body felt sore after dozing off like that. So, for another few moments, I just sat there and stared at the floor while letting my conscious mind catch up with everything. 

Okay. Okay, I had needed that. I had definitely needed it. That much was readily apparent. I could only hold in my emotions about everything for so long. If I wasn’t careful, they were going to come out at the worst possible time. How would I have explained this kind of emotional outburst, or anything like it, to my parents, or to Simon, or to anyone I knew? How would I explain it to Izzy? God, Izzy. She would be so freaked out by any of that. I couldn’t do that to her.

But it was out now. It was done. I’d let out some of that pressure, and now I could think. Now I could focus. Or try to, at least. I had a chance of keeping myself together enough for the moment. How long that would actually last, I couldn’t say. But, for now, I was back in control. 

With some effort, I pushed myself to my feet, standing up before letting out a long, slow exhale. Okay, I’d let go and had my moment of release. Now I had to focus on the actual situation. 

What did I know? First, Tomas’s father was evil. That was completely indisputable. He had been ready and willing to shoot a girl in the head and dump her body in the water. The fact that I didn’t particularly like that girl was completely irrelevant. She didn’t deserve to die. 

Second, he worked for my parents. I knew that too. Mr. Jackson was an… employee, or whatever, of my family’s little (or not so little) criminal empire. I wasn’t sure why he’d been in the UK (did they have a division there too?!) for so long, but it was readily apparent that he’d been working with them for quite awhile by this point. He was part of their whole organization, clearly. 

Third, he had a power of his own. He was Touched. And this power apparently allowed him to mess with people’s memories. Which was something he used to help my family in their… criminal things. 

The fourth thing I knew was that, for whatever reason, Paige was immune to that power. I had no idea why or how, because she wouldn’t confide that in me. But somehow, she was immune.   That was something I was going to have to look into further later. Yeah, I was definitely going to have to look into it oh, that whole situation. Which meant I was going to have to interact with Paige more, and wasn’t that just the cherry on the giant Sunday that was this entire situation?

Okay, Cassidy, have some perspective, I told myself sternly. You might not get along with the girl, but your family is a bunch of actual supervillains. Having to interact with her is hardly the end of the world. You don’t have to like it, but try to be a little more mature. She’s not Satan. 

Anyway, that brought me to the fifth thing that I knew. The things that had pushed me over the edge. At some point in the past, Mr. Jackson had used his power on me. He had erased part of my memory. I had no idea why or what he had taken away. My mother had called it traumatic. But what was it? How traumatic could it be if there was no evidence of it anywhere? Had I found out about their real lives and flipped out on them? Was that why they hadn’t told me the truth yet? Had I threatened to call the cops before I realized that it wouldn’t do any good? Was that the trauma my mother was referring to? Had I run away from home? What happened? How long ago was it, even? It had to be before Mr. Jackson was sent back to the UK, didn’t it? 

No, no it didn’t. Because planes were a thing. There were ways to travel, duh. It was more likely to have happened before then, but not definite. They could have brought him over during that time just to change my memory, then sent him back. I just didn’t know. I didn’t know enough about any of it. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, damn it. It could have happened at any point in my life. I just had no idea. I couldn’t remember anything that felt like it was missing or incomplete, but that was the entire point of a memory being manipulated or erased, you didn’t remember it the way you were supposed to.

So yeah, a significant event within my memory had been erased or manipulated and I had no idea what it was. I wasn’t even sure how to narrow it down. What was I supposed to do, go up to my mother and ask if there were any traumatic events in my past that I didn’t remember properly? Yeah, that would definitely go over well. While I was at it, I’d ask her if Dad had any superpowers I wasn’t aware of, and if any of their business dealings might be a bit shady. 

Nope, that definitely wouldn’t work. I needed to find out what exactly was missing in my past, but I couldn’t just ask any of the actual players in the event that I knew about. I couldn’t ask my parents or Mr. Jackson. God, Mr. Jackson. The thought of him sent a shudder through me.

But hey, at least there was one bit of ‘good’ news from all of this. Now I finally knew why the man had always given me the creeps. Wait a minute. Wait just a second. He’d always given me the creeps, since I first met him. Wait. If that was really why I found him creepy, because part of me remembered him changing my memory after some traumatic event, or being involved in it somehow, then… did that mean that whatever had happened would have had to be from before I knew Tomas?  

My mind was racing. Yeah, it had to mean that, didn’t it? There was absolutely no reason for Mr. Jackson to mess with my memory to make me find him creepy. There was no reason for him to change my memory to make me think I’d always been disturbed by him. Either I was making it all up in my head from the start, which I didn’t think I was, or the thing he had taken out of my mind was from before I’d met Tomas. It had to be, that was the only thing that made sense, the only way all of this actually fit. Part of me had remembered the way he messed with my mind and had been warning me subconsciously this whole time, ever since I ‘first’ met him. 

Okay, well, there was a tentative bit of information that I’d worked out already. Whatever happened was from before high school. Which didn’t really do a lot to narrow it down further, but it was something to potentially work with. Maybe whatever happened came right before I met Tomas? Maybe my parents had brought Mr. Jackson and his family over to Detroit (or had the government transfer him, which just raised a hell of a lot more concerns on its own) to ‘fix’ my memory, and they’d stayed after that for a bit to make sure the memory change really stuck? 

All of which led me to the thought I’d been dreading focusing on. The thought that had been there at the back of my mind basically ever since I’d heard Mr. Jackson on the phone the night before last, but even more so since my mother had said those words the night before. 

Tomas. Was our relationship real? Everything that happened, all the ways he’d made me feel, the way… the way he’d treated me like an actual woman, someone he desired, was that… real? Or was it fake? And if it was fake, was he in on it? Was he willingly manipulating me just to find out what I remembered or so that I would confide in him if something came to mind? Was he part of my parents’ evil organization too, just like his father was, just like Simon was? I wanted to say no. I desperately, desperately wanted to say it was impossible. But I wanted to say that there was no way my family could be evil either, and look how far that had gone. 

And what if he didn’t know about it, yet our relationship was still a lie? What if his memories had been altered to make him like me so his dad could keep an eye on me? Would his father actually go that far? Would he change his own son’s memory and make him like me just for that? Again, he’d been willing to shoot a teenage girl in the head, so I really had no accurate barometer for how far he would go or how low he would sink. I just… I didn’t know. I couldn’t know. Everything was so wrong now. Everything was so fucked up. Nothing was real. I couldn’t trust anything I knew or thought about any of that. It felt like everything bad and horrible was possible. 

What about Mrs. Jackson… Mills? What about her? Was she in on this whole thing? I liked her more than her husband, but I didn’t know. She could just be like my parents, better at hiding her real face. Or maybe the fact that I had never had my memory erased by her meant she didn’t send my hackles up subconsciously. I just didn’t know. She could be innocent or very much not. 

One thing was crystal clear now, even more so than it had been before. I couldn’t trust anyone with this. Not my family, not Mr. or Mrs. Jackson, not Tomas… I’d made the right choice not to confide in Tomas earlier. I didn’t know if he was willingly part of it or not, but for all I knew, Mr. Jackson’s power let him mess with his son’s mind to the point that he would report anything bad I said to him. And that would be the end of… basically everything. No, whether he was part of it or not, I couldn’t tell him any of it. There was far too much of a risk of it blowing up in my face.

Okay, so I couldn’t get any answers from Tomas. At least not directly. I couldn’t get any answers from anyone directly. I sure as hell wasn’t going to openly ask about memory erasure. 

But there were other things I could do. First and foremost, Paige definitely knew something about all of this. A lot of somethings about it, maybe. She could probably fill in some of the blanks and help me understand the whole situation a lot better than I did right now.  

Beyond that, she had some kind of immunity to this memory altering power. If she could share that, or explain it, or whatever, that might help me get my own missing memories back. And getting my memories back was suddenly incredibly important. I had to know what had been erased. Yes, my mother had said they were traumatic. But I didn’t exactly trust her judgment. Besides, they were my memories, and I wanted them back. I wanted to know the truth. I deserved the truth, as much as my family thought I didn’t. 

Unfortunately, there was no way Paige would help with that. Not with things the way they were. As Paintball, she didn’t really know me. I’d saved her life, but she’d made it clear that that didn’t mean she’d tell me everything she knew. Sure, she’d talked like she was saving me from trouble, but still. She clearly wasn’t to the point of sharing all the secrets she knew. 

And as Cassidy? Forget it. She hated me. She’d always hated me. There was absolutely no way she would tell me anything if I came to her as myself. And even doing that would necessitate telling her enough that she’d almost definitely be able to figure out that I was Paintball. And of all the various people who I dreaded finding out my identity, she was near the top. Not as bad as my family, of course, but still. I wasn’t going to expose myself to her like that. Not if there was any possible way to avoid it. Not if I had any chance of getting the answers I needed without putting myself into that vulnerable of a position with someone who hated me. 

So… was there a way for me to get Paige to tell me what she knew, and possibly help get my memories back, without actually telling her more than I wanted her to know? Maybe, maybe not. I didn’t know yet. I needed to know more about that whole situation. Which meant I was going to have to interact with her more. I was going to have to go to her as Paintball and find ways of making her trust me, at least enough to find out how she was immune to the memory power and what this leverage thing she had was. I was just going to have to shove down my private dislike of her and make this work, somehow. I had to try, at least. 

Beyond that, I could also investigate the Jacksons themselves. After all, they had no idea that I knew the truth. I could find out just how much Tomas was involved, or his mother. Maybe I could even find out what memories had been taken from me by looking into Mr. Jackson himself. It would be risky, of course. But this whole thing was risky, so what else was new? I was basically fucked if my family found out anything that I knew, so I might as well keep going across the tightrope, right? There was no walking this thing back. I had to find out for myself, and that would mean taking risks. 

It would also mean actively spending time with them while restraining my own emotions. But I did that in front of my family already. It was… different with Tomas, of course. It was… oh God. God, I really hoped he wasn’t actively part of this. If he was, if he’d just been… if he’d just been manipulating me…

No, I couldn’t focus on that. I had to find out the truth, not wildly speculate about the worst possibilities. And finding out the truth meant looking into the Jacksons. Which meant burying my feelings deep down and playing nice. 

Okay. Well… there were my current plans, as far as my family went. I had to investigate the Jacksons, and I had to make nice with Paige. 

Suddenly, going back to school and sitting in class for awhile didn’t seem all that bad. 

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Perennial Potentate 4-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The portal took our group out to an old airfield in the middle of nowhere. We were met by a small army of Alters of all shapes and sizes, who were heavily armed and very clearly nervous about our presence. None of them looked happy that we were there. Our group stayed as still and non-threatening as possible, for whatever good it did, while Paul stepped over there and had a brief, yet clearly somewhat heated discussion with the futuristic metal-armored canine-humanoid figure who was apparently this group’s leader. While that was going on, Nuliajuk spoke quietly.

“They are some of the city’s guards for our time here in this place. They call themselves Strangers. And yes, that is a deliberate appropriation of the term your people use for all non-humans. They wear it as a point of pride, just as their entire town has dubbed itself Strangefield. It is entirely intentional.”

She was clearly making no attempt to hide what she was saying to us, because I saw several of the armed soldiers look that way at her words. A couple of them nodded and one stared right at me. He looked like a living squid with armored plating and a ring of eyes surrounding his entire head. Three of those eyes were focused solely on me, and I literally felt his determination. If we ended up being a threat to his home or his people, he would stop us, no matter what that cost him. 

Right, I had the feeling this guy had some kind of ability to project his emotions or his general… thoughts or something to that effect. Maybe that was how he communicated? Either way, I simply gave him a slight nod, hoping that he would get the point. We weren’t there for a fight. Okay, well, we were. But not a fight with him or his people. We weren’t there to attack Strangefield. We were there to get the missing kids and Jiao and get out of there, that was it.

Finally, Paul stepped back and the armored canine-like figure (he didn’t really look like a werewolf, more like an anthropomorphic doberman pinscher) cleared his throat before looking at us. “Right then! Here’s the deal,” he bellowed in a commanding voice. “You all are here to talk to those… outsiders north of town. You are not here to hunt or kill any of ours. You understand that?”

Outsiders north of town? These… Kotter people were outsiders? Hadn’t Oberon said that they were important within the town? I supposed the people being important in the town didn’t mean they lived there, or that they were actually part of it, or… Huh. Now I was even more confused about what was going on. 

The man continued. “You will be escorted everywhere you go, and if any of you try to pull anything, you will regret it. Our people are under our protection. We won’t put up with any bullshit!  I don’t care what you think you’re doing or who you see. If they’re not your targets here, you leave them alone, period.” 

Scanning the group with a hard, piercing gaze, he belatedly introduced himself once no one argued. “My name is Decker. All these people here, they’re my people. Any of you mess with them, and you’re going to mess with me. Now if we all understand that, we can take you up to the outpost.” 

Outpost. Outpost of what? For what? 

Asenath took the lead, stepping forward as she spoke in a calm voice. “They understand. We understand. No one here wants any kind of war with Canada, or with Strangefield. We just want to find the children for Las Vegas to prevent a war there, and my mother. That’s all. These aren’t the same kind of Bosch Heretics that you or your people are accustomed to dealing with.” 

“Oh, we know exactly what kind of Heretics they are,” Decker assured her. “Believe me, we’ve had the experience. A few of our people, and many more our ancestors, fought alongside humans before the Bystander Effect existed. They had an entire civilization together. Then the Bystander Effect came and erased all of that. It came and suddenly our ancestors were forgotten or hunted. Our families were torn apart and destroyed. For centuries it was like that. Then the first Rebellion came and our people were told things would be different. Again, we fought alongside the humans. We did everything we could to make this world better for everyone. We trusted the humans again. And once more, their memories of us were erased. We were taken from their minds yet again, our alliance broken and some of us killed in the process. Many of our own memories of the rebellion were destroyed until so very recently. So why would we follow such things a third time? Why would we open ourselves to yet another opportunity for the humans to have their memories erased and make us their enemies again? We have all been slapped in the face more than enough, thank you very much. We are of no mind to extend ourselves again. Our people will not take that kind of risk with humans who will only forget us, who will only turn on us. You can do your business here, then leave. We will have none of your trouble.” 

There was a hardness to his voice, but more than that. There was also pain and regret. It was the voice of someone who had been hurt too many times to risk being hurt again. He had definitely been part of at least this last rebellion, my mother’s rebellion, and had been hurt when it was erased. I wondered if my mother had known him. Probably. God, it was so easy to forget or not even think about what it must have been like for people living through the creation of the Bystander Effect, or the Rebellion Eraser. No wonder this guy, and his people, were so jaded. 

Yeah, I couldn’t blame him for any of what he said or felt. So, I just stayed quiet while Asenath replied, “You’re right, there’s a lot of pain involved in that entire situation. But that’s not what we’re here about now. Do you know anything about the one called Azlee Ren Kotter?”  

For a moment, the man didn’t answer. I could see a few of his people look at one another in a way that made it clear they recognized at least part of the name, which made sense given what we had heard. There was a general, quiet murmur before Decker quieted them with a glance. Then he turned back and pointed to the hangar nearby. “Let’s go,” he ordered. “We can discuss the situation on the way. As I said, we’ll take you to the outpost and you can have all the Kotters you need. The sooner all of this is over, the sooner you can all leave this place.” 

Haiden agreed. “He’s right, let’s go.” The man gave us all a slight nod of encouragement, his hand gently squeezing Tristan’s shoulder before he started to move. “There’ll be time to talk.” 

As we all walked together to the dusty and very clearly broken down hangar, I could see December talking quietly to Tabbris. The two of them had their heads close together, and there was a strange expression on December’s face. I couldn’t read it very well from where I was, but somehow  I had the distinct impression that she wasn’t happy about something. I was going to have to ask my little sister about that later, if it was something she could actually talk about.  

Either way, we reached the hangar, where the bus was parked. It looked like any old bus I had ever seen. Nothing about it stood out. Which may have been the point. As a group, we filed onto the bus. Even Babe joined us, taking up a spot near the rear where a couple rows of seats had been removed. We were also accompanied by a dozen of our armed escorts, who took places in the back and front, leaving us to sit in the middle between both groups. Yeah, they weren’t taking any chances. 

Shiori and I sat next to each other. I let her have the window, glancing across the aisle to where Miranda was sitting with April. “Boy, Randi, this sure is some field trip, huh?” I teased. 

Snorting, the other girl glanced to me before noting, “Let’s just hope it goes better than the one we took to that soda factory. I don’t think these people would react as well as those ones did.” 

With a huff, I insisted, “I still say that guy looked really shifty and if we hadn’t gotten lost when we followed him, we totally would’ve blown that whole thing wide open. But uhh, yeah, let’s not wander off by ourselves this time. It’d definitely go a lot worse. And they might still call my dad.”  

Leaning up from the seat behind Shiori and me, Jason curiously asked, “So, uhh, is that the kind of story the whole class can hear about?” He grinned. “Because it sounds pretty interesting.”  

Exchanging a brief glance with Miranda, I shrugged. “Maybe we’ll tell you about it sometime. Right now, we should probably focus on how we’re going to find this Azlee. Whoever they are.” 

As though in response to that, the bus started moving. I could see Haiden, Paul, and that Decker guy standing at the front, next to the driver (a short, totally white pudgy guy who looked a bit like the Pillsbury Doughboy, only with a trucker’s cap and flannel shirt). The three of them were clearly in the middle of a conversation, occasionally glancing our way before returning to it. Obviously, it had to do with this whole outpost thing and the Kotter situation. Was Decker telling them that we had to leave the Kotters alone? Or that going after them was dangerous? Did he know who Azlee was in relation to the rest of the Kotters? Did–yeah, I didn’t know. I was just sitting there speculating wildly while they had their own private conversation. 

I wasn’t the best at sitting patiently while adults had secrets around me. It just wasn’t my thing. 

Finally, the other two sat down and Decker turned to face the rest of us. His hard gaze passed over mine before he spoke. “Okay, now that we have a minute, you should all know that you need to tread very carefully when it comes to the Kotters. This is not a group that you can run in demanding answers from. They’re not a group you can push around.” He held a hand up to stop any objections. “I know, you don’t feel like you’re doing that now. And you’re not. I understand, believe me. Sorry if I sound gruff about all this. You’re playing nice with us. Fair enough. How much of that is because of the king and how much is your choice, we’ll see. But the point is that even if the king didn’t exist, you would need to be careful with these people. They aren’t exactly from this place. And by this place, I mean Earth.”

From where she was sitting beside Bobbi, Asenath asked carefully, “That’s not exactly a rare situation, so why do you feel the need to point out that the Kotter family isn’t Earth-native?” 

“Because they aren’t a family,” the man replied coolly. “Kotter isn’t a family name. It’s a title, used within a certain organization. A title given to some people who work for this organization. And as an organization, they don’t react well to outsiders making any demands of them. They’re very… particular about their secrets, let’s say.” 

After letting that sink in, he continued with, “To that end, at their request, we keep their existence here very quiet. To almost anyone in the town itself, they would appear to be simple shut-ins. King Oberon is aware of them, of course, though he leaves them to their own devices for the most part, because of the service they provide.” 

My head shook quickly as I blurted, “What kind of service do they provide, then? What is this organization and what are they doing here on Earth that’s so important? Who are they, exactly?”

“We have made certain promises, enforced by magic, that prevent us from saying too much about who they are,” he replied. “It’s better if you talk to them yourselves to get your answers. With any luck, they will explain the situation adequately and you will be able to leave satisfied.” 

“Not without the kids and my mother, we won’t,” Asenath informed him. “Whoever this group is, whatever they’re up to, they have no right to start a war in Las Vegas by abducting children.” 

“I don’t believe they–” In mid-sentence, Decker paused. Then he shook his head, exhaling in a low sigh. “Sorry, you’ll have to see for yourself when we get there. There’s just some things that they are going to have to explain. I know how frustrating that is, believe me. But it is what it is.” 

“Is there anything else you can tell us?” Vanessa asked from the seat ahead of Shiori and me. “Anything you can say to help prepare us for talking to these people when we get there?”    

Decker seemed to consider that for a moment before giving a short nod. “I can tell you that these are hard people, but generally not bad ones. They make very difficult decisions for what they see as the ultimate good of the universe and every person in it. Some of them are a bit too rough, that’s for sure. It’s inevitable in their work. Just keep in mind, when you find out the truth, what they’re trying to do and what kind of consequences there would be if they screwed it up.”

Well, those words sure led to a lot of questions. I had no idea what he could actually be talking about, what kind of group this was. There were a ton of possibilities swirling through my head, but we just didn’t know enough. One thing had become increasingly clear ever since we went to Vegas, however. And it was even more clear now. This absolutely was not a normal kidnapping.

We also still had a couple hours ride before we would get to our destination. So, I sat back and chatted with the others. Shiori eventually leaned her head against my shoulder and fell asleep. I put an arm around her, gazed out the window at the beautiful Canadian wilderness we were driving through, and tried to keep myself calm for the inevitable… excitement that was probably coming. 

Finally, we reached Strangefield itself.  and boy was it aptly named. I had to wake up Shiori so she could see for herself. The whole city was built up into and around a canyon between two tall mountains. The buildings were a mix of styles from the past several thousand years. Some were modern, others look like they had come out of the old Revolutionary War times, a few were essentially Victorian or even older. I saw a couple buildings that looked as though they had been directly transferred over from medieval times. And more, different structures from every conceivable time period, all bunched up together as if they’d been transported directly here from wherever they had begun their existence. 

Then there were the futuristic buildings. Tall structures of gleaming metal and glass in fantastic shapes. A few of them, I belatedly realized, were actually ships. They were literal spaceships that had been parked and left as buildings, with fences and yards put up around them. 

“Holy shit,” I heard Columbus murmur from his seat with Twister, “this place is amazing. No wonder they have it all the way out here where no one will bother them. They’ve got the King to keep Heretics out, and they keep the city far from Bystanders so no one has to be nervous.”  

“Yes,” Decker confirmed with a glance. “That is the point. And it’s why you will do your business here and leave. Our people have no desire to spend any more time than they have to around humans who will inevitably forget any kind of alliance we have and turn to murder yet again.” 

Yeah, that one hurt. Flinching, I glanced back out the window. Not only was there a totally wild assortment of buildings, but there were plenty of people too. I could see dozens of figures all going about their ordinary lives. They were all Alters. An entire Alter city just existed up here far away from humans. They were all people who had been hurt and betrayed in the past thanks to memory alteration, people who had decided to give up on getting along with humans and simply created their own town, their own place to live where they could be safe and not killed or enslaved. It was like Vegas, or Wonderland, but on a much bigger scale than either of those. 

A few people glanced up at the bus as we passed, but none seemed to react much. I had the distinct feeling they didn’t know who or what was on it. The windows appeared to be pretty heavily tinted, probably for this very purpose. If Decker had his way, I was pretty sure we wouldn’t ever directly interact with any citizens of his town. They’d never know we were there.

Winding our way through with the town, we eventually passed to the other side of it, and traveled for another fifteen minutes out of the canyon before finding ourselves at the base of a hill surrounded by a massively high metal wall and gate. Beyond the wall, a road led up the hill toward a black obelisk-like building. There were turrets positioned along the wall, making it very clear that whoever lived in the obelisk did not exactly invite many visitors. 

The bus only stopped for a few seconds before part of the wall slid aside. Whoever was in there had obviously been waiting for us. Once the gate was open, the bus pulled through and continued up the hill. Behind us, the wall sealed itself once more. 

At the top of the hill was a small parking lot, with a couple other cars and one rather spiffy looking spaceship the same size as our bus. As we parked, Decker gave one last look, his voice gruff. “Just remember what I said. Keep yourselves under control.” 

The door opened and he climbed off. The armed escorts who were in front of us joined him, and we followed, with the rest of the escorts picking up the rear. All of us stepped down from the bus, forming a loose group in front of the base of the obelisk building. Up close, the place still seemed to have no windows or doors. It just looked like a black version of the Washington Monument.

There was a man there, I realized a moment later. He had been waiting in the shadows of the building, before finally stepping out into view. He had dark blue skin, somewhat reptilian with very smooth scales, and yellow, vertically-pupiled eyes like a cat or a snake. He also wore dark body armor, with a pistol of some kind strapped to one side of his waist and what appeared to be something similar to the laser swords I’d seen the Seosten use attached to the other side. 

“Good day,” he spoke smoothly once we had all noticed him. “I speak for our people. I am called many names on many worlds. Here, I am most known as Prelate. Prelate Kotter. I have been told that you seek business with one of our guards.”

Haiden frowned. “Guards? Guarding what?” 

“Many things,” came the reply, “including Kwur, the vile creature who, in an attempt to escape our facility, has caused the very situation which brings you to our doors. You see, we are a prison. More specifically, what you see here is but one simple outpost of a prison organization which exists throughout the universe. An outpost that has been established here on this world for several reasons.” 

He looked directly to me then, his gaze centering on mine. “Such as the recapture of the escaped prisoner Thirty-Four. 

“Or as you, Miss Chambers in particular, know him… Fossor.”

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Interlude 8 – Paige (Summus Proelium)

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Leaving Paintball waiting outside, the girl known as Paige Banners walked into the internet cafe. The distracted clerk idly muttered what the cost per hour was, and Paige produced a folded twenty dollar bill on her way past, leaving it on the counter while the clerk took it and told her which computer to use. All without looking up from the phone she was busy texting on. 

Pulling the seat out, the girl perched on the edge of it, hands finding the keyboard and mouse. She clicked a couple times to bring up the cafe’s internet services, fingers dancing across the keys as she disabled their site limitations and the monitoring service that would allow them to track what she was doing. Logging in as an administrator after a couple of attempts, she brought up the control screen for the cameras in the cafe and set them to erase everything from five minutes before she arrived to roughly ten minutes from the current time. That would be enough to ensure that the Ministry couldn’t get anything useful from watching what she did. 

And it was incredibly important that they not see the things she was doing. As far as the Ministry was concerned, Paige Banners was an ordinary teenage girl who happened to have tripped over information she shouldn’t have. It was important that they keep believing that. 

Once she was convinced that the cameras were taken care of, the girl navigated to a private and incredibly secure cloud server that had been set up much earlier. Then Paige paused. Casually, she turned slightly to let her gaze pass over the room. The cameras were no longer a problem, but the need for being careful was practically hard-wired into her by that point. She took that moment to make sure no one was paying attention, eyes scanning the room while she produced the small USB drive from its hiding place and inserted it into the computer. 

The files were there. Taking only a second to assure herself that everything seemed to be intact, Paige set them to copy onto the cloud server. From there, the service itself would automatically copy them onto a dozen other servers, some equally private and some known to the public. The services all had their own redundancies and security, which included checking on the status of their companion clouds every few minutes. If anything went wrong with one service, Paige would be alerted. From there, several possible events could happen depending on what she did, what exactly was wrong with the suspect cloud server, and whether or not she responded. 

Paintball was busy dealing with people who wanted autographs. Watching that for a moment while the files uploaded, Paige waited for the confirmation beep. Then she tugged the USB out, returned it to its hiding place, and quickly typed up a note for the Star-Touched waiting outside. At the last moment, she used her administrator access into the building’s security to disable the alarm on the back door, quit out of everything save for the note she’d left, and pushed up from the chair. With one last glance to make sure Paintball wasn’t looking, Paige moved through the room, passing a few other people on the way. No one looked up, assuming, if they noticed her at all, that she was going to the restroom. But she moved straight past, heading quietly through the back door into the alley. It was dark, and she immediately pivoted to the right, heading to the exit and onto another street before turning left to move away from the building. 

She didn’t go far, at least right away. First, Paige had to make sure Paintball wouldn’t easily find her if he chose to try. He was awesome, and even if he hadn’t exactly saved her life (maybe… probably), he had made it so that Paige didn’t have to expose more of her secrets. And that was important. The Ministry could not find out what was really going on with her. That was beyond vital. They couldn’t even suspect she might be more than they thought, or find the link back to…

The point was, the more clueless they were, the better. And to make sure they stayed as clueless as possible, Paige was going to make them think that all she wanted was to be left alone. They wouldn’t totally abandon their efforts to silence her, she knew. Being caught in the first place had been a mistake that she was going to have to scramble to make up for. But if she could make them believe that she wouldn’t go to the authorities unless they forced her hand, they would at least turn to more subtle routes of getting what they wanted. That would give her time, and time was important right then. Part of that whole ‘making them think she wasn’t going to push further on this’ involved keeping Paintball out of anything else. Having a superhero hanging around wasn’t exactly conducive to making a bunch of supervillains think you were going to leave them alone. 

So, instead of continuing down the street where the boy could possibly spot her, she turned almost immediately to step into a nearby Chinese restaurant. Smiling politely at the nice woman by the front, Paige asked, “Xǐ shǒu jiān zài nar?” In response to the question of where the toilet was, the restaurant host turned to point toward the back of the restaurant, and Paige quickly thanked her with a nod before walking on through. 

Moving through the room full of people, she kept her eyes out before finally spotting something useful about three-quarters of the way. Slowing by a table with a group of teenage boys, she put on a bright, somewhat embarrassed smile before speaking up. “Um, sorry, excuse me?” 

She was attractive enough that none of the boys minded the interruption. Paige waited for them to give her the brief once-over that every interested person did before pushing on. “Hi, sorry, again. This is kinda dumb, but umm… I’m sort of on a scavenger hunt with my idiot… idiot friends right now, and the next thing on my list is a used jacket for any sports team that is not in Michigan. Like that.” She pointed to the New York Jets coat draped over one boy’s chair. “And I know, this is stupid and everything. But I swear, I really have to beat Tina this time. So if I could just get that jacket, you can have this.” With one hand, she held up two hundred dollar bills. “That should cover getting a new one, shipping, everything.” 

Thankfully, the jacket apparently wasn’t some important keepsake, because the boy readily agreed to trading it for the two hundred dollars she’d offered. And two minutes later, Paige emerged from the restaurant, flipping the hood of the jacket up over her head before continuing down the street. She saw no sign of Paintball, or anyone else watching her. But the jacket wasn’t just for staying out of the Star-Touched hero’s sight. There was more than one reason to want a disguise right now. The Ministry wouldn’t give up that easily, until they knew it was too late. She had to contact them. But she would do it on her terms, not theirs.

Three blocks later, Paige made one more stop inside a convenience store to pick up a disposable phone and added minutes to it. On the way out, she used the phone to connect to a different cell phone on the other side of the city. The second cell would forward the call, making it impossible for the people she was contacting to trace where her signal was actually coming from. 

That done, Paige dialed a number from memory, turning to continue walking along the sidewalk as it rang. Her eyes scanned the road ahead of her, taking in everyone in the area. No one was paying attention. There were no familiar faces. She turned right, crossed the street, and moved down an alley. By that point, the other end of the line was finally picked up, as a voice spoke with a simple, “How may I direct your call?” 

Taking a breath before letting it out, Paige turned to slump against the nearby wall. She let fear, uncertainty, and confusion enter her voice. “I… I got this number. I think… I think I need to talk to… to one of the Ministers? I–that’s what the files that I–” Cutting herself off, she forced a soft, barely audible choked sound out of her throat to make it sound as though she was barely holding herself together. Then she gave it a three-count of silence before continuing with, “One of the Ministers. Please. I need to talk to them. This is Pa–I mean… I don’t think I should say.”  

There was a pause from the other end of the line, before the simple voice replied, “Please hold.” The line was then filled with soft, pleasant piano music. Just like any ordinary company. But Paige knew they would still be listening and recording. So she made herself breathe rapidly, exhaling in repeated shudders. Once, she murmured a very soft, “Please, God.” Not too much. She didn’t want to overdo it and make them suspicious. But she did want them to believe that she was right on the edge and terrified. That way they would think they were still in control. 

Eventually (and long after he had actually begun listening to her, Paige assumed), a male voice answered. “Hello, Miss Banners. This is Minister Gray. You don’t seem to be with your rescuer.” 

He was making a guess based on what he’d heard through the phone, she knew. The Ministry was good, but not good enough to track her down just like that. Not given the measures she had taken to redirect her call. Certainly not in a way that would let them see her without her seeing them. And if they had seen the girl who had given them so much trouble, they would have tried to grab her by that point. So he was absolutely bluffing. 

Still, she couldn’t react as though she knew that. So Paige adopted an even more fearful voice. “Wh-what–how do you…” Holding that to let the man on the phone think that she was looking around while terrified, she instead drew a P in the dirt on the ground beside herself before deciding that was long enough. “Pl-please, just… just… listen, you can’t… I have the files I found. I have the files.” Don’t push it. Don’t be too eager or competent. Not straight off. 

“Yes,” Minister Gray replied smoothly, sounding far more in control than Paige did. Good. He was calm and collected, already dismissing her as a real threat. “You have the files, and we want the files. I’m sure we can all come to an understanding and no one else has to get hurt.” 

“Y-you people tried to shoot me in the head!” Paige squeaked indignantly, making a show of her voice rising to a high pitch before shushing herself. “Yo-you tried to kill me. You–your people, you were–y-you were going to–you can’t just–I–you–I don’t want t–you were going to… you–” She made herself babble completely incoherently, as though she was barely holding on. The whole time, she idly checked the dirt on her nails from tracing her finger on the ground and made a face. Gross. Would this guy interrupt her already? 

Finally, he did. “Now, Miss Banners, calm yourself. I’m sure we can come to a suitable arrangement. After all, you still have our files, don’t you?” A dangerous, yet still calm, note entered his voice. “I do hope you haven’t shared them with the boy who saved you.” 

“N-no, sir.” Paige included the honorific, waited a second as though just then realizing what she had said to a villain, then amended, “I mean… no… no. He’s gone. He’s gone, he’s not i-involved anymore. I have the files.” 

“Good, good,” Minister Gray praised. “That’s very good. So we can still work this out. How about you bring the files to a neutral location, let us take them off your hands, and then we can all go back to living our lives without this terrible complication?” 

Afraid, innocent, but not stupid, Paige reminded herself. The character she was playing might have been a normal, though snoopy, teenage girl. But she was not stupid. No one that wasn’t a complete idiot would fall for that. And given how far she had gotten to get their files, they’d never believe she was a complete idiot. Playing this as someone with a mixture of luck and intelligence who was still in way over her head was the way to go. 

And it wasn’t that far from the truth. She was in over her head, in many ways. If only her father wasn’t–

Okay, that was a long enough pause. Stopping the silent count in her head, Paige hesitantly answered the man. “I… I’m not doing that. I’m not going to give you back the files. If I do that, you’ll just… you’ll just kill me.” 

There was a brief pause before Minister Gray carefully replied, “We can’t let you keep them, Miss Banners.” 

“Yes, you can,” she said quickly, injecting her voice with a note of urgency. “Because I won’t go to the cops. You know what’ll happen if I do. By the time anyone believes me, one of your people’ll be able to get to me. And you’ll have no reason not to kill me. Not if I’ve already blown your secret. L-look, I know how this works. I’ve seen the… the files, remember? If I try to tell anyone, no one will believe me in time. You people will kill me and–and it won’t accomplish anything. Even if it does, I’ll be dead. And I don’t wanna die.” 

“You may find this hard to believe, Miss Banners,” the man informed her, “but we would prefer not to kill you. Still, it seems we are at an impasse.” 

“I’m not going to the cops,” Paige reiterated. “Or anyone else. All Paintball knows is that he saved me from some dressed up thugs. I’m not–” She exhaled, again making herself shudder to inject the fear and sense that she was barely keeping it together into her voice. “I’m not stupid. It’s called Mutually Assured Destruction. If I tell anyone, you’ll find out and kill me. But I uploaded those files and if I don’t check in and give a password to all the servers I uploaded them to at the right times, they’ll be sent to every news station in the country. Even you can’t lock that down. You kill me, your secrets get out. I put your secrets out, you kill me. Mutually Assured Destruction.” 

Another pause came, one that lasted almost thirty seconds before Ministry Gray spoke again. “Your suggestion then, Miss Banners, is that we agree to leave one another alone?” 

Making a point of exhaling hard with a choked sob that must have sounded like relief, Paige hurriedly agreed. “Yes, yes. I saw the–the files, I know what you can do. I know–just… just leave me and my family alone. And Paintball. He doesn’t know anything. I didn’t tell him about any of this. Leave us alone, your secrets stay secret, and… and we can all just… just…” 

“Just be happy,” the Minister finished for her, sounding thoughtful. “Agreed, for the moment. You can rest easy, Miss Banners. You have proven yourself quite capable, despite your lack of powers or resources. We will monitor the situation. As you say, should you attempt to contact any authorities, we will execute a scorched Earth policy. Keep what you know to yourself, and you will live a long and quite happy life.” 

“Just leave me alone,” Paige replied, using a voice of mixed terror and relief before she disconnected the call. Taking the phone in both hands, she snapped it in half, tossing both halves to either side of the alley before straightening up. That was done. Now to get out of here. 

Unfortunately, she’d barely dusted herself off and turned before finding herself facing six men. Not Ministry people. These were random thugs. Ninety-Niner people, from the look of them. Not even that high up either, just street toughs, lowest of the low. In more than one way. 

“See, boys?” The clear leader of the group announced slyly while strolling closer. “I told you there was some hot bitch hanging out back here. Is it our lucky day or what?” To Paige, he added, “Lemme guess, you got separated from the tour group. But that’s okay, cuz we have got a fun tour for you.” 

Shaking her head as her shoulders hunched, Paige fearfully replied, “I d-don’t want any trouble. I was just–I just had to make a phone call. I’ll leave you alone now.” 

A switchblade appeared in front of her face, clicking into position as the man (a tall, pale figure with a thin build and one of those gross porn mustaches) sneered. “I sure hope you didn’t tell whoever you called that you’d be home soon. Cuz we play rough with our toys.” 

Paige went still. Her eyes rose to meet the man’s, and every ounce of fear and hesitation in her gaze vanished, as she replied flatly, “So do I.” 

There was a flash of confusion in the face of the man she was facing, before her foot collided hard with his knee. It was a sharp enough blow that he stumbled forward. In the same motion, Paige stripped the knife from his grip, driving it up through his throat in a long vertical slice that sent blood spraying everywhere. Blood that missed her face entirely as her head snapped to the side while pulling the knife free. 

The man fell forward as she pivoted on one foot to let it pass. Behind him, his five friends were in the initial second of realizing something was wrong. Before even that much could fully settle on them, her hand snapped out, hurling the knife end over end until it embedded itself in the forehead of a second man. 

Four left, all of whom were caught between reacting to their leader’s prone form on the ground in front of them, and the other man’s falling body right beside them. All had been caught entirely flat-footed. Two managed to start pulling pistols from their pants, one producing a baseball bat, and the fourth just started bull-rushing toward Paige with a scream. 

She juked right, then leapt to the left as the charging man fell for that. In the same motion, she stripped off the jacket she had bought, throwing it into the face of the man who managed to get his pistol out first, making him flail and curse. By that point, the one who was charging swept right past her, grasping fingers missing the girl by inches. 

Paige continued her pivot, the motion carrying her to the opposite wall of the alley just as the second man had managed to get his gun out. Her hand caught hold of a trash can lid and she flung it, frisbee-like, into his face as he was trying to aim. His head snapped backward, gun firing twice into the ground by reflex. It was silenced, of course. With all the prevalence of Touched-Tech, you could practically get silencers in cereal boxes by that point. 

The metal trash can lid rebounded backward, and Paige was there, catching it with one hand before swinging it hard enough into the face of the man a second time to put a dent in the thing (and probably one in his forehead). Now she was standing between the two men with guns. In front of her was the man she had just hit twice. Behind her was the one still flailing with the coat over his face. To her left was the entrance of the alley, where the man with the bat was. To her right was the one who had charged at her, who was already turning around. 

Flipping the lid sideways, Paige slammed it hard enough into the throat of the man in front of her, who had already been hit twice, that he instantly collapsed to the ground while making frantic, desperate choking sounds. His pistol dropped from his hand, but Paige caught it in mid-fall with her left hand, snapping it down and backwards. At the same time, she flung the badly mangled lid toward the ground to her right. 

The charging man was on his way back, just as the sliding lid caught his descending foot and took it out from under him. He hit the ground hard. 

Meanwhile, the man with the jacket over his face had just managed to fling it off. But by that point, Paige felt the barrel of the pistol she had liberated contact his leg, and she pulled the trigger. A scream erupted from him as he took the bullet into his upper thigh. Still, the man brought his gun up, intending to blow her head off. At the same time, the one with the bat lunged in, swinging for the fences. 

Paige ducked and turned, pivoting so that the man with the gun fired a shot that went right over her head. Both of her hands went up, one with the gun and one without. With her free hand, she gave the first gunman’s extended arm a hard shove. With the pistol, she fired a shot into the knee of the man with the bat. 

The bat collided with the extended (and adjusted) arm of the gunman with a sickening crunch. That pistol went flying while the man screamed. His scream was joined by one from the guy with the bat as the bullet from Paige’s liberated pistol went through his knee. 

Free hand snapping out, Paige caught the second pistol in mid-air, before snapping both up in near-opposite directions. She fired a shot into the face of either man, then watched as their bodies fell. With barely a glance, she put the dying man whose throat she had collapsed out of his misery by shooting him in the head as well. 

Straightening, Paige pointed one of the pistols back the way she had come, firing a single shot that killed the man who had slipped on the trash can lid and had just been picking himself up. 

The alley was quiet. From the moment she had kicked the first man to make him trip until the flurry of violence was ended, less than fifteen seconds had passed. Stooping, Paige took the coat back from the ground and grabbed the knife she had touched, prying it from the forehead of the man it had killed. She put both pistols and the knife in the pockets while slipping it onto her shoulders. 

Then she walked away, her small form quickly swallowed up by the darkness of the city streets, leaving the dead gangsters behind without a second glance.

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