Month: April 2020

Interlude 5C – Tabbris, Virginia, and Joselyn (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter                                 Next Chapter

The beam of a flashlight swept across the beach of the ocean located deep within the star-station housing the Fusion School. It flickered across a few small waves lapping gently against the shore before eventually coming to a stop as the beam illuminated a small figure out in the water. The figure was blonde, laying on something that floated just under the lake’s surface. 

As the light found her, Tabbris murmured something to Princess Cuddles, the Great White shark she was laying on, and sat up to look that way. Her eyes looked bloodshot within the glare from the flashlight, stained with tears that didn’t have time to fade before more joined them. She was soaked through to the bone, her entire body drenched from drifting in the man-made ocean.  

Lincoln Chambers stepped into the water, walking out until it was up a little past his waist. Without saying anything, the man extended a hand that way. Without any particular order being given, Princess Cuddles (and the other sharks, who had been drifting around) came close enough for Tabbris to be within arms reach. But for a moment, the small Seosten girl simply sat there, trembling and shivering as she stared at the man. Her mouth opened to say something, but all that came out was a helpless whimper, words utterly failing her. 

So, Lincoln took the last two steps that way. Reaching out with one arm, he scooped the girl off the shark and brought her up to his chest before turning on his heel to walk up out of the water. He brought the arm with the flashlight in to keep her tight against him, until they were finally on the beach. There, he dropped to his knees while setting the girl down, letting the flashlight fall to the side so that it illuminated both of them as well as part of the water. 

Through those first few long seconds, Tabbris stood in front of him, her head down and shoulders hunched. Her hands were clenched together, one squeezing the other so tightly she was hurting her own knuckles. Her eyes were squeezed almost all the way shut, staring through the blurry slits that remained at the ground, too ashamed to even look at the man. Her shivering was a mix of being cold from the water that she had spent far too long in, and her clear and evident terror about the reaction of the man who knelt right in front of her. 

Lincoln, for that moment, just watched her. His face betrayed a rush of emotions before he reached up with one hand. It found the side of the young girl’s face, tilting her head up a bit to look at him. She did so reluctantly, bloodshot eyes barely able to focus on the man. The shame, already well-written across her entire face and through her body, came through clearly in her broken voice. “I… I’m… sorry, Mr… Chambers,” she barely managed, almost inaudibly. “I’m…. I’m… s….” The last word wouldn’t come out again, the girl unable to force it out past the thick knot in her throat. 

“Tabbris,” Lincoln began in a quiet, but firm voice. His hand cupped the side of her face, fingers brushing through her hair. As his thumb gently slid down the girl’s cheek to take up the tears there, the man reminded her, “Not Mr. Chambers. Not to you. You know what I am. You know who you are to me.” 

That overwhelming shame told Tabbris to flinch away from the hand on her face. She didn’t deserve it. Didn’t deserve that kind of comfort at all, let alone from… from Flick’s… Yet despite her shame, she leaned into it desperately, disgust at her own weakness twisting her expression as well as her stomach. “But… but… F-Flick… “ Her voice cracked. “I didn’t–I let her–I w-wasn’t…” 

In answer, Lincoln reached in. His arms wrapped around the girl and he lifted her from the ground while standing up. He felt her legs wrap around him as well as her arms, while he held her tightly. “Listen to me, Tabbris. We are getting her back. You hear me? And you have nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing. Nothing. None of us stopped that–none of us stopped him from taking her. We were all… everyone was… it wasn’t you. It was not you.” His hand rubbed her hair, pressing her face against his shoulder as he insisted, “None of that was your fault, Tabbris. He took everyone by surprise. Athena, your mother, all those people. They’re older, stronger, bigger, they were all surprised. This wasn’t your fault. You listen to me. I don’t blame you. I will never blame you. Now, if you were missing, would Flick give up on you?” 

Without hesitation, Tabbris shook her head, sniffling a little before managing a weak, “No…” 

“Damn right, she wouldn’t,” Lincoln confirmed. “She’d never give up on you. And we’re not giving up on her. You hear me? Whatever it takes, we’re getting her back.” He betrayed none of his own terror and grief in that moment, needing to be the rock for her. “Felicity and Joselyn. We’ll get them both back. Say it for me, Tabbris. What are we going to do?”

Swallowing hard, the girl hesitated, clinging to him before taking in a breath. “… Save Flick. We… we’re going to save Flick.” She said it one more time, voice still cracking, but a bit stronger. “We’re going to save Flick. And Mrs. Chambers.” 

Turning his head a bit to kiss her hair, Lincoln quietly whispered, “We are. We’ll get her back. Come on, let’s get you some dry clothes. I told your mom I’d bring you up. She thought you were asleep, you know.” 

“I woke up,” the little girl murmured a bit plaintively. Her body shook once more. “The sharks, I didn’t w-want them to be lonely. I didn’t–” She stopped, squeezing her eyes shut helplessly as she dropped her head against his shoulder and let out a weak little sob. 

Holding her close, Lincoln promised, “We’ll take care of the sharks too. I promise. Come on, you need to get dry.” He started to walk off the beach and toward the elevator. 

On the way, Tabbris managed a barely audible, “You don’t… hate me…?” 

Immediately, Lincoln squeezed her tighter, hugging the girl firmly to him. “Never. Never, my hidden girl. I’ll never hate you. Not in a million years. You’re my girl. No matter what happens, you’ll always be my daughter. Listen to me. I didn’t call you my daughter because of Felicity. I called you my daughter because of you. I am proud of you every time I see you. You are my daughter. Nothing is going to change that, ever.” 

“I’m sorry,” came the whispered response. “I’m really sorry.” 

All Lincoln said to that, the only thing he could say, was, “I love you, Tabbris.” 

“I… I love you, Dad.” 

*******

Losing people was a way of life for the woman known as Virginia Dare. Born as the first English child on the American continent, cursed from birth by a mysterious and unnamed great evil that was convinced her blood would end the world, Virginia had experienced loss after loss throughout her life. Her family had died, her colony had been destroyed, she had abandoned her mentor and father-figure, the Akharu named Tiras, to save his life from the monsters who continued to chase after her. Again and again, people she cared about had to be left behind or simply died. 

Eventually, she fell in love with Joshua Atherby, and the two of them had a daughter, Joselyn. And the three had been happy, until the Fomorians came. Until the Fomorians presented such a monstrous, world-ending threat that the only choice to stop them had been for Virginia’s family to make the ultimate sacrifice. Joshua had given his life, while Virginia had given everyone’s memories of her. She had been forced to sacrifice her ability to be a mother to her daughter. She lost her husband’s life, and the memories of everyone who could have been there for her, who could have helped her, were wiped away. She couldn’t be with her friends. She couldn’t be with her daughter, the child she had made with the man she loved. There was no way at that time for her to be in Joselyn’s life. Being there, being around those people, was too much of a risk. For the sake of the world, for the safety of the spell that kept the Fomorians blocked from Earth, she had to stay away from them. Away from everyone who cared about her, everyone who could have helped her deal with her loss. 

She was forced to deal with her grief alone, entirely and completely alone. 

Until Gaia had come to find her. Even with her specific memories about those events erased, Gaia had still wondered about the whereabouts of her student and essentially adopted daughter enough to come looking for her. And, eventually, she had put the rest of it together. 

Joselyn ran her rebellion, had children, was captured, imprisoned, and eventually erased from all memories. Just as Virginia had been, save for the fact that her own memory was erased as well. And through all of that, Virginia could not comfort her daughter. For the sake of the entire world, she could not be there for her the way she wanted to be. She could not be there for her when that evil bastard took her. And the only person in that world whom she could talk to about any of it was Gaia. 

But now Gaia was gone. Which meant that Virginia had next to no one who knew what Felicity being taken by the same monster who had taken Joselyn meant to her. Almost no one who would have any idea what she was feeling. With Gaia imprisoned and Felicity taken by Fossor, only one other person in the world knew who Virginia really was. 

“Professor?” Even as Virginia had that thought, Koren Fellows spoke up from behind her. She’d known the girl was coming, had sensed her approach while she came to the house that Virginia was using as her own and used a wood-manipulation power to open the door for her. Then she’d followed the girl’s approach through the house as Koren sought her out before finding her here on the rear balcony overlooking the rest of the staff housing area. 

“It’s alright, Koren,” Virginia assured her, finally turning away from the railing to see the young woman. “There are a dozen privacy enchantments here. No one can hear us. Or see us,” she added after a brief consideration.  

Once she said that, Koren took a step that way to embrace her tightly. She didn’t say anything, but Virginia could sense the… anger in her. The tension held tight in her arms and shoulders, the way she held herself and set her jaw. Many of the people close to Flick were sad, devastated, morose, determined… and more. But Koren… She put a hand on the back of the girl’s head and brushed fingers through her hair. “It’s okay to be mad.” 

Drawing back after squeezing even more firmly for a moment, Koren took a step away and turned to face the railing, gripping it tightly while shaking her head. “No… no it’s not. Because I’m not just mad at Fossor. I should be! I should be, I know, I just… it’s not…” 

“You feel as though you’re angry with Felicity too,” Virginia calmly noted. 

“I don’t want to be!” Koren blurted plaintively, her voice clearly louder than she intended. Sighing then, she gripped the railing even more tightly, turning her knuckles white while dropping her head and slumping her shoulders. “I don’t… want to be. I know it’s not her fault. I know it’s not her fault!” 

Stepping over that way, Virginia put a hand on the girl’s back. “Do you really think it’s her you’re angry at?” she asked gently, watching the reaction. 

“Yes, but I don’t–I mean… I…” Stopping after her initial reaction, Koren hesitated, mouth opening and shutting a couple times. “I… no. I mean, I’m not… Flick’s just… gone. Flick’s gone and I don’t–I can’t do anything about it. I can’t help her. Fossor is… Fossor. Look at him. You guys, all you adults couldn’t stop him. They did this whole huge spell to banish him from Earth and all it did was make him walk on ashes. And piss him off. You all couldn’t really stop him, so what the hell am I gonna do? What could I even… you know… I don’t have a chance. I might as well throw rocks at a mountain trying to make it fall down. And Mom won’t let me go anywhere now. She thinks Fossor’s gonna try to grab me next, so I can’t even leave the station. I can’t really beat Fossor, I can’t help save Flick, and now I can’t even go on any missions to try to help people I’m capable of helping!” The last bit came out in a blurted shout before she sighed. “I’m not really mad at Flick. But I am mad at Flick.” 

Smiling faintly, Virginia squeezed the girl’s back, rubbing her hand in circles. “You’re mad that she was taken. You’re angry and you feel helpless to direct that anger anywhere useful. Which makes you even more angry.” 

Sighing, Koren turned her head to look that way. “Man, how mad are you? I mean, everyone’s paying attention to Mom, Uncle Wyatt, and me, but not… you. No one knows to pay attention to you. No one…” She flinched, turning fully to embrace Virginia once more. “I’m sorry, Great-Grandma.” Belatedly, the girl added, “I know we’re not supposed to risk saying that out loud very much, but… but right now, I don’t care.” 

“It’s okay,” Virginia assured her, returning the embrace. 

“Right now, I don’t particularly care either.” 

*******

For over ten years, Joselyn had dreaded this day. Throughout the decade between the moment she had left her beloved husband and daughter to come live with the… monster who had restored her memories, she had lived in fear. Fear of his abuses, yes. Fear of the things he made her do, the people he made her hurt. Fear of what he was turning her into. But above all, fear of the day that he would set his gaze firmly on her daughter. The terror and helplessness she felt when it came to that psychopath’s intentions for Felicity were worse than every single thing he had done or could have done to Joselyn herself throughout all those years. The fear, the unknowing dread, the… certainty that he would work to twist her daughter the way he had their son…

Ammon. He had destroyed that sweet, sensitive, wonderful little boy, had twisted him into the ugly, evil creature that he wanted. Not for any purpose other than to serve as an experiment. Fossor had barely cared when the boy was… when he was killed. He had been annoyed about something that belonged to him being taken away, of course. But not–he had not truly cared about Ammon. He had never cared about Ammon the way a father should. And the thought of Felicity having that kind of… of treatment turned to her, the thought of Fossor putting his filthy, evil hands to work hurting her, twisting her…

Joselyn would rather die. If given the choice, she would have died before allowing that to happen. But she had no choice. Fossor wanted her alive and he wanted Felicity. What he wanted them both for, what… evil, psychotic plan he was cooking up–had been cooking up for at least the past ten years, she didn’t know. But it was bad, that much she was certain of. 

But Joselyn had done more than live in fear of this day. She had done more than simply long for things to be different. Because wishing things were different wasn’t something she did. That wasn’t who she was. She didn’t wish they were different, she made them different. And despite the situation she was in, despite everything she’d been forced to do, she was still that person. 

She couldn’t do much, and not quickly. Everything she ever did had to be painstakingly slow and careful. An inch at a time. But an inch at a time over ten years could be quite a distance indeed. 

First, of course, she had needed privacy. It took years for Fossor to lower his guard even a little bit around her. But eventually, it came. He had other things to focus on. And Joselyn, despite being stripped of all the Committee’s powers, retained the magic she had learned throughout her time in the rebellion. Part of that included the sort of privacy spell that allowed their people to act right under the noses of Crossroads and Eden’s Garden. Or at least allowed them to know if they were being spied on. She had those spells on her constantly. She knew when she was being observed. And she knew that her rooms were mostly left alone. Which allowed her to make her own preparations, slight as they might have been.

So long as she obeyed Fossor’s given orders, he didn’t particularly care what she did in her own time. Even his order that she be naked in her own rooms was about controlling her, not about… anything else. The man barely had anything resembling those kinds of urges. He had wanted to have a child with her, so he had a child with her. Ammon had been an experiment, nothing more. 

As long as he believed he was in control, he left Joselyn alone a decent amount of the time. She was an old toy that he didn’t like to constantly play with anymore, but would occasionally take out with him. Mostly, he made sure she was still fighting, still killing, still getting powers from his arena. Fossor wanted her to be strong. What… exactly for, she didn’t know. But it was nothing good. Nothing that she wanted herself or Felicity to be involved with. 

But she didn’t feel lost or broken when Fossor announced what he had done, when he revealed his ‘surprise’ about bringing Felicity here through a time travel spell. She didn’t feel despair, because she had felt despair a decade ago. She had felt all of that, and worked through it. Despair didn’t accomplish anything useful. It wouldn’t save herself or her daughter. It wouldn’t stop Fossor. 

Yes, she was afraid of what the future would bring. Yes, she was worried about Felicity and herself. She was afraid of what Fossor wanted. And, of course, sad that he had accomplished his goal of bringing her daughter here. But she would not allow that fear or sadness to rule her. She would not fall into the trap of wishing things were different, of regretting what was to the point of fantasizing about a better life and a better world. She would work to make those things a reality. 

She would protect her daughter as best as she could. She would keep Felicity alive, and the two of them would find a way out of this. Fossor had won a battle, not the war. And as long as his goals included keeping herself and Felicity alive, the war itself would continue. 

That was what Joselyn intended to win. Let the man have his victory for now. Let him revel in winning the battle, in dragging Felicity into this. 

Because what Fossor had never understood, even as he capitalized on that fact, was that Joselyn would do anything for her children. She had surrendered herself to the Committee and been imprisoned for decades to save her twins. She’d had her memories erased, her powers removed, her very identity taken away. She’d given herself to this monster to save Felicity. She would do anything for her children. Fossor understood that enough to know that she would swear an oath to obey him to protect Felicity. But he still thought that bringing Felicity here would break Joselyn, that it would rip her soul to see her daughter brought here after all she had done to protect her from this. 

Rising from the bed where she had been sitting, contemplating all of that, Joselyn turned to the mirror. She saw herself and stared for a moment at the tears that had soaked her face. Her eyes closed, and she took a deep breath, straightening up. The cowed hunch that had come as she had sat on that bed and folded in on herself left her figure, the haunted look left her gaze. The tears dried up. Then she opened her eyes once more and saw herself as Felicity had to, if she was going to spare her daughter any feelings of guilt. 

Because the thing that Fossor had never truly understood was that Joselyn’s true strength came from those she cared about, those she was determined to protect. In bringing Felicity here, in putting Joselyn’s daughter right in front of her, he wasn’t breaking her. He was giving her strength back. He was reminding Joselyn of exactly who she was. 

“Okay,” she announced into the mirror. 

“It’s time to work.”

Previous Chapter                                 Next Chapter

Interlude 10A – That-A-Way (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                       Next Chapter

Please note, for those who read Heretical Edge, there was a commissioned interlude posted yesterday. If you haven’t read that, you might want to do so by clicking here.

Boring, boring, boring. The night was so freaking boring. Amber had been on patrol for what felt like half a day by that point (it was only two hours), and literally nothing of any note had happened. She was strolling along the sidewalk, making herself visible for people so they knew there was a Star-Touched in the area (according to Silversmith, that was a big part of the entire job), and generally just associating with the civilians. Which was fine. It was totally fine. It was part of the job. But… but she was so bored. She wanted to cut through the next alley and just see what she could find somewhere off her assigned patrol pattern. But that was a bad idea. Silversmith tended to get a bit annoyed if you deviated off a path when he specifically gave you one. He didn’t always, of course. A lot of the time you could simply patrol a given section of the city however you wanted. But when he did assign a full path, you had better stay on it. 

And here she was, walking the path that Silversmith had assigned, with nothing happening. Seriously, she was about to fall asleep on her feet. Not from exhaustion, but from sheer boredom. The most exciting thing that had happened was a few people wanting to take pictures with her, and even that wasn’t often because the authorities tried to make it clear that official Star-Touched on patrols were to be left alone to do their jobs. So mostly people just took pictures of her from afar, which was fucking creepy as all hell, seriously what the living fuck. 

Creeps aside, Amber was about ready to call in and ask if there was literally anything going on that she could help with. Even if it was as simple as getting an old lady’s cat out of a tree. She was that desperate for something to do beyond walking down the street while studiously ignoring people with cell phones out filming her. Because if she didn’t find something to do, she was seriously going to consider chucking a rock or two at a few of the creepiest ones. Actually, she might do that anyway. It sounded like a good idea. 

Then she saw it. Up and to the left, on the roof of a dry cleaners, stood a figure in dark-purple armor with speaker system vents all over it. Broadway. That was Broadway, from La Casa. Amber had never met her in person (even if she’d come close during that… thing with Pack the other day), but she did recognize her from the briefings they’d gotten. She was pretty distinctive.

In any case, fuck yeah, something to do! And she was even standing to the north, which was just perfect. Grinning at the fact that she was finally being freed from her mind-numbing boredom, Amber instantly teleported herself right up to the side of the other girl, hand lashing out to catch hold of her arm as she positioned herself facing east to activate her invulnerability. 

Broadway was already gone. She’d used her own teleportation power to esca–no, she was right there at the other end of the roof! Before the girl could counter-attack, That-A-Way threw herself that way in a superfast sprint. Broadway’s fault for setting herself up to the west.  

A sudden blast of deafening sound focused solely on her made the girl stumble, falling to one knee as her hands covered her ears. Oh shit, that was loud! She could barely think through it. Focus, focus! She’d teleport out of the way, circle around and come up behind–

The sound stopped. Blearly, Amber blinked up to see Broadway holding both hands out. Just as she started to dive out of the way of whatever was about to hit her, however, the sound of the other girl’s voice reached her. “–not here to fight, dude! Just hold up a second, jeez!” 

Okay, it was true that Amber hadn’t seen Broadway actually do anything wrong. But still, she was a wanted criminal and all that. And… and she was friends with Pack. Yeah. Amber knew the two were teammates. She knew from Pack’s rambling back when they had… um… fought that Broadway had been the one driving that van. So maybe she sort of… overreacted. Maybe her own boredom wasn’t the only reason she’d lunged to attack. It was slightly possible that seeing Broadway there had reminded her of that whole thing with Pack and her guilt over… 

Over what? She hadn’t let Pack escape. She hadn’t. She’d tried to bring her in, had even fought her. So why did she feel guilty about it? Why did she feel so guilty that seeing Broadway here had made her feel like she had to prove she hadn’t let Pack go on purpose by grabbing her teammate? How did that even make sense? And why the fuck was this so complicated anyway? 

Pushing herself up, Way watched the Fell-Touched warily, ready for any kind of trick. This had to be a trick, right? Her eyes narrowed, glancing around briefly just in case something was coming at her from another direction. Nothing. They were alone on the roof. “What do you want?” 

“Me?” Broadway shrugged elaborately, clearly overly-emphasizing the motion so that it would carry through the armor she wore. “I don’t want anything really. I was just looking for the bastards who attacked… never mind. Point is, I saw you on patrol and thought my buddy might want to know you were around. Turns out she wants to talk to you pretty bad though.” With that, she held up a flip phone, offering it that way. “She said to tell you it’s about Paintball.” 

The reflexive denial that had been on Amber’s lips, the immediate refusal to talk to Pack and risk everything that would come with that, died. Paintball. Fuck. “What did you people do to him?” she demanded, ignoring just how little sense that made. They were the bad guys, the bad guys. She had to force herself to keep thinking of them that way, no matter what. Which, again, might have resulted in a little overcompensation. 

“Seriously?” Broadway was clearly just as aware of the ridiculousness of that assumption. “Here, dude.” She underhand tossed the phone without arguing further about that. “Talk to her.” 

Amber considered tossing the phone away. Damn it, she was Star-Touched and they were Fell-Touched! If anyone found out she was having some kind of casual conversation with them, let alone that when she and Pack had fought she had… that she might have… that…

Fuck. Snapping the phone open, she brought it to her ear and demanded, “What’s going on with Paintball?” 

Pack’s answer came immediately. “You tell me. What the hell are you doing? Why didn’t you go help him? You can’t be done already. Don’t tell me you left him out there on his own.”

Okay, now Amber was even more confused. She blinked over at Broadway, who stood still, watching her with what seemed like curiosity even though it was hard to read through the armor. “Uhh… what? I haven’t talked to Paintball lately. What are you going on about?” 

There was a brief silent pause, followed by a full litany of cursing. Amber was pretty sure there were some bad words in there from several other languages. It went on for a few long seconds before Pack finally snapped, “–fucking idiot!” 

“Excuse me?” Way demanded reflexively. 

“Not you!” the voice on the phone blurted. “Paintball! He’s a fucking god damn idiot! He fucking lied to me just to–who the fuck knows why! He lied to me! He said he was going to call you for help! That’s the only reason I let him go by himself, because he wasn’t–god damn it!” 

“Calm down,” That-A-Way ordered, her mind swimming. “Okay, just wait a minute. What was he going to call me about? You let him go where by himself? And why did you have anything to say about it anyway? He doesn’t work for you. He–” 

“Never mind that!” Pack interrupted. “Look, we–I don’t know what the hell is going on, not exactly. But Paintball asked Eits to do some research for him. Yeah, I don’t know why. Eits found some address and got jumped for it. Someone beat the shit out of him. I got Paintball here and gave him the address. He said he was going to call you for back-up to check it out! Now he’s been gone for over an hour and I find out he never even called you!” 

Taking in all that, Amber felt a rush of nausea and confusion wash over her. What the hell was Paintball having a bad guy look up for him? And why had he gone off on his own after telling Pack he would ask for help? And why hadn’t he checked in again? 

“Where is he?” she finally demanded. “Where did you send him? I’ll check it out myself.” 

“Not by yourself you won’t,” came the retort. “Broadway has the address. Follow her, I’ll meet you there. We’ll find out what the fuck is going on, even if I have to smack Paintball until he stops being so secretive.” 

Amber considered arguing. But Pack had already hung up. So that conversation was over. With a sigh, she looked at Broadway. Several options bounced back and forth through her mind, but there was really only one possibility. She couldn’t just abandon Paintball. And it would take too long to try to explain the situation to her own people. “Fine,” she muttered. 

“Lead the way.” 

*******

It was some small, ordinary house in the middle of an ordinary neighborhood. Well, maybe not actually that small. But still, it was just a house. Given that the state it was in, Amber would have said it was empty, but a dog was sitting in the fenced-off and heavily overgrown front yard and didn’t seem to be starving or anything. It was just sitting there, watching people pass by.  

At the moment, Amber was standing at the end of the street in a clump of trees just above a drainage ditch. Broadway and Pack (who had the cage with her lizards sitting nearby) were standing a few feet away, all three of them watching that house as they had been for the past minute. 

“So, I don’t get it,” Broadway finally piped up. “Why’re we standing around like this? Are we going to go bust in there and check this place out, or what? Paintball’s like, a friend to you guys, right? If he’s in trouble, that’s the first place to start. He could be hurt or something in there.”  

Way gave the Fell-Touched a brief squint. “We–” she amended belatedly. “I don’t just go breaking into people’s homes like that. We don’t know if he’s in there at all. We don’t even know if he made it or not. Anything could have happened. We don’t have a warrant or probable cause or anything to justify busting in someone’s private home just because we’re worried. Especially since I’m off my patrol route and haven’t reported in about this. You know, for obvious reasons.” 

“Oh,” Pack replied casually, “well that’s easy to deal with. Just close your eyes for a minute.” As she said it, the girl was already starting to move that way, stopping to pick up the cage on the way. “Luckily, I brought my universal lockpick. Didn’t I, Marsy? You wanna smash a door in?” 

Quickly, Amber moved and grabbed the other girl by the arm. “Stop! You can’t just break in there either. It’s broad daylight and anyone could be watching. Do you have any idea what you could-”  

Pack snatched her arm free, somehow managing to scowl at That-A-Way despite the completely blank mask that covered her face. “No, do you have any idea what could be happening to Paintball in there while we just stand here? Did you hear the part about how some assholes practically beat Eits into a coma just for looking for this place and not telling them the address? Whatever’s going on here, whatever it is, it’s really fucking important. Don’t you care about what could’ve happened to Paintball and why he just completely disappeared?”

Wincing at that, Amber nodded. “Of course I care! I’m here, aren’t I? I mean, I really shouldn’t be, but…” She sighed, shaking that off. She made her choice and would deal with the consequences if it came to it. That said, she wasn’t going to be stupid about the whole thing and just burst right in. “But we have to do this right. Not only because we–I could get in trouble, but because if there are bad guys in there, waltzing right in could be just as bad as doing nothing.” 

“Moving girl’s got a point,” Broadway put in, giving That-A-Way a thumbs up. “Bad guys or good guys, we’re all pretty screwed if we walk into the same trap that caught Paintball. I mean, not that we know he walked into a trap. But let’s be real, he probably walked into a trap.” 

Finally relenting, Pack glanced to the cage at her feet. “Fine, Riddles and Twinkletoes can scout the place out from above and close in. They can check what the place looks like up close, see if anyone’s in there through the windows. But we do this fast.” 

Amber agreed, stepping back and watching as Pack brought the two lizards to their larger forms and sent them off to do their job. As they took off, one flying and one invisible, she asked, “How many times have you tried calling him?” Even then, Amber was taking the phone from her own pocket and hitting the option to try calling Paintball himself for about the fifth time since she’d heard about this. As with the first four, it went straight to the generic voicemail. 

“Half a dozen,” Pack replied flatly. “After that, there didn’t seem to be a point. We know something’s wrong. Either something in that place attacked him, or he got jumped on the way here.” She looked over to Way, adding pointedly, “Either way, I’m getting in that house to find out what the fuck is going on.” 

There was something in her voice, a… guilt? Amber wasn’t sure, but it sounded like the other girl was blaming herself for the whole situation. She found herself pointing out, “Look, Pack, you know Paintball isn’t your responsibility or anything. He’s not on your team or–” 

Pack quickly interrupted. “Fuck that. I should have known that he was going to feel guilty about the whole thing with Eits. I should have figured out that he was lying and that he’d go off by himself to try to make sure no one else got hurt or some shit. I should’ve known, but I was just…” She was clearly scowling, arms folded across her stomach as she looked away. “I was upset. I was mad that he got Eits involved, even though it wasn’t his…” A long sigh came. “I was mad. I was stupid. He was stupid. We were all stupid. And now Paintball’s in trouble.”

By that point, Riddles was swooping in to land on a nearby tree. Pack looked that way, and Amber resisted the urge to demand to know if they were actually communicating. 

Finally, the other girl looked to her and Broadway. “The house seems empty. And it looks like no one’s lived there for months. There’s cobwebs, dust everywhere, the lot.”  

“That… doesn’t make sense,” Broadway pointed out, bouncing a bit as if impatient and tired of standing still. “What about the pupper out front?” 

“Yeah…” Amber squinted that way, forgetting who she was with in that moment as she pushed off to walk to the house. Something really weird was going on. “I think we need to check out that dog.” Now the whole thing was even more suspicious. What the hell was going on? 

The neighborhood was pretty quiet, so the three reached the gate of the house without running into anyone. As they stood there, the dog perked its head up and panted while looking at them. 

“Hey, boy… or girl,” Amber coaxed, hoping the animal wouldn’t be too put off by their costumes (especially Broadway’s heavy armor). “Who’s a good whatever-sex-you-are? You are. You are. C’mere…” She put her hand through the gate and the dog gave a happy little wag while getting up to move that way. 

Suddenly, there was a sharp whistling sound as something shot past Amber and the others. It was a small stone, which rebounded off the dog’s snout, making it jerk back with a reflexive snarl. 

Spinning that way, her guard up as she snatched the taser-baton from her side, That-A-Way stared at… “Skip?” It was the girl from Ten Towers, standing there in the white short-sleeved robe and hood that covered a blue-black bodysuit, her lower face covered by a black cloth mask. She had just hurled the stone past the three Touched to hit the animal.

“Not a dog,” she said simply, in that matter-of-fact, eerily calm way she had. Amber had seen and fought alongside the girl several times and she’d never seen her raise her voice or seem emotional in any way. “Get back now.” Her tone was about as urgent as it ever got.  

Even as Skip said that, Amber felt movement behind her. She spun, activating her power to teleport to the north while grabbing Pack. Broadway teleported backward at the same time. 

They barely avoided the mouth of the dog. A mouth that was now a hell of a lot bigger than it had been. Large enough to have swallowed Amber whole if given a chance. 

“The fuck?!” the girl blurted, stumbling a little. Even as she said that, the dog’s head (because that was the only part of it that had grown) resumed its normal size. It snarled at them before abruptly spitting some kind of nasty-looking greenish-brown mucus stuff at the ground. The mucus spread out to cover a space about two feet wide, before the dog… dove… into the mucus. Literally, it dove into the gooey, gross stuff, disappearing as if it was jumping into a pool of water. A moment later, the mucus faded into the ground, leaving them staring at nothing. 

“I’m sorry,” Amber managed while scrambling to the fence. “But what the fuckity fucking fuck?!” 

“Uhh, what she said,” Broadway agreed, sounding like she was about to be sick. “What the hell was that?” 

“I don’t know,” Skip calmly informed them. “But it was playing lookout for the people who abducted Paintball.” 

“What?!” Pack snapped, suddenly moving that way. “You saw something happen? Who–what–where?” 

Without responding to the girl directly, Skip turned her head slightly, looking at That-A-Way. “You work with villains?” She didn’t sound judgmental. She barely sounded curious. 

“It’s a long story,” Way informed her. “Really long. But we’re looking for Paintball, if you–” 

“He said a friend of his was hurt and needed help,” Skip replied flatly. “I saw him after that and thought he might be in trouble. I was busy, but after I was done, I looked for him. That brought me here. I don’t come out here very often, so my closest marker was a few streets over and I had to come look for him. I got here in time to see people put him in a car, but I was too far away to see who they were. They wore long coats.” 

“God damn it!” Pack blurted. “I knew that idiot was in trouble! And now we have no fucking idea where he is!” 

“You would have an idea,” Skip calmly informed her without a trace of recrimination in her voice, “if you allowed me to finish speaking.” 

“What?” Pack demanded. “You said you didn’t see who they were and you weren’t close enough to do anything about it.” 

Skip gave a simple nod. “True. But I did see the license plate before they left and sent it to Ten Towers support. I waited, and was on the phone with them when you arrived. I witnessed the so-called dog shift itself into a larger form in an attempt to ambush the invisible figure you sent to investigate the house, but you approached first and interrupted, forcing the creature to resume its passive form in an attempt to shift the ambush to you instead. Thus, I thought it prudent to interrupt.” 

“You said you were on the phone with your support team?” Amber managed, pushing her way past all that. 

“Yes,” Skip confirmed. “They have traced the car through several street cameras to a warehouse on the far side of town. If you would like, I can take you there.” 

“Oh, we definitely like,” Pack retorted. 

“Take us to this warehouse. Because whoever abducted Paintball is about to get a really goddamn rude awakening.” 

Previous Chapter                                       Next Chapter

Commissioned Interlude 6 – April, May, and December (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter                                           Next Chapter

“No, no, no! Bad stove!” Adding a flurry of her own people’s curses to that, the red-haired Seosten known as April quickly opened the oven before stumbling back with a cough as dark smoke came billowing out. It was accompanied by the obnoxious shriek of the alarm letting everyone within earshot know that cooking brownies had gone horribly wrong. She waved the smoke away, leaning in to grab the cookie sheet. 

“Wait!” A hand grabbed her arm, stopping the girl. So surprised was she by the unexpected physical contact, that April put up no struggle as she was pulled quickly backward. Glancing that way revealed that her accoster was the human named Douglas, the skinny blond Heretic boy. Only once she was safe did Douglas turn his attention to the smoke with a cough, waving his hand in front of his face. “Oh, that’s not great,” he managed before quickly making a fist and holding it near the smoke. When the boy moved his hand, a glowing yellow orb was left behind. With the sound of rushing air, all of the smoke was drawn into the orb, which turned darker and darker until it was black, then disappeared with the sound of a bubble popping. The smoke vanished with it. 

While he was doing that, a different figure stepped forward and reached in to grab the pan from the oven. It was Kushiel’s daughter, the Mendacia (or Lie) who called herself Theia. She simply caught hold of the pan full of its quite thoroughly burned, brick-like contents before setting it on top of the stove. 

“Theia!” Doug blurted. “I just stopped her from grabbing that with her bare hand, why would you do it? Are you okay?” Even as he asked that, the boy was leaning in to turn off the oven while holding his other hand up toward the smoke detector. A glowing energy construct shaped like a long pole with a finger on the end appeared and hit the button to silence the obnoxious alarm. 

Looking at the burn on her hand, the pale, brown-haired girl flatly replied, “I have felt worse.” With that, she looked to April. “We rang the bell, but the alarm was too loud. We… believed you could be in danger. Or that a very small mouse was trapped in your speaker system and desperately trying to communicate through very high-pitched scream-squeaks.” She paused. “But we only thought that for a moment.” Another pause. “… Do you have any mice?”

Straightening a little, April squinted, first at Douglas, who was adjusting the door of the oven to let it air out, then at Theia, who was looking around as though still partially-convinced there was a trapped supernaturally brilliant mouse somewhere. “Um, several, actually. But I promise none of them are trying to communicate. Or stuck in any of the stereo equipment.” Her head tilted as she looked at the New York Rangers hat on Theia’s head. “I thought that was the boy’s.” 

“I have tried to return it to him,” the other Seosten insisted, pointing to it. “He will not take it.” 

“I told you,” Doug insisted in a voice that made it clear they’d had the conversation before. “It was a present. You don’t take presents back. I mean, yeah, first it was just so you and Pace could both control her body, but now you’re out of her and… I mean, you’re you. You should keep it.” He turned away then, mumbling something about how Sulan already made him several replacements. 

“But…” April started before considering her words. “What… why are you both here?” 

“This is the house you and the other two Calendar members have been given to stay within while you are visiting the school, yes?” Theia prompted. “Douglas and I want to be… what is it?” 

“Welcoming committee,” the human boy supplied. “We’re here to be part of your welcoming party. We thought the others would be here too, ahh, where’s December and May?” 

Before answering, the red-haired Seosten looked back and forth between her fellow Lie and the boy. “If you are concerned about what we are up to, the security forces of this station have made it clear that any sensitive areas are under powerful protections and guard. We would not risk offending our hosts after agreeing to a truce by attempting to bypass those measures. That’s…” She paused. “That is strategically unsound.”

Doug exhaled, shaking his head quickly. “No, no. We’re not here to check in on you. I mean, we are, but not like that. We just wanted to see how you guys were doing. I mean,  I know everything’s pretty weird right now with Flick…” He trailed off, a grimace crossing his face. 

April gave a short nod. “The abduction of Felicity Chambers has upset many people. Not only her immediate family.” She looked toward the heavily burnt tray of what would have been brownies and gave a long sigh. “I… was attempting to provide a treat for December to take to Sariel’s younger daughter. She said that the girl has been… very sad, and hard on herself.” 

With a wince, the boy agreed. “Yeah, I mean, the others have been trying to help Tabs, but she’s not… taking it that great. Neither are Shiori and Avalon.” He sighed heavily. “And it sucks. But we’re not here about that. Sorry about your brownies, but I think we could probably help make more. You know, if you want.” 

Blinking at that, April didn’t answer at first. Instead, she asked, “You grabbed my arm. But you know what I am. Why would you do that?” 

As if it actually answered anything, Doug replied, “I didn’t want you to burn yourself.” He squinted toward Theia. “I didn’t want anyone to burn themselves, but I guess we’ll take what we can get. Next time, we’re using the oven mitt. Do you have an oven mitt? I’m bringing you an oven mitt.” He paused, then looked at her. “You mean why would I touch you when I know if you possess me I have to die before you can come out?” 

“Yes,” April confirmed, “that.” 

“Well,” the boy answered carefully, “the way I see it, you don’t particularly want to be stuck in me, right? You and me, we’re not exactly direct enemies or anything. Besides, you’re here on a truce, and you wouldn’t want to break that. Being afraid that you’ll possess me? I might as well be afraid that anyone around here will pull out a knife and stab me in the throat. You’ve been taught since you were a little kid that possessing people that you don’t mean to is bad and wrong and all that. It’s been drilled into your head forever. So why would I be afraid of you doing it anyway? You’re not a little kid or anything. Hell, you’re not even really a teenager, even if you look like you’re about fifteen. Theia looks like that too and she’s more like thirty.” 

“Yes,” April agreed with a squint. “She and I are close to the same age, I believe.”  

“Well, there you go.” Gesturing, Doug added, “You’re not some little kid. You’re an adult. I’m not afraid of you possessing me because we’re not enemies, and you’re not a sociopath. Trust me, I was teammates with a sociopath. I don’t worry about you possessing me for the same reason I don’t worry about random people in the hall pulling out a gun and shooting me in the face. I’ve got no reason to think you’re going to.” 

“They are very odd people,” Theia noted with a slight smile. “But I like them.” Head tilting to look at the oven, she wrinkled her nose at the smell. “I also like good brownies. Those are… not.  

“So, may we help make more?” 

******

The noise from a few dozen students in the college-level math class chattering with one another dulled quickly before silencing as their teacher stood at the front of the room with his hand up. The man was a Mezulef named Wuld. His people were slightly shorter than average humanoids, standing between three and five feet tall, and had thick brown fur along with ten eyes positioned in a ring all the way around their head. Wuld was on the taller end for his people, which still put him below average human height. 

Once the class was silent, the man gestured for the figure waiting by the door to come in. Promptly, May, who had been watching that, crossed the front area of the classroom and stood by the man. The Seosten, who by human standards looked like an Asian girl around eighteen years old (but was actually more like forty by Earth standard) stopped a few feet from the man, reflexively giving him the same space she had been taught throughout her life to give others. She had to be more than arm’s length away at all times if possible. 

“Okay, guys,” Wuld began in his people’s signature gruff voice, “this right here is May, one of our Seosten guests. I found her in the library earlier going through the same section on statistics we’re about to work on. Turns out she’s kinda good at it. Right, May?” 

Seeing everyone in the class staring at her, May hesitated slightly. She felt oddly shy, shifting on her feet while rubbing her hands against her baggy urban camo pants. Though she might have been considered a near middle-aged adult as a normal human, she was still quite young by Seosten standards. And more importantly, she was accustomed to being ignored at best, or more often loathed. Seeing people watching her with curiosity, as if they wanted to know more about her? That was… different. 

“Yes,” she finally managed, after taking a moment to collect herself. “I… enjoy math.” 

“And I enjoy teaching people who want to learn,” Wuld replied. “So May here is gonna sit in on a few classes. More if she wants to.” To the girl herself, he added, “Why don’t you go ahead and find a seat, then we’ll get started.” 

Find a seat? May blinked, turning to squint at the man. “With… them?” she asked blankly. 

Wuld, in turn, raised four different eyebrows before raising his voice. “Ah, quick question. Cooties. Does anyone in here have cooties?” Seeing no hands raised, he informed the girl, “By the grace of the pharaohs, I think you’re safe.” 

May still didn’t move immediately. She turned, looking toward the desks. There were several open, but all were in the middle of other groups. There were people all around  every open desk. People who were now waiting for her. 

“Here,” one girl finally spoke up, raising her hand with a mechanical pencil clasped in it. She was the Heretic known as Shiloh, a young Caucasian woman with dark brown hair that barely reached her shoulders in the back while the rest was shorter, leading to jagged, uneven bangs in the front. “There’s a desk here.” She indicated the seat beside her. 

May had been somewhat surprised that the teacher had told her to find a seat so close to his normal students. But seeing one of those students actively invite her over to sit directly next to her was even more unexpected. For a moment, she just stood there, staring briefly until Wuld cleared his throat. Then she found herself walking that way. With each step, May expected to see a shift of bodies away from the desk in question. But she didn’t. They didn’t. They stayed where they were. A few looked impatient to get back to the actual class. Which in and of itself was even more surprising. They weren’t paying attention to her every move. They weren’t staring at her with paranoia, waiting to slap her with punishment for getting too close, or even reflexively shifting their bodies away as she neared them.  

What in the name of the Fomorian progenitor was wrong with them? 

Shaking that uncertainty off as well as she could, May moved to the desk that had been offered and sat down. She placed the math book on the desk before looking over to the girl. “Thank you,” she started a bit awkwardly, unsure of exactly how to proceed. “Do not worry. I will try not to bother you.” 

“Try not to bother me?” Shiloh echoed in disbelief before shaking her head. “Dude, Mr. Wuld said you’re good at this math stuff, right? I totally called dibs on you helping me.” 

Immediately, the orange-skinned, purple-haired Querv boy who sat directly behind May leaned forward. “Hey, she’s gotta help me too. I’m totally lost on this stuff.” 

Turning a bit to put both of them in her line of sight, May stared for a silent moment. In the background, she noticed Wuld writing the next formula they would be studying on the white board. “You… want me to… help you learn.” Her voice was dull and flat from disbelief. 

“I mean, if you want to,” Shiloh quickly amended with a visible blush. “You don’t have to. It’s not like a requirement to sit here or anything. It’s just, I–” She glanced to the Querv boy. “I mean, we could really use some help.” Offering a slight, clearly nervous smile, she added, “Please?” 

“But you know what I am,” May pointed out. “You know I am… a Lie.”  

“Yeah, and like, everyone here has different powers and weapons and shit that could kill people,” Shiloh retorted. “But they aren’t good at math. Err, maybe they are… that’s not the point. The point is, you’re good at math. So, could you help us understand it?” 

“I…” Pausing, May finally gave an uncertain nod. “Yes. If you wish. 

“I would very much like to help you learn.” 

*******

“The people here are very strange.” 

As she made that announcement, April was sitting down in the main school cafeteria to eat dinner. December was to the right of her, with May on the far side of the younger girl. 

“That is understandable,” Theia, who had taken the seat directly across from April, pointed out. “Many of them are Strangers.” Her head tilted with a quirky, uneven smile, showing her teeth somewhat goofily. “Of both the capitalized and non-capitalized variety.” Leaning forward, she added in a quieter, somewhat conspiratorial voice. “That was a joke. I make them now. It’s fun.” 

“What’sstrangeaboutthem?” December piped up in a blur of words. She had been fairly quiet for awhile. Which was incredibly unusual for her. Now, she looked first to May to her right, then to April to her left.  

May, after giving Theia a brief squint, turned her attention to the youngest Calendar member. “They know what we are, yet they are not afraid of us. They… put us near their young. They want to learn from us. They touch us when they don’t have to. They are all very perplexing.” 

“Should, uhh…” Douglas, who was seated next to Theia, turned to look at Shiloh, who had just plopped down next to him a moment earlier. “Should we let them know that we’re sitting here and can actually hear them right now?” 

“My comment was partially intended for you, Douglas,” April primly informed him. “I still do not understand your actions earlier. We… don’t understand any of your actions. Why do your people insist on treating us as though we are not… what we are? Yes, you said that you are not afraid of being murdered, but… why would you treat us as though we are not… mistakes?” There was a bit of… worry, confusion, and disbelief in her voice. April had been treated a certain way her entire existence. Seeing a few people, such as the Las Vegas mission group, treat her differently had been one thing. But this was so much more than that. 

“Is it simply their trust in this protection spell that their archmages have been preparing?” May put in curiously. 

“Nah, that’s not it,” Shiloh, who actually looked a little amused by their bafflement, noted. “They have to do that anti-possession spell one-on-one the first time. Have they gotten to you yet?” she asked Doug. Getting a headshake in response, she gestured. “Me neither. Apparently they can like… renew the whole group once it’s applied, you just have to come back here once in awhile. But for the first time, they have to cast the spell on you directly. Lots of people don’t have it yet. It’s gonna take awhile.” 

Perking up a bit, December blurted, “Tabbrisishelpingwiththat! Orshewasbeforeshefellasleep. TheysaidIshouldlethersleep. Cuzshewasn’tsleepingforalongtime. BecauseofFlick.” 

Shiloh hesitated. Though the fact that the Seosten girl had possessed Flick for a long time was generally known, there were a lot of rumors and contradictory ideas. “Umm. They’re like… adopted sisters or something?” 

“Yes,” Theia immediately put in, leaning forward and turning her head to look down toward the other girl. “They are sisters. She is very upset about Flick Chambers’s disappearance. So… so are a lot of people.” 

“But they figured out the spell was some kind of time travel thing,” Doug put in. “Koren said Wyatt and Professor Dare went over it and they think it jumped her forward a few weeks. So–” 

“Her birthday,” May noted. “The necromancer sent her to her own birthday.” 

“Yeah, some present, right?” Doug muttered. 

“Tabbrishasbeenworkingreallyhard!” December announced, sounding worried. “Ithinkshe’sworkingtoohard. She’sdoingallthismagicstuff. Andshe’sdoingschoolstuff. Andshe’strainingwithAvalon. ShesaidshewantsAvalontoteachherhowtofight. CuzshewantstohelpsaveFlick. Sheknowsshecan’tfindherrightnow. Soshe’susingthetimetolearn. Andshekeepshavingnightmarestoo.” The last few words came out quietly, as she looked down. 

It was Shiloh who spoke up, reaching across the table to poke December. “Hey, they’ve got a sundae bar over there. Why don’t you grab something?” 

“Sunday?” December sounded baffled. “Butit’sstill–” Her confusion vanished as she saw what was pointed out. “Icecreamit’sicecreamwhocareswhatdayitis?!” With that, she was a blur of motion that disappeared that way. 

May looked to her new classmate. “Thank you. December is still young. She wishes to help Sariel’s… Tabbris. She wishes to help Tabbris, but she… we do not know how.”

“It’s no big,” Shiloh insisted a bit awkwardly, a blush touching her face. “It’s just ice cream. People like ice cream. You like ice cream, right? We could both go get it. You know, just–” 

Her words, awkward as they might have been, stopped as she instead squinted past the others. “What’s your friend doing?” 

“December?” Turning, May looked that way, to see the girl in question standing out of the way, hands clasped behind her back as she watched a couple other Seosten students filling their bowls with ice cream. 

“Hey.” Shiloh was up from the seat, stepping that way before the others could react. “That’s not fair. She was ahead of you and then she just put her bowl down and moved. What’d you guys say to her?” 

“What?” The young Seosten boy looked at his female companion, then shook his head at Shiloh, while she was joined by Doug, Theia, May, and April. “We just told her to remember the rules, that’s all.” 

“Yeah,” the female Seosten who was with him agreed. “I mean, I don’t really want to take ice cream once she’s… touched and breathed on all of it.” 

While the others reacted to that, Doug marched forward. The two unfamiliar Seosten each took up reflexive ready stances as though expecting him to start a fight. Instead, the boy walked past them, plucking a spoon from the tray. He leaned over, digging into one of the cartons to take up an enormous scoop of strawberry-chocolate ice cream. Then he walked over, thrusting the spoon out toward April. “Bite?” 

Looking very confused, the girl took a bit of the ice cream. Once she had some, Doug offered the still-quite full spoon toward Theia. “Bite?” He then waited as the other girl took a bite of her own, before offering it in turn to May and December. By that point, there was only a little ice cream left. Doug turned to the two newcomers and pointedly put the spoon fully into his mouth, taking all the ice cream there was before licking it clean to get every bit of it. 

“You guys… you don’t even…” The Seosten girl opened and shut her mouth before shaking her head as she turned to leave, the boy following after her. 

“Why did you do that?” April asked, squinting at Doug. 

“Cuz,” he replied easily, “with some people, it doesn’t matter how much you argue, how much you yell or fight or insult them. None of that’ll do anything. It won’t change their minds. Especially when they’ve grown up with it like those guys have. The only chance you’ve got is for them to see it for themselves. And not just a little bit, not just once. Over and over again.” 

“Okay, but dude,” Shiloh put in, “next time, I get to help. I like ice cream too.” 

Standing together, the three Calendar members looked at the two Heretics. April announced, “You see? Very strange people.” 

“Yes, they are strange,” Theia agreed, her voice quite cheerful as she put both hands on the sides of the hat Doug had given her. “But I am strange too. 

“And I would rather be strange together, than strange alone.”

Previous Chapter                                           Next Chapter

Interlude 5B – Fossor (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter                                    Next Chapter

Four Years Ago

Jefferson Coalbright missed his family. Yes, the trip up here to fish and camp in the Canadian wilderness with his buddies was important. It was tradition, one they had kept alive for the past twenty years, even through the deaths of a few of their close friends. And now, not taking the trip would feel like dishonoring that memory. To say nothing of how much he’d hate himself for letting his living buddies down. But still, two weeks was a long time to be away from his wife, his father, and all six of his children. He missed them more than he could say. 

Still, this trip was just about over. Then, he supposed, he would spend most of the year looking forward to the next one. That was how it always went. The grass was greener, and so on. 

At the moment, Jefferson was washing his hands in the restroom at the edge of the campgrounds he and his friends had chosen this year. Hearing the squeak of the door, he glanced up at the mirror, only to smile at the reflection. “Well, hey there, Freddy. You haven’t gone home yet, huh? I thought you were taking off yesterday?”

“Oh, not just yet,” the slightly pudgy, middle-aged man with a soft, inviting expression that made him look like that friendly uncle everyone knew replied easily. He crossed the restroom with something in one hand, setting it up on the sink between them. “Just can’t bring myself to leave this beautiful place.” ” He inhaled and exhaled with pronounced satisfaction. “It was Astrid’s favorite place to come, you know.” A lost, faraway expression crossed the man’s face. 

Biting his lip, Jefferson gave a slow nod. “I know, buddy.” Fred was a man he’d only met a few days earlier, yet the man was so friendly, so full of wonderful stories of his late wife (who shared a name with Jefferson’s own lost mother), that he felt as though he’d known the former stranger for a much longer time. “She’d be glad you were still coming up here, I know she would.”  

Changing the subject then, he gestured to the object that had been placed up on the other sink. It was a white-red rose in a flower pot. “Now that’s just gorgeous, where did it come from?” 

“Hmm?” Glancing to the flower as though he’d forgotten about it for a moment, Fred paused. A somewhat sad smile crossed his face briefly. “Oh… there’s a grove of them a few hours’ hike from here. Astrid… Astrid loved them, so I always make sure to take one to her grave after one of these trips.” Shaking his head, he noted, “And then I went and forgot I’d already picked the one for her earlier. Took a second one and didn’t even… notice…” Trailing off, he seemed to lose himself in memories (happy ones, Jefferson hoped) for a few seconds before coming back to the present. “Ah, actually, I’m glad I found you. You’re heading out this morning, aren’t you? Why don’t you take that one home to your own wife? Let her know just how much you missed her.” 

After briefly considering, Jefferson gave a slow nod. “You know what, I think I might take you up on that. Here, let me buy it off you.” He reached for his wallet. 

“No, no, no, don’t be ridiculous.” Shaking his head, Fred took the flower pot and pressed it against Jefferson. “You take this and make the missus happy, you hear me? It’s plenty enough payment just thinking about the feelings this little plant here is going to give your whole family.” 

Thanking him again, Jefferson Coalbright took the flower, sniffing it curiously before the sound of a familiar horn honking drew his attention. “Right, that’s the guys. I’ll see you next time, Freddy! Maybe next year.” 

Watching the man leave with the flower under one arm, ‘Fred’ slowly straightened. His cheerful expression remained, but it seemed decidedly less friendly in that moment. “No, Mr. Coalbright,” Fossor murmured under his breath while standing on the ashes he had magically spelled to be unnoticeable by the humans around here. 

“I don’t think you will.” 

*******

Three Years Ago 

 

Clipping the badge that identified him as a doctor onto his white coat as he strolled out of the elevator onto the children’s wing of the psychiatric care hospital, Fossor gave a polite wave to the woman behind the desk who knew him as Alvin Carver. She barely looked up from the phone, too busy with her own work to even say hello as he passed by. She certainly didn’t notice the ashes that sprayed out of the canteen he held in one hand and coated the floor in front of him before just as quickly vanishing after he had stepped on them. 

It was late enough in the day that things were pretty quiet, save for the rapid babbling coming from the nurse’s station, as Fossor neared the room belonging to Dakota Coalbright. One quick visit, in and out, just to continue fulfilling his end of the bargain with the creature known as Kwur. The plant-being had grown particularly fond of this girl and wanted her checked in on now and then. 

Fossor, of course, could sympathize with growing somewhat attached to a child that he saw as his own. Young Felicity, of course, would be… fourteen now? Just entering high school. He’d have to pay her another visit soon. It had been a couple years since that time in the dentist’s office, and he was certain her mother would appreciate some new pictures. 

The things he did to show his affection for that woman, honestly. He was clearly growing soft. 

Just as he reached out for the door to see how Dakota was doing, it opened on its own. The old necromancer was taken slightly by surprise, stepping back as two figures emerged. One was a very heavy-set, round-figured beachball of a man with a broad smile. The other was a young blonde girl. Both emerged from the room together in mid-conversation. 

He hadn’t heard them before. Magic. There had to be magic involved. It had kept their presence in the room as well as their conversation secret, likely to avoid being overheard by nosy nurses. And now, they both looked up to see the man who had just been about to go into the room. 

The girl was nothing. She simply smiled absently, starting to excuse herself with a polite apology. She didn’t know him, had no idea that anything was wrong. She would go on without another thought about it. 

The man, however, was a different story. The moment their eyes met, Fossor knew. This was a man who knew him, one who recognized him. He too, vaguely recognized the other figure, though the specifics were escaping him at the moment. But that hardly mattered. What did matter was that the man knew who Fossor was. And that was something that couldn’t be allowed. He’d seen Fossor about to walk into Dakota’s room. That was a story that would get out, and the entire point of this charade was that when the time came, people couldn’t know that Fossor had any connection whatsoever to the girl in that room. Otherwise, the whole game would be ruined. And it happened to be a game that Fossor was determined to win. 

Yes, this was definitely a problem. One that he needed to take care of now. 

The fat man was already reacting, recovering from his own surprise as he reached for something in his pocket. His mouth was open, starting to blurt a warning while his other hand moved to shove the blonde girl behind him for protection. 

But Fossor had been doing this for a long time, and had been reacting even before he fully understood the situation. A thought manifested several ghosts surrounding the pair. One yanked the door into Dakota’s room shut before the girl could notice anything wrong. Another covered the blonde girl’s mouth and yanked her up, while two more covered the fat man’s mouth and held his arms down before he could grab whatever he had been reaching for. 

The ghost who appeared next was different from the others. He was larger by over a foot, and purple rather than blue-gray, with burning red eyes. His name was Ahmose, and both hands covered the fat man’s eyes. The resulting scream of agony from the man as the torture-spirit used his power was only barely muffled by the other ghost’s hands over his mouth. Within a few seconds of that, he had collapsed. 

Gesturing for his spirit troops to gather up the fat man, Fossor gave a look toward the blonde girl, who was giving her own muffled scream while struggling against the ghost holding her. The scream, at least, stopped as Fossor waved a hand, focusing his flesh-crafting magic to seal her mouth. He’d have to kill her, of course. But he’d first like to at least… wait…

Frowning, Fossor looked up and down the hall. Something about the girl was off. Things still looked clear, so he directed the ghosts to carry the unconscious fat man and the still-struggling (even more now that her mouth had been temporarily sealed) girl into one of the other rooms. The patient in that one was safely asleep, knocked out every evening by a very strong cocktail of drugs, so Fossor was quite certain they wouldn’t be interrupted. Giving one last glance toward the nurses station, he waited until he was also certain that no one had noticed anything. Then he crossed the hall. Near the door, he glanced toward Ahmose. “Watch for intruders,” he ordered. “Stay out of sight.” 

That said, he stepped into the other room, where the ghosts were just depositing the fat man on the floor. Ignoring him, Fossor stepped up to the struggling blonde girl, extending a hand to touch her shoulder before frowning. “Hmm… someone… very powerful is keeping a bit of an eye on you, aren’t they? Well, that makes this a little more complicated. You see, I would simply make you disappear. But… that would attract this person’s attention, and attention is a bad thing for me.” 

His frown turned to a smile. “I suppose we’ll just have to make sure neither of you remember any of this.” 

******

Several Weeks Ago

 

The door of a small hole-in-the-wall bar in the Alter-filled town of Strangefield swung open as the blue reptilian-skinned man known as Azlee Ren strolled out. On the way, he called over his shoulder. “Now don’t you even think about staying out too late, Minnsy! We’ve got that brunch date with Carolina in the morning and if you make me listen to the old lady’s stories all by myself, you’re gonna wake up with a shaved you-know-what, I swear to Pete and his dragon!” 

Whistling, the only member of the Gehenna guard who actually spent a fair amount of time in the town their outpost was near (there was a reason he was put in charge of interacting with outsiders) strolled off around the corner of the building to the small parking lot. On the way, he plucked the communication device from one pocket. To outsiders, it would look like a cell phone, but was actually capable of much more. For the moment, he simply used it to compose a quick message for his sister. She was stationed at one of the other outposts, but the message would be sent along through the Gehenna intergalactic communications network and she would get it within a day or two. He had to let her know that they’d both been wrong about who had written that book they were both obsessed with as children. It was the Benestean, Tuuv R’ken. 

“So… I… guess… we… both… owe… each… other… dinner.” With that typed out, Azlee clicked the device shut, dropped it in his pocket, and reached out to grab the door of his car. He could have called for a teleport in and out of town, of course. But Azlee preferred to drive. It gave him time to think. Or not think, and just let his mind wander. Besides, the scenery was gorgeous here on Earth. Much better than the place Tala was stationed. He’d have to send her more pictures. Or would that be considered rubbing it in her face? Hmmm… it was a fine line. 

Stepping down into the car, he hit the button to turn it on while shutting the door. For a moment, he fiddled with the radio to find a station playing something he could groove to. Then the man shifted the car into reverse and turned to look over his shoulder to back up out of the lot. He was met with the sight of a man in his back seat holding a small spray bottle up. Before Azlee could react, the man triggered the spray into his face. Instantly, he felt his throat close up, his heart bursting. As darkness filled his vision, he collapsed sideways into the passenger seat with a violent spasm, blood gushing from his mouth while Patsy Cline’s Walkin’ After Midnight played. 

Sighing, Fossor set the spray bottle aside. He listened to Patsy’s song for a few seconds while waiting for the poison to finish its job. About halfway through it, he felt the death complete, and sent a bit of his power into the body. Immediately, Azlee sat back up, and Fossor gestured. “Let’s go get you cleaned up, my friend. And pick up the pace, hmm? There’s much to do, and we can’t have anyone notice you going missing yet. Not until you acquire a few things for me.” 

Without speaking, the dead Azlee pulled the car out of the lot before starting to pull away from the bar, all while Fossor casually hummed along with that old song.  

*******

Several Days Ago

 

Back when he was alive, the man known as Randall Puzler had been a detective for the Las Vegas police department while secretly working for the Three Ruling Families of Akharu, Oni, and Vestil. For months now, however, he had actually been a dead man being puppeted by Fossor toward one end: becoming friendly with the Vestil man who was, at that very moment, punching the wall of the precinct on his way out. 

“Hey!” the puppeted zombie called out toward the glass-like man full of colored smoke and liquid. “Something wrong, Bol?” 

Bol Sampson sighed, shaking his head. “Sorry, Puzler. Turns out your people can’t really help me after all.” 

“Well, what happened?” Adopting a concerned expression to the zombie’s face, Fossor directed it to hold a hand out. “Maybe I can do something, you know? It’s not… the Oni acting out?” 

“Not yet,” Bol confirmed darkly. “But they will soon enough. It–” He sighed once more. “Princess Rowan’s missing, and none of our people or your people have any idea how to find her.” 

“Hmm.” Pretending to consider that, ‘Puzler’ snapped his fingers. “Hold on, what you need is outside help. You heard of that Heretic rebellion thing, right?” 

Bol sounded doubtful. “Something tells me they have their things to deal with.” 

Offering his ‘friend’ a smile, the zombified police officer shook his head. “Trust me, they will if you have the right thing to offer in exchange. See, I was ahhh… I was angling to get some help of my own from one of those vampires who works for them. I hear she’s pretty good. Asenath?” 

“Heard of her too,” Bol confirmed. “But she’s got a direct connection to the Akharu, Tiras. Which means she is not going to have happy feelings about my people.” 

“She doesn’t have to have happy feelings,” ‘Puzler’ pointed out. “Not if you’ve got something to trade for her help. Like I said, I’ve been looking for a way to get some help from her myself, but if it’ll save that little girl and stop what’ll happen to this place if you don’t get her back, it’s all yours.” 

“You really think you’ve got information that could get her to drop everything and bring the cavalry to save Princess Rowan?” Bol asked, curious by that point. 

The dead man smiled encouragingly. “Oh…

“I’m pretty sure she’ll trade just about anything to find out where her father disappeared to.” 

*******

Four Hours Ago

 

The unmarked yellow van pulled to a stop in front of an ordinary-looking suburban house on the edge of Las Vegas. The man standing by the fence watching the van arrive raised one hand in greeting, while the doors slid open to allow a handful of Gehenna agents to hop out. Their leader addressed the man waiting for them. “You’re the representative of the Three Families?” 

“Nah,” the man drawled, not moving away from the fence. “I’m the dead guy making sure you end up right on top of the spell the stunningly handsome and brilliant necromancer who made me his puppet set up for you.” 

“Wh–” That was as far as the Gehenna agent got, before the promised spell abruptly ignited. All six of the van’s newly-emerged occupants were engulfed in white-blue flames that reached ten feet into the sky and stayed that way for a full ten seconds before fading. The men looked outwardly unharmed. But their vision was totally vacant, and all six collapsed lifelessly to the ground a moment later.

Once they were down, Fossor emerged from the house. A cloud of ash sprinkled the ground ahead of him as he casually ambled his way out to stand on the sidewalk, watching over the dead bodies. “Well,” the necromancer announced while rubbing his hands together, “we should get busy. 

“So much to do before someone notices that you’re late to saving the day.” 

 

********

Present

 

In one of several dungeon-like rooms deep within his own home, Fossor watched several projected holographic images against the wall. The one he focused on showed the view through the eyes of the leader of the Gehenna field team he had ambushed and… prepared. 

“I can’t tell you how much I hate those motherfuckers.” The announcement came from the Akheilosan mercenary Fahsteth, who stood behind Fossor with his arms folded. “You sure I can’t have some popcorn for this?” 

“I’ll send you a copy,” Fossor assured him. “Feel free to enjoy it on your own time with any snacks you like.” 

That said, he turned his attention away from that particular projection, allowing things to proceed mostly on what the humans would call auto-pilot as the field team leader and his companions made their way toward the Gehenna outpost. In the meantime, Fossor focused on the other two projections. One showed the view through Azlee Ren’s eyes as he was escorted by the Seosten with the phoenix tattoo, while the other revealed one through the eyes of one of his other zombies, a slaver who was already working with his companions at the junkyard to line up what they thought would be a delivery of fresh cannon fodder for Fossor’s battle arena. 

Hearing Fahsteth snarl, Fossor glanced over to the first projection. Azlee was looking at the girl, Hannah. Or Avalon, as she went by now. “You’ll have your turn,” he calmly told the man. 

A couple of things happened almost simultaneously in two of the projections then. Up at the Gehenna base, the one called Prelate came into view as the group entered the lobby, approaching at a brisk pace. “Kwur’s escape attempt has been halted, then,” the Gehenna outpost leader declared, a smile touching his blue-scaled face. “Good. Things can get back to normal. What else do you have to report? Where is Azlee? And what of this potential alliance with the Heretic rebellion to track down our other wayward prisoner?” 

“Well,” Fossor began, his voice traveling through his power to make the puppet in front of Prelate say the same thing. “Turns out we have two things to report. First, we really shouldn’t let ourselves get so distracted. And second, we are shit at identifying when people are already dead.” 

Meanwhile, back in Las Vegas, Azlee had looked at Felicity. And Felicity had looked at him. In that moment, Fossor saw the recognition in her eyes. She knew. She knew the man was dead. And she proved that by immediately taking control of him. She made him stop. She made him sit down. And then, then she started to shout a warning. 

In the Gehenna base, the field team leader and the other five members of his team all moved as one to yank their shirts open. This revealed the intricate spellwork that had been carved into their chests. A single spell that continued through all five men. Prelate had time to see that much, his eyes widening and a shout coming to his lips. 

But Fossor was faster, reaching out to touch the nearby wall while speaking the single command word. Instantly, all of the slaves and slavers in the junkyard shown in the third projection were killed. Their life forces went to power two spells. The first half of the energy went to the spell carved into the flesh of the men in the Gehenna base. The resulting explosion would annihilate the entire Gehenna outpost and leave a one mile wide crater in every direction.

Meanwhile, the other half of that energy went to Las Vegas, into a very different spell that had been etched into the skin of Azlee Ren’s corpse. As with the others, the result blew the man apart, literally making him explode in a burst of white energy. But the point of the spell was not destruction. Instead, the energy that erupted from the dead man literally enveloped its single target, Felicity herself. And in the next second, she was gone. 

As all three projections went white and faded, Fahsteth’s laughter filled the room. The man could barely keep himself upright, he was so amused. And obviously delighted by the destruction of the Gehenna base on Earth. 

“Well,” Fossor announced happily. “That’s over with. Shall I lead you out?” 

“What–hey,” Fahsteth muttered, “What about the girl? Isn’t she about to show up?”

With a chuckle, Fossor started out of the room, shaking his head. “We have some time to wait. Remember, thanks to my… agreement with dear Joselyn, I cannot allow harm to come to her daughter until she is eighteen years old and no longer a child. That’s not for another month.” 

Fahsteth paused, looking back into the room they were leaving. “Uh, sure looks to me like you jumped the gun a bit.” 

“Nonsense,” Fossor insisted. “I have not allowed any harm to come to her. In fact, she will be safer through these next few weeks than she could ever possibly be.” He smiled faintly. “Considering she will not experience them.” 

Squinting at him for a moment, Fahsteth got it then. “You sly motherfucker. You’re using time travel. You’re cheating, jumping the girl straight to her birthday. Why the hell didn’t you just do that years ago?” 

“You know as well as I do that time travel magic is expensive, particularly done against one’s will,” Fossor reminded him. “Besides,” he added thoughtfully, “I’m not entirely certain the oath spell will actually work this way. There’s always the chance that it will read from her physical age, not the calendar date. In which case, holding her without harming her for a few weeks will be much easier than it would be to hold her for years without being able to harm her. Like trying to raise a child without ever being able to resort to physical discipline. This way, if the oath works off the calendar date, everything will be just fine. And if it works off her physical age, well, then I just wait a few weeks while she sits here nice and safe. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must go and give Joselyn the good news. 

“She’ll be so excited to know that her daughter is on her way.”

Previous Chapter                                    Next Chapter

Fault 10-06 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                              Next Chapter

I was going to have to handle this myself. I wasn’t going to let anyone else get hurt because of my situation. This whole thing came from my family, so I sure as hell wasn’t going to drag anyone else into it. Seeing poor Eits lying there on that bed in that condition had been the wake-up call that I needed. I couldn’t let other people end up in that same situation just because they wanted to help me. Whatever came next, I would have to sink or swim on my own.  

Maybe it was stupid to go off by myself like that. But at that moment, I wasn’t thinking about the danger to myself. I was just thinking about avoiding putting anyone else I cared about in a hospital bed. The thought of Pack, or That-A-Way, or anyone else being hurt the way that Eits had been just about destroyed me. Hell, the memory of what Eits himself had looked like lying there did that all on its own. So no, I couldn’t involve anyone else in this. Not this time. 

What I could do was check out the address the boy had apparently found. Which didn’t help me deal with the men who had attacked him, but their time would come later. I promised myself that. No, this had to be the address of Robert Parson, my old driver and sort-of babysitter when I’d been younger. 

And that was just confusing in and of itself. Why would a bunch of guys jump Eits and hurt him that badly just for looking up the address of this guy? According to Pack,  they’d been looking for the same address. So they didn’t have it either. Did that mean they were enemies of my family? Or was Robert himself an enemy now and that was why he’d stopped being my driver? He was involved in some way with the death of that Anthony kid and his parents, because he’d been in the car with them. So… what then? How was he involved? Which side was he on? Were the guys who were looking for him and had attacked Eits on my family’s side? Or were they attacking my family? Had Robert been involved in killing Anthony and his parents, with the car accident as a cover-up? Why was the name Anthony Tate so familiar to me? What the hell was going on? So many questions, and right now the only actual lead I had was this address. 

All those thoughts were rushing through my head in a jumbled mess while I made my way north, toward the address on the paper. A quick double-check had confirmed my first impression. The address was a house just a few blocks northeast of the zoo. I had used my Maps app to get a look at it. The place just looked like an ordinary, if upscale, three-story Victorian house with a detached garage in the corner of the lot. The lawn had looked well cared for in the satellite image, and there was a tall wrought-iron fence around the property. No cars had been in the driveway, but that didn’t mean anything, considering they could be in that garage. Besides, the photo could have been taken at any time. The only thing I really knew for sure was that I didn’t recognize the house itself from any other trip. Of course, given the fact that my memory had apparently been tampered with by Mr. Jackson, that didn’t mean anything either.  

I didn’t go straight to the house, no matter how much my anger and frustration about what had happened to Eits was driving me to be reckless. Instead, I stopped at the nearest office building in the neighborhood, the tallest structure around. Perched on the edge of the roof there, I scanned the neighborhood until I saw the house in question a couple blocks away.  There was still no visible vehicles, and the lawn looked worse than it had in the picture. It needed to be cut pretty badly, there were visible weeds, and the once-thriving flower garden up near the house hadn’t been tended to in what looked like a pretty long time. Despite those signs that it was abandoned, however, someone had to be there. Because there was a dog trotting around the front yard and it didn’t appear to be starving or anything. At least, not from this distance. And I was pretty sure any place that had been left for as long as it would take things to overgrow as much as they were would have had someone pick up the dog by now. No, it seemed like there was someone living there. They just weren’t taking care of the place anymore for whatever reason. Maybe they couldn’t take care of it. Or didn’t care enough now. Whether that someone was Robert Parson or someone who knew where he was, I was going to find out. And I was also definitely going to find out just what he had to do with the people who had attacked Eits. 

Still, I didn’t want to rush into things and end up doing nothing but making things worse. So, I sat there on the edge of that roof and watched the house for what had to be twenty minutes. Every second that passed, I wanted to go right in there. I wanted to do something useful. I wanted to stop closing my eyes and seeing Eits lying there on the bed. I wanted to distract myself from that horrific guilt that kept eating me up inside. But I waited. I watched, just to make absolutely certain that the house was as clear as it could be and that this wasn’t actually some kind of trap. 

Finally, I couldn’t wait anymore. I had to make my move. Taking a breath, I leapt from the roof of the building with the aid of a blue launch puddle. A shot of red toward the chimney of the next house over carried me there, and I landed lightly before throwing myself up once more. A guy walking his dog jerked in surprise as soon as he saw me, and I heard him blurt something (but didn’t catch what he actually said) just before I jumped away. Using a couple more houses to jump off of, I brought myself around toward the enclosed back yard of the address in question. 

It was quiet back here too. Staying low and silent, I watched the windows of the house. Nothing. The backdoor was closed, and there was no sign of anyone inside. I couldn’t hear the dog in the front yard. From what I’d seen when watching this place, the animal was stuck there and couldn’t get around to the back where I was. Hopefully, they wouldn’t smell or hear me and start barking their head off. That would be a good way to end up spoiling the fact that I was here. 

Just like I had from the roof of the other building, I remained still instead of rushing in. Watching the back of the house as patiently as possible given the situation turned out to be the right choice, because after a minute or two, I spotted the camera in the top left corner of the back patio. It was aimed inward, watching the door and windows. Then I spotted another one, aimed out toward the yard. Somehow, I’d managed to put myself far enough into the corner that I was pretty sure it didn’t see me. The way the camera was pointed, it had to take in most of the yard. 

Then I saw another camera. That one was at the corner of the house, pointed up through the space leading to the front yard. And sure enough, there was a fourth one at the other end. 

Right, I didn’t know much about Robert or whoever actually lived here. But I was pretty sure they were just a bit paranoid. Whether that was for good reason or not remained to be seen, though the fact that people had attacked Eits like that trying to get this address made it likely.

Okay, so what now? I needed to get in the house. Or at least talk to the person in there. But could I do that without the whole situation turning into a massive clusterfuck? Should I try to sneak in and check things out, or knock on the door? Should I stand in front of the camera? How would the person or people inside (if anyone was home right now) react if I just showed myself like that and asked to talk? And if they did talk, what would I even say to them? 

That was something I unfortunately hadn’t considered too much. What was I supposed to say had led me here? Could I just say that I’d been looking into Paige Banners, which led me to this Anthony Tate kid, and then to the only survivor of that car accident down in Texas? 

I was frozen like that for the moment, trying to decide what I should actually do. I couldn’t tell the whole truth, that was for damn sure. I also couldn’t let on that I knew… well, anything about this ‘Ministry’ thing. Or at least, not very much. Because if that got back to my family, it was bound to make things a hell of a lot more complicated for me than they already were. 

I had to be subtle, but breaking into this place felt like a good way to make things worse. So, for a moment, I couldn’t pick the best plan. Show myself and ask to talk, or maybe see if I could sneak up and peek in a window without being seen by any of the cameras? 

Fuck it, enough with this sitting around and hesitating. I needed to do something. Maybe it was just because of how helpless, stupid, and guilty I felt about letting Eits get hurt, but I couldn’t be patient. I was going to get some fucking answers. I was about to get up and walk right to the back door to knock on it, when something else caught my eye. That garage was nearby, and the side door was open a few inches to reveal darkness beyond. 

Okay, it was a longshot that there’d be anything interesting in there. But at least it was something. Checking the cameras once more to make sure there was space, I carefully inched my way along the fence until I could make a quick run to the garage, slipping in through the open door.

The place was pretty dark inside, but I could make out a car with the light that was coming in through the dirty windows on the main door at the front. There was a tarp over it, and I only hesitated for a moment before stepping over, reaching out, and pulling the tarp away.

Hey, I knew this car. It was a dark sedan, which didn’t really narrow it down, of course. But I recognized the little plastic coconut and pineapple hanging from the mirror. I’d given those to Robert when I was a little kid, right? I sort-of remembered giving them to him after I won them in some school carnival thing, on the way home. 

This was Robert’s car. Or–well, it was the car he’d driven me around in. I’d thought that would’ve belonged to my parents, but maybe they let him keep it? I wasn’t sure. Either way, this was definitely the car. I wasn’t sure how I was that positive, but I was. This was the car I’d been driven from home to school and back again in for years. 

Lost in my own memories, which were somehow simultaneously vague and specific, I tried the driver’s side door. It opened with a click, making the dome light pop on. I stepped inside, sitting down in the driver’s seat before letting out a low breath. This… Turning my head, I looked in the rearview mirror. 

Through my own memories, I saw Robert’s eyes in the mirror from my normal place in the back seat. I saw myself as a kid, chattering away at the man as he drove me home from school. My backpack was lying beside me with a bunch of books scattered over the seat. I was telling Robert all about the story in one of the books, before excitedly asking if we could stop and pick up–

Ugggnnnnn…. My head hurt. God, where did that come from? One second I was fine, then there was this weird headache that made me double over so much I literally bounced my helmet off the steering wheel. Damn it, oww. What the hell? 

Speaking of the steering wheel, why was I holding onto it so tight? God, ow, I was hurting my own hands from the force of my grip on it. What was wrong with me? Was sitting in this car just bringing up some kind of… memories… My lost memories. That had to be it. Something about being in this car was reminding my subconscious of something, and my body was reacting. 

Shaking it off as much as I could, I reached over to open the glovebox. It popped down, and I found the usual. Gloves, a pair of sunglasses, a couple maintenance and owners manual books, an incredibly old thing of Tic Tacs… nothing useful. Except, as I moved all that out of the way, there was something stuck inside the owner’s manual that fell out and landed on the passenger seat. It was a photograph, which landed facedown. Curious (and basically desperate for something useful), I picked up the photo and turned it over. 

It was me. That was the first thing I realized. There were two people in the picture. One was me, at about age… nine or ten, was my guess. The picture had been taken at the very same zoo that I’d passed on the way here. It was right outside the monkey cage. 

My face, and the realization of where the picture had been taken, were the first things to hit me. Then I saw the rest of it. I was… behind someone else, my chin on the other person’s shoulder while my arms were thrown around him. I was grinning, smiling from ear to ear while basically hanging off the other person. The other…

Boy. It was a boy about the same age as I was in the picture. He had light brown hair, a slight spattering of freckles across his face, brown eyes, and crooked teeth. He was going to have to get braces soon, which he was scared about because he thought–

Uggggghnnn! Dropping the photo, I doubled over once more. Owww, oww! Damn it, my head! What was wrong with my head? Were… were my lost memories about that boy? Is that why seeing his picture made my head hurt so much? Anthony. That kid had to be Anthony, right? That was the only thing that made sense. And he’d been my friend. That was… that had to be it. He was my friend. He had to be, just from looking at that picture. I knew Anthony Tate. Or had known him, before he died. 

I knew the boy well enough for him to be a friend that I was basically hanging off of at the zoo. Robert had a picture of the two of us stuck in the glovebox of his car in this garage. I kept getting a headache every time I focused on him. Yeah, this was my lost memories, the ones my mom had talked about. 

What did my parents do to Anthony? That had to be it, right? It had to be. They did something… something to that boy, and I found out about it. Then they erased my memory so I wouldn’t freak out on them. 

Even as I sat there, thinking about all that, I found myself getting more upset, more angry, at the whole situation. Before I really understood or even thought about what I was doing, the door was open and I was climbing out of the car. My hand grabbed the photo, shoving it safely into one of my pockets before zipping it shut. 

Then I was leaving the garage. Answers. Whatever it took, I was going to get some fucking answers right fucking now. To that end, I was going to walk right up to that back door, knock on it, and find out what Robert knew, about Anthony, about Paige, about the guys who attacked Eits, all of it. I was getting answers, now

At least, that was the plan. But no sooner had I taken a couple steps out into the yard, than a sudden, sharp whistle caught my attention. The whistle was followed by what felt like a bee sting. I gasped, jerking backward just in time to see a dark red dart of some kind sticking out of my arm. It was… it felt…

My vision swam. Stumbling a bit, I fell to one knee, struggling to stay upright. It was a struggle I lost, falling onto my side. Everything was going blurry, as a figure started walking toward me. They were talking. “You know, going through that kid’s phone to find this address was a real bitch. But it has totally paid off.” 

The figure stopped right in front of me, so blurry I could barely focus on them. My vision was fading in and out. Black spots kept appearing, as the person continued while crouching down in front of me, dart gun held loosely in one hand. “After all, I thought I was just going to deal with one long-time pain in the ass.” 

The barrel of the dart gun was playfully tapped against the visor of my helmet, as I finally managed to focus on the person who was talking.

“But it turns out, it’s my lucky day. I get to play with you too,” Pencil finished, in the last brief moment before my vision went completely black. 

Previous Chapter                                             Next Chapter

Interlude 5A – Miles (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter                                     Next Chapter

Author’s Note: Miles Cleary was introduced here:  https://ceruleanscrawling.wordpress.com/2018/06/27/mini-interlude-63-son-of-the-bogeyman/

“I can’t believe we still have no idea where Fossor is, even after months of talking to that Flick girl.” Chas Mena, his brow furrowed in annoyance, muttered. The Latino boy was crouched behind a pile of metal scraps in a junkyard somewhere in northern Virginia. He held one of his falx (essentially a curved sword with a long handle whose sharpest part was the inside of the blade curve rather than the outside, functioning similar to a sickle) loosely in his right hand while looking over his shoulder at the boy crouched behind him. “We’ve seriously got bupkis?” 

Miles Cleary, hybrid son of a Kejjerfiet (or bogeyman), grimaced and shook his head. “Yeah, like I said before, we’ve been talking a bit since that first night. She knows my parents were taken by him, but she’s just as lost on where to find him as we are. And believe me, she really wants to find him. He’s got her mom too, after all.” Even as he said it, the dark-haired, olive-skinned boy was leaning up a bit to peek over the edge of their junk mound. “You think they’ll show? Err, these guys, I mean.”

Behind Miles, red-haired Kaleigh muttered, “They better show up, and soon. I’m gonna be pretty pissed off if I don’t get to beat the hell out of a bunch of pieces of shit slaver cocksuckers before the day is over. I was promised pieces of shit slaver cocksuckers to fight.” 

Miles and his team (the six of them had chosen to insist on fully sticking together after joining the new rebellion once Chambers and Headmistress Sinclaire had blown the lid open about the old one) were basically considered third year students. They had, after all, been at the very end of their second year when all that went down. Thus, they were all well-over eighteen and allowed to fight without an adult escort or supervisor on what should be low-risk missions. Though they did all have an emergency exit spell attached to them just in case things went sideways, as well as the ability to summon much stronger aid if it came down to that. 

The other three members of the team (Slavic-looking Royce Jacoby, Caucasian Jason Trips, and dark-skinned Emily Perry) were hidden on the opposite side of the junkyard clearing behind more garbage. Between the two trios was an arena-shaped space where they had it on good authority that a group of Alter slavers was planning on bringing their latest catch for a bit of what they called ‘training’ before the group would be sold off. Specifically, according to the small pink-skinned creature who had spoken to Miles, a certain necromancer whom he had been looking for any information on was looking to buy a large batch of fighting-capable slaves. 

Miles had brought this mission to the attention of the adult (well, older adult) Heretics in the rebellion and had gotten permission to run it. The six of them would save the slaves here before they could be taken and, in the process, hopefully get some real information about how these guys were planning to take their stock to Fossor. Which would be the very best chance he’d ever had of actually finding the fucking bastard who had taken his parents away. 

Miles wasn’t stupid. He knew the odds of his parents actually being alive by this point after being thrown into the necromancer’s fighting arena for so long were slim to the point of nonexistence. But he still had to find out for sure. He had to know what happened to his mother and father. And if they were dead… then the necromancer would fucking pay for that. 

He’d asked if Felicity Chambers and her own group should be involved in this. After all, it was the best chance they had to get solid info about Fossor. But he’d been informed that she was in the middle of something else very important that couldn’t wait. Something about a civil war in Las Vegas or whatever. Both of their missions were apparently very time-sensitive. 

So, Miles would just use this to find out what he could and then share with the Chambers girl if it (hopefully) turned up anything useful. A pessimistic part of him kept pointing out that this was far from the first time they’d had a promising lead like this, only for it to turn into nothing important. But he pushed that part down as firmly as possible, burying it beneath a weight of optimism. They were going to take these slavers and get what they needed to know to find Fossor. Period. 

The sound of a truck arriving at the front gate of the junkyard snapped Miles out of his musing. A quick glance to the other two showed they were just as alert as him, and the three crouched down tighter against their garbage cover. Not that it mattered. They were using a spell that would make it almost impossible to spot them from a distance, camouflaging their forms for anyone who wasn’t part of the spell. They had to stay relatively still for it to work, within the same foot or so of space. But still, it was pretty good as far as ambushing someone went. 

The sound of the vehicle grew closer, and Miles watched intently as the truck pulled up the narrow road, entering the circular arena-like space. It was one of those military transport trucks with the canvas covering the back where the cargo (or people) would be. A large purple-black ogre was running alongside the truck, adding his own distinct hard thumping footfalls. Meanwhile, a seven-foot-tall gray-skinned figure with three eyes, a very thin nose, and what looked like sharp razor-blades sticking out of every inch of his exposed body was hanging off the driver’s side door, suction-cup-like feet planted against the metal to keep him in place. 

After the truck entered the arena, it did a full circuit, pulling all the way around before ending up half-way out of the entrance with the back of the truck pointed inward. It stopped then, and the razor-blade guy hopped down while the ogre stepped up to yank the rear door open. 

This was it. But they couldn’t move yet. Not until they saw exactly what they were dealing with. Eager as Miles was to actually do this already, jumping the gun would just get them all hurt or killed. They had no idea who or what the rest of these slavers were. No, they had to be patient and watch until it was clear that they wouldn’t be hit with any horrible surprises. 

Even as he thought that, however, the boy slipped a hand into his pocket and produced the bluetooth-like device that served as the control for his personal Heretic weapon. It slipped over his ear, and he whispered, “Queen Bee, rise to court.” With that command phrase uttered, he felt the metal gauntlet on his arm hum to life. When this went down, he would be ready. 

With a bellowed command, the ogre stepped back and gestured. His razor-covered partner joined him, along with a blue-skinned humanoid with short tentacles covering the entire lower-half of his face area who had apparently been driving. The three of them watched with obvious impatience while an assortment of tattered-looking, ragged prisoners dressed in torn, dirty clothing and with obvious bruises (along with the remnants of blood) stumbled out of the truck. All had their various arms or other similar limbs cuffed in front of them, and wore what looked like explosive collars on their necks. One stumbled and was grabbed by the ogre before being contemptuously tossed about fifteen feet to land on his face in the dirt. The slavers all roared with laughter, exchanging what sounded like dark jokes with one another before ordering the rest of the slaves to keep moving, lest they end up being hurled even further. 

The sight made Miles’ blood boil. He felt the anger, the rage at that injustice rise up in him. But he pushed it down. No. Not yet. Not yet. They had to be careful. They had to do this right. It wasn’t like they would get another chance at something like this. If they went stampeding in and got these people killed because they had underestimated the threat, he’d never forgive himself. Especially because he wouldn’t be able to convince himself that he’d done it to try to save them and not just because he was eager to get information about Fossor. 

So, he pushed that down and let out a long breath. On either side of him, he could see his two companions looking just as angry as he felt. They too pushed it down and kept watching. Chas and Kaleigh knew as well as he did what the stakes of all this were, as did their friends on the far side of the arena. 

As if to prove that point, once all the slaves were moving, they were joined by two more figures who emerged from the back of the truck. These were massive armored humanoids who looked a fair bit like anthropomorphic rhinos complete with horns. One carried what looked like an oversized minigun, while the other had a giant hammer. They had clearly been guarding the prisoners back there and would easily have ambushed Miles and the others if they’d jumped to attack right then. 

The soon-to-be-sold slaves were all ordered to line up, and then the slavers themselves started debating amongst themselves and forcing their prisoners to move back and forth in the line. After a minute of that, Miles realized they were being arranged from the ones that looked the most capable of holding their own in a fight down to the ones who looked the least capable. Yeah, this group was definitely being set up for arena duty. They were probably planning on running at least a couple practice rounds here. 

If only this was the place that piece of shit Fossor would come pick up his ‘property.’ But no, Miles’ contact had made it very clear that the necromancer never went to someone else’s site or anywhere he hadn’t thoroughly vetted on his own. They would have information about coming to a site of his choice. And that was the info that Miles and his friends were there to get. 

Well, hopefully. This wasn’t exactly the first lead of this variety or similar that they’d tried to run down. There had been a few others over the summer. But they kept getting closer. And with Chambers’ birthday coming up soon, their time frame was getting a lot more pressing. 

At least they still had a few weeks to go. They could totally pull this off, locate Fossor, and drop a whole fucking army worth of Heretics and Alters in his lap to put him down, or whatever they needed to do. The point was, Miles would either save his parents, or… or get closure. 

But first, they had to rescue these slaves and get answers out of the assholes who were about to sell them. And from the look of things, these were all they were dealing with. One ogre, one guy covered in razor blades, two rhino guys, and the blue guy with small tentacles where his mouth should have been. 

Checking to be sure their privacy spell was holding, Miles touched the communication badge. “Royce, what’re we dealing with?” As he said it, he sent a mental command through the queen bee attached to his ear. Immediately, his gauntlet transformed, briefly appearing as the hundreds of tiny cyberform bees that made up its individual parts before half of them turned into a longsword that fit into his hand and the other half became a shield on his left. 

The response came immediately. “You know the ogre. He’s gonna be big, slow, and clumsy, but strong as shit. Don’t let him hit you, keep moving. Try zigzagging because they have issues tracking rapid movement. The rhino guys are called Hyneders. They’re faster than they look, once they start moving in a straight line basically nothing can stop them, and any non-living material they touch, they can turn into the same metal as their horns and then manipulate it with their thoughts. 

“Razor blade guy is a Pinudeu. Shoots and mentally directs those razors, and he can camouflage himself. Tentacle-mouth dude is a Nautilen. Blows a shit-ton of water out of his mouth like a fire hose and can control it. Only the water he creates, though. There’s something special about it. I think he’s also got a bit of regeneration and he can send an electric pulse over his body, so watch out if you’re touching him. Plus, if he sends the electric pulse while blowing water, it carries through the liquid.”

They spent another few seconds discussing tactics while watching what was going on. It was clear that the slavers were having issues settling on exactly how their product should be arranged. They can’t agree on where their people should be standing, arguing over who was the strongest. Everyone had their own opinions, and they were voicing them loudly. That worked for Miles, because it gave his team time to come to a firm decision on how they were going to play this. 

Unfortunately, in the end it didn’t matter at all. Because literally right as he was about to count down for the team to attack, the ground underneath the slavers and their prisoners, throughout the arena area, suddenly began to glow bright blue. The words died on Miles’ lips, as he stared in confusion. Kaleigh was asking what the fuck was going on, and he could hear the same general confusion coming from the slavers themselves. They were clearly just as lost, turning in circles to look around as the ground kept glowing brighter and brighter. Some time earlier, Miles had gained the ability to sense and vaguely understand magic energy. And right now, there was so much magical energy coming off the ground that it almost hurt to look at. As for what it was doing… it was… wait, this energy was actually draining power from the people standing on it, who were making it stronger. The energy was…

Miles stared for another couple seconds, then pivoted. His hands lashed out to grab Kaleigh and Chas by either arm, as he blurted through the com badge, “Get down!” The three of them flung themselves away from that spot, while the sense of power grew overwhelming. It was a harsh buzzing in Miles’ head. A second after they hit the ground, there was an explosion of power behind them as the spell came to its head. 

When the dust cleared, metaphorically and literally speaking, Miles, Kaleigh, and Chas picked themselves up and stepped into the now-empty arena clearing. Everything was gone. The truck had been sheared in half, leaving only the bit that was outside of the arena. All the people had disappeared, slaver and slave alike. 

Across the way, Jason, Royce, and Emily emerged as well. Miles felt a rush of relief that they were okay, even as Jason demanded, “What the hell just happened?! What was that?! Where the fuck did they go?” 

“Draining spell,” Miles replied quietly, looking around. “They didn’t go anywhere. They were… disintegrated. Everything in this circle was disintegrated and turned into energy.” 

“Energy… for what?” Emily asked quietly, sounding nervous. “Should we be here?” 

“It’s okay,” Miles assured her. “There’s no more magic here. It was all… used up and sent away. It killed them, disintegrated them into energy and sent it all somewhere else to feed into another spell.” 

“The fuck other spell did they need to sacrifice like… forty fucking living people for?” Kaleigh demanded. 

“A fuck-off strong spell.” 

The answer didn’t come from any of them. Instead, it came from a guy in a brown trenchcoat who entered the arena by stepping around the remains of the truck. He was tall, maybe just out of his teens, with short spiky hair that was dyed green. 

Seeing the guy, Miles instantly sent the mental command for his bees to shift into the form of a rifle, which he pointed that way. “Who’re you?!” 

As everyone turned on him with their weapons raised, the new guy raised both hands to show they were empty. Not that that meant much. “Easy, easy. I’m on your side… sort of… mostly. Anyway, the name’s Trice. But that’s not important. What is important is that I can help you.” 

Exchanging brief looks with the others, Miles frowned at the guy, this… Trice. “How exactly are you going to help us? And what do you mean, a strong  spell?” 

The guy gestured to the ground at their feet. “I said a fuck-off strong spell. That’s what I meant. Fossor sacrificed those people to feed a really god damn powerful bit of magic. Not sure why, yet. But that’s what that was. We do know it was pointed at Vegas.” 

Miles opened his mouth, then stopped. A spell that was pointed at Vegas… His eyes widened, and he blurted a curse. “Fuck! Flick!” 

“Pretty sure Hannah would object to that,” that Trice guy replied dryly. “But hey, whatever you wanna try. Point is, like I said, I’m here to offer some help.” 

“Like Miles said,” Royce put in, “how exactly are you going to help us? And how do you know that Flick girl and… who’s Hannah?” 

“Oh, it’s a long story,” Trice drawled. “Let’s just say we go way back. As for how I can help, ahhh, well, I work for a man named Denuvus.” 

“Denuvus?” Emily blurted, “He’s not real!” 

“He’s obviously just some guy using the name,” Royce insisted. “You know, for effect.” 

Trice shrugged at that. “All I can tell you is that he’s what you might call a long-time enemy of Fossor. And he’s willing to help you get close to the guy. So, you interested?”

“I dunno, man,” Jason muttered. “Seriously, we don’t even know this guy, let alone who he works for. Why should we trust him?” 

Before Miles could respond, Trice spoke up. “Hey, why don’t you call your supervisor? You got a guy who knows you’re out here, right? Call him down, explain what’s up. Then you’ll have an adult with you. That’s safer, right?” 

The guy had a point, so Miles called it in. He explained the situation to the Heretic who had known they were out here, who had said that Flick and the others were too busy to help out with this. Once he got all that out, the man promised he’d be right there. And a few seconds later, he was. A portal appeared, and their supervisor emerged. 

“So, this is bullshit, right?” Chas demanded. “No way we should go with this guy.” 

“What about Flick?” Miles quickly put in. “That spell was targeting her, right? Is she okay? What–did he–” 

Dusting himself off, the adult Heretic shook his head. “No, she’s not. She’s gone, Miles. That spell took her straight into Fossor’s hands. Which… yeah, that basically makes this right here our best shot at getting her back, and at dealing with Fossor once and for all. We’ve gotta hear him out, at least. But don’t worry, I’ll go with you. We’ll stick together. It’ll be okay. 

“Whatever this Denuvus guy wants,” Klassin Roe added, “we can handle it.” 

Previous Chapter                                     Next Chapter

Fault 10-05 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                             Next Chapter

No, no, no, please no. Oh God, please, no, no. 

That single word of denial, repeated and mixed with other words of emphasis, played through my head in a nonstop loop the entire time I was retrieving my costume and setting out to get to the address that Pack had sent me. As I raced through the city in what amounted to a blind panic, barely paying attention to where I was going, the word ‘no’ echoed in my mind over and over again. 

He was hurt. Eits was hurt really bad. I didn’t know how. I didn’t know who hurt him or what exactly they’d done. But I did know one horrible thing for sure. It was my fault. He was working for me. He was trying to help me, and someone found out. Eits was hurt because of me. According to Pack, it was really bad. Because of me. It was my fault. 

Unfortunately, paint-running through the city like that without paying attention was a bad idea. Which I could’ve already guessed, but was driven even more firmly into me about halfway into my run. Landing on a rooftop the wrong way, I stumbled, slipped, and rolled hard. I nearly went off the edge before two hands suddenly caught my wrist and halted my momentum. 

A sharp gasp came as the person who had caught me was nearly yanked off the roof herself. But she managed to stop us both, and I was left with just one leg and a foot dangling over the edge as I lay mostly on my back staring up at the sky and panting as the panicked rush of the last couple of seconds since I’d landed washed over me. Oh God, I needed to throw up. Not that I hadn’t kind of needed to since the moment Pack let me know what was going on, but still. 

In that position, my arm was fully extended as it was held in the grasp of the person who had caught me. First, I saw her hands. They were covered by dark blue, almost black gloves with intricate, almost runic lines that ran up through both sides of the arms and across the palms and back of the gloves themselves. My eyes moved further up, seeing a figure who was probably around my age. The blue-black bodysuit she wore was partially covered by a white short-sleeved robe with an attached hood that mostly hid her dark hair. The bottom half of her face was concealed by a black cloth mask, but I could see enough of the top half to know she was Asian. Her eyes were dark, and in that moment, had widened dramatically. 

I also knew exactly who she was at that first glance, reflexively blurting, “Skip?!” 

Yeah, it was definitely her. I hadn’t had any direct run-ins with the girl until now, but I did know two members of her family. Caishen was her older sister, which made Lightning Bug her niece. Despite being a teenager, she wasn’t part of the Minority, instead sticking with her sister’s Ten Towers team. Which was somewhat rare, but not unheard of. And given what I knew about how much control Silversmith, aka my father, had over the Minority, it was definitely a good thing. 

As soon as I said her name, she released my arm and stepped back. Her voice, when she spoke, was an eerily calm murmur. “You should be careful.” The words were almost, but not quite, emotionless. It was more like she was noting that the weather would be rainy the next day than an actual reprimand. She was stating a simple fact. “You could have been hurt.” 

“I…” The terrible rush of fear about what was happening with Eits came back full force in that moment, along with brand new guilt to layer on top of what was already there. “Right, sorry. I was distracted. I… I’ll be careful. But I ahh, I’ve really gotta go.” Weakly, I gestured. “I’ve got a… umm, a friend, sort of. He’s hurt, and I need to get there just in ca–I need to be there to help.” 

Again, Skip spoke in a simple, emotionless and matter-of-fact voice. “Why are you telling me then? If it’s important, you should go.” Just like before, despite the actual words, I had the sense that she didn’t intend any kind of admonishment. She was simply stating the blatant fact that if I had an important place to be like that, I should already be going there instead of talking to her. 

“Right, uhh, yeah.” Quickly pushing myself up, I swallowed back the tidal rush of feelings that came with the thought of Eits being hurt. “Thanks for your help, I… I’ve gotta go.” 

It felt awkward, but I turned, using red paint to yank myself away from that roof while resolving to be more careful. Upset as I was, it wouldn’t exactly do any good if I managed to put myself into a coma by falling off a building because I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going. 

Continuing on my way, I let myself think briefly about the girl I’d just met. Skip. From what I’d read about her and seen online, her whole deal was… well, skipping things. This came out in two main ways. First, she could ‘skip’ any effect on herself she wanted to. That included everything from skipping the effects of a poison she drank, to skipping the effect of being shot in the head, or even skipping the need to sleep and being instantly rejuvenated. The only thing that was required was that she be aware of the effect and actively use her power on it. Other than that, anything that directly affected her in some way, she could skip. 

The other way her power (and source of her name) manifested was in movement. Whenever the girl wanted, she could instantly appear anywhere she’d been at any point in the previous twenty-four hours. Basically, she could rewind herself, ‘skipping’ backwards and forwards along the history of her own movement. She used it long-range in order to effectively teleport anywhere in the city (and, as I understood it, into other cities across the state), and short-range by constantly changing her exact location in the middle of a fight. Bad guys facing her didn’t just have to deal with a crazy-good fighter (which she was), but also one who could literally instantly disappear and reappear in any location she’d been in at any point throughout that fight.  Between that and being able to make herself immune to any effect she was aware of… yeah, I could see how Fell-Touched would see fighting her as a pain in the ass. And why her sister wanted her right where she was, as part of Ten Towers. 

The plus side of being distracted thinking about Skip instead of obsessing over Eits for the next few minutes was that I was able to reach the address I’d been given without any more issues. I stopped on top of a bakery roof, half-hiding behind the chimney there as I looked down at the place I was supposed to go. It looked like an ordinary house, with nothing special to make it stand out. The driveway had a couple cars in it, with a van parked along the curb. There was a man smoking out front, watching the street with an air like he’d been there for awhile. 

According to Pack’s message, they were expecting me. So, I hesitated just for a moment before taking a running start, and blue painting myself into the air so I could land in front of the man. I made sure to give him some space so that he wouldn’t freak out too much. Even then, he reached for something in his jacket. Probably a gun. But he stopped partway, squinting at me for a moment before stepping aside from the door. His voice was flat, and carried an air of resignation. “You can go inside. Third door on the left. But just so you know, we move all the time. So there’s no point to bringing your hero friends here to start shit later. Cuz we’ll be gone.” 

Yeah, call me crazy, but I had the feeling this guy didn’t much like having a Star-Touched hanging around what was apparently a secret underground field hospital thing for Fell-Touched. I also didn’t want to argue with him or try to reassure the guy. All I wanted was to see what was going on with Eits. So, I nodded and walked past him. Moving through the front door and into what turned out to be the living room of the house, I was greeted by a new man sitting on the nearby couch, who pointed through the room to the same door that the man outside had mentioned. Following both instructions, I walked across the room, heading for that door. 

The door opened as I approached, and Pack appeared. She stared at me through her featureless mask for a moment before beckoning as she stepped inside. I followed, and found myself in what was obviously a converted bedroom. Now it looked like a hospital room. 

Eits was… there. He was there on the bed, and just as promised, he… he looked bad. He wasn’t wearing his mask, But I wouldn’t have recognized him anyway through all the bruising. Pack had not been exaggerating. Whoever attacked Eits had… they hurt him really bad. His nose was broken, his lips were all puffy and bloodied, there was a large bruise along one full side of his face. His eyes were closed, showing signs of being bruised as well, and the rest of his body hadn’t fared much better. It was all… bad. No matter where I looked, some part of him was hurt. It was so bad. My stomach seized up in worse knots just looking at him. 

Pack was speaking quietly behind me. “The doctor’ll be back in a few minutes. He’s stabilized for now and they’ve got him drugged up to sleep. Soon as the doc says he’s good enough to move, they’ll take him to one of Blackjack’s own places. But I thought you’d like to know. I thought you’d like to–” She stopped herself from saying whatever it was she’d been about to say, voice cracking a bit before looking over to me. “He called for help. Broadway and me, we got there and the guys attacking him took off. We didn’t… get a good look, cuz we couldn’t leave him. He was pretty delirious, pretty…” Again, she choked a little, arms folding tightly over her stomach before forcing out, “He was pretty out of it.” 

Hearing her words, I barely processed them. All I could do was stare at Eits in that condition and think about the fact that him being there was my fault. I’d involved him, and now he was hurt because of me. There was a dull roaring in the back of my mind.  

Pack was continuing. “He wanted me to give you this.” In one hand, she held up a folded piece of paper. “It’s an address. He said… he said it’s something you needed, but that those guys who attacked him wanted it. The guys who attacked him, the guys who did that, were trying to get the same address out of him that you wanted. Paintball, what the fuck was Eits doing for you that made a bunch of guys beat him up this badly? They almost killed him! Doc Tanns is pretty sure he’ll be okay now that he’s through the worst of it, but–but… what the fuck is going on?!” Her voice was a fierce stage-whisper, as she clearly stared intently at me. “Don’t you dare fucking blow me off. Do you see him right there? Do you care?” 

Eyes widening, I blurted, “Of course I care!” Quickly lowering my voice, I hissed, “I didn’t know it would–I thought he’d–” My mouth shut and I shook my head. “Pack, I didn’t know he’d be in that much danger. He was just looking up some information for me, I didn’t know it’d–” Cutting myself off once more, I swallowed hard and tried to steady myself. My fault. The whole way over here, I’d repeated it to myself and now that voice was even louder. This was all my fault. All of it. Eits being hurt, lying there in that hospital bed like that was my fault. If he… if he died, that would be my fault too. All of it was my fault. Because I tried to let someone else help me. Because I passed the responsibility of this to someone else. Now he was hurt. Because of me. My fault. 

It took me a few moments to find my voice. Finally, I looked up to the other girl. “I’m sorry. I should have handled this myself. I never should’ve–I was wrong. I shouldn’t have asked Eits to help me. I won’t… I won’t do that again, I swear. Tell him I’m sorry. Please. Just tell him I’m sorry. I’ll take the address. Please. He wanted me to have it. I’ll deal with it. I’ll handle it.” 

She didn’t answer at first. Instead, she looked at the paper in her hand, then turned back to me. Her voice was pained. “That’s not what I meant, Paintball. I didn’t want to make you go–I was just… Look what they did to him. You can’t handle this all on your own!” 

“I don’t have to,” I pointed out. “You know I have an in with the Minority. And if they’re involved, you can’t be. They won’t work with you, Pack. You can stay here with Eits. Someone should be here with him if he wakes up. I’ll take care of the address, and I’ll tell you what happens. I swear, I’ll make them pay for what they did.” 

Pack was staring at me, her fist tight. “You really think you and the Minority people can handle this?” Her voice shook a little. “Paintball, what the hell did you get involved with?” 

“I’ll handle it,” I promised her, swallowing hard. “Stay here with Eits. Please. Just tell him I’m sorry, and that I never should have gotten him involved.” 

“Do you have any idea how pissed Eits would be if I just let you go without help?” Pack demanded. “After what happened…” 

“After what happened, you need to be here with him,” I reiterated. “And like I said, I know That-A-Way. I have her number. I can contact the Minority for help. Stay here. I’ll take care of it.” 

For a few seconds, it looked like Pack wouldn’t agree. She sighed, looking over to a nearby cage where her lizards were all watching us. Finally, she opened her hand and held out the paper. “If you’re going with the Minority, fine. But only because I know it’s not where those cocksuckers who attacked him are. They were looking for the same address, so they’re obviously not there now. But still, they’re involved. They’re connected to whatever this is. So Paintball, whatever happens, if you get to the point of actually fighting those guys… Look right there. Look what they did to Eits. I want to help. Call me, Paintball. You call me and tell me when you find the guys that did this. I don’t know if you’ll find out who they are at that address, or what’s going on. But when you find them, you let me know, got it?” 

“I got it,” I replied quietly, taking the paper. “Be here for Eits. He needs you more than I do right now. I’ll handle this.” 

“You and the Minority,” she reminded me. 

I nodded once. “Like I said, I’ve got the number. And yours. I’ll find out what the address leads to, then let you know if I find the guys responsible for… for that.” I didn’t–couldn’t look at the room where Eits was. “You’ll get your turn with them.” 

With that, I gave one last look toward the injured Eits before pivoting on my heel to leave the house. Clutching the paper in my hand, I moved quickly past the guy in front. He repeated his earlier remark that they’d be gone before I could bring heroes over, and I just muttered something about having more important things to worry about than helping a Star-Touched shut down a private hospital. I wasn’t even sure what I said exactly. The words just came before I thought about them. My focus was elsewhere. Without thinking about it, I used red paint to yank myself up to another building, already running as I landed. My eyes finally glanced down at the address, taking it in.

I knew where this was. Not the exact building, but the neighborhood. It was a place on the north side of town, near the zoo. A pretty nice neighborhood, if I remembered right. Either way, I knew where I was going now. 

For a moment, I slowed near the edge of the roof. My hand felt my phone in my pocket. The Minority. I’d told Pack that I’d be okay because I could contact them for help. 

And I could. But I wouldn’t. I’d never actually promised that I would contact them, only that I could do it. But after what I saw with Eits, and everything I already knew about my family… no. I couldn’t involve them. I couldn’t–wouldn’t let anyone else get hurt because of me. This was my responsibility. Eits getting hurt was my fault, because I tried to let him help. That was a mistake, and I refuse to repeat it. Whatever happened next, I wouldn’t let anyone else suffer because of me. Every time I thought about doing so, I pictured Eits on that hospital bed. Then I pictured it being Pack, or That-A-Way, or one of the other Minority. Or Wren. No. No, I couldn’t… I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t let that happen again. I could never let that happen again. 

So, I wasn’t calling the Minority. I wasn’t calling Wren. I wasn’t calling anyone. Leaving the phone in my pocket, I took a running start and jumped, heading for the address. I would handle this the way I should have in the first place. 

By myself. 

Previous Chapter                                             Next Chapter