Month: March 2021

Interlude 11A – Asenath and Twister (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – For those who read Summus Proelium, there was a commissioned interlude posted over the weekend. If you haven’t seen that yet, you can do so by clicking right here

At two o’clock in the morning, the streets of the quiet, suburban town of Acantilado, Texas were almost entirely empty. An occasional car would pass, sometimes filled with boisterous teenagers whooping and hollering through the surrounding night air. Now and then, a stray dog or cat out for a prowl would make themselves known. But, for the most part, the town was silent. There were certainly no buses running at that moment, and there wouldn’t be for another four hours. 

Despite that, one figure was sitting at a bus stop on top of a hill near the edge of town. Behind her was the local high school, while most of Acantilado was stretched out below. It was a relatively new school, built within the past five years at what, at that point, had been just out of town. In the intervening half-decade, enough new houses had been built to put the high school right up against the edge of it, essentially marking the town border. 

Asenath had not known any of that before, of course. She’d learned it while researching the town before coming here. That and a lot of other fairly useless trivia facts about its founding, past governments, and the record of their football team. Part of that had been simply to pass the time, while another part had been about researching the place she had to go to get the answers she had been looking for for so long. Answers that probably weren’t even here to begin with, yet she couldn’t bear not to actually search through every conceivable lead, no matter how slim. 

Now, sitting at the bus stop in the dark as she watched the town spread out below, Asenath glanced up to see an owl fly overhead before quietly murmuring, “How does it look to you?” 

The owl looped around and glided down before transforming into the dark-skinned figure of Twister, shaking herself off while the fox-like set of secondary ears on top of her head twitched. “One of these days, Ol’ Assy, I’m gonna trick you and be the animal you don’t expect. I swear, it’s gonna happen. And when it does, bam!” Her fist punched into her palm. “I’ll uhhh… I’ll never let you live it down, that’s for sure.” 

Snorting despite herself, Asenath offered a wry, “It’s good to have goals to strive toward. So, like I said, what do you think of this place?” Her hand rose to gesture at the streets and house in the distance. 

“What do I think of it?” Echoing her words, Twister turned to plop down on the bench beside her with a heavy sigh. “I think I’d never willingly come here if I had a choice. I mean, sure, it’s fine and quiet and all. But it’s boring. It’s boring as hell. There is nothing to do in this town. There’s nothing going on here. This has got to be one of the single most boring towns in the entire known universe. I would spend ten years in Flick’s old place in Wyoming without my shapeshifting powers before I’d spend a single year in this place, swear to God.” 

Asenath glanced to her in silence for a few seconds as though considering that answer. Then she nodded. “Yeah, that’s kind of the impression I’ve been getting. And you know what? I don’t think that’s an accident. Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s completely intentional. Manufactured, even.”

Her words made the other girl look at her with a frown. “Manufactured? What’s that supposed to mean? Are you saying someone made this town this boring and empty? How? And why?” 

Straightening up to her feet, Asenath answered, “I think there’s some kind of spell on this town. It’s making anyone who isn’t human even more bored than they should be. Pushing them to not want to stay here. It’s not powerful enough to outright control us or anything, especially if we have a real reason to be here. But it’s still kind of a constant, low level push to find this place really boring, so we’ll want to be done with it and leave as soon as possible.”

“Wow,” Twister retorted with a brief grin while pushing herself back to her feet, “It’s a spell making me this easily bored? All these years I thought I was just immature and obsessed with shiny, loud things.” 

Rolling her eyes, Senny pivoted back to her. “You’re definitely still all of that, believe me. But in this case, there’s that spell.” 

“You can sense magic now?” Twister arched an eyebrow. “I mean, you still can’t cast it, right? So…” 

Senny’s head shook. “No, still can’t cast it and can’t really sense it. But Shiori let me borrow this before she left on that rescue mission.” She held up a knife with a bone-handle and a blade that looked like it was made of blue glass. That blade was glowing a bit. “It’s Seth’s anti-magic knife. It’s been warm and glowing the whole time we’ve been here. And when I hold it, I don’t find this place nearly as boring as I do when I let it go.” To demonstrate, she held the knife out. “Try it.” 

Twister, in turn, shrugged before taking hold of the knife by the handle. After holding it for a few seconds, she breathed out and nodded. “Oh yeah, that’s definitely some kind of spell. Wow.” 

Taking the knife back, Senny agreed, “Yeah, wow. Now the question is who cast the spell.” 

The Pooka girl squinted. “You think it has to do with your dad, don’t you?” 

At first, Asenath was quiet. She glanced over to the streets stretched out below them before murmuring, “You know how this whole thing went. That Vestil from Vegas, Bol Sampson, promised information about my dad in exchange for helping save the girl. The information was the name of a man who supposedly saw him last, Arturo Moreno.” 

“Yeah, and Arturo Moreno lives in this place,” Twister finished. “But here’s the thing. That info originated from Fossor. So what the hell makes you think this actually means anything? I mean, besides blind hope?” Pausing, she flinched before adding, “Sorry. That didn’t–I wasn’t trying to…” 

“I get it,” the vampire murmured, before heaving a sigh. “Believe me, I get it. I was suspicious too. But Bol said they used magic to test the name against the name of my father, and got a definite link between them. Which Fossor probably knew they’d do. Or someone would. The point is, whoever this Arturo Moreno is, he did have a direct connection to my father. And now he’s here, in a town blanketed with a ‘don’t stay here for very long, go away, nothing to see here’ spell. It’d be a pretty damn huge coincidence if there was no relation between those things.”

Considering that briefly, Twister agreed, “Fair. Still, let’s keep our guards up, huh? I don’t trust this not to be some kind of trap, even if there’s some level of truth to it. Because I definitely don’t trust that dead Necromancer any more than I could throw the planet he slithered off of.”

“Guards up, for sure,” Asenath murmured while turning the knife over in her hand thoughtfully. “That’s why I didn’t want to bring Bobbi. She’s amazing but–but I’d rather you and I check this place out first. She’s still a kid, and she’s just getting back into the whole going to school thing.” 

“Don’t have to convince me, babe. The two of us running this thing together, old-school, is where it’s at.” Grinning almost ferally, Twister added, “But, just to check, did you get the ahh… you know what?” The question was accompanied by a raised eyebrow. 

Senny, in turn, gave a short nod. Her voice was quiet. “Yeah, it’s done. I haven’t really, uhh, you know. But yeah.” 

“In that case,” Twister replied, “you know we’ve gotta do one more thing, right? No way we’re moving on yet. Not til I get to see the shiny.” 

So, the two of them took a few minutes to do what they needed to. Finally, the Pooka clapped her hands once. “Right, we’re good, so let’s hit it. And speaking of hitting it, you think that knife can break whatever this spell is? Because I’m suddenly starting to think about how much I need to check on a couple old friends in Atlanta that I haven’t talked to in like… over eight years. And something tells me it’s not because they just happened to pop into my head naturally.” 

Asenath, however, shook her head. “Pretty sure it’s not the kind of spell this thing can break just by slicing randomly through the air. If we could find the source of the magic, then maybe it could do something.” Considering the blade thoughtfully, she added, “On the other hand, maybe this thing can lead us to that source. I think the whole effect gets stronger the closer we are.”  

“Well, in that case,” Twister cracked her knuckles. In the next moment, she had transformed into a small, mangy-looking cat, which looked up at Asenath pointedly. “Let’s go play hot-and-cold.” 

So, that was exactly what they did. Walking together, the vampire and cat strolled away from the bus stop, heading deeper into town. Asenath tucked the knife inside her jacket out of sight to avoid any unwanted attention. Even though the streets were empty, she didn’t trust that there weren’t any busybodies peeking out their windows in the middle of the night. To say nothing of active surveillance. After all, someone had to have set up and been maintaining that spell. 

Nonetheless, everything seemed just as quiet and peaceful as ever while the two of them silently made their way through the dark neighborhoods. As expected, the knife grew warmer the closer they got to the source of the spell. It was warm and bright enough that they were both sure they’d found the right spot. Turning to look up at the building they had stopped in front of, Twister scoffed in her cat form. “Oh, that’s just super-fucking appropriate to go looking for clues about your missing vampire dad, isn’t it? Perfect.” 

Senny couldn’t exactly disagree. After all, the spot they had stopped at, the place the spell seemed to be originating from, was a large, rather imposing church. It had incredibly gothic architecture, complete with looming gargoyles and twisted spires. It definitely looked out of place in this sleepy, quiet town. Even without the help of the knife, she would have guessed that there was something special about this particular building. Especially with the scent.

“You smell that, right?” Twister added, leaning forward to sniff once more with her cat nose. 

“Yeah,” Senny confirmed in a quiet mutter. “Alters went by here recently. Lots of them. At least one troll, a few weres, smells like a Rakshasa or two, maybe a… yeah, that’s an Aswang.” Grimacing, she added, “And more. I’d say we’re in the right place. And possibly a bit outnumbered. We should–”

Unfortunately, she was interrupted before she could suggest they do more recon and possibly summon help. Because in the next instant, the sound of grinding stone made both of them snap their gazes up in time to see three of the Gargoyles leap off the edge of that twisted church roof. These weren’t the ordinary Bystander decorative gargoyles. They were the real deal. Which meant they were actually diminutive, foot-tall gremlin like creatures who created and manipulated a material that looked like stone, but was much stronger. They used that to create larger, horrific-looking monster suits for themselves as a sort of armor. Bystanders had seen such things lurking at the edges of buildings back during the Middle Ages and interpreted them as decorations before creating their own. Which made it so much more difficult to tell when the things on the roof were actually the real deal, particularly given the fact that their armor shielded them from giving off any scent. Which was just helpful enough for them that Asenath was pretty sure the Gargoyles themselves had had a hand in the propagation of such statue designs. 

Either way, now three of them were dropping rapidly toward the ground. Senny and Twister each dove in different directions, just before the trio of stone-like armored suits slammed into the concrete right where they had been a moment earlier, sending shards of cement flying.

Both were back on their feet in an instant, Twister shifting out of her cat form to become a much larger grizzly bear, while Asenath yanked the knife back out of her jacket. But before she could do anything with it, a blurred form slammed into her from the side. They were moving so fast that even Senny couldn’t react before the knife was knocked out of her hand and she was sent tumbling end over end. Just as she hit the ground, a cage made of glowing energy bars appeared around her. 

At the same time, the figure who had hit the girl turned and pointed toward Twister, forming a second energy cage. This one, however, was a solid bubble, including the ground under her feet. “Good luck finding an animal that can get you out of a solid forcefield, Pooka,” the figure’s male voice muttered. 

“And as for you, vampire…” With that, the man turned to face Asenath in the energy-cage while the three gargoyles loomed up behind and around him. He was a handsome Latino man who appeared to be in his late thirties, with piercingly dark eyes, an inch or so under six feet. His black hair was long but clearly meticulously maintained. “Feel free to try to bite your way through that. It might be funny.” 

Glancing sidelong to where the knife lay in the grass a few yards from the cage, Senny then turned her attention back to the man. “Stardrinker,” she murmured. That was it. The man was a member of the same species that had given Bobbi her powers. Hence how fast he was, and his ability to create these energy structures. 

Twister, who had shifted back to her human form, tapped her foot impatiently before calling, “Think we should’ve brought the kid now, babe?” 

Rather than reply to that, Senny simply focused on the man himself. “Arturo Moreno?” 

Her words managed to bring a very slight expression of surprise to the man’s face. “Wow, you’re two for two. You know what I am, and who I am. Now I suppose it’s my turn to ask you something about who you are. But, to tell you the truth, I really only need answers from one of you, and you’re easier to keep contained.” With a shrug, the man added, “Can’t kill a Pooka, not for good anyway. But I’d say getting rid of her for awhile is good enough.” Winking at Asenath, he turned toward her equally-trapped companion and gestured with one hand. As he did so, the bubble around Twister began to rapidly shrink. He clearly intended to crush her inside it. 

Seeing that, Senny instantly launched herself toward the bars while summoning her own speed. It was slower than a Stardrinker, of course. Not to mention the cage itself was still in her way. And yet, just before she would have slammed into them, Asenath’s form changed. In mid-lunge, her entire body shrank and shifted into an actual bat. Flipping sideways in the air, she sailed right between the bars, even as the two gargoyles who were still looking that way cried out in alarm.

The shouts drew Arturo’s attention, making the man spin back that way. Unfortunately for him, bats were incredibly fast to begin with. A single Brazilian free-tailed bat, which was exactly what Asenath now appeared to be, was capable of reaching speeds of one hundred miles per hour. Multiplying that by her brief speed boost, and she was already all the way to where the knife had fallen by the time the Stardrinker even started to turn. An instant later, she was back in her human form, had scooped the knife up, and hurled it unerringly. When Arturo finished turning to face her, hands raised, the weapon was already right there. He had time to make a very short, shocked sound before the hilt of the knife slammed into his forehead with enough force to instantly knock the man unconscious. He dropped to the ground in a heap. 

The moment he was down,  the forcefield around Twister vanished. With a grin, she cracked her neck and stared down the trio of suddenly very-confused Gargoyles. “You wanna try that whole thing again? Cuz I can’t wait to get through your tin cans to the chewy center.” 

Between the two of them, Asenath and Twister made short work of the three gargoyles. Soon, the two of them stood over the fallen form of Arturo. Glancing to one another, they each produced a set of handcuffs, carefully attaching them to the man’s wrists and ankles. Then they hauled him over onto his back and waited for the man to wake up. Rather, Asenath started to wait, but Twister got bored after roughly eight seconds and kicked the man hard in the side. She was about to do it again when his eyes opened. Taking in his situation, he immediately tried to do… something. Whatever it was, the man instead jerked and cried out in pain. 

“According to a very good friend of ours,” Senny informed the stunned man, “those magic cuffs are gonna send that pain through you every time you try to do anything you’re not supposed to. Violence, mostly. Trying to use your power, try to break the cuffs, anything like that. So be a good boy and lay there so you can answer questions.” 

“H-how–how?” Arturo was staring at her. “You were a bat. You turned into a bat. Vampires don’t do that!” 

Senny offered him a faint smile. “Not normally, no. But see, I have a certain friend. Her father was a vampire, and someone went through an awful lot of trouble to… upgrade him so he could use the powers other people had by drinking their blood. Now, after months and months of very smart and talented people studying that dead piece of shit’s remains, so do I.” She shrugged a bit. “They’re temporary. The powers only last until the borrowed blood works its way through my system. But still pretty useful. Especially when I’ve got a shapeshifter around who doesn’t mind me taking a sip now and then.” 

“Just think,” Twister put in, “if you’d gone for two bubbles instead of being an arrogant prick with that cage thing instead, the shoe would still be on the other foot right now. Speaking of which–” She reached down, grabbing the man’s expensive Italian loafers. “You tried to kill me, I’m taking these.” 

“Okay, look,” Arturo snarled, “whoever you’re here to break out, it’s not gonna work. There’s a hell of a lot more guards in there than just me and a few goyles.” 

“Break out of–” Senny blinked. “Are you saying this place is some kind of prison?” 

The man stared at her. “You don’t even know what y–yes it’s a prison! The hell are you doing here if you don’t even know that? It’s called Desmoterion.” 

“I’ve heard of that place,” Twister put in. “It’s like a… a mercenary prison. They don’t worry about courts or judges or anything. They just kidnap and hold people for as long as they’re paid to.” 

Snarling a little, Asenath grabbed the man by the throat, bringing the special knife up close. “Have you been holding a vampire–an Akharu, named Tiras?” Even as she said it, the girl couldn’t stop her voice from shaking a little bit. If this was true, if after all this time, her father was right in that building

Arturo echoed the name.“Tiras? Yeah. Yeah, we had someone by that name for awhile. We’re not the ones who caught him, just held him for someone else who brought him in for about a… I’d say seven, eight years? That was about thirty years ago. Then the Heretic asshole who brought the guy in took him back. Paid pretty well too. Nice tip.” 

“Heretic asshole?” Senny frowned sharply. “What Heretic asshole?” Her mind was racing. Her father had been here for eight years thirty years earlier, then some Heretic had paid to take him? 

The man was nodding. “Yeah, one of those Eden’s Garden leaders. What do they call ‘em? Victors. One of the Eden’s Garden Victors. His name was ahh… Kyril Shamon.

“You wanna find this Tiras guy, you gotta talk to Kyril Shamon.”

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Commissioned Interlude 8 – The Bees And The Termites (Summus Proelium)

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At one time, a road had led all the way into Merit, Kansas. Back when there had been an actual Merit, Kansas. Before a series of mistakes, overreactions, and bonehead decisions by relatively few people had doomed not only the first contact between humans and an intelligent hive of Touched-Termites. A few paranoid, drunk types who happened to be the first people the termites attempted to contact. They, of course, lashed out and killed a lot of them. Then they went to get their friends to chase down more, trying to wipe out the ‘monsters.’ By the time anyone with actual authority (or simply a brain between their ears) knew anything about what was going on, the war had already begun. And it was a war the human citizens of Merit lost, as soon as the termites began to melt down every material object in the city with that fog stuff they could project.

It was Mayor Gilbert Sullivan (yes, he had heard all the jokes) who had made the decision to evacuate. Many in the town had wanted to stay. Now that the fighting had started in earnest, they figured it wouldn’t be hard to stomp on, poison, or otherwise kill the termites if they just stuck it out. But Gilbert, a very young mayor in his mid-twenties, had insisted that the point wasn’t whether they could wipe out the termites, but whether they should. And in his mind, there had been too much death already. Against the advice of several on the city council and his own police chief, Mayor Sullivan had the town evacuated, ordering everyone to take anything they could carry and escape. They’d had fire engines, garbage trucks, police cruisers, every vehicle either owned by the town or capable of being commandeered loaded down with everything and everyone they could carry. And then they had simply left. 

Once the place was evacuated, the military had been called in, and since that day no one had gone within several miles of the town. All access points were blocked off, and the grounds in between were patrolled both on foot and by drones. Until they had some idea of how to settle things with the termites properly, the citizens of Merit had been compensated for their losses out of the funds set up to handle large-scale Touched damages (commonly used to aid neighborhoods and cities in recovering from Collision Points), which itself was funded through a mixture of taxes and merchandise sales across every country who contributed a member to Armistice. For one year, those blockades had stood. After the first couple humans attempting to negotiate had failed to convince the now-rightfully paranoid termites of their peaceful intentions, things had been locked behind politicians debating the situation at the state and national level. 

Finally, one pencil-pusher at a desk somewhere had managed to state an obvious idea to the exact right person at the exact right time. It wasn’t the first time that idea had been bandied about, but in this as in so many other cases, it was about who heard the idea and when. 

In this particular case, the idea was heard and pushed along by the right person, until FBI Agent Izan Deans was finally appointed to follow through. Following through, in that situation, meant traveling to Eastland (soon to be Honeyland), Oregon in order to contact a hive of Touched-Insects that humans actually had pleasant contact with, to ask for their help in negotiating with the Termite hive in order to bring a fully peaceful resolution to the entire messed up scenario everyone had found themselves in. 

His trip to Oregon was successful, and now Izan himself (a Latino man in his early-to-mid thirties with crew-cut black hair and a clean-shaven face) had returned with a few friends in tow in order to have the negotiations with the termites. At least, that was the idea, anyway. In practice, things were a little more complicated. Because of course they were. 

“You need an escort, Agent Deans. I don’t know how to put it any simpler than that.” The man talking wore national guard fatigues and wore rank insignia marking him as a colonel. He was clearly close to retirement, or should have been, with a very balding head and the barest wispy hint of white hair. His pale skin was marked by several old scars, while his eyes were sharp, glaring intently at the man in front of him. “No one goes in that town without a squad of my men walking you through. I don’t care what sort of diplomatic namby pamby hakuna matata mission you’re on. You ain’t getting in there without the help of my men.” 

“Would that be the men with the flamethrowers, Colonel Rodon?” Izan asked, his eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses so the man in front of him couldn’t see them roll. “Somehow, I think that might give the locals in there the idea that we’re not serious about this being a peaceful talk.” 

Straightening up to his full, still less-than-impressive height of five feet, seven inches, Colonel Rodon gave Izan an even harder stare. “And if something happens to you and your little… friends while you’re in there, we end up in an even worse situation. I’m not saying I want to send a whole battalion in there with you. Just a little protection in case things go sideways. Cuz if they do, and those friendly insects you’ve got end up dying, we could go from having a hostile situation with one hive to a hostile situation with two of them. Diplomacy ain’t about looking or being weak.” 

“If we may, Colonel.” Those words were projected, in perfect chorus, from a small swarm of thirty bees that had flown up in formation together directly to the side of Izan’s head so they could look at Rodon. Their voices were projected from tiny speakers on the bottom of their abdomens that were connected through their brains to a chip on the back of their thoraxes. 

The colonel, for his part, still looked a little disconcerted. But he kept it together and gave a slight nod. “Yeah, what is it, ahhh, what do I call you all anyway?” 

“We are Diplomatic Swarm Alpha,” came the chorused response from all thirty. “And it would be our pleasure to explain, you would not be at war with our hive-queen should the worst happen due to our choices. We understand this is a dangerous situation, and have all volunteered for this service knowing the risks. The only thing that could lead to a strained relationship would be your refusal to abide by our requests, or those of Agent Deans, causing our deaths.” 

“Yeah, and I’d be pretty ticked off too,” Deans himself put in casually. “Now, you know what the guy who managed to set this whole thing up said. He got those termites to agree to a meeting with the bees and one human. That’s me. Not one human and a squad with flamethrowers. Not even one human with a flamethrower, before you even suggest it. Me and the bees. The bees and me.” Turning his head slightly to look at the insects hovering beside him, he added, “Which of those sounds like the better band name?” 

“The Bees And Me,” came the immediate response from all thirty insects. “Definitely that one.” 

With a nod, the agent turned back toward Rodon. “Look, if you prefer, we can take this up the line and some pencil-pusher behind a desk, or some guy just looking to get re-elected, can tell you what I already said. The risk is mine and theirs to take.” He gestured to the bees. “We know what’s at stake here, believe me, Colonel. Let us go in there and see what we can do. I’d say something stupid about the worst thing that could happen, but, I think we both know this whole situation could legitimately get a lot worse. That’s why we’re all here. You’ve been here on guard duty around this town long enough. Let us go in there, talk to these termites, and see if we can get you and your men assigned somewhere else. I’m sure you’d all like to go home and be done with this whole thing.” 

There was a long, silent pause while the man stared at him indecisively. Finally, Colonel Rodon heaved a long, heavy sigh. It sounded as though he was going against his better instinct. “Yeah, if I give up this shot at getting out of here, my husband might just kill me himself. Fine. You go in there with the bees. But if you have to come running out again without any clothes cuz those termites went and melted them off your naked tookus, don’t cry to me about it. You understand me, son?” 

“Completely, sir,” came the response. “No crying about my potentially-naked tookus to you.” 

As one, the hovering bees turned in the air to look at their companion. Their combined voices were curious. “Isn’t any body part that is not already literally naked, potentially so?” 

“Any body part that is not already naked is potentially naked.” Saying that out loud, Deans added, “And with that, you have summed up at least half of the thought process for every teenager between the ages of about thirteen to seventeen.” 

“Oh yes,” the bees droned, “puberty.” 

 On that note, the group was waved past the barricade and proceeded to move along the road. Well, for as long as the road lasted. It only went on, pavement wise, for another hundred yards. Then the concrete ended, where the termites have finished stripping it. In its place was a wide dirt path with a single narrow stone walkway that had clearly been recently added. According to the message that Deans had received, going anywhere except on that narrow path would be a bad idea. It would be seen as hostile, and there were members of the termite colony who were watching for just such a betrayal. 

So, he stayed on the path, while his companions flew, mostly silently, beside him. They continued on for another mile or so before reaching the very outskirts of the place that had once been Merit. 

At the end of that mile, a very… interesting sight waited for them. Spaced a couple feet apart all along the remains of the former road were a dozen dogs with wagons hooked to them by harnesses. In the back of each of those wagons was what looked like a small ballistae, complete with a loaded spear. A small glass orb, about five or six inches across, sat at the front of each wagon, and they could see a termite in each. They were clearly the drivers of the dog-powered wagons, waiting right there for the new arrivals.

We will have your names. 

He had been warned about the telepathic voices, but it still made Deans jump slightly. An act he regretted, but apparently the termites were either cooler headed than the humans they had first met, or they were under very strict orders not to fire unless there was a truly hostile act. Either way, he exhaled and started with, “Agent Izan Deans, with the FBI. You should be expecting me. And this… well, they speak better for themselves.” He had intended to introduce them himself, but in that moment, the man had a flash of inspiration that it might go over better if he treated his companions like equals. 

“We are Diplomatic Swarm Alpha,” the bees chorused. As a group, they flew ahead of Deans, splitting into two smaller, fifteen-member-sized swarms a moment later. One such group stayed just a few feet in front of him, while the other flew about half the distance closer to the termite-driven wagons. 

It was that second, closer group that spoke next. “It would be our pleasure to speak with you and yours about the troubles you have had with humans.” 

Troubles. That single word was filled with a mix of scorn and sorrow. Regret. There was regret there. How much of it was regret that things had gone poorly, and how much was regret that they had even tried, Deans wasn’t sure. All he knew was that this was a chance to fix that. 

Yes, we have had troubles. Those of us who were most excited to speak with humans, those who loved them the most, were slaughtered. Massacred with no mercy or thought. Those are the troubles we have had. 

“Yeah, my people can be real stupid sometimes,” Deans announced. “I know you’ve rejected everyone else who’s tried to say it, but there are plenty of us who are horrified by what happened. But then, I think you know that. That’s why you’ve let a few negotiators in now and then. You even trade with a couple people. You haven’t given up entirely. That’s why you agreed to this meeting.” 

There was no response to his words. At least, none that he heard. Instead, silence filled the air for a few long seconds before the two bee swarms, which had rejoined one another, simply said, “Yes.” At first, he thought they were agreeing with him belatedly. Then there was silence once more before they said, “No. Many people. Yes. Because they are our friends. Yes, we were fortunate.” 

He was only hearing one side of the conversation, the man realized. So, he stood silently and waited for another minute of that before a few chimes filled the air and several of the dogs abruptly began to move forward, turning in a wide circle to leave a path open. 

You will all come this way, the voice in his head instructed. Our spokesman awaits. He speaks for the queen. There was a deliberate pause, then, You will never see the queen. 

Yeah, that was fair. Especially after what had happened. Exchanging a look with the bees, Deans began to walk that way. They, or rather he, was escorted on all sides by those ballistae-armed wagons. Which made him nervous, but he kept it in check and just walked. 

There were no houses left in town, nothing the termites could have stripped down and used for their constructions. Practically all he saw that indicated where the town’s buildings had been were a few foundations here and there. 

Eventually they reached what his own studies had said was once where the city hall had stood. Now, like everything else, it was a vacant lot. In the middle was a tree stump that stood about four feet high. Under escort by the dog wagons, he approached that way before coming to a stop directly in front of it. Only then did he see the tiny figure waiting on that stump. It was another termite, though this one was different from the others. Larger than the others, with wings. Not a queen, of course. An alate, if he had the word right. Either way, it perched there, waiting for his approach. 

Agent Deans, Diplomatic Swarm Alpha, the alate’s telepathic voice spoke. Somehow, it ‘sounded’ different from the one that had been speaking in his head before. I am Horse-Spoon-Eleven. I will be speaking the negotiations on behalf of our queen. Rest assured, she is aware of all that occurs and is said here today. I speak her words. You have been escorted here today by the lead of Bird-Chair-One. 

With a simple nod, Deans replied, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Horse-Spoon-Eleven. And you too, Bird-Chair-One.” He was assuming that was the one who had been speaking before, though that didn’t really answer which wagon had held the one in question. Either way, he continued. “It was my original belief that an actual diplomat would be talking to you with my friends here today. But I was told you refused to talk to anyone except the FBI agent who brought the bees to begin with. Which is funny, because up to that point, we weren’t aware that you knew that an FBI agent was the one bringing them at all.” 

We have learned to seek out and treasure intelligence about what our… There was a brief pause before Horse-Spoon-Eleven amended, About what others whose actions may affect us are doing. And we have no desire to entertain the platitudes of those paid to argue for a living. Queen Lion-Sapphire-Zero wishes to speak to you and the emissaries from the Oregon hive. No others. 

“Okay, well–” Deans started, only to be interrupted. 

Not yet, Agent Deans. Apologies, but we are not prepared to speak with you until we hear directly from the representatives of Apis mellifera. We wish to know… why they work so closely with their own humans. And how.

Thus began another conversation the man himself was not a part of. This time, however, he was at least able to hear all of it. Standing quietly, he listened as the termite and his bee companions went back and forth about what exactly had led the Honeyland Hive to their current peaceful conditions with the humans there. Once in awhile, another termite approached and demanded to know if the bees wouldn’t be better off on their own rather than relying on ‘undependable humans.’ But the Diplomatic Swarm insisted that the benefits of cooperation outweighed the risks, and that the humans of the town were their friends. 

Finally, Horse-Spoon-Eleven summed it up as, To our queen, it is seeming that the path to peace is one of usefulness. And yet, we do not believe any level of use would make those of this place wish for our presence. Nor would we feel safe. 

After a brief pause at that until it was clear they were waiting for him, Deans managed a slow nod. “Yeah, we sort of figured that. We don’t see a peaceful resolution coming from you staying here.” 

Do tell us, Agent Deans, came the response, how do the humans see this ending? 

Oh boy was this far beyond his pay grade. With a sigh, Deans hesitated before deciding to go all in. “Well, I think it’s safe to say that nobody wins when it comes to our current situation. We know you’ve been building up a bunker, and that it would probably take a hell of a lot to punch through it if the more… trigger-happy among us ever get their way. And we know that you’ve probably got some of your own people spread out anywhere they could get to so they can do a hell of a lot of damage elsewhere if it goes that way. This whole thing goes violent and both our sides are gonna end up losing a lot. Thing is, there’s a lot more people on our side and a lot more stuff. More than you can break. You’d do a lot of damage, but you wouldn’t win. Not in the end. And us? We’re not exactly the good guys any way you slice it. Losing everything your people would wipe out just so we can kill off an intelligent species? Like I said, nobody wins in this situation. Just losers all the way around.”

Yes, that is our estimation too. The termite representative was staring intently at him, which was a disconcerting feeling. At best, such a conflict would be a matter of doing as much damage as possible before your people destroyed us. There was a long pause then, before Horse-Spoon-Eleven added, I was one of those who was most excited to meet the humans before, Agent Deans. I had many friends who were killed by the intolerant among you. A hard lesson to learn, but an important one. There are humans who will never accept us. And yet, as we have both said, this conflict will only end poorly. 

“Then let’s change it,” Deans put in. “You’re right, the Honeyland bees have a great relationship with the humans there. Those people are already accustomed to living with Touched-Insects, and they know how useful that can be. I’m sure you can all help each other out.” 

You would have us leave the place we have spent all of our time and effort to fortify, to go somewhere new? The tone of the termite’s response wasn’t exactly a refusal, more curiosity. 

Deans, in turn, nodded. “Look, I know you got burned really bad on that leap of faith before. But I don’t think you really have another option here. We’ve already been over it. If this keeps up, everyone loses. At least if you go to Honeyland, your colony has a chance of surviving.” 

The response that came was silence. The termite turned away from him, seeming to look off at nothing. He had the impression that it was conferring with others, before finally turning to the bees. Would you trust this man in our situation? 

“Agent Deans has proven himself an honorable human and worthy of respect,” Diplomatic Swarm Alpha chorused. “And the humans we live and work alongside would be happy to have a second hive–pardon, colony to work with. We believe that bees and termites could do much good together, for all of our peoples.” 

Again, there was silence for awhile as the termites conferred, before Horse-Spoon-Eleven eventually announced, We would have one request. The work that we have put into our bunker cannot be ignored or dismissed. If we are to travel to this Oregon, we would have the bunker extracted and taken with. And we would have you along for every step of that journey, Agent Deans. To avoid any… mistakes. 

Exhaling in relief, Deans gave a short nod. “Of course. Whatever it takes, I’m sure we can work up something. Especially with help from your new partners here.” He gestured to the bees. “But I’m going to have to bring some other people in and hammer out the full details.” 

One of the dog-pulled carts approached, and Horse-Spoon-Eleven seemed to gesture with one hand. Go with Bird-Chair-One to… hammer these details, as you say. We will await hearing more. 

The winged termite then sat silently upon the stump while the human and his bee companions moved off with their designated escort. Only once they were out of earshot did another voice speak. Another human voice. 

“Does this mean our deal is off?” 

Horse-Spoon-Eleven turned to where two human figures in metal armor had appeared from seemingly thin air. No. It is as I believe you humans say, do not put all of your eggs in one basket. We will send half of our colony to this Honeyland to see what the humans there have to offer. The other half will fulfill our agreement with you. We will come to your city and work as you would like, in exchange for your protection and aid. 

“Excellent,” the male figure murmured. “That’s excellent news, isn’t it, White?” 

“Indeed, Gold,” the female figure agreed. “And have no fear, Horse-Spoon-Eleven. 

“The Ministry will take very good care of you and yours. We keep our deals.”

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Building Connections 16-07 (Summus Proelium)

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Well, Mom, Dad, and Simon were really putting some work into their ruse of going out of town. When Izzy and I got home, the hallway was full of suitcases and boxes with various files poking out of them. It really looked like they were going off on some kind of emergency business trip. Honestly, I was almost kind of impressed. I’d basically expected them to just walk out the door without so much as a backpack. It wasn’t like the old me really would’ve questioned it very much, if at all. 

As the two of us walked in and paused to look at all that, Simon basically came flying down the main front foyer staircase, taking the steps several at a time while calling up, “Yeah, I already called them! They’re gonna round up those guys and meet–” He reached the bottom of the stairs and saw Izzy and me before finishing with, “–us at the hotel! You booked the conference room?” Standing there at the bottom of the stairs, he pretended to ignore the two of us while looking up toward the next landing. “They wanted the one facing Central Park, not the one from last time!” 

A moment later, Dad appeared at the landing, descending briskly (though he at least hit every step). “Yes, we got the right room,” he replied while adjusting his suit cufflinks. “Not making that mistake twice. And hi there, girls.” Pausing, looking just as crisp and handsome and perfect as my father always did, he asked, “My God, is it really time for you both to be home already? Your mother’s still in our room packing.”

With that, he turned toward the nearby intercom. “Broadcast now, Elena.” There was a pause before the intercom beeped to indicate it had connected to the room my mother was in. “Dear, are you aware that it’s already after three o’clock? The girls are here. We need to head out.”

There was a brief pause before Mom’s voice replied, “It’s not–oh my word, yes, I’ll be right down. Don’t you go anywhere, girls. We’re leaving in just a minute and I still have things to say to you.” 

Again, Izzy and I exchanged glances. Now I was a little confused. Did they really lose track of time? It seemed like an oddly specific ruse to add onto them going out of town. Maybe they were really just that distracted by this gang war? I also noticed that Dad used the intercom’s ability to connect to a specific person rather than saying the room she was in, despite the fact that he’d said she was in the bedroom. Did that mean he didn’t want me to know that she wasn’t there? Or was I just being paranoid and picking at every little thing no matter how inconsequential? 

Except even if I was simply being paranoid, that didn’t necessarily mean that I was wrong. 

Shaking that off after giving Izzy a very slight nod, I spoke up. “You’re staying in New York? So it’s not an out-of-the-country trip. You sure we can’t both go with you? Izzy’s never seen New York.” Of course they’d say no, but if I didn’t ask once I ‘knew’ where they were going, it’d look weird. 

As expected, Dad gave me a regretful look. “Sorry, kid. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and I really want our first trip with…” Trailing off, he glanced toward the other girl as though considering what he was saying. “Izzy, we’ll absolutely take a trip with you when we get a chance. But it’s like you said earlier, school comes first, and you’re just getting started.” With a small smile, he added toward me, “And don’t think I didn’t notice your cunning attempt to get out of your school, young lady. No, I think you’ll be just fine here. Be good, don’t burn the house down or end up in the hospital, and we’ll talk about where to go for summer break when we get back, deal?” 

“So if the ambulance has to come but we don’t actually go to the hospital, it’s still good?” I asked brightly, batting my eyes a few times at him innocently while he squinted at me. In the background, I heard Izzy snerk before she caught herself and turned it into a faint cough. 

“Who needs an ambulance?” Mom asked as she descended the stairs, taking a moment to assess Izzy and me critically. “Please tell me it’s someone in another house, we haven’t even left yet.” 

“Oh please, Mom,” Simon put in, “as if she needs us to be out of the house before she does something crazy dangerous.” 

“You wanna compare whose crazy has cost the most?” I shot right back at him. “Cuz something tells me you’re not gonna come out ahead on that balance sheet, Mr. Full Contact Laser Tag Inside The House.” 

Simon, in turn, squinted at me while both our parents arched eyebrows at him with the memory clearly running through their minds. “Really? Bringing that up right before I have to sit on a plane for an hour? Uncool, Booster. Super uncool. See if I bring you back one of those skyscraper plushies you like so much.” 

“Dude,” I retorted, “they sell those online. I’ve got the whole set already, except the new one. And that doesn’t come out until next month.” 

With a heavy sigh, my brother looked to our parents as he lamented, “She was a lot easier to bribe before she figured out how internet shopping works.” 

A giggle escaped me, despite everything. Fuck. This was all so normal. This was my family, this was–they were the people I loved, the people I’d grown up with. And they were faking all of this. Okay, not faking all of it, but still hiding who they were. They weren’t going off on some kind of important-yet-normal business trip. They were staying right here in the city so they could focus on dealing with this mounting gang war that they themselves had allowed to start. 

Shoving those thoughts out of my head, I focused on looking back and forth between my parents. “You guys really need all this stuff?” The question came as I gestured toward the stack of suitcases and boxes. Even though I couldn’t exactly ask why they were bothering to go to these lengths in their deception, I could at least point out that they were taking a lot of stuff with them. 

“Unfortunately,” Dad confirmed with a grimace. “Let’s just say the clients want a lot of paperwork to hammer through this deal, and we’ll probably have to attend a few palm-greasing parties.”

“He says that as though he’s going to suffer,” Mom casually noted, “but we all know your father enjoys those things more than he lets on. And he isn’t mentioning the fact that half of these meetings will be at that country club with the caddie he has the running wager with. How much have you conned that poor man out of, Sterling?” 

“Hey now,” Dad shot back even as several of the house staff came through the hallway to start picking up the boxes and suitcases, “it’s hardly my fault if that fool keeps thinking that whatever poor schmuck I’m teeing off with that day has a chance of coming in under me on my third-favorite non-Detroit course.”

Izzy, looking uncertain and possibly a little uneasy, spoke up. “Uh, you bet money with a caddy?”  

“What?” Dad blinked that way before chuckling. “Oh, no, of course not. Believe me, Pete makes plenty of tips off our visits and I wouldn’t take those away from him. No, we gamble with something other than money.” Saying that, he was smiling fondly at the thought. 

Nudging Izzy, I explained, “Dad and Caddie Pete make bad movie bets. Whoever wins gets to make the other watch a horrible movie from start to finish and write a full report about it. Pete’s only managed to make him watch two-wait, three movies. But Dad’s made him watch… how many?”

“Thirteen,” came the answer with a broad smile. “And I’ve got a doozy in mind for the next one.” 

“Be that as it may,” Mom put in smoothly while laying a hand on his shoulder, “we are going for work. So let’s keep that in mind. Now, girls.” She focused on the two of us. “I know this is sudden, and very last-minute. I’m sorry for that, Izzy. But you’ll be okay here. The staff all know to accommodate any reasonable request, you’ll go to school in the mornings with Jefferson the same as always, and Claudio will have your meals ready at the usual times. We may or may not be able to have Skype dinner time on our usual days, but I do expect both of you to be available if it’s possible on our end, understand?” 

We nodded and murmured agreement, before both of my parents went over a few more last-minute instructions. In the background, all the luggage was being taken through the open front door to the waiting limo, and I could see Jefferson himself having a discussion with one of the security guys. Another man, whom I recognized as the chief of Dad’s security detail (a tall, blond man with cold gray eyes named Finn Wagner) was standing just inside the doorway on the phone with what sounded like airport security. 

Yeah, they really were pulling out all the stops for this. Then again, I supposed it also made sense, come to think of it. After all, they needed the rest of the city to believe they were gone, not just me. 

Finally, it was time to exchange hugs. I did so with both of my parents, and then with Simon.  Which left Izzy. And while my father may have hesitated slightly out of not wanting to make her uncomfortable, my mother was different. To be fair, she didn’t grab the girl out of nowhere. She didn’t force any kind of affection on her. Instead, she simply opened her arms slightly and extended both hands, palms outward to her in a gesture that was perfectly calculated so that the girl could choose to interpret it as either an offer of taking both hands and squeezing, or an actual embrace. 

Izzy chose the hug, which seemed to surprise both of us a little bit. She was already embracing my mother before her head turned to me with an expression that said she had no idea how it had happened. Still, she didn’t pull away too quickly, allowing the hug to linger for a few seconds. How much of that was out of not wanting to look suspicious somehow, and how much was because she desperately needed a hug from an adult was unclear. 

Either way, eventually the hug ended, and she exchanged another (slightly quicker) one with my father. Simon, apparently, did not rate a hug. Though he did get a somewhat awkward high-five. 

Then it was time for them to go. Izzy and I stood in the doorway, watching the limo pull out, escorted by three different security cars. The two of us looked at one another once they were out of sight, but didn’t say anything important, of course. Not with half-a-dozen house staff within earshot. So, we stood there for a few extra seconds before I shrugged. “You wanna go get a burger or something? Maybe some cheese tots?” 

“Ahem.” It was Dexter, the butler. Unlike other butlers I’d seen in movies, Dexter wasn’t actually old or British. He was a handsome guy in his forties or so with deeply tanned skin (which I suspected was unnatural) and coppery red hair. Honestly, aside from the suit he wore all the time, the guy almost looked more like he belonged in some kind of cover band or something rather than working as a butler. Normally, I didn’t have much direct interaction with him. But I supposed in this case he had decided that I was the closest thing to his boss currently in the house. 

“Miss Evans,” the man started easily, “if you would like Claudio to be summoned to prepare–” 

“Uh, no thanks, Dex.” My voice was a little awkward as I shrugged, my backpack shifting a bit in the process. “We’ll just head into town and get something there. You know, greasy and simple and cheesy and now I’m making myself hungry again. C’mon, Izzy.” Taking her by the hand, I pulled the girl with me. 

“Will you be requiring the services of another driver?” Dexter called after us. “I can have a car brought around.” 

Waving that off, I informed him that we’d walk for a bit before calling an Uber. It sounded like he was going to object (probably something about how the Evans should get around in their own cars or whatever), but we were already jogging down the driveway. Waving to the security guy at the gate, the two of us slipped out, made an immediate left, and kept walking down the sidewalk. We didn’t say anything until we were out of sight of the gate (it would be another minute or so before we were out of the sight of the actual house). Finally, I breathed out. “That was weird, right?” 

“It was weird to you too?!” Izzy blurted, sounding like she was about to explode to get those words out. “Are they really going anywhere? I mean, they’re not, right? Why would they–” 

“They’re not–I mean they’re clearly going somewhere in the city,” I confirmed. “But they definitely didn’t need all those suitcases. They must’ve been making it look good for… for you, I guess? It’s not like they’d have to show the rest of the world that they’re taking a bunch of extra luggage. Unless they were taking other things with them and wanted us to think it was just luggage?” 

“What would they have in the house that they had to take with them like that?” Izzy cautiously asked. 

Letting out a long breath while shifting my backpack on one shoulder, I shook my head. “I dunno. Seriously, I have no idea. Convincing us and the rest of the city that they actually left is the best suggestion I’ve got. Because there’s no way this trip to New York is real. Not with this gang war going on, and getting worse by the day. They’re shutting everything else out to focus on that. The suitcases and that whole production back there is probably just one part of their ‘make everyone think we’re gone so no one connects us to the Ministry getting more involved in things’ plan.”

We both thought about that in silence for a few minutes, before we eventually approached the main gate into the neighborhood. One of the guards was in the booth there, giving both of us a brief look before nodding as he went back to playing a game on his ipad. Between the two of us, we chorused a greeting, acting like we were nothing but two random kids going for a walk. 

Finally, we were past the gate and Izzy spoke again. “Is it bad that I’m kinda rooting for your parents to get this under control?” 

“They better get it under control,” I retorted. “Having the criminal and heroic worlds in the palm of their hands is like… their entire thing

“If they can’t stop the city from falling apart, what is the Ministry even for?” 

*******

Eventually, we did end up calling an Uber, and took the ride over to one of the malls (not the one where my family’s secret base was, of course). The two of us ate something at the food court there before splitting up. Izzy was going to see a movie or two in the theater there, while I changed into the costume in my backpack and went out to meet with marble girl (boy did I hope she had a better name in mind). 

Skating across the rooftops of the city really helped clear my mind a bit. If nothing else, at least my consolation prize for having to deal with my entire family situation were these powers. I loved my powers. The way I could leap from building to building, skate along the side of one and then blue-paint boost my way to the opposite side of the street? It was, as always, an insane rush. It made me feel alive and free in a way I had never experienced before. It was incredible, and I would never trade my powers for anyone else’s. Not really. They were mine. 

Distracted as I was with all that enjoyment, it still wasn’t hard to find the old rundown mattress store the girl had wanted to meet at. As I came in to land smoothly on the edge of the roof, I saw her below, hidden from public sight behind the building, with a tall wooden fence to one side and an alley to the other. She was in that same armor with the white helmet, talking to herself while the rest of those colored marbles floated in front of her. 

Not to herself, I realized belatedly. She was talking to the marbles. Something about telling them to show ‘him’ what they could do, but not to be nervous because she would be proud of them no matter what. 

Smiling a bit despite myself, I hopped down with a tiny bit of orange paint to cushion the drop. “Personally, I like to offer my powers treats if they behave.” 

Right, probably should’ve announced myself a bit more carefully. The moment I spoke up from behind her, the girl gave a strangled yelp of surprise, lunging out of the way. At the same time, the three hovering marbles (silver, bronze, and purple) all transformed and grew into a huge claymore, a hammer, and a spear respectively. They flew toward me, before the other girl managed to catch herself and spin around with a blurted, “Stop!” 

They stopped, hovering a foot or so away from me with the business ends still pointed my way. 

“Heh, heh, sorry.” With a nervous giggle, the girl beckoned with one hand, summoning the weapons away before they turned back into marbles. “That was almost pretty bad, huh?

“Shish Kebabing the boss is probably a pretty horrible way to start your first day as a sidekick.” 

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Promise And Peril 11-11 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – if you happened to miss it, the Heretical Edge non-canon chapter was released over the weekend right here

“So, let me get this straight,” Sachael began several minutes later. “There are two super-Fomorians running around on Earth. Both empowered by Tartarus and split from the same original Fomorian. One of them is… considers himself ‘good’ and calls himself Grandfather. He’s the one who brought the first humans to Rysthael–Earth. And he’s just been sort-of hanging out the whole time, being zany. The other one, meanwhile, was trapped in Tartarus for another couple hundred thousand years until Zadkiel, who happens to be a Seosten archangel, ended up in there too. The two of them were fused together, somehow got out, and now he-they are on Earth calling themselves Godfather, Maestro, and who knows what the hell else. And something tells me he’s not nearly as sparkles, sunshine, and happiness as you say the first one is.” 

“Uh, yeah, that seems to just about sum it up,” I confirmed, giving my mother a brief look. She looked stunned by all that, to say the least. “But, you know, if you could keep the Grandfather part to yourself, I just–that’d be great?” Yeah, my voice was a bit weak at that point cuz eesh was that asking a lot. Not that we’d said anything about Bastet or especially Aylen, of course. We weren’t quite that stupid. We just spoke as if Grandfather himself had found and spoken to us. I’d clarify the truth with my mother later, once we were somewhere slightly more private. 

Sachael gave me a brief, clearly appraising look before pointing out, “Promises aside, I am fairly certain that if I were to tell my superiors, or… anyone about what you’ve said, and behaved in any way as though I believed it was more than incoherent gibberish from a human whose mind has been shattered by a year of unrelenting stress, I would be immediately stripped of all my own authority and put into forced retirement. At the very least.” 

“He’s got you there,” Tristan murmured under his breath before speaking up almost challengingly toward the man himself. “Does that mean you don’t believe it?” 

Sachael was quiet for a moment before sighing heavily. “No, I believe I do. That’s what scares me. But I can’t exactly tell the people in charge about it because even on the very slim chance they actually believe me, we know exactly what their first and probably only instinct will be the moment they hear ‘two super-Fomorians on Rysthael.’”

“Destroy it.” That was Athena, her voice soft. “They’ll bring everything they have to in order to level Earth until there’s nothing but dust left.” 

Gulping audibly, Vanessa piped up. “Right, so um, please don’t tell them about that part.” 

“I have to do some–” Sachael started to insist before catching himself with a low sigh. “Yes, I’m not about to go running to the Seraphs babbling about something that will get me locked up at best and your entire planet razed at worst. But I can’t just leave it alone either. If there’s really a malevolent super-Fomorian with Dyeusai powers added on and everything that Zadkiel knew about our society, command structure, security, and… and everything else? That’s something that has to be dealt with. And I think it’d go over a hell of a lot easier with the Seraphs if we could drag this hybrid thing in front of them instead of just promising that he’s out there somewhere. Presenting an apocalyptic problem goes better when you’ve already solved it.” 

“So, what you’re saying is,” I began, “you’ll keep quiet about the giant problem until you’ve got a solution to go along with it. Are you sure um, are you sure you can get away without warning your people about him–them, whatever they go by?” Of all the things I had ever thought I would need to worry about, the preferred pronouns of a merged Fomorian-Seosten super-creature as was not one of them. Like, seriously. What even was my life?

“I’m not sure of much right now, actually,” the man informed me. “But I am fairly certain that, out of a very large assortment of terrible options, keeping quiet for the time being is the least terrible. If what has been said today is true, this Maestro may be the most dangerous single enemy our combined people have ever seen. He possesses all the power and skill of one of the Fomorian Alphas, along with that of a Seosten Dyeus and the knowledge that comes from being very high up within the military structure of both. And, what’s more, he clearly knows how to be quiet. He has kept himself hidden for a long time now, choosing not to draw attention to his existence. One who knows how to have all that power and then not use it is far more dangerous than one who blunders about showing off their strength. Which leads to the question of what, exactly, is his endgame in that case? What is he trying to accomplish?” 

“It’s something to do with all the Seraphs,” Elisabet murmured, a frown crossing her face. “I’m not exactly positive, but he wants to do something to the Seraphim. At first I thought he intended to kill or destroy them, but that’s not it. I’m just not sure exactly…” Trailing off, she sighed. “I don’t know, but it’s something to do with them. That’s why that… Gemini pushed us toward arranging the meeting between them and the children.” She nodded toward Vanessa, Tabbris, Tristan, and me. “Whatever his goal is, getting them close to the Seosten leaders is part of it.” 

“Right, so we don’t go anywhere near them,” Vanessa put in. “Except I’m pretty sure it’ll come up when this whole truce year thing is over.” 

“A lot of things are going to come up once the truce year is over,” Athena muttered under her breath before sighing. “I suppose that means we’ll have to deal with this Maestro before then. Or at the very least discover what his actual plan is.”

Mom finally spoke up in a quiet, clearly constrained voice. “Is he the one who brought the Fomorians here in the first place?” 

The way she said it made me blink that way, before realizing just what she was getting at. She’d lost both of her parents as a child when she was younger than Tabbris. She had basically been Savvy’s age, and her father had sacrificed his life while her mother sacrificed her identity. All of that was to drive the Fomorians away. Now Mom was asking if the being responsible for them being there in the first place hadn’t even been affected. 

Wow. When it was put like that, I… wow. That just made the fact that I couldn’t tell her about Dare even worse. 

Elisabet seemed to pick up basically the same vibes, pausing momentarily before she replied. “I don’t think so. He may have taken advantage of the situation, but the indication I got was that he is not united with or connected to his people. To… either side of his people. Their people. Whatever his goals are, he seems to be working without the rest of the Fomorians. Perhaps because he believes he’s better than they are. Or because he believes they would be more of a hindrance than a help, or their goals are not aligned. Either way, I am fairly certain he has not been in contact with them.” 

Gazing off at nothing, I stopped listening for a moment while they kept talking. Something else had occurred to me, and I wasn’t sure I should actually say it. Part of me really didn’t want to. But Mom noticed. Her hand touched my arm, and when I glanced that way, she silently mouthed, ‘what?’

So, I swallowed back my uncertainty and spoke up. “Maybe you shouldn’t survive, Elisabet.” 

That got everyone’s attention. Not only that of the woman in question, but the entire group. They all blinked at me while I blanched before pushing on quickly. “Oh boy, could I have phrased that better or what? Sorry, I mean, you should survive, obviously. Duh. I’m glad you–I mean you’re–never mind. The point is, maybe no one else should know that you survived. Think about it, if this Maestro guy knows that you can tell us everything about him, it might push him over the edge. He’ll either come after you or accelerate his plans, and I don’t think any of us want to see what he’s got in mind right now. But if you died before you could tell us anything, it might calm him down. You said you already dealt with the implants he put in you?” 

Elisabet was watching me intently, though whatever she thought of what I was saying, she kept it to herself. Her voice was even as she answered. “I did. I cut the implants out. And believe me, they’re all gone. I also had our new… friends here run a scan just in case I’d missed anything. They’re a bit confused about human biology, but with a little education, they did a fine job. There is nothing unnatural within my body now. Nothing he could be using to spy on or control me.” 

The rest of us all exchanged looks, before Sariel spoke up. “Felicity may have a point. If this Maestro believes you have died, it may reassure him not to take any drastic measures. Particularly if he believes his plan is progressing as he desires.” She hesitated then, taking a breath before adding, “If he believes that Elisabet’s ‘death’ has spurred Jophiel to push onward with their plan of teaching the children enough to meet the Seraphim, it may be possible to take him by surprise. Which would appear to be the only possible advantage we might have.” 

I felt Mom’s grip on my arm tighten a bit for a moment, and was afraid of what she might say. But she took a second to collect herself before carefully responding. “What do you think that would accomplish, exactly?” 

She had directed the question toward Sariel, but I spoke up because I had been the one to start the whole line of thought. Also because I wasn’t sure there was anything the Seosten woman could’ve said that would sound like a good idea to my mother. “His biggest advantage–okay his top three advantages are the fuck you I win doom laser wings, his practically unparalleled ability to manipulate biology and create unholy abominations, his incredibly intricate understanding of both Fomorian and Seosten society and military structures, the centuries he’s had to perfect himself and his plan–” 

“That’s more than three,” Tristan pointed out. 

Blowing out a long breath of air, I grimaced. “The point is, somewhere in the top ten of his advantages is the fact that no one’s supposed to know about him. If he knows for sure he’s lost that, he’s more likely to act. Which could be an advantage if it means he acts rashly and makes a mistake, but I don’t think he will. Plus there’s all those other advantages he still has. Making him think his secret is still safe is the best way to give everyone the time they need to find him. We can talk to Grandfather again, find out more from him about his other half. We can–we can do a lot of things if we’re careful. But if he finds out we know about him and chooses to make his move? Then we’re on the back foot again and have to keep reacting to everything.” 

“And the best way to do that is to let him think Elisabet died during the rescue attempt,” Mom finished, heaving a sigh. “What, do we say the Fomorian poisoned her too and it killed her before she could tell us anything? I suppose we’re taking it for granted that he has ways of getting information out of our side.”

“I think that’s a foregone conclusion,” I agreed. “And there’s no way he knows what these people are capable of, what their technology can do. We say they couldn’t save her and leave it at that.” 

Jophiel, speaking carefully, asked, “Are you suggesting that lies and memory manipulation be brought into play to change what those on this mission already know?” 

“No.” That was my mother, her voice sharp and reproachful. “We’re not messing with anyone’s memory.” 

“Besides,” I quickly pointed out, “it’s pretty obvious that no one we brought with us is under his influence or whatever. If they were, we never would’ve gotten this far. Elisabet had plenty of chances to be umm… shut up, you know? Even if he had to turn them into a suicide bomber to do it, just to keep himself secret. I think it’s pretty safe to say this group is clear.” 

“So what are we supposed to do?” Tristan asked. “Tell everyone to pretty please keep Elisabet being alive secret and we’ll explain why eventually, or tell everyone here the whole truth about this Godfather guy? Because that’s an awful lot to get into right now. Plus, those girls from the Calendar are–um, they might have other priorities. I know they took the oaths not to talk about what happens on this trip, but still.” 

Athena was the one who answered. “We carefully and quietly tell everyone the truth about this Maestro person. Not about his other half, that’s not our secret to tell. We leave it only to what Elisabet knew at the start of this conversation. We explain why it must be kept secret, and perform the same privacy spells that were done to ensure Felicity, Tabbris, Vanessa, and Tristan did not tell anyone about Elisabet and Jophiel’s relationship or arrangement with them. But we make sure they know those spells are being performed. We do that for all of us, with a prepared safeword that will allow anyone to break the spell for themselves, just in case it becomes of life and death importance that they share this information. But doing so will also alert everyone else that they have broken it.” 

We talked a bit more about all that, but it was the best idea we had. We would pretend Elisabet had died so this Maestro-Godfather prick thought he was safe, then do our best to make sure we found him before the time came for the twins, Tabbris, and I to have a discussion with the Seraphs to show off how special we were, or whatever. 

It wasn’t a lot, but it was basically all we could do at the moment. Honestly, the whole situation was just pretty damn terrifying and it was freaking me out a lot. But putting that aside and letting the adults try to figure out how to track the bastard down and deal with him (or at least wait until we could get more information from Grandfather) at least meant I didn’t have to focus on it immediately. I was sure it would become a giant glaring problem soon enough. But for the moment, I was going to turn my attention to something I could affect right now. 

Namely, finding Alecra and talking to her as much as possible before she and the rest of her people went off to their new world for an incredibly well-earned break

******

So, that was exactly what I did. Well, Mom and me. And Tabbris. We let the others deal with pulling in each person individually or in pairs to explain that whole… situation, while the three of us tracked down Alecra and a few of the other Meregan (all of whom Mom knew by name) and just… talked. It was pretty nice, actually. Obviously I had to shove all the worries about the unkillable super-monster in the shadows out of my thoughts to enjoy it. But honestly? It wasn’t that hard to do so. After all, this wasn’t the first time I’d had an approaching deadline to deal with a psychotic, almost all-powerful monster with a god complex. And this one didn’t even have my mother as a hostage. 

Anyway, the point was that all that would be dealt with later. There was literally nothing we could do about him now. So we didn’t worry about it. We talked to Alecra about her surviving people, about what this new world was like, about what the Roenier themselves were like, and so on. We talked about the whole mission they’d been on, about the Meregan helping the Roenier to begin with, about other adventures they’d been on, basically everything they’d done. And, of course, she wanted more information about Fossor’s death. So we told her everything in as much detail as possible. 

Yeah, I was pretty sure she was going to be sharing that story with the rest of the Meregan. Good. They all deserved to know that he was fucking gone. Not even worm food. Not even dust. He was nothing. Just like he should have been. He was dead and I hoped that fact was written across the stars for everyone to see. 

I also did something else important with Alecra, as well as a few other Meregan. Namely, I summoned the few Meregan ghosts I had among those who had been at the final battle with Fossor. One by one, I let them introduce themselves, talk a little bit about who they were with these few living Meregan. Some actually knew each other and there were tearful (and temporary) reunions. Others simply promised that they would pass the names and last words of the passing ghosts on to any family or friends they could find.

The point was, they got to say goodbye. I almost felt like a voyeur, standing there bringing forth all these ghosts and spying on their last words. And yet, it gave me a new appreciation for my Necromancy. It had always been useful despite how I instinctively felt about it, but this… this felt good. It was still sad and terrible that they died to begin with, yes. But my power gave them the chance to say goodbye. Really say goodbye. Not some prayer to some invisible deity, a real goodbye to the people they loved. 

 When the ghosts were done, they would tell me it was time, and I let them go. Their energy dissipated, fading away. All save for a couple of the Meregan, who asked to stay with me until I visited the Roenier homeworld to see where their people ended up. I pointed out that I might not get there any time soon, if at all. But they were willing to take that risk. 

In any case, I… I helped these people. This power from Fossor, who was responsible for so much suffering and so many atrocities, actually helped give the Meregan, people who had been some of the most hurt by him, closure. 

Eventually, it was time for us to go. Because it was time for them to go. They had successfully retrieved every living member of the Meregan race from their own world, and the battle against the Fomorians had enacted enough losses that things were starting to get a bit dicey, apparently. They needed to retreat with the survivors, head back to their own world (their new world, in the Meregans’ case) and start the process of rebuilding. 

During that initial withdrawal, as the fleet was getting away from the Meregan world, Mom, Athena, and the rest of the adults all stressed just how important it was that the Roenier fleet make sure the Fomorians couldn’t track them to the wormhole. They had to take the long way, ensure their trail couldn’t be followed (they did say they had ways of doing that), and in general just… keep themselves safe. If the Fomorians could find them, they would. 

We exchanged details about how to contact each other, and I promised that someone would make sure to send information to Purin and his group of Meregan once the timeline caught up in a few years.

Then we were done. A mostly-healed Jophiel was released from the medical bay. With her in tow, everyone returned to the prototype ship, we said our final goodbyes (well, hopefully not final final), and boarded. The Roenier had helped patch the thing up as much as they could while we were waiting, and it was fairly spaceworthy again. 

So, we resumed our spots onboard, launched off the Roenier ship, then floated there in space watching as the fleet used their own version of hyperspace or warp speed or whatever (it wasn’t the same as the Seosten Slide-Drives, I knew that much) to rapidly vanish from sight. 

“Well,” Elisabet finally announced once our ship was alone there in the middle of empty space. “I suppose that means it’s time for me to die now, isn’t it?” 

“Don’t worry, it’s only temporary,” I pointed out. “Besides, being dead and having to hide will give you plenty of time to catch up on all the shows you’ve missed. Or books. Or games. How are you at JRPGs? The point is, you just spent months trapped on a Fomorian-infested desert world. So how bad could being quarantined in one place where you have all the entertainment you could possibly want be?” 

From the way she was squinting at me, the woman couldn’t figure out if I was kidding or not. Finally, she looked toward Jophiel. “I suppose you’re right. There are certainly worse fates. But please, I have waited a very long time, and survived through quite a lot to be able to say this. 

“Let’s go home.”

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Building Connections 16-06 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Hey guys, the non-canon chapters for this month came out! You can find the Summus Proelium chapter here and the Heretical Edge chapter here

There was a text waiting on my Touched phone the next morning, from an unknown number. Or rather, several texts. Apparently they were from the girl with the marbles, because the messages amounted to several bits rambling about how she hoped she had the right number and if she didn’t, it was really screwed up. Then some apologies about how she wasn’t saying I was screwed up, but that she had screwed up taking down the number or something. Then there was a bit about ignoring everything if I wasn’t the right person, followed by another one that finally let me know who she was by saying she was ‘the girl with the special marbles.’  

Only then, by about the sixth text (all sent in the span of about five minutes) did she finally say that she wanted to meet that afternoon. She told me to send back proof that the person she was sending these messages to was who I was supposed to be by sending back the answer to why she’d had to cut our meeting short before, then she would give me a location to meet her. 

Well, I could say this much for her. At least she had the right idea about being careful. Not perfect (and then, neither was I), but still. She had the spirit of things, well enough not to go blabbing important things over a phone before it was confirmed that the right person was getting them. Maybe we could do something with that, if I wanted to–

Damn it, Cassidy, no. Don’t go thinking of recruiting poor innocent girls who don’t have anything to do with this situation. She didn’t deserve to have to deal with this Ministry stuff at all. Getting her involved wasn’t fair. Not for anyone really, let alone someone as brand new to this as she was. 

And yet, what was the alternative? That question had already been brought up. Could I send her to the Minority, knowing what I knew? What if she was–what if they used her? What if–fuck. I wished there was an easy answer to this, but there wasn’t. There just wasn’t an easy answer to any of it. Because of course there wasn’t. When had there ever been an easy answer to anything since the moment I saw those people being killed? 

Actually, that thought brought something to mind. I still didn’t know who those people were. Clearly they were a threat to the Ministry, a big enough one to warrant sending Simon himself to execute them. No, even bigger than that, because my father had been there too. Simon had said that, the next night when I saw him with our dad as Silversmith. He’d said that Dad was there that night, I just hadn’t seen him. So who were those people? Who were the two people who had been executed in cold blood and were important enough for both Simon and our dad to be there to make sure it happened correctly? That felt like an important thing to look into, but how would I even do that? Yeah, speaking of impossible questions, there was that whole thing. 

After reading the messages and going through all that in my head while I sat in my bedroom that morning, I sent back the answer to the mystery marble girl. Specifically, that she’d had to leave because her mother would’ve locked her in the house for a year if she found out anything about her daughter being near what had happened. Then I asked if her mother found out anything anyway. It was a good, casual way of finding out how good this girl was at keeping her secrets. 

I didn’t see any immediate typing response, so I put the phone away and moved to take my shower before checking on Izzy. She was already up and ready to take her own by the time I came out, so I told the girl I’d wait for her and we could head downstairs together. While waiting, I checked the phone again. Still nothing. So I went back to my room and used the laptop there to try checking out any news stories about the thing at the shopping center the night before. 

Right, yeah, there was a lot about it. That whole event was basically frontpage news. While they didn’t have a lot of the specific details, the journalists had been able to piece together a general idea from the people who had been kept as hostages or prisoners. According to them, the Easy Eights under Juice showed up and would’ve burned down the whole place if Paintball hadn’t shown up with his new sidekick–wait. 

Yeah, that one made me do a double-take, sputtering as I almost fell backward off my desk chair. Sidekick?! What–why would–what did they–how did they even–

A knock at my door suddenly interrupted my brain bluescreen, and I quickly shut the laptop before jumping that way to open the door. “Yeah?” 

It was one of the cleaning ladies, who asked if I needed my room spruced up. She also let me know that my father had asked for my presence at one of his home offices before I went to school.  So, I thanked her and said she didn’t need to do anything with my room. Then I waited for Izzy to be out and dressed before both of us headed for the office, whispering to one another about what my father could possibly want. Not that we talked about anything important out in the public halls where someone could overhear, of course. Mostly we talked about whether it was something to do with school, or something else. We were trying to talk in a bit of code about extracurriculars, but I’m not sure either of us were that good at doing it on the fly yet. We really needed to come up with appropriate codewords to use in this sort of situation, ways of talking about things without giving anything away. I’d add that to the list of things to work on. And then collapse under the sheer weight of said list. 

Either way, eventually we made it to the office Dad was using. The door was closed, so I spoke the code for the intercom to connect into the room and announced that Izzy and I were there. After a very brief pause, the door clicked and Dad’s voice said we could come in. The two of us exchanged looks before stepping through into an office that was about the same size as my bedroom. So, pretty big. Most of the walls were taken up by various bookcases, which practically sagged under the weight of their contents. One window overlooked the grounds, next to a wooden door that would step out onto a patio. There was another door on the opposite side of the room that led to a full bathroom complete with its own whirlpool tub, while Dad’s very large, ornate wooden desk sat closer to that wooden patio door. 

“Well hey there, girls,” my father greeted us with a smile as we stepped in. He rose, waving a hand at a pile of folders and random papers that were spread across his desk. “Don’t suppose either of you would like to trade, so you can worry about all this financial mumbo-jumbo and I’ll go deal with your schoolwork?” Waggling his eyebrows briefly, he made a show of pausing to consider. “On second thought, I just remembered I’ve dealt with middle and high schoolers before. So I changed my mind, I’ll take predatory bankers, investment firms, and hungry shark lawyers over that. Actually, come to think of it, I might just take actual hungry sharks over that.” 

“Gee thanks, Dad,” I muttered, “you’re really making both of us super-eager to get to school.” 

With a chuckle, Dad waved that off. “Sorry, never mind that. Actually, I’m glad you two came together, since this involves both of you.” Meeting our gazes one at a time, he finally focused on me before explaining, “Your mother and I need to take a little trip, and Simon’s coming with us. Which means it’ll be the two of you here with just the house staff for… probably about a week. Do you think you girls can be okay with that?” 

Raising an eyebrow despite myself, I pointed out, “You know that still leaves like fifteen adults in the house at all times, right? And a full security system. I’m pretty sure we’re not about to burn the place down just because you guys aren’t here.” Belatedly, I added, “Where’re you going anyway?” Not that I expected a real, truthful answer, but it made sense for me to ask. 

“Just some work stuff, and your mother wants Simon to get his feet wet,” Dad informed me casually. “And believe me, I know how easy it is for you to get yourself in trouble, staff or no staff, little missy.” To Izzy, he added, “Don’t let her talk you into skateboarding off the roof or something.” 

“Oh come on, I only did that the one time,” I protested. “And there was a stunt airbag right there. I was fine.” 

“You may have been fine,” Dad noted, “but I seem to recall that your mother came out of the house just in time to see you sliding off the other end and didn’t know about the airbag.” 

Flushing a bit despite myself, I kicked at the floor and squirmed. “Yeah, she screamed pretty loud. And then she said a lot of words she doesn’t usually say, most of them in Italian.” 

“Yeah, so let’s not make your mother curse in Italian again, if we can help it.” 

Giving my father a thumbs up and promising not to do dumb things like that again, I added, “When are you guys going, anyway? Next week?” 

With a visible grimace, Dad shook his head. “This afternoon, actually. It’s kind of a last minute emergency set of meetings. Gotta talk some of our partners back off the ledge. Believe me, it’s all boring stuff. Boring, but important, and I have to say, you would be shocked how often those two things intersect in the adult world.” Adding a faint smile, he focused on Izzy. “You’ll be okay here? If you’d prefer to go with and wait in the hotel…” 

Izzy, of course, shook her head quickly. “It’s okay, Mr. Evans. I’ll stay with Cassidy and keep going to school. I mean, I just started, you know? Probably not a good thing to take off for a week.” 

“Fair point,” Dad agreed. “Anyway, we’ll be heading out about an hour after you’re out of school, Cassidy. So both of you come home so we can go over a few last minute things, okay?” 

Both of us agreed easily, before I gave my dad a brief hug when he made the motion for it. For a second I thought he was going to do the same for Izzy, but in the end he seemed to reconsider pushing that quickly, and simply squeezed her shoulder before sending us off with a warning not to be late for our ride to school.

Still, we didn’t go straight to breakfast. The two of us went to my room instead. Once we were safely locked up in there, I spoke in a lowered voice. “What do you think that’s all about?” 

“You mean why are they really going away?” Izzy murmured thoughtfully. “You don’t think they’re actually leaving the city, do you?” 

My head shook quickly. “Not on your–both of our lives. There’s too much going on right now. I think they need to focus on this gang war after the Eights just pulled that shit yesterday, so they’re giving an excuse not to be around the house playing normal, happy family for a few days. But if they’re taking Simon too, it must be really big.” 

Sitting down on the edge of my bed, Izzy gave a slow nod. Her voice was quiet. “Yeah, really big. That gang war’s escalating and affecting businesses.” After a momentary pause, she added a bit hesitantly, “I guess you can’t just go ask Blackjack to maybe tone it down a little? I mean, since you went through all that to save his daughter’s life. He does kinda, you know, owe you.”

Grimacing, I shook my head. “Believe me, I’ve thought about it. But I’m pretty sure he feels that he owes those guys pain and suffering for putting his daughter in danger more than he owes me for helping to get her out of it. If I asked him, he’d probably say something about how he owes me a lot, but he can’t let the other gangs get away with what they did or they’ll try that shit again. Or something like it. And how that would be putting his daughter and the rest of his people in even more danger by showing weakness, so as much as he’d love to cease hostilities, it would do more damage in the long-run. So is there any other way he can help me?”

Izzy stared at me for a moment before offering a very faint smile. “You’ve put a lot of thought into that, huh?”  

Snorting, I gestured, “I might’ve had a lot of time to consider it, yeah.” Then I sighed, looking away toward the window. “If I thought it’d do any good, I’d say something. But it wouldn’t. That’s his daughter, and those people put her in danger, could’ve killed her, just to try to weaken his position. He’s not going to back off and leave them alone now. I already convinced him not to take out his revenge on Ashton. There’s no way that’ll stretch to the rest of his enemies.” 

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” the other girl murmured thoughtfully before sighing. “This is gonna get worse before it gets better, isn’t it?” 

With a wince, I offered, “Maybe my family can get it under control before the whole city starts burning? And boy is that a weird thing to come out of my mouth. I mean, they’re bad, right? They’re bad. but in this case, the one thing they might be good for is stopping this from going too far. This gang war escalating too much has gotta be pretty bad for business, doesn’t it?” 

“That’s probably why they’re ‘leaving’ to focus on it,” Izzy agreed. “But if they really are gone, you know that gives you time to work on your plan about breaking into the mall without having to check in as much.” She brightened a bit. “And I can cover for you here with anyone else.” 

Staring at the other girl for a moment, I had to swallow back the lump in my throat. My hand rose to touch the side of her face before I knew what I was doing. “Thanks, Izzy,” I finally managed. “Seriously, I really… I don’t know what I’d be like right now if I didn’t have you to talk to. I was… I was getting pretty bad back there.” 

A moment of awkward silence passed between us, before we were both embracing. I wasn’t even sure which of us had started it. We hugged there on the bed, and I held the younger girl tightly, my voice soft. “There’s something else we can do while they’re gone too.” 

“There is?” she asked, pulling back a little to blink at me. 

I nodded firmly. “We can try to find out what happened to your mom. I mean, if you want to. I know–I know it’s probably a hard thing to… yeah. If you want closure or… or just to know where she went or if she…” This was awkward, and not at all how I’d intended the whole thing to go.

For her part, Izzy was quiet for a moment. Then she exhaled and gave a very slight nod. “I want to know the truth. What… whatever it is. I wanna know where my mom is.” 

Returning the nod, I promised, “We’ll find out. Whatever it takes, we’ll figure out where she went and what happened to her.” With that, I glanced over to the wall of clocks and winced. “But right now, we’ve gotta take a quick breakfast and get outside before Jefferson makes himself our new archenemy for being late.

“Cuz I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure we’ve got enough problems without adding an annoyed driver onto the pile.” 

********

In the end, I didn’t get a response from the mystery marble girl until lunch time. I was sitting in the cafeteria with Dani, Amber, Jae, Tomas, and San when it buzzed soundlessly in my pocket. San and Dani were going on about something that had to do with politics, so I tuned them out and carefully slipped the phone out to glance at it in my lap. The message said to meet her behind this old mattress store a few blocks away from where that whole thing had gone down last night. Which was fine. Unfortunately, she was asking to meet at the same time that Dad wanted Izzy and me to be home to tell them goodbye. 

So, I sent back a message asking to extend that to an hour and a half later, because of a ‘family thing.’ There was a brief pause before I saw the notification that she was typing. 

“Right, Cassie?” 

Wait, that was my name. Blinking up, I realized Amber was the one who had spoken, but they were all looking at me. “Uhhh…” I managed oh-so-eloquently. “What?” 

That prompted entirely too much snickering from everyone, before Tomas shook his head. “Sorry, you sorta walked right into a ‘Cassidy is so bored she’s tuning you out completely’ question.” With an easy, charming grin that made my heart flip over a few times, he added, “The point is, nobody wants to talk about the shite that’s going on with my country’s politicians, let alone yours.”

There was a general murmur of agreement, and the conversation moved slightly to what was going on with the Fell-Gangs who were at war. And boy could I have contributed to that one more than anyone understood. But, I bit my lip and forced myself to act like I knew as little as they did. 

Through that, the message from the marble girl came in. She was okay with waiting until then. So, I sent a confirmation before exhaling while putting my phone away. Today, I’d have my conversation with her, where she’d probably ask what she should be doing with her powers, what team she should join, where she should go, or whatever. 

And I still had no idea what I was going to say to her. 

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