Month: June 2021

Hostile Witness 18-03 (Summus Proelium)

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So yeah, apparently I was supposed to be attending a party where my dad was going to be giving a speech. Attending a party as Paintball, that was. I’d attended plenty of events where my dad was speaking when I was just myself, of course. But now I was supposed to sit there, play nice, and pretend I was totally oblivious while he went on some long spiel in front of a whole crowd. I couldn’t show any reaction to the things he would be saying. Worse, what if they asked me questions about it? What if they wanted to ask how the new young Star-Touched in Detroit felt about all the wonderful things the city’s richest family was doing to improve everyone’s lives?

I also couldn’t back out now. It would probably look a little suspicious if I had been okay with going to this thing right up until they mentioned my father’s name. Even if they didn’t have any connection to the Ministry, that would probably make them curious enough to poke around. And the last thing I wanted was anyone ‘poking around’ when it came to my family. Besides, just because they might not have a connection to the Ministry didn’t mean that anyone they asked about my reaction wouldn’t. Yeah, that whole thing could get really complicated, really fast. 

And there was more than that, of course. I wouldn’t be the only one there. So would Alloy,  assuming she agreed to go. For a brief second, I had actually considered just not sharing the invitation with her, to avoid that entire situation. But honestly, I’d seen way too many TV shows where someone had tried something like that and it backfired in their face the moment someone else asked the person why they’d refused the invitation they didn’t even know existed. Just because I couldn’t think of anyone right now who would say anything like that to her didn’t mean it wouldn’t happen. And the last thing I wanted to do was create some sort of trust problem between the two of us just because of a stupid mistake on my part. I had enough issues already. Enough things I wasn’t sharing. So yeah, I was going to have to tell the other girl about the invitation and probably deal with her being there too.  

Speaking of Peyton, it was finally time for me to go meet up with her, after catching a quick bit of dinner at a nearby Chinese place. I changed back into my civilian clothes to do that, of course. Fun as it might have been to be recognized and continue that whole ‘building public opinion of Paintball so my parents couldn’t easily tear it down’ thing, I needed a quiet place to think about what I was going to say to the girl who had thrown herself so thoroughly into being my partner. 

The restaurant had been just what I needed, at least as far as privacy went. I’d managed to get myself seated in a rear, quiet corner by saying I really needed to read for a school project while slipping the hostess a twenty dollar bill. From there, I ate some really good food and spent the next forty-five minutes trying to settle on exactly what I would tell Peyton when we met up.

Unfortunately, while the food was incredible, my brain wouldn’t cooperate. Even now, as I started to leave the restaurant and move toward the alley where I could change, I honestly had no idea what I was going to say, or how far I would go with my explanation. All I could do was play it by ear. At the very least, I would tell her about the Ministry, and in general terms how I had found out about them. But I kept going back and forth on whether I should reveal my identity to her. We were supposed to be friends and partners. Plus, some of that Band-Aid had already been torn off by the fact that Amber and Izzy knew about me. It felt somewhat easier to trust someone else with that. And yet, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I still barely knew Peyton. I wasn’t sure how she would react to this whole thing, so maybe it was better to just give her the general information about the Ministry and see how that went before telling her anything else? 

I was so involved with my own thoughts about that whole thing that I almost walked right into someone as I came out of the restaurant while they were starting to walk in. Only the fact that they blurted my name snapped me back to the real world in time to come up short. 

It was Arleigh Fosters. If Paige hadn’t existed, Arleigh would’ve been our school’s resident rich, hot blonde cheerleader type. Even though she wasn’t actually a cheerleader, she still had that same look and all. And the same stereotypical meanness. Not to mention racist, given the things I’d heard the girl say at school. All in all, Arleigh was not a pleasant person to be with. 

And yet, there was a pretty major difference between her and Paige in that she’d always been nice to me. She never insulted me, and always acted like we were… if not friends, at least friendly. Which kind of made me feel gross, to be honest. She tried to slide herself into my life whenever the chance arose, and basically laughed off any retort I made as though I was kidding. As horrible as she was to Jae (after deciding that the other girl had been trying to steal her now ex-boyfriend just because said boyfriend commented on Jae being cute), she was overly pleasant to me, because of who my family was. It was sickening. 

Actually, now that I knew more about the Paige situation, she and Arleigh really were opposites. Paige was a bitch to my face, but had been secretly trying to help because she cared about me while being incapable of showing it. Meanwhile, Arleigh was nice to my face because she wanted to have that connection to me–or rather, to my family. But she was obviously a nasty snake who didn’t give a shit about me or anyone who wasn’t herself. 

Sure enough, as soon as she saw me recognize her, the girl put on a bright smile. “I knew it was you. Hey there, Cassidy. I don’t think you’ve met my brothers, have you?” 

That made me notice the two guys on either side of the girl. The guy to her right was clearly older, probably around Simon’s age. He was also blond like Simon. But taller. He was several inches over six feet and very well-built. Almost distractingly so, damn. He looked movie-star nice. 

Meanwhile, the boy on the other side of Arleigh was… very different. About the only similarity connecting him to his siblings was the fact that he was blond. But, unlike their perfectly cared for thousand dollar haircuts, the mop atop this kid’s (he looked like he was twelve or thirteen) head was stringy and unkempt, sticking out every which way. He was skinny enough to almost look unhealthy, and wore glasses. Yeah, if he hadn’t been standing right there, and possibly if I hadn’t outright been told about their relation, I wouldn’t have connected this kid to Arleigh Fosters. 

The girl herself was gesturing back and forth between first the older guy, then the younger boy. “This is Micah and Errol. Guys, this is Cassidy Evans. She’s cool.” 

Oh boy was I ever so thrilled that someone like Arleigh thought I was cool. Or rather, claimed to think I was cool. I was going to rush right home and write in my diary about how the two of us could be best friends and go to college together and then have families living right next to each other. Because gee golly willickers, I definitely believed that she actually liked me.  

And yes, it took basically everything I had not to say that out loud. Not because I was worried about what the girl thought about me, but it was probably a bad idea to draw attention to myself. With everything that was going on, I didn’t want to give Arleigh any reason to focus on me any more than she already did. I just did not have the time or energy to deal with her when I had so many actual problems that mattered.

So, rather than allow myself the moment of catharsis that telling this girl exactly what I thought of her would give, I simply replied as flatly as possible, “Great to meet you guys, you’ve got good taste in restaurants, have a good time.” The words were mechanical, coming automatically just as they had any time my parents had dragged me to one of their special fundraisers or other functions where I had to play nice and be polite to people I really couldn’t care less about or be more bored by. Then, as now, I just wanted to say as little as possible before getting out of there. To that end, I attempted to simply slip past them and keep going. 

Unfortunately, Arleigh’s older brother, Micah, put a hand on my arm. His voice was casual, though his grip was tight in a way that made it clear that he wasn’t accustomed to being gentle. “Hey, your brother’s Simon, right? Where’s he been lately? We were supposed to have a game the other night with a bunch of guys, and he just sent some lame excuse about business or something. I was on a hot streak too, could’ve taken some of the weight out of his wallet.”  

Managing to pull my arm free from his grip, I shrugged. “Yeah, he and our parents went to New York for some kind of business thing. I don’t know anything else about it.” Glancing away to stare across the parking lot briefly before looking back, I added, “They don’t exactly keep me in the loop about all that stuff. All I know is they had to go. I think Dad’s involving Simon in business more so he can take an official position or something.” I was trying to keep everything I said as casual and uncaring as it would have been if I didn’t know the truth. I had to sound like a teenage girl who didn’t really care what her parents and brother were up to. 

Not that Micah really seemed to be paying attention to my tone. A snort escaped him at the explanation. “Yeah, sure, it doesn’t have anything to do with him wussing out of the game.” 

“Dude,” Arleigh retorted before I could respond, “the guy probably makes like a hundred k a month allowance or some shit. You really think he’s afraid of losing a few thousand to you in a card game?” She focused on me then, eyes rolling as though we were actually sharing some kind of moment in being annoyed by her brother. “He’s just pissy because Dad’s making him save up for a better car on his own. And his idea of ‘get a job’ is fleecing guys at poker.” 

“Hey, don’t mess with what works,” Micah shot back before giving his sister a ‘light’ shove that made her yelp a bit and stumble. Then he actually winked at me. “Speaking of which, how much do you know about cards? Actually, doesn’t really matter, I could totally teach you. You get an allowance from Mommy and Daddy Moneybags too, right? Could be a lot of fun.” He was practically waggling his eyebrows in a way that made me instinctively want to punch him. 

“Uh, no thanks.” I shook my head, starting to move around them once more. “I already said I’d meet somebody else. But good luck on your whole gambling thing, hope that works out for you.” 

“Hey, you girls.” Before I could leave, another voice called out. And good lord, what was with this restaurant doorway attracting people who knew me? 

When I looked toward the source of the voice, however, I realized that she might have known me, but I definitely didn’t know her. At least, I didn’t think I did. She was fairly tall, at just a couple inches under six feet, with light brown hair pulled into a loose ponytail. Definitely pretty in a tomboy sort of way, and I was gonna guess she was in her late twenties. She also moved very… smoothly, like a dancer gliding across the pavement. 

“Oh my God, dude,” Arleigh groaned as the woman approached, “I told you, I don’t know where she is.” 

“Don’t know where who is?” I asked, looking back and forth between them. 

“Just checking to make sure you didn’t hear from her,” the woman calmly informed Arleigh, though there was a slight edge to that calmness that told me it could vanish in an instant. Then she turned her attention to me. “Sorry, I’ve got you at a disadvantage. You’re Cassidy Evans. I’m Irelyn. Irelyn Banners. And I’m looking for my sister, Paige.” 

Okay, that made me abruptly choke, my eyes widening despite myself. “Wha-what? Paige doesn’t have a sister.” Wait, was this a trap? Was this that son of a bitch launching a secret attack? Was–

“You might call me the black sheep of the family,” Irelyn replied with a wince. “And from that reaction, I’d say everything I’ve heard about how you and Paige get along was accurate. Sorry, I really don’t know what her deal is. I just–” She exhaled. “I don’t exactly spend a lot of time with her. Never have, since our parents adopted her after I ahhh… left. But I tried to take her out for her birthday and she never picked up the phone. Never responded to texts or e-mails. And she’s not home. The school says our parents took her on a trip, but no one knows where exactly, and there’s no one… actually at the house.” She squinted at me, as though wondering if I had answers. “It’s like they all just disappeared. And no one is answering any calls. The last time anyone saw her, or our parents, for sure was her birthday party.”

Ooookay, this I really didn’t expect. Mentally reeling while trying to hide it, I blinked a few times at all that as if it was new information. “Uhh, really? Maybe it was a uhh, you know, surprise trip to one of those remote places.” 

“Dad doesn’t go offline,” the woman flatly informed me. 

“Yeah, well, we don’t know where she is, dude.” That was Arleigh, putting a hand on my shoulder. “If we did, we’d tell you, okay? Why don’t you go tell the cops or one of the Touched teams about your missing sister? I’m sure they’ll get right on it.” 

Swallowing the thick lump in my throat, I managed, “Do you have a phone number? I mean, can I have your phone number. If I hear anything…” Boy was I going to let Paige have it for not mentioning that she might have a secret big sister poking around wondering where she was. 

Irelyn gave me the number, and I made a note of it before promising to let her know if I heard anything at all about Paige. Meanwhile, Arleigh started to say something else about school, but I was already starting across the sidewalk to the parking lot. On the way, once I was almost to the asphalt, I glanced back to see that Irelyn had gone into the restaurant already. Which left Arleigh and her older brother having a quiet, yet intense-looking whispered conversation in the doorway. Meanwhile, the younger boy was looking at me, just as silent as he had been throughout all that. What was his name? Errol? Yeah, that was it. Like Errol Flynn. But boy did he not seem anything like what I’d heard about that old actor guy. This Errol had been completely quiet through the entire interaction, essentially a fly on the wall while his siblings bulldozed over the whole conversation. Briefly, I wondered how often they completely forgot he was there. 

Right, it didn’t really matter. I had nothing to do with their family dynamics. So, I mentally shrugged that off and kept going. The next time I glanced back, they were gone. Presumably, they’d finally stepped into the restaurant. So, I pushed those thoughts aside and jogged away. Paige had an older sister. How had I never known that? How did she just fail to bring it up? What kind of trouble was this going to be? 

Shoving those thoughts away, I moved over to the alley to change back to my costume, keeping an eye out for anyone paying too much attention to the young teenager slipping off the main street. It was all clear, so I found my hidden spot and changed, sliding my regular, everyday clothes into my backpack. 

From there, I took a running start and red-painted myself up to the roof of another building, giving a loud whoop on the way. Of course, out here, my aim was perfect. I hit the exact part of the roof I’d been trying for. Yeah, there was definitely an aspect of my power that I didn’t understand. Maybe more than one. I had that really good aim, but I was also able to navigate through that dark forest perfectly. And, now that I thought about it, the whole navigation thing affected more than the dark. Could a normal, regular person instinctively find and land on the exact parts of a building, billboard, or even telephone or light pole as easily as I did while racing my way across the city? I hadn’t really focused on that too much before, but seriously. I did this stuff instinctively, as though I’d done it for years. I just reflexively knew how to twist my body to land where I wanted to. Not completely perfectly, of course. But still. It had to be more than simple luck. Especially now that I’d seen how things worked in the virtual reality world. I definitely had some sort of extra mental power that was helping me out with all that. I really needed to test that, see what its limits were and what else I could do with it. 

And hey, now that both Izzy and Amber were on board with this whole thing and knew my secrets, they could help with all that. Especially Amber, come to think of it. She had her own extra navigation mental power, after all. She always knew what compass direction she was facing. So, maybe she could help me figure out how my whole thing worked. Huh, it turned out there were benefits to actually sharing important information with people, who knew? 

In any case, I eventually made it to the parking lot behind a clothing store that was being renovated. This was where I was supposed to meet Peyton, and sure enough, there she was. I landed on the edge of a roof nearby and took a look around first to make sure no one was spying on her. Once I was assured that the coast was clear, I jumped off the roof and used orange paint on my boots to land smoothly a few feet away. 

“Hey, Paintball!” Pivoting my way as I landed, Peyton waved. She was wearing the marble-costume I’d seen that first night, the more knight-like gold and black armor with a white helmet, while the remaining three marbles lazily orbited around her head. “Didja trip over any more huge life-threatening dramatic problems on your way over here?” 

Flushing a little behind the helmet, I waved that off. “Haha, you’re hilarious. And you better hope I didn’t, because me not being super-busy for two seconds is your best chance to actually get some answers about what’s going on.” Sobering slightly then, I mentioned in slightly vague terms about how I’d heard that Paige apparently had a sister no one knew about, who was looking for her.

“Dude, a secret sister–wait, is she part robot too?” Peyton demanded. 

“Not as far as I know,” I murmured thoughtfully before waving it off. “No, no I don’t think so. Anyway, the point is, it’s something else to deal with. But what about you? Are you okay? Everything’s cool between you and your mom?” Her mother was obviously pretty protective, and the last thing I wanted to do was get the other girl in trouble just for helping with my stuff.

Peyton, in turn, shrugged. “It’s okay. But don’t change the subject. You promised you would tell me what’s actually going on around here. I mean, I know it’s gotta be something big just from what I picked up so far, but I need you to fill in the blanks so I can kick my imagination out of the driver’s seat. Cuz quite frankly, it’s trying to take the car off a cliff right now.” 

Yeah, she was definitely nervous about this whole thing. For a brief moment, I wondered if telling her all of this stuff was actually the right thing to do. She was already anxious, and knowing the truth probably wouldn’t fix that. But then, she deserved to know. She’d earned that, and it wasn’t my place to keep her in the dark just because I thought it was for her own good. Much as I often lamented knowing what I did about my family, I wouldn’t want to go back to being in the dark. Not really. And I certainly wouldn’t want someone else to make the decision for me. 

So, taking a breath, I looked around before noticing some cement steps nearby that led up to the back of the store. Beckoning for her to follow, I walked that way and sat down. Once Peyton dropped beside me, I looked out at the lot and began to tell her at least some of the truth. I kept details about my family and my identity out of it for the time being, but gave her a basic rundown of how I’d first encountered the Ministry, what they were and how they worked as far as I could tell. Instead of saying that I’d seen my brother at the mall and followed him in to hear him talk about that whole thing with criminals paying for the right to operate in the city, I just told her I recognized the man from that first night. 

I did feel bad about not telling her the full truth and basically lying by omission, but this was a lot to dump on her already as it was. Once I knew how she would react to this whole thing, I’d get into more details. Assuming this actually worked out, of course. 

“There’s more,” I told her flatly once that was done. “I mean, I’ve sort of skirted around some details. I won’t lie to you about that. There’s a few specifics, even important specifics, that I didn’t mention. It’s just… it’s a lot. I don’t want to lie to you or anything. There’s things I’m not going to tell you yet. Sorry, I really am. I just… I can’t get into that stuff right now. But everything I have told you is the truth. That’s what the Ministry is, and they’re why I’m not joining any teams. They have their fingers in everything, every team on both sides. They control the city.” 

Peyton was silent for a minute, clearly digesting all that. She rocked back and forth there on the step while the three extra marbles went still and motionless around her head, as if they too were thinking about that whole thing. Finally, the girl looked over to me. “So, they do good things and bad things. I mean, yeah, they let a lot of crime happen. But crime’s gonna happen everywhere, no matter what. And look at how much better Detroit’s doing than it was before Touched came along. I had to do a history report about this place in the 90’s, and it wasn’t pretty, Paintball. My mom even showed me some pictures from back then, and the city was… you know, pretty bad. When powers came, this place could’ve turned into a complete warzone. I’ve seen like, journalist people pointing out how easily things could’ve gotten worse instead of better. If this Ministry had anything to do with directing things this long, they can’t be all totally bad, you know?” 

Meeting her gaze, I replied, “Yeah. It’s complicated, I know. They’ve done some good things, and probably even stopped a lot of much worse stuff from happening. But they also kill people. They do bad things too. I just–you know, I have to find out just how much power they have and what they’ve done to consolidate it. They’re the most powerful group in town, and even if they have some good intentions, there’s no one to stop them from going too far.” 

After considering that briefly, Peyton nodded. “Yeah, you’re right. And either way, I’m with you. Seriously, Paintball, you saved me, more than once. And I like working with you. That whole thing in that VR place, that was crazy, but it was also like… the best?” She exhaled. “I know it’s dangerous and terrifying and all that. All of this is. And my mom would kill me if she knew I was anywhere near this stuff. But I wanna be here. I want to help. Just–maybe think about the good stuff these Ministry people have done too. I swear, I’m not ignoring the murder stuff. I’m not. But maybe they can be… you know, fixed?” She added the last bit with a helpless shrug. 

“I dunno,” I murmured. “But at the very least, we’re gonna find out more about them when we break into that secret mall base.” 

“You actually have a plan for that?” the other girl pressed. 

Offering a smile that she wouldn’t be able to see, I cheerfully replied, “Sure do. 

“How do you feel about tunnels?”

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Interlude 13B – Vanessa (Heretical Edge 2)

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Two Weeks Ago

When they approached, Vanessa was studying in one of the starstation’s many greenhouses. It was peaceful and smelled really nice in there, with dozens of various examples of exotic plant life, from Earth and many other places, surrounding the table she had set herself up at. With the wide assortment of books (of both the physical and digital sort) arranged in front of her along with a bottle of water, the blonde girl had everything she wanted at that particular moment. Peace, safety, quiet, and the opportunity to learn things she didn’t already know. 

She wasn’t actually studying for any particular class by that point, of course. Vanessa was already over a full semester ahead in her actual school work, the various assignments as detailed in the course study guides meticulously organized through several color-coded binders back in her room, waiting to be handed in when the appropriate time finally came.  

Some might ask the girl what she would do in the case that one of the teachers significantly changed a particular homework assignment, rendering her earlier work useless. To which, she would have informed them that doing work which helped her learn was never useless. And also that she would be quite happy to get another assignment she could work on. Doing one assignment to prove she knew the material was fine enough on its own, but the opportunity to do another one weeks later simply to reassure everyone involved (including herself) that the lesson had truly stuck? In what reality would that be something negative? 

Tristan called her weird for things like that, but Vanessa didn’t care. He was her brother and always would be. She knew he loved her, even if they disagreed on things like this. They may have both now had the same perfect memory, but Tristan didn’t particularly care to utilize his to its full extent. The boy was happy just knowing enough to pass his classes before getting on with what he considered far more important things. But to Vanessa, nothing was more important than knowledge. Facts, figures, numbers, names, spells, truth, both good and bad, were all important things. They were all sources of power. Knowing the right thing at the right time could save her family, or other people. She had previously dedicated herself to studying in order to find them. Now that they were here, her devotion to knowledge was about protecting them. 

So, it was there, at the table in the greenhouse, that Vanessa was sitting when a group of people approached. She heard them making their way along the path, even as one of the powers she had picked up allowed her to sense the exact number of skeletons entering her space. Four. Four skeletons, all human-ish in size and shape. Pulled from her studying by the realization that they were deliberately approaching rather than walking past, Vanessa looked up and turned to see who it was. She expected to find her brother and friends. Instead, her gaze found unfamiliar figures. They were obviously Seosten. Well, that or a teen drama full of ridiculously good-looking supermodel ‘students’ was being filmed, and she was pretty sure the people in charge up here had more important things to focus on. 

Two of the approaching Seosten were male, the other two female. All four appeared to be a couple years younger than Vanessa, which of course meant they could have been anywhere from actually that age, up to their thirties or so. The two guys both had dark hair, one a shade lighter than the other. The one with lighter hair had quite dark skin, while the one with darker hair was the taller of the two and appeared to be caucasian. The two girls were both white as well, one with dark blonde, almost brown hair and a deep tan, while the other girl had red hair worn quite short, and was wearing a pair of pitch-black sunglasses. 

“Hello?” Vanessa greeted the quartet uncertainly, eyes moving back and forth between them. 

“Hi!” the girl with the sunglasses raised a hand in greeting, her voice cheerful. “Sorry, we haven’t met, but uhh, you’re Vanessa, right? Vanessa Moon?” Her hand rose as the girl used her index finger to pull down the bridge of her glasses so she could meet the other girl’s gaze with her own sea-green eyes. “Daughter of Sariel the Olympian and Haiden the Bane.”

At first, Vanessa started to reflexively nod. Then she blinked, squinting that way. “The Bane?” 

The black boy spoke up with a cough. “Ah, yeah, sorry. That’s sort of what our people call him. You know, after he spent like ten years in our space running all over, destroying, breaking, killing–” In mid-sentence, the boy blanched. “Sorry, that kind of sounds like we blame him.” 

“We don’t,” the second girl, the one with blonde-brown hair, put in. “I mean, we’d probably do the same thing if it meant getting back to the people we care about, you know?” 

“He was just so… ahhh…. effective?” the caucasian boy offered. “Yeah, so effective that people started calling him The Bane, and it stuck. You know, like, ‘The Bane hit Teverith Station last week,’ things like that. It started when they didn’t know, or care about, his name, and stuck.” 

“He has other names,” the red-haired girl informed her. “But a lot of them are pretty impolite.” 

“Hey, I know!” the Seosten boy with dark-skin quickly announced, with obviously exaggerated excitement. “How about we all just start over and introduce ourselves this time instead of making everything super awkward? Sound good? Good.”  With that, he extended a hand toward Vanessa. “Hey there. My name is Desenei, and this is Nithae, Hansurei, and Batreth.” With each name in order, he indicated the red-haired girl, the blonde girl, and the other guy. 

“Um, good to meet you,” Vanessa replied politely, shifting around in her seat to face them properly. She still wasn’t sure what was going on here, but it was clear they weren’t just walking past, so she didn’t want to be rude, no matter how tempting it was to go back to her book. It was a really interesting book, after all. But everyone in her life had made it perfectly clear that ignoring people who were trying to talk to you just to keep reading was a bad thing. 

Batreth, the other guy, offered Vanessa a smile. “Right, you were in the middle of something, and interrupting is rude. Sorry about that, really. We just wanted to introduce ourselves and ask if you wanted to come see a movie with us later. And uhh, it’d be great if you said yes, cuz we need all the help we can get.” 

Nithae, the red-haired girl, quickly spoke up then. “What he means is that we’re supposed to be learning more about humans and their culture. So we have a list of Earth movies to watch, and we were hoping that you could help… explain some of the things we don’t get.” 

Taken a bit aback by the request, Vanessa hesitantly pointed out, “Are you sure you don’t want to take my brother instead? He’s probably better for that sort of thing.” 

The Seosten, however, disagreed and insisted she was the one they wanted to go with. So, Vanessa finally agreed. They promised to pick her up by her house in the living quarters in a few hours, and asked that she not eat yet, because they were planning on making a full thing of it. 

After watching them head off, Vanessa glanced down at the nearby flowers. There were several thoughts running through her mind, mostly focused on why on Earth they wanted to get her help understanding Earth culture and traditions rather than Tristan’s. Did they think he didn’t know as much because he’d spent so long out in space? That had to be it, right? 

In that case, boy were they going to be disappointed when it came to which twin they thought was more in touch with Bystander society. 

******

As it turned out, the entire group didn’t show up at the house. Instead, when Vanessa opened the door several hours later, only Desenei was standing there. He had dressed up in crisp black slacks and a dark red silk shirt. When she saw that, Vanessa blanched. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize this was something formal.” She herself was only wearing (mostly clean) jeans and a hoodie. “Uh, I can go change into something better.” 

Desenei, however, shook his head. “No, it’s okay, don’t worry about it. I’m only dressed like this because we were just at an evaluation with Athena, to check on how we’re doing. The others are setting up the projector, that’s why I’m the only one here.” He offered her a wink. “I’m great at a lot of things, but put me near anything technical and either it, or me, is going to blow up. Maybe both. And that would be a damn shame.” His smile was broad. “After all, have you seen me? I’m adorable.” 

“Oh good,” Vanessa retorted, “I was starting to think you weren’t really a Seosten. But there’s the ego.” 

The boy laughed. “Yeah, we deserve that, I guess. Okay, we definitely deserve it. That and a lot more. It’s just… you know, the way our culture works. We’re all just a little bit… extra and proud of it. Really proud. It’s kind of a thing with us.” 

“At least you’re self-aware about it,” Vanessa pointed out, before squinting. “Why are you so self-aware about it?” 

With a shrug, the boy replied, “I didn’t used to be, believe me. I was a real… garbage person. Thought our people were the best thing to ever happen to the universe, and that I was one of the best of those. The best among the best. Gold standard Seosten. Which, I guess I really was, as far as being arrogant goes.” After a brief consideration, he shook his head. “Anyway, I was on my first combat mission about two years ago, flying a fighter. Our squad was chasing down these slaves who ahh, escaped on a freighter ship. We were about to disable them when some of Athena’s people showed up. There was a… I think you call it a birdfight?” 

“Dogfight,” Vanessa corrected. 

“But dogs don’t even fl–I’m very confused.” Shaking that off, Desenei gestured. “But sure, there was a flying dogfight and some of us got shot down before Athena’s people pulled us in and took us prisoner. That’s me and the other three you met today. Well, there were six of us, but the other two didn’t… really end up getting along with the whole program.” He sighed. “So they sent them away, back to the Empire. But the four of us, we decided to stay. We were… curious about things after those first few weeks. So we stuck around. It was very… bumpy for awhile. Still is sometimes. But we’re working on it.” 

“Is that why you wanted me to help you learn from these movies you found?” Vanessa curiously asked. “Because you think me being half-Seosten and raised on Earth would be useful? Because I really don’t know anything about the Seosten parts of me, and I don’t know that much more about human things. Believe me, I am not the best representative of human culture. I’m pretty sure you could teach me some things about that by now.” 

With an easy laugh, Desenei shook his head. “Nah, it’s–okay, little confession to make. I thought you were a full Seosten before. I mean, before I knew who you were. I sort of saw you from a distance a few times and thought you were one of the Seosten who grew up with Athena’s people. I was actually asking the others how they thought I should approach you when Batreth told me who you were. Then we figured… like you said, you probably don’t know much about our people, so maybe we could help you learn. But coming right out and saying, ‘hey, let us teach you about the culture of the species that makes up half your DNA’ sounds pretty awkward at the best of times, let alone when that species has treated the other half of your DNA like… uhh, well, the way we have.” He offered an awkward shrug. “I don’t think I was supposed to say that part out loud yet. It was just supposed to be like a… you know, back and forth. We teach you some Seosten things, you teach us whatever you want about humans. We were afraid that if we came out and said we wanted to teach you about Seosten stuff, you might just refuse because of how bad your family was treated. But there’s a lot more to our people than that.” 

That was a lot to take in, but Vanessa found herself focusing on one thing in particular. “Wait, you said you were planning how to approach before you even knew who I was. Why would you need to talk to me at all before you knew anything about me?” 

“Oh, that?” Desenei grinned. “Because I wanted to ask you out on a date.” 

Okay, now she was really taken aback. Rocking backward on her heels, Vanessa fought to find her voice. “And–but–and now you don’t, because you know I’m not a real Seosten.” Despite herself, she could hear the accusation in her own voice. 

The boy, however, just shook his head. “Nah, nothing like that. But the thing is, when I found out who you were, I realized you’re a complete stranger, like… in every possible way. If I did ask you out, it’d only be because you’re attractive. Which, don’t get me wrong, you are very attractive. But I don’t know anything about you. This way, we can just hang out in a group, teach you about our people while you teach us about humans. And I can get to know you. 

Then I’ll ask you out.” With that, he pivoted on his heel and started to walk. “We should probably go though, the others are waiting.” 

Watching him start off, Vanessa swallowed hard. An apprehensive expression crossed her face. He wanted to get to know her? He thought that if he did that, he’d want to ask her out. But that was the whole problem. 

If he did get to know her, he’d realize what a very bad idea that was. 

*******

Present Day 

Soooooomebody’s sleeping on my couch.” The teasing words came from Uncle Apollo, as the man descended the stairs that led up to the loft where his bed was in his Starstation apartment. Obviously unsurprised to find Vanessa laying there, given how often his nieces and nephew came to visit, the man started to continue into the kitchen. “You hungry, kid? I think I…” 

He trailed off then, from a single sound which interrupted his words. A small, almost inaudible sniff. Only then did Apollo turn more toward the couch to see the huddled form there, her back to him as she faced the cushions. Then it came again, a very slight, quiet sniff, as he saw her shoulders shudder just a little. 

“Nessa?” After a brief hesitation, the man stepped over that way. He gently reached down, fingers brushing the girl’s shoulder, all teasing and casual cheer gone from his voice. “Vanessa, are you okay?” 

She didn’t respond at first, remaining silent and almost entirely motionless save for that almost imperceptible shudder that ran through her body. Then he heard her swallow hard before slowly turning to look at him. Her eyes were bloodshot, the remains of tears staining her face. She had been like this for awhile. 

“Uncle Apollo,” she managed in a voice that audibly cracked as she forced the terrible words to come. “I… think there’s something wrong with me.” 

“What?” Blinking, Apollo went down to one knee, his hand remaining where it was on the girl’s shoulder. “Vanessa, what happened? Do you want me to get your mother?” 

“No!” she quickly blurted, the terror of what her mom would think bringing new tears to her eyes. “No, no, don’t… please. I just… I have to talk to someone who might be able to help or know more than me. You’re a Seosten and you know things. You were a scientist. So was Mom, but I can’t talk to her. I can’t ask her. If–if I’m broken, I can’t ask her.” 

“Vanessa, you–” Stopping himself, Apollo paused, clearly considering his words. “Why do you think there’s something wrong with you?” 

Her mouth opened, but no words would come out. A thick lump had formed in her throat. God. She thought it would be easier with Apollo, after everything. At least he wasn’t her mother. The thought of seeing how disappointed her mom would be, how… how much she would blame herself, it made Vanessa want to curl right back into a ball. But she couldn’t. She had to explain, or try to. Maybe Apollo would have an idea. Maybe he could help. 

So, over the next few minutes, she explained about Desenei and the other Seosten, and how they had met up a few times over the past couple weeks whenever she wasn’t busy with other things. She told him about how interesting it was to learn about the Seosten from their point of view, and how they were genuinely interested in hearing what she thought. 

“Sounds good so far,” Apollo carefully noted, his hand gently brushing her hair. “What went wrong? Do I need to go swat a few Seosten heads?”

“No.” Vanessa’s voice sounded hollow even to hear own ears. “They didn’t do anything wrong. He… didn’t do anything bad. He’s fine. He–it’s… me. I…” She trailed off once more, going silent for a few long moments. She shouldn’t have come here. This was dumb. She was making her problems into Apollo’s. She couldn’t–

As though reading her mind, Apollo quietly urged, “Vanessa, it’s okay to talk to me. It’s just you and me here. What happened?” 

After a brief hesitation, the girl slowly spoke. “My birthday is tomorrow. Tristan’s and mine, I mean. We’re nineteen. We’re nineteen years old, Uncle Apollo. I’ve been an adult for a year. In another year, I’ll be twenty.”

She went silent for a few seconds, but Apollo didn’t speak up. He was quiet, simply watching what the girl was doing and giving her time to gather herself until she finally continued. 

“Everything with Desenei was… fine. I like him. I like spending time with him. I like his stories. I like that he… he likes me. I want more of that. But…” Once more, she was silent, the confusion and shame of what was right on the tip of her tongue making it so hard to actually say. It took the girl another long minute before she managed to push out the words, briefly repeating herself. 

“I’m nineteen years old, and I’ve never… I–” She swallowed the thick, ball-like lump in her throat. “I’ve never felt… physically… I…” Sitting up abruptly, Vanessa pushed herself to the corner of the couch and drew her knees to her chest, arms wrapped around them so she could huddle there, staring at the man. “I’ve never been sexually attracted to anyone, Uncle Apollo. No one. Ever. Not a boy, not a girl, no one. I know what it should feel like, I know what– I’ve looked it up. I’ve asked people, I’ve read about it, heard about it, I know what it is. Academically, I know everything about it. I know what it should be like.” Her head shook slowly. “But I never felt it. I thought maybe when I got to know Desenei, I’d like him. And I do. I really like him a lot. I like being around him. I like talking to him. Last night he… he kissed me. And it was okay. I mean, I sort of liked just the… the ummm… touch. I liked when our lips touched. But that was it. I didn’t like… anything more than just lips touching. I didn’t… I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t want anything else.” The tears were back, her eyes closing as she couldn’t bear to look at the man. “I like spending time with him. He makes me happy. I even like hugging and really simple, normal touch kissing. No tongue, no… nothing else. He’s the closest person I’ve ever gotten to for that and… and I still don’t feel anything.” Her voice cracked, sounding like it was breaking apart. “Before I found Tristan, I used to think maybe it had to do with being half-Seosten. But he’s half too. He’s my twin, we’re the exact same age and both half-Seosten, but he feels that stuff all the time and has for years. And I asked some of the other Seosten, they said that it kicks in around the same time for them as it does for humans. It’s not the hybrid thing. It’s not the Seosten thing. It’s me. I’m the problem. 

“I’m nineteen years old and I’ve never felt any sexual attraction to anyone. And now… now I don’t think I ever will.”

After a brief moment, Apollo rose from his crouch and turned to sit on the couch next to her. Putting one arm around the girl, he half-embraced her before speaking quietly. “Vanessa, first of all, there is nothing wrong with you. Being different isn’t wrong. Whatever you feel or don’t feel, none of it is wrong. You have blonde hair, some have brown. You have white skin, some have different shades. You’re female in sex and gender. Some are female in sex and male in gender. Some are both at the same time. None of them are wrong, and neither are you.”

“But I…” Vanessa gave a heavy shudder, shifting a bit closer, her voice quiet. “I want to be with someone. I want to hold someone. I want to be close. I like… feeling that. I like him, just like that. I just… I never… I can’t… feel that. It’s like I’m empty there. How can I feel drawn to him, to anyone, one way but not the other? How can I like someone as much as I do, but not even feel the slightest hint of sexual attraction? It’s just not there, Uncle Apollo. I tried. I really tried to feel it, but there’s nothing, nothing. How can you say there’s not something wrong with me when I want the one part, but not the other? It’s just… it’s selfish and wrong and–” 

“No.” Apollo’s head shook. “Vanessa, absolutely not. There is nothing selfish about how you feel. Someone who is sexually attracted to girls isn’t selfish for not being attracted to boys. And you are not selfish for not being attracted to any of them. Listen to me, okay? What you’re describing is being asexual. I know you’ve heard that term, but you probably shied away from it because you were afraid of what it might say, right?” When she gave a silent nod, he continued. “You want to know why you could enjoy being with someone, like spending time with them, hugging, even some level of kissing, why you could even want to have a close partner like that, but not feel any sexual attraction? Because you’re not aromantic, Vanessa. You can be asexual and still want romance, still want someone to share your life with. You can still love people, just as much as anyone else. Asexual doesn’t mean you’re a robot, it doesn’t mean you don’t have emotions or feelings. It means that you do not feel sexual attraction. That’s it. And there is nothing wrong with that. Not one void-damned thing. It doesn’t make you any more ‘wrong’ than your blonde hair or your height or your eyes or your skin color.” 

“But…” Vanessa shifted a little, looking up to the man as she huddled against him. “What if Desenei leaves because he wants what I can’t–what I don’t?” 

“I can’t say he won’t,” Apollo admitted. “And that doesn’t make him a monster either. People need to be with those who make them happy, people they are compatible with. And if he can’t be compatible with you, that’s sad. But you will find someone who is compatible with you. It might be him, it might be someone else. But whoever it is and however long it takes to find them, you never hide who you are. You never pretend to feel things you don’t feel. Because you are brilliant, in every way. And you deserve to be happy, Vanessa. That means being who you are, every part of who you are, and finding someone who loves you for all of it. You don’t settle, and you don’t pretend to be something you’re not.”

Vanessa was silent for a few seconds, the flood of emotions making it hard to even try to find words. Finally, she settled on, “I love you, Uncle Apollo.” 

His arm tugged her closer, hugging his niece. “I love you too, Nessa.” 

Another moment passed, before she lowered her head and nuzzled up against his shoulder. “Can we sit here for a little while?” 

“Yeah, kid,” came the quiet response. 

“We’ll sit here for as long as you like.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Hostile Witness 18-02 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Going to classes with Amber that day was weird, after everything I knew now. But then, it was obviously weird for her too. I kept seeing her glance over at me, catching me looking at her. Not that we actually said that much to each other all day long. And when we did talk, it was while Jae was around at lunch. So we didn’t exactly get into anything important. Which was just as well. Talking about secret stuff at school was probably a bad idea anyway. We had to be careful. 

We did, at least, take a couple of minutes out in the yard behind the school between classes to have a quick conversation about what was going on. Apparently she had already talked to Pack, and we were going to deal with that whole Amanda situation tomorrow. I wanted to hope it would be a simple in and out thing where we got her to tell us what she knew, but I wasn’t counting on it. We were going to have a plan just in case everything went sideways. After all, when it came to anything involving Pencil and the Scions, it was almost certainly best just to assume that things were going to end with screaming, terror, and probably a lot of fire. And that was probably if things were going relatively well. 

I also exchanged a few texts on my second phone with Peyton herself, setting up a time to meet up and talk. She couldn’t do anything immediately after school, thanks to some sort of plans with her mother that she couldn’t get out of. Not that I would have wanted her to try anyway. She needed to make things seem as normal as possible for the clearly very protective woman. 

So, we were going to meet up around eight in the evening instead. The next day was Saturday, so there wouldn’t be as much of a push for her to be home early. We could find a private place and… and talk. Yeah, I wasn’t going to give her my full identity just yet. But she deserved to know the truth about the Ministry, and about why I couldn’t let myself join up with any of the established teams. She deserved to know what we were dealing with, and to decide if she wanted to back off entirely. She still had that choice. Peyton could just walk away from this whole thing without too much trouble. 

Yet, I found myself hoping she didn’t. Yeah, it was selfish, but I couldn’t help it. Just the fact that she had been right there watching my back inside that whole computer simulation thing had helped a lot. Yeah, Pack and That-A-Way had been there too, and that was even more helpful. But Peyton was… Peyton was a partner. I barely knew her, yet what I did know was that she was really brave, not to mention competent. It was… it was good to have her around. 

Still, if finding out the full truth, or at least as much as I could tell her, about the Ministry made her want to jump out of the pool and walk away, I wasn’t going to stop her. I wouldn’t try to talk her out of it. Mostly because if I had been in her situation, I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t want to walk away from the whole thing. It was a hell of a lot to deal with. This was my family, my problem. I had to be involved. She didn’t. She could be safe. So if she wanted out, she deserved that much. 

Either way, I would deal with all that later, after actually telling the girl what was going on. For the moment, it was the end of the school day and I had something else to deal with. Namely, going over to the Seraph place so I could actually finish up my chores there. After all, it was probably a good idea for me to get that done before they decided I was trying to skip out on the work. I wasn’t sure what they’d do if they had to chase me down and get more stern about it, but it was a situation I wanted to avoid in general. 

Still, I didn’t go straight over there. Instead, I took the ride home with Jefferson and Izzy, spending about an hour there to make things look as normal as possible. Also, homework. Yeah, I still had that to deal with too. I was pretty sure my parents would have a few questions if I started getting straight F’s in all my classes. It wouldn’t do much to help me keep my extracurricular activities secret. So I spent an hour doing as much of that as I could, setting a little bit aside to cram on later that night before bed. Then I called my mother as Jefferson had said she wanted, having a conversation with her about how school went, what I was planning to do that night (at least, the version I was willing to tell her), and about what they were doing (at least, the version she was willing to tell me). Yeah, we were a completely normal family, alright. 

Once that little charade was over with, I took the time to have a little snack in the dining room with Izzy, the two of us chatting about utterly meaningless stuff to give the impression we had nothing better to worry about. Yeah, another charade. If I’d had any spare time, I might’ve signed up for the drama club, because I was getting to be a pretty good little actress. 

Finally, I made a point of telling Izzy, within earshot of a couple housecleaners passing by, that I was going out with a few friends and would be back in a few hours. We made a show of making sure she would text me if she needed anything, before I headed out. Of course Izzy knew what I was really doing, but we had to cover our bases in case (okay, when) my parents asked the staff what the two of us had been up to while they were gone.

Taking an Uber to a small strip mall that was about a mile from the Seraph headquarters,  I stopped in a nearby alley behind one of the shops and changed into my costume. From there, I painted my way across the remaining distance, taking the time to wave at a few people who called out when I was passing by. I even left the logo I’d made up while at Ten Towers (the black oval with Paintball written in white intricate cursive letters and a rainbow spray of all the other colors from one side to the other) in a couple places for them to take pictures of. They seemed to like that a lot, especially if they could get photos of me moving in front of the logo.

At some point, I had asked myself why I did this sort of thing. I mean, obviously it was kind of fun to be liked and cheered on, and it helped me push negative thoughts away. But there was another, more important reason I did it. If worse came to worst and my parents started to use the Ministry against ‘Paintball’, they might try to shift public opinion and make me look bad. I wanted to get ahead of that by making sure as many people as possible actually liked me.  

Was that selfish or… or wrong? Was it manipulative? Yeah, maybe. Probably. But I only had so many ways of protecting myself against the sort of things the Ministry could do to make me look bad. I had to stay ahead of that sort of thing. Besides, I wasn’t exactly… lying or whatever. I really did enjoy having fun by showing off for these people. Actually, that was probably the biggest thing connecting Cassidy Evans to Paintball. I had always loved to show off for an audience while doing my tricks on my board or blades, when I’d done gymnastics, or even that brief, single semester of cheerleading back in junior high. 

The point was, I liked attention and I liked showing off. But I did have a valid, strategic reason for wanting to make people like having Paintball around. Anything to make it harder for the Ministry to cast me as a bad guy or a threat. Not that I expected to be completely immune if they decided to really come after me, but every little thing helped. 

In any case, I made it to the front gate of the headquarters and found Matthew Orens on duty. After greeting the man, I slipped off my backpack and dug inside until I found the (already laminated) papers on which I had drawn the pictures and text for his son’s storybook. The two of us had worked out what the general story should be and how to insert Josh (his son) into it. The man had a few specific details he had wanted to be included that would make his kid feel like he was really the person in the book. Phrases he liked to say, a pet turtle that needed to be seen, that sort of thing. Basically, I had made a thirty page story about Josh and his turtle (named Kiwi) going on an adventure through time using a magical skateboard that took them to various parts of history. 

After reading through it and examining all the pictures I’d made, Orens looked up to me. “Two things. First, I’ve got a guy who can bind these pages into a real book cover. Think you could stop by in a couple days to put a picture on that? Josh’s birthday is next Wednesday.” 

My head bobbed quickly. “Yeah, of course. I’ll come back before then and help finish it up. Uh, is it okay though? What was the second thing?” 

“The second thing,” Orens informed me, “is that this is good. Really good. A kid with his turtle time traveling with a skateboard? You should think about working on your writing to make it a little better. Take some extra classes or something when you get into high school. I mean, it’s good, the basic story is great. You just need a little technical help. Anyway, the point is, having a job that’s easy to make your own hours for is good for people like you once you get older and can’t rely on your parents anymore. And being a writer, from what I hear, that’s a pretty good choice. Practice for a while and you could probably make a living with stuff like this.” He waved the papers demonstrably. “Kids’ll probably love it. Just keep it in mind. Hell, if you published as Paintball, you’d get a lot of readers just from the novelty of reading a book drawn and written by a Star-Touched. And they have a whole system set up for keeping your identity secret in those cases.” 

Flushing just a little, I nodded. “Uh, thanks. Really, thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.” With that, I started to move around him to head for the gate. 

“Hey, don’t you want to get paid?” the man asked, reaching for his wallet. 

“Uh, nah, why don’t you wait til we finish up,” I replied quickly. “Once I put the pictures and stuff on the cover, then you can pay me.” Part of me wanted to say that he didn’t need to pay anything at all, but I had a feeling he was too proud for that. Besides, it probably wouldn’t do great things for my secret identity to act like I didn’t need money like that. And I could always hand the cash over to Wren for building the business we were trying to get off the ground. After all, he was right about one specific thing. I couldn’t just rely on my parents forever. 

Making my way back to the building where I’d been working, I took a moment to talk to Tricia Peppernickle, the elderly lady I’d met before, who was back behind the desk. Of course, she insisted I take another handful of hard candy from the bowl on her desk, and talked about a couple of her grandkids for a minute before sending me on through. 

From there, I headed past the security lasers using the pass code I’d been given, back to the room where I’d already been working. It looked like someone else had come through and done a little work on it as well while I was gone. But there was still plenty to do, so I got back to it. I had to move broken furniture out to the freight elevator, then go down with it and leave the stuff in a pile on the loading dock at the bottom. I did, of course, have a few reflexive questions about why there was a loading dock several levels below ground level. But I’d heard rumors about a large, truck-sized tunnel leading away from the Seraph HQ. Looking at the enormous rolling metal door at one end of the loading dock, I figured the rumor must be right. They had an underground tunnel leading somewhere that a truck could drive through. That made me wonder where it came out and which vehicles used it.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t really ask. Mostly because I was pretty sure they wouldn’t answer that sort of question, and it might look a little suspicious to be asking where their secret tunnel went. Especially considering I was here in the first place because I’d helped steal from them. Yes, it was for a good cause, and they knew that. But still. Trying to get details about that sort of thing almost certainly wouldn’t go over that well. 

So, I just relegated that to a bit of curiosity that wouldn’t pay off anytime soon and kept working. I had to finish up with the last of the debris, then stack the remaining folders in the filing cabinets I had already put back into place in the other room. When that much was done, I headed out to the hall to find the phone Patchwork had pointed out the other day and dialed zero before asking the woman who answered on the other end to send Bernard out for help patching the holes in the walls.

Bernard, as it turned out, was a middle-aged black guy with a cybernetic eye that was a bit distracting. He was pretty cool about it though, popping the little metal orb out and showing me what it looked like. There were tiny wires that attached themselves to the eye socket when it was inserted, in order to send the visual input to his brain. He claimed that taking it in and out didn’t hurt at all, but I was still a little creeped out by the idea. Still, it was really cool for him. Apparently one of the Seraph Tech-Touched in another state had made it in exchange for some sort of special work Bernard had done for them. 

He brought the stuff to start patching the holes, and the two of us spent forty-five minutes or so to get that all done. He even told me some stories about being a support member of the Seraphs  while we were doing that. Apparently, his wife had been one of the early Touched members of a Seraph squad over in Chicago (where he’d gotten the cybernetic eye), before being killed while helping to deal with a Collision Point. I expressed sympathy, and he looked sad for a moment before assuring me that it had been over twenty years by this point. Which actually just made things worse, because it made me think about how young of a couple they must have been when she was killed. Yeah, Abyssals were pretty awful. 

Eventually, we had the holes patched, and I used my power to paint the walls the way he said they should be. Meanwhile, Bernard stood by with his arms folded and gave a low whistle. “Boy,” he remarked as I finished with one wall, “you make this a hell of a lot easier than doing it the old-fashioned way. You say this stuff won’t disappear or whatever? It’s permanent?” 

My head bobbed a bit. “As far as I know, it should stay as long as I don’t activate it for my power. And I don’t really see any scenario where I’d need to activate the paint inside this specific room. Or you can scrub it off with paint remover, or, you know, whatever.” I shrugged a little. “Point is, it should stay like normal paint on the wall as long as you want it there.” 

Giving me a thumbs up, the man slowly looked around the room with a smile. “You did good work here, kid. If this hero thing doesn’t work out, maybe you could get a job as a contractor.” 

Snorting, I casually replied, “That’s the second suggestion of a mundane job I’ve gotten in the past couple hours. Should I take that as a hint that my hero stuff is slacking?” 

He laughed out loud at that, shaking his head. “Not a chance. From what I’ve seen on the news and the YouTube, you’re pretty damn effective for a kid. Hell, even for an adult. Anyway, like I said, good work. I think you can consider your debt repaid.” Abruptly, he snapped his fingers. “Oh, shit, except there was one more thing Patches and Hallowed wanted you for once this was done. You should probably head up and ask Tricia at the desk to ring them up for you. And hey, thanks for this, kid. I know you sorta had to do it but still. You really saved me and my squad a lot of work.” 

Flushing a little behind the mask and helmet, I assured him that it was no big deal, then headed out to follow his suggestion. Tricia promptly made the call, speaking with whoever was on the other end for a minute before disconnecting. “Okay, sweetie,” she addressed me, “have a seat over there for a minute and they’ll be right with you.” 

So, I did. For about ten minutes, I sat idly, checking out magazines from the table nearby and alternately chatting with the woman herself. She had a lot of stories about what it was like to do her job, and loved to tell them. It was pretty sweet, honestly. 

In the end, it was Hallowed himself who showed up. He still looked incredibly intimidating, with his glowing golden armor, expansive metal wings, and an enormous sword attached to his back. Enormous even then, but I knew it could get even bigger (larger than the man himself even) when he deployed it. 

Thankfully, he seemed to be in a good mood. Not that I could really see his face through the helmet, but there was a smile in his voice as he greeted me. “Paintball, good to see you again. Glad to hear you finished up. Bernard tells me you did a good job.” 

Okay, part of me reflexively wanted to ask when he had spoken to Bernard, given I’d needed to have Tricia call to tell him I was ready. But that was clearly at least part of what that ten minute wait had been about. He’d probably just called the man up to find out how I did and to make sure I was really done.

So, shaking that off, I simply nodded. “Oh, uh, well thank him for me. I couldn’t’ve finished up without his help. Paint I can do, but I’ve never really patched holes before.” Abruptly, a grin found its way to my face. “And I didn’t even have Patchwork to help.” 

Hallowed gave a soft chuckle, and I heard Tricia snicker behind me. Before he could say anything else, the door slid open behind him and a small black form came flying through to land on the man’s shoulder. “Have I missed the opportunity to extend the invitation myself?” 

“Invitation?” I echoed before catching myself. Quickly, I waved. “Hi, Dad!” 

That, of course, prompted another round of chuckles, especially when Lucent greeted me in kind. “I pray you are endeavoring to make your family proud, my boy.” 

Thinking briefly about what would really make my family proud, I grimaced and pushed those thoughts aside before forcing a casual, “Oh, you know, I’m doing my best, Pops. You’ve really got to take me out one of these days and show me how to be a real hero.” 

The dark-eyed raven gave me an intense, clearly curious look before he spoke up. “Yes, I do believe that would be quite an interesting and rewarding excursion. If you truly wish such a thing.” 

“Oh, uhh…” I’d been kidding, of course, but now I nodded. “Sure, I mean, at some point. It’d be cool to get some real tips from someone like you.” 

“Excellent,” came the cheerful response. “And I shall introduce you to a friend of mine along the way while she is in town. Shall we say… Sunday? You may call to let us know what a good specific time would be.”

Really fast, but I was pretty curious to know what it would be like to go around the city with him. To say nothing of how fun it would be to fuel those rumors about our relationship. Besides, I also wanted to know who this friend of his was. So, I nodded in agreement. “Sure, do I just call the main desk and ask for you or something?” 

He confirmed that, before Hallowed cleared his throat. “That sounds like a good idea. And speaking of invitations…” 

“What–oh, right.” I flushed a little. “Sorry, sir, you had one more thing you wanted me to do to make up for that whole… yeah, that thing?” 

His head shook. “I would say your debt is paid by now. This is more about an invitation, as I said. You see, we’re having a bit of a party next weekend with a lot of important guests visiting. There’s a dinner and a whole round of speeches. We would like you to attend as one of our guests. I promise, you won’t have to give a speech and we always protect everyone’s identities. But it would be very nice to have you here, perhaps answering a few questions. And your new partner, of course. Does she have a name?” 

“Alloy,” I informed him, my mind spinning already. “And uhh, yeah, I think we can come. I’ll make sure she’s okay with it. But you really want us to come to your fancy party? I don’t think I have a tuxedo version of my costume. Oooh, but maybe I could paint it to look right.” 

Chuckling, the man assured me, “I think you’ll be just fine as you are. When you come over on Sunday, we’ll arrange the details. Just find out if this… Alloy is going to come with you. It’s next Saturday, around eight pm. The food will be worth it, even if you have to sit through some boring speeches to get to that. And hopefully, not all of them will be boring.

“After all, Sterling Evans is supposed to be making one of them. And I hear he’s pretty good at keeping things interesting.” 

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Interlude 13A – Bobbi and Dakota (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Come on, Dakota. Trust me, what you need is some fun.” The words came from Bobbi Camren, as the mixed-race, dark-haired fourteen-year-old strolled casually backward down the sidewalk. Her attention wasn’t on where she was going, but on the girl who was walking along a bit behind (well, in front of considering Bobbi was walking backwards) her. “If there’s one thing I figured out after spending a long time with people like Asenath and Twister, it’s that you should have fun while you can.” After a brief pause, she added with a grin, “Well, that and how to kick a truly inspiring amount of ass.”  

Eyes darting around rapidly as the two of them walked along the sidewalk of the busy street several miles away from the motel where the Eden’s Garden rebels had set up, Dakota hesitated before finding her voice. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” Even as she asked that, the girl flinched a little at how childish it sounded. Especially given the way her voice cracked. 

She was only a few months younger than Bobbi, but she felt like a child (though not an innocent one). Bobbi had done so many cool things, and Dakota… Dakota had done things too. Things like kill several members of her family while under the influence of Kwur, and spend years afterward in a mental institution because she couldn’t explain what really happened in a way that anyone would have understood. The voice from the plant made her do it? Yeah, no wonder they locked her up. Vanessa had believed her, and even sent that Doctor Folgers guy to help. But then they had both stopped showing up. The other doctors said there was no one named Folgers at the hospital, and that Vanessa was too busy to talk to her. 

Now, of course, the girl knew that was all part of the plan to keep her isolated and away from anyone who could help. Vanessa’s memory had been erased by that… that Fossor guy. It was a whole big thing. Still, it didn’t totally erase the feelings of being abandoned and discarded. Kwur made her help kill her family, made her the only survivor, and then trapped her in a mental hospital full of other damaged people and far away from anyone who could understand what actually happened. All because he wanted… he wanted what? Why did he make her a–what was the word… Natural Heretic? Why did he make her a Natural Heretic of himself? Was it intentional, or just something he took advantage of afterward? And either way, why? 

No matter what the evil plant’s reasoning was, every possibility made her shudder. 

Bobbi was talking, her voice helping to pull Dakota out of the spiral of dark thoughts. “Of course it’s a good idea. Come on, you’ve been locked up in that motel obsessing over fixing the plants for too long. You need to get out and have a little fun. Take your mind off that stuff for a little bit. We’re just two girls heading to the mall to hang out, watch a movie, and get totally sick off Twizzlers and Raisinettes. Unless you’re more of a Whoppers sort of girl. Which is cool, I guess.” She said the last bit in a voice that made it clear that Raisinettes were superior. 

“But if I can’t do it,” Dakota hesitantly pointed out in a weak voice, “if I can’t make the plants work right, they’ll feel like… like they wasted their time with me. And… and Noyade…” 

Bobbi had stopped walking by that point, standing still as she reached out to put both hands on the other girl’s shoulders. “If you can’t make the plants work, you’ll feel like Noyade died for nothing by protecting you,” she finished the sentence for her in a quiet, subdued tone. 

Not really trusting her voice, Dakota gave a hesitant nod. The thought of still failing to fix the plants kept her up at night, invaded her dreams (not that those were very good most of the time anyway), and made it hard to keep things in her stomach. The Gardener people were nice to her. They protected her. They were depending on her to help them recruit more people. If she couldn’t manage that, if she couldn’t give the Rebellion a way to make more Heretics, then what… what was she even doing there? Why did she survive this long? 

She had to do something good with this power. Otherwise, the only thing she would ever be was a girl who helped kill her entire family… and a tool for whatever plan that evil plant had. 

“Listen, Dakota.” Bobbi’s voice was serious. “I’m not just goofing off now, okay? I mean it. Obsessing over whether you fix those vines or not isn’t helping anything. It’s making you sick, it’s making you, like… doubt yourself. You need to get away from all that stuff, have some fun for a little while, then go back and work on it again. It’s like…” She trailed off for a moment, clearly trying to find the right words. “It’s like when a truck gets stuck in the mud, and they just keep hitting the gas so the tires spin and spin and spin without going anywhere. The truck just gets more stuck, see? You need to go at it from another angle, find a way to pull the truck out or give it leverage. So you walk away from it, clear your head, and go back later.” 

Dakota didn’t respond at first. She stood there, shoulders hunched a bit while staring at the ground. It took her a moment to breathe in slowly before raising her gaze to meet the other girl’s. “You really think… you really think doing something else might help?” She asked that in a small, quiet voice, which radiated vulnerability. Swallowing hard, the girl crossed her arms protectively over her stomach before adding, “I just.. I just want to do something right.” 

“Hey.” Squeezing the girl’s shoulders, Bobbi insisted, “Take my word for it, okay? You need to clear your head. You need to get out of there for awhile and not think about it. So, you and me? We’re going to go veg out at a movie. A totally dumb, totally absurd action-comedy that will turn your brain to mush. And when you’re sufficiently mushed, then we’ll move on to phase two.” 

Dakota blinked at that. “Phase two? What’s phase two?” 

“You’ll find out.” With that, Bobbi winked. “Trust me, it’s just like, a sort of favor I got from someone after all the stuff that happened last year. It’ll be fun, I promise. But it’s the sort of fun you need to ease into. It’ll be better when you’re a little more relaxed. Or at least not as stressed. So, let’s start with a movie. A simple, easy, utterly brainless movie where nothing matters.” With that, she raised a hand to point to the nearby mall entrance. “Ready?” 

Swallowing back her doubt and uncertainty (to say nothing of her guilt), Dakota made herself nod. “I–yeah. Yeah, I’m ready. Let’s go see a movie. 

“Wait, hold on. It’s not that Sherlock Gnome movie, is it? Cuz I think I’d rather just find another monster to kill me.” 

******

A couple hours later, the two teen girls were emerging from the mall together once more. Each held a mostly finished soda cup, and Bobbi still held a box with a few Raisinets left. Both were giggling and nudging each other over the ridiculousness of the movie they had just seen (which was indeed not the gnome movie). They repeated lines to each other, laughing before the other person had even finished the quote, and engaged in a sort of rapidfire back-and-forth where each only had to say a few words for the other to completely know where they were going with it and start to react as though they had already finished the sentence.

Only when they reached the curb leading to the parking lot did Dakota pause. She stared at the pavement for a moment, then raised her cup to squint at the remains of the liquid inside. Her voice turned quiet. “You were right. I didn’t think about anything bad while I was there. Or anything at all about the Heretics, or the vines, or Garden, or any of it. I didn’t think at all.” 

Watching her curiously, Bobbi waited a moment before asking, “Are you… okay?” 

Dakota seemed to consider the question before taking a long sip from her drink. Finally, she gave a very slight nod. “I think so. I feel… I feel like… like I’m still worried, and I still want to fix things. But it’s not…” She trailed off, putting one hand on her own shoulder as though pushing it down. “It’s not right here.” Then she moved her hand to her stomach. “And it’s not right here. It’s more right…” She turned, indicating the space on the other side of her where Bobbi wasn’t standing. “It’s more right there. It’s still there and it’s still important. Really important. But it’s not right on top of me. It’s not crushing me.” She bit her lip before looking over to the other girl. “And part of me feels a little bad about that too. But maybe that’s okay. I guess it really has been awhile since I stopped focusing on that stuff.”

Offering Dakota a quick smile, Bobbi nodded. “See? And it’s not over yet. Remember, that was just phase one of getting you to stop obsessing for one night.” 

Clearly, Dakota actually had forgotten that there was supposed to be more to their day, because she gave a bit of a double-take. “Wha-oh. Wait, what else are we doing? You wouldn’t tell me before.”

“And you think I’ll tell you now?” Bobbi teased before waving both hands. “Okay, okay. Actually, come on, we’re supposed to meet him over on the other side of the parking lot, over there.” She pointed while hopping off the curb and starting that way. “You ever been to Disney World?” 

Dakota started to follow before quickly looking over, almost tripping over the curb on her way after the other girl. “Wha-what? Disney World? No? Wait, why? We can’t leave for that long.” 

Glancing over her shoulder toward Dakota with a sly smirk, Bobbi retorted, “Who said anything about leaving for a long time? My friend can get us there just like that.” She snapped her fingers in demonstration. “His name’s Berlin, and he’s an Abeonas. Trust me, it’ll be just like walking down the street. Plus, we’re meeting Twister there. She and Berlin wanna hang out too. We’ll see the park for a few hours, then we’ll come home. And that’s when you’ll–” Abruptly, the girl stopped talking. And walking, for that matter. She suddenly halted in mid-step, slowly lowering her foot while squinting at a camper van that was parked ahead of them with all the doors hanging open. 

“What’s wrong?” Dakota asked, gaze darting back and forth between the van and her new friend. “I guess it looks a little creepy, but–” 

“That’s Berlin’s ride,” Bobbi informed her. “This is where we’re supposed to meet him, but… where is he?” She took a step that way, squinting intently at the vehicle without calling out. 

Dakota made a face behind her. “You seriously wanna take a ride to Disney World with a guy in a van?” She muttered the words under her breath, marveling not only at how creepy it sounded out loud, but at the fact that it would hardly have been the weirdest ride she herself had taken. After all, she’d had to hitchhike her way from the hospital to her family’s old house when she’d heard Kwur’s voice in her head again and realized that someone found the hidden plant.

Bobbi, by that point, had reached the van and poked her head in to look around. “He’s not here,” she murmured worriedly. “He should be here. He was supposed to meet us right at his van.” 

“Maybe he had to go to the restro–” In her own mid-sentence, Dakota stopped and frowned. She stepped over to the nearby flower garden at the edge of the parking lot and crouched down, reaching out to touch a trampled flower with the very tip of her index finger before giving a soft gasp as a sudden rush of images filled her mind. “Three guys. They stomped all over. They were loud. They were… fighting.” 

“What?” Bobbi blinked, turning that way. “How do you–hey, what’s going on?” Even as she asked that, the girl was stepping over and crouching next to her. “It’s a broken flower.” 

Dakota’s eyes had drifted closed, as she kept her finger pressed gently against the poor mangled plant, adding a second one while the images continued to twist their way through her mind. The images were hard to understand. Some came in black and white, some in too much color, or upside down. And each came with a thought or a reflexive sort-of understanding. Or rather, a piece of a thought or understanding. It was difficult to sort through or find anything coherent within one image by itself, but putting them all together like letters or syllables of a word helped. As did speaking them out loud. So she did, her voice continuing in a dreamlike tone as she spoke the thoughts that the images brought to mind. “Three men. Two fighting one. Dragging him from the van. Hitting him with something shiny. Red hair, orange eyes.” 

“That’s Berlin!” Bobbi blurted, before clapping a hand over her own mouth to allow the other girl to continue. Even if hearing that Berlin had been attacked made her want to start screaming obscenities that would’ve made adults give themselves whiplash to hear coming from her mouth.

Dakota was still talking quietly. “They fought him right here, trampled these flowers and the grass. They dragged him… they dragged him that way.” Turning, she pointed down the slope and off into the wooded area beyond that ran under and beside the nearby freeway. “Just–wait a minute.” She focused again, going silent for a few seconds before adding, “They’re still there. The trees can see them. The grass, they’re trampling it, and the flowers. The bushes, they’re tearing through the bushes. They’re trying to get somewhere really fast…” 

“Wait, wait, they’re still here?” Bobbi blurted, bolting to her feet. “Come on!” 

Dakota blinked at that. “Wait, shouldn’t we call someone to go save him?”  

Grabbing the other girl by the arm and pulling her to her feet, Bobbi shook her head. “There’s no time! You said yourself they’re in a rush.” She put both hands on her friend’s shoulders and met her gaze. “Come on, we can do this. Remember I told you about how I helped people in my neighborhood before I ever met Twister and Asenath? You and me, we can save Berlin. Please? He’s my friend, and they’re running away with him.” 

Despite being as nervous as she was, how could Dakota argue with that? Bobbi was basically the first chance at a real friend her own age she’d had in a very long time. Not to mention that small part of her that was offended about the plants being unceremoniously trampled and broken. So, she pushed all her doubts aside and gave a hesitant nod. “It’s that way,” she declared while pointing with a hand. “But they’re already a couple miles away, and I saw a… I think it was a portal just ahead of them. I don’t think we can–” 

Before the other girl could continue with that, Bobbi was already moving. She snapped a hand out toward the row of parked cars nearby and drained all the energy from their batteries. Immediately after doing so, she created a glowing red cube around Dakota, making it hoist the surprised girl into the air. And then? Then Bobbi ran. She directed the cube with Dakota ahead of her while racing down the slope and into the woods the way the girl had indicated. The rest of the world seemed to stop entirely as she poured energy into her own speed and that of the cube, moving so fast everything else was almost motionless. Upon hitting the woods, Bobbi leapt over logs, ducked branches, sidestepped her way around clusters of bushes, and created energy-construct stairs and ramps ahead of her to get over pits, boulders, and similar obstacles. The woods were dense, but Bobbi’s speed and ability to simply create temporary ways around anything in her way meant very little could impede her progress. Meanwhile, Dakota was brought along right behind her in that cube, the whole experience passing by faster than it would even take for her stomach to register that it should be upset about this entire situation. 

In the end, the two of them crossed that two miles in less time than it would have taken the average person to finish getting up from their chair. Finally, Bobbi heard sounds up ahead and skidded her way to a stop while lowering the cube to the ground and dismissing it to release the other girl. Then she quickly reached out to stop Dakota from stumbling, raising a finger to her lips for quiet just as they heard men cursing nearby. Through the thick clump of trees just ahead, they could see a small clearing where there was a glowing portal that was clearly waiting for the three figures who were moving toward it. One of those figures was being carried by the other two, clearly unconscious.

“Come on, come on, before the bastard wakes up,” one guy was saying. As Bobbi leaned closer, she could see that he had light gray fur and very small brown horns that looked as though they had just barely started to grow. The other guy was a metallic man over seven feet in height, but quite skinny. They were carrying Berlin by the arms and legs, heading for the portal. 

“Yeah yeah,” the tall metal man snapped. “I’m coming. Keep your shorts on.” 

They were only a few steps from the portal, so Bobbi couldn’t wait any longer. With a hushed whisper for the other girl to wait there, she launched herself that way and turned into a blur of motion. It wasn’t quite as fast as she’d been when going from the mall to this spot, but still a hell of a lot faster than almost anyone else was capable of. 

In mid-sprint, Bobbi summoned her blue and white glass-like energy-construct armor. Electricity seemed to dance inside the form-fitting suit, while the helmet covered her head and face entirely with no apparent visor or eye slits at all. 

The shorter, fur-covered man reacted first, starting to pivot that way with a blurted warning. But Bobbi was already launching herself off the ground. At her speed, with the armor protecting her from damage, she slammed into him so hard, he hit the ground with her on top of him and didn’t move again other than to cough a couple times in pain. 

The metal guy was trying to react, but Bobbi had already rolled off the first man and pointed that way. As she did so, a glowing fist the size of a small motorcycle slammed into the man with so much force, he was hurled off to crash into a tree about twenty feet away. He tried to get up, but the energy-construct turned into an open hand and held him against the ground. 

“Hah!” Bobbi snapped, lashing out with her armored foot to kick the fur-covered man in the face when he started to move. “That’s what you both get for–” 

That time, what interrupted the girl was an incredibly thick bubble of strange sticky liquid that suddenly formed around her. She was torn from the ground and held in place, unable to move as a third man came into view from the other side of the clearing. He was almost as tall as the metal guy, and appeared to be made of chewed up pink bubblegum, all wrinkly and sticky. Instead of regular arms, he had a random assortment of pink tentacles sticking out various parts of his body with no apparent rhyme or reason.

“Both?” he echoed tauntingly. “What made you think there was only two of us? Now, how about you let my friend over there go, and–” 

Then it was his turn to be interrupted, as Dakota burst into the clearing with both hands raised. “Let her go!” she snapped. 

“Another one?” the bubblegum man lamented without too much worry. “Aight then, c’mere.” He started to extend one of his tentacles, a bubble beginning to form to pick the girl up. 

Before it could reach her, however, Dakota made a noise in the back of her throat that was half-terror and half-anger, then made a shoving motion with both hands. As she did so, a nearby tree straightened up a bit out of the ground and half-turned that way before one of its branches abruptly snapped down, slamming into the bubblegum man so hard he collapsed to the ground like he’d been hit by a car. 

Instantly, Bobbi was released. She took a quick second to make sure the full trio were dealt with, then raced over in a blur of motion to reach Dakota. “Dude! That was awesome!” 

“I made it move! I made the tree move!” Dakota blurted, grabbing Bobbi’s outstretched hands. The two of them jumped up and down a couple times. 

“Hell yeah, you made it move,” Bobbi agreed. “You wolloped that guy real good. He never saw it coming.”

“Yeah, that was pretty cool.” The words came from Berlin, as the Abeonas grunted and sat up from where he had been dropped in the dirt. “Ow. Hey, you’re Dakota, right? Good to see you. Thanks for uhh… jumping in there.” He looked to Bobbi. “You too. I ahh, dunno where those guys wanted me to go, but it probably wasn’t fun.” 

He’d picked himself up from the ground by then, already taking a phone from his pocket. “I gotta call this in, get some Atherby peeps to come grab these guys and get answers out of ‘em. Err, and they can get the Boschers involved, I guess.” After a brief pause, he added, “Oh, and uhh, sorry. I don’t think we’ll make it to Disney World today.” 

“It’s okay,” Bobbi replied, squinting at the metal man while reinforcing the energy-construct hand that was holding him in place. “We’ll go another time, right?” She was addressing the girl beside her. 

Dakota gave a quick nod. “Uh huh. Another time. Besides,” she added quietly, “I, umm, I think I’m ready now. I wanna try talking to Eden’s Garden vines again. But there’s something we’ve gotta do first.”

“What?” Bobbi asked with a curious look. 

“We’ve gotta go back to the van,” the other girl informed her. “To where that broken flower is. I promised it we’d help. I mean, if it didn’t tell me about what happened, we wouldn’t’ve found your friend. So we’ve gotta go back and help it. That’s… that’s not crazy, is it?”   

“Nah,” Bobbi assured her. “It’s not crazy. 

“And if anyone says it is, just hit ‘em with another tree.” 

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Hostile Witness 18-01 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, I had a lot to talk with Izzy about by the time I got home that evening. My parents were still gone, but Skyped in over a laptop placed at the head of the table so we could have an approximation of family dinner night. The room behind them in the camera just looked like any of the other hotel suites we’d stayed at, so it didn’t exactly tell me much about where they were. 

After that, Izzy and I stayed in my room and pretended to be playing video games while we discussed everything that had happened. And boy was it weird to be in my room like that after being in the virtual recreation of it when that whole thing with Paige’s father went down. Sure, it had been my room as it was decorated in the past, but still. It made me feel strange, sitting there while images of that whole fight played out in my head. 

In any case, before we started, I made it clear that there were some big things I had to tell Izzy, but wanted to do it all in order. So that was exactly what I did, going through everything that had happened inside the virtual reality space in order. God was it ever tempting to jump ahead to the really big stuff, but I felt like it was important for her to have all the actual context. 

And boy did she ever react when I eventually got to that big stuff. The controller dropped from her hand when I talked about taking my helmet and mask off in front of That-A-Way, and she was suddenly staring at me with wide eyes. I pushed on with a quick nod of understanding, explaining everything all the way up through Way eventually revealing her identity to me, and the two of us having our talk at the end. And, of course, everything that had been established about Paige and the newly dubbed Raige as far as what we needed to do to help them.

Throughout the entire remainder of the story, ever since I got to the part about taking my helmet off, Izzy had completely stopped even the pretense of paying attention to the game. She was facing me with her mouth open, as it clearly took everything she had not to suddenly interrupt. And yet, once I finally finished, she didn’t say anything at all. She just stared in silence, as though everything she’d been bursting to say simply vanished entirely from her mind in that moment.

“So yeah,” I finally announced, breaking the silence once it had dragged on for almost thirty seconds. “That was my day. How was yours? Anything interesting happen? Ooh, did Claudio make that special layered pudding? He said something about making that before, and–” 

“Are you freaking kidding me right now?!” the girl suddenly blurted out loud, flailing a bit while literally jumping to her feet. “You know about Amber and she knows about you and she knows that I know about you and also everything else that happened to you and everything about your family, and you actually think we’re gonna talk about pudding?!” 

Yeah, maybe I had a little too much fun with the whole thing. Restraining my smirk, I managed a mostly straight-faced, “Well, if he made it, I should probably know so I can run down there.” 

That earned me a kick while the younger girl rolled her eyes. “Oh please, as if your family’s personal freaking chef wouldn’t whip it up for you the second you asked for it.” After pointing that out, she focused once more. “Seriously, she really knows everything about everything?”  

I shrugged. “There might’ve been something here or there that I forgot to mention, but basically yeah. That’s why it took me so long to get home. We kind of had a lot to go over. Do you realize how busy the past… just over a month has been? I got my powers in the second week of March, and it’s April sixteenth now. At this rate, I’m gonna cram a decade worth of stuff into the rest of the year. Which is convenient, since dealing with my family is gonna age me that quick too.” 

“At least Amber knows what’s going on?” Izzy pointed out with a shrug. “That’s something.”

“Oh, it’s definitely something,” I agreed. “I mean, I don’t–I’m glad she knows. And that I know. It’s just–it’s really complicated in other ways. It’s going to take awhile for me to wrap my head around this whole thing. And honestly, I’ve got the really easy side of it. I can’t even imagine what she’s going through right now, or what sort of things she’s thinking about all of it.” 

Izzy’s response, as she glanced over toward the window, was a quiet, “I can.”  

Her words made me hesitate before looking that way to hesitantly ask. “Are you okay?” 

“Hm? Oh, yeah.” Turning to meet my gaze, Izzy tried to give an encouraging nod. “It’s just a lot, you know? I was just thinking about what it’s like to have the whole thing dumped on you at once like that. I mean, I’m glad I know, and I’m glad that we can talk about everything. Believe me, I’m really glad.” She sighed then, flopping back down into the bean bag chair as if all the strength had left her. “It feels really heavy sometimes.” Her eyes had closed briefly through that before opening to focus on me. “How do you handle it? They’re your family and all that and you have to keep lying right to their faces. You have to hide basically everything now.” 

Swallowing the thick lump that tried to form in my throat, I answered in a soft voice. “It’s not easy. But I’m not the only one with problems. Plus, I have you to talk to about it.” 

“And Amber,” she pointed out with a very small smile. 

“And Amber,” I agreed, nudging the girl. “So hey, that’s some of the pressure off you, I guess. Spread out who has to deal with Cassidy’s mental breakdown.” With that… sort of joke, I cleared my throat. “Anyway, right now, what I really want is to find out more about how their whole operation works. Not to mention separate Paige and Raige. And the way to do both of those things is to break into that mall base. So I guess that’s our next main thing to focus on. Which–hey.” I blinked a couple times as a thought occurred to me at that moment. 

“What?” Izzy asked, shifting a bit on the bean bag to stare at me curiously. 

“I just realized,” I murmured before looking over to meet her gaze. “If Amber knows that you know about everything, and you know that Amber knows, then… maybe you can be involved a little more. You know, if you want to. I mean, instead of hiding at the library or whatever when the two of us are supposed to be out together and I’m with the others, you could… come? Between you, Amber, and me, we can come up with a story about how you know about the Ministry that’s close to the truth without really exposing everything. We still have to hide that you have any knowledge of the Ministry from everyone else, obviously. Can’t take any chances about my parents getting suspicious. But when we’re just at Wren’s or doing this tunnel thing, maybe… you could be there. You know, if you want. You could meet Pack without fighting.”

Shifting in the bean bag so she could look at me, Izzy hesitated before asking, “Are you sure? I mean…” She trailed off, clearly considering all of that. “I guess you’re right. If we made up a reason for me to know about the Ministry beyond, uh, you know… living in their house.” 

“We’ll just say you had your own encounter with them or something,” I agreed. “Way–I mean Amber–I mean Way can help. God, that’s gonna take a lot to get used to. After all that stuff we did at school and–” Belatedly, my eyes widened. “You think Jae knows about her? I mean she has to, right? They’re pretty good friends, and that… that guy Amber knew from that other school with the car. Damarko? It was Damarko. Is he–wait, no. No. Don’t tell me, don’t say anything.” My head shook, hands already covering my eyes. “I’m not even gonna look at your reaction. Do not tell me anything about that. I’m gonna stop trying to guess. That’s not fair to them. Or to you, putting you in the middle like that. God, I don’t even know how you managed to keep quiet about Amber for so long. You’re really good at keeping secrets, you know that?” 

“I’m… doing my best,” came the quiet response. There was a moment of silence after that before Izzy added, “But, that means you know I’m keeping secrets right now. Still. I’m still keeping secrets. They’re not my secrets to tell, you know? I just–I don’t wanna lie to you, Cassie. You’re my friend. You’re–” She swallowed hard before reiterating, “You’re my friend. But they’re my friends too. I can’t just–” 

“Stop.” I quickly shook my head. “Izzy, it’s okay. I told you, I don’t want you to tell me anything about them. I just got caught up for a second with the whole Amber being That-A-Way thing. Really, I promise, it’s totally okay. Don’t tell me anything that isn’t yours to tell.” 

Nodding slowly, Izzy hesitated before asking, “Do you think Amber’s mad because I didn’t tell her anything about you even though we’re supposed to be teammates and everything?” Her voice trembled just a little as she squirmed, clearly feeling even more of that weight on her shoulders. 

“What? No!” I quickly insisted, setting the game controller down before turning fully to face her. “Izzy, she’s not mad at you. Seriously, she knows why you kept my thing secret, just like I know why you kept her identity secret from me. No one’s mad at you or anything. It’s okay.” Shrugging then, I added, “Actually, she kinda wants to meet tomorrow morning. We figured the three of us could go out, grab some breakfast, and talk in a park somewhere. We’ll just tell Jefferson that we’re taking an Uber so we can have breakfast with a friend and we’ll make it to school on our own. Actually, I better send him a text about that. He does better with schedule changes if he has all night to let it settle. Err, that is, if you wanna do that?” 

Izzy was already nodding quickly before I’d even finished asking that. “Yeah, I–yeah.” It looked like she wanted to say more than that, but clamped her mouth shut and simply kept bobbing her head with obvious eagerness. She definitely wanted to have the chance to talk with Amber and me together about this whole thing. 

So, I sent that message to let Jefferson know, before the two of us spent another twenty minutes or so talking about what happened and what we were going to do next. Izzy was visibly nervous about the prospect of meeting Pack and all the associated stuff that would come with that, so I did my best to calm her down. And, of course, made it clear that she didn’t have to do anything she didn’t want to. If she preferred to stay out of things and just be my alibi and confidant, that was completely fine. She, however, insisted that she wanted to help more and be involved. And now that Amber was on-side, she actually could. She was just, well, understandably nervous. 

Either way, we finished up and headed for our separate beds. Tomorrow was already promising to be a pretty big day. As I watched Izzy on her way out my door to go back to her room, I hesitated before calling, “At least you’re never bored around this place, huh?” 

She paused there, hand on the doorknob before looking over her shoulder to me. “Bored?” the girl echoed with a snort. “No, definitely not bored. But isn’t there like a Chinese curse or something about living in interesting times?” 

My head tilted. “Yeah, sounds familiar. Maybe we can ask someone over there the next time my parents decide we’re going to China.” 

“The next time–” Cutting off her own disbelieving voice, Izzy shook her head. “Wow, dude.” 

“Oh come on, I was kidding!” I called as she started through the door. “We don’t have to go there to ask, I know Google exists!” 

“You ought to,” came the response as Izzy began to close the door after herself. 

“Your parents probably own a big chunk of it.” 

*******

So, the next day (which was Friday, April 17th), Izzy and I got up a bit early, cleaning up and dressing before heading out. I had texted not only Jefferson, but Chef Claudio as well to let him know he didn’t have to make any food that morning. Not for us, anyway. They still tended to cook for the rest of the staff, of course. That was one of my parents’ firm rules. Everyone who worked in the house got to eat just as well as we did, were paid incredibly well, and received a full slate of insurance and medical assistance. It was all about maintaining loyalty. Which, now that I knew more about my family’s whole thing, made even more sense. Obviously I’d never been anywhere near that situation, but I was pretty sure there were a lot of people who would turn a blind eye to anything criminal they might’ve seen if their boss was taking that much care of them. A good salary, benefits, insurance, and retirement plan went a long way toward something like that. 

So, Izzy and I stopped in at one of the local fast food chain restaurants, meeting Amber at the door on the way in. As soon as she saw her teammate (and boy was that something that would take awhile for me to get used to thinking), the younger girl immediately froze up, stopping practically in mid-step. Despite the assurances I had given her, Izzy was clearly still afraid of how Amber would react to the revelation of the pretty major secrets she’d been keeping. 

Thankfully, Amber seemed to realize that without any prompting and immediately stepped that way before embracing the other girl. “Hey there, Izz!” Obviously, she couldn’t really say anything out in public like this, but she did the best she could with that simple and immediate hug. “It’s so good to see you again,” she announced at least partially for the benefit of anyone who might wonder why meeting at a fast food place warranted a hug. “Feels like it’s been forever.” 

After a brief hesitation, Izzy returned the embrace. I could tell even from standing nearby that she’d really needed it. Which just reminded me of why she needed it. The kid had literally been sold to a gang of supervillains to be tortured into obedience. And not just by anyone, by her mother. Her mother had done that. No wonder Izzy was afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing and making someone who was supposed to care about her completely turn. After all, if her mother had done it, anyone could do it. 

If we ever found that fucking bitch, I was gonna let her know just how annoyed I was with her.

In the interest of not making any more of a scene than we already had, the three of us went to the counter and bought a bag full of breakfast sandwiches along with juice and coffee (for Amber and me, Izzy wasn’t a coffee person yet) before heading out again. We made our way to the nearest park and sat at a table in a corner where we had a full view of everything around us in all directions. From here, no one would even be able to get within shouting distance without us seeing them, let alone close enough to hear our murmured voices. We were safe to talk. 

Which probably meant it was ironic that the three of us were completely silent for over a minute. We just sat there, staring at one another. We weren’t even eating yet, so that wasn’t a ready excuse. A few times, one of us started to say something, before falling silent. It was clear that no one really knew what to say. We had the time and privacy, but nobody had the right words.

Finally, I managed to find my voice first, somehow. Probably because I’d already talked to both of them separately, while they were still stuck staring at each other while trying to feel out how they were each feeling. I supposed that was one benefit I had in this whole situation. 

“So we’re all here,” I announced, drawing the immediate attention of the other two. “And on the same page, for once. Everyone here knows everything. Or should, unless I forgot something while I was playing exposition fairy.” Considering that briefly, I shook it off. “Yeah, same page.” 

“Two different Paiges, actually,” Amber teased before holding up both hands. “Sorry, sorry. Yeah, we’re on the same page. Everyone knows who everyone else is, and what’s going on with the Ministry.” She looked at me then, squinting a bit thoughtfully. “Your parents. I can’t believe I didn’t realize it was them. I mean, come on, they’re the most powerful unaffiliated people in the city. Supposedly unaffiliated. Everything they do is mysterious, they have lots of free time. And your dad, he’s really…” She trailed off, clearly finding it hard to finish that last sentence. 

“He’s Silversmith,” Izzy murmured in confirmation, her own voice soft enough to barely be audible. Apparently she was still struggling with that too. Which just meant that the three of us had something else in common. “He’s Silversmith and he’s a bad guy.” 

“He’s both good and bad,” I pointed out. “I mean he’s done good things and bad things. The people he saves as Silversmith really would have been worse off without him. Like you, Izzy. He saved you from those Oscuro people. He’s done a lot of good and I don’t–I’m not saying that to excuse him. Yeah, he’s my dad, but I know he’s done a lot of bad things too. They both have. I’m just saying there’s more, you know, nuance to this whole thing. That’s why I want to find out more. We can’t do anything until we know exactly how the Ministry works, who else is in on it, how it came to be a thing, all that. And to do that–”

“We need to get into that mall base,” Amber finished for me, voice flat. She was looking at me intently. “But are you sure you’ll be able to handle it if… when the time comes to actually do something about this Ministry, about your family? I mean, you’re right, there’s… more nuance to the good and bad thing.” Even as she said that, her gaze shifted off me to look off into the distance thoughtfully, before she swallowed hard and focused. “But if it comes down to it…” 

“If it comes down to it,” I answered, “I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t know what’s gonna happen or… or what I’m going to do. Or what I even could do. But I’m trying. I’m–I just have to know the truth right now. I just need to know everything I can about them, and go from there.” 

Our gazes met, holding that way for several long, somewhat tense moments before the other girl exhaled. “Good,” she announced. “If you said you were ready to lock them up and throw away the key, you’d have been lying. Either to us or to yourself. Not being sure, that’s… that’s the truth.” 

Folding my arms against my stomach as it rolled a bit queasily, I nodded. “Yeah, well, I owe you that much at least. But seriously, we have to get in that base. Not just to find information, but for Paige and…” I coughed at the name. “And Raige too. Seriously, we need her to pick a better name. Maybe when we get her a body of her own.” 

“Which we can only do by getting in that base to find the addresses,” Amber finished with a nod. “Yeah. So that’s the next big thing on the to-do list. But hey, at least it means we can finally focus?” 

Snorting at that, I pointed out, “Except for the fact that Alloy and I have to go find and talk to that Amanda chick about any potential weaknesses Pencil has, sure. Totally focused. Oh, and I have to go over to the Seraphs place so I can finish up working there. And–yeah. Point is, I’m totally focused, yup.” I gave two thumbs up to them. 

“Okay, one, Pack and I are both helping you and Alloy with the Amanda thing, you two aren’t going by yourselves,” Amber reminded me. “She’ll be right there with you and I’m playing back-up.” She paused before glancing to Izzy. “We?” 

Izzy answered with a firm nod. “We’re playing back-up.” 

“See? It’s all working out after all.” Offering them what was probably a pretty unconvincing smile, I added, “Now let’s eat this breakfast.

“I’m pretty sure the three of us getting in trouble for missing school wouldn’t help me deal with this to-do list any faster.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Reception 13-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A little while later, I stepped through a portal leading to the Starstation, accompanied by Avalon, Shiori, and Persephone (with Cerberus cheerfully bringing up the rear). Sariel was there waiting for us, along with Abigail, Professor Tangle, and my mother. The four adults appeared to have been deep in conversation when we showed up, but cut it off the moment we appeared. 

“Girls,” Abigail started, walking up with the others right behind her, “you made it back. We heard the visit to the… alien space pirate ship was fairly productive?” Even now, after just over a solid year of being involved with this stuff, she still sounded like she couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of her mouth. Which, to be fair, was a feeling I could totally understand. 

“You could say that,” I replied dryly, with a glance toward the others before gesturing at the white-haired woman and three-headed robot dog, who were both curiously watching this whole thing. “Abigail, this is Persephone and Cerberus. Persephone, this is my–” 

“Older sister!” she blurted excitedly, bounding forward with both hands outstretched as though to grab the other woman’s. At the last second, however, she stopped herself and very clearly clutched both hands to her stomach. “I’m sorry, it’s very nice to meet you, but I’m not supposed to grab people unless they say it’s okay. I forget that a lot, but not as much as I used to.” Straightening up to her full height, she very deliberately asked, “May I please shake your hand?” 

Abigail seemed a bit taken aback, which was a pretty normal reaction to Persephone. But after taking a moment to collect herself, she glanced briefly toward me while nodding slightly as though to say she understood. Then her eyes shifted back to Persephone as she extended a hand politely. “Of course, it’s nice to meet you, Persephone. Thank you so much for intervening to help my little sister, my daughter, and the others with that monster who attacked them.” 

With a little squeak of happiness, Persephone took Abigail’s hand in both of hers and eagerly pumped it up and down. Her smile was broad. “Of course, of course! I couldn’t let anything bad happen to my– I mean to Flick before I even got to know her! Because getting to know someone is very important whether it’s before something bad happens to them, or before you give them sweet and adoring nicknames. Which you aren’t supposed to call them until they say it’s okay.” She wasn’t quite ‘reading off the back of her hand’ obvious that time, but it was still clear that she was reciting what she had been told and didn’t fully understand it.

“Precisely,” Mom agreed, stepping closer before holding her hand out for all three of Cerberus’s heads to curiously sniff. “Everyone takes things at a normal pace and we all get to know each other. And whatever happens, happens. No one is obligated to do anything.” As she said that, Mom was looking directly at me, holding my gaze until I nodded with understanding. Finally, she turned her attention fully to Persephone. “Would you mind taking a walk with Sariel? She can show you where you’ll be staying. Everyone should settle down for now, and perhaps we can have you over for dinner tomorrow to meet Felicity’s father.” That last part was clearly added as a concession to show that she wasn’t actively trying to keep Persephone away from me. This whole situation was incredibly delicate and more than a little awkward. So far, the Revenant-Seosten had very cheerfully gone with the flow, and honestly seemed to be trying to accommodate us, as well as understand why we felt the way we did. It was obviously alien to her, which made me wonder how much of that was just the fact that she was what she was, and how much was the fact that she spent so much time alone. Even when Manakel had been nice to her, he still sent her away for extended periods.   

In any case, Persephone readily agreed before turning to me. Her voice was just as bright and cheerful as ever. “It has been very interesting to meet you, Flick! I’m glad I could help before, and I hope I can be helpful later too!” Her head was bobbing rapidly, eyes literally sparkling a bit with power. “I won’t say that I’m glad you killed my Mannikins, because I still really miss him. But I am glad that the person who inherited his gift was as pretty and nice as you.” 

Well, what the hell was I supposed to say to that? Opening and shutting my mouth as I fought to find words, I finally settled on, “Uh, well I’m glad you’re okay with uhh, with everything.” Yeah, wow, put that speech on a Hallmark card. Wincing, I rubbed the back of my neck self-consciously. “I mean, I’m glad you’re–I’m looking forward to getting to know you later.” God, what was with me being awkward about this whole thing? I mean, beyond the fact that it was super-awkward and confusing to begin with, of course. 

Thankfully, Persephone didn’t seem to notice. She just smiled and gave me a happy wave before skipping off to where Sariel was waiting. Both of them headed out the door together, leaving Avalon, Shiori, and me to give a full rundown of everything that had happened up on the ship to Abigail, Mom, and Professor Tangle. At first I wasn’t sure why the latter was there, but then I remembered that before she’d had that whole… situation the year before where she’d been in the hospital for so long, she had actually been the Explorer Track advisor for the first years. Explorers, as in the people who focused on going to other worlds and documenting everything about both them and the various new Alters they encountered. Yeah, I supposed her being involved in a conversation about a space pirate ship full of various strange and potentially brand new alien beings probably made sense. Especially once she started asking very specific questions about what and who we had seen up there. She wasn’t taking notes or anything, but I had the feeling she didn’t really need to. Between Abigail as a lawyer, Mom as sheriff, and Tangle as both a professor and someone who knew exactly what sort of questions to ask in this specific situation, the three of us spent the next twenty minutes or so being quite thoroughly interrogated about every little detail of our time on the ship. Not that it was bad or anything, just… very thorough. 

Finally, we told them that Doug and Theia had gone with Dare and Apollo to check on something back at the Atherby camp, and Mom said they would talk to that group soon. Then she offered us a smile. “Thank you, girls. I know it’s not fun to stand there and answer a bunch of questions, but you took it like champs. Why don’t you head on in and get some dessert or something? Then rest, it’s been a long day, and I believe everyone is going back to school tomorrow?” 

Abigail gave a firm nod. “That’s right, we don’t want everyone falling behind in classes just because you all managed to squash a genocidal cockroach. Besides, I may still be very new to all of this, but I’m fairly certain there will be plenty of excuses for more days off as the year goes on.” 

“Trust me,” I muttered, “you’re not that much newer than at least Shiori and me. And you’re probably right. Actually, at this point, the year going on without any more sudden interruptions to our class schedules would be so shocking I might just keel over.” 

“Which,” Avalon pointedly added in a flat voice, “would necessitate a change in our school schedule.” 

“Yeah, see?” I gestured. “Can’t escape it. So you’re right, we should probably go to all the classes we can manage while it’s an option.” I didn’t add that it would be nice to go back to doing something as normal as attending school again, after everything that happened with, as Abigail had put it, that genocidal cockroach. But from the look on everyone’s face, I didn’t have to. They already knew. There was a brief moment of silence before Mom reached out to squeeze my shoulder. “Go on,” she urged me. “Have some fun, get some rest, and be ready for school tomorrow. Plus, I think Tabbris and Columbus have something to show all of you.” 

That was right, Tabs had said they were working on something together. I’d forgotten, thanks to everything that happened on the ship. But now I was back to being profoundly curious about that whole thing. And hey, I could actually go find some answers now. 

That in mind, I gave my mother and sister both a hug. Then I hesitated before shrugging and giving one to Professor Tangle as well. Why not? After everything that happened last year, she could probably still use plenty of them. Hell, she was technically related to Avalon to some extent, but I don’t think the two of them ever really got into that. 

Once that was done, I followed Mom’s suggestion by heading out with my girls. Avalon, Shiori, and I made our way through the corridors before reaching the forcefield elevator leading down to the miniature town where the houses were. It was (simulated) night by that point, but plenty of people were still out walking around in groups or alone, and we ended up chatting here and there before finally making it to the house. Once there, I breathed in and let it out, smiling a bit to myself. 

“Everything okay?” Shiori asked, watching me curiously. 

My head bobbed. “Yup, I’m happy. This is two nights in a row I get to sleep in my own bed.” 

Nudging me a bit sharply with her elbow, Avalon retorted, “Let’s try to raise that to a much higher record than two, huh?” 

“That’s the plan,” I agreed while rubbing my side. “And now that I don’t have Fossor hanging over my head anymore, maybe it’ll actually happen. But hey, come on, I was promised a surprise from my little sister, and I aim to see what it is.” 

“Haven’t you had enough surprises already today?” Avalon demanded with a squint. 

“It’s okay,” Shiori quickly assured her, “this one won’t want to marry her. I mean, probably.” 

“You’re both incredibly mean,” I complained before heading toward the door. Before I got there, however, the sound of voices coming from the backyard made me adjust course to walk around the house. The other two followed, and we met a very excited Choo as he came charging around the corner, happily grunting and squeaking. Naturally, we stopped to greet the big pig, giving him rubs, pats, and scratches, much to his satisfaction as he snorted and tried to rub up against all of us at once. Shiori produced a half-full bag of popcorn from the theater and set it down for him. If he hadn’t already adored her, that definitely would have done the trick. He tore the entire bag apart getting to the popcorn, and ate the greasy remains of the bag itself too. 

Accompanied by one very happy Jekern, we continued around to the back of the house. As expected, Columbus and Tabbris were there. And they weren’t alone. Nevada was with them, along with Gordon, Jazz, and Eiji from next door. All of them seemed to be inspecting something that had been laid out on the table that we couldn’t see, and there was a spirited discussion going on about something that had to do with how ‘cool’ the something was. 

Before any of us could say anything, Nevada abruptly turned and gestured in my direction. “Well, why don’t we let the birthday girl herself decide how cool it is?”  

“Flick!” Tabbris jumped up from the table, half-falling over before catching herself. “You’re back!” Her surprise really showed just how intently she had been focused on whatever this project was, because she apparently hadn’t been paying attention to our connection. 

“Sorry,” I teased while nodding over my shoulder. “Should I go back? Maybe there’s another person waiting to fall out of the sky and declare us married. I could go for a guy this time.” 

That earned me a sharp jab in both sides from Avalon and Shiori. Meanwhile, Gordon and Jazz both stepped around the table to come more into view as they greeted us, with Eiji following suit. I didn’t know the huge Asian-Canadian boy that well, aside from the fact that he was the second-smartest person in our grade behind Vanessa. Well, that and he also had a rhino that transformed into a motorcycle (and a backpack), which automatically made him awesome. 

With a visible smirk, Jazz too-casually started to ask, “So Tabs was right? You went and got–” 

“I did not go and get hitched,” I immediately interrupted. “No one’s married. I mean, obviously a lot of people are married. Even around this station. But not me. I am absolutely and definitely not married to anyone.” After a brief pause, I amended, “Except possibly danger. I might be married to that. But that’s only because it’s hung around and been a part of my life for so long, it’s become kind of a common law sort of thing. Which is gonna make it really suck if I ever decide I can’t stand being around danger anymore, because then it’ll take half my stuff.” 

Everyone stared at me for a moment after that whole spiel, before Eiji leaned over a bit toward Gordon and quietly (but intentionally audibly) murmured, “I see what you mean.” 

Tabbris had already bounded over to where I was, catching my hand. “Is she cool, at least?” 

Feeling a slight flush across my face, I exhaled before nodding. “Yeah, she’s cool. It’ll be good to have her around. And she’s got this big robot dog with–” 

“Robot dog?” Now I had Columbus’s attention as he turned to face me, having been intently focused on doing something with whatever he was working on at the table. He had his goggles down, but I could feel his eyes staring at me intently. “You mean like a cyberform?”  

“Like a cyberform,” Shiori answered for me. “But not the same. Cerberus. You know, the Cerberus? He’s this big metal dog with three heads and he can fight ghosts and get even bigger. We didn’t get to see the big version yet, but she said it makes Amaroks look like his puppies!” From the sound of her voice, it was clear that the other girl could not wait to see something like that. She was incredibly excited about the prospect of Cerberus’s big form. 

Obviously, everyone had questions. Including Nevada. So, the three of us spent the next few minutes explaining what had happened. Not only with Persephone, but with the ship as well. They were all incredibly interested in that entire thing, especially when I brought up the anti-Whispers runes, and the fact that the person responsible for them was apparently an enhanced-intelligence troll who was looking for a ship connected to the original Tabbris. 

Yeah, that got a big reaction from my Tabbris. She wanted to know everything that had been said about that, absolutely everything. I repeated every word, and explained everything we had found out. Which was fair, considering he was her namesake. It just took awhile to get through, and I needed a bit of help from Shiori and Avalon. But eventually, the others were up-to-date. 

When we were finally done, Gordon was the first to speak, his voice as calm as ever. “Let’s hope they find this Occillo guy and he feels like answering questions.” After a brief hesitation, he added in a slightly quieter voice, “The Whispers are important to Douglas. Which means they’re important to the rest of us. I mean, his old team.”

“Damn straight,” Jazz agreed. “Doug gets real intense about those things whenever they come up. He doesn’t actually get into details about what happened out there, but it was pretty bad.”

Eiji had been sort-of standing in the background through all that. Okay, well, not really in the background. The dude was six and a half feet tall and built like a damn NFL linebacker. He may have been almost as academically inclined as Vanessa, but he looked like he belonged in the WWE or something. The point was, the guy was enormous and didn’t really ‘blend in’ very well. But he had been quiet throughout most of that, simply watching as we explained what had happened. Once in a great while, he asked a clarifying question. But it was clear that he had been brought up to date about most of this stuff at some point. Unsurprising, since he shared a house with Vanessa, Tristan, Koren, Sands, Scout, Aylen, Jazz, Jokai, and Gordon (and that boy-made-of-slinkies named Ruckus whom I didn’t know anything about but probably wasn’t relevant to this).  Between all of them, Eiji had been given enough details to follow along with most of this conversation, only needing a few bits of clarification.

Now, he spoke up. “If these Whispers are actually more widespread than that single contained colony world, they’re important to everyone.” 

Nevada gave a quick nod. “Exactly, gold star or whatever, Eiji. Sounds like we need to find this Occillo guy for several reasons, including getting everything he knows about the Whispers so we can be ready to deal with them.” Pausing, she added with a beaming smile. “Well, that and who doesn’t wanna meet a brilliant, intelligence-enhanced cyborg Indiana Jones troll? That sounds fucking awesome to me, and whoever disagrees gets an F in any of my classes.” A quick cough and correction followed that. “I’m kidding, nobody gets an F. Don’t tell Abigail I said that, she scares me.” 

We talked just a little bit more about that situation, before Tabbris finally bounced up and down eagerly. “Okay, okay, we get the point! Come on, let’s show her the new stuff. It’s all ready, right?” 

Exchanging brief glances with one another at that, Nevada and Columbus paused before the former nodded. She was grinning even more than she had a moment earlier. “Oh yeah, they’re both ready. I mean, you could probably get away with tinkering with them a little more, but it’s good enough. We can always make improvements later.” 

“What’re you guys talking about?” I demanded, looking back and forth between them. “And–wait, you called me birthday girl earlier. It’s definitely not my birthday. And I didn’t exactly have a great one this year anyway.” 

“That’s why we wanted to give you late presents,” Columbus informed me. “To make up for that. First, here.” He reached back to the table, taking a black metal bracelet thing and handing it over. “It’s like the one that Broker guy gave you before, the one that got broken or lost or whatever when Fossor took you.” 

Taking the bracelet, I blinked before asking, “You mean…” 

“He means,” Tabbris quickly put in, “it’s connected to Jaq and Gus! You can use it to see through their eyes, teleport them back to you, or teleport yourself to them.” 

“But that last one is only if you’re within about a hundred feet,” Columbus noted. “Sorry, we couldn’t get it out any further. You can still see through their eyes up to about ten miles though.” 

My head shook quickly. “Hey, don’t apologize. This is awesome. Amazing. Seriously, I missed this thing. Thought I’d have to track Broker down again to get a new one. I can’t believe you made one yourself.” 

“With some help,” Columbus reminded me, glancing toward Nevada. 

She, in turn, giggled. “Hey, not as much as you’d think considering how new you are to the whole thing. Pretty soon, you’ll be making this stuff by yourself.” 

“You can play with that later!” Tabbris informed me. “Now you’ve gotta see the big thing.” 

Raising an eyebrow as I attached the wristband in place, I asked, “This isn’t the big thing?” 

Prompted a lot of snickers and excited looks between everyone else beyond Avalon, Shiori, and me. Whatever this was about, they all thought it was really cool and couldn’t wait for us to see it. 

‘It’, as it turned out, was a pair of gloves. Dark blue and black gloves with a metallic sheen to them. Columbus passed the thing to Tabbris, who passed it to me, quickly insisting, “Put them on, put them on, put them on. Please?” 

Well, who was I to argue with her? Shrugging, I did so. Of course, the gloves fit me perfectly, like a second skin. “Well, I’m definitely styling now,” I announced while holding both hands up and wiggling my fingers. 

“Check the back of the right glove,” Columbus urged. 

I did so, blinking at the outline of a Great White shark that was emblazoned there. “Hey, it’s Princess Cuddles.” 

Quickly, Tabbris told me to run my thumb across it. So I did, and the emblem changed to that of a Mako shark facing one direction, while a second rub of my thumb switched it to a Mako shark facing the other direction. I had two Mako sharks, Brody and Quint. There were also emblems of the Lemon Shark Simpson, the Bull shark Sherman, and the gorgeous blue-and-white (I’d never been sure of his species) Jabberjaw. 

“Wow, pretty emblems,” I remarked. “But–” 

“It’s more than emblems,” Columbus informed me. “Check the left glove. Feel the little button against the side of your index finger? Push it with your thumb and hold it down.” 

It took a second, but I found the tiny little button he was talking about. There was a slight click when I pushed it. Nothing else happened, at least at first. But after about three seconds, I felt the emblem on my right glove grow warm. And then? Well, then Jabberjaw appeared floating in the air right beside me. I jumped, jerking that way and half-falling while most of the others snickered. 

I wasn’t crazy, and it wasn’t an illusion. Jabberjaw was floating there. Not in empty air, but in a bubble of water that was just slightly bigger than he was. As he swam in a circle around me, the bubble went with him.

Tabbris immediately explained, “See, the gloves generate a bubble of water, and summon the shark that the image on the right one is set to. Now you can bring your sharks with you to places!” 

As soon as he realized I was there, the beautiful shark quickly swam (through the air) over to me to get rubs. Hesitantly, I glanced to the others before getting a confirming nod that it was okay. Then I reached out, my hand passing through the bubble without breaking it so I could rub his head. “Oh my God, you guys really… you really made these just so I could bring my sharks around with me? Wait, I thought you said you couldn’t teleport living things further than a hundred feet with this tech.” 

“Yeah,” Nevada confirmed. “That’s why you need this.” She picked up what looked like a regular little vial with a sealed lid on it, handing it over. “Your sharks are in there. Bigger on the inside and all that. Believe me, it’s big enough that they’ll be fine. Just make sure you check their food supply once a week or so and add more fish.”

I was holding a vial that could fit in my pocket, and it had all my sharks in it. Not only that, I could use my new gloves to bring any of them out and let them float around me in a bubble any time I wanted to. Staring between the vial and Jabberjaw (who was interestedly swimming through the air over to where Tabbris was), I opened and shut my mouth a few times. “Guys, this… you… this is amazing. Seriously. You didn’t have to–but you really–” I swallowed hard. “Thanks.” It was all I could manage. At least, until another thought occurred to me. “Oh my God!” 

“What?” Columbus quickly asked. “What’s wrong? Did–” 

“No, nothing’s wrong,” I assured him. “I just thought of the best thing ever. Quick, give me a target.”

The others all looked at each other in confusion, but Nevada reached into her pocket and then tossed something. As she did so, it expanded into a full archery-like target before landing on the ground, rocking back and forth briefly. “That work?” 

“Yup!” I chirped. Then I waved to Jabberjaw. “See you soon, buddy!” With that, I pushed the button again and the bubble with him inside vanished as he was returned to the safety of the vial, which I had already set in my pocket. Then I stepped closer to the target, judging the distance before rearing back. In the process, I activated the glove once more. As the emblem grew warm, I cocked back my fist and then swung it a good three feet or so away from the target. In mid-swing, the bubble with Jabberjaw appeared once more, crashing through the target and breaking it into splinters. 

“Hah!” I blurted, a broad smile finding its way to my face. “Screw the falcon punch. 

“I can shark punch!” 

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Interlude 17B – Amber (Summus Proelium)

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The sound of someone aggressively clearing their throat made Amber O’Connell jolt a bit. That surprised twitch was followed by a brief, relatively minor shot of pain in her hand as her reaction made the mug she had been holding onto splash some of its hot coffee out. It was enough to make the dark-haired girl focus on where she was. Specifically, the rearmost booth inside Rosie’s Rascal, an old diner that had been around and owned by the same family since the sixties. Not that anyone called it Rosie’s. For unknown reasons, even though the name of the place was technically (and written on the sign and menus as) Rosie’s Rascal, everyone who went there regularly referred to the place as Rascals. Without the apostrophe, as in multiple rascals, not belonging to one in particular. Again, no one seemed to know why the moniker was pluralized that way when it wasn’t in the actual written name. It was just one of those things. You accepted it or you looked like a clueless tourist by calling it Rosie’s. 

With a hiss from the coffee splashing over her hand, Amber reached out to pick up a couple napkins. Belatedly, she realized she had been staring off at nothing for the past… several minutes, at least. It was a thought that made her wince a bit while putting the napkins against her hand as she turned to see who had been so intent on getting her attention. It was an older guy in an old blue navy coat that had seen better days thirty years ago and was now more patches than original material. He wore a tattered old beanie over his head, and the scowl across the man’s dark-skinned face was enough to make his annoyance clear if his intensive throat-clearing hadn’t done the trick. “It’s Thursday. I sit there on Thursday. It’s time for pie.” 

“Hey, hey, Earl.” The new (quite familiar) voice came from behind the man, as Jerry Meuster approached and put a hand out gently. “Come on now, let’s get you seated at this table right over here. I’ll spot you an extra slice of pie tonight.” 

While the public knew Jerry as the Minority Star-Touched Whamline, at the moment he certainly wouldn’t have been recognized as such. Rather than his dark army camouflage costume and gauntlets, the red-haired, muscular boy wore a heavily grease-stained white shirt with blue pants and an apron with the name of the diner scrawled across it. The Rosie’s in ‘Rosie’s Rascal’ stood for Rosie Meuster, Jerry’s great-grandmother. His family had owned and operated the place for all these decades. Jerry himself had basically grown up in the diner, and still helped out whenever he wasn’t busy with Minority-related things. The fact that his family owned the place gave him a ready-made excuse to disappear anytime he needed to without worrying about explaining things to a boss. 

Earl, however, shook his head stubbornly. “I don’t wanna go to another table. It’s Thursday. This is my table. It’s time for pie. This is where I sit. It’s my place. Our place. We sat here. She can’t, she can’t anymore. But I can. This is our spot. Thursday night pie. We sat here. I sit here.” 

A sharp pang went through Amber that had nothing to do with the coffee that had spilled on her hand. Immediately, she slid out of the booth. “It’s okay, he can sit there. It’s not a big deal.” 

Jerry looked uncertain for a brief second before giving her a grateful nod as she picked up her coffee and slid over into the next table. Mouthing his thanks, he turned back to the man in question. “Here we go, Earl. Have a seat. You want the pecan and a cup of decaf, right?” 

“Pecan,” Earl agreed, head bobbing a few times sharply and definitively. “That’s what I have. It’s Thursday, I have pecan and coffee. Decaf, can’t have caffeine, bad. She said it was bad. I can’t have it. You’ll make sure, right? You’ll make sure it’s not caffeine. Has to be decaf. Has to be. Sh–sh-sh-she doesn’t want me to have caffeine.” With each repeated stutter as he tried to force the word ‘she’ out, the man jabbed two fingers none-too-gently against his forehead. 

While Jerry gently agreed that he would get the pie and make sure the coffee was decaf, Amber found herself staring into her own mug. The same thoughts that had made her gaze off at nothing a minute earlier before Earl had interrupted were back. The same thoughts that had taken up permanent residence in her mind in the hour or so since Paintball had finished telling the story. 

Or rather… since Cassidy had finished telling the story. Paintball was Cassidy Evans. All this time, all the things they’d done, all that worrying about how some boy in middle school was supposed to deal with the secrets he was keeping, and it turned out that the ‘boy’ was actually Cassidy Evans, the daughter of literally the richest family in Michigan. Not to mention Amber’s classmate, whom she had spent plenty of time with over the past few weeks. The entire time, the entire time she’d known Paintball, Amber had also been spending time with Cassidy. And she never knew, she never even slightly suspected that the two were the same person. 

Part of that, of course, was the efficiency of the disguise. No one who knew Cassidy would think that she would willingly pretend to be a boy. It just… wasn’t who she was. She didn’t obsess over looking girly or anything, but it was pretty clear that being teased about it had bothered her for a long time. Which was why the thought that she would willingly and actively pose as one, to the extent of using a voice changer to even sound male, had never even occurred to Amber. 

But it went beyond that. So far beyond. Yes, Paintball was Cassidy Evans, but her family was part of–no, her family was the Ministry. They ran it, they founded it, they were the leaders. They controlled the Ministry and through that they controlled the city and had their hands in almost every Touched (Star and Fell alike) who lived there, to one extent or another.

It was, to put it simply, a lot to take in. The whole situation was so much to deal with. She had no idea how Cassidy had managed by herself for so long before even being able to talk to Izzy about it. And speaking of Izzy, how was she dealing with this whole thing? She was a kid. Yeah, technically she was only a few years younger than Amber, but still. Those were important years! And not only was she dealing with the Ministry thing, that was coming right after that whole horrible bit with her mother. So Izzy had to deal with the fact that her actual mother had tried to do that terrible, fucked-up thing, and the people she was living with were the leaders of the Ministry. It was just–it was bad. It was a lot to deal with for anyone, let alone someone as young as Izzy was. Amber had no idea how she or Cassidy were acting as normal as they were. With everything that those two were dealing with, it was practically a miracle that at least one of them hadn’t completely lost it already. 

Honestly, it probably shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise. The Evans were billionaires, with a b. The idea that they had absolutely nothing to do with an organization built around profiting off of the Touched in the city, and controlling as many of the teams as possible was… naive, at best. Of course they were the Ministry. In hindsight, it was obvious. They’d built their entire empire around the concept of building up as much of Detroit as possible. Who else would have the kind of funds and resources it would take to bribe, blackmail, and control as many people as the Ministry obviously did? Again, incredibly obvious now that she thought about it. 

Yeah, the whole thing was totally clear in hindsight. Well, not totally clear. She still had a lot of questions. Probably at least half as many as Cassidy herself had. God, Cassidy. What kind of pressure had that girl been under for all this time? It hurt to even think about. 

And then, of course, there was the question that Amber had been asking herself ever since she first started to find out what the Ministry did. They chose whether to either allow or disallow crimes, and to help the bad guys who paid them get away with what they did. So, what about the man who had stolen that car and killed her father with it in a hit-and-run? She still needed–no, she still had to know if the Ministry had anything to do with how effectively he had disappeared. There had been no real evidence to find the guy, and Amber was convinced someone had helped him. What if that was the Ministry, if it was Cassidy’s parents?  

And there was more than that. Even if they hadn’t intentionally allowed the man to escape, she refused to believe they couldn’t have used their resources to track him down. They controlled practically all the organized crime in the city, and she was supposed to think they were incapable of putting a tiny fraction of that toward making sure the man who killed her father faced justice? It might be different if they didn’t know her enough to actually know about her father’s death, but they did. They knew exactly who she was, and what sort of pain she had been through. They could have found the man. She absolutely believed they could have if they wanted to. Yet they hadn’t. And she couldn’t shake the feeling that the whole reason they hadn’t was so that she would be motivated. Because of course, they didn’t only control the crime in the city. They controlled the heroes too. They had to make sure there were effective Star-Touched to serve as deterrents against criminals who didn’t pay their taxes or whatever shit they called it. What if they had seen motivating Amber to train and work harder as more important than actually finding her dad’s killer? What if she had been spending all this time playing their obedient little soldier, all while they used her father’s death as motivation for her? All while using her grief to manipulate her. The thought of all the time she had spent with Silversmith, looking up to him, learning from him, thinking he was… that he was such a good example–She’d wanted her dad to meet him. God, the thought made her eyes water as she stared down at that coffee mug. She’d spent so long wishing her dad was still alive, and a not-insubstantial-percent of that time wishing he could meet Silversmith. She thought they’d get along. She’d thought–she’d thought… God, she was so stupid. 

Sterling Evans was Silversmith. That in and of itself was enough to send her reeling. The man she had looked up to as a mentor for a long time was Cassidy’s father. Yeah, she’d already basically figured out before all this that the Conservator leader had to be connected to the Ministry, given how much sense it made with the way Paintball had been acting. But this was a step beyond. Silversmith was Sterling Evans, and the founder/leader of the Ministry itself, along with his wife.

All of which made that whole fear that they had had something to do with letting her father’s killer escape even worse. She knew Silversmith, she spent plenty of time with him, learning and training under his guidance. And she had looked Mr. Evans in the face. He had once told her in front of the school, while taking something in for Cassidy, how sorry he was to hear what happened to her father. And now… now after all that, he might’ve been responsible for helping her dad’s killer escape? Yes, it was hypothetical, but… but even the thought of it made her want to scream until her throat tore, and then vomit. And if it turned out to be true, if it turned out that Sterling Evans really had allowed that piece of shit to get away? She didn’t know how she would be able to restrain herself.

And yet, she had to. That was the whole problem. Just like Cassidy and Izzy, Amber had no choice but to play dumb. She couldn’t let on that she knew anything, no matter what. And the prospect of that, of having to go on playing good little Minority soldier was just… hard. But if Izzy could do it, she could too. She would push her feelings and apprehensions down and play the part. For now, at least. But in the meantime, she was going to find out more. They had that secret base under the mall to check out. She would look for answers there, and once they fixed Paige and got her and that twin of hers into separate bodies, she would ask both of them what they knew about what happened to her dad. Paige knew all sorts of things about the Ministry, she might be aware of that. 

The point was, she was going to find out the truth. She had no idea what she would do with it once she had it, but she was absolutely going to get it, no matter what. And then… then she would go from there, somehow. But she had to know if the Ministry had intentionally allowed the man to escape (and profited from that directly) or simply neglected to bother finding him (and profited from it indirectly). 

She was still stuck in those thoughts, and suspected she would be for quite some time off and on, when Jerry sat down across from her in the booth with a curious frown on his freckled face. “You okay?” he asked quietly. “You’ve been staring at that coffee for so long you could probably let a baby swim in it without any problems.” Belatedly, he amended, “I mean, heat-wise. There’s still all the problems you’d have from having a baby swim in coffee. Can they even–” He cut himself off with a sharp cough. “It’s cold, is what I’m saying. You want a fresh cup?” 

For a ridiculous and clearly stupid moment, Amber considered telling him what was going on. Not about who Paintball was, of course. Just the Ministry stuff in general. She very briefly thought about it. But no, of course, that would be stupid. Stupid beyond belief, actually. She had no idea how much he already knew. She didn’t know how much anyone on the team knew. Except Jae. If Jae was involved with this stuff, Amber would eat every shoe in her closet. 

And yet, she couldn’t tell her either. She had no idea how the girl would react, even if she really didn’t know anything yet. It was just–it was too complicated right now. Besides, she had promised Paintb–Cassidy that she would keep everything secret. 

And if she wasn’t going to tell Jae, she sure as hell wouldn’t say anything to Jerry.  They worked together, fought together. She’d trusted him to have her back in very dangerous situations, and he had always come through. Beyond that, she had spent some time here at the diner while off-duty, enough that no one would think him sitting down to talk to her was weird. But despite all that, there was no way she could trust the boy far enough to tell him the truth. She’d trusted Silversmith too, and look where that had gotten her? 

All of that ran through her mind in a brief moment before she offered him a faint smile. “Thanks, that would be great. Sorry, I’ve just been thinking about my dad a lot lately.” That much, at least, was absolutely true. Which helped her sell the lie part of that response. 

Grimacing, Jerry gave a short nod. His hand moved to touch hers briefly. “That still sucks, Amber. Did they… I mean, did they find something new? I just–not that it couldn’t be on your mind anyway, but I just thought if they’d picked up some new evidence, or something that could’ve–I mean…” He made a face, shaking his head. “I’m sorry, never mind. Stupid question.”

After a brief hesitation, Amber swallowed. “No, no new evidence or anything. Just started thinking about him a little bit, and when I do that, it’s hard to stop.” She gave another very faint, wavering smile, trying to look as normal as she could. “It’s–okay, it’s not fine. It sucks, just like you said. It’s fucking awful, and I can’t–I can’t stop–” Cutting herself off, she exhaled, placing both hands flat against the table while making herself speak as clearly as possible. “I’d love some hot coffee, thanks.” 

“Sure thing.” For a brief moment Jerry hesitated before meeting her gaze. “And seriously, Amber, if you ever want to go talk about him, I’m down for that. Just to listen. I don’t–when I was little, my grandma died. I was only a kid, but I remember her. I remember how much it hurt to be at the funeral. And I remember it helped if I could talk about her. I just–sorry. It’s nothing compared to you and your dad. And I’m not exactly a therapist or even much of a friend. But like I said, if you want to talk about him, I can be quiet and let you say anything you need to.” 

Swallowing back the lump in her throat, Amber nodded. “Thanks, Jerry. If I need to talk, I umm, I’ll keep that in mind. And you’re wrong, you are a good friend. I just… I think I need to be alone right now so I can think.” 

Giving her a very slight smile of acknowledgment, Jerry stood and took the cold mug away. He stepped over to fill it up with fresh, hot coffee and set that down in front of her before quietly telling the girl it was on the house. Then he moved to help another customer on the opposite side of the diner. 

Not wanting to waste a second cup of coffee after how nice the boy had been, Amber made sure to sip from it while sitting there. She still had far too many thoughts and emotions running through her mind to be entirely healthy, but she tried not to get completely lost in them. Whatever ended up happening, whatever she found out about her father’s death and how much the Ministry had known about it, she would deal with it. She just had to take things one step at a time, and the first step was actually getting into that base. 

Well, okay, the first step apparently was making sure Cassidy and her new sidekick/partner didn’t end up getting themselves killed by investigating that girl who was supposed to know something dangerous about Pencil. Not to mention Pack. She… she couldn’t let anything bad happen to Pack either. And that whole situation made things even more complicated. 

With a long, heavy sigh, Amber took another gulp of coffee before glancing over her shoulder. The old man from before, Earl, was sitting in the other booth. His attention was centered on the half-eaten piece of pecan pie in front of him as he poked at it with a fork. He was muttering to himself, something about responding to words his obviously late wife had said at some point in the past. There was a tremor to his voice that made Amber flinch. She had no idea how long ago his wife had passed away, but he was obviously still deep in grief. How long had they been married? How long had he–

It was none of her business. Making herself turn away to stop gawking at the man so he could have the privacy he deserved, Amber focused on her own coffee once more. For a few seconds, she just stared at it. Would she be like that guy, sitting here thinking about who she had lost? Would she end up trapped in her memories like that? 

No. Not her. She didn’t blame Earl at all. Whatever happened to his wife, there was obviously nothing he could do about it. But she could absolutely still do something about her father. She could find out the truth, and make sure whoever was responsible got what they deserved. 

With that in mind, Amber drained the last of her cup and set it down before rising. She left a ten dollar bill on the table despite what Jerry had said and gave the boy a nod before heading for the exit. A moment later, she passed through to the street, as the little bell above the door gave a friendly jingle. 

Once out in the open air, Amber looked both ways while taking in a deep breath. Yeah, whatever happened next was obviously going to be dangerous, terrible, and hard. But at least she would be doing something. At least she would actually find out the truth, and handle whatever came with that. But for now, she was going to go home and try to get some actual sleep. 

Because the next few days were going to be pretty damn busy. 

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Reception 13-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Note, there was a Commissioned Interlude focusing on Chayyiel and Raphael posted a couple days ago. If you haven’t seen that yet, you might want to click the previous chapter button above.

An hour later, we met back up with Apollo and Dare in one of the ship’s enormous crew cafeterias. It was eerily empty of anything but tables and (randomly sized) chairs. But at least it was clean. Sparkling clean, actually, which totally went against the mental image I’d had of a place where space pirates would eat. I was pretty sure the whole place was pristine enough to perform surgery in. Seriously, we were the dirtiest things in that entire cavernous room.

Persephone was in a corner of the gigantic place, barely visible as she had some kind of conversation with both Cerberus and Andromeda while playing fetch with the former. She was throwing this large metal ball that was as big as her head, then watching as the robo-dog chased after it, his three heads taking turns (well, mostly taking turns, there was a little snarling involved now and then) to grab the thing before he brought it back to be thrown again. 

“Well,” Dare herself started after giving a curious look around the room that told me she was thinking the same thing about it being weirdly clean as I was, “Miss Chambers and Mr. Frey, why don’t you and the others start things off by telling us how your side of this investigation went? I take it you successfully summoned the captain’s ghost?” 

Glancing to the others for a moment, I nodded. “Yeah, with a lot of help to make it work without taking a lot longer.” My head shook then as I snorted, “Did you ever think you’d ask something like that back when I was still in your investigation track? You know, seventeen and a half years ago.” 

Her response was a raised eyebrow before the woman dryly replied, “I assure you, I learned quite early on in your time at Crossroads never to make assumptions about what sort of questions I would eventually be asking you. Among other things.” Her gaze moved to take in everyone around us, then the room we were in before admitting, “Though I will say that this situation is… perhaps a bit more than what I would have seen as my wildest imaginings.”

“Yeah,” Shiori cheerfully agreed while giving me a side-long look from nearby, “Flick does have a way of taking crazy situations and making them exponentially crazier.” The way she said it made it clear that she couldn’t have been happier about that. “But at least you’re never bored.” 

Theia, of course, piped up then with an equally cheerful, “Oh yes. Even while I still wanted to kill her, I never thought she was boring. Fighting her was a lot of fun. Actually, so was fighting you. Remember when the three of us were at Wonderland with the werewolves and you both had–”

“Okay!” I quickly put in, raising both hands before that could go any further. “I think that’s enough of a trip down memory lane for now. How about we focus on this whole Whispers thing, huh?” 

“Yeah.” Doug’s voice was a little tight as he gave a single nod. “I think that’s a good idea.” This Whispers thing was definitely getting to him. I couldn’t even imagine what it had been like to be in his situation. He and Sulan had accidentally released the creatures that killed… so many people back on the colony world where he’d grown up. And now he found out that this ship had those same anti-Whisper spells on it, implying that… what, that they had been here too? The idea that those things, whatever they were, could be somewhere else in the universe, that they could be anywhere and could possibly show up sometime, really wasn’t exactly doing wonders for him. 

Apollo, who had been standing up and pacing a bit back and forth at the far end of the table, apparently lost in his own thoughts and musings, pivoted on one foot to face us. “What did you find out from the captain’s ghost?” His voice was serious, one of the few times I had seen him without a broad smile or even a knowing smirk. This Whispers thing was important to him too. Probably because he was still trying to figure out what the connection between them and the Seosten was, given the way those spells affected his own people vaguely similarly. Plus, while the Whispers didn’t exactly possess people, they simply… well, whispered in their ears and drove them crazy violent. Seosten possessed and controlled their victims like slaves. Whispers were invisible creatures who drove their victims to do horrific things by constantly whispering to them. Maybe it was just coincidence that the same spells that blocked the Whispers from doing their thing to someone would also allow a possessed person to retain partial control of their body, but it all seemed a bit too coincidental. So yeah, no wonder Apollo wanted to figure it out. Sometimes I forgot that he had been a scientist for his people too. Being an incredible researcher was the whole way he and Sariel had even gotten started on this entire life, after all. 

After those thoughts passed through my mind, I realized everyone was waiting for me to do the explaining part. Avalon even nudged me gently while murmuring, “He was your ghost, you tell it.” 

“He wasn’t my–” Flushing slightly, I shook my head. “Never mind. Yeah, well, first the guy told us the same thing that Gala lady did. They limped their old ship in on its last legs and just stole this one from a refueling depot before leaving the survivors there. Well, most of the survivors.” 

That made Dare squint my way, her tone curious. “Most of them?” she echoed while casting a brief glance toward Apollo. He looked just as interested in that, but remained expectantly silent.

“Yeah,” I confirmed. “Most. I guess no one else knew about it, not even First Mate Gala. But there was one guy, a troll with these like… mix of cybernetic and magical intelligent enhancements or something. Motzer said his name was Occillo.” That was Latin for ‘smash’, but I didn’t need to tell them that. “He was supposed to be like… super-intelligent thanks to those enhancements. Not just for a troll, but anyone. Motzer said this guy was the smartest person he ever met.” 

“Sounds like someone I’d like to meet,” Apollo murmured thoughtfully before focusing. “But I can’t say as I’ve ever heard of a troll like that. I take it this Occillo wasn’t left behind with the others.” 

“No,” I confirmed. “Like I said, no one else knew about it, but he convinced Motzer to take him with and drop him off at another station on the way. He stayed in the captain’s cabin for the next week or so and got smuggled out in one of the resupply crates at some space mall or whatever. It was a big trading hub. The pirates dropped the remains of their old ship off and sold it for scrap, and while they were doing that, Motzer made sure Occillo got out safely and secretly.” 

Dare was frowning. “What did he trade for the passage that Motzer didn’t want the rest of his crew to know about? That seems like the only reason the two of them would go through so much trouble to keep his presence on the ship secret, even letting him stay in the captain’s quarters.” 

Doug and I both exchanged brief looks before I nodded for him to go ahead. After all, this whole thing was more his situation than anyone else’s. So, he turned back to Dare and Apollo. “Yeah, turns out Occillo was never part of the old crew of this ship in the first place. He just booked passage because he was trying to get to that trading hub. So he offered Motzer the same thing he offered the first captain, information about where something called the Pale Ship was.” 

Well, Apollo definitely had a reaction to that. I saw his eyes widen as he actually sat back a bit as if he’d been physically shoved. Suddenly, he was staring intently at us, his gaze switching from Doug to me and then back again. “He said that?” There was an intensity to his voice that hadn’t been there before. He’d been serious about this Whisper situation the whole time, but this was something even more than that. “With those exact words. He called it the Pale Ship?” 

“He used the Latin version,” I pointed out. “But basically, yeah. Why, is it something important? Motzer said we should ask you about it, because he didn’t feel like getting into the details. And Theia said she’s heard the term before, but never actually found out what it meant.” 

“To be fair,” the girl herself put in brightly, “I didn’t care at the time. It was something my mother was talking about to one of her subordinates who came to the house. I was supposed to be focusing on inscribing prototype spells on my bones to help me stop possessing people.” Sagely, she added, “It did not work the way she wanted it to. But I can do this!” Holding out her arm, she pulled the sleeve up and touched one finger to the space just past her elbow on the inner side. As she did so, a pair of half-moon and plus sign runes began to glow with a faint blue light right next to that spot. “It’s not actually useful right now, but if I ever find a way to possess an inanimate object, this’ll help me get unstuck.” In a stage-whisper, she added, “It only actually works on things that aren’t alive, and I can already get out of dead things just fine.”  

For a second, Apollo looked like he might pursue that whole prototype spell thing, mouth opening. Then he shook that off and focused. “Yeah, the Pale Ship. It was–” He cut himself off, considering briefly before asking, “You all know the story of Tabbris. The original Tabbris.” 

Blinking at that, I exchanged a look with the others before slowly nodding. “Yeah, Athena told Tabbris and me about it. He was the Seraphim guy who fought for better treatment of non-Seosten. When he couldn’t convince the other leaders, he bought an entire planet, surrounded it with every weapon and anti-Seosten defense he could buy, borrow, or steal, and let anyone who wanted to live there safely. And when that wasn’t enough, he gathered a bunch of magical energy from all the other Seraphim using traces from their own signatures so he could use their own power to make that entire planet disappear. Like, no one has any idea where it is, and they’ve never found it, even though it happened like a hundred thousand years ago. He literally erased its location from the mind of every person in the universe who knew about it and wasn’t living there. And from all the records and all that. His spell made all of that go poof.” 

That prompted a bit of conversation back and forth with the others about how exactly that worked, and I explained about Seosten putting bits of magic into their legal signatures and how Tabbris the Elder spent a Seosten decade (eighteen years of Earth time) attaching siphon spells to those signatures to gather everything he needed from the other Seraphim so he could make the entire Seosten leadership look like idiots, and protect everyone on his planet at the same time. And now he was basically a legend amongst the Seosten, while being seen as a fool by the leadership at the same time for ‘wasting all that effort’ to protect a bunch of non-Seosten. 

Finally, once I had explained all of that, I focused on Apollo once more. “And now that everyone is caught up, what exactly does all that have to do with some kind of ‘Pale Ship?’ Is the ship connected to this original Tabbris guy somehow? And why do they call it ‘Pale,’ anyway?”

The man rocked back on his heels, taking a breath before he started to explain. “Well, see, there was a ship–no one knows its name anymore for what will be obvious reasons– right on the edge of the area affected by that big spell. It wasn’t supposed to be there. He timed his spell specifically to put everyone he trusted inside the effects. But this ship, it was on its way out of the planetary system and they were running a few hours late. That put them right on the very boundary of where the spell was. They were sort of half-in the effect and half-out of it. It turned the ship and everyone on it into… well, sort of like ghosts. First of all, they were partially remembered. People knew the ship existed, and there were vague records about it, but no specifics. No one knew any names of the ship or the crew, only very general information.  And it wasn’t just facts either. The ship and crew were affected physically. Everyone who met them would forget them as soon as they were out of sight. They were invisible to spells and technology alike. It was as though they barely existed, and even then only when they were directly in front of someone. You could have an entire conversation with one, and the moment they were out of your immediate sight, you’d forget you ever saw them, along with everything you talked about. Even our enhanced Seosten memory couldn’t retain anything about them.”

“Hold on.” Avalon raised a hand, frowning. “If no one could ever remember actually talking to these people, how would anyone know anything about them? That doesn’t make sense. If your memories were always one-hundred percent erased, no one would know anything about it.” 

Apollo smiled faintly, giving a slight nod. “You’re right, that does seem like a bit of a contradiction, doesn’t it? See, Seosten memories are really hard to fool, and the crew of this ship were only half-affected by that spell. They’re ‘erased’ from our memories in the sense that we can’t consciously recall them, but the memories still exist. If we extract the right memories of those specific moments and examine them using magic, we can see what happened. Like…” He considered for a moment. “I know you’re a little young to have seen much in the way of human film projectors, but have you seen that thing where they take film and hold it up to the light to see individual images on each frame? It’s similar to that. When the memories are in our head, or the film is playing on the projector, we can’t retain it. But, if we take the memory out and hold it up to the light, or view it with a spell, we can see what happened. You understand?” 

“Uhh, yeah, actually.” A brief look with the others, I nodded along with them. “I think we get it. I mean, it makes sense in a magic way. So someone at some point checked their memory for whatever reason and that led to finding out about these ghost-Seosten or whatever they were.”  

“Pale,” Apollo corrected. “They were the Pale. Or rather, are. Yeah, it was a hundred thousand years ago, but we believe their descendants still exist, and are equally affected by that initial spell. They just stopped trying to interact with the regular universe and became incredibly insular. They stay on their ship, which they’ve upgraded over the millennia, travel where they want to go to collect food and supplies without anyone remembering them, and live separate from anyone else. They are, in effect, their own completely separate micro-society.” 

Dare spoke up then. “So this Occillo was supposed to know where the Pale Ship was. But you said it moves around a lot, that it’s still active.” She looked from Apollo to me. “So was he supposed to know where it used to be, or where it was going to go?”

“Supposedly he knew one of their common refueling and restocking spots,” I replied with a shrug. “According to Motzer, Occillo told him the Pale Ship used one main refueling depot whenever they could. He didn’t know exactly which one it was, but he had part of a journal from one of the crew members. And this crew member said something about marking a few specific spots in the main fuel depot the ship always used. There were descriptions about what kind of depot it was, the planets that were nearby, all that stuff. Plus the markings inside the depot. So Occillo tracked down all the possible places that would fit the descriptions and was checking out the insides looking for those markings. One of the options was the place where the pirates took this ship in the first place. That’s why Occillo was there, he hitched a ride on the ship from the first crew so he could check that place out. It just wasn’t the right one.” 

Squinting a bit, Dare shook her head. “Sounds a bit fishy, if you want to know the truth. This Occillo guy, a genius troll, finds a journal talking about how to find this long-lost mythical ship just by locating a few markings in a specific fuel depot somewhere? How could he be sure it wasn’t just some random guy making a fake journal to have a laugh at the expense of anyone who took  it seriously? What made Occillo or Motzer think there was anything credible about the thing?” 

Once more, the rest of us exchanged looks before turning back. Doug was the first to speak. “Apparently the journal pages he had came with a… what did they call it, memory marker?” 

“A spell on the page,” Apollo confirmed. “Touch it, say the right word, it puts a memory in your head.” 

“Well, this memory marker convinced Occillo and Motzer that this was the real deal,” I replied. “It was a memory of someone on that Pale Ship, looking around the bridge, then checking out the computer log and walking through some of the corridors. I guess it matched up enough with what they knew to take the whole thing seriously.” 

“We asked if that whole Pale Ship business had anything to do with the anti-Whisper runes that were all over this ship,” Shiori explained. “You know, if they were connected. Motzer said that Occillo was the one who put the runes around here, because the Whispers were looking for the Pale Ship too.” 

“He’s supposed to be some big adventurer chasing after intergalactic myths, like Space Indiana Jones or whatever,” I added. “Except Indiana Jones as a giant troll with a bunch of magical and cybernetic intelligent enhancements.” 

“In other words,” Shiori quickly piped up, “better Indiana Jones.” 

“Don’t say that around Hisao,” Dare murmured, “or you might have a fight on your hands. That man’s love of Harrison Ford, I swear to…” Shaking that off, she focused. “So he’s an explorer and adventurer who knows a lot about different myths across the universe, real and fake.” 

I nodded. “Yeah. He knew a lot of stuff about the Whispers, and said they were looking for the Pale Ship too. Apparently they also had a bone to pick with Occillo himself because of something he did a long time ago, but he wouldn’t get into it with Motzer.” 

“In any case,” Avalon finished for me. “He put the protective runes around the ship. So he’s the one we need to talk to if we want to find out anything more about the Whispers.” 

“And we do,” Doug immediately insisted. 

“And we do,” I agreed. “Unfortunately, that’s where we hit a snag.” With a sigh, I explained, “Motzer said he smuggled Occillo to some friend of his who lived on the trading hub. They were supposed to work together to track down that ship, but… that’s all he remembers. He thinks Occillo and his friend used some kind of bare-bones memory eraser that cut out details about who the friend was, what he looked like, where he lived on the station, all that. So he did all that to cut his crew out of the deal just to make himself rich, which meant that when his memory was erased no one else knew anything about it. He couldn’t tell his people about it or they’d know he was trying to rip them off. And he couldn’t explain why they had to stay longer so he could search the place top to bottom for the same reason. So they just had to leave. I mean, he asked around a bit but no one ever saw someone like Occillo there. He thinks there’s magical disguises involved, or maybe the troll just keeps to himself and plays dumb while he’s there. Easy for a troll to blend into the background pretending to be muscle for that friend of his. And that station holds millions of people. It’d be impossible to check everyone.” 

Dare summarized. “So Motzer helped this Occillo escape and smuggled him to a busy trading hub, but Occillo and a friend erased Motzer’s memory about who this friend was and where he lived, leaving our dear pirate captain with a station full of a million people to look through and no easy way to find them. I suppose that would be a problem.” 

I started to nod, then blinked. “Would be?” 

Apollo grinned. “Yeah, see, she didn’t know the whole story, but it turns out Gala paid more attention than Motzer thought. She followed them when he smuggled his new buddy off the ship. Made it all the way to the apartment and saw them go inside and meet this friend. They never saw her, so I guess they never wiped her memory. She didn’t know what it meant or why her captain was smuggling this guy around, but she made a note of it and started digging a little bit. Then all that stuff with Persephone happened before she could get anywhere with it.” 

“So… so she knows who Occillo’s friend on that station is, and where he lives?” Doug realized. 

“She does,” Apollo confirmed. “And now so do we. She shared that, along with about a dozen other possible sources of information. We didn’t know which one would be important. You guys narrowed that down, and got the answers about exactly who the guy was and why he’s important. Congratulations on that. I ahh, I’ll talk to Athena and see about having some of her people go track these guys down.”

“I want to go.” That was Doug, immediately piping up. “If these people know something about the Whispers–” 

“We’ll see what happens,” Dare informed him. “It’s not exactly a quick trip to the grocery store. Athena’s people have ways of getting past the barrier, but it’s– yeah, it’s complicated. Believe me, at the very least, we’ll talk to Sulan and get him involved. And when we find these guys, you can talk to them.”  

Doug looked like he was going to argue with that for a moment, before stopping with a soft sigh. “Yeah,” he murmured, “that’d be nice.” 

Dare’s voice was gentle. “It may take awhile to organize a group that can pass the barrier, go out to that station, find Occillo and his friend, and get actual answers. But we’ll get there, Douglas, I promise. And in the meantime, perhaps all of you can do the most shocking thing I believe any of us could possibly imagine. 

“Actually attend classes for a few weeks.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Commissioned Interlude 13 – Summer Roadtrips

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

The following takes places shortly after Chayyiel and Raphael arrived on Earth back in the very first Summer Epilogue. 

“Boy, it sure feels different to be back on Earth, doesn’t it?” The Seosten man asking that question had rather long, gray-blond hair that fell to the middle of his back. Had he been human, his age could have been estimated at anywhere between late thirties and early fifties. Though he was, naturally, so much older. He also stood six feet, seven inches tall. Despite his sheer height, however, he managed to not appear intimidating at first glance. His figure was not one of muscle and overt strength, but more lanky. Rather than thick biceps or any other sign of an impressive physique, the man was all elbows and knees. He appeared as though he should be clumsy, though a moment of observation would reveal just how coordinated he truly was. Gangly scarecrow in simple, stationary appearance, sinewy panther stalking its prey in actual motion.

He paused that motion then, in mid-step on his way across an unassuming-looking parking lot attached to a rest stop in the middle of nowhere at some point far north-east of Lincoln, Nebraska. This was where he and his companion had agreed to part ways for the time being. It was that companion whom he had been addressing, and looked to now. “But then, probably hits harder for you. I mean, after everything that went down between you and your old captain.” With those words, the man made a point of flicking a little dust off his clothing. He wore loose-fitting jeans and an open Hawaiian shirt over a white tee-shirt, with sandals completing the look. “But hey, just gotta brush that off and move on.” As easily as he had brushed his clothes, apparently.

Chayyiel, of course, almost couldn’t have looked more like the tall man’s opposite in so many ways. She was a quite short, slender girl with short, pixie-style black hair. While he was tall and gangly, she was small and compact. Where his hair was long, hers was very much not. Even their clothes were quite different. His gave the appearance of being open and casual, just an ordinary man on vacation. She, on the other hand, wore military camo pants, boots, and a black turtleneck with what looked like miniaturized SWAT body armor. It looked as though she was about to go trick or treating as some sort of military Special Forces agent. 

Feeling the man’s gaze on her without looking that way, Chayyiel simply replied, “That was a long time ago, Raphael. A lot has changed since those days.” She kept her voice purposefully flat, looking across the lot and to the empty highway beyond. No cars were passing, nor were there anywhere in sight. And given the remoteness of this area, none were likely to be seen any time soon. The lot itself was empty, save for one vehicle, a fancy, gleaming red Porsche, which looked incredibly out of place. It wasn’t even parked in an actual spot, instead sitting right in the middle of the lot directly ahead of them. The top was down and one of the doors was open. 

“Hah, ain’t that the truth.” Raphael gave a low chuckle. “I think you’ve gotten even scarier, for one.” He gave her a wink before adding, “Not as scary as I can be, but you know, still pretty good.” 

“If I knew we were competing,” Chayyiel informed him casually, “I would have brought a Uelphec mask. Maybe that would have pushed me over the line for the judges.” 

Raphael squinted at her briefly before giving a loud laugh. His hand patted her shoulder. “See that? That’s why you and I can get along.” He walked to the car then, bringing a hand down to tenderly rub along the hood with a murmur of appreciation. “And speaking of getting along, these humans do know how to make some gorgeous transportation, don’t they?” 

“That and many other beautiful things, I’m told,” Chayyiel replied simply. She made no secret of the fact that she kept close eyes on Earth despite not physically being on-planet for so long. She had her own contacts who kept her up-to-date on what happened here, and how things were developing. A few of whom were known, but many were entirely unidentified. 

In one motion, Raphael swung himself down into the car and closed his eyes, giving a groan of appreciation at the feel of the leather seat. “Oh yes, that’s the stuff right there. Excellent, just the way I asked for it. Seat’s even heated.” His eyes opened once more to look at her. “Sure you don’t wanna stick with me a bit longer? We could take a joyride and see where the road takes us. You and me together here on this world? Even if our people weren’t already in charge, we’d rule the planet in a day. Less if we made a contest out of it.” 

“Thankfully, the world doesn’t need conquering,” Chayyiel replied dryly. She let that hang in the air briefly before adding, “And I think we’re both going different ways right now.” The Seosten girl stepped back then, giving a very short nod. “Enjoy yourself, I’ll find my own ride.” 

Shrugging, Raphael started the car with a key that had been left there by the contact who had delivered it for them. “Suit yourself. Looking forward to hearing all about the business you attend to here.” He revved the engine loudly, a smile spreading across his face. “At least, the parts you actually talk about!” 

With that, he shifted into gear and hit the gas, pulling out of the lot. An instant later, the car was tearing off down the road before it quickly disappeared from sight. Chayyiel could hear the man’s loud, excited whoop over the sound of the roaring engine before both faded off in the distance. 

He was gone then, and she was alone here on Earth. Just the way she had wanted. Yet the girl didn’t move immediately. There was no rush for her at this exact moment. She knew where she was going next, but she had over an hour of leeway and her destination wasn’t far. For the moment, she was going to take advantage of that extra time and let herself breathe. Learning not to totally suffocate herself under the weight of her responsibilities had been one of the most important things she had picked up from Apollo. It was, perhaps, the only reason she had survived as long as she had with everything she had taken on. More than her absurdly potent power to absorb skills and identify weaknesses, it was learning to back away and take a few minutes for herself that truly saved her from that crushing impulse to keep working at all times. 

With that in mind, the girl turned and walked to the nearby vending machines. She stood there, examining them curiously for a moment before drawing a field-engraver from one pocket. In a few quick strokes, she drew a simple rune on the side of the machine. Her fingertip touched it as she spoke a word. As soon as she did that, the spell activated, immediately summoning all abandoned human money (defined as human monetary currency that had been on the ground for at least one day) within thirty miles of this secluded spot. Given how out-of-the-way the place was, she was prepared to extend that radius if need be. But a small pile of money appeared on the ground at her feet. It came out to roughly sixteen dollars, and she put most of that away for later before buying herself a human soda and a bag of chips. 

With that done, Chayyiel took a sip of the soda and considered briefly. Yup, it was even better here on Earth then the ones she had been sent by Apollo. Then she started walking. Not out to the road, but off into the forest. With her soda and chips, the girl strolled casually into the trees, disappearing from the practically-abandoned rest stop, once more leaving the place empty.  

*********

Raphael didn’t slow down any after leaving the site of the rest stop. He was here on Earth to do a few things, and one of the most important (in his mind anyway) was to have fun. He’d worked for far too long not to give himself a break, at least now and then, to just cut loose. After all, what was the point of working so hard to stop Fomorians from destroying the universe if you weren’t going to give yourself a chance to enjoy what was in that universe? Sometimes, you just had to take the time to remind yourself of what was worth putting so much effort into protecting. 

So, with the top down and the human vehicle roaring pleasingly around him, the Seosten man pushed the pedal to the floor and enjoyed the sensation. It wasn’t exactly comparable to using his wings to fly wherever he wanted to go (the wings didn’t provide any lift, they just allowed an unlimited energy source for a simple flight spell), but it was still quite enjoyable in a different way. He could certainly see why so many people on this planet liked this sort of thing. 

Yes, having a couple of the Seosten who had previously been stationed here on Earth give him a course in how to pilot–err, drive these human vehicles before he made the trip was definitely worth it. He would have to send a bonus to those two. And another to the one who had ensured that such a… wonderful example of a human vehicle was provided for him.  

He had been racing down the highway for about thirty minutes, occasionally blowing past another vehicle here or there (particularly the big trucks with heavy trailers hauling supplies in what was a fascinatingly low-tech, non-magical solution to transportation issues) when the sound of a loud alert siren from behind him caught Raphael’s attention. Moving his gaze from the road ahead to the mirror, he watched the black and white human vehicle with the flashing red and blue lights. Ah, he knew what this was. Local authorities attempting to enforce lower speeds out of some idea of what would be safe. And provide monetary relief to their own coffers in the process. Understandable, yet he had neither the time nor inclination to deal with such mundane, unimportant matters. 

To that end, he didn’t slow down. Instead, the man reached out to touch the dashboard with one hand. Summoning just a small fraction of the power provided by his (still unsummoned) wings, he carefully sent that power into the vehicle. Part of it went to surround the wheels in a protective shield, while the rest was sent to boost the engine. 

The effect was immediate. The human vehicle went from doing about two hundred and forty kilometers (a hundred and fifty miles) per hour, to abruptly doing more than twice that. In a fraction of a second, he was suddenly moving down that highway at speeds far beyond anything the human authority vehicle could even dream of reaching. The flashing red lights disappeared from the mirror as the car rocketed onward while Raphael gave a loud shout of exhilaration. This, this was why he’d come to this world. He had needed a break, and the humans were providing that, however unknowingly. 

At those speeds, it didn’t take long for him to reach a more populated area. The almost empty road led to a much busier one with six different traffic lanes going each way, and he was soon weaving the blindingly fast car around other vehicles. A laugh escaped the man as he twisted the wheel just in time to avoid clipping the rear bumper of a truck, missing by fractional centimeters. The near-miss did nothing to discourage him, of course. If anything, it made Raphael feel even more alive and excited. This was so much better than driving along an empty road. And so it continued like that, as he poured a little more of his own power into the vehicle to both reinforce the materials and boost its speed further. With that, he reached almost four hundred miles per hour. At those speeds, he had to use a bit of his own Seosten boost to ensure his reflexes could keep up with the rapid changes in obstacles, weaving in and out of traffic, around various other human vehicles and even onto the spaces on either side of the road. Through it all, the man laughed joyously. This was so much fun. 

He hoped Chayyiel was enjoying herself even half as much as he was. The kid deserved that. 

*******

For fifteen minutes, Chayyiel continued to walk through the forest while enjoying the soda and chips. Once both were gone, she took a moment to incinerate the empty packaging with a spell. At that point, she appeared to be in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by trees on all sides. Turning in a circle, she took a moment to observe the area around her, comparing it against the directions she had received from one of her contacts here on this planet. Freshly oriented, the Seosten girl continued to walk for another five minutes before reaching a small clearing surrounded by short pine trees, with a line of blue-white wildflowers growing next to a log. Yes, this was the right place, according to that contact. And she trusted him implicitly. 

To that end, she stooped to pluck a small stone off the ground before pursing her lips to give a low, melodic whistle. As she did so, there was a quiet rustle in the nearby bushes before a humanoid figure with dark red skin and an interesting pattern of tattoo-like lines over his body emerged into view. His voice was a whisper. “Ylegni, you weren’t supposed t–” He cut himself off upon realizing that the signal did not come from the man he expected after all. But, before he could react, Chayyiel gave the small stone a quick toss, ricocheting it off a nearby tree before it struck the man in the side of the neck. He immediately collapsed as the rock struck the exact point needed to in order to leave him temporarily paralyzed. He could still breathe, but only in short, shallow gasps. 

Stepping over to stand over the man, Chayyiel took a knee while he stared at her in open-mouthed confusion, sucking in as much air as he could. Her voice was quiet. “I’ll have more to say to you in a few minutes, but you can stay here for now.” She produced a small metal disc roughly the size of a coin and placed it on his chest before activating the spell attached to it. Immediately, a series of golden wires emerged and wrapped around the man to ensure he wouldn’t be able to move even once the temporary paralyzation wore off.  

That done, she reached into his pocket and plucked out a large red key. The man stammered curses at her, but she ignored them and stood to walk over to a nearby boulder. There, she found the little hole where she’d been told it would be and stuck the key inside. After turning it, a literal mundane-looking human door appeared in the middle of that small clearing. Chayyiel plucked out the key, walked to the door, and turned the knob. It opened, before she stepped through, disappearing from the clearing. A moment later, the door itself vanished as well, leaving the red-skinned man trussed up on the ground, helpless to warn his companions about what–or who– was coming their way. 

******

Over the next forty-five minutes, Raphael pushed that car as hard as he could. It was held together only thanks to his own power shielding it from the stresses he was subjecting the vehicle to. He managed to get it up to five hundred miles per hour, and might have gone even further than that, but he was rapidly approaching his first destination. So, the man gradually and reluctantly slowed down while watching out the passenger side as he neared a small town. Eventually, he spotted the building he’d previously seen a hologram of, and parked right in front. Just like when he’d picked the car up at the rest stop, he didn’t bother using a spot. He was really only vaguely aware of the concept anyway, and finding a space between two lines sounded boring. Raphael didn’t really do boring, especially while he was eighty-five percent on vacation. 

So, he left the vehicle right where it was and stepped out before glancing up to read the sign next to the door of the building. Sure enough, it was the veterinary clinic he had been looking for. At least, that’s what the place claimed to be. In reality, they did a fair bit more than that. 

Whistling an old song from his homeworld, the lanky man strolled to the door and opened it before stepping through. There were several people in there, with an assortment of animals waiting to be seen. A few barked, meowed, or chirped at him when he appeared, and their owners, along with the receptionist (who was clearly not human, with her dark pink scales and four separate eyes spread equa-distant across her face), looked up. As usual when seeing him for the first (or even second or third) time, they stared a bit longer than was necessary. As tall and gangly as he was, mixed with his long hair and general Seosten attractiveness, he was accustomed to gazes lingering. 

Raphael, in turn, offered a faint smile. “Well, hello there,” he greeted the entire room casually. “I know this might be a bit of an inconvenience, but I’m afraid I’m going to need all of you to leave with your little friends.” He raised a hand to point toward the receptionist. “You can stay.” 

The group, naturally, didn’t move at first. There were a couple more scattered barks from half-hearted animals who seemed just as confused as their owners. Raphael wasn’t surprised, but he also didn’t really care to take more time out of his day explaining anything to these people. So, he simply raised his voice. “Sorry, are you all having trouble finding the door? It’s right there.” With those words, he pointed toward the entrance. As he did so, one of his golden-white wings made of pure energy flared out, sending a blast that utterly annihilated both glass and metal doors as well as two feet of wall on either side and a bit of the ceiling. 

That got everyone’s attention nicely. Every animal was going nuts while the people themselves screamed. Raphael, meanwhile, simply gazed at them while keeping his hand raised to point at the hole he’d made. After that brief moment of shock, everyone ran for the exit, taking their animals with them. Well, save for one man, who abandoned his own medium-sized canine cowering under the seat as he fled for his own life. 

For a moment, Raphael frowned after that last guy. But before he could decide what to do about it, the sound of the receptionist rising to her feet caught his attention. He heard the clear sound of a standard-issue Seosten laser rifle charging up for a shot, and his second wing flared to life, crossing over to cover his left side in plenty of time to intercept the blast.  

“Oh no, no, no, not–no!” The clearly not-human receptionist, who was backing away from the desk with her weapon raised, kept babbling. Her tail was swinging wildly behind her. “Not one of you, not one of you, why are you here now?! It was almost done! We were almost ready!” 

“I think you just answered your own question there, Chief,” Raphael informed her. His wing intercepted another flurry of desperate shots, before transforming into a pair of long, golden-energy whips. They lashed out, cutting through the woman just before she would have been out of sight through the corridor leading to where the vets operated. Without even time to scream, she was disintegrated. 

Raphael first started that way, only to adjust his course. He walked across the waiting room lobby to where the animal had been left. It was still cowering under the chair, and he crouched to get a look at the thing. He was aware enough that the general species was referred to as dogs, but had no idea what its actual breed was, with its brown and white fur, stubby legs, and wrinkled face. As the animal whimpered, Raphael slowly put his hand out, holding it there until the dog sniffed. It then sniffed again, its whimper turning to one of confusion and uncertainty rather than fear. The Seosten man waited until it had calmed down a bit before carefully picking the dog up. It whined a bit more, but soon calmed down. 

“Hello there…” Trailing off, Raphael held the animal away from him, checking the undercarriage. “… boy. Your owner sure didn’t care about you, did he?” Shaking his head in disgust, the man pivoted and began to walk back toward the hallway leading to the vet operating rooms once more. “Let’s go deal with these bad people, shall we?” 

Within three steps, two more beings of the same species as the receptionist popped out with weapons of their own. They were instantly disintegrated by a single blast from one wing, which also took out a solid portion of the wall there, revealing an empty restroom. 

Now Raphael could hear people shouting, weapons being drawn and charged up, and various magical spells being chanted. Tucking the dog under one arm, he continued that way with a smile. “That’s right, boy. 

“Let’s have some fun.” 

********

Ten minutes after stepping through the magic doorway, Chayyiel emerged once more into the clearing. She was using a spell to clean blood and slime off her gloved hands, while the red-skinned man she had paralized and then tied up stared at her with wide eyes. “Wha-what the three hells did you do?!” he demanded, angrily squirming in a futile attempt to get free.

Chayyiel, in turn, simply walked over to crouch next to the man. Her voice was quiet. “My friend told me that you weren’t aware of what was actually going on in there. That’s why I spared you.” 

“What was going on?!” the trussed-up man echoed in disbelief. “What do you mean? They were making medicine for sick people, for sick Alters who can’t go to a hospital and risk seeing Heretics!” The outrage was evident in his voice. 

Rather than argue with him, Chayyiel simply turned to look over her shoulder at the door. As she did, a figure came through, followed by another, then a third, fourth, all the way to ten. All of them were emaciated, weak-looking people, an assortment of species including three humans while the rest were different. They wore ragged clothing and had dark circles under their eyes. 

“Wha–who the hell are they?!” the bound man demanded. 

“Prisoners,” Chayyiel informed him. “The people you worked for did create some medicine. But their primary purpose was to experiment on humans and Alters alike, attempting to create drugs that could be used to simulate the human bonding power to give any being the power of any other.” She paused before pointedly adding, “They were unsuccessful, and the more they failed, the worse they put their subjects through. These were the ones who weren’t either dead, or too far gone to move. I’m calling in some people to take care of those. And you..” She gauged his reaction briefly. “You truly didn’t know.” 

As the man stammered that of course he didn’t, she rose and spoke a single word that made his magical bonds vanish. “Stay here with these people. When the people show up to take care of things, tell them everything you do know. Help them go through things down there.” 

With that, she took a moment to assure the terrified former prisoners that everything would be okay, that everyone who had been torturing them in the name of their experiments was dead, and that people would be there soon to take them somewhere safe. Then she turned and started to walk away.    

“Wa-wait!” the red-skinned man called. “Where are you going now?!” 

Pausing briefly, she replied, “I’m on vacation. 

“I’m going to Disney World.” 

*******

It took roughly five minutes for Raphael to finish clearing out the lab hidden under the vet clinic. As the receptionist had protested, their little group truly had been close to their goal. That goal had been to construct what amounted to artificial Fomorian bodies (based on the records from the Fomorian invasion and a few samples they had dug up) with all of their immunities and abilities, and stick their own minds inside of them as a total physical upgrade. 

But now those people, their lab, their records, and all of the samples had been wiped from the face of the universe. After Raphael left the building with the dog still under his arm, he turned back and let his wings expand to either side of his body at full normal extension. With a blinding blast of energy, the building itself was erased, every trace of it wiped away to leave nothing but a deep hole in the ground where the lab itself had been before all of that was destroyed a minute earlier. 

Well, there was one thing left from the clinic. From his pocket, Raphael plucked out a book of different dog breeds that he had grabbed on his way. Flipping through the little book with one hand, he found the right entry before looking at the animal under his arm. “Says here you’re an English Bulldog. That right?” As he asked that, the now-familiar sound of sirens filled the air as human authority vehicles approached. Raphael, however, ignored them aside from glancing that way. He stepped down into his car, setting the dog on the passenger seat. Only then did he notice the metal tag on the collar. Lifting it up, he read, “Conroy? No, I don’t think so.” His head shook while he started the car and peeled away from the remains of the clinic. “I lost an old friend a long time ago. Been thinking about him a bit lately. 

“Think I’ll call you Zad.” 

******

A week later, Chayyiel had suited action to words. She had hitchhiked her way from Nebraska to Florida. Well, not exactly hitchhiked in the strictest sense, as most of the rides she had taken had no idea she was there. Between a combination of hiding in the back of trucks or simply using a ‘forget me’ spell while seated directly beside the driver or in the backseat, she had made the long journey in relative comfort. 

Not that she enjoyed taking advantage of people that way, but having the appearance that she did made certain things complicated, particularly here on Earth. It was better to avoid having well-meaning humans attempt to help the ‘lost little girl,’ whom they would undoubtedly believe was running away from home, or some such thing. Not to mention those who would have their own much less altruistic intentions toward what they saw as a helpless girl. Those people she would happily erase from existence, but it would still be yet another complication. 

So, she avoided all of that by keeping herself hidden and hitching rides from unknowing strangers. And she did, at least, pay for her rides in a manner of speaking. Before leaving each ride for a new one, Chayyiel made sure to do something that would help them. For a few, that meant using a combination of magic and acquired mechanical skill to fix things in their car. For another, it had meant trading a couple coins of stored magical energy to the Alter who ran the nearby convenience store in exchange for a pile of groceries to leave in the passenger seat. Or even helping to find a child’s lost toy and returning it for them. And so on that went, as she did what little things she could to pay for the rides, even if the people involved didn’t know anything about it. She knew, and that was important. 

For those intervening days while traveling, Chayyiel had simply enjoyed watching the scenery. She had been away from Earth for so long, yet kept up with what was happening and how the world was developing. She saw it in holograms, in ordinary pictures and videos, even simply in stories from those who spent time on the planet. But now she was here, and for those days, she appreciated silently watching the countryside of this small, out-of-the-way world pass her by.  It reminded her of old times. 

And now, as the ancient-yet-youthful Seosten girl had said, she was here in the middle of Disney World. One of their famous turkey legs was held lightly in one hand while she gazed around at all the sights that surrounded her. Yes, this place certainly lived up to the hype. Of course, she wasn’t merely here for entertainment. As in most things she did, there was a more important purpose to her presence at the park. But that could wait. For the time being, she simply began to make her way to one of the rides. Yes, this would all be considered incredibly mundane and ordinary next to Seosten technology, to say nothing of actual magic. Yet there was a charming… innocence to this place that she enjoyed. It was an opportunity to, at least temporarily, shut out all of those pressing responsibilities that threatened to consume her every waking moment and enjoy something simple. For a few hours, she was able to relax and simply go with the flow. She went on rides, played games, watched people enjoy their own vacations, and ate as many of the delightful human treats as possible. Ice cream, pretzels, cotton candy, funnel cakes, french fries, she tried all of it. And that turkey leg. 

Eventually, the time for fun and games was over. The sun was beginning to set, which meant the true reason she had come here would be starting soon. With a small sigh of regret that things had to turn serious once more, Chayyiel made her way through the park to a small, innocuous-looking area with a blank wall near one of the gift shops. Without bothering to check if anyone was looking, she approached the wall and tapped six particular bricks in a specific pattern. Immediately, a doorway appeared in the wall, and she stepped through to enter a rocky tunnel sloping downward. Torches glowing with magical flames lined both walls. 

“Back to work,” she murmured quietly to herself before starting her descent, as the doorway sealed itself behind her once more. In the distance, the sound of a large group of people chanting magical words filled the unnaturally cool air. 

Good, she was just in time.  

******

Raphael was having the time of his life. Well, okay, not really. After all, he’d had a very long life filled with a lot of fun. But it was, at least, a very pleasant personal holiday, even if bits of work were mixed in. Such was the life of most Seosten, let alone those as powerful and important as one of the six remaining Dyeusai (what the humans called archangels) in the universe. Even when taking a well-deserved break, there were still important things to be done. 

Still, that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy himself while doing it. And while he wasn’t literally having the time of his life, he was making the best of his time here on Earth. He had visited a literal Bystander rodeo in Texas, had snow skied at the glacier in Hintertux, Austria, taken two sight-seeing tours of London, one the Bystander version and one guided by Alters (they were pretty understandably nervous about his presence, but took him on the tour anyway). He visited the Lourvre in France, had a meal and shared stories with an indiginous tribe of mixed humans and Alters in Brazil, went flying through the Grand Canyon, and went diving in Australia to see the Great Barrier Reef. 

He’d done all those things and more over the course of a few weeks. And through it all, he had his new favorite companion, the incredibly loyal English Bulldog he had named Zad. Whoever Zad’s former cowardly owner had been, Raphael didn’t care. The dog was his now, and would be staying with him wherever he went. He’d taken the time to enchant Zad’s collar with various protective spells (fixing the name on the tag in the process), and stuck a few Seosten technological surprises in it as well. 

Eventually, he stepped out of a cabin in the isolated wilderness of Alaska, calling back over his shoulder, “Yeah, well think about that the next time you decide to try to use the energy from an ancient artifact to give yourself the power of a demigod so you can rule half a planet.” Pausing, he amended, “Or don’t, cuz of the whole, you know, being dead now thing.” 

At his feet, Zad gave a loud bark of agreement before growling back the way they’d come. 

“Good boy,” Raphael praised, leaning down to rub behind the animal’s ears the way he liked. “But don’t worry about her. She’s all gone now. You and me… what do you think of another round of that… Korean barbecue like last week?” 

The answer from Zad was a little growl that turned to a whine as his head tilted. 

“Yeah, you’re right,” Raphael decided, rising to step down off the porch. 

“Burgers it is.” 

************

A few minutes after descending her way into the tunnels under Disney World, Chayyiel stood over an assortment of bodies. Two dozen dead figures in red-gold robes stained thoroughly with their own blood (of a wide variety of colors to go with their various species), which also leaked out in wide puddles across the dirt floor. 

A single, heavily wounded survivor slumped against the nearby wall, holding his stomach in. His eyes were wide as he stared at her. “H-how… dare… dare… you interrupt… the ritual.” 

“Well, usually, I would’ve sent one of my… friends here on this world to handle your kind, but I happened to be in the area,” Chayyiel informed him before making a show of ‘realizing’ something. “Oh, the emphasis there was on ‘interrupt,’ not ‘you,’ huh? You want to know why your ritual was interrupted, not why I specifically did.” She shrugged, moving to crouch next to him. His hand lashed out with a blade that jumped from the sleeve of his robe, but her hand was faster, snatching the weapon out of his grasp without blinking or taking her gaze from his. 

“So, I get it. You and your little cult here had the bright idea to use the Fountain of Youth buried under this place to power your spell. Not a bad idea. I mean, the fountain’s still powerful enough to send out an aura over this entire area that tends to make people feel like kids again. More energy, more optimism, just… more innocent and wide-eyed wonder. So you figure, if it can affect over fifty thousand people a day like that, it must be strong enough to give your summoning spell the oomph it needed to call on your personal chosen god. And yeah, you’re probably right. Unfortunately, your personal chosen god happens to be a monstrous abomination that would’ve killed about… hmm… half the people in this state before the Heretics managed to contain the situation.” 

“Never!” the injured cultist snapped. “The Cackling Fade would never be contained! Her shroud will spread–” 

“I don’t need the spiel,” Chayyiel interrupted with a sigh. “The point is, you’re not doing that. I happen to prefer this world unshrouded. So your Cackling Fade will have to find another summer home. And that ought to be long enough.”

“Long enough for wh–” the cultist started, before Chayyiel’s hand moved to slit his throat with his own blade. 

“Long enough for the energy you already put into the ritual to dissipate so your death won’t finish the spell as the final sacrifice,” she informed his dead body, then rose. Her gaze took in the corpses that littered the ground, before she tossed the knife aside and turned to start out. She would make a call and get someone to come and clean this place up, as well as put some more security in to protect the fountain. 

Leaving the tunnels, she stepped back out into Disney World proper. Hmm. Maybe she could go see that electrical light parade before leaving this place. It was supposed to be pretty good. 

And after all, she was on vacation. 

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Interlude 17A – Sherwood (Summus Proelium)

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At a glance and without advance knowledge, the subdivision would appear to be picturesque, a true example of upper-middle class prosperity within the greatly thriving city of Detroit. The area was a gated community, consisting of ninety-two houses spread across ten blocks. At the entrance to the neighborhood, once one pulled past the gate and entered the subdivision proper, a street ran to the left and to the right. Straight ahead was a medium-sized park with a winding hiking trail, a pristine playground for children, and a very well-cared for soccer field and baseball diamond. Directly in view of anyone entering the community through the main gate, at the corner of the park, was a large wooden sign with the neighborhood’s name of Pinewood Hollow proudly and boldly written across it. 

At least, it had once said that. At some point much earlier, the ‘Pine’ part of the sign had been crossed out and painted over in white. Then ‘Sher’ had been spray painted in green over it. The word ‘Hollow’ had been left intact, but someone had added ‘Enter, all ye who are’ above that part. Now, rather than a simple, polite and joyful sign welcoming people to Pinewood Hollow, the sign read, ‘Sherwood – Enter All Ye Who Are Hollow.’ 

With that altered sign and the park lying straight ahead as one passed through the gate, the entrance street ran left and right (west and east). At either edge of the park’s width, a street extended perpendicular to the first, both running to the north with the park on one side and various homes on the other. The west-east street at the entrance continued beyond that in both directions, each extending past another block before curving northward as well, with homes on both sides. The two streets continued on to the end of the subdivision before curving back to the west or east respectively, where they joined up once more. The two streets that ran along either side of the park’s length connected with the newly rejoined streets at that end as well. 

The result, essentially, was that the main street formed a large, rounded rectangle, with a square (the park) taking up the entire center portion of that rectangle, two streets running up the length of either side of that park, and homes with large front and back yards filling the rest of the space. 

Also filling up a lot of that space? Trees, bushes, shrubs, flowers, grass, vines, and every other sort of plant imaginable. The neighborhood was one of the greenest, most colorful in the state of Michigan. There were plants found in that single neighborhood that could not be found anywhere outside of exotic greenhouses and the like in the rest of North America. 

Ninety-two houses. Ninety-two families. And somewhere within those ninety-two homes lived most, if not all of the members of the Fell-Touched gang known as Sherwood. A group of Touched individuals who, as a general rule, despised most forms of modern technology and preferred nature and wildlife. They also obsessively protected their relatively small and contained territory of this single neighborhood, and it was impossible to effectively keep any secrets or surprises in the area from them, thanks to the spies they had in both plant and animal forms. When the tree outside your house, the weeds your police cruiser drove past, the simple vines wrapping around the edge of the welcome sign that a Star-Touched landed on top of, or the bluejay sitting atop a nearby telephone pole watching your whispering huddled group could all be reporting back to the loyal Sherwood members, it was quite difficult to get anything past them. 

Police and authorities had tried, of course. They raided the neighborhood with Star-Touched assistance now and then. But nothing ever came of it. By the time they got anywhere, there was no evidence of any wrongdoing to find. Whatever people in the neighborhood knew, they refused to provide information or testimony to the police. For some, it was a fear of retaliation. For others, it was loyalty (or perhaps Stockholm Syndrome). The neighborhood might have been ruled by a gang of Fell-Touched, but it wasn’t bad living there, so long as you stayed within Sherwood’s rules. Those essentially involved forcing people to keep their lawns neatly trimmed, their flowers, trees, and other plants well-watered and fertilized, and so on. But they didn’t actually hurt the people who lived there, so long as those rules and others like them were followed properly. You were allowed to do what you wanted within your own house, as long as you kept the single houseplant you were sent by the gang in a central location and took care of it. 

It was, in most cases, quiet and peaceful in the neighborhood, with beautiful scenery and some quite interesting wildlife wandering through or living within the park and surrounding forested area. Not to mention the fact that Sherwood managed to keep any other gang from ever entering their territory, which prevented the people who lived there from having to deal with problems like Oscuro or Ninety-Niner violence. If you could live with taking care of the plants and knowing that anything you said could be spied on by random animals, grass, and flowers, it wasn’t bad. 

One of the largest houses in the neighborhood, located at the furthest spot away from the entrance gate, and directly across from the north end of the park, belonged to Trey Fosters and his three children. The eldest was twenty-year-old Micah, the youngest was thirteen-year-old Errol, and the middle child was seventeen-year-old Arleigh. 

It was Arleigh Fosters, that last-mentioned, middle child, who stood in the (quite expansive) front yard of the four-story house shortly before ten at night. The tall, blonde girl was rapidly texting several of her friends back at Cadillac Preparatory School, fingers dancing over the screen so rapidly that one might have expected to see smoke begin billowing up from it. She was, in fact, so intently focused on her texting that the girl failed to notice the large (six foot four and quite muscular) figure stepping out of the thick tree directly behind her. Silently and slowly, the person reached out toward her, hands extending until his fingers were mere millimeters from touching her exposed throat. His narrow smile could barely be seen glinting in the dim light from a nearby street lamp as he prepared himself… and then struck. 

“Booga!” With that cry, he grabbed onto her neck and shoulders and started to shake the girl.

“Gaaaah fuck you!” Jerking forward out of the man’s grip, Arleigh spun to face the figure behind her, pointing. “Fuck you, Micah! Fuck you, you stupid, ugly piece of shit! Stop doing that!” She hated her older brother’s power to both manipulate and transport through plants. Or rather, the way he abused it to always get the jump on her. Micah had always lived to make her jump and scream, from the time he was eight and she was five. And probably before then, but she couldn’t remember back that far. The only thing that had changed now was that he was very good at either using his power to sneak up on her, or getting leaves to tickle her ear, branches to tap her shoulder, roots to rise up and grab her feet, and so on. 

Glaring at the twenty-year-old fucking child as he doubled over laughing hysterically, Arleigh snarled a bit before pointing both hands. As she did so, a semi-transparent teardrop-shaped forcefield appeared all the way around him. It was about six feet from front to back and eight feet tall. A moment after the teardrop forcefield materialized around him, Micah had time to blurt a brief curse, before he was suddenly pummeled by hurricane-force winds and rain. The wind slammed him up into one side of the forcefield, then reversed course to send him crashing into the other side. No sooner had he struck there than the wind shifted entirely to come down from the ceiling, knocking the young man prone against the ground. And all the while, freezing rain thoroughly soaked him. 

“Okay, okay, Jesus Christ, Arleigh! Get over it!” her brother shouted from inside the field. Even as he said that, Micah was slapping his hand against the lawn. At his touch, the grass that his sister was standing on grew over a foot so it could wrap around her ankles and yank hard to knock her to the ground. That was enough to disturb her concentration so that he could punch the forcefield and shatter it, escaping its confines even as the heavy rains and winds stopped. That was Arleigh’s power. She created small, contained forcefields and could create severe weather effects within them. But the forcefields were weak if she wasn’t intently focused on them. 

To the other members of Sherwood, and the public at large, he was Landscape and she was Clime. Their father, Trey, was better known as Hemlock. His power, at its base, made him a powerful hydrokinetic, able to mentally manipulate water. But it was more than that. Any water the man put under his control could then be altered into various poisons, toxins, and venoms. And what amounted to drugs. It was that latter ability he used on the water that went into the houses of the neighborhood, providing what he referred to as ‘just a little happy juice’ that made those who drank it enjoy living there a little bit more. 

Fear that Hemlock could poison the greater water supply before they stopped him was another thing that stopped the police from pushing too hard. If they stopped him while committing a crime, when they could see him in plain sight, that was one thing. But invading the Sherwood stronghold neighborhood and tearing everything apart? Giving him nowhere to run would create a nasty situation. 

Micah and Arleigh’s father was even heavily responsible for how well the plants in the area grew, ensuring they received all the water they could need. And healthy, nutritious water at that, suited specifically for each individual plant species. 

And yet, as important as Trey/Hemlock was to Sherwood as a whole, he was not the leader or founder of their organization. Sure, he was the second-in-command, and often led in the field. He spoke for the leader in many respects. 

But he wasn’t the true guiding force of the gang. These weren’t his troops. This wasn’t his neighborhood. 

That honor and title belonged to Sequoia, the founder and leader of Sherwood. Sequoia’s own power involved infusing plants (or pieces of them) with various effects that could be triggered by various means such as touching them, ingesting them, or even inhaling their scent. The effects Sequoia could create varied wildly as well. Some gave temporary powers (including the ability to grow to enormous heights), or created explosions, poisons, and so on. Some could even heal. The bigger the effect, the more time and focus it took. The power was quite expansive, allowing for a lot of variation so long as the appropriate time was taken to fill each leaf, twig, flower, and so on with the desired effects. Not to mention his… more elaborate powers. 

Sequoia was the true leader of the Fell-Gang, yet Hemlock tended to do the talking, thanks to a rather… unique situation involved. 

As soon as both siblings had recovered, they each lunged to their feet. Micah was holding out both hands. “Truce, truce, damn it. God, why don’t you learn how to take a joke?” 

“And why don’t you learn how to leave me the fuck alone?” Arleigh shot right back. “You didn’t even–oh damn it, Micah, my phone!” Reaching down to where she had dropped the phone, she cursed once more upon seeing a large crack across half the screen. “Look what you did!” 

“Dude, you get an allowance of like five hundred dollars a week,” Micah retorted. “And that’s before you add in whatever you skim off the take whenever we get a good score. And even if you were completely fucking broke, just get the kid to fix it. Not a big deal.” 

“That’s not the point!” With that declaration, the blonde girl raised her hand as though she was about to trap her brother in another weather-field. Seeing that, Micah instantly hopped up and then dropped through the grass under his feet to disappear off… somewhere else. 

“Yeah,” Arleigh shouted after him even though he could have been anywhere within a half-mile radius, “you better run!” With a muttered curse, she looked at the crack on her phone and considered before turning to stare up at the leftmost window on the third floor of the four-story house. 

“Obnoxious, isn’t he?” 

The deep male voice came from the nearby telephone pole, making Arleigh jolt and jerk that way to find herself staring at a small owl that was perched there. Unlike with her brother’s interruption, however, she didn’t snap at the talking bird. Instead, she swallowed before giving a little nod. “Sorry if we disturbed you, sir.” 

“Disturbed me?” the owl echoed, then abruptly flew up from the pole and glided silently off into the night. 

“Nonsense.” That time, the voice, identical to the first, came from near Arleigh’s feet. She looked down to see a chipmunk perched there, gazing up at her while continuing with, “Siblings annoy one another and fight. This is the way of the world.” With that, the chipmunk chittered and then abruptly took off in a panicked run to get up the nearby tree. 

The nearby… Sequoia tree. 

Not that it was the only one in the neighborhood. Indeed, there were over a dozen of them within the formerly named Pinewood Hollow.  Sequoia trees planted back when the housing division had first been built, by an enterprising developer who thought having some of the gigantic trees within the subdivision would attract attention. Of course, it would take the trees quite some time to reach their full height and width (and some would almost certainly be cut down or moved before then). In any case, most believed that the Fell-Gang’s leader had taken their name in honor of one of those rare trees. But the truth was a bit more… direct than that. 

Yes, the leader of Sherwood, the true founder of the gang of nature-based criminals, was a Touched tree. Gifted intelligence and powers, with the ability to move (albeit quite slowly and deliberately to the point that it would take an entire day to cross a football field), Sequoia the tree had lived on these grounds since before there had been an actual neighborhood here. They (though the voice used sounded masculine, Sequoia preferred the gender-neutral they) and Arleigh’s father had both become Touched on the same day, at nearly the same moment. They had worked together since then, with Sequoia becoming what amounted to an uncle or aunt for Arleigh and her siblings. 

They may have been incredibly slow, and lacked anything in the way of a mouth to speak, but Sequoia got around that through the use of their powers. Not only did the natural materials they empowered grant special benefits, if something of less than human intelligence ingested them, Sequoia gained the ability to control and speak through them. And even when the affected animals weren’t being actively controlled, they still followed the directions they were given, acting as minions for the tree so long as they stayed within a certain radius. That, of course, was another reason the neighborhood was so secure. All those animals who could be spying on its residents at any time did so under the control and direction of Sequoia themself. 

“Go on then,” the tree-Touched spoke through a third animal, this one a small deer that stepped through the nearby bushes and stared at the girl. “Run and get your phone fixed. Perhaps later you can show me more videos of that funny cat.” 

“Oh yeah, sure.” Arleigh was about to say something else before stopping herself. With a shrug, she turned and headed for the door before making her way through her family’s home. She trotted up the stairs two at a time, calling out in the direction of the kitchen for the cook to make her something spicy to eat and that it better be ready in twenty minutes because she was starving. The fact that it was ten at night was immaterial, of course. They had people working in the house around the clock. There was always someone in the kitchen ready to make whatever they needed, what with her family’s odd hours. 

Despite being the second-in-command of a group whose entire mission statement revolved around hating technology (not to mention having the actual leader literally planted in their back yard), Arleigh’s father actually didn’t. Nor did Sequoia, as a matter of fact. Despite being a plant themself, the tree-Touched was fine with technology, so long as it didn’t cause them direct problems. 

It would’ve been pretty hard for Trey Fosters to hate technology as much as Sherwood claimed to anyway, given the fact that he’d made his fortune from his involvement in the Taurus shipping company. Taurus both maintained and delivered high-tech equipment, including Touched-Tech prototype stuff. These days, the Evans owned the majority of the company (like they did so many other things in Detroit), but Trey Fosters had been one of the first investors, and still held enough of a stake in them for the family to live far more than comfortably in this enormous house. Not to mention his continued involvement in the company’s ongoing growth as they expanded their business across the continent and became the name associated with safely getting expensive technology from one place to another.

The point was, no one would believe that a man involved in a business like that, particularly as heavily as her father was, would be such an integral part of a group that was so rabidly anti-technology. And that was the point, of course. That had been the very reason Trey and Sequoia had come up with this gang plan together in the first place. It was the perfect cover for their overall plan. A plan they had presented to the Ministry leaders, eventually making Sherwood indispensable to that organization.

Essentially, Arleigh’s dad used the gang to carefully target companies that rivaled his, or refused to do business with them, or even just to convince a wavering client that they needed Taurus. He wasn’t stupid about it, of course. Trey made sure to have his own assets get hit enough that it wouldn’t be immediately suspicious. But even that was helpful in the long run, as he would simply write off anything that was ‘stolen’ or ‘destroyed’ and then collect on the insurance while selling the items and equipment themselves on the underground market. In some cases, the items that they stole from other companies were even analyzed and reverse-engineered so that Taurus (or a different company linked to them) could come out with something similar or better. Naturally, Trey made sure to have a few items stolen from them end up making their way to Taurus’s rivals to avoid suspicion. And proceeded to make even more money off forcing those rival companies to pay for the stolen tech. 

There was, of course, the question of why a gang like Sherwood would allow someone as connected to technology as the Fosters were to live in their territory. But Trey solved that issue by insisting that the house had been his late wife’s (Arleigh’s mother’s) dream home, a house designed from the ground up by the woman herself. She’d died of cancer within six months of moving into the house a little over fifteen years earlier (in the very same incident that had led to both Sequoia and Trey himself becoming Touched), and he made a show of refusing to leave the home his dead wife had put so much of herself into designing. Instead, he paid what amounted to protection money to the gang (ignoring the fact that it was his own gang, of course) so they would leave his family alone. The authorities (those who weren’t corrupt themselves) still thought he was crazy, of course. And they were also somewhat annoyed that he was essentially handing cash and resources to a known group of supervillains. He, in turn, played up the angle of a still-grieving husband (even fifteen years on) who refused to let go of his wife’s memory and would pay anything to keep himself and their children in that house.

In any case, to the outside world, the Fosters were simply a rich family who were paying a good bit of extra ‘rent’ to a gang of fanatical nature lovers for permission to continue to live in the home designed by the deceased wife/mother. The true aim of Sherwood, to control the creation and distribution of technology, remained obfuscated behind their stated mission of hugging all trees, destroying all computers and cars, or whatever it was people thought they did. 

Sometimes playing the part of a tree-hugging flower girl hippy while in costume was hard, but it was a good way of concealing her actual identity, Arleigh had to admit. Just as no one believed that the leader of the nature-obsessed Fell-gang was one of the main investors and leaders of a company based entirely around protecting technology, there was also no one who was going to guess that a girl whose cell was basically glued to her ear and who always drove the the latest model car (to say nothing of having the fanciest electronic toys) was an enthusiastic member of that gang.

Of course, even with all of that, there were decent investigators who might have stared very intently at their family. But one more major thing protected them. That was the Ministry themselves, who made sure to keep any such investigation from going too far. And, of course, warned Arleigh’s father about them to help him set up airtight alibis. He and his children would appear on one side of the city in front of plenty of witnesses while Sherwood hit a convoy on the opposite side of the city. Body doubles and holograms were quite good for that sort of thing. 

In the end, the plan that Sequoia and Hemlock had come up with all those years ago had served to make them a very important piece of the Ministry’s ability to control the city so effectively. Essentially, Sherwood and Braintrust were two sides of the same Ministry-connected coin. The latter group were a bunch of Tech-Touched who helped keep the Ministry themselves fully equipped with the latest and greatest toys, while simultaneously driving away or recruiting almost any other Tech-Touched in the city. 

Sherwood, on the other hand, focused on destroying or driving away any technology that the Ministry didn’t want in the city. Or simply secretly acquiring it and passing that tech to their sister gang of Braintrust. The Ministry gave them targets to hit and Sherwood did so, under the guise of hating all that stuff. Braintrust and Sherwood were both actually quite close, a tight-knit group of allies. But in public, they were often at one another’s throats. It helped to play up the illusion.  

Finally approaching the door to the room whose window she had been looking at from outside, Arleigh spoke up as she took those last few steps. “Xanah, tell the brat I need to talk to him!” 

There was a brief pause before the household computer assistant demurely acknowledged the request. That was followed by a slightly longer pause as it clearly passed the message inside. Finally, the door opened and Arleigh found herself looking at her younger brother. Thirteen-year-old Errol was scrawny to the point of looking unhealthy, with glasses and enough of an asthma problem to require constantly keeping an inhaler nearby. His blond hair was stringy and stuck out in every direction no matter how much he attempted to keep it under control (not that he tried that much anymore), and he almost always wore tee-shirts advertising old cartoons from the seventies and eighties. Or, more seldomly, newer cartoons. But mostly the old ones. 

Blinking at his big sister a few times, Errol hesitated before asking, “Uh, yeah?” His tone was wary, given how seldom either of his siblings wanted him for anything good. He was, in many ways, the black sheep of the family. 

Still, Arleigh gave him an encouraging smile. “Hey, Dorkfish, need you to fix my phone.” She held it up and waved the cracked screen in his face. “And you better hurry, Sequoia wants to see more cat videos.” 

“Umm, okay,” the boy started carefully, “but the last time I fixed something for you, you said you’d take me to the aquarium. We still haven’t gone, and that was like two weeks ago.” 

Arleigh rolled her eyes. “Okay, Jesus, don’t be so dramatic about it. Look, fix my phone and we’ll go the day after tomorrow. I’ll even drive us out to get something to eat after, all right? Now would you just do your thing, please?” 

With a small sigh that said he already knew he would probably regret it, Errol took the phone from her. Holding it in one hand, he pointed his other hand at the screen and focused. Three pulsing waves of nearly invisible, very pale-blue energy emanated from his palm. The first wave, upon hitting the screen, made about a quarter of the crack disappear. The second erased most of the rest, and the third finished the job. Finally, the phone looked as good as new. Not just as far as the crack went, but all the smudges were cleaned off, a bit of dirt that had been on the side of it from being dropped on the ground was gone, and the whole thing gleamed as if it was fresh out of the box. 

Grabbing the phone from her brother with a blurted thanks before ruffling his hair a bit too hard, Arleigh darted off with it. She was already texting her friends once more, jumping right back to that conversation. 

For a moment, Errol watched her go. Then he exhaled and turned to walk back into his room. On the way through it, he glanced over to where his discarded dirty jeans from earlier lay on the floor next to an overturned book, a scattered (and slightly bent) set of collectible trading cards based around famous Star-Touched, a plate with a crack in it from where he had dropped it, and his dirt-caked shoes. 

Reaching out with both hands, the boy focused. Several more pulsing waves of energy emanated from his palms. As the waves hit the items on the floor, the bent cards were straightened and returned to look as good as new before shuffling themselves together and back into the nearby box. The crack in the plate vanished before it floated up to rest on the desk. His dirty jeans looked like they had been through the wash and dried, even folding themselves properly before the nearby drawer opened and they flew up into it. His shoes were equally clean, and slid backward into the closet before that door closed. And the overturned book flew up to land where it belonged on the nearby shelf. 

Fixing things. That was Errol’s power. But it was more than that. His gift ‘put things together and in their proper place.’ It fixed damage, cleaned objects, moved them where they belonged (or as close as they could get to where they belonged within a relatively small area), and even organized them. He could shuffle a deck of playing cards a dozen times, then use his power and the cards would organize into their proper new-deck order. Or, alternatively, he could make them appear in any order he wanted. He could organize things by color, size, date, whatever. He fixed and put things in their proper place. 

It was also a power that had nothing to do with nature, a fact that annoyed their father given how out of theme it was. Which was just par for the course, really. Errol didn’t fit in with his family in any other way, so why should his power be any different? At least Sequoia thought it was cool. 

Sighing once more, the boy sat back at his computer and hit the button to turn his webcam back on. “Sorry,” he started, “it was just my sister. Where were we?”

“That’s okay,” his homework partner assured him, “I think we were on number seventeen?” 

On the computer screen, Izzy Amor shook her head while lamenting, “I’m sure glad you understand this algebra stuff, cuz I’m completely lost.” 

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