Month: May 2022

Growth 18-10 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Denny was the first to find her voice as we all let the realization of what we were going to have to do sink in. “Um, if your–I mean if this Mr. Ecclestone guy was murdered too, was it in this room?”  She slowly looked around, an apprehensive look on her face. “You said this was his, like, apartment, right?” Her gaze lingered a bit on the Nintendo system by the television before she turned back to the robot man. “O-or was he killed somewhere else?” 

I had a pretty good idea of what was going on inside her head. The subject of murder coming up had to be making her think of all the people Ammon had killed. And not just think about. She had his memories. It wasn’t like reading a book about it. This wasn’t academic knowledge she picked up from studying horrible things. She essentially experienced the murders first hand, as though she had actually done them herself. Which, on the one hand, had to make this entire thing incredibly uncomfortable, to say the least. But on the other hand, it might also give her a unique perspective about the situation. Well, I supposed it was unique either way. But it might help, was the point. 

Shaking those thoughts off, I focused as Sitter replied, “Master Valdean Ecclestone was not killed in this room. His murder occured in the kitchen area. If you would like, I will escort you to investigate the scene.” 

“Wa-wait!” Marina blurted as she exchanged a quick, wide-eyed glance with me. “You mean the murder scene hasn’t been cleaned up yet? It happened years ago, right? What would–I mean that must…” She trailed off, turning a bit pale at the obvious thought of what a scene like that would look and smell like by this point. Honestly, I couldn’t blame her.

It was Dakota’s turn to speak up, her voice faltering a little, “Why would you just leave it like that? Wait, are people still using the kitchen? The ones who weren’t murdered, I mean.” Like the rest of us, she looked like she was going to be physically ill. 

Dakota had her own unique perspective on this whole thing, of course. She had been even more of a child than she still was when Kwur had forced her entire family to murder each other. She had… helped to kill several people she loved, and watched even more of them kill one another. When I thought about how I would have developed if instead of just having my mother disappear, I had been forced to participate in Mom, Dad, Grandpartie, and Grandmaria all killing each other and trying to kill me, I just… I couldn’t. And now she had developed powers connected to the monster who had done that.

Well, okay, that part we had in common. And she was putting her acquired gifts to the best possible use by helping to give the Eden’s Garden rebels working apples. But still, there had to be a lot going on in her head. Especially right now. 

Was that weird? Was it odd that I had ended up trapped in this place and needing to solve these murders alongside these two in particular? They did have an awful lot of personal and unique experience with homicide. To be fair, it wasn’t as though Heretics in general were exactly strangers to the concept of killing. But still, they were different. 

Sitter’s mouth-lights shifted to a bright blue glow. “Aha. I do see where some misunderstandings have occurred. The crime scenes, as you might put it, have been frozen in time. When the first murder occurred, Master Valdean wished to maintain the integrity of the scene. So he had the room time-locked, a stasis field positioned over it so that no one could enter and the… body itself would remain in the exact condition within which it was found.” He turned a bit to look at the door he had come through. “When the second murder occurred… when his murder occured, I chose to lock down the entire vault. This would preserve both crime scenes, as well as prevent any other murders from occurring until the investigators arrived.” His head tilted slightly. “I did not anticipate it taking quite this long. But you say there were outside influences preventing our message from being passed along?”

Absorbing that, I took a second before blinking. “Wait, you mean this whole bunker is–every spot except this room is frozen in time? How long have they been like that?” 

“Every other room is, yes,” Sitter confirmed. “Those areas, and my own chambers, lie beyond this room. Each individual’s chambers, and all of this facility’s two-hundred and eighty-seven guests themselves, have been time-locked for decades now. My decision to lock them down came in the mid-nineteen nineties, just after my master’s murder and a few weeks after the first death.” 

“That’d probably put that first murder just before the Rebellion eraser,” I murmured with a nod. “We were right. So for all of these years they’ve just been frozen? They don’t have any idea that any time has passed?” 

“They were unaware that they would be locked down in their rooms,” Sitter informed me. “I chose not to inform them of my plans, or my reasoning.”

“So you just froze them in time for decades with no warning?” Sesh demanded. Her finally speaking up after the past several minutes of silence reminded me that she too would have her own unique perspective on murder. After all, being the daughter of Fahsteth would mean that she’d seen plenty of it. She’d grown up around it, even if she had ultimately rejected her dad’s ways. I had no idea how much time she’d actually spent around him, to be fair. But I was willing to bet that she had more than her fair share of horrible memories to deal with. Which made her yet another special person to happen to have with us on this little trip. We were just lucky, I supposed. For a certain definition of the word. 

Sitter was shaking his head, the mouth lights shifting to a very soft yellow. “Leaving them unaware of what was about to happen was the only choice I believed I had. It was the easiest way to go about things without giving undue warning to the murderer. I do regret such actions for most of them, yet it was necessary to preserve both their lives and the crime scenes as they were. The murderer, whoever they may be, has not had any opportunity to kill again.” 

Right, well, that was a fair point. Still, I wondered how the guests themselves would feel once they were unfrozen and found out how much time had passed. They had willingly, as far as I knew, come to live in this vault away from everyone. So maybe they didn’t have families out there waiting for them. Either way, however, I was pretty sure they would have some pretty strong opinions about blinking their eyes and suddenly finding out that decades had passed. 

“We can let them out, right?” Marina put in a bit hesitantly. “I mean, we can unfreeze them?” 

Sitter focused on her, mouth-lights shifting to greenish-blue. “It would be best for you to examine the crime scenes first, before speaking with our guests.” 

Sesh grimaced a little, her voice uncertain. “So–so wait, we’re actually gonna solve these murders? Do we even know how to solve murders? I mean, my dad taught me how to do plenty of murder, but I don’t think it’s exactly the same skill set.” 

“You were brought in as the promised investigators,” Sitter reminded us. “As far as the system that Master Valdean put in place is concerned, you are here to solve the murders. It will not release you from this place until that has been accomplished.” 

“Can you just let them go?” Marina asked quickly, nodding toward Dakota and Denny. “They’re just kids, and they don’t–they shouldn’t be here to see this. They’ve been through enough.” The last bit came in a muttered voice as she clenched her hands tightly, clearly thinking the same things I had been about Dakota and Denny’s pasts. 

Sitter, however, shook his head once more. “You have my every apology, but it is not a decision that is up to me. Master Valdean was quite concerned about the situation, particularly about bringing in outside aid, no matter how well-recommended it was. His programming was quite adamant. It will not even provide me with the necessary information to release the lockdown until these mysteries have been solved and the murderer identified. I cannot, as you might say, fake it.” 

“It’s okay.” That was Dakota, speaking quietly. “We don’t wanna leave. I mean, we didn’t really want to end up trapped in here to begin with, but… but now that we are…” She looked toward Denny. 

“Now that we are,” the other girl finished for her, “we want to help. I can’t help any of the people Ammon killed. And I definitely can’t stop him. He’s already… he’s already been stopped. But maybe we can find out who this killer is and make sure he never hurts anyone else.” 

Dakota’s head was bobbing quickly in agreement. “Uh huh, what she said. I can’t help my family anymore. But I can help these people. And maybe some of the stuff I umm…” Her face paled visibly, as her mouth opened and shut a couple times. She was fighting to find the right words and get them out. “Maybe some of the stuff I saw when my family attacked each other could help us figure out what happened here.” 

Marina put a hand out to the girl’s shoulder, then put the other on Denny’s. “If you guys are really sure about wanting to help, okay. But as soon as this whole thing gets to be too much, you come back here and sit down for a while, okay? You can play video games or something.” She was nodding toward the television with the attached Nintendo. “It might be out of date, but–” Shaking that off, she finished with, “It’s okay to need to take a break. These people have been time-locked for this long, a little more time isn’t going to matter that much.” 

“Speaking of which,” I found myself asking, “how did you time-lock this place for so long? Wait, how did you time-lock it at all? I mean, no offense, but you’re a robot, right? So how could you use any spell, let alone one that powerful? And where is it drawing so much energy from?” 

Sitter’s mouth-lights brightened and shifted to green. I had the impression that he enjoyed answering these sorts of questions. It had obviously been a long time since he’d had the opportunity to answer anything. Or talk with anyone at all, come to think of it. “To answer the simplest query first, yes, I am what you would call a robot. I was created by Master Valdean. Which leads to the answer for the rest of your confusion. The time block on this vault, its ability to block out any ability to transport into or out of it, and its very existence within a pocket reality to begin with. All stem from the same source. My master created this place, and all of those effects. They are not magic, they are technological. He was a very brilliant man of his own right, and several of the… beings he killed in the course of his work as a Heretic were also focused on invention and modification of technology. His passing was truly a great loss for many reasons. He knew that the others of his kind would, at the very best, attempt to talk him out of his decided retirement. And if they knew he was allowing beings they considered monsters to stay in this place, it would…” His mouth lights dimmed to a low orange-amber color. “It would prompt them to take dangerous actions. He wanted this place to be safe from any invasion, and so he ensured that it was. That is another reason why the system will not allow you to leave until the murders are solved. He wished to be certain that the Heretics who were called in would not simply… massacre everyone inside and then leave. There was a certain amount of trust between Master Valdean and his friend, Detective Ashby Banks, but he was not a fool. He knew that mistakes could happen, that the wrong person might have been brought along on the trip. The system was originally programmed only to release any investigators once he gave the word. But with his death, it has defaulted to allowing it only with the identification and apprehension of the murderer himself.” 

Sesh was rubbing the side of her head, seeming to narrowly miss cutting her own palm on those sharp spikes of gray hair. “So let me get this straight. Your dude, the guy who created you and this place, was a techno-genius. He built all this and then got killed, but the system’s been running for decades to keep the place locked down. He’s got some sort of power source that maintains a time-stop spe–sorry, time-stop technological effect over almost the whole place for decades?” 

Sitter gave a short nod. “That is, as I believe they say, about the size of it. This vault was designed to operate independently, without any outside aid, for over two thousand years in normal conditions. The time-stop on each of the individual rooms has drained some of that power, but that is somewhat counteracted by the lack of need for other things which would have drained power. In the end, I believe we could have continued in this form for another eleven decades before the energy cost would have become too much.” 

“Then what would’ve happened?” I asked. “Would the time-stop just turn off and let them out?” 

Again, the robot nodded. “There are protective measures put in place against many eventualities. If this vault were to become dangerously low on power, it would release all residents. Both from the time-stop and from the vault itself. They would all be ejected to surface reality. Earth, that is. Master Valdean did not wish for this place to become their prison or tomb. He was attempting to help them, to… make up for past misdeeds.” 

Maybe I was imagining it, but I could swear I heard the pain in the robot’s voice. Really, I had no idea how sapient he was, or how–yeah. It was a lot to take in. This whole place was. Still, it was pretty obvious that we were going to have to actually find out who the murderer in this place was. And more than that, after hearing the story so far, I actually wanted to find out. This Valdean guy had been trying to do good, and from Sitter’s account, he would have been a pretty brilliant man to have on our side. If he was willing to do all this to protect Alters, it seemed like he would’ve been willing to help the rebellion. Which–wait. 

“How come he didn’t help the Rebellion? The first one, I mean.” While asking that, I squinted thoughtfully. “He wanted to help Alters. He knew they weren’t all evil, and you said he had this whole place set up throughout basically the entire time the Rebellion existed. So why wasn’t he helping with that?” 

“Put simply,” Sitter informed us, “he was not aware of any rebellion throughout most of that time. As I said before, his knowledge that Ashby Banks was a member of a Heretic rebellion was recent then. When he cut himself and this place off from the outside world, Master Valdean did a thorough job of the cutting. He had no interaction with Heretics for decades, as those within this place simply carried on. We had connections with the Bystander world, and even brought in bits of their achievements, technologies, and media.” His head turned a bit to look at the television and game system. “Yet as far as Crossroads, and even Eden’s Garden were concerned, he paid absolutely no attention to them for a long time. He did not know that the Atherby rebellion existed.” 

After letting that settle for a moment, he continued, “It was not until only a year before his death that Master Valdean left this vault for a supply run for new treats that he wished to surprise our guests with, that he met Ashby Banks. As it happened, a group of Crossroads Heretics staged a raid against the warehouse near where Master Valdean planned to do his shopping. When he saw what was happening to the innocent Alters within, he intervened. The Heretics he fought believed he was part of the Rebellion, which he had no knowledge of. Despite his best intentions, he likely would have been overwhelmed were it not for the timely aid of Ashby Banks. The two of them dispatched the Crossroads-Loyal Heretics, and then Detective Banks explained the situation, as well as the fact that the once-very loud Rebellion had become a far quieter and more secret affair since the loss of their founder, Joselyn Atherby. Master Valdean expressed interest in aiding the rebellion, but wanted to take time to do it properly. Between that and the Rebellion itself being slower and quieter than it apparently once was, nothing of note happened before my master was murdered.” 

“That could be a clue,” I pointed out thoughtfully. “If Valdean let the people in here know that he was planning on doing something to help the Rebellion, maybe someone got scared that he’d accidentally let in the wrong people or something. You know, maybe they thought–wait, you said he was the second death, right?” I was starting to rethink my assumption. 

“Yes,” Sitter confirmed. “His death came three weeks after the first, and eighteen days after he had requested aid from Detective Banks. When no aid appeared to be coming, and no one answered his messages, Master Valdean believed we had been abandoned intentionally. Or that his friend was not taking the matter seriously. Whatever the reasoning, he grew angry and blocked outside communication before attempting to solve the murder himself. Thirty-six hours later, he himself was murdered. Perhaps the killer knew he was close and grew paranoid. But whatever the case, shortly after discovering his body, I chose to lock this facility down. I ensured that all of our guests were in their rooms, then locked them in and established the time-lock across the facility. It was… not something I wished to do, but I felt there was no choice when it came to both preserve the crime scene and to protect the guests themselves from the murderer amongst them.”

For a moment, I thought about just how much Tabbris and everyone else was freaking out right now. They had no idea what was going on. All Jeanne, Avalon, and Miranda would know was that we had vanished after Sesh had touched that doorknob. And my communication with Tabbris had been cut off entirely. How much were they tearing that entire mountain apart while we were standing here talking?  

With a grimace, I focused on Sitter. “Are you sure there’s no way we can even get a quick message out to let the people who care about us know that we are okay? I’m not saying we don’t want to help you, we do. But we’ve got some really… uhh, let’s call it bad history with being abducted by terrible people. So it might be a good idea if we could just tell them we are okay so they don’t rip the whole countryside apart looking for us.” 

There was a brief pause as the robot considered that before his mouth-lights turned cyan. “I believe there may be a way of passing a very short message to the outside world. It will require a short detour to the primary communications room, and you will not be able to speak for very long.” 

“Anything,” I quickly agreed with a glance to the others. “Just so we can let them know we’re not being held by some psycho monster. I’d name the suspects for that, but the list is longer than I’m comfortable with thinking about.” 

Marina swallowed visibly. “Yeah… yeah, we have to let them know we’re okay. Then we’ll try to help you solve these murders, we promise. Right, guys?” 

Sesh, Dakota, and Denny all bobbed their heads rapidly, the latter speaking up. “If um, if this Valdean guy wanted to help people, and then someone murdered him, I uh, I want to help. I wanna help stop the killer from hurting anyone else.” Her voice cracked slightly with those words, making it clear just how personal this whole situation felt for her.

“Me too,” Dakota put in. She was also clearly personally affected by the idea of being able to potentially stop a murderer. 

“Right then.” I exchanged a quick look with Marina before turning back to Sitter. “Lead the way. Communications room first. We’ll send a message to the others, then help you stop this killer.

“But for the record, I’m very disappointed that I didn’t think to wear my deerstalker cap today.” 

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Enkindle 23-05 (Summus Proelium)

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My hand slapped Sierra on the back as the two of us dropped like stones toward the hard cement below. In the instant before we hit, I painted orange on both of us so we wouldn’t break anything from the several-story drop. Well, to be fair Sierra’s body was enhanced so it was possible she could take a drop like that. I wasn’t sure how far that extended, how strong she actually was. But either way, a bit of orange paint would make certain of it. And she wouldn’t be too stunned from the landing to act quickly. 

All of that flashed through my mind in the roughly two seconds it took for us to hit the ground. We each landed in a crouch, but Sierra launched herself out of it instantly. It was like her body had barely touched pavement before she was abruptly airborne once more. Only this time, she was hurtling forward instead of down. As the shadowy figure hunched over the prone Roald and Murphy, Sierra crashed into him. He started to fall forward, but she caught his shoulder and arm, pivoting to throw the man over into the wall of the building a good eight or nine feet away. He crashed into it upside down with enough force to make several of the bricks crack slightly under the impact. And yet, he didn’t seem too stunned by it, dropping back to the ground and rising to his full standing position with a literal growl, like he was some sort of animal. His face was still mostly hidden in shadow, though I could see enough to recognize that it was definitely Luciano. But he was covered in what at a glance to be a mixture of dirt and dried blood. It functioned almost like a mask itself, working together with the shadows to make it even harder to pick out his individual features. Until he smiled. His teeth were gleaming white, and almost too perfect. They literally seemed to glow. While most of his face and body appeared to radiate shadows, his teeth projected soft light. It drew all attention to his mouth, almost making it seem like the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, when he would make only his wide grin appear. Oh, and he smelled like a sewer. Or like the pile of garbage he had apparently been lying in. Which was just fantastic really, it added so much to the experience.  

A series of quick thoughts flew through my mind in that moment, as Sierra and I both faced off against him. First, something was absolutely and definitely wrong with this guy. This wasn’t the same guy I had seen before, back at his laundromat. This was… this was something wrong, something bad. I had no idea what happened to him, but he was different now. And not in a good way. 

We had to deal with this, and we had to do it quickly and quietly before we attracted too much attention. And I couldn’t use my actual powers too openly, or anyone who did happen to look out their window while it was going on would be able to connect this identity to Paintball. Or Luciano himself would realize and say something. Which would tell my parents–well, not everything, but still entirely too much. We had to deal with this, and we had to do it without exposing too much.

While I was in the midst of those thoughts, Murphy and Roald clambered to their feet. As soon as she was up, Murphy started to lunge at Luciano, but Roald stopped her, grabbing his friend by the shoulders. “No, wait!” 

My own hands quickly grabbed both of them as well, trying to stop the two from going anywhere near that thing. I was going to tell them to stay back, but before I could say anything, something… interrupted. 

“No, wait!” The echo came from Luciano himself, sounding like a mixture of Roald’s own voice and a cackling monster. Roald’s voice had been a cry of alarm, this was mocking, more laughter than scream. Then it came again. “No, wait!” He took a step closer, emerging a bit from the shadow of the building. “No, wait!” Each repetition sounded more and more like Roald. The first had been half his voice and half something else, but each time the words came, they sounded even more like a perfect copy. Which was somehow even worse.

And speaking of worse, finally, we could see the man’s face fully. As I’d thought, it was caked in dirt and blood. Then there was the bullethole. Yeah, a single bullethole centered in the middle of his forehead. It wasn’t makeup. It wasn’t artificial. It was a bullet hole, and we could literally see through it to the wall behind him. The bullet had gone all the way through his head and out the other side. The man in front of us was dead. Or he should have been. Or… or…

“Oh my God.” That was Murphy, her eyes wide as she stared that way with her own face still covered by the mask. “What the fuck?” 

It was clear that the man had intentionally allowed us to see his face like that. As we reacted, he opened his mouth in another broad smile. His teeth were definitely glowing, and I could actually feel a wave of heat coming off them now that he was closer. They weren’t just giving off light, there was actual power there. I could literally see his lips starting to burn a bit from it, like a marshmallow left in the fire too long. They healed within seconds, before burning up again. It was a cycle of his lips and the surrounding skin being burned by his teeth and then regenerating somehow. Which made another thought flash through my mind. If his lips were being affected like that, what was happening to the inside of his mouth and throat? Was it going through the same cycle of being burned and healing? And could he feel all of it? What–what–

In the next moment, there was movement beside me, and something went flying through the air. Abruptly, the handle of a knife was sticking out of Luciano’s forehead, directly next to the bullethole. The blade itself was deeply embedded in his skull. Sierra. Sierra had thrown the knife. 

Before I could even think about how to react to that, the man reached up and yanked the knife out. It came with a sickening squelching sound, like… like cutting into a cantaloupe. Finally, it was free, and the man held the four-inch blade up, seeming to examine it briefly. Then his eyes rose to stare at us, while he bit into the weapon. The blade melted under his teeth, snapping apart and coming free from the handle. It was like a man eating taffy. 

“Well,” Sierra muttered, “it was worth a shot.” And with that, she took two quick steps before throwing herself that way, diving under his suddenly-swinging hand to roll past him before snapping her leg out to kick the back of his knees. He barely stumbled, already reaching down to grab the back of her head. 

But I hadn’t exactly been standing there idle. With my hands on Murphy and Roald, I had been taking the time to put some paint over both of them as well as myself. My fingers were tucked just inside the back of their shirts so I could put the paint on the inside where it would be hidden. Then, even as the man went to grab Sierra’s head, I was moving. Activating the green, orange, and purple paint on all three of us, I launched myself that way with a scream. Hopefully it would catch the man’s attention, slow him down even just for an instant. 

It worked. Well, sort of. It did stop the man from grabbing Sierra, his attention turning to me instead. On the other hand, his uhh, well, hand lashed out to smack me. It came up faster than I could react, and hit me hard enough to send my body flying sideways to crash into the windshield of a car hard enough to send spiderweb cracks through it. Even with my orange paint, it still hurt. But hey, at least I had his attention, which was a good thing? 

Dazed as I was, some part of me still realized that he had already smacked Murphy and Roald away and was lunging in my direction. So I shoved my foot down and managed to kick myself off the hood of the car, falling off the side of it just as he landed against the front and slammed his two fists down right where I had been a second earlier. The blow caved in the hood entirely, and a burst of white-hot flames flew off in either direction, nearly singeing the top of my head as I fell onto the pavement. 

Making matters worse (as if they needed any help with that) was the fact that the stuffed bra kept getting in my way. Even just then, as I had been lunging after the man or rolling off the car, it interfered. It made me feel off-balance. It was–fuck. It was just wrong. I couldn’t work properly with this fucking thing in my way. And I was starting to feel like being slowed down or thrown off, even a little bit, was a very bad idea right now. 

I was rolling backward to pick myself up as Luciano rose. The two arms he had used to slam into the hood were really fucked up. The skin and most of the muscle had been burnt away, revealing clearly horrifically cracked bones underneath. Bones which stitched themselves together before the muscle and then skin returned in those brief couple of seconds while I was watching. But it didn’t return as normal, fresh skin. The Latino man’s skin was pale and rotting, like a dead man. Even after regenerating, it still made him look like a corpse. Because, as far as I could tell, that’s what he was. But he was a mobile corpse. Like a zombie, or… or… 

Fucked up. That’s what he was. He was severely fucked up. 

Refreshing the paint on myself and triggering another set that I had put on Murphy and Roald, I quickly threw myself onto the roof of the car, landing next to the man. Before he could do anything, I caught hold of his hair with one hand and the back of his neck with the other, using all the considerable strength I had in that moment to slam his head as hard as I could into the windshield. If he could regenerate from everything else, including the knife that had been thrown through his head, I wasn’t worried about doing too much damage just then. 

Besides, I was still trying to figure out if he was even alive or not. With that bullet hole, and the damage he’d ignored already, it… it wasn’t looking good on that front. But what the hell was the alternative? What the hell had happened to Luciano? 

One thing that certainly wasn’t happening to him was any real damage from me slamming his head as hard as I could into the windshield. The window itself cracked under the blow, but he seemed fine. Or as fine as someone who looked like a walking corpse could seem. 

Sierra was right there, catching him by his shoulders as he jerked himself free of my grasp. With one foot, I kicked the already-ajar driver’s side door open, so she could slam his head through that window. His arm tried to reach up to grab her, but I grabbed it and yanked the arm through the window and out a bit so it was right where the door needed to go when it closed. 

Which Murphy and Roald took advantage of, slamming into the door with their shoulders so the door slammed shut on his arm. It snapped audibly, bending in the wrong direction to the point of nearly falling off entirely. It was disgusting and horrifying to see. 

And yet, Luciano gave no real reaction to it. Well, aside from the fact that he shoved himself backward. Murphy and Roald were knocked to the ground and barely managed to roll away from his stomping feet, while Sierra was sent flying over to crash into a different car a few feet away. Meanwhile, his shattered arm still had enough strength in it to send me flying in the opposite direction with a single vicious shake as I was clinging to his wrist. 

A moment later, all the damage was undone. All of it we had inflicted anyway. His arm was back to looking like it always had, the exposed bones sealed up once more as it snapped back into the proper direction with an audible pop. His face had a little more fresh blood to go with all the dried bits, but the wounds from being shoved through multiple windows had all been healed. He looked, well, still dead. But nothing we had done stuck at all. Through that whole bit, we hadn’t accomplished anything. I was starting to worry that I would have no choice but to openly use my powers. Which would just complicate everything even more. But what choice did I have? If it came down to that or letting this… guy hurt anyone else, I knew what I had to do. 

Luciano was facing me at the moment. Sierra had picked herself up, grabbing a nearby broken pipe from the ground while standing directly behind him. Murphy and Roald were to one side, both barely managing to get up after he had so-casually smacked them down even with the boost I’d given them. They looked like they wanted to jump in but weren’t exactly sure how to accomplish anything. Not after what he had just shrugged off. We had to find some way of keeping him down, but how?  

“Anyone got any ideas?” I called, trying to stop myself from freaking out too much. I’d seen a lot in the past couple months, but facing off against what I was becoming rapidly convinced was an actual dead guy like this? That was a bit much. And if I was having an issue, I can’t imagine what was going through Murphy’s mind. 

Speaking of Murphy, Luciano–or whatever this thing should have been called, spoke up with her voice. Her voice, but my words. “Anyone got any ideas?” Then he spoke in Roald’s voice. “Anyone got any ideas?” That repeated for Sierra’s voice, then mine. He made each of our voices ask if we had any ideas. Then he laughed. Only it didn’t sound much like laughter. It sounded like the grinding noise a garbage truck made. His shoulders shook, and he made that horrible ‘laugh’ while continuing to stare right at me. And then, all at once and with no warning, the laughter stopped. He went completely and utterly silent. He made no sound, and no move. He was as still as a statue. Or a corpse, aside from the fact that he was standing up. 

In that moment, Sierra apparently had an idea called ‘hit him in the back with the pipe.’ She was already lunging that way, pipe swinging. Her movement was almost impossibly fast. Even without a boost from me, she was still incredibly quick, the pipe giving a sharp whistle as it swung fast enough through the air to put even the strongest major league baseball hitter to shame. And then… she missed. The pipe went flying out of her hands, sailing right past the man to embed itself deep in the ground. The jaggedly sharp metal end stuck out and up, like a–

Oh. She didn’t miss. That realization came to me just as Sierra dodged his grasping, already-burning hands when he tried to grab for her. Then she flipped herself up and backwards, feet lashing out to kick into the man’s chest in the process. She used that to throw herself further back while propelling him in the opposite direction. 

The other two had picked up on things as well, and both leapt to grab his arms, even as I activated another round of paint for the three of us and threw myself that way. Still stumbling from the kick, he made another garbage truck laughter sound as I caught hold of his shoulders. Not that holding on to him was a very good idea, given it felt almost like holding a hot stove. I was pretty sure that if we hadn’t been protected by the orange paint in that second, all three of us would have had our clothes and possibly skin melted right off. Which was just such a lovely thought, really. 

There were three of us, all enhanced by some purple paint, and yet we could still barely hold onto him. Murphy had his left arm, Roald his right, and I was grabbing his shoulders. And he was still too strong. Thinking quickly, I put yellow paint on his back. He wouldn’t see it, and neither would anyone who happened to be looking out their window. It slowed him down, made it harder for him to actually exert force. Between that and the three of us with our enhanced strength, we managed to pull him backward one step after another until he was closer to the broken metal pipe that was sticking out of the ground. 

Sierra took a running start, giving herself room to build up momentum. From a few feet away,  she launched herself at the man. He smiled that bright, literally glowing smile, and I felt the heat from it. His grin was bright enough to light up the parking lot around us, almost blindingly so. In the next instant, Sierra crashed into him. She hit the man full-force in the chest just as I shoved down on his shoulders and the other two did the same with his arms. 

He went down hard, impaling himself through the stomach with that pipe. Not that we expected that to last long after everything we had already seen, but at that moment, he was pinned like a butterfly in a collector’s case. 

“Dumpster!” Sierra blurted. She was already lunging sideways toward one that was sitting against the nearby wall. 

Without even questioning it, given the time constraints I knew we were working under, I followed suit. Murphy and Roald were close enough that I was able to grab hold of them, giving another boost. Then the four of us yanked the dumpster over. It was entirely too heavy for us to pick up, even with four of us using boosted strength. But it was also on wheels, so we pulled it and did manage to tip the thing upside down. An avalanche of trash came falling out, even as we hoisted the thing up and over, covering Luciano. My last glimpse of him was the man grabbing the metal pipe sticking out the front of his stomach and making it melt under his grip. So yeah, something told me this dumpster wasn’t going to last very long. But then, we didn’t have a lot of options here. It would give us a second to regroup at the very least. We had to find some way of keeping him down. But how? I didn’t bring any cuffs, and even if I had, he could just melt through them. Ropes, chains, we had nothing, and anything we might have had would be useless to keep him contained for long. What the hell were we supposed to do? He healed from everything we hit him with, and he could burn through anything we tried to hold him with. 

The four of us grouped up once more, and I gave the others, including Sierra this time, a few more shots of paint boosts. Whatever came next, I wanted to be ready. Together, we watched the dumpster,  ready to move the instant he showed himself.

And yet, nothing happened. For several long, tense seconds, we stared at that dumpster. My heart was racing, and I felt my stomach twisting itself around in anticipation of the terrible thing that was about to show itself. But… there was nothing. The silence dragged on until Sierra and I glanced at each other. Together, we took a couple of cautious steps that way and tapped the side of the dumpster. There was no response, no nothing. So, the four of us exchanged looks before shrugging. I triggered some of the paint, and we carefully pushed the dumpster over before jumping back. 

It was empty. Well, there was trash on the ground, but that was it. There was no sign of Luciano at all. No hole, no… nothing. He was just gone. He had managed to completely vanish into thin air. 

While we stood there and stared at the empty spot where he should have been, Fred pulled up with the car. “Hey, we getting out of here or what?” He paused as we turned to stare at him. “What?

“What did I miss?” 

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Growth 18-09 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Sesh wasn’t kidding about finding the vault door. Or about how hard it was to get to. The rocks and bushes we had to squeeze through looked impossible. Out here in the middle of nowhere, I wasn’t surprised the place hadn’t been found before. We were almost a mile from the ghost town, and far from the mineshaft. There was no reason for anyone to be in this area, and certainly none for someone to actively push their way through the foliage and boulders. Even after you did that, it just opened into a small half-cave area with a partially-open ceiling. The place looked like it went nowhere, but if you pulled a bit more shrubbery out of the way, there was a low tunnel you could get down and crawl through for about thirty feet. Once you did that, it opened into a fully-enclosed space about fifteen feet wide, where there was this positively enormous steel (or maybe something more than steel) vault door built right into the side of the hill. The door itself was ten feet tall and about six feet wide. There was no handle to pull, as the door was flush with the rock around it. Instead of having a dial to turn or whatever, there was what looked like a black magnetic strip, four inches long by two inches wide, right in the center of the door. 

Seeing us look that way as we spread out to give each other room, Sesh nodded. “Yeah, I can’t figure out what that’s for, or how to open it.” 

With a small smile, Jeanne replied, “If it comes down to it, I am fairly certain my skeleton key will fit.” Saying that, they reached to their back, catching hold of something invisible there. A moment later, they pulled out a long metal spear. The tip glowed with the same sort of bright energy that came off of the archangel wings. “But,” they mused thoughtfully, “perhaps this should be a last resort. I’d hate to damage the door if we don’t have to. Is there a lever, or button?” 

So, we looked around through the small, enclosed space. But there was nothing to find. The only thing that stood out aside from the gleaming metal door itself was that small black strip. But it didn’t seem like a button, given I tried pushing it to no avail. 

“Hang on,” Marina put in, leaning closer to the thing. “Look, there’s a tiny circle right there in the middle. Maybe you have to push that bit in or something? Anyone have a paperclip?” 

“Oh!” Baidy chirped, “I do… uhh, back in my other pants. I knew  I should’ve worn the red ones today!” 

Leaning closer myself, I tried to dig my fingernail into that little hole. But the moment I put my skin up against it, I felt a sharp poke. A needle had popped out of that little hole and into my finger, drawing a tiny dot of blood. 

“Oh,” I managed, “fuck, that’s probably not–” 

I was interrupted by a rumbling sound. The walls around us were shaking just a bit, loose bits of dirt cascading toward the ground. It was the door. The thing was opening inward as we all reflexively jumped back. 

“Did that thing just take your blood before opening?” Avalon demanded. 

My head bobbed quickly. “Yeah, you think that’s weird?” 

“It’s probably not good,” Miranda put in quietly, hand on Dakota’s shoulder. “But if the door was supposed to test blood before opening, why would it open for yours? Do you have another super special relative who built this place and we just happened to stumble across it?” From the sound of her voice, she was half-kidding about that. Which, given everything that had happened since I became a Heretic, was completely fair.  

“Look.” That was Denny, as she poked her head around me to peer into the opening that the door had revealed. “It’s a hallway.” 

She was right. Beyond the now-open door was a corridor or tunnel about twenty feet long, very slightly curved toward the right to lead deeper into the hillside. It had been dark at first, but a moment after the place opened up, a few panels in the ceiling began to glow to illuminate the hall. There was another door at the far end, but it looked like a normal one with an actual knob. 

“Oh come on,” Sesh quickly blurted, “we’ve gotta check it out. Don’t you want to know why the door opened for you?” She asked that while looking at me, her gaze eager. “There’s gotta be a reason, right?” 

“Yeah, yeah,” Baidy agreed while bobbing her head rapidly. “You gotta wanna know.” 

“Yeah,” I agreed, “I do want to know. But hang on.” Rather than walk straight in, I focused on my connection to Tabbris. It felt a bit wrong to interrupt her time with her bio-dad and the rest of her family (including our dad), but this was important. 

Flick? I heard in my head as soon as she acknowledged the mental pull. Um, are you okay? Wait– She absorbed the current situation as I opened my mind to her, before blurting, You found a secret vault door by Wonderland?! Neat! 

A smile found its way to my face as I silently replied, Yeah, it’s pretty cool. But we’re gonna step in here to look around for a minute so could you stay connected just until we know it’s safe?

She quickly agreed, and let both Dad and Sariel know what was going on. Apparently they were teaching Jegudiel how to go bowling. Which kind of made me sorry that I wasn’t there to see it, but at least I had my own neat thing to investigate. 

Once we were all on the same page, I nodded to the others. “Okay, I guess we can check this place out now. And hey, at least we’ve got a pretty damn good escort.” That bit came with a gesture toward Jeanne. “Can’t imagine the new Wonderland Tiebreaker being a pushover. Let alone someone who put up with Seth for so long.” 

Smirking just a bit, the person in question gave a slight bow. “I endeavor to do my very best.” 

From there, I was about to walk-in when I abruptly stopped and turned a bit to look at Dakota and Denny. “Err, sorry, are you guys okay with this? If you don’t want to be involved, we can take a break with this and I’ll come back later without you. No big deal.” 

The pair looked at one another, a moment of silent conversation passing between them before Denny turned back to me. She visibly gulped, but straightened pointedly. “I-it’s okay. You’re here, and Mx. Jeanne is here, and… and everyone.” Her eyes glanced toward Avalon and Miranda. “I mean, I kinda wanna see what’s in there too.” 

“See?” Sesh grinned, showing those wide, multi-layered sharp teeth. “We all want to get in there. So let’s check it out.” With that, she stepped through the opening. 

“Hang on,” I started, while stepping after her. Nothing happened, however. There was no sudden explosion, no magically-appearing enemies, nothing at all. The air inside this tunnel felt slightly cooler than the air outside, but that was about it. 

Dakota and Denny were right behind me, with Marina staying close to them. Avalon and Miranda came next, followed by Baidy, and Jeanne brought up the rear. With Sesh leading the way, we walked through the narrow corridor to the door at the far end. On the way, I kept thinking about the whole bit with the door taking my blood, asking Tabbris, Does your mom have any idea why it would do that and open for me? 

There was a brief pause before the other girl replied, Mama says it really could be an ancestor of yours, or maybe it was checking to see if you were one of the vault’s enemies, or that you were human, or a Heretic of some kind, or weren’t affected by the Bystander Effect, or–

As Tabbris was in the middle of continuing that line of thought, Sesh reached out to grab the knob on the new door. The moment she did, the lights in the tunnel abruptly went out. We were cast into darkness. Before I could even think anything, a sudden, abrupt twisting sensation of being transported filled my stomach, and I found myself dropping through open air a few feet before landing sprawled on a soft floor. Around me, I heard a few more arrivals, and heard their grunts of surprise. 

Tabbris, it was a trap! I blurted inwardly, already yanking my staff out as I jumped back to my feet. It was dark in here, but I could fix– 

The lights came on, and I blinked against the sudden brightness. I was standing in a much wider room than that tunnel had been. It was circular and about fifty feet in diameter. The floor under my feet was carpeted, though the walls themselves were still solid metal. Straight across from me, at about the twelve o’clock position, was a set of wooden double-doors. To the right, at the three o’clock spot, was a pair of plush armchairs to one side of a comfortable-looking couch, all around one of those big old-fashioned CRT television sets inside of a massive wooden cabinet. The couches and TV all looked like they came from the eighties. There was even an old Nintendo and controllers set in front of the television. 

Turning to look behind me, I saw a kitchen area at the six o’clock spot. It was literally a couple kitchen counters (including a sink) with an oldlooking microwave and blender, a big metal fridge, and a stove. Again, they all looked like they were decades old, but quite clean. Like they’d almost never been used, or were taken very good care of. They were in practically pristine condition.  

Finally, to the left at around the seven o’clock position, we could see a bathroom area. There was a toilet against the wall with a privacy screen that wasn’t pulled, along with a sink and shower. 

“It’s like an apartment,” Sesh announced while standing up beside me as she took the whole place in as well. “Like an apartment that was dropped inside a bigger room or something.” 

Quickly, I took stock. She was here beside me, but not everyone else had made it. It was the two of us, plus Marina, Sesh, Dakota, and Denny. As for what had happened to Avalon, Miranda, and Jeanne, I had no idea. 

Tabs, we just got transported to this–Tabs? I focused on my connection to the other girl, but there was no response. Uh, Tabbris? Oh come on, that’s impossible. 

And yet, as impossible as it might have been, there was no response from my little sister. It was like she wasn’t there at all. 

“Uhh, umm, what’s going on?” That was Denny, as Dakota helped her up off the floor. “What just happened?” 

Marina, shooting a quick glance toward me, replied, “Something teleported us. It’s okay, just… just stay close.” She had her corseque (sort of like a spear with two sideways blades at the end in addition to the pointed tip) in one hand while scanning the room. “Flick, can you–” 

“No good,” I replied. “Tabbris isn’t in my head anymore. Or something’s blocking her. Which, you know, is pretty damn impressive. Hang on.” With that, I tried a much more mundane solution. Namely, I took the phone from my pocket and looked at it. Unfortunately, there was no signal. Which I really shouldn’t have been surprised by, given everything. But still, a sigh escaped me. 

“Nothing?” Marina was checking her own phone, glancing toward me. When I shook my head, she grimaced. “Me neither. So we’re definitely being blocked somehow. But by who? And why?” 

Thinking about how much Miranda and Avalon had to be freaking out right now, out there with Jeanne and Baidy, I tried using one of our emergency communication coins. It was supposed to allow us to send an SOS to anyone else with the coins. But again, there was no response. So this place wasn’t just cut off from normal phone signals and my connection with Tabbris, it was even blocking magic. I was starting to get a pretty bad feeling. 

Still, there was something else I could try. I’d learned how to make a transportation spell while trapped in Fossor’s place. So, striding quickly to the nearby kitchen counter, I shoved the blender out of the way. My hand hit the surface and I activated my instant-inscription power to begin making the elaborate runes appear. Yet no sooner had they appeared, than they vanished, leaving the counter spotless once more. With a grimace, I tried once more with the same effect. Nor was trying it on the wall any better. It vanished there too. Okay, well I couldn’t exactly draw a spell if the drawing itself kept disappearing. And this sort of thing needed more space than I could get on a coin or stone. What was I supposed to do? 

Turning to face the others, I shook my head. “Okay, I can’t use magic to transport us out of here if this place won’t let me draw on anything. Maybe we should look around a little more.”  

“Why was it only us?” Dakota asked. She was holding Denny’s hand tightly, her voice making it clear that she was trying to keep it together and not freak out mostly for the other girl’s sake. “The others were in the tunnel too, so why’d it take us and not them?” 

I started to say that I had no idea, but before any words could come out, those double doors in front of us suddenly opened. We all went on guard, as a figure stepped through. It–it was a robot. Yeah, a literal robot. The thing was clearly made of metal, though shaped like a human with legs, arms, and head in all the normal places and numbers. He was even wearing clothes. A suit, in this case. He looked sort of like a butler. The eyes on his metal head looked like glowing rubies, and he had no nose. His mouth was an array of smile-shaped lights that glowed bright blue as he called, “Hello, hello, hello! It’s so nice that you’ve finally come!” 

Marina and I immediately moved in front of the two kids with our own weapons raised, while Sesh jumped to one side, with a pair of daggers held backwards in her hands. I was the first to find my voice. “Hey, stop. Who are you? Where are we?” 

The robot butler promptly came to a halt, his ruby eyes glowing a bit more. “Oh, my greatest apologies. You’re absolutely correct, introductions are in order.” The lights that made up his curved mouth-shape shifted from blue to a light green. “I am called Sitter. My master chose the name because he thought it amusing. As though I was his babysitter. Which was odd, as he was very much not a baby. Or even a child. And most children do not create their own babysitters. But I suppose it was his sense of humor. And it was my duty to ensure he ate and slept properly while lost in his work.”

I was even more confused now. His master? Why–what? Before I could say anything, Marina spoke up. “Where’s your master now? And where are we? Why can’t we contact anyone else?” 

“My master?” Sitter echoed, head tilting very slightly in a human-like display of curiosity or confusion. “But that’s why you are here, of course. As for where here is, you should know that already. We are within my master’s private vault. It is contained within a pocket universe, locked outside of normal space and time. That is why you cannot contact anyone from the outside. My master was quite insistent that there be no way for any undesirables to enter his sanctuary without permission. He was quite wary of being attacked. Which…” His mouth-lights shifted from green to a yellowish color. “I suppose was a well-founded fear after all.” 

“We’re in a pocket dimension?” That was Denny, abruptly speaking up as her voice caught a bit, turning into a squeak toward the end. “Does that mean we’re stuck here?” 

“Oh no, not all,” Sitter assured us, the lights turning back to their original blue. “Well, not for long, hopefully. I assure you, the very moment that you complete the job you were hired for, you will be able to leave.” 

“Job we were–what are you talking about?” I demanded, tightening my grip on the staff. “We weren’t hired for any job. And where’s this master of yours?” 

“But of course you were,” Sitter insisted. “You are Crossroads Heretics, are you not? The vault would not have allowed you entry if you were not Crossroads Heretics. And my master is the whole reason you are here.” 

“The blood test thing,” I realized. “It was checking to see if I was–wait, Crossroads? Your master was hiring people from Crossroads for something? Who is he?” 

Sitter’s glowing ruby eyes met my gaze. “My master’s name is Valdean Kalama Ecclestone. He was a well-known and respected member of your Crossroads community for many years, before choosing to retire in the very late eighteen hundreds, when he became dissatisfied with life as a Crossroads Heretic. Master Valdean became convinced that the beings he was assigned to hunt and kill were not deserving of such a fate. He designed this place to be his new home as well as theirs, and housed many non-humans within various apartments throughout this pocket dimension. They are all linked to this, Master Valdean’s chambers.” He waved his hand around to indicate the room we were in. 

Taking in a breath before letting it out, I started slowly. “Let me get this straight, your master was a Crossroads Heretic. Then he decided that Alters–or nonhumans– weren’t all evil after all. So he built this vault with a pocket dimension where he brought people to live so they could be completely safe from any other Heretics who wanted to kill them. But where is he now? Where’s everybody?” 

“Unfortunately,” came the response, “after many decades spent safe in here as a small, yet devoted community, there was a murder within these halls. One of our guests was killed by another. Precisely who was responsible, we did not know. Master Valdean became convinced that we required outside assistance. So, he contacted a friend in Crossroads, one whom he had recently come to know was part of a rebellion against their usual method of operation. He was a detective, one of their Bow Street Runners, named Ashby Banks. Sir Banks agreed to take the matter to his superior within the Bow Street Runners, another member of the rebellion, named Tribald Kine. He promised discretion and aid.” 

“Tribald,” I muttered, wincing inwardly as the words came softly. “He’s gone now. He died.” 

“I am very sorry to hear that,” Sitter gently replied. “It has been some time since Sir Banks agreed to take the request for aid to Sir Kine. We never heard back.” 

Thinking about that for a moment, I realized, “The Rebellion eraser. It must’ve come after Ashby Banks agreed to talk to Tribald about this place, but before he actually could. The eraser must’ve considered this information to be part of what it had to get rid of.” 

“I know that name,” Marina put in. “I’ve heard of Ashby Banks. He died a few years ago.” 

“Which explains why he never told Tribald once the eraser was undone,” I muttered. “He was already dead, so he never had the chance.” 

“This is all very distressing news,” Sitter announced. “Though it does answer our questions about the apparent abandonment. My master grew angry with getting no response, so he shut down all communication with the outside world, determined to solve this murder himself. Unfortunately, the killer struck again, and Master Valdean was their newest victim.”    

“Wait, he was killed too?” Sesh gave a double-take. “And this place has just been sitting like this for decades?” 

“We are quite able to sustain ourselves without outside interference,” Sitter informed us. “As you will see for yourselves in the course of your investigation.” 

“Investigation?” I shook my head. “What do you mean? We’re not here for that.” 

His gaze met mine. “Oh, but you must be. Don’t you understand? Before my master’s death, he ensured that only the ones from Crossroads would be able to enter this place. He agreed to the entry of only five investigators. Sir Banks, his superior, Sir Kine, and three subordinates. This is a large vault, with much space to search.” 

“That’s why the others weren’t transported in with us,” Marina realized aloud. “We were the first five in line.” 

“Quite so,” came the confirmation as Sitter’s robot head bobbed. “And I am quite afraid that my master was insistent that the killer be brought to justice. So insistent that he ensured the lockdown of this facility would not be ended until it is determined that the killer has been identified. Between that and his fear that the Crossroads Heretics would attempt to abandon their agreement, there is no way to enter or leave this place until that time.”

“What… is–is he saying what I think he’s saying?” Denny asked me, her eyes widening. 

Slowly, I nodded. “I think so. We can’t get out of here until we solve this mystery, guys. 

“Zoinks.”  

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Enkindle 23-04 (Summus Proelium)

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There was no immediate answer to my question. At least, none waiting to jump out at us as we sat in the car and talked about it. My head kept flashing to Luciano being a zombie, but that was absurd, right? Sure, Bokor, over on the Detroit Conservators, used what they called zombies, but they weren’t really. He just created duplicates of people he could see and used them as minions. Gloam, one of the Seraphs, was also able to create duplicates of anyone standing in one of the areas of darkness she made and put them in one of her areas of light. But again, they weren’t zombies. Not the ‘climb out of a trash pile and try to eat people’ sort of zombies. So… so… what then? What the fuck was going on? What had happened to Luciano? Why was he lying in that garbage? Why was–what–what? My mind was spinning out pretty thoroughly.

“We need to figure out why he came here,” I finally managed to get out, shoving the confusion into a corner of my mind for the moment. “Which, I guess means getting into that apartment. Or just knocking on the door. Or…” I frowned, shaking my head. “We should scope the place out first. It’s–what time is it?” I managed to dig my phone out, blinking at it. “Almost ten. Okay, let’s find a place to park and wait about an hour, then we’ll see what we can find in there. If someone is living there and they’re a friend of Luciano’s, I’d prefer to take them by surprise rather than just politely knock on their door.” After a slight pause, I grimaced before quietly adding, “I’d kind of like to not have a repeat of the Cup thing. Especially since Way isn’t here this time.” 

Nobody else had any better idea of what to do other than wait for a bit, so Fred drove around the block until we found an old fast food place with a spot next to the dumpster so it was out of sight of the main road and we could still see the apartment building itself in the distance. We parked there, Fred and Sierra went inside the restaurant to bring back food, and then we sat in the car eating and watching the building. I had no idea what we expected to see, but none of us wanted to take our eyes off the place. 

I spent most of that time quietly thinking while listening to the others talk. Well, mostly Murphy and Sierra. The two of them were having a–call it spirited debate about different types of zombies and other monsters. Sierra insisted that even though she was only going off of what Paige remembered, having fast-moving zombies in something was complete sacrilege and destroyed the entire point of what they were supposed to be. Murphy thought having a few fast-moving ones shook things up and stopped people from getting complacent and bored. To which Sierra informed her that if you were bored in a zombie movie it was clearly made wrong. Murphy firmly agreed, but added that that was exactly why adding in fast zombies was the right way to go. And from there it just went back around in another circle. 

I tuned them out for the most part, focusing on eating and watching that building as I tried to think of what could possibly have happened to explain the new Luciano situation. But I had nothing. Through that entire hour, the only things that came to mind were ridiculous explanations I had to dismiss. He wasn’t really a zombie. They didn’t exist. So… what then?

I didn’t know, but hopefully we were going to find out by talking to whoever was in that apartment. Or possibly just by searching the place if it was empty. Either way, a glance toward my phone confirmed it was time. The streets were dark and quiet, with very light rain. Good for keeping people out of the way, hopefully. The last thing I wanted to d–okay one of the last things I wanted to do was run into some random onlooker who thought we were thieves. 

“I’ll check the place out with Sierra first,” I started while pushing the back door open. Before Murphy could voice her obvious objection, I pressed on. “We’ll just see if the place looks empty or if someone’s there. As soon as we know what’s going on and have it… handled, we’ll call you guys in. Wait til you see a flash of light right over there on the edge of the roof. If you see one, it means come over. If you see two, it means come fast, we need help. And if you see three, it means get the hell out of here and don’t look back.” Rather than focusing on Murphy and Roald, I looked at Fred himself. “Okay?” 

He met my gaze before giving a short nod. Then he added, “But uhh, you might wanna turn on that voice changer before you do any talking to anyone else. Just gotta say, hearing your voice coming out of what looks like a girl is… it’s pretty fucking weird.” 

Oh, he had absolutely no idea how weird the situation was. Coughing at the thought, I thanked him and switched my voice changer over from making me sound like a boy to making me sound like a different girl. Then I took a brief moment to inwardly marvel at just how weird my entire life was. And something told me it wouldn’t be getting more normal any time soon. Which was an easy assumption to make considering I was currently trying to find out the truth behind a supposed zombie with the help of a cyborg girl whose body happened to be an identical copy of my own. Add in the fact that she was mentally a twin/copy of a girl who had apparently been one of my best friends before spending years as my worst enemy after my memory was wiped because my mafia-boss grandfather–yeah. It was safe to say that this weirdness wasn’t clearing up anytime soon. 

Still, I pushed that out of my mind and tried to focus on the task at hand. Together, Sierra and I made our way across the parking lot to a drainage ditch that ran under the street, through a raised bridge area. Anything to stay out of sight. The two of us were wearing dark clothes and with any luck, nobody would be paying too much attention right now anyway. But just in case, we would probably need to be as quick as possible before cops showed up. Being chased through the streets of this suburb by cops wasn’t a situation that I wanted to get into, to say the least. 

The large drainage ditch led all the way around to the back area of the building in question.  Sierra and I were able to poke our heads up and look across the small, yet crowded parking lot. We wanted apartment 3C, which was obviously on the third of four floors, and from the layout that Roald had brought up on an apartment rental listing, unit C would be near the far left side, one off from the edge of the building. We had basically been able to see the windows from the car, and no lights had been visible. It was the same story up close. I could see heavy blinds, with no illumination coming through. Unfortunately, the fact that the blinds were that heavy meant not seeing light didn’t necessarily equate to no one being home. We were going to have to get closer for that. 

Fortunately, there was a small porch/patio surrounding each apartment. They weren’t very large, barely big enough for a couple chairs and a barbecue on some of them. Or a potted plant. Whatever, they were clearly only meant to allow someone to sit out on the very optimistically titled ‘deck’ and watch the cars on the street below. Probably raised the price of the apartment itself significantly too, having a cupboard-sized patio attached. Not that I had any idea what the price of an apartment like that was. Or any apartment, really. I had no frame of reference for that. Though I was willing to bet that the bedroom I lived in was significantly more expensive. 

Shaking that off, I focused on the roof of the building. It looked clear. So did all the windows, with their tightly closed blinds. It seemed like the people around here were mostly keeping it to themselves. Which might explain why Luciano had wanted to stay there, given how much trouble he was in back in Detroit. 

I would have painted us straight to the patio in question. Unfortunately, the apartment right next to it was one of the few with its lights on and the blinds up, so I didn’t want to take the risk of going right past them. We needed to get around that place first. 

“Here,” I whispered toward the girl beside me. It was easier to ignore just how similar to me she looked while she was wearing that ski mask. “We need to run across the lot to the middle. Stay low behind these cars. Once we’re close enough, I’ll paint us up to that roof and we can drop down to the patio as soon as it looks clear.” 

There was a brief pause before the girl murmured in agreement. I adjusted the weird and uncomfortable bra, then we set off in a half-crouch. The two of us used the vehicles in the lot as cover, quickly making our way to that center point, where a small, narrow median with a couple very sick-looking bushes waited. We crouched behind those bushes, glancing to the left at the empty road, then up to the building itself. There was absolutely nothing to see. It all looked clear. Some of the lights in the various apartments were on, but other than the one that was directly in our way, their shades were drawn as well. There was no one visible, no one who might notice us as far as I could tell. It was now or never if we were going to search that place. 

This whole situation actually reminded me of when I had been searching for Ashton. Ending up in his apartment had… well it hadn’t gone that well, obviously. And yet, it kind of had. I’d had my face-to-face meeting with Blackjack, which eventually led to saving his daughter and making friends with Pack. It–yeah. Maybe it just went to show that you never knew how a situation was going to play out. Still, I was going to keep hoping that this one wouldn’t end with meeting another Fell-Touched leader. Somehow, I didn’t see that going so well. 

Once I was as certain as I could be that things were clear, I shot a bit of black paint at the roof, then added some to Sierra and myself so nothing would make noise. Then I used red paint to pull the two of us that way. We both hit the edge of the roof silently, keeping ourselves low to avoid showing our profiles to anyone who happened to glance outside from one of the other buildings. It was dark, but not that dark. We needed to get down off the roof and into the apartment in question as quickly as possible. 

The balcony directly below us looked clear. I leaned over and peered at the sliding glass door intently. I could barely make out a dark living room, though the light appeared to be on in the adjacent kitchen. From the sound of things, someone was in there cooking. Which meant they weren’t going to see us if we were quick. First, I sprayed the metal railing there with black paint so it wouldn’t rattle and give us away, before the two of us hopped down. Then I clambered over and lowered myself toward the next balcony down. This was the apartment we wanted. Hanging from the fourth floor railing, I carefully glanced toward the lit-up place next door. Yeah, there were definitely people in that one. None of them were glancing out the glass door, and I was pretty sure it was too bright in there to see us in our dark clothes out here very easily. But still, I didn’t want to screw around and risk that for very long. 

So, I sprayed the railing of this apartment black and activated it before dropping down. Sierra joined me, before the two of us silently clambered over the railing and stayed low on the porch. We were clear so far. I quietly turned toward the sliding door and leaned in close to peer through a corner where the heavy blind didn’t quite cover. Nothing, the whole place was dark. Quietly murmuring that to Sierra, I tried the door just in case. Nope, it was locked. 

Well, I didn’t want to do this, but we didn’t have any other choice if we were going to get in there and see what was going on. We had just come to this area in the first place to find Luciano so Murphy could have some closure. But now there was obviously something pretty bad going on. Even worse than her whole situation. We had to find answers, and the only clue to those answers we had was that he had wanted to come to this apartment. It was this or nothing.

So, I sprayed a black circle just above the door handle. Then I put purple and orange stars across my fist, before punching the circle I’d made. It knocked the glass out there silently, and I was able to carefully reach through to unlock the door from the inside. Listening intently, I slowly slid it open. Nothing untoward came to my ears. I could hear the television in the apartment next door very faintly, as well as some chatter. We would have to stay quiet, but it sounded like no one had noticed our break-in so far. 

We both stepped into the apartment. Like the one right above and the one next door, the patio door led to a living room. It was a tiny place. Definitely smaller than my bedroom. I was pretty sure you could barely fit my actual bed in here. Maybe not even that. Not comfortably, anyway. 

There wasn’t much in the way of furniture in this place. Just a small tv on a card table, an old couch, a recliner that was falling apart, and a half-full bookshelf with DVDs rather than novels. Nearby, I could see the open kitchen with a table that looked older than my parents, a couple wooden chairs, and a counter with a few odds and ends. There was also a short hallway to the right leading to what looked like the bedroom and bathroom. 

Quite frankly, it was downright eerie to be standing here in this dark place after everything I’d heard about Luciano supposedly jumping out of the trash to attack those people. He’d literally ripped two people’s throats out with his teeth! He murdered them, he–yeah. It was a thought that made me shudder. I felt like I was in the middle of some sort of horror movie. I really had no desire to be in here right now, but there was no choice if we were going to get answers. 

First, however, I moved back to the open sliding door and shot a bit of white paint against the railing. Looking both ways to make sure it seemed clear, I triggered the paint so it would light up for a few seconds, then canceled it.   

Turning back around, I found Sierra coming out of the hallway leading to the other rooms. She was shaking her head, voice low. “Nobody’s back there. This place is empty.” After a brief pause, she added, “Maybe whoever lives here is at work, or just out. Not like there’s a curfew up here. Or–” 

“Or maybe nobody lives here and it was just a place for Luciano to lay low,” I put in flatly. My head nodded toward a framed photograph on the wall next to the television. “I’m pretty sure that’s him right there, with some older woman. His mother, or aunt, or someone, maybe?” 

Glancing that way curiously, the biolem girl stepped over to examine the photograph. “Yeah, yeah that’s definitely him. So this place is either his or the woman in the picture’s. But uhh–” She glanced around the sparsely decorated apartment. “This sort of screams ‘guy’s apartment’ to me. A guy who isn’t doing much with it and just wanted a place to stay out of sight for awhile.” 

The two of us stepped closer to the patio so we could watch for the others. While we were waiting, Sierra glanced toward me and paused before speaking softly. “This whole thing is probably pretty fucking weird for you, huh?” 

The question made me snort despite myself before I turned that way and raised an eyebrow she wouldn’t even see. “Pretty fucking weird for me? You mean you looking like that after everything that happened?” A heavy sigh escaped me. “Throughout this entire situation, I didn’t think that the whole bit with Paige and you could get any weirder for me. Finding out my memory was wiped and that I was friends with Paige, and that she was a cyborg and–yeah, I was pretty sure the bar for how weird I could feel about the whole thing couldn’t get any higher. But…” With one hand, I gestured to encompass her new body. “Somehow, we managed to surpass the previous level of weird by entire lightyears. I’m not even going to try to say that this is as weird as it will get, because I just know that somewhere out there, the universe will hear me and get offended.” 

Audibly snickering just a little, Sierra shrugged. “Yeah, you’re probably right. Trust me, it feels weird from this side too. Probably not as weird as it feels for you, but still. Remember, I was supposed to kill you. That was the plan, my program. It was what I was built for. Well, one of the things, anyway. And now, here I am. I’m wearing this body, helping out with your whole thing here, and planning out how to fuck over my… father so I can save an older sister I’ve never met and who literally knows nothing about me. So yeah, it’s pretty weird from over here.” 

We were both silent for a few seconds then, running all that through our heads while watching the lot below. Then she spoke again, her voice even softer that time. “Look, I know from all those Paige memories that you feel like your body isn’t… right, like you aren’t feminine enough.” 

My eyes widened and I choked a bit, head shaking. “Oh boy, is this not a conversation I want to have right now. Or ever, really. But right now especially.” 

“Not a whole conversation,” she assured me. “I just–speaking as someone who didn’t have a body of my own at all until last night, you should always be glad that you’ve got one that works. You’ve got all your fingers and toes, all your limbs, your senses work, you’re in good shape, it’s… yeah. It all works the way it’s supposed to. And…” She hesitated, sounding a bit uncertain for a moment before pushing on. “And speaking of someone who is literally wearing your body right now, you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself. Sure, you’re not like… voluptuous or whatever. But you don’t have to be. Look at how much you hate having that bra on with the… you know. Because it’s not you. This body we’ve got, it’s not bad. It’s yours. It’s ours. It’s–you know what I mean. And believe me when I say, we’re cuter than you think. Not everyone needs some big honking… honkers.”

Coughing as the blush on my face threatened to burn through the mask, I pointed toward a couple of small, dark figures running closer across the parking lot. They were staying low to avoid being seen from the road. “There they are.” Then I paused before putting a hand on Sierra’s arm. My voice was low. “Thanks. I just–thanks.” 

That was all I had time to say before the others were below. Murphy and Roald waited as I leaned out to send paint down to pull them up. But I never got the chance. As I was leaning out, someone came bounding out from behind the nearby parked car. They were… human but kind of loping along like an ape or a dog or–or something. The person literally threw himself at Murphy and Roald, taking them to the ground with a furious snarling sound, like a wild animal. 

Sierra and I exchanged a quick glance, our eyes wide. We knew who that was. I’d gotten just enough of a glimpse to recognize his face before he tackled Murphy and Roald. Luciano. It was Luciano. Together, the two of us launched ourselves off the third floor balcony, plummeting down toward the man. 

I just hoped we would be fast enough to save the other two, before Luciano could add to the count of people he had murdered. 

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Growth 18-08 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Wonderland had moved again since the last time I had visited. Now, they were set up in a literal ghost town. Literal in two different ways, actually. In the sense that there were some ghosts (mostly of the cowboy variety) hanging around, and in the fact that it had once been an actual lived-in town on the frontier of the wild west. There had been a small mining rush in the hills slightly to the north for a little while, but it hadn’t lasted long enough for the town to transition into some other way of life once the silver dried up. Plus, the railway that they had expected to come near, or even through, the town had actually been positioned about thirty miles south. So, almost as quickly as it had been built up, the town had been abandoned as its citizens sought better places elsewhere. 

Decades later, the town had been used to film a few old movies. That hadn’t lasted very long either before they moved filming to other places closer to California, but it had been big enough to have a few new buildings built on the edge of town so the people filming around the place could have places to stay. Those new buildings included the garage where we had come through the portal. Being out a short distance away from the town proper (so they could film the westerns without getting something like that in the shot) made for a decent place to have people teleport in, so they could have the anti-transportation spells and other protections up around the main area.  

From here, the nearest (legally) inhabited town was called Geraldine, about twenty miles south-westish. Population: a whole two hundred or so. The Missouri River was a few miles to the east, through a more mountainous area. In this place, they had plenty of privacy, and advance warning if anyone happened to come near. 

Marina explained all of that to us as we walked out of the garage and found ourselves standing at the top of a low hill. This was the hill where people had been mining back in the day. In fact, if we looked a bit to the right, we could see the old mine entrance. To the left was a gas station and a motel, both looking like they had come out of the 1950’s. Because they had. Neither of them were technically in service, though the Wonderland people had taken them over as well. Straight ahead, meanwhile, the old town of what had been called Gust, Montana lay stretched out away from the base of the hill. It consisted of a main street with about ten buildings on each side, including the saloon, post office, jail with the sheriff’s office attached, a boot and shoe store, gun shop, and more. Behind the left-hand side of the main street was an assortment of small houses. Behind the right-hand side, meanwhile, were the stables and a long barn-like warehouse where food and other supplies had been stored. 

“See?!” Baidy flew up into the air over our heads hovering there as she pointed toward the town. “We used to stay in a museum, but it got dangerous there so we had to move, then we lived in a big warehouse and it was really crowded, but then we moved here and it’s got a lotta space!” 

“Lots of room to spread your wings, huh, Baidy?” Marina put in with a small smile. To us, she added, “We’ve got a few who like to run a lot too. They love it here. Miles and miles of open space.” Glancing toward Denny and Dakota, she added, “Most of the kids are up in the mountains right now, but they’ll be back later. They went for a hike with a couple of the scouts, and Buddy.” 

“Yeah, I was kinda surprised he wasn’t around to say hi already,” Miranda murmured while glancing around. “Hope we get to catch up with the big guy later.” 

“You will,” Quing announced as the avian-man stood behind us. He wasn’t quite glowering, but it wasn’t an open and friendly look either. “Buddy has made it clear that he wants to say hello before you leave again. And he wishes to meet these two.” 

“M-meet us?” Denny managed a bit uncertainly. “He’s the big troll, right?” Her eyes glanced back toward me with obvious nervousness. “He’s… he’s nice?” 

“Very nice,” I confirmed. “Right, Marina?” 

The other girl gave a quick nod. “He’s a giant sweetheart. Emphasis on giant and on sweetheart. Trust us, he’s one of the nicest people here as long as you don’t try to hurt anyone he’s supposed to be protecting.” 

Swallowing hard, Denny quietly murmured, “I’ll try not to.” 

Yeah, there was definitely a whole thing there that was going to take a lot of time and therapy to work through. I watched as she absently took Dakota’s hand, the two of them standing closer together while watching the town below as though expecting a giant angry troll to come charging out at them. They were clearly still nervous about how this was going to go, which I couldn’t really blame them for. The only way to show them that it was going to be fine was to get down there and let them see for themselves. 

From the look that Marina gave me, she had the same thought. So, we started down the dirt road leading to the main part of the town. Quint stayed behind, apparently to do a patrol around the perimeter. On the way, there was a shimmering effect in the air that lasted for about fifteen feet. It kind of tickled a little bit. According to Marina, if we hadn’t been allowed through, the alarms would have sounded and we would have found ourselves in a time distortion field that would’ve slowed our movement drastically, giving the Wonderland people time to respond. 

But, obviously we were expected and had been cleared. Something told me that Quing had done something back in the garage to allow us through the security field, but had kept it secret so we wouldn’t know exactly what was done. He wasn’t a very trusting sort, that Quing guy. Wyatt would probably love him.

Either way, we went on a tour through the town. We saw how the Wonderland people were living in this place. They’d worked some enchantments on the buildings to allow for extra rooms that shouldn’t have been there so everyone could fit. Apparently most of the regular civilians stayed in the various houses or in the motel above the saloon. The Septs lived and worked in the courthouse, children were educated both in the schoolhouse and in the church building, and most of the businesses were used for crafting things to be sold in online shops so the people could have regular Bystander money. They also raised cattle out on the fields and sold the meat to butchers. 

We also met a lot of people along the way, of both the human-looking and very not human-looking variety. Some I’d seen before, though most at a distance, while others seemed new. Either way, they were friendly and cheerful. It was a lot for Denny, and even Dakota, to take in. They both kept looking around at everyone while clearly doing their best not to stare too much for fear of being rude. Still, the two of them were gawking a fair bit at all the different sights, especially when it was something like an eight-foot-tall crocodilian man putting the finishing touches on a beautifully hand-crafted grandfather clock that he planned to sell, or a cat-like Rakshasa woman brushing the coat of a preening Pegasus.  

The point was, there was a lot to see around this place, and we’d barely scratched the surface even twenty minutes later. We kept stopping to look at things and talk to people. The younger girls didn’t do a lot of talking, especially Denny, who stayed almost entirely silent the whole time. But they paid attention, and were clearly enthralled with everything. 

“You guys really like it here, huh?” I eventually asked as we stood outside the jail. Dakota and Denny were standing a few feet away, having a conversation with Baidy. They were talking about something to do with fishing, and how they couldn’t do it back anywhere near the Garden rebels place because of the whole Lotan and its pet Nuckelavee situation. 

“It’s really nice,” Marina agreed quietly. “I think they like living in a real town, even if it’s a small one. They’ve got different houses, open space for everyone to stretch their legs and wings, even a school. Hell, they have businesses. Real businesses where they can make things and get money for it. It’s… it’s a real town here, you guys.”

Avalon, who had been pretty quiet through all of this, spoke up. “I should bring Salten here. I mean, he already gets plenty of space to run and fly around on the station. They have rooms for that. But I think he’d like to set foot on Earth too. He deserves that.” 

“Don’t worry, we’ll bring him down, and Choo too,” I assured Valley while putting an arm around her and squeezing. “They can run around and play tag out there. Can you imagine it?” 

“Imagine?” Valley retorted, “I’ve seen them do it. And yeah, probably better for them to do it somewhere that Salten won’t break a window turning his head too fast.”

“So that’s what happened the other day,” I exaggeratedly gasped. “Eiji kept insisting that he looked at his reflection in the window and it blew apart.” 

“I’m not saying that couldn’t have happened too,” Valley mildly replied as a very small smile played at her face. “Salten’s only broken so many windows.” 

“Speaking of open fields and broken windows,” Miranda started while giving me a nudge from the other side, “Maybe we can get a baseball game going at some point. Didn’t you say Sarah’s a good pitcher?” 

“That’s what I’ve heard,” I replied with a nod. “And are you sure you want to do that? Remember what happened the last time you and I played baseball?” 

Miranda huffed, rolling her eyes. “Oh please, what’re the odds that you’ll go sliding into home and accidentally find a skeleton finger twice?” 

Dakota, who had been saying something about some scary movie, abruptly pivoted to face us. “Wait, what? A skeleton finger?” 

“More than just the finger, really,” Randi noted thoughtfully. “It was actually the whole hand and part of an arm, but most of it was buried. Everyone running across the bases for all that time worked away the dirt until a bit of the finger was uncovered. Flick found it the hard way.” 

“And by hard way,” I put in with a grimace, “she means I was sliding into the plate and my leg got cut on the bone. So I brushed the dirt away from it until we figured out what it was.” 

“That was a fun weekend,” Miranda cheerfully added. “Especially since it’s Flick, so you all know what she had to do.” 

Every single one of them, Miranda, Avalon, Dakota, Denny, even Baidy, simultaneously agreed, “Investigate.” 

A blush crossed my face as I huffed a little bit. “Oh come on, it was a skeleton hand buried under the baseball diamond by home plate. You don’t have to be obsessed with investigating things to want to find out more about it. I bet every single one of you, aside from Randi cuz she was there, want to know what that was all about and whose hand it was.” 

To my satisfaction, they all exchanged brief looks before giving an assortment of nods. Before they could say anything, however, I felt someone else’s presence step into range of my item-sense from the direction of the jail while a voice spoke up. “If the stories I remember hearing while I was there are any indication, this should be good.” 

Turning that way, I found myself looking at a woman who looked a fair bit like the legendary movie actress Audrey Hepburn. Her dark brown hair was cut short in a pixie style that fell just above her ears, with bangs in the front. She wore an outfit that was straight out of the sort of Western that would have been filmed here back in the day, with somewhat tattered old jeans, cowboy boots, a leather duster, button-up Western shirt, belt with a silver buckle and a pair of revolvers on either hip, and a full-on cowboy hat. 

Without thinking at all, I quietly (but not quietly enough) murmured under my breath, “Oh my God, Tabbris was right, I really did have a crush on you.” 

As everyone turned it to stare at me and I realized that I said the quiet part out loud, my blush returned with a vengeance. “I mean–I ahh–I wasn’t–who said that?” Turning, I looked over my shoulder as though searching for the culprit. “I think it came from the uhhh–yeah.” Still flushing despite myself, I focused that way while trying to ignore the assorted snickers. “You… you’re… I mean back in the day you were…” 

“When you knew me, I was Trevor Rawlings,” the woman replied. “Your seventh grade math teacher. The news about your mother had gotten around, and I wanted to see what her daughter was like. I was going to go as a history teacher, but it felt a little on the nose.” 

“You were named Trevor Rawlings?” Denny blinked back and forth between us. “Wait, is this a disguise thing, or a ‘coming to accept your true self’ thing?” 

“A disguise thing,” came the response. “I accepted my true self a long time ago. And the fact that I consider myself… fluid in that regard. I have male moments and female moments. I’m not too fussed about what I’m called, given I’ve answered to everything under the sun. But a simple ‘they’ works quite well at all times. My birth name–” 

“Joan of Arc,” Dakota abruptly blurted, her own eyes widening. “Holy crap, you’re Joan of Arc.” 

An audible chuckle escaped the w–them as they focused on the girl. “That’s one of the things I’ve been called in my life, yes. Though it was actually more of Jeanne D’arc in the old days.” They pronounced the first name something like ‘Jahn’ with a bit of a rolling Juh sound. “I have gone by a lot of different names and titles over the years.” 

“So like, you were a Heretic when you did all that stuff?” Denny hesitantly asked while biting her lip. “But why would they be able to imprison you, and then… I mean…” She trailed off awkwardly, clearly unsure how to continue that line of questioning. 

“It’s alright,” Jeanne assured her. “That wasn’t a great time in my life, but it was also very long ago. To answer your question, no, I was not a Heretic. I’m still not, actually.” 

That made most of the others do a double-take, while I snapped my fingers. “That’s right, you were empowered by Michael.” 

“Empowered in more than one way,” they confirmed. “But yes, in a literal sense, he shared a small portion of his Dyeusai power with me, after saving me from the flames that would have ended my life. The power keeps me young, heals my wounds, and allows me to channel it into a protective barrier, or into my weapon so that it may penetrate very nearly anything it comes up against.” 

“You were–umm, friends with Seth,” I put in. “He mentioned that. I mean, he mentioned a lot more than that, but I wasn’t sure how much to believe.” 

“Yes, that does sound like him.” There was clear fondness in their voice as they gazed off into the distance before focusing on us once more. “To answer your question, yes, we were involved. Well, off and on. We had our ups and downs, as any relationship spread over so many years. But whatever our complications, I was sad to hear about his death. That’s why I took up his old position as Tiebreaker for Wonderland.” 

“I can summon him down here,” I hesitantly offered. “I mean, his ghost. He’s sort of… up in the station right now. We found him–his ghost that is, in the Auberge. So, if you want, I can bring him down here. You know, so you guys can talk.” 

“I’d like that,” Jeanne quietly murmured, a thoughtful look crossing their face before they added, “But perhaps we should finish your tour first. Then I can meet his ghost, and apologize for not being there when he needed help.” It was a bit subtle, but I could hear the guilt and pain in their voice. They really had cared about Seth, that much was clear.

Before anyone else could say anything, the sound of running footsteps through the hard-packed dirt caught our attention, along with a voice calling, “Tiebreaker! Tiebreaker!” 

It was a pale girl, about my age (or at least that was how she looked, it was impossible to tell for sure in this world). Her hair was short like Jeanne’s, but rather than being pixie-cut, it was spiked up and gelled (or magicked) to stay in place. The spikes of hair looked sharp enough to cut my hand if I had entirely lost all sense and stupidly patted her on the head. It was also gray. Not old people gray. More of a shimmering sort of gray, darker at the roots and almost silver on the tips. She wore baggy cargo pants with a lot of pockets, black tennis shoes with purple laces, an Abe Sapien from Hellboy tee-shirt, and a black San Jose Sharks (the hockey team) varsity jacket. 

She came right up to us, skidding to a stop before offering a curious look. “Hiya.”  

“Hey Sesh,” Marina greeted the girl. “These guys are just visiting for awhile. This is Flick, Miranda, and Avalon. And these two are Dakota and Denny. Guys, this is Sesh.” 

Sesh had been smiling through all that, and with that smile, I noticed something else. She had multiple rows of very sharp teeth, like a shark. I knew what that meant. Or at least I was pretty sure. She was an Akheilosan. Like–

“Fahsteth,” Sesh immediately spoke up, as if she’d read my mind. Her attention wasn’t on me, however. It was on Avalon. “If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re right. He’s my dad. But believe me, nobody wants him dead more than I do.” Under her breath, she muttered, “Even if the list of people who would tap dance on his grave is pretty long.” 

“Um, who’s Fahsteth?” That was Denny, hesitantly asking the question as she looked back and forth between all of us. “I mean, besides a pretty bad guy, I guess?” 

Avalon and Sesh both answered at the same time, “A piece of shit.” 

“Jinx, you owe me a coke,” Sesh instantly announced before blanching slightly as she realized who she had said it to. “But, uh, I guess we’ll call it even on account of all of the times my Dad tried to kill you. Or helped someone else try.” 

“It’s a long story,” Avalon informed Denny. “The short version is that he was working for the Seosten who were trying to kill me through most of my life so I wouldn’t open the vault that my ancestor sealed with a blood-relation lock and take the spell that would stop the Seosten from possessing people here on Earth.” 

“The end of that story is we got in the vault anyway and that spell is what was used just a little while ago to make all our people Seosten-immune,” I added. “We can’t make it work for everyone in the world yet, but you know. One step at a time.” 

“Anyway, the point is, I heard you cut my dad in half once,” Sesh informed Valley. “And even though that still wasn’t enough to kill him, that was still the best news I got in a long time.” 

Dakota and Denny both sputtered audibly, the former blurting, “Being cut in half wasn’t enough to kill him?!” 

“He’s enhanced himself a lot,” Sesh replied with a shrug. “Or had other people do it. Actually killing him requires rolling a nat 20 like five times in a row.” 

Avalon stared at her blankly, along with the rest of us. “It requires rolling a what now?” 

Before Sesh could answer, however, Jeanne spoke up. “You were trying to get my attention? Is there a problem?”

Sesh shook her head. “Not a problem, something awesome. You’ve gotta check it out. I was hiking through the hills over there and I found a door. Like, a vault door straight out of Fallout. It’s built right into the hill, but it’s really hidden. You have to squeeze through these rocks and bushes and stuff, then crawl through a tunnel, but then it opens up and there’s this circular area with some water coming out of an underground stream, and the vault door is right there and it’s fucking cool.” 

Arching an eybrow, Jeanne replied, “Well then, why don’t we suspend the tour for a moment and go see this ‘fucking cool’ vault door?” 

Looking to the others, I shrugged. “Sure, why not? 

“But I swear, if we see the name ‘Vault-Tec’ written anywhere around there, we are walking away and never looking back.” 

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Enkindle 23-03 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Hey guys, the non-canon for this story was posted over the weekend and can be read by everyone now right here!

For the next hour or so, we worked our way through searching the stuff we had taken from the Ministry base. Amber (as That-A-Way of course) showed up to help out while on a break from patrol duties, and was immediately recruited to scan through a pile of papers. The more the merrier. Or at least, the more the less this mind-numbing job of reading what often looked like gibberish would drag on. 

There was something that appeared to be a key for the code that was written on those papers and the vials, but I wasn’t able to decipher it with a brief once-over. So, I passed it over to Paige, who said she would figure it out and decode what was written on them, but it would take awhile. 

Beyond that, we found some interesting things. First and possibly foremost, there was a ledger that showed how up to date on their payments various gangs were. Not just the Detroit ones, but practically all of the organizations throughout the entire state. Nearly every Fell-Touched group (aside from a couple like the Scions) and even most of the non-Touched gangs were represented in the ledger. If you were a criminal group of more than one person (and even some who were solo), you paid taxes to the Ministry. 

But it went further than that. Because obviously having that many people know about the Ministry would make it impossible to keep even a little bit secret. So the vast majority of criminals who paid their fees had no idea that it was part of a larger organization. The Ministry had lieutenants who acted as though they were the boss of an area, unconnected to anyone else. They made people who acted in their territory pay tribute, then secretly passed everything but their own salary to the higher-ups. And for the most part, even the lieutenants didn’t know how wide-reaching the whole thing was. They were all divided into smaller cells who didn’t know anything about the other groups, and didn’t know that a number of their rivals in an area were actually also working for the Ministry. Some of the lieutenants were gang bosses, while others were actually their right-hand people who were secretly keeping the Ministry up-to-date on what was going on. The operation encompassed the entire state of Michigan, and we had all these names and the explanations of what they were doing. 

It wasn’t all in one spot, of course. It wasn’t like all of this information was conveniently written out for us. We had to piece it together between the ledger and several other pieces, including on a few of the hard drives, which were heavily encrypted and password protected. We would have been shit out of luck if we hadn’t had Paige and Sierra. They were able to use the…wires that extended from their fingers to plug into the hard drives and access them directly. 

As expected, there were none of my family’s real names written down anywhere. Not even in the secret encoded parts of the computers. Which made me slightly relieved, a reaction which instantly made me feel guilty. This was wrong, it was all wrong. It was going to blow up in my face somehow, I just knew it. But right now, I just had to focus on this stuff.  

Murphy was shaking her head, muttering about how none of this would help find Luciano, when she abruptly paused. From the corner of my eye, I saw the girl quickly shuffle back through a few other pages she had been looking at before elbowing Roald beside her. She asked him where something else they had been looking at a moment earlier was, and he dug through a discarded pile before handing it to her. She had two papers, one in each hand, and was looking back and forth between them. “Hey… hey I think I got something about that piece of shit.” 

We all turned our attention that way, as she explained. “Okay so on this page they’re talking about something called Plan Z. I think it’s a group or a person or something. It says Plan Z couldn’t be called on for this other thing they needed, so they should send Squire. Then this other page with the same date mentions that this safe house is ‘now available’ because ‘L’ has been taken by Z and won’t be needing it anymore. That’s right after Luciano got away. Whoever or whatever Plan Z is, they probably escorted this L, Luciano, away from that safehouse and out of Ministry territory.”  

Taking that in, I frowned thoughtfully. “There’s a few other bits in here about a Plan Z. I thought it was like… an actual plan, but you’re right, it sounds more like a person or a group. Maybe a set of Touched they use? I dunno. Sending a group to escort Luciano seems like overkill, but then again, maybe they were nervous about us finding him again.” My shoulders raised in a slight shrug. “Does it say anything about where that Plan Z might’ve taken him?  I doubt he stayed there, but it might give us a place to start from.” 

“Maybe not there, but it does here.” That was Peyton, waving a hand with a small notebook clutched in it. “It’s like a memo or a reminder note or something in the margin. I didn’t think it was important at first, but the page right before it has the same date as those ones, and the memo says, ‘Z pick-up’ and then an address in Pontiac.” 

Right, Pontiac was a city about twenty miles north of Detroit. I absorbed that information. It made sense as a place to take Luciano. Far enough away to be clear of the city without taking up too much of their time.

Pack, who had been sitting at the far end of the table we were all gathered around, made a thoughtful noise in the back of her throat. “So, whoever these Plan Z people are, it sounds like they needed to be picked up after taking Luciano somewhere. Maybe they gave him the vehicle?” She ran two fingers along the top of Tuesday’s head as the gecko sat perched beside the papers she had been looking through, before turning her attention elsewhere. “What do you think, Sierra? Pretty interesting stuff, but then, you must be tired of just sitting around. Being trapped for all that time in a body with someone else, and now you’re completely free. But here you are just playing with paperwork. Don’t you want to get out there and have some fun?” 

“Please don’t try to recruit her into your villain gang until she at least has time to stretch her legs a bit,” Amber idly requested from where she was sitting basically right next to the La Casa Touched. She didn’t bother to look up from the files she had been scanning. “As far as having a body goes, she’s not even one day old.” 

As for Sierra herself, she offered a shrug. “Yeah, I wanna get out there. But there’s gonna be this nagging voice in the back of my head if I don’t help find Irelyn and those two Touched girls and get them off that island. And believe me, after everything we went through to get me this body, the last thing I want is another nagging voice in my head. I just got the old one to be external.” She gave a quick glance over toward Paige before adding, “So, the sooner we save those three, the sooner I can move on and figure out what my real life is going to be.” 

Clearing my throat a bit, I looked toward the stairs. Wren was up in her main lab, working on that tracer device that was supposed to tell us where exactly Breakwater was. I still wasn’t absolutely sure we would go with the plan to blackmail the people in charge into helping Flea and Trivial, but knowing where the island was would at least be a good place to start from. 

“Well, until we have something else to work with,” I announced, “I think we should check out that address that you guys found. Maybe Luciano isn’t there. I mean, he probably isn’t. But there could be something to tell us where else to look. He might’ve left a clue or something.” 

Murphy was nodding rapidly, shoving herself up from the table so firmly she nearly knocked over the stool she had been sitting on. “Fuck yeah, let’s get out there. I can’t take looking at another piece of paper right now or I’ll scream.”

Standing up, I hesitated. “We need to be quiet and stealthy about it. Whatever that address is, I don’t know if it’s a Ministry place or just somewhere they took Luciano and dropped him off. But whatever it is, if we show up and make a spectacle of ourselves, it’s going to get back to the Ministry. And I’m pretty sure they could put two and two together, considering those files were just stolen from their base yesterday. If the place looks like it’s guarded or whatever, we have to wait. And we don’t let them see us.” 

Paige started to rise, and I focused that way, shaking my head. “You should stay here. Keep working on those harddrives and see if there’s anything else we can use. This isn’t gonna be a fight, we’re just checking the place out and looking around if it seems clear. We need to be subtle right now.” 

“Paintball, subtle?” Pack snorted and gave me a look. “If I asked you to define that word, would you be able to?”  

Flushing a bit under the helmet and mask, I huffed at the girl. “I can be subtle when I want to be, I promise. I was subtle in that base last night.” Before she could say anything, I hurriedly amended, “I mean I was subtle about who I was and my power and—you know what I mean.” Now I was really blushing. “Look, the point is, we’ll just head over there and check the place out.” 

“Uh huh,” Pack gave me a long look. “And how are you going to get there, exactly? You know, to the city twenty miles north of Detroit. Without attracting attention.”

My mouth opened, then I paused before tilting my head. A muttered curse escaped me while Pack snickered. 

“I can’t drive,” Way hesitantly pointed out. “I’ve gotta get back to patrol pretty soon, or they’ll start to wonder where I am. Which we really don’t want.” 

Pack nodded. “And I’ve got–uhh, let’s just call them plans and leave it at that. Gotta do my real job, or the boss might wonder what else I’ve been doing with my time. Which, as Rose over there said, we don’t want.” 

“Yeah,” Way muttered, “wouldn’t want you to get kicked out of your job as a thief.” 

“I could drive,” Sierra idly noted. “I mean, I’d need a car for it, but I could drive.” She offered a somewhat feral smile then, which was weird to see on a face that was so like my own. It made a funny feeling form in my stomach before I pushed it down as she continued. “And hey, if I need to acquire a car for it–” 

“We’re not stealing a car,” I interrupted. This whole situation was already precarious enough without adding something like that in. It wasn’t likely that she would get caught, of course. And even less likely that she would stay caught, but still. The image of Sierra, in a body that looked like a blonde me, getting taken to the police station was just… no. No, we couldn’t risk anything like that. 

“Besides,” Murphy pointed out, “That body looks like you’re younger than we are. That body’s, what, fourteen?” 

“Oh, I dunno,” Pack put in casually, “appearances can be deceiving. Some people look older than they are, other people look younger. You can’t really go off first impression these days.” 

Murphy shrugged at that. “Whatever, the point is any cop who saw her driving would definitely pull you over to check, stolen car or not. She’d stand out. And I thought the whole point of this trip was to blend in and not attract attention.” 

I nodded quickly. “She’s right, we need to be subtle. That means not stealing any cars and not having someone drive who would make the cops do a double-take. So all of us who are wearing masks are out.” 

While we were all looking at each other and trying to figure out where to go from there, Fred grunted. “I’ll drive. Whatever, it’s just a quick recon thing, right? The kid’s gonna be busy upstairs for awhile, and if she needs something, you can take care of it.” He nodded toward Paige before turning his attention to me. “You want subtle, can’t get much more subtle than an old sedan. Long as that’s not a big fancy neighborhood, it’ll fit in just fine. Plus, I’ve got that bakery ID, so I can be out after curfew. Trouble is, I can only take a few of you. We can say you’re helping with loading stuff into the bakery trucks for some extra cash since the place is shorthanded.” 

“Well, Pack and Way are out,” I noted. “Raindrop isn’t here. So I’ll go with Alloy, Hobbes, and Calvin.” I nodded toward Murphy and Roald. “We’ll check it out, see what we can find.” 

“I’ll go with you.” That was Sierra. “Like I said, I really need to get out of here and stretch my legs. Besides, this way if something goes wrong, you’ll have some back-up.” She gave Paige a look. “It’s my turn to be out there. You can keep scanning the hard drives.” 

For a moment, I thought Paige was going to object. But she paused before exhaling. “Be careful.” Her gaze moved over the rest of us as she added, “All of you. Just don’t get involved in some big thing. If there’s trouble, get the hell out of there and come back. Like you said, we don’t want the Ministry to know that you’re involved. This whole house of cards will come down pretty damn quick if they get too many pieces of the puzzle.” 

Amber looked a bit guilty about the fact that she wasn’t going to be able to go with us. Focusing on me, she urged, “She’s right about being careful out there, okay? We caused a big scene last night. The Ministry is going to be on guard and itching for some payback after the bloody nose we gave them. They can’t cover everything, and they won’t know what we were looking for since we grabbed everything we could. But still, just… watch yourselves and don’t attract a bunch of attention. And if something goes wrong, call. I’d rather make an excuse for–I’d rather ditch and figure out how to explain it later so I can come help than have you guys end up in even worse trouble.” 

“We’ll be careful,” I promised. “We’re just going to check the place out and see if there’s anything to find that might tell us where that guy went. From those papers, it sounds like the Ministry took him from their safehouse to that spot. I’m pretty sure that means they just dropped him off, probably in a place he chose. Which would mean they don’t really have any ties to it. But either way, we’ll watch our backs.” Reaching out, I squeezed her shoulder. “But you watch yourself too, okay? Don’t get so distracted worrying about what we’re doing that you get yourself in trouble. There’s still a gang war going on out there.”

Pack made a noise in the back of her throat, before quietly excusing herself. She said something about coming back to check in on what we found later, before heading out to do her… whatever it was La Casa was doing. That whole situation was becoming more complicated by the day, especially given how much I could tell she and Amber liked each other. But it wasn’t my place to say anything. 

Instead, I focused on getting ready to go. With some reluctance, I changed into the other suit, complete with the raised shoes and fake chest. I didn’t want to, but if it came to it, better to be spotted by the Ministry looking like this than as Paintball. There was no sense in taking the risk, even if we weren’t planning on making a big scene. Or so I told myself repeatedly while putting the other suit on in the bathroom before going out to join the others. 

Peyton, Murphy, and Roald wore the same suits as last night as well, while Sierra simply had a ski mask. I had conflicting thoughts about her going out like that. But then again, I had conflicting thoughts about everything involving her. Including the fact that she was wearing a tummy-baring shirt and somehow pulling it off better than I could have even though the body she was using was literally identical to mine. 

So yeah, conflicting thoughts all around. Still, if we got caught and her mask was removed, we… it would be a whole thing anyway. If we got caught to the point that she lost the mask, I would lose mine too. And then we’d really have a situation. 

For the moment, however, I put all of that aside and tried not to focus on the terrible what-ifs. Instead, I headed out to the back lot where Fred’s car was. Unfortunately, just as we were about to head out, Peyton got a call from her mother. Apparently they had a sick friend, and her mother needed her to watch that friend’s kids while she took the woman to the hospital. She obviously felt bad about ducking out, but I assured her it was understandable and that we would be fine. After all, we were just going to poke around, it wouldn’t be that bad. 

She still looked doubtful, but stepped back while I got in the back of the sedan with Murphy and Roald. Sierra got in the front passenger side, not bothering with the mask just yet. 

Starting the car, Fred glanced in the back at us. “Don’t worry, those back windows might look clear, but…” He reached out, hitting something on the dash. “Now they’re tinted from the outside. Nobody can see you back there.” With a proud smile, he tapped the steering wheel. “She might look like an old jalopy, but Wren’s done a lot of tinkering. We get in a chase, whoever’s after us will be in for a big surprise.” 

“Let’s hope there’s no opportunity for you to prove that,” I put in. “At least, not today. But good to know.” 

“Just don’t let Paintball drive if you get into a chase,” Peyton pleaded while standing just outside the car, staring at us as though she was about to change her mind about going to help her mother.

Making a scoffing sound in the back of my throat, I primly pointed out, “I got us out of the last chase pretty well.” 

“You also got my stomach out of my lower torso pretty well,” Peyton shot back. “I’m pretty sure it still hasn’t settled properly.” 

Another huff escaped me. “Wimp. I could totally have driven crazier than that. I took it easy on you.” 

From the front seat, Fred gruffly informed us that he would be the one driving today. And with that, we all waved to Peyton and the others before pulling out onto the street. 

“Now,” our driver announced, “you all might want to sit back and relax for a few minutes, cuz if we’re trying to avoid attention, that means following the speed limit. And I guarantee, there’s gonna be traffic.”

He was right, of course. There was plenty of traffic from people heading home to get back before curfew hit. And just getting out of work in general. Pontiac had grown as well, alongside Detroit as it acted as a suburb for people to live in while working here in the city. At last count, the place had a population of about a hundred and fifty thousand or so. And part of me thought that the entirety of that was on the freeway with us. It made me want to jump out and find my own way to the city. Which would have been a terrible mistake, but still. 

It took over an hour and a half for us to drive the twenty miles from Detroit to Pontiac, which would have been worse if I hadn’t fallen asleep leaning against the window. When the car abruptly stopped, I jolted awake, suddenly feeling panicked about where I was and what was going on. 

“It’s cool,” Murphy assured me. From the sound of the yawn that came with her words, she had actually fallen asleep too. “We’re here.” 

“That’s right,” Fred confirmed, raising his hand to point across the street from where he had parked. “That’s the address. It’s number 3C.”  

I looked that way with the others and we immediately spotted an apartment building with what looked like some sort of memorial out front. There were flowers, wreaths, candles, and similar stuff all stacked up next to the stairs. 

“What…” I frowned. “What is that?” 

“I’ll check it out,” Sierra announced. And before I could say anything, she had the door open and was walking across the street to look at the memorial. There were a couple people standing nearby, and she said something to them before listening to their response. The whole time, I sat with my hands clenched tightly, praying nothing went wrong. 

A minute later, Sierra came back and got in. “It’s a memorial alright,” she announced. “Apparently a couple teenagers were killed by someone the day after that Luciano creep was supposed to have been dropped off. From what the one witness who survived said, they were poking around the dumpster back behind the building and someone attacked them. They ahh, they said it was a monster. Actually they said zombie. He came out of the garbage and screamed at them. The girl got away but her friends were… they weren’t as lucky. Apparently the monster bit them. Ripped their throats out with–” She stopped, grimacing. “It was bad, that’s the point. Real bad. And from the description the girl gave…” 

“Luciano?” I asked, before grimacing when she gave a silent nod. “Fuck. Okay wait, so…. the Ministry brought Luciano here… and the next day a few teenagers found him in the garbage, and when they disturbed him, he attacked and murdered a couple of them? By ripping their throats out with his teeth? And they said he was like a zombie? What–what does…

“What the fuck does that mean?”  

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Growth 18-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Going to visit Wonderland was a big deal for Denny. And a big deal for Dakota too, come to think of it. Neither of them had had that sort of opportunity before. The opportunity to see so many Alters in a peaceful setting, that was. Dakota spent most of her time at the Eden’s Garden Rebels place, and while they were definitely on the side of Alters not all being evil, there weren’t exactly that many around the motel. And Denny had spent time up on the station, but still didn’t trust herself around people that much so she tended to stay in either Asenath or Abigail’s apartments. Abigail had decided not to push her about going to classes for awhile, and instead let her do homeschooling stuff. Eventually she would probably need to physically attend, but there was time for that. After everything she had been through, nobody thought pushing her was the right idea. 

So, this would be a pretty new experience for both of them. I just hoped it went better than my own first visit to that place. But then again, Theia was on our side now, so we could hardly–nope. I refused to finish that thought. Not in this reality, and certainly not with the things I’d already experienced. I may have had a tendency to push my luck with fate, but that was too far. 

“You’re tempting fate again, aren’t you?” 

The demand came from Avalon, who was squinting at me as she, Miranda, and I stood at the back of the small, fenced in area behind the motel where Iskolar the old Garden lady with the giant sword had just created a new portal leading up to the Station. One we weren’t going through. 

“Who, what, me?” I blinked several times at the accusation, while Valley continued to squint. 

“She’s right,” Randi put in idly, standing a bit back with her thumbs in her pockets as she regarded me with a very small smile. “You have that ‘I just thought something dumb and now reality is gonna make me pay for it’ face. You probably just thought something about how at least we won’t get attacked at Wonderland like you did the first time you went there, huh?” 

My mouth opened, then shut, as I felt the slightest pink flush cross my face. “I need to get friends who don’t know me as well,” I muttered under my breath. 

Before either of the other two could respond to that, the portal was finished and a small figure slowly came through. It was Denny, looking quite unsure of herself. She kept glancing around, hunching her shoulders in what seemed like an attempt to make herself smaller. Or possibly she thought she was a turtle and was trying to retract her head into a shell that wasn’t there. Either way, she basically shuffled her way through and looked very much like she might just decide that jumping back the way she’d come before the portal closed would be the best idea. 

Quickly, I spoke up. “Denny, hey. I uhh, hi.” Trying not to sound (or look) awkward, I offered her a smile and gestured. “We better let Iskolar shut down the portal now, or we’ll all have to listen to her and Llars flirting for the next hour.” 

Iskolar, for her part, scoffed at me. “You make your jokes, but I’ll have you know I could teach every one of you a thing or two about good flirting,” she retorted primly. “And good dating.” 

There was a brief pause before Denny nodded and took a few more steps toward us and away from the portal. She seemed like… well, she sort of seemed like someone who was just learning how to swim and had just moved barely far enough out into the water that their feet didn’t quite touch the floor of the pool anymore. Once she heard the portal itself turn off at a gesture from the woman who had created it, Denny gave a very soft gasp. She was clenching one hand tightly.

“Oh well, hello young lady,” Iskolar greeted her. “As I’m sure you heard just now, I’m Iskolar. And you–” 

“Denny,” the girl quickly put in. “I’m Denny. Hi. Um, thanks. I mean, for the…” She gestured behind herself at the spot where the portal had been a moment earlier. “The lift?” 

“Oh, any time, dear,” Iskolar assured her with a smile. “Any time at all. I hear you’re quite the crossword champion.” 

Denny blinked at that, seeming taken aback. “How did you… Dakota?” 

“She might’ve bragged once or twice about how quick her new friend was at solving those things,” Iskolar confirmed with a wink. “Faster than me, and I’ve been doing it a wee bit longer.” 

Now Denny was blushing, squirming a little under the attention. So I spoke up. “Dakota’s just grabbing a couple things from her room. You guys, uh, you’ve been talking a lot, huh?” 

Focusing on me, the girl gave a quick, somewhat jerky nod. “Oh–uh, yeah. Um, sort of. Abigail and Mr. Tougan–he’s my therapist– thought it would help if I talked to her. Because she um, because she had some bad experiences too.” 

That was putting it lightly, considering Dakota’s entire family had been forced to kill each other by a megalomaniac super plant, which only she had survived. She ‘won’ the massacre, and now she had Kwur’s own powers. Well, his plant control powers anyway. Whether she’d inherited anything else of his was yet to be determined. So yeah, she’d definitely had some bad experiences. I could see why Abigail and this Mr. Tougan guy had thought it might help the two of them to talk to each other. 

Denny was still explaining. “Mostly we talk over the computer. We do that a lot. Really a lot.” She admitted that with a slight blush, squirming on her feet. “Maybe a little too much. But she’s… she’s good to talk to. She understands a lot of–um, she understands a lot. And we don’t just talk about bad stuff. Or even mostly about bad stuff. Usually we talk about these shows we’ve been watching on Netflix or whatever. I mean, we put the show on at the same time and talk about it while we’re watching it. Mostly about the show, but sometimes we just start talking about other things and forget what’s going on so we have to rewind and–” All at once, she seemed to realize just how much she had been saying, and how quickly she’d been saying it, and clammed up. Her blush was deeper. “And it’s not a big deal.” 

Randi grinned while speaking up. “I mean, if you’re a crossword champion, I might need to get your help with my English homework.”

“Sorry,” Denny replied with a helpless shrug, “knowing a lot of words doesn’t really make me that good at knowing the rules of grammar or whatever. And I don’t even know that many words. It’s just that I see the clues and the number of letters and then I just… know what the right word is.” 

She hesitated before starting to say something else. But before she could, I sensed Dakota approaching. Sure enough, just as I turned to glance that way, the girl in question came around the corner. She was carrying a heavy backpack over one shoulder. Seeing Denny, she darted that way to embrace her. “Hey, Kitchen!” 

Denny, after the slightest hesitation, returned the hug. “Hey, Kentucky.” 

Weirdly, it was only while seeing the two of them together right then that I realized how relatively similar they looked. At least on paper. They both had dark hair and pale skin, and they were both close to the same age. Well, Dakota was thirteen while Denny was eleven. But even that wasn’t quite right, because Denny still had some memories (and was getting more as the days went on, apparently) of being her older self before she’d died, so–yeah. It was complicated. But they did look similar, enough that they could have been sisters. I wondered, inwardly, if that helped at all. Did they get along so well because both of them really needed some form of family? Not that I thought they were pretending or anything like that, just… subconsciously, maybe it helped them talk about the things they needed to talk about with each other. 

“Kitchen?” Randi echoed Dakota’s words, then Denny’s, “Kentucky?” Then she realized. “Your names.” 

“She was Den,” Dakota confirmed. “Then it turned into Closet, or Living, or Study, or any other room.” 

Denny nodded, looking a bit more at ease than she had before Dakota showed up. “And she’s any state. Except Nevada. I um, I met Nevada. But that still leaves a lot of others, doesn’t it, Utah?” 

Dakota promptly leaned over to whisper something quietly in the other girl’s ear that I couldn’t hear. Then the two of them snickered before Denny whispered something back. 

Yeah, I was going to have to make sure Abigail was aware of what a good choice having the two of them talk had been. But then, I was pretty confident she already knew that. My older sister was pretty good at this sort of thing, apparently. 

Clearing my throat, I spoke up. “Right, so we’re going over to Wonderland. But there’s a couple of things we should probably warn you guys about so they don’t take you by surprise.” 

Looking a little hesitant once more, though bolstered by the presence of Dakota, Denny quietly asked, “Are you sure this is a good idea? If there are a lot of people there, and if I hurt anyone–” 

Stepping that way, I took her hand and squeezed it, meeting her gaze. “Listen, okay? That’s not going to happen. You’re not gonna hurt anyone. There’s a lot of protection over there, people who know how to keep everyone safe. And you’ll have us with you every step of the way. We’re all just gonna go hang out, see some cool stuff, talk to cool people, and do cool things. But no one is going to force you into it. If you really, genuinely don’t want to do this, say the word and we’ll do something else. We can all hang out in one of the rooms around here and watch a movie, or play a game, or whatever. It’s no big deal. But if you’re just afraid that you’ll hurt someone, or that someone will hurt you, I promise we won’t let that happen. 

“Those memories in your head, his voice, they don’t control you. They don’t control anything. You have his power, and you can do whatever you decide to do with it, not the other way around. And when I say his memories don’t get to control you, I don’t mean by telling you what to do. I don’t mean by puppeting you. I mean they don’t get to stop you from living your life. He’s gone. You’re not. You’re here. You won. We will do whatever you are comfortable with. Just know that we’re going to be there, and make sure it’s what you want to do. Not what his memories want to force you into.” 

Denny was quiet for a moment, staring at me as she considered all that. Then she gave a single, barely perceptible nod. “I… I kinda want to see Wonderland. It sounds fun.” She actually sounded almost guilty in admitting that she thought it would be fun. Which made me want to take Fossor’s thus-far nonexistent ghost (please God no) and Kushiel’s entirely too-extant ghost, and punt both of them into the sun for what they had helped do to this girl. Yes, Fossor hadn’t been directly involved, but it was his fault. He was responsible. And besides, it wasn’t like I needed that much of an excuse to want to kill Fossor again. He had it coming a million times over. Thankfully, that wouldn’t be an issue. Not after everything that had been done to ensure he didn’t have some sort of loophole to come back through. He was dead and gone, period. 

I should know, people kept borrowing the memory of the event that Sariel had copied out of my brain so we’d have proof of what happened. And not just my brain, Mom’s too. Both of us had seen him die, so Sariel copied our memories and allowed people to see them. Apparently Fossor didn’t exactly lack people who wanted to see exactly how he died. Let alone experience doing it themselves. 

Shoving those thoughts away, I made myself smile at the girl in front of me. “Yeah? Cool, because trust me, it’s gonna be fun. Especially when you meet Buddy System. And Namythiet. And–well, a lot of people.” 

Avalon spoke up, voice curious. “What about you, Dakota? Are you okay with going over there?” 

There was the slightest hesitation as the other girl thought that through before nodding. “Now that the vine’s working, I want to… I want to celebrate. I wanna do something new, something really different. I wanna…. I wanna be happy.” She gave a small smile toward Denny, taking the girl’s hand. “I–we didn’t make it through everything those people put us through just to act like we died when we didn’t. We’re gonna go have fun, right, Library?” 

Straightening up a little bit, though she was still smaller than the girl next to her, Denny gave a firm nod of agreement. “Right, yeah, fun. Let’s do that fun thing. You said we’d meet someone named Buddy System?” 

“Yeah, he’s one of the people we need to warn you about,” Miranda murmured. 

“He’s a troll,” I confirmed. “I mean, not a stupid internet jerk, a real live troll. But he’s really nice. He just looks scary, and we didn’t want you to get the wrong idea. Trust me, once you meet him, you’re gonna love the big guy.” Saying that, I tilted my head thoughtfully. “Actually, come to think of it, we haven’t actually seen Joan of Arc yet.” 

“I–what?” That was Denny, giving a double-take. “Haven’t seen who?” 

Grinning, I gestured toward Iskolar. “You hear that? Now she’s interested. Guess we better start up that portal and head over there. 

“Time for Denny to see just how crazy this world can get.” 

******

Marina Dupont was there to meet us when we came through the portal and into what looked like a moderately-sized garage, just big enough for two cars. The tall, pale brunette was accompanied by Quing, the avian-like Lavinisi who worked as one of Wonderland’s main security guards alongside Buddy. He was watching us intently from his spot in front of the main rolling door, his sharp eyes gazing at and through all of us as we appeared. The portal. He was watching the portal. I could see his right wing-hand touching the handle of one of his many knives, his entire body visibly tense. 

Right, of course he was a little worked up. He was responsible for the security of this place, and we had just come through a portal that led back to an encampment of a whole bunch of people who had been responsible for slaughtering a lot of Alters. Yes, the Garden people were rebelling against that and we were all trying to change things, but still. 

A moment later, the portal faded behind us, and Marina quickly stepped over, extending her hand to catch mine. But not to shake it. Instead, she pulled me into an embrace. “Hey, Flick!” Avalon got the same treatment and greeting, as did Miranda. “You guys really need to visit more. Do you have any idea how much the kids ask about all of you?” 

Even after she had sent the Crossroads children back to their parents (on either side), Marina wasn’t totally done with taking care of children. First, there were the ones over twelve who had chosen to stay at Wonderland rather than go back to their parents. That was a choice Marina and the people here had allowed them to make. With the option to go back whenever they decided to. Thus far, none had. 

But even more than that, when the Wonderland Septs had learned how good Marina was with children, they had basically assigned her as a permanent… nanny, of sorts. And from what I had heard and seen, she had never been happier. This was where she belonged, teaching and taking care of younger kids. It suited her much more than Crossroads had. 

Once she had embraced and greeted us, she turned her attention to the other two. But Marina didn’t immediately reach out to them. She didn’t try to grab and hug them. Instead, she offered both of them a smile. “Hey. I’m Marina, what’re your names?” 

The two girls exchanged glances before Denny stood up straight. “Denny,” she answered quietly. “I’m Denny.” 

“And I’m Dakota,” the slightly older girl put in. “You… you went to Crossroads?” She had heard a lot about that place over the past few months, most of it from Sands and Sarah. 

Nodding, Marina replied, “That’s right, I went there for two years. Well, basically two years. Flick and Avalon were one year under me. But you know what?” she continued with a conspiratorial tone, “With all the stuff that kept interrupting them last year, I think they attended like… three months of classes. Maybe.” 

As she winked at the two of us, Dakota and Denny snickered a little. Then Marina added, “On the other hand, I’m pretty sure they’ve been through more training and live combat than fourth-year students who are about to graduate.” She glanced up toward me, offering a little smile. “They’re bonafide badasses, and you couldn’t ask for better friends.” 

“Yeah, they’re alright.” The grunt came from Quing, whose voice continued to surprise me for how deep and gravelly it was, coming from a relatively thin bird-man. “They’ve done some good work out there.” Those laser-focused eyes settled on me, our gazes locking. “Getting rid of Fossor, that was a big deal. Thanks. I mean, I ahh, know you had your own reasons for doing it, but still. Thanks.”

Before I could say anything, Miranda piped up, “Yeah, a lot of people are glad he’s dead. I don’t think that man had any friends.”

My mouth opened, but a young voice abruptly called, “Can I come out now?” It was coming from a corner of the ceiling in this garage, where a small face with feathers and an orange-yellow beak was poking out through an opening. “Nothing blew up and the portal’s gone!” 

Quing exhaled, giving all of us another quick once-over before waving one of his wing-arms. “Yeah, come down.” 

The face at the hole disappeared, before the girl it belonged to promptly dropped through. She glided down, her own wing-arms extended until she was hovering directly in front of us. It was a Lavinisi, like Quing. Only this one was a young girl, basically a little kid. Her feathers were dark red as opposed to Quing’s blue. She also wore tan cargo pants and a gray tee-shirt with an image of the actual Falco from Star Fox on it. Underneath that, she had clearly used red fabric marker to write (in somewhat shaky lettering), ‘Uncle Quing!’ 

After taking all that in, I noticed that she clearly wasn’t actually using her wings to keep herself up off the ground. They were just sort of extended out to either side as she hovered a couple feet off the floor. The Lavinsi flight seemed to be more of the Superman-like variety, with their wings acting as rudders in the air to guide them, or whatever. 

“Hi!” the young Lavinsi chirped, her attention focused on the two girls close to her own apparent age. “I’m Baidy! You’re Dakota and Denny. I heard you. Wait, was that rude? I didn’t mean to eavesdrop or spy, but Uncle Quing said I had to hide until we knew it was safe.”  

“It’s okay, Baidy,” Marina assured her. “But you should greet everyone, remember?” 

“Oh!” Turning her attention to the three of us, Baidy quickly introduced herself once more, and made it clear that she had heard our names too. But she was clearly more interested in Denny and Dakota, which was fair. 

Clearing my throat, I gestured, “Well, it seems to me that we were promised a tour of the newest Wonderland. Pretty sure there’s no one better for that than someone who gets a birds-eye view of the place.” 

Grinning, Marina turned a bit to where Baidy was practically vibrating with excitement. “She’s right, maybe you should help lead this tour. You know where everything fun and interesting is.” 

“Really?!” Baidy brightened, literally hovering higher in the air in her excitement. “Okay! Uh, come on!” She flew straight up toward the hole in the ceiling, only to stop when she was almost there. There was a momentary pause before she slowly sank back to the ground, looking somewhat sheepish. “I uhh, um, maybe we should use the door.” Her embarrassment at forgetting that we couldn’t fly wore off instantly as she flew that way, hitting the button to make the big rolling door start to rumble its way up. “You’re gonna love it here!” She was already giggling so much she almost couldn’t get her next words out. 

“It’s wonderful!” 

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Enkindle 23-02 (Summus Proelium)

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To my relief, the others did not immediately recognize the newly-dubbed Sierra as looking like me. The real me, that was. In the back of my mind, I sent a silent thanks that I had never really been a focus of paparazzi or whatever. I didn’t know how much of that was the fact that I didn’t fit what they would want to show as a daughter of Elena Evans, and how much was my parents keeping me sheltered from it. But either way, it helped me out right now. I could only imagine what sort of explanations we would have had to give otherwise. 

Maybe the truth. I was going to tell them the truth anyway, so why not now? It was a question I couldn’t quite answer, even to myself. th

Murphy, Roald, and Peyton were all circling Sierra, looking her up and down. Peyton gave a low whistle. “Damn, you really do look completely–I mean…” She looked back and forth between her and Paige. “I guess saying you look real is pretty bad, isn’t it? Cuz, like, you are real.”

Paige snorted at that. “Yeah, we’re real. Flesh and blood body, just like you. Well, not just like.” 

“More like a new and improved us,” Murphy murmured, before flushing a bit. “I mean, I didn’t–” She seemed to squirm a little bit as though embarrassed. “You both look great, but what I meant was the whole strength and speed stuff. Wait, do you have that same–you know.” She gestured a bit vaguely toward Sierra. “Improvements, I mean. Are you like a super-soldier like Paige?” 

A very slight smirk crossed the other girl’s face. And yes, seeing a look like that on my own face was still weird. The whole thing was weird. Every time I looked at her, I had another startling moment of realizing I was staring at my own face. It threw me off, to say the least. That smirk stayed as she inclined her chin a bit. “Like her? I’m pretty sure I could kick her ass.” 

Paige started to respond to that, and I quickly spoke up. “Why don’t we save finding that out for later? I’m just glad Rai–I mean Sierra has a body now, so we can move on to the next problem.” 

Roald made a noise deep in his throat, folding his arms across his chest before hesitantly asking, “You mean we don’t get to just be glad we got out of that whole thing alive and relax for awhile? She um, she has a body now, and it’s gonna take awhile to look through all that stuff, right? You don’t… you don’t want to go out and do something like that again already…”

Murphy’s hand slapped his back. “I think what he means is, we just did a lot of pissing some really powerful people off. And while all of that was fun, and they have that and a hell of a lot more coming–” Her face twisted a bit as thoughts of her brother clearly filled her mind briefly before she pushed them away. “–we probably don’t wanna push too hard, too fast. They’re gonna be on guard now. Even more on guard than usual. They’re gonna be watching for us. So maybe we should chill out.”

“He didn’t mean anything to do with the Ministry,” Paige informed them with a glance my way. “This is about my–our father.” The correction came as she met Sierra’s gaze briefly. “And the fact that he’s got…” She hesitated slightly, clearly deciding how much to actually say before starting over. “The fact that he’s got two Star-Touched trapped on that prison island with him. With them. With all those prisoners.” 

That made everyone else besides Sierra and me do a double-take. It was almost funny. Wren flew right up in the air, wings lifting her into a hovering motion so she was several feet off the ground. “Wait, wait, what?! He’s got Star-Touched on Breakwater?” 

“How did that happen?” Peyton demanded. “And how do you know about it?” 

Paige took a breath before explaining, “The Banners–the people who adopted… who bought me, they have an older daughter, a real daughter, who was estranged from them. When they went missing–err, when we went missing, she started looking for them. I guess Trivial was a friend of hers, because she convinced her to help look. Trivial got Flea, from the Conservators, to help too. When we found out that there were Star-Touched looking for me, we were afraid they’d tip off the Ministry. Or even that they were Ministry. So we made them think I was in Florida. You know, using a phone that made it look like that was where I was calling from.” 

Wren abruptly spoke up. “You were calling the umm, Trivial with that?” 

“Not at first,” Paige replied. “But when I wouldn’t tell Irelyn where I was, she uhh, thought making me talk to a Star-Touched would help. Obviously it didn’t change anything, but they kept trying.” 

This was all uncomfortable, obviously. I didn’t like the idea of lying to these guys. But then again, it was about protecting Irelyn’s secret identity. Awkward as the whole situation was, it would have been even worse to go blabbing that when it wasn’t our secret to tell. There was no simple answer here. We could either betray their trust by lying about the whole Irelyn/Flea situation, or betray Irelyn by exposing her identity to a lot of people she didn’t know anything about. I just had to hope that if this came out in the future, they would understand why we hadn’t told them the truth. Actually, I had to hope that they were cool with an awful lot of ‘not the whole truth.’  

I shook those thoughts off while Paige finished with a simple, “We thought it’d be safe enough down there, that they couldn’t get in trouble that far away from what was actually going on.” 

“You also sent them away from the city when this whole gang war is going on,” Roald pointed out. He didn’t exactly sound completely recriminating, but he didn’t not sound that way either. It was somewhere in the middle. “They could have done a lot of good here for people.” 

Wincing visibly, Paige nodded. “You’re right. We didn’t think they’d be gone for this long, honest. We assumed they’d go down for a few days and then come back. We didn’t expect anything like this.”  

“Stupid us, apparently,” Sierra put in. “Cuz they managed to get Pittman’s attention somehow and he had them… uh, we dunno what or how exactly, but they ended up on Breakwater. He has the phone they were using to communicate with Paige. Irelyn gave them the number. I guess she thought they might have more luck convincing her to tell them where she was.”

Peyton was looking back and forth between all of us, marbles orbiting agitatedly around her head while she was clearly thinking intently. “Okay, so this Banners woman was looking for you and her missing parents and she got a couple of Star-Touched involved. Does she know they ended up on Breakwater?” 

“We’re pretty sure she’s there too,” I found myself saying, picturing the hole I was digging getting deeper with each word. Though technically that was the absolute literal truth. We were pretty sure Irelyn was there. “Flea and Trivial went with her as back-up and now…” I grimaced. Fuck, it was so easy for this to go wrong and fall apart. The moment they didn’t see Irelyn with Flea and Trivial, it was–fuck. That was a problem to figure out later. We were doing the best we could not to give away her secret identity, but that could only go so far. 

“So there’s a Prev trapped on that island too?” Murphy blurted. “How’re they keeping her safe?” 

Paige shifted her weight a little, her tone flat. “She’s fully capable. Her father was training her to take over his security division before they had a falling out. She’s had more– she can take care of herself in a fight. With those two backing her up–or her backing them up–whatever, she can help.” 

I really almost had to admire Paige’s ability to lie in that moment. She really sounded like she was sticking up for Irelyn being able to keep up with a couple Star-Touched, as if offended by the insinuation that she would drag them down. 

Peyton started to say something else before stopping as a noise of confusion escaped her. “Wait, hold the phone, why isn’t this all over the news? If there were a couple heroes and some ordinary person trapped on that place, wouldn’t it be front-page material? We’d be seeing it on television, there’d be top pinned posts about it on Sphere, on Reddit, everywhere. And trust me, it’s not there. No one’s talking about anything like this. Not even rumors.” 

Grimacing behind my helmet, I shifted my weight uncomfortably before nodding. “That’s why we think they’re keeping it secret. The people on Breakwater, I mean. I don’t think they want anyone to know that there’s even a chance of good people ending up there. Because if people knew it was possible for someone to be transported onto Breakwater–” 

“They’d realize there must be a way to transport off of it,” Murphy finished, sounding disgusted. “And we can’t have that. Gotta keep up the fucking illusion of perfect security so there’s not mass panic in the streets or whatever the fuck they’re scared of. Even if it means abandoning those three–wait, do you think they’ve told the people here? Do you think their teammates know what happened to them? I guess they wouldn’t tell anyone that Irelyn chick knows, but the other two?” 

My head shook. “I don’t think the people in charge of that place would be able to keep it a secret if the Star-Touched here knew about it.” Pausing to consider, I added, “I mean, maybe one or two know, like the leaders? But I don’t… I don’t think even them. Honestly, I’m pretty sure that if even the Ministry knew about it, they’d be doing something to get the word out. Remember, their whole thing depends on balance. It’s not just about giving the villains a free ride. They need to have the power on the good side to shut down anyone who steps out of line. Losing two really good Star-Touched at any point, but especially right now, isn’t exactly conducive to that.”

“Besides,” Sierra put in, “Pittman’s their enemy. They’d want to get the word out and put a stop to it just to make sure that there was no chance of him getting off that place.” 

Peyton was nodding slowly, her voice thoughtful. “I mean, that’s a good point, right? Like, there’s no reason they’d be helping to keep this secret. Safe to say they don’t know anything about it.” 

Roald snorted. “Yeah, well, maybe we should tell them so they can do our work for us.” 

My mouth opened, before I stopped and grimaced behind the helmet. “I know you meant that sarcastically, but part of me wants to know if that’s something we could do. I mean, think about it. They’ve got a hell of a lot more resources than we do. And like we said, they’ve got every reason to want to shut him down and save Flea and Trivial.” 

“Has Irelyn been reported missing?” Peyton asked, her golden helmet tilting my way. “I mean, I doubt she took this much time off work. Her–wait, what does she do for work?” 

Paige was the one who answered. “She’s a security consultant for a few different tech companies. Trains their staff, works with a couple mercenary groups, that sort of thing. Freelance, so she doesn’t have anyone to report to. They might’ve noticed she hasn’t been answering calls, but what are they gonna say? Hell, they’d probably think she’s on some assignment for a different company.” 

Clearing my throat, I quickly spoke up. “The point is, it’s pretty doubtful that either the people she works with, or Flea and Trivial’s teammates, know how bad their situation is. Maybe they’ve noticed them missing, but even then it’s not like they’d jump straight to ‘they’re trapped on Breakwater,’ you know? No matter what they think happened, they’re probably keeping it quiet to avoid a panic.” 

“They might be blaming the Scions,” Roald pointed out with an audible grimace. “Maybe they think those guys grabbed them and are planning some big event.” 

“Please don’t even give me any reason to picture that,” Alloy groaned. “Cuz now I’m just wondering what those guys are actually planning for their big revenge come-back.” 

My head shook quickly. “Let’s not think about that right now. We’ve got enough problems to deal with. We just need to focus on how we get those people off of Breakwater.”

“Maybe you should let the Ministry know,” Fred put in. He was sitting over in the corner with a copy of the newspaper and a cup of coffee, shrugging when we looked at him. “Like you said, they’ve got the resources you–we don’t, right? And they’d want to convince the authorities to get those three out of there. You get them to put pressure in the right places, maybe the people in charge of the island just step in and pull them out. Could be that easy.” He paused, frowning at his cup. “Yeah, I know, it sounded wrong as soon as I heard it.” 

“I’m not sure how we can let them know what’s going on without becoming even more of a target ourselves,” I carefully murmured, thinking about it for a moment. “Or how we could get them to believe it. I mean, maybe we could get them to think that the people who hit them last night worked for him and lead them to it that way? But I don’t know how we could do that, exactly. It seems pretty… easy to screw up.” 

Wren was practically vibrating as fast as her wings while hovering in the air. “I think I can find out where the island is.” When everyone looked at her, she quickly added, “When you use the phone to talk to that mean guy. I think I can build something to track the signal to the source. Would that help? I mean, um, if you know exactly where the island is, maybe you could trade that to the people in charge and say something like, ‘you wanna keep that whole location a secret, so maybe you should get our friends out and it’ll stay that way.’”

That made me stare even more, my mouth opening and shutting a couple times. Of all the people who might have suggested literally blackmailing the authorities into getting Flea and Trivial off that island, I never would have expected it to be Wren. 

Apparently everyone else was just as surprised, because the girl found the whole group staring at her. Slowly, she lowered herself back to the floor, wings continuing to beat for a few more seconds before slowly fluttering to a stop. “What?” she asked weakly, looking back and forth between all of us. “Was it a bad idea?” 

I was the first to answer, my head shaking quickly. “No, not a bad idea. A surprising one for sure, and definitely a dangerous one too. Blackmailing the government into doing what we want them to do, even if it’s the right thing, could get a target put on our backs. Especially with something as big as the location of their super-inescapable prison.”

Paige spoke slowly. “He’s right about that. Believe me, just trying to force them to do what we want in the first place would be enough to make them look at us in a, let’s say not favorable light. Add in the part where it involves the secret location of the supervillain prison that every government in the Armistice alliance uses and…” She grimaced a bit. 

“But it’s still a good idea,” Sierra put in flatly. Her tone has made it clear that she was practically daring us to disagree, which would obviously mean coming up with a better plan of our own. “Think about it, it’s not like we can get over there ourselves. Even once we know where the island is, that place is so well defended that we’d get blown to smithereens before we got anywhere near it. Unless the kid’s ready to upgrade the odds of her teleportation system from a fifty percent chance of successfully moving a few blocks to a one hundred percent chance of moving all the way across the continent and over the ocean.” 

Wren visibly blanched at that, head shaking slowly. “Um, I’d rather risk blackmailing the government. Wait, does that make us bad guys?” 

“We’re saving a couple Star-Touched, and another good woman, from real bad guys,” Peyton reminded her. “That gives us a little wiggle room on the good or evil chart, doesn’t it?” 

“Yes,” I confirmed. “A little wiggle room. But let’s be careful with that, because I’m pretty sure we’ve been wiggling a fair bit already. Um. Wren, maybe you could work on creating that tracking system so we can call Pittman and get his location? Then we can decide what to do from there. I mean, it’s not like having the location automatically means we have to blackmail the government people, right? If anyone else can come up with a better plan, feel free.” 

“One that helps Trivial, Flea, and Irelyn as soon as possible,” Paige put in. “They might be good at what they do, but they’re stuck out there on an island full of the worst of the worst. Nobody’s good enough to survive in that place forever. And it’s our fault that they’re stuck out there to begin with.” 

A nagging voice in the back of my head was saying that everyone trying to think of a better solution might have more luck if they knew the full, correct situation. They were operating under the assumption that Flea and Irelyn were two separate people. That could very easily come back to bite us in the ass. But again, until we had permission from the woman herself, we couldn’t just go around blabbing her identity to everyone here. We were doing the best we could with a shitty situation. 

Wren was nodding almost frantically. “I’ll work on it. I’ll build it. I mean, I’ve got the design in my head already, but we might need to get a few things. They’ve probably got blockers–I mean they’ve definitely got blockers. Things to stop stuff like exactly what we’re gonna do. But I think I know how to get past them. I–uhh, gotta draw!” Even as she finished saying that, Fred was handing over a tablet with a stylus, and she quickly moved to a corner of the room to start sketching designs. 

After watching her for a second, I turned back to the others. “Well, that’ll keep her busy for a while. I guess there’s nothing else we can do for those three right now, so maybe we should start going over the stuff we found? Sorry, I mean the stuff we stole. Wren says the tracking stuff is all gone, right, Fred?” 

“Yeah, it’s all taken care of,” he confirmed. “The kid promises that everything over there is safe.” He gestured to a table on the other side of the room, where our bags were spread out. “There were a lot of trackers on it, but we got rid of them. Nobody’s gonna find that stuff here.” 

So, we all went over to find our own bags and started to sort through what we had stolen. First, I took those vials from the front pocket and unwrapped them from the towel before frowning thoughtfully. There were five vials in total, one blue, two purple, one brownish-black, and one a bright amber. There were labels on the vials, but it wasn’t like they had easy-to-understand names and explanations. Each label had four numbers and three letters on it. Such as, on the blue one, 9F2X7P0. The two purple ones looked identical, and the codes on them were close but not the same. One was 8D1J4N1 and the other was 8D1J4N8. Did that mean they came from the same batch? I had no idea. And I certainly wasn’t going to do anything stupid like uncork them and smell or touch the stuff without having a better idea of what it was. 

Hopefully there would be information in the files we’d taken, something we could use to decode the labels. For the moment, I carefully set them aside on the folded towel and turned my attention to the assortment of papers I had yanked off the wall back in that place. They had been taped up near the vials, so maybe they had something I could use? 

Unfortunately, the papers were no help. At least, not yet. They had the same sort of code written on them. Until we found the key for it, we still couldn’t decipher what any of it meant.

While I was focused on that, Pack arrived at the back door. Fred let her in, and she came with her lizards all over her shoulders, arms, and head. “I tell you, these guys must’ve been pretty upset about being left behind, because–what?” She had stopped in mid-sentence, staring at Sierra, who had just looked up. “What the hell are– err… oh.” Seeming to catch herself abruptly, the masked girl pointed. “That’s the body you found for Raige?” 

“Sierra now,” the girl in question corrected. “Sierra Nevada.” 

“Sierra Nevada,” Pack echoed thoughtfully, still staring at her. I couldn’t read her expression through that completely blank mask, but she sounded… odd. “Well, it’s good to meet you, Sierra. 

“Very good to meet you indeed.” 

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Growth 18-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Obviously, finding out that the Garden Rebels could now make their own new Heretics was a big deal, a really big deal. Seriously, if this war ended up dragging on longer than the truce with the Seosten, we would need the ability to make more Heretics. Otherwise, the Loyalists would win simply through attrition. And while I wanted to think that we would be done with this much sooner, it wasn’t a good idea to plan on that. We had to be ready for this to be a long, drawn-out thing. Being able to create more Boscher Heretics was the only way we would survive. 

All of that and more was running through my mind as Miranda and I joined Avalon at the entrance to the portal room that would lead us down to the beachfront area where the Garden people had set up. 

As soon as she saw us, Valley pushed off the wall she had been leaning against and approached to embrace me tightly. “You know what this means,” she murmured. 

My head bobbed. “Of course I know what it means. The Rebellion isn’t completely screwed if this goes on much longer. It’s a big deal. Especially since–” I cut myself off, feeling the pain of Tribald Kine’s death wash over me once more before swallowing hard. “Especially since we’re already losing experienced Heretics. We need to be able to create more.” 

Miranda spoke up quietly while standing a couple feet back. “They have a lot of experienced Natural Heretics to choose from, people who would definitely agree to take the power boost. They don’t have to start with children or people who don’t know what they’re doing.” 

“Especially considering they don’t have to brainwash or lie to them to get them to fight,” I muttered under my breath. “They don’t have to get them when they’re too young to know any better.” That applied to both groups, really. Crossroads recruited Bystander-Kin when they were teenagers at most, and Garden tended to recruit even younger than that. They pulled in children and taught them to hunt down and kill other sapient creatures. When you thought about it for a minute, it was really fucked up. 

The three of us exchanged looks for a moment, obviously thinking about that. Finally, Miranda gave a firm nod. “Come on then, let’s get down there and see what’s up. If they’re right, if Dakota really managed to get those vines and the fruit working, we… we need to thank her.” 

“Everyone needs to thank her,” Avalon agreed. “And I feel like they already are. We might need to save Dakota from being…” She considered her words. “… overwhelmed. People can be a lot, even when they’re grateful.”  A brief pause, then, “Sometimes especially when they’re grateful.”

She knew what she was talking about, that was for sure. I knew she had been dealing with people being all over her for her own contributions toward the Seosten permission-possession spell. Obviously, she was glad that people weren’t trying to kill her anymore–okay there were still plenty of people who wanted to kill her, but not like that at least. She was glad the Seosten had no reason to actively try to kill her in order to stop a spell that had already been performed. And she knew why all those people were grateful for that spell. But having so many coming up and thanking her for something she didn’t feel like she’d actually contributed much toward as herself made Valley feel weird. She had told me that much over the course of the trip to that prison planet. She had been enjoying having some time away from the station so she could relax without feeling like she would be disappointing people who wanted to talk to her. She didn’t blame them for being happy and wanting to talk about the whole situation, but it was still a lot. 

Miranda and I nodded to one another before I spoke up. “You’re right, she might need a break right now. How about, after we check on the whole vine situation, we find out if she wants to take off for a bit? I was texting with Marina earlier and she said something about us coming to see Wonderland’s newest set-up.” 

The other two agreed with that, and we went through the door to the portal room. The man there knew us by name, and immediately asked if we were going because we’d heard the news. So it had gotten all the way up here already. That made sense, but also made me even more certain that Dakota would probably need a break from people. 

We exchanged a few words with the man, an elderly Yedveleran who had white-gray skin, was only about five feet tall, and had six arms as well as eyes that were attached to the end of antennae-like stalks atop his head rather than on the front of his head. His English name was Llars, which was about as close as we could get to pronouncing his actual name. Eventually, after a brief discussion about the whole situation, he sent a message to his counterpart down in the rebel Garden area. Once he got the go-ahead, Llars opened the portal and gestured for us to go ahead. “Make sure you let the kid know she did good, you hear?” 

We promised we would, before stepping through the portal. It carried us to the small, fenced-in field behind the main motel where the Garden had set up (though they had spread out throughout this entire neighborhood, taking up in a few different motels and apartment buildings). Llars’s counterpart on this side of the portal, an actual Garden Heretic woman named Iskolar, was right there to greet us. She was elderly, like Llars himself, and from what I’d heard other people say, I was pretty sure the two of them were actually courting one another. Which was pretty great. I hoped the two of them would make it work.  

In any case, Iskolar was a fairly short woman herself, standing around the same height as me at five foot four inches. She had graying blonde hair that was very big and poofy, and a broad smile to go with her broadsword. Yeah, the weapon was practically bigger than she was, strapped to her back. I’d seen her wield it though, and she was incredibly deadly despite outwardly looking and acting like a goofy grandmother. Honestly, she made me think of Betty White cosplaying as a barbarian. I felt like she could offer us cookies with one hand while fending off a horde of snarling wolf-monsters with her sword in the other. It was a really fun image in my head. 

Before we left that fenced-in area, Iskolar insisted that we take a bag of chocolate candies that she wanted Dakota to have. She also made us promise that we weren’t going to overwhelm the poor girl and would help her get a break from everyone who was demanding more and more of her time. When we told her our plan to take the girl to see Wonderland, Iskolar was delighted. On the other hand, she also suggested that Dakota might like to see a movie as well, and that we should take her to ‘that new Humphrey Bogart film.’ So it was possible that she was somewhat behind the times. I supposed once you had been a Heretic for so long, it became harder to keep track of how lives went in the Bystander world. Still, it was the thought that counted.

Once we made our way out of there, it wasn’t hard to find where practically everyone else was. The beach across the street from the motel was packed full of people. Mostly Heretics, but also some Alters mixed in there. Standing on the sidewalk, the three of us could see the crowd over there, all packed in around something we couldn’t make out. But I had a guess. 

Sure enough, as we headed across the beach, the three of us could see through the crowd enough to catch a glimpse of the long, thick vine leading out into the ocean. They were all gathered around that single vine, though it looked like most of the people were being kept several feet back by the Rebel Victors, who were examining several golden apple-like fruits attached to the vine. The excitement in the crowd was palpable, even as they intently watched what the Victors were doing.  

No, not just Victors, I realized. Seller was there too, as was a slender woman with dyed green hair and a leather jacket who was holding what looked like a stethoscope up to one of the golden fruits. It was like she was listening to them, while Seller himself was examining a different one with a jeweler’s magnifying glass. Obviously, Seller was there because of his expertise in biological manipulation, which told me that the other woman was probably along the same lines. I didn’t recognize her, but that hardly meant anything. 

“You know that woman?” I asked the other two quietly, while scanning the area for Dakota herself. Finally, I spotted her standing a bit behind Jack Childs, the cowboy Victor. Which reminded me that we needed to talk to him and Fu Hao about that whole ‘the prison camp was actually run by Zoya Dalal and possibly my ancestor Remember Bennett’ thing. 

Miranda and Avalon both nodded, the latter replying, “Her name’s Nostrum. I don’t know the name of what she was a natural Heretic of, but it gives her the power to make real medicine out of random ingredients. Medicine that actually does what she wants it to, as long as you take it soon enough. But if anyone else put the exact same ingredients together in the exact same way, it wouldn’t work. It needs her power to actually function properly.” 

“She was almost burned at the stake for being a snake oil salesman back in the old west,” Miranda added. “She didn’t understand that leaving her medicine for too long would make it not work. Jack Childs saved her from that, and brought her into Garden. She’s really good with this sort of thing now.” 

By that point, Childs himself had caught sight of us. He said a word to someone next to him, and that man (a tall, pale figure with an old faded Levi jacket and long dark beard), straightened up before walking our way. The large crowd parted for him, as he made his way through I thought he was right in front of us. Extending a hand, he announced, “Name’s Beetle. You three should come this way, Victor Childs would like to have a chat.” He spoke in a flat, matter-of-fact tone that made it clear the matter wasn’t up for discussion. Which was fine, considering we wanted to go over there anyway. But I still didn’t really like the feeling that I was being summoned like a servant. It irked me, though I told myself I was overreacting and pushed it aside. The guy was just a little blunt and accustomed to being quickly obeyed, given he obviously worked as some sort of assistant for the Victors.  

So, I pushed aside my initial reaction and the three of us followed him back through the crowd. Childs thanked Beetle before sending him off on some other errand. Then he focused on us. “Guess you heard the news already.” 

Looking over my shoulder at the assortment of people all eagerly waiting for the announcement of whether this was real or not, I gave a short nod. “Yeah, we heard. That’s why we’re here.”  That said, I leaned over to look at Dakota, who was standing there with her arms folded around herself, looking pretty overwhelmed. “Hey, how’s it going? You busy?” 

Visibly blushing, the younger girl looked up and met my gaze. I saw the faintest smile cross her face as she offered a shrug. “Oh, um, you know. Just doing this and that. Nothing big.” Her voice squeaked a little as she made the joke, but the important part was that she made it. She really was getting better than she had been months earlier. Being out of that hospital, and far away from Kwur’s influence, seemed to be doing wonders for her. 

Before any of us could say anything else, Seller exchanged a whispered conversation with Nostrum that was obviously magically protected. Then he turned and stepped closer, waving a hand. As he did so, some sort of small, flying insect emerged from his sleeve and spread what looked like dust through the air. Only then did he speak. “Now none of the lookie-loos can hear us, or read our lips.” He focused on me, adding, “Long time no see, kid.” His gaze took in Miranda and Avalon as well, as he added, “Kids. Wow, all three of you, huh?” 

“What’s the diagnosis?” That was one of the other Victors, a man who looked like he was in his early forties with a wide, round face that held a perpetually surprised expression, and short dark hair. Lamorak, one of Arthur’s old knights. “Is this real?” As he asked that, Lamorak glanced toward Dakota, adding, “I still think we should have done our tests first before everyone else heard about it. If this is a false positive, people are going to be upset about getting their hopes up. And it’s not us who will have to deal with the worst of it.” 

Flinching a little, Dakota straightened up, glancing at me before turning back that way. Her voice caught slightly, but she pressed on. “I–it’s real. I promise.” 

“She’s right,” Seller confirmed, offering a faint smile of his own. “Don’t get me wrong,” he informed Lamorak, “you are too. This whole thing would have been easier if we didn’t have the crowd.” 

“They are eager to know that our people can continue on,” Fu Fao noted as she stepped closer, the elderly Asian woman glancing straight at Avalon briefly before she continued. “While I agree that tests should have been completed, it was very difficult to keep the situation secret when we brought Seller and Nostrum in to do those tests. Word travels quickly. Particularly when we are so very thorough.” 

Seller shrugged. “Well, in any case, it’s like I said. The kid’s right. The vine’s doing what it’s supposed to do. The fruit we see now, that’s about all you’re gonna get for the year, but it should bloom normally next time.” 

“How many is that?” Childs asked. “What’s the crop this time around?” 

“Twenty-four,” came the answer from Nostrum, as the woman joined us. “That’s twenty-four people we can turn into Bosch Heretics, which means–” 

“Six,” Seller interrupted, sounding curious and thoughtful. “Six fruits per tribe. Four rebelled. Well, three and a half. But Aniyah and her half of the Reapers won’t see it that way.” 

“You’re right.” That, of course, was Aniyah Keita herself. The red-haired (with one spot of black in the front) Victor stepped up beside Lamorak, the man she was apparently very involved with. “Even if only half our tribe came with, we have every right to our six fruits to make our choices.” 

By that point, the final three Victors had joined the group. There was Fu Hao’s partner, the small, thin (though with arms that were tightly corded with muscle) man with dyed blue hair known as Carseus, as well as the twin leaders of the Dust Striders, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra (Cleo) Selene. It was the woman who spoke up. “Having six new recruits to our tribes will be very welcome.” Her dark eyes found Dakota, and the beautiful woman offered the girl a tender smile, that of a regal-yet-understanding queen. “Thank you so much for your work. We could not have done any of this without you. We would still have nothing for the future of our people.” 

Blushing so much I was afraid she might actually catch fire, Dakota stammered, “I–it’s no big deal. I mean–it is, I’m glad I could help. I just–umm–” She was scrambling a bit. 

“She’s just happy it worked,” I quickly spoke up for her, stepping that way to put a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Maybe it’s just six per tribe this time, but next year it’ll have more.” Behind me, Miranda and Avalon stepped over as well, all three of us standing with Dakota. 

Fu Hao cleared her throat. “Miss Chambers is correct. Though it will be five per, not six. The remaining four fruit will be put away for an emergency, just as we kept a few back before.” Her gaze found me and then Avalon in quick succession, and I knew what she was thinking about. The only reason both Avalon and Abigail had survived their own near-death situations while they were Bystanders had been because Garden had a few of those fruits stored away for such occasions. Granted, four weren’t very many, but still. I understood why she wanted to keep a few hidden away.

For a brief moment, I was afraid there might have been an argument. The Victors all exchanged long looks, before Carseus spoke up. “Ahem, I suppose that’s a good point. We do want to stick a few in a vault for a rainy day. We’ve all seen how important that can be. I suppose that means all of us need to agree together on what happens with each of those four?” 

That prompted a round of nods. They had settled that much at least. All seven Victors would vote on any use of the extra fruit, while being given five each to be used by their own tribes. I wasn’t sure how the five would be split amongst the three tribes who each had two Victors (maybe each of them would pick two and decide together for the fifth), but that wasn’t my business. 

Something else was though. Giving a quick glance toward Dakota, I spoke up. “Hey uhh, before you make the official announcement that the fruit is good and the vines are healthy, do you think you could let Dakota here slip away for awhile? That is, if she wants to.” I looked to the girl in question once more. “Sorry, do you wanna get out of here for awhile or stick around for your big–” 

“I want to get out of here,” she immediately piped up, before flushing a bit guiltily in the direction of the Victors. “I mean, sorry. I’m really glad I could help, and happy that you guys will have the fruit you need, and all that. But your people are kind of overwhelming already, and I–” 

“There is no need to apologize,” Alexander Helios, who looked as much like an old, noble emperor as his twin sister looked like a queen, announced. His dark hair was worn long, falling just past his shoulders as it gently swayed in the ocean breeze. “You have done everything we asked of you, and more than we could have truly hoped. Thank you, Dakota Coalbright. While I hope that you return for the feast in your honor later, it may be for the best for your own sense of peace if you take this portal.” He created the portal in question at that very moment, raising one hand to do so. “And I hope your friends here will escort you?” His eyes glanced back to the three of us behind her. 

That was a big deal. I knew that immediately. This girl had just fixed their special vines and given them back the ability to create new Heretics. She was indescribably important to them, and he was trusting Avalon, Miranda, and me to keep her safe. That meant a lot. 

I still wanted to talk to Fu Hao and Childs about the prison thing, but now was not the right time. They were really busy. Besides, Dakota needed to get out of here for her own sanity. So, I simply told them that we needed to talk later, then went with the others through that portal. It carried us to a spot further down the beach, out of sight from where the crowd was all gathered. A moment after we appeared and the portal had closed, we all heard a loud cheer erupt from that direction.  

“I think they told them the apples are working,” Miranda noted dryly, before glancing at Dakota with a smile. “See, you did pretty amazing stuff back there.” 

Dakota was blushing again, shaking her head. “It wasn’t just me. The others helped too. And… and those monsters are still trying to get at the fruit. They’ll be trying even harder now that the vines work.” 

“The Victors will deal with that,” I reminded her. “It’s not your job. You did your part. Now just let them handle the rest, right?” 

She hesitated slightly before giving a short nod, her voice quiet. “Right.” 

“Great.” Giving the younger girl a quick, reassuring smile, I added, “Now, Marina over at Wonderland was talking about us paying a visit, and I thought you might like to come with. What do you think? You’ve heard of that place, right?” 

Her response was a hesitant, “Umm… Yeah, I’ve heard of it. If… if you think it’s okay, then sure. Err, can we invite Denny? We’ve been talking a lot and I think… I think she needs a break too.”

“You’re probably right,” I agreed. “Yeah, let’s get Denny down here so we can all check out the new Wonderland together.

“Something tells me we should take this chance while we’ve got it.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Enkindle 23-01 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Things hadn’t changed at all after I slept for a few hours. Nor did they after I splashed water on my face rather aggressively three or four times, or after I took a long hot shower. Even after all of that, as I got dressed, the situation was the same. Raige had her new body, and it looked identical to my body. She looked like me. Well, a blonde me with glasses and all, but still. How was I supposed to deal with that? What was I even supposed to do with it? I had no idea. I just–I couldn’t even think about it without my brain showing one of those old television test patterns. I thought I had been prepared for her to look like another Paige, even a younger Paige. It had occurred to me that a prototype body might look like a kid version of Paige. Or some random person. But a body that looked like me? It had never even crossed my mind as a vague possibility. I was completely dumbfounded by that whole situation, even now that I had gotten some sleep. If anything, I felt even more flummoxed by it. I just… couldn’t deal. 

Once I was in the hall outside the bathroom once more, Izzy was there waiting. She glanced toward me, then down the hall where the stairs were before shaking her head. She didn’t need to say anything. I knew what that meant. There was no sign of my parents. They were either still upstairs and hadn’t come down yet, or they had yet to come home. Given the situation we had left them with, I was going to bet on the latter. I was pretty sure it had been a long time since someone–anyone actually struck a blow against them at all, let alone got away with it. And given my parents weren’t standing in front of me demanding I tell them what the hell I was doing, they clearly hadn’t gotten any actual answers from their investigation so far. So, yeah, they were probably still out there working on it. 

Okay, was it weird that I felt a little bad about costing them sleep? Sure, part of me was glad for it, a little vindictively. But another part felt guilty. Why did I feel guilty about that? It was a tiny cost for them, basically inconsequential. And yet, I couldn’t entirely shut it out, even after telling myself how stupid it was. My brain wouldn’t listen to itself. Which felt unfair, though unsurprising.

Shaking that off, I nodded at Izzy before starting to walk that way. We didn’t go upstairs, of course. Those rooms were for my parents, and I had no reason to be there for the moment. The very last thing–okay one of the last things I wanted right then was for Mom and Dad to be told by the staff that I was snooping around. Given how paranoid they were bound to be after last night, I felt like they weren’t likely to dismiss anything like that. So, tempting as it had always been for me to go looking through their rooms for anything important and then just say that I was looking for them if anyone found me, now was probably not the best time. They would be on hyper-alert for anything out of the ordinary. 

Which was why we were going down to eat breakfast and then go to school. Even though I really didn’t want to, there was no choice. I’d rather curl up in bed for another three hours or so, and then get started dealing with all the everything that was waiting for us at Wren’s shop. But if my parents got a call that I had skipped school, that would be something out of the ordinary for them to pay attention to. Again, we had to avoid any suspicion right now. While they were dealing with the break-in, I needed my parents to think that everything back here at home was perfectly normal. We couldn’t give them any reason whatsoever to suspect that there might be something going on here, or just with us in general. There was too big of a chance that the whole house of cards would fall apart. 

So, we ate breakfast and took the ride from Jefferson to school. On the way, I checked the news on my phone. I wasn’t expecting to see anything about what had happened and I didn’t end up being surprised. There was a lot of stuff about the gang war and all that, even a bit about a car chase involving a van and several vehicles that had ended with the van in the water. But it didn’t go into any details other than that, and was stuck in the middle of an article about general violence in the city. Obviously, my parents weren’t going to let any details about what they knew get reported in the public news. So I checked for any social media posts about it, and got a couple vague ones that mentioned the ‘police chopper’ chasing the van. Other than that, it was all pretty much the same. 

Putting my phone away, I glanced toward Izzy before looking to the front. The partition was up, giving us privacy back here. And, well, giving Jefferson privacy up there. Shifting in my seat to use the intercom button, I waited for the beep before asking, “So how late did the play go last night? Should I feel bad that I wasn’t there, or glad that I can actually sit through school today without getting in trouble for falling asleep?” Boy, was it hard to get through that with a straight face. But it was even harder to get through it without yawning, which would’ve been even worse. 

There was a very brief pause before Jefferson’s voice replied, “It was nearly two in the morning when the play ended. I can hardly believe your parents would actually have allowed either of you to attend on a school night.” 

“Yeah, I think that was mostly Dad not thinking,” I replied easily. Again, I had to stifle a yawn. “But hey, maybe he would’ve convinced Mom that we should all stay home and sleep this morning. You think he’ll get up before noon?” I figured that was innocuous enough, a way of looking more like I was teasing my dad rather than probing for information. 

Again, there was a brief pause before he responded. “I believe your father was up and leaving for the office slightly before you appeared for breakfast, Miss Evans. He is very punctual when he wants to be.” There was a note of pride in his voice then, given his own preference for punctuality. Then he added, “Though I cannot say for certain what he will do once he arrives at the office, and he does have a quite comfortable couch.” 

Making a show of giggling a little, I let go of the intercom and leaned back to glance at Izzy. Neither of us said anything. We weren’t that stupid. We had talked a little bit before sleeping, and some more when the alarm dragged us out of far too little sleep. Now, all we did was nod very slightly before starting to talk about utterly inconsequential things. If anyone had actually been eavesdropping, I was pretty sure they would either give themselves a concussion falling asleep, or claw out their own ears to get away from the mundane teenage girl talk. 

Eventually, we reached the high school and I said goodbye to both Izzy and Jefferson  before hopping out. Without looking back, I started walking to the front door, as though it was just another ordinary day like any other. Some people waved and greeted me with a word or two, and I returned it before heading inside. Normal. I had to look normal. No seeming paranoid, no jumping every time someone said my name, no acting like that guy walking past was sent by my parents to grab me because they had figured everything out and wanted to have a discussion about it in person. Normal. Totally normal. 

“Cass!” Amber called out, nearly giving me a heart attack as she popped into view. “Come on, I’ve gotta show you something.” With a flick of her finger as though beckoning, she pivoted and walked toward the entrance of the library. “There’s no way we’re not getting those bonus points.” 

The two of us made our way through the library, heading upstairs and back to the reference section. This early in the day, there was no one back there. Well, almost no one. 

“Hey,” Paige spoke up, rubbing the back of her neck as she turned away from the large encyclopedia she had been looking at. “Uh, well I guess the first thing I should say is that Raige went for a walk.” 

That made me do a quick double-take. “I–she what? She went for a walk? As in out in public?” 

Paige shrugged a little, lowering her voice. “She said she had to get out and look around, stretch her legs, that sort of thing. And that she was going to get some more things to disguise herself, like colored contacts and spray tan. She had to get out of there. After all that time stuck on the couch, I can’t really blame her. And I’ve actually been free to walk around before. It’s her first time outside of sharing my memories.”

“Yeah, it’s her first time. Do you really think she–” Stopping myself, I exhaled. “Sorry. I’m just… kinda paranoid, I guess.”

“You have reason to be,” Amber put in, gesturing back and forth between the two of us. “And Paige has reason to want to trust her–you know, sister? Sort of? Even if she looks like–this is weird.” Her face twisted a little as she thought that through before settling on, “Really weird.” 

“You can say that again,” I muttered. With a sigh, I added, “But I get it. She’s not a prisoner, and we can’t treat her like one if we want to keep this whole allies thing going. Your dad already fucked her over and made her turn on him, I don’t want to be the same as that creep. Or even vaguely similar. I’m just a little weirded out by the idea that there’s some girl out in the city right now who looks like me. Even if she’s in disguise. It’s just… I guess it is like having a twin. And right now, my parents seeing a twin of me would be a real fucking disaster.” 

“They won’t,” Paige assured me. “Raige knows better than to go anywhere near them. Your parents are gonna be too busy dealing with everything that happened last night to go eat breakfast in some random dive, or walk through a completely different mall. Or whatever else Raige does. It’s a big city with a lot of people. As long as she doesn’t do anything to draw a bunch of attention to herself, she will practically be invisible. And I know how it sounds when I say that, but even Raige knows how to be subtle, believe me. She’ll be fine.” 

It kind of sounded like she was trying to fully convince herself of that, but I left it alone. There was no use worrying about something I couldn’t affect right now anyway. Instead, I took a breath before focusing on Paige herself. “You know this whole thing is going to be weird too, right? I mean, you being back at school and all that. People are going to wonder if the two of us aren’t at each other’s throats all of a sudden. It’ll be something weird and different, and stuff that’s weird and different might get back to my parents. It’s a little more complicated than two plus two to figure out what’s actually going on, but I feel like them knowing that you know something about their business and all of a sudden the two of us are all buddy buddy might just… give them too much to work off of. They might not get all the way to four, but I don’t particularly want them to know that there’s any addition to be doing at all.” 

Grimacing a bit, Paige nodded. “Yeah, that’s fair. I just–yeah, we’ll have to fake it. I mean, I was always faking it, so that won’t change for me. But–” She stopped, giving a low sigh. “You’re right, it’s weird. I always thought that… that at least after my birthday, I wouldn’t have to act like that anymore.” 

“You thought that because you were planning on being dead,” I shot back. “I’m gonna go out on a limb and say pretending to hate me and act like a psycho cunt who picks apart my insecurities is at least better than being dead.” 

Paige, in turn, coughed. “I do prefer being alive. I just–I hate that my dad’s bullshit still has to affect me even now. I just want to shove him out of my mind, but I–he’s… I still have to act the way he wanted me to act, just so your parents don’t get suspicious about things. And we still have to deal with him because Irelyn and Trivial are stuck out there. Which, for the record, I looked up everything I could find about Breakwater, and no one has said anything about anyone being there who shouldn’t be, let alone a couple Star-Touched.” 

My mouth opened, before I stopped and looked toward Amber. “Uh, wait, you know what–” 

“I told her,” Paige confirmed. “Earlier this morning. I don’t– I’m going to try not to tell anyone else in the group, if possible. Not yet, anyway. That’s just too many people to spill Irelyn’s secret to. But I thought having Amber involved would help. Four heads are better than three, or something.” She raised one shoulder in an absent half-shrug, clearly focusing mostly on the actual problem itself, her missing adopted sister. 

“Right, I know about that. But my question is, how is that even possible?” Amber demanded. “Them being trapped there, I mean. They have to have people watching the island, right? How could they have two Star-Touched running around there and not notice them?” 

“Maybe they did notice and just don’t care, or think it’d be a bigger controversy to get them off it,” I muttered a bit darkly. “The big thing about that place is that no one who isn’t supposed to be there can find it, and no one imprisoned there can get off, right? It’d probably be a pretty major hit to the place’s reputation if people found out that someone managed to send a couple Star-Touched there. Or anyone there. Which–how did they get there? We still don’t know. We don’t know anything about all that.” 

While Paige grimaced, Amber spoke up. “We’ll find out what happened. I, uhh, I’m not sure how yet, but we will. We just have to take this whole thing one step at a time. Getting Raige her own body was a step. Now we’ll figure out what the next one is. If they are hiding the fact that there’s two people stranded on Breakwater, maybe we can get the word out about that. You know, anonymously.” 

I wasn’t sure how that would work, or why anyone would believe rumors like that. But instead of naysaying, I nodded. “We’ll think about it. And we’ve got all those papers and files to go over still. Probably won’t help with this thing directly, but maybe they’ll have something about your dad from when they caught him, you know?” I looked to Paige then. “Something we can use.” 

“What about your pare–I mean your adopted parents?” Amber asked the other girl. “We still have no idea where they are, right? What’s the school gonna say?” 

Paige shrugged. “Not much. As far as they’re concerned, they already talked to Mr. Banners over the phone and he apologized for keeping me away for so long. But… yeah, we don’t know where they are. I never knew what my father was going to do after all that went down. They haven’t… found their bodies or anything, so…” She shifted, looking uncomfortable. “I don’t know. I wish I did.” 

We talked a little bit more about all that, and other stuff, but hadn’t come up with anything substantially useful by the time we had to go to class. Amber and I let Paige go first so we wouldn’t be seen walking together. After she headed out, I looked at the other girl. “I kinda feel like I could fall over and die for ten hours or so. And thinking about all the things we still need to deal with isn’t helping.” 

“Tell me about it,” she replied, “I almost threw my alarm clock out the window this morning. You have no idea how tempting it was to just call in sick. Err, well I guess you do.”

“I definitely do,” I agreed, yawning. “I’m gonna take a nap this afternoon. I don’t want to, but I don’t think I have a choice. I’ll be worthless sitting at the shop staring at those files if I don’t sleep for a couple more hours.

“If Raige really wanted to walk around and experience her new body, I should’ve had her take my place today so I could sleep in.” 

******

Thankfully, nothing much happened through the rest of the school day. I saw Paige a couple more times from a distance, or in the classes we shared, but we avoided having any direct contact for the moment. Neither of us were exactly eager to get back to playing things out the way they were supposed to go, so I supposed we were avoiding it. Paige was with all her school friends every time I saw her, laughing it up and going on about her long vacation and how her dad had insisted on some sort of spiritual retreat to ‘get back to basics’ or something. Whatever her cover story was, it had her audience enthralled. 

She did apparently talk to Amber a bit more, specifically about Raige. Who had apparently chosen a different name to go by. 

Now it was later that evening. As promised, I had gone home and taken a nap for a little bit. When I got up, my parents still weren’t around. They were really busy with this whole break-in thing. So Izzy and I ate a quick early dinner before heading out. She and Amber had to do Minority stuff, which left me standing here on the roof of Wren’s shop with Paige and the girl formerly known as Raige. Or rather now…

“Sierra, was it?” I asked the girl in question while looking her up and down. She did look somewhat different from me here in the daylight. Well, the resemblance was still there, obviously. But with slightly darker tanned skin, different-colored eyes with the contacts, glasses, long hair on both sides, and the fact it was blonde… yeah, she was different. Then there were the clothes. She was wearing a tummy-baring shirt and tight pants that I just could not pull off. 

Well, I supposed technically there was–that is–I wasn’t… huh. Now I felt even weirder.

On top of all that, she was a couple inches taller than me, somehow. All put together, while I was sure my family and those really close to me would recognize her–or rather me, most others would probably at worst notice a weird resemblance. Hopefully we could do more to shift her appearance eventually, but this was a fairly decent start for the time being. 

Inclining her head a bit, the girl nodded. “That’s right. Raige was a little over-the-top and not really… me. So you know, my solution for being too over-the-top was to name myself after a mountain range. Sierra Nevada. First name, last name. We’ll be working on paperwork and identification.” She gave me a sly smirk. “On top of all the trust issues and psychological trauma, Pittman did give us a pretty good understanding of how to go about that. You should see all the fake IDs Paige has.” 

Clearing her throat, Paige gestured. “At least she pulled off looking pretty different.” 

“Even took a page out of your books and got a few different shoes with lifts in them,” Ra–Sierra drawled idly, gesturing down at them. “Not huge ones, just a couple inches. Enough that your pals down there probably won’t look at the two of us and see that we’re the exact same height.” 

“Right, uhh, thanks for that.” Biting my lip thoughtfully, I looked her up and down once more. “I don’t suppose you came up with any genius ideas for getting Irelyn and Trivial off Breakwater while you were at it?” 

“Sorry, babe,” she replied with a shrug. “I thought about it, but kinda came up empty. I think we’ll have to get the kid involved. If anyone’s gonna have an idea about how to move a couple people off an island we can’t find, it’s her.” 

She had a point. And, as I was thinking about that, we all heard voices from below. Peyton was arriving at the store, along with Murphy and Roald. 

“Well,” I started with a gesture toward the ladder leading down, “I guess we should get down there and start talking it over with her, huh? And while we’re at it, we can officially introduce you to the others, Sierra.

“But for the record, if any of them immediately says ‘hey that’s Cassidy Evans with blonde hair,’ I quit.” 

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