Author: Cerulean

Fault 10-03 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

Back when the fact that Seraph Hills had the piece of equipment Wren needed to complete that suit had come up, I’d completely dismissed the idea of actually breaking into the place. Because while it was a ‘university’ in the strictest sense (with attached teaching hospital), it was also the Detroit headquarters of the Seraphs themselves. Hence the name. And the Seraphs were… dangerous. Private security team or army, whichever one wanted to call them. The point was, they were not ones to be fucked with. There was a reason they were able to keep their appointed locations safe and enforce neutral zones around medical places. 

Except for that children’s hospital that Pencil and his people attacked, but that was one of the biggest reasons the Scions had been sure to block all communication out of the area. It kept the Seraphs from noticing what was happening and responding. And apparently the ones who were stationed at the hospital itself were drawn away somehow. I still wasn’t sure on the specifics, but it was clearly a big deal behind the scenes that the public was only seeing a tiny hint about. I’d heard my dad on the phone defending the Seraphs to the mayor and pointing out that it was her decision to have minimal Seraph forces in the hospital at the time. Something about having protection for the route the VIP’s would be taking on their way in and out of the area. 

So yeah, the point was, I chose not to even attempt to break into that place at the time. Now here I was, about to go in there willingly… and I still wasn’t going to try to sneak in. Nope. Sure, Hallowed had made a comment about me maybe giving it a shot, but without having recorded evidence of him saying that? I wasn’t going to play that kind of game. No, thank you. Especially not right after I’d just gone through all that shit with those idiot kidnappers and Braintrust. 

Instead, I just strolled right up to the front gate (the medical school was surrounded by a well-guarded wall that looked like stone but was obviously something stronger) and looked at the guard in the little hut there while he watched me over the top of his ipad. “Hiya,” I started when it was clear the man wasn’t going to speak first, “appointment for Paintball with Hallowed? I know I’m late, but you would not believe the traffic.” 

The man didn’t smile. He just stared at me for another few seconds, like he was sizing me up. Then he set down the ipad and announced in a flat, emotionless voice, “Prove you’re him.” 

That was the same thing the cop on my way into the courthouse had said. Did bad guys or nut jobs dress up as established Touched a lot and try to fake their way into places? That sounded dangerous for everyone involved. In any case, I did so, touching my hand against the nearby wall and insta-painting a cartoonish rendition of the guard himself. “Good enough?” I asked. “Or would you prefer a whole comic page? I could make you fight Dracula or something.” 

“My kids would like that,” the man replied, apparently taking it entirely seriously. “Not on the wall, but a book. Think it over and let me know what you charge. I can give you a fair price for it.” 

Taken aback that my joke had been treated like an actual offer, I stumbled a bit over my words. “Oh, umm, I–yeah, I can–I mean I’ll think about… right, yeah. Wait, are you being serious?” 

“My son likes that sort of thing,” the man informed me. “In fact, if I bring you a picture of him, could you involve him in the story? His birthday’s coming up and I didn’t know what to get him.” 

Quickly, I nodded. “Um, uh, sure, yeah, I mean… let me–yeah. I can totally whip something up for you.” 

“Don’t whip it up,” the man retorted, taking my words literally once more. “If I’m paying you for it, I want you to spend some time to make it right. Come visit after your appointment, we can hash out the details. I’ll talk to my ex and find out what kind of things Josh might like in a story.” 

After I hurriedly agreed and promised to come back to talk to him about the details of the picture book for his son’s birthday, the man buzzed me through the gate, with instructions to follow the sidewalk beyond to a labeled waiting area, where I would be met and taken to my meeting. 

Stepping through the open gate, I looked around. It looked like… well, a university campus. There were several clearly school-related buildings arranged in a vague U shape straight ahead of me, with a grassy area in the middle where students were walking around, sitting under trees, or on benches that lined the twin brick paths. To the right were a line of what looked mostly like administrative and faculty buildings. 

Off in the distance to the left I could see the actual teaching hospital. They took real patients and everything there, it was just that a lot of the medical personnel were still learning. Or something like that. The hospital was set away from the rest of the campus, with a whole small park area separating them. I was still near the school part, and the guard’s directions sent me even further away from the hospital, to the right along the sidewalk where those administrative buildings were. Ahead, I saw the promised sign pointing me into a small, two-story structure with a lot of windows. 

On the way to that building, I passed a few groups of students. A few looked up, but no one said anything. They were all either too absorbed in hurrying to their next class, or they were just so accustomed to seeing Touched around there, given it was the Seraph base, that it just didn’t phase them at all. Probably a bit of both. 

Either way, no one bothered me. Though I did get a couple distracted waves before making it to the labeled welcoming center. Stepping through the doors, I saw a lot of posters and informational fliers about new student acclimation, applying for scholarships, registration, that kind of thing. Crazy stuff for a Welcome Center to have, for sure. 

The elderly woman behind the nearby counter looked up as I came in and offered me a smile. I’d never actually met my grandparents, but it still made me think of a grandmotherly expression. “Oh, hello, dear. I hope that poor girl you were trying to help is safe now?” 

“Yup,” I replied easily, “she’s fine. Ticked off at the guy who thought ‘no you’re a gross old pervert’ meant ‘throw me in the back of your car to woo me’, but other than that… yeah.” I was trying to play it off a bit, but seriously, that whole situation just gave me the heebie jeebies. To say the least. Outside of the Touched-Tech gun, that had all just been a normal creep kidnapping the teenage girl who told him to buzz off after he catfished her online. In some ways, that was worse than the totally outlandish stuff I’d already seen. Because it was just… normal. In a totally skeevy, horrible way. 

Making a tutting sound at that news, the old lady primly announced, “Young men like that need a stern talking to. And a good visit from a wooden spoon on their knuckles. You remember that, yes? Doesn’t matter how famous and popular you get in the course of all this superheroing and such, you treat your young ladies with respect. Or young men, if that’s your fancy. Don’t make no never-mind to old Tricia.” 

My small smile was hidden behind the mask and helmet, as I nodded. “Don’t worry, ma’am, if I ever acted like that guy, I might just break my own jaw. I’d sure deserve it. And trust me, he’s gonna have a good long time to think about what he did. Well,” I amended thoughtfully, “a long time anyway. I don’t know about good.” 

Picking up a nearby glass bowl full of hard candy, the woman insisted, “That’s good to hear. Now, you take a handful of these and have them later, you hear me? Miss Patchwork will be here to see you soon. Until she makes it, feel free to have a seat right over there.” With the bowl, she pointed toward some leather chairs arranged in the corner near a television that was playing some news station. That was probably how the lady here had seen what I’d been up to earlier.

“Patchwork?” I echoed while obediently taking a few pieces of candy. I knew who that was, but… “I guess that means I’m not seeing Hallowed today?” 

“I’m afraid he’s a bit busy at the moment,” Tricia informed me. “Don’t you worry, Miss Patchwork will take very good care of you. She’s a sweet girl.” 

That, apparently, was the cue for one of the nearby interior doors to basically slam open. The costumed girl who emerged seemed to be in her late teens or early twenties. She wore black leather pants, motorcycle boots, a black mesh shirt over dark green body armor that covered her upper half, black motorcycle gloves, and a green visor that matched the armor across the top of her face, between her nose and forehead. Her hair was dyed green and cut short and spiky. 

“Hey you!” the new arrival demanded, pointing my way. “You’re that fucking… guest newbie guy I’m supposed to put to work or whatever, right? Come on, I’ve got shit to do, let’s go.” She whistled while making a ‘round up’ gesture with her finger, pivoted on her heel, and headed back the way she’d come. “Move your ass, we don’t have all day!” 

“Don’t worry, dear,” Tricia assured me in a low voice, “she’s really quite pleasant when you get to know her.” 

So, I followed, of course. We passed out of the waiting area and into a narrow corridor. As the two of us approached some kind of laser grid security system, the older girl glanced at me. “So, I know you’re Paintball. You know who I am?” 

“Patchwork,” I replied simply. “You heal people. Um, sort of.” 

She snorted at that while stopping by the laser grid and looking at me once more. “Heal people, sort of. Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. I touch anything that’s alive, focus on one specific part of them like their leg, their lungs, their eyes, and then I can copy the state of that part onto anyone else I touch within five minutes. Say Billy Bob has a busted leg, I can touch Susie-Q’s perfectly intact leg, copy that perfect intactness, and then touch Billy Bob and heal the leg. You know what my two limitations for that are?” 

I hesitated before answering slowly. “Um, you can’t copy your own physical state, you need someone else to touch for the healing to work. Plus it’s really specific, like, you can’t copy someone’s left leg to heal someone’s right leg. And um, it’s really temporary if the person doesn’t have powers.” 

“Two hours,” Patchwork confirmed. “If the person I’m healing isn’t Touched, everything I do disappears in two hours and they go back to the way they were. Works pretty well for stabilizing them to get to a hospital, but it’s no miracle cure.” 

“It’s still really cool,” I assured her. “Plus, maybe you can’t copy your own physical state, but you still do that cool transformation thing.” 

That earned me a toothy smile. Very toothy. She literally showed wolf fangs before winking. “It is pretty cool, huh?” 

It was. She wasn’t limited to just copying the physical state of things when she touched people (or animals). She could also copy the parts themselves and then make them appear on herself any time she wanted after that. Like the wolf fangs she was showing me. Or a giant turtle shell I’d seen her manifest in a video once. Apparently, if she used her power on something enough times and manifested all the different parts at once, she could do full shape-shifting. Animal or human. Between that and the healing aspect of her power, yes, it was very cool. 

When I nodded, she continued. “Great, so here’s the deal. You, unlike all those ninnies running around out there, are Touched. So, if you’re doing your superhero thing and you get hurt, you gimme a call and next time I’ve got space and energy to squeeze you in, I’ll see what I can do. Fair?” 

“Uhh… yeah, fair.” I quickly nodded, a bit overwhelmed by all that. “Call you if I need healing.” 

“Not all the fucking time,” she was quick to snap. “I mean if you really need it. I ain’t your own personal fucking medic. Got lots of people who need it, and I don’t fucking relish being anyone’s living band-aid. And if it’s not life or death, you sure as shit better be ready to pay for it, either with cash or some kind of trade, favor, whatever. But yeah, if you need it and you’re ready to pay, give a shout and I’ll see what I can do. Especially if it helps keep your identity secret. We all know what a bitch that can be.”

That much said, Patchwork tapped some kind of code into the nearby console, and the laser grid deactivated. Then she waved me through and we walked on. “Anyway, you’re here to do something useful to make up for taking our shit without permission. And that starts right in here.” 

With that, she stopped at a door, pushing it open to reveal a place that looked… well, it looked like a tornado had hit it. The room was maybe a hundred feet by forty feet, rectangular, and a total and complete disaster area. Seriously, the walls were peeling and looked ugly, there were some holes in them, the whole floor was covered in various bits of debris, overturned chairs, broken desks, a half dozen filing cabinets were overturned and had papers strewn everywhere, and more. It looked like a tornado hit the place. 

“Yeah, looks like shit, huh?” the girl beside me bluntly remarked. “We had some… issues in here. It’s been like this for awhile. Long story and I ain’t getting into it. Point is, you’re gonna clean it up. See all those papers and folders and shit? Get all that off the floor. Move the filing cabinets into the room across the hall, fill them with the folders in alphabetical order. Take the broken furniture, rubble, and everything else that can’t be fixed down the hall to the freight elevator and then down to the bottom floor and stack it on the loading dock you’ll see there. Then use the phone in the hall, dial zero and ask for Bernard. Tell him you need help fixing up the holes. When that’s done, you can paint the floor and walls something nice and pleasant for kids to be around. This place is gonna be some kinda playroom or something. You can go elaborate with images they’ll like, or just keep it basic. Whatever, I don’t care.” 

That all said, the woman watched me for a moment before dryly adding, “And don’t worry, we don’t expect you to do all that in one day. Come in whenever you get some time, do a bit of work, then leave again.” 

“And the umm, the lasers?” I asked, glancing into the hall. 

“I’ll give you a guest code to get past them,” she replied. “It’ll let you on this floor, into the freight elevator to go straight down, and give you phone access. Do I really have to–” 

“Don’t wander, got it,” I confirmed, giving her a thumbs up. “Just clean this place up, make it pretty for the kids, and I can come whenever I get some free time.” 

“Just don’t make us wait months without seeing progress,” Patchwork retorted, before pivoting on her heel. “There’s one more thing when you’re done with all this, but his royal highness told me to wait until then. You need anything else?” Even as she asked it, the woman was almost out the door. 

“Um, no, I think I get the–” I started. 

“Two, one, zero, nine,” she called back. “Two, ten, nine. That’s your guest pass to get in, got it? Shouldn’t be an issue because Tricia won’t let anyone past her who isn’t supposed to be here. But still, redundancies. Check in with her anytime you come in, put in the guest pass at the security system there whenever you pass through it, then check out with Tricia or whoever happens to be sitting there whenever you fuck off, got it? Oh, and our regular working hours start at six and end at midnight, so don’t show up outside of those hours.” 

With that, she was gone, off to do… whatever her next job was. Watching the empty doorway for a moment, I finally shrugged and turned to the room in front of me. 

Right… well, time to get to work. A little manual labor wouldn’t be too bad, right? 

*****

Fuck manual labor. 

Okay, okay, it wasn’t that bad. And God knew I could use the actual work. It definitely wouldn’t kill me. I just… definitely wasn’t accustomed to this sort of thing. At least having my purple paint for strength and red paint to move things around (with orange to protect it from damage) helped with the heavier stuff. But still, a lot of it was just… boring. It took most of the first couple hours just to start getting some kind of organization and to get most of the folders and bits of paper that I could see (moving some of the furniture pieces to get at buried piles), and to move the filing cabinets themselves into the other room. Never mind sorting through all those files to put them in alphabetical order in the cabinets. 

Yeah, this was going to take awhile. I would have to go back soon. But for the moment, I was done. As I was on my way out the door, however, my work phone buzzed. I checked, and the message was from Eits. It read, ‘Got bit 4 thing we talked about. U good 2 read? What did u help me get from roof?’ 

Right, he wanted me to tell him that it was safe to send sensitive information, and proof I was the right person. Glancing around, I sent back, ‘Yes. Baseball.’ 

A moment later, the next message came in. ‘Got records from middle school on Banners, link to file at bottom. Adopted age twelve, earlier records heavy sealed. Need physical access 2 get further. No link 4 Banners/Anthony Tate. No link 4 Banners/supervillain. No Tate school records. Homeschooled. Need info on crash that killed Tate family, check survivor.’ 

Frowning, I sent back a quick, ‘Survivor?’ 

The response came, ‘Security consultant. Went with Tate family to Texas. Was in car at crash. Survived. Gave witness testimony. Retired. Picture coming.’ 

A moment later, the promised image came in, and I did a double-take. I knew the guy I was looking at! I knew him! It was Robert Parson, this guy who used to drive me around when I was younger. He was basically a bodyguard, then he just sort of… disappeared. I remembered really liking Rob–Bobby. I called him Bobby. 

But what did my old bodyguard have to do with Anthony Tate? Why was he with the family when they crashed down in Texas? I.. did he kill them? The thought made my blood go cold. Did my old bodyguard, the guy I remember thinking was so cool and brave… kill that little boy and his family? 

One thing was for sure… I was going to find out.

Previous Chapter

Causality And Casualty 5-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter

So here we were. Everyone else was busy with their own situations, leaving Sands, Sarah, Miranda, and me to trudge our way through the secret subway tunnels under Las Vegas. And we weren’t even using our own bodies for it. No, we had to use our Theriangelos animals because those same tunnels were filled with plants that may or may not turn our normal selves into crazy mass-murdering monsters. Four of us were down here looking for the largest concentration of Kwur’s consciousness, so we could destroy it and get the hell out of here.

We also couldn’t bring most of our regular powers into this. I’d learned to channel some of my abilities through Marian, thanks to Shyel. And the other three had a couple gifts of their own they managed to use through practice. But for the most part, what we could do was very limited. 

Long story short, this was going to be a pretty… interesting time, particularly if Kwur had as many people guarding his main consciousness as I was pretty sure he did. Four of us, limited powers, using animal bodies, against an evil plant monster and all his minions. Fan-damn-tastic. 

There were so many plants in here, trees, bushes, flowers, vines crawling up the walls, and more, that it was like moving through a very narrow jungle. But there were at least a couple things in our favor. Firstly, we knew for a fact that while Kwur was aware enough to know we were somewhere around his plants, he didn’t know exactly where. Those guys from before hadn’t been able to pinpoint my location. I had the feeling it was sort of like a human having a tiny germ inside their body. They might feel the effects of it being there, but narrowing down its exact location was harder. He was generally aware that we existed, but he didn’t have enough of his consciousness in these plants to point his people to a specific spot, thankfully. 

And beyond that, the other positive was that between my fox and Miranda’s raven, we could pretty easily scout ahead without giving away our position. The two of us stayed close to the top of the trees and the ceiling of the tunnel as we took turns, swapping between scouting ahead and watching behind just in case a group tried to sneak up behind us. Meanwhile, Sands’ rhino and Sarah’s crocodile moved over the ground. They were the muscle, while Randi and I were the eyes and ears, alert to the point of paranoia as we all moved together through the tunnel. 

And yet, even with that level of alertness, we were still almost taken by surprise. I had Marian perched at the top of a tree, carefully watching the silent, vegetation-filled tunnel ahead for any sign of movement ahead of us. Seeing nothing, I was about to jump to the next tree, when something made me stop. I wasn’t sure what it was, aside from some vague feeling. I hesitated for an extra couple of seconds, asking myself what exactly had made me freeze like that. 

There. Ahead and a bit to the right, near the ceiling of the tunnel. A portal opened, and a lithe, thin figure dropped out of it before catching themselves on the branch of the tree. The figure was humanoid, but with an extra leg on each side and a very long neck with a small, ball-shaped head on the end of it. They were also carrying a very long rifle, already setting themselves up with it from their perch as they used the scope to scan the ground. 

Stay back, I quickly warned the others. Sniper in the trees. Maybe more than one, they’re really quiet and came through a portal, so there might be more in other spots. I’ll deal with this one. 

Right, ‘deal with this one.’ I was glad my telepathic voice sounded so damn confident. Now all I had to do was actually follow through. Not to mention doing it without letting Marian ‘die’, and hopefully without alerting any other snipers that may be in the area that they were under attack.

To that end, I quickly shifted Marian’s colors to match the wall of the tunnel before hopping over to the very small, decorative bar near the ceiling. Keeping my eyes on the sniper, who was panning his gun from one side of the tunnel to the other, I thought about what powers I had access to in this form. It took a lot of practice and effort to channel Heretic-gained abilities through the Theriangelos. At that point, I was able to use my shifting power to change Marian’s colors, the imbuing power to use instant spells, my enhanced dexterity, agility, and reflexes making the fox even more of a crazy acrobat, some of the enhanced strength making her stronger than she should be for her size, my ‘sense all objects around me’ power, and the ability to copy any sound I heard into an object and make that object produce that sound. 

So I was a tiny fox who was faster, stronger, and more agile than she should be, who could instantly create images and words (and thus spells) with a touch, sense all objects around me, change my colors like a chameleon, and make anything I touched produce any sound I heard.

Oh, and I had that whole ‘see through stealth powers and camouflage’ ability I’d gotten from the Pantler back in Seosten space. Which, come to think of it, was probably how I saw this sniper guy to begin with. 

So, I didn’t have anything too flashy. I didn’t have my weapon, and I was in the body of a tiny fox. But I could deal with that. I could take this guy down before he knew what hit him. Hopefully.

Moving slowly along that bar, resisting the urge to rush and give away my position, I kept my eyes focused on that sniper. He was still totally focused through the scope, intent on waiting for our group to blunder into his line of fire. He had no idea I was there, gradually getting closer.

Orrrrr maybe he did. Suddenly, the figure snapped that gun up to point directly at me. Only the fact that I’d been paying so much attention, combined with those enhanced reflexes, saved Marian from being blown to pieces. The instant the barrel was pointed my way, I lunged sideways off the bar. Behind me, a chunk of the wall about as wide around as Marian’s entire body was blown apart by some kind of totally silent and invisible shot. It was like a blast of air or kinetic force or something. Whatever, it was strong enough that one hit would have completely obliterated my fox. So avoiding being hit was probably a pretty good idea right now. 

Cursing frantically in my head (and probably aloud back with my body), I sent Marian lunging from one branch to the next, leaping quickly through several trees while Mr. Sniper kept shooting, totally destroying every branch an instant after my tiny paws left it. I barely had time to focus on evading the next shot, let alone try to figure out how to get closer to the bastard. It took everything I had just to keep Marian ‘alive’ through those brief handful of seconds (which felt like an eternity). I dropped to the lower bushes, but it didn’t help. I couldn’t stay still for a single second, or the next shot would have destroyed my Theriangelos. Which wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it would still be a pain in the ass to create a new one and meet up with the others. Especially in a situation like this, where every second counted, considering the rest of our people in Vegas were in the middle of their own battles to take out Kwur. 

Somewhere in the midst of that, the shots abruptly stopped. It took me a moment to realize that it had been a hot second since the last invisible blast had blown apart part of the ground where my furry butt had been an instant earlier. Even then, I figured it was a trick or he was just taking more careful aim. That was, until Miranda’s silent telepathic voice reached me. Got him, Flick. 

Stopping short, I blinked up that way. Sure enough, the sniper was stretched out unconscious across the high branch. His rifle was dangling from another part of the tree lower down where it had fallen. And Miranda herself, or her raven anyway, was perched beside the man. You make a really good distraction, you know? Her voice was very slightly teasing. 

Right, distraction, I muttered silently. That’s totally what I was going for. 

After reporting to Sands and Sarah that the first threat was taken care of, Miranda and I joined up at the top of that tree (I took it a bit slower to catch my breath from the panicked rush of adrenaline that those few moments of being shot at had been), watching for any more snipers. 

There were none immediately in view, and we called for the other two to move forward. Then the two of us kept going. This time, Miranda and I stayed together. If there were people ready to ambush us, we really needed both of us to deal with them. That much had just been proven. 

We moved back and forth as a pair, checking behind our small group, then ahead. A couple times we found more snipers waiting, but we dealt with them. Mostly by Miranda or me causing a distraction, before the other would move up behind the would-be ambush to knock them off their perches to the ground below. There, Sarah, whose crocodile form was almost as stealthy as the two of us despite being much larger, would make sure they weren’t in any shape to fight.

It was slow-going, to say the least. But it was also the best shot we had at making our way through these tunnels without ending up with our Theriangelos blasted apart. Which wouldn’t exactly be useful as far as reaching the main part of Kwur (that wasn’t already in the prison) and burning him went. 

Finally, Miranda and I both stopped. Ahead, the tunnel opened up into what looked like another station. And there were definite defenses there. The snipers spread through the trees may have been fairly subtle up to that point, but this was anything but subtle. Six literal turrets with dual-linked cannons that looked like they had come off an actual starship were set up along the entrance into the station, facing out into the tunnel toward us. They were each manned by a figure who watched the small jungle intently. What I could see of the station beyond them was even more filled with plants than the rest of these tunnels had been, the vegetation incredibly thick. I couldn’t see all the way through it to where the opposite tunnel was, but I had no doubt that they had cannons facing that way too. 

Yeah, it may have been a stretch, but I was pretty sure this was the spot. A guess that was proven as the enchanted stone hung around Randi’s raven gave off a firm, steady glow. It wasn’t flickering anymore. Whatever else was in that station, it was definitely where Kwur’s strongest presence in Vegas was. Now we just had to do something with it. Because not only were those cannons enough on their own to totally destroy each and every one of us (probably with one shot), but they undoubtedly weren’t the only defenses in this place. Kwur knew we were in the area. He knew we were looking for him, and he’d had time to prepare. Our only real saving grace here was that all those other groups were hitting more places where he had extended other parts of himself. Which might, maybe stretch his resources too thin. Even then, he’d have plenty of defenses if this really was his main… self here in the city (dealing with a being who could stretch himself through millions of plants and had multiple levels of consciousness was really complicated to even think about).

You ever miss being kids in school, investigating silly things? Miranda asked while the two of us stared at those turrets and tried to think of a way past them. 

Hey, a lot of that stuff was totally important, I retorted. 

Sure, Randi agreed. But we never had to deal with giant laser cannon turrets while we were working out the case of the missing crate of chocolate milk. 

Smiling inwardly despite myself at that particular memory, I replied, And just like Alison Kotters, Kwur’s gonna get exactly what’s coming to him. There was a brief pause before I added thoughtfully, Maybe not the head covered in sour milk, but hey, the day is young. 

Passing information about what we could see back to Sands and Sarah, the four of us held a brief conversation about what we could do. In the end, we went with the best plan we could come up with. Which amounted to me sneaking my way up to the turrets and using magic to secretly disable them while Randi provided overwatch support with her literal bird’s-eye view, letting me know when it was safe to move and when to remain still. Once the turrets were down, the four of us would crash the party inside the station, find the main plant, and make sure it burned.

Okay, so, stealth. I could do this. Never mind that only a few minutes earlier, that sniper had seen me. This was different. These guys were talking to each other, chatting back and forth while manning their cannons without scopes. And I had Miranda watching to tell me when it was safe to move. I would be okay. I could absolutely, definitely do this. 

Repeating that to myself as I crept as carefully and silently as possible through the underbrush, I kept to the corner of the tunnel. Camouflaging Marian with the same colors as the bushes she was moving through, I froze whenever Randi said to, not moving again until she gave the word. Bit by bit, inch by inch, I moved closer to the cannons.

Eventually, I was close enough to hear the men’s conversation. They were fairly tense, but chatting about some ball game or something. I wasn’t sure. The point was, from the sound of their voices, they were afraid of something. But whether that something was more our group, or the thing they were guarding, I wasn’t sure. Hell, I wasn’t sure how much these guys were actually themselves and not mind-controlled. Though the fact that they were chatting about sports implied there were still at least some of their own thoughts. 

Whatever, if we got through this and managed to destroy the Vegas portion of Kwur, I’d make sure to ask these guys what it was like. But for now, I had to make this work. So I kept moving whenever it was safe, inching my way up to the edge of the first turret. I was basically right under the wooden platform that the guy manning the turret was standing on. Peeking up, I could see him, an orc figure standing there, leaning against his enormous weapon while chatting about someone or something covering a spread. 

Carefully, I stuck one paw up through the cracks in the platform. Finding the bottom of the starship turret, I focused on one of the spells that Shyel had taught me. Essentially, it was a ‘jamming’ spell that would prevent any electronic equipment it was applied to from working for a short time. Hopefully, that would be long enough for all of us to get through. 

I didn’t activate the spell just yet, of course. Instead, I worked my way down through the line of turrets, carefully reaching through the gaps in the platforms with Marian’s tiny paw to apply it to each of the weapons in turn. 

Finally, they were all marked. I crouched in the corner, still hidden. You guys ready for this? 

Born ready, came Sands’ reply. I didn’t know exactly where she was, but she and Sarah had both moved into position and were apparently just out of sight. Miranda was still high above, hidden at the top of one of those trees. 

Counting down from five, I hit zero and activated the spell. At the exact same time, there was a sudden thunderous crash as one of the trees literally fell over when Sands’ rhino ran right over and through it. She tore through the entire tree like it wasn’t even there, charging directly at the line of turrets. 

Obviously, the guys manning those turrets reacted. First they laughed. But that laughter turned to confusion as none of their weapons worked. Soon, they were cursing out loud, just as the rhino (its strength and speed temporarily raised by Sands’ Seosten-gained boost ability) slammed into the middle turret. The guard there went flying with a scream, while Sands demolished that weapon, then turned to slam her horn into the one to the left. Meanwhile, Sarah, whose crocodile was perched on the rhino’s back, leapt off and crashed into the guard to the right. 

I made my move then, quickly lunging up to climb the leg of the man on the far left turret, using the same electrical-shock spell I’d used on the guy in the first station to put him down. On the far end of the line of turrets, Miranda’s raven was dealing with the last guy. 

We were through. The four of us basically blew right past these guards, rushing into the jungle-filled station. 

Then all four of us stopped short. Because a man was standing there between two trees. He was alone, and recognizable. It was the guy from the painting in the casino. The one who had apparently posed as a doctor to help Dakota seal Kwur’s flower away, or tried to. Julius Harn, that was his name. He was just standing there, as if he was waiting for us. 

“Oh, hello, girls!” the man called pleasantly as we came up short. “It’s so nice to meet you face to face. Or… well, I suppose not quite. Let’s try that again.” 

With that, he snapped his fingers. As he did so, I felt a sudden twisting sensation. My whole body shook, bile rose in my throat, and then I was there. My real self was there. I was sprawled across the ground at the base of the grass-covered subway tracks in my real physical body. Around me, Miranda, Sands, and Sarah were there too. Focusing briefly, I could see our new Alter friends up above staring at Marian and the other animals in confusion. He’d used some kind of… spell or power or something to swap our bodies, putting our real selves where the Theriangelos were and vice versa. 

The four of us scrambled to our feet, while Julius continued. “Isn’t that better?” 

No. No, it was definitely not better. The bushes, the plants, they were all around us. Even at minor strength, how long would it take them to completely leave us mindless as Kwur’s emotional manipulation took over? How long did we have? Minutes? Seconds? Far too short to get anywhere. The entire tunnel system was filled with these plants. And besides, we still had to destroy Kwur. 

Destroy Kwur? No, why would we do that? That was silly. Kwur was our friend. Why would we try to burn our friend? He was the most helpful friend I had, the best friend any of us had. He was going to help me deal with Fossor. He’d gone out of his way to make sure we could–

“Flick!” The voice suddenly cut through all the bullshit in my head in that second, and my gaze jerked just in time to see a blur of motion as a figure rushed right up to me. Something grabbed my arm, then a small pill was shoved into my mouth and my head was snapped backward to make me swallow it. The next thing I knew, my thoughts cleared up. 

Asenath. It was Asenath. She gave me a quick wink, then blurred her way to Sands. Another super-fast figure was with her, already shoving a pill into Miranda’s mouth. It was Bobbi. The two of them made all of us swallow those pills, and our minds cleared up. 

Shiori was there too. She and Columbus came rushing out of the same jungle the four of us had just passed through. Moving right to me, Shiori quickly blurted, “Are you okay?! The Gehenna people, they came through with the pills. They’re supposed to protect from…” 

She trailed off then, staring at the man who had greeted us. Asenath had already stepped over in front of us, with Columbus and Bobbi a bit behind her. 

If he was intimidated by facing the eight of us, or even annoyed that we suddenly had protection from Kwur’s powers, Julius Harn (however much of him was really Harn and not just Kwur) didn’t show it. Instead, he smiled broadly, arms outstretched as though he could just hug all of us at once. “What wonderful timing! I’m so glad you all got the invitation!” 

“Invitation?” Asenath echoed, her voice snarl. “How about I invite you to tell me where our mother is, before I–” 

“Senny,” a new voice interrupted. “Don’t be rude, dear.” With those words, Jiao appeared. She came from the thick clump of trees nearby, moving to stand next to Harn with a totally fake, plastered-on smile. Like a pod person. 

“After all, our host has gone to such lengths to bring us all together. The least we can do is be polite.”

Previous Chapter

Fault 10-02 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                          Next Chapter

So, there I was. Standing in an alley facing twelve men with Tech-Touched guns, my hand held by the teen girl that I’d been rescuing from what I thought were normal (if well-armed) kidnappers. The space was wider than a typical alley given it opened up into the space behind these buildings. But the part where the men were standing was still narrow enough that they were all bunched up. Actually, bunched up as they were, maybe I could get some blue paint at their feet and really throw off–

“Don’t do it, Paintball.” That voice came from behind me, and I spun quickly, putting myself beside the girl with my right side mostly facing the group of armed men so I could keep track of what they were doing out of the corner of my eye. To my left as I glanced that way, I saw a single figure. He stood about seven feet tall, but that was deceptive, because his legs and arms were both very clearly artificial. They looked like the limbs from the endoskeleton of the T-800 Terminator from the Schwarzenegger movies. He’d replaced his limbs with robotic prosthetics.  

While the man’s metal arms and legs were exposed, his torso was covered in black armor sculpted to his muscular body (or at least made to look like his body was muscular) with the insignia of an F slightly in front of a W on the upper left portion of the chest, both letters looking like they were made out of girders. Given they were kind of silver against a black background, you had to squint a bit to make them out. Finally, his face was covered by a black helmet with three glowing red dots on the front, two where his eyes would be and one where his mouth would be. 

I knew this guy. Well, not personally, of course. But he was called Framework. His whole deal was attaching Tech-Touched devices and weapons to his body and deploying them as needed. When he was in battle, he tended to appear in any of several full-on personal mech suits, which ranged in size from basically what he was now, all the way up to his full twenty-foot tall version.

Oh yeah, he was also one of the Fell-touched of Braintrust, the Tech-Touched gang. Which made sense, considering a bunch of their minions were currently blocking my exit from the alley. 

“Gee,” I started quickly while glancing back and forth between the assortment of troops and the Fell-Touched man himself, “are times really so hard for you Tech villains that you have to resort to using a whole army to kidnap one girl? I bet there’s an online training course you can take to learn how to be competent villains and get all the way up to robbing banks in no time if you try.”

Shockingly, that was apparently the wrong thing to say, as all the men to my right abruptly raised their weapons with a collective sound of annoyance and anger (though I swore at least one guy snickered a little bit before it was quickly cut off at a look from his companions) at the insult.  

Thankfully, Framework raised his voice. “Stop.” He looked to the troops sharply, waiting until they relented before turning his attention back to me. “We didn’t come to start a brawl with you, Paintball, though we’ll finish one if we need to. We came to get our property back, that’s all.”

Feeling offended on behalf of the girl who was still tightly clinging to my hand, I glanced to her with what I hoped was a reassuring look despite the blank visor of my helmet before snapping at the man. “Yeah, you know what? Maybe if you keep calling the girl you were trying to kidnap your property, I’ll just go ahead and jump right into that brawl you were just talking about.”  

There was a very brief pause as Framework’s head tilted. The red dots on his helmet dulled, flickering briefly before flashing a couple times as the sound of what I belatedly realized was a chuckle came. “No,” he replied flatly. “I wasn’t talking about the girl. We don’t even know who she is. Take her, return her to her school, do whatever you like. We came for that.” He raised a hand, pointing at the ground to one side. Looking there, I saw the Tech gun I’d tossed out of the car. 

Blinking a couple times, I tried to catch up. “Um. Excuse me? You brought a bunch of armed men to grab the gun just because I threw i–wait, no.” Turning, I pointed at the guy who was still in the car and hadn’t moved to get out. “Them. That guy and his friends. You were after them because they weren’t with you, and they had a gun that–that they stole from you, right?” 

Framework inclined his head, regarding me while those lights flickered a bit once more. Then he gave a short nod. “Smart boy. Like I said, we’re not here for the girl. We don’t care about her. We’re here for our property. It was taken from us and we’re taking it back. Stand aside from that and we’ll have no issues. This time, anyway.” He added the last bit after a momentary, pointed pause. “Any future conflict can be saved for just that. The future.”   

I thought about it for a second, but honestly… yeah, I couldn’t see any real point to insisting on a fight right now. Not for something like this. I wasn’t arrogant enough to think I could easily take on a whole group of Tech-armed soldiers who could have had any number of tricks, and a Fell-Touched guy whose entire deal was bringing mech suits into play. Pushing for a fight just to stop them from taking one of their guns back? That actually seemed pretty stupid, honestly. Especially with this innocent girl standing right next to me who would end up in the crossfire.  

So, I slowly nodded. “Fine, take your gun and leave. We’ll save the fighting thing for later.” 

Without moving from where he was standing, Framework gave a short nod to one of the men. That guy stepped forward carefully, leaning down to grab the gun from the ground. As it was stowed away, he asked his boss, “What about him?” He was looking toward the guy still inside the car. 

“He stays here,” I quickly put in. “You can take your gun, but the guy stays. He’ll go to jail for kidnapping… ummm…” Trailing off, I glanced toward the red-haired girl beside me. 

“P-Peyton,” she provided, eyes wide as she kept staring at the assorted weapons around us. 

“Peyton,” I echoed with a nod. “He’ll go to jail for kidnapping Peyton. That’ll have to be enough.” 

Framework simply shrugged. “Is that really a fight you want to have right now? You’re really willing to throw down with all this over protecting a guy who kidnaps some innocent girl?”  

“I’m definitely not willing to just let you take justice into your own hands,” I retorted. “He’s here with me, he’s going to the authorities. The question is, are you willing to start a fight right now when other Touched could show up any second. Not to mention cops. I mean, the news chopper was–” As I said that, my eyes glanced up toward the sky, only to pause. There was no chopper in sight. Which was weird, because I was pretty sure they should’ve found us by now. 

“I wouldn’t worry about the authorities or anyone else showing up to start, or finish, any problems,” Framework informed me. “We’ve got nothing but privacy for the moment.” 

As he said it, the man looked pointedly toward one of the rooftops. I glanced that way, only to see another of the Braintrust Touched. This was a man with sleek silver body armor that had dozens of scenes from various TV shows and movies playing across its surface in a collage of random images. It was Fabulist, a guy whose inventions were able to create illusions, elaborate special effects, that kind of thing. He was clearly making sure that the news chopper didn’t find us. Hell, he’d probably created a whole separate chase scene for them to keep following. I was alone. 

Swallowing slightly, I straightened. “You’re still not taking him without a fight. I can’t just let you walk away with that guy. Not when I’ve got a good idea of just how he’ll be treated.” 

For a few seconds, I wasn’t sure how Framework was going to take that. He regarded me in silence before holding up one finger as though telling me to wait. His head turned and he spoke aloud, “Glitch, slight issue.” 

Glitch. That was the leader of Braintrust. As I understood it, she was able to identify problems or flaws in technology, even of the Tech-Touched variety. She could even improve them, basically allowing her to upgrade the work of everyone in her gang. Beyond that, she could also make specific technology within her vicinity fail to work, or install ‘glitches’ into it that would flare up now and then for awhile even after the tech was away from her. 

So yeah, there was a reason she got to be the leader of a group entirely focused around technology and inventions. I just hoped she was also the leader because she was capable of making rational decisions. 

While the man in front of me was having a murmured conversation with his boss, I turned slightly to look at Peyton. “Are you okay?” 

She was staring at the assembled group, who weren’t exactly pointing their guns at us, but hadn’t lowered them either. “Um.” Her voice was very tentative and uncertain. “I… I don’t know. I just wanna go home.” 

“Do you have any idea why those guys grabbed you?” The fact that they had used what was apparently a stolen Tech-Touched weapon made me doubt that it was a completely random abduction. And I was really hoping this wasn’t about to turn into a whole new mystery. I had enough of those. 

There was a brief pause before the girl explained, “I was chatting with this guy online. We really hit it off. He was funny and everything. Then I found out that he was using his little brother’s pictures. He was a lot older. So I broke it off and he got all upset. I never told him where I lived, but I guess he picked up on my school.”

Turning a bit, I stared at her. “Hold on, you’re saying this whole thing is because one of those idiots that was in the car catfished an underaged girl and his response to that being broken off was to steal a super gun and kidnap you in broad daylight and then have a high speed chase?!” My voice got louder and more incredulous by the word. “Which one was it, Larry, Curly, or Moe?”

Coughing quietly, the girl nodded toward the vehicle. “The… um, idiot that’s still in the car.” 

Before I could do more than give a sharp look that way, Framework cleared his throat for attention. When I turned to him, he announced, “Mmmkay, you can take the genius. We’ve had our pound of flesh.”

My mouth opened, but said genius blurted from the car, “What’s that supposed to mean?!”

Framework was all too happy to explain. “We found your address and torched your apartment.” To me, he added pointedly, “Made sure there were no living things in it and contained the burn to only that apartment. Also put up a nice sign letting his neighbors know that this whole thing was because he tried to diddle a fifteen year old. Including pictures of their chat transcripts. Oh, and we sent the same thing to his employer, family, and university. So, you know, we figure we’re even on the whole stealing our equipment issue.” After a brief pause, he asked flatly, “We good here?”

While I was still staring, Peyton leaned over and whispered, ”I’m not supposed to root for the bad guys. Help.”

Shaking my head, I muttered that I wasn’t doing any better on that (and not just from today) before meeting Framework’s gaze. “Yeah. We’re good.”

He held the look, then twirled his finger in a quick circular motion. “Pack it up! We’re gone!”

And just like that, he, the rest of the troops down on the ground, and Fabulist all left. They simply walked away. I stayed tense for another couple seconds while watching just in case. But they didn’t come back. 

Then a brief sound caught my attention. Turning quickly, I saw the man in the car starting to scramble out. Before he could get very far, however, Peyton stooped, picked a chunk of concrete off the ground, and smacked him in the face with it. It was an awkward swing that made it clear the girl had probably never thrown a punch in her life. But the sound of the smack was still satisfying. As was the man’s yelp as he fell back into the car and held his nose.

“Yeah, I’d stay there if I was you,” I informed him while taking out my phone to call the authorities. 

“Or don’t. I’m not averse to her hitting you a few more times.”

*******

Eventually, that was done with. Peyton was in the hands of the authorities, who could take her home. And her abductor (plus his buddies) were in custody.

So that was one problem dealt with. I thought to avert another possible one by contacting the Seraphs to let them know why I was late. Not that I actually needed to, considering the person on the phone just said that they saw the news. 

I was in the midst of my third task, calling Wren to fill her in and thank her, when a voice spoke up from the side of the roof where I was standing. “So who are they?”

Turning quickly, I saw the figure from before with the television shows playing all over his silver costume. Fabulist, the holograms and illusions Tech guy. “What? What do you want?” I snapped, suddenly wary. 

The man held up both hands, not that that made me feel any better. “Easy. We’re just curious where you’re getting your tech from.” Turning his arm a bit, he showed me a screen on it that appeared to be a series of meters. “We detect Touched-Tech. Scanner works even when you’re not actively using it or just when you’ve been around it recently. Makes it easier to track down our stuff. And you… you’ve been around very advanced stuff. We don’t know what. Just that it’s impressive. Cutting edge. But who makes it for you? It’s none of us.”

Wren. He wanted to know about Wren. Well, fuck that. Shaking my head, I replied, “Sorry, that’s on a need to know basis, and I don’t see any reason you need to know that.” Oh, please don’t let this turn into a fight now after I’d managed to avoid one with these guys just a few minutes earlier. 

Thankfully, the man simply considered me for a moment longer before offering a shrug. “We will find out in time. We are very interested in this tech.”

I started to reply that he could go ahead and be interested, but the man simply vanished in a cloud of smoke. Given his particular proficiency, I wondered if he had even actually been standing there at all.

Speaking of his proficiency, I quickly left the roof and made my way several blocks without saying or doing anything. Reaching a small park, I made my way into the outdoor restroom, locked the door, and stripped myself down. Then I spent ten minutes poring over the entire costume and helmet looking for any possible thing he could have stuck to it that could be a bug or something. I went over it with a fine tooth comb several times in my paranoia before then turning my attention to my phones. I carefully checked them as well, running virus checks and everything. Only then, after dressing once more, did I relax a little bit. As far as I could tell, I wasn’t bugged. I’d hoped not, considering as far as I knew, he never got near me. But given his powers and Touched Tech in general… yeah. I was being careful. 

But the tech gang knew about Wren. Or at least that she existed. And it probably wouldn’t take them long to find out more. I was going to have to warn her to be careful now that she had their interest. That whole thing could get really complicated really fast.

When I called, she wanted to know everything that happened from the moment the news chopper lost sight of us. Apparently the holograms had led them on a wild goose chase far from the actual confrontation. 

So, I explained everything, including how it was resolved and that they had detected her technology.

“Wren, you better make sure you focus on your defenses now,” I insisted. “You know how Braintrust is about recruiting. Make sure you’re safe.”

“I am, I will!” she chirped. “Don’t worry, Paintball, I’ve got lots of ideas. It’s gonna be great. Oh, and really safe, obviously. Those guys don’t get to tell me what to do, or what to build, or who to build it for, or anything! I don’t build for anybody but me! Um, and you! And people who buy stuff from me! But not bad guys! That’s the important part. No bad guys.”

Chuckling a little after extracting that promise for her to take care of herself, I thanked the kid a few more times for letting me know about the abduction. Assuring her that Peyton really was safe, I promised to come see her soon. Then I disconnected and exhaled. That was over. It had been a brief, no important distraction. But now I had to focus on the actual reason I was out here in the first place. 

Time to go see the Seraphs. And hope that I didn’t run into any more kidnapping victims along the way. 

Previous Chapter                                          Next Chapter

Causality And Casualty 5-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter                                    Next Chapter

Before we’d even managed to explain more than a few words to the collection of now-freed Alters (all of whom looked very freaked out about the whole situation), Miranda, April, and Jason showed up. They came in at a run, but slowed when they saw our group there simply talking. 

“Explain it to them,” I blurted toward Sands and Scout before turning away to grab my phone. Quickly, I typed out a message to Tabbris and sent it to her. After that, I only had to wait a couple seconds before hearing her voice in my head as she projected her consciousness to me. Flick! Mr. Haiden found flowers too! 

Rather than explain, she simply dumped the information into my head. Haiden’s group, as well as the others, had all found various hiding places for the plants. They weren’t just in the tunnels, they were in random buildings too. This was even worse than we thought. But according to Sariel (through Tabbris), what we really needed to do was find the part of the plants that had the strongest consciousness in it. Not his core, that was still back in the prison. But if we found the main part that was out of it, the biggest collection of Kwur’s mind that was here in Vegas, we would be able to actually do something about him and that would affect the rest of it. 

Thanks, Tabs. You and December stay ready, huh? We’ve got it here. I tried to sound encouraging, and not like this was all spiraling very quickly out of control the way a nagging part of my mind kept insisting. This whole thing was like having gasoline spread throughout an entire building. These plants were everywhere. If someone lit the match and a war started… it would get really damn hot around here. 

So, we had to find the main plant. To that end, after quickly passing the information to the others, I closed my eyes and focused on seeing through Marian’s eyes. I’d left my little fox-friend crouched at the bottom of those subway (seriously, what the fuck was one of those doing here in Las Vegas?) stairs, huddled in a corner where she would hopefully be out of sight unless someone walked right past her. 

Thankfully, it seemed we’d indeed gotten lucky on that point. There was no one in sight as my little fox opened her eyes and looked around. I could still see that forest-worth of plants and small trees all over the subway platform, but there were no actual people. As far as I could tell, no one had seen Marian huddled in that corner. Which might give me a chance right now to get a closer look at this whole thing before they reacted to us disabling the small army they’d sent. 

The other good part of exploring this place with my Theriangelos, of course, was the fact that I didn’t have to worry about being affected by the plant bastard’s emotional manipulation powers. I sent Marian scurrying quickly across the platform, starting to move between clumps of flowers and grass. On the way, I belatedly wondered just how much awareness Kwur had around him in this state. I knew his primary consciousness wasn’t here, but how much could the part of him that was in these plants… see or hear or whatever? Was he actually able to notice the fox? More to the point, could he communicate that fact to his minions? That seemed important right now, for some reason. 

Sending Marian down onto the grass-covered tracks behind one of the trees, I hesitated before scampering up the tree. Yeah, it was even more dangerous, but really, in for a penny, in for a pound. If plant dude was aware of the fox and knew what it meant, I’d find out really quick. Hitting the tallest branch, I made the fox look one way, then the other. The tunnels stretched out in both directions and were totally full of plants. Seriously, the garden here wasn’t so ‘little’ after all. It went on as far as I could see. I’d thought it looked like a small underground forest, but there was nothing small about it. The plants took up the entire subway system. A subway system that, as far as any of us knew, wasn’t supposed to exist

A hand settled on my shoulder back with my real body. Quickly, I shifted my attention more that way, opening my eyes to see Miranda there, looking at me with concern while Sands and Sarah continued talking to April, Jason, and the people we had just been fighting a few moments earlier. Her voice was quiet. “What’s going on, Flick? What do you see down there?” 

As she asked that, the others started paying attention. The werewolf guy, Pars, spoke up, sounding guilty. “Kid, are you okay? Barnyard and I, we didn’t mean to hurt you or anything.”

“Barnyard?” I echoed uncertainly before remembering. He’d been calling the troll Barny. 

Sure enough, Barny/Barnyard the troll gave a quick, frantic nod. He looked ashamed of himself, shifting on both feet while looking at the ground and fidgeting with his hands. “Barnyard is very sorry, Miss Yellow-Hair. Barnyard did not really want to smash with friend-hammer. Barnyard was very angry before. But Barnyard does not know why. Barnyard will be very good now. Please do not be mad at Barnyard.” 

Feeling bad, I shook my head with a glance toward the others. “It’s okay, it wasn’t your fault. I–they explained the whole flower thing and what’s going on there?” I asked, looking at Pars. 

“Oh, they did, they did.” It wasn’t the werewolf who answered, but the many-tentacled figure from Miss Handsy’s race. He too looked ashamed, shuffling forward while keeping his long limbs back behind himself. I had the feeling he was doing that to look less threatening, keeping his hands out of the way so I wouldn’t think he was trying to attack me or something. He came a bit closer, still fidgeting while adding, “I… we did not cause too much harm, I hope?” 

Sands nodded from where she was standing, offering a flat. “It’s okay, we’re all in one piece.” I saw her glance toward one of the other Alters in the crowd, adding a bit more weakly, “Mostly.” 

“It’s okay!” that guy (a dark green figure with white spots over his skin and a vertical mouth) called, holding up his arm where I saw he was missing a hand. “It’ll grow back!” He sounded fairly casual about the whole thing, which was better than holding a grudge, I supposed. 

Coughing, I rubbed the back of my head. “The point is, this isn’t any of your faults.” 

“Still,” the tentacles-guy insisted, “it wasn’t… good. But you could have killed us. You didn’t. You’re Heretics. You are, aren’t you? You don’t set off the… bad sense for some reason… but you have to be Heretics with all those powers you were using. You’re Heretics, and you risked your lives to free us, to knock us out. That’s…” He hesitated, then offered me one tentacle, very carefully. “I am called, by your people, Cake.” 

“Cake?” I echoed, taking a second before getting it as I accepted his hand. “Oh, Patty Cake.” 

“Yes, that,” he agreed. “I thought perhaps Patty, but that is apparently a female’s name. So I chose Cake.” After a brief hesitation, Cake added, “We… are all very sorry for what happened.” 

“Eh, some of us are more sorry than others.” That was one of the humanoid-looking Alters, who stood at the back with his arms folded tightly. “You are Heretics in Vegas, aren’t ya? What’re you doing here?” His voice was darkly suspicious, though I had the feeling he was just as embarrassed and ashamed of losing control as the others were and hiding it through this. 

One of the other Alters elbowed him hard, leaning in to mutter something in his ear. I caught the word ‘rebellion’ before my attention was drawn by Pars once more. The werewolf spoke tersely. “Look, all of us here were, most of us don’t know each other. Last thing we remember, we were at a restaurant having lunch and the waitress brought out those leis for some kind of Hawaiian theme or some shit.” He offered a shrug. “Next thing we know, we’re totally blinded by rage and just have to kill something. It’s… that whole thing is just really blurry. All we knew was that we were in the middle of some wild fucking fight with a couple kid Heretics. Now these girls here say there’s some evil plant piece of shit that turns people fucking evil or something? What the fuck?” 

Before I could respond to that, Jason suddenly moved up next to me, drawing everyone’s attention that way as he asked. “You guys know what’s going on with the royals around here?” 

One of the other Alters replied, “Their kids got nabbed or something, right? They’re pretty pissed off about it.” His voice darkened, sounding somewhat bitter. “My buddy’s church got raided just cuz he put out some newsletters about how they’ve got too much power like a year ago.” 

There were a few other agreements with that, and I realized once more just how bad this was going to get if we didn’t stop it. The Vegas leadership was already pissing people off with their reactions to the missing kids (understandable as their emotions were), and with Kwur’s plants around to make things worse and fan those flames… yeah, this could get very bad very fast. 

And speaking of getting very bad very fast, I looked to the others, speaking quickly. “I’ve gotta use Marian to explore. You guys explain what’s going on and try to get Sariel and the others.” 

With that, I poured my attention straight back toward my Theriangelos. She was still in the tree. At this point, however, there was someone else nearby. Turning her head, I looked down. Orcs. There were three orcs and a single human (or at least one that looked human and didn’t set off my Heretic-Sense) pacing by right beneath me. It looked like they were hunting for something? 

Me, I realized belatedly. They were looking for me. Which told me that either Kwur could communicate that there was an invader of some kind but couldn’t explain where I was exactly, or they just had some other way of knowing there was something around without specifics. 

Okay, so it didn’t tell me much at all. Still, they knew something was in the area. That much was made even more clear as one of the orcs shook a rusty old sword through a tall bush and bellowed, “Where you are?! Come face bad now or bad get badly worse!” 

A truly poetic argument toward me revealing myself, for sure. Somehow, I resisted the urge to comply, making Marian shrink back against the tree while shifting her fur to match the bark. From there, I crouched and watched the group below. At the same time, I shifted a bit of my attention back to my real body, whispering (for no real reason other than instinct), “Okay, guys, we might have to go with something more obvious. These guys know I’m there.” 

Sands and Miranda said something about being on it, but my focus was quickly drawn back to Marian, as the quartet below were joined by half a dozen more figures of various types. One of them was a lizard figure like the ones we’d fought on the roof of the casino while chasing Sarez. That one seemed to be the leader, looking around suspiciously before speaking, “Bring the others in. Spread out. Find the intruder. Send a group to check on our rabble rousers in sector Three-F. They haven’t hit the next checkpoint yet. And bring more fertilizer and water for the Potentate.”

Well, I’d heard of leaders wanting to be given nothing but bullshit, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t usually this literal. But seriously, this was bad. I shifted my attention, speaking to the others. “They’ve got more than one group like these guys. They’re calling them rabble rousers, probably because you were all supposed to start fights in the city. And they’re coming to check on you. Which I guess means they don’t know everything that’s going on with the people he’s controlling. I think his… control is limited right now? Still, they’re coming.”

By that point, I was looking around, only to see Sands, Sarah, and Miranda standing nearby with their heads down and eyes closed. They were focusing on Theriangelos of their own. 

“We’ll protect you.” That was Pars, his voice firm as he looked around the rest of the group, getting nods in agreement. He focused on me then. “We owe you that much for… for not killing us when you could’ve. Whatever you’re doing down in those tunnels, do it. We’ll keep the rest of those bastards off you if they come sniffing around.” 

“He’s right,” Jason confirmed, standing by April. He had a sword in one hand and a pistol in the other, his expression solemn. “Do what you’ve gotta do down there. We’ll keep you safe here. And, you know, let you know if we can’t. Point is, we got this. Do your thing.” 

Right, so it was up to those of us who could safely move through this underground forest with the Theriangelos to figure out where the main plant was. We could do that, I hoped. 

Once more, I shifted my full attention to Marian. I’d been semi-watching what was going on before, splitting my focus just enough to know that I hadn’t been found already. Now I could see that there were about a dozen figures spread out across the whole platform, including that lizard guy who seemed to be in charge of this group. They were all searching the bushes intently. Yeah, they knew I was in here somewhere, but not exactly where. Not yet, anyway. 

There was also a heavily-armed group heading for the stairs. But before they managed to get out of sight, the whole group suddenly stopped short. I heard one shout out a warning, just before something slammed into him from above, knocking the figure to the ground. 

It was Sarah. Or, more to the point, her Theriangelo. Which was a crocodile. Specifically, a fifteen-foot long pink and red Nile Crocodile, slamming right into the guy before biting his arm with a quick, hard chomp that left him screaming and flailing. The others at the bottom of the stairs turned to help, but immediately had problems of their own in the form of Sands’ red and pink rhino careening down the stairs to slam into them. A raven, Miranda’s Theriangelos, was perched on the rhino’s back, with something around its neck that glittered in the dim light. 

The reptile guy was already shouting orders, but I quickly jumped down on top of his head and bit into his neck while using one of the fox’s claws to tear at his right eye. While he was reeling, I put one fox paw on the man’s shirt and focused. It took a lot of practice to use Heretic abilities through the Theriangelos. Plus, you had to practice with each individual power. Luckily, I had that practice thanks to Shyel. Not enough to use every power I had, but… well, I could use some. 

In that moment, I focused on my image-inscription spell. It created a rune on the man’s shirt, which I activated by saying (in my normal body, as distance apparently didn’t matter as long as part of me, the fox in this case, was there) the command word. Instantly, a shock of electricity went through the man as I jumped off him, leaving the poor guy to spasm, yelp, and hit the ground as if he’d been hit by a taser. 

The rest of the fight after that didn’t last long. These guys were basically taken by surprise, particularly when I ambushed their leader. Still, we couldn’t just kill them. There was no way to know how in control they were. Sure, none of the people here had actual flower necklaces on, but we still didn’t know how much of this was their fault. They could just be infected more permanently, or think that they were acting on Gehenna’s orders, or… anything else. 

So, we played… sort of nice. We hurt them, but we didn’t kill them. We knocked them out where we could, injured them, rounded them up into a group, and herded them into a side room before I used another quick-inscription spell to seal the door shut. They’d be able to break out of it eventually, but it would at least give us a little time down here. 

Still, we had to hurry. Thankfully, Sands had taught all of us the Theriangelos upgrade spell from Athena that allowed us to communicate what amounted to telepathically. True, we could’ve done it by talking in our normal bodies as we were right next to each other. But this was still faster and easier than constantly swapping our attention back and forth. 

Why don’t we just set fire to all this shit while we’re here? Sands demanded, her big rhino head looking back and forth as the four of us gathered near one of the trees. If this is all part of that evil plant fucker, let’s just be done with it

Sarah was the one who replied. Because we’re down here. And still looking.

Exactly, I agreed, hopping up to a nearby branch. We need to find the main part of him in the city before we start burning things. If we set fires down here right now, it’ll be harder to search these tunnels. 

From where her raven was perched on the branch just above me, Miranda added, That’s why I brought this. Her beak popped down to tap what I could now see was the enchanted green stone tied with a shoelace around her. It was glowing. I asked Sariel, she said the stronger the consciousness in these plants, the more it’ll glow. 

Right, Sands replied, so we find the spot where that thing glows the most, then burn this whole place down to make sure we got the evil motherfucker. 

And we have to do it before he starts the war that he seems to be like… ten seconds from doing right now, I added. Without most of our powers, because we don’t dare bring our physical bodies down here. But you know, no pressure or stress or anything. I’m just saying though…

If we pull this off, we better get some pretty impressive attaboys from the prison guys who were supposed to keep this asshole contained to begin with. 

Previous Chapter                                    Next Chapter

Fault 10-01 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                       Next Chapter

Eits didn’t really find anything useful enough to share (other than letting me know he was still looking into it) over the next few days. Days that I spent doing things like practicing with my paint, getting accustomed to using my spiffy new wall-sticking shoes, and trying (failing) to figure out what the damn pink paint was used for. Aside from that last part, it went pretty well. I also spent some time helping Izzy get a new phone so she could call or text me. Or anyone else. 

So, I was doing okay on the whole practicing with the powers I knew about thing, still had no idea what was going on with the pink paint, was avoiding Tomas as much as possible without looking like I was avoiding him, and remained almost completely clueless about whatever the fuck was going on with Paige and her real father living on the inescapable prison island thing. 

The point was, pretty soon, it was Wednesday afternoon. I was going to visit the Seraph HQ in a few minutes. But first, I was determined to finish up at least one more of the pictures for the people who went to Amber’s party. She was waiting patiently for them, but I really needed to put a dent in the list. Not that that took too much time, considering how easy drawing suddenly was for me. But it took longer than it could have, because I sure as hell wasn’t going to use my actual paint on the pictures. No way would I risk leaving that kind of incriminating evidence about who I was. Instead, I had a pad that I was sketching the requested pictures in before inking them later. And coloring the ones for the people who requested and paid for that extra bit, eventually. 

So there was just one more I wanted to finish right now, a sketch of the guy in the picture (his name was Alan and he was a senior) doing a, ahem ‘sick flip’ on his skateboard off one of the castle-like towers of the Grand Army of the Republic building downtown (which was where I was now so I could draw it more effectively). Apparently he’d always wanted to do that but there was no way it would ever happen. So he paid for a drawing of it rather than do anything stupid like actually try. Which, well, kudos to him for thinking it through.

I was sitting cross-legged against the side of one of a nearby building’s brick chimneys. Yes, I was using my shoes to switch my gravity so that I could sit against the side of the chimney as though it was the ground, facing downward as I worked intently, drawing on the pad. With it in my lap, the pad seemed to be affected by the same change in gravity so it didn’t go flying away from me. Of course, I was in costume. Well, mostly. It was harder to draw with gloves, so I had those off as well as the helmet, with just the mask on underneath. I wasn’t sure exactly why I was drawing like this in costume rather than doing it at home or whatever, I just didn’t want to be home. Besides, I was heading to the Seraph base pretty soon. I just needed to finish this picture with a bit more detail on Alan himself as he came off the building. After all, what was the point of buying a picture of yourself doing something awesome if you couldn’t tell it was supposed to be you?

So intent was I on getting the boy’s face right, that the sudden sound and feel of my phone buzzing made me jerk in surprise. The pad fell a few feet to land on the roof below, and I quickly reached to my pocket. The call was coming in on my ‘work’ phone, so to speak. Taking a quick look to see who was calling, I said a few quick words aloud to make sure my voice changer was working right before answering. “Yo, Wr-I mean Trevithick. What’s up? Gotta say, these shoes–”  

Before I could say anything else, Wren quickly interrupted, sounding pretty wound up about something. “Paintball! Um, are you anywhere near MLK High? That place by Larned.”

“I know where it is,” I answered while hopping off the chimney to land lightly on the roof as I glanced over toward the nearby landmark building I’d been drawing a moment earlier. “I’m a couple miles away, by Grand River Avenue. Why, what’s going on? Are you okay?”   

“Oh! Oh, they might be going that way,” the young Tech-Touched blurted. “It’s on the news, there’s this red sedan, these two guys just grabbed a girl that was outside the school and now they’re driving down, umm… Uncle Fred, where–Lafayette. They’re coming your way on Lafayette but they might turn! The cops were chasing them, but they used a sonic cannon or something that blew one of the cars like a million miles away so they don’t dare get close. I think they’re trying to call in Touched for help but if the car gets out of sight they could disappear!” 

It took me a second to put that all together, but I was already using red paint to yank my helmet up. “Red sedan speeding everywhere running from cops and trying to hide, got it. On my way.” Thanking the girl and promising to call back, I disconnected while stowing the drawing pad in my nearby bag, hiding it out of sight, and slipping my gloves on. Then I took a running start, leaping off the building with a bit of blue paint to launch myself forward and up. Red yanked me toward the next building, and then my feet hit it, the shoes allowing me to run along the side without having to worry about putting more paint down to stay there. 

I’d been grateful for the shoes already, of course. But they meant more now than before. Thinking about some girl being grabbed by guys for… whatever reason made me push harder, using my mix of red, green, and blue paints to race along the sides and tops of buildings while scanning the road below. It didn’t take long to reach Lafayette, and I kept going that way. 

The kidnappers were using at least one Tech-Touched weapon. That didn’t necessarily mean they were Tech-Touched, just that they had access to it. A sonic based cannon was one of those things that popped up in the news now and then, often enough that I knew it was a black market thing. Hopefully, whoever these guys were, they’d just bought their weapon that way. 

But why would people with the kind of cash that it took to get and keep one of those things be grabbing some random high schooler? Unless she wasn’t random. Or unless they’d just found the weapon somewhere? Whatever, there were a lot of options and guessing would get me nowhere.

Of course, while I was running, my other phone went off. It was my actual Cassidy phone. I would’ve ignored it, except I’d already set the phone not to put any calls through that weren’t from my important contacts. Sure enough, when I took a second while running along a roof to unzip the pocket and glance at it, it was Mom on the phone. 

Pausing briefly, I weighed my choices. But in the end, I didn’t want to give them any reason to wonder about me. So I quickly deactivated my voice changer and answered the phone before starting to run again. “Hi, Mom!” I chirped, trying to sound normal. 

“Cassidy,” came the warm response, “I wanted–are you running?” 

I leapt from the roof of that building, windmilling through the air while replying, “Oh, uhhh, yeah. I–” My hand snapped out, shooting a bit of red that yanked me to another wall I could run along the side of. “You know, just trying to stay in shape. Beside’s, running’s fun. Sorry, I–” I flipped sideways off the edge of the building, landing on top of a signpost before using blue paint to launch myself up and forward, “–didn’t forget something, did I?” 

There was a brief pause before the answer came. “No, no, you did not forget anything, dear. As long as you’re okay?” 

“Yup!” I replied as cheerfully and simply as I could, doing my level best not to let her know that, at that exact moment, I was flying through the air as my red paint pulled me to another roof. “You know me, just can’t sit still for very long. What’s–umm, what’s up?” I nearly misjudged that particular landing, stumbling a little before catching myself. I really hoped this wasn’t going to be a long conversation. 

Thankfully, it wasn’t. Mom just wanted to ask me if I minded dressing up and going out for dinner the next night, since there was apparently some kind of award show at the country club that Dad needed to attend. I agreed, she made me promise not to run too much, and I disconnected the call (turning the voice changer back on, of course). Then I exhaled. Talking to my mother while doing all this… Paintball running and jumping stuff was nerve wracking. It felt like she could see me while I was talking, even though she couldn’t. Shaking that off, I focused on the task at hand. Namely, finding that car before they managed to completely disappear.

In the end, I didn’t actually have to look that hard to try to find the car. All I had to do was look for the news chopper in the sky. They seemed to be staying well back, probably to avoid getting nailed by that sonic cannon. But it gave me a general area to look in as soon as I saw the chopper hovering above one of the buildings about a mile from my starting point. And sure enough, as I landed against a billboard and stared intently toward the road, I saw it. The red sedan came screaming around a slow-moving semi, racing my way with a squeal of tires. 

Okay, right, I could do this. I could do it. There was an innocent girl in that car, I had to get her out of there, even if the idea of throwing myself at guys with access to at least one extremely dangerous Tech-Touched weapon made me want to whimper. I had to forget about how dangerous it was, forget about how easily a weapon like that could probably maim or kill me, and just… jump. 

I jumped, pushing off the wall into a backflip just as the car got close. They clearly hadn’t seen me yet, and I used just a touch of yellow paint to slow my fall right before the end, timing it just right. Which, again, was something I didn’t actually think about. It was kind of like when I’d been racing through the dark forest to get to Paige the other day. I’d just stopped thinking and knew where all the trees and bushes were, even in the darkness. Just like that, I didn’t stop to think about how to time my drop to coincide with the car’s passing, I just… knew how to do it. 

It worked. With the help of that bit of yellow, I landed perfectly in the middle of the passing car’s roof, falling slowly enough at that point that it only dented the thing in a bit. Sure, they really knew I was there by that point, but at least I didn’t just go right through the roof entirely or cave it in completely. Red paint yanked my hands down to stay on the car an instant later as it swerved hard to one side. Yeah, they definitely knew I was up there. So, without thinking about it, I painted the image of a man in purple armor holding an orange shield on my chest, activating the latter part.

Rolling quickly toward the passenger side, I popped my head down near the open window. “Hey, do you guys have any idea how fast you’re going?!” Using that moment, I took stock of the car’s occupants. Three guys and a girl. The only guy in front was the driver, with two guys in the back on either side of the clearly high school-aged girl. She looked maybe fourteen or fifteen, slim with short red hair. The guys all looked… well, normal. They weren’t wearing any kind of costumes or uniforms linking them to any of the Fell-gangs in town. Both the guys in the back had guns out. Not the sonic cannon, at least. They held regular handguns. 

Before they could react to my blurted words, I quickly pointed both hands (using a tiny bit of red on my chest to keep myself in place), hitting the girl with a pair of paint blobs. One was orange, and I activated it immediately, just in case this went south in the next few seconds. Hell, I didn’t know what these guys might do, but taking away their ability to just shoot and kill her that easily felt like a pretty solid idea right then.

As it turned out, it was me they wanted to shoot at. Both men in the backseat pointed their pistols my way, opening fire. They were silenced (the good Tech-Touched silencers that made the gunshots sound like soft coughs), but being quiet made them no less dangerous. I quickly jerked myself up despite the orange paint, not wanting to get hit at all if I could help it. They adjusted quickly and were already shooting up through the roof of the car as I used green paint to speed myself up, rolling backward to get off that spot while several bullets passed through it. 

Since I was near the back of the car, I slapped one hand down with red paint to keep myself in place. The driver was swerving all over the place, and I would’ve gone flying without that. As it was, my legs slid off the side, and one of the men clearly noticed because a shot hit one of them. The orange paint was still active, so it just stung a bit, but still. This wasn’t great. 

With a grunt, I jerked my legs back up onto the roof. Then I shot two more quick red blobs of paint ahead of us to the buildings on either side of the street. Another bullet from the assholes inside the car popped through the roof and rebounded off my shoulder. Which, ow. That was starting to hurt. I needed to handle this, right now. Especially before I ran out of paint. 

With that in mind, I activated the other paint blob I’d shot onto the girl a few seconds earlier. The non-orange one. It was white, and the car was suddenly filled with a blinding flash. As the people in there reacted, the car jerking to the side, I let myself slide right to the back window while activating the purple paint of the armored figure on my chest. Then I swung one leg back and drove my knee in through that rear windshield. The impact knocked a hole in the window, and I quickly threw myself in that way while everyone was still blinded and confused. Landing in the narrow space just above and behind the rear seat, I snapped my hands out to slap against the arms of either guy there. 

They reacted quickly despite being blinded, their guns pointing my way. But I was faster, activating the red paint I’d just slapped onto both of them. Linking them to the two spots of red I’d shot at the buildings we were now just barely passing, I sent both men flying out through the mostly-broken rear windshield with a pair of twin screams. 

But things weren’t exactly free and clear yet. The driver, who, despite being at least half-blinded by the white flash, still managed to flip the car’s autodrive on. That autodrive was now taking the car down an alley while the driver himself grabbed something and turned. The ‘something’ turned out to be a high-tech weapon that looked kind of like a futuristic silver and green sawed-off shotgun with oversized barrels. The sonic cannon, probably. 

Whatever it was, I did not want to get hit by it. To that end, I threw myself off the window area and into the backseat, landing basically in the kidnapped girl’s lap while lashing out with one foot. The purple paint was still active, so my kick actually broke the driver’s seat when it collided, knocking the man forward into the steering wheel just as he was trying to aim that weapon. It went off, the sound utterly fucking deafening in those close quarters. The blast blew the passenger side front door off, crumpling it up and sending it flying. Meanwhile, the collision of the man with the steering wheel took off the autodrive and the car suddenly veered in the other direction, slamming hard into the wall of the alley. The car stopped, I fell to the floor, the driver rebounded off the suddenly triggered airbag, and the kidnapped girl bounced off the back of the front passenger seat before her seatbelt yanked her back down. She might’ve been screaming. We all might’ve been screaming. But the deafening effect of that sonic cannon made it a moot point. 

Before the man could fire that damn thing again, I forced myself to pop up, snatching it out of his dazed hand. I threw the weapon out the shattered back window, then grabbed the girl’s hand. “Come on!” I shouted, though I was pretty sure she couldn’t hear me. I couldn’t hear me. But she had the basic idea anyway, squeezing my hand like it was a lifeline as I kicked one of the back doors open and pulled her out. It was time to get this girl out of there, before the driver recovered or either of those guys I’d sent flying caught up. 

Or not. Because as soon as the two of us emerged from the car, we found ourselves facing a whole group of maybe twelve men. And these guys didn’t look like the random criminals the ones in the car had seemed to be. All of them were wearing militaristic dark body armor and full face-covering helmets with white lab coats, and they were holding what looked kind of like submachine guns. But I was pretty sure those weapons did more than fire bullets. Because these weren’t ordinary thugs. They were troops who worked for Braintrust.

Well, I didn’t have to worry about one Tech-Touched gun anymore.

Because I was facing about a dozen of them instead. 

Previous Chapter                                       Next Chapter

Causality And Casualty 5-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter                                   Next Chapter

Right, so Sands, Sarah, and I were surrounded by a small army of bad guys. Actually, no, it was worse. We were surrounded by a small army of people who might not be bad guys. They were being manipulated or even outright controlled by the actual bad guy. Everything they were doing wasn’t their decision. For all we knew, these people could be perfectly pleasant, even friendly, most of the time. But right now, they had those leis around their necks making them act like this. 

The point was, lei or no lei, these guys clearly weren’t in the mood to chat or make nice. A point they all made pretty abundantly clear as weapons were drawn, swords unsheathing, energy blades humming to life, chains clinking as they unraveled, and regular guns were cocked. 

“Try not to kill them if possible,” I muttered while producing my own staff and spinning it once as I put my back to the twins’ so we could cover all sides. “Remember, none of this is their fault.” 

“Yeah, how about you tell them not to kill us?” Sands retorted darkly. “That sounds more useful right about now.” Adopting a bright tone then, she addressed the men surrounding us. “Hey, guys, I don’t suppose saying ‘take us to your leader’ would do much?”

The weapons rose, and Sands blurted, “Yeah, didn’t think so.” At the same time, she made a quick motion with her mace, thrusting it into the air. That made a thick, circular wall of concrete rise with it, surrounding us to block the suddenly incoming gunfire, a mixture of lasers and bullets that would chew through the impromptu shield pretty quickly. But, for a moment, we were protected. 

Grabbing a coin from my pocket, I quickly turned while holding it out. As the sound of all that gunfire tearing our shield to pieces filled the air, Sands was already snapping her own hand back to touch the coin that she knew would be there. In an instant, she disappeared into the coin, and I gave it a hard chuck up and over the wall. While the coin was still flipping end over end through the air, Sands popped out of it, free hand already raised and filled with several tiny enchanted metal balls. As the men reacted and tried to adjust their fire, she hurled all of those tiny silver orbs at the ground around them. The flashbang spells on them activated, and I heard a collection of cries and curses as the men were blinded and deafened.

In the meantime, I had already converted my staff into its bow form, while taking a running start straight at the wall. Just before I would have slammed into it, Sands opened up a hole about waist high while she was still in the middle of falling. I threw myself into a slide through that small hole, bow already aimed and firing off an energy arrow that hit the ground between a trio of men there (all of whom were still staggering from the flashbangs). The concussive explosion from the arrow knocked all three of them flying, clearing up the path for me to slide through. 

Rolling to one knee, I drew back another energy arrow without wasting a single second. I didn’t need to take stock of where anyone was. My item-sense power did that just fine for me, helping aim my bow so that the arrow hit right between two more guys and threw them in opposite directions. Knock-outs, we were going for taking these guys out of the fight, not killing them. 

Alternatively, I could also make sure they were in no mood to fight. To that end, I filled one of my hands with the largest gooey blob of that nausea-inducing stuff that I could manage. It reached about the size of a beach ball before I hurled it into the air just above the largest group of the guys on this side, who were already spinning toward me as they fought through the effects of the flashbangs. Right when the spinning gel-orb reached the top of their heads, I hit it with an energy arrow. The concussive blast sent that nasty goo spraying in every direction, dropping a dozen of the mind-controlled Alters to the ground retching and heaving. 

Immediately, I followed that up by hitting the button on my staff to summon all the sand I had stored. A huge dust cloud swirled around me, and I sent it in every direction, forcing the sand into the eyes and mouths of everyone I could see. Some of those were still retching from the explosion of nausea-goop, while others had been trying to force their way past those ones to get at me. Dozens of those guys all yelled out, grabbing their eyes and rubbing to get the sand out as they stumbled. 

That was a couple big groups temporarily handled, clearing out a lot of space around me. But I wasn’t exactly safe. Two guys were coming at me from one side, before each staggered as bullets came out of nowhere. One was hit in the shoulder, while the other had the sword he was holding blown out of his hand. Sarah, of course. She wasn’t exactly sitting idle while all that was going on. Through the hole that Sands had created, I caught a glimpse as Sarah fired three quick shots into a scope-portal (probably to help Sands, who had landed on the opposite side of the circular wall thing) before abruptly spinning as one of our new very-much-not friends who apparently wasn’t actually blinded at the moment phase through the wall. Yet even as he turned solid, Sarah was already snatching the pistol from his grip with her solid-light hand, crushing the thing into scrap before that same fist lashed out in a back-handed smack that put the guy on the ground. I had been moving to help, but clearly she didn’t need it right now. 

Which was a good thing, considering I already had my hands full. With a lot of hands. Because the creature coming after me in that moment looked like another one of Miss Handsy’s species. Like her, this one looked like a two-and-a-half-foot-wide ball floating in the air with a head attached to it by a single slender stalk, with dozens of other narrow tentacles sticking out of every inch of the main ball. There was a hand attached to each tentacle, as the being used two of those to walk and the other thirty or so to hold various guns and bladed weapons. All of which the guy was bringing to bear on me. Which was just fantastic

“Time to fight!” I blurted, the command summoning Jaq and Gus to assume their places on my staff, even as I snapped it up to intercept no less than five incoming blades of varying sizes. The force of all those hits probably would have knocked the weapon out of my hand entirely without my enhanced strength. As it was, I still had to stagger back a step. 

Now my staff was raised and extended horizontally, held in one hand while three blades were held against the left side of the shaft and two against the right. Another half dozen tentacles with a mix of metal and energy swords were still coming in from that right side, but I quickly triggered a blast from that end of the staff, sending out a concussive wave that blew them back for the moment. Simultaneously, I used my other hand to create a small portal on my other side, catching a shotgun blast from the tentacle that had been trying to be sneaky by coming in from there and sending it harmlessly out to the side. 

But this damn guy never seemed to run out of hands. From the corner of my eye, I saw two more without actual weapons trying to grab my ankles. At the same time, the five with blades that I had blocked with my staff had already rebounded and were trying to stab my leg, stomach, chest, shoulder, and face respectively. The tentacle-guy was doing his level best to leave me no room to escape. Or, more to the point, trying to make me dodge backwards and end up right in the grasp of the hands he was bringing up and around to hit me from behind. 

This was one fucking guy, and he had two hands trying to grab my ankles, five with blades coming at various parts of my front, another three extended up and around to sneak on me from behind, and even more with ranged weapons ready to take pot shots at me. One guy! How was this fair? 

Oh well, good thing I didn’t fight fair either. Instead of blundering backward into his waiting tentacles, letting my ankles be grabbed, or taking five different blades into my flesh (and definitely instead of all three of those), I flung myself into a sideways flip, twisting my body in the air and tucking my legs to pass right through a single narrow gap between all those flailing tentacles, hands, and weapons. It was such a small opening that it should have been impossible to pass through without being cut to ribbons by half a dozen swinging blades. But given the agility enhancements I’d absorbed combined with my instinctive knowledge of exactly where every blade was, I was barely able to make it. Clearly, I owed the werewolf and knockengerwicht I’d gotten those powers from a few thanks. 

I did not, however, owe thanks to every werewolf. Particularly not the one who was rushing straight at me from one side in his enormous, half-human battle form, already in mid-roar. I was still in the middle of that sideways-flip that carried me between all those lashing tentacles when I caught a glimpse of him. Even worse, I sensed yet another figure coming from behind me on the opposite side, someone running up fast with a big hammer. 

So, I was still in mid-jump, barely clearing the dozen or so armed tentacles from one fucking guy. A werewolf in massive humanoid battle form was rushing at me from the direction my lunge was carrying me, and some other guy with a big hammer was coming up from the other side. 

This was all going super-fantastic, that was for sure. 

Okay, time to start dealing with all these guys. Landing from that flip, I quickly ducked one lashing blade-armed tentacle, blocked three more in quick succession with various snaps of my staff to both sides, and then stabbed the bladed end into yet another tentacle to stop it. All of that took a bare handful of seconds, and came so quickly I didn’t have time to even look to see what kind of being was coming at me with that hammer. All I knew was that the weapon was huge, so I was pretty sure the thing holding it was too. 

More tentacles were coming. Hammer guy was coming. Wolf-man was coming. Fuck, fuck, move! 

I moved, triggering the boost of my staff to send myself toward the incoming werewolf and out of range of the tentacle guy. At the same time, I summoned a new ball of nauseating liquid into my other hand, sending it flying into the wolf-man’s face. 

Three quick energy blasts from various pistols that tentacle-guy was holding came at me before I reached the wolf. But I absorbed them, the warm, almost-burning feeling rose in me from being completely full of that energy. I’d have to let it out soon. But not… just… yet. 

Instead, I snapped my staff down. A thought made the weapon grow, extending to twice its normal length so that the end collided with the ground. I used that to shove myself higher, flipping over in the air so that my momentum carried me the rest of the way before landing on my feet right smack on wolf-guy’s back while he was still doubled-over retching. The impact knocked him to the ground with a grunt. 

Finally, I could see the figure with the big hammer that I’d sensed. And I had been right about it being something big. Troll. It was a troll. Quickly, I unleashed all of that power I’d just absorbed from those lasers, sending it back out in a broad wave of energy that hit the troll, burning him and making him stagger, his bellow filling the air.  

Honestly, this was normally where I might try to possess one of these three guys. Like the werewolf I was standing on, for example. Unfortunately, that wasn’t in the cards. That warning we’d gotten from Prelate played through my head. If I tried to possess anyone who was currently affected by Kwur, there was a good chance he’d be able to get to me too. So no possessing people like this. Between that and not killing them, I was going to have to get a bit creative. Or just hit them until they stopped trying to murder me. That could work too.

To that end, as the werewolf under my feet tried to push me off, I quickly lashed out with a kick to the back of his head that slammed his face into the concrete. Hoping that would stun him for a second, I summoned something else into my hand. Herbie. Rearing back, I chucked him as hard as I could toward the flailing mass of tentacles. He was small enough to pass through the narrow space between all those wild limbs, several of which were trying to grab onto him or knock him out of the air. Just before Herbie would have bounced off the head of the tentacle-guy, I focused on a certain other power. Suddenly, my tiny rock buddy was much larger. He was about four feet across (his hat and sword grew with him). 

Giant Herbie slammed into tentacle guy’s face, knocking him to the ground before I shrank my rock buddy and summoned him back to my hand. No way was I leaving him out there to get hurt. Either way, tentacle-dude was out of the fight at least for a second or two. The troll was briefly occupied as well, with that whole recovering from taking a massive energy blast into the face thing. And the wolf guy I was still standing on had yet to reorient himself after his own face had been kicked into the pavement.

All three of them not attacking me for two seconds was good, because it gave me the briefest of openings to try something. Namely, focusing on the lei around wolf-man’s neck. I didn’t grab it, given how much of a stupid idea that seemed like. Instead, I lashed out with the bladed end of my staff to cut through it. 

Maybe I was crazy, but it sure sounded like that lei screamed when I cut it. Not in pain, but in… rage. Yeah. 

Without thinking too much about that, I flipped the blade around, caught the lei on it, and focused on superheating the metal until the flowers caught fire. As they burned, I hurled them away. By the time I did that, the wolf guy under me was really starting to shove himself up, so I jumped off him just in time to see the severely burned troll make his move. He lunged with that big hammer raised, his terrifying roar filling the air. Actually, there had to be a literal psychological power behind that roar, because it hit me much harder than something like that normally would have by that point. Hearing the sound, I froze for just a second. I shouldn’t have, but I did. Something in it, some power the troll must have had, caught me flat-footed. 

Then I was grabbed, yanked off the ground by something large and furry. The werewolf. He hauled me up and leapt out of the way an instant before that hammer came down to pulverize the hell out of the pavement where I had been standing. The next thing I knew, the wolf man landed, letting me go while turning to look at the troll. “Barny! What the hell are you doing?! You could’ve–” In mid-sentence, he had to throw himself into a backward roll as the hammer went swinging over his head. “What the fuck!? Barny, it’s me!”

It didn’t help. The massive troll kept coming after him. Seeing that, and taking in how the werewolf was acting, I blurted, “The flowers around his neck! Get them off him! But try not to touch them!” Then I hit the badge and used it to connect to Sands and Sarah so that I wouldn’t have to scream it out loud across the battlefield and repeated the bit about getting the flowers off these guys. 

By that point, the tentacle guy had recovered and used several of his hands to push himself up. He came after me then, four tentacles thrusting back to throw himself forward, while the rest came flailing in toward me. Blades swung while shots from a dozen different ranged weapons filled the air in a hail of bullets, lasers, and more. Apparently Herbie and I had pissed him off.

I did the only thing I could in that moment. I ran straight at the guy. A quick word activated the kevlar spell on my clothes, instantly protecting me (however briefly) from the incoming bullets and other projectiles. I also focused on absorbing the energy from the lasers, gripping my staff tightly in one hand. Not yet, not yet, noooot yeeeeeet. My whole body was burning up. It hurt, each blast of energy tipped me closer toward just exploding. I held it. Through extreme effort, I held it. With the bullets striking me all over (their momentum almost entirely erased thanks to the spell) like a torrential rain of metal, I kept sprinting. Even as the tentacle guy loomed right up in front of me, fifteen different blades swinging my way from every possible direction that he could reach, I kept moving

At the last possible second, with those blades inches from my body and my opponent fully (eagerly) committed, I made my actual move. Channeling every last bit of energy I’d absorbed into my staff, I created a portal and launched a blast from that energy through the staff and into the portal. At the same time, I dove feet first, baseball sliding between the man’s tentacle-legs. The other end of the portal was right behind him and slightly angled making the blast from my staff launch him up and forward, leaving just enough space for me to slide by beneath him. The precise angle of the blast actually tipped the guy forward, leaving the narrow stalk between his head and body in view. I used that, snapping my staff up so that the grapple caught the lei that dangled there. A thought, as I slid under the figure, super-heated the grapple even as it tore the ring of flowers from my opponent’s neck and incinerated them. 

Sliding and rolling to a somewhat flailing stop a few feet past the tentacle guy, I quickly flung the still smoldering remains of the lei off my staff and snapped my head up with a quick blurted prayer. 

He wasn’t attacking. The tentacle guy wasn’t attacking me. He was stumbling to the side, looking very… drunk, basically. The weapons all fell from his hands, and I heard him mutter, “What… where…?” 

It worked! Fuck, fuck, it worked! Quickly, I rolled to my feet, stumbling a little as I turned wild eyes toward where I’d last seen the werewolf guy and the giant troll. 

The troll was on his knees, hammer beside him. He looked distraught as he crouched over a man I belatedly realized was the werewolf in his fully human form. The guy looked pretty injured, his leg bent the wrong way and partially smashed, with blood all around him. But he was also holding a metal pipe of some kind that had what remained the troll’s giant lei on it. The flowers were mostly burned, and I could see a lighter laying nearby. 

“Help. Help!” the troll called desperately. “Help friend! Friend! Pars! Help Pars!” 

Looking around even as I moved that way, I saw that things were under control. We’d knocked a few people out, but more to the point, as soon as Sands and Sarah started knocking people’s leis off them, those people were freed and able to start helping others. It was an exponential effect. The more people who were freed from Kwur’s control, the more they could help free others. 

“Flick, you good?” The words penetrated a second later, and I turned to see Sands and Sarah approaching while looking around warily.

Before I could answer that, the troll blurted, “Pars not good! Help Pars!” 

“I’m okay, Barny,” the werewolf insisted through gritted teeth, shifting a bit. “Nothing that won’t… gngnnmmm… heal…” He looked to the three of us then, along with all the other figures who were coming out of their mind-controlled haze. They all looked confused, disoriented, upset, and generally just very out of it. It was like they were waking up from a dream and had no idea where they were or what they had been doing. 

“So…” Pars the werewolf asked, clearly speaking for everyone around us. 

“Who the fuck are you guys and what the fuck is going on?” 

Previous Chapter                                   Next Chapter

Interlude 9B – More Lost Memories

Previous Chapter                                     Next Chapter

Seven Years Ago

“Neeeeeeeeeeeeeeer! Pew, pew, pew!” Running through the front foyer of his house, nine-year-old Anthony Tate held a toy jet fighter out to one side as he imitated laserfire. The boy’s unruly mop of light brown hair matched his eyes, and a light coating of freckles dusted his face. A face that was covered by a wide smile that showed his crooked teeth as he called in his best approximation of a pilot’s commanding voice. “Target locked, dodge this, you alien scum! Missiles away! Whooosh, there they go!” With a sweep of his hand, he indicated their path.

“Weeerrbblee reebble rabble!” Anthony’s best friend, Cassidy Evans, held a toy fighter of her own. This one had started out its life looking almost identical to the one that Anthony was playing with. But the two of them had carefully painted it bright pink with purple lightning bolts (or as close as they could get to lightning bolts) on the wings, and glued a second pair of wings to the bottom of it to make the fighter look a little more alien. Granted, they easily could have asked for and received an entire fleet of alien toys within fifteen minutes. But they wanted to do it themselves. Plus, it was fun, and it gave Anthony something to do with the plane whose wings had broken off. 

“Werble rebble rabble?” the boy echoed, head tilting in obvious confusion as he watched Cassie zoom in circles around him, the ‘alien fighter’ held out beside her. “What does that mean?” 

Grinning, the short-haired girl chirped, “That’s the sound of the anti-missile shield! It’s like a tractor beam, only it pushes things away instead of pulling them in!” Quickly, she added, “But it takes all the power from the shield to push things away, so the aliens hafeta time it right, or–” 

“Pew, pew, pew!” Anthony blurted, suddenly realizing where the girl was going with that before she finished describing how the shields being down to power their anti-missile system would leave the aliens vulnerable to other attacks. He made his fighter do a quick loop and a barrel roll while indicating the path of his lasers with quick flicks from his fingers. “Pew, pew!” 

“Naaaaargh!” Cassidy cried out, making the fighter spin around while speaking in her best high-pitched alien voice. “Damage, damage! Return to mothership, return to mothership!” With that, she began racing up the nearby stairs two at a time. “Accelerating out of Earth’s atmosphere! Divert remaining power to boosters to escape gravitational pull!”  

Quickly, Anthony started up the stairs after her. “Oh no you don’t!” He called. “Come back here, you alien scum! We modified this fighter to reach space, you can’t get away that easily!” 

“Come and get us, dirty human!” Cassidy called back from the top of the stairs, still using her high-pitched alien voice, while adding a buzzing sound just because she thought it sounded better that way. “You can’t hope to stand up against the firepower of our main battle–oof!” 

That last bit came because Cassidy had run straight on into a man who had just stepped out of one of the rooms on the second floor. Just as he appeared, speaking over his shoulder, Cassidy bounced off him, landing on her backside with a yelp as the man grunted and stumbled a bit. 

“Cassie!” Anthony quickly flung himself up the last couple stairs, dropping beside his friend. His plane fell to the side, forgotten for the moment as he checked on her. “Are you okay?” 

“Uh huh,” she confirmed, staring up at the man she had run into with large doe-like eyes. She didn’t recognize him. He was in his mid-late thirties, with dark blond hair and brown eyes. “Sorry, Mister.” 

There was the slightest pause before the man offered a faint, yet genuine smile, shaking his head. “Not at all,” he assured her, holding a hand out to the girl, helping her up. “I’m afraid it was entirely my fault for getting in the middle of a…” He glanced from the modified ‘alien’ fighter on the floor, to the normal one lying nearby where both had been dropped. “spaceship dogfight?” 

“Anthony, Cassidy?” Anthony’s father appeared in the doorway behind the other man, stepping around him. “Is everything okay out here? You’re not bothering our guest too much, are you?” 

“Oh, it’s quite alright, Russell,” the man assured him. “I managed to stumble my way out into the middle of a fight to save the planet, that’s all.” He winked at the kids before turning to Anthony’s father. “No harm, no foul. Shall we continue our discussion in the other room? I have a few more examples of just how we can revolutionize the entire industry.”  

Giving a good-natured roll of his eyes at the bold claim, Mr. Tate waved for the children to be off. “Why don’t you kids play outside for a little bit and run off a little more energy? I’ll have Ricky bring you out some treats to the pavilion.” That said, he began to walk off with his guest, informing him, “You know, a lot of people claim what they have will ‘revolutionize things.’” 

“Ah,” the other man retorted while following. “But they don’t have what I have. Results.” 

Standing there, the two children watched the men leave, before Anthony turned to Cassie with a sudden grin. “Hey! I saw the truck that guy came in. It looks all funny, like a van and a truck all smooshed together. That can be the alien mothership and we can fly around it and stuff!” 

Cassidy immediately jumped at that idea, and the two of them grabbed their respective fighters before rushing down the stairs and out the door. As promised, there was what appeared to be a van-truck hybrid in the long, half-circle driveway, near the exit gate with its back end pointed toward the mansion. With gleeful whoops, the two kids raced past the fountain and to the vehicle with their ships held out to the side in flying mode, already blurting the onomatopoeia for their respective laser and missile sounds as they split up at the back of the truck-van, each racing around it in a different direction. Anthony went toward the driver’s side while Cassidy ran on the passenger side, each sprinting to reach the front of the designated ‘mothership’ first. 

Before Cassidy could reach it, however, the heavy side door of the vehicle slid open right beside her, and she stopped abruptly. Turning, the nine-year-old found herself facing another girl who had just slid the door open. This girl was perhaps a year older than the other two, a pretty blonde ten-year-old who sat cross-legged in the back of the truck-van, which turned out to be full of random crates, electrical equipment, and tools. Both girls stared at one another in silence for several long seconds. Finally, Cassidy piped up with, “Hi!” 

“Hi!” the girl echoed brightly, though she remained sitting in the same position. 

“Who are you–” Anthony, having reached the front of the vehicle, came around to join her before seeing the girl sitting there. “Oh! Uhh, hi.” 

Abruptly focusing on him, the blonde girl chirped, “Hi, Anthony!” She looked positively delighted, giving a dazzling smile. “Did my dad tell you to come get me? I was bored.” 

“Um.” Exchanging a brief, confused look with his friend, Anthony shook his head. “Not really. Your dad’s still talking to my dad. He made you stay out here by yourself? Oh, um, this is Cassidy.” He gestured that way. “How come you know who I am?” 

“Hi, Cassidy.” Smiling easily as she greeted the other girl by name that time, the girl added, “I’m Paige. My dad showed me your picture when we were coming over here. He really likes your dad.” She paused, as though only just thinking of something, before frowning. “But I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.” 

Shrugging, Anthony pointed out, “He showed you my picture and told you my name, so I’m not a stranger, right? And this is my friend, so she’s not a stranger either.” 

“She?” Paige blinked once, looking back that way. “You look like a boy.” It was a statement made not of maliciousness, but youthful innocent frankness. 

Flushing, Cassidy cupped both hands to the side of her head, covering her short black hair before stomping once. “I’m a girl!” she insisted. “I just like short hair, that’s all.” 

“Okay,” Paige replied with immediate acceptance before adding, “I’m sorry if I said something wrong.” 

Cassidy shook her head. “It’s okay, everyone thinks I’m a boy at first. Um.” She hesitated before offering, “Do you wanna play with us?” The girl reached into her pocket before tugging out a small action figure, holding it out. “We’re the ships, but you could be a Star-Touched who comes to help Anthony’s ship! Like Silversmith!” 

There was another brief pause as Paige looked blankly at the toy being offered to her. Then her hand moved, taking it from Cassidy with a small smile. “You really want to play with me?” 

“Sure!” Anthony agreed, head bobbing up and down. “Your dad’s van is the alien mothership, okay? I’m the American fighter ship and Cassie’s the aliens. So, you wanna play?” 

Finally, Paige picked herself up from her cross-legged position, hopping nimbly out of the van. “Okay!” 

With that agreement, the three children immediately began running in circles around the vehicle, loudly exclaiming about everything they were doing in the course of their battle. 

*******

Two Years Later/Five Years Ago

 

A soft tap at Cassidy’s window drew her attention that way. She was in her bedroom, sitting on the floor as she stared at Anthony’s jet fighter and her own modified ‘alien’ ship. It had been mere days since the… attack that ended with her best friend’s death and that of his family and the house employees. Days since she had learned in such a traumatic fashion that her father was Silversmith, that her grandfather had sent those men to kill her friend and his family because he wanted to get at her. Days since Bobby had saved her life nearly at the cost of his own and since she had seen her father cut her grandfather’s head off in front of her.

Days since she had spoken more than a few words to anyone, or had done much of anything aside from sit, stare at nothing, and murmur or whisper to herself. Sometimes she watched TV, but she didn’t really engage with it. She’d had books in her hand but had barely read. She took toys and sat there staring at them, remembering all the things she had done with Anthony. 

As that tap came, the girl turned her head slightly to see a familiar figure crouched there by the window. There was a brief pause before she stood up, walked over to unlatch the window, and then stepped back. 

It slid up, and Paige slipped inside. The blonde opened her mouth, shut it, then stepped over to silently embrace Cassidy. The other girl let her, and they stood in silence for a few seconds with Paige tightly hugging her while Cassidy stood with her arms at her sides. She felt… tired. Just so damn tired. She wanted her best friend back. She wanted none of this to be real. She wanted… something. She didn’t know what, but she wanted something to change. She had spent so many long hours closing her eyes, wishing that everything that had happened would be a dream, and opening them. 

The only part of her days when Cassidy wasn’t sad were the moments just after she woke up, before the memory of what had happened settled in. She slept as much as she could, not only because she was tired (though she was), but because every time she slept and woke up, Anthony was kind of… sort of alive for just a couple seconds. 

Until she remembered that he wasn’t. 

Finally releasing Cassidy, Paige stepped back with a small, worried frown knitting her forehead. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I’m really sorry, Cassie. I–” She stopped, head tilting slightly before she admitted, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say right now. Dad never… told me how to talk to people like this. He never told me what I’m supposed to do.” Swallowing hard, her voice trembled as she added pleadingly, “I want to know what to do.” 

At first, Cassidy didn’t respond. She simply stood and stared over the other girl’s shoulder at the window. After a few long seconds of that, her eyes moved to meet the despondent Paige’s, and she asked in a quiet, brittle voice, “How did you get inside? There’s security cameras and stuff.” It was the most outward interest she had shown in anything since that horrific day. 

“Yes,” Paige agreed. “There’s a lot of them. But it’s not really hard to get past them if you…” She paused, considering for a moment before settling on, “… if you time it right. You just have to watch the cameras and go where they’re not looking.” She said it that simply, as if talking about learning how to water the lawn rather than how to sneak past a dozen cameras on the grounds of the richest family in Michigan. 

Again, Cassidy didn’t say anything for a moment. She stood there, looking at the window in silence before finally turning back to Paige. “Can you teach me how to do that?” 

“How to–” Paige started before looking over her shoulder at the window and back again. “How to get past your house security? Why do you want to leave? It’s… “ She paused, considering her words before deciding on, “Don’t you want to stay where it’s safe?” 

“It’s not safe here,” Cassidy replied quietly, a slight tremor in her voice as her head shook. “I…” A hard lump formed in her throat, and she had to swallow repeatedly before being able to speak again. “I don’t want to be trapped here.” Her gaze found the other girl’s urgently, lower lip quivering. “Please, Paige.” 

“Okay,” the blonde agreed softly. She took Cassidy’s hand and squeezed it. “You didn’t tell your parents about me?” 

“No,” Cassidy confirmed in a barely audible voice. She was looking away. “You always said you’d get in trouble if your dad knew you were playing with us when he came over.” For the past two years, about once a month, Paige’s father would visit Anthony’s house. While he was inside having long meetings, Paige would emerge and play with Anthony and Cassidy for awhile. She always seemed to know when her dad was coming back, no matter how long he took, and would tell the other two she had to go back to the van. Actually, it was kind of fun to have a secret friend nobody knew about. It was… kind of fun… while Anthony was alive. 

Stepping over to the window while tugging Cassidy by the hand, Paige carefully asked, “Are you really sure you want me to show you how to get past the cameras?” When the other girl gave a firm nod, Paige pulled her right up to the window. “Okay. 

“First, watch that camera right… there by the corner…” 

******

For the next hour, Paige taught Cassidy how to escape her house without being noticed. She showed her where the cameras were, where various motion sensors had to be avoided, how to get across the grounds without being seen from the guard shack, how the guard patrols worked, which windows to keep an eye on while leaving or approaching, and so on. She showed the other girl everything she needed to know to escape her own house. 

Eventually, however, they both watched from the bushes as a car arrived in the driveway of the house, a pale man with dark-blond hair emerging to greet both of Cassidy’s parents as they came from the house to meet him. He wore a crisp white suit. 

“Who’s that?” Paige whispered, as the two girls crouched in the bushes. 

Cassidy’s head shook. “I… I dunno.” She sighed, looking at the ground. The past hour had been the most she’d been able to forget what happened at Anthony’s house, and that made her feel guilty. She… she didn’t quite forget Anthony, just… she hadn’t been sad about it for a few minutes. 

What was wrong with her? Was she evil too? 

“Cassidy?” Paige prompted, squeezing the girl’s arm. “Are you okay?” 

Shaking that off, Cassidy managed a weak, “No. I miss Anthony.” 

“So do I,” Paige murmured, her own voice a very soft whisper. She started to say something else, before turning to look at the front door where the adults were talking. “Cassidy,” she put in a bit urgently. “We need to get back. They’re coming to talk to you.” 

“What?” Blinking, Cassidy looked to the house, where her parents and the strange man were going inside. “How do you–” 

“Come on.” Paige pulled her by the hand, checking the cameras before leading the girl to the side of the house. She had already showed her how to climb up the wall, and did so more quickly, helping Cassidy until they reached her room. Once the other girl was safely inside, Paige started to leave again before wincing. “Guard patrol,” she whispered. Then she looked over to the door. “Your parents are coming.” 

Cassidy looked to the door as well, before pointing. “Go to my closet,” she said simply. “You can hide there.” 

Paige did so, stopping briefly to embrace her friend. “I’m really sorry about Anthony. I wish… he was here to make you feel better instead of me.”

Sniffing, Cassidy closed her eyes tightly. “I wish he was here too,” she agreed in a shaken, trembling voice. Then she looked at the girl. “But I’m still glad you’re here. You’re… you’re my friend too.” 

The two girls, united by their grief for a lost friend, looked at one another for a moment. Then the sound of the doorknob turning spurred Paige into action. She raced to the closet, slipping into it and closing the door just as Cassidy sat on a chair facing the mirror. 

“Hi,” the blond man started while Paige peered out through the crack in the closet door. 

“My name is Jackson. Kent Jackson.” 

Previous Chapter                                     Next Chapter