Author: Cerulean

New Deals 13-10 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

Izzy needed help getting ready. She was nervous about going to dinner with this reporter guy, obviously afraid that she was going to say or do something to embarrass my parents. I tried to reassure her while helping the girl get dressed and put her hair up, but I wasn’t sure how much good it did. That probably wasn’t helped by the fact that the poor kid seemed pretty tired. She kept yawning while we were getting our hair taken care of in the bathroom. Watching her open mouth in the mirror for the third time, I gently asked, “Are you still having nightmares?” 

Immediately, the poor kid flinched, mouth snapping shut as she looked down at the sink before shaking her head. “Not as much,” she murmured quietly. “It’s getting better.” 

“It’s okay, either way,” I hurriedly assured her. “I just mean, you know, if you need umm… anything.” This was really awkward and I finally shrugged helplessly. “Whatever I can do.” 

What I really wanted to do, of course, was tell her that she should talk to me about what was actually going on, what had happened to traumatize her, why my parents were putting her up, what… all of it. I wanted to know what her whole deal was, if I was right about at least one of her parents being a supervillain or what. I was really leaning heavily on that assumption, but I couldn’t be positive. Not without more information, but I was pretty sure pushing her would backfire. 

So, instead, I just helped her get ready and the two of us started out. On the way to the stairs, Izzy glanced at me. “Have you ever met these people? Your mom is, um, really intense about making a good impression.” Clearly afraid she had said something wrong, the girl quickly amended, “I mean, she didn’t do anything bad, or–or say anything, it was just–she’s umm…” 

“Intense, yeah.” Giving the poor kid a small smile (while inwardly lamenting that we were basically the same size) I assured her, “Don’t worry, I get it. She gets it too. And no, we haven’t met this reporter guy, or his family. Mom just always gets really into these kinds of dinner plans, especially when it’s someone who could hurt the family name, like… well, like a fancy reporter.”

Silently, I thought again about what kind of impression I could make on this guy if I wanted to make that kind of insane, family-ending leap. But how stupid would that be? If this guy was on  my parents’ payroll, he wouldn’t do anything useful or helpful at all. And if he wasn’t, they’d kill him, and probably his family too, before they could even get up from the table. Either way, I wouldn’t accomplish anything at all other than blowing the fact that I knew the truth. Which would put both Izzy and me in danger. I didn’t believe for a second that I could take my dad in a fight if it came right down to it. Either physically or emotionally, come to think of it. I had no idea what would happen, but it would be bad. Nothing good could possibly come from taking that leap right now. 

Mentally pushing that aside, I reached out to touch the other girl lightly on the arm. “It’ll be okay. Trust me, we just have to play nice through dinner, be polite and all that. Then, after dessert, Mom will excuse us so they can talk business. We’ll probably have to entertain their kids, and I’m not sure how old they are. Either way, it’s bound to be more exciting than listening to the adults blab on and on, you know?” 

And boy, what I wouldn’t give to go back to a time when I actually believed that, when I really didn’t want to know everything my parents were talking about. Well, no. Even as I had that thought, I realized it was wrong. I didn’t actually want to go back to a time when I was completely clueless. I’d like to slide into a time when it was the truth, if that had been an actual option. But I did not want to be ignorant about what my family was really up to. I wanted my parents to stop being supervillains, yet I didn’t want to forget that they actually were. Complicated as this entire situation was, I would always choose to know the truth and move on from that, not erase my memories. 

The truth was a painful thing to stand on, but lies crumbled under your feet. 

Simon was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, all dressed up as well. He grinned at the two of us as we descended. “Well, well, someone looks all fancy and nice now. Oh, and I guess you’ll do in a pinch too, Booster.” He reached out to poke me in the forehead, laughing as I swatted his hand away before turning. “Come on, they got here a little early, so everyone’s in the dining room already.” Glancing over his shoulder, he teased, “Guess it was my job to make sure you didn’t go skateboarding into the room or something equally likely to make Mom’s head explode.” 

Scoffing at him, I retorted, “As if that’s the only way I could be embarrassing at this dinner. Please, give me a second and I’ll come up with something really good.” It was nothing but light banter, the kind my brother and I would have had at any time. But it brought a hard lump to my throat and a deep knot to my stomach. It hurt. It hurt because I could tease back and forth with him like this while knowing what he was really capable of, what he had really done. Hell, I didn’t even actually know all the things he had done, not for certain. I just knew some of what he was capable of. Even that was enough to make a shudder run through me at the thought. 

Simon didn’t notice, of course. By that point we had reached the doors to the dining room, and he stepped up, pulled the door open, and grandly gestured for the two of us to enter. “Presenting the princesses of the kingdom!” he announced in a loud voice, “Miss Izzy and Miss Cassidy.” 

Rolling my eyes at him, I gently took the other girl’s hand and stepped through into the dining room. We were still using the smaller one, with the table that sat ten (rather than the full-sized room suitable for thirty people), but for once we would actually be using the whole thing. Almost, anyway. There were supposed to be nine of us, between both my parents, Simon, Izzy, Lincoln Chambers, his wife, their twins, and me. 

Immediately after stepping into the room, I saw Mom and Dad sitting at their usual spots, with Dad at the end chair and Mom to his right. Simon’s chair was next to Dad, while mine was next to Mom. Izzy would sit next to me. 

But this time, of course, there were other people here. The first of whom drew my attention immediately. It looked like an old mountain man or lumberjack had wandered into our house. Seriously, he was a huge guy, taller than Dad, with long hair and a very thick beard. It looked like he should be galavanting around with a big blue ox or something. Was this the reporter? 

Apparently so, because the man turned to us and smiled. Any intimidation I might have felt at his initial appearance disappeared as I saw how gentle his eyes were. I didn’t know how else to explain it other than he looked kind and intelligent. Wow, no wonder he was such a good reporter. He was big enough to intimidate the people he needed to, and yet somehow immediately made me feel like I could trust him with that single look.

I couldn’t, of course, for all the reasons I’d already thought of. But still, that was really effective. If he really was on my parents’ payroll, they’d done an excellent job when they recruited him.  

Dad was already standing up. “Ah, Lincoln, this is my daughter, Cassidy. And this is the girl I told you about, Izzy Amor. Girls, this is Lincoln Chambers, and his wife, Joselyn.” 

My eyes moved then, finally looking away from the enormous figure to see the smaller woman seated next to him. She was blonde, with her hair cut short, and a slim yet athletic build. Her eyes seemed to evaluate me quickly, looking me up and down as though assessing… something, before she smiled. Just like her husband, it looked incredibly genuine and inviting. 

“Hello, Cassidy, Izzy,” Mrs. Chambers greeted us, rising immediately to extend her hand. “It’s nice to finally meet you. I feel as though half of my husband’s articles about your father have been little details about his son and daughter.” To Izzy, she added, “And then we end up visiting at the perfect time to meet you too.” 

The two of us shook her hand, then her husband’s, before the latter gestured. “And, lest we forget about our own kids long enough for them to make a break for the nearest pizza place…” 

My attention was drawn to the twins. A boy and a girl. They looked to be between Izzy and me in age, maybe fourteen or so. The boy had blond hair like his mother, thought it was kind of spiked up with what had to be a lot of gel. His sister’s hair was more like their father’s, dark and full, falling a little past her shoulders. 

“Cassidy, Izzy,” Mrs. Chambers announced, “this is Zed and Lexi. Kids, come say hi.” 

What followed, of course, was the always awkward forced meeting between teenagers in front of their parents. It was obvious that none of us really knew what to say, but I tried to push past that by telling them we could go check out the game room once dinner was over. That usually did the trick as far as breaking the ice went. This time was no different, though it was Lexi who seemed more interested in the games. Zed, on the other hand, asked about the full-sized basketball court he’d heard about. Which Simon took great joy in confirming the existence of and promised to take him to check out while ‘the girls played with the kid games.’ 

Leaning closer to Lexi, I stage-whispered, “He’s just jealous because he can’t beat Izzy or me in any of those ‘kid games’ no matter how much he tries.”

“And you can’t beat Izzy yourself,” Simon shot back pointedly. 

We bantered a little bit more, before sitting down to have dinner. Lexi, who was seated across from Izzy, started asking both of us if we’d ever played the competitive mode of one of those online first-person shooter/survival games. We hadn’t, but apparently she was really into it. She went on for a little bit about how she really wanted to join this tournament but they only allowed people who were at least sixteen. Apparently, she was afraid that the game would be out of style by that point. But she was still practicing all the time. Aaaalll the time, according to her mother’s teasing interjection. 

So yeah, between us talking about games, Simon and Zed having their whole sports discussion, and our parents talking back and forth from one end of the table to the other about other things, the dinner actually went pretty quickly. It was delicious, of course. My parents wouldn’t have stood for anything less in this kind of situation. But even disregarding that, Chef Claudio, Ethan, and Christiana had outdone themselves. They’d really pulled out all the stops, making me wonder just how much Mom and Dad had impressed on them how important this dinner was. 

Either way, we had dessert and then our parents dismissed us for the time being. They needed to talk about their own things. Simon took Zed off to check out all the gym stuff, while Izzy and I  headed upstairs to play some games with Lexi. 

The girl wasn’t exactly exaggerating about training to join a professional e-sports team. She really was that good. I couldn’t touch her if my life had depended on it. Izzy had more luck, but even she only managed to win one out of every three games or so. 

Eventually, I told the other two that I was going to step out for some air for a minute, and that I’d bring back some drinks. I left them in the middle of their latest, even more intense match and headed into the hall. Being around my family like this, seeing the Chambers and having no idea if they were actually this nice and just being used by my family, or if they were secretly part of this whole thing… it was too much. I had to step outside, had to clear my head. 

In this case, going outside just meant walking to the end of the hallway and stepping out onto one of the many balconies overlooking the grounds. Letting the cooler evening air wash over me, I put my hands on the railing and leaned over to glance down before exhaling long and hard. So many thoughts, worries, and questions were running through my head, and I didn’t have a real answer for any of them. Honestly, what I wanted to do in that moment was fall into my bed and sleep for a good long while. Maybe a month or so. Not that it would help, though. I’d still have the same problems to deal with whenever I finally woke up. Closing my eyes and waiting, astonishingly, wasn’t going to make everything better. 

Hearing someone behind me, I turned to see Mr. Chambers stepping up to the sliding door. He offered me a smile, tapping the side of the door as though knocking. “Hey, mind if I join you for a minute? Your dad took a phone call and the women are busy.” 

“Oh, uhh, no, go ahead, sir.” Stepping back to give him room to step out onto the balcony, I asked, “How’s your trip so far? Getting any good stories?” 

“Working on it,” was his casual response, before the man put his own hands on the railing with an added, “Very nice place your family has here. You’re probably too young to really remember, but Detroit… it used to be a lot worse.” 

“Yeah, I’ve… you’re right,” I confirmed, “I’m too young, I never knew that Detroit. But we’ve learned about it in class, and some older people talk about what the city used to be like.” 

That earned me a raised eyebrow from the man, as he turned slightly. “You listen to older people? What kind of kid are you?” 

Flushing a little at that, I shrugged. “The kind who likes getting better than failing grades in history class and who doesn’t want my mom to throw a shoe at me for ignoring people.” 

Mr. Chambers chuckled, though it was almost more of a groan. “Don’t tell me that hard times Detroit is something you learn about in History. It makes me feel old, and that’s not fair. My own kids do that to me enough as it is.” 

“Okay,” I found myself teasing, “it was totally in current events class.” 

“Better.” With a small smile, the man looked at me a bit more seriously. “Your dad tells me you’re really into a lot of this extreme sport stuff.” When I nodded, he grimaced. “See, I’m safe with Lexi. The most dangerous thing she’s aiming toward is carpal tunnel. But I don’t know what I’d do if Zed was into that stuff instead of his precious basketball.” He winked at me, adding, “Guess that means you’ve got a pretty cool dad.”

A lot of thoughts running through my head at that point. But I pushed them all down, with some effort, and simply offered the man a small smile that I hoped looked genuine enough. “Don’t worry, he gets a little crazy at some of the risks I take too.”

“Oh yeah? Are you the one that’s the bad influence around here?” Mr. Chambers teased before adding, “Believe me, I don’t need the kids adding more gray hairs to my head. Their mother does that plenty enough on her own working for the LAPD.”

That made me do a quick double take, looking at the man suddenly. “Your wife’s a cop?”

“Why,” Mr. Chambers retorted, “you got active warrants?” He grinned at that before watching me, squinting very slightly. “You okay?”

Now I had even more thoughts running through my head. If his wife was a cop, did that make it more or less likely that they were working for my parents? Or that one of them was. Could she be working for them without him knowing? Or the other way around? What did it mean?

Somehow, I forced all of that down and focused on shrugging at the man. “Sure, I was just wondering how you could worry about one of your kids getting into extreme sports when your wife has a job like that. Seems like you’d be inoculated against it.”

There was a very brief pause where I felt like the man was examining me more thoroughly. Then he seemed to shake away whatever he’d been thinking and chuckled. “Yeah, you’d think so. Guess I’m just a worrywart.”

“Well, while you’re warting,” I very hesitantly asked, “do you ever worry about something happening to your kids because of what you and your wife do? I mean, with all the criminals you piss off.” 

That, obviously, made the man give a doubletake. “Well, damn, Miss Evans,” he managed, “you don’t go for the easy, weather and traffic-type questions, do you?” 

Blanching a bit, I shook my head. “Sorry. You don’t have to answer. It’s just… my parents don’t do anything dangerous like that and even I get worried about them, like when they go on long trips. It sounds like you and your wife do some dangerous things.” 

For a moment, Mr. Chambers just looked at me. It seemed like he was sorting through his thoughts and also trying to decide just how real to be. Finally, the man exhaled. “Believe me, we take precautions. But when it comes down to it, we help people. People who wouldn’t have that help. We look at our kids and yeah, it scares us to think about something happening to them. But it also makes us think about all the other kids out there who don’t have someone looking out for them, and all the parents who can’t. We’re lucky. A lot of people aren’t. Every time I worry about what might happen to my children or wife, it reminds me of all the stuff that has happened to other children and wives. Stuff that won’t get dragged into the light if someone doesn’t do the dragging.” 

“He’s right.” That was Joselyn Chambers, his wife. She stood in the doorway to the balcony, offering me a small, yet genuine smile. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to eavesdrop. I was just looking to see where my husband wandered off to.” Focusing on me after reaching up to affectionately rub the man’s shoulder, she added, “We do worry about our children, just as yours do when they have to leave you to go on their business trips. Or even just when they send you off to school in the morning. Watching you walk out there while they know the kind of things that can happen, even with all their money and protection… I promise, it’s one of the hardest things in the world. And seeking out so many of those terrible things, seeing them with our own eyes? It’s terrifying. But we can’t leave it alone. Because leaving it alone wouldn’t make it better. When you see that someone is in danger, turning your back and walking away doesn’t solve anything. Turning off the light so you don’t have to watch only gives evil the ability to work in the dark. I didn’t become a cop to put my family in danger. I did it because that danger exists, regardless of what or where I am. It’ll always be there, lurking in the shadows. So you take away the shadows. You turn on the lights. You expose the evil. You face it. And you deal with it.” 

A long, silent moment passed then, before Mr. Chambers coughed. “Little heavy for the sixteen-year-old, babe.” 

Blinking twice, with a look that made it seem as though she had forgotten just who she was talking to, Mrs. Chambers gave a short nod. “Ah, sorry. Got lost in my own head there.” Offering me a slightly self-conscious smile, she amended, “The point is, we’re working to make the world better for our kids. Just like yours are.” 

“Well,” I murmured while turning to look away, staring up at the sky while her words about exposing evil rang through my head. “Not just like…” Belatedly, I added, “My dad’s not a reporter. And my mom is definitely not a cop.” 

The three of us stayed out there for another minute or two, just watching the grounds. Then Dad came to find them so they could finish their conversation, and I headed down to get the drinks I had promised the others.

Before long, this whole thing would be over and I would take a little nap before heading out to meet Murphy and Roald so I could tell them about working for Wren. 

Wait, did that technically make them minions? Was… was I press-ganging a couple desperate teenagers into being my minions?

I might be a worse hero than I thought. 

Previous Chapter

Homeward Bound 8-07 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter

Waiting alone in that briefing room to meet Dexamene, the teenage Nereid, was a bit of a trip. For more than one reason, actually. First, because I’d heard about her from Tristan enough that the thought of actually meeting the girl now felt surreal. And, of course, because everything I knew about her future. Seriously, how weird was it that I already knew she was going to end up on the Meregan world helping Elisabet? I hadn’t even asked her about that yet, but I knew she was going there.

Wait, what if she didn’t go there? Sure, it was a long shot given everything Tristan and Petan  had said about her, but what if she refused to cooperate? Hell, what if something happened to stop her from going back? Could history change like that? Well, yeah. Petan had already said that if I changed it myself, I’d end up in a different timeline, one where I hadn’t been saved.  If I could change it, then she could just by refusing to be part of all this. 

Yeah, again, that wasn’t super-likely. But still. Dexamene was her own person. Anything could happen. She could make her own choices. Things could change. I had to be really careful. Especially up to the point where she actually went back to the past. I had to make sure that everything that had happened to get me to this point played out the way it was supposed to.  

God damn, I hated time travel. Yes, it was working out for me in this case. Or would work out. Or had-would work–see?! Fuck time travel. I just wanted to go home and be with my family and friends. Oh, and punching Fossor really hard in the dick until it exploded would be nice too. 

Interrupted from my fantasies of making that piece of shit blow apart from the crotch outward by the sound of the door opening nearby, I quickly stood from the table and watched as the girl in question stepped in. She was pretty. Really pretty, in sort of an ethereal princess way. Her skin was teal, and she had bright, almost shockingly white hair fashioned into a long braid, with amber-colored eyes that seemed almost too large for her face. Like an anime character, really. 

Shaking that off, I extended a hand to her. “Hi! You’re Dexamene, right? My name–” 

“Flick,” she finished for me, voice sounding awed. “You’re Flick. I–I mean Lord Petan said you were here, but he wouldn’t have had to. You look just like Tristan said, just like he described. I–” Abruptly, the girl flushed white with a small, nervous giggle. “I am sorry. It’s rude to be like that.” 

My head shook quickly. “No, it’s okay. Trust me, I totally get it. He told me a lot about you too. I feel like we’ve met before, even though…”  Coughing, I offered her a weak shrug. “It’s weird.” 

Offering me a slight smile, the girl agreed in a soft voice. “Yes, it is very strange. But… Lord Petan says that Tristan has been there for a whole year now from your point of view? And that he has met his whole family? He is safe?” She sounded understandably anxious and intense. According to Petan, they’d only sent Tristan back about a month earlier for them. She missed her friend. Finding out that someone else came forward from a year after he’d gotten there had to be a bit disconcerting. And boy, was that feeling going to get a lot heavier for her really soon.

I had asked Petan not to say too much to the girl about what I needed, just that I had a really big favor to ask. I wanted it to come from me, not as an order from someone she called her lord. Especially given that she was bound to obey him in order to maintain her protection against being possessed by Seosten. That didn’t seem fair, no matter how urgently I needed her help.

So, I took the time to assure her that Tristan was indeed fine as far as I knew. I told her about finding Sariel and Haiden and helping that family come together. And I told her about the Rebellion, how it had restarted. I’d told Petan a bit about that too, and he had clearly been unhappy about the news that Gaia had been imprisoned. But he’d also assured me that she would get through it, as long as we were there for her the way she had been there for others. 

I also told her about Tabbris, Tristan’s little sister. My little sister. That was a long story, to say the least, and the Nereid girl sat through the whole thing with eyes that were even wider than they had started, staring at me until I was done explaining. Finally, she slumped back a bit, head shaking in slow wonder as she whispered almost under her breath. “Your life is very not boring.” 

Snorting despite myself, I nodded. “Yeah, my life is a lot of things, but boring definitely isn’t one of them. Even before you add in the time-travel here.” With that, I sobered a bit, glancing down at the table to collect myself before looking up again. “That’s sort of why I need your help, actually. And believe me, I know what I’m about to say is pretty big. It’s asking for a lot.” 

“What is it?” Her voice was clearly curious. “Lord Petan said that you would be asking for a favor that would help you and Tristan. But what can I possibly do? I don’t know the magic it will take to send you back. I don’t have the power or the skill for that. I was only approved for active duty recently. I am not…” She trailed off uncertainly, shrugging. “I am not that important.” 

“Tristan would disagree with that, I think.” Murmuring those words, I shook my head while meeting her gaze. “Listen, what I’m about to say is probably going to be really confusing. But just bear with me, okay? 

She hesitated a bit before nodding. I could tell that she wanted to ask a lot more about everything that was happening, but she kept it to herself, waiting silently for me to continue. 

So, I started by offering her a shrug. “First of all, the ahh… tueln is under your bed.” 

That made her give a doubletake. “I–what? How would–how do you–wait…” 

Coughing, I explained that she had been the one to tell me that. I told her about how I had been contacted by Elisabet because Dexamene herself had been sent back to tell the woman exactly what to do and when. I explained about how the only reason I wasn’t captured by a waiting force of Fossor’s troops was because Elisabet had adjusted the spell, and that the only reason she had been able to do that was because of information that Dexamene would give her when she showed up there.

It was obviously a lot to take in, and as I fell silent, the other girl didn’t say anything at first. She just sat back, absorbing all of that before breathing out. “I have never left this ship for more than a very brief excursion. I was born here. I grew up here. It is as I said, I was still a student until very recently. I do not have any special skill. Not really. But if you say that I can help stop this Necromancer’s plan, that I can save Tristan, you, and the others of your kind by taking this journey? Then I will. I will do whatever you say is necessary. But…  are you certain it wouldn’t be better to send someone of more skill and power? You can tell them the same thing, and they could help this Elisabet even more than simply passing along a message like that. You could make the situation you end up in here better than it is now. Or better than…” Pausing, her nose wrinkled a little as she tried to think of how to adjust her language around time travel. 

“Don’t worry, I get what you mean.” Speaking up quickly before she ended up with the same headache I’d given myself from trying to mental my way around that, I pressed on. “And you’re right, we might be able to make the situation better. But we could also just as easily make it worse. We have no idea what could happen if we change specifics. Right now we know that sending you back will result in me ending up here. I’d rather not risk things going wrong by fiddling with it and messing up.” Belatedly, I added, “Besides, Tristan trusts you. So I do. Even if it seems pretty unfair to send a water Nereid like you to a huge desert. Wait, will you be okay there? I didn’t even think about that, but if you need–” 

“I will take water,” she promised me. “If you believe it is for the best, that it is how I can help, then I will do it. I will be sent back to this desert world to speak with the woman.” 

Swallowing back palpable relief despite the fact that I’d had a pretty strong idea of how this would go to begin with, I offered her a smile. “Thanks, Dexamene. Believe me, I know how much this is asking, and how confusing it is. Wait, your parents work on the ship too, don’t they? I umm, you should probably talk to them a bit before you actually agree to this whole thing.” 

“I am of age,” she assured me. “The decision is mine. But yes, I will speak with them. I will make certain they understand that this is needed for everyone’s safety. If it is as you say and the Necromancer will take total control of all those Heretics, that endangers the entire universe.” 

We talked a little bit more about how all of that would work. Then she headed out to speak with her family, and Petan joined me once more. He’d apparently used that time to start handling all the new prisoners and former slaves they’d managed to save from the Fomorians. Now, he pulled out a chair to sit down, watching me curiously. “It sounds like that went well enough.” 

“Definitely could’ve gone a lot worse,” I agreed. “She’s in. I guess I just have to hope that things don’t go horribly wrong for her after she helps Elisabet and records that message I saw.” I tried to keep my tone light, but the fear I felt that sending her back in time to a place like that would end up backfiring badly wouldn’t get out of my head. Even though I knew this was the best way to do things, the only real way, I was still anxious. If she got hurt, or… fuck. 

Petan’s smile was both kind and understanding. “I understand how you feel, Miss Chambers. Believe me, I truly do. And, perhaps you understand a bit more of how your headmistress must have felt every time she put one of you in even the slightest danger, even if it was for the best.” 

Wincing, I gave a slow nod. “Yeah, I can’t even imagine being in that kind of position. This right here is hard enough. It’s just…” With a sigh, I sat back and put both hands over my face. 

Quietly, the man offered, “We have that bed for you if you are ready for it. You did say that you were exhausted, and it will take time to prepare the spell that’s needed to send Dexamene. Though you would probably feel better if you get cleaned up first.” 

“Yeah,” I accepted while sitting up quickly. “Shower, right. I need to do that and then sleep before I fall over. Just one more thing though.” Reaching down, I produced my encased staff and set it on the table between us. “Do you have any idea how to fix this? I don’t mind improvising now and then like with the grenade launcher, but I really need my own weapon back.” 

Picking up the staff, Petan examined it critically, turning the weapon over in his hands before poking the hardened stuff around it. “Yes, we can get it out. That will take some time as well to do so without harming the staff itself. I’ll pass it to one of my people, and they should have it for you by the time you wake up again.” 

“Great.” Giving the man a thumbs up, I found myself yawning wide. “Then if you don’t mind, I’m ready to clean up, then crash.” 

And boy, would I have a lot to talk to Shyel about after everything that happened since I’d last slept.

******

Apparently a virtual recreation of an ancient Seosten superhuman in a child’s body could look surprised. I knew that for a fact, because Shyel had definitely been surprised by a lot of what I told her. We spent most of my time there just talking about what had happened and what I could do in the future. Or rather, back in the past-present when I got there in the future–fuck it. 

Whatever, the point was that we just talked a lot. And by the time I woke up back in the real world, I felt a hell of a lot better than I had before. Not perfect, of course. After all, I was still stuck here in the future while Fossor plotted to murder and enslave everyone I cared about. But, all things considered, I could have been a lot worse. I was in one piece, I was free, Dexamene was going to take the trip to the past to set everything up that put me here, and then I would take my own trip back to where and when I belonged. I would let everyone know what was happening and we would stop Fossor and save my mom. I just… that had to happen. It had to.  

I’d been given a private room to sleep in. When I opened the door (or rather, when it slid open as I approached), to head out, there was a package attached to the nearby wall. It was a small metal box that just sat there like it was taped or velcroed next to the doorjamb, with my name on it. When I tugged at it, the box came free and I opened it to see the end of my staff.  As promised, it was fixed. There was no more of that junk it had been encased in. 

More importantly, Jaq and Gus were free. The two of them instantly switched back to their mice forms as I held up the weapon, scrambling up the arm that I offered. “Hey, guys,” I started affectionately. “You feel better? You okay?” They chittered, and I rubbed under both of their chins. “Don’t worry, we’re working on it. We’re going home soon, I promise.”

They clearly weren’t interested in going back into their private little home (it was attached to the staff itself by this point, a little pocket dimension that functioned as their cage and was also where my sand was stored), so I let the two of them ride on my shoulder as I started walking. Focusing on what Petan had told me about how to get to his office once I was awake, I moved down the very Star Treky ship corridor. A few Alters passed me on the way, greeting me by name. I even recognized a few that we had fought against back on the Meregan world, when that whole misunderstanding had happened. Most of those ones pretty much ignored me, but a couple actually waved. One even called out that we’d have to try to ‘spar’ someday. Yeah, it was weird. 

Eventually, I managed to follow the directions to a fancy forcefield operated elevator, like the one back at the Fusion School. It carried me to the right floor, and I found my way, a minute later, to Petan’s office. He was there, the door sliding open to admit me after I pressed the little button for the buzzer next to it to be announced.

I stepped in to find the man standing in the spacious, well-decorated room. One entire wall was taken up by assorted weapons of all types, while the wall opposite it was a giant fish tank. Petan himself stood by the third wall, the one directly across from the entrance. It had several ‘window’ screens showing various views of both different parts of the ship as well as the stars outside. 

“You feel better?” he asked without turning away from the screens, his hands linked behind his back as he stood almost at attention. 

“Much,” I confirmed. “But you know what’ll make me really feel better? When I can go home and deal with all the shit waiting for me there.” 

Petan chuckled lightly, turning to face me. “Yes, I imagine you will. Don’t worry, my people are arranging the power transfer to send Dexamene back as we speak. It’ll take a bit more time after that to arrange your own transport. We can’t do this willy nilly. But given the stakes, we’ll be spending a few extra resources to make sure it happens.” 

Biting my lip, I quickly blurted, “Thanks. Thank you. You know, for all of this. For everything. I know it’s in your own best interests too, given your family. But still, I couldn’t do any of this without you and your people. I’d be totally umm… screwed. I’d be screwed out here on my own.” 

“We all need help sometimes,” the man assured me. “Best to give it when we can, to earn it when it’s our turn on the side of need.” With those words, Petan gestured. At his wordless command, a couple chairs materialized. I didn’t know if it was magic or some kind of solid light hologram stuff. Either way, I sat down as he joined me. 

“You’ve been through a lot, and have persevered.” His voice was quiet, watching me while adding, “And speaking of being through a lot, I imagine you’re hungry now that you’ve slept.” 

Groaning, I admitted, “Now that you mention it, yeah. Feels like I could eat a whole elk. Which, given I could transform into a huge lion, I very well might be able to.” 

With a slight laugh at that, Petan shook his head. “I don’t know about all that, but we can definitely get you some food. Then I can show you around the ship, while we wait for the first spell to be prepared.” 

“I’d like that.” Hesitating after agreeing to eat, I added, “But, after that, I’d like to talk to the Meregan that are still on the ship. Purin, is he here?” 

“Yes, he and most of the others are on the lower levels, the ones more suited to their size,” came the response. “You miss them?” 

Swallowing hard, I met the man’s gaze. “I have to tell them what happened to the people they left behind.

“I have to tell them what Fossor did.” 

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New Deals 13-09 (Summus Proelium)

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Things mostly calmed down pretty quickly after that. The Star-Touched adults had managed to regroup a bit and sent a couple of their people to help the Minority. By that point, the warring gangs had basically separated and gone to their respective corners, so to speak. So it was just a bit of cleanup.

The other Fell-Touched, like Janus, had managed to escape. But we kept hold of Suckshot and Landlock, eventually seeing them both hauled into the back of two separate special armored containment vans. 

Through most of that cleanup, I worked with Raindrop. I had the feeling that the people around us assumed we were about the same age. Actually, come to think of it, maybe she was an incredibly small sixteen-year-old too. Wouldn’t that have been just perfect?

Either way, she was pretty fun to hang out with once things calmed down a bit. She didn’t say a lot, but the things she did say tended to be insightful or just funny in a very simple, straightforward way. I would say something and she’d have a one or two word response, in a totally serious tone, that made me snicker. For whatever reason, it felt like I knew her a lot better than I did. We’d only just really met, and yet I couldn’t shake the feeling like we’d interacted a lot more. It was weird. But then, maybe she was just one of those people who made friends easily. 

While we were doing that, I noticed some of the cops and reporters in the distance talking. I couldn’t make out most of what they were saying, but I did hear both of our names come up and saw some of them pointing our way. They were clearly talking about the fact that Raindrop and I were working together, but what… what were they saying? And why were some of them taking pictures? 

Eventually, That-A-Way approached and asked to speak to me privately. We stepped out of the way, over by a corner of the theater building while both of us watched the assortment of cops, reporters, and other Touched milling around. 

“Thanks,” Way murmured quietly. “You know, for showing up. You really helped turn things around.” She glanced toward me, lowering her voice even more. “I heard a few of those gang guys talking. This whole thing, it’s just a skirmish. Just the opening salvo. Apparently things are going to get a lot more heavy pretty soon. They’re going to war with each other.” 

Grimacing, I shook my head. ”If this was just a few opening shots, I don’t want to see what their idea of a full war is.”

“Neither do I,” she agreed, “but I have a feeling that we don’t really have a choice. This whole thing is gonna escalate really fast. And more civilians are going to be caught in the crossfire.” 

There was another brief pause while she clearly thought about her next words before quietly asking, “Those people you were talking about, shouldn’t they keep this kind of thing shut down? Seems like having a bunch of pissed off gang members at war with each other would be bad for business. If they really have that much control over every criminal in the city, shouldn’t they snap their fingers and make these guys back down? I mean, if there’s going to be one benefit to a group like that, you’d think it would be them stopping all-out war like this.”

Yeah, she had a point. I had no idea just how much my parents knew about this situation. But I refused to believe they were clueless. From everything I had seen, there was no way the gangs here would do something like this without at least mentioning it to my family, to the Ministry. Which meant they had to have at least partially approved this sort of thing. But why? What did they get out of it? Was it just not worth the hassle of trying to contain these guys constantly? Did they have to let them get their aggression out now and then before things blew up too much to control at all? I had no idea how that worked. 

With a sigh, I shook my head. “I dunno. But something tells me that if we want to find out how all this works, we need to get into that place. The sooner the better. There’s got to be some answers in there.”

Of course, there was also the possibility that those answers would lead toward my family. But that was a bridge I would cross when we came to it. I still had no idea exactly what I was going to do if and when Way and Pack, the people I had brought into this, found out that the Ministry was led by the Evans. I just… didn’t know. 

Way was looking at me again. “We have to come up with a plan and get in there,” she murmured quietly. “I’m pretty sure you’re right. That’s where we’re going to find answers. That’s where we’re going to…” She trailed off, grimacing for a moment before finding her voice once more. “It’s where we’re going to find out more about who we can’t trust.” There was a somewhat dark grimness to her voice, and it made me think for a moment about what all of this must have been like for her. She didn’t know who on her own team she could trust. She didn’t know which of her mentors she could look up to. What was it like from her side? Especially considering I wasn’t telling her everything I knew, a fact she was no doubt totally aware of. 

I started to agree with her, that we would get into that secret mall base as soon as possible. But before I could say more than a couple words, someone approached. It was, in no uncertain terms, the worst person I could think of to potentially overhear what we were talking about. Yeah, my dad, as Silversmith. He approached, offering each of us a nod while speaking up. “It seems we owe you another debt of gratitude, Paintball.” His hand extended toward me. “Thanks for stepping in and helping out today. Not sure how this would have gone without you.” 

Desperately fighting back the impulse to give any suspicious reaction whatsoever, I forced myself to accept the offered hand while shaking my head. “Way asked for help. I wasn’t just going to tell her to jump off a bridge.”  

He chuckled lightly, an encouraging sound that almost made me smile. How did he do that? How did he disarm me so easily when I knew who he was and what he did? Was it just because he was my dad? No, it had to be more than that. He was just that good at talking to people. He was just that good at convincing them that he was a friend, someone they could trust and confide in. It was scary seeing it from this side of things. 

While I was still fighting those reactions in my head, Dad put his hand on That-A-Way’s shoulder, squeezing slightly. “We owe just as much congratulations and thanks to you. Knowing when to call for help is important. Not trying to go at it alone, not showboating and getting people killed in the process, that’s what makes for a real hero. You did great today. All of you did.” 

“People still got hurt,” Way quietly pointed out. “Some still died. We didn’t save everyone.” 

Dad gave a short nod of agreement, as a long, heavy sigh escaped him. It sounded like he bore  the weight of each and every one of those injuries and deaths on his shoulders. Which was funny (in a totally not funny at all way), because I was pretty sure he really did bear the weight of them. He let it happen. He let this war get started. The Ministry allowed it. So yeah, the weight of it should have been on his shoulders. But he was still standing, and I was going to bet somehow getting even richer off of this whole thing. Yeah, I wasn’t exactly sure how, but the only thing I could think of that would make the Ministry allow something like this was if they were somehow making more money from it than if they hadn’t. Money or power, one or the other. Or both. I wasn’t sure of the specifics, not yet. But I did know that my father and mother had given the go-ahead for all of this to happen. They allowed it, so they were responsible. 

“You’re right,” Dad spoke up. For a crazy, horrifying second, I thought he had somehow read my thoughts. Then I realized he was responding to the girl beside me. “We didn’t save everyone. But you can’t always. All you can do is try. Put the effort in. Save everyone you can. Because, and I want both of you to listen to this right now, it isn’t about how many you fail to save. It’s about how many would have died if you weren’t there at all. And believe me, there would have been a lot more people hurt or even dead today if the two of you weren’t here. All those people in that theater, you saved them. You and Raindrop.” 

He said the last bit while stepping aside a bit and gesturing for the girl in question to join us. Which she did, moving up between Way and me while staring at my dad, at Silversmith. I couldn’t see her face, of course, hidden as it was behind that faceplate. But from the way she held her head, her body language, and everything else, I had the distinct impression that she basically hero-worshiped him. I had no idea what was going on there, but it was pretty obvious that she really looked up to him. Again, not surprising, considering how well my dad played the role of champion for the masses. He should have won an Oscar or two by now. Still, it made me feel sick in my stomach. Actually, the thought that he was fooling Raindrop in particular seemed to raise my hackles more than it really should have. I barely knew the kid. Maybe it was just because she was a kid? Maybe it reminded me of how much I had looked up to Silversmith before I knew the truth. 

Either way, Dad held his arm out, pantomiming looking at a watch. “Unfortunately, no matter how impressive you guys are, I have a feeling none of you can quite stop time just yet. And since everything seems calm enough now, I should get going. There’s going to be a lot of paperwork about all this. Be glad you guys only have to deal with a bit of that. And hey, you even get to avoid most of the reporters.”

Reporters… Oh damn, right, that dinner with the guy from the Times. It was getting close. No wonder Dad was making his excuses to leave. He congratulated us again, then offered to walk That-A-Way and Raindrop back to their base with the rest of their team. Way declined, saying she’d catch up after talking to me for a minute, claiming she still had to thank me herself. 

So, Raindrop headed off with him by herself. And I tried to figure out why the sight of her walking with my evil dad made me want to throw myself after them to stop it. Well, besides the obvious reasons. There was something else making it hit me more than I thought it should have. 

“It pisses you off too, doesn’t it?” Way spoke quietly with a glance toward me. “Seeing the way everyone loves him. Especially Rain.” She sighed, turning my way fully, as though to put her back to that whole thing. “I know you said you can’t say everything you know, but you made it pretty clear that he’s one of the ones that can’t be trusted. You said especially don’t tell him anything. So yeah, I’m pretty sure he’s one of your big conspiracy people. But he’s such… I mean…” She exhaled, slumping over a bit. “Fuck.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “fuck. Trust me, I know. It’s a whole thing. But you’re doing a good job of hiding it.”

She snorted at that. “You just couldn’t hear all the nasty thoughts I was having when he was here.” 

“Yeah, and neither could he,” I pointed out. “Look, we’ll get answers, okay? We just can’t rush it. They already know that I know some of what they’re up to. They just don’t know how much. Not even close. But they know that I know some of it. So we have to be careful.”

Way paused, then chuckled. “You know, the way you act about all this, sometimes I forget you’re younger than me. You seem a lot older than you should be.”

Shit, getting her off the train of thought was probably a good idea. But I wasn’t sure exactly what to say. So, I just shrugged. ”I’ve had to grow up quick lately. But if I don’t get out of here now, I’m going to end up grounded. Then we’ll see how grown up I am.”

With that, I excused myself and took off, using a shot of red paint to a nearby building to hoist myself out of there. Right, I hadn’t really been exaggerating that much. If I missed this dinner, Mom would never let me hear the end of it. She’d made it clear that it was important that we present ourselves as a family tonight. Which gave me a lot of other thoughts I felt like saying, but kept to myself for obvious reasons.

As I raced home, I did my best to push those thoughts out of my head. This guy was an award-winning investigative reporter. It would probably be a bad thing if I gave him a reason to be suspicious of my family. For him as well as us. He may have been a big shot, but I was pretty sure my parents wouldn’t hesitate to have him killed if it came down to protecting themselves and the family. And I was also willing to bet that my family’s resources trumped whatever he could come up with. 

It had, of course, occurred to me to try talking to the guy about everything. I had the random, crazy impulse to just spill my guts to him and have everything out in the open. He was a reporter, after all. But again, that would be stupid. He’d never be able to publish an article like that, not with the contacts my parents had. The only real option to get it out before they erased it would have been some kind of online thing, but that would probably be dismissed as a conspiracy theory. Even if I was involved, I’d just be the rebellious kid. There was no doubt in my mind that my family could quash the whole thing. Hell, it wasn’t as though it would be anything all that new. People claimed enormous criminal conspiracies against the rich and famous all the time. A lot of it was even true. And this was one of those times. But it would be dismissed like all those others. No, if… when I went public about all this, it had to be perfect. I would only get a single shot at that kind of thing. I would only be able to take my family by surprise once. It was going to have to be a silver bullet situation. Proof. I needed proof of everything, and I needed to understand exactly how the organization worked, who was a part of it, who could be trusted and who couldn’t. I needed all of it.

Of course, the other big reason for not telling this Chambers guy the truth? For all I knew, he was on my family’s payroll. Yeah, he was all the way down in LA, but did that really mean anything? After all, Mr. Jackson had been in the UK for a long time. And it really would be within my family’s interest to have one of the best investigative reporters from one of the biggest news outlets on their side.

No, clearly for a lot of reasons, I couldn’t open up now. Not to anybody, let alone a reporter who may or may not be working for my parents on the down low. 

Shoving those thoughts out of my head firmly, I focused on getting home. That meant changing clothes in a public restroom at the edge of a park and taking an Uber the rest of the way. I was cutting it fairly close, considering I still needed to shower and all. But at least I wasn’t late. 

Paying the driver after he stopped in front of the gate, I hopped out, grabbed my bag, and headed in. On the way past, I greeted the guard waiting there, who teasingly informed me that I’d better hurry. 

Mom and Dad were in the front foyer as I passed through the door. Mom stepped over, looking like she was going to embrace me, but thought better of it. She was already dressed up for dinner and wrinkled her nose a little at how sweaty I was. So sue me, running across the city was a bit of a work out, even with powers. 

She settled on gently touching the side of my face. “I’m glad you made it, Principessa. Thank you for remembering. Now please, go and get cleaned up. We will be eating in thirty minutes.”

“Yeah, kid,” Dad spoke up, “and see if you can help Izzy with whatever she needs? She should just be about done getting cleaned up herself. The clothes she helped pick out are on her bed.”

God, he really had no idea that I had just been talking to him a short time earlier. Hell, he didn’t look like he’d been out doing anything at all. I was sweaty and all that from rushing home. My hair was a mess from being under the helmet and mask.  But Dad? He was perfectly put together. Not a single hair was out of place and it looked as though the biggest workout he’d had in the past couple hours was pushing a few papers. 

Shoving that thought aside, I promised that Izzy and I would be right down. Then I headed up the stairs two steps at a time. Yeah, I’d go get cleaned up so we could get this whole thing over with.

Time to meet Lincoln Chambers and his family.

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Homeward Bound 8-06 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N: Nicholas Petan’s point of view of this chapter was posted four years ago and can be found right here

Right, if I was going to end this problem as quickly as possible so I could actually meet up with Petan and get the ball rolling for me to get back to my own time, I was going to have to take out the big guy on the field. Not to mention the fact that, according to Rahanvael, the ship wasn’t going to be able to leave while the thing was alive. Killing it was the only chance any of us had. 

There was a time, not even all that long ago in my life, when running at a twenty-foot tall, sixty-foot long crocodile/ape monster would have sounded (and been) completely stupid and suicidal. But I had grown over the past year. Now it only sounded pretty stupid and suicidal. Plus, I didn’t have a choice. It was kill this thing or be trapped here to face more of them until I was captured and turned into a Fomorian lab experiment. 

So, still possessing the onyx-skinned guy I had taken over, I ran across the battlefield. And it was a true battlefield. It was a war zone. Everywhere my eyes flicked toward, I saw more bodies, more blood, more scattered and torn up organs, more figures half-dissolved in acid. 

More people, from both the Seosten and Petan’s sides, crying out for help. Or just crying in general. It was awful. It was the worst thing I could imagine in that moment. But I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t slow down to help them. I had to take out this big guy first. That was what mattered. Putting that monster in the ground so that everyone could escape. 

I was possessing this guy so the Fomorian creations down here wouldn’t realize that I was a Heretic. But that didn’t mean that they ignored me entirely. As I was running, with the double-bladed sword in one hand and the grenade launcher in the other, several smaller, more human-sized, Fomorian creations popped out at me. They may have been smaller than the big guy, but they were still monstrous. They looked sort of like the Goombas from that awful Super Mario Brothers movie, only with full-sized heads, random patches of mismatched leathery skin that clearly came from many different creatures, a seemingly random assortment of eyes and mouths that were all in different places, and long, deadly looking claws. Yeah, it was pretty nasty all around. 

The nearest one swiped at me with those wicked claws. But I was already boosting, using the added speed to pivot out of the way. As the claws whiffed through the air, my own hand was snapping up and around with that double-bladed sword to cut straight through the creature’s neck. Between my boosted, already enhanced strength and the sharpness of the blade, it went through easily, lopping the monster’s head straight off. 

But the threat wasn’t over. In the same motion that I was using to pivot away and cut off the first creature’s head, I used the momentum to throw myself up and over into a flip, slamming my foot into the face of the creature behind the first. At the same time, my borrowed sword lashed out to cut all the way through the arm and partway into the torso of the third creature. 

The kick to the face made the second guy stumble back, and I used the impact to launch myself up and back, flipping over in the air while adjusting the sword in my hand so that, as I came down, it cut the second figure from head to waist, slicing him in half lengthwise. 

All of that, the three kills together, happened so quickly that the burst of pleasure (it wasn’t exactly a huge one, but still) didn’t have time to hit me until after it was over. I froze when it hit me, letting the pleasure rush through me for that second. Actually, I had a feeling that I wasn’t getting the full rush of three kills. I’d been told that while Fomorians themselves didn’t give Bosch Heretics any powers from being killed, their creations were sort of hit-or-miss. Some gave powers, some didn’t. I was pretty sure at least one of these hadn’t. 

But they were dead. That was the important part. Unfortunately, those three weren’t the end of the things that were trying to stop me. Two more tried to put themselves in my path. They went down just as quickly, before I even actively thought about what I was doing. A quick swipe through the throat with one blade while ducking and pivoting to drop under the swinging arm of another so that I could drive the opposite blade into his stomach, then up and out through his back before letting both drop. Just like that. They gave no kill boost, no power, no rush of pleasure. They were just in my way, and then they weren’t. 

As quick as they fell, however, it wasn’t quick enough. None of it was quick enough. I didn’t have time for this, didn’t have time for any of it. 

Another creature came even as I thought that, bellowing a loud challenge as it ran my way. The monster looked like a gorilla made of stone, with six arms. 

It came while I was flat-footed, swinging those arms and screaming its challenge as I was still cursing myself for taking so long with this. Luckily, I had a way of stopping it without some big fight that I didn’t have time for. Namely, the grenade launcher in my other hand. Snapping it up as the creature raced toward me, I tried to think of a pithy one-liner. Nothing came to mind, so I just pulled the trigger. 

The resulting explosion blew the rock gorilla into a thousand pieces. It quickly would have blown me apart too, as the explosion rushed toward me from that close range. But even as the pleasure from that kill gave me a slight rush, I raised my hand. With a thought, I absorbed the power of the explosion, directing it out under my feet before the feeling of burning up with energy could overwhelm me. The redirected explosive energy launched me into the air just as easily as my staff would have if it hadn’t been out of commission at the moment. 

More importantly, I had the giant ape-croc’s attention. That became pretty clear as the monster grabbed for me while I was still riding the explosion upward. My boost had faded by then, but I still managed to twist around, landing on the back of one of the hands while my sword lashed upward at the other. In the back of my head, I thanked Avalon and everyone else who had insisted that I get at least some practice with other weapons besides my staff. I wasn’t as good with them, but the double sword thing was at least close enough that, between the similarity and the extra weapons practice, I wasn’t fumbling with it. 

Yeah, I definitely wasn’t fumbling. The sword cut straight through the rest of the incoming hand, cutting it free while I ducked aside so the severed hand could fly past me.

Yeah, now I’d really pissed this thing off. It was screaming at me with both heads. Which was fine, because I was about to piss it off even more. Launching myself off the back of the hand that was already trying to shake me free, I snapped that grenade launcher up and fired an explosive shot right into the ape-face. Which served two functions. First, it made the big ape head reel backward with a new bellow of anger and pain. And second, it gave me more energy to absorb and shoot underneath myself to get even higher. 

Now I was at the same level as the crocodile head. I could see the expression of anger in those reptilian eyes as the thing lunged towards me, mouth opening so it could swallow me whole. 

Yeah, that wasn’t gonna happen. The grenade launcher was already raised, and I fired several quick shots in succession. Each resulting explosion, triggered one after the other, made the crocodile thing roar while its head was knocked backward.

Coming down on the back of the monster’s giant snout,  I pointed the grenade launcher down. Then I paused slightly, just long enough for my thumb to find the button I’d noticed. The one that channeled how much of the energy store for the weapon was going into the grenades. I dialed it up to maximum, then pulled the trigger one last time while focusing as hard as I could on absorbing any of the power that hit me. 

Yeah, it was a lot. Even more than when that starfighter had shot me. I could feel myself burning up as that giant explosion blew through me. Still, I held onto as much of the power as I could, feeling my body grow hot as we both crashed to the ground. 

The monster wasn’t dead. I knew that as soon as we landed. Picking myself up from the ground, I could see the thing through the settling dust and debris. It had been knocked flat by the explosion, but it was trying to recover, trying to use its remaining ape-hand to push itself up.

I couldn’t have that. None of us could have that. This thing could not survive. We couldn’t give it time to recover. I had already dropped the grenade launcher through that explosion, considering it was now a twisted hunk of useless metal. But I still had the double-sword. And I held that tightly in both hands while throwing myself into a headlong charge toward the struggling monster. On the way, a scream escaped me, as I threw all that power I’d absorbed, the power that was already burning me up, into the weapon in my hands. Both blades began to glow almost blindingly bright, and I could tell that the sword wouldn’t be able to hold it for long before the whole thing would break apart.

Thankfully, it didn’t have to hold together for long. Still screaming, I launched myself into a leap, boosting one more time before driving one end of the blade straight down into the giant crocodile head, right between its eyes. 

The glowing blade sliced right through the monster‘s head lengthwise, cutting it in half and finally killing the thing. I fell, landing in a crouch while the rush of pleasure, much stronger than the others had been, washed over me. For a moment, I couldn’t focus on anything else.

It was enough of a distraction, that the next thing I knew, Nicholas Petan was right there. The guy I’d been looking for this whole time. He stood in front of me, staring with obvious curiosity. “Who are you? The Seosten would not have someone of your… skill protecting a backwater outpost.” His voice was clearly demanding, cautious about what I was doing there. 

Right, because he wasn’t actually standing in front of me, as far as he knew. Shrugging to myself, I pushed myself up while panting to catch my breath. Or my host’s breath, rather. “You’re right, they wouldn’t,” I replied.  

That said, I released the possessed man, letting his unconscious body fall as I straightened and smiled at Petan. 

He didn’t smile back. Instead, he brought his sword up while snapping, “Seosten.”

Oh, right. I still have the environment suit on with the hood that was obscuring my face too much for the man to really recognize me. Quickly, I shook my head. “Not quite.” Taking the mask off, I added, “I just killed a couple and stole their power. But trust me, they really had it coming.”

Nicholas Petan stared at me for a few seconds before managing, “You do not… appear to be five years older.”

Wincing, I replied, “I’m not. It’s only been…” I thought briefly. “… about a year for me, since you sent Tristan back. And now I need you to do the same for me. Send me back four years, to when I… when I left. 

“If you don’t, Fossor is going to use my mother to kill every Crossroads and Eden’s Garden Heretic in existence.”

*******

Needless to say, the man had a lot of questions after that. But there wasn’t time to answer them. Quickly, I let him know that with the ape-crocodile thing dead, his ship could escape. More Fomorians were coming, so everyone retreated. The Seosten-aligned troops and slaves who didn’t want to be left behind (all of them) agreed to be taken aboard and put in a secure area. It was better to be taken prisoner by him than by those evil fucks. I even managed to remember the guy I’d left tied up in the swamp and Petan had one of his teleporters make a quick jump out to bring him in. 

Soon, the ship was loaded and he took me with him to the bridge where I sat in a corner and tried to stay out of the way as they made a fighting retreat. 

From the sound of the orders being thrown back and forth, it was a really close escape. Even with the big crocodile-ape thing down, the Fomorian bio-ships were still out there. And they really did not want to let us leave. Petan’s ship shook and shattered from the damage it was taking, with alarms blaring all over the place. Judging by the reports that were coming in, they didn’t have much energy left. 

But, in the end, we managed to escape. The slide-drive powered up, and we were gone. Safe, for the time being. All around me, the crew of the bridge exchanged exhausted and relieved congratulations.

You still with me, Rahanvael? I directed inwardly. She had been quiet through all that, clearly trying not to distract me. 

The reassuring feeling of confirmation came, just as Petan stepped my way. “With me, please,” he said simply while heading toward a door on the opposite side of the crowded bridge. 

Right. Picking myself up on legs that were only shaking a little bit, I followed after him. We entered into what looks like some kind of briefing room, with a long metal table that had a hologram projector on it and ‘window’ screens projecting images from various parts of the universe. 

“You have been busy,” Petan noted after a moment of staring at the nearest screen as though to collect himself. He turned to me, squinting. “Tristan, is he…”

“He’s fine,” I assured him. “More than fine. He and Vanessa, his sister, they’re back with their mom and dad. Yeah, Sariel and Haiden are both on Earth. They’re all together.”

The man blinked at that, before tugging one of the floating chairs that surrounded the table out so he could sit down. He gestured for me to do the same on the opposite side while murmuring, ”You truly do miss a lot being out here. Anything could’ve happened back on Earth in all this time.”

Swallowing, I gave a short nod. “Yeah, things that could’ve happened back on Earth while you were out here is kind of what we need to talk about. Do… have you heard anything from Earth? Have you seen any… um… Bosch Heretics lately?”

Frowning, Petan slowly replied, “We are far enough out and away from the main lines that we rarely see them. But no, not in a few years. You said something about Fossor killing all of them. What happened?”

Now, that was a long story. So, I took a deep breath and started from the beginning. Which meant explaining about Kwur, the whole thing in Vegas, the fact that it had been a trap by Fossor to destroy the Gehenna outpost and capture me, the subsequent few weeks I spent as his prisoner, and what I’d done to free his other ghosts and escape with my mother. Finally, I explained how it had gone wrong and how I ended up here in the future, along with what Fossor’s actual plan was. 

“Fossor has a sister?” Petan shook his head in wonder. “And her ghost has allied with you.”

“I couldn’t have done any of this without her,” I insisted. “She saved everything. And now you see why I have to get back there before he manages to pull this off. Otherwise, they are all going to die and he’ll have a permanent army of Heretics.”

A grimace touched the man’s face, and he nodded. “Yes, that does sound like something best avoided. If that monster has control of the Bosch Heretics, it could explain why the Fomorians have been able to expand all the way out to that outpost. It could change the entire face of the war. It could…” He trailed off, grimacing as the true implication of all that struck him. “Haiden, Tristan, the… the others…” His voice was grim, almost bleak. 

“Of course,” Petan finally settled on after shaking himself with the realization that whatever might have happened wasn’t set in stone. ”We’ll work on sending you back as soon as possible, but—”

“Oh, right, not me first.” I hesitated, trying to think of the best way to broach this before offering a weak, “You know a girl named Dexamene?”

He did, and was obviously confused about why I would ask. So, I explained the rest of it. I told the man about how it had been Elisabet, trapped back on the Meregan world, who had actually redirected me so that I wouldn’t be caught by Fossor. I also explained about how she had only known when and how to do that using information that I gave her, through Dexamene. 

“So, see, I have to tell Dexamene what to say to Elisabet, so that she can save me, so that I can give the information to Dexamene, so that…” Trailing off, I gave my head a sharp shake. “Fuck, time travel is confusing. Wait, what would happen if I just didn’t follow the script? What would happen if we didn’t send Dexamene back, so none of that happened?” 

Petan stared at me intently, his voice grave. “The moment you passed the time when you should have done so and don’t, you would revert to a timeline where you never did that in the first place. Which would mean…”

“I’d be with Fossor’s handpicked goons’ clutches.” Finishing the man’s sentence for him with a shudder, I shook my head. “No thanks. I uhh, I know it’s going to be asking a lot of her, but can we bring Dexamene in so I can explain what’s going on? Pretty sure we need to stick to the written plot on this one.”

Petan nodded, his expression grim, yet determined. “I will summon her, and we can explain the situation. She is a fine girl, I’m certain she will agree to aid you.” Pausing, he added “Even before you add in the fact that by your point of view, she already did.”

Snorting despite myself, I agreed, “Great, let’s tell her what’s going on. And after that, I need one more vitally important thing.”

“Whatever it is,” Petan replied with a nod, “if I have it, it’s yours.”

“Do you have a spare bed?” I managed, as the exhaustion from everything that I’d been through in all that time finally caught up with me. 

“Because trust me, I’m pretty resilient, but it has been a long fucking day and I am about to pass out.”

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New Deals 13-08 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N: There was a commissioned interlude focusing on the Touched-Bees of Eastland, Oregon posted yesterday. If you haven’t read that yet, you might want to use the previous chapter button above. Thanks!

Also, if you’d like to see what the actual place that Cassidy is going through in this chapter looks like, check my author comment in the replies after the chapter.

When the Fox Theatre was built and opened almost a hundred years ago, in 1928, it had been the biggest, most impressive theater in the city with over five thousand seats. It had basically been the anchor of an entire chain of theaters owned by Fox, and a stunning wonder for everyone at the time. Over the following decades, it gradually fell into decline until it was restored in the late 80’s. Then it was upgraded and given a fresh life once more about ten years ago, around the same time that the baseball stadium across the street had been rebuilt. 

A lot of money had gone into restoring and upgrading this entire area of the city. Hell, a lot of money had gone into restoring the entire city in general. Yeah, I was fully aware that for quite some time through the end of the last century, the city had been spiraling down a hole. But I’d always experienced a Detroit that was on the rise, or even a full-on leader in development and manufacturing. We had one of the strongest economies in the world, and had for the past decade or so, with plenty of Touched who flocked here to build or benefit from Tech-devices. They couldn’t build neighborhoods fast enough for the people who wanted to move to this place. Even with the crime, even with the violence in the streets, you could still be successful here. 

But how much of that success was directly connected to the things my parents did? My family were villains, they helped criminals do bad things, helped them steal from and hurt people. That was completely true. And yet, it was also completely true that the city was better now than it had been for decades before Touched powers appeared. Would the city have been even better than it already was without this ‘Ministry’ directing things? Or would it be worse? Had they been responsible for pulling enough manufacturing and such back here? Or would there be as much growth and not as much crime if they weren’t stirring the pot? How much good had they done, and how did it weigh against the bad they’d done? And did any of that actually matter, morally?

All those thoughts and more kept playing through my head the entire time that I was moving toward the broken-in doors of the theater (covering my costume with various paint colors the entire way). But I shoved them down, with some effort, focusing on the real problem. That-A-Way and Raindrop were trapped in there, with civilians and bad guys. Beyond that, I had no idea what I was getting into, only that those two needed help. 

The lobby of the theater was fucking gaudy as hell. Seriously, the ceiling towered like fifty feet over my head, sloping upward with slanted golden walls on either side, brilliant red and gold pillars lined both sides of the massive room, with golden lamps hanging down to illuminate everything, and plush red carpets covered the floor. I’d heard people refer to its style as ‘part-Egyptian, part-Hindu, and part-Babylonian.’ It was a lot, to say the least. 

More important than the loud design choices was the fact that I wasn’t alone in the lobby. The second I entered, two guys dressed as Easy Eights gang members and three dressed as Ninety-Niners all whirled my way. One of the Easy Eights guys tackled the nearest Ninety-Niner, starting to wail on him with the butt of his pistol before the guy managed to get an arm up and the two struggled together. 

But I couldn’t exactly intervene with either of them, because the remaining three guys (one Easy Eights and two Ninety-Niners) apparently decided that I was the bigger threat. All three opened fire, even as I activated the picture of an orange shield I’d painted onto my chest before coming in here. At the same time, I triggered a pair of green swirly lines along my legs and hurled myself into an upward flip, using red paint shot toward one of the pillars to lift myself higher even as most of the shots passed by under me. A few struck home, but the orange paint reduced the bullets to a mere stinging annoyance. 

In mid-leap, as the red paint attached to my gloves and to the nearby pillar yanked me that way, I cut it off, flipping over in the air while hitting the pillar with blue. The second my feet hit it, I was launched straight down toward the men like I was being shot out of a cannon. 

They tried to react in time to shoot me again, but couldn’t adjust their aim fast enough. Between the green paint speeding me up and the blue sending me hurtling straight at them from above, the three guys were basically sitting ducks. And my orange paint was still active, so I just stuck both arms out, crashing into two of the men full-on. They hit the ground together with me on top of one, wind knocked out of them both. 

The third guy was whipping around to shoot (which probably would’ve hurt more from that range), but I managed to throw myself on my side and lash out with a foot to kick at his leg while boosting myself with the small purple stegosaurus shape I’d put on one side of my left arm. It wasn’t a huge increase to my strength, but it was enough that the solid kick knocked the man’s legs out from under him, dumping him onto his back with a cry. 

Rolling backward and rising to both knees, I saw the two men I’d knocked down both scrambling to grab their guns off the floor while still trying to suck in air. Even now, they were going to try to shoot me. Or possibly each other. I really wasn’t sure which. But it didn’t matter. Quickly, I hit the weapons with red paint, yanking them to my gloves before tossing them to either side with a blurted, “You’ll shoot your eye out, Ralphie!” 

While they were trying to react to that, I planted blue paint under my knees while pushing off, launching myself up and forward over all their heads. On the way past, I flipped over, hitting all five men (including the two who were still struggling with one another) with a wide spray of red paint from both hands. Then I landed in a roll before bringing myself to a stop. 

Covered in red paint, the five men all started to move at me as one massive rush. But, they came up short as I used white and a little bit of black paint to color in a bright, toothy grin across the front of my helmet. Unnecessary, but hey. Then I pointed both hands upward, drawing their attention toward the ceiling so far above. A ceiling where I had also taken the time to shoot more red paint. 

The curses started before I even activated the paint, morphing to screams as the five men were hurtled upward. I let it carry them about halfway there before cancelling the paint. Their momentum brought them even higher, nearly to the ceiling itself before gravity kicked in. Then they were screaming for an entirely different reason, as they fell toward the hard floor below. 

I couldn’t just let them hit the ground, not from that height. Forty-plus feet wasn’t exactly jumping out of an airplane, but it could still potentially kill them. And as much as I felt like they deserved a few broken bones for putting uninvolved, innocent civilians in danger with their stupid fucking gangwar, that was too much. And it wasn’t my place to decide something like that anyway. 

So, before the screaming, flailing men hit the ground, I hit them with a spray of orange paint. Just enough that the fall still hurt, still left bruises and maybe a bit worse than that, without being lethal. They laid there, sprawled out and panting (along with a few whimpers). None looked like they were in any mood to fight right then. Or even move, really. 

I didn’t have time to play with them anymore. Damn it, damn it, I couldn’t have just moved past them and left them to shoot me in the back (even this felt like a risk, justifiable as it was), but still, it felt like I was wasting time. Running onward through the lobby, I called back, “Why don’t you guys take five, we’ll pick up from the top later!” On the way, I thought to hit each of their scattered weapons with small shots of red paint, yanking them to me before dumping the pistols in a garbage can I was passing. It wasn’t perfect. None of this was. But at least the guns were out of sight and the guys behind me were too busy getting over pissing themselves to worry about fighting right at that moment. It was the best I could do with the time I had.

If the lobby of the theater was crazy opulent, the main room with the stage was completely fucking absurd. There were fake stained glass windows that could be lit up or darkened at any point, and could have the actual design changed to match the mood of the play. There was gold everywhere, several tiers of seats, all of which were incredibly plush (and really easy to fall asleep in if you were a bored eleven-year-old who was dragged to the theater by your parents). There were more pillars, an incredibly beautiful vaulted ceiling, the works. The place was, again, large enough to seat over five thousand people. For some kind of reference, I’d asked someone before and they said a modern public movie theater sat between two hundred and three hundred people in a single screening room. 

So yeah, the place was fucking enormous. And, as promised, there were people in here. The moment I passed through one of the entrance doors, I could see a group of civilians huddled together ahead and to the right, cowering between some seats. It looked like there were several dozen at first glance, but I wasn’t sure because of how they were crouched down. 

Of more immediate importance was the reason they were all cowering. Namely, all the bad guys that were everywhere. Seriously, I saw a mix of Ninety-Niner and Easy Eights Prev thugs spread throughout the entire room. They were clustered up in small groups, but those groups were all over the place. They were brawling with weapons, a few had guns they were trying to bring in to play, and none seemed to care about the civilians they were endangering. Hell, I could see a few innocent people who weren’t with the main huddled group. Instead, they ducked where they were, hands over their heads as they tried to stay low. 

It was all-out chaos in the seating area, a brawl that was tearing this place apart. I could see where several of the opulent ‘windows’ and hanging lights had been destroyed, places where seats were torn out, and more blood than I wanted to think about.

Then there was the stage itself, straight down and across from where I entered. The enormous stage was where That-A-Way and Raindrop were. And they weren’t alone. Landlock, a short guy (just about five feet, four inches tall) who wore dark green and brown body armor with a football player’s helmet over a simple black face mask, was there. He was one of the Easy Eights, like Janus outside. His power basically made a fifty-foot diameter circle of ground or floor under his feet transform to stone wherever he went. It would change back as he moved away from that spot, but while he was standing there, it would be rock. No matter what hit him, he couldn’t be knocked outside of his circle, and he could make a bunch of rock constructs within it. 

The Ninety-Niner Touched he was trying to fight, meanwhile, was Suckshot. Yeah. While Landlock wore the football helmet, Suckshot was basically dressed like a hockey player, with that Touched name written on the back. His powers allowed him to create these black orb things about the size of a volleyball in front of his hands that could yank things (or people) toward them. Once they were close enough to touch the orbs, he could then launch them away at high speed. The orbs were also some kind of pocket dimension thing that he could store objects in as long as they were smaller than the orb. He kept objects in there and used them as ammo to shoot at people. 

And in the middle of all this, between those two, were That-A-Way and Raindrop. Way had both arms wrapped around her younger teammate, with her back to Landlock. Apparently her invulnerability power was active, because in the second that I watched, the Fell-Touched Made two large rocks float up out of the floor and fly at them, only for the rocks to shatter against her back. 

At the same time, Raindrop had one hand extended toward Suckshot. She was sending a torrent of water his way, a sideways downpour that would’ve allowed the kid to manipulate his gravity if she could get him wet. But he was sucking up all the water with his own power, making it disappear into his orbs. It was a stalemate. 

Well, not anymore. Taking a running start, I shot blue paint down to launch myself up and forward, catapulting over the line of seats. In mid-air, I shot red paint high over the stage to pull myself that way, before sending a few more small shots of red toward the brawling thugs below. I didn’t get anywhere near all of them, but I did hit a few. Mostly I tried to focus on the ones who were holding guns, nailing the weapons themselves with a bit of red before extending my hand back the way I’d come to hit the door with one more shot. Linking all of those together, I activated them and the guns (as well as a couple other weapons) were yanked out of the thugs’ hands. 

It wasn’t much, but it was something. Mostly I was hoping that if the Touched were dealt with, the rest of the guys would follow suit quickly, or at least retreat. 

And speaking of dealing with them, I flipped over in the air after canceling the red mark I was being yanked toward. Upside down as I passed over the stage, I shot two bursts of white paint, one at each of them. Unfortunately, the paint that was going toward Suckshot was, well, sucked right into one of his little black hole orbs. Fuck. I really should’ve known that would happen.

But the other spot of paint struck home, hitting the spot of Landlock’s chest right under his chin. Instantly, I activated it, sending a blinding flare right into his eyes that made the man stagger backward, the large boulder he’d been forming falling apart before he could launch it. 

Activating a bit of orange near my left leg on the hip, I finished flipping over and landed a short distance away from where the two Minority were. “Heard you all might need an understudy if this performance is gonna go on,” I blurted as everyone stopped what they were doing and snapped a glance toward me. At the same time, I hit Way with orange paint from one hand and purple from the other, before Suckshot could recover from my sudden appearance and start using his power again. Activating both, I snapped, “Get ‘em!”

The direction she’d been facing toward Suckshot in keeping her back to Landlock for protection had given her invulnerability. The opposite direction must have been super speed, because she pivoted away from Raindrop and, in a blur of motion, was suddenly directly in front of the man who had been launching boulders at them, punching him across the face with her enhanced strength. He had some measure of that himself, but the punch was still enough to put him on the stone-turned floor. 

For the next ten seconds, That-A-Way had the extra strength and toughness which, added to her own super speed, would let her deal with that guy. 

That left Raindrop and me to handle Suckshot. And I had the feeling that the suck part of that was going to be pretty apt. Whether it was my paint or her water, he could suck all of it up if it came anywhere near him. 

Just as I had that thought, the two of us were nearly taken out just like that as a handful of literal bricks shot out of those black orbs, straight at our heads. Fuck! 

But Raindrop was fast too. A swirl of water spraying up to catch the bricks, turning their gravity so they were launched up and over us to careen off into the distance. A metal pipe and another set of bricks joined them a second later. 

Yeah, the suck was definitely strong with this one. Good thing I had an idea. Lowering my voice to a whisper, I addressed the young girl nearby. “Dude, can you soak me, then when I say now, zero my gravity?” 

“Um, okay,” came the quiet, uncertain voice. It tickled something in my brain, but I didn’t have time to think about it.

Instead, I pushed myself forward even as I felt my costume suddenly get really wet. Raising my voice, I shouted at the man, “Hey, Suckface, lemme guess, you’re a Touched vacuum!” 

It definitely worked to get his attention. The man shot another metal pipe at me, but I popped the wheels of my skates out and slid under it, cocking my hand back as though I was going to throw or shoot something at him. Immediately, I felt the pull of his power as he focused it on me. I was yanked off my feet and sent that way, even as he took aim, clearly about to use me being off my feet and helplessly pulled toward him to take one final shot. 

“Now!” I called out while simultaneously activating every bit of green and orange that was still on my costume. 

Instantly, my gravity was zero. Which meant I was suddenly flying toward the man in front of me faster than he expected. Even better, the green paint I’d activated sped me up even more. In that instant, I was careening at the man several times quicker than he was ready for. 

He didn’t have time to correct it. I slammed into him full-bodied, with enough force to knock him clear to the floor, his orbs disappearing as he collapsed under me with a cry of pain and surprise. I, of course, was fine thanks to the orange paint. But it didn’t look like the guy under me was going to be in the mood to move anytime soon. 

Still, I produced a set of the stay-down cuffs I still had, hooking them around his wrists before rolling away. 

Sitting up, I saw That-A-Way doing the same to her guy. They were both down. We had them in hand. 

Even better, seeing their super powered members captured did, in fact, make the rest of the bad guys decide to cut and run. There was a rush toward the exits, the two rival groups still fighting each other as they fled like rats leaving a sinking ship. Meanwhile, the cowering civilians were starting to pick themselves up cautiously. 

Raindrop was in front of me, offering her hand with a blurted, “That was cool!” 

Again, her words made something in the back of my mind flash a bit. But what–never mind, I was just crazy and tired from all that, clearly. 

Taking the offered hand, I stood and breathed out a long sigh of relief while looking at her and That-A-Way. “Well,” I managed in between heavy panting, “if you guys really want, we could stick around and see the show tonight.

“But I hear it really sucks.”

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Commissioned Interlude 5 – Eastland, Oregon (Summus Proelium)

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A/N: This is a commissioned interlude, connected to the Termite interlude posted a couple weeks ago. The next regular chapter will be posted tomorrow as scheduled.

The town was (for the moment) named Eastland, located about fifty miles southwest of Portland, Oregon and a bit north of McMinnville, the seat of Yamhill County, which Eastland was part of. A little over a year earlier, its population had been around nine thousand and rapidly dropping as older citizens passed away and those who were younger moved on to towns with better prospects. In the thirteen months since, that had ballooned out to about sixteen thousand. Construction projects and new jobs abounded in the area, as multiple companies flocked to build, bringing a flood of people and resources. 

There were plenty who objected to so many changes and new arrivals of course. Many town meetings had been held where new demands and rules for what these incoming companies were allowed to do, where they were allowed to build, what sort of businesses could be there, and more were argued over and either adopted or rejected. For the most part, the town accepted the new arrivals and embraced just how much their town’s fortunes had been reversed. After all, not so long ago, there had been very little in the way of new jobs and steady income. The population had been sliding for years, even decades, with no indication of anything new arriving to stabilize their prospects. Entire families disappeared from the town, heading off to bigger cities. Cities with jobs to offer. 

But then something had arrived. Something that had changed the town and its inhabitants forever, and had triggered this year of mounting prosperity and growth. And that prosperity and growth showed no signs of abating any time soon. Particularly given the town’s full embrace of their new situation, to the extent of already unofficially adopting a new name. A name that would become official once it made its way onto the ballot in the next year. 

Once it did, and passed, Eastland, Oregon would become Honeyland. 

At a small diner in the middle of town, a diner that had stood and been owned by the same family for well over sixty years despite some recent efforts to buy them out, a Latino man in a suit sat on a stool at the counter with the latest copy of the town’s paper held in front of him. He wasn’t from Eastland (or Honeyland, as many had already taken to calling this place), but the man was curious about local events. And besides, he had time to kill before his guide arrived. Humming softly to himself, he glanced over the headlines, his eyes scanning idly across stories about the local high school baseball scores. As he did so, a small insect buzzed near the paper in front of him, and the man absently drew a hand back to swat it away. 

His hand never made it that far. Just as it started to move down, the man’s wrist was caught in an iron grip that was almost, yet not quite, painful. He looked up to see the older, gray-haired guy next to him, who had been engrossed in his own coffee, holding his arm. “Around here,” the elderly man informed him in a low voice that bordered right on the edge of being threatening, “we don’t look kindly on people hurting our friends like that.” 

Hurting their–only then, as he looked back to see the yellow and black insect hovering in front of him, did the Latino newcomer realize what he’d almost done with that unthinking swat. Eyes widening, he shook his head. “Oh–oh, damn. I’m sorry. It wasn’t–I was just–” 

Another hand, belonging to the young, dark-haired waitress behind the counter, was extended to gently pry the old-timer’s grip away. “Thanks, Karl, but I think it’s probably safe to let him go now. You didn’t mean any harm, did you, Mister…?” 

“Deans,” came the easy response. “Agent Deans, Miss, ahhh… Hayley.” As he answered (taking a glance at the nametag she wore) the man flipped open the wallet that sat on the counter in front of him to reveal the FBI badge there. “And no, I didn’t mean any harm. Force of habit, I’m afraid.” 

“You make it a habit to crush people who were just trying to check the baseball scores?” 

The new voice, or rather, voices, came from Deans’ right. He turned toward that way to find not just the single bee he had almost swatted, but a small swarm of them. Fifteen, to be exact. Each of them spoke as one, forming a perfect chorus. “Our deepest apologies in that case. We will make certain to ask your permission next time.” 

For a moment, the only thing the man could do was stare, struggling not to gape open-mouthed. His words finally emerged after a few seconds of that. “I–they’re right, you do talk.” 

“Not in the same way that you do, Agent Deans,” came the fifteen-voiced response. “We are implanted with what you would consider a chip in the back of our thoraxes and connected to our brains. A small, quite powerful speaker extends from the chip and out the underside of our abdomen, producing the sound you can hear.” 

Taking that in, Deans slowly shook his head. “Sorry, I just–I’ve never actually had a face-to-face with insect-Touched. You’re not exactly common, especially with–” Cutting himself off at the thought, he grimaced. “Sorry. I should’ve been paying more attention to what I was doing.” 

Again, fifteen voices spoke as one. “The fault is partly ours, Agent Deans. We forget that not everyone who might happen to be in town is entirely accustomed to our presence. Don’t fear, we will not hold it against you during our tour.” 

“Oh, I’m supposed to meet…” the man trailed off upon realizing the truth. “Ah, you’re who I’m supposed to meet here, aren’t you?” 

Fifteen bees flew down, then up in a perfectly coordinated maneuver that he took to be their version of a nod. “Yes, we are here to answer questions and take you to see the town on behalf of the hive-queen. But you should eat your breakfast before we go. It is the most important meal of the day.”

Sure enough, as the man glanced to the counter, he saw that the toast and eggs he had ordered had been neatly placed in front of him during his distraction. “Oh, thank you, Miss Hayley. And thank you, Karl.” He added with a look toward the man who had stopped him from swatting the bee in the first place. 

From there, he ate his breakfast, including (at the urgent suggestion of both the bees and humans), putting honey on his toast. It was local honey, grown and provided by the very hive that the swarm in front of him were representing. And the moment he did, biting into the honey-covered bread, the man’s eyes closed with a murmur of pleasure. “My God,” he managed after a long moment of simply absorbing the taste, “it’s even better than what you get in the store.” 

Hayley grinned, winking at the bees who hovered nearby. “It’s fresh,” she reminded him. “Right out of the hive, practically. The stuff we send to the stores is pretty great, but nothing compares to what you can get right here. Right, guys?” 

There was an almost melodious buzzing sound that was apparently their version of a chuckle, before those fifteen voices replied together, “We do endeavor to provide excellent honey for our friends and fellow citizens of Eastland. And, of course, an excellent product for others to buy.” 

“How do you do it though?” Agent Deans asked curiously after taking another amazing bite. “I mean, you’re just one hive. No offense at all, but your honey is sold all over the country. They’ve built an entire factory to help process it. You’ve got multiple shipping companies moving in to take it everywhere. How can you possibly produce that much? I looked it up, and a hive should only produce about a hundred pounds a year, maximum. You’ve been producing a lot more than that.” 

That buzzing chuckle came back once more, before the bees assured him, “We will get into all of that and more. For now, enjoy your meal, Agent Deans. When you’re finished, we will take you on a tour, and answer any of your questions that we are able to.” 

They really didn’t have to tell him twice. Deans ate all of the toast, then got seconds to put a bit more of that incredible honey on. He could see exactly why the town’s fortune had turned around so thoroughly, with their ability to ship that stuff all over the country. However they managed to produce so much of it, the fact was that they did produce it. And having that product had been one of the primary catalysts that had begun to bring Eastland (soon to be Honeyland) back to life. It wasn’t the only thing, of course. But it was the first, and arguably the biggest, factor in the town’s new prosperity. It was the main catalyst from which everything else had grown.

Eventually, after finishing and paying for his breakfast, Agent Deans left the diner. The small swarm of bees flew ahead, guiding him out to the street. On the way, he briefly wondered what the flying insects did when someone wasn’t there to open the door. His answer came when they flew, one at a time, through a tiny hole in the wall next to the door itself (he supposed it was there rather than actually in the door so that someone opening it wouldn’t end in tragedy for the bee trying to go through the hole). 

Either way, once out on the streets, the swarm hovered in the air in front of him. That chorus of joined voices asked, “Would you like to take your car, Agent, or walk so that we might show you around? If you are not pressed for time.” 

The man shook his head. “No, I ahh, I’d like to see whatever you can show me. That’s my job, actually. There are a lot of… curious people back at the agency who want to know how all this works.” 

Again, that buzzing chuckle followed by the chorus of, “That is not surprising, Agent Deans. Come, we will tell you what we can. And answer any of your questions. Surely you have many.” 

They began to fly down the sidewalk, with Deans following. Before saying anything else, the man glanced around. There were people, obviously locals, walking everywhere. And more than that, there were other small swarms of bees right alongside them. They were everywhere, working right alongside the humans. He saw one man in a delivery uniform standing outside a van, holding the back door open while a swarm of bees landed on several large boxes that were stacked outside of it. Three or four bees per box landed, then rose into the air again with the boxes coming with them. 

Tactile telekinesis, Deans knew. That was one of the Touched-bees powers. Just by touching something, they could lift incredibly heavy objects (particularly given their relative size and strength) and fly around with them. It was one of the things that allowed the hive to be so helpful to their human allies. Not to mention how much they used it to build their own devices. 

Yes, build their own devices. Because beyond their greatly enhanced intelligence/sapience and the Field-touched power of the tactile telekinesis, the bees were also Tech-Touched. Hence the communication devices that had been implanted in all of them that allowed the bees to talk as they had been. 

From the briefing he’d received before coming here, Agent Deans understood that the bees were specifically focused on creating devices that, as the eggheads had put it, ‘enhanced cooperation and benefited the group as a whole.’ That was their Tech-Touched specialty, as it were. They specialized in designing and building inventions that would help groups work together. So, ‘devices that allowed them to communicate with humans’ definitely fit within that.

“I do have a few questions, actually,” the man managed after trailing after his escorts for a minute as he took in the sight of so many humans and bees working together. “I’m not sure how to ask this without being, ahhh, rude. But the way you all speak together, knowing… uhh, the way your people–insects–the way hives generally–” 

“You wish to know if we are individuals,” came the chorus of responses as one, “or a single hivemind.” From the way they said it, the question was clearly one that they were accustomed to. 

Pausing briefly to watch a handful of bees who seemed to be serving as crossing guards (complete with keeping a hand-held stop sign suspended in the air) to help a group of children cross the street toward an elementary school, Deans slowly nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, sorry, I don’t know how else to put that except, are you individuals, or one big collective?” 

“The answer is yes,” came what seemed to be the teasing response. All fifteen bees flew up directly in front of his face, hovering there for a moment. Then, apparently to make a point, seven of the bees flew to the left, while the remaining eight flew to the right. 

The eight bees to the right, without the seven to the left, continued with, “We are a collective.” 

The seven bees to the left, without the eight to the right, added, “But that collective may be of any size. Even one, though that is rare and frightening.” 

With that, the eight bees split once more, becoming two separate groups of four. The first four announced, “There are three levels of our minds. The small, the large, the whole.” 

The other four further clarified, “The small is our own individual minds. What you would call your own thoughts. They are small, and do not say much on their own. It is lonely in the small mind. We don’t like it.” 

The group of seven then added, “You might think of it as being somewhat asleep. A brain that is half-conscious, and feels… sluggish, or trapped. It is claustrophobic and lonely.” 

“Lonely,” all fifteen bees chorused together as they flew back into one group again, continuing with, “The large mind is us. Any group together may swarm and become a large mind. That is less lonely. We think better, we think stronger, we are more than we are as small. It is the large mind that we use in most interactions.” 

“And the whole mind, that’s what you called the last one, right?” Deans guessed. “That must be the entire hive.” 

Sure enough, the fifteen bees flew up, then down, their version of a nod again. “Correct, Agent Deans,” came the response. “We are always connected to the whole mind. Think of it as your internet, as we all access it and may see and interact with each small and large group as needed no matter how far we are from one another. But it is more than that. It is a personality, the full collection of our small and large minds. The hive-queen directs this whole mind, yet we are all a part of it. This is hard for human individuals to understand, which is not intended as an insult. You simply do not have the proper frame of reference. We as the hive are one mind. We as the large minds are one mind. We as the small minds are one mind. All are true. We are whole and we are pieces. We are one mind fractured into as many parts as necessary to do our work.” 

“I ahhh… I think I understand,” Deans slowly replied after thinking about that for a minute. “I mean, I think I get what you mean in general, even if I don’t have the right frame of reference, as you said. It’s kind of like having one mind that’s really good at multitasking.”

There was a brief pause before the swarm of fifteen carefully agreed, “It is something like that.” 

With that much explained, at least as much as the bees are able to, the group continued onward. Deans was led through the town. He saw even more examples of how the hive and humans were working together. The bees used their telekinesis and their inventions to help their human allies put buildings up quickly and far more easily than the humans could do alone. That was how this town was able to expand so quickly. Houses and other buildings were much easier to build when you had a fleet of flying insects that could land on large materials and fly them exactly where they needed to go. 

Eventually, they came to the main plant where honey was sorted, packaged, and shipped. Watching pallet after pallet of barrels being loaded into the back of several large trucks with the town’s soon-to-be official moniker on the sides, Deans slowly asked, “Okay, what about the honey? You said you’d explain how it’s possible to have so much of it.” 

“The simplest explanation,” the bees informed him, “is that we have created machines which do the same work we would do, but far more efficiently. Flowers are grown within a greenhouse in the center of the facility. Everything from nectar extraction all the way through the rest of the… process is performed by our machines, supervised by parts of the hive. Rather than acting as the individual workers to create very tiny amounts of honey, each of our small and large minds in the factory supervise the production of much larger amounts. That, and the aid of our human allies and friends, allows the level of production that you see.” 

“Well, it’s working for you, whatever the specifics,” Deans murmured. “I heard the FDA reps were impressed by your set-up.” 

Again, that up-down hovering nod. “They visit quite often, to ensure our work remains impeccable. We are told there is some pressure from outside forces to declare the factory unsanitary. But we take great pains to ensure that it is safe at all levels.” 

They were right, Deans knew. With a grimace, he nodded. “Yes, well, there’s a few people out there who don’t exactly like the idea of insect-Touched. Actually, that’s part of–” 

“You wish to speak with the hive about the Merit termites,” the swarm finished for him. “Before the situation escalates further.” 

There was no sense in beating around the bush, so Deans simply nodded. “Yeah, pretty much. The… first contact with the Merit termites didn’t exactly go very well. Not like it did here when you and the people of Eastland started working together. What was that–a kid you talked to first?” 

“Phoebe Burton,” they confirmed. “Nine years old. We prevented her abduction by a stranger, a member of one of the so-called Abyssal cults, and ensured his capture. Her mother and law enforcement were grateful. This eased our introduction to human society and allowed us to set the groundwork for the alliance that exists today.” 

Deans exhaled long and slowly. “Yeah, well, things were different in Merit. A few… overly-excited individuals down there made things a hell of a lot more complicated.” 

“They tried to kill the hive,” his escorts pointed out bluntly. “Townspeople there worked very hard to kill those intelligent termites.” 

“Not all the townspeople,” Deans protested. “Believe me, a lot of them–most of them tried to stop it. Things just got really bad really fast, before anyone realized just how far south it was going. Now we’ve got the military keeping people out and we’ve tried to send some people in to talk, but there’s a lot of… distrust. And from what we’ve been able to see, things in Merit could blow up even worse. The termites are working on their own countermeasures. If we’re not careful, those people who want the full-on war, who want to genocide the hive, are gonna get what they want. But I– some of us thought that it might be easier to communicate with the termites and come to a mutual understanding if we had a go-between that was more on their level.” 

For a moment, there was no response. The bees simply hovered there in front of him. He had the feeling there was some bit of conversation or consideration (probably both) going on, and remained silent rather than interrupt. 

Finally, the bees moved, hovering up a bit closer as they answered together. “Yes, Agent Deans. We believe that would be for the betterment of all, hive and humans alike. Allow us some time to prepare a group of ourselves to send a large mind with you to speak with the termites of Merit. We will invite them to join us here, in the safety of our home-hive, where we all may work together.

The agreement seemed to take a weight from the FBI agent’s shoulders, as he straightened a little bit. “Yeah? Good. Well, thanks. Thanks a lot, seriously. You have no idea how helpful that’ll be.” 

“We believe we do have some idea,” the bees corrected. “We are well-aware of how badly our own introduction and integration to society could have gone. It is our duty and our honor to be able to help others in such a position.

“We only hope that we are not too late to help calm this situation, before it escalates into something far worse.”

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Homeward Bound 8-05 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A/N: Hey there, guys and girls! Sorry to interrupt your regularly scheduled chapter. This is just a very important update regarding Patreon benefits AND brand new story content. As everyone should know, people who donate five dollars a month receive every chapter 24 hours early. And those who donate ten dollars per month get chapters early and are able to request 500 word snippets of any subject they’d like to see covered. But now there’s a brand new benefit, and a new tier of support to go with it, with added bonuses.

Have you ever wanted to see how a certain part of these stories might have gone if something different had happened? Have you ever wondered what would happen if, for example, Tabbris revealed herself to Flick and Lincoln long before the beginning of the story? Or if Joselyn hadn’t been taken by Fossor? Have you ever wanted to see a full-on crack/joke chapter about Herbie the rock meeting Felony the unicorn from Summus Proelium, or a take on Flick being taken in by Eden’s Garden when Miranda was? Do you have any niggling little fanfic-like ideas that you’d like to see the original author of the story write? Well here’s some good news! 

From now on, the last Sunday of each month will feature two new, totally non-canon chapters. One for each story. These chapters can be about anything within the setting (however altered it may be) of my stories and can follow any continuity. They are simply fun, interesting, fuzzy, or even tragic and terrifying little what-if chapters for any random ideas that may occur to you wonderful readers. 

A few details: These non-canon chapters will not appear here on WordPress, but they will be linked to and readers here will be notified about them (and there will be a section of the table of contents for them for readers to keep track of). Instead, they will be posted on Patreon. For 24 hours, they will be limited to Patrons of any level. No matter how much or how little you pledge, you will have access to them immediately. After those 24 hours, the chapters will be made public for everyone to read. If you are a patron of any level, you get 24 hour advance access. If not, you still get to read them one day later. So it’s all good!

Now, as for added bonuses for Patreon tiers! If you are or become a FIVE DOLLAR donator, you will be allowed to VOTE on which non-canon chapter idea will be written for each story in that particular month. You will receive one point per story to use to vote for your favorite out of the list of ideas that month. If you are instead a TEN DOLLAR donator, you will receive two points to vote for each story (so two points for the Heretical Edge ideas and two points for the Summus Proelium ideas) and you will also be allowed to suggest one idea per story to be added to the list each month. If you have an idea you’d like to see voted on to become the non-canon chapter for the month, all you have to do is become a ten dollar patron and suggest it. 

Finally, the new tier of support. Those who are so ridiculously and incredibly awesome as to pledge at the fifteen dollar level will get every previous benefit. In addition, they will get eight points to vote on official end-of-arc interludes rather than the six points that ten dollar donators get (or the five points that five dollar donators get, and so on) and seven hundred word snippets each month instead of five hundred. But, more relevantly to these new chapters, fifteen dollar patrons will be allowed to submit TWO ideas per story per month instead of the one idea that ten dollar patrons are allowed, and you will get three points per story to vote with. 

So that’s the long and short of it. New Patreon tier and added benefits, and new non-canon chapters every month for those who really want to see my personal take on your own random ideas about how these stories could be different. Thank you all for reading this whole thing and for going on this entire literary journey with me in general! If you are interested in learning more or signing up, you can get to the Patreon itself right 

And, without further rambling, on with the new chapter.

Boy, it was a good thing that I had such deep reserves of stamina and energy. I’d thought that before, of course. But seriously. I’d just had that huge confrontation with Fossor, only to get flung several years into the future and end up dealing with that whole space station situation. Then I sent myself here to this place, worked my way through trying to get to Petan, then ended up going toe-to-wing with a fucking starfighter and even managed to make the pilot realize I wasn’t trying to fight. But then, before anything good could come of that, the goddamn Fomorians showed up? What vindictive god’s shoes did I piss on to get to this point? 

Okay, okay. No time to spend worrying too much about that. Not with a literal invasion army of Fomorians descending upon the world. I had to get to Petan, and fast. Because I was pretty sure he wouldn’t be sticking around here fighting these assholes for that long if he could help it, not considering the kind of forces that were raining down on this place now. As I understood it, his army was about quick, unexpected strikes against outposts. It wasn’t about holding a planet against the Seosten, let alone the Fomorians. Yeah, unless I really missed my guess, Petan and his people would make a fighting withdrawal and get the hell out of here as soon as possible. So unless I wanted to be left behind to make some special new horror show friends, I had to move. 

So, I turned back the way the trucks had been going when they were attacked, starting to run. Three of the clearly biological Fomorian ships, living leviathan-like monsters in their own right, were visible in the sky. They were like tentacled, bloody, pus-filled clouds. Clouds that had extended those tentacles down all over the place, attaching themselves to the ground. And through those tentacles, I could see pulsing egg-like shapes descending. They looked like giant snakes regurgitating something they had swallowed. Their landing force. The living ships put their tentacles against the ground and sent their ground forces down through them, spitting them out once they reached the planet. Massive egg-shape after massive egg-shape were sent through those tentacles. I saw the end of one tentacle far off in the distance to my left, almost too far away to see properly. The thing opened up just as one of those egg-shapes reached the end, disgorging some kind of ugly, bloody flesh-ball. The ball cracked apart and melted away, revealing what looked from a distance like a giant curled up salamander the size of a bus, with two heads and a couple ballista-like projectile horn extensions on its back. Which it used almost immediately to launch those horns toward a passing starfighter, tearing through the cockpit. Unfortunately for the pilot, the horns were attached to some kind of rope-like muscle, which yanked the tethered ship down toward the heads to be devoured. 

They were too far away for me to help. Too far away for me to do anything but briefly stare for that brief, yet eternal moment. I just hoped, prayed, wished that the horrific screams were only in my imagination. Please. Please just be in my imagination. 

I couldn’t stand there anymore. I had to keep going before I became a target too. Granted, I was just one small humanoid figure, but still. Standing here was stupid and it was just going to land me in the same position as that pilot: as lunch for one of the Fomorian monsters. And being a meal for them was the best-case scenario of what might happen if they got hold of me. Worst case, ending up taken for experimentation… no. That couldn’t happen. 

Not that my actual destination was any better though. The Fomorian ships were centered directly above the area I was currently running toward. Which… well, yeah. Clearly I was going the right way, but that didn’t exactly make me feel any better about the whole situation. I was running toward the Fomorian invasion force. Because I had no other choice. It was down to ‘get there and find Petan’, or ‘be left here.’ No matter how scared I was to be running toward the horrific monsters, sharing a planet with them and no one else would be a hell of a lot worse. Emphasis, bold, italics, and underline on the word hell. 

But I had to go faster. I had to get there right fucking now. Running was going to take too long. Given the size of the Fomorian invasion force, Petan’s people would probably be clearing out of here like all of their collective pants (and the rest of their clothes) were on fire. I had to find a way to get there before that happened. But how? Both trucks were gone. The starfighter was gone. I had a certain level of enhanced speed, but not to the level I needed if I was going to get there before my ride took off.

Wait. Shaking my head at my own stupidity, I focused on shifting into the werelion form. In mid-run, I dropped to my hands and knees, using the Seosten boost to make the shift much faster. Lion, lion, be a lion. No matter how fast it was, and it was really fast, it felt like the shift took forever. Every nanosecond counted right now. I was wasting time that I really didn’t have. 

It happened. I made the full shift to the enormous lion form. Interestingly, the environment suit shifted with me as well, just like the Seosten bodysuits. Which, I supposed, made a sort of sense. The suit had adjusted its size for me when I put it on.

In any case, things were immediately worse in some ways. Because now I could smell a lot better. I could smell those massive, ugly tentacles. I could smell the fires. I could… I could… no. Ignore it. Push it aside. Deal with the nightmares this whole thing would induce later, because right now, I had to go! 

Then I was running on all fours, hitting about sixty miles per hour as I tore off across the field. The main target of the Fomorians. That was where I had to go. That was what I had to get to, no matter how much that prospect scared the living shit out of me. Ignoring my fear, ignoring my revulsion, ignoring almost every sense of self-preservation I had, I ran toward the main Fomorian attack force. 

There. There! I could see buildings. I could see people and creatures. I could see a ship. Petan’s ship. It had to be, given the concentration of forces all around it. The engines were running, the thing clearly about ready to get the hell out of there. But they couldn’t leave yet. There were so many Alter forces mixed up with what were obviously Fomorian creations. They’d been taken by surprise, ambushed by the speed of the Fomorian attack force before they could withdraw. The fighting was barely visible from where I was when I first noticed it, but even then I could tell that it wasn’t going that well. The monsters were quickly overwhelming what I could only assume was a mix of Petan’s troops and the Seosten-enslaved outpost defenders. 

Three more steps, and then something abruptly slammed into me from one side. Fuck! I hadn’t even sensed it coming at all. What–tentacle. It was a tentacle with some kind of suction thing on the end. A tooth-filled suction thing, given the sudden stabbing pain in that side. No wonder I hadn’t sensed the damn thing, because it wasn’t an item. It was living. A tentacle shot at me by some Fomorian monstrosity that looked like a giant snake, a good fifty-feet long and as wide around as a bus, with the head of a deer, complete with antlers. Only the ends of the antlers were tentacles, like the one that had me. The deer-snake was yanking me toward it, unhinging its jaw. Which was creepy enough to see a snake do, but seeing what looked like a deer’s head do it? I might never fucking sleep again. 

Actually, I might really never fucking sleep again if I couldn’t stop this thing from eating me. As my lion-body was dragged toward that wide, ugly, horrific mouth, I focused on one power I hadn’t used all that much: the ability to make muscles spasm by touching someone. It was another one that I’d gotten from the fight to save Avalon back in the hospital. 

Instantly, as soon as I made the tentacle spasm, it dropped me. In mid-fall, I shifted back to my human body, calling my staff to one hand while lashing out with it. The bladed end cut deep into the tentacle even as it tried to recover and grab me once more, making the thing jerk backward. 

Landing in a crouch, with my staff held out to one side, I watched the mass of tentacles atop the snake-deer’s head as the thing seemed to reassess what kind of threat I was. It could wait, but I couldn’t. Time. I didn’t have time to waste dealing with this damn thing. 

To that end, I ran straight at it. No hesitation, no delaying, no games. I was going to stop this monster from being a problem, then get to that ship. 

Unfortunately, the monster itself wasn’t exactly planning on being cooperative about that whole ‘being dealt with’ thing. As I ran that way, the deer-head reared back, and it… spat some kind gooey, gross… ball of phlegm or something at me. I threw myself into a roll, passing under it. But part of the gross snot-like ball hit my staff, tearing it from my hand in mid-roll. 

No big deal. I just focused on the power to bring things that I’d been holding within the past few seconds back to my hands. Instantly, I had my staff back. Aaaand it was encased in some weird resin stuff. What the fuck? I spared a glance that way even as the monster sent two antler-tentacles swinging at me. Yeah, the snot-stuff had expanded to encase the staff and then hardened. It was like the weapon was encased in some kind of amber or something. Fuck.

Judging the space between the incoming tentacles, which were swinging at me from either side, I silently cursed the fact that I suddenly couldn’t use my staff to boost myself through the air with a blast of kinetic force. But I could literally boost myself, using the Seosten gift. Time slowed a bit, giving me a chance to launch myself up, tucking my body to dive under the nearest tentacle before flipping over in the air to plant my feet against the other one. Encased-staff still in hand, I raced along the length of the tentacle toward the head. It was moving and not exactly a huge thing to keep my footing on anyway. But I managed it, thanks to the dexterity and balance-enhancing powers I’d picked up. Between those and the Seosten boost, I managed to run a good distance along the tentacle before the monster fully realized what was happening. Its head was turning to look at me, even as the thing curled its tentacle downward and in, trying to bring me toward that suddenly opening mouth. I could see its jagged teeth, along with another ball of that phlegm stuff it was hocking up to spit at me. Fuck, fuck, fuck. This was going to be close. So close.

Just as the deer-snake hocked that horrible loogie at me, I launched myself up and forward, throwing my body into a flip so that the nasty ball of stuff passed directly under me. In mid-flip, I focused on making my staff bigger, trying to break the stuff that was encasing it. At the same time, I focused on super-heating all of it except for the part I was holding. 

Yeah, that didn’t work either. The hardened amber stuff just got really hot and grew right along with the staff. Fuck. Still, coming back right-side up through the flip, I hurled the encased staff, spear-like, straight at the thing’s right eye. Hot as it was despite being covered in that hardened crap, the staff seared straight through the monster’s eye. 

Suddenly in agony, the thing reared up and back with a scream. In that second, I wasn’t flying straight at its mouth anymore. Instead, I crashed into its throat. The force from my impact cut the thing off in mid-scream, while I viciously stabbed one hand against the throat I’d collided with. My fingernails hardened and extended like claws, dragging down through the throat for about a foot before managing to catch, jerking me to a stop. 

I dangled there by one hand while summoning the burning-hot staff back to the other, holding the only safe part of it. With a grunt, I shoved the weapon up into the throat as hard as I could. Hot blood, mucus, and who the hell knew what else all erupted over me as the thing screamed, choked, and thrashed violently in every direction. Unable to hold on, I was thrown clear, flipping over in the air to land on my feet. 

The monster was thrashing, screaming, antler-tentacles flailing in every direction. Time to end this. For that, I judged my aim carefully, shrinking the staff in my hand before launching it like a spear once more. The weapon flew straight through the hole that I had made in the creature’s throat at an angle, lodging itself in the space there. 

With a thought, I made it grow as large as possible. Suddenly, the ends of the white-hot staff were poking out of both ends of the creature’s throat. The screams grew hoarse, even as I summoned the staff back, dove to the side in a frantic roll to escape the next flailing tentacle, and launched the briefly shrunken weapon one more time through the same throat-hole at a slightly different angle. It lodged once more, and then I made it grow, almost entirely severing what was left of the neck from the head. 

Finally, it was enough. The monster fell, collapsing against the ground before giving a violent series of death heaves as the staff returned to my hand at a thought. And I felt a sudden rush of pleasure that made me stumble, gasping briefly. 

Wait, fuck. I didn’t have time for this. Grimacing, I glanced at my staff. Still covered. Fuck. I was going to have to find a way to get this stuff off it (not to mention off of Jaq and Gus, who were trapped), but not right now. At least I’d demonstrated that it wasn’t entirely useless. Shaking my head, I murmured an apology to my mice and shoved the staff back in its sheath before taking off to run once more. I had to go lion again, had to use its speed to make up for lost time. That whole thing back there honestly, objectively had gone pretty fast. But it felt as though it had taken forever, given the way every second counted. 

Racing along the ground in lion form once more, I approached the outskirts of the base. The fighting was intense and horrific. The bodies lying everywhere, even out here at the edges of the base, were torn apart. Some weren’t dead yet, only wishing they were. The mixture of Fomorian and Alter pieces, the blood everywhere, the whimpering and crying, the pleas for death, the… it was awful. I couldn’t focus on it. I couldn’t deal with what I was seeing. There wasn’t time to process, there wasn’t time for anything. Not considering the fighting that was still going on. I could see more Fomorian creations of all shapes and sizes, swarms of monstrosities working to tear through any defenses that were left. In the distance, the biggest monster of all loomed over everything. It was sixty feet long and had to be over twenty feet in height. The thing was some kind of fused crocodile-gorilla… creature. It looked like a giant gorilla body with an even larger crocodile head attached above the ape head. The long arms of the gorilla would reach out to grab anyone within reach, hauling them screaming and flailing to be eaten by the crocodile part. 

“Flick!” The voice of Rahanvael cut through my thoughts as I stared at the monster in the distance. “That thing, Fossor had to deal with them before. They put out a field that can prevent the engines of a ship from achieving the thrust needed to escape a planet’s atmosphere. 

“So you’re saying we have to kill it or no one’s getting out of here,” I muttered while shifting back to human shape, still moving along the edge of the damaged outpost wall. Still hearing the cries of those in the distance.  

The ghost-girl appeared in front of me, nodding. “But Flick, you are a Heretic. The moment you show yourself to the group in there, the Fomorians will focus everything on obtaining you for study. They want Heretics to take apart.”  

“Of course they do,” I mumbled. “Guess that means I need to play this a little more…” My voice trailed off as I came around the corner of one mostly-demolished wall. Two figures. One was very clearly one of the Seosten-aligned troops, given the look of his uniform. He was a wiry humanoid with onyx-like skin. The other figure, meanwhile, was apparently one of Petan’s men, a reptilian-man holding some kind of grenade launcher. Not that he was going to be doing anything with it, given the fact that the first man’s own weapon, a double-bladed sword, was shoved through his chest. 

The onyx-skinned figure violently kicked the dead Petan-aligned soldier off his weapon, spitting something in Latin that amounted to saying he’d never be allies with traitors or something. Right, so this guy had seen the Fomorians attacking and still chose to kill Petan’s soldier just for being ‘on the other side’, instead of focusing on the bigger problem. 

“Well,” I whispered while creating a quick portal. “Thanks for making this decision easy, I guess.” The other end of the portal appeared right next to the guy. He snapped that way, one end of the sword coming up. But he was too late. My hand popped through the portal, pressing against his face as I focused on possessing him. 

Then I was there, inside the man. I felt him jerk and scream inwardly, flailing against my control. And he nearly managed it. Strong as I was, this guy fought so hard it was all I could do to shove him back down. For a few seconds, the body we were sharing stumbled from one side to the other as we struggled for control. 

In the end, however, I forced him down. Shoving the man’s consciousness down, I added a quick promise that I was going to try to keep him alive, unlike him with the guy he had just killed. Then I stooped, grabbing the grenade launcher from the dead figure. 

“Okay,” I announced out loud, using my temporary host’s mouth while holding the grenade launcher in one hand and the double-bladed sword in the other. 

“Let’s go kill that thing.”

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New Deals 13-07 (Summus Proelium)

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It wasn’t a mistake, apparently. My name was written out and everything. Paige was inviting me to her birthday party. Or her (adopted) parents were making her. Or this was some kind of elaborate trap. Actually, the fact that I genuinely wasn’t sure if it was a standard mean girl school teenage bullshit trap or something more nefarious involving her supervillain father (not that I had any room to judge as far as that went) kind of said something about how my life was. 

So which was it? Assuming this whole thing was intentional, was Paige playing her bitchy shtick again, waiting for me to either come so she could pull something or not come so she could tell everyone what a snob I was? Or was it something worse she and her father had cooked up?

Complicating everything, of course, was the fact that I’d found out we used to be friends. Which was still something that I couldn’t wrap my head around, no matter how many times I thought about it. Paige Banners and I were friends at some point? The same girl who had been… who had made so much of my school life… who had… how were we friends? Why was she apparently so different now? It couldn’t just be memory loss, right? What was going on? 

In any case, two days (really a day and a half) after getting the invitation, I still didn’t know exactly what that was all about. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much of a choice about going. Apparently Paige’s family (or the people who had apparently adopted her?) had also sent the invitation to my parents, making it an official sort of thing, and my mother had said that I needed to put in an appearance to avoid upsetting the Banners. It was a rich people thing. My family was rich, the Banners were rich, we had to play nice in some respects. I didn’t have to stay for long, but I had to at least show up. 

In any case, now it was Friday, which meant two things. First, we were supposed to have dinner with that reporter guy who was up from Los Angeles. And second, I was going out that night to meet with those two from before, Murphy and Roald. I actually had a plan for that bit, at least. I’d talked with Wren and she said she could use their help putting some stuff together. Extra hands and all that. 

So, that at least was something I could start them on. Honestly, I was just glad I’d come up with an answer to one of the questions I’d been thinking about the past couple days, even if it was the simplest one. As for the whole birthday thing and the wider Paige situation… yeah, I had nothing. My brain kept saying that at least I could use this chance to find out more. It was the best opportunity I’d been offered to get close to Paige (a thought that would have made me dry heave not long ago) without it being obvious that I was investigating her. She’d invited me, after all, whatever the reason. I could use that, maybe. 

To distract myself from all those confusing thoughts (as well as the fact that I had every reason to be suspicious about this party), I was taking a trip through the city as Paintball about an hour after school. Not really looking for anything in particular, just running and skating through the rooftops and across buildings to clear my head. I was going to have to head home for dinner eventually, but that wouldn’t be for another couple hours. We weren’t eating until seven, which gave me plenty of time to take a good run and hopefully get my brain on straight before it twisted itself into knots. 

Yeah, clearing my mind was obviously going super-well, given how much I was still thinking about that whole thing. Urgh. Giving my head a hard shake, I focused on where I actually was. The answer, in that case, was ‘skating along the very edge of a roof, using green paint for speed as I raced toward the far end.’ The building was a good twenty stories high, leaving the view immediately to my left fairly… precarious, to say the least. I ignored that, staring straight ahead as the wheels of my skates glided easily along the roof. The green paint meant I was ‘gliding’ at about forty miles an hour, so the far end was coming up pretty fast. That steep drop loomed. 

Spraying blue paint at the very edge of the roof just in time, I activated it, crouching at the last second before I was launched up and forward with a loud scream of adrenaline. Fuck, fuck! Say whatever about the stress of my whole situation, but I loved this part of my powers. It was so incredibly freeing. I literally hurled myself out into open air twenty stories up. If I fell, if I fucked up, if my powers dropped for whatever reason, if I made any real mistake, the consequences would have been catastrophic. It was terrifying but also so… so amazing. I loved it. I loved my powers, and how I could use them. 

Flipping over high in the air, I twisted my body until my feet were pointed sideways toward the side of the building I was flying at. The momentum from my launch carried me clear across the street that was so far below, until I hit that wall. Instantly, the pace-skates that Wren had put together shifted gravity so that being sideways against that building was the same as being right-side up for me. I didn’t even slow down, ‘landing’ hard against the wall before immediately continuing to skate, that time along the wall. My skates made clickety-clack sounds as they passed through the grooves of the bricks, almost calming in a way. Especially if you didn’t think about how high up you were. It helped. All of this was helping me feel better. 

Before reaching the edge of that wall, I retracted my skates with a quick command and simply ran the last few steps while focusing on the purple stars I’d previously set up along my legs. Activating them for the strength boost, I threw myself sideways off the wall. At the same time, I turned my entire arm and hand bright pink and heaved it out as hard as I could while activating that paint as well. My arm, suddenly rubberized, actually stretched a good ten feet out to catch hold of the ledge of another building. Between the purple and pink paint, I was able to grab the ledge and swing myself over that way, letting out another loud whoop of joy at the rush. 

Releasing the ledge as I managed to swing myself over, I cancelled the pink paint so my arm snapped back to normal. Now I was diving through the air feet-first, at an angle toward the side of a much lower building, only a few stories tall. 

Pointing my hands that way, I shot a spray of pink paint, activating both that and the orange sun image I already had on my back. The instant before I would have hit the pink paint, I deactivated it, shifting the pink to its secondary effect of making the target very springy for those brief few seconds. Which was all the time I needed before my feet collided with the wall, visibly denting it inward a bit before it snapped back to the way it had been to launch me back up and toward the opposite side of the street. 

Flipping over through that, I hit the wall of another building a couple stories up and glanced down to see a few people taking pictures from below, or even waving. A few called, asking for autographs, or even for a ‘ride’ through the city.   

I waved back, crouching a bit to slap my hand against the wall. The logo I’d made up for ‘signing’ things back at the Ten Towers headquarters appeared. Black oval with ‘Paintball’ written in white cursive letters, along with a rainbow spray of all the other colors from one side to the other. I made the logo large enough to see before throwing myself back into a run once more. I’d let the people down there have some time to take pictures of the logo before dismissing it so some poor guy didn’t have to scrub it clean. 

Yeah, that stuff seemed pretty silly and even arrogant if I thought about it too much, but I’d heard about how important it was to keep a good public image. I really didn’t have it in me to drop down there and talk to people while I was still trying to clear my head. But I could, at least, give them that little logo thing to show I wasn’t ignoring them. Besides, playing things up like that was fun. And I had to admit, the cheers as I ran along the wall before using blue paint to launch myself up and away were pretty amazing to hear. 

Just as I landed on the edge of another roof, the Touched-business phone buzzed in my pocket. Glancing down to see the people gathering up under the logo I’d painted to take pictures, I pulled the phone out and glanced down. It was the number That-A-Way had given me. 

“Hey, you busy?!” she immediately blurted the second that I answered. It sounded like she was out of breath. “Cuz we could use a little help over here!” 

Well, that got my attention. Quickly straightening, I asked, “Help over where, with what?” Tempting as it was to add a snarky comment about how she better not be asking me to help her move, I restrained the impulse. This sounded serious. She was definitely in the middle of something big, given the shouts and other sounds I could vaguely hear in the background. 

There was a brief pause while That-A-Way clearly dealt with something else, before she responded. “Fox Theatre on Woodward! Near downtown. You know where–what the fuck am I saying–the baseball stadium! We’re at the baseball stadium! There’s some big fight going on between the–Rain, get down! Some big fight going on between the Niners and the Eights. They’ve got the big guns a couple blocks north, but we’re catching the edge of it and could use a little–” There was a sudden loud pair of gunshots that cut off her words, and my heart leapt into my stomach until her voice came back midway through a sentence, “–of shit! Paintball?” 

“I’m on my way!” I blurted quickly, wanting the other girl to focus on what she was doing. “I’ll be right there, I’m just–I’m coming, just a few minutes out!” With that, I dismissed the logo on the building nearby before running to the edge of the roof I was on, launching myself upward. Fox Theatre on Woodward. That was the same street where the library that I’d eavesdropped on Paige’s conversation with her father was on, but a couple miles further south. And That-A-Way was right, it was also directly next to Whitaker-Trammell Field, the massive domed baseball stadium (for the Detroit Tigers) my father had helped fund the creation of to replace the former Comerica Park about ten years earlier.

In any case, I really was only a few minutes away. At least the way I traveled. Staying atop the buildings, I raced toward the theater as quickly as possible. My skates seemed to barely touch down before I launched myself again, urging myself to fucking move already. It didn’t matter how fast I was going. It didn’t matter that I was hurtling myself recklessly through the air while barely paying attention to my surroundings. It felt too slow. Go, go, I had to get there. If something happened to That-A-Way, or any of the others, because I was too slow to help… I couldn’t let that happen. I had to get there right god damn now. 

Actually, I really wasn’t paying that much actual attention to my surroundings. I was running along the side of buildings, jumping across billboards, popping my skates out to glide across the very edge of roofs, all while going way too fast to be judging all of this manually. It was like when I was navigating through those trees in the middle of the night. I just… knew where to go. 

Not something to worry about right then. Another example of my weird extra sense or whatever, but I didn’t have time to focus on it. The Minority. That-A-Way. I had to get there to help. Any other weirdness could wait until later. 

On the plus side, it didn’t actually take that long for me to get where I was going. And it took an even shorter amount of time for me to hear some of what was going on. There was gunfire, blaring horns and squealing tires from cars still trying to get away from being in the middle of it, screaming, and more. So much more. I was heading straight into a storm of chaos and violence. And, from the sound of what That-A-Way had said, this was just the edge of things. Just how bad was it further north, where the so-called ‘big guns’ were fighting? 

Pretty bad, clearly. But I had to focus on helping these guys. First, however, I had to see what was going on. My eyes scanned the street below frantically as I came to a stop at the edge of an office building across the street from the theater itself. Below me was the spot where the smaller Columbia street crossed Woodward. Columbia led straight through a couple large parking lots directly in front of the stadium. 

But baseball wasn’t the point. The real point were those two parking lots and the theater across Columbia street. There were people down there, spread all through the street, partially in the theater itself from the look of things, and in those parking lots. It was a mix of police, Prev gang members, Touched gang members, and the Minority. Not to mention a handful of civilians who were cowering on the ground, unable to get out of the line of fire. 

Judging from my quick look, what Way had said made sense. There were definitely two different gangs down there, a mix of Ninety-Niners and Easy Eights. It looked like some kind of massive fight had broken out, the cops intervened and were quickly outgunned, and now the Minority were trying to help. But they too were outnumbered. Luckily, the two gangs seemed more interested in fighting each other than in actually causing damage to the Star-Touched or police.

There. Janus (Uncle Friendly and Mister Harmful) were standing at the edge of the nearest parking lot. They’d made their hands and arms massive, and were currently using them to lash out at the nearby Whamline. But the Minority guy kept launching energy coils that exploded to knock the incoming hands out of the way. He couldn’t do more than that, fighting a defensive battle, because there were two civilians huddled on the ground right behind him. Whamline was covering them, repeatedly knocking Janus’ hands out of the way. But with every grasp, the conjoined men kept getting closer to getting hold of him. They were using the fact that Whamline had to protect the prone civilians against him, almost like they were playing a game. Like a cat with a mouse. They were wearing him down. 

Using one shot of blue paint to launch myself that way, then another on top of the traffic light in the middle of the intersection, I flipped over in the air before shooting a spray of pink toward the tall lamp post about ten feet away from Janus, coating it as much as possible. Just before crashing into that same post (activating a bit of orange on one arm to avoid knocking the wind out of myself), I cancelled the pink paint while blurting, “I know you’re into this villain thing, but–” My full body hit the post, bending it all the way over in half before I threw myself off it to the side. “–I really think you should see the light!” As I said those last words, the lamp post snapped all the way upright and then continued over in the opposite direction, like flicking one of those springy doorstop things. The top of the lamp literally slammed into the top of their joined heads. “Up close and personal-like,” I finished from my crouched position, watching the men reel backward. Or forward, in Uncle Friendly’s case. Not that he looked all that friendly right then. They both seemed fairly annoyed with me, even as the lamp post snapped back to its normal position. But hey, at least I had their attention. 

Green paint, green paint, green paint! Activating the wide emerald wings I’d put on my back, I used the enhanced speed to barely avoid the truck-sized fist that Janus basically launched at me. Hurling myself upward and over, I landed on his extended wrist as that hand shot by right under me, shooting yellow down at that to slow them just a little. At the same time, I threw myself in a sideways flip, hitting the underside of their other arm, which was raised slightly higher, running along that with my gravity-defying boots.  

A few steps in and Janus clearly knew where I was, as the arm lifted up before abruptly slamming toward the ground. They were trying to squish me like a fly. And they might’ve managed it, if I hadn’t used that shot of yellow to slow them slightly. As it was, I barely managed to toss myself at the ground and away from the descending arm, tucking into a forward roll that carried me just out of the way as it slammed into the ground so hard I nearly lost my balance. 

Fortunately, the fact that I’d managed to get their attention so well wasn’t all bad news. It also meant that Whamline was able to regroup. Mister Harmful shouted a cursed warning, but it was too late, as the Minority Touched sent out four quick energy coils, which wrapped around Janus by all four limbs before quickly hurling him out of the way and across to the far side of the lot. 

“Go help Way and Rain!” he blurted at me, pointing to the theater across the street. “They’re inside, with hostages! I’ve got these guys!” 

My head snapped that way. I could see where the doors of the theater had been broken down entirely. That-A-Way and Raindrop were in there with bad guys and innocent civilians, apparently. Without pausing to think at all, I threw myself into a sprint that way, ignoring the screamed threat from Mister Harmful. He didn’t matter. Neither did his conjoined partner. The only thing that mattered was getting to That-A-Way and Raindrop. 

And hoping I wasn’t too late. 

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Homeward Bound 8-04 (Heretical Edge 2)

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According to the memories I’d picked out of Tuun’s head, the creature these guys were after (the thing he had called a Leunphia) was the largest native inhabitant of this place. They possessed some kind of natural resistance to certain magical poisons that the Fomorians were fond of using. Resistance beyond what most could easily achieve without heavy magic expenditure, and they had it naturally. A few other animals and plants from this place were also resistant. Hence this outpost. They were investigating the origin of that resistance and whether or not it could be built up. There was also some kind of long-dead society that used to live on this planet, and some of the Seosten thought that whoever those people were might’ve been responsible for the poison-resistance demonstrated by the present animals. So they were looking into that. Which was where a lot of the slaves came in, being used to help dig out the long-buried civilization, collect artifacts, pinpoint promising remains, that kind of thing. 

But the scientists who were investigating the actual biological reasoning for the resistance needed a lot of samples of their own, and worked through those samples quickly. Between that and the fact that a lot of what they managed to collect was sent to be utilized in the war, yeah, they always needed more. Like the big guy Tuun and the rest of these people were after. 

Helping them get this thing wasn’t my job right now, obviously. I had much bigger things to worry about. Unfortunately, I didn’t know exactly how to go about dealing with those things. The message from Elisabet had just said for me to ‘follow my instincts’ and that I would eventually make my way through all that. I would find Nicholas Petan somehow. But what happened between the moment I got that message and when I actually found my way to Petan? That was a blank. A blank I was apparently supposed to fill in just by taking my best guess at what to do.

Right now, my ‘best guess’ was to fit in and not set off any alarms just yet. I needed more information, and that meant at least playing along for a few minutes to see what happened. The only good part of this whole situation was that I was already in the future. Whatever Fossor had done or had failed to do in those intervening four years was over with. I wasn’t on any kind of clock right now, as far as I knew. However long it took me to get to a point where someone could send me into the past, a few minutes, hours, or even days here didn’t really matter. Well, as long as I didn’t get captured and killed. 

Besides, I was supposed to follow my instincts, and part of those were telling me that finding out  more about this whole ‘resistance to magical poison’ thing might be relevant and important when it came to Fossor. The Fomorians might’ve written the book on those things, but I was pretty sure Fossor had at least read a few of the chapters. 

Scanning Tuun’s mind had also let me know what he was capable of beyond tracking, family identification, and bone manipulation. Thankfully, for the most part aside from the bone thing, it wasn’t anything super-exotic that would turn into an immediate red flag when I couldn’t do it. He was pretty strong and fast, had good vision, decent regeneration, and some kind of paralyzing bite. But their plan didn’t involve him biting this big thing (mostly because it would’ve been ineffective), so that wouldn’t come into play. Most of the rest I could fake. Hopefully. But the bone manipulation could be an issue. I didn’t have that and I couldn’t easily fake it. Thankfully, their plan didn’t involve him using it. If it came up… well, I’d take that as it happened. 

Stowing my own staff and replacing it with one of the weapons stowed in the pockets of this suit felt wrong. But again, I needed to blend in. The thing I managed to pull out was a combination pistol-rifle (it swapped between both settings at the touch of a button). I was going to have to make do with it for the time being. At least my guy hadn’t been some great crack shot sniper or anything. That definitely would’ve given me away. 

As I’d already reasoned out, Tuun’s part was to stay back, get into position with his rifle, and start shooting the thing once some of the other startled it into running. They would guide it past Tuun (or who they thought was Tuun) on one side and one of the other soldiers on the opposite side. We were supposed to pump enough firepower into it to take the thing down to be harvested. According to my guy’s memories, shots to the legs were most important. Bringing the thing to the ground without damaging precious internal organs was the idea. Once he was down, a couple of the others would deal non-traumatic killing blows with their own powers. They just needed the Leunphia to be on the ground and unable to run away. 

God, this was really fucked up when I thought about it too much. Seriously. I knew why they were doing this and that it was for the very good cause of finding a way of defending against the Fomorians. But still, just the thought that they needed to destroy this thing’s legs so it couldn’t run away, then kill it in a special way to preserve its organs… eeesh. Yeah. Fucked up. 

Making my way to the position that Tuun had been heading for, I hit the button to turn the pistol into a rifle. Then I cringed. This was the bad part. With a sigh, I got down on my stomach in that nasty snot-water. Yes, it was very shallow right here. Shallow enough that I could lay on my stomach and still keep my head out of it. And yes, I was now wearing a fully-sealed environment suit. But it was still gross. 

Shaking off those thoughts, I folded out the electronic scope on the rifle. It had a screen that showed an enhanced look at everything the scope could see, including where all my–errr, Tuun’s teammates were, thanks to trackers in their suits. It also showed me where the Leunphia was quietly grazing on a couple trees a few hundred yards off. 

Once I reported being in position, again faking Tuun’s voice, his boss (a guy named Qive) ordered everyone else to sound off. They were all ready, so he gave the word to start the attack. 

Or… he started to give the word. But in mid-sentence, as everyone’s attention was on the giant Leunphia, there was a sudden loud alarm through the suit’s communication unit that made me jump in surprise. The alarm muted after a brief moment, before a voice came through, speaking rapidly in Latin. So quickly, unfortunately, that I couldn’t keep up with it. Something about defense and an invader. That last part made me stop breathing for just a second as I looked around quickly. Was it about me? No. At the very least, they didn’t know where I was or what I was doing. Otherwise I wouldn’t be getting the alert too. 

“Incoming ship.” That was Rahanvael, floating beside me. “The alert was about an incoming ship. They’re telling the field teams to come back and set up defenses because the station is about to be under attack.” 

“Under att–Nicholas,” I abruptly realized. “It’s Petan, it has to be. This is just the kind of thing Tristan said they did–do–whatever. Attacking a Seosten outpost full of slaves, it must be Petan. This is how I’m supposed to meet up with him.” After muttering those words aloud, I was distracted by the sound of this group’s leader ordering everyone to get back to the outpost, immediately. 

Rahanvael disappeared once more, as I shifted the rifle back into its pistol form and rose to follow the heat signatures of the other members of Tuun’s team. Petan was coming. Now I just had to figure out how to get close enough to let him know who I was. I had to maintain my cover until the right moment came, and hope everyone here was too distracted by the incoming invading ship to notice anything different about their teammate. At least for a few minutes. 

There was a flashing teal dot on the edge of my visor screen, which moved from one side to the top when I turned to follow the other people. Belatedly, I realized it was indicating where the outpost was. Even for people who were actually supposed to be here, it must have been easy to get lost out in the wild. Especially in a swamp like this.

Not that it stayed a swamp for long. Within about ten minutes of running (none of us acknowledged each other, everyone remaining focused on getting out of there), we reached dry ground. There were a couple hover vehicles, basically shaped like trucks with long beds, parked there. The group split up, each half going to one of the trucks. Oh boy, did I hope my guy wasn’t supposed to drive. 

He wasn’t, a fact I found out as one of the other guys gave me a push toward the back of the nearest truck, saying something in Latin that amounted to ‘the hell are you waiting for, let’s go.’ 

Right. Here went nothing. Glancing toward the sky, I moved to climb up onto the truck’s long bed, just as it took off. I barely managed to drop onto the long bench, prompting a few chuckles from the three other guys back there. They were all obviously nervous, glancing up at the sky now and then just as I had, while the truck sped across the open plains. Not that I’d ever been there, but it seemed a lot like driving across the serengeti. Save for the fact that the tall grass and trees were a pale purplish-red color scheme. I saw more wild animals on the way, including a herd of what looked like blue antelope with ram-like horns, and a huge red-black giraffe whose neck extended out to twice its already-decently long length to snatch a soaring bird right out of the sky with its wide, toothy mouth. So, not really like a giraffe then, got it. 

The other guys were talking, but I kept my head down to avoid them paying too much attention to me. Now and then I was asked a direct question about what I thought was going on and how bad it was, and mumbled answers. Luckily, everyone was so focused on the attack coming from above that they didn’t really focus on the person sitting right with them. They believed I was the guy I was supposed to be, so they didn’t question it too much. 

How was I going to do this? When should I make my move? I needed to get close enough to Nicholas Petan to explain the situation. Which seemed hard to pull off in the middle of a war zone. I could find a place to hole up and wait for the attack to be over, then approach him. He’d definitely recognize me, after what happened last year on the Meregan world. I just had to get to him. He could fix this. He’d sent Tristan back in time, after all. Recently, actually, if my math was right. He’d sent Tristan back, so he’d be able to send me–wait, Dexamene. To make this whole situation work out as well as it had, he had to send Dexamene back first, to the Meregan world so she could help Elisabet, who would in turn help me end up here–damn it, time travel was complicated. 

The point was, he had to send Dexamene back to set off the dominoes that would lead to me not ending up Fossor’s nicely packaged prisoner. I would worry about trying to figure out what had happened in the timelines where she wasn’t sent back there to create this loop later. Maybe. 

Of course, shit couldn’t stay uncomplicated for long. My idea had been to get to the outpost, find a place to hole up, and wait for the fighting to be over before approaching Petan. Instead, there was a sudden shout from one of the other guys in the back of the truck. He was already standing up, pointing toward the sky. I followed everyone else’s gaze, looking that way in time to see some kind of space fighter zooming in. And from the way these guys were reacting, it wasn’t one of theirs. 

“Oh… balls,” I managed, just as the fighter opened up with a stream of lasers. Everyone else had already started to fling themselves out of the truck. I followed suit, boosting myself slightly to leap up and off the side, landing in a roll through the tall purple grass just as the truck blew apart in a deafening explosion. The concussion wave from the blast knocked me flat against the dirt, hitting me like a hard kick right across my back. Oww. 

Snapping out of that moment of being dazed, I rolled over and looked up in time to see one of the troops I’d been with extending his arms, vine-like, up toward the passing starfighter in an attempt to grab onto one of its wings. At the same time, a handful of small, spiked tentacle things extended from his legs to drive themselves into the ground, as though rooting him there. Around him, a few others were already picking themselves up and shooting at the fighter. A distraction, I realized belatedly. They were sending lasers to hide the extended arms that were about to grab the wing. 

Not that it mattered in the end, as a handful of magic runes suddenly glowed brightly on the back of the ship. It vanished from sight, only to reappear back where it had been when it first opened fire. Magic. Teleportation or a physical rewind spell or something. Whatever it was, all the shots and the extended arms missed. And the ship was in prime position to open fire on the troops, which it did, raining hell down on them. In those brief couple of seconds, I saw seven men get blown apart by spaceship lasers. It was a total massacre. 

And then the fighter hovered there, orienting toward… me. Wait. Shit, right, they didn’t know I wasn’t–fuck. Eyes widening, I boosted myself as hard as I could, lunging up and out of the way. My speed boost, coupled with the strength of my legs and arms, shoved me a good fifteen feet away, where I rolled just as those lasers tore through the ground where I had been, sending dirt and debris spraying everywhere. 

Unfortunately, whoever this pilot was (or gunner, I supposed), they were really good, adjusting their aim almost instantly. Even as I came back to my feet, the lasers were about to fire at me again. 

Well, shit. Here went nothing. Seeing the ship start to open up, I focused on my energy absorption power. I’d been trying not to use it, considering I wasn’t sure exactly how much damage I could safely take. But just as the shots came, a flash came to mind. A memory from those weeks spent with Fossor. He had taught me to manipulate death energy, and there was a lot of death around me from those guys who had just been vaporized. With a thought, I yanked at that energy, pulling it into myself to use as a temporary boost before instantly shoving all of it into my absorption power. It just sort of… worked. I guess it was sort of like having a nitrous boost on a car, overcharging my absorption to the point that my whole body started to glow. 

Then the ship lasers hit, and I was really glowing. My body was hot. So hot I was literally smoking. My eyes burned, my skin was sizzling. But I was alive. I was in one piece. 

I was also standing in a small crater. Literally standing there in a hole, my body glowing so much I could see the light I was casting reflecting off the dirt around me. Discharge. I had to fucking discharge this energy, before it burned me inside out. 

No way was I going to attack the ship that had just fired at me. This was all a misunderstanding. They thought I was one of the bad guys, one of the Seosten troops. So, instead of launching all that energy back at them, I pivoted and pointed to the remains of both of the already-destroyed trucks. The power erupted from my hands like… like when you shake up a soda bottle really bad and then open it up. I was literally knocked backward a step from the force of the power that launched itself that way, utterly annihilating the remains of the trucks. 

Please. Please let the guy or whatever up in that ship understand what that meant. He’d shot at me, I absorbed the power and demonstrated that I could have destroyed him, but didn’t. Please let that mean he’d actually talk to me. 

It worked. Holy shit, it actually worked. I saw the fighter hover there for a few seconds as if taking all that in, then it slowly began to descend. He was going to talk to me. Thank God. He’d talk to me and I could explain the whole–

Something hit the fighter. It just fell out of the sky, splatting like a… like an overripe peach or something. Only it was bloody and… and there were tendrils snaking out of it. . I could see eyes, like… a snail. Fuck, it was a giant snail with tentacles wrapping around the ship, tearing it apart. I barely hurtled myself out of the way as the fighter crashed to the ground, exploding on impact. 

The snail-tentacle thing was destroyed in the process. But, lying there on the ground, I looked up to see more of them. And other… other things. Ships. Only they weren’t mechanical. They were living things. Enormous, tentacled, monstrous living ships, similar to things I’d seen before… when the protective spell around Earth had almost been destroyed because Koren and I had figured out who Dare really was. 

“Fuck… everything…” I managed. 

The Fomorians were here. 

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New Deals 13-06 (Summus Proelium)

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For a few long seconds, I just sat there, frozen from confusion. Pack saw two guys standing there talking to Blackjack. But I saw my parents. Was I being affected by some kind of power that made me see things differently? No. That didn’t make sense, did it? No one in here knew enough about me to make me see my family members over there. Plus, if it was some kind of ‘see people you know’ power or something, Pack wouldn’t just be seeing two random guys. 

Okay, so it wasn’t that. My flash of panic that someone in here knew about my identity and my family and was fucking with me only lasted a brief moment before I got it under control. There was another explanation, one that didn’t involve all my secrets suddenly being out, thank God.

“Dude.” Pack sounded confused and maybe a little exasperated. “Are you okay over there?” 

Was I okay? Hah. Not really, considering the way my heart had just been trying to claw its way out of my chest so it could escape. “Sorry,” I quickly muttered, resisting the urge to stare at Blackjack and the people who were either my parents or looked exactly like them. “It’s been a long day.” And from the looks of it, getting longer by the minute. Wait, all days got longer by the minute. Fuck, I knew what I meant. “You were talking about those… guys.”

Guys, she saw guys. It had to be a power of some kind, right? My parents–wait, was that how they hid their identities? By appearing as different people to others–but why would I see them for who they were? Was I immune to the power or something? Why would I be–hold on…

“Like I said,” Pack was in the middle of replying in a low voice, “they came in to talk to Blackjack. I didn’t hear a lot before they went into the other room, but I heard a name. Tate.” 

That made me do a double-take, looking at her while seeing my mother and father still in the middle of what seemed to be an intense conversation. “Tate? You definitely heard that?” 

“Yeah, as in the name of that kid you were talking to Way about,” she confirmed. “What was it–Andy? Tate, that was right, wasn’t it?” For a brief moment, she sounded uncertain. 

“Anthony,” I corrected in a much lower voice. I still wasn’t comfortable here like this. “Anthony Tate, yeah. So those two came in and talked to your boss, and they said something about Tate.”

“I told you,” she reiterated, “I didn’t hear much. They went into the other room pretty quick. I heard something about Tate, and then something about someone’s father being dead.”

Blinking a couple times, I echoed, “Someone’s father being dead? Whose?” 

Snorting, Pack retorted, “The fuck should I know? I wasn’t exactly in a position to ask for clarification, dude. They said something about someone’s father being dead–oh, I kind of got the impression this wasn’t something new. The way they said it, he’s been dead for awhile.” 

Someone’s father had been dead for awhile. Biting my lip, I tried to sound as casual as possible. “Which one of them said it? What’d they say, exactly? I mean, as much as you can remember.”   

The other girl took a moment, clearly focused on recalling as best as she could. “The guy with the red hair said, ‘The Tate situation was supposed to be over and done with. We put it behind us.’ Then Blackjack said, ‘At least the father’s dead.’ Wait. Wait, did he say ‘the father’ or ‘your father?’ Shit. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure. He either said ‘At least the father’s dead’ or ‘At least your father’s dead.’ Then they went into the other room.” 

Sinking back in my seat, I thought about that for a few seconds. The Tate situation, my parents were annoyed because something about it was coming back to bother them after they thought it was handled. But what? Was it something about Paige? Paige had been erased from my memory around the same time that Anthony was, and I’d heard her talking about how whatever she was doing had something to do with him. She’d specifically said that my mom and dad had no idea where she came from or why she was doing… whatever she was doing because they hadn’t thought about the name Anthony Tate in years. So of course they were connected, but how much of that did my parents know? Was this whole conversation about the Tate situation not being over because of Paige, or because of something else? What prompted that? 

“You sure you’re okay?” Pack was asking, her voice clearly uncertain as she absently scratched one of her lizards. “Do you know those guys over there or something?” 

Boy, talk about being simultaneously very wrong and very right. For a moment, brief as it was, I almost considered telling her about how I wasn’t seeing those two the way she was. But that would’ve led to her asking who I was actually seeing. And even if I just described them instead of saying they were my parents, she’d definitely start looking into those details. And if that led her to who they really were… well, was that really bad? Did I think it was bad because it would put her in danger, or because it would put my family in danger? Which one was I really bothered more by? God damn it, what was wrong with me? 

Finally, after shaking myself, I nodded. “I’ll be fine. And no, I’ve never seen those two guys.” Hell, those words were the literal truth, I had most certainly never seen the two guys she was talking about, not even when I looked right at the two who were supposed to be them. 

And yet it was still a lie. A lie that made me feel like shit after saying it. Pack was a villain, but she’d also been my friend. She’d helped me, had gone out of her way to come save me from Pencil. She had put her lizards in danger to help me, and how was I paying her back? 

Fuck. This whole thing was just so complicated. Too god damn complicated. I had no idea how to make it better. I couldn’t tell her the truth. Not… not yet, right? But no matter how many times I said ‘not yet,’ it was becoming increasingly obvious that I was going to have to make that kind of leap at some point. Once I did, it would be a leap I couldn’t take back. And it felt like the longer I waited, the harder the fall after that leap was going to be. 

I couldn’t see her face, of course, but I had the feeling that Pack was squinting at me uncertainly. After a moment of that, she shook her head. “Well, keep an eye out for them. Sounds like they’re connected to this Anthony Tate thing you’ve been looking into. And…” She hesitated before offering a shrug. “And that other thing you were talking about.” Apparently even Pack didn’t actually want to mention the Ministry out loud right here in the casino. 

“I’ll see what I can find out,” I promised, before adding, “Thanks, Pack. Seriously, I know this whole thing is hard for you after everything La Casa’s done.” 

“Yeah, well, I’m not doing anything against La Casa,” she insisted firmly. “Just looking out for my own interests on top of that. I wanna get to the bottom of this whole thing. I–” In mid-sentence, she glanced over before squinting. “And there they go.” 

Sure enough, my parents and Blackjack were walking away together, heading for one of the exits. Not the one I had come through, of course. 

After we both watched the trio head off, Pack turned back to me. “Right, so, about this whole Trevithick thing. You want help getting Braintrust to play nice.” 

“I want to make sure they know that pushing any harder is going to end up being more of a pain than it’s worth,” I confirmed. “I know we can’t get away with telling them to fuck off completely. Not like that. But giving them something so they feel like they’re walking away the winners, while making sure they know they can’t get anything more than that without a bigger fight? That sounds doable. I mean, with help, yeah.” 

Pack was quiet for another few seconds, before she gave a short nod. “I like the kid. Not just gonna sit around and let her be exploited. So yeah, I’ve got your back. Just tell me when and where so we can make an impression.” 

Thanking her, I added, “Speaking of making an impression, you’ve gotta tell me. What does the new lizard turn into?” 

“Scatters?” There was sly amusement to the girl’s voice. “Oh, I’m not telling you yet. 

“You’ll just have to wait and find out.”

*****

I couldn’t just leave Wren out of the situation entirely, much as I might’ve liked to. That wasn’t fair to her, given the fact that the whole thing was about Braintrust wanting to use her talents in one way or another. She deserved to know what was going on and be included in this situation.

So, Pack and I went there next. Actually, we called to arrange a meeting the next day, but Fred said the kid tended to work through the night and sleep in the mornings (being home-schooled through the afternoon). So, we headed over right then. To keep things subtle and avoid drawing attention to the girl, we used her car (or at least, a car that La Casa allowed her to use), with heavily tinted windows, heading for Wren’s shop. 

The girl herself met us on the main shop floor, literally (with the help of her little winged jetpack thing) throwing herself clear from the elevator to the entrance to half-crash into the girl beside me for a tight hug while squealing, “Pack! You’re okay! Hi! Are the lizards okay?! Can I see ‘em? Are they sleeping? Can I pet ‘em? Are they hungry? Can I feed ‘em? Did you really get a new one? Is it a boy or a girl? Did you bring her? Wait, did you eat already? Are you hungry? We could get pizza. For us, not for the lizards. But I have crickets and worms and stuff for them just in case! Hey, maybe they could put those on a pizza!” 

The words all came in a rush, blurted out as soon as Wren thought of them, without any pause to allow Pack to actually respond. And through it all, she clung tightly to the other girl as if she was a long-lost best friend who had only just returned. It reminded me of the fact that these two had bonded for days while Pack stayed around Wren when the whole situation with the vials was going on. Pack wasn’t some criminal to Wren. She was a friend. 

Then again, she wasn’t some criminal to me either. It was a lot more complicated than that. More complicated than even she knew, really. I didn’t exactly have that much right to judge her given who my family was and the fact that I still hadn’t told anyone about it. Yeah, it was dangerous, but it was also… fuck. It was complicated. All of it was just so complicated. 

Shaking that off for the moment, I watched as Pack introduced Scatters to Wren, who basically lost her mind over the adorable little neon gecko. Pack pulled the rest of her lizards out of their cage and carried them to the nearby table, where they ate from the assortment of reptile-appropriate food that the Tech-Touched girl had provided. Wren, of course, asked the same thing I had, about what Scatters turned into. Again, Pack deferred for the moment, promising to show both of us after we talked to the girl about what we had to talk about. 

And then we did just that. Well, after asking for Fred (he’d been up in the apartment area) to come down so we could talk to both of them together. I laid out everything that happened with Braintrust, how they had approached me, their offer/request/demand, and why I thought it was for the best to appease them at the moment to avoid any problems. I promised that I was going to look into dealing with their group for good, but that that was a long ways off and I didn’t want Wren or Fred to become targets in the meantime. 

“I’m not making anything for them,” the nine-year-old blonde insisted flatly, folding her arms stubbornly across her chest while setting her chin. “They’ll hurt people with it. And I’m not helping them fix their own stuff.” 

“Yeah,” I replied with a glance toward Fred. “That’s kinda what I assumed. Which leaves the option of paying taxes to them for operating in the city. Pack and me are gonna go over there, find them, and let them know that they’ll get a small bit out of whatever you sell, and that’s it.” 

“But you can’t just beat them up and arrest them?” Wren sounded confused, staring at me with those wide sea-green eyes. “They’re bad guys, they do really bad… err…” She trailed off, glancing toward Pack as though only just realizing that the other girl was technically a villain.

Pack, for her part, sounded a little amused as she casually drawled, “Everyone’s got their reasons for doing stuff. And everyone’s got friends that do bad things sometimes. These guys aren’t your friends, and they’re demanding you give them money or toys to hurt people with.” 

“Yeah, what she said.” I agreed, before adding, “And I’m pretty sure I’m not ready to take on a whole gang of Touched-Tech-Enhanced supercriminals yet.” My fingers tapped the side of my helmet. “Not that I haven’t pissed off plenty of them already, but it feels like I should pace myself.” I did not point out that I didn’t want Wren and Fred to be targets. It felt like the younger girl wouldn’t take that very well. I wasn’t sure if she’d insist she could take care of herself, or be upset that I wasn’t fighting the bad guys just to protect her, or what. But I was pretty sure framing it as me having too much to take on right then without adding yet another gang of pissed off supervillains would play better with her.

From the way Fred looked at me, he understood the rest of what I wasn’t saying. The man offered me what was obviously a thankful nod, but let his niece do most of the talking. 

It worked. Wren still clearly didn’t like the idea of appeasing the bad guys, for sure. But she accepted that it wasn’t a fight we needed right now and that the best way to handle it was to hand money to them so they’d go away. At least until we were ready. She did, however, insist that she was going to work on ideas to deal with Braintrust while also reiterating that she was never going to build anything for them, no matter what. That was her firm line in the sand. 

After that was settled, Pack took Scatters and transformed the tiny, colorful lizard into her alternate form. Which, as it turned out, was an equally colorful large reindeer. Seriously, this thing was metallic blue along most of the body, its legs were darker blue, it had a black stripe running down the sides to offset the two blues, and its head and antlers were bright green. 

Wren lost her mind all over again, grabbing onto and hugging the incredibly beautiful reindeer-lizard while cooing about how adorable she was. 

Pack informed us that they were working on a saddle for Scatters, after helping Fred pick Wren up and set her on the animal’s back. The young inventor held on tight, squealing happily as Scatters took her for a short, slow trot around the inside of the shop. She was having the time of her life. Which made me wonder how much she’d love it if the lizard-deer could go out on the street and let loose. 

Someday, I told myself, I’m gonna show that kid how to have a really good time, without a bunch of stupid supervillain bullshit getting in the way.

Pack interrupted my thoughts about that by raising her voice to ask, “Hey, Wren, you think my new friend is cool, has Paintball over there shown you his new paint thing yet?” 

“New paint thing?” Wren, still perched atop the neon lizard-deer, echoed curiously while looking over at me. Fred, standing a bit out of the way, also looked interested. 

So, I showed them how the pink paint worked. That was as much of a hit as Scatters was, especially once I showed Wren how she could stretch her limbs out while they were pink. She thought that was the funniest thing in the world, and kept having Fred hold her hand in place while she ran the other way to pull her arm as far out as she could. 

Watching the kid goofing off like that while occasionally redoing the pink paint again, or shooting some random object she pointed out with it, I found my thoughts shifting back to what I’d seen at the casino. My parents except not my parents. They had been at the casino in some kind of… power-enhanced disguise? Except whose power? Maybe it was a Tech-Touched device. Right, that made sense. Some kind of… umm…illusion-generator that somehow didn’t work on our own family? Maybe so that they could keep track of each other and still see each other for who they–wait. 

Was that why I’d seen Simon out without any kind of mask or anything on? Was that why he’d been going around apparently without anything to protect his identity, because he was using one of those illusion devices? That made sense too. I’d wondered before about just why my brother could go around without a mask or anything to hide his face. If he was using that illusion tech, it would explain a lot. Even if it didn’t explain exactly where those illusion devices came from. At the very least, it made sense that my family would have access to them. 

Which might also explain how my father could be in two places at once, come to think of it. It could help explain how he could operate as Silversmith and appear as himself at the same function, if they used that illusion tech on someone else to look like him. That was probably part of it. 

“Hey, kid.” That was Fred, watching me curiously from nearby while Pack and Wren whispered about something over by Scatters. “You okay? Seemed kinda… lost there for a minute.” 

Forcing all those thoughts away for the time being, I made myself nod. “Oh, yeah. I’m good. I just found a couple pieces to a puzzle I’ve been working on for a long time.” 

Of course, this illusion thing meant it would be even harder for me to prove my family were the bad guys even if I found someone I could safely point that out to. What was I supposed to do, point at someone who, to everyone else looked like some random guy, and insist he was my mother? Somehow, I didn’t think that would go very well. To say nothing of all the other illusion-tricks they could pull. 

It was something, at least. As I’d told Fred, it was a couple more pieces to this puzzle. It didn’t solve the entire problem, but at least it answered a couple questions for me. True, none of those answers were to the question of what I was supposed to do with everything I knew. But hey, at least I was making progress. 

While lost in those thoughts, my normal phone buzzed in my pocket. Knowing that I had to check in case it was my parents so they didn’t send out a search party, I made sure no one was paying attention before tugging it out. It was an e-mail, and I almost put it away again before doing a double-take. The e-mail was an invitation to a birthday party on Saturday, just a few days away. That wasn’t that odd, considering how many birthdays and other things I got invited to regularly. The odd part was that it was for Paige. 

Now why the hell would Paige Banners invite me to her birthday party? 

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