Author: Cerulean

Enkindle 23-11 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

A/N – Hey people! The non-canon chapter for this month was posted over the weekend! You can find it right here

Yeah, needless to say, this was all very confusing. Even more confusing than the whole situation revolving around Luciano had already been, which was really saying something. Before this, we had been dealing with a man who was supposed to be dead and somehow wasn’t, a corpse with powers. Which I maybe could have explained as him Touching right as he died and getting some weird regeneration or something. Now, suddenly we were dealing with more than one of him? More than one obvious corpse with the same powers? Now, I really had no idea what the hell was going on. Aside from the fact that this guy also looked dead, also had the same powers, and was also trying to hurt or kill people. 

We had to stop him. Whatever else was actually going on remained a mystery, but that much was clear. This guy was attacking people, and we had to put a stop to it. Maybe we’d actually be able to contain this one and find out some real answers. But first, we had to make sure he didn’t hurt anyone else. And judging from the experience we’d had with Luciano, that was going to be easier said than done. But hey, at least this time we had the whole group and I could openly use my powers. Maybe that would make the difference. 

Of course, the very first thing we had to do was get him away from those people he was trying to attack. So, even as the questions of who he was and what was going on flashed through my mind, I was already using a shot of blue paint on my boots to launch myself forward off the edge of the roof. As I passed over the scene below, I shot two wads of red paint, one at the middle of the bench he was busy melting his way through, and the other at the ground behind him. While still in mid-air, I activated both, and the already partially melted bench jerked its way off the ground and slammed into the man, knocking him backward away from those people. 

Unfortunately, there were still other civilians in the area. One of which decided to use that exact moment to run in and try to take a picture of what was going on with his phone, even as I used an orange heart on my back to protect myself from the hard landing. Which was just stupid enough that I was momentarily struck dumb, giving the idiot a double-take. 

Thankfully, the others weren’t waiting around either. Alloy went sailing past just over his head, encasing the moron in a shell made of one of her marbles so she could pick him up and move the suddenly protesting man clear to the far side of the area. 

Meanwhile, Hobbes landed hard. She had used the last moment of the orange paint I’d given her before we arrived and saw what was going on. She shouted something I didn’t catch at the two civilians who had been cowering there, before extending her hand. With obvious confusion, they each grabbed her offered arm. Then she pointed back the way she’d come, to where Calvin was still standing. With a snap of her fingers, she activated the teleportation tech Trevithick had installed in the suits, taking herself and the pair who had grabbed onto her arm back up to the roof and (hopefully) to some measure of safety. 

I had landed directly between the spot where their attacker had been, and where he was now. With a sound that was something halfway between a laugh and a roar, he flung the remains of the bench away, springing back to his feet. Just like Luciano, he gave me a broad smile. And just like Luciano, his teeth were glowing, clearly giving off intense heat. 

He didn’t say anything, of course. The only noise he made was that roar-laugh, as he dropped down to lope toward me, using his hands as well as his feet. It was like he was a gorilla or something, loping rapidly toward me while showing off those bright, burning-hot teeth. 

“I can’t figure out if you’d be a fantastic ad for the dentist, or a terrible one,” I announced, while using another bit of blue paint to launch myself upward in a flip that carried me over his charge. Twisting around before coming down in a crouch behind him, I added, “On the one hand, you’ve got fantastic chompers. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure melting through anything you bite is a no-go for most people. And can you imagine trying to brush them?” 

He was fast, pivoting back toward me with a high-pitched chittering sound before lunging toward where I was. But by that point, Poise and Style had landed, each dropping down on either side of the man now that I had given them the opening. They each caught one of his arms, holding him. Which lasted for about half a second before he jerked his arms together, slamming the pair into one another before flinging them away from him. Both girls went tumbling in opposite directions, clearly dazed from the impact. 

Before he could follow up on that in any way, a beam of orange-gold light shot down from the roof, where Hobbes was holding one of Trevithick’s rifles. When the beam struck the man, it wrapped around him. He was lifted off the ground, flipped over, and slammed down into the concrete with enough force to crack it before the beam faded. 

Activating a series of green lightning bolts on my legs, I raced that way before he could pick himself up. My hands extended, shooting red paint at his arms and legs as well as the ground itself, activating all of it to hold him down for a few seconds. 

At least, that was the plan. Unfortunately, the pavement under him began to melt, taking away the red paint I’d put there. Without the concrete there, there was no paint, and without the paint, there was nothing holding him down. Which I found out the hard way as he sprang up and lashed out with his fist. Luckily, I already had a couple orange stars running up my arms, and managed to activate them just as that punch collided with my chest, sending me windmilling through the air to land hard on my back. 

Yeah, this was clearly going well. Paige and Sierra were still picking themselves up after being slammed together and tossed aside like that, and the special gun Murphy had used barely slowed the guy down at all. He had been slammed into the ground hard enough to break the concrete under him, and it barely drew a reaction. Now I was on the ground too, blinking away a moment of being dazed. 

Abruptly, a hand caught mine and I heard Wren shout something about moving. She had come diving down from the air, catching my hand before using her momentum to drag me several feet in an instant. In that same moment, our new not-friend slammed down onto the ground where I had been. A snarl of obvious frustration escaped him as he had been trying to grab me. Without Trevithick there… yeah, that wouldn’t have been fun. 

Blurting a thanks to her, I flipped back to my feet. Poise and Style were back up as well by that point, the three of us (four with Wren hovering just above me) formed a triangle around the bad guy, while Calvin and Hobbes were still up on the roof. 

Then there was Alloy, who was back from getting the picture-taking moron and a couple other onlookers out of the way. She landed near Style, and we all squared off against this confusing figure. Only a few seconds had passed since I jumped off the building, and now we were all facing off with him. I just hoped this one wouldn’t magically vanish. Or, if he did, that we’d at least see what happened. 

Of course, because this entire situation wasn’t creepy enough as it was, our quarry had to go and make it even worse. Namely, by turning his head all the way around in a full three-hundred-and-sixty degree circle, taking in each of us. It started with a slow creak as his head twisted, followed by a series of incredibly disturbing snaps as he literally broke his own neck to complete the turn. By the time it came back around to facing me, he healed the whole thing once more. He literally broke his own neck repeatedly to turn it all the way around, allowing it to heal afterward. Which was just… yeah. 

“Okay, this guy is not ticking my fuzzy feeling boxes,” I managed while everyone else stared that way. “We can’t let him walk away from this.” 

“You got any bright ideas, buddy?” Style asked, already starting to take a few steps to one side away from Peyton, clearly creating a bit of room between them in case he chose to attack. “Cuz I sort of left my ‘trap metal-melting super-regen zombie monster’ lasso in my other pants.” As she spoke, the girl spun a long piece of metal she’d ripped from the partially demolished bench in one hand. 

Before I could respond to that, the monster in question abruptly spun toward Poise and started to lunge that way. But in mid-motion, he was suddenly brought up short, as a purple, glowing ‘rope’ went flying around the figure and pulled tight against his torso. His arms were yanked to his sides and he jerked to a halt. 

“What can I say?” Alloy called. Her purple marble had formed that rope and was hovering in the air beside her. “You gave me an idea.” 

Of course, the monster immediately pivoted and went to lunge back toward her. But the moment he did, the marble stiffened itself so it was more like a pole than a rope. Despite that, though he was slowed down, our new friend wasn’t completely stopped. He kept moving one step, then another. 

But Alloy wasn’t done either. She added her silver and white marbles in their own lasso/pole versions, both of which grabbed and yanked in different directions. If the purple marble and Alloy herself were at the twelve-o’clock position, the silver and white marbles yanked at him from the four and seven positions. All three lassos pulled at him from different directions to hold his movement. 

Of course, I couldn’t let her do that by herself. As soon as I saw the man trying to strain against them, I showered him in yellow paint. It slowed him down, stopping him from gaining the momentum he needed to break the grip of the marble lassos. We had him. 

At least, for the moment we did. Unfortunately, smoke began to billow off the momentarily-trapped figure’s body, as his skin cracked and peeled, blistering away right in front of us. His clothes melted away almost immediately, which made this whole thing even more upsetting. Now we were dealing with a naked corpse. Which was just… eurgh. I tried not to look down. At the same time, smoke also began to come off the marble lassos. 

“Oh shit, they can’t take a lot of that!” Alloy blurted, already stumbling away from her clearly burning hot purple marble. “Guys, you’ve gotta do something! They’re gonna have to let him go!” 

Right, what exactly were we supposed to do? This guy could melt through anything we tried to contain him with, and I was pretty sure we couldn’t hit him hard enough to make him stay down. Not with his regeneration. For fuck’s sake, he had just repeatedly broken his own neck just to look at all of us in turn. What the hell were we supposed to do about that?

“Keep him busy!” That was Trevithick, hovering near me. Her eyes snapped my way as she added, “I’ve got an idea!” She held a screwdriver in one hand and was pointing up toward Calvin and Hobbes. “But you gotta keep him here for a minute! Maybe three!” Then she was off and flying at top speed that way. 

“Okay, guys, you heard her,” I blurted. “We keep the guy busy for a few minutes. Alloy, let him go!” Even as I said that, I was already pointing my hands that way, shooting a burst of blue paint toward the ground at his feet. “Style, pull!” 

Immediately, Alloy removed the lassos, allowing her marbles to shift back to their natural shape. At the same time, the blue paint launched the figure upward a good ten feet in the air. And Style, who had reacted instantly, hurled that makeshift metal spear of hers right into the man. Between her own strength and his super-heated body, it went through his stomach easily and was already starting to melt. Which told me something about how bad of an idea would be for a normal person to be anywhere near him. 

But I wasn’t an ordinary person. Painting myself half purple and half orange, I put blue under my feet and launched myself that way. Even with half my body covered with my protection-paint, I could still feel the heat as I slammed into the man. My fist collided with his face, snapping his head back so hard I heard another snap. Not that it really mattered, given everything else he’d already recovered so easily from (not to mention how dead he already looked), but still. It made me flinch just a little inwardly. 

What also made me flinch, much more outwardly, was the way his own fists came together to slam into my head in mid-air. I was smacked right down, slamming into the pavement with a yelp. Thankfully, between my paint and my helmet, I was okay. It just sort of stunned me briefly. 

“Paintball!” That was Poise, coming our way. She was ignoring the staggering heat, rushing toward me as I lay at the living corpse’s feet. At the last second, I managed to twist myself around, shooting out a spray of orange that caught her in the chest to give her a bit of added protection just as her fist lashed out to punch the bad guy in the face. 

With a grunt, I threw myself up and away from him before my own paint could run out. The last thing I wanted to do was be anywhere near that guy without protection. Not now that he had clearly cranked up the heat beyond any reasonable level. The metal pole through his stomach had almost entirely melted. It was like taffy, sticking out both sides of his body. Even as I looked that way, the two ends literally snapped off, each falling to the ground. Which left the rest of the melted metal inside his body, but I was pretty sure that wouldn’t slow him down any more than anything else had. 

Meanwhile, Paige hit him three times in rapid succession, her fists moving almost too quick for me to see. Which got even faster as I hit her with a shot of green paint from one hand and purple from the other, allowing the girl to throw herself into a whirlwind of violence, her fists colliding with the man hard enough to actually drive him back a few steps despite his own immense strength. He staggered, but not for long. Even as I was springing back to my feet to rejoin her, his foot lashed out to collide with the other girl’s stomach. She was sent flying into me, both of us crashing down together to roll along the pavement. 

Worse, even as we rolled, all tangled up with each other, I could see the bad guy lunge after us. He clearly intended to land on top, his mouth open to reveal those terrible, burning teeth. No, he didn’t intend to just land on us. He intended to eat us, literally. 

But we weren’t alone. As the man was still in mid-leap, a silver fist the size of a bicycle slammed into him from the side. It hit the monster hard enough to send him flying into a nearby lamp post, bending it over partway from the impact. And then said post started to melt, allowing him to fall through to hit the pavement. Which itself started to melt under him. 

A second large marble hand, this one white and shaped like an open palm, smacked down into the man from overhead. It was like swatting a massive fly. Unfortunately, it didn’t have the same result as smacking a fly, as the man barely grunted under the impact. It didn’t knock him flat, let alone smash him. He took that blow like a champ, before shoving himself back to his feet. 

Which was when Style, literally riding on the purple marble as it was shaped like a flying surfboard, went sailing past him. She wasn’t too close, but still, it was hot enough that I could see her skin start to blister a bit. In that motion, her hands snapped out, sending a pair of small knives that way. Knives which collided with the man’s eyes, burying themselves there. They immediately began to melt, but the damage was done. At least for the moment, he couldn’t see. Given his absurd healing, it wouldn’t last long. But it gave us a little bit of an opening. I just hoped we could actually do something with that. Because quite frankly, this wasn’t going super-well. 

Thankfully, all of that did at least give Paige and me a chance to untangle ourselves and roll away from each other. We popped back to our feet, as I took a moment to hit both of us as well as Sierra with orange protection paint. We had another ten seconds where the heat coming off this son of a bitch wouldn’t instantly cook us alive. And something told me it wouldn’t take much more than that before his eyes would be fully healed. We had to take advantage of this opening while we had it. 

So, I blurted, “Distract him!” Then I dove sideways, putting myself closer but not directly in front of the man, who was wildly swinging in a blind attempt to grab one of us as he staggered our way with a snarl. 

Luckily, Poise, Style, and Alloy were definitely ready to be distractions. The first two lunged that way, hitting the man one after the other with a pair of hard punches to either side of his jaw that rocked his head backward. He tried to grab both of them, but they rolled under and away from his grasping arms. Which was when Alloy shaped her purple marble into a sort of pole with a hook on it, catching onto the back of his neck briefly to yank him forward. Which sent him stumbling right into her path as she hurled herself, feet first, into his chest to knock him backward

Or at least, she intended to knock him backward. Unfortunately, even that full-force collision wasn’t enough to actually make him even lose a step. It was like she’d collided with a brick wall. She bounced right off and would’ve hit the ground right in front of him while he was stomping down, but her marble-formed costume took over and flew sideways with her inside to carry Peyton out of the way of that descending foot. 

By that point, I had managed to pop up behind the man, blurting, “Poise, Style, get his arms!” At the same time, I hit them each with a shot of purple, knowing this guy was too strong for even those two to hold without that. 

They reacted quickly, each grabbing one of those limbs while he swung for them. Thankfully, the orange paint that was still active meant they weren’t immediately burned, but it still clearly wasn’t exactly fun. He was also so strong that even with the added purple paint, they could barely hold him. Between the two, Paige and Sierra managed to twist his arms behind his back. Which was when I hit both arms with pink paint, made sure I had my own purple and orange boosts active, and lunged that way. 

Alloy had figured out what I was doing, and quickly shaped two of her marbles into hooked poles to catch hold up his legs and hold them in place, while a third one hooked around his neck. With the heat he was giving off, they wouldn’t be able to hold him for long. None of them would. But hopefully it would be long enough. 

Between Alloy’s marbles, Paige, and Sierra, they barely managed to hold the guy in place while I grabbed his hands. The instant I did, I could already feel my skin start to burn. Fuck, even with my orange paint, he was giving off so much heat it still hurt. I couldn’t even imagine how bad it would be without the paint. I had to act quickly. His arms and hands were pink, so I activated the paint and yanked hard on his hands. They came like taffy thanks to the paint, and I was able to quickly and efficiently tie them together. Yeah, I literally tied his hands, twisting the fingers around one another in as complicated of knots as I could manage. The whole process made me want to hurl, yet I kept it down, using all the protection time I had to tie up his hands and arms. In the last couple seconds, I yanked harder down, pulling those taffy-like arms toward his legs before wrapping them around those. I had tied his hands together and then tied those around his legs, bending him backward slightly in the process. 

Finally, I stumbled away, shouting for the others to let the man go. In the process, I hit him with another shot of pink paint so his arms wouldn’t untie themselves once the first dose wore off. 

The others released him too and we all stumbled away, while he snarled and yanked at his own arms and legs. This was how we could stop him. At least temporarily. He could melt through anything, but he couldn’t melt through himself. Well, not very effectively, anyway. I was putting his own heat and regeneration against one another. He healed his own melting body faster than he could actually melt his way free of his tied-together limbs. As long as I kept hitting him with more pink paint to keep it up, he couldn’t get anywhere or attack anyone. Not very effectively, anyway. 

Unfortunately, I couldn’t keep it up forever. But even as I opened my mouth to call out that someone else needed to do something because I was almost out of paint, Wren flew over our heads, shouting for everyone to get down. 

So, we did. Alloy, Poise, Style, and I all hit the ground together. In that moment, Calvin and Hobbes opened up with those Touched-Tech guns from the roof. Guns which had apparently been modified by Trevithick, because instead of the beams wrapping around the man and slamming him into the ground, they actually picked him up and held him. The beams stayed mostly steady, crackling with power just a bit as they hauled the figure off the ground and kept him there, suspended a few feet off the melting concrete. 

“Yes!” Wren cheered, hovering there a short distance away as she punched the air triumphantly. “It worked!” 

Which, of course, was the moment that the man in question let his head tilt to the side. I swore he was looking right at me. Or through me. Then his body melted. Literally melted. It burned, boiled, turned to a mix of ooze and ashes right in front of us while the twin beams from those two guns were holding him aloft. 

In the next instant, the ash blew away, the ooze dissipated… and the man was gone. 

Previous Chapter

Growth 18-15 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter

“Okay, wait, wait,” Marina piped up with obvious confusion. “What exactly are we saying here? That three people are missing entirely? I mean, he did say two-hundred-and-eighty-seven before, then suddenly it was two-hundred-and-eighty-four. But… but how could three people just completely disappear from his memory like that? Wait, do you remember saying that?” Her focus turned to Sitter himself. “Do you know why you went from eighty-seven to eighty-four?” 

There was a brief pause as the robot seemed to consider the question before his head shook. “I do recall it, of course. Now that it has been pointed out, the discrepancy is readily apparent. But no, I cannot say why the difference exists. My memory right now says that there are two-hundred-and-eighty-four guests. Yet the idea that I could have, as biologicals might say, misspoken before, is quite impossible. I must have seen the guest population as being two-hundred-and-eighty-seven at that time. Which can only mean that my memory has been adjusted between the time that I first announced the number of guests, and the next time.”

“Which was after we let down the time-lock,” I pointed out. You told us one number, then turned off the lock so they could move again, and suddenly the number adjusted by three.” 

Dakota piped up quickly. “So those three must’ve done something to change his memories.” 

My head was slowly nodding. “Yeah, I mean they had to have. I dunno why, maybe all three of them were involved in the murders. Easiest way to hide would be to make you forget they exist. But you said they couldn’t possibly get out of this place, right, Sitter?” 

“Yes,” he confirmed. “Until the murders are solved, there is no way to escape this vault. Even if they could breach the walls, it would not lead them anywhere, as we are in a pocket reality. Only once the murderer is identified will the knowledge of how to turn off the lockdown enter my programming. And even if they were aware of how to do that themselves, which is quite impossible on its own, I would detect the moment the procedure began. It has not.” 

“Which probably means they don’t know how,” I agreed with a murmur. “But they did change your memory. And that–hang on. No one came around you. We know no one came up with a screwdriver and wrench or whatever to do some reprogramming while we were standing there.”

Making a noise in the back of her throat, Denny hesitantly spoke up. “Um, I… remember something from Ammon’s… uhh, memories. There was one time when he had to change some camera recordings so his dad wouldn’t find out what he was up to, but instead of going to each camera, he made a guy let him into the main server room to change just that.”

“Hey, yeah,” Dakota agreed, looking back to our robot guide. “Do you have a server somewhere that controls your programming and all that? It’s not all just inside this shell, right?” 

My head was already bobbing. “There has to be something like that. You keep saying that your programming will be updated with the knowledge of how to undo the lockdown once the murderer is caught. And since the man himself isn’t here anymore, that has to mean there’s another system somewhere waiting to update you with the new knowledge, right?” 

“Just like how whoever this was updated him with new memories of how many guests there are,” Sesh pointed out, giving a double-take that way as she showed her impressive rows of teeth. “Does that mean they’re in the special server room right now?” 

“There is another server room which runs every system in this vault,” Sitter confirmed. “It is also where my core programming is stored. I do not believe that anyone could access the important details, but… theoretically it is possible for someone to have infiltrated the room and make certain minor adjustments, such as the number of guests currently within the vault. That is something which changed semi-regularly, so it would not be particularly well-locked information.” 

“So let’s get down there,” Marina immediately put in. “Even if they’ve already left, there might be, you know, clues or something. Plus–wait, hang on.” She did a quick about-face to look back into the other room where the rest of the guests were all waiting. “No one in there brought up anyone being missing, right? Not in any interview or when you were looking through their memories.” 

“They didn’t,” I confirmed while shaking my head. “Which means whoever did this probably adjusted those memories when they made them each think they themselves were the murderer. We already knew they were pretty good at changing that sort of thing.” Belatedly, I added with a grimace. “Good enough to fool me, anyway. If Sariel was here, it’d be a different story.” 

Marina’s hand moved to my shoulder. “Hey, she’s also had, what, several thousand years worth of practice? Give you that much time and I’m pretty sure you could slam dunk your way through noticing and fixing those memory adjustments too. Err, wait, which is better, slam dunk or homerun? I’m not really that much of a sports person.” She paused briefly, then added, “Please tell me they’re not both from the same sport.” 

Smiling just a little, I gestured. “It’s the thought that counts. And yeah, you’re right, she has a bit of a head start. Rght now we’re what we’ve got to work with. So let’s go down to that server room and see if we can figure out who those three missing people are.” 

Sesh gestured over her shoulder back toward the auditorium. “Maybe someone should stay here and talk to these guys? I know their memories have been screwed up, but if we point out that there’s a few missing, maybe it’ll trigger something. Whoever did this couldn’t have had that much time to make their adjustments perfect, you know? Ask the right questions and we might be able to poke enough holes in adjusted memories to make something important fall out.” 

Considering that briefly, I nodded. “Uh, yeah just be careful about it. They’re pretty delicate right now, what with finding out their friend was murdered and one of them could’ve done it.” 

“I’ll stay with her,” Marina announced. “We can talk to them, find out if anything pops up when they start thinking about missing guests. And yeah, we’ll be careful.” She hesitated, then looked toward Denny and Dakota. “Do you guys want to stay here, or–” 

“We’ll go with Flick and Sitter,” Denny immediately replied, her gaze snapping to me. “I mean, if that’s okay?” 

“Hey, sure thing.” I wasn’t sure how much of her immediate answer had to do with wanting to help me in the server room and how much had to do with not wanting to potentially have to use her power to interrogate the other guests. But either way, I wasn’t going to argue. They could help wherever they wanted to help. 

Dakota was nodding. “Yeah, Flick shouldn’t go off all on her own. Err, I mean, not that you’d be completely alone.” She looked toward the robot standing nearby. “But, that is–” 

“It is quite alright, Lady Dakota,” Sitter assured her. “You have only barely met me, and it has already been proven that my memories can be tampered with. While I still believe such adjustments would not be possible when it comes to my actual important, core programming, you can hardly be faulted for wishing to be more careful. Looking after one’s friends is important.”

Focusing on Marina and Sesh, I spoke up. “You guys be careful in here too, okay?” With that, I dug into my pocket and came out with a small, already enchanted coin, passing it toward the older girl. “Here’s an emergency alert spell. Anything happens, trigger it. I uh, assume you know how.” 

“Yeah, I’ve used them before,” Marina confirmed while tucking it away. “So you’ve got one of the opposite coins?” 

Nodding, I gestured to my pocket. “You set that one off and mine’ll start raising hell. And vice versa. We might not be able to communicate with the outside world, but we can at least let each other know if something goes wrong. And speaking of which…” I focused for a moment. “Okay, I set my taboo word as bletherskate. If you say that word, I’ll see your face and hear one word before it and one word after that. You could say, ‘need bletherskate help’ and I’ll hear all three words. It’s not a lot, but between that and the alarm spell, we should be okay.” That all explained, I paused before adding,  “Be careful in there, guys.” 

“You too,” Marina insisted before looking at Dakota and Denny. “All of you be careful.” The girl reached out, tugging me by the arm to take a few steps away before lowering her voice. “Take care of them, okay? They both want to help, but just… just be careful.”

I nodded, meeting her gaze. “I will. Believe me, I’m not about to let anything happen to them.”  

With that, Sesh and Marina went back into the auditorium to talk to the rest of the guests, while the three of us followed Sitter to the elevator. On the way, Dakota spoke up. “Do you really think there could be three extra people hiding somewhere in this place?”

“The entire facility is quite large,” Sitter replied while stepping onto the elevator and gesturing for us to join him. “I find it plausible that a trio of unknown beings could remain out of sight. Particularly if they have some way of identifying our location, such as a gift allowing them to sense others from a distance.” 

“I’ve got a sense like that myself,” I agreed while stepping onto the elevator with the others. “It doesn’t stretch very far, but maybe theirs does. Or they have really good hearing, or x-ray vision, or–” I coughed before waving a hand. “Let’s just say it’s not exactly a short list. There are a lot of different ways they could keep track of where we are. Hell, they might even be listening to us right now. To which, I would say–” From my pocket, I produced a different enchanted coin. This was the same privacy spell used so often last year, but not as much now. Still, I had plenty already prepared. Activating the spell, I tucked the coin away while continuing, “There, it’s not perfect, but this should keep them from understanding what we’re saying from now on. That way, if we do find something important, they won’t know about it. Unless whatever power they’re using is stronger than this privacy spell. Or they’re using some sort of visual thing to see what we’re doing. Or–” 

“It’s okay, Flick,” Dakota put in. “We just need to be careful, right? If they do know what we’re doing, we’ll uhh, have to make sure they can’t do anything about it. And keep our eyes open so we don’t get murdered too.” 

“Yeah, not getting murdered too is a good idea,” I agreed with a grimace. “So, you’re right, let’s keep our eyes open and make sure they don’t catch us with our pants down. We know there’s three of them out there, wherever and whoever they are. Sitter, I don’t suppose going back over all your memories shows any… conflicts that would explain three missing people? Or at least imply their existence?” 

There was a brief pause as his head slowly turned to me, those mouth lights shifting to a soft blue. “I have indeed been going over memories. I believe you are correct, there are several missing people who should have been there. Putting together the amount of food consumed, chairs and other furniture used, time taken to clean, chores assigned, and more all implies the presence of at least two to three more people. I cannot, however, narrow it to more detail than that. Not yet, in any case. Given more time, I may be able to determine more information through exact dietary and medical needs.” 

Reaching out to squeeze the robot’s shoulder in a gesture that was probably completely pointless given the whole ‘robot’ thing to begin with, I replied, “Well, good luck. And here’s hoping it’s that easy. I mean, not that that sounds easy, but… more information is good.” 

“Yeah,” Denny put in quickly. “If you can figure out what type of people we’re dealing with, maybe that’ll tell us how they’re hiding. And if we know how they’re hiding–” 

“Maybe we can find them!” Dakota finished. She and the other girl high-fived then, before both sobered as she turned back to me. “Do you think they’re all trying to get out of here? I mean, did they all kill Valdean Ecclestone together, or are they just friends, or…” 

“I dunno,” I replied with a helpless shrug. “All I know is three of them are missing and it can’t be a coincidence. It has to be connected to the murders. So we find them, and we’ll probably be able to find our answers.”  

“I’m glad,” Denny murmured while the elevator rose up one level before starting to slide backwards on its way to our destination. “I mean, I’m glad it wasn’t one of the people in there. I liked them.” 

“That’s a good point,” I agreed. “They were all nice. If we can find out and prove that the real murderer is one of… or all of these three, it–well, it won’t be good, but at least we can tell the others that they’re all innocent. But uh, that’s probably getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s focus on getting to this server room to see if they left any clues behind.”

Almost as soon as I said that, the elevator stopped and Sitter announced that we were there. As the doors opened, we found ourselves facing a fourteen by fourteen foot room with one large black computer server running down the middle, leaving only about a foot of space between it and either end wall. The server reached almost all the way up to the ten foot high ceiling, and stood two feet wide. Beyond that, there was a desk in one back corner of the room with an actual computer terminal on it. Probably connected to the main server.

Taking all that in, I made a face. “You know, it’s just now occurring to me to wish that we had someone with real technical expertise in here with us. I mean, my dad might think I’m a genius because I know how to set up an ad blocker on his browser, but somehow I don’t think that’s gonna help right here.”

Denny gave a slow nod. “Uh huh, and even if I wanted to use the you-know-what power, it doesn’t work on computers. See, I’m pretty useless.”

Dakota gestured. “Hey, my thing is all about using plants. This isn’t a plant. But I’m still gonna try to help. Besides, we’ve got Sitter.” Her hand reached out to pat the robot on the back. “He can probably take care of any technical stuff, right?”

Mouth lights shifting to green, Sitter confirmed, “Yes, Lady Dakota. I will begin searching the server for any record of tampering or access. This will take several minutes.” He immediately stepped over not to the actual computer terminal, but the server itself. His hand rose and some sort of plug in jack extended from his palm before finding its way into an outlet there. Then his mouth lights began to cycle through every color imaginable as he worked. 

”Okay,” I started while turning back to the other two, “why don’t we look around here? It doesn’t look like there’s much room for them to have left anything behind, but you never know. They might’ve dropped something, or touched something, or whatever.”

So, the three of us spread out to search every corner of this small room. Just as I had expected, however, there didn’t seem to be anything worth finding. The place was pretty pristine. There were no secret coded notes, or a hat with convenient hairs in it, or a glass we could get fingerprints off of, or anything like that. If I hadn’t heard all about actual investigations from my dad over the years, I would’ve been surprised that crime dramas had been lying to me. 

But that was the thing. If I knew one thing from all the talks I had with my dad about his own experiences, it was that no crime was perfect. The problem with trying to pull off the perfect crime was that you only had to make one mistake. Touch the wrong thing at the wrong time, forget one of the lies you told to someone, leave something sitting where you shouldn’t, or anything like that. There were too many ways for someone to screw up. And it only had to happen once for your entire intricate plan to come unraveled. 

That’s what we were looking for, the one mistake. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like they’d made an obvious one here in the server room. At least, not at first. The three of us had given the whole place a once-over with no luck, and I was just about to tell Dakota and Denny that it looked like we were going to have to hope that Sitter came up with something. Except, just as I was turning to do that, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. One of the glass doors for the various shelving units that made up the entire server was very slightly ajar. It was incredibly easy to miss, given you had to stand at the right spot and look at it from the right angle to even notice that the glass door wasn’t shut and locked like the rest of them. Squinting that way, I leaned closer and gave it a slight poke with my finger. The door slid open, revealing the assortment of networked machines humming away behind it. 

“Flick?” Dakota asked, stepping closer along with Denny. “What is it?” 

“Someone left this open,” I murmured, giving both of them a look before turning my attention that way. “Something tells me it wasn’t Sitter. Let’s see…” With that, I leaned in, gaze sliding over the equipment in front of me. Not that I would’ve known if anything was out of place, but still. Someone had clearly been messing with this area recently. 

Leaning in close to me while I was helplessly studying the complicated assortment of computer pieces, Denny pointed. “Hey, look. That’s probably not supposed to be there.” 

My eyes focused on what she was gesturing to. A USB drive, sort of. It looked like a somewhat thick pen with the connector sticking out of one end and into the back of one of the bits of machinery. I hadn’t noticed it at first, but she was right, it didn’t look like it belonged there. 

“Yeah, that’s probably something new,” I agreed, hesitating. “But what’s it for?” 

“Location tracking,” Dakota announced. When we both looked that way, she held up a thick binder with an assortment of notes in it. “It was under the computer over there. It’s like an instruction manual or something. There’s a diagram of the server for a repair person to use, and this spot says it’s for location tracking in the vault. There’s no cameras, but he still keeps track of what rooms have people in them and how many.” 

“That makes sense,” I murmured. “I mean, the system probably turns off lights, oxygen, temperature control, stuff like that in rooms where no one is. Even if he gave them privacy by not spying on what they’re saying or doing, he still has the system monitor which rooms are occupied in order to save power or whatever else.” 

“So these guys put something in that system?” Denny asked before her expression twisted a bit. “Probably so no one would know where they were.” 

“Exactly,” I agreed. “It’s gotta be blocking the system from noticing that it’s giving power and light somewhere that’s supposed to be empty. So do we just yank it out?” 

“Wait,” Denny quickly put in. “If you do that, they might know we found it. Or maybe the system will shut off the air and stuff in that area. They might be bad, but–” 

I was already nodding. “But we don’t want to just kill them like that. Especially before we know the truth about what’s going on and why.” 

Dakota leaned in closer to stare at that little device for another moment before tentatively asking, “Do you think Sitter can do something with it? Maybe he can figure out what areas it’s blocking, so we can find them.” 

“Yeah, maybe,” I agreed before turning that way. “Hey, Sitter! We found something, do you have any idea how much longer your thing will take?” 

There was no response, so I walked that way, seeing the robot standing there, still plugged in. “Uh, sorry to interrupt, but–” My hand reached out to touch his arm. But when I did so, he literally tipped over. His attachment came out of the computer, and his entire body collapsed to the floor with a startlingly loud clang right in front of me. 

Jumping back in surprise, I found myself standing next to Dakota and Denny, who had come running up to see what was going on. Together, the three of us stared. Sitter was just lying there on the ground, his body completely motionless. His mouth lights were completely off. It was like he had been shut down entirely. 

“Well,” I finally managed, “that can’t be good.” 

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Enkindle 23-10 (Summus Proelium)

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“She’s crazy, right?” Murphy asked a short while later, as we all sat on a roof together far away from that pizza shop and any of Braintrust. “Paintball, that lady’s gotta be loco in the heado.” 

“Did you just say loco in the heado?” Paige (or Poise now as she was still in-costume) echoed, head tilting that way as she dropped down with her back to a brick chimney.

Sierra (Style) stood on the opposite side of the roof, arms folded. The way her red leather coat flapped a bit in the breeze while that matching tactical combat helmet was framed against the city skyline behind her made the girl look cooler than I ever could. It must’ve been the way she stood. Even that was cool.  “You know the Spanish word for brain is cerebro, right?” 

After dropping her offer, Glitch had simply handed over a card with a phone number on it and told us to call her with an answer in a couple days. Of course, I had promptly painted the number from the card onto my arm and then tossed the card into the nearest trash can. No way was I going to risk carrying around something that the literal leader of a bunch of Tech-Touched villains had given me. Maybe it had a tracker in it, or a recorder, or maybe it was completely innocent. Either way, I wasn’t going to take that chance. Especially not for a phone number.

Alloy did a quick double-take at Style’s words. “Wait, really? You mean the cool name that Professor X dude gave his super telepathy machine in the comics was literally just the Spanish word for brain? That seems kind of lame. I thought they made up a cool word based off cerebrum.”

“I mean, they did make up a cool word based off cerebrum,” Roald pointed out. “It’s just that the ‘they’ in this case is the ancient Spanish people.”  

Murphy threw her hands up, making a noise of disbelief. “The point, people!” She turned to me. “That crazy lady back there can’t actually be serious with this. She can’t think that’ll work.” 

I offered a clueless shrug. “I don’t think she’s crazy. Not like that. She knows how to use Tech-Touched. And, obviously, how to make a profit off them. Probably because–hold on. Trev?” 

Before saying anything else, I turned to Trevithick. She was standing by herself, clearly deep in thought. When I addressed her, she jolted a little, looking my way before realizing what I was getting at. “Oh! Oh, right, yeah. Hang on a sec.” From a slot in her belt, she pulled a small pen-shaped device, taking a moment to wave it over all of us like security at the airport used to do before they upgraded the system to simply alert if you were carrying any weapons anywhere inside the building itself. They didn’t rely on metal detectors anymore. The system was a lot more advanced, and the scanners were hidden throughout the airport.

In any case, this wasn’t a metal detector either. After Wren had scanned all of us, she clicked her little device a couple times before shaking her head. “Nothing new. No hidden trackers.” 

The device was actually part of her ongoing attempt to get a proper working teleporter. It was meant to scan someone from head to toe to get a one-hundred percent accurate and detailed picture of their body and clothing. It wouldn’t show her their face under a mask or anything like that, just give her a microscopically-detailed… map, essentially, of their current form. Every bump in their shoes, every lace, every imperfection in armor, every button in a shirt, every tiny crack in a glass watch face, the exact contours of a pair of tiny diamond earrings, everything. It scanned and stored a perfect map of your body and clothes together. And since we’d had her scan us just before meeting with Glitch, it would have told her if absolutely anything had been added to us in that time, as the before and after pictures would have been different. 

Not that I really expected the woman to try to get away with putting a bug on one of us, but again, I wasn’t going to take any chances. Just like with the card. Maybe I was getting to be a little better about sharing with my team, but Glitch definitely wasn’t part of that. 

Once I was as sure as I could be that it was safe, I continued my thought. “She knows how to make a very good profit because she has to give part of it to my parents. I don’t think she would’ve suggested this if she didn’t think it was possible.” Pausing, I looked back to Wren. “Which, I guess makes the question, do you think it’s possible?”

She didn’t answer at first, seeming to be lost in thought again. Finally, after we all watched her for a few seconds, she looked at me. “Um, I think so. I mean, it wouldn’t be easy. And I need to look at her prototypes more.” She nodded to the other corner of the roof, where she’d left the bag with the gloves in it. Gloves which we had also obviously gone over with a fine-tooth comb for any bugs. But I expected something to be on them even less than I expected something to be on one of us. Glitch wasn’t stupid. She’d have to know that we would have our own Tech-Touched scour every millimeter of those things. Spying on us like that wasn’t worth the risk. Well, okay, it actually was. It was totally worth the risk. The stuff they could have found out about what we knew… The idea was terrifying. But she didn’t know that. 

Wren continued. “I could only do that with help. But she offered help. But she’s a bad guy. But the things she wants me to do would really help people. But she’d probably find a way to use it for bad things too, even if I do put safeties in it. But people use good things for bad stuff all the time, and it doesn’t erase the good stuff those things do. But if someone hurts people with it, that’ll be my fault. But if we don’t give her what she wants, she might ask for something worse, or start a fight. And I don’t want you guys to get hurt. But–” 

“Wren.” I stepped over that way, putting my hands on her shoulders. “It’s okay. Whatever you decide to do, we’re with you. I mean, I’m with you.” Frowning to myself for the presumption, I turned to look over my shoulder.

“Oh, of course we’re with her!” Murphy blurted. “Come on, man, what do you take us for?” 

“Right,” Paige confirmed. “It’s her choice. Whatever she decides to do about it. We could try to negotiate a single payoff, but something tells me that once Glitch gets an idea in her head about how to make an ongoing profit, it’s not easy to make her give that up. Something like this would be revolutionary. And she’s even offering to let you keep seventy percent. Which should tell you something. She thinks it’s worth so much that she can profit enough off thirty percent, even counting what she has to give to the Ministry.” 

“To your parents,” Alloy put in, with a glance my way. “Which is still really fuuudging weird to think about, for the record.” She caught herself with the curse, giving Wren a sidelong look before turning back to me. “So I guess, in a way, you’d be benefiting from some of that thirty percent too.” 

Grimacing behind my helmet, I shook my head. “I mean at this point it’s like emptying a few dozen dump trucks of water into Lake Erie. Yeah, it’s a lot of water when it’s in the trucks, but once you empty them into the lake, you never–” Stopping short, I blanched, raising my gaze to find Wren, Peyton, Murphy, and Roald staring at me. Paige and Sierra were looking away. “Uhh heh… hehe… I guess I was sorta, kinda just talking about dump trucks full of money not being a big deal.” 

“Because you already have a Lake Erie of money,” Peyton noted. “Yeah.”

I shook my head. “My parents have a Lake Erie of money. I’ve benefited from it, sure. But it’s theirs.” 

“So it’s a lake of money you can swim in,” Murphy replied while moving over to plop herself on the edge of a metal air conditioning duct running along the roof next to me. “The point is, Alloy’s right, that’s weird to think about.” She squinted at me curiously. “What is it like, being one of the richest teenagers in the country?” 

Coughing, I shook my head. “Let’s not get into that. I just–I just don’t want you guys to think of me that way. I’m still just Paintball.” 

I couldn’t see Murphy’s face behind the ski mask, but her body language said she wanted to say something about that. She stopped herself, however, and just replied, “So, Glitch thinks this idea is such a winner that she can get all the moolah she wants and what she has to pay the Ministry off just thirty percent? Kinda weird that she didn’t try for fifty-fifty, isn’t it?” 

“She probably assumes that by offering seventy percent to us, she’ll look magnanimous.” That was Poise, bringing her legs up to her chest as she continued to sit against the brick chimney. “We’re more likely to think she’s being nice.” 

“And,” Sierra added, “that if we think at all about the money, we’ll have dollar signs in our eyes. With, of course, the added benefit that this is all for saving lives.” 

Murphy was looking down at her phone. I saw her google the definition of magnanimous before muttering, “I knew it.” Then she put it away and gestured along with what Sierra had been saying. “Yeah, she offered the big life saving invention idea so it wouldn’t make us feel like we were giving her weapons or anything she could, you know, use to hurt people.” 

“Except she still could,” Wren pointed out flatly while shifting her weight and fidgeting uncertainly. “Even if the stuff itself isn’t turned bad, you said it yourself. She’d still make money off it. A lot of money. And then she’d use that money to hurt people.” 

“Or maybe she’d retire,” I pointed out before wincing. “Yeah, probably not. But it’s okay, Wren. You think about it and whatever you decide, we’ll go with. If we need to come up with a plan to make her back off and–” 

“No.” Wren’s head shook quickly. “No, I don’t wanna make anybody fight those guys. I mean, they’re bad guys so you’re gonna have to and all that, sure. What I mean is, I don’t wanna make it, umm… personal or anything. You–I mean we already have umm, you know, enough to do.” She focused on Paige and Sierra. “We’ve gotta save your sister! And Flea and Trivial too!” She took a deep breath, letting it out before slowly continuing. “I’ll do it. I’ll help build those things. But only after I work on the thing to help track Breakwater!” 

“We’ll tell her you’ve got projects you need to finish before you get started on anything else,” I agreed. “She can’t possibly object too much to that. She has to know that Tech-Touched have their own things to do, and she just sprang this on you.” Thinking about that briefly, I gave a decisive nod. “Yeah, we’ll just tell her that we’ll work on that but she has to wait a couple weeks.” Belatedly, I focused on the girl herself. “Err, I say we. We’ll help, any way we can. But it’s up to you. Do you want to try that?” 

She didn’t answer at first, going silent again for a few seconds before murmuring, “I said I wouldn’t build anything for supervillains. But… I guess this isn’t actually for them? She’s gonna get money out of it, but we were gonna give them money anyway. I…” She squirmed on her feet, making a cute little uncertain noise in the back of her throat before finally nodding. “Okay, okay. I’ll figure out how to work on it. Um, you know, after we do the other thing.” 

Obviously, I felt a pang of regret and annoyance at myself for not being able to simply tell Glitch to go shove it. But the others were right, there was so much going on already that we really couldn’t deal with a straight up fight on our own against Braintrust. After all, they hadn’t gotten a reputation for driving other Tech-Touched either out of the city or under their heel for nothing. If we were going to fight them, it was going to need to involve all of us and our full attention. And at the moment, the majority of that attention had to be focused on saving Irelyn and Trivial. Not to mention figuring out what the hell was going on with Luciano. Our plates were absolutely full. Picking a fight with Braintrust just wasn’t in the cards, and we all knew it. 

“We’ll wait though,” I finally spoke up after all of us had gone quiet for a few seconds following Wren’s decision. “She gave us a couple days, and I’d rather stretch that out as long as possible. Then we’ll tell her you need time to open up enough of your project space to work on something new.” 

“You should start with a month,” Paige put in. “Let her negotiate you down to a couple weeks or so. It’ll make her feel like she won something even though it’s what you wanted in the first place.” 

I was already nodding that way. “Right, yeah, good plan. Uh, but I guess in the meantime, we really don’t have anything we can–” 

And that was when Wren’s phone rang. It was a bright chirping sound, like a bird singing. No, it was literally a bird singing. I realized that belatedly, as the girl tugged it out of her costume and held the thing to her ear. “Hi, Uncle Fred! Sorry, I know I said we’d call as soon as we were done so you could come pick us up, but we were still talking about–huh? Oh. Wait, what?” 

She was quiet for a few seconds, clearly listening as the man said something on the other end. The rest of us looked at one another and shrugged until Wren quickly blurted, “Really?! I knew that was a good idea! Oh, uh, tell the others, Uncle Fred.” With that, she put him on speaker phone and held it out so we could hear. 

There was a brief pause before the man cleared his throat on the other end. “Uh, well, I was just sitting here and the scanner the kid set up to monitor police and emergency traffic for certain words or phrases popped up with a bunch of stuff going on about a zombie and fire, right here in town.” 

Well, that sure made me straighten up. I was on my feet in an instant, my eyes widening behind the helmet and mask. “Wait, what? Here in town? You mean Luciano…” I trailed off, grimacing. “He made it here already.” 

“Yeah, but it’s a little confusing,” came the response over the phone. “There’s a bunch of different conflicting reports about where he is, what he’s doing, that sort of thing. Guy moves fast, and he’s just… causing a bunch of bullsh-crap chaos everywhere he goes.” 

I thought about that for a moment. “If he’s pissed at the Ministry, maybe he wants to cause that chaos. Maybe that’s the point. They try to keep things as neat and orderly as possible. They have their rules. If he’s going against that, maybe his whole point is to cause a lot of terror and confusion.” 

“Well he’s sure managing that,” Fred replied. “There’s reports coming in from all over the city. But as soon as someone gets there, he’s gone already. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. He attacked a real estate office on the north side of town, then a Wendy’s about six blocks east five minutes later, then a bookstore five miles south ten minutes later. It was quiet for fifteen minutes, then he hit an art gallery just two blocks east of the bookstore. Now it’s been quiet again for–wait, hang on.” 

We were put on hold for a few more seconds while my mind reeled. What the hell? Well, I knew what the hell. I’d said what the hell. He was causing a bunch of chaos with no pattern, almost certainly as a way of getting back at the Ministry. But they weren’t the ones who were really going to be suffering. It was the people he was targeting, the people whose misery he was throwing in the Ministry’s faces. 

Fuck. Fuck, we had to stop this. 

My mouth opened to say something to that effect, when Fred came back on the line. “There’s another one. He’s hitting a convenience store about–hang on… a mile north of where you are.” 

He gave the address, and I was already turning. “I’m on my way.” My foot rose, then I froze. “I mean…” Pausing, I looked back to the others. “I don’t wanna say–” 

“Oh, shut up,” Sierra blurted. “Of course we’ve got your back. Don’t be an idiot.” 

“Now hang on there,” Fred started, “I don’t want–” 

“Sorry, Uncle Fred, gotta be a superhero!” With that, Wren clicked off the phone and faced us. “So c’mon, what’re we waiting for? Let’s go kick his butt.” 

There wasn’t time to have a whole discussion about it right then and there. Not considering Luciano could disappear again any minute. So, I shot a spray of green paint from both hands, covering everyone as much as I could before pivoting back to the edge of the roof. “Okay then.

“Let’s go stop a zombie.” 

******

“Ahhhh!” Murphy yelled out while hitting the blue paint I had shot in front of her. It propelled the girl across the gap between the building rooftops we had been running across. It wasn’t the first or longest gap I’d shot her and the others over, nor was it the widest. But she screamed every time, as did Roald. I was pretty sure hers was about seventy-five percent joy and twenty-five percent terror, while Roald’s was closer to fifty-fifty. Either way, they insisted on continuing along with it. 

Roald hit the paint a second later, even as Murphy was landing on the far building, the orange paint I’d given her helping the girl avoid breaking any bones in the process. Meanwhile, Paige and Sierra hit the second blue puddle I’d put down, one after the other. They both launched themselves that way, rolling as they hit the far roof before popping right back to their feet. 

Rather than using either puddle, I just made blue paint appear on the bottom of my boots as I hit the edge of the roof, launching myself that way. Above me and to one side, Wren was flying with her dragonfly-like wings, while Alloy flew on her hoverboard above and to the other side. Both of them were calling out which way we should go to reach good jumping points to get from roof to roof. Beyond that, we were following my directions. Or rather, the directions the helmet was giving me when I used the map function Wren had provided in the heads-up display. It showed me just how to get to the spot where Luciano was supposedly still causing trouble, if what Fred had said when Wren checked in with him a moment earlier was right. 

There we were, running and jumping from roof to roof, using blue, green, and red paint as much as I could manage just so we could get there as fast as possible, praying we weren’t too late. Poise and Style being full of… poise and style. They were doing this as though they’d done it their entire lives, like Olympic-level athletes. Hell, they barely needed the paint boosts, which really helped given how fast I would’ve run out if I had to use it for everyone. Calvin and Hobbes, meanwhile, clearly weren’t nearly as skilled. But they were doing their best, and they weren’t bad. Probably from a lifetime of running through dangerous neighborhoods and away from people who saw them as easy marks. Their method of getting around was just a bit less polished. 

With Trevithick flying along one side of me and Alloy along the other, we brought up the rear so I could hit people and spots with paint whenever needed. Wren and Peyton both helped with that, calling down to me to point out the right spots. It worked pretty well, once we got the system down a couple buildings in. By this point, we were basically a well-oiled machine with it. 

Once I joined them on that roof, my skates skidded to a stop. This was it. On the other side of this building was the parking lot connecting to the convenience store. I could hear screaming, along with a weird guttural howling sound. Oh, and fire. I heard fire too. 

Together, we raced to the far side of the roof, ready to jump down there and stop this guy. Then we all stopped short. Because we saw the guy. Except it wasn’t the guy. That is, it wasn’t Luciano. Standing down there in the middle of the parking lot, in front of a couple cowering civilians who were trying to take cover behind a bench in front of the store, was a man who looked nothing like Luciano. He was white, for one thing. He looked like a random beach bum, with long blonde hair, tanned skin, board shorts, and no shirt. Which gave us a good view of the dozen holes in his chest and stomach. Some were only partial holes, while others ran all the way through, showing daylight on the other side. It was like he’d been hit with a shotgun blast of pellets. 

It wasn’t Luciano. But he was still clearly dead, still had obvious death-wounds, and was still moving despite that. Oh, and he had the same fire power, given the way his teeth were visibly glowing. To say nothing of the way he grabbed the bench the people were cowering behind and made it start melting. He wasn’t Luciano, but he was in the same condition.

So… who the fuck was this? 

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Growth 18-14 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Nothing. There was nothing useful in any of these peoples’ memories about the murders. Or, more to the point, there was too much. Every single one of them knew exactly how they had done it. They had detailed (relatively speaking) memories of the entire process, their plans, how they had carried them out, their guilt over the whole thing, and so forth. They confessed everything to the others and let me access their memories so I could see for myself. All of them were cooperative, and none of it helped. 

Despite the number of people involved, there were actually only about ten different overall stories. It was like whoever had done this spell or whatever it was had only been able to come up with so many different scenarios, and then pasted those into the minds of these people. One per person. Before long, I didn’t even need to watch the whole memory, I just saw which one it was, checked for anything extra, and moved on. 

None of these people knew who had done this to them. They had no memory of any spell like this, or of anyone else performing any suspicious magic at all. Which also blew my mind, because this couldn’t have been a small spell. This was replacing the memories of almost three hundred people. Okay, it was more about adding a memory and modifying a bit, but still, that made it even more complicated in some ways. The idea that no one had seen anything involving that, no one had come across a spell–okay maybe the person did it in one of their private rooms. That was very possible. But still, it didn’t really help us here at all. For all we knew, the killer really was someone inside this room and they had simply erased their memories of it. Maybe Sariel could have sniffed out the right one, but I wasn’t that skilled with this stuff. And we couldn’t get out of here to get help from her. According to Sitter, the system absolutely would not allow us to leave until the right murderer was found. I had no idea how that worked, or how this Valdean guy had managed to set up something like that. All I knew was that Sitter was apparently incapable of overriding his own programming and he had been given very strict instructions about how this had to go. It wasn’t even just instructions, apparently. The answer for how to unlock the facility and allow us to leave was buried in his system and he couldn’t even access it until he was convinced the murders had been properly solved and the killer caught. Even if he wanted to go against his programming, he couldn’t. He physically didn’t know how to tell the system to let us leave, and wouldn’t until after we found the murderer. He literally could not access that information within himself. 

So, we had to solve this whole thing in a way that satisfied him. Though right now, all we had was hundreds of people with a few different stories shared between them. Maybe one of those stories was correct. Maybe I had literally talked to, and possessed, the person responsible for all this, and had seen the actual reason this happened. Maybe one of those ten scenarios was the real one. It seemed like it would be a good way to hide. If we dismissed every version of these stories, we might be dismissing the real answer. But there was no real way to check. Other than running through more of their memories, and I felt like I’d done everything I could on that front. There were holes in the stories, but everyone had those sorts of holes, the details that didn’t match up entirely, the faces that were faded when I looked too closely, that sort of thing. I managed to get pretty quick at simply checking those spots of the memory to see if the person in question knew anything more than the others, but always came up empty. Which, to put it mildly, was unhelpful. 

So, now I was taking a break. It had taken a couple hours to get through everyone, and now they were all having iced tea and sandwiches that Sitter had brought in. Not that many of them were eating that much. They all seemed subdued, talking very quietly amongst themselves about what was going to happen now, and who could have been responsible. I saw a few scared, anxious looks around, and a few people who clearly had their own suspects and kept staring back and forth at one another. There was actually less of that than I would have thought, a testament to how much work Valdean had put into creating a real community here. But still, there was some. 

Finishing my own sandwich while perched on the edge of one of the chairs that Sitter had provided up here on the stage, I glanced to where Marina, Sesh, Dakota, and Denny were sitting with their own food. “I don’t know, guys. I think we need to search their rooms for the murder weapons. Even then, they could have used magic to disguise or destroy them. Though something tells me they probably wouldn’t get rid of a gun that could help them get out of trouble. If it could kill a Heretic, it could probably help them out against a lot of other people in here who might try to stop them.” 

“They might still have the weapons on them, in a hidden pocket or bag, or be able to summon them,” Sesh pointed out. “Magic complicates things that way, you know?” 

“Yeah, I’m not exactly shocked by that statement,” I muttered. “But, after going through all their heads, I think it’s safe to say that if they do have the gun or the ability to summon it, they don’t know about it right now. No one in this audience remembers anything about what they did with the weapons they supposedly used. Which just proves those are fake memories all over again, as if we needed another reminder.” 

“I’m really sorry I couldn’t help,” Denny put in after taking a deep gulp from her iced tea glass. “I mean, I’m sorry I couldn’t get the right answer that easily. But I can still help. We both can, right?” She looked to Dakota. 

Dakota’s head bobbed quickly. “Yeah, of course. Maybe we can’t flick a magic button—” She stopped, glancing to me with a tiny smile. “Flick a magic button.” 

“Haha,” I retorted. “Not the worst use of my name I’ve heard.” 

The younger girl’s smile actually widened just a little. She seemed more comfortable here, shifting a bit in her seat before continuing. “We can’t–uhh, snap our fingers and get the answer, but we’ll help search. We talked to those guys, we–um, we didn’t really get anywhere, but we tried.” 

“And trying is all any of us can do,” Marina assured them. “You guys are doing just fine. Better than most. And I don’t just mean your age. A lot of people would have fallen apart by now. Or be making the situation harder.” 

“She’s right,” I agreed. “And hey, I couldn’t get the answer with either of my instant buttons either. I can possess everyone in this room to dig through their memories, and I can summon the ghosts of the dead. Neither of those helped. So don’t worry, we’re all batting zero right now. But that just means we have to get a little more creative instead of relying on cheating. We take this whole thing one step at a time. And right now, I think the next step is to search their rooms. Which…” I groaned a bit. “That’s gonna take awhile too. And we should figure out what’s going on with these guys first. Not to mention get their permission. Or at least tell them what we’re doing. I’m not… I mean we don’t exactly have legal procedures in this place, but still.”

“If we’re going to be better than the Crossroads system of just killing everyone, we have to really be better,” Marina put in quietly. “I know we can’t afford to like, say ‘okay then’ if they tell us they don’t want us to look through their things, but we should at least let them come with.”  

Sesh nodded, showing her impressive array of teeth. “I mean, that’s not a bad idea anyway. It gets them away from the rest of the crowd if we need to… you know, restrain them. Or worse.” 

“Well, so far, it seems like Denny’s power works on them,” I pointed out. “As soon as we find the person, she can just tell them to stand still and not hurt anyone, or whatever. Uh, right?” 

Denny gulped, but nodded. “I can use the power for that, yes. If it means telling a bad guy to stand still and not hurt anybody, I can definitely do that.”

Raising her hand, Dakota hesitated before asking, “But won’t it take a long time to keep going back and forth from here to all the rooms with one of those elevators?”    

“Right,” I agreed. “Maybe we should take groups at a time. Like ten or so. But who’s staying here with these guys? I mean, we shouldn’t leave them here alone and unsupervised. If the murderer is among them, bad things could happen.”

“Ahem.” That was Sitter, who had been standing on the far side of the stage. I wasn’t sure how good his hearing was, but apparently the answer was ‘pretty good’, because he turned to face us and came closer. “I am more than willing to watch over my residents, and capable of protecting them from any harm.” There was a brief pause before his mouth lights dimmed to a dull yellow. “Any harm I am aware of,” he added more quietly. 

“I’ll stay too,” Sesh informed us with a shrug. “You know, keep ‘em company, talk to people, whatever. You guys are probably better at the detective thing than me. I can at least keep everyone in here occupied. I’m sure they wanna hear stories about what’s been going on in the outside world, you know?” 

“Right,” I murmured, “that’s sort of the other big thing we need to tell people.” Grimacing briefly, I looked around at the others. Denny, Dakota, Sesh, and Marina all looked back at me. They knew what was coming, and we were all uncertain how it was going to play out. These people finding out that their leader and benefactor had been murdered was bad enough already, but talking to them about how they had been frozen for decades, that the world outside had kept going and… yeah. 

But, I wasn’t going to push that off on anyone else. Hard as it was, I had to be the one who broke the news to them. So, telling the others to hang on a minute, I stepped back to the front of the stage and cleared my throat. “Excuse me.” 

Now I had their attention again. Every single one of those nearly three hundred people were focused on me, clearly hoping I would have real answers for them. Too bad I was just about to make things even more confusing instead. That thought ran through my mind briefly before I shook it off, took a deep breath, and started. “There’s another thing we need to tell you. I’m sure you’re all aware that the original… murder scene was shut down and time-locked in order to preserve the evidence until people could get here to check it out.” 

Barely a couple seconds had passed after I said that before one of the crowd, a green-scaled reptilian humanoid with three eyes across his head and a crocodile-like snout raised a hand and asked, “How long?” His voice was loud enough to echo through the room, drawing everyone’s attention. “How long have we been time-locked?” His gaze was focused on me, even as a murmur started up. “That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it? After Valdean was killed, they didn’t lock down a single room. They locked down the entire vault. So what Earth year is it now?” 

Oh boy. Seeing everyone staring my way as they whispered in confusion at one another, I grimaced inwardly before answering. “Okay, yes, the vault has been time-locked. It’s 2019 right now. January, 2019.” 

Well, that had the expected result. Everyone was suddenly talking at once. They wanted to know why it took so long, where the hell we had been, what happened to their families and people they knew outside, how various sports teams had done, whether the world actually survived past 2012 in a couple cases, if the Seosten had taken over and that was how I had these powers, and more that I couldn’t actually catch. It had instantly descended into total verbal chaos.  

Obviously, I couldn’t blame them. If I had to think about how I would feel to find out that I had been frozen for a couple decades while the whole world went on outside without me, I… I really had no idea how the hell I would react to that. Even if I had some of my family and friends with me, knowing that the others had gone on for that long, that the world itself had continued while I was… yeah. Yeah, I couldn’t blame them at all. It was a lot to take in, especially on top of what they had already been told. Even more so when you added in that we were also telling them there was a murderer among them. A murderer among their friends, the people they had spent so much time with in here and were obviously incredibly close to. 

Yeah, no wonder they were freaking out a bit. I was actually surprised they’d been holding it together this long, to be honest. We were dumping an awful lot on the group. So, I let them react for a minute, rather than immediately try to quiet them down. They deserved the chance to get some of that out, even if I really didn’t have the answers they wanted to hear. And, of course, this whole thing was made worse because now they weren’t nameless faces. I had been in their heads. I had seen some of their thoughts and experienced their memories. Sure, it was all jumbled for me and hadn’t had time to settle in my brain yet, but still. Every time I focused on one of them, I knew their name. They weren’t strangers, not really. I could still hear the pain and confusion that had been in each of their thoughts as they believed they could have been the murderer, that they could have been responsible for killing two close friends. Every single one of them was dealing with a lot right now. Too much, really. 

Finally, before things spiraled too far, I spoke up again. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry we don’t have all the answers for you. We’re working on it. I can tell you why it took so long for us to get here.” That started to quiet them as they focused on me, so I continued by giving them all a quick rundown of what had happened with the Rebellion itself being erased, and how that had clearly erased knowledge of what was going on here. Then the man who was actually told had died before the eraser was undone. Finally, I explained how us showing up had essentially been an accident. 

“So how long would we have just sat here if you didn’t show up?” one of the women demanded. 

I looked to Sitter, who promptly answered, “If not interrupted by the arrival of some Crossroads Heretic at some point, the time-lock could have continued for up to another one hundred and twelve years before our power supplies would have necessitated releasing it.”

If I’d thought things were loud before with a lot of questions and people talking over one another, it was nothing compared to what happened then. Everyone was talking at once. The mere thought that if we hadn’t happened to practically trip over them, they would’ve been stuck here for another hundred and twelve years, not getting out until close to the year 2150? Needless to say, it drew a reaction. Though through that, there were other people who were insisting that if one of them was a killer, it was the right move. Which just made them start talking about which of them it could be again, and things devolved into even more shouting. This obviously wasn’t getting anyone anywhere. And if I didn’t step up and stop it, the situation was going to get even worse. 

“We’re going to figure this out!” I called over the sound of their rising voices. “And as soon as we do, I promise, you’ll be free to leave the vault, or stay, or do whatever you wish. We just… we need to find answers, and once we do, we’ll give those answers to you. I just need you guys to wait here for awhile. We’re going to check out the rooms of this place, and we’d like to take a small group of you with us while we look into your apartments, so you can watch and talk to us about what you think is going on. You’ll all have a chance.” 

“And what if we don’t want you to look through our apartments and private things?” That was the purple slime-like figure from earlier. They had stretched themselves up to a full eight feet in height to draw attention to themselves. “We mean, you’re Heretics. Boschers. How do we know you won’t just plant something to make one of us look guilty and call it a day?” 

I hesitated, trying to find the right words. But even as my mouth opened to say something, Marina spoke up instead. “Because we’re not like them! If we were anything like the people you’re afraid of, you wouldn’t have to worry about us framing any of you. Because… because we’d just kill everyone in here. The loyalist Boschers, they wouldn’t care about making you look evil, because they already believe you are and they don’t need any proof one way or the other. If we were anything like them, we’d just come in here and kill all of you. I’m sorry. I’m sorry to be that blunt about it, but that’s the truth. We’re here and we want to help. We want to solve this, find the real killer, and help the rest of you do… whatever you choose to do after that.” 

“She’s right,” I confirmed, nodding that way. “We really do want to help. We want to find the real killer, and get answers about what really happened and why. I promise, we’re here to put things right, and that includes making sure you’re all safe. So please, can we get ten of you… let’s say you ten right there, to come with us? We’ll just go take a look at your rooms, talk to each of you in person again, and work our way through everyone. Hopefully, we’ll be able to find out the truth this way. Then we can all move on and talk about what’s next for all of you. What you all choose to do.” 

There was a bit more uncertain murmuring, but we had mostly gotten through to them. The ten people I had pointed out gathered up toward one side of the stage, and Marina, Dakota, Denny, and I joined them. Sesh and Sitter stayed behind to talk to the rest of the assembled group. Hopefully they would be able to find out something on their own by getting more of those people to talk. 

Meanwhile, Marina led the way out of the auditorium, while the ten people I had chosen trailed after her. Dakota, Denny, and I brought up the rear. It gave me a chance to look this group over. The slime figure was part of it, as was the Rakshasa male they had been shouting over before as both had tried to take the blame for being the murderer. The Rakshasa guy was called Padda. Meanwhile, the slime figure’s name, or as close as we could get to it in English, was Meshk. They went by they pronouns because they were actually a colony of beings, thousands of tiny slime-like figures barely a few inches across when stretched out, who joined together to form the larger collective body known as Meshk. Possessing them had been… a real experience, to say the least. I had actually only been possessing one part of the colony, but they were mentally connected to every other part, so it was basically the same thing. 

In any case, we headed out together and let our first group take us to each of their rooms in turn. Unfortunately, none of the ten had anything inside their rooms that screamed ‘murderer.’ As far as we could find, the weapons weren’t hidden anywhere, and talking to this smaller group didn’t reveal any extra grudges or clues or anything. They really had no idea who among them could be the killer. It seemed like basically everyone in this place, well, might not be best friends, but at least basically got along. 

We even, with their permission, had Denny use her power to have them show us any hidden or secret places inside their rooms. There were a few, even a couple with weapons hidden, but nothing like what we were looking for. And they all had valid reasons to keep stuff like that put away out of sight. They wanted to be able to protect themselves if the time came. 

So, those ten were a bust. As were the remainder. Over yet another next couple hours, we checked each and every guest’s room, taking the elevator (we had to use a larger one in a few cases) throughout the facility. I learned an awful lot about what comforts they all enjoyed, how they liked to sleep, and so on, but nothing about the murderer. There was just… nothing. I liked all these people just fine, and whoever the real killer was, I was going to be disappointed. 

Part of the problem was that there were just too many suspects. We couldn’t zero in on just a few that easily, because any of the nearly three hundred people could have been the killer. We just… had no direction. Right now, we were stuck just pulling in as much information as we could, and then we’d have to sort it out later. Thankfully, I had been taking notes on a notebook that Sitter had scrounged up for me. The notes were basically a mess, but at least I could sort of keep track of what I was finding out. I had the names of everyone in the place along with a few bits jotted beneath each one, and lines connecting them to others when there were (minor) grudges or friendships. 

Finally, after the last group had been brought back to the auditorium to rejoin their companions, I stood by the doorway with the others. “That’s it? That’s everyone?” 

Sitter, who had joined us, gave a short nod. His mouth lights turned faint blue. “Yes. You have now visited the rooms of each and every one of our two-hundred and eighty-four guests.” 

“Yeah, well–wait, what did you say?” I turned that way, frowning. 

Sitter’s mouth lights turned a slightly brighter blue as his head tilted. “I said–” Then I heard what was clearly a recording of his voice from a few moments earlier, as it included the crowd noise from the room nearby. “You have now visited the rooms of each and every one of our two-hundred and eighty-four guests.” 

“Dudes, what’s going on?” Sesh asked as she jogged up. “I’ve got everyone in here playing games, but they’re getting pretty antsy.” 

Holding up a hand, I thought quickly before asking, “Sitter, can you play back exactly what you said awhile ago, just when we were about to have me start possessing people? It was right after Jammi volunteered to be the first one. Marina said these people must really care about each other, and you said something about community spirit. What was that whole thing?” 

Again, Sitter played back an obvious recording from that moment. “Master Valdean attempted to foster a strong community spirit. We have activities designed to create lasting friendships, even a sense of family. That is what we are here, family. Which is what makes these murders so difficult to understand. There were arguments, yes. With two hundred and eighty-four guests, how could there not be? But in the end, everyone loved Master Valdean for bringing them here. If they wished to leave, they could have at any time. They were not prisoners.”

Dakota hesitantly spoke up. “What’s wrong? Did something–did you notice something?” 

“Um, maybe.” Taking a breath, I focused on the robot. “One more. Can you play back the recording of exactly what you said while we were still in Valdean’s room, after you told us that the rest of the vault was on time-lock? You said you didn’t expect it to take this long for us to show up, then I asked how long everything had been like that. Can you play back your exact response?” 

Again, the robot obliged, and we heard his voice from earlier. “Every other room is, yes. Those areas, and my own chambers, lie beyond this room. Each individual’s chambers, and all of this facility’s two-hundred and eighty-seven guests themselves, have been time-locked for decades now. My decision to lock them down came in the late-nineteen nineties, just after my master’s murder and a couple of years after the first death.” 

“I don’t–wait,” Sesh blurted. “Did he say–” 

“Two hundred and eighty-seven,” I confirmed while rocking back on my heels. “When we were in the room, before he turned off the time-lock, he said there were two hundred and eighty-seven guests. Now, ever since he unlocked things, he’s been saying two hundred and eighty-four. And that’s how many we’ve talked to, it’s how many are in this room, it’s how many people we checked out, how many I possessed, how many–trust me, that’s everyone in here. Two hundred and eighty-four.

“So where, exactly, are the other three?” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Enkindle 23-09 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

“What’d you do, multiply?” 

The question came from Framework, the Braintrust Tech-Touched who focused on attaching a vast assortment of devices to his own body in a personal power armor/mecha-sort of fashion. Thankfully, he was currently wearing one of the far more subtle versions of the armor and stood only just under seven feet tall, rather than any his larger ones. Those could reach all the way up to twenty feet, and had been seen going toe to toe with Cuélebre. Though even the smaller versions of his armor packed an awful lot of dangerous toys. In the same way that Wren’s ‘movement focused technology’ power could be exploited a lot, Framework could design almost anything as long as it was attached to his body or something he was wearing. 

Oh yeah, and that whole ‘attached to his body’ thing had gone far enough that the man literally had his arms and legs amputated and attached robotic replacements to them. Actually, I was pretty sure he’d had a lot more than just his limbs replaced, but it was hard to know for sure how much of what we saw was replacements and how much was just covering his biological parts. 

Thankfully, either way we weren’t here to fight him, no matter what size his armor was or how much of himself he had replaced. Not unless this whole thing went a lot worse than I was expecting it to. 

“Multiply?” I echoed while letting my head tilt a bit exaggeratedly. Then I turned to look at the others as we all stood in the parking lot of that old pizza place Glitch had wanted to meet at. Besides myself, there was also Alloy of course. The armor she had fashioned her marbles into at the moment consisted of bronze-and-black interwoven chainmail-like leggings and chest, along with a gold helmet and cape. The silver, purple, and white marbles hovered around her in the shapes of a sword, hammer, and spear respectively. 

Beyond Alloy, there was also Roald and Murphy. Or Calvin and Hobbes, rather. They were wearing their own new suits, the ones that allowed them to teleport and create temporary protective shields around themselves. When they had first tried them out, the suits had looked just like ordinary black coveralls with silver wrist and ankle bands. But I had taken the time to change that by painting them almost entirely white, and then covering them in a lot of various colored splatters. They both looked like modern art canvases. Or, more accurately, like someone had just violently shaken half a dozen different paint brushes at them. There were no real shapes there, just various splatters of color. They also wore simple (also white) ski masks along with black goggles to protect their eyes. They were much more on-brand for being connected to my own Paintball identity, and to ‘Avant-Guard’ in general. Each of them also had one of Wren’s special rifles slung over their shoulders. Anyone or anything hit by a shot from one of those weapons would be violently catapulted in a direction set by the person holding it. 

Then there were Paige and Sierra. The two of them were standing together a bit to one side, very slightly separate from the rest of us. A quick trip to the store mixed with stuff Wren had already been working on or had lying around her shop had left them each wearing cargo pants, combat boots, a long-sleeved turtleneck under a lightly armored vest, a long leather coat, and a surplus tactical military-style helmet that covered the whole face and head, with a visor over the eyes. The pants and boots for both of them were black, while the rest of their color schemes were opposite one another. Paige had a red shirt and slightly darker red combat vest under a white leather coat, along with a matching white tactical helmet and red visor. Sierra, meanwhile, had a white shirt and vest under a red leather coat, red helmet, and white visor. Beyond that, obviously, they looked different thanks to Paige being like eight inches taller (well six while Sierra had those lifts) and more… gifted.

Finally, there was the last official member of the team. Wren, or as she preferred to be known to everyone else, Trevithick. She was wearing what was basically the same costume she had used to meet Lion before. It was a black, form-fitting bodysuit with pink armored panels along the chest, legs, and arms, along with a full-covering black helmet and pink visor. She also had the wing-pack, of course, and was currently hovering a foot off the ground. 

That was us, the whole group. At least, those who were actively members of this little team and not just helping out secretly now and then, like Pack, That-A-Way, or Raindrop. For the first time in anything resembling public (as much as a secret meeting with a group of Fell-Touched could be considered public), we were appearing together, in-costume and on the same page. It had felt like the right time, since they all knew the truth about me now.

After taking all that in the way that Framework had to be seeing it, I smiled to myself before turning back toward him. “Yeah, you could say we’ve been multiplying. I thought your boss might like to meet the full Avant-Guard. You know, before we come to an agreement about how this whole arrangement is going to work.” 

The armored man looked us over once more before snorting a bit. “I sure hope you’re not trying to be intimidating, kid. Because I don’t think that would work out well for you. Any of you.” 

“Buddy,” Sierra put in, “If we were going for intimidating, you wouldn’t have to wonder.” 

He regarded her briefly before curiously asking, “So what do you and your nega-twin there call yourselves? I don’t think I’ve seen anything about you before.” 

“She’s Style,” Paige informed him with a nod toward the girl beside her. “I’m Poise.” 

“It fits,” Sierra added. “I do have a lot more style than her. And she is a poser.” 

“Poise,” Paige corrected. “Poise and Pose are two very different words.” 

Clearly grinning beneath her helmet, Sierra cheerfully retorted, “I didn’t say they meant the same thing, I was just calling you a poser.” 

Coughing pointedly, I focused on the man in front of us. “We’re not here to start anything. We just want your boss and everyone else to know what they’re dealing with. That’s all. We came to make the arrangement. So does your boss still want to talk about that stuff?” 

Rather than answer immediately, Framework turned away and murmured something quietly, probably speaking into a communicator of some sort. There was a brief conversation before he looked back to me and gestured to the door into the restaurant. “Sure, go right ahead. But just know that if you do decide to start something, as you put it, it won’t matter how many extra friends you brought along for the ride. This may not be our actual home base, but we’ve had all the time in the world to prep it. And you know what they say, you don’t fuck with a Tech-Touched on territory they’ve had time to prepare.”

Painting a wide smiley face across my helmet like the Cheshire Cat, I replied, “Oh, trust me, we know all about that rule. It’s a good one for everyone to keep in mind.” 

That said, I started to the door, with the others trailing behind. We were a small parade heading into the same place where I had met with Glitch before. 

The woman herself was waiting, sitting casually behind a table as she watched us enter. She wore the same costume as before, with burgundy cargo pants that were covered in pockets, belts, and pouches containing all manner of weapons and tools. She also had a black scale-armored turtleneck and a white leather jacket, along with that familiar metal choker that could change her appearance to anything she wanted, rather than an actual mask. At the moment, she looked like a red-haired woman with deeply tanned skin and unnaturally bright green eyes. 

“Well, well, well,” Glitch drawled as we filed into the room and spread out a bit, “isn’t this interesting. You’ve been recruiting, I see. I thought you were trying to be a solo hero out there.” 

I moved myself straight to the middle of the group, front and center. Trevithick was just barely to my left, while Alloy stood slightly behind me and to the right. Calvin and Hobbes were together a bit further back and to that side, while Sierra and Paige/Style and Poise were together opposite them on the left. 

I had worried about bringing the two of them here, given Glitch’s ability to screw with Touched-Tech. But according to Paige, she had spent about four months awhile back worrying about that herself before picking out enough information about how Glitch’s power worked to realize she was safe. Apparently one of the repeated problems the woman had was with tech that was implanted inside of people. Or other animals. It was like living biological material blocked her ability. So long as they kept their finger wire things firmly inside, she shouldn’t be able to detect them or do anything to screw them up. 

“Oh, I can still do plenty of things by myself,” I informed the Braintrust leader after letting those thoughts run through my mind. “Don’t you worry about that. But I’ve found that it helps to have people watching your back in this town. And we thought it’d be a good idea to let people know what they’re dealing with. After all, we’ve already had to deal with one group trying to steal stuff from us. Don’t suppose you’d know anything about that?” 

She didn’t, of course. Mostly because I was making the whole thing up as part of our own cover story. Her face didn’t give away any reaction at all other than a very slightly raised eyebrow. “Pardon?” 

“A group of people broke into one of the places we’ve been keeping supplies,” I claimed. “Dug a tunnel straight under the shed. Must’ve taken them a week to do it without setting off any of our alarms. If we hadn’t been right outside doing some training, they would’ve gotten away with everything.” 

It was something of a bold claim, of course. A way of creating a bit more separation between us and the group who had broken into the Ministry base. I was positive that Glitch at least would have already heard about it, as my parents probably went to her about anyone who could have dug a tunnel like that. We were also going to have to make a point of having our black-suited selves break into another gang’s territory soon, just to keep up that lie. I had a few thoughts as far as that went, but now wasn’t the time to dwell on it. The point was that acting as though that mysterious other group had stolen things from us as well would hopefully help shield us from suspicion. 

There was a long pause as Glitch stared at me, then glanced to the others before slowly asking, “How long ago was this? And you think it was my group?” 

I offered her a shrug. “Maybe a week? And I dunno. Didn’t look like any established gang to us. Just black suits and ski masks. I thought you might’ve been trying to send a message.” 

“If you were,” Alloy put in, “It wasn’t a very clear one.” 

“I assure you,” Glitch replied, “That group has no connection to me. I’ve heard a bit about them, however. They seem to be attempting to…” She trailed off, making a thoughtful noise in the back of her throat before shaking her head. “Whatever they are attempting to do, they will find themselves put in their place soon enough. Interesting that they chose you as a target as well. A practice run, perhaps.” 

“Practice?” I made myself ask, since I definitely would have if I didn’t already know what she was talking about. “Practice for what?” 

Her response was a mysterious smile. “Never mind about that. I don’t believe you will have to worry about this other group for much longer. Why don’t you introduce me to your assortment of friends?”  

So, I did just that, introducing her to Alloy, Calvin, Hobbes, Style, and Poise in turn. Finally, I took a breath before putting a hand on Wren’s shoulder. “And, the person you’ve actually been wanting to meet this whole time. Trevithick, this is Glitch. Or the face she’s using right now.” 

Hovering a bit higher off the floor, Wren stared at the woman. “You’re the one who wants me to pay you or build things for you so you can hurt people.” 

Eyes focusing on her, Glitch gave a very slight smile. “Fascinating. I suppose my guess that you were a younger girl Paintball was protecting paid off after all. I don’t suppose you’d care to verify whether I was right about being a younger sibling, specifically?” 

“Sorry,” I replied before Wren could, “we prefer to play things a little closer to the vest than that. It’s just safer that way. I’m sure you understand. Unless that’s your real face we’re looking at.” 

With a wink, Glitch pointed out, “It very well could be.” She turned her gaze back to Wren. “Trevithick, was it? I must say, from what little I’ve seen of your work, I’m quite impressed. And yes, we are the group who control Tech-Touched in this city. If you wish to operate here, you must pay the tax. That can either be monetary or in extra work done for us directly. I do leave it up to you, though I believe you have a preference.” 

“Does it matter?” Wren demanded while folding her arms as she hovered there beside me. “If I build things for you, you’ll use them to hurt people. If I pay you, you’ll use that to buy more things to hurt people. Either way, you’re hurting them because of me.” 

The woman absorbed that with a thoughtful expression, tapping her fingers idly along the table. “Yes, I suppose that is true. And yet, it is how things work in this city. Unless you wish your new friends here to get into an extended conflict with my organization, one which we are far better prepared and trained for, it’s in your best interest to… as they say, bite the bullet and follow the rules. And I do hope this wasn’t meant to be a show of force before declaring war.” Her hand gestured to indicate the rest of us. “Because, while intrigued, I am not frightened.” 

“Like Style over there said to your buddy outside,” Hobbes informed her, “There were a lot better ways for us to try to intimidate your crew than just stand here in front of you.”  

Pointing with my thumb, I nodded. “Yeah, that. We’re just here like this to make sure everyone’s on the same page about where we all stand. If you want some sort of tax, maybe you should make sure it’s a fair one. You know, because I don’t think this city needs to have even more fighting going on than it already does. And neither do any of us.” 

Glitch offered me a curious and reevaluating smile. After a moment, she leaned back in her seat and casually remarked, “In other words, you’re showing me that you have more strength than I might have thought you did, and think that I don’t want to start another war while the one between those other gangs is still going on. But what if I feel ignored and want people to start paying attention to me again instead of those guys? Picking a fight with one little Star-Touched and his pet techy would’ve just looked like I was bullying someone. Not nearly enough action to get any of the right attention. But here you’ve just shown me you have a whole gang. So maybe you’re more worth fighting than I would’ve thought. Maybe we bloody each other’s noses, put a couple on each side in the hospital, really give the good folks at home stuff to gossip about. Then I could be right back at the top of the Twitter trends.” 

A couple of the others stiffened around me, but I could tell she wasn’t serious. She was teasing, and also testing my reaction, or our reactions, rather. Poking at us just to see what we would do, what we would say. I had surprised her with a bunch of people she didn’t know anything about, so she was giving a little verbal prod so she could take note of how each of us reacted to it. I had no doubt that she had cameras up and would be thoroughly analyzing everyone’s body language later so she could pick out who might be vulnerable to being taunted into doing something if the time came that we did fight. 

I had my dad to thank for immediately realizing that without even really having to think about it. He’d talked to me a lot about being in business meetings, negotiating with people, that sort of thing. Come to think of it, he had probably been talking about this sort of situation too, even if I hadn’t realized it at the time. To me, I was just listening to my dad tell stories because I liked hearing his voice. But what had it been to him? Was he telling me those stories because he expected me to go into business, or because he expected me to go into the family business? 

I had no idea. It actually distracted me for a moment, as I wondered what my father intended with all that. But now really wasn’t the time, so I pushed the thought down and focused. “Maybe, but I’m pretty sure you won’t do anything like that. You didn’t invite us over here to start a fight, and we didn’t come to provoke one. Like I said, we just wanted to make sure you know what you’re dealing with so you treat us fairly. So you treat her fairly.” I amended myself with a look toward Trevithick. “Not that I’m saying you’d try to get away with pushing around a couple people if she and I came by ourselves, just to get even more work out of her.” 

Of course, that was exactly what I was saying, and everyone in the room knew it. Glitch regarded me for a silent moment before tapping the table thoughtfully. “Yeah, well that’s fair enough, I suppose. Sure, go ahead and keep all your people here. It won’t really make a difference. Like you said, none of us are here to start a fight. In fact, I really don’t think your friend there will object too much to what we’re asking for.” She focused on Trevithick, offering a faint smile. “Something tells me if I asked you to build a weapon, or anything that would hurt people, we’d have a problem, right?”   

“I’ll pay a pe-percentage of what I make off selling in town,” Wren informed her in as firm a voice as she could manage while clearly being incredibly nervous. “But no, I’m not going to build weapons for you. No matter what you say.” She lifted her chin a bit at the end. 

“Tough kid,” Glitch remarked with a slightly more genuine smile. She seemed almost charmed. “Like I said the other day, I don’t like forcing people to build stuff when they don’t want to. It’s a good way to end up in a really bad situation. Especially when I’m a little too busy to stand over your shoulder watching you work all the time. So that’s not my style. And yeah, I could take your money, sure, but I’ve got plenty of that as it is. That’s part of why it’s been so hard these past few weeks, trying to decide exactly what I was going to ask for from you. You’re sort of a unique commodity, kid. And yeah, I know, commodity’s kind of an insulting term. But it’s the best one I can come up with right now. You’re unique, and I don’t really think taking a bit of money from you is the right approach. But right now, I think I’ve finally got an idea.” 

“Well, you’ve certainly talked it up enough,” Style put in glibly. “How about you just explain what you want and we’ll see how long it takes us to get to it.” 

Her words were met with a brief stare from the woman, before Glitch rose from the chair she had been lounging in. “Absolutely. You all might have heard about a little gang war going on, between a few of the other gangs.” 

“It’s come up once or twice,” I dryly confirmed. “Including like thirty seconds ago when you talked about being afraid Braintrust isn’t getting enough attention right now. Which, for the record, I bet if you just let us arrest your entire group and send you to prison, you’d have all the focus you could ever want. You might even get a book deal out of it.” While saying that, I painted a smiley face across my helmet. 

Glitch pretended to consider that. “Hmm, maybe that could be a decent back-up choice. Of course, to make it realistic, we’d have to put a few of you in the hospital.” She let that stand before continuing. “Or we could just go with my plan.” Her eyes found Trevithick, as she reached down, picked a bag up off the floor, and tossed it to her. “I want you to build these and make them work.” 

Clearly confused, Wren opened the bag and took out a pair of long leather gloves, with bits of electronics hanging off the inside and outside. “What… are they?” 

Glitch leaned against the table, regarding us. “Do you remember that little thing you pulled to get the vials for Blackjack, where you made that guy wear a suit that forced him to walk to where he hid those things?” 

Wren dropped the gloves in the bag, shaking her head quickly. “I’m not building something that will make someone hurt people.” 

“And if that was my intention, we’d have a problem,” Glitch retorted. “Trust me, you can put in all the safety measures you want. That’s not what this is about. What I want you to do is build working gloves that will connect to another person’s brain. Someone far away. Not to hurt people, to help them. See, if there’s one thing this gang war has shown, it’s that we don’t have enough well-trained medical professionals out there who can deal with traumatic situations. There’s a lot of victims out there, and only so many people who can help. And a lot of the ones who do exist can’t get there in time. But imagine every paramedic in the city, every cop, firefighter, anyone like that, carries a pair of these gloves in their vehicle. They find someone suffering from a medical trauma that won’t wait until they get back to the hospital. So they grabbed the gloves and put them on, then they call the hospital itself. Even a hospital in another city, or another state entirely. They find the expert, the expert puts on a helmet, and takes control of their hands. The hands in the gloves, that is. That way, the doctor can do what he needs to do right then and there, just by piloting the hands of the other person. Hell, we make enough of them, and we can sell them to individuals. Imagine if as part of calling 911, you strap on a pair of these gloves and the emergency services link you to an expert surgeon in Los Angeles who can save your poor injured mother before the ambulance even gets the call.

“We could revolutionize the entire emergency medical services world. And all you’d owe us is thirty percent.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Growth 18-13 (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

“Okay, did… did we just step into the largest murder conspiracy ever?” Marina managed to be the first one of us who found her voice after we were all struck dumb by the completely baffling array of hands raised before us. 

That was the thing. The fact that there were so many hands raised appeared to be baffling not only to us, but from the look of things, to the audience themselves as well. The assembled group were all standing there with their hands raised while looking around at one another and talking all at once. They were arguing with one another, demanding explanations, denying those explanations, crying in guilt, confusion, or disbelief, and just plain raising a commotion that was getting louder with every passing second. 

“Uh, Denny, I think you can tell them to put their hands down now,” I whispered, still reeling from this turn of events. They had all been part of these murders? That didn’t even make sense. The sheer–how? 

“Oh, r-right.” Clearly just as taken aback as the rest of us, Denny quickly told everyone they could put their hands down, but still not to hurt anyone. That didn’t stop the arguing spreading through the room, however. If anything, it just got louder as people turned to one another and started loudly demanding and/or desperately pleading that they stop lying and covering for them. 

I focused on one pair, a Rakshasa male and a purple slime-like creature, both shouting over one another to insist that they themselves were the killer, not the other person. A few feet past them, a Guhlben (one of the enormous, obese beings who stood ten feet tall and several feet wide) female in a very pretty dress was tightly gripping the shoulders of a pair of much smaller Satyrs while sobbing hysterically in between insisting that they shouldn’t take the fall for her. The Satyrs, meanwhile, were each shouting back at her that they were the one responsible, then looking at one another to blurt that no the other one wasn’t, they themselves were. 

And so on and so forth it went throughout the entire audience. Everyone was confessing to the murder and insisting that the other people weren’t responsible, it was only them. And the more they argued, the louder the arguing got. Not to mention the crying. A few of them shouted in our direction that the Heretics should take them, and leave the others alone. Which only made their friends loudly and frantically insist that they were the murderer. And it all just got louder from there. 

Finally, an earsplitting whistle filled the air, carrying on for a few seconds as it drowned out everyone and got their attention. It was Marina, standing up at the edge of the stage. She kept up the whistle until the whole audience finally turned to face us once more, quieting down for the moment. Which just left us standing there facing an audience of confessed murderers who were clearly just as confused about this entire situation as we were. 

“Okay,” Sesh announced dully while we stared around the room at all that. “I’m just gonna say it, this is pretty fucking weird.” 

“You’re right about that,” Marina agreed, her gaze shifting first toward Denny and Dakota, who were standing together looking baffled, then to Sesh and me. “What’re we gonna do now?” 

My mouth opened, then I stopped and glanced toward Sitter. “I don’t suppose you have any idea what’s going on here? I mean, without going into too much detail, these guys should’ve only been able to tell the truth when Denny asked if they were responsible for those deaths. They can’t all be responsible. Especially since they’re arguing with each other about it. That’s impossible.” 

“Maybe the power isn’t working anymore?” Denny offered hesitantly. She sounded rather conflicted about the possibility, glancing down at her own hands as though there would be answers in her palms. “Maybe it broke.” 

“I’m pretty sure if it broke, they wouldn’t have raised their hands at all,” Dakota pointed out. “Or only some of them would’ve. Not… not all of them.” Frowning in confusion, she glanced to the audience, who were starting to murmur amongst themselves once more, clearly desperate to go back to arguing about which of them would be taking the blame for these murders. 

Sitter, for his part, simply shook his head while those mouth lights shifted to a light amber. “I confess, Lady Flick, I am quite at a loss. It cannot possibly be all of them, and yet if, as you say, they would be incapable of lying in response to Lady Denny’s question, then the only answer is that–” 

“They all believe they were the ones responsible,” I finished for him, squinting a bit as I turned back to the audience. “Okay, umm… uh, don’t worry, people! We’re gonna get to the bottom of this, and uhh, and no one’s gonna go killing anybody else. We’ll figure this out.” 

God, this was weird. It felt weird. Why was I the one talking to these people? I was just a kid, there should be an adult here to talk to the audience, work all this out, and… and handle it. Yes, I’d been through a lot. I’d had to handle a lot. A hell of a lot, really. And yet somehow, being right here, talking to people and trying to calm them down like this felt like far more of an ‘adult thing’ than actually fighting in life and death battles did. Was it just because I was accustomed to the fighting part? Standing here, talking as though I had any sort of authority whatsoever, it just… it just felt awkward. It felt like they could all see through me, like everyone standing out there could see that I was just a confused little girl who had no idea what I was doing. 

“Flick.” Dakota’s voice was a whisper as she touched my arm. “It’s okay, you know? We can handle this.” 

It was like she knew me. She had known in a glance that I had been mentally spiraling right there. Managing a shaky smile, I nodded and straightened up a bit. I was acting like I had some level of authority because we were the ones who were here. So we had to handle it. There weren’t any adults here. 

No, that wasn’t right either. There were adults. I was one of them. So was Marina. Sesh too, I was pretty sure. We had to step up, take control of the situation, and figure this out. 

And then it struck me. As I stood in front of that audience of people staring at me for direction and answers, I realized why this, of all things, had made me instinctively look for an adult more than much more dangerous and life-threatening situations. Being on a spaceship flying into battle, facing down a horrifying Necromancer who had abducted my mother, dealing with a psychopathic Seosten cunt who wanted to rip my face off and kill my friends, none of that had any connection to my childhood self. It was all so utterly removed from anything the young me would have been involved with that it was like we were two entirely different people. 

But this? Yes, the details were completely absurd and removed from Bystander Flick’s reality, of course. But the more general part, that was a different story. Really, what was this? Remove the supernatural and alien aspects, remove all magic and extra-dimensional stuff, and it was a mystery. It was a mystery like the ones I had often gotten involved with back in Laramie Falls. Okay, not really like those, given my childhood mysteries didn’t tend to run all the way to one murder, let alone two. Still, though, that was what I did back then. I butt my nose into things, as more than one person from back then would’ve said. This situation right here wasn’t about fighting for my life, or about saving the world, or a desperate struggle for survival. It wasn’t about any of that. 

It was about a mystery. And in all of my old mysteries, I’d always had an adult to fall back on, an adult to point at the bad guy. I’d had a safety net, someone who could step in and take charge when the time came. But here, now, it was just us. We were the adults. I was eighteen years old. 

So how long would it be before I stopped feeling like I was faking the whole adult thing and started to actually believe I was one? When would the switch activate that made me feel like the adult I was supposed to be? 

Shaking that off as the thoughts rushed through my mind in a quick moment, I focused on the audience. “Right, so here’s the thing. You all think you were responsible for these murders, and obviously you can’t all be. Wait, hang on. I’m just gonna check something real quick.” Turning to Denny, I whispered what I wanted her to ask next. 

“Um, okay.” Looking hesitant, the younger girl cleared her throat before trying again. “My name is Denise, would everyone who believes they are solely responsible for the murder of Valdean Ecclestone or Mophse Kanter, without any help from anyone else, raise your hand? And if you do not believe you’re responsible, don’t raise your hand.” 

As expected (yet still baffling) by that point, every person in that audience promptly did so. Their hands shot up in the air like they were popping out of a jack-in-the-box. And of course, all of them immediately turned to argue with their neighbors, their friends. 

Before that could get out of control again, I loudly spoke up once more. “Okay! Okay, I think it’s obvious that this is impossible. You all believe you murdered these guys, and that you each did so alone. Clearly that’s not a thing. So it’s magic. It has to be magic. Someone… I think someone must’ve used a spell to make each of you think you were the killer. So just calm down, alright? At least ninety-nine percent of you are not the bad guy here, someone just used magic to make you think you were. And we’re gonna figure this out.” 

If I expected that to calm them down, I was sorely mistaken. Everyone started talking at once again. Some were arguing that I was wrong, they really were the killer and had to be stopped before they hurt someone else, while others were demanding to know who could’ve put that sort of spell on them, pointing fingers one way or another to others in the group. It remained one big chaotic mess. 

Hey!” Sesh shouted loud enough to be heard over all the arguing. As everyone turned that way, she added, “You all want to find out who really murdered those two, right? You wanna know who the bad guy is, who killed your friends and put a spell on the rest of you to blame yourselves for it?” When everyone out there gave murmurs and nods of agreement with that, she gestured. “Well, we’re trying to help with that. But you’ve gotta calm down for a minute. Stop shouting all at once, dudes. You’re not helping anything.” 

Coughing, I nodded along with that. “She’s right, we need to take this one bit at a time. If everyone would please sit down, we’ll try something else.” 

“Who are you?” one of the guests demanded. He, and everyone else, were already starting to resume their seats amidst more confused muttering. When he put voice to that particular question, all of them focused on me. “You’re a Heretic, right? One of the rebels? We heard something about rebels.” 

Oh boy, was that a complicated question. “That’s… a lot to get into,” I replied slowly. “My name is Flick Chambers. And yeah, I’m part of the Heretic rebellion. This is Sesh. These two are Denny and Dakota, as you heard. The girl over there with the great whistle is Marina. We’re here to help. There’s a lot more we need to get into, but first we need to find out exactly what happened here. So, for that, I’m gonna ask for a volunteer. Do all of you know who the Seosten are?” There was a general confirmation of that amongst the group, so I continued. “I have a Seosten’s power to possess people. Which means I can read your mind and see your memories. I want to do that, with each of you, one at a time. I want to see what you remember about what happened and compare all of your… versions.” I could see them getting nervous, shifting in their seats and looking at one another. “But I’ll only do it with your permission. And I’ll only be looking for stuff revolving around the murders, that’s all. Everything else is your business. This is just about finding out who… who killed Valdean and Mophse.” I felt a twinge of guilt about saying that so bluntly to people who had only just found out about the death of their benefactor, someone they clearly cared about a lot given their reactions throughout all this, but I really had no idea how else to phrase it. We had to find answers as quickly and efficiently as possible, before this situation spiraled out of control. If this whole group panicked, everything would get worse. I had to sound like I knew what I was doing. I had to be matter-of-fact and in control. That’s what these people needed right now. Even if I was faking it the entire time, they had to think I was calm and collected. They needed blunt, because they needed to believe this was something I could handle.

Pausing to let that settle in for a moment, I exchanged a glance with the others before speaking again. “Does anyone want to volunteer to be first? My friends here can walk through and talk to the rest of you about what you think happened in the meantime.” 

To my relief, after a few seconds of uncertainty, the Guhlben woman raised her hand while rising to her full height. “I ahh, I would like to submit myself for evaluation, madam,” she announced in a rather posh voice. “If as it turns out, the guilt I feel over those dreadful murders is mere sorcerous chicanary, I shall be greatly relieved.” 

She made her way around the assembled group, having been at the back of the room due to being one of the biggest people there. I heard and saw several of them murmur encouragement to her, belief that she wasn’t the killer, urging her to let them go first instead, and so on. 

“These people really care about each other, don’t they?” Denny murmured behind me. 

“Master Valdean attempted to foster a strong community spirit,” Sitter noted with pride in his voice, his mouth lights shifting to a bright green briefly before fading to a softer shade. “We have activities designed to create lasting friendships, even a sense of family. That is what we are here, family. Which is what makes these murders so difficult to understand. There were arguments, yes. With two hundred and eighty-four guests, how could there not be? But in the end, everyone loved Master Valdean for bringing them here. If they wished to leave, they could have at any time. They were not prisoners.”

“Sir Sitter is absolutely correct right there,” the Guhlben woman announced, having approached the front of the stage by that point. She was still standing on the audience floor, yet she was so tall that she was still looking down toward me. “We are all family here. Granted, it’s a large family and we may not all be best friends. But we are family. Thinking about what I did to poor Mophse… and Valdean, I just–” She had started to tear up before catching herself. “But ah, if those… if those awful memories aren’t true, I would be very happy to hear it.” 

Offering her as reassuring of a smile as I could, I replied, “Well, that’s what we’re trying to get to the bottom of right now, Miss umm…?” 

“Oh dear me,” she blurted, sounding positively scandalized. “I am so sorry. How awfully rude. I am Jamnikrah, but my friends here most often call me Jammi. Or Aunt Jammi. It’s… I can’t yet say that it’s a pleasure to meet you, given the terrible circumstances, but you all seem quite pleasant.” She added that with a little wave toward Dakota and Denny, both of whom waved back to her seemingly reflexively. 

“Okay, Miss Jammi,” I replied while continuing to offer that hopefully at least somewhat reassuring smile, “if it’s okay with you, I’ll just do that possession thing real quick. Be in and out, promise.” While saying that, I raised my hand that way. I didn’t reach out to touch her fully. Better that that be her decision, so it wouldn’t feel like I was taking her control away just as I was… sort of taking her control away.  

There was a moment of hesitation, understandable given what she was opening herself up to, before the large woman carefully raised her hand and touched it against mine. “If there’s something in my memories that can tell you who killed those two, please find it.” 

“I will.” Trying to sound confident when I said that, I glanced toward the others. “You guys talk to everyone here, try to get them organized into some sort of line or something, and see what they can tell you before I get to them. With so many people, this is gonna take awhile.” And with that, I focused on the possession power, disappearing into the Guhlben woman. 

Right, now I was inside her. I could feel her surface emotions and thoughts. She was terrified that she had been the one to kill the nice man who had been so kind and understanding to her, who had taught her so much of how she enjoyed presenting herself. He had seen past her species’ innate… size and helped her to feel proud of who she was and what she looked like. He gave her this pretty dress, and others like it. He taught her how to style her hair, and watched fashion shows with her. He didn’t judge and dismiss her. He took time with her, listened to her thoughts on the books they read, even offered feedback on her own short stories. She loved the man. Not in a romantic sense but more of a mix between a brother and a father. The news that he had been murdered had sent her reeling–no. She’d known he was dead, because she killed him. 

It was that confusing sudden turn that brought me up short. That wasn’t right. None of it was. One second she was reeling in horror from the revelation that this man who had been so important to her was dead, and the next, she was thinking about how she’d had no choice but to kill him. 

Needless to say, I dove a bit deeper into that and focused on her memories revolving first around Mophse’s murder. It was an accident. The man had found out that she had once unknowingly been part of the muscle for a group whose actions had led to the death of Valdean’s close friend. She’d only recently (at the time) realized who this friend was while talking to their host in his apartment area. Realizing that Mophse had overheard her talking to herself about it shortly afterward, she was terrified that he was going to tell Valdean and the man would kick her out of this place for the past transgression, that he would never forgive her. She found him in the sauna and tried to reason with him. He argued that Valdean would understand, that it was worse to keep things secret. She insisted the man could never know. The argument rose to the level of a fight before either of them knew it was happening. She kept telling him to just promise to be quiet about it. She was behind him, pulling the man back against her. He was yanking her hair, reaching up and back to shove his fingers in her eyes. She grabbed for a towel and wrapped it over his mouth while half-blinded by his grasping fingers. Bellowing and straining, she tried to yank the towel tightly in his mouth just so he would have to be quiet for a second and listen to her. 

But it wasn’t his mouth. She realized that too late. The towel was around his throat, and he… and he… died before she understood what she was doing. 

As for Valdean, that had been even more of an accident, a mistake. He’d unexpectedly called for her to see him in the kitchen, and she became paranoid that he knew what she’d done before. She took the pistol, long-squirreled away in her belongings, in the panicked hope that if he wanted her to die, she could protect herself. When she went into the kitchen, seeing Valdean with his back to her as he casually got food out of the fridge, she realized it had to be safe. But when she tried to put the gun away before he noticed, it accidentally went off. 

Yeah, there were holes in that whole thing. I noticed right away. For one, when I went digging deeper for this gang she had supposedly run with, leading to the death of Valdean’s friend, there were very few memories. They all turned blank and vague after that first quick glance. Not to mention the fact that she was too tall to have choked him from a downward position that way the body actually looked like. 

Oh, and there was the fact that she had no memory of changing everyone else’s memories. Which, yes, could have been because she had changed her own memories as well and erased those ones. For that matter, she could have specifically implanted easily disproven memories in her own head in order to look innocent, a sort of double-bluff. It would make sense for anyone who was trying to hide themselves. I really wished Sariel was here to do this stuff. Or even Tabbris. They would’ve been a hell of a lot better at sifting through these minds and finding buried or hidden memories than I was. 

But I was what we had. So, I gave another quick look through those relevant bits before thanking the woman. Then I emerged. 

“Are you okay?” Marina asked. She was standing nearby, with an assortment of people she had been talking to. The others were spread through the room. They were clearly still getting organized. 

I started to answer, then realized she wasn’t really asking me. Her focus was on Jammi. 

“Oh, I… I am ashamed, but well,” the woman assured her. 

“You shouldn’t be ashamed,” I informed her. “I’m pretty sure those memories are planted. There’s a lot of inconsistencies.” With a sigh, I looked out over the assembled group. If they all had altered memories like that, digging through and finding anything useful this way was going to be a nightmare. And yet, it was the quickest way I could think of. I just had to keep at it, going through memory after memory, thought after thought, until something big popped out. Or, more likely, until a bunch of small things popped out and we put them together like a giant puzzle. There were almost three hundred people here. This was going to take hours. 

“You know,” I murmured mostly to myself while looking out at the crowd and thinking about just how long this was going to take, “I think I know why detectives on TV are always drinking so much coffee.” 

“Is it so they have an excuse to run to the bathroom a lot and freak out in private about all the horrible stuff they’re hearing where nobody can see them?” Dakota piped up while she and Denny came closer. 

My mouth opened, then shut, as I let my head tilt slightly. “Okay, two reasons. But come on, we’ve got a lot of people to talk to.

“And something tells me none of these memories are going to be pleasant to sit through.” 

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Enkindle 23-08 (Summus Proelium)

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My parents had really freaked out about the invasion of their base. How did I know that? Because the next morning, Tuesday, my mother informed Izzy and I while we were eating breakfast that there would not be a family dinner that night. Considering we’d even had it for the most part while they were out of town and only able to appear via video chat, that was pretty big. Though, of course, she didn’t tell us why. She just said that something had come up at the office and they were going to be very busy with that. 

So yeah, canceling family dinner was a big deal. I did my best to seem genuinely surprised and curious in a normal way without looking like I was pushing to see what sort of answer she would come up with. I had to make my reaction come off as completely clueless, yet with the right balance of teenaged not caring that much but being accustomed to the dinners happening. 

Honestly, I really shouldn’t have bothered. My mother was so distracted that I don’t think she heard half of what I said. She just accepted that I was mildly curious about what was going on, gave me some excuse about being busy, then went back to talking on the phone using what was obviously careful language to avoid saying anything dangerous in front of me. I was pretty sure I could have said something like, ‘hope you catch the people who broke into your mall base and stole everything that wasn’t nailed down,’ and there would only be like a twenty percent chance of her actually processing what I was saying properly. 

But, of course, tempting as that was, I resisted the urge. Mom left after giving both Izzy and me a hug, promising to make it up to us later. Then she was out the door and on her way downtown. I exchanged a look with the younger girl beside me, but neither of us said anything about it. Well, actually we did. But we kept our comments limited to what we would have said if we didn’t know the truth. I was absolutely certain that anything we said in here would be heard by someone we didn’t want to hear it. So we played our role as clueless teenagers. 

We also wouldn’t be getting a ride from Jefferson that morning. He was fully occupied helping my parents out, which had to be doing a number on his dislike of schedule changes. And that all by itself told me how big of a deal this was for them. This whole situation was obviously all hands on deck. It made me feel anxious for the fact that we couldn’t eavesdrop on what they were saying. I had no idea how much information they actually had right now, or what they would be able to find out over the next few days. I was pretty sure we hadn’t left anything that could expose us, but not knowing for sure what they were doing made me nervous. 

It was sort of like the opposite of the situation we’d been in before. They’d had no idea we were even a thing, let alone what we were planning. Now they did know about us, at least in general terms, and we had no way of finding out how much they would be able to figure out. It was our turn to not know what they were planning. 

But, we were just going to have to suck that up and move on. We had other things to deal with right now. Mainly the fact that we were supposed to go out as a group later tonight and meet with Glitch. I had no idea how that was going to go, and it was making me nervous. But I knew it was the right thing. The others finally knew the truth about me, and we could work together properly. It was the right time for us to make an appearance as a team. Doing so by meeting with Glitch and letting her know what we were going to do about the whole Tech-Touched tax thing was just… well, as good of a moment as any. 

I had also told Izzy and Amber late the night before about what happened, both with the Luciano thing and later at the shop. They knew about the zombie-man, and that the others were aware of my identity and all that. Though I promised them I hadn’t given away their own identities. I wasn’t sure exactly how long those could remain secret if they kept working with our fledgling group, but it was up to them to decide what to do about it. 

In any case, both Izzy and Amber thought I’d done the right thing by telling the others who I was, given how much trust they’d earned. We were in this whole thing together now. We were a team, and they had deserved to know the truth about me and my connection to the Ministry. 

Eventually, the two of us finished our breakfast. I’d already called for an Uber, and it pulled up outside the house as we made our way there. We weren’t going to be skipping school today. Distracted as my parents were, I really didn’t want to give them any reason whatsoever to think something might be up with me. Sure, connecting the base invasion with me skipping school would be a huge stretch, but still. We needed them not focused on us at all. Thus, not giving them any reason to even think about us. 

Besides, after the insanity of the past couple of days, and what was coming up soon, I needed the break of just going to school and being normal for a few hours. Was it weird that I saw sitting in class listening to teachers and doing work as a break from my extracurriculars? Yeah, probably. But hey, I’d never claimed to be normal. 

I was dropped off at my school first, and I made sure the driver was paid with a substantial tip before sending him on to drop off Izzy at her own school. Then I turned to face the school itself and took a deep breath. Time to go inside and pretend to be a completely normal teenager for a few hours. 

“You’re not fooling anyone, you know.” 

The words made me turn abruptly, just in time to see that Dani girl approach from the direction of the student parking lot. Blinking a couple times, I found my voice finally. “Eh, what?” 

Stopping there, she raised an eyebrow at me before gesturing at the departing Uber. “You really think people will buy this whole ‘oh I have to be driven around in a normal car like everyone else, I totally don’t have a personal private rocket ship and teleportation technology I can use to go anywhere I want’ business?” She winked then, giving a pointed and overly dramatic sigh. “I mean, it’s either believe that you have access to all that and are trying to hide it, or that you actually are stuck driving around in a wheeled car like the rest of us schlubs.” 

A very tiny smirk found its way to my face as I offered a shrug. “I mean, when it comes down to it, whether I have to use a normal car to hide my vast technological sci-fi toys or don’t have access to that at all, the end-result is the same, isn’t it?” 

Dani, in turn, shook her head. “It’s not the same at all. If you had access to that stuff, you could cruise around in a spaceship on your off days. I mean, for all we know, you’re out there flying to new planets and hobnobbing with alien diplomats on the weekend.” 

Dramatically raising my finger to my lips, I gave her a sharp, “Shhh. If everyone hears about that, they’ll all want a ride to Alpha Centauri. Believe me, political relations are already tenuous enough without adding a bunch of extra galavanting teenagers who want to cruise the galaxy.” 

With a laugh, the other girl retorted, “Oh yeah, and everything I’ve heard about you makes you the perfect diplomatic representative for humanity. No way would you ever do something dramatic on a dare that made the aliens panic.” 

“I’ll have you know, I am on my best behavior whenever I’m on an alien world.” With a grin, I added, “That’s why I act up around here, to get it out of my system.” 

“Oh, is that why?” Amber put in while joining us. “Sorry, what was that about aliens?” 

With a shrug, Dani replied, “Just working out exactly what our local richest teenager in the state likes to do in her off-hours.” 

Amber looked me over as though appraising for a moment. “Last time I checked, it was a lot of putting herself in physical peril, right? Skiing down death-trap mountains, skating off skyscrapers downtown, bungee jumping into the Grand Canyon?” 

“Sometimes all in the same day!” I chirped with a broad smile. “Play your cards right and maybe I’ll bring both of you along sometime. We might even take the rocket ship.” 

Dani gave me a thumbs up. “Sounds good, just let me know when and where. Hope I get to wrestle an alien.” With that, she glanced at her phone and said something about needing to talk to someone before class. Then she headed off, leaving me standing there with Amber.  

“You good?” the other girl asked after we watched her walk away. 

Nodding a little, I replied, “Yeah, I’m okay. Still kind of coming to terms with the fact that the others know the truth now. Like… it kind of freaks me out a bit, you know?” 

“You mean because now there’s five extra people who know exactly who you are and who your parents are?” Amber put in before exhaling. “Yeah, that’s pretty big. You’ve been keeping this secret for a long time now. I mean, relatively speaking for how big it is and how much you’ve been doing. And now it’s sort of out of your hands. You can’t control what they do with it. If they fuck up and give away your secret, you can’t undo it. You just… have to trust them. It’s scary, huh?” 

Swallowing hard, I murmured, “Absolutely terrifying. The more people who know about me, the bigger chance of this getting out. You’re right, I can’t control them. I can’t be there every minute of every day. I have no idea what they’re doing right now. I mean, I trust them, or I wouldn’t have told them the truth. It was the right thing to do. But still, it just… it’s a lot. And I keep having waking daymares about one of them saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and…” I shuddered. 

Her hand patted me on the back. “Don’t worry, I get it. Believe me, I know it’s a big deal. But you’re right, it was the right thing to do. If you guys are going to be a real team and work together, they needed to know what they were dealing with. The whole story. Especially if Luciano’s turned into some superpowered zombie monster. That seems like a problem that’s gonna get worse before it gets better.” 

“Well, Paige was supposed to be siccing the Ministry on him,” I pointed out quietly, glancing around to make sure no one was anywhere nearby. “Which could kind of be a two birds with one stone situation if it distracts them from focusing on us. But I guess we’ll see what happens.” 

“Yeah,” Amber agreed, “You could say the same thing about this whole situation. We just have to see how it goes. But whatever happens, just remember you’re not alone. You’ve got people you can trust.”  

Nodding slowly, I took a breath before starting to head for the building. There was no sense in being late to class. “Sure,” I murmured on the way. “I just hope that we can find a way to help Trivial and Flea.

“Because as much danger as we might be in right now, I’m pretty sure they’re in a lot worse.” 

******

School that day passed through a time distortion that made it simultaneously take forever and yet finish in the blink of an eye. While I was sitting in every class, I couldn’t stop looking at the clock, which seemed frozen every time I glanced that way. Given what I had to do that evening, I was anxious to be done with all this. But when the final bell rang and it was time to leave, it somehow felt like I’d barely spent any time there at all. Brains were weird sometimes.

I was at my locker when Dani approached alongside San Francisco. The latter spoke up. “Yo, we’re gonna go catch a movie, you wanna come? It’s that special fifteen year anniversary release of Duskrunners. You know they’re counting ticket sales to decide if they’re finally gonna do a second one.”

“Yeah,” Dani put in, “I haven’t seen it yet, but San here keeps saying I should’ve been there at the first release.” 

Raising an eyebrow, I pointed out, “San wasn’t there at the first release. Or if he was, he wouldn’t remember. He would’ve been two.” 

“All the more reason for us to go to this one and get the movie the sequel it deserves,” San insisted. “Come on, I promise, seeing that movie on the big screen is gonna blow your mind. When I went the first time–” 

“First time?” I interrupted. “You mean you already went to see it in the theater?” 

“Opening night, dude,” he retorted. “It’s been out since last Friday, and I’ve seen it three times. Today’s lucky number four. Even with the curfew, which didn’t make that easy. But I need reinforcements, just in case my tickets aren’t getting the job done. Plus, you know, maybe if you really like the movie, you can poke your dad about throwing some funding toward the sequel.” He waggled his eyebrows at me pointedly. 

Snorting despite myself, I gestured. “I’ve sorta got plans today, but I promise I’ll look at my calendar and see when I can get free for a couple hours.” I wouldn’t have minded going to see a movie that day, especially one San was so excited about. But I’d already promised Wren that I would come by and talk some more about funding for the shop, some toys she wanted to try out, and how that night was going to go when we went to talk to Glitch. She was pretty nervous about the whole thing, understandably. 

“Gotta make it at least three hours,” San informed me. “Gonna need extra time after the movie so we can talk all about the tie-in comics and books and about what’s canon and not canon. It gets a little confusing sometimes.”

“Can’t wait,” I dryly replied before glancing toward Dani. She had been watching me curiously the whole time. “Maybe you can help him narrow down how to explain this stuff to a clueless newcomer. Or just tell me to run if it’s impossible.” 

With a visible smirk, the other girl shrugged. “Hey, if it’s impossible and I have to sit through it, I’d be more likely to tie you down so you have to suffer too. Sure you’re too busy today though? Cuz I could do with some reinforcements. And if there were two of us, we could tie him down if it gets too bad.” 

Snickering a little after giving San a look as though I was considering the ‘tying him up’ part, I finally shook my head. “Like I said, sorry. I’ll try to get some free time soon so we can see just how cool this fifteen-year-old movie actually is and how much it holds up. But hey, let me know how it goes. At the very least, so I’ll know if I need to cut and run whenever I see San here again.” 

“Pfft.” Dani gave me a pointed look. “Trust me, babe, even if it’s terrible, I’m definitely going to talk it up just so you can suffer as much as me.” 

San made a sharp harumphing sound, straightening as he looked back and forth between both of us. “I’m telling you guys, it’s not gonna be bad. It’s awesome, and you’re both gonna love it whenever you get to see it.” Muttering something under his breath about how he still couldn’t believe that we hadn’t seen it at any point in the past fifteen years, he shook that off before gesturing toward the nearby doors. “But if we’re gonna get there in time to get decent seats and snacks, we gotta go.” 

With an added promise (or threat) to make sure I made it to the movie next time, Dani headed out with him. I watched them go, then turned back to my locker while my head shook with amusement. At some point I really was going to have to go see that. San wasn’t the type of person to just let that go. And the last thing I wanted was for him to start wondering why I was so busy all the time. And hey, if I did like it, maybe I really could push my parents toward helping to fund a sequel. 

After all, if they were going to profit so much off a criminal enterprise, they could at least make people happy with it. 

*****

“Speaking of profiting off a criminal enterprise,” I muttered under my breath awhile later, once I’d made it to Wren’s shop. 

“What?” the girl herself asked, popping up from behind a counter where she had been digging through a pile of what looked like random junk. 

Coughing, I shook my head. “Nothing, never mind. I just–I’m glad I get to help get this place running properly.” I had my helmet and mask off since everything was closed up, which was a really odd feeling. Standing here with my face exposed while the rest of me was in costume, it felt… well, it almost felt like I was naked, honestly. It was weird and uncomfortable. I felt exposed. Which was the point, really. Everyone here knew who I really was. I just… wasn’t accustomed to that. 

Coming down the stairs with an armload of supplies, Paige flatly put in, “We don’t have to get this place running to pay Glitch, you know. Cassidy and I can both help with that. In more than one way.” 

Wren, however, shook her head. Her chin was set stubbornly. “If she wants money from me, it’s gonna be from my stuff. I mean–uhh…” She paused, frowning uncertainly. “I guess you’re already paying to help get us off the ground and all, but that’s… uhh, different? I think… somehow. Sorta.” 

“Don’t worry,” I assured her, “we get it. And you won’t have to give them stuff forever. We’re gonna deal with the whole thing eventually. Just… probably not a good idea to make too many enemies right now. Especially not when they obviously know about the shop.” Saying that made me shift a little uncomfortably. 

Then I looked over at Paige, trying to change the subject for a moment while we still could. “Did you get to talk to the Ministry about Luciano?” 

“Yeah,” she confirmed. “I mean, I left an anonymous message about him, and the stuff you guys saw. I don’t know how seriously they’ll take it, but hopefully they’ll at least look into it.” 

A grimace found its way to my face. “Yeah, well, we’ll see. Maybe when they start getting other reports about him, they’ll do something. Cuz I kinda doubt he’s the type to lay low and not draw attention to himself. But you know that ‘drawing attention’ thing is probably gonna involve hurting people. Or… or killing them.”

“I’m working on something to trap him too!” Wren quickly put in. “Something he can’t burn his way out of, or whatever he did to escape from the dumpster.” She frowned thoughtfully. “You said he didn’t burn out of that one, right?”  

“Yup.” The memory made me frown as well. “Still have no idea how he managed that, unless he got teleportation powers too. Which is patently unfair. And speaking of an unfair situation,” I looked back to Paige once more. “What about school? Are they uhh, bringing up stuff about your parents being gone?” 

Paige started to shake her head, but it was Sierra who answered, on her way down the stairs behind the other girl. “As far as the school and his company’s concerned, Mr. and Mrs. Banners are on an extended retreat still. They’ve called in a few times to let people know they’re still alive, thanks to voice changers and Paigey baby’s memories of how he talks to people.” 

“Don’t call me Paigey baby,” the other girl retorted, before focusing on me. “But yeah, like she said, everyone still thinks the Banners are just being eccentric rich people on safari or whatever. The company’s still making money without his help, so there’s not too much concern yet. But that won’t last forever. And… I do want to find out what happened to them. Even if they did buy me to replace the daughter they threw out. Plus we have to get Irelyn off that island. Not to mention Flea and Trivial.” 

She was saying it that way in front of Wren rather than give away that Flea was Irelyn, I knew. It was a trick that only worked because everyone thought Flea herself was Asian, and Trivial hadn’t been in the city long enough. Not to mention she was too young. Those were the only reasons the others hadn’t figured out that Irelyn was one of those two. 

And yeah, it felt awkward and kind of bad to lie like that still. But again, it wasn’t our place to expose Irelyn’s identity. I just hoped that when and if it came up later, the others would understand. They’d been more than understanding so far. 

“We will,” I found myself assuring her after that moment of silence. “We’ll find out what happened to all the Banners. I mean, we’ve still got that blackmailing the Breakwater people plan, right?” 

Wren’s head bobbed rapidly. “Uh huh! I’m building the thing to track where the island is so you can tell them to get them off it or else.” She paused briefly. “Uh, does that make us sound like the bad guys?” 

Smiling a bit, I reached out to squeeze her shoulder. “Don’t worry, we are definitely still the good guys around here. They’re the ones not getting a couple superheroes off their prison island because they don’t want bad publicity. I promise, we’re still solidly on the right side of this.

“And speaking of being on the right side of things, let’s finish putting this stuff together so we can go pay a gang of supervillains to leave us alone.” 

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Growth 18-12 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – There was a special commissioned interlude posted yesterday focusing on the 10 main prisoners of Gehenna. If you haven’t seen that yet, you can find it right here

The first murder, the one that wasn’t Valdean himself, had apparently taken place in one of the sauna rooms. As the elevator doors opened after another thirty-second trip, we found ourselves at one end of a hallway. The entire way down the corridor, on the right-hand side, were an assortment of doors, which apparently led to changing rooms for various sexes and species body types. Sitter led us through one of those locker rooms, which looked basically like any other though meant for only ten people at most, and with oversized benches and lockers that were clearly meant for beings averaging ten feet tall. 

“What about cameras in this place?” I asked as we were moving through the room. “I don’t suppose it’s as easy as checking those?” 

“Master Valdean did not put cameras in the vault,” came the answer. “He did not want his guests to feel as though they were being spied on.” 

The rest of us exchanged glances at that. It was understandable, of course. But boy would it have helped right now.

“This is the one that poor Sir Mophse used,” the robot informed us a moment later, gesturing to one of the large lockers. “That is where he left his clothes, wallet, and watch. Master Valdean took the items out and examined them, but found nothing of interest. He put the items back so any future investigator could see them as they were.” His mouth lights shifted from light green to blue as he regarded us. “I suppose that would be all of you. Would you like to see his belongings, or visit the body itself first?” 

Basically every single one of us blurted some equivalent of, “Let’s see his belongings.” Apparently despite our brave words about wanting to solve these murders, none of us were exactly eager to go and look at the body. Which might have seemed weird coming from some of us who had caused plenty of death already, but still. It just felt like there was a difference between killing someone in the heat of battle, mostly to protect ourselves or others, and seeing someone who had been coldly murdered. I especially didn’t like the idea of taking Dakota and Denny in a place like that. Not with their own histories. The second one of them said they didn’t want to be there anymore, I was planning on pulling them out. Hell, I felt guilty about even taking them this far. But they wanted to help, and it felt like telling them no would have made things worse. Besides, both of them had… well, some form of experience, even if it was second-hand in Denny’s case, with the whole murder thing. There might be something in one of the scenes that they noticed. 

So, we all stood there and watched as Sitter input the code for the locker and tugged it open. Then we looked through the contents. As promised, it was just a pair of pants, a shirt, shoes, and underwear, along with a watch. There was nothing especially unique about them, aside from the fact that they were all meant for a man several feet taller than a normal human. We searched through the pockets and checked the wallet and watch for anything, but it was all just normal stuff. Comically oversized stuff, but normal other than that. He had some sort of identification card that was basically the size of a full sheet of paper. Turning that over, I focused first on his face. He looked like a goofy, friendly guy with slightly too big ears and a narrow face. His skin was light pink, with bright yellow eyes. And he had this silly smile. It sort of reminded me of Wyatt for some reason, which just… made me feel even worse about the fact that he was dead and I’d never get the chance to know him. Which was probably silly, to ascribe that much emotion to a picture, but there it was. It also made me even less excited to go in and see his body. 

His name was listed as Mophse Kanter. He was apparently ninety-four Earth years old (it literally said Earth years), and next to that was a second number listed as seventy-five. 

“What’s this mean?” I asked curiously, holding that up and pointing to the second number. 

Sitter leaned in close to see what I meant, then his mouth lights turned bright purple. “Aha. Well, Lady Flick, the second number on those identification cards refers to what the age of majority for that species would be. The ahh, age of maturation. I believe in ordinary humans these days it is considered to be eighteen?” 

That made me do a double-take. “You mean this guy was seventy-five before he was considered an adult, and he died at ninety-four? That’s like a human dying when they’re twenty years old. How long does his species normally live? The ahh–” I checked the card for the species name. “Olleypha?” 

Holding those giant pants up in front of herself (covering her entire body in the process), Denny absently replied, “Average lifespan is four hundred and fifty years.” Then she stopped, lowering the pants so we could see her confused face as her head tilted. “Wait, how did I know that?” 

“Ahem, you are quite correct, Lady Denny,” Sitter assured her. He sounded curious too. “I do not know why you are able to answer the question, but yes, the average lifespan of an Olleypha is four hundred and fifty years here on Earth or on comparable worlds. They live slightly shorter lives on their own homeworld due to various environmental factors.” 

Dakota was staring at Denny, offering a hesitant, “Those have to be memories from you-know-who, right?” 

Denny, in turn, visibly flinched. “I–I didn’t learn it from anywhere else. I don’t even remember hearing the name of these guys, or seeing them before. But as soon as you asked how long they lived, I just… wait.” She reached out, taking the oversized ID before squinting at it intently. “Oh. Oh, I remember. There was an Olleypha who was in charge of this sporting goods store and I wan–I mean, I mean he wanted–Ammon wanted–” She stopped short, throwing the ID back to me before turning away with a visibly sick expression. Dakota moved to embrace her from the side and the two took a few steps to the side. Marina joined them, tugging the two further away to sit by one of the large benches to talk quietly. They were gonna need a minute. 

Okay, so she had clearly gotten a memory of Ammon doing something horrific to one of these Olleypha people. Something told me my little brother wasn’t exactly short on victims. That would probably happen more than once. Which was just… just another reason to hate Fossor. 

Sighing heavily, I turned to the others just as Sesh quietly spoke up. “What’s this?” She had apparently found a folded up piece of paper in the man’s enormous shoe. Unfolding it to its full, nearly two-foot-wide size, she showed us what it said. First, there was a short sentence in some language I couldn’t understand. Largely because half the letters just looked like completely random shapes. And the ones that did resemble the alphabet I was accustomed to had unfamiliar additions, like a capital Q that had a tail on both sides and a smaller circle in the middle. I was pretty sure it wasn’t any Earth language. Below that sentence was a date and time that actually were written in English. March thirteenth, four-thirty pm.

Sitter regarded that before promptly replying, “Assuming this was meant to be the same year as Sir Mophse’s death, that date would have been two days afterward.” 

“Can you read the rest of it?” I asked, focusing on the unfamiliar language once more. “It’s probably Olleyphan language, or whatever they call it.” 

Sitter, however, shook his head. “I assure you, I am quite fluent with all forty-three still-living languages from the Olleyphan homeworld. This bears no resemblance to any of them. Nor am I capable of deciphering it using any of the remaining five thousand, four hundred, and eighty-two languages that were programmed into me. I have no idea what this could mean.” 

“I wish Avalon was here,” I muttered, “She’s got that language deciphering power from that guy on the prison world.”

Sesh was grimacing. “So hold on, he had a note in his shoe with a sentence in a language that even the super-translating robot dude can’t understand, and a listed date for two days after he was murdered. Wait, did Valdean find that note?” 

“He should’ve,” I murmured. “You said he took that stuff out and examined all of it, and that paper wasn’t exactly hard to find. Did he show it to you? You know, so you could try to decipher it then?” 

“No, Ladies Sesh and Flick,” came the simple response. “Master Valdean never requested that I attempt to decipher that note, nor did I witness him find it. But he did not search the belongings in my presence. He wished for me to attend to the still-living guests at the time, and assure them that everything would be fine. You are correct, however. I believe he would have had to locate the note with only a cursory examination. As I said, he put everything back the way he found it for any future investigation.”

Taking that in, I brought back a bit on my heels thoughtfully. “Doesn’t it seem like he’d want his robot assistant, who speaks over five thousand languages, to see if he could read what’s on that note? Unless–” 

“Unless he already knew what it said,” Sesh abruptly put in, showing her teeth. “But how would he know what it said if Sitter here doesn’t understand it? He’s the one who programmed you, right?” 

“Which would mean he speaks it but deliberately didn’t program you with the knowledge,” Marina added. She had come back with both other girls, who were standing slightly behind her. “Why would he do that unless it was something he didn’t want you to know?” 

“It does seem a little odd that he’d program that many languages into you without adding this one,” I tentatively agreed, looking at Sitter directly. “Either he didn’t understand it and chose not to–wait, we’re being dumb.” My head shook. “He programmed you, so he’d know exactly what languages you understand. If he could tell this was a language he didn’t program into you, of course he wouldn’t ask you to decipher it.” 

“That would follow logically,” Sitter confirmed, before adding, “Except I will say that he was not the only one to program languages into me. He did not speak all of them himself, and thus had much of that outsourced to others. My language database was transferred through three dozen experts in order to be prepared to assist with the needs of any guest who might have entered our facility.” 

Marina shook her head with a glance my way. “It was a good thought, anyway.” 

A heavy exhale escaped me. “Right, good thought. Except now we’re back to, ‘he could have asked Sitter to translate but didn’t, so he either knew what it said already, or he chose not to let his robot assistant see the note for some reason.’” 

We didn’t get anything else useful out of searching the locker or his belongings. So we took the note and identification card with us while reluctantly heading to see the actual crime scene. Sitter led us to a doorway at the back of the room, leading to a separate hall parallel opposite from the first one. On the far side of the hall was a large set of double doors leading into a pool area. Or rather, pools. The doors were opened, and I could see six different varying sized swimming pools. The smallest was only about ten feet long and a few feet deep, the next one up was slightly over Olympic-sized, and they got bigger from there. The largest one would have been the equivalent of that second size for someone as tall as Mophse himself. Needless to say, the room itself was gigantic, stretching off into the distance. If Valdean had gone to this much trouble to have different-sized swimming pools for his guests, wow. This place was clearly meant to be comfortable for a lot of varyingly-shaped people. It was impressive, to say the least. 

But that wasn’t our destination, so we just took a moment to look that way before continuing on down the hall. There were more doors further on, all of different sizes as well. These led to places like the saunas. Three of those had holographic symbols projected over the doors. Numbers, it looked like. 

Seeing my attention turn that way, Sitter explained, “These are the saunas which were occupied when I established the time-lock. The numbers are how many are inside.” 

“They’re not gonna be hurt, are they?” Sesh quickly asked. “I mean, that time-lock you’re talking about won’t let them be umm… you know, how you’re not supposed to spend too much time in the heat like that?” She flinched visibly with a quiet, “Dad killed someone like that before. He made me watch.” 

Well, that was nice and horrifying. I felt my stomach twist in disgust while Sitter shook his head. “I assure you, Lady Sesh, the timer-lock freezes everything within the room, including any physical effects. When it is released, it will be as if no time has passed. Aside from all the time that has passed.” His head cocked a bit, like he was considering the words he’d just said, before focusing once more. “This way. Sir Mophse was relaxing in the furthest sauna that would accommodate one of his size.” 

Yeah, I definitely wasn’t eager to see this. And from the look of the others, neither were they. Dakota and Denny were lagging behind a lot, while Marina kept pace with them. She had tried to tell both that they didn’t need to come along for this, but they insisted. There was clearly a lot of hesitation and fear, yet also firm insistence. They didn’t want to do this, but they were going to anyway. They both wanted to help figure this out. If anything, learning more about Mophse and seeing his face on that ID card had just made them even more determined. 

As for the murder scene itself, I had certainly seen far more graphic deaths. I’d caused far more graphic deaths. When Sitter shut off the time-lock using some sort of wi-fi-like connection he had to the main computer and opened the large door, I just saw the man’s body lying there on an oversized bench on the opposite side of the room. He was wearing bright orange swim trunks that clashed horribly with his pink skin. And yet, somehow that just made him seem even more innocent. For a moment, it looked like he was just sleeping. Then I saw the way his throat was partially collapsed. It looked like someone had wrapped something around it to choke the man, crushing his trachea in the process before leaving the body there. 

Swallowing hard, I stepped inside and moved to look down at his face. Even in death, he looked like a fun, goofy guy. It made me clench my hand tightly. Who could have done this? Valdean had taken these people in and cared for them. He protected them and gave them this whole place to live and relax in. Who would have murdered Mophse at all, let alone like this? This hadn’t been simple. He wasn’t poisoned and someone didn’t shoot him in the head or even stab him. This seemed personal. This meant that someone had come up behind, wrapped something around his throat, and held it until he died. He would have been thrashing, kicking, fighting to get free or to plead for his life. Whoever had done this had clearly been unaffected by all that. This person was a stone-cold murderer. 

With a soft sigh, I closed my eyes and reached out with my Necromancy. For over a minute, I tried to sense any ghost at all, but ended up with nothing. There was no sign of Mophse’s spirit, or anyone else’s.

Dakota silently stepped closer once I told the others I had nothing, staring down at the body from just beside me. I could see the emotions twisting their way through her expression. She was clearly lost in memories of her own family’s night of terror and violence. Finally, she spoke in a soft voice. “They were shorter than him. The… the way the throat’s collapsed, it’s pulled down. Whoever was behind him held the thing up around his throat and pulled back and down on it. It’s–” She blanched, folding her arms tightly across her stomach before quickly turning toward Marina as the older girl came up behind her to embrace the girl tightly. She couldn’t say anything else. 

Denny, meanwhile, stepped up on my other side, staring at the body as well. “I think he trusted the person. Look, there’s two towels on the rack over there.” She pointed that way. “One of them looks like it’s big enough for him, but the other one’s smaller, more human-sized. And they’re a little bit apart. Not like one guy taking two towels, more like two guys with separate towels.”

She was right, of course. Two towels, one clearly meant for Mophse himself and the other meant for a human-sized person. Taking that in, I murmured, “And if he was sitting in a sauna with a person like this, it was someone he knew.” My gaze turned to nod in agreement with Denny’s assessment. “It was someone he trusted.” 

Sesh, meanwhile, had stepped that way to run her finger close to the very edge of the smaller towel, without actually touching it. “Can we get like umm, DNA or whatever off this? Maybe whoever it was had it wrapped around themselves. It could tell us who they were. Or at the very least, which species they are.”

Unfortunately, Sitter scanned the towel before shaking his head. His mouth lights dimmed to a very soft orange. “I am sorry, the towel is clean aside from Mophse’s own fingerprints. It seems he was the only one who touched it since it was taken from the clean supplies at the far end of this corridor.” 

“Probably grabbed the towel for his friend,” I muttered. “The friend who killed him.”

Well, that certainly didn’t do a lot for the mood. We also didn’t find anything else of interest for the moment. And we all wanted to get out of that room. Not that our next destination was going to be that much better. Planning to come back and check the place out again later, we went to see the body of Valdean himself. 

As Sitter had told us before, that took us to one of the kitchens. Apparently there were three of them, and this was the smallest. It was the one the guests had used the most when they were just getting something for themselves. Even then, however, the room was about three times the size of the kitchen I’d had back at my family’s house in Laramie Falls. There were four different stoves and five microwaves. 

Oh, and the body, of course. Valdean was lying on the floor in front of the enormous silver refrigerator, on his side. Unlike the clear choking wounds of the other body, he had a single gunshot in the back of the head. From that sight of that, as well as the tray of food scattered along the floor, it looked like he had been getting a midnight snack or something when someone stepped up behind him and just… shot him. It was far less personal. Maybe they didn’t want to take the time it would require to actually choke him out? Or maybe they were afraid an old Heretic would be able to survive that and even beat them. Speaking of which–

“Did he have any powers that would’ve told him someone was behind him?” I piped up. “Or, uh, you know, should’ve let him survive being shot in the head by a normal gun?” 

“It’s not a normal gunshot,” Sesh informed me. She had already stepped over to kneel next to the body, staring at the wound intently. “This is from some sort of powerful laser. Probably bypassed any defenses he had.” Her voice softened. “Dad used those sometimes.” 

“Indeed,” Sitter confirmed. “Though Master Valdean would have been aware of someone behind him, he likely would not have seen them as a threat. Even after the murder of poor Mophse, Master Valdean remained quite fond of all his guests. It tore him up to think that one of them could have been Mophse’s killer. He spent a long time attempting to find out if anyone had somehow broken inside. Which, of course, should have been quite impossible. And yet… he wanted to believe that was the answer.” 

Right, some even after this poor guy had dealt with the murder of one of his guests by another guest, he still tried to believe in them. And what had been his reward for that? Being shot in the back of the head. 

Once again, I tried to reach out for any ghosts, especially Valdean’s. But just like the other room, there was nothing. If there had been any spirits here, they were gone by now.

Denny was staring down at the body, clenching her hands tightly. Her voice was quiet, yet firm. “Can we talk to the guests now? I want to find out which one of them did this.” 

She was angry, I realized. She had taken in everything we did, learned everything we did, and now she was mad. She wanted to find out who could have betrayed an obvious friend like Mophse, and a nice guy like Valdean, who had taken them all in and cared for them. 

So, Sitter turned off the time-lock in every room, and sent a message summoning everyone to the main meeting hall. He made sure to keep the doors leading other places locked and closed off, funneling the whole population of this private vault that way. As far as we knew, none of them would have any idea that this much time had passed. That was going to be a pretty big bomb that to drop. 

In any case, we took the elevator to the grand meeting room ourselves. It was a theater, basically, and our path took us to the stage itself. Which left our little group standing there next to Sitter, facing an audience of what had to be two or three hundred beings of all shapes, sizes, and colors. I saw some of the same sort of species I had previous experiences with, but also a lot but I didn’t. This was… this was a lot of very unique people, all sitting in chairs that had clearly been carefully designed for them. 

They were also all talking amongst themselves, very confused. Especially when they saw us. That prompted a few shouts about Heretics, and a couple of the larger people moved to cover the others, clearly protecting them. 

“It’s okay!” I called quickly. “It’s okay, we’re not here to hurt anyone! You’re okay, you’re–” Fuck, I couldn’t say they were safe. Not with an unknown murderer wandering around among them. We really should have planned for this. I’d forgotten what it was like for people who didn’t know the Rebellion was a thing. Or at least didn’t know much about it.

At least these people had spent time around another Boscher. They seemed to accept that easily enough. Which, to be fair, there probably weren’t many loyalist Boschers who would bother to reassure them before going straight to the attempted murder. 

Either way, a few shouted out questions about who we were and where Valdean was. Which made me grimace. 

Finally, Sitter made a microphone rise from the bottom of the stage, speaking up in front of it so his voice was projected throughout the room. I also heard it echoed moments later from speakers along the walls in various other languages so they would all understand. “Friends! I am… I have arrived with an assortment of terrible news. First and foremost, I am sorry to say that our founder and benefactor, Valdean Ecclestone, has… been murdered.” 

Okay, I would’ve chosen to be a bit less blunt about it, personally. Needless to say, that started a huge uproar with most people leaving their seats, shouting questions, and basically demanding to know what had happened. Looking to Denny, I whispered, “Now, before they have a chance to leave or do anything drastic.” 

She looked hesitant, of course, but quickly moved that way. Sitter promptly stepped out of the way, as everyone in the room stared at her. Several hundred sets of eyes all staring at her. It had to be a lot of pressure. 

And yet, Denny’s voice sounded remarkably clear as she spoke into the microphone. “H-Hello. My name is Denise. If you had anything to do with the murder of Valdean Ecclestone or Mophse Kanter, please do nothing to harm anyone or try to leave the room, and raise your hand.”

I was prepared to get no reaction, in case the person responsible wasn’t actually here. I was also prepared to see one person raise their hand against their will, giving away the truth. What I was not prepared for, however, was what actually happened. 

Every single person in the audience raised their hand. 

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Commissioned Interlude 19 – Gehenna Prisoners (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – The following is a commissioned interlude focusing on a look at the main ten prisoners of Gehenna, including Ehn, his eight lieutenants, and the Tenth prisoner, who is not part of Ehn’s group. It does not count as a regular chapter on the regular schedule. Thanks so much!

Ehn (One)

Casually using a spatula to move the meat around on the pan as it sizzled and cooked, the man once known as Wiglaf, in days so far past he could barely remember what they were like, spoke in a quiet, measured voice. “Do we know yet how many were lost on the Penmiea Moon?” 

Weregeld, his guard by some measures and assistant by others, tilted his gleaming silver head to regard him briefly before answering. “Thirty-seven thousand Seosten-aligned troops have been listed as killed-in-action. Two-hundred-and-forty-three thousand civilians are assumed dead, or taken to be repurposed as Fomorian shock troops. As for the Fomorian dead–” 

“I assume the numbers of their throwaway forces will be incalculably high,” Wiglaf–or Ehn as he was now known– interrupted. “They’re also pointless. The Fomorians can throw away a million and make a million more. The Zetas and Epsilons are meaningless. The Deltas barely count themselves, and only because they can count, unlike the first two. Only the Gammas, Betas, and Alphas are actual Fomorians. Tell me the numbers that matter.” 

“Of course, sir,” Weregeld acquiesced with a bow. “The Fomorians lost ten Gammas in this assault, along with two Betas. No Alphas were present and thus none were lost.” 

“Unlikely they would’ve been anyway,” Ehn murmured, scooping his food out onto a plate before shutting the heating unit off. He moved to the table while adding, “The Seosten didn’t have the right troops there to handle an Alpha showing up. We took Kwur’s seedling off the moon in time?” 

Weregeld gave a nod of confirmation. “As you ordered, yes. Might I ask how you knew the moon would be under assault by such a powerful force?” 

In answer, Ehn reached out to touch a button on the side of a handheld computer sitting next to him on the table. A series of holographic news reports, maps, files about troop movements, and more were projected upward in a jumble. “It’s all there if you read it properly. The Fomorian don’t tend to be all that difficult to predict. They’re more like a force of nature. Once they show up, they’re all-but impossible to stop. But they’re not creative or stealthy. Not as a whole, at least. There are some tricky ones. But the species in general, they’re like a flood. If you look at the environment, you can figure out where the water’s going to go when a dam breaks. The Seosten stopped them here, here, and here.” With each repeated word, he flicked through various reports of battles happening throughout the universe. “Penmiea made the most sense for them to make a renewed assault. Not a hundred percent, of course, but it wasn’t worth the risk keeping Kwur’s seedling in place.” 

“I’m certain he is grateful for your foresight,” Weregeld put in. “As are the four-hundred-and-twenty-one thousand Penmiea civilians who were successfully evacuated due to your warning.” 

“It’s not enough,” Ehn informed him flatly. “Between the civilians and military, almost three hundred thousand people were still murdered by those monsters. If I was ready, if my people were prepared and this stage of my plan completed, we could have stopped that. Perhaps not all of it. We could not have saved every life. But there are innocents dead today who could have lived if I was able to prepare more quickly. Every death is a failure, and I will see that each is avenged.”

Sounding curious, Weregeld hesitantly pointed out, “You are aware that there are those who believe you would not care overly much about the deaths of nonhumans, given your claims of human superiority?” 

“Yes,” Ehn agreed. “Those people mistake my belief that humans should stand at the head of galactic rule to mean that I find other species inferior or in some way deserving of death. All species deserve to live free and cheerful existences, doing as they wish. My belief is that humans are capable of providing that freedom, that cheer, to everyone. Our ability to bond with other species, to gain their gifts, allows us unmeasured versatility and strength. The Fomorians created us to serve as their greatest soldiers. We, instead, will be their destroyers. We will end the Fomorian threat and usher in a new legacy of peace in this universe. A peace which we will enforce against any threat. We will rule, but it will not be a rule of terror and enslavement. We will make things right. Humans will stand as protectors and leaders. Everyone will live as they choose, so long as that choice does not harm others.” 

There was a brief pause then, before the man quietly added, “Unfortunately, drastic measures will need to be taken until we reach that point.” 

“Drastic measures such as allying yourself with an assortment of individuals which includes a few of what could be considered some of the most dangerous and murderous beings in the universe?” Weregeld asked after a moment of silence. 

“Precisely,” came the confirmation, as Ehn met the Mevari’s gaze. “They are dangerous. Some have done terrible things and will likely do more. But keeping them here, pointing them in the direction I wish them to be pointed in, will lead to a better universe in the end. You saw what happened with Merakeul. Fossor, that is.” 

“He became one of strongest Necromancers in the universe,” Weregeld noted. “If not the strongest. And he did so by committing countless atrocities.” 

Ehn gave a short, single nod. “And then he died, his power taken by someone of much better character and ethics. Just as he was supposed to. And Felicity Chambers is gradually beginning to understand and utilize that power, just as she is supposed to. In time, she will become a much greater ally than Merakeul could ever have been.”

“Might I ask,” Weregeld began slowly, “does that mean you intend for those few of your lieutenants who are not already human to be replaced by a human? There is the situation with that Dakota child. Which some may believe was intentional as well.” 

Rather than answer, Ehn simply smiled faintly. “Speaking of my people, would you mind bringing up the security feed for each of their cells?

“I would like to see how they’re doing.”  

******

Twen (Two) – The Hole

The main room of the cell was circular, the walls composed of unending mirrors which stretched all the way around. In the middle of that fifty-foot diameter space was a figure who stood twelve feet in height. He was roughly humanoid at a glance, with two arms, two legs, and a head all in the correct places, as well the right amount of fingers. However, he appeared to be wearing a form-fitting black scuba suit, gloves, boots, and full head-covering mask with no visible eye or mouth holes. In fact, the face part of the mask was completely flat and blank, as though the figure had no actual nose, eyes, or mouth at all. That twelve-foot tall, entirely black and faceless figure, was reflected in every direction through the mirrors along the walls. As was the single piece of decoration in the room, a three foot metal vase-like container with a lid blocking the opening. Nothing else stood in the cell. Only the tall, black form and the metal vase. 

A moment later, the tall, humanoid figure changed. He was now a six-legged dog. Then he was a snake, filling the entire room save for the spot where the vase sat. Then he was not a creature at all, but a bicycle, which rolled in circles around the mostly empty space for a few seconds before transforming yet again, into a small starfighter, hovering a few feet off the ground. Then he was a monkey, a tree, a dozen other animals and objects over the span of a couple minutes. 

As a soft, polite chime echoed through the enclosed space, the figure transformed back into his tall humanoid shape and turned to face one part of the circular room. Nothing about that spot stood out any more than any other spot, yet he had been here long enough to know precisely where the opening to this cell was. And, as expected, the chime ended as that part of the mirror shimmered like liquid. A rifle appeared, followed by another, the two men holding them very clearly standing side by side. They were ready for him to make a move. Not that he would. Not that he had any desire to. 

His master had not requested it. 

Instead, the being known as Twen simply watched impassively as the rifles stuck through the mirror were trained on him, before a crate was tossed through. It was a gray animal-carrying crate, like one that a human might use to carry a large cat or small dog to the vet. There was a handle on top, and a cage-like door in front. 

Once the animal crate was delivered, the rifles withdrew, and the mirror shifted back to normal. They were done. Probably off to celebrate. After all, dinner had been successfully served once more.

Rather than approach the cage and its squeaking occupant immediately, Twen silently pulled the lid from the vase and held his hand over the opening. As he did so, black, tar-like liquid began to fall from his hand. His hand itself remained intact, as did every part of his form. But it shrank. The more of that dark liquid that fell into the vase, the less of him there was. He gradually shrank down until he was closer to six feet in height, halving his size. Yet despite the vase clearly not having room to hold that much, it was not overflowing. He didn’t need to put part of himself away to change size, as evidenced by his bout of shifting a moment earlier. But it did make things more comfortable. Shifting his size while containing or expanding part of his mass was like holding his breath. Putting part of that mass away, or pulling some out, was far more comfortable.

Only once he had halved his size did Twen step toward the cage. Still displaying no facial expression (nor face at all, let alone a mouth of any sort), he knelt in front of it. His hand moved, undoing the latch so the door could swing open. 

After a brief moment of nothing, a greenish-gray pig-like animal emerged. It sniffed the air, snorted twice, then stepped fully out onto the metal floor with all six of its legs. With a huff, it surveyed its surroundings, looked curiously toward its own reflection, then stared up at the black figure kneeling over it, and gave a tentative squeak. 

As though in response, Twen put his hand out, palm down. He lowered it as though to pat the animal, but only rested the hand on its head. For a moment, there was no response. Then the animal jerked once, gave a sharp squeak of distress, and immediately froze. Its greenish-gray body was rapidly overtaken by black lines that spread out from the spot on its head where Twen’s palm was touching. The lines widened and lengthened over the span of a couple seconds, until they had enveloped the animal entirely. It gave one last pitiful squeak, before beginning to dissolve. Within another moment, the entire shape of the animal had collapsed, becoming a bubble of more tar-like liquid. Which itself was slurped up through the kneeling figure’s hand and arm, disappearing within his body.

Yet he didn’t stop there. Once the animal itself was gone, Twen’s hand moved to touch the crate. That too was quickly transformed into the same black goo before being absorbed. Only then, once there was no trace of anything that had been added to the room, did he rise to a standing position once more. The animal and crate together had provided enough mass for him to gain a foot of height, returning him to a respectable seven feet. 

Now properly fed, the figure moved back to the center of the room, just beside his vase. He stood there, motionless as a statue. It was how he would stand for the rest of the day and evening, until his next meal was delivered. Day in and day out, his routine was the same with no variation. Yet he was not bored. Far from it. Throughout those long hours stretching into long days, years, decades, and centuries, the being known as Twen experienced hundreds of thousands, even millions of lives worth of memories. 

In point of fact, to be specific, he experienced billions of lives. Three billion, four hundred thousand, eight hundred and ninety-two of them. One life for every person on his original homeworld, before an experiment had turned him into this. Before he had absorbed them. All of them. Every single member of his species. Three and a half billion lives, all taken as his body had grown larger and larger, gradually encompassing the whole of his world. 

But now, almost the entirety of that world-worth of extra mass was stored in his vase, leaving Twen standing mostly alone, allowing only a few voices into his head at once. Only a few sets of memories. 

For months, years, and centuries, he alternated between standing silently and random fits of shapeshifting, allowing the voices of the dead to speak to him, to share their memories so that he would not be entirely alone. And he waited for his master to give the word. The word that would mean it was time to put himself together and be whole once more. 

Drawing all of his absorbed mass from the vase would allow Twen to grow to his full size, something more akin to a small moon. A moon he could shape and move however he wished. Thus, when he did so, he would not be a man standing at his master’s side.

He would become the living flagship upon which Ehn and his armies rode to war.

*********

Kwur (Three) – The Growth

At one point, the thirty foot by thirty foot cell had been a blank square room with nothing inside other than a series of sprinklers hanging from the ceiling, four bright sun lamps in the corners, and a single small sapling tree planted in the exact center of the room. The walls and ceiling were metal, while the floor consisted of about six feet worth of dirt before reaching the metal there. But over the course of centuries, through various favors, threats, gifts, and more, various other plants had been added. Now, the cell belonging to the being known as Kwur was a small, densely packed jungle. It was impossible to see the walls through the vines, moss, and other foliage, while the four separate sunlamps were given just enough space so that their light could reach all the planets that needed it. Below the canopy, darkness-loving moss and mushrooms grew along the floor, along with a thick carpet of weeds and other hardy plants that could survive in nearly any conditions. 

A single small path from the doorway to the central tree still existed, though to call it a path was a bit optimistic. In truth, it was simply a narrow space where fewer plants had grown, an area where it was possible for a human-sized person to carefully walk through without being forced to hack and cut their way with a blade or laser. That was the deal made with the cell’s occupant. He could spread through all the plants in the room, but he had to leave space to reach his primary tree. 

It was through that small path that the young (though not nearly as young as he should have been) Heretic named Sean Gerardo made his way, carrying a wooden box under one arm and a heavy canvas bag in the other. He wore a pair of protective goggles and a gas mask over his face. His cyberform dog, Vulcan, trailed after him while sniffing the various plants curiously. 

Reaching the seven-foot-tall young tree waiting in the center of the room, Sean spoke up. His voice came through almost robotically thanks to the electronic distortion of the mask he wore. “Special delivery. Hope you’ve got something for me, cuz I wouldn’t want to have to take all this stuff back.” In demonstration, he shook the box he was carrying so the contents could be heard rattling around inside. 

In response, the ground at the base of the tree in front of him lit up as a purplish-blue moss began to glow. At first, the whole four foot wide, two foot high patch glowed all at once. Then most of the glow faded, leaving behind glowing letters that spelled out, ‘Don’t damage my reward.’ 

Reading that aloud, Sean nodded. “Sure thing, don’t worry, it’s all safe. But like I said, I hope you’ve got something good to trade for it, because I was given full permission to retract the deal if I don’t think you’re paying your fair share. And given how much you fucked with my friends, I’d be pretty happy to tell you to rot in your boredom for awhile.” Though his tone was fairly light, there was a hint of seriousness behind the words, his eyes narrowing into not-quite a glare behind the goggles. “I may be the new guy as far as Gehenna goes, but they don’t seem too concerned about playing nice with the cabrón who tried to escape this place a few months ago. So I’m pretty sure I’ve got some broad leeway as far as that goes.” 

His words were met with a brief pause before more glowing letters appeared in the moss, spelling out, ‘Show me my DVDs.’ 

“Show you? Oh yeah, sure, I can do that.” Setting the box down in front of him along with the bag, Sean glanced toward his cyberform partner. “Hey Vulcan, send VJ up to check on that north-east sunlamp while we’re in here, would you? It’s been giving some weird readings, probably power fluctuations.” 

Immediately, the small backpack-shaped attachment linked to the metal dog popped free and flew up out of the foliage to examine the lamp in question, which had been reporting a few minor errors over the past day. On its way, the little drone produced two small grappler arms, one containing a screwdriver and the other a tiny blowtorch. 

Once VJ was on his way to check that out, Sean opened the box and began to pull out several DVD cases. “We’ve got the full box set of I Love Lucy, seasons eleven through fourteen of Gunsmoke, seasons nine and ten of MASH, the Annie Oakley collection, the full Babylon 5 series, and volume one of the Laurel and Hardy collection. Should be enough to keep you busy for awhile. You know, if you earn it. So what’ve you got on your end, buddy?” 

In response, the glowing moss spelled out, ‘Ulken’s gang on Prondena planning assassination in one week.’ A blue rose grew just below those words. Then the words shifted to, ‘Rogue scientist living on Xyatl Station creating plague to unleash and spread via refueling ships.’ A red rose grew next to the blue one. And finally, the words shifted to read, ‘Prisoners in Caternal Seven holding facility plotting riot and escape by taking warden’s daughter hostage when she visits for religious services.’ A dark green rose grew next to the red one.

Opening the heavy canvas bag, Sean carefully took out a pair of gloves and several small metal boxes. Pulling on the gloves, he plucked each rose and set it into a separate box before sealing each. When the flowers were pressed to one’s face and inhaled, they would convey all the facts and overheard details related to each reported situation they were connected to. Kwur’s smaller plants were each allowed to exist in various areas throughout the universe, too disconnected and few for him to exert any real influence through, but capable of allowing him to overhear conversations others tried to keep hidden. He traded the information he gained from that spying for certain benefits here in the Gehenna prison. 

Once the flowers were secure, Sean put the boxes away and then nodded. “Right, well, assuming that all pans out I won’t have to come back in here and take your new shows away. Here you go.” He pushed the box of DVDs forward, watching as several vines extended to take it, exposing a large television monitor and various electronic device players from a bunch of different species and worlds. The vines immediately popped open one of the cases, carefully extracted the disc inside, and shoved it into the player. Soon, an episode of Gunsmoke was playing on that television. 

“Right, well, enjoy.” Sean turned, looking up as VJ reappeared. “You get that fixed, buddy?” A chirp from the small drone was met with a thumbs up. “Good job.” That said, he pivoted and began to walk back the way he’d come, before pausing to address Kwur once more. “But hey, just so you know, don’t fuck with my friends again. 

“Or I’ll show you some real gun smoke.” 

*******

Seur (Four) – The Expanse

Unlike the past two cells, this one was decorated appropriately and rather thoroughly. It consisted of three interconnected rooms with their own doorways. The first couple were a relatively modern Earth-style kitchen and living/bedroom area. They looked like they could have come straight out of the set of one of those 1960s and 70s sitcoms that Kwur enjoyed so much. There was even a bowl of fresh fruit on the table just waiting to be enjoyed. The third and final area was an elaborate bathroom. This one seemed even more modern than the other two, with an expensive and state-of-the-art whirlpool bath that was large enough to almost do laps in, along with a separate shower. 

The human woman who occupied this particular cell was not a product of the eras represented by either the kitchen and living room or the bathroom. On the contrary, she came from a time long before either of those. Known now by the prison moniker of Seur, she was born in ancient Rome under the name Clelia. 

In this particular moment, Seur stood in her kitchen, quickly and methodically chopping onions and carrots for the soup she was making. Her black hair was cut short, more like a traditional male cut than that of a woman. She wore blue overalls and a red checkered shirt, another sign of her distaste for holding to the traditions of the people she had come from. She wore what was comfortable, and what she liked. Seur held little to no attachment to people and the society she had come from. Not since they had experimented on her to create what she now was. 

At one time in her life, all those centuries ago, the girl then known as Clelia had been a street urchin, a homeless child with an eternally-empty stomach and no prospects. As such, when a collection of fairly unscrupulous scientists had abducted her along with several others in the same situation, no alarms had been raised. Very few, if any, had cared. 

The scientists had been attempting to perfect a sort of incredibly powerful teleportation magic, one that would have allowed entire armies to be moved vast distances in the blink of an eye. The young Clelia, only seven years old when originally abducted, had spent years in a small cell, much worse than this one, watching those around her be mutilated and indescribably destroyed by those experiments one by one. Deemed too small and frail to be useful for their experiments at first, she was often forgotten in the corner, left to watch older subjects come and go. She ceased making friends with them, calling those who came through ‘the doomed.’ 

And yet, she did not stay too small forever. After six years of this, at the age of thirteen, she had finally been considered ready to join in the very same failed experiments that she had spent more than half a decade watching the tragic results of. But by that point, the scientists were least better about keeping their subjects alive. She was lucky in some ways, yet not in others. They kept her alive, but cared little for how much pain they put her through. For another four years after that, they worked their experiments, still trying to perfect their original intention of enhancing soldiers with the ability to transport instantly anywhere their commanding officer sent them. She was cut open repeatedly, had various enchantments etched into bones and organs, was forced to swallow all manner of potions and various power-enhancing minerals, had magical stones grafted to her insides, and countless more procedures. 

In the end, they had both succeeded and failed, leading to the seventeen-year-old Clelia’s escape. Right after she had killed all of them, every person responsible for imprisoning and torturing her for a decade. For some time after that, she had wandered free before being approached by the man now known as Ehn. Under his guidance (to say nothing of his Dragon boosting ability), she became even stronger, and he had inspired an incredible sense of loyalty in the young woman. 

Thus, she allowed herself to be imprisoned once more, at his request. Her cell this time around was at least much more comfortable, and updated whenever she wished. She stayed here, waiting for Ehn’s word to make their move. 

Once the onions and carrots were cut, the woman held her hand out over them. As she raised it, vegetable pieces lifted from the countertop, hovering there in the air. A flick of her finger made them rise in front of her hand rather than underneath it, and then she shoved her palm forward. The carrots and onions flew over, stopping just above the prepared soup pot. She lowered her hand from where she was standing a good seven feet away, and they dropped into the pot obediently. 

The ancient Roman scientists who had tried so hard to create perfect teleportation inside her had failed at that. But they had created something else. Rather than moving her body to any location, Seur was capable of manipulating what she called ‘distance space.’ This allowed her to do multiple things. First, space within about six inches of her own body was permanently bent and elongated. Anything entering that space would immediately, from its own point of view, have to travel several thousand miles before it would actually reach Seur. From the outside, it was six inches of space. But that six inches became nearly five thousand miles simply through the automatic bending of space within it. 

Bullets fired toward her would drop to the ground long before reaching the woman, their energy easily expended within the extended space. Powerful enough lasers technically could have reached her, but they were slowed so much that she could simply step aside from them. Gas as well had no effect unless it was capable of filling several thousand miles worth of space. And even then, she could easily leave the area before that became an issue. Living beings attempting to make their fists, tentacles, or other non-sensory body parts cross that ‘six inch’ gap without assistance would find it rather impossible unless they threw their whole selves into it. And when they did that, they disappeared entirely, their minds experiencing deep psychological damage from what amounted to living through an MC Escher drawing of twisted space. In time, they would be spat out of the space from a random direction, never reaching their target. 

She was, of course, capable of selectively allowing anything through her field instantly. This allowed light and oxygen to reach her, gave her the ability to pick up objects, and so on. It even allowed her to touch people normally. But those were exceptions, which were manually allowed by Seur herself. Anything else attempting to reach her had much more trouble. 

Beyond that simple protective field, as demonstrated in her movement of the onion and carrot pieces, Seur was also capable of a certain form of telekinesis. This was done by focusing on anything she could see and deliberately affecting its distance and position relative to her own body. She had moved the vegetables by changing their distance from her hand, forcing them to rise into the air to be closer to her, then pushed them further away to reach the pot. Which was a very minor, almost inconsequential use of that ability. At its higher strengths, she was capable of sending entire star cruisers thousands of miles away with a gesture, or of making a small army worth of soldiers fly across a countryside by flicking her finger.

These were her gifts, after spending so many years in the hell that those now-dead scientists had created. And when the time came, when Ehn said the word, she would use them to help him change the universe. 

*******

Dah (Five) – The Bruiser

Like the previous cell, the one belonging to Ehn’s fourth lieutenant was properly furnished. In this case, it was in the style of a modern twenty-first century Earth home, as its occupant deliberately kept track of styles and had her belongings updated as necessary throughout her stay. She wished to have some connection to the world she had left behind, a world she hoped to return to and experience in person someday. 

A world she had been born on hundreds of years before the earliest histories of human civilization. 

She’d been born with a name she no longer remembered, though it could not have been much more than a specific sort of grunt, had lived in what amounted to a cave with a family or tribe she could hardly remember more than brief glimpses of. A family who had all died within the first decade of her life. Half taken by hunger directly, while the other half fell to hunger of a different sort. The hunger of predators. 

Left alone, the tribeless girl had struck out to find food, to find others of her kind. Too young at the time to even remember her full decision-making process these days, she had hiked through fields and mountains, searching for a new home. In truth, she should have died a dozen times over in those first days. Yet somehow, the child survived. She gradually made her way through a narrow mountain pass, evading predators by mere inches in some cases. She survived on stream water, as well as berries and the meat of a small rodent she had managed to bash with a stick. Nights were spent curled in a ball and covered in leaves in the hollows of trees to live through the harsh cold. 

Even then, it was clear that she would have died. Left alone and with no real supplies, to say nothing of any actual directions toward others of her kind, the girl of barely one decade in age would never have made it were it not for… the gray man. 

These days, she could not picture him clearly. But she knew he was gray. Grayish green, with large eyes. Lying there early in the morning after a particularly cold night, she had seen him approach through the darkness, the sun still an hour away from rising. Illuminated only by moon and starlight, he appeared in front of her, spoke kindly in her own language, and gave her clothing made of heavy furs to ward away the cold. He gave her clothes and a blanket. Then he did… something, and she had fallen asleep. 

When she woke, the child was within a short walking distance of a small tribe of other humans, many days walking distance away from where she had fallen asleep. Other humans who had taken her in. And for five years afterward, she had thrived as much as it was possible to. Their tribe grew, merged with another, continued traveling to hunt, and engaged in several territorial battles against other tribes. 

It was during one of those battles that the girl, known to her new tribe as Mekkta, was separated from the others. Chased by several males from a rival tribe, she fled through the underbrush. The fifteen-year-old girl had borne one child already, and was in no particular hurry to carry another so soon. She managed to lose her pursuers, but also lost herself. Wandering in an attempt to find the rest of her tribe while staying hidden from their enemies, she came upon a small cave hidden far from sight of any trail, nearly invisible behind a gnarled old tree. Hearing pursuit, Mekkta squeezed her way into the tiny hole, barely managing to fit herself. 

Once inside, the cave had opened up quickly into a chamber almost ten feet across. In the center of that chamber were the remains of an old skeleton. The skeleton of something decidedly unlike Mekkta herself. The figure had to have been ten feet tall when it was alive, and had more arms than her people did. The skull was similarly oversized. 

When the young Mekkta curiously touched the bones, they had instantly disintegrated under her touch, turning to dust. At that moment, a terrible earthquake had struck, collapsing the cave. But through the course of the quake, the dust from those disintegrated bones had filled the air. Air which Mekkta had inhaled. 

She survived the collapsed cave with no particular injuries or negative effects. Whatever the creature whose bones had been in that cave might have been, inhaling the dust from them had provided the girl with strength beyond comprehension. Her body became unbreakable, she had no need for food, air, or water, and she was capable of felling and carrying enormous trees with little effort. A single blow from her fist could shatter a human’s head, and none of their weapons could harm her. 

Shortly after gaining this gift, Mekkta had been attacked by a tribe of others like her, those who had gained powers through the bodies of those who were not-human. In the course of that battle, strange magics were thrown through the air. One of those magics struck the invulnerable, strong girl, sending her to another world. 

She had not set foot on Earth again. Instead, Mekkta had traveled through the Seosten Empire as an oddity, learning what she could. For years even before the Seosten had heard of Earth, she lived among their backwater worlds, learned their language, their culture, their history. And when she had been approached by the man now known as Ehn, she had joined him with one caveat. Someday, she wanted to go back to Earth. She wanted to go back home and live among her people. 

Ehn had agreed. And here they were, waiting for the right time. Thanks to the boosts his dragon powers gave her, Mekkta was even stronger than she had been before. They had tested her thoroughly, and not even the force of a Seosten capital ship main cannon was capable of so much as bruising her skin. Meanwhile, her strength had been magnified to the point that she was able to exert well over one hundred thousand tons worth of force. Exactly what she had bonded to with the dust of those bones in the cave all those millennia ago was still a mystery, but between that and the dragon boosts she had received, very little in the universe was capable of standing against a single serious blow. In most cases, she barely had to exert herself to overwhelm any defenses. She was so strong, in fact, that a simple, light tap was enough to put the vast majority of foes down for the count. Which, honestly, she often found annoying. Half the reason she was looking forward to Ehn’s war, beyond wanting to go home, was that she might finally find someone who could present something resembling a challenge. 

And yet, here she stood, a black woman of precisely five feet, three inches in height. Her long dark hair was worn in elaborate braids, as she flipped through the channels on her modern television. At her request, her ‘video box’ received all the channels it would have if she lived in modern day Brazil, the area where she had been born and spent those first years of her life. 

In time, the woman who went equally by the number moniker of Dah and by her human tribal name of Mekkta would return to the land of her birth. She would set foot on Earth once more. She would see her descendants, her species, rise to a true place of galactic importance and leadership. Nothing and no one would stand in the way of that. 

********

Nihkta (Six) – The Surgeon

Not only was the cell of Ehn’s fifth lieutenant far different from the previous two, it was different from what most who saw the man himself would have pictured. In meeting the human known now as Nihkta, Six in that long-abandoned alien language used by Gehenna, the very first thing most noticed was his height. Or lack thereof. The Asian man, who appeared to be in his mid-thirties, stood only five feet tall. His head was shaven bald, and he had a tattoo of an owl in flight across it, properly visible only if you were standing over him. Which, given his slight stature, many did. He was quite thin in addition to being short, and tended to wear oversized clothing that made him appear to be even smaller. Jeans that had to be rolled up and belted on, along with long-sleeved shirts that made his hands disappear like a child. 

Adding to this appearance of youth was the fact that Nihkta very rarely stopped smiling. He was always quick with a joke, and often went through great pains and effort to cheer up not only his companions, but any strangers he saw who appeared to be going through rough times. 

And yet, despite this, when one walked into Nihkta’s cell in Gehenna, they would find what appeared to be a room belonging to someone entirely different. Posters of heavy metal rock stars and bands lined every wall. The lighting was kept dark, illuminated almost entirely by neon strips along the edges of the ceiling. One wall was taken up almost entirely by an elaborate stereo system, with speakers that were constantly pumping brain-rattling screaming death metal. Not only from Earth itself, but similar styles of music taken from other worlds as well. 

A couch lay in the middle of the room, surrounded by various blankets and pillows. In front of it was a television that usually played either music videos or various video games and their equivalents, taken from alien civilizations as well. Through one door next to the television, a small, mostly ignored kitchen could be found, while a bathroom was accessible through the opposite door, behind the couch.

Then there was the last door. Located to the left of the couch and just to the right of the elaborate stereo system, the door was always kept shut, unlike those leading to the kitchen and bathroom. Because to pass through that door, was to enter a space entirely unlike the others. 

This room, the last of his prison territory, was still not what those who only knew Nihkta’s personality would expect. But it was what those who knew his skillset would expect. 

This room, unlike the others, was kept silent. The walls were soundproof. The room was also pristinely clean. In the middle was an examination table, like what was found in a modern hospital. The three walls not attached to the door were all lined with glass cabinets and countertops. Various medical tools of every time period, culture, and even species imaginable were kept in those drawers and cabinets. Four different powerful microscopes and other medical and scientific instruments were dotted along the countertop space. A rolling chair (he liked to spin in it) sat in one corner. 

It was in this room, next to that chair, that Nihkta stood at the moment. He had one arm resting on the counter, palm up. The arm itself had been cut open from wrist to elbow, though Nihkta showed no discomfort for that fact. He had long-since installed a switch to disable his own body’s pain response, though he found it useful to turn on whenever he wasn’t actively working on his own body or otherwise in need of ignoring physical trauma. It was far too easy to accidentally injure himself with a muted or absent pain reaction. 

During his mortal life on Earth, around what was now seen as three hundred AD, he had been obsessed with traveling the world, learning medicine and magic. Though the latter, by that point, was very much a disappearing art when it came to the human world. Nihkta had been what would in modern times be called an Adjacent. He could see through the still-burgeoning Bystander Effect as though it wasn’t there, without being bonded to anything. 

In the course of those travels and studies, he had learned from dozens of experts of all different species. He did this for over fifty years, until he himself was considered an old man, and learned many secret and forbidden medical techniques. Putting several of those medical disciplines together had allowed Nihkta to transfer the knowledge of others into his own mind directly in order to enhance his own intelligence. He only did such a thing with those who volunteered, those who were old or broken in some way and wished to share their knowledge in a quite literal sense before they passed. 

With his enhanced mental ability, the equivalent of what became dozens of brilliant medical minds all working together, Nihkta eventually learned to reverse his own aging process, as well as give himself various upgrades. First simply by enhancing his human body, and later by taking parts of other (already dead or volunteer) species in order to grant himself their abilities. 

In truth, Nihkta wasn’t sure what he was now. He certainly wasn’t an ordinary human, given a solid three-quarters of his body parts under the outer skin were either advanced technology (such as bones replaced by a material that would stand up under several tons of pressure and deflect blows from one of those laser swords) or literal alien organs granting him their gifts. Yet he wasn’t quite what would be considered an ordinary Natural Heretic either. He wasn’t bonded to one Alter, he put dozens of pieces of them into himself and somehow made it all work. Dozens of different Alters powers, all of them boosted by Ehn’s dragon power, resided in him.

What he did know was that working with Ehn would give him the opportunity to accomplish his life’s dream of eliminating mortality and upgrading all of humanity to reach the potential he knew they were capable of. 

And maybe, just maybe, he could make them laugh along the way.

*****

Steth (Seven) – The Maker

If the past few rooms had been relatively different from one another, they might as well have been identical compared to the next. It was less of a series of rooms, and more of a large swamp. Measuring two hundred feet by two hundred feet square, with a roof thirty feet high, the area was covered in dank, dingy water that was several feet deep and swarming with various creatures and plant life. Several short yet wide, vine-covered trees were scattered throughout, rising out of that water. A single dirt embankment lay against one side of the room with just enough space for a single crocodile to rest itself like an old log. 

In the exact center of that swamp was what looked at first glance like a rickety wooden raft. Yet attached to the top of that raft was a series of nozzles, projecting a sort of anti-gravity force which kept the far sturdier looking metal platform hovering six feet higher in the air, over the raft. The metal platform was twenty feet by fifteen feet, and had a set of wide metal stairs leading up out of the water to reach it at one end. Stairs that were much too wide and far apart for an average human to use. 

Atop that hovering platform sat an old hoverbike belonging to a species that had long-since been absorbed by the Seosten. It was technically obsolete technology by modern standards. Or it had been, before the being now known as Steth got to it. 

At first glance, she appeared to be a large plump frog, with a slightly narrower head and eyes that were attached to long stalks. Her body was eight feet wide, ten feet long, and six feet tall. Unlike ordinary Earth frogs, her back was covered in what appeared to be hair, but was actually hundreds of thin tentacles. Right now, dozens of those tentacles were hard at work, holding an assortment of tools as they worked on the old hoverbike, souping it up. Her eye-stalks extended, one growing to a full ten feet long as it moved around the bike to study it from every angle, while her other eye-stalk moved independently up to examine one of her tools critically, checking to see that it was working properly. 

In her old life, before being recruited by Ehn, Steth had created such beautiful machines. Her crowning achievement was an army of war-robots which had decimated the armies of the world she came from. In her anger at what she saw as a population who belittled and dismissed her, she had sought to prove her worth by decimating their defenses and putting her own robot army in their place. 

Unfortunately, she had done a bit too good of a job. Her mechanical monstrosities had indeed done what she wanted… at first. But they ended up growing what amounted to consciences and sided with the people they were supposed to destroy. They had, in essence, turned on the maker who wanted them to take over the world and helped to drive her from that world to protect the people who should have been their victims. Which was quite frankly unfair.  

For decades, she had been at war against her own creations. Then Ehn had come, convincing her that she should side with him and aid in raising humanity to their full potential. While others of their group would do so either as physical enforcers and direct damage dealers, or in upgrading humans themselves in the case of Nihkta, or even as a living spaceship who could absorb any and all attacks thrown at him in Twen’s case, Steth’s job would be to design and create the weapons and armor used by Ehn’s future armies. And she had spent the past millennia in this prison perfecting those designs. Which included building things and shoving it all into crates which were taken to other parts of the prison and put into storage. 

Most might have questioned how she was able to gain access to equipment for such work, being a prisoner as she was. But most didn’t understand the specific situation Ehn and his people were in. Prisoners though they might have been on paper, things weren’t quite that cut and dry. So long as they stayed put and didn’t make a fuss, they were generally allowed whatever they requested. There were multiple reasons for that, but she didn’t really focus too much on them. It didn’t really matter in her day-to-day work. All she cared about was that her job was to create these beautiful weapons, and that was what she did. 

Finally satisfied that her tool was working properly, she extended it to the underside of the hoverbike. One of her eyes joined it, twisting around to see up into that small space. It was dark, but she could see in near-black conditions just fine. She was able to push the tool up into that space alongside her extended eye, and carefully tighten a single loose bolt. There, that should stop the zero point zero zero one three percent power loss. As well as the slight tug to that side. Most wouldn’t have detected it. She was not most. 

With Ehn’s dragon boosts enhancing her already-considerable mechanical and technological abilities, Steth was one of the most advanced weapons and robotics designers in the known universe. She would use those gifts as Ehn requested, to aid him in arming his people to advance his own goals. When the time came, everything she built would be put toward universal conquest, to put things in order and allow Ehn’s species to rise to their natural place as leaders and protectors. 

And once that was done, once Ehn had everything he wanted, she would take a piece of those same armies, go back to her own world, and teach those rebellious machines a lesson for not conquering the world for her the way she had told them to in the first place. Oh, and this time, she was being very careful not to give her creations the capacity for free-thought. 

That was a mistake she would only make once. 

***********

Rahn (Eight) – The Unwritten

Most who were at all aware of the circumstances revolving around the creation of the Bystander Effect believed that it had first been tested on the city of Athens. A test which had horrifically devastated the city itself, as former friends and family were instantly turned on one another. Thousands were left dead in the chaotic fighting as humans forgot everything they knew about Alters, yet were still capable of seeing them for what they were. Half the city burned almost overnight. To say nothing of the damage that was done from the fact that the humans forgot how to use and maintain the magical spells that kept the city itself running. 

It was, in a word, tragic. But it was not, in fact, the very first instance of testing what would become the Bystander Effect. There was another test, an earlier… more focused one. So focused, in fact, that it involved only a single person. A young man, barely old enough to serve in their military and drawn from the general population of Athens itself. 

That young man’s true name, at the time, had been Linus. He was a nobody, an inconsequential son of an inconsequential merchant. One of several such sons, neither the oldest nor the youngest. He was neither handsome nor ugly, a slender figure of average appearance in almost every way, from his short brown hair to his height of several inches under six feet. Which was all by design. Those responsible for the Bystander Effect had not wanted to take anyone whose abduction would be particularly noteworthy, for someone who was noteworthy might attract unwanted attention. The more average the better, and Linus had been incredibly average. Few had taken the time to search for very long after he disappeared, taken for the experiments of the Seosten. 

In point of fact, he was not the only person taken that way and experimented on. He was simply the first and only one those experiments had worked properly on. For a certain definition of the word ‘properly.’ 

Now, at this point, the young Athenian man sat in his comfortably-appointed cell in Gehenna. There was nothing all that unique about the space. He had a soft padded floor, a decent bed to sleep on, a small monitor on one wall to watch entertainment next to a shelf full of books he enjoyed reading, and a small kitchen and bathroom on opposite sides. 

And he had a robot. Well, not his robot. Gehenna’s. Named Krix, the robot looked like a metal human with a visor running all the way around his head. The visor contained his visual receptors, allowing him to see in a full three hundred and sixty degrees around the room. Between that and the assortment of cameras in every corner, Krix was capable of observing the boy now known as Rahn one hundred percent of the time. Which was important, given the moment he ceased observing the boy, the robot would have forgotten he existed. 

That was the effect of the Seosten experiments that had been performed on the boy. Every few seconds, his body projected a magical pulse in every direction, which forced everyone who knew about his existence and was not actively observing him to forget about him. No matter what he did to them, no matter how obvious his existence, if they were not actively focused on him and glanced away, the pulse would erase their memory. When they looked back to him once more, they would have no idea who he was. The effect worked on computers and artificial beings just as well as it did on living people. His very existence was erased not only from memory, but from records as well, electronic and otherwise. Everything with his identity written on it would be erased by those pulses of magic that came every few seconds. 

That was why it was so important that Krix observe him at all times, either through direct eyesight with his three-hundred-and-sixty degree vision, or through the cameras. The robot was connected to the prison’s primary power core, allowing him to run constantly with no rest. Even then, there were several redundant systems, smaller robots the size of Earth dragonflies hovering around the room. If Krix’s memory was erased, they were programmed to attach themselves to him and restore the back-ups. Beyond that, the robot had been given full authority over this area. Guards often appeared to ‘clean out the empty cell,’ only to be turned away by Krix as he explained the situation for the seven millionth time. 

Not that Rahn was actively trying to leave. Not at this point. Ehn’s promise, once he found the boy wandering the streets of a small city shortly after his escape from his captors, had been that he would have his chance for revenge against those who had abducted and tortured him with their experiments. And that Ehn would fix him so that he could be with people and not have them forget his existence. 

It was fair to believe such a promise, given Ehn had been the only person to find any way of getting around Rahn’s power. First, his own Dragon Heretic powers rendered him immune to any magic he didn’t want to affect him. Which included the memory-erasing effect. Beyond that, every person enhanced by his dragon boosts also retained their memory of the boy. Ehn’s lieutenants could remember him. Which made them his family, and he would do anything to protect them. And, given Ehn’s boosts not only halted his aging but also made him much stronger and faster than he should have been, protecting them was something he was far more capable of these days. 

Whatever it took, whatever they had to do and whatever forces were arrayed against them, Rahn would see Ehn’s vision come to pass. When the time came, they would raise humanity to become what Ehn saw them as being. 

And damn whatever Seosten or other force tried to stop that. 

*******

Mehtra (Nine) – The Light

The set of rooms belonging to the last of Ehn’s primary lieutenants appeared to be almost empty at this particular point. A scattered assortment of books lay on the floor in one corner, the monitor of a television was sitting in an opposite corner, a pile of various food supplies and a blank, featureless sink was in the kitchen. Other than those things, as well as a toilet, sink, and shower in the bathroom, the area was entirely empty. The walls, floor, and ceiling were blank metal. There was absolutely nothing to show that a person had been living in this space regularly. 

It looked as though the tall, beautiful blonde woman who stood in the middle of the main room was just moving in. Yet nothing had been further from the truth. She had actually lived in this cell for many, many years. The absence of any furniture, cupboards, or indeed almost anything to make this place a real home wasn’t because she had just arrived. Nor was it due to some wish to live in squalor.

It was because Mehtra was redecorating. 

She hadn’t been born Mehtra, of course. Her name through the first part of her life was Osyth. And she was, in actuality, the very first of Ehn’s people to have joined him. She had been more of a daughter than a soldier to the man, having been taken in by him long before he ever started using time travel to recruit his other people. To the point that she had accompanied him on each and every one of those recruitment sessions. First as a child accompanying their parent, and later as his partner, his reinforcements, not that he needed such a thing. She watched his back and served as his voice in times when he could not appear personally. 

But first, before that, she had been an ordinary human girl. A girl who had been out picking berries to sell in her village when she ended up accidentally caught in the middle of a battle between the man who would become known as Ehn, and another man of incredible power. Their fighting would have erased the small, inconsequential child from the map entirely. But Ehn, then named Wiglaf, had noticed and protected her. His protection had resulted in his quarry escaping, yet not before that man’s blood had been spilled across the girl’s face. 

The blood on her face was the first of two things that would change Osyth’s life forever. The second was the righteous fury of the man whose battle against Wiglaf had been interrupted. So angry was, in fact, that by the time Osyth returned to her village, it had been wiped off the map. The furious man had known where the girl came from and took his anger out on the town. Every building was destroyed, every person killed. Including her family and friends. 

With Wiglaf/Ehn’s help, Osyth had hunted down the man responsible for that massacre and made certain he died. It had taken well over a year to find him, but that was time well spent. And from that point on, she was as devoted to her new father-figure as anyone ever could have been.

Standing in the middle of her cell now, the woman now known as Mehtra (or Nine), glanced around the empty room before focusing on a single wall. Or rather, on a point far away from that wall. She focused on the power she could feel coming from the prison’s primary reactor. And with a thought, she gently pulled just a bit of that power to her. Not enough to cause any issues, though that would not have been that difficult. Just enough to do what she needed to right now.

With that power humming inside her, Mehtra’s right hand gave an idle wave. Immediately, the four walls of her main prison room went from being blank metal, to being a soft yellowish color. She paused, head tilting before the walls turned to more of a light blue. Immediately afterward, the blank metal floor under her feet became a fluffy white carpet. A plush armchair and couch appeared in front of the television, which was lifted up inside an ornate wooden cabinet. Next to that, a large bookshelf appeared, as each of the books themselves were lifted out of the jumbled pile and arranged carefully within it. A beautiful ceiling fan lowered itself into place and began to lazily spin. 

Meanwhile, those same things were happening inside the kitchen and bathroom. Tile floors appeared, along with a mirror, cabinets for all the food, a table and chairs, a wall clock, a long dresser with various knicknacks, and an enormous bed to sleep on complete with mattress and blankets. 

The man who had killed Mehtra’s family, who had massacred her village, the man whose blood had been spilled across her face, had been a fully-powered Stardrinker. And when that blood entered her mouth, Mehtra had become a Natural Heretic of him. Between that and Ehn’s boosts, she was capable of drawing energy from vast distances and turning it into destructive blasts, weapons, blinding speed… or this, more creative and sustained use. 

Every object she created this way was, technically, a hard-light construct. Yet Mehtra’s skill with this power was so complete that she could control exactly how soft each object was. Blankets felt like blankets and were both fluffy and warm. The mattress functioned as a mattress. The carpet was soft under her feet, while the walls, tables, chairs, and such were firm and solid.  

Not only could she make these dozens of different hard-light objects feel exactly the way they were supposed to, she could maintain them nearly indefinitely without actually focusing on them. She created them and so long as she stayed within several hundred feet (not a problem in this place), they would remain intact even as she slept.

This was one example of the power of a Dragon-Boosted Stardrinker. A tiny example, really. And when the time came to show the more destructive side of her gift, she would do so once more. 

For Ehn, for the man she saw as her adopted father, she would do anything. 

*********

Those eight beings made up the entirety of Ehn’s lieutenants, his most loyal enforcers and advisors. Together, they were nine of the reasons for Gehenna’s creation. And yet, there was one more whose existence and actions had necessitated the formation of such a prison. A single being, entirely unconnected to Ehn or any of his people and with absolutely no loyalty to them, who was seen as being as much of a threat to continued order as the other nine combined. One figure who required an intergalactic private prison force merely to somewhat contain. 

*******

Zahl (Ten) – The Victorious

The rooms belonging to this last of Gehenna’s primary prisoners were, in no uncertain terms, a disaster. Larger and more numerous than any of the others, Zahl’s quarters were more of an estate than a cell. Thirty-six rooms in total, including no less than six bathrooms and four kitchens, as well as twelve different bedrooms, all decorated differently. There were also several dining rooms, living areas, libraries, and so forth. Far more than any single person really needed to live in, yet very necessary to ensure Zahl stayed put and didn’t decide to put too much effort into leaving. 

They did have a habit of getting bored quite easily.

That quick boredom showed not only in the extensive amount of rooms that were necessary to keep them occupied, but in the way those rooms were such a mess. Random toys, books, bottles, statues, blankets, video games, puzzles, lamps, clocks, painting supplies, and dozens more random objects littered every clear spot of every room, as the being known as Zahl put some time into entertaining themself, then simply tossed whatever it was aside and moved on to the next thing. Or they would be thoroughly occupied in one activity, notice something else, and immediately jump to that. They were not only easily bored, they were also easily distracted. Which itself was something of a boon for Gehenna in keeping them locked up for so many years. Though that was something more whispered about far from Zahl’s earshot, because if they understood what was being done, they might just get angry at the manipulation and leave on their own anyway. Which was a potential situation that would very easily and quickly spiral completely out of any semblance of control. 

After all, it took quite a bit to so much as give pause to the being known as the Monkey King. 

It was hard, or even impossible, to refer to something like a ‘normal life’ for the creature most commonly named Sun Wukong. Nothing about him had ever been ‘normal,’ from his mysterious birth atop a mountain, seemingly created from a stone, all the way through his many misadventures throughout first the Earth itself and later every world he could reach with his considerable power.

Many would have said that the (mis)adventures and feats of Sun Wukong had been exaggerated. In some ways they were correct, in the sense that the beings he met and places he went were not quite gods, nor heavens and hells, but incredibly powerful beings and other worlds. Where he came from, who his own people really were, and so forth were questions to which he had no answers, despite many journeys to find them. All he knew was that he appeared to be a man-sized monkey, complete with fur and a tail, though his skin was as hard as stone. 

In the course of his attempts to understand his origin, or simply entertain himself in a world which so often stubbornly insisted on attempting to be boring, Sun Wukong had gained power beyond nearly any comprehension. He became immortal several times over, gathered weapons and tools that could shatter entire armies, became the most skilled combatant across many worlds, and was even capable of shaping the very hairs from his body into duplicates of himself. 

He was, in no uncertain terms, one of the strongest and most dangerous beings who had ever existed. Not only for his immense power and skill itself, but also for his tendency to act first without thinking anything through. If he had been named the god of anything in particular, it would have been impulsiveness. He was not, generally speaking, a bad person. He simply did whatever came to mind without thought for what the negative effects could be. Between that and his temper, it was easy for the so-called Monkey King to do far more damage than he ever intended. 

The red headband he always wore had at one point been intended to curtail this habit, as it was capable of, with a single spoken word, causing intense, direct pain. Enough to cripple even one as strong as him. Yet over so many years, Sun Wukong had become strong enough that use of the headband did little more than slow him down. 

Yes, there were other beings who were stronger, or smarter, or faster than he was. But in the end, he always came out on top. One way or another. 

When it came right down to it, he was here, in this prison, because he chose to be. They entertained him, gave him whatever he wanted, and helped to ensure his impulses didn’t hurt anyone else. Yet given an excuse, it would not take much for Wukong to decide he had other places he would rather be, other people he would rather talk to. 

He feared no enemy. But boredom terrified the Monkey King. He would do anything to avoid it, to ensure that there was always a challenge, always something new and exciting waiting around the corner. It was that very dislike of being bored that had led him to, over the past few months, agree to speak with the man who called himself Ehn. Though he owed no allegiance to that man, it was at least something new. And in those discussions, Wukong had found himself agreeing to perform a favor, at some point in the future, for the man. A favor which promised to be very interesting indeed, and provide him with brand new entertainment. 

Now, he stood in front of a mirror in one corner of one of his thirty-six rooms. Reaching out with a hand, he brushed a blanket away from it, revealing his own reflection. The reflection of the tall, handsome, furry Monkey King. He held his nearly eighteen thousand pound staff casually in one hand, smiling at his own appearance before casually making the staff shrink down to the size of a toothpick, which he stuck behind his ear. 

And then that appearance changed, as he used one of his many gifts. His form shifted, shrinking down somewhat and becoming slightly more thin, while the hair on his head lightened and extended and the hair everywhere else vanished. Within barely more than a blink of an eye, he stood in the very form he would use to provide this favor for the Dragon-Heretic. 

Watching his long tail, the only thing he was incapable of shifting away in his transformations, swing back and forth briefly, Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, Zahl, or whatever else he chose to call himself, turned his attention to the face of his new figure. He spoke in her voice, addressing the form of the human girl whom he would, at some point, replace. At least temporarily. 

“Don’t you worry, Felicity Chambers. 

“I’m gonna have so much fun while I’m being you.” 

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Enkindle 23-07 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There will be a very long commissioned interlude for Heretical Edge posted a bit later today, outside of the normal schedule. This is today’s normal chapter.

Needless to say, there were some surprised looks when I pulled the mask off and dropped it onto the nearby table. Surprised looks from everyone, really, though for different reasons. Sierra and Paige looked surprised that I had actually done it, while the other five were clearly shocked at what they actually saw. Not instantly, of course. There was confusion first, about what the hell I was doing or what my point was. Then I could see as they realized what they were looking at. 

“Wait–” Roald started. His gaze snapped from me over to Sierra and back again, mouth opening and shutting. He was clearly trying to put the whole thing together, though his brain seemed to have short-circuited somewhat. Which was fair, given the circumstances. 

The others weren’t faring any better, for the most part. Murphy kept pointing at Sierra and then back to me while making confused noises in the back of her throat. It was part-choke, part-whine, and part-stammer. Fred was just gaping silently, and Peyton had actually sat down heavily in the chair behind her with an audible thunk followed by a squeak as the force of her falling into it slid the chair backward along the floor. 

Wren was the first to actually find her voice, wings carrying her up near the ceiling in her sudden excitement and confusion. She hovered there, calling down, “Paintball! You’re Sierra! Wait, no, the other way! Sierra, you’re Paintball! Wait, wait–” 

Sierra gave a very slight smirk, gesturing idly with one hand. “No, you pretty much nailed it. This body was built from Paintball’s DNA. Not that our dad knows that. I mean, he doesn’t know she’s Paintball.”

“She?!” That word was what Murphy jumped on, grabbing it like a drowning person being thrown a lifeline. She was pointing at me once more. “You’re a she! You’re she! She’s–you–not he, she, that’s a she, you’re–that is–I don’t–girl! Girl!” It was like that word was all she could manage to keep repeating. 

Looking down at the floor for a moment as I fought back a deep blush, I finally cleared my throat. “I uhh, yeah, That’s about the size of it. Yes–wait.” My voice was still that of a boy, which really confused everything. So, I reached up and took the Bluetooth device out of my ear, hitting the button to turn it off before speaking again with my normal voice while fidgeting with the device in my hand. “Yes, I’m a girl. Yeah, I’ve been lying to everyone about that. Well, almost everyone. I–” Squirming a bit uncomfortably as they all stared at me, I muttered, “I’m sorry.” 

“You mean you’ve been a girl this whole time?!” Peyton blurted, her eyes widening dramatically. She pushed herself back up from the same chair she had just dropped into. 

“Well I didn’t just change,” I managed reflexively before flushing even more. “I mean yes, this is me. This is who I’ve always been. It was easier to hide my identity by pretending to be a boy.” Even as I said those words, the awkwardness felt worse. Not just because I was telling them about how much I had lied, but also because this was me as myself rather than hiding behind the identity of Paintball. I hadn’t fully realized up until that point how much the mask and helmet had allowed me to pretend to be another person. Which was really weird given the actual situation. The anonymity of being Paintball rather than Cassidy really had affected me more than I thought. Revealing myself like this, talking to them as myself rather than through the mask, helmet, and voice changer made me feel a lot more vulnerable. Especially because it was happening all at once. I was exposing myself to all five of them, rather than having separate discussions the way I’d planned originally. This whole thing was a lot. 

But if I thought it was a lot for me, it had to be pretty heavy for them too. And they didn’t even know the half of it yet. If they thought their minds were blown now…

Clearing my throat, I straightened up to look at all of them. They had fallen silent for the moment, just staring at me while absorbing what I’d said. So, I continued. “Like I said, I pretended to be a boy because it’s easier to hide my identity that way. Especially because it means I can pretend to be younger than I really am. And it’s important that I hide who I am. I mean, even more important than it would be for most people.” 

“Who are you?” That was Peyton, sputtering a bit as she added, “I mean, why would Paige and Sierra’s dad have a special body made that looks like you?! He didn’t make it because you’re Paintball, they said he doesn’t even know that you’re Paintball. And besides, it would have been made a long time ago, right? So the only reason he’d make a body that looks like you is if he had some kind of history with you before, but what kind of history could it be? I mean, who are you to him? Who are you at all? What–wait–” 

She started to continue along those lines, while the others began to sputter questions too, making things difficult to keep track of. It was starting to spiral. But I held up both hands to hold them off. “It’s okay, guys, I’m going to explain, I promise. Maybe I should’ve explained the whole thing before, but… but I was nervous. I mean–sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I lied to you guys for so long. But there’s a reason I’m so… I’m sorry. Just let me explain, please?” 

They all stared at me for another moment before Peyton showed up from her chair and nodded. Her voice cracked just a little. “It’s okay, Paintball. Or… or whoever you are. You can tell us the truth. We’re listening.” 

Her words were met with an assortment of nods from the others, even Paige and Sierra, who were staying in the background and being quiet through most of this. I’d actually gotten through the initial bombshell of showing my face and revealing that I was a girl, and now they were ready for me to actually explain the situation. Which, of course, would involve several more bombshells. But whatever, there was no turning back now, so here went nothing. And given the situation, I decided that I might as well start with a big one 

“My name is Cassidy,” I informed them, my own voice faltering just a bit before I forced myself to continue. “Cassidy Evans.” 

Yeah, that sure got a reaction. Everyone did even have more of a double-take than they had when I first revealed my face. Fred managed an incredulous, “Cassidy Evans? As in the daughter of–was in the–I pointed a gun at Cassidy Evans?!” His voice rose to an almost amusing shrill shriek with that exclamation. I could see and hear the reaction across his face and in his words. “You’re like, the richest, most important kid in town and I just–and I was–oh God.” It was his turn to sit down heavily in the nearest chair, clearly playing through what could have happened in his head. “If I shot you, if you–if your parents–” It sounded like he was about to be sick, his face pale.  

“It’s okay,” I assured him. “You didn’t know. I mean– wait, what am I saying, of course it wasn’t okay. You were kind of being a jerk at the time. But whatever, my point is this doesn’t make it worse. Or it does, but not for the reason you–never mind. You’re right though, it would’ve been bad if you shot me and my parents found out, because–” 

“It’s them, isn’t it?” That was Peyton. “They’re the ones behind this whole Ministry thing. They’re the ones in charge. That’s how you know for a fact that it isn’t Caishen, and why you’ve been so obsessed with hiding your identity. That’s why it’s so important that everyone thinks you’re a boy, a younger boy even. Because if anyone would recognize you as a girl, it’s your parents. And you really don’t want them to, because they’re the ones you’re trying to stop.”  

Taking a deep breath, I nodded that way. “Yeah, you pretty much nailed it. I found out the truth about my family the same time I got my powers, a couple months ago.” 

From there, I went on to explain the situation from the start. They all fell silent and watched while I started with hiding inside the car that night. Well, mostly silent. They did have a bit of an exclamation when I mentioned that I was hiding in one of the cars in our garage. But that quieted down soon enough, mostly because they wanted to hear the whole story. 

So, I told them. I explained about what I’d seen that night, about Touching the orb, getting my powers and using them accidentally for the first time, about hiding under the dumpster, hearing my brother, then eavesdropping on my mother and him at home, going out that first night in my makeshift costume and finding out my dad was Silversmith, and so on. I told them about the whole thing, the full story about what I had been through over the last couple of months. It was a lot to get through, especially given the way they were staring at me. 

I did leave out a couple of things, of course. I didn’t tell them about Raindrop being Izzy and living with me, or about That-A-Way being Amber. Those weren’t my secrets to tell, so I had to leave them out. Those two weren’t here to say it was okay. If they wanted to reveal themselves later, that was up to them. I wasn’t going to force the issue. This was enough for now. 

Once I had finished explaining everything that I could, including the whole bit about my history with Paige, who Anthony was and what had happened to my memory, and so on, I finally took a drink from the can of soda that Paige had offered me partway through that. “So,” I announced hesitantly after swallowing hard, “that’s the truth. That’s who I am and why I’ve been lying. Like I said, I had to hide my identity from my parents. They’ve got people everywhere, and I didn’t know who to trust. I still don’t, really. Except for you guys. You guys have earned that. So have Way and Raindrop, but they already know who I am.” 

“They do?” Murphy managed. “They already–wait so you know who they are?” 

Grimacing a little, I hesitated before nodding. “But I can’t tell you, because–” 

“That’s okay,” Peyton immediately put in. “Don’t uhh, don’t worry. We get it. Right?” She pointedly looked to the others, who all agreed. “You don’t have to expose their secrets just because you’re telling us yours. You–you’re really…” She rocked back on her heels, head shaking. “Holy shit, Paintball, this is pretty big.” 

Wren, who had come down from the ceiling by then, landed near me. She was biting her lip as she looked me up and down before starting hesitantly. “But… you’re still Paintball, right?” 

My head bobbed quickly as I met her gaze. “Yes. Yes, of course it’s still me. I’m still me. I’ve always been me, just a different me than you thought. Sort of different. I’m just older and a different gender than you thought, that’s all. The rest of it is still just me.” 

“That’s all?” Peyton echoed. “That’s a pretty big difference. I mean, in some ways.” She grimaced a little, taking a breath. “Sorry, I don’t–I’m not saying it’s–yeah. I get it. I think we all get why you lied about that even after you told us the other stuff. It’s a pretty big thing to get into. And you already dropped some pretty major bombs before.”

Murphy nodded. “Yeah, for sure. We totally get why you did it, but it’s still a lot to take in, you know? Like, I’ve been thinking of you one way this entire time, and the truth is completely different. You’re older than we are. You’re a girl. You–it’s–fuck, dude. Like I said, it’s a lot.” 

Everyone was quiet for a moment before Roald spoke up. “Plus, you’re not just a girl and older, you’re Cassidy Evans. The Cassidy Evans. Which, for the record, you don’t look anything like I expected. When people talk about Cassidy Evans, I always picture like, you know…” He trailed off before turning to gesture toward Paige without saying anything. 

Swallowing, I did my best not to make too much of a face. “Yeah, I get that a lot, trust me. My mom said I should take it as a good thing in some ways. The fact that people don’t really know what I look like means I don’t get mobbed out on the street. I guess she sort of has a point.”  

“Wait, hold on, are you sure that is what you look like?” That was Murphy, straightening up suddenly as she stared at me intently. “You said your family has a way of putting illusions over people, right? Are you sure they’re not doing it to you so that you and everyone else see this?” 

My mouth opened and shut a couple times before shaking my head. “First, I don’t think it works that way. I’m pretty sure the people that have illusions on them are using some sort of Touched-Tech for it, and I don’t have anything like that on me. If they were casting a hologram over me or something, I think it would have to come from something I had with me all the time. It’s not like I have a bracelet or something that I’m always wearing. And if it was somehow projecting the effect from somewhere to everywhere I go, they would have figured out who I really was by now.” 

“Plus the idea of them having some sort of machine that can project illusions over people anywhere in the city, and even out of the city, is pretty goddamn terrifying,” Peyton noted. “So personally, I’d rather believe they’re not quite that ridiculously powerful.”  

“Yeah, that too,” I agreed. Taking a breath, I started to say something else, before Sierra spoke up first. 

“Anyway, there’s definitely no illusion going on with her, because that one knew her five years ago.” She gestured to Paige. “And there hasn’t been a real change.” Turning back to me, she offered a shrug. “Sorry, not to be insulting or anything. I mean, you’ve gotten a bit bigger and all. And you–” 

Flushing deeply, I quickly cut her off. “I get it, yeah. I haven’t changed.” To the others, I added, “That was my second point. Not the Paige thing, but the whole bit about me from the past. There are pictures and videos of me throughout the whole time I’ve been growing up and there’s never a big shift in what I look like. Even if they had the ability to do something like that, I don’t think they’d carry it on for this long. That would just be cruel, and my parents are a lot of things, maybe even sometimes cruel to other people, but not to me. And yeah, I know how that sounds. I really do. But seriously. They’re not complete monsters. This whole thing would be–it’d be easier if they were. They’ve done a lot of bad things, but they’ve also done a lot of good things. My dad is literally Silversmith. He’s saved a lot of people.” 

“And he’s let a lot of other people get hurt and die,” Murphy pointed out. Her voice didn’t really sound accusatory, however. If anything, she sounded sympathetic. “Believe me, I know what it’s like to have a family member who does bad things sometimes but also does a lot of good.” 

Oh. Right, yeah she would understand that, wouldn’t she? It was a reminder that made me flinch a bit before I found my voice. “About that–” 

“I know,” she interrupted. “Your parents are the ones who made the call to help that piece of shit escape the city in the first place.” Her face twisted a bit as she clearly went through an assortment of emotions as far as that was concerned. “Trust me, I’ve been thinking about that this whole time. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. But I’m pretty sure they’re also the one who had him end up in the garbage. Probably cuz he made too much noise for them or something. You know, they stuck to the letter of their deal to get him out of the city and then shot him in the head or something. But he survived somehow and got powers. Or just managed to live with a bullet in the head long enough for one of those orbs to find him. And really, who could’ve predicted that?” 

Despite her words, I could still see anger in her expression and hear it in her voice. It was mostly undirected anger. She wanted Luciano dead, and the people who had helped him escape justice were the same ones who had apparently tried to make that happen. Yet they had failed at that, and now he was more dangerous than ever. Yeah, I could see how that entire situation would give her very conflicted feelings. If my family had just left it alone and let us take him in… fuck. yeah. She wasn’t the only one who had conflicted feelings.  

“We still don’t even know why he went nuts and started this whole thing in the first place,” Peyton pointed out. “Like you said, he started freaking out and causing trouble before he even had to get out of the city. That’s why he had to–” 

“Oscuro,” I blurted. “The cop from the other day outside the laundromat, he told me Luciano owed money to Oscuro. I guess maybe having Cuélebre breathing down your neck could motivate someone to go after all that money.” 

“What’re you gonna do about him?” Fred asked after we had all gone silent for a few seconds considering that realization. “Luciano that is, not Cuélebre. I mean, they’re both–” He stopped, shaking his head. “Point is, he’s still out there and he’s gonna keep hurting people, right? So what’re… uhh, we gonna do? Not that this whole thing about Paintball isn’t fascinating and all, trust me. I’m pretty freaked out myself. But seriously, he’s still out there.”

Everyone looked at me for a moment, and I hesitated while an assortment of thoughts ran through my head. Eventually, I exhaled before starting with, “First, I think we should let the Ministry know what happened, at least as much as we can without giving ourselves away. They don’t want him to be a problem any more than we do. If we’re right about them being the ones who tried to kill him, then they’ll want him stopped too. And they have a lot more resources than we do.” 

“Do you want to stop your family?” Murphy asked, her eyes on me. “Sorry, not to totally change the subject–for very long I mean, but really. Do you want to break up the Ministry?” 

Once again, my mouth opened and shut. I closed my eyes and grimaced a little before opening them as I looked at her. “I don’t know exactly what I want. That’s the biggest problem here, at least from my end. I know I don’t want things to stay the way they are. Yes, my family has done some good things, but they’ve also done some bad things. I believe they think they’re making the city better by only allowing some crime and all that. But… but they’re also making it worse in other ways. It’s like–” Cutting myself off, I tried to put my thoughts into words. “They might be stopping the city from being as bad as it could be, but they’re also stopping it from being as good as it could be. They’re keeping it static. People are still suffering. There’s still homeless, still people being shot and dying in the street, there’s still… there’s still stuff we could fix. I don’t believe there can be a place where there’s absolutely no crime and no suffering at all, but I sure as hell believe it can be better than this. I believe that the Ministry puts profit first, even if they also do some good. And I want to change that. But I can’t as long as it exists the way it does right now. I want to make things better.” 

The others were silent for a moment after I finished saying that, until Wren finally grabbed both of my hands and squeezed them. “We’re all gonna help! We’re gonna help make things better, right?” 

That was met with mixed agreement, before Paige made a point of clearing her throat. “I can… I can contact the Ministry. Anonymously, I mean. I have a phone number for them. I can give them a quick rundown of what happened so they can start looking for him before he… hopefully before he hurts too many people.” 

“Before he kills too many people, she means,” Sierra put in. “And yeah, probably best that you keep it anonymous, because I don’t think they’d listen to the group that just broke into their base.”

“Probably not,” I agreed. 

I started to say something else about that, but was interrupted as the phone in the store rang. Everyone looked that way as Fred grimaced and muttered an apology before answering it. He listened for a second, then looked over and held the phone out to me. “It’s for you, Paintball.” 

I started to take it, only to quickly turn the voice changer back on at a pointed nudge from Paige. Making sure it was working, I took the phone and answered, “Who is this?” 

“Fabulist,” came the response from a male voice. “You know why I’m calling.” 

“Glitch wants an answer about the Touched-Tech tax thing,” I guessed. 

“Exactly,” he confirmed. “It’s been a lot longer than two weeks, since we got a little… busy. But she’s ready now. And she wants to talk in person again. She’ll meet you at the old pizza place where you met before. You know where that is?” 

Thinking about that briefly, I replied, “Yeah, I remember where it is. We’ll be there. When?” 

“Tomorrow evening,” was the answer. “Make it around this time. And don’t make us wait for too long.” 

He hung up then, so I did the same. Everyone was staring at me as I explained what that was. 

“So you’re going?” Paige asked. 

“We are,” I confirmed, looking over the others. “We’re all finally on the same page. No pun intended.” I added that with a glance toward the blonde girl before continuing. “You guys know the truth. You know what’s really going on. So I’m not going to this meeting alone. If you–if you’re still with me, I think we should go as a team. All of us together, finally.

“Time for everyone to meet the full Avant-Guard.” 

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