Author: Cerulean

Building Connections 16-11 (Summus Proelium)

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On the way through the back alleys to the shop, I explained who Trevithick was (as well as what the name meant). It was all stuff I’d meant to tell her as we were making our way through the city, but then our little race thing happened and well, here we were. So, I just filled her in with the brief SparkNotes version. As we approached the back door, I mentioned that the kid was pretty young, and asked if she would have a problem working with someone like that. 

I clearly hadn’t thought that question through entirely, because Peyton looked at me pointedly and asked, “Young like you? Because I’m pretty good with that. I don’t think I get to judge what a kid can do after one saved my life like… twice within the same month, dude.” 

Burying my annoyance at being seen as a kid again beneath the much more useful fact that my disguise was stopping anyone from suspecting who I really was, especially my parents, I nodded once. “Younger than me.” It was the literal truth, after all. Wren really was younger than me.  I just wasn’t specific about how much younger. “She’s a kid. But she’s a genius Tech-Touched.” 

That said, I reached up to hit the buzzer. But before I could, the back door was flung open, and Murphy stood there, looking back and forth between the two of us for a moment before seeming to realize who Peyton was. “Ohhh, it’s marble girl. You changed your armor.” With that, she looked the other girl up and down briefly as though judging it. “I like this one better.” 

Peyton, in turn, stared at her briefly before turning to me. “She’s not younger than you.” 

Exactly how many times was I going to be tempted to blow my cover within a five minute span? Seriously, I was starting to think this was just gonna be a thing going forward. Exhaling, I shook my head and gestured between them. “This is Murphy, she’s… helping. It’s a long story.” 

“He caught me and my friend, Roald, after we broke into a gas station to steal food, and told us we could be his minions and help out around here or whatever instead of going to jail,” Murphy promptly summed up. Then she looked at me and added, “It’s really not that long of a story.”  

Peyton, meanwhile, had turned to look at me with obvious incredulity. “Wait, you have minions?”

Before I could respond to that, Murphy put in (with a voice that was basically the most cheerful I had ever heard her sound), “Just for now. But I think if we do a good job, he might upgrade us to henchpeople.” That, of course, was accompanied by the girl raising both hands to show her crossed fingers. “I’m pretty sure that’s when we get the matching uniforms.” 

Shaking my head, I gestured for the girl to step back so we could come in. Once the door was closed behind us, I asked, “So where’s Trevithick? Upstairs?” 

“Who?” Murphy blinked at me before remembering. “Oh, right. Nah, she had to run out. Took Fred and Roald and made me stay to watch the shop. Something about needing to grab important supplies or whatever.” Her hand gestured my way. “Kid said she was gonna text you an update.” 

“Text me an–” As I echoed those words, my hand was taking the phone from my pocket, and I blanched a little behind the helmet. I had a message from Wren, alright. Sure enough, it was all about how she had to go grab a few super-important things and that she would explain everything about what was going on once they got back. “Oh, well okay then. I guess we’ll wait here for them.” 

As I finished saying that, Murphy had already shrugged and moved back to a corner of the main shop floor where she had apparently been sweeping and mopping. From the look of it, she was actually doing a pretty good job. Okay, a very good job. Better than I could have, considering I’d basically almost never done anything like that except for the times when I was a kid trying to help the maids. Actually, I remembered that being kind of fun. But even now, I knew the reason it felt ‘fun’ to me at the time was because I could stop any time I wanted to. It didn’t depend on doing that to live or put food in my mouth. If I had to do it every day, as much as the people who worked in our house or at my school had to? Yeah, I definitely wouldn’t enjoy it as much. It was a thought that made me shift a little uncomfortably. Yet Murphy seemed pretty fine with what she was doing. It made me wonder how much cleaning she ended up doing at home. Which also made me think about her brother. Part of me wanted to ask how that was going and if he’d stopped being pissed at her about not running those drugs over to his friend. But I was pretty sure that would be pushing a bit even if we were alone, let alone with Peyton here. 

So, I decided that conversation could wait. Meanwhile, Peyton herself had started to walk around the shop floor, picking up and examining various things from the shelves. “Wow,” she murmured quietly while turning an old miner’s helmet over in her hands, “they’re actually selling all this random junk?  

Wincing, I stepped over that way. “Don’t let the kid hear you calling it junk. This was her dad’s store, she’s pretty protective of it. And right now I think a lot of it is just a way of having basically any random thing she needs at any point when she starts building stuff.” 

A noise of regret escaped the other girl, as she turned to me while shaking her head. “I–sorry. I didn’t mean to just–ugh. I didn’t mean it like that. I wasn’t trying to like–insult her family’s shop or anything. I was just… yeah, sometimes I don’t think before I speak.” She muttered the last words before giving a heavy sigh. 

“It’s okay,” I assured her before reaching out to squeeze the girl’s arm. “Seriously, don’t worry about it. All this stuff is a lot to get used to. Believe me, I know.” And boy was that a severe understatement. A lot to get used to? Wait until she learned the real truth about the city–no, stop it. I couldn’t tell her the full truth about the city. Except she was already helping, and she was going to push that help as far as helping me find the girl who might be able to take Pencil down. Even if the idea was to stay completely away from that piece of shit and never directly involve ourselves with him, there was no definite one hundred percent certainty that we wouldn’t see him. And she was still here, still willingly putting herself in danger. Didn’t I owe her the–fuck. Would this question ever end up getting me anywhere except for more uncertain and confused?

“Dude.” Peyton, who I belatedly realized had been staring at me for the past few seconds while I went through all that in my head yet again, spoke up hesitantly. “Are you okay?” 

“It’s fine,” Murphy called from where she was still working. “He just does that sometimes. I think he likes brooding or something. That or he’s listening to podcasts in that helmet and gets distracted.” 

Flushing a bit behind the aforementioned helmet, I shook my head. “It’s not brooding or podcasts. I just–never mind. I was just thinking.” 

“Hey, speaking of just thinking,” Murphy called out again, “what do you call yourself, anyway? I mean, we can’t just stick with ‘that marble girl’ all the time, right?” 

It was Peyton’s turn to blush, slightly visible through the space that left part of her face around her eyes uncovered. “Uhh, we sort of went over some ideas, but I’m not sure. It’s really hard to come up with a good one that doesn’t sound stupid or overly dramatic or… whatever.”

“Oh, I know all about that too,” I muttered mostly to myself before gesturing. “Well, while we’re waiting, why don’t we go over the list? You wanna help, Murphy?” 

She, in turn, looked at the mop in her hand for a moment before setting it aside to step over where we were. Shoving her hands in her back pockets, the brown-skinned girl rocked back on her heels before asking, “What sorta options are you working with?” 

So, Peyton and I tugged a couple random stools over and slid one over to Murphy before starting to go over all the potential names. The three of us went back and forth for awhile about the ones that sounded good, why they were good, the ones that probably wouldn’t work, and so on. 

We went over all that for a good ten minutes. Finally, Peyton said she had some favorites, especially after talking to the two of us, but she wanted to think about it some more before deciding, and maybe ask the others what they thought. Which was pretty good timing, considering it was only a couple minutes after that before Wren showed up with Fred and Roald. 

“Wow,” Peyton murmured very quietly in my direction as the trio arrived with armfulls of paper grocery bags, “you weren’t kidding about her being young. But she’s really that good?” 

“She’s really that good,” I confirmed before stepping that way to take a bag from Wren. It was heavier than it looked, geez. The bag was completely filled with what looked like half of an average-sized store’s electronics department. Peyton was already doing the same for Fred. “Hey guys, look who I brought back. It’s… uhh, she doesn’t actually have a name yet. So TBD. But TBD, this is Wren or Trevithick, her uncle Fred, and Roald.” 

That was followed by both Fred and Roald shaking the girl’s hand, the latter commenting that her armor looked different this time. Peyton then explained how that worked with her marbles. Both of them seemed a little awkward and uncertain in a way that almost seemed kind of cute. Especially when Murphy inserted herself and all three of them went back and forth about different types of armor and weapons she might be able to make with the various marbles. 

For her part, Wren waited until all the bags were put down and was quietly respectful of letting the other three talk for about ten more seconds before flinging herself that way with an added boost from her flight pack wings (the pack was on under her jacket and it projected the wings through a couple almost-invisible slits in the back) to cross the distance before landing directly in front of her. “Hi! I’m Wren, like he said! You are so cool, I watched the videos of you fighting those bad guys like eighteen times! When you hit Juice with the battering ram and then threw him with the gloves, that was so awesome! You were like, ‘don’t you touch him!’ then wham! Did you really just get your powers? You totally kicked his butt before he even knew what was happening!” 

Peyton, looking more than a little taken aback by the enthusiasm, managed a little giggle. “Uhh, thanks. Just beginner’s luck, really. I think he was more focused on being mad at Paintball, so he wasn’t paying any attention to me.” 

“He was definitely distracted,” I agreed, “but that doesn’t take away from the fact that most people wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of that distraction the way you did. Seriously, she’s right, you were awesome back there. I would’ve been screwed without your help.” Blanching a little, I added, “Still don’t know why they keep calling you my ‘sidekick’ though. I mean, I haven’t even been doing this for two whole months yet.” 

Wow, saying that part out loud made me think about just how much had happened in the past six-ish weeks. The vials, finding out about my family, being taken by Pencil, the whole situation with him and the rest of the Scions at the hospital, the Paige thing… Just how damn busy was I

While I was focused on that, Peyton had started to explain her whole naming situation and the various ideas she was working off of. Roald, Wren, and Fred gave their own opinions and went back and forth for awhile, until Peyton finally held up both hands. “Okay, okay. I’ve got it, I think. The name I’m gonna go with is…” She took a breath, letting it out before finishing. “Alloy.” Even after she said it, the girl looked uncertain. “I mean, is that good? I think– never mind. Sorry. I’m terrible at making decisions! I even like boys and girls cuz throwing out half my options is bullshit!” With that cry, she waved both hands vaguely. 

It was Fred who spoke up. “Hey, why don’t you uhh, close your eyes for a second.”

Looking a little confused and uncertain, the girl did so with a quiet, “Um, okay.”  

Clearing his throat, Fred spoke up loudly. “Alloy, Paintball needs your help, get out there!” After a pause, he asked, “So, did that sound right? I mean, the name, did it sound like something you’d like to be called?” 

Peyton opened her eyes. I had the feeling she was smiling behind the mask. “Uh huh. That’s it. That’s the right name. Thanks, uhh, Mr. Donovan.” 

“Fred’s fine,” the man insisted, looking self-conscious as he rubbed his head. “I just know sometimes it helps to hear the name from someone else. It’s how…” He paused briefly before continuing in a softer, more subdued tone. “It’s how I helped Wren’s folks choose her name.” 

Well, that was sobering. I still wasn’t sure about the whole story there, other than the fact that her mother and father had died in the hospital after racking up quite the medical bill. Which was the whole thing that led to Fred selling that device to Ashton so he could steal the vials in the first place. Not that Fred had known what his plan was at the time.

Of course, thinking about that reminded me of why we had come here today to begin with. “Um, Wren? You said you had something really important to talk about. What’s wrong? And, uhh, does it have anything to do with the fact that you just went on a huge shopping spree? All this stuff looks pretty intense.” I said that while gingerly reaching into one of the bags and picking up what appeared to be a circuit board with seven different colored wires leading out of it and a large computer power supply attached to one side.  

Immediately, Wren looked guilty about her distraction. “Oh, uhh, yeah. I should probably talk to you upstairs about it.” She winced, shifting back and forth on her feet, clearly anxious. 

I had the feeling Peyton really wanted to ask what was going on. Instead, she gestured to the others. “Hey, you wanna see how I raced Paintball to get over here? I could show you outside, if y–hold on!” Tugging her buzzing phone out, she blurted, “Everybody be quiet, or sound like shoppers!” Then she was answering it, talking to her mother, who was checking in again. After a moment, she muted her phone, grabbed Murphy by the arm, and hissed at her to pretend to be someone named Dana coming up to say they had to check out some sale somewhere.  

Looking to Wren while that was going on, I whispered, “Are you okay?” 

“Wha–oh.” Her head bobbed quickly. “Uh huh. It’s not about me. It’s–it’s about Paige.” 

Of course it was. I’d figured it had to be as soon as whatever the problem was didn’t turn out to have anything to do with bad guys at the shop, her or Fred’s health, and involved her going out to buy a bunch of things on an emergency shopping trip. Much as I might’ve loved to hope this whole thing was just a kid overreacting to some brand new idea she had about an invention that she wanted to show off, I knew Wren better than that. And I knew my luck better than that. 

So, while Peyton (or Alloy now) took the others out back to show off the whole hoverboard thing, I went with Wren upstairs. The two of us took the elevator, the younger girl being oddly quiet and subdued all the way. Finally, once the door opened and we stepped out into the hall, she turned to face me. “Okay, see, I felt really bad that I couldn’t help wake up your friend. So I thought maybe if I could at least find a way to communicate with her, it might help. You know, connect with her umm, mind or whatever?” She was fidgeting nervously or self-consciously. 

“Did… did you manage to communicate with her?” No, that didn’t make sense. Why would her succeeding at something like that make Wren so… like this? It certainly wouldn’t be an emergency. 

Sure enough, the blonde girl shook her head quickly. “No–I mean yes, I mean sort of. Hang on–c’mere.” Pivoting, she grabbed my hand and led me into the lab where Paige was lying comfortably (I hoped) on a padded table. There was a wheeled cart nearby with some electronic equipment stacked up on it. Wren picked up what looked like the drum and tubing part of a stethoscope that led into what I swore was part of an ancient Atari video game system with an original Gameboy attached to it via a series of wires. Yeah, it was a whole confusing thing.

“This,” Wren told me while holding up the end of the stethoscope, “sends electronic messages and receives them at close range. It–okay it gets complicated. The short version is that you’re supposed to be able to put it on Paige close to where her CPU thing is, then it’ll send a message to her. Then she can send a message back. Or, you know, whatever tiny part of her is still conscious. They have to be simple messages, and slow. Like one or two words every fifteen minutes. It’s like talking to her in her dreams.” 

“I’m guessing the big emergency isn’t that it didn’t work?” I asked hesitantly, staring at the thing in her hand, then back to Paige. 

“No,” she confirmed quietly. “It worked. I sent a message asking, ‘Can you hear?’ and she sent back, umm, well it took awhile to get all of it, but…” 

Rather than finish, she simply picked up the Gameboy and turned it so I could see the screen. Written across it were eleven words in succession, one under the next, all in capital letters. 

HELP

DAD

VIRUS

SECOND

ME

COPY

TRYING

ERASE

REPLACE

KILL

HELP

PLEASE

Reading all that through, I took a second to process it before my eyes widened. “Her dad made a virus that’s like a copy and it’s trying to replace her. I–we don’t have any more time to try to come up with the perfect plan or find the perfect people to help. We don’t have time for any of that.

“We have to start saving Paige right now.”

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Long Awaited 12-02 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Yeah, bringing up the Godfather thing for Dare and Aylen could definitely wait. Especially since the only thing I could think about right then was what the hell someone like Puriel was doing with my grandparents. And why he’d taken them to begin with. That just didn’t make sense at all. He had to grab them from clear across the universe right at that moment, and why would he? He didn’t even know my grandparents. I mean, sure, there was that whole connection between Hercules and Zeus, but if it was just that, wouldn’t he have only grabbed Uncle Al? Also, at some point I was going to have to actually process the fact that Uncle Al was goddamn Hercules. Seriously, the fact that that whole revelation was basically a minor footnote said a hell of a lot about my life, didn’t it? 

Anyway, Puriel hadn’t only picked up Al. He took my grandparents too, and why? Why would his spell have taken them? Why would he care? It couldn’t have been to save them. He wouldn’t have cared if they were taken or killed. He couldn’t have cared. Really, everything I’d heard about the man made that impossible. 

Well, except maybe what Sachael had said. According to that man, Puriel had sent his SPS daughter to Manakel not to punish her or whatever, but to save her from Kushiel. Supposedly he’d wanted to give her a chance at a better life and hadn’t realized just how much his old friend had changed over the years. Which, well, I was taking that claim with a grain of salt for now, considering the possibly biased source. Plus, just because he might’ve cared about his own daughter enough to make his wife stop torturing her and send the girl to someone he thought would help her didn’t mean he gave a rat’s ass about what happened to a couple humans he didn’t even know. He was the one who had broken up Vanessa and Tristan’s family, after all. He didn’t care about them. According to Vanessa, he’d called her and Tristan ‘lies’, equating them with SPS Seosten. He’d wanted to drag Sariel back to her own people, forcing her to abandon her husband and children. Which, if you knew anything about Sariel, you would’ve known just how stupid and evil that was. So I definitely didn’t believe that a man who had done that would suddenly care about what happened to my totally-human grandparents. 

In any case, Sean and Aylen eventually stepped out of the room, the latter letting me know she was going to see how Avalon was, while Sean was heading for Roxa. Watching them go, I smiled faintly despite myself. For a moment, I was distracted from focusing so much on what was going on with Puriel. Was it weird that I was glad Aylen cared about Avalon so much? I mean, obviously I had Shiori and Avalon, so it made sense that both of them could have someone else. And it was okay. I liked Aylen. Not like that, really. But I did like her. And I was glad Aylen and Avalon had a thing together. Some part of me, probably the part raised in normal Bystander society for almost seventeen years, thought I should have some kind of issue with this entire situation. Err, the romantic one. But I just… didn’t. I had Avalon and Shiori. Avalon had me and Aylen. Shiori had me and… well if she found someone else she liked being with in that way, that would be fine too.

It sounded weird in my head when I actually thought about it. But in practice, I was fine with it. Which, some part of me briefly wondered if that had anything to do with the whole Heretic thing. Did being connected to the Edge sort of… make us more okay with this kind of relationship, either from a Reaper thing or from the Seosten wanting their Heretics to have lots of children and interconnected relationships like that? I–huh. Well that was a terrifying rabbit hole to peer into. 

Whatever, I’d think about that more later. Or not. Or I’d just ignore the thought entirely and–fuck. Well, right now I was going to focus on this situation. My eyes focused on Mom and Dad even as Tabbris was urgently giving them advice about safely projecting without going that way. She had also insisted that Dad not do anything until her mother made it here to give her own advice and to be present just in case something went wrong. Which, yeah, that was completely fair. 

We didn’t have to wait long for Sariel to show up, either. Apparently when her daughter called for urgent help about a family situation, she didn’t waste any time. Before we even had to start worrying about Dad asking more questions about how our mission had gone, the woman had arrived at the door. She and my mother exchanged brief glances, Mom bowing her head slightly as if in acknowledgment and adding a quiet murmur of thanks. It was met by a very faint smile and nod from the Seosten woman. 

That done, she closed the distance from the entrance and asked what exactly was going on. So, we told her the full situation. Dare filled in most of it, giving Dad time to just sit with Mom while Tabbris perched on his lap. And wow, Sariel had an even bigger reaction than the rest of us had to the reveal about Puriel. She reached down to cover Tabbris’s ears before speaking a few choice words in a mixture of English, Latin, and some other language I didn’t even know. But none of the words were polite. 

Tabbris, of course, squirmed her way free and squinted that way. “Mama, I’ve heard bad words before.” 

“Of course you have, my brave girl,” Sariel agreed, running a hand through her hair. “But there’s bad words and then there’s the words that come to mind when that man is involved. Different levels.” 

With that, the woman straightened. “Okay. You’re right, the easiest way to find out what’s going on would be to project yourself to your mother. But over that distance, with you having so little experience, and everything Puriel might have put in the way to shield himself, I don’t think you should do it alone.” 

Her words made Tabbris gasp. “Dad! You can still be possessed, so they can help you do the projecting thing!” 

Oh, right. Yeah, that hadn’t occurred to any of us. Wow, we really were worn out from everything. Sariel and Tabbris had a point. Dad didn’t have much experience with this stuff beyond a little bit of practice with Mercury, but someone who did, or just had more power, could possess him and help. Hell, that would probably even be a good way of pulling him back if he started to be physically yanked there. Someone else being connected to him could act as a sort of anchor. And even if it didn’t, if worse came to worst and he was pulled that way, at least he wouldn’t be completely alone. 

That, naturally, led to a bit of a discussion about who should do the possessing. And we realized something else. It didn’t have to be just one person. Sariel, Tabbris, and I could all form a Choo-maneuver stack. With three of us it would be even better. Tabbris and I could help anchor Dad because of who we were, because of our connection to him. And Sariel had the power and expertise to help direct the projection in the first place. 

Unfortunately, Mom couldn’t be a part of that. Which I was pretty sure she wasn’t happy about. But she kept it quiet, obviously not wanting to make the situation harder or more complicated. That said, I was pretty sure that if any bad Seosten had presented themselves as a target right then for Mom to take a gamble on getting their possession power, she wouldn’t have hesitated. 

Then Sariel, after a slight pause, turned toward Mom. Her voice was quiet. “Joselyn, if you like, I can help you with a spell that will allow you and Virginia here to serve as… anchors of a sort. Think of the spell that you will maintain as a bright beacon to help guide us back here across the long distance. Your husband’s body will be here the entire time, but our minds will be there, and this spell will help him, and the rest of us, find our way back to this spot.” 

Mom didn’t hesitate. No matter how she might have felt about Sariel herself, the instant the woman made that suggestion, she nodded. “Yes. Whatever we have to do. If you say it’ll help…” Only then did she pause very, very briefly before repeating. “If you say it’ll help, then yes.” 

Dare nodded in agreement. “Of course. Anything to help make certain this goes well.” While Sariel and Mom were focused on each other, she gave me a brief glance. We locked gazes, and I nodded in understanding. This… this would be the first time Dare did a spell with Mom, considering my mother had been a tiny child the last time she knew who Dare really was. It would be the first time that Dare did a spell with her daughter. It was such a big moment… and we couldn’t actually tell Mom what that meant. Damn it, we couldn’t even tell her how important it was, or that it was important at all. Dare had to play this whole thing completely cool, had to not give away how much the situation meant to her or how–

Fuck. This wasn’t fair. Not one single part of my grandmother’s situation was fair. Why couldn’t we find a way to just stabilize the banishment spell so that she didn’t have to live like this all the time? How long was this going to go on? How long was she going to have to pretend her own daughter, my mother, wasn’t basically the most important person in the world to her? It couldn’t be forever, could it? There had to eventually be a way to fix this, a way to make it so Virginia Dare could be known for who she really was. Right? God, I hoped so. I really, truly hoped so. 

In any case, that led to Sariel giving Mom and Dare a bit of a crash course in how to create the spell she’d been talking about. It was complicated, but both of them understood magic well enough for Sariel to feel comfortable with letting them do it with minimal guidance. Though it wasn’t like we had a lot of choice unless we wanted to wait an extra two or three weeks for a full battery of lessons. 

Yeah, that might’ve been smart. But we were working with what we had. We needed to get to the bottom of what Puriel was doing with my grandparents, and that couldn’t wait weeks. We had to find out right now. 

Once that was done, and I managed to tear my attention away from the fact that Mom and Dare  were working together (and everything that meant), I found myself facing Sariel, Tabbris, and my father. “I guess we need blood now.” 

Tabbris, of course, wanted to use her blood, but her mother’s was stronger, especially as far as possession went. She’d had a lot longer for her possession power to grow. So, it made more sense to use her blood. And she already had some prepared in a small curved glass dish, holding it out for Dad to put his finger into. He did so, and a moment later he was, temporarily at least, a Natural Sariel Heretic. Suddenly, I kind of wanted to see how good he was at playing darts. But that would have to wait. This was a lot more important. Seriously though, we needed to check on that at some point. 

With that in mind, I cleared my throat before hesitantly speaking up with,  “We’re ready for this, then?” 

Tabbris grabbed my hand while nodding. “Uh huh! We’ll find out what that jerk’s up to and get your grandparents back! Right, Mama?” 

A very faint, yet clearly worried smile, Sariel looked to her daughter. “Yes. First, I need you all to know, digging through this woman’s mind would be a very bad idea. I know it will be tempting to search her memories to see what exactly is going on. But you have to resist that. The more you try to look into her mind, the more of a chance you will lose your grasp back here and end up physically transporting everyone. Stay out of her mind as much as possible.” 

She waited for everyone to nod and agree before adding, “Also, speaking of transporting, no transporting. Period. No matter what happens, we will come back here. Do you understand?” She was looking to me and then to my dad. “Even if something bad is happening, I promise you that we do not stand a chance against Puriel. Whatever it is, whatever he’s doing with them, we come back here and get the reinforcements we need to do something about it. This is just a reconnaissance check.” Her voice was firm, eyes staring intently at Dad, almost looking through him. “No matter what.” 

My father’s reply was quiet, yet firm. “Yes. I understand the stakes. They’re my parents, but these are our girls. I’m not not risking my daughters just to make a pointless stab at hurting the man who played the king of the gods. But I still have to know. I need to know what’s going on.”

There was a brief pause while Dad, Mom, Dare, and Sariel all exchanged glances and what seemed to be silent communication. Finally, Sariel gave a nod of satisfaction. “Good. Let’s do this then. Remember, if something goes wrong, focus on the anchors here. You’ll feel the spell that Virginia and Joselyn are performing. Let that pull you back to this spot.” 

With that, Tabbris gave me a tight hug before disappearing as she possessed me. Comforted by her familiar presence, I turned toward Sariel, who was holding a hand out to me. I repressed the nerves that left me tingling before taking the offered hand. A second and a bit of focus later, and I disappeared into her. Not that I had any chance of controlling the woman, of course. Tabbris and I were both just along for the ride while Sariel turned to put a hand on our dad’s shoulder.

Like that, we were inside him. I could feel my father’s worry about his parents, and his anxiousness as far as this whole situation went. I also felt his relief that both of us were home and safe, along with a certainty he felt that there was something about what happened while we were gone that we hadn’t told him yet. But it was clouded over and distracted by his focus on his own mother and father. 

Sariel didn’t waste any time. Lincoln, focus on your parents. Think about them, what they look like, what they sound like, what they feel like. Girls, you do the same. You both met them, you know them. All three of you. Focus on everything you know about those two. I’ll direct the recall power, but you have to focus on them to help guide it. 

So, I did just that. My thoughts focused on all the times I’d spoken to Popser and Grandmaria. I thought of sitting in our kitchen when they visited, of helping my grandmother make dinner (those were basically the only times our oven got used correctly), of being in the backyard with my grandfather to watch the stars. I thought of running and squealing before he picked me up. I thought of hugging them both at night. I thought of talking to them on the phone, of every moment I’d interacted with them. I thought of how much I cared about my grandparents. Distantly, I could sense Tabbris doing the same, though her thoughts and memories were all tinted by a sadness that they’d had no idea she was there. As well as a worry about how they would react if they did. 

Before I could focus too much on that, I felt a sort of whooshing sensation. It was working. We were being mentally (our physical bodies stayed firmly planted in the Starstation) projected far, far away. It was all a jumble rush of motion and light that almost made me feel sick. 

Then we were there. We were right there. I felt my grandmother’s presence even as I was staring through her eyes to see… a kitchen? Yeah, it was definitely a kitchen. Not an Earth-based one, of course. This was the same sort of high-tech, sci-fi kitchen I’d seen while out in Seosten space. Full of weird gizmos I still couldn’t even begin to understand the function of. Again, that wasn’t saying much, considering I didn’t understand the function of a lot of Earth-based kitchen gadgets.

Still, we were definitely seeing through my grandmother’s eyes. I could see her hands as she carefully mixed what looked like some vegetables and meat together in a bowl. She didn’t… seem to be a prisoner. She was humming a song to herself as she worked, before turning a bit toward the other side of the kitchen. There, we could all see a collection of Seosten children lining a table as they worked on chopping more vegetables and meats, filling bowls with them, or otherwise clearly helping to prepare whatever meal this was. 

One of those children, a girl with hair that was half-black and half-blonde, was standing next to the table, beside a much-younger boy with brown hair. The two seemed to be talking quietly before the boy got up. Together, they stepped over to where my grandmother was. 

“Does our mother cook?” the boy asked, sounding curious. The girl, his sister apparently, was watching silently from just behind him. 

“Oh, sweetie, I’m afraid I don’t know your mother enough to say how much cooking she does,” Grandmaria answered. “But I’ll tell you what, if she doesn’t, you can show her what we learned here, okay? 

“I may not know much about this Sariel, but from what I’ve heard, she’ll adore learning from her children.”

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Building Connections 16-10 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There is an update for voting on Peyton’s name in my first comment at the bottom of this chapter! If you’d like to participate in the final round of determining what her Touched name will be out of the three finalists, jump down there once you finish this chapter!

Deicide didn’t know exactly where this Amanda Sanvers was, of course. That would have been too easy. Instead, she had a list of possible last locations, along with people who had spoken to the girl somewhat recently and might be able to give a better idea of where she was. Apparently Deicide was worried that if she or her people dug any deeper than that, Sanvers herself would hear about it and go even deeper into hiding out of paranoia that they were somehow working for the monster who had traumatized her so much years ago. 

She also told us a bit more about that situation, about how a very early Pencil, before even taking up leadership of the Scions, had taken this girl’s family prisoner. Apparently, on camera, he had forced Amanda’s parents to shoot each other in order to save the lives of both Amanda and her brother. Nick Sanvers had completely disappeared within a year, something about going to an Alaskan oil rig to work. But Amanda had stuck around for one reason or another, mostly going underground, changing her name repeatedly, that sort of thing. From what Deicide knew, it sounded like the girl was staying specifically to testify against Pencil if they ever managed to catch him. So the police and Star-Touched kept her somewhat informed about how their various investigations into the Scions were going. It wasn’t really by-the-book, but they were impressed by how tough she was to not take off for another continent. And honestly, so was I. If she had experienced Pencil firsthand and still wanted to stick around to testify against him given the chance? Yeah, she was pretty brave. 

Brave, but not entirely stupid. Hence the whole changing her name and disappearing thing. A couple of the authorities knew how to contact her, but even they had to jump through certain hoops to do so. She refused to go into normal witness protection. Something about not trusting it and wanting to manage on her own. Which, apparently she was pretty good at if the girl was still alive after all this time. So yeah, kudos to her. 

Which, of course reminded me of a certain other person who had stayed hidden from the Scions for a long time now. Robert–Bobby Parson, my old driver and the man who had apparently saved me back when my own grandfather had sent his men to kill Anthony and his family, and to abduct me. Yeah, Bobby was another one I needed to find. I had the feeling that he would be able to answer even more questions about my family. Especially considering everything I’d already found. Like the toys in his cabin with the code that had led me to find out more about Paige. Why did he have those there? And where was he now? Had he just gone deeper after finding out Pencil had gotten so close to finding him? And why was Pencil really after him? If the psychopath was that obsessed with tracking him down, it had to be something pretty important, right? 

Whatever, the point was, I had a lot to deal with. Right now, I really had to focus on finding a different member of the ‘stay the fuck away from Pencil society.’ I had to focus on finding Amanda Sanvers. 

Okay, that wasn’t exactly the immediate concern. That, at the moment, was looking at me from across the roof both of us were standing on a few minutes after Cavalcade had dropped us off. She was just finishing the sandwich that the mercenary had insisted on picking up for us. I had one too, but wasn’t eating it yet. It was still wrapped up and tucked into one of the pockets of my suit for later. 

Taking a breath, I focused on Peyton. “Look, you really don’t need to be involved in any of this. Trust me, you don’t want to. Like I said, you don’t owe Deicide anything. And you definitely don’t owe me enough to put your neck anywhere near this shit.” 

Peyton just stared at me. “Dude, you’re like.. what, a thirteen-year-old kid? You shouldn’t be anywhere near this shit either. But you are, for some reason. Maybe that paper chick’s right about this Sanvers girl talking to you because you’re not a threat. But like, that brings up a good question. If Amanda Sanvers has been like… you know, cooperating with the authorities and trying to bring Pencil down, why does Deicide think she’s got this top secret information about his power or whatever?” 

“I asked her about that when you went out with Cavalcade and I stayed behind for a minute,” I informed her. “Apparently this Amanda girl thinks that the only reason Pencil hasn’t like… totally gone after her is because he believes she doesn’t know anything important about him. According to Deicide, Amanda saying she’d cooperate with the cops and then supposedly not being able to tell them anything useful is her way of letting the Scions know they don’t need to come after her. I mean, think about it. Pencil doesn’t really care about leaving witnesses. They know what he is and what he’s done. It’s not like he’s thinking ahead that much to a trial or whatever. The only thing that would make him come after her hard is if he thought she knew something dangerous about him, something that could bring him down or expose a weakness. So, Amanda makes it clear she’s trying to help the cops but can’t tell them anything helpful. Which reassures Pencil so he has no real reason to expend that much effort looking for her, because if she did know anything, she would’ve told them.” 

Peyton considered that for a moment, running it through in her head before nodding. “I guess that makes sense. But what makes Deicide think this girl actually does know something big?” 

I shrugged at that. “Something about hearing it through a friend of a friend of a friend, or whatever. Amanda said something to someone that made it sound like she might know a secret about Pencil’s power, and it got back to Deicide.” With that, I shook my head. “But seriously, like I said, you don’t need to be involved in this, Peyton. This is way, way too much to ask.” 

She, however, shook her head. “I’m not going after the Scions, dude. No fucking way. I don’t–I’m scared. Yeah, I’m too scared for that. But if this girl–if she really does know something that can stop those assholes from–” She choked a bit on her words, blanching while her arms folded across her stomach. The floating marbles that weren’t part of her armor hovered protectively in front of her. “Everyone knows what Pencil does to people. If this Amanda girl really does know something that can help stop him? I don’t care if it’s Deicide or the Star-Touched, the military, or the freaking Smurfs who pull it off. Getting rid of that bastard is a good thing. And if I can help do that just by helping you track down this girl? Then… then I wanna be a part of that.” 

Squirming on her feet, the girl quietly added, “I was… scared–terrified when that asshole and his friends abducted me, and they didn’t even have any powers. Then yesterday with Juice and those fucking–” Cutting herself off, she gave a quick shake of her head, eyes closing briefly as she pulled it together. “I’ve been really scared, so I know what that’s like. But I can’t even imagine what it’s like to be one of his victims. I can’t–” The girl swallowed hard, clearly afraid even as she pushed on. “Even if all I do is help a little bit, I wanna help stop other people from feeling as terrified as I was before. No, even more terrified, because… because the Scions are worse. All the things they’ve done, everything they like to…” Again, she trailed off, taking a moment to collect herself before forcing the last words out. “ Please. I just want to help.” 

Well, shit, what exactly was I supposed to say to that? No, you’re not allowed to be brave? No, you can’t contribute to helping people, only I’m allowed to do that? Wait a minute, was this how people like That-A-Way had felt about me throwing myself into danger while refusing to join their team (before she understood why I’d done that)? Hell, was this what people felt in general about me doing this sort of stuff? Or worse, since as far as they knew I was like, twelve or thirteen? 

Eesh, how did they deal with it? 

Shaking that off, I finally agreed, “Okay. I mean, I’m not sure how it’ll go, but yeah. If you wanna help out, that could be cool. And we can like… talk about doing some other Star-Touched stuff together, if you still want. You know, to help people and to help you figure out exactly how your power works.” Taking in a breath and letting it out as I struggled not to show my own nervousness about this whole situation, I faced the girl. “If you really want to join me and my friends, and just… help people without being part of a real team, then… then that’s cool.” 

I wasn’t going to tell her the full truth about the Ministry. Not yet. But I could ease her into things, take her to meet Trevithick and the others there. Which would also, hopefully, mean Wren would have another person to come help in case something bad happened at the shop. Yeah, yeah this was a good thing. And if eventually it turned out Peyton really could be trusted with the Ministry information, that had to be good too, right? 

Anyway, it was the best plan I had right now. Yeah, it wasn’t perfect and there were definitely still ways it could go wrong. Not to mention the guilt I would feel if Peyton got hurt specifically because she was hanging around me and all my problems. But it wasn’t up to me to tell her she couldn’t help. And I couldn’t bring myself to send her off to the Minority while knowing what I did about how she would likely be exploited and used. So, this was the best compromise I had. 

While Peyton was about to respond to that, the Touched-business phone in my pocket buzzed. Turning a bit, I took it out and glanced at the screen. There was a text from Wren, saying she really needed to talk to me asap, along with a few ambulance and police emojis. Then there was an added note that there were no cops and that she and the others were fine but it really was super-important bordering on emergency and–yeah, she went on a bit in several texts. Clearly, something big had happened but it wasn’t to the point of active gunfire or anything, and they weren’t in immediate life and death danger. But it was still an emergency. One she apparently didn’t want to get into over the phone for whatever reason. 

So, exhaling, I sent back a message that I would be there soon and that I was bringing our new friend. With that, I looked back to Peyton. “Well, I guess I’m needed back at… okay, there are some things I need to tell you. I’ll do it on the way. That is, if you still want to come?” 

Peyton, in turn, nodded quickly. “I’m in. I mean, I’m as in as you want right now, I guess. I mean–” Cutting herself off, she simply shrugged. “I wanna help. I wanna participate. I um, hold on.” Pivoting, she took her own phone out, which had apparently started buzzing as well. Transforming the helmet to expose her mouth so her voice wouldn’t be muffled at all, she started talking brightly. “Hey, Mom! Nope, like I said, I’m just fine. Uh huh. Oh right, the password is peppermint patty. Uh huh. Yes, I’m positive. Thanks. Yep, I’ll be good. Bye. Bye!” Repeating the last word emphatically, she hit the disconnect button and exhaled. “Sorry, Mom’s been a bit… protective ever since the you-know-what happened. If I don’t give her the password she thinks someone’s holding a gun to my head to make me say everything’s fine.”

“So, definitely not gonna tell her what you’re up to now, huh?” I put in mildly. 

Blanching, the girl shook her head quickly. “Not on your life. She’d never understand. I mean, I love her, she loves me, all that stuff. But she’d never really understand that… that I have to help make sure no one else feels helpless like I did.” Squaring her shoulders, Peyton faced me, the mask returning to cover the bottom of her face once more. “I’m ready to go.” 

With a nod, I turned to the edge of the roof. “Right, let’s get–” I’d taken two steps before stopping with my leg raised. Pivoting back, I blanched a bit. “Uhhh, right. I’m not sure how we get you over there. Think you could run alongside me and I could paint you to places once we–” 

“Dude,” she interrupted. “Check this out.” With that, the girl looked toward the marbles hovering nearby. “Show him, guys.” 

Immediately, the gold and white marbles flew into one another before starting to shift and grow. Soon, what looked like a gold surfboard with white trim literally hovered there in the air beside the girl. Peyton, in turn, floated up off the roof herself. She literally floated up a foot or so in the air. “I can make the armor lift me up,” she announced. “Sorta like flying. The armor floats and I go with it. But I don’t really um, have the hang of it yet. Hard to keep focusing on it while the armor pulls and pushes my–yeah. It’s easier to do this.” 

With a gesture from one hand, she sent the floating surfboard under her feet before landing on it. “See? My armor bonds to it, so…” To demonstrate, she flew up another few feet before the board turned upside down with Peyton still attached. She dangled there, hanging from her feet. Or rather, from the boots of her armor, which were firmly attached to the board. “Can’t fall off!” 

“Hah, dude…” Despite myself, I was grinning. “That’s cool.” It seriously was. I’d wondered if the fact that her marbles and the things they made could hover would mean the armor could actually fly, but it made sense that the armor yanking her around through the air wouldn’t be super comfortable. Maybe she’d get used to that or learn to adjust how she made it move so that she could actually fly normally with it eventually. In the meantime, the hoverboard (or was that flyboard?) was an amazing compromise. 

“Right?!” Clearly grinning behind the helmet, Peyton flipped herself rightside up. “Now I can keep up with you.” 

“Oh, can you?” Feeling myself start to smirk, I glanced toward the edge of the roof. “Let’s find out.” 

First, of course, I texted Izzy to let her know something came up over at Wren’s that I had to check out and that she should definitely go see that second movie. 

That done, I told Peyton what area of town we were going to, using a landmark she was familiar with. Then I gave her a short nod, a thumbs up, and took off running while activating the green wings I had painted onto my shoes. Behind me, Peyton shouted something about cheating, before taking off on her board just as I reached the edge of the roof and used blue paint to spring up and forward through open air in a long flip. Instantly, as soon as my body righted itself, I used red paint to yank myself the rest of the way to a billboard, adding a bit of blue against the sign itself to spring up and forward even further. 

As I landed on the next roof, Peyton on her flying surfboard was just gliding past the sign I had bounced off of. She was crouched a bit on bent knees, urging the board to go faster to catch up with ‘that dork.’ The girl was clearly saying the last part loud enough for me to hear, so I painted a face with its tongue out on my back just before activating another bit of green I had pre-painted to keep my speed boost going as I popped my skates out and practically flew along the edge of that roof. 

That continued over the next few buildings. I built up a lead while running with the green paint active, but I couldn’t keep it going forever. Peyton would close the gap with her steady speed and ability to fly straight over or around any obstacle, while I used red paint to pull myself ahead every time we hit the edge of a roof. Once in awhile, she pulled ahead, then I would use a combination of blue, red, and green paint to regain the lead. 

It was… fun. That’s all there was to it. We laughed, teasing each other and making up ridiculous claims or faux-threats while she flew upside down over my head and swatted the back of my helmet, or when I used red paint against her board to propel myself past her in one spot where there was a large gap between buildings. I could see some people on the street stopping and noticing, but mostly I was just paying attention to trying my level best to stay ahead of Peyton. 

Then she got creative. Just as I was increasing my lead again, something thin, long, and metallic went flying past me. It looked like a whip with a grappling hook attached, which latched onto the corner of the building I had just been about to jump to. Twisting around, I saw Peyton still on her board. She had one hand extended, while the black and bronze marbles had combined to transform into that whip-grapple thing. Even as I watched, flatfooted for a second, the grapple-whip (it was a good fifty feet long, just very thin) retracted, yanking her forward and past me even faster than she could fly. Now she was getting the benefit of the two marbles that made up the board and the two that made up the whip-grapple. 

“Wha–hey!” Just as the girl flew past me with a cackle, I sprang to leap after her. “Totally cheating, you’re not supposed to figure out new tricks to your power before I get to beat you!” 

Her response, of course, was more cackling. 

From there, things were even closer. Peyton had worked out that she could separate the black and bronze marbles into separate but shorter whip-grapples, lashing them forward to either side of her to catch hold of things and then pull herself forward. Or she could combine them for the longer one whenever it was needed to reach something further away. She used them not only for additional speed, but also for fine course corrections. They let her spin around corners much faster. It was pretty damn cool, honestly. What she was doing was kind of a mix between hoverboarding and like… grappling her way from building to building. 

Still, I had been doing this for a bit longer. I knew my way around the city like this, especially when it came to getting over to Wren’s place. So, at the last second, I took an alley shortcut that was practically invisible until you were right on top of it, coming out to land on the roof we’d agreed to meet at just barely ahead of the other girl. There, I jumped up and down with my fists up even as Peyton landed beside me, her board and whips turning back into marbles. 

“Next time!” she declared. “I am so gonna beat you when we go again.” 

Snorting at that, I headed for the edge of the roof. “Yeah, we’ll see. Come on, whatever’s happening, Trevithick made it sound pretty important. 

“So let’s go see what’s on fire this time.”

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Long Awaited 12-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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So, we made it back to Earth, after our totally and completely successful mission. Not that we could let everyone know the mission was successful. In fact, we had to pretend that we had failed as far as a big part of it went. And speaking of that big part, as soon as we were back near Earth, several of the adults pooled their power together to create a portal for Elisabet to take alongside Sachael. The latter had said he would get Elisabet set up in a private place so she could stay off the radar for awhile. And reiterated that he would not be informing his own people about what was going on just yet. At least not until he had a better idea of who he could trust, who hadn’t already been compromised by this Maestro or Godfather or whatever.

The point was, we sent them away before heading up to the Fusion school at the Starstation. Of course, we couldn’t exactly go through the sun, but there was a portal waiting for us near Earth. The portal took the ship up to the station itself, and we all got to give the best performances we could of a group that had failed to save Elisabet. The Oscar had to go to Jophiel, who managed to portray someone shocked by grief and outrage that had no outlet. She looked like a woman who wanted to kill everyone around her, yet was barely holding herself in check. It really looked like she was grieving, and I was pretty sure that no one who was watching could have guessed it was all fake. Especially since Sariel and Athena had worked up some kind of spell to mask and alter the emotions any of us were giving off just in case someone we encountered had that kind of power. Yeah, we were pulling out all the stops just to make this believable. 

Having to hide the truth about all this really sucked, especially since it would mean lying to people I cared about. The one exception was my father, since everyone basically agreed that it was too dangerous to try lying to him for very long. He’d sniff out the truth and possibly accidentally cause problems. So an exception was created in the secrecy spell to allow Mom and I to tell him the truth. And I negotiated a second exception for Professor Dare, insisting that she was the closest connection we had to Gaia and that, given everything that had happened, if she was compromised by Godfather we would all have been screwed a long time ago. 

I couldn’t tell them the real reason I needed to be able to tell Dare the truth about the Fomorian-Seosten hybrid monster. I really had to talk to her about that whole situation and find out how it related to her… to the spell. I would’ve liked to get Koren involved since she was the only other person who knew the truth about Dare, but there was no way in hell they’d agree to that. 

But, if I couldn’t talk to Koren about it just yet, at least I had managed to give myself a way of keeping Dare in the loop. I was going to take her aside as soon as possible to have that full discussion. Meanwhile, we all played up the bittersweet victory of having at least brought Dexamene back, while claiming that Elisabet had sacrificed herself to save the girl, being poisoned in her place. 

Mostly the other students and I left the adults to talk to Abigail (feeling bad about lying to her too, of course) and the other people who had stayed behind. The rest of us separated, making excuses about desperately needing to shower or just find our families and friends. 

Shiori and Columbus moved off to call their own parents so they could check in from their ‘totally normal boarding school’, while Avalon stepped away to take Salten back to his favorite nature enclosure on the station itself. Everyone basically split up, leaving me standing there with my mother and Tabbris while Dad stood nearby, watching us with a curious look. Yeah, he looked curious rather than sympathetic or sad about our supposed failure. I had a feeling it was a good thing we’d all agreed to keep him in the loop. Otherwise this thing would’ve unraveled pretty fast. But seriously, what kind of superpower did he have? How could he possibly tell this wasn’t the truth already? I was starting to think he’d somehow permanently Chimera-Bonded himself to a polygraph or something, cuz what the hell? 

Oh, and, of course, we’d left a loophole to tell Grandfather and his family. Including Aylen. Not that we told everyone about the extent of that particular bit, of course. They didn’t need to know about Aylen, Bastet, and Sonoma just yet. Sariel simply weaved them secretly into the spell herself while supposedly only leaving it open for Grandfather, and let me know about it through Tabbris. 

Either way, once we were separated enough from the others, Dad murmured, “I think we all need to talk about a few things, right?” His voice was quiet, and yet there was something else behind it. More than just his suspicion or understanding about this situation. He had something he wanted to talk about, that much was for certain. Though I couldn’t imagine what had happened that would make him react like that. 

On the other hand, knowing everything else that had happened in the past year and a half, I was gonna go ahead and guess that it was dramatic, shocking, and would end up driving all of us into a life-or-death battle with something that wanted to kill us. That seemed about right. 

Mom, Tabbris, and I exchanged brief looks before nodding. Then the four of us headed out of the ship landing area, moving through some winding corridors before reaching some other room. I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be (it was a huge station and I hadn’t been in even ten percent of it), but right now it was just an empty room, aside from a few chairs and a glass table. 

Once the door had automatically slid shut, Dad pivoted to face us. His voice was even. “I need to call a couple people up to talk about something else. But something tells me I better wait until we talk about what just happened in there.” 

Right, yeah, something else was definitely going on. I had no idea what it was, or who Dad wanted to call in to talk about it with us. But for the moment, he was right, we had to focus on our part before getting involved with anything else. 

So, between the three of us, Mom, Tabbris, and I told him the full story. Well, after Mom and Tabbris both put up some privacy spells just in case. We quickly but thoroughly explained everything about what really happened, about Godfather, about where Elisabet was, all of it. And about why we had to keep her survival a secret. It took awhile, but we managed to get the whole story out, including the part about Grandfather and his family. And that was when Tabs and I clarified things for Mom as well. We told her the truth about who Aylen really was, and about her mothers.

When we were done, both Mom and Dad looked a little taken aback for what I assumed were different reasons. First, Mom slowly murmured, “I suppose this Bastet having a golden aura explains a few things Ruthers and his people blamed on me while I was… imprisoned.” Head tilting curiously, she added, “I think I’d like to meet her.” 

“Yeah, pretty sure she’d like to meet you too,” I agreed before glancing the other way. “Uh, Dad?” 

He, in turn, shook his head in what looked like wonder. “Well, conveniently, Aylen is one of the people I need to call up to talk. She, Virginia, and Sean should be here shortly.” 

Well, that was confusing. I blinked. “Sean? What–what does Sean have to do with… “ Frowning, I asked, “What happened while we were gone?” 

Dad, however, insisted on waiting for the others. All he would say was that it had to do with my grandparents, and (once Mom and I both almost freaked out) that they were not dead or anything. He just said the situation was ‘complicated’, whatever that meant. He thought it would be better to get the whole story out together once the other three showed up. Which–yeah, that was confusing. What had my father gotten up to while we were gone? Didn’t he know he wasn’t supposed to go on random crazy adventures while I wasn’t around? There should’ve been some kind of law. 

So, we just talked a bit more about the Godfather situation. Dad was absorbing that whole reveal pretty well, considering. I had a feeling it would take awhile for the full ramifications to really sink in. Especially when it came to just how big of a threat this monster really was. Actually, I was pretty sure that part hadn’t fully sunk in for me yet. Not that we were exactly strangers to horrifically powerful and malevolent people targeting us, but still. This was basically a combination of the Fomorian biotech genius mixed with the Seosten archangel wings. And I had seen how powerful Tabbris’s own just-developing wings were. The idea of this guy, a Fomorian-Seosten hybrid empowered by that same type of doom wings, but ones that had had thousands of years to develop? Yeah, we hadn’t exactly downgraded in enemies after getting rid of Fossor. To say the least. 

By that point, before any of us could really find the right words to say something, Mom abruptly nodded to the door. “They’re here.” And sure enough, as the door slid open, Aylen stepped through with Sovereign perched on one shoulder. They were accompanied by Dare and Sean, with Vulcan bringing up the rear. 

First things first, I produced Jaq and Gus, letting the two mechanical mice head off to a corner of the room with Vulcan and Sovereign so the four cyberforms could confer. Or play, whatever they wanted to do. Either way, they were off on their own, along with some metal food Sean sent along in a bowl for all of them to share. Honestly, my two little friends there deserved a break just as much as I did. I hadn’t been able to do much for them, even get them decent metal to ingest to repair and energize themselves, since… for a long time. I didn’t know if cyberforms got spa days (or even really what a spa day was, given I’d never had one either), but they sure deserved it. 

Obviously, with Sean here, we couldn’t exactly get into the Godfather situation with Aylen and Dare. And I certainly wasn’t about to say, ‘well thanks so much for stopping by, buddy, but would you mind waiting outside for about fifteen minutes while we talk about some secret stuff you’re not allowed to know about?’ Yeah, that seemed like a bad (not to mention incredibly rude) idea. 

Still, that meant we could focus on whatever Dad’s news was. Which–well, straight off the bat he started by telling the three of us we should sit down in those chairs. Mom declined, but I decided to take his word for it and sat with Tabbris perched in my lap and my arms around her stomach. Watching my father briefly, I let my eyes drift over to Sean and Aylen, then to Dare before managing a confused, “Okay, what happened while we were gone? And who said you were allowed to go find more trouble? Don’t you know there’s a special form you have to fill out?” 

Of course, Dad simply shot right back, “And where can I find the filed forms with your signatures from all the dangerous situations you got yourself into?” With a raised eyebrow, he interpreted my look correctly, adding a flat, “Yeah, that’s what I thought.” 

Still, despite the teasing words back and forth, I could tell there was something worse behind everything. Dad was trying to play things off, but he was really on edge. Which Mom clearly interpreted too, quietly asking, “Lincoln, what’s going on?” 

So, with a bit of help from the others, he told us all about what had happened when they went to check on his parents, my grandparents. Grandpartie (for Grandpa Artie, like Grand Party) and Grandmaria, as I had often called them. Of course, I also called my grandfather Popser, since he’d told me to call him Pops or sir when I was little. Over time I drifted between calling him Grandpartie or Popser.

The point was, Dad told us about not having contact with his parents for a long time, then checking it out and finding half the cabin blasted away, and then about Calafia showing up there in Alaska.  

As soon as she heard that, Mom was snarling, “If this was Ruthers and those bastards try–” 

“It wasn’t them,” Dad immediately assured us. “Calafia says they–” He amended himself. “They did try something. Litonya sent that new member of theirs–” He looked to Dare. 

“Antaeus,” she provided promptly before adding, “An old enemy of Alcaeus. Who also apparently has a connection to your family.” 

“Yeah, dude.” That was Sean as he looked toward me, folding two muscular arms across his chest. “Your grandparents’ best friend is Hercules, Flick.” 

Well that made me do a double-take. “Uncle Al? Wait, Al–what? What?” Now I was just staring at him, mouth open. I had spent time with Uncle Al. Not really my uncle, obviously, but still. He was just– he was Uncle Al, Grandpartie’s friend. “That doesn’t–why would… why…” Slowly, I slumped back in my seat while Tabbris held onto me. She seemed just as surprised. And a glance toward Mom showed that she was pretty stunned too. All three of us just stared at the rest of them. 

“Yeah,” Dad murmured, “that was pretty much my reaction too. Apparently Dad’s old friend was Hercules. And if you’re wondering why I didn’t lead with that, it’s because that’s just a side-note of this whole situation. The real story…” He paused, breathing and letting it out, clearly taking a moment to get himself under control before he pushed on. “They sent that Antaeus guy, brand new member of their Committee, to take my parents. That was their goal. But apparently something interrupted before he could pack them up.”

Then he told us more of the story. According to Calafia, my grandparents and Al (who was apparently Hercules seriously what the fuck why would he and where did he and whaaaaaat?!) disappeared right in front of Antaeus. A teleportation spell that had somehow been triggered the moment they were all in danger, apparently. Someone outside that group had teleported them out of danger. 

“Now…” Dad took a deep breath. “Now is when it gets… big.” 

“Now? It wasn’t big before?” I stared at him, feeling a deep pit of uncertainty in my stomach. Which, after everything we’d been through, was not a fun experience, in the least. “Dad, where are Grandpartie and Grandmaria? What’s going on?” 

In a voice that made it perfectly clear that he was freaking out on the inside and simply doing his best to hold it in and avoid making it worse, Dad informed us that Calafia and the Committee had apparently done a test on the remnants of the transportation spell to find out if they could track it. While they couldn’t do that (for what would quickly become obvious reasons), they were able to find out how far away the spell took my grandparents and Uncle Al. And the answer was… very, very, very fucking far. Into another galaxy sort of far. Whoever magicked them away from Antaeus (to save them?) had actually sent them clear to the other side of the universe. Which… which…

“Seosten,” Dare said immediately. “That’s the best we can figure out. Why? We have no idea. But it wasn’t the Fomorians, their magic is different.” 

“Could it be Fossor?” I hesitantly put in before amending, “I mean, someone loyal to him. You know, pissed off that we killed his master so he takes my grandparents. Or just something Fossor set up just in case something happened to him. A last minute ‘fuck you, I still win.’”

“We thought about that,” Sean confirmed. “We sort of uhhh, called in an expert of our own.” 

“My mother,” Aylen said, looking hesitantly toward my own mom before clearly looking like she should explain. 

“It’s okay,” I informed her. “We sort of just had that conversation, since you were coming and all.” 

“It’s nice to meet you, Aylen,” Mom offered with a small smile. “I’d like to meet your mother sometime as well. And while we’re at it…” With that, she turned to Sean, offering a hand to him. “I don’t believe we had the chance to officially meet with everything that’s been going on in the past day. We haven’t… had a lot of time for anything, really. But thank you for helping my husband. And for being there for my daughter last year.” 

Sean suddenly seemed shy, flushing a little and mumbling something about it being no big deal. Then he quickly pressed on, explaining that they had brought Bastet in to check the teleportation remains and that she said the magic energy matched Seosten spells she had encountered. Specifically, it matched the energy given off by one Seosten in particular. 

Puriel?!” I blurted out loud when the answer came. “Puriel took my grandparents?! But–but why would–does that mean he violated the truce? But–no he–why would he save–what? The Committee was–what?” 

“That’s the question I’ve been asking myself,” Dad murmured. “And it’s one we can get an answer to. But I wanted to wait for all of you to be back, because–” 

Tabbris was the one who got it first. “You wanna bond to a Seosten and then default recall to your mom?!” 

Quickly, Dad explained that yes, that was the idea. Except not fully recall. He could simply mentally contact my grandmother (the same way Vanessa had mentally contacted her own dad all the way out in Seosten space at first) to find out what was going on. Unfortunately, there was still some risk of ‘slipping’ and being fully pulled out there. So he had apparently been practicing the mental/partial recall with Mercury, of all people. He would bond to Mercury, possess Sean, then practice partially recalling to him. They had done that for a couple hours with only a few slips early on before Dad got the hang of it. 

“But mistakes could still happen,” he reminded us. “So, I wanted to wait. Especially since ahh, apparently it’s easier to anchor yourself when there’s people you love nearby. So…” He reached out, touching Mom’s face with one hand and my shoulder with the other before allowing that hand to slip down my arm to brush Tabbris’s hair. 

Right. We’d tell Dare and Aylen about the Godfather situation later. The last thing I wanted to do put more confusion and high emotions in the air right before Dad did something like this. He needed to focus.

Apparently I hadn’t had enough stress today, because now my dad was about to project his consciousness across the universe to peek in on what Puriel was doing with my grandparents. 

It was a good thing I never bothered to think that our lives would go back to normal anymore. 

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Building Connections 16-09 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – See my first comment after this chapter for information about voting for Peyton’s Touched name.

Well, this was just great. Absolutely perfect, really. I’d set out to find a way to gently tell Peyton that she shouldn’t be too involved in my situation (or at least figure out how to keep her out of the worst of it), and now look at what was going on. Because of course things couldn’t just be simple for once. That would be too easy. Naturally, Deicide had to call in her favor right then

I tried to tell Cavalcade that the other girl wasn’t involved in this. But she insisted that both of us come with her. Apparently the fact that Peyton had been seen helping me last night, combined with the girl being here right now, convinced her that we were just what the news said. Partners, sidekicks, whatever. Either way, she said Deicide wanted me ‘and my new friend.’ Though she did pause a bit and note that Peyton looked different than she had yesterday. But the marbles were right, and she thoughtfully murmured something about shapeshifting materials. Yeah, she wasn’t an idiot. The guys last night would’ve reported about a girl with marbles that could transform into things (like the huge battering ram that hit Juice before turning into boxing gloves that hurled him off into the sky), and there had been video of it. Peyton wearing different armor right now wasn’t going to fool Cavalcade into thinking she was someone else. 

I considered several options, but the truth was that I really did owe Deicide. She’d helped save Blackjack’s daughter, and she could’ve held out for a lot more than a favor. Plus, I was kind of afraid that pissing her off might just give Janus and Juice the excuse they needed to really come after me (or even Peyton if they saw her) with the full force of their whole gang. And that was something I really didn’t want to deal with. I kind of had enough problems as it was. 

So, with a quiet murmur to the other girl that it would all be okay, I gestured to the SUV. “Guess we’re all going for a little ride then, huh? Do we need to worry about grabbing dinner on the way? Please tell me we won’t need sleeping bags. I do not do well at slumber parties.”

Cavalcade chuckled lightly under her breath. “This shouldn’t be a long trip. But, tell you what, if you’re still hungry when it’s done, I’ll grab you both whatever you want to eat on our way back. Think of it as my way of saying sorry for interrupting whatever you had going on here.” Belatedly, she added in my direction, “And you should tell your friend over there that she can stop shaking. It’s all fine. We’re–okay, we’re not friends here. But I’m not taking you to see Juice or Janus. That ain’t the type of thing I’m into. They can do their own dirty work. Besides, Deicide already told them to back off. Which is another reason you might want to keep her happy.” 

Reaching out, I took Peyton’s hand and leaned in close to whisper once more, “It’s okay. Trust me, nothing bad is gonna happen. Better if we just go along with this for now, I promise.”  

She, in turn, gave me a brief, clearly appraising look before nodding. Her hand rose, and the four remaining marbles flew down, disappearing into a hole that had appeared in the arm of her purple and silver armor.

The two of us started to the vehicle while the other girl murmured under her breath, “Do you want to tell me why you owe the leader of the Easy Eights a favor? Cuz, last time I checked, they’re the bad guys. Actually, they’re the bad guys who tried to kill both of us yesterday.”  

“It’s like she said,” I replied quietly, “this isn’t about Juice or Janus. Deicide’s their boss. She outranks them. More to the point, she scares them. And yeah, I owe her a favor. She… uhh…” Climbing in the back of the vehicle as my words trailed off, I reached out to help Peyton up while really hoping I wasn’t making a mistake by going along with this. Once we were in, I gave her a quick version of what had happened, basically telling the girl that in order to save Blackjack’s innocent daughter, we had needed to get all her medicine vials. I told her that Deicide had one of them and had promised to hand it over in exchange for a favor from both the La Casa leader himself and me. 

For a few seconds after I finished telling her that, Peyton just stared at me. She seemed to start to say something once or twice, only to trail off. In the end, the only thing she could manage to say was a slightly weak, “You’re a really busy person, you know that?” 

The words made Cavalcade, who had started the SUV and begun pulling out of the lot by then, chuckle. “She’s got you there, Paintball. You are not exactly one to coast along.” With that, she turned a bit to look over her shoulder at us. “And speaking of ‘she’, what do I call you, girl? Cuz I don’t think something like ‘Paintball’s Sidekick’ is gonna cut it for very long.”

“Um.” Now Peyton managed to look a bit embarrassed despite only her nose and eyes being visible. “Yeah, I thought about that all day. You know, trying to figure out a name that fit me. It’s really hard!” After that outburst, she coughed and slumped a bit in the seat. “Um, I kinda threw out a bunch of ideas for being too dumb or derivative or whatever. Like, I thought about Armsmaster, but that just sounds weird. Plus I’m not a master of anything. I’m like… Armsamateur and that’s silly. And Blacksmith is too close to Silversmith, so it sounds like I’m trying to play off his name, which is just… ehhh. Not really what I’m going for.” 

Boy oh boy did I not want her to do anything that attracted my father’s attention, like having a name that was similar to his. Keeping my voice flat, I agreed, “Yeah, let’s make it your name.” 

“Then I started thinking about other words,” the girl went on. “I thought of like… I keep making armor and weapons, so a knight sort of deal. Something like an assistant sort of knight in training. Like uhh, squire or a page.” 

The last suggestion almost made me audibly choke before I caught myself. I had to take a second to make sure my voice wouldn’t be strained before managing, “I think we can do better than page.” 

“Yeah.” Slumping with a groan, Peyton lamented, “Like I said, it’s hard. Hey, Lady Kidnapper, you’ve been doing this for a long time, do you have any suggestions?” 

“First off, I’m not kidnapping you,” Cavalcade retorted. “You’re just going to have a conversation that your friend there agreed to have. You’ll be fine. Trust me, we’ve been through this before. And this time I’m not even making the kid hire me to get you out of there. And I could’ve, you know. But I’m already being paid enough to bring you here.” 

While Peyton gave me a quick, confused look at that little tidbit, I waved her off while trying not to squirm too uncomfortably. “Never mind that. What about a name like uhh… Artisan?” 

“Nah, that just makes me sound like a sandwich,” she objected. “See? Told you it’s hard.” 

Cavalcade spoke up then, having thought for the past few seconds. “From what I heard, it sounds like you make those little marble things into whatever you want, like your armor and weapons. You make things, so what about something like Artificer? Or Alloy, for the way you mix them together. Or just Marble. I mean, that’s what they look like.” 

Thinking back to the names I had thought through before settling on Paintball, I put in, “There’s Chrome or Chromatic too. Or Facade, cuz you’re making sort of…artificial armor and stuff? Or… wait a second.” Taking one of my phones out, I typed on it briefly. “Hang on, where… okay so turns out no one knows where marbles were first invented. But they were first mass produced by someone named Sam Dyke–I suggest staying away from that name, in Akron, Ohio. Maybe Akron? One sec, let me make sure that’s not a bad word. Uhhh, right, apparently it comes from an old Greek word for a summit or a high point.” 

“Akron? You think I should name myself after the city in Ohio?” After saying that, Peyton breathed out. “Yeah, maybe. Everything sounds weird right now.” 

Between the three of us, we went back and forth a bunch. Other options we came up with included Smelt, which Peyton mostly nixed based on the jokes people would play with that involving smelled, Chromatic Knight or Chroknight, Galatea for the mythological story about the statue that came to life, Mercurial, Shine, twisting Marble to Marbull, Marbelous, or Marball, Stoneshape, Iris, Palette, Color Wheel, Hexaknight, Orbits, Metallia, the Colored Cavalier, Hexalidin, or even Armory for the fact that she could make so many weapons and such out of her marbles. 

“Or,” the girl finally suggested, “I could go with something closer to like… your thing. You know, something like Pinball. Or Gumball. Those both look sorta like these marble things and they fit the Paintball theme.” 

“I have a theme now?” I managed, flushing a bit behind the mask. The two of us kind of shrugged at each other, both clearly trying to find the right thing to say. 

“Well, you’ll have to set aside some more time to think about it later,” Cavalcade informed us. “Cuz we’re here.” She had pulled the SUV into an old rundown motel, bypassing the front office before pulling backwards into a spot just in front of the room at the furthest end of the building. “For now I suggest you just answer to ‘hey you.’ Head inside. I’ll wait here for you to come out, then take you wherever you wanna go. You know, after we grab food. And hey, good luck.”

Squinting at the woman while opening the door, I muttered, “You get a kick out of saying stuff to make people nervous, don’t you, Miss Oh You’ll Be Fine It’s Just A Conversation?”  

She made an obvious snorting sound at that, waving me off. “You will be fine and it is just a conversation. But hey, I’ve gotta get my fun somewhere, don’t I? Now go on, get in there. I’d like to get this over with at some point so I can get on with my life. I don’t exactly get paid by the hour here.” 

There were a few things I wanted to say to that, but I stopped myself. Actually, it was weird how well I got along with the Sell-Touched woman, given basically every time I saw her, she was escorting me to a conversation I didn’t want to have. Huh, that was kind of a thing by now, wasn’t it? It was a little weird how many times it had happened already.  

Before going into the motel room, I stopped and put a hand against Peyton’s arm. “Listen, you don’t have to get more involved in this. No matter what she says, you don’t owe her a favor. I do. So don’t worry about it, okay? Whatever she wants to happen, if it’s something I can do without… you know,  compromising myself, then I’ll pay her back. You don’t need to do anything.” Pausing briefly, I added in an even quieter voice, “And once we’re out of this, if you want to take off and never talk to me again, I’ll understand. Trust me, I more than get it.”  

Peyton, however, shook her head. “I may not know much about what’s going on, but it sounds like you did the right thing. I mean, it’s not that kid’s fault her dad is a villain. Besides, there’s a lot worse villains than him out there.” Then she shrugged. “Plus, if helping with whatever she wants done makes her keep that big electric asshole off me, then it’s kind of a win-win.” 

Much as I hated to say it, she had a point. The Easy Eights were kept together despite lots of bad blood between them, and their individual lieutenants, out of the sheer power of Deicide and the threat of what she would do if she was annoyed at them. If she told them to stay away from us, or at least not to take it too far, they would follow the instructions. Basically, I was pretty sure they were more afraid of their boss than they were pissed at Peyton and me. So far, at least. 

So, after exchanging brief looks, the two of us moved to the motel room door and I opened it before stepping in first. Whatever happened next, I wanted to put myself in front of the other girl.

On the other side was an ordinary, incredibly dinky motel room. There was just a single bed, a long, low cabinet with a television bolted to it, an open closet with a couple metal hangers, and a bathroom. Oh, and a microwave next to the television. Finally, beside a small wooden table next to the bed, Deicide herself stood. She looked as imposing as ever, a tall, clearly feminine-armored figure made of bits of paper and pages torn from novels. A dozen more books hovered around her, half-open. When we came in, she looked our way before the open books began to randomly flip through pages. Words on the pages glowed before being spoken aloud in a booming female voice that came from the books themselves. “Paintball, and your new friend, welcome. Thank you for coming on such short notice.” The sentences were put together from words in different books, but there was no real pause between them. She had fine enough control over her power to speak in full, complete sentences simply by making the books around her flip to the right page and read out a word or two before the next one took over. 

It was impressive, yeah. But why did she do that? Was it just to show off and be impressive? Why didn’t the woman herself ever actually speak? Was there a reason for that? As someone who had to hide and disguise my own voice, maybe I was just projecting onto her. And yet, something was niggling at my brain. It felt like there was something there. 

Still, I pushed the thought back and offered the woman a shrug. “Oh, you know, it’s not like we had anything better to do.” Belatedly, I added, “Now, yesterday, we had some stuff to deal with. You know, like your people terrorizing a bunch of innocent civilians and trying to burn down their shops, destroy their livelihood, and use them as hostages. Just a few little things like that.”  

I wasn’t sure if the way Deicide spoke through the books allowed for intonations subtle enough to portray things like guilt or regret. But if she was capable of that, it didn’t show up here as she simply replied, “The Easy Eights are at best a loose alliance of forces. I hold them together at the top, but if I squeeze too hard, it will fall apart. And then Cuélebre and his gang will run over our fractured groups, gaining themselves even more power than they already have. Juice has been informed that he is not to direct his efforts to come after either of you until such time as I rescind such an order. That said, should you put yourselves in his direct path again, he will react accordingly. He will not expend effort to hunt you down, but nor will he avoid you should you be in his way or interfere again. What the three of you get up to in the middle of a battlefield is up to you. That is the most I can offer right now. And its continuance hinges on you fulfilling your side of our bargain.” 

“Right, that whole favor thing.” Grimacing, I let out a breath and glanced to see how Peyton was doing. She was silent, just staring at the Fell-Touched in front of us, so I turned back to Deicide and asked, “What exactly is it you need me to do? Don’t forget, I already said I wouldn’t do anything that would hurt people. Or lead to people being hurt.”

The paper-armored woman gave a very slight nod. “Of course, that was our agreement. As promised, the thing I wish for you to do does not entail harming or leading to anyone’s harm. Well, perhaps your own should you fail, but that is the sort of risk one takes. In fact, I dare say this is something that would greatly help this city and all the innocent civilians you care about so much, should you pull it off.” 

Okay, now I was curious. Which was clearly the intention, but still. Manipulation or not, it worked. Folding my arms, I slowly asked, “Help the city, huh? So, what exactly do you want?”  

The answer came immediately. “I think you would both agree that the Scions of Typhon are a much greater threat to the safety of this city than anyone in my organization, yes?” 

“Wha–are you fucking crazy?” That was Peyton. “We’re not going after the Scions! I don’t care how much he owes you.” She gestured to me. “That’s suicide and you know it. You can’t call in a favor to ask someone to go after those fucking psychopaths. Go jump off a fucking bridge!” With her outburst, the gold, white, bronze, and black marbles flew into view. The first two transformed into a pair of kite shields and hovered protectively in front of us while the remaining two combined to form a massive sword that was almost too large for the room.

“Stop,” I quickly put in, putting a hand on her arm. “I don’t think that’s what she’s asking. At least, I hope she’s not dumb enough to think that would fly.” 

Sure enough, Deicide (who hadn’t moved or shown any reaction to the transforming marbles) raised one hand with her palm out. “Easy. No, of course not. I happen to have some experience with assigning the right resources to the right problems. And while you may have had some luck in the past, you are not the right resource to point at the Scions. No, this isn’t about sending you after them. But I do want them to be taken off the board, just as I’m sure you do. That’s where this favor comes in. There is a witness, someone who experienced Pencil early on in his career. I believe she may know something important about how his power works, a way to exploit or stop it.” 

“If there’s some special witness, why hasn’t she helped the cops or Stars?” I put in. 

“She has been in hiding for quite awhile, out of fear of what that… man will do to her if given another chance,” came the answer. “But we’ve finally narrowed down her location enough that it should be possible to find her. I want to bring her in to answer questions, but I do not wish to traumatize the girl even more. Hence, sending you. That is my request for this favor. Find and speak with this survivor, ask what she knows about Pencil. She’s more likely to speak to a Star-Touched, particularly one like you.”

“One like–never mind.” Shaking that off, I asked, “So who is this mythical early survivor of Pencil who could maybe help take him down?” 

“Her name,” Deicide informed us, “is Amanda Sanvers.”

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Interlude 11B – Erin And Nevada (Heretical Edge 2)

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“Yeah, well fuck you assholes too!” A loud clattering sound accompanied that outburst as Erin Redcliffe hurled the phone she had been using against the nearby wall of the empty (aside from desks and chairs) classroom she had stepped into. As it fell to the floor, she added in its direction, “Guess what, I’m gonna get hold of my dad whether you stupid fuckers like it or not!” 

From the doorway, Nevada spoke up. “Still having problems getting through to him, huh?” The young blonde teacher was holding an enormous brown sack in both hands that was completely overflowing with random objects, from a tall lamp, to a stuffed rabbit head, to a golf club, a long set of bells attached to a rope that hung out one side and jingled with each motion, and more.

“What–oh.” Spinning that way in surprise before realizing who it was, Erin visibly flushed, her face turning almost the same color as her recently vividly dyed hair. “Sorry, this is your classroom, isn’t it? Hang on, I’ll get out.” Walking quickly to where she had thrown the phone, the girl bent over to pick it up, mumbling to herself about finding some other place to scream.

“It’s okay,” Nevada assured her while shifting the heavy bag, making the lamp slide out of sight to reveal an umbrella with a shotgun attached as the handle. “Someone should get some use out of it. Not like there’s any classes going on til tomorrow anyway.” Squinting at her, she added, “I heard you and that new girl you brought in tried using Dreamjaunt to get hold of your dad, and even that didn’t work?”

After a brief hesitation, Erin nodded slowly. She held the phone (undamaged thanks to magical reinforcement that was intended to keep it intact through intense fighting) against her chest while murmuring, “And we know the spell worked on our end, because that’s how we contacted Vanessa and the Mason twins back here. Err, Lucas twins? They’re going by Lucas now, right?” 

“Yup, that’s right,” Nevada confirmed. “And if the Dreamjaunt worked for them, then it should have worked for your dad unless they were specifically blocking you.” She made a face at that thought, shaking her head. “In which case, damn. They really don’t want anything getting through to him.” Raising a hand to her chin, the blonde woman murmured quietly, “They must be doing that for everyone who leaves a family member back there when they take off. Or maybe just the ones who have a history of joining the Rebellion before.” Sighing then, Nevada added, “You know, cuz as long as he doesn’t realize you’re free and clear, he’ll keep playing nice with them.”

“Yeah, that’s kinda what I figured,” Erin agreed, still squeezing the phone tightly. “I thought I’d be able to get through to him once we got here, but everyone’s so busy. Vanessa and the others already left on that uhh, I think it’s a rescue mission? I’m not sure. Everyone else has their own things, even Dylan’s trying to get to know what’s going on around here. I don’t… know who to get help from.” Her last words were murmured softly under her breath as she lowered her gaze. 

“Well, I’m here, and like I said, no classes til tomorrow. So, I’ve got free time.” With an easy smile, Nevada stepped the rest of the way into the room, letting the door close behind her. “And to tell you the truth, I always liked Nolan.” That said, she heaved the enormous bag of apparently random junk over onto one of the desks, wincing as a set of bowls fell out to the floor. 

Ignoring those to be dealt with later, she made two of the nearby chairs slide closer and turn to face one another with a flick of her hand, gesturing for Erin to take one. “Let’s figure out how we’re going to let him know he can give those guys the finger and get his butt over here, huh?” 

Blinking twice before smiling as she moved to sit down, Erin managed a hesitant, “You’ve really got time to help? I mean, you don’t have some other life and death mission to run off on?” From the tone of her voice, it was clear that the girl had already become accustomed to that.

Wincing, Nevada took the other seat. “Trust me, I’ve got time. But yeah, I guess people around here are pretty busy lately. You know it’s nothing personal, right? It’s not that they don’t care about you or your dad. They do. They just–there’s a lot going on. Trying to keep all you students in the right classes and learning while also keeping up on these rescue missions that just seem to be getting more and more dangerous, with the Crossroads and Eden’s Garden people setting up traps to try to get people back under their thumb. Sorry, back where they can teach people right from wrong, as they’d put it.” Her head shook. “It’s a whole thing, believe me.” 

“I know it’s not personal,” Erin agreed, foot kicking against the floor lightly with a soft squeak. “And I know I just got here. But that doesn’t matter. None of that matters. I just have to let my dad know where I am.” 

“Then that’s what we’ll do.” With that announcement, Nevada held her fist out, waiting for the younger girl to bump it. “Don’t worry, Erin. Whatever it takes, we’ll break through that wall they’ve got your dad locked behind and get him out of there. And I swear I’m not just saying that cuz your dad still owes me seventeen homemade desserts after I kicked his butt at Jagdausflug last year.” 

“Man, why does he keep betting on that game?” Erin lamented. “He sucks at it. I beat him so bad back when we played, he’s had to do the dishes for like three years straight.” 

With a broad grin, Nevada offered a shrug. “I dunno. Dude’s always convinced he’s got a new winning strategy. Hey, maybe when we get him back, we can talk him into playing both of us together. Might be a good way of getting you a brand new car or something.” 

Giggling a little despite herself before swallowing it down, Erin quietly asked, “You’re sure we’ll get through to him? I just… they really don’t want to let him go.” 

“Hey, trust me, Erin, we’ll get him out of there,” Nevada confirmed. “And if any of those assholes try to get in our way, well…

“You saw the shotgun umbrella over there, right?” 

******

Back when the Rebellion had first been restarted a few months earlier, the fact that some of the Heretics were actually Hybrids, people with a mix of human and Alter parents, had come to light. Fortunately, this did not end up exposing every graduated Hybrid Heretic. A few had revealed themselves in order to openly join the side that didn’t think they deserved to die for existing, of course. But others remained silently in place, taking advantage of their positions to covertly help now and then. There wasn’t a lot they could do openly, given how many eyes were now watching for traitors. It was easy to be seen as suspicious. But they could help here and there. 

Being who she was, Nevada was in a unique position of knowing who and where basically every single Hybrid Heretic was. She knew them, and they knew her. Not as well as they had known Professor Zedekiah Pericles, but still, enough. They knew she could be trusted, absolutely. 

That trust meant that she was able to contact one hybrid in particular, who quietly reached out with his own contacts to find out certain schedules. Or rather, one schedule. Her contact was able to quietly track down exactly where Nolan Redcliffe was supposed to be that day. 

“They really sent him on a hunting trip?” Erin asked in disbelief as she and Nevada were sitting in a car parked on the roof of a tall parking structure, overlooking a few other buildings. Their eyes were on one warehouse in particular that was toward the end of the street. From their position, the two could barely see the mouth of an alley beside the building. From what their contact had said, that alley was to be the staging point for a raid into the warehouse itself. 

“They’re trying to keep him and others like him busy,” Nevada murmured before glancing toward the girl next to her. “And, you know, show them just how much good they can do. I guarantee the missions they’re sending people like your dad on right now are obvious hero trips. They won’t send them on any questionable missions. The things they’re hunting are gonna be the real worst of the worst, the monsters that kidnap and eat innocent kids, the big beasts that don’t leave any questions about whether they’re bad or not. You know, the ones that won’t challenge their assumptions at all. They’re trying to convince people like your dad that Crossroads really is the good side by showing them alllll the horrible monsters they help put a stop to.” 

Erin made a face, head shaking. “They really think my dad’s that easily manipulated? I mean, of course Crossroads does good things. That’s not really in question, right? You can do good things and bad things at the same time. If you take a gun and mow down a bunch of people in a prison, there’s a good chance you’ll get some that deserved it. But you’ll also hit a hell of a lot who definitely didn’t. I don’t think anyone on the Rebellion is saying that we shouldn’t kill the real monsters, just that not everyone who isn’t human is a monster.”

Reaching out, Nevada ruffled the girl’s hair with a small smile. “Yeah, pretty much. It’s kind of a level of nuance a lot of the people making these decisions about where to send your dad don’t really get. Or they just don’t care and don’t understand why others do. They think just showing how bad some of those Alters out there can be will convince people not to take any risks with them, I guess.” 

Erin was quiet for a moment, her gaze locked on that alley across the street and down several floors from their elevated position. Finally, after several moments of silence, she asked, “Do you really think we can get him out of there by ourselves? I mean, there’ll be others with him.”

“Only a couple, according to my old friend,” Nevada assured her. “Crossroads doesn’t exactly have a lot of extra people to throw around big groups at the best of times, let alone with this whole Rebellion going on. They’ve got to deal with people like us while trying to keep up with all the normal hunts. It’s spread them a bit thin here and there. Emphasis on the here right now.” She glanced to the girl, hesitating before adding, “The thing we really need to worry about is any spells they might’ve put on your dad’s equipment or clothes. You know, things that could yank him back if something goes wrong. They’d probably tell him it’s for his own safety with all the dangerous things out there, but everyone knows the truth. And he’d put up with the lie because-”

“Because he thinks he’s protecting me,” Erin murmured darkly. “Same reason he’s playing along with the rest of this. That’s why he hasn’t already taken off, because he thinks they still have me as a hostage.” She folded her arms tightly and frowned. “How many bad things do you think he’s done just to protect me already? How many people would still be alive if I’d just left with the rest of you guys that first night? Or just… or just gotten out earlier?”

Nevada was silent for a moment before speaking up. “Erin, listen to me. That kind of thinking doesn’t help anything. Believe me, worrying about what could have been won’t get anyone anywhere useful. We may have a lot of powers, but changing the past isn’t something we can do like that. The truth is, I do wish that we had managed to take the time to grab you and everyone like you who would have chosen to come with us. Unfortunately, there wasn’t time. And look at it this way, if you hadn’t stayed behind, you never would’ve met Dylan.” 

“That’s true,” Erin murmured thoughtfully while still staring down at the alley. “And she’s definitely worth meeting. Her and Fiesta and the pups.” That last bit was added with a small smile as she finally glanced toward Nevada. “Did you know–” 

“There,” the blonde woman suddenly announced, raising a hand to point back the way Erin had just been looking before. 

“Oh, of course,” the girl muttered, “the second I look away from–” She cut herself off in mid-sentence, because turning back that way revealed the thing–the person–she had been waiting to see for so long. “… Dad…” she breathed out the single word in a gasp. 

Indeed, Nolan Redcliffe himself, a thin man of average height with brown eyes and matching hair that fell to his shoulders, stood just barely in view at the mouth of that alley. He wore a beige suit, and was accompanied by two other men, as expected. All three of them looked like ordinary, boring office workers on their way to lunch, who had just happened to pause there at the alley to chat for a minute. 

“Of course they sent him with Coleman and Bridger,” Nevada murmured under her breath as she recognized the two men Nolan was with. “Those two are a couple of Ruthers’ most loyal–never mind. We’ll get him out of there. Let’s see if they split up at all before going in there. Just sit tight for a second, okay, babe?” 

Erin was clearly anxious, but she agreed. Sitting in the car, she watched while one hand squeezed the door handle so tightly her knuckles almost turned white. It took everything she had not to bolt out of the car and shout out to her dad. Seeing him there, being this close after everything that had happened to keep them separated, it was so hard not to shout to him. But she had to be patient. She had to wait. Because if they messed this up and those assholes took her father away again, they’d be a hell of a lot more careful from then on. Erin might not get another chance like this. Hard as it was, she would wait. She would be patient. 

That patience seemed to pay off about a minute later, as Nolan and the two men he was with did indeed split up. The other pair moved around toward the front of the building, while Nolan himself seemed to be focused on an emergency exit door a few feet further down the alley. 

“This is our chance.” With those blurted words, Erin shoved the door open and was already out of the car before the other women could respond. She moved to the edge of the parking structure, getting ready to hop down. Sure, it was a bit rushed, but as far as Erin was concerned, she had waited long enough. No way was she going to lose this chance to get her dad out of there. He was right there, in plain view, and his escorts had already moved away. 

Nevada, however, was a little more cautious for obvious reasons. And it was a cautiousness that, like their earlier patience, would pay off. Just before Erin would have hopped over the edge of the parking structure to drop to the ground, the other woman reached out quickly to catch her arm. “Wait.” There was a sudden tenseness to her voice, a fear that none of her students had heard the new teacher display before.

“Wait?” Erin echoed in disbelief. “What are we waiting for n–” 

“Look.” With that quiet, shaking voice, Nevada pointed to a figure that had just appeared in the same doorway that Nolan had been paying attention to. The door hadn’t moved at all, yet there was a woman standing there. Either she had been invisible, or had stepped through the closed door. Either way, the woman had short, dark hair and was saying something to Nolan. 

“She’s gotta be one of their targets or something, come on!” Erin blurted, still intent on getting to her father. 

But Nevada kept hold of her arm in an iron grip, holding the girl from leaving. In fact, even as she pulled her back away from the edge with one hand, the woman quickly held up a glowing coin with the other and cast an invisibility spell. It wrapped around the two of them moments before the woman in the alley and Nolan himself both turned slightly to look that way. They seemed to watch that spot briefly, then returned to their conversation. 

“Wha–what’d you do that for?!” Erin demanded in disbelief. She was half-struggling, trying to twist her way out of Nevada’s grip. “You said you’d help me get to my dad, and he’s right there! Those other guys’ll be back any second. Let go!” 

“Erin, stop, trust me.” Nevada kept hold of the girl, pulling her tightly against her own chest to keep Erin within the bounds of her invisibility spell. It did more than just stop people from seeing them, it also masked their sounds and most other ways to sense them. “Stop, it’s not about your dad, it’s about her!”  

“Her?” Erin shook her head. She wanted to struggle even more, wanted to jerk her way free and get to her dad. But she also trusted her teacher, young as the woman might’ve been. “What do you mean? She’s just some woman. Probably another Heretic or something. She doesn’t even–” 

“She’s not another Heretic, Erin,” Nevada interrupted. Her gaze was focused intently on the spot where Nolan and the woman were engaged in deep conversation. “I’m sorry. She already has your dad. We can’t get him away from her right now. Not without a lot more help.” 

“What… what do you mean?” Erin turned, confusion written across her face. “Who the hell is she? Why can’t we get my dad away from her?” 

“Because,” Nevada quietly informed her, “She’s disguised right now, but I know her. I know what she feels like. I can sense her. When I see her, I know her. That woman, she’s not a Heretic. She’s a lot worse than that. Erin, Crossroads doesn’t have control of your dad right now.

“Denuvus does.” 

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Building Connections 16-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Doing a quick double-take at the other girl’s words, I reflexively blurted, “First day as a what?”

Yup, still couldn’t see her face through that helmet. But it was pretty easy to tell she was blushing. It was just the way her body language read, the way she squirmed and hesitated before seeming to set herself as she repeated, “Sidekick. I mean, it seemed a little presumptuous or whatever to say partner, you know? You’ve been doing the whole hero thing for a little while, and I’m not–I mean I never, except yesterday with the whole–and I was just there for–um.” Realizing she was rambling, the girl shrugged uncertainly. “I know it’s probably weird to like, have a sidekick that’s older than you and all, but I’m okay with that from my end. I mean, you saved–like, you’ve saved a lot of people. So, you know, I’m like… I’m okay with being your… student?” 

Oh boy, what was I supposed to say to that? I mean, just outright denying her would be mean and might backfire in several ways. But I couldn’t actually have her as a sidekick, right? Not really. It was way too dangerous for both of us. If she was on the level, I’d be putting her in so much danger and stress. And if she wasn’t, if she wasn’t trustworthy, I’d be exposing myself. What could I say? How could I gently deny her, or give her a different idea of what to do with herself, without screwing things up? What kind of suggestion could I make? 

Finally, I said the only thing that came to mind. “You could join the Minority, you know?” 

To my surprise, the girl snorted at that. “Well, that’s obviously a completely terrible idea.” 

“What?” I blinked, confused. “Why? What’s so terrible about joining the Minority?” 

Her even more confusing answer to that was a shrug. “I dunno. They seem pretty cool to me. Actually they seem awesome. They’ve got cool powers and they help people all the time. Plus, you know, they’re like… training for the big teams. And I hear you get a scholarship and shit for being part of them. Not just a salary, but like… super-good education benefits. And once you’re part of one of the adult teams, they help you get a good cover job or whatever. Seems cool to me.” 

My mouth opened, then shut before I managed a weak, “So why don’t you want to join them? You know, if they’re so cool and everything. I don’t get it. You just said you like them, and they have all these benefits. So what’s wrong?”

“Uh, first, my mom would never let me,” she pointed out with what sounded like a grimace. “They make you report everything to your parents, and my mother would lock me in a tower, Rapunzel-style, before she’d let me go do stuff like that. And I don’t think I can grow my hair that long. I mean, maybe someone could talk her into letting me do the simple stuff or like… something. But it’d be a big problem.” 

Hesitating, I slowly asked, “You said that’s one reason. And one you might be able to work around. What’s the other reason you don’t want to join them?”  

“You.” That was her flat response as she stared at me. Her eyes, visible through that helmet, seemed to look right into me. “You know they’re good guys. I mean, you work with them a lot. You keep showing up to help them, or calling for their help. The point is, you work with them. And you obviously know every good reason to join them that I already said. But you don’t work with them. You know they’re good, but you don’t join them. You’re good and they’re good, but you keep refusing to sign up. Even though you like, fight together sometimes, or join them on something here or there, you don’t join. You’ve needed their help before, you know they have all these benefits, they obviously want you to join. But… but you don’t.” 

When I didn’t say anything to that, my mind too busy reeling, she continued. “Yeah, I dunno what the problem is. They seem cool. They seem great. But you know all that and you still don’t join them. So obviously there’s something wrong with them. It’s not cuz you’re a loner or you hate working with people, cuz you still work with them. Just not officially. I think that probably means the problem isn’t one of them, but the adults you keep avoiding.” 

With a shrug, the girl added, “Or maybe you just don’t want to join them for my first reason. Maybe you’re avoiding letting your parents know you’re Touched and all. I mean, you are like… sorry, no offense, a kid. So first I thought that was it. But I dunno. I sort of… looked up everything I could about stuff you’ve been doing last night. I spent hours with it. Seriously, that was like, the most homework I’ve ever done. And the more I tried to understand, the more it seemed like just having protective parents wasn’t the real answer. Trust me, I deal with a super-protective mom all the time, and your thing just doesn’t feel like that. Not exactly.” 

Finally, she folded her arms, finishing with a quiet, “I dunno why you don’t want to join them. But you already saved me twice, so if you think there’s something wrong with them, I’m gonna take your word for it. Or, you know, not your word. Your… uhh, decision? Whatever.” 

For a moment, I tried to think of how to respond to that. What was I supposed to say? I could claim the first instinct was right, that I was really just trying to avoid letting my parents know about me. Which, technically, was one hundred percent true. But I was pretty sure she’d want more than that. I considered that briefly before blinking. “Wait, hang on.” Running what she’d just said back through my head, I looked back to her. “What do you mean, I saved you twice?” 

There was no response at first. Instead, the girl just stared at me. I had the feeling she was reeling inwardly for those several long, silent seconds before eventually managing a single, “Oh. I… uh.” Deflating a bit, she reached up to tap the side of her white helmet with one finger. Immediately, it popped off her head, transforming back into a small white marble. Now I could see her face. A face which, while not one I had seen much of, was still instantly familiar. 

“Wha–you!” I blurted out loud, pointing that way completely ridiculously. “It’s you! You–” The right name came to me abruptly, though I’d only heard it once. “Peyton?!” 

Squirming there on her feet, the red-haired girl offered a weak, “Hi, Paintball. Funny to see you again, huh? At least I didn’t get kidnapped by a pedo this time?”

While I was still trying to cope with the odds of all this, she quickly pressed on to tell me everything about what actually happened the day before. She told me about how she was shopping when those guys arrived, how she panicked and ran away when they told her to stay put, then got cornered in the bookstore until the orb showed up and gave her powers. 

Orb. Her saying that reminded me of the thought I’d had the day before. I’d been half-sure that I’d caught a glimpse of one of the orbs from the corner of my eye. That was the whole reason I’d turned around and looked just in time to see the Easy Eight people driving past. If I hadn’t thought I saw the orb right then, I would’ve missed them. And if I’d missed them, I wouldn’t have been at the shopping center place in time to help this gi–Peyton. And if I hadn’t been there, she might’ve–what? Would she have died? Would Juice go that far? I wasn’t–maybe. Either way, she would’ve been hurt. Or abducted. Maybe they would’ve turned her, or just injured her, or–it would’ve been bad. That was the point, it definitely would’ve been bad.

Did… did that mean the orb that gave Peyton her powers had then come to find me for help? Was–were they capable of that kind of–no. Of course not. They were just orbs. But maybe whoever was behind them had sent one to get my attention, somehow? No one knew who created the orbs, if it was some alien race or super-advanced secret society of humans or… or what. So maybe whoever sent the orb to her or… or whatever realized she was still in trouble and sent one to get my attention? But… but… that was just–that… huh. 

Well, that just opened up a whole new slew of questions that I didn’t have any chance of getting answers to any time soon. A whole lot of people much smarter than I was had been trying to figure out the truth about the orbs for a long time. I wasn’t about to solve that mystery.

Shaking all that off, I focused on the current situation. Peyton was here, the girl I’d saved from one kidnapping and then helped deal with a hostage situation. And she had figured out that I had a good reason not to join up with the Minority, even if she had no idea what that reason was. Suddenly, an already-complicated situation had become even moreso. Which was just perfect.

“Should I uhh, go grab a sandwich while you figure out what to say?” the girl hesitantly asked, offering me a somewhat lopsided smile. “I guess I could get one for you too, if you want.” 

For like the millionth time, I was grateful that my helmet and mask combination made it impossible to see when I blushed. That was an excellent costume choice on my part, really. But I quickly shook that off, focusing. I had to say something, had to explain–what? How much could I actually tell her? What… what was I going to say to the girl now that she had figured all that out? 

Finally, the solution I settled on was to take a deep breath before starting with, “Yes. I have a reason–reasons not to join the Minority or any of the Star-Touched teams. Good reasons. But… I’m not sure–I don’t think I should talk about them just yet. For my safety and yours. It’s…” Oh boy, how much further could I go with this? “It’s dangerous for anyone who knows about it.” 

Peyton was silent for a moment. She seemed to be considering that, weighing what I’d said in her mind to figure out if I was blowing her off. Eventually, she gave a short nod. “Sure, I get it. I mean, you barely know me. You don’t know me. If it’s important enough to make you not join any of the Star-Touched teams in the city, then–” A grimace crossed her face. “It must be pretty bad. And if it’s that bad, it’d be dumb to go babbling about it to every random girl you save twice.” There was another pause before she added, “You’re pretty mature for a kid, you know?” 

Oh boy did I really not know what to say to that. Or rather, a lot of potential things to say jumped into my head immediately, but none of them would’ve been a good idea. Instead, I coughed before gesturing. “I had to grow up fast. But you–you’re okay with not being told? Yet. You’re okay with not being told yet.” Somehow, I’d figure out if the girl could be trusted with the secret, and if it was a good idea to actually bring her in on it. I just needed time to sort through all of it. 

Her head bobbed a little. “Sure. Like I said, you barely know me. But seriously, if you’re not joining those guys, I’m not joining them. And I’m pretty sure I’d get in way too much trouble all by myself out there, especially since I just pissed off that Juice guy when he was like, ‘raaaawr’ and I was like, ‘yeet!’ Sooo…” Trailing off, she gestured to herself, then to me, then to herself, waggling her eyebrows in a way that made me giggle despite myself before I managed to clamp down on it.

“Okay, okay,” I made myself quickly put in. “Look, I’m really not sure about the whole… yeah. I’m not sure. But at least I can maybe help you get some idea about how your powers work and all that? You know, if you want. Though you seemed pretty good with them yesterday for just starting. Especially with the whole, uh, yeeting bit.” Yeah, that was a memory that made me smile. “I really wish someone got that on camera.” 

“What–they did,” Peyton quickly blurted. As I blinked in surprise, she stepped closer and turned, bringing up her phone to show me someone else’s video, apparently from the point of view of one of the hostages who had fled and was hiding around a corner. In the distance, you could see the three of us on the roof as the bolt of lightning hit me, then the way Peyton’s marbles formed the battering ram to slam into Juice. The person recording blurted some kind of half-curse and half-laugh just as the battering ram before shifted into the boxing gloves to hit Juice again, then scooped him up and flung him off into the distance. The half-laugh turned to a full-on guffaw. 

“Uhh, have a lot of people seen this?” I asked hesitantly as the video looped back to the beginning for additional sound effects when the Easy Eights lieutenant was sent flying. 

“Depends,” Peyton noted, checking the views. “Do you consider three hundred thousand views to be a lot? Wait, you don’t think it makes you look bad or something, do you? Cuz it’s really–” 

“No!” I hurriedly blurted, head shaking rapidly. “No, I think it makes Juice look bad, and he’s gonna be really pissed off at you. At both of us, really. But especially you. I just–uh, be careful, okay? Be really careful. I get the impression he doesn’t take being embarrassed very well.” 

“Yeah, I got that impression,” the other girl muttered under her breath, making a face before shuddering. “Believe me, I’m not about to go knock on his door selling cookies and candy bars.” Shrugging then, she added, “But you said you could help me figure out these guys?” With those words, the girl gestured to the four differently-colored marbles (silver, white, purple, and bronze) hovering in the air to the right, as well as her two-colored armor (black and gold). “Cuz right now they sorta just do what I think about them doing. Sometimes before I even actually think about it. Are your powers like that? Do they uhh, like, do stuff on their own?” 

“Nope,” I replied, stepping closer and taking both of my gloves off before gently reaching out so I could touch the purple marble curiously. It shied away from my hand, then stopped when Peyton looked at it and hovered there as I very gently brushed one finger against it. The thing felt warm, and mostly smooth but with a bit of roughness to it. Sort of like very fine sandpaper, or something like that. It seemed to almost pulse under my touch, making me jump slightly. Which made it jump. Yeah, I swore the thing bounced backward an inch or so in the air. As it did so, the other three quickly flew in as though to defend it. They didn’t snarl or anything, but I was pretty sure they would’ve if it had been possible. 

“It’s okay! It’s okay!” Peyton blurted hurriedly, stepping up behind the marbles. “Sorry, they’re just a little nervous and protective.” She hesitated before adding, “I’m not sure how I know that. I mean, I’m not just making it up. I can sort of feel what they feel? That’s pretty weird, huh?” 

Shrugging, I pointed out, “Lots of powers are weird, believe me. Here, let me try it this way.” Reaching out with my palm up, I held it close to the marbles but not quite touching them. Gradually, the purple marble lowered itself, gently touching the end of one finger before it moved to settle in my palm. It was still quivering a little bit, but stayed there while I moved my other hand up and very gently brushed one bare finger along it. After that initial moment, the marble seemed to enjoy the sensation and the others joined it. I gently brushed all of them, before looking toward the other girl. “I think your friends and I are starting to get along.” 

“Yeah,” she confirmed, “these two are jealous. Hang on.” With that, the girl seemed to focus briefly, before the gold and black armor melted off of her and transformed back into two more marbles. As soon as they did, the purple and silver marbles lifted off of my hand and flew that way. They formed into new armor for Peyton that looked slightly different. Instead of being a medieval-type chestplate and bracers and such, the new armor looked like it was from one of those Super Sentai shows, or the old Power Rangers stuff. The base suit was purple, with the silver marble making up the outlines and highlight designs up through it. Also, the silver part stretched itself up to cover her neck and throat in a sort of protective sheath before spreading across the bottom half of her face. From there, the purple armor raised itself in the back to cover the back of her head, then up over the top, stopping just above her eyes. The result left her hair entirely concealed while only her eyes and nose were exposed. 

“Whoa,” I managed just as the gold and black marbles came over to be petted. “Did you do that yourself?” My fingers gently brushed over them while all the remaining marbles crowded up for attention. 

“Uh huh.” With that confirmation, Peyton looked down at herself. “Pretty cool, isn’t it?” 

“Definitely cool,” I agreed. From there, I started to say something else, but the sound of a car engine drew both of our attention over to the nearby alley. Frowning, I checked to make sure her face was still covered before pulling my gloves back on. “Careful,” I murmured. “Might be nothing, but–” 

By that point, a black SUV with heavily tinted windows had pulled up just in view, through the alley. There was a brief moment of silence and I was about to tell the other girl we were leaving, when the driver-side door opened and a familiar figure stepped out. 

“Cavalcade?” I blurted, while Peyton made a noise of surprise behind me. Yeah, it was the Mercenary Sell-Touched woman who made rapid-fire duplicates to simulate super speed. Among other uses. 

“Hey, kid,” the woman greeted. “Ah, kids, I guess. Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you. But we need to take a little ride.” 

“What?” My head shook. “It’s not time to talk to Glitch yet.” Behind me, I heard Peyton half-whisper that name, clearly baffled by this whole situation. 

“No, you’re right,” Cavalcade confirmed. “This isn’t about Braintrust. It’s about Deicide.

“She’s calling in that favor.”

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Interlude 11A – Asenath and Twister (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – For those who read Summus Proelium, there was a commissioned interlude posted over the weekend. If you haven’t seen that yet, you can do so by clicking right here

At two o’clock in the morning, the streets of the quiet, suburban town of Acantilado, Texas were almost entirely empty. An occasional car would pass, sometimes filled with boisterous teenagers whooping and hollering through the surrounding night air. Now and then, a stray dog or cat out for a prowl would make themselves known. But, for the most part, the town was silent. There were certainly no buses running at that moment, and there wouldn’t be for another four hours. 

Despite that, one figure was sitting at a bus stop on top of a hill near the edge of town. Behind her was the local high school, while most of Acantilado was stretched out below. It was a relatively new school, built within the past five years at what, at that point, had been just out of town. In the intervening half-decade, enough new houses had been built to put the high school right up against the edge of it, essentially marking the town border. 

Asenath had not known any of that before, of course. She’d learned it while researching the town before coming here. That and a lot of other fairly useless trivia facts about its founding, past governments, and the record of their football team. Part of that had been simply to pass the time, while another part had been about researching the place she had to go to get the answers she had been looking for for so long. Answers that probably weren’t even here to begin with, yet she couldn’t bear not to actually search through every conceivable lead, no matter how slim. 

Now, sitting at the bus stop in the dark as she watched the town spread out below, Asenath glanced up to see an owl fly overhead before quietly murmuring, “How does it look to you?” 

The owl looped around and glided down before transforming into the dark-skinned figure of Twister, shaking herself off while the fox-like set of secondary ears on top of her head twitched. “One of these days, Ol’ Assy, I’m gonna trick you and be the animal you don’t expect. I swear, it’s gonna happen. And when it does, bam!” Her fist punched into her palm. “I’ll uhhh… I’ll never let you live it down, that’s for sure.” 

Snorting despite herself, Asenath offered a wry, “It’s good to have goals to strive toward. So, like I said, what do you think of this place?” Her hand rose to gesture at the streets and house in the distance. 

“What do I think of it?” Echoing her words, Twister turned to plop down on the bench beside her with a heavy sigh. “I think I’d never willingly come here if I had a choice. I mean, sure, it’s fine and quiet and all. But it’s boring. It’s boring as hell. There is nothing to do in this town. There’s nothing going on here. This has got to be one of the single most boring towns in the entire known universe. I would spend ten years in Flick’s old place in Wyoming without my shapeshifting powers before I’d spend a single year in this place, swear to God.” 

Asenath glanced to her in silence for a few seconds as though considering that answer. Then she nodded. “Yeah, that’s kind of the impression I’ve been getting. And you know what? I don’t think that’s an accident. Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s completely intentional. Manufactured, even.”

Her words made the other girl look at her with a frown. “Manufactured? What’s that supposed to mean? Are you saying someone made this town this boring and empty? How? And why?” 

Straightening up to her feet, Asenath answered, “I think there’s some kind of spell on this town. It’s making anyone who isn’t human even more bored than they should be. Pushing them to not want to stay here. It’s not powerful enough to outright control us or anything, especially if we have a real reason to be here. But it’s still kind of a constant, low level push to find this place really boring, so we’ll want to be done with it and leave as soon as possible.”

“Wow,” Twister retorted with a brief grin while pushing herself back to her feet, “It’s a spell making me this easily bored? All these years I thought I was just immature and obsessed with shiny, loud things.” 

Rolling her eyes, Senny pivoted back to her. “You’re definitely still all of that, believe me. But in this case, there’s that spell.” 

“You can sense magic now?” Twister arched an eyebrow. “I mean, you still can’t cast it, right? So…” 

Senny’s head shook. “No, still can’t cast it and can’t really sense it. But Shiori let me borrow this before she left on that rescue mission.” She held up a knife with a bone-handle and a blade that looked like it was made of blue glass. That blade was glowing a bit. “It’s Seth’s anti-magic knife. It’s been warm and glowing the whole time we’ve been here. And when I hold it, I don’t find this place nearly as boring as I do when I let it go.” To demonstrate, she held the knife out. “Try it.” 

Twister, in turn, shrugged before taking hold of the knife by the handle. After holding it for a few seconds, she breathed out and nodded. “Oh yeah, that’s definitely some kind of spell. Wow.” 

Taking the knife back, Senny agreed, “Yeah, wow. Now the question is who cast the spell.” 

The Pooka girl squinted. “You think it has to do with your dad, don’t you?” 

At first, Asenath was quiet. She glanced over to the streets stretched out below them before murmuring, “You know how this whole thing went. That Vestil from Vegas, Bol Sampson, promised information about my dad in exchange for helping save the girl. The information was the name of a man who supposedly saw him last, Arturo Moreno.” 

“Yeah, and Arturo Moreno lives in this place,” Twister finished. “But here’s the thing. That info originated from Fossor. So what the hell makes you think this actually means anything? I mean, besides blind hope?” Pausing, she flinched before adding, “Sorry. That didn’t–I wasn’t trying to…” 

“I get it,” the vampire murmured, before heaving a sigh. “Believe me, I get it. I was suspicious too. But Bol said they used magic to test the name against the name of my father, and got a definite link between them. Which Fossor probably knew they’d do. Or someone would. The point is, whoever this Arturo Moreno is, he did have a direct connection to my father. And now he’s here, in a town blanketed with a ‘don’t stay here for very long, go away, nothing to see here’ spell. It’d be a pretty damn huge coincidence if there was no relation between those things.”

Considering that briefly, Twister agreed, “Fair. Still, let’s keep our guards up, huh? I don’t trust this not to be some kind of trap, even if there’s some level of truth to it. Because I definitely don’t trust that dead Necromancer any more than I could throw the planet he slithered off of.”

“Guards up, for sure,” Asenath murmured while turning the knife over in her hand thoughtfully. “That’s why I didn’t want to bring Bobbi. She’s amazing but–but I’d rather you and I check this place out first. She’s still a kid, and she’s just getting back into the whole going to school thing.” 

“Don’t have to convince me, babe. The two of us running this thing together, old-school, is where it’s at.” Grinning almost ferally, Twister added, “But, just to check, did you get the ahh… you know what?” The question was accompanied by a raised eyebrow. 

Senny, in turn, gave a short nod. Her voice was quiet. “Yeah, it’s done. I haven’t really, uhh, you know. But yeah.” 

“In that case,” Twister replied, “you know we’ve gotta do one more thing, right? No way we’re moving on yet. Not til I get to see the shiny.” 

So, the two of them took a few minutes to do what they needed to. Finally, the Pooka clapped her hands once. “Right, we’re good, so let’s hit it. And speaking of hitting it, you think that knife can break whatever this spell is? Because I’m suddenly starting to think about how much I need to check on a couple old friends in Atlanta that I haven’t talked to in like… over eight years. And something tells me it’s not because they just happened to pop into my head naturally.” 

Asenath, however, shook her head. “Pretty sure it’s not the kind of spell this thing can break just by slicing randomly through the air. If we could find the source of the magic, then maybe it could do something.” Considering the blade thoughtfully, she added, “On the other hand, maybe this thing can lead us to that source. I think the whole effect gets stronger the closer we are.”  

“Well, in that case,” Twister cracked her knuckles. In the next moment, she had transformed into a small, mangy-looking cat, which looked up at Asenath pointedly. “Let’s go play hot-and-cold.” 

So, that was exactly what they did. Walking together, the vampire and cat strolled away from the bus stop, heading deeper into town. Asenath tucked the knife inside her jacket out of sight to avoid any unwanted attention. Even though the streets were empty, she didn’t trust that there weren’t any busybodies peeking out their windows in the middle of the night. To say nothing of active surveillance. After all, someone had to have set up and been maintaining that spell. 

Nonetheless, everything seemed just as quiet and peaceful as ever while the two of them silently made their way through the dark neighborhoods. As expected, the knife grew warmer the closer they got to the source of the spell. It was warm and bright enough that they were both sure they’d found the right spot. Turning to look up at the building they had stopped in front of, Twister scoffed in her cat form. “Oh, that’s just super-fucking appropriate to go looking for clues about your missing vampire dad, isn’t it? Perfect.” 

Senny couldn’t exactly disagree. After all, the spot they had stopped at, the place the spell seemed to be originating from, was a large, rather imposing church. It had incredibly gothic architecture, complete with looming gargoyles and twisted spires. It definitely looked out of place in this sleepy, quiet town. Even without the help of the knife, she would have guessed that there was something special about this particular building. Especially with the scent.

“You smell that, right?” Twister added, leaning forward to sniff once more with her cat nose. 

“Yeah,” Senny confirmed in a quiet mutter. “Alters went by here recently. Lots of them. At least one troll, a few weres, smells like a Rakshasa or two, maybe a… yeah, that’s an Aswang.” Grimacing, she added, “And more. I’d say we’re in the right place. And possibly a bit outnumbered. We should–”

Unfortunately, she was interrupted before she could suggest they do more recon and possibly summon help. Because in the next instant, the sound of grinding stone made both of them snap their gazes up in time to see three of the Gargoyles leap off the edge of that twisted church roof. These weren’t the ordinary Bystander decorative gargoyles. They were the real deal. Which meant they were actually diminutive, foot-tall gremlin like creatures who created and manipulated a material that looked like stone, but was much stronger. They used that to create larger, horrific-looking monster suits for themselves as a sort of armor. Bystanders had seen such things lurking at the edges of buildings back during the Middle Ages and interpreted them as decorations before creating their own. Which made it so much more difficult to tell when the things on the roof were actually the real deal, particularly given the fact that their armor shielded them from giving off any scent. Which was just helpful enough for them that Asenath was pretty sure the Gargoyles themselves had had a hand in the propagation of such statue designs. 

Either way, now three of them were dropping rapidly toward the ground. Senny and Twister each dove in different directions, just before the trio of stone-like armored suits slammed into the concrete right where they had been a moment earlier, sending shards of cement flying.

Both were back on their feet in an instant, Twister shifting out of her cat form to become a much larger grizzly bear, while Asenath yanked the knife back out of her jacket. But before she could do anything with it, a blurred form slammed into her from the side. They were moving so fast that even Senny couldn’t react before the knife was knocked out of her hand and she was sent tumbling end over end. Just as she hit the ground, a cage made of glowing energy bars appeared around her. 

At the same time, the figure who had hit the girl turned and pointed toward Twister, forming a second energy cage. This one, however, was a solid bubble, including the ground under her feet. “Good luck finding an animal that can get you out of a solid forcefield, Pooka,” the figure’s male voice muttered. 

“And as for you, vampire…” With that, the man turned to face Asenath in the energy-cage while the three gargoyles loomed up behind and around him. He was a handsome Latino man who appeared to be in his late thirties, with piercingly dark eyes, an inch or so under six feet. His black hair was long but clearly meticulously maintained. “Feel free to try to bite your way through that. It might be funny.” 

Glancing sidelong to where the knife lay in the grass a few yards from the cage, Senny then turned her attention back to the man. “Stardrinker,” she murmured. That was it. The man was a member of the same species that had given Bobbi her powers. Hence how fast he was, and his ability to create these energy structures. 

Twister, who had shifted back to her human form, tapped her foot impatiently before calling, “Think we should’ve brought the kid now, babe?” 

Rather than reply to that, Senny simply focused on the man himself. “Arturo Moreno?” 

Her words managed to bring a very slight expression of surprise to the man’s face. “Wow, you’re two for two. You know what I am, and who I am. Now I suppose it’s my turn to ask you something about who you are. But, to tell you the truth, I really only need answers from one of you, and you’re easier to keep contained.” With a shrug, the man added, “Can’t kill a Pooka, not for good anyway. But I’d say getting rid of her for awhile is good enough.” Winking at Asenath, he turned toward her equally-trapped companion and gestured with one hand. As he did so, the bubble around Twister began to rapidly shrink. He clearly intended to crush her inside it. 

Seeing that, Senny instantly launched herself toward the bars while summoning her own speed. It was slower than a Stardrinker, of course. Not to mention the cage itself was still in her way. And yet, just before she would have slammed into them, Asenath’s form changed. In mid-lunge, her entire body shrank and shifted into an actual bat. Flipping sideways in the air, she sailed right between the bars, even as the two gargoyles who were still looking that way cried out in alarm.

The shouts drew Arturo’s attention, making the man spin back that way. Unfortunately for him, bats were incredibly fast to begin with. A single Brazilian free-tailed bat, which was exactly what Asenath now appeared to be, was capable of reaching speeds of one hundred miles per hour. Multiplying that by her brief speed boost, and she was already all the way to where the knife had fallen by the time the Stardrinker even started to turn. An instant later, she was back in her human form, had scooped the knife up, and hurled it unerringly. When Arturo finished turning to face her, hands raised, the weapon was already right there. He had time to make a very short, shocked sound before the hilt of the knife slammed into his forehead with enough force to instantly knock the man unconscious. He dropped to the ground in a heap. 

The moment he was down,  the forcefield around Twister vanished. With a grin, she cracked her neck and stared down the trio of suddenly very-confused Gargoyles. “You wanna try that whole thing again? Cuz I can’t wait to get through your tin cans to the chewy center.” 

Between the two of them, Asenath and Twister made short work of the three gargoyles. Soon, the two of them stood over the fallen form of Arturo. Glancing to one another, they each produced a set of handcuffs, carefully attaching them to the man’s wrists and ankles. Then they hauled him over onto his back and waited for the man to wake up. Rather, Asenath started to wait, but Twister got bored after roughly eight seconds and kicked the man hard in the side. She was about to do it again when his eyes opened. Taking in his situation, he immediately tried to do… something. Whatever it was, the man instead jerked and cried out in pain. 

“According to a very good friend of ours,” Senny informed the stunned man, “those magic cuffs are gonna send that pain through you every time you try to do anything you’re not supposed to. Violence, mostly. Trying to use your power, try to break the cuffs, anything like that. So be a good boy and lay there so you can answer questions.” 

“H-how–how?” Arturo was staring at her. “You were a bat. You turned into a bat. Vampires don’t do that!” 

Senny offered him a faint smile. “Not normally, no. But see, I have a certain friend. Her father was a vampire, and someone went through an awful lot of trouble to… upgrade him so he could use the powers other people had by drinking their blood. Now, after months and months of very smart and talented people studying that dead piece of shit’s remains, so do I.” She shrugged a bit. “They’re temporary. The powers only last until the borrowed blood works its way through my system. But still pretty useful. Especially when I’ve got a shapeshifter around who doesn’t mind me taking a sip now and then.” 

“Just think,” Twister put in, “if you’d gone for two bubbles instead of being an arrogant prick with that cage thing instead, the shoe would still be on the other foot right now. Speaking of which–” She reached down, grabbing the man’s expensive Italian loafers. “You tried to kill me, I’m taking these.” 

“Okay, look,” Arturo snarled, “whoever you’re here to break out, it’s not gonna work. There’s a hell of a lot more guards in there than just me and a few goyles.” 

“Break out of–” Senny blinked. “Are you saying this place is some kind of prison?” 

The man stared at her. “You don’t even know what y–yes it’s a prison! The hell are you doing here if you don’t even know that? It’s called Desmoterion.” 

“I’ve heard of that place,” Twister put in. “It’s like a… a mercenary prison. They don’t worry about courts or judges or anything. They just kidnap and hold people for as long as they’re paid to.” 

Snarling a little, Asenath grabbed the man by the throat, bringing the special knife up close. “Have you been holding a vampire–an Akharu, named Tiras?” Even as she said it, the girl couldn’t stop her voice from shaking a little bit. If this was true, if after all this time, her father was right in that building

Arturo echoed the name.“Tiras? Yeah. Yeah, we had someone by that name for awhile. We’re not the ones who caught him, just held him for someone else who brought him in for about a… I’d say seven, eight years? That was about thirty years ago. Then the Heretic asshole who brought the guy in took him back. Paid pretty well too. Nice tip.” 

“Heretic asshole?” Senny frowned sharply. “What Heretic asshole?” Her mind was racing. Her father had been here for eight years thirty years earlier, then some Heretic had paid to take him? 

The man was nodding. “Yeah, one of those Eden’s Garden leaders. What do they call ‘em? Victors. One of the Eden’s Garden Victors. His name was ahh… Kyril Shamon.

“You wanna find this Tiras guy, you gotta talk to Kyril Shamon.”

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Commissioned Interlude 8 – The Bees And The Termites (Summus Proelium)

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At one time, a road had led all the way into Merit, Kansas. Back when there had been an actual Merit, Kansas. Before a series of mistakes, overreactions, and bonehead decisions by relatively few people had doomed not only the first contact between humans and an intelligent hive of Touched-Termites. A few paranoid, drunk types who happened to be the first people the termites attempted to contact. They, of course, lashed out and killed a lot of them. Then they went to get their friends to chase down more, trying to wipe out the ‘monsters.’ By the time anyone with actual authority (or simply a brain between their ears) knew anything about what was going on, the war had already begun. And it was a war the human citizens of Merit lost, as soon as the termites began to melt down every material object in the city with that fog stuff they could project.

It was Mayor Gilbert Sullivan (yes, he had heard all the jokes) who had made the decision to evacuate. Many in the town had wanted to stay. Now that the fighting had started in earnest, they figured it wouldn’t be hard to stomp on, poison, or otherwise kill the termites if they just stuck it out. But Gilbert, a very young mayor in his mid-twenties, had insisted that the point wasn’t whether they could wipe out the termites, but whether they should. And in his mind, there had been too much death already. Against the advice of several on the city council and his own police chief, Mayor Sullivan had the town evacuated, ordering everyone to take anything they could carry and escape. They’d had fire engines, garbage trucks, police cruisers, every vehicle either owned by the town or capable of being commandeered loaded down with everything and everyone they could carry. And then they had simply left. 

Once the place was evacuated, the military had been called in, and since that day no one had gone within several miles of the town. All access points were blocked off, and the grounds in between were patrolled both on foot and by drones. Until they had some idea of how to settle things with the termites properly, the citizens of Merit had been compensated for their losses out of the funds set up to handle large-scale Touched damages (commonly used to aid neighborhoods and cities in recovering from Collision Points), which itself was funded through a mixture of taxes and merchandise sales across every country who contributed a member to Armistice. For one year, those blockades had stood. After the first couple humans attempting to negotiate had failed to convince the now-rightfully paranoid termites of their peaceful intentions, things had been locked behind politicians debating the situation at the state and national level. 

Finally, one pencil-pusher at a desk somewhere had managed to state an obvious idea to the exact right person at the exact right time. It wasn’t the first time that idea had been bandied about, but in this as in so many other cases, it was about who heard the idea and when. 

In this particular case, the idea was heard and pushed along by the right person, until FBI Agent Izan Deans was finally appointed to follow through. Following through, in that situation, meant traveling to Eastland (soon to be Honeyland), Oregon in order to contact a hive of Touched-Insects that humans actually had pleasant contact with, to ask for their help in negotiating with the Termite hive in order to bring a fully peaceful resolution to the entire messed up scenario everyone had found themselves in. 

His trip to Oregon was successful, and now Izan himself (a Latino man in his early-to-mid thirties with crew-cut black hair and a clean-shaven face) had returned with a few friends in tow in order to have the negotiations with the termites. At least, that was the idea, anyway. In practice, things were a little more complicated. Because of course they were. 

“You need an escort, Agent Deans. I don’t know how to put it any simpler than that.” The man talking wore national guard fatigues and wore rank insignia marking him as a colonel. He was clearly close to retirement, or should have been, with a very balding head and the barest wispy hint of white hair. His pale skin was marked by several old scars, while his eyes were sharp, glaring intently at the man in front of him. “No one goes in that town without a squad of my men walking you through. I don’t care what sort of diplomatic namby pamby hakuna matata mission you’re on. You ain’t getting in there without the help of my men.” 

“Would that be the men with the flamethrowers, Colonel Rodon?” Izan asked, his eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses so the man in front of him couldn’t see them roll. “Somehow, I think that might give the locals in there the idea that we’re not serious about this being a peaceful talk.” 

Straightening up to his full, still less-than-impressive height of five feet, seven inches, Colonel Rodon gave Izan an even harder stare. “And if something happens to you and your little… friends while you’re in there, we end up in an even worse situation. I’m not saying I want to send a whole battalion in there with you. Just a little protection in case things go sideways. Cuz if they do, and those friendly insects you’ve got end up dying, we could go from having a hostile situation with one hive to a hostile situation with two of them. Diplomacy ain’t about looking or being weak.” 

“If we may, Colonel.” Those words were projected, in perfect chorus, from a small swarm of thirty bees that had flown up in formation together directly to the side of Izan’s head so they could look at Rodon. Their voices were projected from tiny speakers on the bottom of their abdomens that were connected through their brains to a chip on the back of their thoraxes. 

The colonel, for his part, still looked a little disconcerted. But he kept it together and gave a slight nod. “Yeah, what is it, ahhh, what do I call you all anyway?” 

“We are Diplomatic Swarm Alpha,” came the chorused response from all thirty. “And it would be our pleasure to explain, you would not be at war with our hive-queen should the worst happen due to our choices. We understand this is a dangerous situation, and have all volunteered for this service knowing the risks. The only thing that could lead to a strained relationship would be your refusal to abide by our requests, or those of Agent Deans, causing our deaths.” 

“Yeah, and I’d be pretty ticked off too,” Deans himself put in casually. “Now, you know what the guy who managed to set this whole thing up said. He got those termites to agree to a meeting with the bees and one human. That’s me. Not one human and a squad with flamethrowers. Not even one human with a flamethrower, before you even suggest it. Me and the bees. The bees and me.” Turning his head slightly to look at the insects hovering beside him, he added, “Which of those sounds like the better band name?” 

“The Bees And Me,” came the immediate response from all thirty insects. “Definitely that one.” 

With a nod, the agent turned back toward Rodon. “Look, if you prefer, we can take this up the line and some pencil-pusher behind a desk, or some guy just looking to get re-elected, can tell you what I already said. The risk is mine and theirs to take.” He gestured to the bees. “We know what’s at stake here, believe me, Colonel. Let us go in there and see what we can do. I’d say something stupid about the worst thing that could happen, but, I think we both know this whole situation could legitimately get a lot worse. That’s why we’re all here. You’ve been here on guard duty around this town long enough. Let us go in there, talk to these termites, and see if we can get you and your men assigned somewhere else. I’m sure you’d all like to go home and be done with this whole thing.” 

There was a long, silent pause while the man stared at him indecisively. Finally, Colonel Rodon heaved a long, heavy sigh. It sounded as though he was going against his better instinct. “Yeah, if I give up this shot at getting out of here, my husband might just kill me himself. Fine. You go in there with the bees. But if you have to come running out again without any clothes cuz those termites went and melted them off your naked tookus, don’t cry to me about it. You understand me, son?” 

“Completely, sir,” came the response. “No crying about my potentially-naked tookus to you.” 

As one, the hovering bees turned in the air to look at their companion. Their combined voices were curious. “Isn’t any body part that is not already literally naked, potentially so?” 

“Any body part that is not already naked is potentially naked.” Saying that out loud, Deans added, “And with that, you have summed up at least half of the thought process for every teenager between the ages of about thirteen to seventeen.” 

“Oh yes,” the bees droned, “puberty.” 

 On that note, the group was waved past the barricade and proceeded to move along the road. Well, for as long as the road lasted. It only went on, pavement wise, for another hundred yards. Then the concrete ended, where the termites have finished stripping it. In its place was a wide dirt path with a single narrow stone walkway that had clearly been recently added. According to the message that Deans had received, going anywhere except on that narrow path would be a bad idea. It would be seen as hostile, and there were members of the termite colony who were watching for just such a betrayal. 

So, he stayed on the path, while his companions flew, mostly silently, beside him. They continued on for another mile or so before reaching the very outskirts of the place that had once been Merit. 

At the end of that mile, a very… interesting sight waited for them. Spaced a couple feet apart all along the remains of the former road were a dozen dogs with wagons hooked to them by harnesses. In the back of each of those wagons was what looked like a small ballistae, complete with a loaded spear. A small glass orb, about five or six inches across, sat at the front of each wagon, and they could see a termite in each. They were clearly the drivers of the dog-powered wagons, waiting right there for the new arrivals.

We will have your names. 

He had been warned about the telepathic voices, but it still made Deans jump slightly. An act he regretted, but apparently the termites were either cooler headed than the humans they had first met, or they were under very strict orders not to fire unless there was a truly hostile act. Either way, he exhaled and started with, “Agent Izan Deans, with the FBI. You should be expecting me. And this… well, they speak better for themselves.” He had intended to introduce them himself, but in that moment, the man had a flash of inspiration that it might go over better if he treated his companions like equals. 

“We are Diplomatic Swarm Alpha,” the bees chorused. As a group, they flew ahead of Deans, splitting into two smaller, fifteen-member-sized swarms a moment later. One such group stayed just a few feet in front of him, while the other flew about half the distance closer to the termite-driven wagons. 

It was that second, closer group that spoke next. “It would be our pleasure to speak with you and yours about the troubles you have had with humans.” 

Troubles. That single word was filled with a mix of scorn and sorrow. Regret. There was regret there. How much of it was regret that things had gone poorly, and how much was regret that they had even tried, Deans wasn’t sure. All he knew was that this was a chance to fix that. 

Yes, we have had troubles. Those of us who were most excited to speak with humans, those who loved them the most, were slaughtered. Massacred with no mercy or thought. Those are the troubles we have had. 

“Yeah, my people can be real stupid sometimes,” Deans announced. “I know you’ve rejected everyone else who’s tried to say it, but there are plenty of us who are horrified by what happened. But then, I think you know that. That’s why you’ve let a few negotiators in now and then. You even trade with a couple people. You haven’t given up entirely. That’s why you agreed to this meeting.” 

There was no response to his words. At least, none that he heard. Instead, silence filled the air for a few long seconds before the two bee swarms, which had rejoined one another, simply said, “Yes.” At first, he thought they were agreeing with him belatedly. Then there was silence once more before they said, “No. Many people. Yes. Because they are our friends. Yes, we were fortunate.” 

He was only hearing one side of the conversation, the man realized. So, he stood silently and waited for another minute of that before a few chimes filled the air and several of the dogs abruptly began to move forward, turning in a wide circle to leave a path open. 

You will all come this way, the voice in his head instructed. Our spokesman awaits. He speaks for the queen. There was a deliberate pause, then, You will never see the queen. 

Yeah, that was fair. Especially after what had happened. Exchanging a look with the bees, Deans began to walk that way. They, or rather he, was escorted on all sides by those ballistae-armed wagons. Which made him nervous, but he kept it in check and just walked. 

There were no houses left in town, nothing the termites could have stripped down and used for their constructions. Practically all he saw that indicated where the town’s buildings had been were a few foundations here and there. 

Eventually they reached what his own studies had said was once where the city hall had stood. Now, like everything else, it was a vacant lot. In the middle was a tree stump that stood about four feet high. Under escort by the dog wagons, he approached that way before coming to a stop directly in front of it. Only then did he see the tiny figure waiting on that stump. It was another termite, though this one was different from the others. Larger than the others, with wings. Not a queen, of course. An alate, if he had the word right. Either way, it perched there, waiting for his approach. 

Agent Deans, Diplomatic Swarm Alpha, the alate’s telepathic voice spoke. Somehow, it ‘sounded’ different from the one that had been speaking in his head before. I am Horse-Spoon-Eleven. I will be speaking the negotiations on behalf of our queen. Rest assured, she is aware of all that occurs and is said here today. I speak her words. You have been escorted here today by the lead of Bird-Chair-One. 

With a simple nod, Deans replied, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Horse-Spoon-Eleven. And you too, Bird-Chair-One.” He was assuming that was the one who had been speaking before, though that didn’t really answer which wagon had held the one in question. Either way, he continued. “It was my original belief that an actual diplomat would be talking to you with my friends here today. But I was told you refused to talk to anyone except the FBI agent who brought the bees to begin with. Which is funny, because up to that point, we weren’t aware that you knew that an FBI agent was the one bringing them at all.” 

We have learned to seek out and treasure intelligence about what our… There was a brief pause before Horse-Spoon-Eleven amended, About what others whose actions may affect us are doing. And we have no desire to entertain the platitudes of those paid to argue for a living. Queen Lion-Sapphire-Zero wishes to speak to you and the emissaries from the Oregon hive. No others. 

“Okay, well–” Deans started, only to be interrupted. 

Not yet, Agent Deans. Apologies, but we are not prepared to speak with you until we hear directly from the representatives of Apis mellifera. We wish to know… why they work so closely with their own humans. And how.

Thus began another conversation the man himself was not a part of. This time, however, he was at least able to hear all of it. Standing quietly, he listened as the termite and his bee companions went back and forth about what exactly had led the Honeyland Hive to their current peaceful conditions with the humans there. Once in awhile, another termite approached and demanded to know if the bees wouldn’t be better off on their own rather than relying on ‘undependable humans.’ But the Diplomatic Swarm insisted that the benefits of cooperation outweighed the risks, and that the humans of the town were their friends. 

Finally, Horse-Spoon-Eleven summed it up as, To our queen, it is seeming that the path to peace is one of usefulness. And yet, we do not believe any level of use would make those of this place wish for our presence. Nor would we feel safe. 

After a brief pause at that until it was clear they were waiting for him, Deans managed a slow nod. “Yeah, we sort of figured that. We don’t see a peaceful resolution coming from you staying here.” 

Do tell us, Agent Deans, came the response, how do the humans see this ending? 

Oh boy was this far beyond his pay grade. With a sigh, Deans hesitated before deciding to go all in. “Well, I think it’s safe to say that nobody wins when it comes to our current situation. We know you’ve been building up a bunker, and that it would probably take a hell of a lot to punch through it if the more… trigger-happy among us ever get their way. And we know that you’ve probably got some of your own people spread out anywhere they could get to so they can do a hell of a lot of damage elsewhere if it goes that way. This whole thing goes violent and both our sides are gonna end up losing a lot. Thing is, there’s a lot more people on our side and a lot more stuff. More than you can break. You’d do a lot of damage, but you wouldn’t win. Not in the end. And us? We’re not exactly the good guys any way you slice it. Losing everything your people would wipe out just so we can kill off an intelligent species? Like I said, nobody wins in this situation. Just losers all the way around.”

Yes, that is our estimation too. The termite representative was staring intently at him, which was a disconcerting feeling. At best, such a conflict would be a matter of doing as much damage as possible before your people destroyed us. There was a long pause then, before Horse-Spoon-Eleven added, I was one of those who was most excited to meet the humans before, Agent Deans. I had many friends who were killed by the intolerant among you. A hard lesson to learn, but an important one. There are humans who will never accept us. And yet, as we have both said, this conflict will only end poorly. 

“Then let’s change it,” Deans put in. “You’re right, the Honeyland bees have a great relationship with the humans there. Those people are already accustomed to living with Touched-Insects, and they know how useful that can be. I’m sure you can all help each other out.” 

You would have us leave the place we have spent all of our time and effort to fortify, to go somewhere new? The tone of the termite’s response wasn’t exactly a refusal, more curiosity. 

Deans, in turn, nodded. “Look, I know you got burned really bad on that leap of faith before. But I don’t think you really have another option here. We’ve already been over it. If this keeps up, everyone loses. At least if you go to Honeyland, your colony has a chance of surviving.” 

The response that came was silence. The termite turned away from him, seeming to look off at nothing. He had the impression that it was conferring with others, before finally turning to the bees. Would you trust this man in our situation? 

“Agent Deans has proven himself an honorable human and worthy of respect,” Diplomatic Swarm Alpha chorused. “And the humans we live and work alongside would be happy to have a second hive–pardon, colony to work with. We believe that bees and termites could do much good together, for all of our peoples.” 

Again, there was silence for awhile as the termites conferred, before Horse-Spoon-Eleven eventually announced, We would have one request. The work that we have put into our bunker cannot be ignored or dismissed. If we are to travel to this Oregon, we would have the bunker extracted and taken with. And we would have you along for every step of that journey, Agent Deans. To avoid any… mistakes. 

Exhaling in relief, Deans gave a short nod. “Of course. Whatever it takes, I’m sure we can work up something. Especially with help from your new partners here.” He gestured to the bees. “But I’m going to have to bring some other people in and hammer out the full details.” 

One of the dog-pulled carts approached, and Horse-Spoon-Eleven seemed to gesture with one hand. Go with Bird-Chair-One to… hammer these details, as you say. We will await hearing more. 

The winged termite then sat silently upon the stump while the human and his bee companions moved off with their designated escort. Only once they were out of earshot did another voice speak. Another human voice. 

“Does this mean our deal is off?” 

Horse-Spoon-Eleven turned to where two human figures in metal armor had appeared from seemingly thin air. No. It is as I believe you humans say, do not put all of your eggs in one basket. We will send half of our colony to this Honeyland to see what the humans there have to offer. The other half will fulfill our agreement with you. We will come to your city and work as you would like, in exchange for your protection and aid. 

“Excellent,” the male figure murmured. “That’s excellent news, isn’t it, White?” 

“Indeed, Gold,” the female figure agreed. “And have no fear, Horse-Spoon-Eleven. 

“The Ministry will take very good care of you and yours. We keep our deals.”

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Building Connections 16-07 (Summus Proelium)

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Well, Mom, Dad, and Simon were really putting some work into their ruse of going out of town. When Izzy and I got home, the hallway was full of suitcases and boxes with various files poking out of them. It really looked like they were going off on some kind of emergency business trip. Honestly, I was almost kind of impressed. I’d basically expected them to just walk out the door without so much as a backpack. It wasn’t like the old me really would’ve questioned it very much, if at all. 

As the two of us walked in and paused to look at all that, Simon basically came flying down the main front foyer staircase, taking the steps several at a time while calling up, “Yeah, I already called them! They’re gonna round up those guys and meet–” He reached the bottom of the stairs and saw Izzy and me before finishing with, “–us at the hotel! You booked the conference room?” Standing there at the bottom of the stairs, he pretended to ignore the two of us while looking up toward the next landing. “They wanted the one facing Central Park, not the one from last time!” 

A moment later, Dad appeared at the landing, descending briskly (though he at least hit every step). “Yes, we got the right room,” he replied while adjusting his suit cufflinks. “Not making that mistake twice. And hi there, girls.” Pausing, looking just as crisp and handsome and perfect as my father always did, he asked, “My God, is it really time for you both to be home already? Your mother’s still in our room packing.”

With that, he turned toward the nearby intercom. “Broadcast now, Elena.” There was a pause before the intercom beeped to indicate it had connected to the room my mother was in. “Dear, are you aware that it’s already after three o’clock? The girls are here. We need to head out.”

There was a brief pause before Mom’s voice replied, “It’s not–oh my word, yes, I’ll be right down. Don’t you go anywhere, girls. We’re leaving in just a minute and I still have things to say to you.” 

Again, Izzy and I exchanged glances. Now I was a little confused. Did they really lose track of time? It seemed like an oddly specific ruse to add onto them going out of town. Maybe they were really just that distracted by this gang war? I also noticed that Dad used the intercom’s ability to connect to a specific person rather than saying the room she was in, despite the fact that he’d said she was in the bedroom. Did that mean he didn’t want me to know that she wasn’t there? Or was I just being paranoid and picking at every little thing no matter how inconsequential? 

Except even if I was simply being paranoid, that didn’t necessarily mean that I was wrong. 

Shaking that off after giving Izzy a very slight nod, I spoke up. “You’re staying in New York? So it’s not an out-of-the-country trip. You sure we can’t both go with you? Izzy’s never seen New York.” Of course they’d say no, but if I didn’t ask once I ‘knew’ where they were going, it’d look weird. 

As expected, Dad gave me a regretful look. “Sorry, kid. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and I really want our first trip with…” Trailing off, he glanced toward the other girl as though considering what he was saying. “Izzy, we’ll absolutely take a trip with you when we get a chance. But it’s like you said earlier, school comes first, and you’re just getting started.” With a small smile, he added toward me, “And don’t think I didn’t notice your cunning attempt to get out of your school, young lady. No, I think you’ll be just fine here. Be good, don’t burn the house down or end up in the hospital, and we’ll talk about where to go for summer break when we get back, deal?” 

“So if the ambulance has to come but we don’t actually go to the hospital, it’s still good?” I asked brightly, batting my eyes a few times at him innocently while he squinted at me. In the background, I heard Izzy snerk before she caught herself and turned it into a faint cough. 

“Who needs an ambulance?” Mom asked as she descended the stairs, taking a moment to assess Izzy and me critically. “Please tell me it’s someone in another house, we haven’t even left yet.” 

“Oh please, Mom,” Simon put in, “as if she needs us to be out of the house before she does something crazy dangerous.” 

“You wanna compare whose crazy has cost the most?” I shot right back at him. “Cuz something tells me you’re not gonna come out ahead on that balance sheet, Mr. Full Contact Laser Tag Inside The House.” 

Simon, in turn, squinted at me while both our parents arched eyebrows at him with the memory clearly running through their minds. “Really? Bringing that up right before I have to sit on a plane for an hour? Uncool, Booster. Super uncool. See if I bring you back one of those skyscraper plushies you like so much.” 

“Dude,” I retorted, “they sell those online. I’ve got the whole set already, except the new one. And that doesn’t come out until next month.” 

With a heavy sigh, my brother looked to our parents as he lamented, “She was a lot easier to bribe before she figured out how internet shopping works.” 

A giggle escaped me, despite everything. Fuck. This was all so normal. This was my family, this was–they were the people I loved, the people I’d grown up with. And they were faking all of this. Okay, not faking all of it, but still hiding who they were. They weren’t going off on some kind of important-yet-normal business trip. They were staying right here in the city so they could focus on dealing with this mounting gang war that they themselves had allowed to start. 

Shoving those thoughts out of my head, I focused on looking back and forth between my parents. “You guys really need all this stuff?” The question came as I gestured toward the stack of suitcases and boxes. Even though I couldn’t exactly ask why they were bothering to go to these lengths in their deception, I could at least point out that they were taking a lot of stuff with them. 

“Unfortunately,” Dad confirmed with a grimace. “Let’s just say the clients want a lot of paperwork to hammer through this deal, and we’ll probably have to attend a few palm-greasing parties.”

“He says that as though he’s going to suffer,” Mom casually noted, “but we all know your father enjoys those things more than he lets on. And he isn’t mentioning the fact that half of these meetings will be at that country club with the caddie he has the running wager with. How much have you conned that poor man out of, Sterling?” 

“Hey now,” Dad shot back even as several of the house staff came through the hallway to start picking up the boxes and suitcases, “it’s hardly my fault if that fool keeps thinking that whatever poor schmuck I’m teeing off with that day has a chance of coming in under me on my third-favorite non-Detroit course.”

Izzy, looking uncertain and possibly a little uneasy, spoke up. “Uh, you bet money with a caddy?”  

“What?” Dad blinked that way before chuckling. “Oh, no, of course not. Believe me, Pete makes plenty of tips off our visits and I wouldn’t take those away from him. No, we gamble with something other than money.” Saying that, he was smiling fondly at the thought. 

Nudging Izzy, I explained, “Dad and Caddie Pete make bad movie bets. Whoever wins gets to make the other watch a horrible movie from start to finish and write a full report about it. Pete’s only managed to make him watch two-wait, three movies. But Dad’s made him watch… how many?”

“Thirteen,” came the answer with a broad smile. “And I’ve got a doozy in mind for the next one.” 

“Be that as it may,” Mom put in smoothly while laying a hand on his shoulder, “we are going for work. So let’s keep that in mind. Now, girls.” She focused on the two of us. “I know this is sudden, and very last-minute. I’m sorry for that, Izzy. But you’ll be okay here. The staff all know to accommodate any reasonable request, you’ll go to school in the mornings with Jefferson the same as always, and Claudio will have your meals ready at the usual times. We may or may not be able to have Skype dinner time on our usual days, but I do expect both of you to be available if it’s possible on our end, understand?” 

We nodded and murmured agreement, before both of my parents went over a few more last-minute instructions. In the background, all the luggage was being taken through the open front door to the waiting limo, and I could see Jefferson himself having a discussion with one of the security guys. Another man, whom I recognized as the chief of Dad’s security detail (a tall, blond man with cold gray eyes named Finn Wagner) was standing just inside the doorway on the phone with what sounded like airport security. 

Yeah, they really were pulling out all the stops for this. Then again, I supposed it also made sense, come to think of it. After all, they needed the rest of the city to believe they were gone, not just me. 

Finally, it was time to exchange hugs. I did so with both of my parents, and then with Simon.  Which left Izzy. And while my father may have hesitated slightly out of not wanting to make her uncomfortable, my mother was different. To be fair, she didn’t grab the girl out of nowhere. She didn’t force any kind of affection on her. Instead, she simply opened her arms slightly and extended both hands, palms outward to her in a gesture that was perfectly calculated so that the girl could choose to interpret it as either an offer of taking both hands and squeezing, or an actual embrace. 

Izzy chose the hug, which seemed to surprise both of us a little bit. She was already embracing my mother before her head turned to me with an expression that said she had no idea how it had happened. Still, she didn’t pull away too quickly, allowing the hug to linger for a few seconds. How much of that was out of not wanting to look suspicious somehow, and how much was because she desperately needed a hug from an adult was unclear. 

Either way, eventually the hug ended, and she exchanged another (slightly quicker) one with my father. Simon, apparently, did not rate a hug. Though he did get a somewhat awkward high-five. 

Then it was time for them to go. Izzy and I stood in the doorway, watching the limo pull out, escorted by three different security cars. The two of us looked at one another once they were out of sight, but didn’t say anything important, of course. Not with half-a-dozen house staff within earshot. So, we stood there for a few extra seconds before I shrugged. “You wanna go get a burger or something? Maybe some cheese tots?” 

“Ahem.” It was Dexter, the butler. Unlike other butlers I’d seen in movies, Dexter wasn’t actually old or British. He was a handsome guy in his forties or so with deeply tanned skin (which I suspected was unnatural) and coppery red hair. Honestly, aside from the suit he wore all the time, the guy almost looked more like he belonged in some kind of cover band or something rather than working as a butler. Normally, I didn’t have much direct interaction with him. But I supposed in this case he had decided that I was the closest thing to his boss currently in the house. 

“Miss Evans,” the man started easily, “if you would like Claudio to be summoned to prepare–” 

“Uh, no thanks, Dex.” My voice was a little awkward as I shrugged, my backpack shifting a bit in the process. “We’ll just head into town and get something there. You know, greasy and simple and cheesy and now I’m making myself hungry again. C’mon, Izzy.” Taking her by the hand, I pulled the girl with me. 

“Will you be requiring the services of another driver?” Dexter called after us. “I can have a car brought around.” 

Waving that off, I informed him that we’d walk for a bit before calling an Uber. It sounded like he was going to object (probably something about how the Evans should get around in their own cars or whatever), but we were already jogging down the driveway. Waving to the security guy at the gate, the two of us slipped out, made an immediate left, and kept walking down the sidewalk. We didn’t say anything until we were out of sight of the gate (it would be another minute or so before we were out of the sight of the actual house). Finally, I breathed out. “That was weird, right?” 

“It was weird to you too?!” Izzy blurted, sounding like she was about to explode to get those words out. “Are they really going anywhere? I mean, they’re not, right? Why would they–” 

“They’re not–I mean they’re clearly going somewhere in the city,” I confirmed. “But they definitely didn’t need all those suitcases. They must’ve been making it look good for… for you, I guess? It’s not like they’d have to show the rest of the world that they’re taking a bunch of extra luggage. Unless they were taking other things with them and wanted us to think it was just luggage?” 

“What would they have in the house that they had to take with them like that?” Izzy cautiously asked. 

Letting out a long breath while shifting my backpack on one shoulder, I shook my head. “I dunno. Seriously, I have no idea. Convincing us and the rest of the city that they actually left is the best suggestion I’ve got. Because there’s no way this trip to New York is real. Not with this gang war going on, and getting worse by the day. They’re shutting everything else out to focus on that. The suitcases and that whole production back there is probably just one part of their ‘make everyone think we’re gone so no one connects us to the Ministry getting more involved in things’ plan.”

We both thought about that in silence for a few minutes, before we eventually approached the main gate into the neighborhood. One of the guards was in the booth there, giving both of us a brief look before nodding as he went back to playing a game on his ipad. Between the two of us, we chorused a greeting, acting like we were nothing but two random kids going for a walk. 

Finally, we were past the gate and Izzy spoke again. “Is it bad that I’m kinda rooting for your parents to get this under control?” 

“They better get it under control,” I retorted. “Having the criminal and heroic worlds in the palm of their hands is like… their entire thing

“If they can’t stop the city from falling apart, what is the Ministry even for?” 

*******

Eventually, we did end up calling an Uber, and took the ride over to one of the malls (not the one where my family’s secret base was, of course). The two of us ate something at the food court there before splitting up. Izzy was going to see a movie or two in the theater there, while I changed into the costume in my backpack and went out to meet with marble girl (boy did I hope she had a better name in mind). 

Skating across the rooftops of the city really helped clear my mind a bit. If nothing else, at least my consolation prize for having to deal with my entire family situation were these powers. I loved my powers. The way I could leap from building to building, skate along the side of one and then blue-paint boost my way to the opposite side of the street? It was, as always, an insane rush. It made me feel alive and free in a way I had never experienced before. It was incredible, and I would never trade my powers for anyone else’s. Not really. They were mine. 

Distracted as I was with all that enjoyment, it still wasn’t hard to find the old rundown mattress store the girl had wanted to meet at. As I came in to land smoothly on the edge of the roof, I saw her below, hidden from public sight behind the building, with a tall wooden fence to one side and an alley to the other. She was in that same armor with the white helmet, talking to herself while the rest of those colored marbles floated in front of her. 

Not to herself, I realized belatedly. She was talking to the marbles. Something about telling them to show ‘him’ what they could do, but not to be nervous because she would be proud of them no matter what. 

Smiling a bit despite myself, I hopped down with a tiny bit of orange paint to cushion the drop. “Personally, I like to offer my powers treats if they behave.” 

Right, probably should’ve announced myself a bit more carefully. The moment I spoke up from behind her, the girl gave a strangled yelp of surprise, lunging out of the way. At the same time, the three hovering marbles (silver, bronze, and purple) all transformed and grew into a huge claymore, a hammer, and a spear respectively. They flew toward me, before the other girl managed to catch herself and spin around with a blurted, “Stop!” 

They stopped, hovering a foot or so away from me with the business ends still pointed my way. 

“Heh, heh, sorry.” With a nervous giggle, the girl beckoned with one hand, summoning the weapons away before they turned back into marbles. “That was almost pretty bad, huh?

“Shish Kebabing the boss is probably a pretty horrible way to start your first day as a sidekick.” 

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