Becoming 2-03 (Summus Proelium)

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I only knew where one exit from this place was, and that was one of the directions that people were coming from. So I did the only thing I could in that moment and ran for one of the doors leading deeper into the building. The guy who had been chained up was right on my heels as we sprinted through the open doorway and found ourselves in a carpeted hall.

It was pretty dark in here aside from some emergency lighting. But I could see enough to notice the stairwell to our left leading up. Hearing the sound of a lot of people storming their way into the room behind us, I pivoted that way and started up. But first, I made a bit of black appear on my chest while shooting another bit of black onto the guy behind me.

The guy stumbled, clearly taken aback when he realized there was no sound coming from him. Turning to him, I made a sharp jabbing motion up the stairs before grabbing his arm to pull. We could already hear people shouting back and forth in the other room about what the hell just happened. Thankfully, the guy got over his surprise quickly enough and we ran silently up the stairs.

On the way, I finally had a chance to really look at the man I was busy rescuing. He looked like he was a few years older than me, maybe just out of high school. He was a pale, thin guy just under six feet tall, with scraggly brown hair that was in bad need of being cut and styled. Or at least combed. He had a goatee and had clearly not shaved the rest of his hair for a few days, given the stubble. His dark green eyes were wide with panic.

Hitting the second floor landing, we pivoted to go up to the third. Unfortunately, that was when the door just above us was slammed open and a guy with a gun burst through. He saw us immediately, his weapon snapping toward me.

Somehow, I was faster. A shot of blue paint went from my outstretched hand to the floor at the guy’s feet. It instantly launched him up into the ceiling, making his gunshot go completely over both of our heads.

The guy dropped, his gun falling while he groaned from the force of being hurled headfirst into the ceiling. But the damage was done. I heard people shouting below and running for us. So much for doing this quietly.

We ran past the guy, hopping over his outstretched arm before continuing up the stairs. I wasn’t exactly sure where we were going aside from up, but at least it was away from all the angry guys with guns. For now, at least. Once we ran out of building… well, I’d figure something out then. Hopefully.

By the time we reached the fourth stairwell, the guy blurted, “Look, man, I don’t know who you are or what you’re doing this for, but where are we going? I mean, thanks, seriously. But there’s only so many stairs in this place.”

I couldn’t exactly be annoyed, considering it was the same thought I had just been having. Shooting the man a quick glance, I gave him an exaggerated shrug while deepening my voice a little bit. Between that and the way the mask and helmet together muffled it, I would probably keep passing as a guy. “I’m kind of making this up as I go. So if you’ve got a plan, I’d love to hear it. Maybe we could ask those guys.” I gestured grandly back the way our pursuers were coming from. “They sound pretty helpful.”

The man paused (verbally, neither of us slowed down physically) before admitting, “Good point.”

So, we kept running. Running away from what sounded like an army of guys who seemed awfully goddamn intend on catching him. I still didn’t know why they wanted him so badly, or what was going on. And there wasn’t time to ask.

With the sound of stampeding bad guys just a little bit behind us, we reached the top floor. I looked around quickly before spotting a door labeled ‘roof access.’ It was locked, but a quick burst of purple paint let me kick it open and I half-dragged my companion through.

One short flight of stairs later, and we were on the roof of this eight story building. The guy with me put both hands out and turned in a circle while blurting, “Now what?”

Instead of answering, I ran to the edge of the roof. He muttered something and followed after me. Below, we could hear the bad guys starting up the last set of stairs to catch up with us.

Leaning over the edge, I looked down. There was another building next door that was about half the height of this one.

The guy at my side started to ask something. But there wasn’t time to listen. There wasn’t time for me to explain anything. The bad guys were already bursting out onto the roof. We were out of time, period.

So, instead of explaining, I shot orange paint onto the guy, covering his upper torso as much as I could. Then I used purple paint on my arms, caught him by the back, and gave him a hard hoist and shove. His horrified scream filled the air as he plummeted.

Oh God, oh God. Please work. If it didn’t, I was about to fit in with my family pretty well by becoming a murderer.

To buy a little time, I spun back to where the bad guys were and shot a wide spray of blue paint. It covered several men who had already emerged, sending them flying in various directions as they were repelled from each other.

Good enough. Spinning back, I hurled myself off the roof with a scream of my own. Only in mid-air did I mentally stop to hope that I hadn’t just run out of paint.

I hadn’t. Spots of orange appeared on my feet and legs as I dropped to the roof below, crashing into a roll that took me tumbling end over end before coming to a stop on my back.

I lay there for a second before the sound of heavy, panicked breathing reached me. Turning my head a bit, I saw the guy I had rescued, laying there with his eyes wide open, his face pale. “What the f-fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck was that? What the fuck was that?!” With each repetition, he grew a bit louder.

“It’s called rescuing you,” I replied simply before pushing myself up. “Do you want to complain, or do you want to get out of here?”

He chose the latter, scrambling up as well. Together, we ran to the roof access door for this building. Above and behind us, guys were already appearing. A couple shouted when they saw us. But they had no way to catch up.

That, however, didn’t stop them from opening fire. A few bullets ricocheted off the roof around us, and I let out a squeak of fear before I could stop myself. Grabbing the door, I yanked it open and unceremoniously shoved the guy through before joining him.

Together, we raced down the stairs of this new building. Huffing a bit beside me, the guy stammered, “Th-they’re not gonna stop just like that, you know. They won’t just give up.”

Realizing that I finally had time to ask the question that had been bothering me this whole time, I demanded, “Why the hell are they so obsessed with you? This is insane. You weren’t just being mugged or something.”

“Being mugged?” the guy echoed, his gaze jerking to me as we hit the last set of stairs. “Are you serious? You don’t even know what’s going on?”

My head shook quickly. “Dude, I’m kind of new to this. I thought I was rescuing you from a couple random thugs, not a whole pissed off army.”

The guy visibly flinched a little before nodding. We had reached the front door of the building by then. It was locked, but that didn’t mean much when I brought a splattering of purple across my chest and shoved at it. The door broke open while an alarm began to blare. Great, that was just what we needed.

Wait. Actually, it was. Maybe the idea of the cops coming would scare off our pursuers. Not likely, of course. But I’d take anything at that point. At the very least, it might be a distraction.

As we ran onto the sidewalk and, without needing to discuss it, pivoted away from the building we had just escaped from to run together down the street, the guy started to explain.

”Okay, it’s about my brother. They think I know where he is, but I don’t. Not that they’d believe me. Ashton and me aren’t exactly on the best of terms.”

Grabbing the guy by the arm, I pulled him down an alley to get off the main street. “Why do they want your brother?”

The guy grimaced, muttering, “Because he’s a fucking idiot.” Belatedly, he clarified, “You know that bank robbery at Prime International a couple days ago? The attempted bank robbery, I mean.”

Blinking at him, I shook my head. “Uh, not really? I’ve been a little busy.”

He gave me a brief look as we turned the corner of the alley and kept going. “Okay, well, it was a pretty stupid attempt. I don’t know if you know, but that place is run by La Casa. It’s one of their banks. And a few low ranking idiots from the Ninety-Niners tried to rob it.”

Nodding slowly, I agreed, “Yeah, that does sound pretty stupid. But what is that have to do with your brother? Is he one of those idiots?”

Again, the guy grimaced. “Worse. He’s the idiot who talked those idiots into trying it. See, Ashton worked at the bank. He convinced those guys he could help them get away with it and make a name for themselves. You know, boost their cred in the gang. But he was just using them. He waited until everyone was distracted by the morons, and then he took something out of one of the safe deposit boxes in there. I think his first plan was to blame the theft on them. But they got caught too quick.”

We kept going, crossing another street to get as far from that place as possible while I murmured, “Let me guess, it wasn’t just some cash that he grabbed.”

He shrugged a bit helplessly. “Man, I don’t know what it was. But they’re all pissed off right now. There’s some kind of huge reward for his ass. That’s why those guys grabbed me. They thought I could tell them where he is. But you know what, I don’t have a fucking clue. No one’s going to believe that, though. That reward? Whatever Ashton took, it was worth putting a million dollar bounty on his head.”

That made me stumble a bit. Even going up as I had, I knew that was a lot of money for most people. “No wonder those guys are so obsessed with catching you. What the hell did he take out of that bank?”

He offered me a new helpless shrug. “Fuck if I know. But it’s got all of those guys pissed off beyond belief. He kicked the goddamn hornets nest and left me to deal with it. He’s probably already skipped town. Which is what I need to do. I’ve gotta get the hell out of Dodge.”

He was right, I knew. For a million bounty, none of those guys were going to listen if he just told them he didn’t know where his brother was. His only chance was to leave town, at least until things calmed down a bit.

“Do you have a car or something?” I asked. “You know, a way to get out of here.”

He nodded. “Sure, I’ve got a car. But it’s at my house, which is where those guys grabbed me. And I’m pretty sure they’ve still got guys there. They’re tearing the place apart looking for anything about Ashton. They’d probably notice if I showed up to grab the car. And I’d take a bus or a train, but I’m just gonna guess that there’s guys watching those places too. Like I said, these people are obsessed.”

Slowly, I nodded. “Then you’ll have to take a cab or an Uber or something to get out of town. Get thirty or forty miles away and catch a bus somewhere else to go wherever you need to.” Reaching into the pocket of my costume, I took out the two hundred dollars that I had left. “Here. You can probably get pretty far with that. It’s a start, anyway.”

The guy stared at me, mouth open. “What the hell do you–why… who are you? What do you call yourself?” He still hadn’t taken the money. “Paintboy?”

“I… uhh, don’t actually have a name right now,” I admitted. I’d been a bit too focused on other things to worry about that. “I doubt I’ll go with Paintboy, though.”

His head shook. “Whoever you are, you don’t have to give me that. You’ve done enough. I’ll find some way to get out of here.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “this way. Here.” Taking his wrist, I pushed the money into the guy’s hand. “Take it and get the hell out of town. After everything that just happened back there, I really don’t want to think about those guys finding you, okay? I… you need it more than I do. Just go.”

He took the money, swallowing a little while staring at me as if there was a dozen things he wanted to say. “My uhh… my name’s Josh. Josh Austin. I just… I just wanted you to know. I’ll find a way to pay you back for this, for everything you’ve done tonight.”

Meeting his gaze, I replied, “Pay me back by getting out of town and staying hidden. You have a place to go?”

“Yeah,” he confirmed. “I’ve got a friend who lives down in Illinois. I can hide out there for awhile. But you know, you kind of stand out like that. And if I’m gone, those guys that are after me… they’re gonna start coming after you instead. Especially if you make a name for yourself. You’ll be a target.”

“I know.” Trying to sound confident, I added, “Better me than you.” Even as I said it, my heart was hammering so much I was almost sure he could hear it. Shoving the fear aside, I gestured. “We’re probably far enough now for you to call a cab or whatever. Take the cash, get out of town. Go see your friend. Keep your head down. Stay safe.”

With that, I looked around once more to make sure we were alone before pivoting. Clicking my heels together to make the wheels come out of my skates, I took off back through the alley we had come through. As I went, Josh called, “When you pick a name, make it a good one! You deserve something better than Paintboy!”

I didn’t actually go very far. Instead, I waited until I was just around the corner before using red paint to climb my way to the roof of the two story building. Then I painted myself black, rushed to the edge, and lay down to peek down at the guy.

Part of it was to make sure he actually made it into the cab and out of town without being caught again. But I also had to admit that another part was to see what he did when I wasn’t there. There was a part of me who wondered if he was lying about any part of what he’d said. After everything I had found out over the past couple of days, trusting people wasn’t exactly at the top of my mind.

If he was making any part of it up, he didn’t give himself away. The guy fidgeted back and forth a bit before taking a phone from his pocket. I couldn’t see what he was doing with it, but he seemed to be summoning an Uber.

Sure enough, he was. I knew for sure a minute later, because I recognized the car that pulled up, and the driver inside. It was Adrian, the same guy who had driven me the other night, and had turned out to be a custodian at my school.

Okay, so this Josh guy really did summon an Uber. I heard him speak as he leaned down, showing the money I’d given him. “Hundred bucks enough to get out of town?”

Whatever Adrian said, it must have been an affirmative, because Josh opened the back door and got in. The door closed after him, before the car pulled away from the curb.

Straightening, I watched the vehicle until it turned the corner at the end of the street. As it disappeared from view, I let out a breath that I hadn’t realized I was holding.

It was done. He was gone. Whatever else happened next, at least I had managed to save one guy, who at least seemed to be innocent. Maybe it wasn’t a lot, but it was something. I had actually accomplished something that I could feel proud of.

That was what I was going to do, I realized. I couldn’t actually stop my family right now, not until I understood more. And maybe not even then. But I could make my own choices. Maybe my family were bad guys, but I could choose to be better. Until I actually had some actual idea of what to do about that whole… other situation, I could just help people.

Maybe it wouldn’t amount to much. Maybe I could never make up for everything bad that the rest of my family had done, and would continue to do. Maybe no matter how much good I did, it would never be enough. But you know what? I was sure as hell going to try.

And Josh was right, I should probably start by coming up with a name.

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Mini-Interlude 76 – Rebecca & Mini-Interlude 77 -Sariel (Heretical Edge)

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“I can’t believe you guys were dealing with this for like, the whole year, and I didn’t know anything about it.“

As she spoke, Rebecca Jameson looked at two of her teammates, Koren and Shiori. All three of them were sitting on the long wooden dock that lead out over the lake at this campsite they had come to. “You must think I’m pretty oblivious, huh?”

Koren snorted, shaking her head. “You’re not oblivious. I mean, we were keeping secrets from full power Heretic adults. If they didn’t figure it out, you shouldn’t feel bad.”

Shiori nodded. “And we had help from Gaia and the others. You didn’t have anybody helping you figure stuff out.”

“Figure stuff out…” Rebecca echoed that quietly. Sitting there with her legs hanging off the edge of the dock, the diminutive girl bit her lip before looking at Shiori. “That’s what happened at the beginning of the year, isn’t it? When you were all quiet and upset. It’s because you found out that you’re… a… vampeel?”

“Dhampyr,” Shiori corrected. “Dhampyr have one human parent and one vampire parent. Vampeel have both vampire parents.” She hesitated before adding, “My sister was a vampeel before she became a full vampire.”

Rebecca‘s head shook quickly, as she clamped her mouth shut tight while trying to come to terms with everything she was hearing. It was all coming too fast. It was too much. She just couldn’t handle everything. The information that had been shoved into her head by that spell, the subsequent realizations that had come to her, the things she was hearing now from her teammates, any of it alone would have been too much for just a couple of days. All of it together was just… insane.

She found her voice then, managing a quiet, “But that’s what you were so upset about before?“

Again, Shiori nodded. “Yeah, it’s not a lot of fun to find out that your mom is one of the so-called monsters that you’re supposed to be training to kill. And that you’re probably one of them too.” The last bit came in a very soft voice that was barely audible. Then she straightened a bit. “But Flick helped me. It’s a long story, and it’s about going to another world to help these giants. And then… yeah, it’s really long. I’ll tell you about it later. But the point is, she helped me figure out that I wasn’t a monster.”

Koren coughed. “Yeah, Aunt Flick’s good at that.”

That made Rebecca blink, looking at the brunette in confusion. “Aunt?” Then her eyes widened as the realization came. “Wait, are you saying that one of those twins from that story, the ones that…”

Koren nodded. “My mom. She’s Flick’s big sister. Joselyn’s oldest daughter. I know, it’s weird. I think they—” She paused, frowning. “Wait, why can I tell you that? The… huh. The spell that stops us from telling people exactly who they are must’ve broken with the Revolution eraser when Flick did that thing, I guess.” Frowning uncertainly, the girl shook that off. “Anyway, yeah, Joselyn. She’s–”

“My middle name is Joselyn,” Rebecca suddenly blurted, unable to contain herself. Her eyes were wide as she pushed on. “My grandma chose it. My grandma who went to school at the same time as that Joselyn. And she even spelled it that way, with an S instead of a C like it usually is.”

Looking to the other two, she hurriedly continued. “I was curious about Grandma‘s life at Crossroads, about what her life is like. So I tried looking it up awhile back. But the records barely mention her. Like she didn’t do much the whole time she was there. And she didn’t have a roommate. Like, through all four years, she never had a roommate. At least, that’s what the records said.”

“Joselyn,” Koren agreed. “She was your grandmother’s roommate. She had to be. And if she made your middle name Joselyn… they were close. That’s probably why they erased most of the things she did. When they erased Joselyn completely, most of what your grandmother did had to disappear too.”

Cringing in on herself, Rebecca looked down at the phone sitting in her lap. “I need to talk to my parents, and to my grandma. But they’re not answering. I’ve tried like twelve times, and they haven’t sent anything back, or answered. What do you think is wrong? Do you think the Crossroads guys went after them already? Do you think—”

Shiori’s hand found her shoulder, squeezing. “Hey, we’ll figure it out. They might just be busy getting out of there, you know? They got hit with some pretty big memories too. Your grandmother is probably still dealing with remembering Joselyn.”

Rebecca push herself to her feet, the tiny girl shoving her phone in her pocket as she straightened. “We have to find them. We have to find my parents and my grandma. We can’t just sit here doing nothing. If Grandma Lillian was so important to Joselyn, Crossroads is going to go after her, right? I mean, they know the rebellion is coming back and all that, so they’ll see her as like… an obvious target. They’ll take her, and throw her in a dungeon like they did Joselyn, and they might—”

“Hey.”

The single word interruption came from further back on the dock. Rebecca turned that way quickly, seeing the girl standing there. The second she did, her Stranger sense started screaming at her, and she reflexively grabbed for her backpack, the one that transformed into a cannon. Then she stopped short. “Wait… you’re…”

Shiori stepped past her quickly, gesturing to the other girl as she came forward out of the shadows. “Rebecca, this is my big sister, Asenath. Asenath, this is my teammate, Rebecca. She’s still trying to get used to this.”

Asenath nodded, taking a step closer with both of her hands open and out, palms showing. “It’s okay, Rebecca. I wouldn’t have interrupted, but I was checking on Shiori, and I heard what you were saying. You’re right, your grandmother was close with Joselyn. They were best friends.” She pointed to her own head. “I was part of the rebellion before, and I’ve been remembering things all year. Things that were erased. And I remember Lillian. She and Joselyn were best friends, and they’d do anything for each other. I mean, they were close enough that your grandmother chose Joselyn for your middle name even though she was erased. That’s how much she meant to her. They couldn’t erase that entirely.”

It wasn’t exactly news that made Rebecca want to jump for joy. Her fear just redoubled. “So they will go after her. If she was that important, they’ll definitely try to grab her.”

It was pretty terrifying, how quickly she’d gone from loving Crossroads and everything that being a part of it meant, to fearing what they would do to her family. And it gave her some idea of what people like Shiori had gone through.

Asenath’s head shook. “I’m not going to let that happen, Rebecca. Trust me, I have plenty of experience in finding people. As long as there’s a chance, I will find your family. I owe Lillian a lot. I’ll get out there, figure out where she is, where they are, and bring them back here. I’ll let them know where you are.”

Shiori did a quick double take, stepping that way. “But it’s going to be dangerous. If Crossroads is really after her, they’ll have Heretics looking. Full Heretics. It’ll be too dangerous to go by yourself.”

“She won’t be by herself.” That announcement came as Deveron stepped into view on the dock. He moved beside Asenath. “I remember Lillian too, and I am not about to let those assholes hurt her, or her family.”

Rebecca stared at the boy, mouth opening and shutting. “You remember… What?

With an incorrigible grin, the boy held a hand out to her. “Hi, nice to meet you. Joselyn is my wife. The twins are our kids. I’ve been posing as a teenager to keep an eye on my family and find a way to get close to that piece of shit Ruthers, which I did by having my memories erased for awhile last year. But I got them back for this year. And all my powers from most of a century of fighting in Jos’s rebellion.”

“Oh.” Speaking that single, soft word, Rebecca slowly sank back down. “I think I need to sit for a minute.”

Deveron pressed on. “Asenath’s right. We won’t let your grandma be taken by those bastards. The two of us, we’ll track her down, and the rest of your family. We’ll get her back here, okay? Lillian was my friend and my teammate. She’s my wife’s best friend in the world. I’m not going to let a damn thing happened to her.”

Swallowing hard, Rebecca looked up at him, her voice quivering a little. “You promise? I mean, I know you can’t really promise that nothing will happen. You can’t control the world. But you promise you’ll try to get them? You promise you’ll help?”

Crouching down there in front of her, Deveron met Rebecca’s gaze. his voice was solemn. “Rebecca, I give you my word, I will do absolutely everything in my power to bring your family back here. And I won’t rest until they are safe with you. Okay?” He extended a hand to her.

Rebecca took his hand and shook it, murmuring a soft, “Okay.”

Then she stood, stepping past the man to stand in front of Asenath. Her voice was quiet. “You’re a vampire.”

The woman gave a single nod, watching her. “Yes.”

Almost ten full seconds of silence passed then as the two stared at one another, Rebecca‘s mind spinning a dozen different ways. Everything she wanted to say, all the fears and doubts that she had, everything tumbled back-and-forth in her head through that long silence. Finally, there was only one thing she could say.

“Please bring my family back.”

 

*******

 

Sariel was floating. A vast, unending ocean surrounded her on all sides as she lay spread eagle, her gaze directed toward what would have been the surface if there had been an actual end to the water. But there was nothing to see, no light, no land, nothing but dark emptiness that stretched on forever. Her world was empty, a void that went on into infinity, leaving the woman questioning whether there had ever actually been anything else.

Yes. Yes, there was more than this. There was her family. She knew they existed. They were real, tangible, living beings. They weren’t figments of her imagination. Most of them weren’t, anyway. She was pretty sure that she had made up a few in her head, and had imagined entire long lives with them during these times of loneliness.

These times? This time? Was there more than one? She had the feeling that there had been interruptions. Interruptions by that woman whose face came swimming into her mind. A face that was always the same, with its hateful, glaring eyes. Was she real? Were faces real at all? If they were real, were they… right? Did she remember where eyes and noses and mouths went? Did food really go in the mouth? Was skin really that color? Were there really multiple colors? Which one was right? What color was she? How many fingers did she have? Fingers. Hands. Toes. She knew those words. She knew where they went, how many there were. At least, she thought she did. Everything was… fuzzy.

How many dreams had she made up through all of this? How many of those dreams were real memories? How long had she been lying in this void, her mind forced into this nothingness, this sanity-killing emptiness by her captor?

Kushiel. That was the name of her enemy, the name of the woman who had so thoroughly imprisoned  her. The name and face came and went with her sanity. Sanity that faded more rapidly every time she was shut in this void and left for her mind to wander.

It was a spell. She knew that much. Kushiel messed with her mind by shutting her in this void, leaving her mind trapped floating in this empty ocean with nowhere to go, nothing to see, nothing to focus on. And because that wasn’t enough, that spell also altered her perception of time. It could make her think that one minute had passed when it was actually a month, or stretch what was actually a single hour out into years. Years spent floating in this place, making up stories in her head. Stories that fought with her true memories until she had no idea what was real and what wasn’t. Decades passed in her mind, while only minutes or hours passed in the real world. Or days. Days and decades, did she have that right? Was it the other way around? Which word meant what? It all jumbled together. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t talk to anyone. Years would pass in her head with no one to talk to, nothing to save her from the soul-crushing emptiness and solitude.

And yet, she would prefer this punishment over others that the woman had invented. Being lost in this void was nothing compared to other things Kushiel had done. She had pushed virtual reality scenarios into Sariel.  Scenarios which forced her to see her family being killed in so many different ways. She had witnessed the torture and death of her husband and children more than a dozen different ways. She had screamed herself hoarse until she tore something in her throat. She had lost and failed over and over again to save them, never succeeding, always seeing them die. Then she had woken up, and realized that it was only another forced dream brought on by the monster for her own petty amusement. For revenge.

Or was it? Some days Kushiel told her that they were fake memories, that her family was out there and had forgotten her. Other times the woman told her that they had been killed, that one of the memories she was implanted with was the truth, but she would have to figure out which one. Other times she was told they were still prisoners and that Kushiel was putting them through the same thing. And still other times, Kushiel made her believe that her children were being taught to hunt and kill everyone she ever cared about. She changed her story all the time. Purposefully, of course. That made it harder for Sariel to keep her own thoughts straight. It tormented her more.

She didn’t know what was true. She didn’t even know for certain which children were real and which ones she had made up in an attempt to cling to her sanity. Sometimes she almost thought that nothing was real. Her mind would have given up entirely, collapsing under the weight of these attacks on its psyche, if it wasn’t for one thing. One thing that Kushiel couldn’t touch.

Tabbris. Tabbris was real. That was one of the only touching stones that Sariel had. Tabbris was the only thing keeping her from losing herself completely. She was a single light in the vast darkness. Because Kushiel didn’t know about her, she couldn’t mess with Sariel’s memories about her. That memory, the memory of her tiny, innocent little girl, was enough to stop Sariel from going completely insane after being subjected to all of this. Tabbris was her lighthouse, her beacon.

Tabbris was her savior, in so many ways. Her existence was something that Kushiel didn’t erase or throw doubt on, because she didn’t know she should erase it.

And yet, was she even still alive? Sariel didn’t know. Not for certain, anyway. Her only true source of hope in that regard was the fact that Kushiel had not taunted her about the girl. Sariel had no doubt that if that vile, evil woman ever actually knew about Tabbris, she would not hesitate to use that information to torture her. She used everything else she knew about Sariel to cause as much pain as possible. Whether they caught the girl or not, simply knowing about her would make Kushiel torment Sariel with stories about her imprisonment or death. The fact that the woman remained completely silent about her proved that she knew nothing as far as Tabbris was concerned. And that little bit, the knowledge that Tabbris existed and was out there, was enough for Sariel to hold onto her hope. Hope that kept her somewhat sane through all of this. That alone provided a focus for her to cling to in the storm of this emotional torture.

But hope or not, she was still trapped here. Trapped in this emptiness with no one to speak to, no one to tell her what was right or wrong about her memories. She couldn’t help the family like this, could not save the people she cared about from the monsters that were out there. She could do nothing like this. Nothing but float here in the ocean with her thoughts, her doubts, and her fears. Fears that threatened to suffocate her soul the way this ocean would have suffocated her body if it had been real. She was alone. And at this point, there was a not-insignificant part of her who wondered if she had ever truly not been alone. Was any of her old life real? Or was she always like this. Was she always floating here, alone and empty? Was there anything else in the world? Was this the universe?

Tabbris. Tabbris was real. She had to hold onto that. It kept fading, as she almost slipped from the single buoy that was her daughter’s existence. She had to cling to that single bit of certainty. Because if Tabbris was real, then the rest of it was also real. She had to be. It had to be. She had to hold on to her sanity. She had to hold on. Even as the ocean threatened to tear her mind apart with it’s eternal emptiness. Hold on to Tabbris. Hold on to her little girl. Nothing could tear that away from her. She would hold onto it, hold onto… onto… her.

Oh Void, she wanted to. She wanted to hold her little girl. She wanted to hold her children so badly. It was a physical ache deep in her heart.  Please. They were real. They had to be real. They were alive. She couldn’t live in this world or any other if they weren’t alive. She would gladly spend an eternity in this void if she could just know that they were okay, if she could just hold them one more time. Please, let her hold them once more. Let her touch their hair and smell their soft skin. That was all she really wanted. Her children… her husband. Her family. She needed her family more than she needed her next breath. Please, please…

Mom?

At first, she thought that she had thought the word herself. Yes, she was a mother. She was a mother of such beautiful, wonderful children. Wasn’t she? That was real, right? She didn’t make that up. She couldn’t have. This ocean was so empty, so quiet, she was—

Mom!

Sariel’s eyes opened under the water. But there was nothing to see. Nothing but vast ocean in every direction. There was nothing for her to see, and nothing for her to have heard. Her mind was playing tricks on her again. Or maybe the tricks were coming from Kushiel. Either way, it wasn’t real. She was as alone now as she had ever—

Mom!

Something appeared in front of her then. No, someone. His form was hard to make out in the darkness as he caught hold of her arms, shaking her.

Mom, wake up! Snap out of it! You’re okay, you’re alive! Mom!

Her drifting, dreary mind focused. Her eyes narrowed and she truly saw the boy in front of her. Truly saw him, and truly knew him.

Tristan. It came to her mind that easily, that swiftly. She knew the boy in front of her even though she had not seen him for a decade. Even though she had last known him when he was a small child. She knew him, knew her son.

But that was wrong. He couldn’t be here. The realization crushed that tiny budding bit of hope that had only briefly appeared. This was simply Kushiel trying to destroy her once more with yet another glimpse of hope that would be snatched back and destroyed in the worst possible way.

She saw pain flash across the boy’s face then, his mouth opening and shutting in front of her before he whispered, It’s real, Mom. I’m here. I promise. Just… just hold on. I’m gonna get you out of this. I’ll get you out. Trust me, Mom. Just… just trust me.

He reached out to her then, his hand touching his mother’s face gently. A myriad of emotions passed through his eyes then. If she had believed he was real, the look in those eyes would have made her cling to him. But he wasn’t… He wasn’t real. She wouldn’t fall for that again. Not this time.

The boy moved. His arms wrapped around her. He was holding her tight, and Sariel’s mouth opened under that water in a sharp gasp.

Memories. They rushed from the boy into her. He shoved his thoughts into her head. Thoughts that were real. They were too complete to be fake. She saw everything. She saw what he had been through. She saw how far he had gone, and how he had found his way back to Earth. She saw his reunion with his sister, the friends he had made, the things he had done. She saw how he had come to Seosten space, how they had found the facility where she was being kept. She saw where they were, what had happened, and the danger they were in. She saw all of it.

Everything, in that moment, became real in a way that it had not been for so long. Her sense of self, of purpose, of sanity, came roaring back thanks to her son. She knew where she was, she knew who she was, and everything that was happening. Her son was here, right here with her. He was real. He was alive. And he was here.

Her arms moved. She put them around him, holding onto her son tightly in that… dream world. Her mind. They were in her mind. She understood that now, in a way that had been more vague and uncertain only moments earlier. He was there with her. He had… he had recalled to her. He was there. Right there. She could feel his presence, as it dragged her out of the drifting, vague void that she had been lost in. If the thought of Tabbris had been an anchor that kept her from floating out to be lost forever, Tristan’s presence pulled her completely out of the water entirely.

Out of the water. It was gone. The ocean had disappeared, and Sariel was no longer floating. She was standing, she and her son together. The vast emptiness had been replaced by a room… their living room, she realized. It was the room of their home, back before… everything. It was the last room they had stood in before Puriel had arrived.

Perhaps that was a room that should have held bad memories, given everything that had gone wrong. But it didn’t. Being here, even if it was a facsimile, felt right. It felt safe. She felt truly at home here, in a way that cleared more cobwebs from her mind.

“Mom.” Tristan spoke out loud, his voice cracking just a little. “Mom, we found you.”

A little shudder ran through Sariel at the sound of her grown son’s voice. She made a soft noise of amazement, hugging him tighter while giving his hair a slight sniff. “My son,” the woman whispered. “My son. You’re alive. You’re okay.”

“Mom.” Leaning back, Tristan stared at her. “Mom, I’m gonna get you out of this tube, okay? I’m gonna wake you up and get you out. Just hold on for a second.”

They embraced once more, and then he disappeared, withdrawing from her mind. For a moment, the rush of fear threatened to come back, like a tidal wave that was barely held back by a swiftly crumbling dam. The fear of being alone again, of this being yet another trick by Kushiel to destroy her hope, crept into her mind despite her own firm assurances to herself that he was real. Yet every small second that passed allowed another crack to appear, and more of that cold, dark water began to fill the room while the furniture began to fade away along with the light itself to leave everything cold and dark once more.

“No.” Opening her eyes, Sariel looked to the cracks along the wall of the room where water had begun flooding in. She focused, and the water vanished, along with the cracks. The light, which had been gradually fading, returned. The living room was restored to the way it had been.

“You will not win, Kushiel. My son is here. My family is here. I am not lost.”

As she spoke those words, Sariel felt a rush of air on her skin. A sudden, almost blinding light came from above, as if the roof of the room was being taken aside. And as she looked that way, head tilting back to stare up at that light, the woman woke…

She was in a tube. The same tube that Kushiel had sealed her into, leaving that hateful woman’s face as the last thing she had seen, with the promise that it would be the first thing she saw when they arrived at their destination.

But Kushiel had been wrong. Because it was Tristan who was staring down at Sariel as her eyes opened. His beautiful, amazing, wonderfully living face wore an expression of worry and also hope as he spoke quickly. “Mom? Mom, please, you have to help Nessa and Flick. Please–”

She sat up. Breathing out, Sariel pulled herself out of the tube. Her arm extended before slamming back to crash into the tube, shattering the glass in it. Taking one piece of broken glass in each hand, she nodded to her son. “Go. I’m right behind you.”

She wanted to hug him and never let go. She wanted to cling to him, weep and plead with him to be real and to stay with her. But there wasn’t time for that. Vanessa needed her. Tabbris needed her. Felicity needed her. They all needed her right then. And she would be there for them. Finally, after everything that had happened, after everything she had been forced to sit aside for, she would be there.

She would save her children.

Flashing a quick, relieved smile, the same smile that she knew from so long ago on a now-grown face, Tristan pivoted and sprinted toward the open hatch of the ship. As Sariel followed, leaving the broken tube behind, she thought of the void, of floating alone and lost in that empty place. She thought of being taken away and cut off from everyone she had ever cared about.

And then she thought about just how furious Kushiel was going to be that she had escaped, that her children had saved her. And that thought actually made Sariel feel better. Good enough, in fact, to smile just a little as she followed her son, her pace growing more assured with each step.

Kushiel wasn’t here. But her soldiers were. Her soldiers were here, trying to hurt those children, Sariel’s children, and the child of a woman she deeply respected.  

They were hurting children. And they were about to learn just how much of a mistake that was.

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Becoming 2-02 (Summus Proelium)

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The door was locked.

I tried it very carefully, intending to sneak inside. But it didn’t budge.

Okay, so I was going to save this guy. Just one problem, now I had no idea how. Hell, I wasn’t even sure how I was going to get into the building with the door locked. I could try to use the strength paint to break through, but they might hear that and kill the guy before I could even get in there.

I needed a better way through, and I needed it quick, before they… before the guy ran out of time.

But there was nothing. There was no window to sneak in or anything, it was just a blank wall. And the longer I stayed here trying to figure out how to get in, the bigger chance that the whole point would be moot. They could be killing him right now. I had to find another way in besides that door.

Or did I? Standing there, staring at the door with the mounting thought that I was failing my first real attempt to save someone, I thought of something. It was pretty stupid and crazy, but maybe stupid and crazy was all I had time for.

There was a trashcan at the end of the alley, near the entrance. Looking that way, I pointed a hand and shot two bits of red paint, one at the side of the trashcan itself, and one at the ground next to it.

That done, I turned back to the door, reared back my fist, and struck the thing as hard as I could. I tried to make it sound like there was a whole army out here waiting to bust the thing down.

Knocking five or six times as loud as I could, I then put a bit of purple paint on my legs and threw myself upward in a jump. Red paint appeared on my hands and feet, to hold myself against the wall.

It was just in time. The door slammed open and one of the guys came storming out beneath me. He was the only one who appeared, much to my disappointment. Still, he was there. So I quickly activated the paint on the trashcan and ground. It made the can fall over, as if someone had just run past and bumped it.

The guy took the bait. He went running that way, shouting something I didn’t catch. He probably wouldn’t go far once he hit the end of the alley and saw nobody in sight. But that was all I needed. The red paint I was using faded, and I dropped to the ground, using a tiny bit of black to silence my landing. Then I spun the other way, looking through the open door. There was a short, unfinished hallway on the other side, and no one in sight. Good. Good. Now I just had to—

“Hey!” That one was directed at me, as the guy at the end of the alley had turned back to see me standing in front of the doorway. He had a gun in his hand, but before he could point it at me, I threw myself into the building. My hand caught the door, and I slammed it shut with a loud clang.

Apparently the door automatically locked, and this guy didn’t have the keys, because he immediately started banging loudly on it, swearing emphatically at me.

Okay, okay, I just had to get to the guy still in here (and their victim) before he figured out what was going on. Or before the guy outside managed to call him or something. Turning back to the hall in front of me while the pounding continued, I swallowed the lump of fear in my throat.

There were three doors, but two of them were open to show unfinished bathrooms. The third was closed, and that was the one I went to. Pressing my ear against the door, I tried to shut out the banging from the other one.

Actually, wait a second. Turning back to the other door, I shot a bit of black paint at it and silenced the damn thing. There, now I could hear.

Footsteps. I heard footsteps. They were coming closer, along with muttering and cursing. Eyes widening, I quickly threw myself at the nearest open door, where one of the half-finished bathrooms was.

I’d barely shoved myself out of sight when the door I’d been listening at banged open and the guy came storming through. He was cursing about the guy outside forgetting to prop the door before he went outside.

My heart was pounding so hard that I was almost sure he’d hear it. But he didn’t, stalking right past the bathroom where I was hiding on his way to the exit. There, he grabbed the door and threw it open, already starting to demand that his buddy tell him why he let it shut.

The guy outside was saying something, but I didn’t give him time to finish. Before he could get more than a word or two out, I was already launching myself down the corridor. I’d brought the wheels of my pace-skates out, and put a green smiley face on my chest, as well as making both of my gloves purple. With my speed and strength boosted, respectively, I hurtled through that hall. The guy at the door had time to look over his shoulder just before I slammed into him. The impact sent him flying out into his partner, both of them crashing to the ground.

Meanwhile, I caught myself against the door jamb. The two thugs were entangled with each other and cursing, both rolling over. I quickly slammed the door again, trapping them outside.

Unfortunately, if the first guy hadn’t had the keys for this place, I was almost positive the second guy did. So I had to hurry. Turning, I moved to the nearby bathroom door. Gripping it near the hinges, I activated another spot of purple on myself and heaved backward. It cracked, but resisted, until I heaved again. Then the door gave up the fight and broke free of the wall.

By that time, I could hear keys jingling outside, and the lock was starting to turn. I had to hurry!

So I did. Dropping the door onto its side, I shoved it as fast as I could up against the door. The way it was positioned, one side of the door was up under the door jamb, while the other side bumped up against the far wall. It was squeezed in tight, and the door couldn’t open like that. It was shoved into place just as they got it unlocked, and I heard cursing as they tried throwing themselves against it to no avail.

Okay, okay. They probably had another way in somewhere. This couldn’t be the only door there was. But it would take them a minute to decide to give up on this one and go to it. I just had to hurry the hell up and get to the guy they’d dragged in here, free him, and get out. Easy pea–

I stopped before finishing that sentence, but the damage was probably already done. Flinching, I pivoted and ran back down the hall, to the door that the second guy had come through. Find their prisoner and get out out with him. Find their prisoner and get out with him.

My luck seemed to actually be holding a moment later, as I passed through the door and found myself in what looked like a half-finished (or maybe half-destroyed) office floor. There were a handful of broken cubicles scattered around, a bunch of random desks, and some separate offices around the edges and corners. More importantly, directly ahead of me was a heavy metal chair with a man sitting on it. A man who was chained to that chair by a couple different handcuffs attached from it to his wrists. Yeah, I was gonna go ahead and guess that was the guy I was trying to rescue.

Sprinting that way, I neared the man just as his gaze snapped my way. Seeing me, he made a noise of surprise while jerking backward. The chair was apparently bolted to the floor or something though, because it didn’t go anywhere. He did, however, start cursing and pleading with me not to hurt him, and that he didn’t know where ‘he’ was. Whatever that meant.

“Shhh!” I blurted, holding up both hands. “I’m here to– I’m here to help you! Look, you wanna get out of here?” When he hesitated before nodding, I pressed on. “I’m gonna get you out of that chair, okay? Just hold on a second. Let me–”

“Look out!” The man jerked in his seat as he blurted that, looking at something past me.

I didn’t look. Instead, I threw myself to the side, landing on the floor. And it was a good thing I didn’t turn back to see what was going on, because a bat whiffed through the air right where my head had just been a second earlier.

A guy was there. A different guy from the two who were outside. Of course, just because I’d seen two guys come in here didn’t mean they were the only ones in the entire building. Fucking duh, Cassidy.

The guy was tall, very pale, and covered in tattoos. His chest was bare to show off those tattoos, and he wore ratty old jeans. He wasn’t super muscular or anything, but he had some definite strength behind his swing. Which was evidenced even more as he followed up that first swing with a second. This one came around and down toward the spot where I was sprawled, and I barely managed to throw myself backward in an awkward roll as the bat rebounded off the floor where I had been with a terrifying clang.

“Hey, jackass!” the guy snarled, his face twisting in a way that made him look ugly and vicious (helped by the collection of piercings he had). “Who the hell invited you?!”

I couldn’t help it. Terrified as I was, the response blurted its way out of me before I could stop it. “Well, it wasn’t Better Homes and Gardens, I’ll tell you that much. This place is filthy.”

Holy crap, why did I say that? If the guy hadn’t already been angry, that definitely didn’t help. He snarled, taking a quick step after me before swinging that bat even harder. That time, however, I was ready. Raising my open hand, I made my glove red while also shooting a bit of red toward the bat itself. Activating both bits of paint, I let the bat rip its way out of the man’s hand and fly into mine while he made a grunt of surprise.

Barely catching the bat, I made it back to my feet while the guy froze, staring at me as if seeing my costume (for what it was worth) for the first time. As he took that in, I turned the bat around in my hand. “Are you sure this thing is field-legal? Cuz it feels a little hefty to me.” Adopting a scandalized tone, I gasped and pointed the bat at him. “Does your Little League coach know you’re cheating?”

With a sound that was half-snarl and half-curse, the man hurled himself at me. He would have tackled me, and that probably would’ve been the end of it. But I saw him start to move and quickly brought a tie-dye splash of green and purple across my chest, activating both for a speed and strength boost.

Thanks to the speed, I was able to sidestep out of the way as the man lunged. And thanks to the strength, my follow-up swing with the bat connected with the side of his leg hard enough to knock the man to the ground, as the loud crack of the bone breaking filled the room. Owww. I wasn’t even the one that was hit, and that still sounded bad. And his leg was… well, it didn’t look right, that was for sure.

The guy collapsed with a cry, clutching his leg while I dropped the bat in surprise at just how much damage I had done. It clattered along the ground, and I almost fell over while backpedaling. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” I reflexively blurted, before realizing what I was doing. The guy probably would’ve hurt me a hell of a lot worse than that if he’d gotten hold of me.

The sound of running footsteps snapped my attention over toward a nearby hallway, as my two friends from outside came sprinting. Both of them had guns drawn. Before they could fire, I used red paint to yank the bat back into my hand and hurled it at them, forcing the two to duck as it flew past.

They immediately straightened after that to take aim. But that was a mistake. Because just as they did so, I activated the red paint that I’d left on the bat before throwing it, as well as my newly repainted glove. The bat made an abrupt turn in mid-air before flying back toward me. Which made it crash into the back of one of the guy’s heads. He cried out, falling to one knee, which made the other guy stumble as well.

“Okay, we got off on the wrong foot,” I conceded. “I said some things, you said some things. I don’t suppose you guys want to thumb wrestle to settle this?”

Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, what was I doing? What the hell was I doing?!

Catching the bat once more, I did two things at once. First, I pointed it toward the first guy, the one whose leg I had broken. He was pulling something out of his pants pocket, and I really didn’t want to know what it was. At the same time, I clicked my heels to make the wheels on my pace-skates pop out.

It was a gun. The guy on the ground had hauled a small, but still dangerous-looking revolver out of his pocket. Just as he tried to take aim, I turned my glove blue, sending the bat flying away from my hand to crash into the man’s face. I didn’t have time to make a full swinging-throwing motion, but the blue paint worked just fine. The bat rocketed into his nose, knocking the man flat once more while blood sprayed everywhere.

At the same time, I made a bit of green appear on my skates while throwing myself to the side just as the guy by the hall who hadn’t been hit in the back of the head managed to aim his own gun at where I had been, opening fire with a couple quick shots.

Shots. He was shooting at me. For the second time that night and the third time in the past couple of nights, I was being shot at! This wasn’t a game. It wasn’t just pretend. I was being shot at by psychopaths who wanted to kill me, who would kill me if I gave them half a chance.

I almost surrendered right then. Maybe it was stupid. Maybe it was childish. But I was scared, and I very nearly just stopped and pleaded with them to let me go. I didn’t want to die.

Some hero I was. A couple bullets came my way and my first instinct was to piss myself and beg for them not to kill me. How pathetic was that?

But I didn’t. If I’d been asked in that moment to say what stopped me from surrendering to the terror, I couldn’t have said. I honestly, truly had no idea. Maybe it was simple momentum. Or maybe I was more afraid of what would happen if I surrendered than of what would happen if I didn’t. Either way, with that burst of speed from my green paint (and a little orange for extra protection), I skated along the side of the room in a quick blur of motion while the guy with the gun fired several more shots that failed to come anywhere near me. With my skates and the speed boost, I was too fast for him to adjust his aim quick enough.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t slow myself either, or he would hit me. I threw a couple shots of paint that way, but both missed. I was rocketing along too quickly to aim properly.

Rocketing along so fast, in fact, that I was about to crash headlong into the wall as I approached the corner of the room. I’d been so focused on seeing what that guy was doing that I almost didn’t see where I was going in time. At the last second, I leapt, spraying paint from my hands at the wall that I was hurtling toward.

It worked. Holy god, it worked. Red paint on the wall and red paint on my skates, and I was rolling along the wall. I was literally skating over the wall as if it was the floor, spraying more paint ahead of myself. Holy shit, holy shit! I was skating along the wall!

And then I ran out of paint. Suddenly, my skates weren’t sticking to the wall anymore. As a loud cry escaped me, I went flying off, crashing headlong into a pile of desks and chairs in the opposite corner of the room. I went down in a heap of metal and wood, groaning a little.

Okay, okay. No more paint for a few seconds. The guys were already starting to recover, I couldn’t make myself fast or (relatively) immune to their bullets, and they were pissed off. Meanwhile, I was lying here on my side half-beneath an overturned desk, which, along with the pile of partially-broken chairs just above my head, served as the only things protecting me from their bullets.

This was going swimmingly.

Fortunately, they didn’t know that I couldn’t use my power right then. That was basically the only thing I had going for me. Because it meant they hesitated. One of them called, “Hey, asshole! You gonna come out of there, or do we have to drag you out?!”

The guy whose leg I had broken interjected with a bellowed, “Just go get the fucking cocksucker so I can go to the hospital, shit-for-brains!”

Right, they were a bit nervous about coming after me. They didn’t know exactly where in the pile of junk and desks I’d fallen. I was out of their sight, able to slowly turn over onto my hands and knees without disturbing anything. There was so much crap around here, including a couple broken cubicle walls, that they couldn’t see where I was.

Think, Cassidy. What could I do now? Just wait for my paint to come back?

There wasn’t time for that. I heard footsteps coming closer, as one of the guys carefully made his way around. Peeking through a little hole in the underside of the desk I was hiding behind, I saw him. He had his gun up and ready as he made a slow approach, waiting for any sign of me.

So I gave him a sign. Carefully but quickly, I picked up the top half of a broken chair and gave it a toss over to the opposite side of the junk pile. It hit one of the propped-up cubicle walls, knocking it over with a loud clatter.

It worked. Several gunshots rang out, and I saw the guy who had been getting close go sprinting past the desk. He actually bumped against it in his rush, cursing loudly as he took the bait and threw himself after the sound of the crashing junk.

All of their attention was focused over there. Which gave me an opening to throw myself in a roll right past the spot where the man had just been, and through an open doorway into a small corner office, where I put my back to the wall and breathed.

“Nothing!” the guy who was poking around where I’d thrown the bit of chair called. “Nobody’s here!”

“Look again!” the one on the ground with the broken leg demanded. “He can’t just disappear!”

“How the fuck do you know?!” the guy who had been hit in the back of the head shot back. “He’s Touched, right? So maybe he can disappear! You ever hear about this guy?”

There was a collection of denials, before one of them shouted, “Whoever the hell you are, little punk, you better be scared! Powers or not, we’re gonna fuck you up!”

Yeah, that was likely to make me come out and show myself. Idiot.

Hearing footsteps approaching the office as the guy left the junk pile to come look, I realized my time was up. He was almost to the doorway, and if he saw me like this, just sitting on the floor like a helpless little bug…

I did the only thing I could think of. Pointing my hands straight up, I shot red paint at the ceiling while praying that I actually had paint again.

It worked. Paint appeared, and my body was jerked up from the floor. I didn’t even have to jump or anything. The paint just yanked me that way. I hit the ceiling and clung there, using paint on my feet to keep myself in place. All that just an instant before the man stepped through the doorway. He was right under me, barely inside the room as he swept the pistol from one side of the room to the other.

Then he looked up. His mouth opened, while he started to jerk the pistol my way. But my hand was already pointed at him, spraying black paint that took the man along the arm and gun, muting the sound of both as he simultaneously fired and shouted. His bullet silently hit about halfway up the wall.

Before he could adjust his aim or do anything else to draw attention, I dropped from the ceiling to crash into the man. Small as I was, my weight still took the guy to the ground before he could brace himself. We fell into a heap, and I quickly turned my arm purple for the added strength before punching the man hard.

Ow. His skull hurt my hand. But I hurt him more, as he jerked with a still-muted cry. The guy tried to struggle free, heaving my body off of him before yanking his gun up a bit dizzily.

Then my flailing foot hit his face, and he went down hard. His body collapsed, and a very slight moan escaped him as the black paint wore off.

Scrambling, I took his gun away. Not that he was in any mood to stop me. The guy just laid there, mostly-unconscious. I stared at him for a second like that, until a voice called, “Steve!? Hey man, you okay over there?!”

He wasn’t. His eyes blinked blearily at me, mouth opening as though to say something. Then his eyes closed and he slumped. He was breathing, but he was definitely out of it. A thick bruise was already starting to show where I had kicked him, and he had teeth missing. Or at least, teeth that weren’t in his head anymore. I could see them scattered along the floor.

“Yo, man, this isn’t–the fuck?!”

The remaining guy was in the doorway. He saw his buddy and me both there, his gun jerking up into position.

He fired. Luckily, I’d already brought a splattering of orange paint over my chest. It still hurt, almost knocking the wind from me. But I’d take ‘hurt’ over ‘big bleeding hole in my chest’ any day. He shot me point-blank, and the bullet felt like being hit with a rock.

Clearly surprised by the lack of blood, the man froze briefly. Just long enough for me to throw the pistol I’d taken from the other guy at his face. His head jerked back reflexively, giving me an opening to scramble to my feet. Purple and green appeared in a pattern of stars along both of my arms as I threw myself at the man, tackling him out of the doorway with strength and speed that he wasn’t prepared for.

He landed on his back with me on top of him. Before he could recover, I punched him hard. Then I hit him again, and a third time. By that swing, the man had stopped struggling to throw me off. But I hit him a fourth time, the adrenaline and terror of the moment driving me to keep swinging.

He wasn’t fighting me. He was lying there, groaning in pain. My rush of energy left me panting as I perched there on the man’s chest, staring with wide eyes at him as he tried to curl into a ball and whimper.

“Eddie?!” the guy whose leg was broken was calling. “Steve?! The fuck is going on over there, guys?! This isn’t funny!”

Taking a few breaths to steady myself, I straightened and caught the guy at my feet by the arm. With a little help from my purple strength boost, I gave him a toss out from behind the pile of junk. He crashed to the floor in plain view of his buddy, who suddenly started cursing.

The guy cursed even more after I tossed the other guy out there as well, letting both fall into a heap together. He was cursing and praying at the same time.

Deepening my voice, I called, “You’ve got two choices! You can throw the gun away, or–”

There was a clatter as the pistol was tossed over, bouncing along the floor before I could even finish that sentence.

“Well, okay then,” I managed with a little cough. Taking a breath, I walked around into view, staring at the man who was watching me with wide eyes.

“Whoever you are, you’re gonna regret fucking with us! We’re getting that fucking bounty, man!”

Ignoring him, I moved over to the guy chained down to the chair. As he stared at me, I reach down to grab the legs of the chair. Powering myself up with purple paint, I yanked hard. The legs snapped off after grinding in protest, and the guy was able to stand up. He still had handcuffs on either wrist, but they weren’t attached to anything as the legs of the chair fell out of them.

“Who… who the hell are y-you?” he stammered, his voice shaking with each word.

“I—” That was as far as I got before the sound of squealing tires drew both of our attention to one of the nearby doors, through which there was clearly a parking lot. People were here. And I was pretty sure they weren’t friendly.

“I’m the guy rescuing you,” I blurted, instinctively embracing the mistake that everyone seemed to make about my gender. It would help me keep my true identity secret. “Unless you’d rather get help from whoever just showed up.”

The man’s head shook quickly, as the sound of slamming doors and running footsteps reached us.

“Great,” I replied.

“Then let’s get out of here.”

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Summer Epilogue 2A (Heretical Edge)

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The willowy girl looked as though she could have been blown over by a stiff breeze, as she stood next to a tall pine tree in the middle of a park across from a church in a medium-sized town somewhere in Arizona. The grass was somewhat yellowed from lack of water, and weeds had partially overgrown the nearby playground where a couple of children played under the semi-watchful eye of their babysitter, who sat on a bench.

Marina Dupont heard the kids yelling back and forth about how they wanted to go get ice cream, which brought a little smile to her face. But most of her attention was focused on watching the area around herself, eyes passing over the almost entirely empty park with a slow wariness. She was attentive and ready, waiting for whatever was going to happen next.

And in the end, it didn’t matter. She was still taken completely by surprise as a figure appeared beside her. Whether he came by teleporting, or by stepping through the tree, or in some other way, she had no idea. All the girl knew was that a man’s hand was suddenly around her throat, shoving her back against the tree. His hard grip cut off her air entirely, and she found herself staring with wide eyes at a man not much taller than herself, but considerably more well-built.

Dietric Collins. That was his name. He was a heavily tanned guy who wore what looked like a black muscle shirt (but upon closer inspection was actually closer to very fine chainmail) and jeans, his muscles rippling as he gripped her tight. His voice dark. “You think it’s funny to steal other people’s children?”

Marina tried to respond, but he was cutting off her air. She glanced sidelong toward the playground, and the man snarled, “Oh, don’t worry about them. They can’t see a damn thing that’s going on over here. They won’t interrupt us. No one will, until I’m done dealing with you.”

Dietric’s grip loosened just a tiny bit then, enough to allow her to choke words out. “Now, why don’t you tell me exactly why I shouldn’t squeeze your neck until your head pops right off, for taking my kid?” His words were a low, harsh whisper, eyes filled with anger that was barely controlled.

She managed to speak, her voice weak and almost inaudible. “Because you want your son.”

That made the man’s eyes flare with renewed rage, but he narrowly contained himself. “You… tell me where my son is right now, and maybe I will content myself with simply dragging you back to Crossroads to be thrown in the deepest, darkest dungeon we have.”

Again, she managed to push the words out. “Look… to your… right… at the… sign.”

Slowly, the man did so. His head turned a bit to look at a sign about not littering in the park. More specifically, his eyes found the small camera that had been attached to it, facing them.

“It’s… spelled to see through your Bystander illusion,” Marina informed him. “Your son… and the other children, are watching. They’re nowhere near here. But your son can be here in a second.”

The man’s eyes flashed with rage, but Marina pushed on quickly while trying to ignore how terrified she felt. “I didn’t mean to kidnap anyone. I meant to stop them from being kidnapped. They’re children, they don’t deserve to be pawns. You want your son, you can have him. Of course you can have him. He’s your kid, I’m… I’m not a monster, no matter what you think. But I’m not going to let you or anyone else take other children to use against either side in this war. You can have your son. You can leave with your son. But only your son. You can take your son and leave here.”

A very low snarl escaped Dietric. “What makes you think I won’t take Andrew and you?”

Swallowing hard, Marina very slowly and carefully lifted her hand, showing him the stone that she was holding tightly onto. Her voice cracked a little as she explained. “It’s an escape spell. As soon as I let it go, it’ll teleport me somewhere else away from here.”

Dietric glared at her. “I can stop you from letting go of it. I can stop you from teleporting. You really think that’s going to save you?”

Her head shook. “Not by itself, no. But you… you see that restroom over there? The men’s room door?” When the man glanced that way, she continued. “You know we have the field trip key. It lets us transport through any door. That’s the door that Andrew is going to use. They’re watching on that camera. There’s also a camera in the place this stone takes me. The second I disappear from here and reappear there, your son will come through that door. Then they’ll open a door for me in the new place, before you or any of the other Heretics you’ve brought with you can track me down. We’ll be gone. You’ll have your son, but we’ll move to a new place and contact another parent. Like I said, we want to give all children back to their parents. No matter what side they’re on.”

For a moment, Dietric scowled before demanding, “Why should I believe that you’re just going to give him back?”

Despite the fear that she felt, Marina met his gaze. “What would be the point of playing games with this, sir? I’m not asking for anything. I’m not demanding anything. I’m trying to give you your son back. No strings, except that I get to leave and you only take your son. If I didn’t want you to take your son, there wouldn’t have been any point in contacting you to have you come here. This whole situation would be completely pointless. I don’t get anything.”

The man considered that, letting the logic reach past his instinctive rage at his son being taken away from Crossroads. It took a moment, but he brought himself under control. Still, his voice was a snarl that showed just how angry he still was. “You know we’re still going to track you down. And you’ll still be tried for abducting all these children. It doesn’t matter what your intentions were. The rebels are criminals. You are a criminal. And you’ll be tried as one.”

“I’m doing what I think is right,” Marina quietly informed him. “That’s not going to change.” She took a breath to steady herself a bit before adding, “I’m going to drop the stone now. As soon as I do, your son will come out of that door.” She waited to see if the man would say anything else. When he didn’t, she exhaled, then dropped the rock.

Instantly, the world spun around her. She was transported to the back room of a department store across town. Nearby was a closet. As soon as her eyes found it, the closet door opened and a couple of the older kids, nearly thirteen themselves, waved her in.

Two portals opened up nearby, as a couple Heretics emerged. Marina saw them from the corners of her eyes, but managed to jump through the open door just before it was yanked closed after her. They left the pursuing Heretics behind.

They were in the abandoned house that the group had briefly set up in. Eli, the oldest boy and the one she’d left the field trip key with, quickly pressed it into her hand. All the other kids, sans Andrew and a few others who had been given back, were staring at her. Several were crying, while others tried to blurt questions about what was going on now. Marina, meanwhile, took the key, thought of a different destination, shoved the key into the nearby door, and opened it. “Come on guys! Field trip. Keep your buddies. Sara, you’re with Valerie and Tyson now that Andrew’s gone. Let’s go. Everyone wants some lunch, right?”

They went through the door. And then through another, and another, and one more. Then she led them through the streets of a small town to yet another door that they could pass through, then did the same in a larger city. Six or seven times they jumped to new locations, to leave as hard of a trail to follow as possible. Marina also used several spells she had learned about how to keep Strangers from tracking her after a hunt. She did everything she could to throw off the inevitable pursuit, before letting the kids take a break for lunch. They went to the food court of a mall and she let them get whatever they wanted. Of the many problems they had, money wasn’t one of them. She’d learned how to use a spell to take money from Bystander cash machines in the first semester of this (her second) year. They used the spell, among others like it, to allow Heretics to operate in the Bystander world without the need for one of their jobs.

So technically she was a kidnapper and a thief. Among everything else that Marina had done in the past twenty-four hours, getting money to feed the children she was taking care of and give them a place to sleep was at the bottom of what she felt bad about. But it was still a nagging thought.

Andrew wasn’t the first, though this one had gone off with the least hitches and problems as they’d worked out some of the kinks from earlier efforts. They’d now sent several other kids to their closest guardians. But that still left a lot more to send back. A lot more meetings with angry, frightened, possibly vengeful parents.

It was going to be a long couple of days.

******

It had been a very long couple of days. And they weren’t even halfway done. Setting up a new location for a transfer, vetting it as being clear of any problems, getting their escape ready, contacting the parent in question, all of it took time. And with each subsequent parent (from either side) who had taken longer to get their child back, many grew frustrated. Children wanted their parents. They were tired of the field trip. They were scared of what was going on.

Still, Marina pressed on. The older kids were a godsend. Especially Eli and another near-thirteen year old named Laina, both of whom helped keep the younger ones entertained and herded. Without them, all of this would have been impossible. They understood what was happening, for the most part, and kept the others a lot more calm than they would’ve been.

Marina had almost no way of knowing which side any given parent was on. She simply asked each child who their mother, father, or closest adult was and contacted that person to set up an exchange. Some were more understanding than others, and she had actually been struck more than once throughout this. But for the most part, the parents were more interested in getting their children back than in pursuing or punishing her. At least until they had them.

As the exchanges went on, the adults started showing up already knowing what was expected, as word of how Marina was doing it spread. Some came with various efforts to trick her, or end the situation. But Marina and the other kids varied things enough to avoid falling for them, though there were a few very close calls.

Now, most of the youngest kids had been given back. That was where Marina had focused first, on the smallest of her charges. They still had just over half of the children left, and she was trying to think of how to speed this up. She’d been varying times of when the exchanges happened, along with the locations. Sometimes she’d wait only ten minutes between contacting parents, while other times she waited hours while she and the children slept.

Slept. Hah. She’d only actually slept maybe three hours in the past couple of nights. Which, given powers she’d inherited, wasn’t too bad. She usually only slept about four hours per night anyway. But three hours in two days was pushing it a bit.

At the moment, Marina was letting everyone sleep in the several rooms they’d rented out in this out-of-the-way motel along a freeway somewhere in Oregon. Thirty-six kids sharing about five rooms. Most were bunched up together, sleeping on the beds, on the floor, nesting on the chairs and couches, wherever they could find space. Marina just made sure that girls were only rooming with girls, and tried to keep similar age brackets together.

A drink. She was tired and needed caffeine so she could plan the next exchange. So the girl made her way out of the room she was sharing with a handful of her charges. Stepping out to the parking lot, she headed for the brightly lit spot nearby where vending machines were.

Unfortunately, she’d barely reached the machines when the girl heard the scrape of footsteps behind her. She pivoted, hand reaching for the hilt of her hidden sword at her side. But it was too late. A man slammed into her. She was thrown back against the nearest machine with a yelp, while her attacker pointed a hefty one-handed axe in her direction, the blade pushing close to her throat. “Look what we have here.”

“Mr. Rusterfeld?” Blurting the name as her heart hammered its way almost out of her chest, Marina stared. Karl Rusterfield had been the last parent she’d delivered a kid back to that day, his young daughter named Esme. He’d been so grateful to get her back that he’d given her a brief hug.

“Yeah,” the man confirmed as though reading her mind. “And you didn’t even notice the tracker spell I put on you when we had our little moment, did you? Well, guess what. Now we’re going to have a different moment. And when I’m done showing you why you don’t take other people’s kids, you can spend some time in the–”

That was as far as the man got, before he was abruptly yanked from behind. A much smaller figure had caught hold of the man’s arm and hair. He managed a brief grunt of surprise before he was yanked all the way around and hurled face first into the next vending machine over. This one sold snacks, and the glass front shattered under the impact as he was bodily hurled into it.

He stumbled back, dropping his axe just as his attacker kicked the back of his leg out, catching the dazed man before he could recover. He made a noise of surprise, just as the smaller figure put their fist into his face, dropping the man to the ground. One more time, he tried to straighten up, but a foot to the same spot that their fist had hit an instant earlier put him back down. That time, he stayed there.

All of it happened in just a brief couple of seconds. Marina barely had time to yank her sword free and jerk away from the machine she had been shoved against before it was all over. Rusterfield lay on the ground, completely unconscious. And his attacker was straightening from him, turning to face her.

“Roxa?!” The name blurted its way from Marina’s lips instantly, her eyes wide with shock. “You’re here!” Reflexively, she took a step that way to hug the girl who had been one of her mentees for only the first couple of months of the school term before disappearing. The first who had disappeared, actually.

But then Marina stopped. She stared, mouth opening and shutting as she realized just what her Stranger sense was telling her. “You… you’re… you’re a…”

“Werewolf,” Roxa supplied quietly. As she straightened fully, Gidget came forward out of the shadows, making a hopeful sound upon seeing Marina. “Yes. That’s why I couldn’t come back.”

“I don’t… I don’t understand,” Marina managed, her voice cracking. She wanted to hug Roxa so much, after spending months worrying about where the girl was and what had happened to her. But she was a werewolf. And that meant… or rather, didn’t it mean… but those things that the rebellion said…

“I know it’s confusing,” Roxa assured her. “And it’s scary and… a lot of things. But I swear, I don’t want to hurt you. We don’t want to hurt you, or any of your kids.”

“We?” Marina echoed. Then she saw them. Several more figures hanging back in the shadows, spread through the parking lot.

“My pack,” Roxa informed her. “My friends. My family. We came to help, Marina. We knew they’d track you down eventually, so we had… we had other weres through the world letting us know if they saw you. They had your pictures and your scents. It took two days for us to catch up. But I guess it was pretty good timing. We’ve been watching for a couple hours.”

Through all of that, Marina kept staring at the shadowy figures, her eyes jumping from one to the next. It took her a moment to find her voice again. “You came with a pack of werewolves…”

Flinching, Roxa quietly replied, “Listen, I know you can’t trust them–that you can’t trust… us. But–”

“Fuck it.” The two words left Marina before she knew what she was doing. Then she was embracing Roxa tightly. She’d crossed the distance between them almost instantly, hugging the girl. “Fuck it. Whatever, whatever. You’re okay. You’re alive. That’s all I–that’s what matters. Roxa, Roxa, you’re alive!” In that moment, the hard knot that she’d been holding in her own stomach ever since Roxa had disappeared vanished. Werewolf or not, the girl looked healthy, and… and safe. And she certainly didn’t look or sound like an evil monster. Marina still didn’t know how she felt about this whole rebellion thing, but Roxa was right in front of her, and had clearly saved her from Rusterfield. That was worth something.

Flushing slightly, the other girl returned the hug after a moment. “Yeah. And trust me, there’s a lot to talk about as far as that goes. But you have to get out of here.” Her foot gestured to the unconscious man. “We don’t know how many people he told about tracking you, or who might be on their way.”

“The kids,” Marina realized, straightening. “I have to wake up the kids. You’re right, we have to get out of here, we–” She stopped talking then, looking again at the shadowy werewolf figures.

“You can go,” Roxa informed her softly. “We’re not going to stop you, Marina. You can take the kids and keep doing this by yourself, if you want to. We know what you’re trying to do, and we won’t stop you. But… but if you trust me, we can help you.”

“Help me?” Marina echoed, eyes moving back to the younger girl’s.

Roxa nodded. “Yes. We can help protect you. We can watch for any other Heretics. We can warn you about them. We can help get the kids back to their parents, on both sides. I promise, we just want to help. That’s all. We want to help you get these kids back to their parents, where they belong. And we have a safe place for you all to stay while you take the kids one at a time. A place where you guys can’t be tracked down. I promise, they–you all… will be safe there until you can send them home.”

It took Marina another few seconds to find her voice once more. “Roxa, I… I don’t know what to… you’re here. You’re safe. You’re a werewolf, you’re with werewolves, but you’re not… “ She closed her eyes briefly, feeling torn in every possible direction. A huge part of her wanted to tell the girl to take her wolves and leave, that she appreciated the help, but she just couldn’t trust them enough to take that next step. Not with children’s lives at stake.

Those words were on the tip of her tongue. But she stopped. Her eyes opened, dozens of competing thoughts tumbling through her mind. She stared at the girl in front of her. “I… we’ll go with you. If you vouch for them, if you say they’re safe, then I… Roxa, I trust you. Maybe not them. Not yet. Not even with all this new… rebellion stuff. I just can’t trust them yet. But I trust you. Maybe it’s wrong and I’ll regret it and hate myself forever. But… but I’ll trust you.”

“That’s enough,” Roxa agreed quietly. “I promise, I swear, you’ll all be safe. Where we’re going, it might look scary, but no one is going to hurt you or any of the children. On my soul, it’s completely safe for you guys. It’s hidden, and no Heretic tracking spells will find it.”

Swallowing hard as her mind fought back and forth with itself about whether she’d made the right decision or not, Marina asked, “What…  where is this place you want us to go?”

Roxa smiled faintly. “Well… it’s called Wonderland.”

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Becoming 2-01 (Summus Proelium)

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I ran until I couldn’t run anymore, sometimes using my paint to speed myself up, other times too distracted to remember it. The bruise on my leg hurt, but I ignored it. The scenery around me was a blur. I think there were people, some of them looking my way as I rushed past in my strange clothes and helmet. A few probably said something. But I didn’t pay attention. Their words were buzzing sounds in the back of my head while I ran past. Ran until I was exhausted. Ran until I could run no further and finally fell to my knees in the back of some empty parking lot somewhere, near a building with a dumpster that was surrounded on three sides by a short fence.

My eyes were flooded and blinded by tears as I half-lay there on the uneven, broken pavement. I made a noise deep in the back of my throat that some part of me recognized as more animal-like than human. It came again, louder, as I thought about what I had just seen.

My father was pretending to be a hero while sanctioning murder, while working with villains. My father, whom I loved more than I could say, the man I had looked up to my whole life… was a bad guy. More than that, he was pretending to be a hero. And not just any hero, but the one who happened to be my personal favorite. The man in my life whom I had looked up to the most, and the man out of my life whom I had looked up to the most were both the same person. And he was a bad guy. He ordered people to be killed. He… he…

I was on my feet. Lashing out hard, I kicked the nearby dumpster, sending pain through the bruise in my leg. Then I punched the dumpster, hard. It hurt, but it was a physical pain, which was a welcome distraction from what I was feeling. So I punched it again, cursing out loud. I hit the dumpster several times in quick succession, cursing louder with each strike of my fist against it.

I couldn’t breathe. Stumbling back, my hands pushed my helmet up and off, letting it fall to the ground. My face was still covered by the ski mask, and I yanked that up as well. Clutching the mask in one hand, I sucked in air greedily, breathing hard. My foot lashed out to kick the dumpster one more time, while I stared at the ground and heard my father’s voice once again talking about dumping me (not that he knew it was me) in the lake if I wasn’t useful for him. He’d said it with no hesitation, like it was normal for him. It was normal for him. Killing those two guys last night wasn’t a fluke or a one-time thing. It was normal. It was who my father was.

I couldn’t put that together with the man I knew. It was like they were two different people. My father was firm, but he loved me. He protected me. He was the hero in my life, and Silversmith was my favorite actual hero. And now they were both… he… he was both and he was a monster. He was… he ordered… he…

I kicked the dumpster again. As I did so, however, the back door of the building that I’d thought was empty was shoved open. Someone was standing there in the light, his gruff voice demanding, “Who the fuck is out there?! Hey! Hey, get away from that!”

He couldn’t see me very well, I knew that much. He’d just come from a brightly lit room and I was standing in the dark some distance away. At best, he could make out my outline. Quickly, I called, “Sorry!” Then I turned, grabbed my helmet off the ground, and ran. With my luck, he’d insist on trying to call either the cops or my parents if I stuck around, and I couldn’t deal with either right then. Especially not while I was dressed like this. That was a confrontation I wasn’t ready to deal with.

Running across the lot while the man gave a half-hearted yell for me to stay the hell away from his shop, I looked down at myself. I was still holding the helmet and mask, and the jumpsuit coverall things didn’t exactly blend in anyway. Not to mention, I had a long way to go if I was going to get back to where my regular clothes were hidden.

Tonight had been basically as far from a success as you could get, without me actually dying or being captured. I hadn’t actually accomplished anything aside from finding out about my dad being Silversmith.

Except I had. Belatedly, I realized that I still had my phone. Throughout that whole thing, I’d somehow remembered to drop it into the pocket of my coveralls while running for my life. I still had the video, short as it was, of my brother meeting with those Easy Eight guys, while standing with a gun in his hand. The video hadn’t actually recorded him doing anything illegal, but it was something. Maybe I could figure out what to do with it later.

Right now, I just wanted to… actually, I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t know what I wanted, but going home was basically the last possible thing. The idea of going back to that place while knowing everything I did made me want to start cursing and hitting things again.

I needed to clear my head. Walking around felt like a good idea, but I didn’t want to draw attention. So I did something about that. Focusing, I turned the bottom half of the coveralls white, while making the top half blue. I thought about it briefly before leaning over to look at my waist. Would this work? I made a space about one inch wide, all the way around, turn black, like a belt. As an added touch, I put in a bit of red right at the front, where the fake belt’s buckle and clasp would be.

It wasn’t going to fool anyone who got close, but in the dark, from a distance, I might not stand out. Enough to walk down the street, anyway. Especially after I looked around for a few seconds and found a discarded plastic grocery bag to shove my helmet and gloves into.

Okay, it still wasn’t perfect. But again, I could probably take a walk like this. Holding the bag with one hand, I started out. My eyes were down, watching the sidewalk ahead of me as I made my way down the street while cars passed me by. I wasn’t really thinking about where I was going, just that I needed to keep moving away from where I’d been.

My thoughts wandered, but always came back to that one thing. My father was a villain. My father was Silversmith. Silversmith was a villain. He was a bad guy. My whole family were… were..

I wanted to cry. I wanted to throw up. I wanted to hit things. I did none of that. I walked. For a long time, actually. It helped clear my head, helped me come to terms, at least as much as I could that quickly, with what I’d found out. I could breathe. It hurt, but I could think about it.

Okay, Dad was a bad guy. My whole family were bad guys. Pretty important ones too, if Dad was able to play at being the leader of the local Conservators. Dad was super-rich, powerful, and influential. He obviously had a hell of a lot of connections in both the Fell and Star-Touched groups. Heroes and villains, he was playing both sides. I didn’t know why or how he pulled it off, but he did.

Then there was that thing he’d said, about how they could maybe ‘use’ me no matter which side I fell on, as long as I didn’t know too much. Dad was confident that whether I, or rather, the boy he thought I was, wanted to be a hero or a villain, they could use me. Which obviously meant that he had even more contacts in both those worlds than I already knew about. Probably other Touched that either worked for him or did favors for him.

I couldn’t go to anyone. I realized that while walking along a dark side street that was only partially lit by a couple valiantly flickering street lamps, the buildings to either side long-since closed for the evening. A steady stream of cars passed, none paying any attention to me or to anything else in this neighborhood.

I couldn’t just go to the cops or flag down a random hero. Dad could have people–no, did have people involved with any or all of them. The second I told my story, if I was talking to the wrong person, or if they talked to the wrong person, things would get really bad, really fast.

So… what was I going to do about it? What could I do about it?

Nothing. Or at least, nothing that immediately came to mind. I had no idea who to trust, only that trusting the wrong person would be the end of this whole thing. For a second, I absurdly thought about, of all things, the game Minesweeper. I’d gotten… fairly good at that game from the semester that I’d been a librarian assistant during lunch back in junior high. It involved a lot of sitting at the desk doing nothing. I’d spent much of it playing games or browsing on my phone. But I’d also played a lot of Minesweeper on the ancient computer that sat there. Enough to know some of the basics, like the fact that it was normally impossible to lose on the first click because if there was a mine under the first tile that you clicked on, it would automatically be moved elsewhere. Your first move on a new board was always completely safe.

Too bad this wasn’t Minesweeper. Clearing this particular set of mines, finding the safe person to talk to about this, didn’t have that kind of safety net. Talking to the wrong person would let my family know exactly what was going on. It would set off all the mines. And I couldn’t chance that. Not yet.

So I couldn’t talk to anyone right now. Not until I knew some more. I was going to have to be very careful. Maybe… maybe I could find out why my parents were part of this. Maybe finding out why would help me figure out who I could trust. But if I did that, if I dug into their history, it… it was going to be dangerous. And I had no idea how or where to start. I couldn’t just wave and say, ‘Hi, Daddy, could you tell me how you became a supervillain pretending to be a superhero?’

All of which meant I was going to have to be subtle. Maybe I could sneak into Dad’s offices, either at home or at his company headquarters downtown (under the pretense of visiting him, of course). That might be a decent place to start, since I could get away with being around home or the offices. Especially if I was careful about it. I could maybe find something to give me a starting point at figuring any of this out.

Either way, right now it was time to go home. I could figure out more… or anything at all later. But I had to get back to where I’d left my clothes first. Looking down at my phone to orient myself, I winced a little. I’d been going completely the wrong way. If I was going to get back home before my parents started to wonder where I was, I’d have to get back there quick. And that meant using my paint and skates to speed things up.

Glancing around, I ducked back behind a fast food place before shifting my suit back to white, disabling the ‘disguise’, for what it had been worth. From the bag, I took the gloves, mask, and helmet, tugging them on one by one. If I was going to use my power to get back to my clothes, doing so without covering my face would probably be a bad idea.

With my identity safely hidden, I moved back out from behind the building and checked my phone once more while rolling back to the sidewalk on my skates. With a little help from my paint, I could take a few shortcuts and make it back to my clothes before–

“Hey! Hey!” A voice called out, making me jerk in surprise as I spun with my hands up defensively.

But it wasn’t one of Simon’s goons. Or any goon, as far as I could tell. Not unless they were employing elderly women carrying shopping bags in one hand and walking a poodle with the other. She even wore a sun hat with flowers on it. The lady was standing there, using the hand with the leash looped around it to point to me. “Hey,” she repeated for a third time, “you’re one of those superhero people, right?”

“Uh,” I managed after a second of staring at her dumbly.

“One of those Minority kids?” she guessed. “You change so much, I can’t keep up. But you, whatever you call yourself. Super-skating-kid. You should call your friends to do something about those guys back there.”

“Those… guys?” I echoed blankly.

My voice must’ve been muffled, or maybe she was hard of hearing, because the woman nodded. “Yes, sonny, the guys back there.” She pointed down the street. “Two of them, they just attacked that poor man. I think they’re mugging him. You should do something about it.”

“Call the cops?” I offered a bit weakly.

The woman laughed bitterly. “Oh sure, sweetie. Call the cops and wait thirty minutes for them to show up. You go right ahead and do that. Daisy and I have to get home. Maybe we’ll have time to bake a nice cake for the officers when they get here.”

Her dog barked at me once before they hurried off, leaving me standing there while the woman muttered something about the state of the city and what it was turning into.

For a few seconds, I just stood there. My eyes were glued to the alley down the street. It was far enough back that I could barely make it out, and in a completely different direction than the way I needed to go. Some guy right now as back there getting mugged and beat up. A guy I didn’t know, who had nothing to do with me. I could call the cops, could even do so anonymously with the Doephone app. But it was like that woman had said, they would take at least half an hour to get out here. That would be too late. The damage would be done. The damage was being done even as I stood there, caught in my own indecision.

I skated that way. Wheels gliding along the pavement, I found myself rushing without consciously realizing what I was doing. Hitting the opposite sidewalk, I turned my skates black and activated the silencing power for the last distance before reaching the alley in question.

Even then, I could hear faint sounds coming from it. Sounds of… bad things. Forcing back the fear that was trying to shove its way up out of my stomach, I coasted to a stop, catching myself against the wall of the building. For a second, I just stood there, asking myself what the hell I thought I was doing.

More sounds came, and this time I was close enough to make them out. First was the sound of a whispered plea, then the shuffling of feet on pavement before that of a fist colliding with someone’s stomach. Then a grunt of pain accompanied by a violent wheeze of air from the person being hit.

Squeezing my eyes shut, I mouthed a silent prayer before peeking around the corner, just in time to see two men. No, three. The third was doubled over from being struck. They were all standing in front of a door at the back of that alley. One of the standing guys was shoving the door open, revealing darkness beyond. The guy who was doubled over said something that sounded like a plea, before the one standing in front of him caught him by the back of the neck, yanked him around, and shoved him through the open doorway. I caught a glimpse of the guy tripping to sprawl out over the floor just beyond. He said something then, another desperate plea that I could barely hear.

The guy who had thrown him in stalked after the guy, rearing back to kick him. Meanwhile, the one who had opened the door suddenly paused before starting to turn to look back up the alley.

I jerked back out of the way, throwing myself against the wall while my heart tried to beat its way out of my chest. I stayed there, whispering silent prayers until I heard the heavy metal door close. Once the clang came, I took a breath before chancing a peek around the corner once more.

The alley was empty. They were inside that building, with that guy.

Putting my back to the wall once more, I reached up to shove the front of my helmet up out of the way before pushing my hands against the ski mask that covered my face to muffle the whimper of revulsion and fear that escaped me.

Who was that guy? Who were they? What did they want with him? Why were they just… hitting and kicking him, and what did they plan to do with him in there?

The only thing close to an answer I had was to the last question, and that was ‘nothing good’.  That woman was wrong, this wasn’t just a mugging. If it was a mugging, they wouldn’t have taken him in there. This was something else. The fear I’d heard in the man’s pleas… I couldn’t hear his actual words, but he had obviously been terrified. Whatever was going on, whoever they were… he was afraid they would kill him. I had no doubt about that. He had been begging for his life.

Just like those guys had last night. The two guys in that motel who had been executed right in front of me. I’d heard one of them screaming, begging for his life after the first had been shot in the head. Then he too had been silenced. Mercilessly, coldly executed.

But what could I do? I’d screwed up earlier. All I’d been trying to do was get video proof of what Simon was doing, and that had gone so wrong I’d barely escaped. I had run away. Just like I had last night. I had seen those guys get killed, and the only thing I’d done was run away.

First I had stood there, watching as they were murdered. Then I had run away. And now… now it was the same thing. Now this other guy was going to be killed. I’d stood there, watching him be dragged into that building where he would probably be executed, just like those guys last night.

I would wake up tomorrow  knowing that, whether it was in the news or not, another man had been killed because I did nothing. Three in two nights. Three men killed because I stood there and watched, because I was too afraid to do anything about it. Three men killed while I hid and then ran.

No.

Not three.

Not tonight.

Not this one.

I straightened from the wall, pushing myself off it. My hand found the front of my helmet and shoved it back down into place with a firm click. Turning, I stepped around to stand in front of the alley, facing that door, beyond which I had no idea what I would find. But I did know one thing.

I wasn’t running away this time.

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Summer Epilogue 1C (Heretical Edge)

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“Would you like to take the Tartarus orb to the ship’s secure vault, Seraph?”

The polite question came from one of Metatron’s subordinates, as he and his main honor guard stepped off of the tube connecting the assault shuttle to the command ship that had brought him to this hell hole. The officer was in his early two hundreds and eager to prove himself worthy of such an illustrious position as serving aboard the command vessel for one of the Seraphim.

“No, Decanus,” Metatron replied in a simple, measured tone as he addressed the man by rank. He didn’t want to snap at his own people, particularly just for trying to be useful. Being annoyed at this entire situation was no excuse for snapping at loyal subordinates. “I’ll take the orb to my quarters. I’d rather keep it close, just in case the devil twins added a surprise or two that we haven’t noticed.” He swore that he could feel the orb in the bag at his side, even if that was impossible given that the bag itself was a separate expanded storage space. The orb was technically in another (incredibly small) dimension at the moment. Still, it felt as though the thing was weighing him down.

Giving a few more orders about preparing the ship to leave Rysthael orbit within the next two hours, Metatron made his rounds through the ship. He would have preferred to go straight to his quarters, but it was important for the crew to see him. He took the time to speak to several, greeting them by name, asking how their various mates and families were, and offering advice when it was asked for. That went for Seosten crew members and non-Seosten alike. On board his ship, Metatron didn’t care what species they were, so long as they did the job they were given. Loyalty was what mattered in the end.

It took about one hour for the man to do his rounds. The ship would be jumping within the next hour after that, and he wanted to be on the bridge for it. But first, he needed to clean up and change into fresh clothes. It might have been ridiculous, but he never stood on the bridge before a jump in a dirty, used uniform. It felt like bad luck, a hold-over from his time so long ago serving as a navigator on an explorer ship under Zadkiel. That had been before Zadkiel went through the process that had made him, along with six others including Michael and Raphael, into… what they were now. His own first captain, the man who had been his mentor and friend, had become one of the most powerful beings in the universe.

Not that Zadkiel was around anymore. Not since they had first discovered Tartarus. Not since… well, he wasn’t around. That was enough thinking about that.

And why was he thinking about his old captain? That had been… many millennia ago. He hadn’t consciously thought about the man for a long time, though he supposed his general annoyance with many of the Olympus people probably stemmed from the loss of Zadkiel. After what had happened that made them possible…

Shaking that off, the man walked with two of his aides all the way to his quarters on the ship. Dismissing them at the door, he stepped into the room by himself and let it whoosh closed behind him.

It was either a testament to his distraction, or to… something else, that he made it almost halfway across the large main living room before noticing that while he may have entered the room without his aides, he wasn’t actually alone after all. A figure in a dark coat with the hood up stood with their back to him, facing the screen that showed an image of the planet below.

Instantly, Metatron activated several alarm spells on his person, along with a couple focused on protection, and one that would open a communication line to the bridge and the security office. A pistol materialized in his hand as he faced the intruder. “If this is some idea of a prank—”

“Your spells won’t work in here.” The voice was not threatening, but more matter of fact, as though it were simply pointing out a simple truth. It was also a familiar voice.

“Did you wonder why you were thinking about me?” With those words, the figure turned around to face him. And Metatron saw the man he had thought he would never see again. A man with long black hair, eyes a mix of brown with blue flecks, and a face that was lined more by hard work than by age. He looked exactly as he had the last time Metatron had seen him, thousands of years earlier.

“Zadkiel.” The name left his lips and a hushed whisper.

“Hi there, Navigator.” Zadkiel greeted him with a faint smile. “It’s been a while.”

Metatron stared, more than half convinced he was simply dreaming this. Or maybe it was a trick set up by those damned twins. Or maybe—

Zadkiel interrupted. “It is not a trick. I am here.”

That is impossible,” Metatron declared. “You were lost. You were the first to go into Tartarus, and you never came back. They lost you in there. You cannot be here on this ship, and certainly not in my room, because you never came out of there. You were lost. You are dead.”

With a faint smile, Zadkiel replied. “You’re right, I did get lost in there.” He stopped talking for a moment, eyes adopting a faraway look as though remembering before he shook himself. “I got lost in there for a long time. But not forever. And not nearly as long as we did.”

Blinking, Metatron found himself echoing, “We?”

His old captain met his gaze, chuckling a little before waving a hand. “Don’t worry about that yet. The point is, I am here.” He turned casually to look back at the planet then, quietly noting, “It’s weird being up here looking down on the world after all this time.”

“I don’t… what?” Metatron was completely lost, still holding the gun on his mentor almost absently. He couldn’t follow this at all. Slowly, he looked toward the planet as well. “Are you saying you were down there?” His eyes widened and he took a step that way. “You’ve been on this world? How? Why? What have you been doing? How did you get out of Tartarus?”

“We—” Zadkiel started before stopping, his head cocked to the side. “Wait. Me. Just let me talk. Let me tell him, just me. I can handle it. It will be better that way.”

That settled it. Whatever was going on, Metatron was going to make sure it was handled properly and securely. With that in mind, he thumbed the pistol over to its highest stun setting and let his finger tighten on the trigger. This was no ordinary sidearm. It was one that had been modified to be his personal weapon, packing a punch that would put down almost anyone. Especially from this range and straight on.

Then he stopped. Or rather, his finger stopped. He chose to stun the man in front of him, but his finger wouldn’t follow through. No matter how hard he tried, his hand was frozen.

A sigh escaped Zadkiel. “We truly wish you hadn’t done that. It was a bad idea. You shouldn’t have tried it. Why didn’t you just listen?” The man’s voice cracked with his own words, his body twitching a little as though he was barely holding himself together. Actual ripples ran through the man’s body, as though there were things crawling just beneath the skin.

Now, Metatron found that he couldn’t move his own body at all. He stood there, completely frozen while the man in front of him twitched and spasmed a bit before seeming to get himself under control.

“Yes,” Zadkiel muttered while taking a deep breath. “We knew this would be hard. But we tried it anyway. We’ll do what we need to do.” He focused on Metatron then, his expression seemingly a mix between pity and anger. “You should have just listened quietly. You had to go and force our hand. That was… a bad idea.”

Finding himself able to talk even as the rest of him remained frozen, Metatron demanded, “What did you do to me? Why can’t I move? Who are you and why did you take that form?”

“We told you,” the intruder snapped, “we are him. He is us. Me. Part of me. Part of us. We are him and he is a part of us.” His head twitched, eyes seeming to roll all the way around in his skull before focusing the right way forward once more.

“Are… are you… possessed?” Metatron asked. His eyes would have widened if he could move any part of himself beyond his mouth.

The intruder laughed. “That is a very difficult question to answer. Are we possessed? Or are we possessing? Which side of it are we on?” He laughed again, the sound trilling up into a high, almost shrill note before abruptly cutting off, his tone instantly sobering, his tone measured and firm. “We were lost. We were both lost in there. We were lost in that place, that horrible, horrible place. We were lost and then we found each other.”

“Who did you find, Zadkiel?” Metatron managed. “Who could you possibly have found in there? You were the only one that went in there. There was no one else. Just the Olympians, and they all came out.”

He was met by a smile, the other man’s words almost sickly sweet. “Not one of yours. Not one of ours. He was lost in there for so much longer. Lost and broken, in fact. That part of me, that part of us, was snapped off of the other. He went in there himself, whole and complete. But that place broke him. It snapped him in half. Half staying in while the other half left. Physically the same, but not. That part of me, the part of him, left. He left himself behind. He left me behind. He left me in there. Left part of himself in there. Until I found him. Until we found each other.”

Throughout that entire spiel, the man’s emotions seemed to jump through a dozen different levels at random. He shouted, whispered, laughed, and cried, sometimes all in the same sentence.

Metatron was so lost in that moment he felt like screaming. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Zadkiel seemed to take a breath, getting himself under control. “ A demonstration, perhaps. Maybe you are a visual learner.” He pointed to the screen and spoke a single word, transforming it into a blank white slate.

“Zadkiel is a circle.” Sure enough, a blue circle appeared on the screen. “His mind is a dot.” A matching blue dot appeared in the middle of the circle.

“He was sent into Tartarus to explore it, to prove that it could be used and tamed to empower the Seosten people. But he was lost in that place. He wandered for a long time by himself. By myself.” On the screen, the circle bounced around randomly.

“The Other… he was in there long before.” Another circle appeared, this one red, with a red dot in the middle of it to illustrate his mind. “That place does things to you. It gives you powers, gifts. And it does… more. For the Other, it split him in half. Two identical bodies, with slightly different copies of his mind going into each.”

On the screen, the red circle split in half, with a red dot as the brain remaining with each half.

“One half left that place.” One of the half-circles and dots disappeared. “But the other half stayed. He was there for a long time. Until Zadkiel found him. We should have fought. But we were both alone for so long. We talked. And we touched. It had been so long since we touched anyone. We had to. We had to make it real. Don’t you understand? We had to make it real!”

As Metatron was forced to watch, the half-circle of the ‘other’ and the full circle of Zadkiel bounced off each other, circling and touching.

“And then Tartarus made it real. Tartarus made it real forever. It put us together. It combined us. He was only half. So he was shoved into me. We are one now.”

The red half-circle and the blue full circle combined then. The dots that were their minds, and the half circle where both of their ‘bodies’ were overlapped turned purple.

“Isn’t that funny? Isn’t that just perfect? After everything that happened between our people, we are one now.”

“Between… our people?” Metatron’s blood went cold. “Who are you talking about? What happened in there? Who were you combined with?”

In answer, Zadkiel straightened. And then he grew another foot or so. His skin paled, turning a bit gray while his actual face remained recognizably himself, though with a few alterations. His eyes grew larger and wider.

His wings emerged. But they were more than just energy constructs. They looked demonic, like massive physical bat wings. The structures of them, the parts where the bones would be, were actually solid, while the middle part that was responsible for catching the air in a normal wing was still made of energy. Half biological monstrosity and half energy construct.

Metatron knew what he was looking at, even as every hope he had otherwise broke into shards and collapsed to dust. His fears were correct. The other being that Zadkiel had been combined with in that place… was a Fomorian.

“No,” he managed a bit brokenly, his heart crumbling as he stared at the figure that he had once looked up to so much. “You should have died. You should have died rather than come out of there with one of them attached to you. You should have killed it, or died trying. You never should’ve come out of there like this.”

Zadkiel, or whatever the two combined figures called themselves, gave a soft chuckle, stretching their wings out to their full, impressive extension. “We are far more together than we ever were apart. We are more with each other than you could ever possibly understand. We’ve brought the best of our peoples into one. And we came here to finish that job.”

“You came here… why?” Metatron managed, while the discussed and horror that he felt rose with each second that he had to spend staring at this abomination.

Rather than answer immediately, the monster turned to look at the planet on the screen. “We have been here for a long time. Longer than even you have been here. We’ve done things here. Nudged things where we needed to. We heard about prophecies. Some we wanted. Others we didn’t. Like the one about the woman who works for Morgana the witch queen.”

Metatron’s head shook. “That woman has many protégés. I don’t—”

In mid-sentence, the man stopped. He frowned uncertainly. Morgana the witch queen? The woman had been missing, presumed dead, for centuries. The Seosten didn’t know where she was, and yet he had just been speaking as though he knew her. As if she was… the… Sinclaire woman. How could he possibly have known that? He didn’t know that. And yet the information had simply appeared in his mind, as if he had somehow known the whole time. And if that information was in his mind, what else did he…

“You should pay more attention,” the monster snapped, and it was almost like being reprimanded by his old captain again. “Virginia Dare. We heard of many prophecies surrounding her bloodline. So we sent people to find her as a child. They disappointed us. But then, that was inevitable. We didn’t particularly care if the girl was brought to us or driven away. All that mattered was that she not live a normal life. And that was accomplished quite thoroughly.”

Still confused, Metatron asked, “Why are you meddling in that? Or in anything on this world? What is it you want?”

The sick, twisted abomination smiled at him. “We came here to find him. And we will do so. We will find him and be one.”

Metatron was silent for a moment before letting out a breath. “The other half of the Fomorian who was in Tartarus. The one who left. You think he’s here on this world?”

“We know he is,” was the response. “He’s been here since the beginning. Through all of their history. He has always been here. Playing nice with them. Being the pleasant old man. He even calls himself Grandfather, of all things.”

“Why can’t I move?” Metatron repeated his earlier question, still straining against whatever had frozen him. He had to tell others. He had to make sure this was known. “What did you do to me? And why have you shown yourself now? Your Fomorian isn’t here on the ship.” He tried to ignore the fact that he had said that while looking at what was at least half of a Fomorian. Half of a Fomorian… and his old captain. It was a thought that brought bile to his throat.

“No,” the monstrosity before him replied, his twisted Fomorian-Seosten visage tearing Metatron’s very soul every second that he had to look at it. “He is not. But you are. And you have brought back what we need to reintegrate with him. Just as you were supposed to.”

“The Tartarus Orb,” Metatron realized, a sudden chill running through him. “If you want that, you’ll have to go get it out of the ship vault.”

In what appeared at first to be a non sequitur, the figure in front of him mused, “We are many things. Survivors. Abandoned. Torn asunder. Joined. Allied. Left, yet found. We were lost, yet we came upon one another. Though not fully whole, we have reached beyond what we were capable of alone. We are so very many things…

“But we are not stupid.”

With that final declaration, Metatron felt his own hand suddenly jerk, seemingly of its own volition. It hurt, as though the bone in his body was moving and dragging the rest of the arm with it. He reached, against his will, into the bag at his side where the orb was kept and plucked the thing out before offering it forward. All the while, he struggled uselessly. “What… what… do you want with this…?”

One of those horrific wings of mixed flesh and glowing energy reached forward, a clawed  talon-like extension on the end snatching the orb before bringing it back to the monster’s actual hands, where he cradled it. His voice was quiet. “We are the inevitable conclusion of our species’ endless war, a true peace and alliance. Look at us. Look at us. To end this war, we are what is needed. No Fomorians. No Seosten. Only together.

“But we are not yet whole. We are not yet truly two-in-one. One of us is a half of himself.”

Metatron understood. “The Fomorian down on that world. You want to unite with him.”

“He is our remaining part,” the figure confirmed while turning the orb over in his hands. “He is needed, if we are to complete our purpose. We will end the Fomorian-Seosten war, by ending the Fomorian and the Seosten as separate people. All will be brought together as we have been. And peace will be restored. We will end this conflict for all time by truly uniting our peoples. But we cannot do that without our final part. He is needed. We need him to be a part of us, to make us whole.”

Holding the orb up, he continued. “We can only unite with our lost part through Tartarus. We need to be there, with him, to be made whole. This will be the key.”

That took a moment to process before Metatron snapped, “Here. You want to open Tartarus here on this world.”

That horrible visage stared at him for a moment before the figure chuckled. “Open it? No. We will bring it here to this world. We will make this world a part of Tartarus.”

“Our people will stop that from happening,” Metatron informed him. “They will stop everything you’re trying to do. Do you really think they’ll just allow you to do all of this?”

“Perhaps they would try,” the abomination agreed. “But they won’t know anything until it’s too late.”

“You have the orb,” Metatron reminded him. “They’ll come for it.”

That earned him a thoughtful nod. “Yes, they would. But we do not need the whole orb. Only…” One of his wings tucked in, the talon on the end plunging into the orb with a wet squelching sound. There was a pulsing in the wing, as it sucked Tartarus energy from the orb like a straw. Slowly, the golden energy in the wings turned a dark purple-black color, and the abomination sighed in satisfaction. “Ahhh… there. We only required a portion of the orb. That will serve as a seed, which will grow, in time, to what we need it to be.”

He, or they, or whatever it was, tossed the orb back toward Metatron. One of the wings came down to catch it before placing the thing into the frozen man’s outstretched hand. “You may take the orb back to the Seosten to play their games. It will make no difference in the end.”

Metatron opened his mouth, then paused. “And you’re going to try to erase my memory of this entire thing so I don’t warn them.”

The monster stepped forward, standing face to face with him, their eyes meeting. “Erase your memory? No. You will remember all of this. But you still won’t say a word to anyone. Just as you aren’t moving to stop us now.”

“You may be powerful,” Metatron half-snarled. “But even you can’t control my body from across the universe.”

That earned him a merry laugh. “You believe we are controlling you? That is what you think is happening here? Old friend… why are we standing eye to eye?”

It was a question that made the man blink. Eye to eye. They were standing… at even levels. As he processed that, the monster murmured, “Look down.”

Slowly, reluctantly, Metatron did so. His eyes focused on his outstretched hand, and he saw… pallid gray. Fingers that were too many, and too long.

His eyes rose, and he saw that the screen on the wall had changed. It was a mirror. He saw the reflection of the creature standing in front of him, the monstrosity that had been his old captain, that twisted combination of Zadkiel and his Fomorian half.

And he saw himself. He saw his skin turned gray, his height raised to match his intruder’s. He saw his too-large eyes, the bulbous head with his own familiar face superimposed onto it.

“You see?” His own mouth spoke the words, while Metatron himself screamed somewhere in the void of his lost soul.  

“We have already begun our evolution.”

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Interlude 1 – The Minority (Summus Proelium)

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“Would someone here mind telling me who would be stupid enough to try robbing a bank that belongs to La Casa?”

The man asking the question was Lieutenant Harold Dabber, of the Detroit police department. He was a short, somewhat heavyset man with a gray walrus mustache, long stringy hair, and the face of someone who had been in a lot of fist fights. He looked more like a bum off the street than a thirty-year veteran of the police force, particularly with his beat-up brown raincoat and checkered shirt. The people he was addressing were the roughly thirty-odd officers who were helping to secure the main entrance of the bank in question.

The bank, named Prime International Enterprise, didn’t advertise that it was owned by what amounted to a Touched version of the mafia, of course. But it was understood. Blackjack, the leader of La Casa, controlled several banks in the city, even if the authorities lacked the ability to prove that fact. It was an open secret.

The point was that trying to rob the place was tantamount to suicide. And yet, that was apparently what had just happened. There was a group that had gone into the bank to actually steal from La Casa. Which had led to the bank’s own security, backed up by at least one of the La Casa Fell-Touched, attempting to deal with the situation on their own, to send a message. The first group had fought back just effectively enough to gain a foothold on one side of the bank’s massive lobby. Now there were hostages on both sides, caught between the rival gangs.

One of the uniformed officers responded, ”Witnesses said it looked like a few of the Ninety-Niners, sir. No sign of any Touched on their side. Just rank and file troops. Might be new guys trying to make a name for themselves and move up.”

Dabber grunted, muttering a curse. “They’re gonna make a grave for themselves. Which I might not even complain about too much if they’re that fucking stupid, except that they’re going to drag a lot more people into those graves with them.”

“Don’t worry Lieutenant,” a new voice announced, “we won’t let that happen.”

Turning, the man saw exactly who he knew it would be. Standing before him and the other cops was a group of teenagers. Touched teenagers, in full costume.

They were called The Minority, the official team throughout the country for Star-Touched who were under eighteen. Teens who were training to be heroes. Some would be taken on by the Conservators, while others would be picked up by groups like Ten Towers or the Spartans. Once they were old enough, each group who was interested would extend an offer of membership and benefits.

The boy who was talking was called Syndicate. He was their current leader, who had held that position for under six months at this point. Syndicate was a tall black boy, fairly thin in a wiry way. The lower three quarters of his face, aside from his temple and hair, was covered by a hard shell red mask of some kind. It look like a full head-covering helmet that the top had been cut off of. His black hair stuck up through the opening in random spikes. Most of the base of his costume was red as well, with gold accents and armor pieces. It seemed to tread a middle ground between protection and sleekness.

To his left was a muscular boy in what looked like an army camo suit save for the fact that it was black and brown, with a ski mask and heavy gauntlets, and a much smaller girl who looked as though she was barely twelve, wearing a dark blue bodysuit with silver armor panels and a white cloak, the hood up over her head. Her identity was concealed by a mirrored faceplate that reflected her surroundings.

Whamline and Raindrop, respectively.

The other three members of the teenaged team were to Syndicate’s right. There was a Caucasian girl in a dark purple bodysuit with white arrows drawn randomly all over it that pointed in every direction, and a domino mask, her blonde hair fashioned into a ponytail. There was also another girl whose ethnicity was impossible to determine, as she wore a jester’s mask and full robes and hood that completely covered her. All were made in a gold, silver, and purple color scheme. And there was another boy, this one the tallest of all. Actually, he was even taller than any of the police officers, standing at over six and a half feet. His suit made him look like a medieval knight, though the armor and helmet were emerald green.

The two girls were That-A-Way and Carousel, and the armored boy was called Wobble.

Syndicate, Whamline, Raindrop, That-A-Way, Carousel, and Wobble. The Detroit team of the Minority.

“No offense, kid,” Dabber replied after taking in the side of the group. “But I was kind of hoping we’d get one of the varsity teams out here for this.”

There had been a time, not so very long ago, when he would have objected to teenagers having any involvement in this whatsoever. This was a hostile situation. Any time before the previous decade or so, he would have raised holy hell. He had done so, in fact. But in these recent years, he had seen teenagers with powers be thrown into far more dangerous situations than this one. And he had also seen what happened when those teenagers weren’t properly experienced. This may have been something that would have been utterly unthinkable more than twenty years earlier. But things had changed in those past couple of decades. The threats in the world required solutions that he didn’t have. People with powers had to be stopped by people with powers. Especially when an Abyssal got going. And the only way they were going to get the training they needed to face those threats was by facing smaller ones. Real field experience, like this situation.

Still, as he’d said, he really would have preferred having one of the adult groups here, with the teens running cleanup.

Syndicate shook his head. “Sorry, there’s a brawl going on uptown between Oscuro and Braintrust. It’s all hands on deck right now. They’re going to be busy for a while. But don’t worry, we can get the hostages out of there and calm this whole thing down.”

Beside him, Carousel gave a quick nod that sent the bells on her jester’s mask ringing. “That’s a fact. We’ll make it a pact, to set things right, and call it a night.”

Yeah, Dabber had no idea why the girl made everything rhyme all the time. It was just kind of her schtick, along with the whole jokester motif.  

After a brief back-and-forth to establish the situation, the team of teens focused on the occupied bank. Syndicate turned to the side, where three blue-gray ghostly and transparent duplicates of himself stood. Two of those ghost-copies ran off to either corner of the building. Then the main boy looked to the youngest member of their team. “Raindrop, there’s a skylight in the roof. If the rest of us play distraction, can you get the hostages up and out that way?”

There was a brief hesitation, as the little girl seemed afraid to answer. Finally, however, her head bobbed up-and-down in a quick nod as she set herself. “Uh huh. I um, I’ll do it.” She sounded nervous, but determined.

With that, Raindrop pointed above her head, creating a small cloud that poured water over top of herself. Once she had been soaked down (her cloak acting like a raincoat), the girl quickly floated up off the ground, heading for the roof. She was more than simply a powerful hydrokinetic. The kid could also manipulate how gravity affected anything that was wet.

Syndicate pointed then. “That-A-Way, Wobble,  take the far left window there, where that me is. That should put you right by the loan offices where the Ninety-Niners are holed up. Carousel, Whamline, you guys are with the me on that other side, where the La Casa and security guys are based. As soon as I go in the front door and draw attention of everyone in there, the groups on both sides go in and hit them from behind. While they’re distracted, Raindrop pulls the hostages out through the ceiling. Any questions? You got that, Drop?” For the last bit, the boy’s head turned a bit as though he was listening to something in his ear before nodding and satisfaction. “Good, let’s do it then.” He looked to Dabber. “Sir, if you’d like to send your men over and have them wait at either side, as soon as the hostages are clear, they can head in and mop things up. We’d sure appreciate it.”

Dabber agreed, sending several officers with both groups, along with orders to wait until the hostages were out of danger before moving in. Then he took his own pistol from its holster and looked to the leader of the Minority. “I’m going in with you.”

Syndicate nodded, before he, his remaining ghost-duplicate, and Dabber himself headed carefully up toward the front entrance. There was a man there with a rifle. He wore the uniform of bank security and gave them a hard glare, shaking his head to warn them off. This was a situation that the bank wanted to deal with themselves.

The main Syndicate stopped right alongside Dabber. But his ghost kept moving, walking straight through the locked door. As the man reacted to that, the Syndicate on the inside suddenly turned solid, while the one standing beside Dabber became insubstantial. That was the boy’s power. He existed in four places at once, four separate bodies. But only one of those bodies could be solid at a time, while the remaining three were basically ghosts. They switched which of them was solid at any point.

The newly solid Syndicate took the man by the door down in short order before unlocking the door to let his other self and Dabber inside.

As soon as they were through, a voice called out from behind one of the desks. “Lieutenant, Touched kid, you’re gonna want to leave. This doesn’t concern you. It’s an internal matter, and the bank won’t be pressing charges.”

Dabber looked that way, catching sight of a man in a dark chauffeur’s uniform and a white facemask. Spades, one of the La Casa Touched. His power made him quicker, faster, and stronger than any normal person. It also gave him a nearly unmatched reaction speed, and the ability to heal quickly.

“Sorry,” Dabber called back. “I’m gonna need you and everyone else in here to stand down. And while we’re at it, why don’t you stick around and answer a few questions about some other problems you’ve been involved with?”

His answer came in the form of a gunshot from the direction of the loan offices, where the Ninety-Niner thugs were holed up. The shot was either fired by someone who had no intention of hitting him, or an intentional warning. Either way, it hit one of the nearby pillars, before a voice from that direction shouted, “You heard him, get the fuck out, pig! This ain’t your business!”

Syndicate’s two nearby selves looked to one another before the one who was solid spoke up loudly. “Okay, guys. If you’re not going to surrender quietly, we’ll just have to now.”

Though the boy seemed to interrupt himself with that single last word while not changing his tone at all, it was clearly a signal. Because a lot started happening all at once. The solid boy grabbed Dabber by the arm and yanked him to the floor, while several more gunshots rang out from both sides.

At the same time, That-A-Way and Wobble appeared by the offices, the former teleporting the two of them right into the middle of the group that had set up there. The men spun to fire, but achieved little. Wobble sent a wave of vibrations through the air that knocked several of them into the ground, while others were simply left dazed and nauseous from the effect. A couple more shot at That-A-Way, but the girl had switched from moving north to moving east, which meant that her power had changed from teleportation to being invulnerable and unstoppable, allowing her to simply run straight at the men without being affected, crashing into them and knocking them to the ground.

One of the other thugs managed to roll over and aim his gun at the girl’s teammate. But he was now to the west of her, which allowed That-A-Way to use her superspeed to reach the man, taking the gun out of his hand before he could fire. He swung at her wildly. Unfortunately for him, his new position made it so that he was to the south of her. Which meant that taking a simple step toward him made the girl intangible so that his fist went through her.

It was weird. Dabber had no idea why someone’s powers would be dependent on the compass direction they were moving. But that was how hers apparently worked. She had superspeed, teleportation, invulnerability, or intangibility based entirely around whether she was moving west, north, east, or south, respectively.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, Whamline had smashed a hole through the wall using his own power, which allowed him to create and mentally manipulate energy rope/tentacle things that were incredibly strong and could explode in a burst of kinetic force.

Several of the boy’s floating energy ropes quickly moved to wrap around Spades, trying to catch the quick man, who was having none of it, somehow managing to dart between all of them before one exploded close enough to knock him down.

At the same time, Carousel was focusing on the rest of the men there. A couple tried to shoot at her. But their bullets were caught by her power, which pulled them in to spin in orbit around her. And it was more than just the bullets. The nearby chair and desk, a picture, a few chunks of random debris, and a fire extinguisher were all yanked into orbit around the girl. What’s more, every object that was pulled in by her power immediately shrank down to about the size of a matchbook. Shrank, that was, until the girl sent the object flying away from her. Then, it regained its full size the instant that it left her orbit. Such as the desk that she sent flying into three of the men.

While all that was going on and the teen Touched were dealing with the bad guys from each side, Dabber looked toward the center of the lobby, where a dozen bank employees and customers were huddled. They were all looking up as water fell on them. Water from a cloud that had appeared near the ceiling. Raindrop was up there, her small figure barely visible floating near the now open skylight. As soon as all of the hostages were thoroughly soaked, they suddenly floated up off the floor, some yelping. But there was nothing that either gang  could do about it even if they had noticed, busy as they were with the other Minority members.

The instant that the hostages were being floated up through the open skylight, Dabber hit his radio and sent the order for the rest of the troops to come in. There were no more civilians in the way, so it was time to end this.

*******

“Dude, how cool were we? No, seriously, how fucking cool was all that? We went in there all, ‘bam, we gonna rock you!’ And they were like ‘what’, and we were like, ‘yeah, what do you think of this?’” That-A-Way bounced ahead of the rest of the group of teen Touched as the six of them walked (or skipped in her case) through the alley between the police station downtown and the attached parking garage where the cruisers and other vehicles were kept.

“Jeez, calm down, Amber,” Whamline replied. “How many energy drinks did you guzzle before we got there?”

Nudging the boy firmly in the side, Syndicate reminded him, “We’re in costume and outside. Don’t use real names.” Even as he said the words, the currently solid version of the boy sent a thought to his other three selves in their ghost-forms. Everything okay?

All good, Armadillo, Puma reported from the corner of the police lot. No one followed us.

Rabbit and Colt reported the same. Armadillo, Puma, Rabbit, and Colt. When the four had been trying to decide how to differentiate themselves amongst each other, since they were far more than just duplicates, they had settled on using animal names. Or rather, Armadillo, Puma, and Rabbit had. For the first six months or so of doing this, since he’d become a Touched, there had been only three of him. He’d called himself Trilogy. Then a fourth one had appeared, and Trilogy no longer made sense. He’d thought about Quad, but if a fifth version of himself showed up, he’d have to change again, and it would get old. So he’d gone with Syndicate.

That had been a year and a half earlier, and no other versions of himself had appeared. Two years of this, four months as leader of the team. He was seventeen, about ready to graduate high school. And then he’d have to see what adult teams were interested in recruiting him.

Meanwhile, That-A-Way/Amber was spinning in a circle while replying to Whamline breezily, “I’m just happy. I can be happy, right? Because we got all those hostages out, and caught all those bad guys. With help from the cops, o’course.” In mid-spin, the girl gave a bow toward the police station. She even tipped an imaginary hat before spinning back to the others. “Oh! And there were cameras there. So we’re probably going to be on the news. I hope they got my good side.” She held up for the second before clapping her hands once and laughing out loud. “Isn’t this awesome!?”

“You’ve gotta admit,” Carousel put in, “her cheering’s infectious. Given time, they’ll even respect us.”

“Barely counted as a rhyme,” Wobble informed her. “I give it a four out of ten.”

Whamline’s head shook. “No way, man. You’ve got to factor in difficulty, and she just rhymed something with infectious. That’s gotta bump it up to at least six or seven.”

By that point, the group had reached a blue metal door at the far end of the alley. It looked utterly unremarkable, save for the fact that there was no handle on it, and only a single stenciled word reading utility. Pausing with his hand halfway to the door, Syndicate looked back at the others with a soft sigh. “You guys know we’re trying to get her to stop rhyming all the time, right? You scoring her work doesn’t really help with that.”

“I don’t mind the score,” Carousel replied, “but you should open the door. I could verbally soar, yet it becomes a chore and I find I can never ignore a call for encore, so please I’ve got rhymes here galore but I must ever implore, if we go to war, let’s keep our rapport as we stand in the gore to show them what for, til peace we restore.”

A solid four or five seconds of silence followed that, before Wobble looked at Syndicate. “Just open the damn door before she starts in again.”

Pressing his hand it to the seemingly blank brick wall beside the door, Syndicate activated the button there that made a hidden pinhole camera scan his eyes. A moment later, there was a click, and the door slid open. He gestured. “After you guys.”

They stepped through the door, into a small, featureless room that was just large enough to hold them and maybe a few more people (including the three ghost-like Syndicates who had followed the others in). The door closed, and the group waited together. As they stood there, That-A-Way reached up to her domino mask, unlatching the secure hook in the back before pulling the thing off. Instantly, her supposedly blonde hair turned to its real shade of black, and there was a very faint, subtle shifting of her cheekbones and nose. Just enough to make her look sufficiently different with her eyes uncovered. The mask was the work of a Star-Touched from Texas named Facade, whose invention-based powers focused around disguises and illusions. He sold his work to Touched throughout the country to help them maintain their secrets.

Without the mask, That-A-Way’s real name was Amber O’Connell.

Whamline took off his own ski mask before tucking it into his black-and-brown camo suit, revealing a freckle-faced boy with curly, dark red hair. Next to him, the enormous Wobble cracked open his emerald helmet, pulling it off to expose a clearly Samoan ethnicity, his skin darkly tanned and handsome. Just past the six and a half foot mark despite being only sixteen years old, the boy was often mistaken for an adult.

As civilians, Whamline and Wobble were Jerry Meuster and Laki Sefo, respectively.

All four Syndicates reached up to unlatch their helmets and pull it off, though only the solid one really needed to. Beyond the animal names that the four versions of himself referred to each other as, their shared real name was Damarko Myers. Each thought of themselves as the ‘real’ Damarko, and they took turns living the normal part of his life while the others either ‘slept’ (during which time they would fade entirely away until they woke up) or wandered around doing what they could as a ghost. They could appear in that blue-gray ghost form, or become almost entirely invisible aside from a distortion in the air when they moved. They were also able to communicate mentally with one another, and whoever was solid could summon any or all of the other three to themselves.

Holding his helmet under one arm, the black boy rubbed a hand over his cheek while looking over to Raindrop.

She had pulled down her own hood, and was taking off the mirrored mask. Beneath it was Isabel/Izzy Amor, a small Hispanic girl with wide eyes and a trembling lip, who always looked as though everyone around her was one mistake away from kicking her down a flight of stairs. She was jumpy and constantly apologizing for the smallest thing. But she also tried hard, and was wickedly powerful. Her issue was self-esteem.

Then there was the last member of their group. Carousel stood still for a moment before reaching up, tugging her hood down, then pulled off the jester mask. Doing so revealed the reason her own identity was so thoroughly covered. She was, for one thing, albino. Which would have stood out anyway, with her very pale skin, pink eyes, and almost white hair. But she was also Asian. An Asian albino in Detroit. Covering her entire face, head, and hair was important if she was going to maintain anything resembling a secret identity. Her jester mask even contained dark lenses.

Her real name was Jae Baek, and the moment her mask was off, the girl’s entire posture and demeanor changed. She seemed to shrink in on herself, holding the mask against her chest while looking at the floor. As Carousel, she was loud, outgoing, and constantly rhymed everything thanks to an incredible vocabulary. As Jae, she was quiet, shy, barely spoke (and didn’t do so in rhymes), and rarely initiated eye contact.

It was… probably a bit worrying just how different she acted as Jae and as Carousel, like they were two entirely separate people. She even tended to talk about each side of herself as if she were a different person.

By the time all of them had taken their masks and helmets off, there was a soft ding. The door they had just come through a moment earlier opened. This time, however, it revealed a much larger room rather than the alley they had just come through. Their base, clubhouse, training quarters, whatever else it could be called. The room they had entered was one of about a dozen spread over the city. A dozen they knew about, anyway. They were designed and built by one of the Ten Towers Touched, another technology-based superhero called Switchshift, whose gifts revolved around creations that could transform, change position, or in the case of these rooms, switch places. It allowed people to enter a room in one location and instantly appear somewhere else as the room changed places with its counterpart elsewhere.

A man was standing there, waiting just inside the lobby of their base as the group filed out. Silversmith, the leader of the Detroit branch of Conservators. His face, as always, was hidden behind his helmet. As far as any of the teens were aware, no one knew who Silversmith really was. He kept his identity secret even from his own team. Not that he was the only one. There were other Star-Touched who did the same, though none on this Minority team.

“Heard you did well at the bank,” Silversmith announced, his tone proud and impressed. “Good job. Come on, I’m sure you’re hungry, so I had pizza sent over. You can eat, and tell me everything from your point of view.”

“Are you going to eat, sir?” Amber asked, a not-very-subtle attempt to see something of the man’s face, even if it was only enough to tell his ethnicity. It would still be more than was publicly known.

For a moment, Silversmith didn’t say anything. His head cocked a little, giving the impression despite the featureless helmet that he was smiling at them. “Maybe another time,” he finally replied, his tone lightly amused. “For now, I’ll let you guys have the pizza to yourselves.

“Because if I spoil my appetite, my wife will kill me.”

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