I Love That This Is A Setting Where ‘Nimue Was An Alien Who Introduced The Concept Of Knights To Dragon-Empowered King Arthur’ Makes Total Sense.

A Different Kind Of Hunt 31-06

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Okay, so this shouldn’t be too hard. All we had to do was hold off an entire army of Alters with a handful of partially trained Heretic students (one of whom was a werewolf), a mechanical cougar, and two mechanical mice. Yes sir, this was going to be a walk in the park.

As we ran down the corridor together, Jazz spoke up. “You guys know what we’re doing right? I mean, you know what this is? We are basically going out there to stop an army that two adult Heretics, badass ones, I might add, decided was too much for them to deal with.”

Roxa shook her head. “We don’t have to deal with them. We just have to slow them down long enough for Haiden and Sands’ mom to get everyone out of there. We set up, and we make them fight for every inch they get. They can only send so many troops at us at once in these tunnels. So we set up and keep falling back whenever we need to. But make them earn it.”

Nodding, I looked over to Sands as we kept moving. “I know you don’t like being relegated to support, but-“

“Like I give a shit about that right now,” she interrupted. “Walls. You need walls, right?”

“Yep,” I confirmed. “Like the girl said, we gotta make them fight for every inch they get. That means you and I set up walls and mines all the way down the tunnel. We wall and mine the hell out of it. Make them take it slow. Plus, that way I can cover you from any strays that slip around. So you can focus on walling everything up.”

“Which puts the four of us on the front lines,” Roxa announced, coming to a stop as she looked toward Gidget and her two former teammates. Though could they really be called former right now?

Stopping as well, I looked toward Jazz. “Your gravity balls. They have a range and target limit, right?”

“Fifteen feet,” she confirmed, shifting from foot to foot anxiously.. “And anytime I try to target more than one person inside that fifteen feet, they fizzle pretty quickly. I can probably affect to three or four, but only for a short burst. Three orbs at once, ten minute duration, unless, like I said, I try to affect more than one person at a time. Seems like for every extra person I try to affect at the same time, the duration goes down about fifty percent.”

“Still useful,” I informed her with a little smile. “Just pick your moments. Don’t wear yourself out too quick. I know what happened back there with Isaac was pretty bad. And I know that this didn’t have to be our fight.”

“You’re right,” the black girl replied. “This wasn’t our fight. We didn’t choose it. Isaac chose it. And those Seosten bastards chose it. Not us. But you know who also didn’t choose it? The Kenkeans. They didn’t choose it, but there still going to get wiped out if we don’t do something. I may have been my people’s last choice to be their Heretic, but I can still choose what kind of Heretic I am. And I choose not to be the kind that could walk away from that.”

I was spared from having to try to respond to that, by Roxa gesturing to Jazz and Gordon. “Come on, guys. We need to get up there. They’re getting closer.”

Tilting my head a little, and focusing, I could hear them. It sounded like they were on fire. A lot of fire. Good, I thought a little maliciously. The more it hurt, the more it would slow them down.

Gordon had shifted his sword and shield back into their tommy gun form. He stood there, gazing down the corridor. “Good luck with those defenses,”  he noted, in a voice that sounded like he was asking us to pick up some chips. “We’ll hold them as long as possible.”

Nodding, I added, “We’ll start the walls back here and work our way to you. Be careful, you guys. Just… please be careful.”

“Actually, speaking of being careful.” Roxa extended a hand to both me and Sands. “Do you mind? It’s probably best to have as many friends as we can get.”

Realizing what she wanted, we both nodded. Roxa immediately put her hands on each of us, and created a pair of stone duplicates. She could only make one duplicate per person, so the more people she had to work with, the more rock soldiers she could make.

By then, there was no more time to say any of the million things I wanted to say. We had to do this. To that end, the other four ran off, moving to head off the incoming troops. Meanwhile, I turned on my heel to look at Sands. “Let’s wall it up.”

Sands promptly reached out with her mace to smack it against the nearby wall and store that material as what it would make the walls from. “Ready.”

The two of us worked quickly. Sands made a wall from one side of the tunnel to the other, leaving a small opening for the others to slip through that could be sealed off as soon as they were through. Meanwhile, I carefully set mines all along it, on both sides. Anyone who tried to smash their way through, or slip through another way, was going to run into a surprise.

It was hard to focus, especially when I heard Gordon‘s gun and Gidget’s lasers start up off in the distance. All I wanted to do was run out there and help. It basically killed me not to be there on the front line. But no, we had our own job to do. Hard as it was, we had to make sure that the walls were up. We had to make this work. If Roxa and the others didn’t have any defenses to fall back behind so they could catch their breaths, this was all going to go very bad, very quickly.

Sands hesitated too, glancing toward me for a second before both of us pointedly turned back to focus on our work. “Funnel?” The other girl asked while moving forward a bit.

Realizing what she meant, I nodded and the two of us got to work. That time, rather than make a straight wall across, Sands created two walls, each taking up about half the width of the tunnel. They were angled inward to create a sort of triangle shape without a bottom. Or, as Sands had said, a funnel. The two diagonal walls didn’t quite meet. We left a small opening, again, for the others to get through. This way, the enemies would be pushed forward through the tunnel, straight to where Gordon could stand in that small opening and fire at them like they were in a shooting gallery. They would just keep getting packed closer together, so that he would barely have to aim. And any that tried to cheat by going through our walls, well, they run into my mines. It was simple, but effective. And to top things off, Sands added rows of spikes all along the angled walls. If too many of the troops tried to push forward, they’d end up impaling their companions. And if Gordon was shooting them from the spot we had set up, they were going to try to push forward to get at him. That, or they’d retreat. Either was good for me.

Glancing over my shoulder as Sands was finishing up with the last bit of wall, I caught a glimpse of the fighting going on. The others were barely visible at the far end of the tunnel, and I couldn’t really make out anything specific. But from the look of things, it was intense, to say the least. Gordon’s gun was shooting continually, and I could see what looked like Roxa’s rock statues essentially running straight into the line of fire coming from the intruders. In some cases, that ‘fire’ was literal. There was clearly at least one soldier there with some kind of flame control, who kept lobbing in fireballs. Thankfully, however, it looked like Jazz’s sword allowed her to control that fire as well. The burning orbs kept reversing course, flying back the way they had come.

Whatever was going on, the details were hard to make out. But it looked like they were slowly, yet steadily being pushed back. Which made sense. Better that they keep pulling backward than end up getting cut off from us. They were doing as much damage as they could while retreating. Twice, I saw Roxa’s aura flare up, and then caught a brief glimpse of Jazz and Gordon’s as well.

Sands and I moved on then, getting closer to the others. For the next fifty feet or so, the other girl made alternating diagonal walls going back and forth, with small openings between each that were only wide enough for someone barely Gordon’s size to slip through. Someone coming from the other direction would have to head diagonally through one tiny, tight space, get to the end, turn around completely and head back the other way. That, or they’d have to take their time smashing through wall after wall after wall. And once we fell back here and I set up some mines to cover our retreat, that in itself would still be dangerous.

Sands even set up a few spiked poles at various spots and at different heights. That way, anyone trying to run through who didn’t know where they were would risk, again, impaling themselves. Whatever it took to force them to go slow and take their time.

A flash of movement caught my eye then. Snapping my head that way, I saw something on the ceiling, rushing past Roxa and the others. One of the Seosten troops. The thing looked like a man-sized gecko with purple skin and bright red compound eyes. It crawled as fast along the ceiling as most people could run on the ground, crossing half the distance between us by the time I even had a chance to realize what was going on.

Somehow, I had my staff switched into its bow form before consciously noticing what I was doing. Reflex born of hours and hours of practice. With a blurted warning to Sands, I snapped the bow up into position, drawing back the energy arrow before launching it with barely a second to aim. Shooting, just like shifting the staff to the bow in the first place, was totally automatic.

And yet, even then, the gecko-Alter avoided the arrow completely. He dropped to the floor an instant before it struck the spot where he had been. The concussive force from the arrow’s impact was enough to knock him forward a step, but nothing more than that. And even as I quickly drew back another arrow, he was already raising his hands.

I threw myself to the side, but there was no incoming attack. No, it was worse. As the gecko spread his hands apart, a portal began to appear. Through it, I could see hordes of troops on the other side. This guy wasn’t attacking us, he was just getting past the others to send another part of their not-so-little army into the open space. If he managed it, Roxa, Gordon, Jazz, and Gidget would be cut off from us entirely. Plus, Sands and I would have a hell of a lot of company.

I couldn’t let that happen. A burst from my staff sent me flying that way while the portal was still growing. The gecko-man stood there as I landed within a few feet of him, but before I could get any closer, a hail of lasers erupted from the portal itself as several of the soldiers on the other side opened fire, forcing me to dive out of the way. As I hit the floor, however, the grapple line from my staff was already launching to wrap around the man’s legs so that he was yanked over to land hard on his back.

The portal, almost as large as the man himself by that point, was still connected to the man’s hands. So it went horizontal rather than vertical, hovering there in the air just above him. One of the other soldiers suddenly appeared there, his upper half poking out of the portal as he leaned through with his rifle raised.

He aimed for me, but just before the man could actually shoot, I triggered the boost from my staff before releasing it so that the weapon went flying down the tunnel back toward Sands. The grapple was still connected to the gecko-man’s legs, so he was hauled along the floor, which threw the other man’s aim off as the portal he was leaning through was suddenly moving. Lasers ate up the wall beside and around me while I rolled back to my feet.

By the time the guard leaning through the portal had twisted back toward me and brought his gun into line, I was up. And as his finger tightened on the trigger, my hand lashed out, launching a small, metal object. Jaq. I had liberated him from the staff before launching it down the tunnel.

And now, I threw the little mouse-cyberform like a baseball. In mid-flight, he changed shape, going from animal to a sharp, deadly blade an instant before he was embedded deep in the gecko-man’s head. .

He died instantly. Which meant that his portal vanished with the other figure still halfway out, slicing him in half and sending my aura flaring up as I was filled with the pleasure from both soldiers’ deaths.

Sands, by that point, had finished with the next set of walls. She jogged up, snatching my staff off the ground from near the bodies before tossing it to me as I joined her.

“Thanks,” I muttered, extending the empty end of the staff down toward the blade that was stuck in the gecko-man’s head. Jaq shifted once more before returning to his spot on the weapon.

Sands opened her mouth before suddenly shoving me aside, just before some kind of electrified grappling hook thing with a manacle on the end shot through the space where I had just been. A quick glance over my shoulder showed some kind of bug-like Alter in silver armor flying above us. He started to retract the grapple back into his extended gauntlet.

Before it could disappear entirely, however, I grabbed on and let it carry me up toward the man. Halfway up, the bug-figure stopped retracting the grapple. But it was too late. I used a quick burst from my staff to propel myself the rest of the way, even as he recoiled.

Then I was inside him. Not in the ‘splatter him to pieces’ kind of way. I was possessing him. Pivoting in the air, I threw the electrified grapple gun down toward Sands. It could be useful. Then I blurted inwardly, Tabbris!

She knew. The bug man fell unconscious, and I sprang free of him, landing in a crouch next to the other girl.

By that point, as the two of us turned the other way, Roxa and the others were on their way. They’d been fighting a slow retreat the whole time, and now they were close enough for us to actually see what was going on. Roxa shouted something before Gidget flew up in her hoverboard form to fire a dazzling display of lasers at the incoming swarm of soldiers. Using that as cover, the others broke and turned to sprint back to us.

“You good?” I asked as they reached us, Roxa and Gidget landing an instant behind the other two.

“Peachy!” Jazz shouted back. She was bleeding heavily from one arm, and her face was bruised. But she looked more alive than I had seen her in quite some time. Maybe ever.

Together, we made our way back slowly through the defenses that Sands and I had erected. Between all of us, we must have taken out twenty or more of the damn guys. But it wasn’t enough. They just kept coming. Mine after mine, wall after wall, they were an inexorable tide. But we were slowing them down.

“It’s done!” The words finally came from Sands, as she held that red ball in one hand. “They’ve got them all through! We’ve gotta go!”

It was just in time, too. We were at our last layer of defenses, the first wall that Sands had made. And now it was our turn.

But as our hands collectively found each of our badges and we blurted, ‘Dorothy’ together, nothing happened. Nothing at all. Glancing to the others, I tried again. We all did. Still, nothing.

Then something did happen. But it was nothing good. The sound of a steady, violent droning, like an angry swarm of insects, filled the air. Together, we turned back the other way, just in time to see the wall completely disintegrate. And not just the wall, but my mines as well. They just… fizzled, absorbed by what appeared to be a massive swarm of tiny bits of buzzing metal. The same buzzing metal that had just devoured Sands’ wall.

“Hello, children,” Raduriel spoke calmly, standing there with his troops arrayed behind him. Dozens of rifles and other weapons were leveled at us, ready to put us down the second we so much as breathed wrong. “I’d like you to meet my own offspring. Or as close as I will ever get.” He raised a hand, as the swarm buzzed down and around him. “My nanites are glorious creatures. So very helpful. Particularly in matters such as… jamming those teleportation spells you happen to be wearing.”

He looked like he was going to say something else then, before pausing to consider. Then he just offered us a little shrug, speaking simply. “Take th–”

As the man was in mid-sentence, one of the soldiers, clearly overly eager, lunged for us. In his haste, however, the man slipped and hit the floor hard. That, in turn, tripped up a couple other soldiers, while more of them blinked back to see what was going on, thereby taking their weapons off of us. It was an opening. A brief one, but an opening nonetheless.

We took it. Spinning back, the six of us hauled ass toward the other room. The soldiers were already reacting, firing a few shots after us. But it was too late. Sands erected a quick wall to block the shots for those precious handful of seconds while we ran. Go. Go. We had to move.

“They’re holding the portal!” Sands called as we scrambled. “We can get out that way!”

Together, we sprinted back into that chamber with Radueriel, his soldiers, and his swarm of nanobots or whatever they were hot on our heels. My endurance was, as always, amazing. Yet I could feel the drain creeping up on me, after that fight with Isaac. And if I was starting to feel it a bit, the others had to be dying. But we couldn’t stop. We couldn’t even slow down. My lungs were screaming, my legs hurt, and I really wanted a drink of water. It was those seemingly little things that I didn’t really think about when imagining how something like this would go. The thirst from a long fight, the cramp in my side, the fact that I kinda needed to pee, it all seemed inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Yet it added up.

The glowing red portal was right there, leading up to the ship. I saw Haiden and Larissa on either side of it, waving us through. Sands hit it first, disappearing the second she passed through. Gordon, two steps behind her, was next, followed by Roxa and Gidget. Only Jazz and I were left.

The droning of the swarm had grown deafeningly loud by that point. The nanites were on top of us. But instead of attacking, they flew around and over the two of us, straight toward where Haiden and Larissa were.

Between the two of them, the adult Heretics killed what was likely millions of the tiny machines within a handful of seconds. Anything that got near them was incinerated. While our powers weren’t enough to take a decent number of the little bastards down, theirs were.

But the nanites weren’t actually attacking them. Not exactly. No, they went for the portal. Larissa and Haiden got rid of most of them, but I saw a few reach the portal. They didn’t go through it, as I feared they might. Instead, they started to explode around it. They looked like tiny fireworks. And as the nanites exploded, the portal suddenly expanded. It grew dramatically, doubling in size in an instant, as if the exploding nanites had suddenly filled it with energy.

Haiden and Larissa were both engulfed by the portal, disappearing. It was a move I didn’t understand, until the portal began to shrink just as suddenly as it had grown. The nanites had overloaded it and now, after briefly growing, the portal was collapsing. It would be gone in seconds. And we were too far away to get to it in time. Seeing that, I slowed.  

“Flick!” Jazz shouted from beside me, noticing the instant that I fell behind. She turned toward me, even as I snapped my staff up into position. “Wh–”

I triggered the kinetic charge on my staff. Not behind myself, but in front. The burst slammed into Jazz, picking the other girl up and hurling her forward. With a cry of surprise, she went flying through the portal an instant before it finished collapsing.

I’d done it without thinking. Without even considering any of my actions. My only impulse had been to get Jazz to safety. Now that she was, I spun back the other way as the sound of footsteps reached me. My fist swung wildly.

Radueriel caught it easily. His hand stopped mine, and there was a sudden blinding pain as he simply squeezed, snapping pretty much every bone in my fingers, and cracking a few more in my hand. I hit the floor with a cry, dropping to my knees while the ancient Olympian Seosten simply stood there with my fist caught in his grip.

Flick! Tabbris blurted inside my head, sounding panicked.

Whatever happens, I shot back to her, do not reveal yourself. You hear me, Tab? Do not reveal yourself, no matter what.

“Interesting,” Raduriel remarked calmly, the casualness of his tone at odds with the force with which he was gripping my hand. “I do hope that you weren’t expecting them to come back for you. I’m afraid that the shield against such intrusions is now fully in place. There will be no interruptions.

“Still,” he added thoughtfully, “I’m certain that we can find… appropriate accommodations for you, Miss–”

“Let the girl go.” The new voice came from beside me, and both Radueriel and I turned slightly. It was the soldier from before, the one who had tripped. He stood there, staring intently at the man who was holding my fist in his unrelentingly crushing grip.

“Let her go,” the soldier repeated flatly.

Raduriel stared at him for a brief second. His mouth opened. “You–”

That was as far as he got before the soldier abruptly lashed out. His fist was a blur that I could barely process before it slammed into Raduriel’s chest. The powerful Seosten was hurtled away from me, finally releasing my hand as he flew backward to crash into several of his soldiers.

The guard who had intervened, meanwhile, collapsed. He fell to the floor in a heap, while a second figure, the one who had been possessing him, stood there in his place.

She wasn’t tall, standing an inch shorter than I was. Her brown hair was cut in a short, layered crop that barely reached her neck. Her eyes were slate gray, and she had the same high cheekbone, aristocratic look that I had come to expect from the Seosten. For clothes, she wore a pair of black leggings with what looked like intricate golden flame patterns running down to her boots, which themselves were almost entirely gold. Sheathed at her waist was a sword, whose hilt was shaped like a dragon. Set where it was, the head of the dragon appeared to be the source of the decorative flames that were running down her legs.

She wore a chainmail-like top, that was black with a golden design etched into the chest. It was the outline of a bird in flight. An owl, I realized a bit belatedly.

Oh, my God, Tabbris suddenly blurted in my head. It’s–

“You.” Raduriel had picked himself up, his eyes narrowed. Surrounded by dozens of his men, he still looked a little off-balance, a little nervous. “Involving yourself personally in this situation? That seems odd for you, Auriel. Or do you prefer Athena now? Or does your preference lie in another identity entirely? Such as, for example…

“Nimue.”

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Mini-Interlude 41 – Percival

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The following is a mini-interlude focused on Percival, from the Crossroads Committee, and his reasoning for not joining the Atherby Clan with several of his fellow Knights of the Round Table. 

The knife swept to the left, dipped down, then went back to swipe out twice. For a man who had lived for fifteen hundred years by that point, it was all a mechanical motion. The wars he had experienced, the battles he had fought, the men and women he had killed with that same simple motion, were incalculable. Between each swipe of the blade, there was a brief pause before it repeated. The knife slid to the left, dipped down, then went back with two quick, practiced swipes.  

In this case, however, the substance glistening upon the gleaming silvery blade was not blood. It was mayonnaise. And the pause between each swipe of the blade across two pieces of fluffy white bread was not to allow a body to fall so that another threat could take its place. Instead, it was a pause while the man’s right hand plucked a single slice of lunch meat from the tray, dropped it neatly on the just-mayo’d bread, then took a cheese slice, added it over the meat, and then flipped the second piece of bread on top, closing the paltry, yet edible sandwich.

Each sandwich, once completed, was added quickly onto an orange, brown, or green tray that already had a few chips, an apple or orange, and a small pint of milk or juice. The completed tray was then pushed down the line so that another could take its place, waiting for its sandwich.

“Yo, Percy!” The woman at the front of the line, loading empty trays into position, raised her hand for attention. “How’re we doing on meat down there? We need to switch to peanut butter yet?”

Shaken from his inner musings, the man who had, many centuries before, stood alongside Arthur Pendragon as a Knight of the Round Table cast his gaze briefly around the room as he turned to look over to the woman. The soup kitchen (still called that despite the fact that they were serving sandwiches that day rather than actual soup) was packed. There were over a hundred people already sitting at the tables, hurriedly eating the food they had been given. And the line of more picking up trays or waiting to do so stretched back out of the building and down the block. It would take an hour just to make sure everyone in line was given a tray and at least a couple minutes to sit and eat their food before being shoved back out into the streets that many of them literally lived in.

“Nope,” Percival answered simply, swiping mayonnaise across another two slices of bread that his other hand had automatically yanked from the bag. “There’s still another couple packages of the stuff down here.” With his foot, he lightly kicked the cardboard box behind the counter. “Should be good for now.”

With a nod, the woman turned back to address a question from the next person in line to be fed. The man himself wore a clean suit that might have made some people question his place in a line for those who couldn’t afford to feed themselves. But looking just a little bit closer would reveal that the suit was threadbare and stained in a couple of spots, taken from the rack at one of the local thrift and charity stores. The man’s hair was longer than was strictly professional, and not quite as clean and healthy as most who would have been in the sort of work that required wearing a suit. And rather than dress shoes, he wore dark, yet beaten up sneakers.

He had obviously been out looking for a job, trying to dress up as best as he could. Yet judging from the dejected look on the man’s face as he lay his tray on the counter and asked the woman if there were any oranges left, the job search hadn’t gone very well.

As the woman noted the look on the man’s face and, clearly realizing that he needed something to go right, reached under the counter to take one of the oranges from the box there, Percival took the moment to watch her.

Sonia Lesley was thirty-two years old, a blonde woman who was maybe just a little overweight, but was working hard to keep it under control. She owned a bookstore two blocks away as well as a small pizza parlor several streets over, but spent most of her time here, at the soup kitchen that she and a couple of the other business owners in the neighborhood had set up a couple years earlier. She cared deeply for the homeless and less fortunate, putting not only most of her time, but a large portion of the profits from her businesses into getting them what they needed.

And she was his descendant. His twenty-two greats-granddaughter, in fact. Twenty-four generations of descendants, and Percival had made it a point to watch over each and every one of them. He got to know them, first as himself, and later as a distant relative, then a friend, and eventually… as little more than a stranger. He got to know them as best as he could, spending time around his family while keeping them out of the line of fire from those who would try to use them against him.

Perhaps he should have left them alone entirely. But he couldn’t bring himself to do that. So he compromised, allowing himself the occasional visit like this. Sonia knew his name (though not who he really was, of course), but as far as she was aware, he was just a man who liked to volunteer at her soup kitchen.

It was safer that way. The kind of enemies that he had, the beings who would love nothing more than to get at him through his family…

That was one of the reasons that Percival had declined the invitation from his brothers to join their clan that was meant to uphold the traditions and intentions of Arthur. The last thing that he wanted was for the people he cared about, his family, to be caught up in a literally endless war.

He’d seen what that did to the families of others that he cared about, what it had done to Arthur’s family. Especially at the end, when Arthur had been forced to… make the decision that he had made.

Percy didn’t want that for his family. He wanted them to live their lives without worrying about monsters. So he hadn’t taken them into the clan that Sir Bedivere–then calling himself Arthur-By–had set up.

Sir Bedivere. The Knights of the Round Table, or just knights in general, tended to confuse people who investigated the legend of King Arthur. The… disconnect between their apparent existence as early as 500 AD conflicted with the fact that true knights themselves didn’t exist until hundreds of years later. As did the fact that the tales of their actions seemed to place their existence anywhere within that time frame.

It was almost as if they had truly lived that long, for hundreds of years, before Arthur’s… departure had put an end to such things.

And as for the existence of their knighthood before such a thing existed, it was true that they had been knights hundreds of years before they should have been. Or, more accurately, hundreds of years before the practice had been adopted on Earth. One of Arthur’s dearest friends, the one he called Nimue, had been from a place far from this planet. It was she who had introduced the concept of knighthood to the growing king, and had helped him select the first of those who would become the Knights of the Round Table.

Percy could, of course, have joined the Arthur-By clan on his own, despite having no family to bring with him (or at least none that he was willing to drag into it). He would have been welcomed there. Yet he had declined that as well, for more than one reason. First, after seeing what he had seen, Percival had wanted to be on his own for awhile. The dissolution of their group, the loss of Arthur, all of it had made him need to… journey, find himself, discover his purpose.

And when Hieronymus Bosch had approached him along with the group he was gathering, when he had presented his own power and shown Percival what he could do… well, there was no more question. The last words that Arthur had spoken to him, before… the end, were that Percival would know what to do with himself once he found ‘the light’, and that he should stay with it when he did. The light. Percy had believed that the man was speaking metaphorically. But then Bosch had shown his machine… the light that it created when doing its work.

Arthur had known. Somehow, someway, he had known. And from that point, Percy knew that he belonged there. At some point in the future, his presence was going to be needed. So he placed himself in the then-fledgling group, gradually working his way up to his current position. And he waited… for what, he didn’t know. But it would come. Arthur had a purpose in mind when he had told Percival to stay with the light.

Eventually, he would find out what that purpose was.

And, of course, going from being a Natural Manticore-Heretic to the kind that Bosch’s machine had created had been… quite an experience in and of itself.

Passing his sandwich-making duties to the next person then, Percy stepped over to where Sonia was. Keeping his voice low, he asked, “The guy in the suit, how’s he doing?”

The woman glanced his way, then looked toward the distant table where the lone figure sat despondently picking at his food. “Lawrence? Poor guy. I really thought he had this job sewn up. Turns out, one of the higher assholes put the kibosh on it. Didn’t want to lower company value by taking in someone off the street, or some bullshit. Asshole.”

Pausing, Percy glanced that way before asking, “What does he do? What job was he going for?”

Sonia shook her head with a sigh. “Accountant. He’s been trying to get into one of these places for a year now, ever since his old place went under. No one’s biting.” She glanced to him then, squinting. “Why?”

“Might have someone he can call,” Percy replied. “We’ll see.” He stepped away then, wanting to downplay his own involvement as much as possible. With a brief glance around then, he focused for a moment, until all the sounds in the soup kitchen went silent. No one spoke, no one moved, even the fly that had been buzzing past his face was frozen in mid-air.

He had stopped time in a bubble within the building.

Walking across the room, Percival approached the suited man. Carefully, he reached into the pockets, searching until he found a folded up bit of paper. Resume. Unfolding it, he scanned the contents briefly, then stepped back before releasing his power.

Time resumed. For a half-second, people noticed his sudden transportation from one end of the room to the other. Then the Bystander Effect kicked in, and they forgot what they had seen, going back to their work and food.

“Excuse me, uh, sir?” Percy started, getting the man’s attention. When the guy turned, he held up the resume. “I think you dropped this.”

“Huh?” Lawrence blinked, then quickly took the paper. “Oh, thanks,” he mumbled, looking like he was just about ready to toss the thing in the trash himself.

“Sorry,” Percy started. “This might be overstepping, but I saw that you’ve got experience as an accountant. I’ve got a friend who’s looking for a new payroll clerk. Any chance he might steal you away from whatever you’ve got lined up already?”

The man’s mouth opened and shut a couple times, something clearly catching in his throat. “Y-you don’t have to–that’s not…”

“Don’t have to?” Percy echoed before chuckling. “Please, you’ll be doing me a favor just for giving him a call. He will not shut up about needing to find somebody.” From his pocket, he withdrew a pen, gesturing to the resume. “You mind if I give you his number?”

When Lawrence nodded, he scribbled down a phone number. It was one of twenty that led to his own phones. When Lawrence called, Percy would appear in a different guise, using shapeshifting powers to be someone else. He would get the man set up in one of several dozen businesses that he owned in the Bystander world under various identities. He would make sure the man had a job.

It wasn’t a lot. And maybe it wasn’t the same thing as slaying monsters or saving the planet from invading aliens. It was simply ensuring that one man, one solitary person, was given a job. In the grand scheme of things, most would consider it utterly inconsequential.

But it mattered. Arthur had taught him that. Every seemingly little thing they did mattered. Making one person’s life just a little bit better mattered. It was a lesson that Percival had taken to heart. That was why he kept himself involved in the Bystander world a lot more than his colleagues generally did. He didn’t want to forget where they came from, or what they were actually fighting for.

And when the time came, he would be ready for whatever Arthur had seen when he told Percival to stay with the light.

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